Thank 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.
- 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.
- 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?