Attacking Out of the Sun

An Optional Initiative Rule

by MXSavant 07/07/05

A favorite tactic used by fighter pilots since the birth of the dogfight in World War I is to line up one’s attack so that the attacker is between the target and the sun. On a clear day, the sun provides perfect cover and makes it difficult for the defending plane to even know the attacker is there until it is nearly too late. Actually, the sun is a very important part of the aerial combat battlespace not just as a place to lie in wait, but as a way to escape. Truly devious pilots can turn into the sun, forcing their pursuer to follow, and then while the attacker is temporarily coping with the glare, they can reverse direction and counterattack from an entirely unexpected angle.

You might think that the advent of modern electronics, onboard radar and all that other high-tech wizardry would have eliminated the sun as a factor in modern air combat, but it remains an important consideration. Robert L. Shaw, the author of Air Combat: Tactics and Maneuvering (Naval Institute Press) devotes quite a bit of space to various tactical maneuvers involving using the sun to one’s advantage. By the way, if you really want to get a glimpse into how the “real shooters” perform the deadly dance of modern aerial combat, Shaw’s book is a must-read. This is the textbook used by fighter jocks to learn how to do it for real, and it’s very illuminating.

A recent conversation with Lee Erickson gave me the idea for an optional rule that attempts to simulate some aspects of using the sun in combat. The rule gives an advantage in rolling the initiative to the lead pilot whose ship is positioned advantageously with respect to the sun and the opposing lead fighter. Here’s how it works: we assume, first of all, that the combat is going on within a planetary system and that there is a sun nearby. If this is happening in deep space far from a solar system, this rule would not apply. Perhaps the area of combat represented by the battle mat is the space above a planet of interest. One side of the battle mat is designated the “sun side”. Let’s assume in the diagrams below that it’s the left side. Here are the rules:

1. A “lead” ship with the sun directly facing his rear arc and with an enemy in his front arc at the beginning of a turn gets a +1 on his initiative roll. This refers only to the position of the top pilot in a formation, whose piloting skill influences the initiative roll.
2. A “lead” ship whose front faces directly into the sun at the beginning of a turn takes a -1 on his initiative roll.

Let’s look at some examples to see how this works.

Playing the sun factor on initiative rolls.

In the diagram above, the local sun is to the left. The blue glaive at the lower left has the sun at its back and an enemy in its front arc. If this were the lead pilot (i.e., the one with the highest piloting skill in the blue force) blue would get a +1 on its initiative roll given this position at the start of the turn. The blue Glaive at the upper left is not oriented so that the sun is directly behind it, so it would not get that advantage.

The red Blizzard on the upper right is starting straight into the sun. If this were the lead pilot for the red force, they would take a -1 on the initiative roll. If the lead pilot were in the ship at the lower right, red would not suffer the -1 penalty, even if blue gets the +1.

One thing that the sharp-eyed reader will have seen is that the “sun side” must be such that the sun “shines” perpendicular to a hex face. This means that the “side” won’t necessarily correspond with the edge of a battle mat, and that the sun can be in one of six locations. Okay, it’s not perfect, but you all can deal with that, right?.

A consideration for Game Masters who might want to incorporate this rule into a long-running campaign is that as a planet moves around its star, the “sun side” will change as well. So you might think about how to allow for that if you’re running a campaign that takes place over a number of months. I might revisit this issue again once the Campaign System rules get published.