Tuesday, March 9, 2010

The Old Girl: Vehicles as Characters in Your Game

"She's not old, she's in her prime."

I'm not going to lie to you gentle readers, I'm an inveterate gearhead. I love machines of all kinds, but vehicles especially turn my crank, as it were. Anything from a 50cc minibike to a five-kilometre long starship capable of blowing suns all to hell and back, you give me an owners manual and a little time and I'll obsess over every little niggling detail from cylinder compression to the exact placement of the heads. I've also got this tendency to name and anthropomorphize my own vehicles, which is kind of a common quirk among gearheads. I name every vehicle I own out of a mixture of love and superstition, and feel that you can't keep a machine running without love no matter how well you maintain it. Sadly, in role-playing games, modern and future ones at least, any vehicles the players might have are often treated as background. Sort of a simple, bite-sized deus-ex machina that magically moves players from one spot to another in game without a thought. This is a missed opportunity, though. A missed opportunity for adventure and hilarity that can come from making the vehicle itself a character.

The "vehicle as character" gag has been used over and over again in all sorts of media. The A-Team van, KITT, the Millennium Falcon, Serenity, Galactica, HMS Surprise, James Bond's Bugatti, Chitty Chitty Bang-Bang, all important to the characters and to the plot in greater or lesser degree. Some were simple but beloved machines, homes away from home like the Millennium Falcon or HMS Surprise. Others, like KITT or Stephen King's killer Plymouth Christine, were full characters in their own right with personalities and motivations. Whatever their place in the story, they served not just to move the characters from one place to another, but as a unique focus for or extension of the characters' emotions and psyches.

Now, using vehicles and ships as characters in literature and film is easy, but what about in a game setting? How can a game master and his players make their ship or APC or whatever into a living and breathing, or should we say clanking and howling, NPC? Well, take ships for example. Galactica and Surprise and Serenity were mother and home to their officers and crew. These ships sheltered and cared for their crew, protected them from storms and enemy fire and provided a safe and relatively stable home. Now translate that to game terms. What if your players had something like that, a ship or some other vehicle that wasn't just a conveyance but a beloved home. What would they do to protect it? How far would they go to get it back if it were lost or taken from them? Would they give all of their wealth? Would they give their lives? Good role-playing can answer those questions, and game masters should never be afraid to ask them.

Vehicles in a game are also a great way to get your players in trouble and send them off in directions they hadn't planned on. I've used haunted suits of powered armor that came alive for no reason, stow-aways aboard post-apocalyptic RVs and other contrivances to throw wrenches into my players' plans and make their days more interesting. Hell, in Rogue Trader, the vehicle as character is an actual game mechanic! Starships in the 40K setting are thousands of years old and have seen all manner of horror and action and have nurtured hundreds of thousands of crewmen in their time. Over their careers they've picked up a number of quirks, which are reflected in a ship's "complications", her history and the various quirks of her machine spirits. Complications are chosen or rolled for during ship creation, and make for excellent role-playing opportunities. The players' ship could have been sold out of Imperial service or been wandering the void for 10,000 years as part of a space hulk. She could be skittish, reliable, have a nose for trouble or any of a dozen other strong personalities available for the players' and game masters' enjoyment.

So, give it some thought and give it a try. It's yet another way to add some flavor to your game, and gives the players one more thing to sink their teeth into.

1 comment:

Rook said...

This is the first time I've seen anyone post on this subject and yet it seems like a no brainer! It's a great idea.
Now, unless you make the vehicle sentient, it will probably take a bit of encouragement from the DM to get the PCs to think of their transportation in such a way. If the Captain and crew show 'her' some love, perhaps the PCs will follow suit.
Just a thought, perhaps if you grant the PCs some small 'homefield' advantage while on/in the vehicle, they may become more endeared towards her.