Water is life …
Do not turn from the water for it holds death.
—The Ypos, from the song Otanna, Her Eyes Narrow
From slender flask to heaving ocean, water has always held opportunity and danger in shifting parts. No other necessary element to life holds such fearsome power or potential and all significant habitations are bound to some source, often at great risk. It offers ease of travel, a ready source of sustenance, and potential for unspeakable destruction. Seas and rivers play vital roles in most great civilizations. In the Serpent Lake Valley, the water defines it.
Serpent Lake is over 300 miles long and with its small northern companion, Witch Lake, is the primary feature of the 600 mile long valley. The savage peaks of the Kof Wishtaha and Kof Truanta, along with the inhospitable Tyrranies and Coven HIghlands in the north, isolate the region. The terrain along the valley is without roads, choked by dense old growth in the south and sheathed in brutal wastes in the north. The surest form of long travel, fickle and precarious, is upon the vast lakes and rivers.
Come Sail Away
Water travel can be easily narrated away to quicken the pace of the game, but if you’re moving from high action to high action, it can be a tempo regulating part of a gaming session, a time to introduce NPCs, lore, or some other exposition. It can also be a way to raise the tension of a travel leg, with the party often trapped on a boat, unable to simply run away from trouble. These dangers can range from enemy vessels to sea creatures to the sea itself, potentially deadlier: immune to damage and unswayed by entreaty.
For I Intend to Go in Harm’s Way
Ship to ship combat can range from weapons flung from deck to deck or ships hove together, the crews cleaving together in desperate struggle. The important aspects of ship combat include sighting the enemy, maneuvering for a potential advantage, relative combat abilities, and each side’s ability and likelihood to escape.
We have seen the enemy and he is ours. Given a clear view and a world of approximately the same size as our own, a person standing 10 feet above a calm sea can see an object sitting on the horizon almost 4 miles away. For an observer on the mast 30 feet above the water, the top of another 30-foot mast is blocked by the horizon until about 13 miles separate the two. Meanwhile, the top of Ighenholm, a staggering peak 12,000 feet above the lake, can be raised while almost 140 miles distant. These are good gauges, but if you want more examples, there are online horizon calculators.
Ramming speed! A ship’s speed is limited by wind, sail, oar, hull, and sea state. From a sleek catamaran running large under full sail on a flat sea and freshening gale to a wallowing cog battered like a cork under capricious winds, the ability of a ship to get from here to there lives on a wide spectrum. The game mechanics of ship travel tend to give the average or ideal ship speed under nominal conditions. Relating to ship combat, the primary determining factor is the difference in ship speeds or their sum. While there are myriad aspects to consider, the primary one is fun. You may simply choose how long it takes for the ships to get within fighting range based on the player’s activities. Maybe they are working on a ritual that will help buttress the ship, or perhaps unraveling the clues that will unlock the secrets of the arcane ballista on the bow and if they can work fast enough, they may gain a large advantage. Random tables may also give a more egalitarian or unexpected result. Regardless, the time from spotting to engaging the enemy can help build tension. Whether they are working on a desperate task or simply preparing for the combat, give them a few moments to decide on a plan. This is an important aspect of early ship battles: the knowledge that a watery death may be coming at you under full sail or churning oar.
Fire! Once combat does commence, the most important aspect is that the party has a role. It’s their story and sitting back while the action swirls around them is going to be dull, regardless of the vibrancy of the narration. There are many activities to keep the party occupied. They can join the main fighting, help work the ship, aid in damage control, or infiltrate the enemy vessel for some nefarious hijinks. The battle itself can operate in the background and be handled with a couple general roles before or after the party has acted. Give them a quick summation of what they can sense in order to help them make meaningful decisions. There should be very few times when you roll for NPCs attacking other NPCs. In fact, with a large battle, there’s nothing better than a random table with interesting highlights to help keep the combat flowing. One roll there and another with any applicable modifiers to give a general feel for the state of the contest is all you should need.
It’s also important to have a goal and different possible ways to accomplish this. Combat after combat where death is the only victory condition can get repetitive. Far more common than total victory or defeat is capture, followed far behind by escape. Find ways to set other conditions, such as holding off the enemy until an ally can come over the horizon, or steal aboard during the fighting to steal something from the other ship or damage it enough to call for an enemy retreat. There are many ways to keep the battle from being a slog, especially with the inherent aspect of a shifting, limited battlefield. This is also a great spot to exercise the uncommon attacks that move enemies. It should be easy to move the fight toward the railing where a quick shove could completely derail a powerful enemy’s assault.
Run Away! Unlike a retreat on land, disengaging from a sea battle can be nigh impossible once the ships are smacking gunwales and the crews are swapping hot breath. While still apart and trading missiles, it can be problematic, but not impossible. The most savvy skippers work to always have the advantage of being able to get away if needed and keeping the enemy from escaping. This can be accomplished by taking better advantage of the sea conditions while relying on sail or by focusing damage on the enemy’s maneuvering ability, be it sail, oar, or hull. Indeed, navies often have set tactics, focusing on offense suppression or mobility degradation first. It can be an institutional or conditional decision, but many of the most successful sea fighters tend to lean on one or the other. While you don’t have to be a master naval tactician, you can imagine what one might do in a situation of your choosing. By thinking about the battle ahead of time, you won’t need decades of sea combat experience in order to have sound tactics.
You’re Gonna Need a Bigger Boat
Most characters are out of their element at sea and there is a natural terror in something rising up from below to eat you. It hits so many nerve endings: an unseen enemy, losing a spot on the food chain, the inability to run, the danger of drowning, the effect on combat prowess, the degradation of fireball! The sea is not for the timid.
Creature encounters at sea can be just as varied as those on land. You can come upon a merchant ship, willing to sell goods or trade for some help, or find your ship the temporary respite for some strange winged creature caught out at sea for some reason (is that a message around its leg?). From below the surface, there are myriad creatures with different sensibilities, capabilities, and motivations.
The dangers from below can be the most terrifying and you can amp up the tension while you have a captive audience. First is the missed rendezvous at sea, then some floating wreckage, perhaps a survivor, barely alive and gabbling about the sea opening up. From there, perhaps an unexpected change in the current, fish suddenly leaping into the boat, the sea strangely warm. By the time death reaches out of the abyss, you can have the party pulling their hair out, bargaining away castle, treasure, and relatives for just a few more knots in the lank air and grasping sagasso.
Fighting creatures at sea can be problematic, since positioning is rarely in favor of the characters and foe often can strike from anywhere, including below. While a ready mechanism for walking on water seems helpful, a sea creature’s ability to go below the surface keeps this from being a panacea. It’s important to understand the effects of the terrain in every battle, but at sea, this is vital. What happens when the kraken pulls the cavalier and his horse over the side? Are they swimming? In heavy armor? Still gripping sword and shield? Have an idea what this might look like and make sure the players understand the complications before their characters start getting wet. They may be willing to make desperate choices if they understand the consequences of falling in. It’s not fun to dive in and think you’ll be able to swim over and stab the devil shark only to be told your armor is weighing you down and you have to drop your sword and shield to even keep from drowning (oh, and too late, because you already jumped in).
Additionally, there are many creatures that find your mighty craft laughably unsound and can return it to its base components with a quick squeeze or at least upright it, showering the sea floor with its contents. Before you start the encounter, have a plan for how the monster might affect the boat and what kind of punishment the boat can take, along with the effects on speed, controllability, and long term integrity from the damage. This is also a good time to think about how the loss of the vessel might affect the party and their current plans. It’s also a prime opportunity to take a left turn, but just make sure you are aware of the possibilities.
The Sea was Angry that Day, My Friends
Weather that is inclement on land can be disastrous at sea, while an unremarkable breeze across the plains could be the difference between riches and ruin to a ship. As any meteorologist can attest, all weather is random, so it seems reasonable to use a random table to determine the overarching weather for a period of time. And since weather can change, perhaps roll more than once a day. While it’s not unheard of to have a violent storm in the morning followed by calm, open skies in the afternoon with nothing in between, weather is often linked more closely than normal random tables can replicate. A method to increase verisimilitude is the use of random tables with state, like a hex flower. These tables are special in that the previous roll has an effect on the subsequent roll by giving it a start point. You can create your own or find one that suits your purpose. When generating weather tables specific to sea travel, it’s important to include wind, visibility, and sea state. Since these are often associated with specific weather types, using more complex hex flowers can avoid illogical instances like calm winds during violent storms.
Once you’ve determined the weather, you need to tie it to specific mechanical aspects of the game, letting the players know how it affects them. Wind will affect sailing, visibility will affect the distance you can spot a foe, sea state can affect how hard it is to accomplish tasks aboard ship or in the water, etc. It’s a good idea to post the weather and the effect in sight of everyone, either via sheet of paper or card, or the digital equivalent. Keeping the weather front and center helps convey its importance; everything at sea is affected by the weather.
Fair Winds And Following Seas
Traveling via ship can add a novel element to any adventure. It can allow for travel across vast distances more quickly, change the tone of a campaign that may be getting monotonous, and introduce aspects of the world that can’t be replicated on land. It may take special planning, but the sea holds vast possibilities. Set sail and see for yourself.
Get in the comments or get on our Discord server and let us know your favorite on-the-waves adventure!