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Wednesday, 4 March 2015

Maritime Month: Naval Combat, No Cannon

In my last post, I talked about borrowing elements from different periods of history for the nautical section of my D&D game. Obviously, one of the largest influences is the golden age of piracy. From that era, or at least it's literary incarnation, I am gonna take all sorts of treasure maps and walking the plank and yarr-me-hearty stuff. But one thing I am not going to take is cannon.

I don't know why that is the sticking point, but it is. It is an aesthetic principle rather than a world building one. So given that there are no cannon and that we still want to make naval combat fun, let's establish some basic principles. 

Ships matter. Different ships need to have different strengths and weaknesses. We want our heroes to be scanning the horizon, trying to figure out what enemy vessels are so they can formulate an appropriate strategy.

Ships are valuable. So most combat will end with boarding, since the goal is to capture the enemy vessel. Only the navy -- the newly-formed and cocky White Dragon Legion -- really tries to sink or burn. Again, this is good; this is an adventure RPG, so we want our heroes swinging aboard on ropes at some point anyway. 

Ships have several target areas. You may want to sink a vessel, render it immobile or kill its crew. Broadly, then, we're going to have to divide ships into hull, propulsion and crew as targets.

So with those principles in mind, let's look at weapons. Another principle: wacky fantasy shit is a-ok.

So we need weapons that target hulls, rigging and crews, basically. Many fantasy games seem to use ballistas as the replacement for cannons, your primary hull-targeting weapon, and personally I feel like that's a mistake. You could shoot a hell of a lot of giant arrows into most ships' hulls before sinking them. 

Instead, we will say that there are two types of anti-hull weapons. The first and most important is the ram. You really need oars to use this effectively, and because it's mainly a ship-killer it's something you only find on naval vessels. In close quarters you'll find some vessels using hullcrushers, man-portable projectiles which are just a big-ass heavy weight you lob into the opponent's ship in hopes that it'll smash through the planking. You could shoot one of those out of a mangonel, I guess, so let's include catapults maybe mounted on the fighting platforms of some vessels? I feel like those would not be super accurate.

Anti-personnel weapons are easy. You've got archery, of course, or showers of javelins or whatever it is your sailors fight with. If you want ballistas or big multi-shot crossbows, this is a good role for them. I sort of want them to launch projectiles made of brick or even glass so that they smash into razor-sharp shards to slash up enemy crew. And of course PCs who are good at archery can go sniping helmsmen and enemy officers and stuff.

Anti-rigging weapons are the hardest. In the great age of fighting sail, you'd be aiming for the enemy's masts and rigging, sometimes using specialised projectiles like chain or bar shot. But we don't have cannon, so we're going to have to replace them with ... how about rivebows? In the Bas-Lag series of novels, cactacae, who have thick hides and tough limbs, use rivebows, weapons that fire sort of circular saw blades or chakrams capable of slicing off a limb. Great big sort of arbalest dealies that shoot giant shuriken. Yeah, OK. We'll have them.

Another category that you probably only find on military vessels would be incendiary weapons. Historically, the most common form of these, apart from just lobbing burning stuff at the target, is going to be some variation on Greek fire, which is basically a burning liquid that you squirt at the enemy through a nozzle. In a fantasy game, I think this is more likely to be fireballs and firebolts; firebolts specifically don't do very much damage but do set things on fire, so I'm going to assume that any ship that runs up against even a low-level wizard has fire-fighting crews standing by (since we don't have gunpowder and hull timbers aren't as flammable as all that, taking a flaming hit to the hull is less of a problem; it's the sails and rigging you've got to worry about).

And that's leaving out weird fantasy weapons, like flocks of trained dire bats or massive grappling claws or guns that shoot angry water elementals or what have you. I have a weird attitude about these -- I like them, but I don't like having them repeated. So having an individual enemy that's a sea-chariot pulled by sharks is great. "The Ruby Coast Corsairs use sea-chariots pulled by ferocious Monkey Sharks" is stupid. I can't explain why but there it is. 


  1. I have read somewhere (ugh cannot recall where) that catapults were not so hot on ships because they are sloppy with theor excess energy. Onagers would probably do more damage to the deck they were on than any target. Ballistae work as they don't spill recoil, and so would trebuchet though arcing shots are poop on the roiling seas. Since you'd need a giant technically complicated lazy Susan deal to make them work beyond a broadside sort of thing, serious catapults might only show up on siege ships. Magic seems like the best bet, and maybe too awesome? Perhaps a suite of low level countermagic could be available to sort of stymie the magic dominance with antifire, windthief, shareable shields that sort of thing. I can see a system where every ship has a wizard, to bring fish to the surface and bring winds in a calm etc etc. Oh, you gave got to have a spider-based thing, with a ship grappling via sudden acres of sticky silk, or a smaller ship that rams to seeming no effect until the wood begins to rot and dissolve away from the strike.

    1. I think the rotting - hull thing is probably what happens when a ghost ship rams you.

      I think I probably want to keep magic relatively low.and posit that for the most part, high level wizards just don't go to sea, having better things to do.