7 things to think about

Ahoy, laddies! I hear some of you like to play these kinds of games where you send people you imagine into castles, caves and other kinds of areas that are full of deadly monsters, traps and treasures – table-top roleplaying games they are called, I think, or sometimes just pen-and-paper. Well, that’s all fine and all. Only when I see ships used in these kinds of scenarios, I am a bit worried, because I am not convinced most of the players actually realize the limitations and possibilities of ships – and especially those from the Age of Sail and earlier.

One: These ships are made of wood!

Just think about it: Wood! All around you! So be careful to use that lamp or even fire magic of yours because it may actually destroy the whole ship, especially when dried out because it lies as a storm-tossed wreck on a shallow strip of a sunny and sandy beach, water only reaching the lowest areas of the abandoned hull in which those creepers now live with whom you are enemies for one reason or another.

On the other hand: Wood! All around them! So make sure you use that lamp or fire magic of yours, because it may actually kill all your enemies, destroy all the deadly traps and free all the treasures from their dangerous vault without most or any of the usual worries or losses. Most gems will survive such a fire and with a little luck gold won’t even melt too bad in the process, but hostages will, so be careful!

Two: Ships are smaller than you think!

A typical tall ship from the Age of Sail will measure only up to 180 ft (approx. 60 m) from bow to stern and about 36 ft (approx. 12 m) from port to starboard. These measurements aren’t constant: the hull will narrow down towards the keel, the bow and most likely also towards the stern. A ship is not a solid rectangle, mind you. It has curves, beautiful curves, but they’ll take away a lot of space. Between the Santa Maria from 1492 with a crew compliment of 40 at about 100 tons and the USS Constitution from 1797 with her crew of 450 at about 1,500 tons there is of course huge variation between ships, but compared to modern ones and to the typical underground dungeon, they are still very small. Not much space to hide something in – especially something big, like a giant monster or huge mountains of treasure.

On the other hand: Ships are small! So they are a manageable size for a standard group of adventurers, and generally won’t contain huge surprises (but beware the small one’s which can be as dangerous as their big counterparts). Searching a ship won’t need as much time as searching an underground dungeon and thanks to the curvatures and general form of the hull, you will even be able to get a good idea of where you are without a map or other help. So most likely you won’t get lost in a ship, that’s an advantage, right?

Three: Look at these open floor-plans!

A major problem for using ships as dungeons is that they generally do not have a lot of separate rooms that you can charge into and loot, while at the same time being protected by the same room’s walls and doors. Except for a very small number of cabins or lockers – mostly reserved to people and goods that are limited access only (like the Captain, the weapons, and the rum) – Age of Sail ships will have an open deck plan like the USS Constitution depicted below. That means there’s a fat chance of being seen or heard moving around on the decks or breaking down doors or locks, especially when you are traveling in a group of people. Aye, Jim Hawkins was able to hide himself in a barrel, but he was just a young and small cabin boy. I’d really to see your Barbarian or Paladin pull that off.

Inside the USS Constitution, Photo by victorgrigas, CC BY-SA 3.0

On the other hand: open decks are great to see what dangers and treasures are waiting for you! With a little careful scouting ahead and silently moving around, using ladders, shrouds, cables, and the outside of the hull, there shouldn’t be as much bad surprises happen on ships as on land. Maybe this is a great opportunity for your party’s not so heavy and big members to shine. You know, those who are better at sneaking and stabbing than at open combat. A little magic might also help to conceal yourselves or to reach your destination aboard. Be creative!

Four: New day, new port!

When was the last time you entered a land-based dungeon at one city and came out at another one? Sure, there might be massive labyrinths and mazes around that let you travel vast distances underground, or magical portals that bring you from one part of the dungeon into a distant other. But ships don’t need to be vast or magical to transport you somewhere, it’s literally their main purpose! So, between boarding a vessel and leaving it, a lot of things might happen. You might find yourselves on open water with no crew left that can operate the ship, because you murdered them all. Or you might arrive somewhere else completely than you wanted to go to in the first place. Or even better: your elaborate plan to steal the treasure from a mighty Pirate’s ship suddenly won’t work, as the ship has left the harbour early, or has been placed at a different spot inside of it. These things usually don’t happen with castles or vaults, or do they?

On the other hand: Ships are mobile! So maybe you don’t need a plan right away for opening the magically sealed chest in the Captain’s cabin. Maybe it’s enough to steal the whole ship and deal with the darn lock later? Do you really need to follow the ship to get the Governour’s daughter back from the clutches of impossible love? It could be enough to just wait for them at their next possible destination, when they actually have found the gold of Captain Flint that you could take as an additional reward for bringing her home. Speaking about taking treasures: With a ship you can bring all your treasures to wherever there is a port. No need to leave some of the good stuff behind because it is too heavy or your bags are too small or it would need a lot of time to dismantle it.

Five: Water! Water everywhere!

This really should be going without saying, but where are ships, there is water. At least most of the time. Yes, there are dry-docks and beaches and museums and even hilltops where you’ll find ships, too – but most of those seemingly dry locations aren’t so far away from water after all, and those that are, generally are for a very good reason. By now you’d be asking: Is water a bad thing? And I’ll be saying “It isn’t … as long you can swim well enough, or don’t carry anything around that might get damaged or destroyed by it, or don’t want to drink it.” Remember this: Water, especially rough, cold, salty sea-water is not your friend! The Carribean is all and good to go for a swim, but the waves of the North Sea should be avoided if possible, even in port. A swimmer might drown easily, freeze to death quickly, being pulled down by nasty currents. Even when you make it out alive, your gear may be useless or starting to decay. Salt is aggressive, mind you, so make sure to clean and oil all you precious belongings after a plunge. Next time you might also want to pack your important papers from the Queen in a waxed leatherbag so they will stay readable. Or bring a flask of potable water with you that keeps you alive while you are marooned and waiting for rescue on a tiny islet.

Water can be useful too, of course. Among landlubbers the possibility of getting somewhere by water instead by road is often forgot, so the cabin’s window that looks over the water at the far side of the quay might be less guarded than the other ways onto the ship. Also, throwing enemy crew or weapons or a copy of your treasure map over board into the sea will effectively get them out of the way very fast. And poisoning or polluting the Pirates’ drinking water will make them search for other sources early or weaken them drastically before your all-out-attack on the open sea – as long as you have your own supply.

Six: Beware the Kraken!

As we speak of water, do not forget that there’s life in it! Vast numbers of it, to be sure. And most of it is hostile to us. I know there are images of bloodthirsty sharks and raging whales and slimy giant octopuses in your mind now, but do not forget sea-lions, walruses and seals, marlin, puffer fish, stone fish, poisonous sea snakes, sea urchins, jellyfish, and all the other very real horrors right below you, including little worms that crawl into all your bodily orifices and bacteria that will make you sick after all is done, when you think you are already safe. This list so far not even includes the fantastic monsters that a typical fantasy pen-and-paper allows for: mermaids, naiads, sirens, kelpies, hippocampi, sea dragons, megalodons, krakens, leviathans, … or even legendary titans like Scylla, Charybdis, Cetus, Dagon and Cthulhu! (There are really few crabs in this list, why is that?) Additionally there might be seafolk inhabiting your world, that are not friendly all the time: Atlanteans, Tritons, Sea Elves, …

On the other hand: Fish and other sea-life can feed you if nothing else will, at least as long as you are able to catch it. Or maybe you can actually co-operate with the sea creatures to achieve your goal on the ship? A cup of blood might attract sharks, when you need them; seals can be superbly trained if you take your time; in some instances even communicating with sea-life could be possible – Aqualad could do it! -, or a magic spell from a long forgotten book might give you some control of a creature, maybe enough for distraction; an Atlantean prayer might summon support from the depths; or a secret ritual will attract the Kraken to sink the ship, if nothing else will work to stop the evil Lord from attacking the peaceful neighbour state with that cruel magical weapon of mass destruction he got from that old, salty Wizard from the South. You get the idea: Make friends and allies of the sea-life – and you’ll be fine.

Seven: Abandon Ship!

Some people don’t like to venture too far underground, because they are afraid the roof over their heads might collapse. Some even find the idea of being in a closed room in a deep cellar unnerving. So, maybe it’s better for those people to venture out onto a ship? Well, not really, because ships sink. A lot of them do, actually. Especially when there is a huge hole in their wooden hull. Then their small, open decks will flood with water – and fast. Most of the time, there is not a chance that the ships mobility will save them from their fate, as the water in the hull drags on the vessel. It ruins provisions, renders the powder unusable, closes off decks, slows the ship down and you can bet that there now is also sea-life swimming around that better shouldn’t. So, you really should get out of there. But not before the Captain gives the orders! Or just, you know, give them yourselves. I very much hope, there are enough dinghies available …

Well, if there aren’t: make sure your party will be sitting in the ones that are there. Then you wouldn’t even have to fight that BBEG by yourself! Just make the ship sink and leave with the only means of escape. “Experience points, please!” Of course there might also be other reasons to actively sink a ship: it’s wreckage might blockade the entry to a port or river; it may become a new habitat for merfolk in need; the ship needs to be taken out after the crew has been evacuated, as the hull houses an evil demon that will make plundering and murdering Pirates out of anyone aboard; or the wreck plummeting to the bottom of the sea is the only chance to take out the newly laid eggs of the Leviathan that was just defeated. When did you last drop a whole dungeon onto your enemies legacy? Sounds like a great ending to an adventure to me. At least, as I said, as long as you are sitting in a Dinghy to get away from the vessel going down. Mind you, dinghies sink too. Quite easily.

I very much hope, these few words may help you on your future quests, lads. If you think I’ve forgotten anything important, just write a comment!