Friday, June 3, 2016

Ship Notes

In a few hours I'm going to be doing my first class in Dungeon Mastering.  To fill up the time until then, I'm going out some of my recent thoughts regarding sea battles and how I'd like to shape the system to fit D&D.

To start with, yesterday I was asked in a comment about fire aboard ships.  I've looked through the rules for wooden ships and iron men and there are no rules for fire.  There are rules about explosions, but that is because the game is meant to account for ship battles between 1770 and 1825, when everything is cannon and gunfire.  I'm building a ship system that makes no sense historically, as some features in it will be based upon the pre-cannon era while others are completely 17th century. Still, it works for my world and for my magic-based D&D.  That's all that matters.

Obviously, there are a number of mages able to set a ship ablaze - so fire is bound to come up.  Thankfully, I wrote rules for fires spreading about a year ago, when I invented the 4th level druid spell, create wildfire.  I talk about that with this post.  From those rules, we can start with a 5-foot wide fire and work out the destruction in short order.

But the reader should stop and think, first: do you really want to start a fire on board an enemy ship?  Yes, undoubtedly it will have the deleterious effect you're looking for, but it will also burn up property that is potentially worth 10s of thousands of gold pieces to you.

In an all out ship battle, involving dozens, even hundreds of ships, this makes sense.  When the Byzantines employed "Greek fire," it was at times when the Empire was fighting for their lives, usually against a much more powerful foe.  Most D&D ship combats would not be mass ship battles, however.  It will be the players acting as pirates and seeking plunder or it will be players defending their ship against a pirate.

If the players are pirates, there's a very good chance that the quarry will try to burn the player's ship: they are not seeking plunder, but only to get away, so if the pirate's vessel burns and goes down, no great loss.  But the reverse?  Try to imagine that your first strategy in stealing a car is to pour gasoline all over it and set it alight.  The more pristine the ship that the players take, the greater the treasure.  That is why pirates preferred to board, rather than to blow the hell out of their quarry.

Now, I wrote on the wiki that boarding is a very bad idea most of the time.  You grapple with the enemy ship and in the process you expend crewmembers in killing crewmembers.  Worst of all, while you're boarding, there's always the chance that a brilliant sailor on your side will be killed by some dumb thug on their side.  Of course, this is never a consideration in a war game: in a war game, every participant in the battle has the same value.  You count your sailors, you count what your ship and the plundered ship need to be sailed and you divide up.

But I'd like a crew quality system for D&D that doesn't work like a war game.  War games like Wooden Ships & Iron Men, which I'm melding with D&D, usually work on a time-based system where one turn would take minutes.  I can't figure out how large a hex is supposed to be in WSIM, but given the actions that are taken in the game and the size of the ships, I would guess somewhere in the neighborhood of 100 meters.  I want a ship-battle system that takes place in the same time frame as ordinary combat in D&D (I use 12-second rounds).  This creates problems.

I found out that - with serendipity - that a ship moving 1 knot will travel 20 feet in the space of 12 seconds.  That is simply . . .  wow, just convenient.  Therefore, I plan to move my ships on a 20-foot hex map, while employing a 5-foot hex map when ships grapple and straightforward combat ensues. The 5-foot hex is the same map I used for this goblin battle.  This makes it easy to work out the range of game missiles from daggers to bows and apply them to the 20 foot hex; so that when ships are three hexes apart, they're actually near enough that a dagger can be thrown between them (with a -5 to hit and a probability that the dagger will end up in the sea, but what the hey).

However, because a ship doesn't have minutes to turn, it has only 12 seconds to make up its mind to do so, part of the game I'm planning is to create limitations on how effectively and speedily a ship can change its direction.  Right now, I can't even find out how long it takes for a modern ship to swing from port tack to starboard; I have no idea at all how long it takes a Constitution class ship to do it or a 15th century caravel.  I'm able to find comments like, "tacks may be required every few minutes," but nothing whatsoever about how long it takes to tack.  I may be reduced to making guesses based on bad movies like Wind, which includes scenes where tacking is accomplished.  I was able to find this post about a video game called Broadsides, but I don't know how accurate it is.

I know virtually nothing about sailing from a technical standpoint; I would guess that a small boat could probably change tacks in a few seconds.  Somehow I think a many masted vessel would require more time than one combat round.  More importantly, I think there would probably be some doubt as to whether the tack would take this round . . . or the next.

Here's the real horrorshow of the system I imagine, from a player's point of view.  To me, it isn't just a matter of skipping around on a battlefield that happens to be made of water.  On land, the characters can turn and pivot, even using a horse (compare rules about horseriders having to travel so many hexes before turning with this display - remembering that part of the difficulty in this sport is that there is a tendency to turn too tight).  A ship, however, is not nearly as precise an instrument as our feet.  The ship itself is the obstacle that has to be overcome and managed throughout the combat.

Therefore, unlike a standard wargame, I want a system where the player says, "I want the ship to turn right," whereupon we roll dice to determine when it can be done . . . with every member of the crew working crazily to succeed in making the damn ship to go starboard when the pirates are bearing down upon them.  What if a green crewmember is in a hurry, slips and falls to the deck, not getting the job done?  How many rounds does it take to have some other monkey climb the mast and do it?  What if something is snarled?  It can take minutes to reset a jib, the triangular staysail that sets at the foremast of a sailing vessel.  In those minutes (10, 15 rounds), there's nothing you can do but plow straight ahead, a sitting duck for the enemy raking your ship.

At the same time, it's easy to see how a good crew would outmaneuver a bad crew, even if the pursuing ship were technically 'faster.'  If it consistently takes an extra minute to make a turn for the pursuing ship, the slower quarry with a better crew might simply turn again and again, until the pursuer gives up.

This makes the point above about boarding all the more important: for that excellent sailor that's being killed by the thug may be the critical asset that has saved the players' ass again and again.  Does it really make sense to put him in danger?

Of course, he might also die from a ballista missile or a catapult hit, from the system I've already posted; there's no real safe option.  But it might be that players have to recognize that the quality of their seamanship - and not the strength, size and battering power of their vessel - is the critical element of play.

I really like this idea.  I also think it would be a source of immense fury at the gaming table, however - enough that it would keep people from engaging in naval warfare.  But then, I have never had players who were terribly interested, not in 37 years of play.  Oh, I've had naval combats - but they always occurred when the players were compelled to participate, either because they were travelling from point A to point B or because they were pressed to defend their holdings against an enemy.  Once I ran a sea battle between 60 galleys based on the wargame Trireme, the rules of which are fairly compatible with WSIM (so I will be incorporating galleys into my system, as the Ottomans used them into the 17th century).  That battle lasted for four runnings and was quite early in my DMing experience (back around 1988-89) - and it certainly didn't have anything like the complexity my combat system has today.  In any case, the players only took part because the 9th level mage had been made an admiral by the King of Portugal and they had to do their part in a war against Spain (my world was based on the year 1500 then).

Players wanting to a ship-based campaign?  Never heard of it.

Mostly, they're terrified the ship is going to go down and they'll all drown.  Or they recognize what a tremendous hassle a ship-to-ship combat is going to be.  If there's going to be player agency, a ship battle has to be tactical.  Can you imagine running a ship-to-ship combat where the DM says, "Okay, fire your guns; then they fire theirs; now fire yours; okay, the ships grapple and everyone fights."

Jeez.  Why bother?

Many people, I understand, don't like tactical movement in a role-playing game.  I don't understand those people.  I mean, I get it, any battle is a lot easier to manage if we're not worrying about where Albert is standing or where Caleb is moving, or how many exact hexes Bala is from Daniel when she fires her bow.  At the same time, however, it explains why so many people in role-playing are so sick to death of melee, and why they spend so much time screeching about how the game needs to be about role-playing and not roll-playing.  When you reduce the meaning and value of the rolls to where they're just dice hitting a table, of course it can't compare.

However, looking for a metaphor, it is like someone who thinks 'baseball' is standing in a field, throwing a ball in one direction, then walking over to pick it up so they can throw it again.  Oh yes, absolutely in no way is that complicated.  And one person can do it!  But people who argue the virtues for tactic-free combat are obviously deluded in their understanding of what tactic-rich combat can produce in terms of gaming experience.  No doubt, that crowd is composed of personalities who look at little squares on a table like a fresh grade ten student views calculus.  "I can't get this," goes the argument.  Can't.  As in, won't.

Ah, but that's a digression.  I was saying that players won't like a combat system that makes them wait and wait and wait before they can make their ship make a left hand turn.  On the other hand, I see immense possibilities for tension.  Two ships, seven hexes apart, moving in the same direction, one trying to turn into the enemy, the other trying to turn away - the one furiously taking down their sails to obtain the status of cloth called 'battle sails' that will make the ship more maneuverable, the enemy already in a position to do the same on a moment's notice, because they knew before-hand it would be necessary; the party having no one except a young kid to send up into the mizzen-mast to reef the sail.  A desperate decision that must be made to hack the sail free with an axe because it's snarled.  The enemy's sails snapping full and their ship suddenly making a dive towards the player's vessel.  The high level artillerist sitting on the aft-most catapult, deciding whether or not to fire this round or the next, given the attitude of the defending ship against what the attacking ship's raking power will be the next round.  The players with bows and crossbows announcing that they're loading this round.  The 6th level fighter and the 4th level ranger, infused with jump spells and super-heroism potions, getting ready to make the leap between the ships, to cause as much trouble as they can in the enemy's rigging before diving into the sea, where they expect to be rescued by the druid's pet sea turtle . . . and everything about the two ships themselves being frustrating and dangerous and uncertain.

Sounds like a good game to me.  No matter how long it would take to play it out.


Maxwell Joslyn said...

That's the stuff.

(and they asked why I was unable to enjoy play in the games other people ran on campus ...)

Frankly, with as much as a well-leveled party has on the line, I'd be tenser than those ballista strings if I were in a party going seafaring on Planet Alexis. God damn! So many ways to get it put to you!

Lots of risks. Lots of fear. I'd be all for going the long way around ... so that's a win for your tension-production, eh? As much as a theoretical player can count for, anyway.

Matt said...

My problem with tactical movement in RPGs has always been one of the difference in player interest and skill. Generally I have 1-3 players who tactically minded enough to make use of the system, and 1 or 2 players who either cannot grasp the tactics, or is so unwilling to learn that it slows the game down enough for the remaining 1-3 that everyone is willing to sacrifice it for speed's sake.

My problem with anything resembling ship combat has always been one of command. With 3-7 players at the table there is often a disagreement as to what the combat strategy should be. This tends to lead to quite a long while of table discussion each round before an action for the ship is decided.

I doubt either of these issues apply to your players. I think that your players would probably be rather excited for a ship combat once the rules were there to support it. I think many groups would love to be pirates, terrorizing the high seas, but are too afraid of half-assed rules and cruel DMs to risk it.

Alexis Smolensk said...


Some solutions.

Problem #1. With non-tactical players, I find that if I am honest about their best chances to get involved in a battle and ask them a leading question, it helps get them over that hump: "Do you want to move two hexes forward and attack the ogre?" 90% of the time they just do whatever I ask; but with time, once they have repeated some moves, I can ask, "What do you want to do?" and I'll get the answer, "Can I move forward two and attack the ogre?"

It takes patience, but it can keep the game moving forward with people who are tactically disinclined if you simply accept that they will enjoy themselves more being led by the nose. That's what's going to happen anyway, when you say without a tactical framework, "You can attack Ogre X in front of you." And it lets the tactical people enjoy the tactics.

Of course, sometimes the tactical guys get all "Why did you do that?" to the non-tactical people, because that's how tactical guys are. At this point I usually shut the door on them, saying, "Your character doesn't have a fucking clue what his or her character is doing because YOU'RE in combat" - or some other shutting down statement. Tactical people just need a reminder that not everyone can be a "schmot guy": and anyway, its just their natural instinct to want to control everyone else at the table.

Which brings us to problem #2: Captains. One solution is to make everyone shut up, roll a random die, then let the player so designated be the ONLY person who can give an order that round. While turns is also an option, the randomness means that Jim doesn't always feel like he has to fix Jack's fucking messes, or that Gareth is always pissing on whatever Jim does.

IF you go further and say that any dissenting voice that is heard (expressed in any manner) about the designee's decision means that NO action can be taken by the ship this round, people will shut up pretty fast. And without there being arguments, and everyone feeling an equal chance to be an irresponsible fuck up, all by themselves, they will probably start asking to be excused from the die roll.

You can make it clear that the dissenting rule can be revoked if the players will grow the fuck up and pick whose going to be "captain" for the next five rounds.

You're right: my players don't have this trouble because one of them is so insanely savant where it comes to tactics that the others inherently trust him. This player runs Battletech on the nights I don't run D&D, has for almost ten years and it shows. There is one other fellow, who also plays on those Battletech nights; when he makes a suggestion, it is worded and presented as a SUGGESTION: and as such, the savant will often view it with respect and include it in his manipulations. Thus, I am saved from this particular in-party squabbling.

Lance Duncan said...

Your description of naval combat reminds me of the Horatio Hornblower books, now I'm excited to see what rules you develop, and want to dm/play in a naval campaign.

I've also never been part of a true sea based game, Either as a dm or player. As a dm I've wanted/tried to run sea adventures, but players have never been particularly interested. And as a player, when the group agrees to engage in a naval campaign, the ship will be seen by the dm as transportation between different land adventures, but generally events at sea are extremely abstract or part of some "story" which the dm has preplanned, tending to diminish player engagement in the naval aspect of the game. So the group gradually loses interest in playing a playing at sea, and the game devolves into following conventional dnd tropes.

Tim said...

Your comment about "rollplaying" versus "roleplaying" spoke pretty deeply to me; I sometimes worry I traumatized my players when we all started out trying D&D four years ago. I didn't feel like I had the skill to draw maps or go through the whole process of drawing, redrawing and organizing at first, so every combat was very loose on tactics of any form. Although my players were creative enough to try ridiculous things, ultimately we were left simply stating, "I use Sly Flourish" or "I use Magic Missile" (it was 4e) which was absurdly boring.
That was the biggest breather about your combat system for AD&D: when my players were stunned for the first time, there was tension at the table: everyone was counting on a lucky hit to save the stunned player! Ever since then, I've wanted to incorporate tactics more, and I'll definitely whip out these rules if I can coax the players onto a boat (one aspect of boats which seems to scare players is that it's a bit like a dungeon without any rewards: you're handing over your movement to the DM, who can summon down pirates or storms or whatever railroading trope necessary to strand you, kill someone or torture the players).

Samuel Kernan said...

Perhaps more rules could reduce the arbitrariness of what happens while at sea. Certain sea lanes could be relatively safe or pirate infested. Certain times of year could be stormy or calm, so the players could choose how much risk to take on. And if they do get caught in a storm, maybe the tactical naval combat rules could be adapted to riding out a storm? Cutting loose snarled rigging would apply when fighting nature as much as fighting pirates. Of course, I get the impression that there was a certain randomness to making it through a sea voyage. Sometimes a big storm catches you in the right place and it is all over. As a player, would I be ok losing the whole party to a storm? I think it would depend on how many decisions we had made to get ourselves into the mess, and if we had any chances to get out. If we put to sea, rolled one die and it turned up "storm," then rolled a follow-up die and it turned up "ship-killing storm," I would be upset. But if we had chosen to put to sea in a stormy season, passed up opportunities to sail around the storm or put into port, made mistakes while in the storm, chosen not to throw cargo overboard, etc, then sinking with all hands would feel more deserved.

Alexis Smolensk said...

Those are just the sort of things my players bring up with regards to ship adventures, Samuel. Every one of them is a reasonable concern: I'd like to write a post addressing them, so I don't have to worry about space (look for it today).

Adam said...

I really enjoyed this ship-related post. In the future, do you see some scope to add naval-type sage abilities? Any early thoughts as to which class-type might receive the lion's share of maritime aptitude? I could envision a Druid being very valuable at sea, and I liked the sea turtle companion of the ranger. I expect the fighter could be trained as a marine or artillerist? I wonder too about a possible adventure where a rogue manages as a stowaway or a saboteur..that might be better suited to a table with fewer players but who knows?