Metagame – d20 Modern Vehicles

I’ve been thinking a lot about how vehicles are handled in d20 Modern. The system is definitely a step up in some cases—several systems, including White Wolf’s Storyteller system, don’t even have vehicle rules. At least, not originally, and not in the core books; they’re out there in some random Mage or Hunter supplement I don’t own. (I find it hard to imagine those realpolitik vampires or anti-Weaver werewolves having Bullit/French Connection-style chase scenes, but even Exalted, which has a lot of vehicles, is pretty slim on actual mechanics for them.) But just because the system has vehicle rules doesn’t mean they’re perfect, and I’ve been nitpicking them to death since the system came out.

The way core d20 Modern handled vehicles was pretty straightforward: like most objects, they have a hardness rating (cough DR cough) and hit points. Under the WotC rules, a subcompact (Dodge Neon) has 30 hp and 5 hardness. An M1 Abrams tank would have DR 20 and 64 hp, for example, and no, you’re not alone in going “Damn, those values seem low.” A lot of people complained because one character could knock one out over 10 or so rounds using a .50-caliber heavy machinegun on sustained burst fire.

The line developers were pretty vocal in airing their reasoning: one designer had actually served in a tank platoon in the Gulf War, after all. First, it doesn’t reflect a vehicle being “destroyed,” but being “disabled.” Many Abrams were knocked out in the Gulf War because sustained fire knocked out a support system—fire control, rangefinders, optical gear and thermal imagers, running gear, etc. They even mention that the Soviets would shove stuff into the tracks of Panzers to disable them during World War II street fighting. All of these are the exact kinds of things a .50-cal HMG going cyclic could disable.

While I agree with them in principle—modern tanks are more easily disabled than people assume, and they’re rarely destroyed—there’s a few cognitive disconnects going on here. Wouldn’t a more primitive tank, like a World War II-era Sherman without all those computer targeting systems and optics, take longer to disable, thus giving it more hit points? It has thinner, non-composite armor, but none of those important electronic systems which, when lost, cause modern tanks to go from operational to disabled… blind, immobile, what have you.

The bigger problem is that going up against vehicles which have fewer hit points than yourself turns almost video-gamey; I’m reminded of batting Abramses about in Prototype when I see these stats for them. Tanks are big, heavy, and armored, and as-written for d20 Modern they’re just sort of lackluster. True, they’re not exactly pushovers; as stated by the devs, it takes a great wyrm’s breath weapon to guarantee a one-round knockout.

Which was one of the many things Spycraft 1 decided to fix about the MSRD, having listened to fans gripe on the internet. While overall similar, Spycraft made its vehicles much beefier, meaning they needed to take a lot of sustained fire (high-caliber or explosives) to brew up. A Spycraft subcompact (I envision a Blista Compact) has 90 wound points and no hardness; an Abrams has somewhere close to 300 wound points, and a hardness of 20. Depleting a vehicle’s health totally destroys it. This creates the exact opposite problem: without armor-piercing, or dedicated anti-tank weapons, disabling a tank is a real challenge.

So, to recap, we have two options, and both assume that vehicles have health which needs to be depleted before they’re destroyed (like creature challenges). The first softballs the concept, and gives the bare minimum to disable the vehicle, while the second makes them incredibly resilient so they can’t be damaged without the proper equipment.

Spycraft 2 changed all that.

One of its brilliant moves was switching to damage saves, replacing health and wounds for objects. Under this system, you roll a d20, add the object’s damage save value, and try to beat a DC of 10 + 1/2 the total damage.  Say, if you drop a camera with a damage save +10, dealing 8 points of damage to it, you have to make a DC of 14 or else the camera is busted. The same concept is applied to vehicles; tanks now have a damage save of +35. Armor-piercing lowers the damage save by a listed value (AP 4 subtracts 4, for example), and a guided missile dealing 3d8 will still have a challenge to knock a tank out.

If you make the damage save, the object is dinged up a bit but otherwise fine. Fail the save and it’s broken, which requires repairs; fail another save and it’s destroyed, and can’t function or be repaired ever again.

Honestly, I really prefer damage saves. It strikes me as a lot more cinematic, which Spycraft has always been aiming for, as well as weeding out some pointless record-keeping… I’m tempted to incorporate it into my Pathfinder games, because I’ve never seen the point in tracking all the hit points your weapons and armor are losing over the course of a campaign. (No player in the world would bother doing that, unless they’ve got some math fetish, and as a GM I have far better things to number-crunch.)

In the end, the options really boil down to what you prefer. If you follow the concept that vehicles are NPC-operated monsters and should be comparable to dragons, you’re probably looking at someplace in-between core d20 Modern and Spycraft 1… more like a toned-down version of Spycraft, but I’m just biased. If you’re of the opinion that vehicles are objects, and want a more cinematic way of handling the binary “functional”/”non-functional” divide, Spycraft 2 is vastly superior.

Personally, I’m on the fence between both concepts. I like a crunchier system where everything you run into drains a little of the vehicle’s health, in the demolition derby vein of rock-’em sock-’em Car Wars. On the other hand, there’s a limit to how much crunch I can stand, and am truly fascinated by the fact that nobody bothered using damage saves before Spycraft 2, since it’s a vastly simpler (and cooler) way to handle how long a given object can survive in a combat situation.

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