Author Topic: DM/GM 101: Aviation in Gaming  (Read 992 times)


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Offline Lord Palatine

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DM/GM 101: Aviation in Gaming
« on: May 16, 2013, 08:26:23 PM »
One of the oldest dreams of our species is flight; I don't think I'm saying anything revolutionary in that statement.  Grog the caveman trudged barefoot over the rocky ground and stared up at birds flitting effortlessly overhead, covering great distances with ease, and invented profanity on the spot.  Flying would take a lot more time to invent, Da Vinci puttered with the idea, and so did many others, but Leonardo was smart enough to stick to ideas and paper, others tried moving the ideas further along but the bruises, broken bones and body count dampened the enthusiasm of most.

Balloons were the first successful method of 'Slipping the Surly Bonds of Earth,' the Montgolfier brothers made paper balloons that first lifted livestock and then people into the air in the late 18th century.  Hot air would be the source of lift for quite some time, but hydrogen started making an appearance as well after its discovery in 1766 by Henry Cavendish, but we all know how dangerous hydrogen can be, and they'd have to wait until 1868 for Pierre Janssen to discover helium and make a more stable alternative to hot air.  Balloons were used in France to deliver mail, and during the US Civil war for observation platforms, but this still left the control at the mercy of the elements, and that just wasn't going to do at all.

The first powered flight came at the start of the 20th century, but it would be balloon technology and not wings that made the first leap, and it's a name we should all know that made it happen, Zeppelin.  No, not Led Zeppelin, we're talking about Count Ferdinand von Zeppelin and the rigid airships that would bear his name; to some infamy, I might add.  Airships, when filled with helium, were a fairly safe way to travel and they didn't require very powerful engines because they didn't need to produce lift, just motion.  Since the engines of the time weren't all that powerful that was a handy thing.

Outside of balloons, kites were the first successful methods of somewhat controlled flight, and eventually kite experiments would lead to gliders, and glider concepts led to the Wright brothers strapping a 12 horsepower engine to a modified glider design and 120 feet over 12 seconds later powered flight was invented.  Scary isn't it?  120 feet is 40 yards, and there are sprinters and football players that can cover that distance in 4.2 seconds, but it was the first leap.  It's also somewhat ironic that within 10 years von Richthofen and Rickenbacker were winning dogfights over Europe, and airships were bombing Britain.

The Hindenberg disaster ended commercial and military airships and all efforts were set in heavier than air flight, aircraft made huge leaps in WWI and then in the interwar years when oceans were removed as barriers through trans-oceanic flight, and then and WWII expanded capabilities exponentially.  Huge advancements in aerodynamics, engines, propellers and jet and rocket powered aircraft emerged through man's creativity in finding ways to kill people and break things.  But after the war there would be a two-pronged push for progress.  Moving people and things became as important as blowing them up, and far more profitable.  The last barrier of aviation, the sound barrier was proven not to be a barrier by Chuck Yeager in the Bell X-1 followed soon after by military jet aircraft.

So what is the importance of all of this to gamers?  Glad you asked.  All of the forms of aviation that I've mentioned are still with us, and still practical in some way or another for gaming.  The space shuttle may be the fastest powered 'aircraft' we have today, but when it comes home it's still a glider.  Airships are still with us and we may see a broader use of them in future because they can be operated at a fairly low cost.  And or course propeller and jet aircraft, and of course turboprops and helicopters are the backbone of modern aviation.  All of these things can pop up in your game; it just depends on what era your game is set in.

The first thing to keep in mind is the limitations of the craft in question.
  • How fast is it?
  • How maneuverable is it?
  • How structurally sound is it?
  • How maneuverable is it, meaning many G's can it sustain in turns and pulling out of dives?
  • What is its range?
  • How is it powered?
  • How reliable is it?
  • How much can you trick it out?
Lets look at an example, in this case we'll look at the SR-71 family, meaning the SR itself, the A-12 and the YF-12.  Yes, in the early stages of development it was also being evaluated as a high altitude, long range and (obviously) high speed interceptor.  It was abandoned as an interceptor for two reasons, first of all it couldn't carry guns or cannons because it flies faster than the shells and would shoot itself down and because it could only carry 3 missiles of a type that would actually beat the aircraft through the sky from launch.  Its screaming fast with an unclassified speed is Mach 3.2+, which works out to 2,200+ mph, but it doesn't turn fast because at those speeds the G's would exceed human capability and the structural strength of the airframe.  It also has room for a crew of two, in space suits, so it usefulness in roles outside of getting someone somewhere fast and reconnaissance are really limited.  On an interesting note, the speed of the SR-71 isn't strictly speaking limited by the ability of the engines to drive it, its limited by the heat resistance of the inlet of the jet engines, at temperatures above roughly 800F the metal weakens to the point that its likely to fail, so if they redesigned the inlet area using modern metallurgical and composite techniques it's been calculated that the SR-71 could reach Mach 6.  Still, it was designed in the late 1950s and entered service in the mid-60s and is still the fastest and highest flying air-breathing aircraft in the world.  All of this with pencils, paper and slide rules, not a computer involved, not too shabby huh?

Doing a campaign in a WWI setting?  The Sopwith Camel had a top speed of 115 mph with a 300 mile range, carried a crew of one and could reach an altitude of 21,000 feet.  This is only about 10 years after the Wright brothers flew, so its an incredible leap in such a short time, but you can see the limitations right away.  It was good enough for Snoopy to shoot down the Red Baron in though.  Speaking of the Red Baron, he flew a Fokker Dr.I, also with a crew of and weighed similarly to the Camel, which has two wings (biplane) compared to 3 (triwing) for the Dr.I.  It had the same speed but a range of only 185 miles, but was more maneuverable and faster than the Camel over 12,000 feet, provided the Fokker's wings didn't rip off, at which point the pronunciation of the company was altered slightly as the wreckage spun toward the ground.  One of the major limiting factors for aircraft of the WWI era was the open cockpit, pilots froze their butts off and above 10,000 feet it becomes harder for people (and engines of the time) to breathe.  For example, Everest is 29,000 feet tall, or so, and many die trying to make the climb from the thin air.

As time marches on aircraft get bigger, faster and infinitely more complex.  Where old time pilots were stick and rudder men modern pilots need computers to make high performance aircraft flyable.  In the old days a plane could use any relatively flat pasture as a runway and one filthy guy with a carry around tool kit to keep it flying modern aircraft need runways and full maintenance shops to support them.  Old instruments were pretty much limited to airspeed gauge, fuel gauge, whiskey compass and wing streamers were now looking at glass cockpits, autopilot, communications, guidance and control systems, pumps, generators, fuel management systems, in-flight refueling, electronic countermeasures, radar, navigation, hydraulics and electrical systems, just to name a few.  The electronic components for systems all piled up beside the aircraft are bigger and heavier than all WWI aircraft and all but a few WWII birds.  But, don't let the geekery of the systems, subsystems, components and backups intrude too much into the game.  This is the tightrope walk between knowing how to actually fly fight and win in an aircraft, and playing a game.  I have to admit, I have to be really careful in aviation gaming, I worked aircraft for almost a quarter of a century so I tend to geek a bit if I don't keep some control over myself.

Basically, to play a game you don't need to have the bold faced procedures from the emergency checklist memorized, you need to make a good piloting roll and if the player rolls right, they did everything right.  If not, they may need to rely on the trusty Aces II ejection seat, lest they become part of a smoking hole, or in strictly non-professional terms, they are reduced to 'hair, teeth and eyeballs.'

I don't suggest limitations to keep characters 'in check,'


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