Preface to Part 2, by Mike
This is the second half of Ian’s article on Vehicles.
The first half concentrated on the PCs acquiring a vehicle; this half is all about using one. I’ve also tossed in my two-cents worth here and there with the occasional aside and also jumped in with a few small additional sections.
In the meantime, here’s Ian…
Just Crewing Around
So, by whatever means, the PCs have a ship of their own. If the ship is small, they might be the entire crew. If the group lacks certain necessary skills, or if the ship is larger, then extra NPC crew is necessary.
Plenty has been written elsewhere about the creation and uses of NPCs, and I can’t add much to that. Except to say that there is one absolutely vital function they serve in a ship-oriented Party. I refer to “care-taking”.
Not every adventure involves the PCs sitting in their ship. There will be times when they have to leave for one reason or another, usually to do with the acquisition of wealth and/or XP. Given all that goes into the ship’s care and upkeep, a fear of theft is entirely reasonable. Having one PC stay behind means that individual does not fully participate in whatever the Party gets up to. So having NPC crew who can be trusted to stay in the ship, and make sure it isn’t stolen while the PCs are away, is absolute gold for any Party. If the PCs get into serious trouble, there is also a chance that these NPCs can assist – rescue the PCs or stage a diversion or even just call somebody else for help.
Note that these same NPCs are in that job because of their (alleged) reliability, so the possibility of there being “highjinks” whilst the PCs are away should be unlikely. But not impossible – especially if the PCs skimp on benefits, set a bad example, or just haven’t been very nice to their employees lately.
NPC misbehavior doesn’t have to be outright treachery or mutiny either (unless the PCs have it coming). It could comprise the odd prank or scam. It could even mean “harmless” ventures done entirely off the NPC crew’s own bat. Watch old TV shows like ‘McHale’s Navy’ or ‘Sergeant Bilko’ for ideas. So the PCs return unexpectedly, to discover their ship has been turned into a high-class gambling den, or the lifeboat is crammed full of contraband, or that some Super-VIP honestly thinks the Ship’s Janitor is the REAL Captain, or maybe all of these things at the same time.
Again, this is NOT about screwing the Players over. But comedic situations like this can make the game more entertaining. If the PCs are sufficiently clever, maybe they can find a way out of the mess that leaves them better off, and even have some extra fun along the way.
Star Trek ‘Away Team’ Syndrome
If the PC’s ship is large with a large crew (Star Trek), or is huge with an IMMENSE crew (WH40K), then there is a set of PC / NPC crew-related problems that need addressing. I refer to this as Star Trek ‘Away Team’ Syndrome.
You have probably guessed where this goes – that old old habit of regularly having the entire command crew leave their ship to do all> the shooty-and-looty stuff. Much as I love Trek, the original was notorious for this; the later shows and movies less so, but not totally immune. For other SF shows, the tendency is mixed.
The PCs are typically a small group on a very big ship. They are usually the people in charge and the “stars of the show”, but that also means they can be, in a sense, too damn busy. A ship with hundreds or thousands of crew, and it always seems to be just these guys doing all the work. Or, rare but it happens, the PCs heroically stay on the Bridge no matter what, and send wave after wave of NPC “expendables” to fix their problems.
Either way, not good.
Many years ago, I ran a fairly successful ‘Star Trek’ campaign using the old FASA rules. It was set on a Star Fleet vessel (the USS ‘Axanar’, an Excelsior variant) circa the time of the Khitomer Accords (Star Trek #4).
An idea I tried was that each Player had three completely distinct and separate Characters. Everyone had one senior officer (Captain, First Officer, Department Heads) as the ‘primary’ character. Each Player also had a low-ranking ‘Red-shirt’ character (mostly Security, but a scientist, medic and techie were all in this tier as well); and, lastly, a Shuttle Pilot character (it was a carrier-type starship). Players used their senior officers most of the time. But when it came time for an Away Mission or special duties on-board (such as guarding a VIP guest), there would be a few minutes of “mix and match” as it was decided who was needed and where.
So, a typical ‘Axanar’ landing party would comprise 1-2 senior officers (selection based on known situation and individual preferences), plus Red-shirts (the remaining PCs), and maybe an NPC or two (to fill any skill gaps). If a shuttle was needed, someone’s Shuttle Pilot character would front up. If the situation called for a grouped shuttle mission, then everybody’s Shuttle Pilot characters would be on deck (with maybe a senior officer and/or specialist or two tagging along as “observers” or something). And so on.
A major benefit was that everybody had chances to be in charge of either Away Missions or (if the Captain was Away) the ship. Most Players got to do both at one time or another. It also encouraged intelligent play at both the command-chair and sapient-on-the-ground levels. When one of the ‘expendable’ Red-shirts sent planet-side is YOUR Character, you naturally take a bit more care about the landing party.
It led to interesting moments, such as the time one Player’s senior officer had to verbally reprimand the same Player’s Red-shirt over a minor misdemeanor. Then there was the time bad guys incapacitated the entire crew and tried to capture the ship (yes, unoriginal – but always an interesting problem), meaning it was up to the Shuttle Pilots (stuck in a remote part of the ship) to save the day.
(That last is the same bunch who used the Transporter to deal with bad guys, by re-materializing them UPSIDE-DOWN on the Platform, so they dropped on their heads from a foot or so up. Took a lot of fight out of said bad guys, though there was a mess afterwards .. )
I was fortunate in having a mature and very experienced group of Players, all with respect of the genre, and most of whom I had known for years. So this idea worked well for us and, for anyone out there planning a similar type of game, is worth serious consideration.
Since then, I have considered a possible variant of this idea, with each Player having a Senior Officer as their main character. There would also be a VERY ‘quick’n’dirty’ character generation system (probably involving templates with a choice of various overlays), whereby Players would create specialized low-ranking “extras” in just a couple of minutes. So, if ring-ins from Security (or Science, or Engineering, etc.) were needed for a specific part of the scenario, the Players just whip up suitable characters on the spot and carry on. These Characters could be kept and pooled for possible future use OR Players could opt to run a different Character the next time someone of that specialty was called for.
Don’t Mess With The Mojo
Player-groups can have an unfortunate tendency to treat their vehicle-of-choice like a .. well, a THING. If a ‘better’ component (read: weapon) becomes available, they think nothing of tearing their vehicle apart to make the new item fit. If a ‘better’ vehicle somehow becomes available, they will scrap their old conveyance and switch up without a second thought.
Consider some of the heroes I mentioned earlier. If Captains Mal or Solo were ever offered the chance to swap to “better” ships, I am certain they would flat-out refuse. Sentiment would be a major part of this, but those Captains are also comfortable with their ships. They know all the peculiarities of their respective craft, how to look after them, what NOT to do, and so on.
FASA’s ‘Renegade Legion’ group of games included an RPG and tactical combat games set at the AFV, starfighter and giant starship scales. One game mechanic I quite liked was that crews of AFVs or starfighters could, as they got more familiar with their craft, gradually accumulate skill bonuses for use with said specific craft. The pilot / driver got better at steering, the gunner shot straighter, and so on.
The mechanics used in the RL games were based on successful enemy kills made by the crew in that vehicle, but there are other possibilities as well – eg. Simple travel time, or by passing specific challenges set by the Referee. A very experienced crew could build up quite solid bonuses – the downside being that if their craft is destroyed, the crew (assuming they survived) would then have to restart from scratch with a replacement.
The idea can be used in other systems. It could even be that the PC crew builds up bonuses / levels for use with both that specific craft and whatever standard class / type / category it is part of. That is up to the Referee to decide.
In short, this can be an incentive for PCs to hang onto and genuinely look after their ship.
This approach can also be used from the other direction: that eccentric asteroid miner and his obsolete scout-ship may not seem like a challenge .. UNTIL the Party finds out the old geezer has running his ship for over fifty-some-odd years, and has therefore built up a HORRIFIC skill bonus with it. Then they might actually give the guy some room . and respect.
These bonuses can be lost, either partially or completely, if too many changes are made to the vehicle in one go – the Captain loses his ‘Lucky Chair’, or the controls “don’t feel right”. Those changes may stem from renovation or repairing serious damage.
I must caution against arbitrary or capricious changes to these bonuses, however. Clear guidelines should be known to all as to how easily bonuses can be lost or damaged, how much of a bonus is transferable, and so on. And if changes to a ship proposed by a PC run the risk of harming the bonuses, the players should be warned of this (both in-character and out-of-character); if they still choose to proceed, on their own heads be it.
That said, we have all heard of vessels being upgraded or repaired but “never feeling quite right” thereafter. Too great a change might not only void the bonus accumulated, it might prevent that crew from ever regaining it for this vessel. – Mike
Destinations – an insert by Mike
Something the GM should always bear in mind when making a vehicle available to the PCs is the range of destinations to which that vehicle can travel. This should inform the choice of vehicle as well as how the vehicle will affect the adventures of the party.
Think about where the adventures that you have in mind are likely to take the PCs, or even more broadly, about the types of adventure settings that you want your campaign to take advantage of. It is no good giving characters a luxury yacht if you expect them to delve into pirate dens and survive battlefields; it is no good giving the characters a land-based vehicle if there is no land-connection or reasonable facsimile such as a ferry service to get the vehicle (and its occupants) to the adventure.
The expected transit time between departure and arrival is also a very important consideration. In the Adventurer’s Club campaign, Ian’s character has the Antares, a tramp steamer, and may soon be expanding to a second vessel; when time permits a leisurely cruise from port to port in an adventure, this is the perfect conveyance, but often the press of events forces a different choice of vehicle on the party. The pulp setting is such that the players and GMs have this luxury; in a space-based campaign, things are not so simple. Sure, you could leave the deep-space freighter that the PCs usually use as a base of operations behind in a starport somewhere, unattended, for an indefinite period, enabling the PCs to use commercial travel arrangements – but the Players are not likely to be happy about it if they have invested considerable resources into obtaining their vessel.
Shaping The Campaign
It is therefore incumbent upon the GM to develop his campaign in such a way that the PCs vehicle receives the maximum use possible. That means structuring adventures accordingly, and possibly even changing the type of adventures that you tell. To date, in the Adventurer’s Club campaign, there have been five major uses made of the Antares:
- In two adventures reasonably local to the home port, the Antares was used in a there-and-back-again capacity.
- In an extended sojourn into Asia, the Antares provided transit from one location to another, each of which was the setting for an adventure.
- In addition, there were (as part of this extended sojourn) a couple of adventures set on-board the Antares itself while it was in transit.
- We have made extensive use of the crew as NPCs for delivery of plot hooks and side-adventures, even though little or no action actually took place on-board the vessel.
- Finally, we have used the Antares as a plot device for the discovery of information relevant to a plot that was underway, even though the vessel was on the other side of the world to the PCs at the time.
In this way, the Antares has been a crucial and regular element within the campaign even though its relative lack of speed (compared with air travel) has restricted its use in what would initially seem its primary function as a means of travel. It’s a recurring part of the “furniture” of the campaign.
Encounters – an insert by Mike
Something else that should receive careful consideration by the GM is the type of encounter that can derive from the vehicle, whether it is doing its job by providing conveyance from A to B, a setting for an encounter with a passenger, or whatever. The Antares has had encounters with Pirates, with a Ghost Ship, with weather, and with Deep-Sea monsters (well, it was a hell-spawned River Kraken, but the principle is the same). This has not exhausted our repertoire of ideas, but we are spacing them out so that we don’t shoot our entire bolt all at once. There have been encounters with crew and potential crew, with passengers (both officially and unknowingly on-board), and with officials. And those are all entirely separate from the ship simply transporting the PCs to the place where the adventure was happening.
We (the GMs of the Adventurer’s Club campaign) actually think of the Antares as a soap-opera/adventure (with sitcom elements) taking place entirely separate to the primary campaign, but which occasionally guest-stars the PCs. Even when it is not doing anything else, it provides sub-plots for what Captain Ferguson (Ian’s character) is doing when he is not on an adventure with the rest of the PCs. This makes the Antares more than just a vehicle – which makes up for the limited use to which we can utilize it as a vehicle in the campaign.
Whenever a PC obtains a vehicle, make a list of as many ways to use the vehicle in adventures as possible, no matter how big or how small. If you don’t get at least half-a-dozen, you should find a way to tweak the normal function of the vehicle within the campaign to add to the tally (and I was strongly tempted to make that standard a dozen, minimum).
In Transit – an insert by Mike
It always pays dividends to think about the entire journey that a vehicle is expected to take. I’ve already mentioned travel time (but will do so again); but there are also departure, arrival, and intermediate points in the trip to consider. Yes, travel can be hand-waved, and the vehicle used as nothing more than a plot device, but that’s hardly making the most of the opportunities that it represents.
It’s like making The Joker the villain and never having him do something funny. The character is always at his best when doing something humorous tinged with homicidal madness; without that edge, he’s just a murderer in clown makeup.
What procedures and routines should be performed when getting underway? Are there superstitions to ensure a successful trip? What needs to be inspected? What bureaucratics need to be performed?
For an automobile, before you go on an extended trip, the brakes and tires need be checked, the battery needs to be checked, the radiator water level and oil need to be checked, the vehicle needs to be fueled up, and you need to make sure that you have the required documentation in the glove compartment or on your person – license, insurance, registration. There’s packing the vehicle and making sure that you have everything that you will need at the other end of the trip.
All of this can be handwaved to accelerate the pacing of an adventure, or roleplayed in varying depths of detail to get more closely into the lives of the people using the vehicle and to make the trip itself seem more real. And, if the characters are in a great hurry, you can always assume that there isn’t the time to perform these checks, opening the window to problems along the way. Having a soft brake pedal is not what you need when engaging in a high-speed pursuit!
With an aircraft, you need to inspect various physical attributes of the aircraft, check the weather, file and have approved a flight plan, fuel the aircraft, and so on. You may need to route around various controlled airspaces. You will need to know what load you have on board, how that will affect takeoff speeds and flight characteristics, and so on. Your radio (or radios) and instruments need to working.
A ship tends to have less routine before departure, but there are common elements to both of the above. Cargo, provisions, visual inspections, radio and possibly radar and/or sonar, ammunition and weapons, fuel, notifying the harbor-master of departure, possible harbor pilots, etc.
Starships could be treated as more like aircraft or more like ships, or some blending of the two. The way such vessels integrate into your campaign world is something that you need to know.
Once you’re underway, what are the on-board routines? Are jobs performed in shifts, or do you pull over for the night? What are the sights, the smells, the sounds? What are the personnel interactions?
Along The Way
In road vehicles, modern fuel efficiencies mean that you usually need to refuel less frequently except on very long trips, even though the fuel tanks are often smaller than in past generations. Knowing how far you can travel on the fuel you’ve got is vital.
It doesn’t matter so much with motor vehicles, but freighters, aircraft, and probably starships face an added burden: the more fuel you carry, the more fuel you need to use in order to bring that fuel with you. There is always pressure to carry the minimum possible fuel because any unused fuel is overhead; but landing and taking off also consume fuel, and you always need a safety reserve. For any given vehicle-and-cargo-and-journey combination, there is an optimum point of economy which is substantially less than the absolute maximum range; planning the trip with refueling stops along the way permits more cargo to be carried, or a faster travel time, or better handling, or some combination of the three – and they are all good things to have!
It doesn’t take much in the way of a problem or delay for you to start eating into that safety reserve, something that those who operate these vehicles never like to do, because a shortage of fuel compounds with any other problem to limit options and increase the level of drama. GMs should take advantage of this!
With road vehicles, arrival is not often a big deal. You get where you are going, end-of-story. In other forms of transport, it can be a much bigger deal. Once again, there will be bureaucracy to deal with, and reports to file, and so on. Think about the routines that are involved.
With ships, things become more interesting, especially in a pre-radio situation; essentially, you simply appear on someone’s horizon without warning, and they don’t know who you are or what your intentions are. You could be a pirate, a merchant, a passenger ship, a warship, a plague ship, or any combination of the above. They need to know before you get too close – and to be ready to do something about it.
It follows that the speed and availability of interstellar communications will have a marked impact on how a starship will be received on arrival. The slower and less efficient communications are, the closer the analogy with a pre-radio sailing ship. The faster and more reliable, the closer the resemblance will be to an international air trip; they will know you are coming, and who you say you are, and will have made preparations to receive you accordingly. Such a ship showing up without such notice would always be an immediate warning that something was wrong; depending on politics and local culture, the default assumption could be anything from hostile intent to radio malfunction or an incapacitated crew requiring rescue and/or quarantine.
Vehicles as settings
Sometimes, it’s not about the journey, it’s about being on a journey. Plots which take place entirely on-board ship have been a staple for many years; my impression is that they began with Star Trek finding a way to save budgetary resources but there were probably antecedents in early science-fiction, pulp, etc, that I don’t know about.
As a GM, you don’t have the budgetary restraints that caused Star Trek to devise entirely on-board plotlines, but just because you don’t have to go there is no reason not to have such as part or all of your adventure. The confined nature of the setting automatically adds intensity to some plots! Take advantage of it from time to time.
Seasoning and Flavoring
Every GM should think hard about what the look-and-feel of life on-board a vehicle will be like, and how to convey that. Furthermore, every recurring vessel should have its own distinct flavor, a seasoning that enhances the adventure in a number of subtle ways, and that makes the setting seem as familiar as it would be to the PCs. This is a very hard thing to do; I don’t know a single GM who has been able to really nail this aspect of gaming involving a vehicle, and I include both myself and Ian in this respect. To some extent, every vehicle has been interchangeable with another of similar capabilities.
Ian’s discussion of Quirks and Tweaks is the closest thing that I’ve seen to a method of achieving this, but even that is not enough to fully pull it off. Careful and consistent use of narrative technique would also be required, and that requires both some advance planning and remembering to use that prep when the time comes. Think of it as adding color and flavor to what is otherwise an ever-so-slightly bland dish.
I think a large measure of the problem is the assumption that such distinctiveness would arrive naturally, a blend of on-board memories and experiences coupled with vagaries of layout and individuality of crew. These contribute, certainly, but are not enough to do the job on their own. Each crew member should customize their workspace to some extent, and the GM should actively search out ways to engage sensory narrative in his descriptions of actions and events on-board the vessel; but even doing that is sufficient only to convey a sense that the PCs are on-board a craft of the generic type. Adding Quirks and Tweaks makes for a more unique vehicle intellectually and behaviorally, but not necessarily to the visceral sense of being on board this vessel as opposed to any other.
I can enunciate the difficulty, but have to admit that I don’t have a complete solution at hand, only the beginnings of one.
- Restrict your choices of language and especially adjective to only a few of the options available, and to synonyms of those terms.
- Incorporate dynamic and transitory sensory impressions using this restricted vocabulary frequently and carefully while avoiding repetition.
- Be careful to achieve consistency in your narratives using the restricted terminology. It’s not enough to mention a swaying deck; mention a character adjusting to that sway, using hand-gestures as accompaniment, and always remember who’s good at it and who isn’t.
- Prepare “canned partial phrases” that can be added to descriptions of locations on-board the vessel, and try to incorporate them in different ways every time a scene occurs there. Is there a particular sound that the carpet in the Captain’s Cabin makes? Is there a gangway or board that has a little more flex than others on-board? Does part of the ship have a unique but slight odor? Are there decorative flourishes here and there that are distinctive and with whom the NPCs (and PCs) can casually interact?
“The Armor was How Permeable?” – an insert by Mike
In the Hero System, which permits the purchase of vessels (or anything else) with character points or with cash, I have a rule of thumb: if you pay points for it, it will be replaced, repaired, or restored if it is consumed or destroyed; but if you simply bought it, it’s fair game. That replacement may not occur immediately, but it will happen – or the character will be given his points back, with a little on the top for the inconvenience.
Things are a little trickier in games that don’t have a point-purchase system. The general assumption is that buying equipment (including vehicles) in in D&D, for example, makes them fair game at all times, and that there is no metagame mechanic for ensuring the re-provision of such equipment. The same is true of starships in various RPGs. This is something that the GM needs to think about quite carefully.
Is the metagame value of any particular item such that he needs to provide a metagame “guarantee” of replenishment – or replenishment opportunity to the players?
I think the answer becomes “yes” as soon as the presence of the item in question influences character development choices to any substantial degree. Putting a skill point into being better at using the item isn’t enough; but investing multiple skill points over several levels would be, or buying a feat that only has application on-board a vessel, or whatever.
Similarly, if significant in-game time is devoted to customizing or repairing of a vessel, it should not be treated capriciously by the GM; the players have invested themselves in the possession of the item. That does not mean that the characters should receive any such guarantee – from their point of view, the item should be at risk at all times, and as soon as they treat it as something that will always be there, it should be taken away from them!
It’s one thing to have an individual adventure in which Han Solo does not have access to the Millennium Falcon; it’s quite another to take it away permanently. Similarly, the absence of the Enterprise can raise the stakes on a particular episode of Star Trek but losing it for good would not be acceptable to a viewer.
Some might say that this is just another “How to screw the Player-Characters” missive. I disagree. Above all else, the Referee has to keep the Players engaged and entertained. Treat them badly, frustrate everything they try to do and they WILL leave, sooner or later. Whereupon the Referee becomes this dude sitting alone at a cluttered table, mumbling to himself – and that is just creepy.
Vehicles. They can be a useful addition to your campaign for a bunch of reasons, or – if you permit their abuse – a millstone around your neck. Give it some thought – before the next vehicle shows up in your campaign.