Whether you're running a game set in space, the high seas, or just one where the players will regularly need to travel large distances a lot of the time the concept of the group vehicle tends to come into games. Now, for Space Opera games - like many Star Wars campaigns - or high sea adventures this can be a somewhat unique situation because it actually is one vehicle, and because of the kind of vehicle it is and the type of stories those games lend themselves to the vehicle becomes more than just a means of conveyance. It becomes a home, a base, and - interestingly enough - a weapon. Today, I want to talk about these vehicles and some things you may want to consider for your game.
Player Owned/Bought Or A Gift From The GM?
The first big decision is whether the vehicle is going to be just given to the players for their needs or if it will be the property of a specific character - or characters. Both ways have their advantages and disadvantages. For one thing, in the case where it belongs to a player it usually means the system has some means in place of owning the vehicle and handling that. Using those mechanics can be a good thing and it can be empowering for a character, or the player, to be the one who owns "the ship." It can also be a good way for a player to cement their character as the party leader by way of being the owner/captain of the vehicle used.
On the other hand, the ship being owned can cause problems. For example, in many systems the buying/setting up of the vehicle costs character points. Now, the reward is you get the vehicle - and it is often a very powerful piece of equipment, especially compared to the side arms and rations other people are buying - but that isn't as big a reward as you might think. Consider, for example, that the story likely will require the players having access to this transport. Now add in the facts that vehicles have upkeep costs, are generally very limited in how they can be used (either the situation is designed for a vehicle to be there or it won't, really) and the fact that points spent on the vehicle aren't going into other things. The end result? One of your players is mechanically weaker than everyone else and in exchange they have an item that the group needs for the adventure and can really only be used in specific situations that a vehicle would likely have to be provided for anyhow.
Upgrades, Modifications, And Functionality
Some ships are classic for the genre the game is set in. A light freighter (say, a Corellian YT-1300) for a Star Wars game is pretty much classic. Some high seas games will lean towards small frigates for players as well. Usually the focus is on something big enough to hold the players, small enough to need a small crew, but still big enough to cover the other needs such as something to provide some heavy hitting, a home, a base, and/or a cargo hold.
Now, what happens when you give something like that to players? Don't know? I'll tell you. They're going to want to mod the hell out of it. Players aren't dumb. More to the point, they've read a lot of books, seen a lot of movies, and played a lot of games that featured vehicles much like the one that they now have. They'll know the value of hidden smuggling compartments, secret weapons, and being able to carry more guns than their ship should be able to. Bottom line: your players are going to want to mod the crap out of their ship.
The question to you the GM then is: do you let them and if so how much do you let them? Every GM is going to have a different answer to this. Your game has it's own unique feel, it's own unique challenges, and it's own unique placement between narrative and simulation. The answer for your game should reflect that, but more to the point it should also reflect your comfort level. Don't be afraid to limit the modifications you'll allow - especially at one time - for your comfort level. For other things, don't be afraid to stretch it out. Mods take time and they can impact things other than what you might expect. Use those hitches to make the players slow down and work towards slowly getting the ship to where they want it rather than just to get it done in one go. Added bonus to this way? Your players will likely find things they need that they had never thought of before as time goes on, and things they thought they wanted that they later realize they simply don't need.
Blowing The Vehicle Up
You knew it was coming. I knew it was coming too, but to be fair I am the one writing this article. I've yet to see a story that features some sort of group vehicle that doesn't also play with the idea of blowing that vehicle up. Because of that, it's only natural that it could happen in your game. Now, maybe this happens due to a bad encounter - sometimes vehicles do get into fights after all - but I would caution you to be more careful with blowing up a group vehicle. Why? Because if you do things right in your game it will be a lot more than just a vehicle.
Remember how above I said that the vehicle could become a base and a home? That is what the vehicle's destruction signifies. The loss of a home. When the Serenity gets trashed in Firefly it is meaningful because we know what that ship means to Malcolm Reynolds. The same is true with the Millennium Falcon and Han Solo, the Enterprise and any one of it's captains, and pretty much every other big vehicle featured in fiction out there.
Now I'm not saying not to destroy it. I am saying to destroy it with care. Make it a set piece if you can, do it with respect. Most importantly though, don't have it just be the end. There should be a chance to rebirth, re-emergence, or at the very least replacement. This is especially true in the case where a player bought the ship with character points.
The bottom line here, and I'm not sure how well I said it with the issues I got focused on, is that these vehicles can be a lot more in the game than just a means of getting from point A to point B. Do it right and it can be a home, or even more than a home, a character in the game. Once you've got that...well, then your game just has that much more going for it.