Thursday, March 26, 2015

A Pirate’s Life: Naval Movement & Travel

My PCs are planning to leave Haven after just one quest. It’s not because they didn’t like it, but the party’s Captain is playing a cleric of Tali. As such he doesn’t like staying in one place for too long. After putting a lot of work into Haven, I’m having strong urges to railroad them back there but I’m going to channel this into expanding the sandbox to the high seas. Let’s go sailing.

About six months ago I put together a ruleset for naval travel and combat, and after seeing it in play a few times I find it lacking. Cruising the internet turned up only one ruleset that wasn’t crazy complicated, at Tribality. While it’s workable I need a system to be intuitive with a really low learning curve for my players. It’s not that I think they can’t handle something complex, just don’t want to waste game time teaching a system. Guess we already have criteria for a naval ruleset: a quick learning curve and it has to be intuitive.

The DMG does have a little to say (very little) about high seas campaigns. They give speeds for different ships - apparently every ship sails at 1-4 mph regardless of wind or any other factors whatsoever. They give a minimum damage that has to be done for anything to pierce a ships hull. Also, don’t mess with rowboats. They have more hp than a 5th level fighter. Suffice it to say the DMG doesn’t give us anything resembling a complete game structure for naval play.

Tribality takes this uncompleted framework and adds a bunch of officer actions to the mix, though because of the underlying mechanics used in the DMG it’s still clunky. Turning the ship requires a DC 10 Pilot check, and rolling the dice to see if you can do something which is relatively routine doesn’t add to the experience.

If you’re one of those players who doesn’t use a battlemap, that’s ok, just not my cup of tea. Personally, I don’t like theater of the imagination. I’m a visual learner with ADD to boot, so as a DM trying to keep track of all the different aspects of combat, I find it to be more slippery than a bar of soap. With a battlemap in front of me there’s no, “Wait, how far away were you again and in which direction?” Honestly, I can’t even fathom how people can keep straight everything that’s happening in a combat without being able to see it on the table, and then consider strategy.

In my ruleset I toyed with the idea of using a larger scale map, and even though my first attempts were clunky, I still think it’s the answer. We also want it to be intuitive. Familiarity can help something be intuitive, so whatever number of squares ships will move let’s keep similar to character speeds in combat. Next, on to figuring out specifics for those speeds.

With a little research around the internet, average speeds of ships mostly correlate with the Vehicle table (DMG 119) and are between 2-4 mph, though some had an average speed of 4-5 knots. For ease of use we’re going to use miles instead of knots. Now with the wind behind them some ships in the early age of sail (c. 1400s to 1500s) could achieve speeds of double their average.

We need to incorporate this, because even the non-nautical landlubber-gamer will have the reasonable expectation of being able to take advantage of the wind when sailing a ship. There’s a few ways to go about this, we could ignore wind as a factor and make speed completely dependent on a pilot check. Results of 5 or less means you suck and you’re average speed takes a penalty, say x0.5; 6-10 you try but fail to push the speed limit; 11-15 gets you a speed multiplier of x1.5; 16+ gets x2. Maybe getting over 20 means you keep your x2 speed next turn without having to roll. It could work, but I’m not a fan due to it being too abstract. It doesn’t quite meet my expectations of what verisimilitude is. Ideally, I’d like to have a system where the players can use the rules to come up with strategies that reward ingenuity. A straight up die roll doesn’t accomplish this.

For inspiration I went to Pathfinder’s free Skull & Shackles Player’s Guide. It has some fundamentally good ideas which could be streamlined into something intuitive. Basically the Pathfinder’s version boils down to choose an action and make a check to see if it works. Choices are 1) stay at current speed with a choice to move straight forward or diagonally 1 square, 2) increase speed with same turning choices, 3) reduce speed with same turning choices, 4) turn 90 degrees during movement with penalties to check for current ship speed, 5) reverse if your ship speed is 0, or 6) fake out another ship to keep them from turning. This boils down to making a check to 1) change your speed, 2) turn more than normal, 3) keep another ship from turning. I don’t buy being able to make a check and stop another character from using an action. That type of ability is usually reserved for spells.

A friend gave me a great idea to use the hidden movement and reveal step from FFG X-Wing. Initiative is rolled using the pilot’s initiative bonus. Take the initiative order and reverse it for who gets to move first, then put it back for combat actions. First, I’ve got to define the specifics of speed. Using the Travel Pace chart from the PHB, mph gets translated to 100ft/minute. We can set each square on the battlemat to 100ft, this will give average movement around 4 squares, with top speeds around 8 squares. Most ships will fit in a single square and larger ships taking up 2 squares. Rounds will have a duration of one minute.

At the beginning of the round each ship determines their precise movement, players and dms can write this down. Then the lowest in the order moves, executes pilot actions, going through the order until all ships have gone. Combat actions will use the initiative order as normal going from highest to lowest. This will take some playtesting. I may try a variant without the hidden reveal, where players choose their movement after initiative is determined. I’ll report back in a future post with results.

Time to define how movement works. I’ve reprinted the Typical DCs table from the DMG for reference.






Very easy






Very Hard




Nearly impossible

The base options I’m interested in are 1) changing your speed and 2) hard turns. The DC for changing a pace is determined by how many levels of difference in the change of pace, detailed in the chart. Keeping a ship at its current pace should be a Very easy task and shouldn’t even require a check unless there are complications. To keep tactical options flexible, we’ll allow a ship to make a 45 degree turn at any point along its move, once per move. If a ship wants to make a Hard Turn (a 90 degree turn), they add +5 to the current pace change DC. No pace change with a Hard Turn will be DC 10 (Very easy task DC 5 +5). Failure means the action doesn’t succeed.






Pilot Bonus

Full Ahead


Change pace by 3 Levels


Best Wind




2 Levels


In Between




1 Level


Worst Wind




Hard Turn




Marrying wind and acceleration yields lots of tactical possibility, but the goal is to do it without escalating complexity. I’ll determine a wind direction when an encounter takes place, maybe with a scatter die (from Warhammer 40k). In each ship’s stat block will be an entry called “Best Sailing Point.” Throwing down this image below for the players will be a good visual.


It's from Sid Meier's Pirates! Think of this as a compass rose of sorts. There are sixteen points. Too many. Since combat is resolved on a battlemat with squares, this means there are 8 possible directions to move in any given square. So for simplicity’s sake we’ll only pay attention to the 8 arrowed points. A Brigantine has a best sailing point of Running broad reach to Broad beam reach. Using only 8 points, we can just call the Best Sailing Point here Broad reach. The players will know that Broad reach is the Best Wind, and anytime they are sailing with that facing they’ll get the Pilot bonus. When they’re facing is Close-hauled they’ll get the Worst Wind penalty.

A player, as the ship’s pilot, now has the following choices during movement: 1) whether to change pace and by how much, 2) whether to turn by how much, and 3) how to make best use of the wind. I think these three factors will create a lot of depth for naval combat. Seriously, no pun intended.

Now what about sailing on the campaign map? Using helped me come to the decision that 1sq/day of ocean travel will work on my squaremap. If the players wanted to cross the ocean, it would take roughly 40 squares of travel. Keeping this in mind I wanted to correlate this to crossing the Atlantic. Charting a journey from the Bahamas to Portugal at an average speed of 4 knots takes 36 days which brings me to the conclusion that 1sq/day is reasonable. This also makes each ocean square takes 24 hours to cross, and is about a distance of 100 miles. Erebus just got a lot bigger. If I were to make the land scale the same as the ocean scale, the grid of Haven would be something like half a million square miles! Wonderfully this is not a problem because as we’ve learned from Hack & Slash, RPGs work better not with exacting simulations but verisimilitude. For simplicity’s sake I’ll be sticking with a 6 mile distance to cross a land square (roughly 2 hours on foot).

This may cause another problem. The distance between Haven and Kalocly is 7sq or 14 hours on foot. By sea that’s 7 days. Verisimilitude just got broke. Let’s fix it. If ocean squares have nothing but water squares on all sides, walking speed doesn’t matter anymore. This allows coastal sea squares on a coast to work as 6 miles across, with nothing-but-ocean squares 1 day of travel. I think it can work (it even let’s me drop new square maps on the 6 mile scale in ocean squares for undersea adventures or island hopping). If there are any kinks I’ll let you know. Another great site is There’s plenty of useful resources to help bring verisimilitude from the Age of Sail to your campaign. Next time I’ll be tackling officer actions while trying to keep the rules intuitive and choices meaningful. Maybe I'll throw in a mishap table to make failures meaningful, too (and entertaining).


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