Wednesday, April 1, 2015

A Pirate’s Life III: Non-Combat Roles

Let’s get right to it. We have a bunch of PCs on a single ship. One player is the pilot. The rest are gunners. The choice is pilot or gunner, and the player with the best skill bonus is the pilot. Not much of a choice. We need other options, preferably non-combat options that give some diversity to the choice. Many ships had positions whose focus was to manage the crew’s morale, from this we’ll extrapolate a few ideas from 5e’s Bardic Inspiration mechanic. Further, we need to look at another basic role that is a pillar of D&D: the healer. First we’ll start with the morale manager.

As a musician/orator, a bard will undoubtedly be helpful managing crew morale, npc loyalty, and providing aid to checks. The crux of the matter is what choices does he have? Remember that telling a player to roll a die and see what happens is not a meaningful choice. Heading to the Bard class might be a good source of inspiration (seriously, I wasn’t trying to make a pun). The class, in addition to its spellcasting, revolves around taking a dice pool and choosing when and how to spend it. They get a few d6 per long rest to spend individually on things like adding or subtracting from d20 rolls, AC or damage. What if we had a dice pool generated by the crew that could be used to help manage their performance? It would be intuitive due to its similarity to mechanics the player’s are familiar with (Bardic Inspiration).
This role doesn’t have to be occupied, naval combat can easily go on without it. The point here is to have something a player can choose to do aside from firing the guns and still be meaningful. Also, it doesn’t have to filled specifically by a bard. We want any player to be able to fulfil this role. So let’s say at the start of the turn a dice pool is generated not by the player but a group resource - the crew. The pool gets 1d6 per 10 crew alive and manning the ship. Maybe we have a morale table, and the crew’s morale increases or decreases depending on how the battle goes. Then we have about 3 different options to spend the dice pool each turn managing morale, and possibly yielding other benefits. Sounds like a good rough draft. 
These actions and effects don’t have to be described as making inspiring speeches or playing music, either. It could be described as the player going man to man to enforce discipline and give encouragement, helping out here and there with crew tasks, putting people in their place, or even chasing cowardly crew hiding from the battle to get back to their stations. A better name for this job is Boatswain (sometimes pronounce bosun), whose job in addition to supervising ship maintenance was to supervise on deck activities. What we’re describing is pretty much what the boatswain did on the ship during the Age of Sail.
Before developing this, you may be thinking new rules means complexity and a learning curve. My solution is that the whole group doesn’t have to know these rules, only the one or two players who will be using it. I’ll hand out cheat sheets of each job for the relevant players to keep in front of them. This way they can study it between turns instead of us having a lengthy lesson on how each job works. I’ll still give the group a total of 5 minutes for Q&A, which should eat up less game time overall.
This edition of D&D simplified NPC interaction by cutting back on the number of attitudes. Three starting attitudes are defined: friendly, indifferent, and hostile. It doesn’t make sense to use it straight out of the book, imagine trying to muster a crew to battle stations when they’re indifferent. “I don’t really feel like fighting today, but I will if you roll a 20.” Still the three stages are simple and useful. Let’s call them Brave, Ready, and Frightened.
The base attitude of any crew will be Ready. When bad stuff happens they might get Frightened, and when the Boatswain is effectively able to manage morale the crew will become Brave. This means the Boatswains goal in any battle is to improve morale. The primary ability score for the Boatswain would be Charisma. Essentially he’s using his force of personality to manage the differing temperaments of the crew. To improve a crew’s morale, each turn choose an appropriate Charisma-based skill and make a check unless the crew. By appropriate I mean something that would fit the kind of action the Boatswain is doing. The Charisma based skill checks are Deception, Intimidation, Performance, and Persuasion. I think Intimidation and Persuasion will probably be the go to for this.
Intimidation: “Man the battle stations you scurvy landlubbers or I’ll feed you to the dogs!” Persuasion: “Come on boys! Let’s show them what kind of pirates we are!” Maybe a Performance check involves playing a fast tempo tune or reminding them of some inspirational figure from an old story. Deception would involve lying to the crew about something: “You see that ship? I know it’s captain personally, and he has detailed logs charting the course of treasure galleon. Taking that ship is our ticket to being richer than you can imagine!” I know that last one was mercilessly ripping off of Black Sails, but you get the idea. It’s a Charisma-based check, and because of that I have no problem demanding a little roleplaying from my players. Even if its laughable - make that especially if its laughable.
So we’re in ship-to-ship combat and the crew starts Ready to fight. We have a pool of d6s per 10 able-bodied crew. Now what? Since the Boatswain’s goal is to improve crew morale, a good place to start is roll a d20 against a DC (notice I said “start”). Instead of a straight up pass or fail, let’s add degrees of success. For a Ready crew let’s call it a moderate DC 15 to make them Brave, and a very hard DC 25 to make a Frightened crew into a Ready crew. On a success, the Boatswain also gets to use the pool of d6s, on a failure they lose everything in the pool for that turn. It kind of makes things high stakes, but dependent on a single roll. To make things more interesting, let’s say before the Charisma check the Boatswain can use any amount of dice from the pool to add to his own total. This adds an element of gambling.
A 1st level player doing this might only have a +4 Persuasion check, and to use the pool he needs an 11 on the die. That’s a 45% chance of success. The average roll of a d6 is 3.5, meaning each die adds an average of 17.5% to his success rate, and he needs to use up at least 1d6 to have better than a 50/50 chance of success. Considering my PCs are 5th level, they’ll probably be making the check with a +6 already, and the average DC means a 60% chance of success. A lower increment makes more sense, so instead of d6s I’ll be using d4s. With an average roll of 2.5, each die will grant an average increase in success by 12.5% So let’s assume success now, what to do with those d4s?
Remember, Bardic Inspiration let’s players add a d6 to d20 rolls, AC or damage. The last two are also restricted by level and class subtype, so we can ignore those options since increasing a ship’s AC or damage is pushing the limits of balance in my opinion. Let’s say this on a success the Boatswain can distribute d4s to another others d20 rolls, whether it be a skill check or attack for the turn. The Boatswain will also get to choose how many of those dice to give out and to whom.
Aside from different DCs, what are penalties for a Frightened crew and the bonuses for a Brave one? Since this system revolves around d20 rolls, let’s say a Frightened crew makes all d20 rolls with Disadvantage. The cannon crew aren’t going to hit nearly as often, and if the pilot is an NPC that’s means the player’s ship is going to get outmaneuvered during a naval battle. This will provide a Boatswain even more motivation to use up the pool on his Charisma check.
For a Brave crew we could just say all NPC d20 rolls get advantage, but that will be too powerful during a ship-to-ship combat since cannonfire will be especially effective. What if the dice from the pool itself had advantage? Each d4 bonus die is now much more powerful, but not as powerful as a d20 roll with advantage. It also makes the Boatswain’s decision on how to utilize the pool much more meaningful, since those d4s will pack a lot more punch.
I want this player to have to choices to make every round, so I’ll add in that the Brave crew condition only lasts until the start of the Boatswain’s next turn, or if something happens that causes crew morale to drop a step. Frightened and Ready crew conditions remain from round to round until changed by a successful morale check, or if something happens that causes moral to drop. Morale drops one step instantly if: the Captain is reduced to 0 hp, the crew is reduced below half its starting number, the crew is outmanned (is smaller than the number of enemy crew) or outgunned (has less guns than enemy ships) at the start of the Boatswain’s turn. Here’s something else to add a sense of urgency to the Boatswain’s job: if a Frightened crew suffers a drop in morale it surrenders (either in hand to hand or by striking colors in a ship to ship battle). I may test variants of this, like allowing the Boatswain a check to keep the crew from surrendering, and maybe even allowing dice to be saved until the start of the Boatswains next turn in case of surrender, or saving throws.

d4 rolls have advantage
Can add d4s to another’s ability check
Disadvantage on ability checks

Let’s go through a short example. A ship with 60 crew generates a pool of 6d4 at the start of the Boatswain’s turn. The crew’s morale is Ready. The Boatswain has +4 Persuasion and spends 3d4 on the morale check. He rolls a 7 on the d20, and adds the 3d4 result of 10 for a total of 17. He meets the DC 15 and inspires the crew to be Brave until the start of his next turn. There is 3d4 leftover in the pool to allocate to the d20 rolls made by himself or any other allies on the ship. He can add 1d4 to three different cannon crews or give one cannon crew +3d4. Maybe he gives all of the dice to the helmsman for the sailing check. The Boatswain also could have attempted the check without using the pool in order to have more dice to hand out. Though if he failed the check, there’d be no dice to hand out for the round. It makes for an interesting minigame, which may even have other applications I haven’t even thought of (like Bard’s being well suited for this job - maybe one use of Bardic Inspiration turns all d4s in a pool into d6s for one turn).

I think on that note we could adapt this system for the healing role. Did someone call for a doctor? Many ships had an onboard surgeon (if they didn’t and someone had gangrene the carpenter filled in with a wood saw). When we look at the surgeon, we need to know how crew is affected by damage. How many crew are injured or kill when the ship is hit? Which crew are injured, and which crew are killed? How does it affect morale? How many people can a surgeon save and how fast can he do it? Just like what we did with the Boatswain, the best question to ask is what choices does a surgeon have besides the basic find someone injured and roll to help them? I don’t think we need to reinvent the wheel here. Adapting the morale pool to the surgeon’s job sounds simple enough, and builds on the familiar. Maybe we can even have the Surgeon’s pool and Boatswain pool interact with each other. However, this post is starting to run a bit long. The next installment of this series will be all about the Surgeon.


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