Nautical Nonsense (D&D 3.5 Shipboard Exploration and Combat)
I'm kind of disappointed that there aren't any (that I know of) detailed rules about naval ships and combat. We know ships exist, we have cannons and other artillery, but not rules on how ships work or move. As a sailor myself, I'll be bringing what knowledge I know to the table to create detailed, realistic, and hopefully fun rules so that nautical campaigns actually feel nautical.
This series of articles (if I can motivate myself to continue) will detail building naval vessels, nautical exploration, and naval combat. Because D&D is based around mostly European influences, this article is mostly Euro-centric. Ships will mostly be culled from the Age of Discovery (15th-19th century AD) and sailor traditions will be chiefly British in style. Of course, D&D is a fantasy game that has adopted traditions from a wide range of cultures since the original Gray Box so don't feel like you have to include one thing but exclude another simply because they're anachronistic in design.
Chapter 1: Brief Overview of Nautical Adventure
Purpose of Ships
During their inception, ships were seen as little more than transports. As ships became more refined, their military and tactical uses became more prevalent. As more and more people owned vessels, private companies sprung up and the economy of many nations flourished with an influx of jobs and provisions. The navy quickly procured its rightful place in tactical importance and even the smallest countries had their own fleet.
Purchasing a Vessel
Most ships are owned by the government that funds them. Very rarely can an individual, either through lack of funds or government sanction, purchase a ship from the keel up. Most ships are purchased second-hand, captured, or given as gifts for military service. A privateer can be provided a ship as well as their letter of marque allowing them to attack enemy ships during time of war.
A ship cannot operate without a crew. Each ship has a minimum crew requirement for operation and a maximum crew limit. Without the minimum crew or too many crewman the ship's efficiency is reduced. Crew are expected to receive a wage for their service in addition to a share of any loot obtained. Unhappy crew are less efficient and angry crew can mutiny.
Even with the proliferation of navigation tools, navigation at sea was a largely inefficient process and required a highly skilled individual. Sailors would use landmasses (assuming they weren't in the middle of the ocean), compasses, sextants, unreliable maps, and astronomy to guide them across the seas. A ship's speed and direction was ultimately left up to the direction of wind and many windless days prolonged even the shortest journeys.
The primary tactical objective of naval combat was to slow down the opposing ship through cannon fire and board it. Very rarely were ships attacked until sunk; after all, a sunk ship yields no loot! Pirates would seize what loot they could grab and sink the ship while privateers and military would "cut out" or size and carry the ship to port. When boarding, the captain was expected (and in some countries required) to fight alongside his crew in the assault.
Ship's were aligned in simple formations; line ahead, line abreast or line of bearing.
Chapter 2: Ships of Sail
The following is a list of common ship types that can be built, captured, or purchased.
Cost: The price to purchase a commissioned vessel with sails. This does not include any extras such as cannons or crew.
HP: The number of hit points the vessel has. When the hit points reach zero the vessel is beyond repair and begins to sink.
Length/Width: The ship's length and width in feet.
Speed: The ship's base speed per round.
Maneuver: The speed at which the ship turns.
Cargo: The amount of space in metric tons the ship can hold without penalty.
Crew min/max: The minimum amount of crew the ship requires to run without penalty followed by the maximum amount of crew without penalty.
Cannons: The maximum number of cannons the ship can hold.
A barque, bark, or barc is a generic term for a three-masted ship.
A diverse class of fast, two masted ships.
A small ship of Arabic design with one mast and a foresail.
Chapter 3: Purchasing and Outfitting a Vessel
Chapter 4: Crew and Officers
Chapter 5: Navigation and Exploration
Ships relied on the wind for power but on a windless day the crew could man the oars. Each day the GM rolls to determine the speed of the wind, direction, and any random weather effects. At the beginning of the day the helmsman or navigator makes a profession navigation check to determine if the ship stays on the right path. Adverse weather, lack of tools, and other conditions can directly hamper the speed of the ship.
The wind blows in a single direction at a set speed per day. Each day roll d% and consult Table: Random Weather.
Table: Random Weather
Normal for season**
Heat wave (01-30) or cold snap (31-100)
Heat wave (01-50) or cold snap (51-100)
Precipitation (normal for season)
Windstorm, blizzard****, hurricane, tornado
*Temperate includes forest, hills, marsh, mountains, plains, and warm aquatic.
**Winter is cold, summer is warm, spring and autumn are temperate. Marsh regions are slightly warmer in winter. Roll on Table: Wind Effects.
Wind speeds are light (0 to 10 mph).
Between 0° and 40° Fahrenheit during the day, 10 to 20 degrees colder at night.
Lowers temperature by -10° F. Roll on Table: Wind Effects.
Treat as rain (see Precipitation, below), but conceals as fog. Can create floods (see above). A downpour lasts for 2d4 hours. Roll on Table: Wind Effects. The wind effect lasts all day.
Raises temperature by +10° F. Roll on Table: Wind Effects.
Between 85° and 110° Fahrenheit during the day, 10 to 20 degrees colder at night. Roll on Table: Wind Effects.
Between 40° and 60° Fahrenheit during the day, 10 to 20 degrees colder at night. Roll on Table: Wind Effects.
Powerful Storm (Windstorm/Blizzard/Hurricane/Tornado)
Wind speeds are over 50 mph (see Table: Wind Effects). In addition, blizzards are accompanied by heavy snow (1d3 feet), and hurricanes are accompanied by downpours (see above). Windstorms last for 1d6 hours. Blizzards last for 1d3 days. Hurricanes can last for up to a week, but their major impact on characters will come in a 24-to-48-hour period when the center of the storm moves through their area. Tornadoes are no threat to ships. After a storm, roll on Table: Wind Effects for the day's wind.
Roll d% to determine whether the precipitation is fog (01-30), rain/snow (31-90), or sleet/hail (91-00). Snow and sleet occur only when the temperature is 30° Fahrenheit or below. Most precipitation lasts for 2d4 hours. By contrast, hail lasts for only 1d20 minutes but usually accompanies 1d4 hours of rain. Roll on Table: Wind Effects.
Wind speeds are severe (30 to 50 mph) and visibility is cut by three-quarters. Storms last for 2d4-1 hours. See Storms, below, for more details. Roll on Table: Wind Effects for winds after the storm.
Between 60° and 85° Fahrenheit during the day, 10 to 20 degrees colder at night.
Wind speeds are moderate to strong (10 to 30 mph). Roll 1d6; on a 1-4 wind speeds are moderate, on a 5-6 wind speeds are strong.
Rain, Snow, Sleet, And Hail
Bad weather frequently slows or halts travel and makes it virtually impossible to navigate from one spot to another. Torrential downpours and blizzards obscure vision as effectively as a dense fog.
Most precipitation is rain, but in cold conditions it can manifest as snow, sleet, or hail. Precipitation of any kind followed by a cold snap in which the temperature dips from above freezing to 30° F or below may produce ice.
Rain reduces visibility ranges by half, resulting in a -4 penalty on Spot and Search checks. It has the same effect on flames, ranged weapon attacks, and Listen checks as severe wind.
Falling snow has the same effects on visibility, ranged weapon attacks, and skill checks as rain, and it costs 2 squares of movement to enter a snow-covered square. A day of snowfall leaves 1d6 inches of snow on the ground.
Heavy snow has the same effects as normal snowfall, but also restricts visibility as fog does (see Fog, below). A day of heavy snow leaves 1d4 feet of snow on the ground, and it costs 4 squares of movement to enter a square covered with heavy snow. Heavy snow accompanied by strong or severe winds may result in snowdrifts 1d4×5 feet deep, especially in and around objects big enough to deflect the wind—a cabin or a large tent, for instance. There is a 10% chance that a heavy snowfall is accompanied by lightning (see Thunderstorm, below). Snow has the same effect on flames as moderate wind.
Essentially frozen rain, sleet has the same effect as rain while falling (except that its chance to extinguish protected flames is 75%) and the same effect as snow once on the ground.
Hail does not reduce visibility, but the sound of falling hail makes Listen checks more difficult (-4 penalty). Sometimes (5% chance) hail can become large enough to deal 1 point of lethal damage (per storm) to anything in the open. Once on the ground, hail has the same effect on movement as snow.
The combined effects of precipitation (or dust) and wind that accompany all storms reduce visibility ranges by three quarters, imposing a -8 penalty on Spot, Search, and Listen checks. Storms make ranged weapon attacks impossible, except for those using siege weapons, which have a -4 penalty on attack rolls. They automatically extinguish candles, torches, and similar unprotected flames. They cause protected flames, such as those of lanterns, to dance wildly and have a 50% chance to extinguish these lights. See Table: Wind Effects for possible consequences to creatures caught outside without shelter during such a storm. Storms are divided into the following three types.
Duststorm (CR 3)
These desert storms differ from other storms in that they have no precipitation. Instead, a duststorm blows fine grains of sand that obscure vision, smother unprotected flames, and can even choke protected flames (50% chance). Most duststorms are accompanied by severe winds and leave behind a deposit of 1d6 inches of sand. However, there is a 10% chance for a greater duststorm to be accompanied by windstorm-magnitude winds (see Table: Wind Effects). These greater duststorms deal 1d3 points of nonlethal damage each round to anyone caught out in the open without shelter and also pose a choking hazard (see Drowning—except that a character with a scarf or similar protection across her mouth and nose does not begin to choke until after a number of rounds equal to 10 × her Constitution score). Greater duststorms leave 2d3-1 feet of fine sand in their wake.
In addition to the wind and precipitation common to other storms, snowstorms leave 1d6 inches of snow on the ground afterward.
In addition to wind and precipitation (usually rain, but sometimes also hail), thunderstorms are accompanied by lightning that can pose a hazard to characters without proper shelter (especially those in metal armor). As a rule of thumb, assume one bolt per minute for a 1-hour period at the center of the storm. Each bolt causes electricity damage equal to 1d10 eight-sided dice. One in ten thunderstorms is accompanied by a tornado (see below).
Very high winds and torrential precipitation reduce visibility to zero, making Spot, Search, and Listen checks and all ranged weapon attacks impossible. Unprotected flames are automatically extinguished, and protected flames have a 75% chance of being doused. Creatures caught in the area must make a DC 20 Fortitude save or face the effects based on the size of the creature (see Table: Wind Effects). Powerful storms are divided into the following four types.
While accompanied by little or no precipitation, windstorms can cause considerable damage simply through the force of their wind.
The combination of high winds, heavy snow (typically 1d3 feet), and bitter cold make blizzards deadly for all who are unprepared for them.
In addition to very high winds and heavy rain, hurricanes are accompanied by floods. Most adventuring activity is impossible under such conditions.
One in ten thunderstorms is accompanied by a tornado.
Whether in the form of a low-lying cloud or a mist rising from the ground, fog obscures all sight, including darkvision, beyond 5 feet. Creatures 5 feet away have concealment (attacks by or against them have a 20% miss chance).
The wind can create a stinging spray of sand or dust, fan a large fire, heel over a small boat, and blow gases or vapors away. If powerful enough, it can even knock characters down (see Table: Wind Effects), interfere with ranged attacks, or impose penalties on some skill checks.
A gentle breeze, having little or no game effect.
A steady wind with a 50% chance of extinguishing small, unprotected flames, such as candles.
Gusts that automatically extinguish unprotected flames (candles, torches, and the like). Such gusts impose a -2 penalty on ranged attack rolls and on Listen checks.
In addition to automatically extinguishing any unprotected flames, winds of this magnitude cause protected flames (such as those of lanterns) to dance wildly and have a 50% chance of extinguishing these lights. Ranged weapon attacks and Listen checks are at a -4 penalty. This is the velocity of wind produced by a gust of wind spell.
Powerful enough to bring down branches if not whole trees, windstorms automatically extinguish unprotected flames and have a 75% chance of blowing out protected flames, such as those of lanterns. Ranged weapon attacks are impossible, and even siege weapons have a -4 penalty on attack rolls. Listen checks are at a -8 penalty due to the howling of the wind.
All flames are extinguished. Ranged attacks are impossible (except with siege weapons, which have a -8 penalty on attack rolls). Listen checks are impossible: All characters can hear is the roaring of the wind. Hurricane-force winds often fell trees.
Tornado (CR 10)
All flames are extinguished. All ranged attacks are impossible (even with siege weapons), as are Listen checks. Instead of being blown away (see Table: Wind Effects), characters in close proximity to a tornado who fail their Fortitude saves are sucked toward the tornado. Those who come in contact with the actual funnel cloud are picked up and whirled around for 1d10 rounds, taking 6d6 points of damage per round, before being violently expelled (falling damage may apply). While a tornado’s rotational speed can be as great as 300 mph, the funnel itself moves forward at an average of 30 mph (roughly 250 feet per round). A tornado uproots trees, destroys buildings, and causes other similar forms of major destruction.
Table: Wind Effects
Damage to Sails
Ranged Attacks/Siege Weapons
Wind Effect on Creatures
Fort Save DC
Tiny or smaller
Small or larger
Large or Larger
Small or smaller
Large or Huge
Gargantuan or Colossal
Medium or smaller
Gargantuan or Colossal
Large or smaller
Gargantuan or Colossal
*Checked: Creatures are unable to move forward against the force of the wind. Flying creatures are blown back 1d6×5 feet. Knocked Down: Creatures are knocked prone by the force of the wind. Flying creatures are instead blown back 1d6×10 feet. Blown Away: Creatures on the ground are knocked prone and rolled 1d4×10 feet, taking 1d4 points of nonlethal damage per 10 feet. Flying creatures are blown back 2d6×10 feet and take 2d6 points of nonlethal damage due to battering and buffeting.
Points of Sailing
The speed at which a ship sails is determined by its heading in proportion to the wind. The chart shows, in relation to the wind, the direction of your ship. Refer to Table: Points of Sailing for the speed modifier applied to your ship's base speed.
Table: Points of Sailing
D: Broad Reach
C: Beam Reach
B: Close Hauled
A: In Irons
Running: Running with the wind is when the stern of the ship is facing the wind. A running ship has a +10 bonus to its speed.
Broad Reach: The ship's stern is at a 45° angle in relation to the wind. A broad reach ship has a +8 bonus to its speed.
Beam Reach: The ship is at a 90° angle in relation to the wind. A beam reach ship has a +5 bonus to its speed.
Close Hauled: The ship's brow is at a 45° angle in relation to the wind. A close hauled ship has a +3 bonus to its speed.
In Irons: In irons (or into the winds) is when the brow of the ship is facing the wind. Generally a ship has to zigzag to move at all while in irons. An in irons ship has a +1 bonus to its speed.
Each ship has a base speed that determines how quickly it moves with the sails up in calm water. When the sails are lowered, multiply the speed modifier determined by Table: Points of Sail with the speed multiplier determined by Table: Wind Effects. This is the ship's final speed.
Raising and Lowering Sails
Lowering the sails is a simple task requiring little effort by the crew and can be accomplished in a single action. Raising the sails is more complicated taking even the most experienced crew a minute to raise.
The helmsman can reduce the speed of the ship to match slower ships effortlessly. A ship can reduce its speed by effectively zigzagging but can never reduce its base speed to less than half without anchoring. A ship may be tied alongside another ship in which case the smaller ship takes on the speed of the larger ship.
Each ship has a maneuver rating which determines how quickly it may turn. Turning is determined by Table: Points of Sail. Each setting on the points of sail costs a maneuver point. For example, in a single round a ship with maneuver 2 can go from running to beam reach in a single action.
To determine travel by hour, multiply the modified speed of the ship by 600. Multiply this speed by 24 to determine travel by day. There are 5280 feet in a mile so divide the final multiple to get miles per day. For example, a ship with speed 10 running with light wind has a final speed of 20' per round. It moves at 2.27 miles per hour and 54.54 miles per day.
Most ships allow the crew to man large oars to propel the boat. This is especially effective when a slow ship is chasing a larger ship or the winds are poor.
Rowing doubles the ship's base speed. For every two rowers, increase the ship's base speed by 1. Up to the minimum required crew may row. Rowing crew are not counted towards the minimum crew required to run the ship. For example, a ship that has 50 crew and a 30 crew minimum may allocate 20 crew to rowing without penalty providing a +10 to the ship's base speed.
Rowing is stressful. See the section "Stress and Fatigue" under Chapter 4.
Navigation at sea was done through a combination of sighting landmasses, using a sextant to plot latitude, checking direction with a compass, and cross references the stars with astronomical charts
Even using the sun as a guide, navigation at sea with no instruments is nearly impossible. Tools and instruments reduce the DC required to navigate at sea. Navigating an area with the coast in sight makes for significantly easier voyage. Refer to Table: Navigation for the DCs to successfully navigate each day.
Have map and sextant
Have astronomical chart
Sighted familiar landmass
Sighted birds or bugs (open sea only)
Poor visiblity or extreme weather
Each day, the navigator or helmsman makes a profession navigation check. A successful check means the ship heads in the right direction for the day. A failure means the ship is lost. Roll 1d8 to determine a random direction; north, north east, east, south east, south, south west, west, north west.
As many as four people may assist the navigator in his check. This represents lookouts, planners, charters, and other various skills. Anymore than four people provides no additional bonuses.
Chapter 6: Naval Combat
Chapter 7: Nautical Terms
Aargh, so you want to sound like a real sailor but your knowledge stems from poorly written Hollywood movies? Well, Cap'n Brown can help ye out! This is by no means an exhaustive glossary of nautical terms; that would be ridiculous. No, this list is what you, as a common deck seaman, will commonly hear in the day-to-day life at sea.
Fore/Forward: Towards the bow (front) of the vessel.
Aft: Towards the stern (back) of the vessel.
Starboard: The right-hand side of the vessel when looking forward.
Port: The left-hand side of the vessel when looking forward.
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Destroying sails in combat
Taking on water (critical hit?)
Riding out storms
Punishing rewarding crew (keelhaul him! shore leave)
Lost at sea
Weekly and monthly alternatives to wind direction
Reduce cargo by 1/10.
transports: longboat and rowboat
ship diseases? termites/wood rot/barnacles slowing down ships
Re: Nautical Nonsense (D&D 3.5 Shipboard Exploration and Combat)
Chapter 5 is done which is effectively the bulk of the rules. You can now purchase a ship in chapter 2 and set sail for the high seas using the rules for navigation (just pretend you have a crew until I put the rules up for that).
I'm going to go back and finish each section one-by-one starting with buying ships and outfitting them. The outfitting section will have upgrades like iron sidings, special shots (grape shot, chain shot), and buying and trading spices and other cargo.
Re: Nautical Nonsense (D&D 3.5 Shipboard Exploration and Combat)
I, for one, didn't know about Stormwrack, so kudos to jmbrown. I've run a merry gaming session or two abord ships before, but never really needed to go into much detail regarding ship to ship combat. It's good to know that someone has!
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Re: Nautical Nonsense (D&D 3.5 Shipboard Exploration and Combat)
I'll have to nab a copy of Stormwrack but I'm going for a simulation experience with this; plague carrying fleas, scurvy, termites, stowaways, running ashore, descriptive rules for crew happiness and how close they come to slitting your throat... basically, everything I can think of that directly applies to life at sea.
Re: Nautical Nonsense (D&D 3.5 Shipboard Exploration and Combat)
For 3.5 Mongoose publishing put out Ships of War and a few other ship based books that are quite good. Broadsides! Naval Adventures by Living Imagination also has rules on ships. You can do a google search and find a lot of natuical third party books and some can still be had fairly cheaply.
P.E.A.C.H. Please Evaluate And Critique Honestly. Being nicer and kinder doesn't hurt either.
Please, please, please when using non-core material, cite to the books. There are too many books to wade through to find the one with the feat, special ability or spell you use.