Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Challenges of the Saltbox

The archetypal D&D game, where a beginning group of adventurers meet in a tavern and head out to the local ruins, doesn't necessitate skills beyond those inherent in the class descriptions; fighters are already good at fighting, magic users cast spells, clerics can affect undead, and so forth.

Not so when you consider staging a maritime adventure.  The roles on a ship demand specialized skills - navigators need to read charts, calculate dead reckoning, mark soundings, and take latitude measurements; crewmen need to know the proper rigging of the sails and ship maintenance; gun crews need to know the elevation and targeting of cannons and the measurement of charges based on range and shot.  The captain is perhaps the most knowledgeable and experienced sailor on the ship, as well as requiring a strong personality and commanding presence.

Old school (rules-light) D&D doesn't provide much support in the rules for adjudicating these situations.  Which is fine, the game is Dungeons & Dragons, not Sloops & Sailors.  I imagine one reason many campaigns don't feature significant ocean travel is precisely due to discomfort by the DM.  If you're going to run the saltbox, you need a plan.

Hiring Experts
The by-the-book answer is to require adventurers to hire navigators, a captain, gunnery crew and sailors; there's no real provision for player characters to have said skills (unless perhaps the DM is using background professions or something like the 1E DMG).  This is fine if the ocean travel is a means to an end, like getting to the Isle of Dread; not so much if most of the campaign will revolve around the sea.

How would you handle this in an old school game?  Hybrid systems that split the new/old school line (like ACKS) have a proficiency based skill system, so player characters could add specific skills over time.  Alternatively, the DM could rule that characters spending enough time ship-board could learn these professions after a sufficient period as on-the-job-training.

Hack n Slash pointed readers towards an old post on A Rod of Lordly Might that broke professional skills down into categories of unskilled, skilled, expert, and master, and provided ideas on costs and times to pick them up (outside of the class and level system).  I like the idea of requiring experts initially, but letting the players add the skills as professions if they really want to allocate time and effort in game to pick them up for their characters, too.

Adjudicating Skill-Based Situations
In the dungeon environment, rules-light skill decisions on the fly are handled through a negotiation; the player describes what they want to do, the DM comes up with a success chance, the players think of ways to enhance success, and we either agree on a ruling or a roll that needs to be made and move on.

In a situation where specialized knowledge affects frequent encounters and combat, I'd like to push more of this resolution towards a defined system of rolls.  Can the crew get more speed out of the ship in a pursuit and evasion situation; can the captain's maneuver to get into a broadside position succeed; was the grappling and boarding attempt successful; did the navigator succeed in guiding the vessel to that remote island across the trackless ocean?

Looking through the BX rules, there are some guidelines for adjudicating these types of maneuvers, but they don't have a variable element for individual skill.  So one approach is to elaborate these generic guidelines for solving common situations, like pursuit, maneuvering, boarding, and navigation, and then apply modifiers based on player choices at the table.

An alternate approach is to add appropriate individual skills to the mix - use something like ACKS's proficiencies, extend the LOTFP d6-based skills to include some nautical skills, or use professional descriptions like unskilled, skilled, expert, or master to provide some common modifiers.

Agency and Autonomy
I've talked about this in the past, that playing crewmen on someone else's ship doesn't provide a lot of agency and authority to the players - they take orders, they don't give them.  As such, maritime adventures are postponed until the group has sufficient wealth to hire and outfit their own ship.

For a low-level campaign, I like the idea of the group starting with vessels small enough for them to afford, or ensuring one of the earliest adventures puts them in ownership of a suitable vessel.  Lots of real-world pirate careers started with canoes and pinnaces, trading up over time to progressively bigger vessels.  I've been working on a kick-off adventure for such a campaign, where the characters start as conventional adventurers, and gain an opportunity to seize an appropriate vessel and become privateers by the end of the adventure.  I'd use privateers because  I tend to think my players would rather be 'legal pirates' with patriotic targets, rather than murderous, indiscriminate raiders.

A useful thing about the 16th and 17th century colonial waters, the Spanish Empire of the time can be portrayed as universal, unsympathetic villains, the way early 20th century films frequently demonize Germany.  The destruction wreaked by the conquistadors was widespread and massive, dimmed only by 5 centuries.  But that's grist for another mill.

Anyway, that's where I'm at - gathering ideas for resolving common maritime problems, consulting what's been done in BX and AD&D 1E while looking at other game systems (currently looking at how Flashing Blades: High Seas handles similar situations).  James at LOTFP threatened to develop a maritime supplement at some point, but I don't see it on the near horizon (though hopefully the LOTFP guns supplement is inching closer...)

I'm also considering how player characters can gain some professional expertise in these non-dungeoneering professions, if desired.  Not only would this stuff be necessary for a Spanish Main setting, it'd be useful in the Black City - in another couple of months, the Spitsberg Pirates will be ready to buy their own longship or knarr and going where they will.

Game masters that have run a heavy nautical campaign seem few and far between; it's an idea that's occasionally discussed, but infrequently executed.  But if readers have suggestions on these issues, I'm thankful for any insights!


  1. I've run several maritime campaigns, always with BRP because D&D-like rules suck at simulating diverse skills-- as you've pointed out in your post.
    LotFP could be different to your vanilla D&D clone, with its limited but well thought-out skill system.

  2. The skills would be as generic as possible ("sailing", "mining", "fishing", "craft", etc.)and the degree of competence would be "basic", "expert", "companion" and "master" . Resolution would be dice-lite: if your degree of mastering is above the level of difficulty (assigned buy the DM), then it's automatic succes. If much inferior (a "basic" level for à "master"-hard task), it's automatic failure. If not it's à dice check (roll under characteristic, saving throw, 2d6 roll, your choice.
    I would allow a limited number of "skill points" based on Intelligence , Wisdom score or better of both, at character creation (probably the same as "number of languages known" in OD&D: score minus 10). Players are not to choose from character creation, but can put "skill points" in a given competence if the occasion arises during play.
    Say, your fighting-man has a 14 wisdom score: he gets 4 skill points, and spend one for a merchant bakcground (that would be a basic level of "haggling"). He then sails abroad. During the cruise, the character expresses (by the voice of the player) interest in learning the basic trick of seafare. With appropriate roleplay , he has now a basic level of "sailing". Should he persevere and spend another "skill point" he would then become an "expert" sailor, and so on...

  3. You say "murderous, indiscriminate raiders" like it's A Bad Thing . . .

    1. It's a slippery slope. It starts out simple enough, you take your newly captured sloop and use it to explore and loot ruined Spanish forts or looking for treasure; next thing you're attacking Spanish shipping, maybe even coastal forts. But then you hear there's this rich ship for the East India company taking the windward passage...

      Next thing you know, the players characters are waking up in an alley in Tortuga with bad hangovers, wondering why the Navy is looking for them.

      It'd be a grand campaign.

  4. One of the more recent Pathfinder adventure paths started out with the characters press ganged.


    I only read the first of the series, but I enjoyed the flavor of the set up. There were also some special mechanics posited, that you might be able to strip down and utilize.

  5. These are excellent thoughts but I might be able to lend a historically-inspired machete to your mechanical thicket:

    1. one great way for a stereotypical DnD party to get a "soft start" on autonomous ship-command is mutiny - just put the PCs in an intolerable situation and see what they do. If they sound out other crewmen they'll quickly find a bunch of malcontents and be elected their leaders (since the person who suggests mutiny is usually elected leader and therefore scapegoat). Then when they've secured the ship they'll have that crew of experts without having "hired" them - and they'll probably already have some trusted favourites to act as a face for a multi-person crew.

    2. the East India Companies and navies operated for centuries with remarkably few experts on each new vessel teaching a big load of landlubber know-nothings the basics of sailing. PC fighters and thieves can become competent deckhands in say a week and if they study hard they could replace the boatswain (the critical sail-handling expert) in say 4 months. Ditto the chief gunner. During that training period they really need the expert on call, though, which in the mutiny case above is a great resource-management hook: either how do you protect your boatswain or what incompetent decisions do you make if he suddenly disappears? There's RP gold in there, I tell ya.

    Critical expert personnel: captain/navigator, steersman/pilot, boatswain/crew-manager, chief gunner, storemaster (yes it's a skill, and yes PCs will underestimate it)

    3. Several of the critical skills are likely already in the class packages. Fighters with any military training will know how to organise work gangs, which is all deckhands are really. Thieves make great lookouts and repairers and if you're feeling generous gunners too (gunpowder and safe cracking). Magic Users almost certainly know all the astronomy they need for navigation, while clerics are most likely to have geographical knowledge, since the church probably extents over the land and is its own kind of networked navigating entity. The joy of all this is that they're all trained somewhat tangentially for their tasks - they have "book-learning but no street smarts" (the condition of players everywhere) so they can legitimately get the ship moving but may not have the wisdom to keep it out of trouble (RP opportunities).

    4. running a ship should always be a negotiation, with crew, with the sea, with geography, with the weather, and with ignorance. Even when they're expert mariners, they'll probably be sailing inadequately charted waters and so they'll need local help with pilotage (getting around obstacles or navigating by landmarks rather than stellar navigation which is really only used for deep sea, long haul out of sight of land crossings). Reefs, narrows, currents, lee shores, seasonal storms and muddy or rocky bottoms can all screw up your ship and it takes local knowledge to deal with them. Very often expensive, shifty-eyed, poorly translated local knowledge. And your mutineer landlubber ranger is probably just as good at dealing with that as any seasoned steersman out of his home waters.

  6. also did you see Robert Parker's quick n dirty skill system?

  7. Hi Richard, thanks for the detailed ideas. For the first scenario I'm scripting out, the kickoff involves the players getting hired to be the landing party/marines for another ship, but through the course of the adventure, have the opportunity to claim a small pirate sloop (or foment a mutiny on the merchantman). Either way, they should come out of it with a ship and potential crew. I like the idea of needing to enlist and keep experts around for OJT.

    I'm right there with you on the need for pilotage or charts - it's amazing how much of the 'competitive advantage' in Caribbean waters came out of making charts - they were national treasures and trade secrets, and a massively important type of booty (not that I need to tell you that...)

    It speaks to a larger issue we overlook as gamers in the modern world, any kind of map is an important treasure.

  8. The education system in Adventures in Fantasy translates well to D&D if you want something a bit more flexible and less gimmicky than a skills system.