GMotW: FTL and “I’m givin’ her all she’s got, Captain!”

FTL logo“Try to keep your vital systems fully powered. RIGHT CLICK to depower a system if you want to reroute its power!”

I’ve been pretty involved with FTL: Faster Than Light for this last week.

It’s pretty keen. For those of you not familiar, FTL, by Subset Games, is a Kickstarter darling that made about twenty times its funding goal because, I don’t know, I guess the world was just ready for a spaceship-management realtime roguelike-like. I don’t know. It’s keen, though; you run a little spaceship trying to go through eight increasingly hostile sectors of space, battling pirates, marauders, asteroid fields and other dangers, perpetually on the run from the rebel fleet which is ever-encroaching from behind you. Eventually you will find and defeat the rebel flagship or, most likely, die trying. The universe is a hostile place, you see… in the grim darkness of whatever year this is meant to take place, there is not a lot that’s not war.

The core of FTL, after all, is resource management. On the one hand you have the necessary and almost prosaic aspects: your Hull, which is HP that doesn’t heal itself, and your fuel which steadily drains as you jump from location to location. More interesting is when we get to resources that tug you in multiple directions: missiles are generally used in missile launchers, naturally, but also bombs which may have strange effects like starting fires or healing your crew. Drone parts let you use internal maintenance bots or external defense or attack drones. Scrap is currency, but it is also, essentially, XP you need to improve your ship. Crew… oh man. You need a pilot or the ship can’t go. You need crew to repair systems, you need them to man systems to make them more efficient, you need them to fight boarding parties, to be boarding parties, to take part in random events and maybe get killed. You need them for a million thing and you start with, like, four dudes, max. That’s enough to man every station with nobody to spare. Ha hah! DECISIONS!

And nowhere is this mad management panic more central than in the constant struggle to put power into your systems. And believe me, unless you go out of your way to pump scrap into your reactor and never, ever improve anything else, you are going to need to divert power on the fly: you’ll start with maybe eight units of energy and systems which can take at least ten. Between shields to absorb damage, engines to evade missiles, weapons to return fire you’ll eat up almost all the energy in your reactor, so you need to keep an eye on your oxygen level because if it drops too low folks start dying. Also, look at your crew’s health, because if it drops too low, well, they die. Either way you’ll need to power life support or medical, and where is that power going to come from, huh? Where?

In my case, usually engines, which means I immediately take missile to the shields, which breaks them, which lets me be raked by lasers, which kills me. So that’s a thing.

Anyway, what I particularly like about this is that sense of loss: in order to get the power I need elsewhere, I have to take it AWAY from something. There’s a physicality attached to this which wouldn’t be nearly as effective if, for instance, power was measured like a liquid, and overpowering one system dropped everything else fractionally. It’s one thing to know you’re reducing your effectiveness across the board, it’s another thing entirely to say “Guys, we’re going to need to activate the cloaking device so, uh, I’m going to turn off life support for a few minutes.” CLICK. The system turns grey, the O2 starts dropping, and now we’re on a timer. It makes the decision to reroute power that much more definite, and that much harder in those cases where, damn it, you need TWO more units in order to bring up your Glave Beam, and that means you’re going to have to drop a shield. Not “reduce the effectiveness of your shields by a given percentage,” buddy. TURN OFF one of your shields. Oooh, I get chills thinking about it, and the risk and resource management inherent in the process itself, and the particular power that depowering adds to it.

Obviously, attaching benefits to detriments is as old as the hills in RPGs of all stripes (e.g.: “Offensive stance: your blows hit harder, but your AC is reduced!”) but FTL’s power management is that taken to a greater level : you can’t even try to hit unless you stop trying to defend yourself. It’s combat stances by way of The Cold Equations, and I love it from one end of the galaxy to the next.

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