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Transportation – Giving The Group A Ride

Posted By John Arcadian On July 6, 2010 @ 12:47 am In GMing Advice | 13 Comments

Untitled-2Thank you for flying Gnome Airlines today.  Your pilot for today is Gnome Arcadian, and while he has not yet officially received his pilot’s license, he has logged many hours in flight simulation video-games. While most of these have been space fighters, he assures us that the actual presence of gravity should not be a problem. If you would please buckle your seatbelts, the stewardesses will come around with complimentary drinks and give you a short pamphlet about the flight.

How did your group get around in the last game you played? Did they walk everywhere? Did horses or some other beast ferry them about? Did everyone own a car? Was a spaceship the means of transportation between planets? Were flying monkeys and tiny chariots involved?

Transportation is always an interesting question in role-playing games. In some it is merely hand waved away and the focus of the adventure is placed on what happens once the group is wherever the adventure takes place. In others, the epic events wouldn’t be so epic if the journey to get there wasn’t epic. One does not simply walk into  Mordor, one quests long and hard to get there! There are many factors which affect transportation in a game.

  • The Game Rules – If only in passing, most games have some concept of transportation that can be mechanically defied. Almost all versions of D&D have had stats for some basic means of transportation. Shadowrun games usually deal well with transportation as a game element, especially since equipment is such a big piece of the cool factor. Most modern world settings have the benefit of their players’ knowing the basics of modern transportation and not having to worry about statting out various types of transport. Meanwhile, space based games make transportation between the planets a key point of the play experience. More narrative based games don’t need to provide specific transportation mechanics, knowing that transportation will be handled like any other element, in the narrative.
  • World Setting – Depending on what themes the world setting you are playing in is based on, transportation can vary greatly. In low-magic or more realistic fantasy settings it is unlikely that most people will ever travel more than 20 miles from their place of birth. If this is the case, great stories will rarely travel as well.  The group that traverses the world is truly amazing. In high fantasy settings there are usually plenty of options for getting from point A to point B. There are also many incredible places to explore, thus necessitating the writing in of ways to get to them. Eberron is a prime example of this. Without means of getting to far off continents or secluded areas, the rich tapestry that is the setting of Eberron would never be explored. Games that center around cities can rely on less fantastic means of transportation. A car or hover-van in Shadowrun is often enough to get around the city, while Runepunk’s setting is a city hundreds of miles wide and requires some more extreme methods of travel like the trains. Once again, Modern settings have a bit of an easy time in creating transport in settings as saying “The agents are driving a black S.U.V. as they patrol.” gives enough information to connect to what players already know about modern transportation. Sci-fi games usually have to write whole chapters on how transportation works as there is no real basis to deviate from when it comes to the types of space travel or teleportation found in most sci-fi settings. While we have jet-fuel powered rockets, these are insufficient for the grand trips of most sci-fi settings. There are also a plethora of ideas on how we might get about once we beat the atmosphere barrier. Nuclear powered engines, worm-holes, jump-gate networks, cryo sleep, etc. The ideas in sci-fi are endless and each must be detailed by setting creators in order to be understood.
  • Play Style – Likely the most important factor of all, your group’s play style is going to be key to how transportation is handled. While some groups revel at the though of the random encounters and the stories encountered along the way, some handwave the journey and proceed to whatever lies at the destination. Neither is right or wrong, but each fits a certain play-style. Also, depending on what types of games the group plays, certain modes of transportation will or won’t make sense. Unless many of the groups adventures are water based, having a sailing ship will seem useless. If the group travels only in-city to complete its missions, having an airplane won’t do much good. While these issues are easily circumventable by providing the appropriate type of transport they illustrate the point that it just isn’t viable for every play style.

So what should your group be doing about transportation? Whatever you want to of course, but there are a lot of pros and cons to giving your group an assured and appropriate means of transportation in a game.

Pros

  • The world can be explored – Giving the group a means of transportation means that remote areas of the world setting are no longer, logically speaking, off limits to the group. Travelling to the far off continent rumored to contain living dinosaurs is much more achievable when the group has access to an airplane or a zeppelin.
  • Storage is no longer relegated to a handwave – A common element of roleplaying games, especially fantasy ones, is looting the bodies and treasure rooms for goodies to take with you. Realistically, the first group of 4 gnolls defeated each have armor, spears, and 10 gold each that mostly becomes a burden to carry. Think about your last trip to a convention or out of town. How much space did 4 sets of clothing take up. How much more space would 4 sets of stiff leather armor take? Thanks to a dedicated transport, getting all your loot back to a selling place isn’t as huge of a smack in reality’s face, at least once you are out of the dungeon. Even saying that your group carries the rocket launcher in the trunk of the car until they get to the location is easier to believe than they walked through town with it. While these factors all fit into play style, the addition of transportation means less strenuous suspension of disbelief.
  • Speed – Having dedicated transportation can speed up the game and the story. “We get our airship and travel to the place, how long does it take?” pushes past a lot of game slowing elements. Also, the story being told by playing the game feels much faster without dropping into the details about the journey and the towns passed by.
  • It can act as a home base – If the transportation is big enough, it can act as a central location and lair for the group. Sitting on an airship, riding in the personal train car, even working out of the group’s surveillance van conveys a sense of togetherness. After raiding a dungeon or raiding a mega-corporation, reaching the transport and getting away provides a sense of comfort. Getting off planet in the spaceship means the group is home already. Talk to any sailor or long haul fisherman. It never feels as comfortable when you aren’t moving somewhere.
  • Transportation has personality and can act as a common banner for the group – Kit, Serenity, The GMC A-Team Van, The Millennium Falcon, The Black Pearl, The Enterprise, Luke’s X-wing, Captain Harlock’s Deathshadow, Shield’s Helicarrier, Shadowfax, etc. All forms of transportation have some form of personality. One of the perpetual convention games that my group runs centers around the crew of the Crimson Armadillo, a band of would be airship pirates and their zany adventures. Without the colorfully named Crimson Armadillo (or its spinoff the Cerulean Echidna, specializing in Insurance Fraud and the release of ancient evils into the world), the crew would just be a bunch of guys. The transportation acts as a defining group characteristic, something every one of the players’ characters can be connected to.
  • If you give it to them, you have some means of control over it.
    Game master granted things never truly feel as truly owned by the group as things they work hard for and get themselves. The fact of the matter is that a thing given by the game master feels more like a plot point than an item in inventory. While it would be a dick move to take a means of transportation away from the group permanently, taking it away for an adventure because it won’t fit, is in the shop, or can’t be used because of the strange space time fluxuations in the area won’t feel as heavy handed if it originally came from you.

Cons

  • Removes barriers to getting places – Sometimes in our games we want the journey to be hard fought. It may be necessary for the group to sidequest along the way, gathering the pieces of an ancient artifact from unlikely places. The Game Master might want the group to gather information and see the plight of the people under the iron heeled boot of the dictator. Some means of transportation may allow this, but some may put the group too far removed from the world.
  • Speed – As much benefit as speed can be to a game, it can also be a hindrance to the narrative. If the group can speed past encounters and events along the way, the journey feels less epic and the chance to have randomness added into the story from the various charts found in the backs of most RPG books is lost. Climbing Mt. Everest is an extraordinary feat. Taking a helicopter to the top isn’t.
  • Can instantly circumvent some obstacles – Some means of transportation can instantly and easily overcome obstacles. Road spikes are no use against a hover-van. Horses in some settings convey the idea of nobility. The incredibly threatening blockade of the monstrous army is nothing if the group can just fly over or tunnel under it. While logic and good GMing can still make the game challenging, it can feel like crap to tell players their good and logical ideas won’t work, which can lead to player/GM strife.
  • Eventually, they’ll want to weaponize it- It’ll happen. Tall masted ships, even cargo ships, had guns. Using this logic, a group of players will want to add some fun hardware to their transport. This might be appropriate and lead to some fun play experiences (ship to ship combat, bombing endless mooks, etc.) but it can outbalance some encounters. Why engage the necromancer in hand to hand combat if we can reach him with our canon? Why board the enemy space ship if we can blow it up with our Ion Pulsers?
  • If it is the storage container, reality kind of flies out the window – As gamers we often hand wave a lot of storage issues. See the 4 suits of leather armor example above. While transportation can make carrying the massive amounts of loot we collect more realistic, it can also draw dollar signs in players eyes. “Of course we take the statues, we’ll just put them in the cart!” Sometimes this will work, sometimes it won’t. Having an increased storage capacity will meaning having a much more open mind about what can be pulled from the adventure site.

There are a lot of different factors, pros, and cons to transportation in a roleplaying game of any Genre. Personally, I’m all behind the idea of working dedicated transportation into my games, but that fits my group’s play style and the types of games we play. What do you do in your group? Are most transportation concerns hand waved or do you as the Game Master provide some in-game means of movement? If you don’t,  do you find the group usually seeks it out?

(Image: Here : Public Domain)

About  John Arcadian

John Arcadian is the head of Silvervine Games, a freelance writer and art director, a website developer, a builder of sonic screwdrivers, and a purveyor of kilted mayhem. When he isn't out causing trouble in his kilt... Well, no, that is pretty much what he does when he isn't running RPGs or or trying to take over the world.




13 Comments (Open | Close)

13 Comments To "Transportation – Giving The Group A Ride"

#1 Comment By dizman On July 6, 2010 @ 5:39 am

I have my players explain how they will take “that” home. I expect to have logical explanation. In example after defeating a group of Full Plated knights and taking their armors i asked them how will they take them. So part of the group got a mule and wagon and took equipment.

In case of big transports (starships,ships…) it helps to explain what the storage is ad how big it is, make a ship plan and show how big it is. explain nececery items so you dont have problems es to “how come i cant load this thing inside, or our strage is bigger”. Players are for most very anoying when you dont let them do what they want. Create a rough drawing or iput size mesures for sake of transport. I han never had problems.

In case of epic travels, best one i have ever had is when i first introduced flying ship. It was a meen to transport players over the mundane places to the place of final confrontation. Emagine wyvern riders attacking a flying ship wit crew and everything. Seems all most more epic then battle wit final villain.

Only thing i have a problem with is basycly most common transport i DnD. “HORSES” they are comon but most people view them as cars that run on food, and mounted combat is not well suported in rule books. And for some reason i cant realy handle them….
Epic meens of trasport RULEZ

#2 Comment By BryanB On July 6, 2010 @ 10:08 am

I run a lot of Star Wars games so the most common form of transportation between planets is the light transport or light freighter.

Players do like to arm them, and for good reasons, but sometimes the players get carried away. Their transport ends up turning into a Corellian Gunship.

Two things have helped me deal with in-game situations where the light freighter is turning into the gunship. First, the power core on a light freighter is not designed to power multiple weapon systems. Second, even if the players upgrade the power core (expensive), they are going to run into another issue – loss of cargo space.

Freighters are designed to carry cargo and/or passengers. They are not designed to be weapon platforms. The more weapon systems you add to a freigher, the more cargo space that you lose. And cargo space is money for a freighter.

And finally, Imperial/Republic regulations will frown upon the light freigher that tries to outgun customs frigates and other small warships. The authorities usually take a dim view of such things. :D

#3 Comment By Roxysteve On July 6, 2010 @ 12:08 pm

“Sci-fi games usually have to write whole chapters on how transportation works as there is no real basis to deviate from”

Typo?

#4 Comment By Roxysteve On July 6, 2010 @ 12:16 pm

Encumbrance is one of my big bugbears with D&D. Almost no-one plays it properly, or if they do they circumvent it with ubiquitous BoHs/HHHs and so forth. How much more challenging would the “average” dungeon dive become if you had to pick and choose which treasures to keep and which ones to leave because you simply had no more room for it all? Off topic, a bit, so apologies.

Transportation? Well, in Call of Cthulhu that means a car for local journeys and trains or Ocean Liners for longer trips, but then the trains and Ocean Liners so often become the scene of some encounter with Thynges Thatte Shoulde Notte Bee that most players shudder when buying a third class return ticket to Boston.

Which is as it should be. :o)

I like the way that Deadlands Reloaded tells it like it is with respect to riding all over the countryside. Those rules are so going into my next HF campaign.

#5 Comment By E-l337 On July 7, 2010 @ 12:56 am

I’ve done some strange things, but I think giving my players access to their very own space ship has worked pretty well as the basis for an entire campaign. Ever since the PCs were handed the vessel, they’ve had to work pretty darn hard to try to start banging it into shape. (They’re still working on it).

But the question of just how unbalancing having access to such a large vessel – and therefore so much cargo space – can be. I’m slowly beginning to compensate for this as a GM, but it can be a very tricky thing to deal with – suddenly, you can have a game turn into a Monty Haul in the blink of an eye, and as a GM you can be left wondering what you were thinking when you started this whole thing.

I think the secret is to find ways to take away from the PCs wealth. Encourage them into finding lots of ways to make as much dough as possible, so that they can keep the ship (their home) running, keep the crew (which is slowly growing) happy, and manage to continue upgrading the ship to deal with things that may come up later (other ships, alien invaders, who knows).

Giving players access to a space ship can be great. Just don’t be surprised if the whole game starts to revolve around it – in fact, be prepared for it. Worked for me so far.

#6 Comment By John Arcadian On July 7, 2010 @ 6:41 am

@dizman – Battles on ships are pretty epic, and, like you mention, having transport doesn’t mean you have to give up encounters along the way. The encounters just have to be as awesome as the means of transport. I’ve always liked chase scene combats, but find that games that don’t have an emphasis on the cinematic don’t adequately work. Too many modifiers and encounters. I haven’t ever played one in 4e, but I wonder how it would work.

Any 4e players have any experience with moving combat?

@BryanB – My players tend to arm up airships like that. Thankfully they have a realization that the airship guns aren’t for the epic combats, most of the time . . . Ship based combats are always fun though. I usually give my players a chance to engage in ship-based combat but with the knowledge they can dump out of it at any time and leave it up to an opposed roll.

@Roxysteve – Not a typo, just late night tiredness making me forget to finish out a sentence. The sentence should have read, according to my original draft “Sci-fi games usually have to write whole chapters on how transportation works as there is no real basis to deviate from when it comes to the types of space travel or teleportation found in most sci-fi settings.” I’ve updated it now. Thanks for catching it!

I think that is definitely on-topic. Most of my groups get at least some sort of cart or means of carrying just so I don’t have to handwave reality completely out the door. I know they are going to loot everything, at least in any game that supports that as a means of cash income, so I let them do it with at least a bit of reality behind them.

@E-l337 – When I have games the revolve around a ship of some sort, I usually move into “Plot-money” levels of wealth. Sure they can haul cargo and get cash, but most of that goes to the maintenance of the ship, paying extra crew, docking fees, etc. They know they have a reserve they can dig into for big things, i.e. funding the raid on the BBEG base, but they don’t try to withdraw from it to buy new items or big things. That “real money” they have to earn through other means.

There is an anime called Outlaw Star that showcases that example perfectly. While the heroes inherit an uber-awesome space ship they are always broke trying to keep it running. It becomes a plot element and means to get to places where adventures happen. It is sometimes an element involved in the adventure (ship to ship battles) and even enables them to do some previously inaccessible things (go underwater to treasure hunt), but it never gives them an easy win scenario.

#7 Comment By Nojo On July 8, 2010 @ 6:23 pm

A nice twist in Rogue Traders, where the players start with a Starship and a crew in the tens of thousands, is the warp. Going into the warp attracts deamons who want to get in and nom nom nom on all the tasty humans inside. There are many ways to keep the deamons out, and they all can fail. I always have some deamons ready to go should such an unfortunate mishap occur. :)

#8 Comment By Scott Martin On July 8, 2010 @ 8:39 pm

Transportation really does change the feel of a game. Almost all forms of it work fine– as pointed out above, adding an expensive ship just gives players more places to sink the extra money they’re hauling away– but there’s one that adds little. Teleport. It’s the ultimate skip to the end, ignore the journey along the way, development. With some limits (like permanent teleport circles between fixed locations), it becomes usable– a fantasy version of stargates/wormholes, but teleporting from anywhere to anywhere– bah!

#9 Pingback By Ravenous Role Playing » Blog Archive » Friday Five: 2010-07-09 On July 9, 2010 @ 3:13 pm

[...] Transportation – Giving The Group A Ride FTL travel, teleportation, flying mounts, super-sonic jets, high horsepower cars… These are all things that the players might be able to get their hands on and throw a kink in the chain of a story. There are pros and cons to allowing this to happen in your game, and lots of ways to handle it. Personally, I’m not a big fan of allowing “instant travel” unless that is what the game is based around. It just screws up too many things. However, it can be handled. Go see what Mr. Arcadian has to say on the matter. [...]

#10 Comment By Roxysteve On July 13, 2010 @ 1:47 pm

@E-l337 – Always worked in “Traveller” 25 years or so ago. Make sure one of the players “musters out” with a freighter of some sort (200 tonners were popular as I recall). Team sets up as more-or-less honest business people who just happen to do a bit o’ smugglin’ on the side and you’ll never have to prep another game if you don’t want to.

Just let them go from pillar to post making money, then have them jumped by Space Pirates who take it all off them again or shoot holes in the ship that cost all the profits to fix.

Players will find endless ways to circumvent customs, usually as the expense of the ship’s cargo of legitimate cargo and not usually with the captain/owner’s permission or knowledge. One game like this I ran they were all so busy smuggling that they were offloading each-other’s illicit swag to make way for their own. That was an interesting “discussion” when time came to unload the cargo hold. The captain/owner player actually had a real world hissy fit when his imaginary cargo was found to be only half the amount he’d bought and loaded several months and stops along the way ago.

I always thought they’d spot this clichéd, hackneyed plotting and walk off in disgust, but they seemed to enjoy the constant boom and bust in the ship’s fortunes, and I occasionally let them beat the pirates hands down and do a spot o’ lootin’ to change things up.

I dunno. Worked though.

#11 Comment By Chando42 On July 30, 2010 @ 6:28 pm

The central point of my new Star Wars campaign is the ship that the characters find early on. I really want them to experience as much of the galaxy as they can, plus I’ve got a few plot twists revolving around the ship itself. I’ve pretty much written the entire adventure for finding the ship, but I’m not sure if I want to make that my pilot adventure. Any tips?

#12 Comment By John Arcadian On July 31, 2010 @ 12:35 am

@Chando42 – Hmmmm. If the ship is going to be the main crux of the campaign you might want to let them know right away by having it be found in the first adventure. However, it sounds like you might be planning a slow reveal of the ship’s importance. That will still work, you just have to give them a reason to “bond” with the ship. Introducing the ship when the characters meet each other, or in the first session when the players are getting used to everyone’s characters, will make it feel like an extra character and an integral part of the group. I would say go for it as the first adventure and subtly emphasize reasons that this ship’s personality fits this group in-play. See if the characters have anything that could be hooked into the ship, i.e. “My father served on a ship like this.” or “Wow, this chair is actually made to fit a wookie! We can’t give up this ship guys, this chair fits me! ummm . . . I mean HGRAGRAGRAGRAGRAGRA, cause that’s how wookies talk!”. Be subtle about it and try to work with the hooks the players give you. I tricked my players into requesting an airship, instead of shares of an airship company, as payment for saving their daughter from an accidental summoning gone bad. My whole campaign was based around them having access to an airship, so if it didn’t work I was screwed. Best of luck!

#13 Comment By Kurt “Telas” Schneider On July 31, 2010 @ 8:47 pm

@Chando42 – You could also just drop a hint to one or more of the players that they’re going to want their own ship… So much easier than trying to connive them into it.


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