In the Dungeontech series of articles, I offer suggestions and alternate mechanics for introducing fantastical technology into your Dungeons & Dragons games. In this article, I give some advice on introducing new vehicles into a campaign.
Technology has created new means of transport, including watercraft, aircraft and spacecraft. In addition, technological vehicles have made the world a smaller pace by utilizing engines that speed the rate at which travelers can reach their destination. In a Tech campaign, vehicles can add interesting new plot hooks, challenges, treasure and opportunities.
It would be impossible to describe every vehicle that might be found in a Tech campaign. Accordingly, this article is primarily designed to assist Dungeon Masters in designing a variety of Tech vehicles for use in campaigns of any genre.
It is important to focus on the purposes to which adventurers often put vehicles in a campaign:
Mechanical Steed. Some vehicles are small enough to allow characters to ride them in close combat. Most such vehicles are not as maneuverable as a live steed, such as a horse. Moreover, unlike living steeds, a mechanical steed does not have the ability to maintain stability while the rider is concentrating on attacks (unless the vehicle has been equipped with artificial intelligence).
Skill Challenge. A vehicle can make a useful skill challenge. Stopping a runaway locomotive, engaging in a high-speed car chase, and navigating an asteroid field in a starship are all examples of entertaining skill challenges involving Tech vehicles. It is important, however, to ensure that the Skill Challenge engages the entire party and is not simply a series of Acrobatics checks for the driver of the vehicle.
Terrain. Fighting on a moving vehicle can provide a unique and compelling encounter. Knife fights on the top of a locomotive or on a truck barreling down a highway are common tropes of action movies. Other vehicles that can provide interesting terrain include the maze of cabins in a cruise liner, or a firefight on a large starship. Here, the movement of the vehicle can cause the vehicle to be treated as difficult terrain, and sudden lurches and turns might cause characters to be forced to shift or slide, or even to engage in Acrobatics checks to prevent falling prone.
Transportation. The primary purpose of a vehicle is to transport cargo and individuals from one place to the next. While many vehicles travel only a little faster than humanoid characters, in a Tech campaign, some vehicles may be able to travel thousands of miles in a singe day, or even traverse the light years that separate the stars. It is important to distinguish vehicles that may be used in combat from vehicles that primarily will be used by characters to travel to distant places.
These are only the primary purposes to which characters might put vehicles. Vehicles may also constitute a form of investment, or a status symbol, just as they do in the real world. There are no limitations to which a Dungeon Master or the players may put vehicles.
Dungeon Masters should take care when introducing vehicles into a campaign. Vehicles on the cutting-edge of technology should be restricted to the epic tier of play. In a campaign in which space travel is common, a party might acquire a small spaceship at the paragon tier of play. In a campaign set at the opening of the space age, such a ship may only be available at the epic tier of play. (In a campaign where space travel is impossible, such vehicles would be inaccessible to characters as they do not exist.)Vehicular Combat
There are several ways that vehicles might be used in combat. In each instance, the Dungeon Master should tailor the encounter appropriately.
Vehicles against Creatures
When a Tech vehicle is driven in combat, it generally has the capacity to be faster than most creatures, but also less maneuverable. A motorcycle does not turn as easily as a horse, though it can easily outdistance it. A jumbo jet may outpace a dragon, and a helicopter may outrun a griffon, but it cannot turn as fast as either (and these are some of the less maneuverable creatures in the sky).
For the most part, the only vehicles that can enter melee against creatures that are not on similar vehicles are personal vehicles, described further below. Other vehicles may enter combat by ramming a creature but are then propelled well beyond combat range, or they become stopped and/or disabled.
Unless the vehicle possesses an artificial intelligence, a driver who wants to make an attack while driving must succeed on an Acrobatic check, as will be described later in order to take a standard action and remain in control of the vehicle.
Vehicles against Vehicles
When a vehicle is driven in combat where all the combatants are drivers or passengers in similarly equipped vehicles, then the Dungeon Master need only monitor the relative speed of each of the vehicles. If a battle map is used, the vehicles themselves should not advance on the driver’s move. Rather, the driver should engage in an Acrobatics check to ensure that the vehicle can maintain an appropriate speed.
If there are obstacles in the path of the vehicles, such as a sharp turn, a physical object like a bystander or a utility pole, then each obstacle should be given an initiative. Although the obstacle is objectively stationary, it should be moved towards the vehicles at the speed the vehicles are moving towards it. The Dungeon Master should assign a DC to each obstacle to determine the difficulty of avoiding it during combat. Drivers must then make an Acrobatics check to avoid striking the object with the vehicles.
Use Skill Challenges or skill checks to represent when vehicles compete in a non-lethal manner, such as in a race.Amusements in Mathematics, by Henry Ernest Dudeney (1917). No copyright, as the image is in the public domain.