Friday, December 18, 2009

Ships of the Wilderlands

For a time last summer I thought I was going to run a Freeport campaign. Naturally, I decided to set Freeport in the Wilderlands--I ended up placing it in Hex 0420 on Map 12 (Isles of the Dawn)--and this got me thinking about nautical technology in my campaign world.

Now, I'm as much a fan of the great galleons of the Age of Sail as the next person, but as I thought things over, I developed a sense that the Wilderlands needed something a bit pulpier, a bit more Bronze-Iron-Dark Ages, if you will. The only canonical nautical technology I was aware of was the longships of the Vikings Skandiks, and those would be staying for sure, no questions asked. I mean, what's cooler than Viking longships?

© Angus McBride/Osprey Publishing

And right now you are muttering, "Nothing's cooler than Viking longships." And you would, of course, be right.

This decision only strengthened my resolve to avoid galleons, or even medieval caravels. No, the longships of the Skandiks would represent cutting-edge tech, not some Dark Ages throwback. Plus, I have a thing for oared galleys and lateen-rigged sails, what can I say? So it was that I decided on having most ships at sea be some variation on galleys and other ancient sailing vessels.

As it turned out, the Freeport campaign didn't materialize, but I've been inspired of late to revisit my old ideas by a couple sources: first, Beyond the Black Gate recently put up a couple excellent posts on matters medieval and nautical, and second, I recently reacquired a favorite book from my childhood, The Golden Book of Buccaneers by John Gilbert, which is chock-fulla great Howard Pyle-style illos by Edward Mortelmans. Although the book focuses on the Golden Age of Piracy, there are also chapters on piracy through the ages. One particular line drawing accompanied the section on ancient piracy and it was there in the four ships depicted that I saw my ideas for ships in the Wilderlands made manifest: the galley, the corbita (Roman merchant ship), the longship, and the xebec. Following are some basic stats and information on these ships and their uses (stats are amalgamated from the d20 supplement Broadsides! and the old 2e supplement Of Ships and the Sea).

First, some definitions:
  • Draft is the measurement of the distance from the waterline to the ship's bottom; in effect, it is the minimum depth of water required to float the boat.
  • Length is the distance of the ship measured from stem to stern.
  • Beam is the vessel's measurement at its widest point.
  • Cost is the market value of the ship.
  • Crew is given in three values: Optimum, Adequate, and Skeleton. Optimum crews should get a bonus to any dice rolls involving maneauver or seamanship; skeleton crews should suffer an equivalent penalty. The crew sizes given are sufficient for 12 hours of sailing a day; increase crew sizes by 50% to allow for extra shifts and 24 hours of continuous sailing.
  • Speed is given in two values: knots (nautical miles per hour) and a Move value representing yards per melee round (given in parenthesis). In both cases, if the vessel is capable of oared and sail-powered movement, two values will be given separated by a slash; the first value is oared movement speed.
  • Maneuverability is rated on a scale analogous to 1e/2e flying maneuverability, rated from A to E. Class A vessels can turn in place up to 180 degrees in a minute (no movement is possible during this turn), Class B can turn 90 degrees per minute of movement, Class C can turn 60 degrees/minute, Class D can turn 30 degrees/minute, and Class E vessels can only manage a 30 degree turn with two minutes of movement.
  • Seaworthiness is the percentage chance of a vessel to weather adverse conditions such as gales and hurricanes.
  • Cargo/Transport is a split value; the first number refers to space available for stowage rated in tons, while the second figure refers to the number of medium-sized creatures that can be taken on board in total (crew, passengers, soldiers, etc.). Cargo space can be converted to transport passengers instead at the rate of 1 extra passenger per 5 tons of cargo sacrificed; likewise, transport space can be used for cargo stowage at the rate of 8 passengers to 1 ton of cargo.

Galley: The galley is primarily designed as a warship. Its territory is calm coastal waters and even--thanks to its narrow beam and shallow draft--rivers, estuaries, and lakes. However, it's these very characteristics that make the galley extremely susceptible to capsizing in rough seas and generally keep it well within reach of safe harbors for fear of sudden storms.

Fitted with both sails and oars, the galley is designed for speed and maneuver in the thick of battle. Rowers and crew are usually to be found below-decks; the deck is essentially a staging area for marines ready to act as boarding parties in ship-to-ship combat. Galleys are generally fitted with a giant ram on the prow, and either a catapult or ballista at the stem and stern. Many galleys are also fitted with some kind of boarding gangway.

Draft: 3 feet
Length: 135 feet
Beam: 15 feet
Cost: 20,000 gp
Crew: 20/15/10 (plus 150/100/70 oarsmen)
Speed: 3/5 (6/15)
Maneuverability: A (oars); C (sails)
Seaworthiness: 45%
Cargo/Transport: 30/320

Corbita: These ships are not built for speed or maneuverability but for cargo space. They have simple rigging: a single mast with a square main sail and two smaller triangular top sails provide the primary form of propulsion, while another square sail hanging off the bow provides some measure of maneuverability against the wind. The ships are generally steered by two aft rudders linked together and operated by a pair of helmsmen. Traditionally, the stern is decorated with some kind of animal feature, most commonly a swan's head or fish tail. The example given here is an intermediate freighter capable of sailing up large rivers. Even bigger ocean-going merchant ships would be half again as large in all dimensions, have cargo capacities up to ten times those listed here, and a Maneuverability rating of E.

Merchant ships are generally unarmed, but in particularly hazardous waters may mount small ballista or swivel guns on the railings.

Draft: 4 feet
Length: 70 feet
Beam: 25 feet
Cost: 12,000 gp
Crew: 28/21/15
Speed: 5 (6)
Maneuverability: D
Seaworthiness: 50%
Cargo/Transport: 110/50

Longship: Deceptively simple in their construction, longships are characterized by a shallow-draft hull made up of overlapping planks, an open deck, and a single mast. Movement is augmented by a bank of oars, most often deployed in combat or when navigating rivers and inlets. Crew and cargo are both exposed to the elements, with only a tarp or tent to provide shelter from extreme weather conditions.

Despite its simple design, the longship is a fairly seaworthy vessel capable of traversing the ocean as much as navigating rivers and lakes. It is also a versatile vessel that can be used as a merchant trader or warship, often on the same voyage!

Longships are never equipped with their own armament, relying instead on the battle-prowess of its hardened crew to win the day in ship-to-ship combat.

Draft: 2 feet
Length: 75 feet
Beam: 15 feet
Cost: 15,000 gp
Crew: 8/5/3 (30/24/10 oarsmen)
Speed: 3/7 (3/12)
Maneuverability: A (oars), C (sails)
Seaworthiness: 60%
Cargo/Transport: 20/75

Xebec: A versatile and speedy sailing vessel, the xebec is a favorite of coastal merchants and pirates alike. Designed with sleek, narrow lines and a shallow draft for speed, the xebec nonetheless mounts three lateen-rigged sails, giving it excellent maneuverability against the wind (perfect for pursuit or escape, thus its popularity among pirates).

The xebec also sees use as a warship by those navies that favor speed and ranged combat over the close-in ship-to-ship engagements of galleys and longships; xebec warships are most commonly found in the southern oceans, where gunpowder technology is more widespread, and will typically mount ten small cannons along each side. Those xebecs used by pirates often trade off armament for a small bank of oars to allow the ship to maneuver in becalmed waters.

Draft: 4 feet
Length: 90 feet
Beam: 25 feet
Cost: 17,000 gp
Crew: 50/35/20
Speed: 10 (15)
Maneuverability: C
Seaworthiness: 65%
Cargo/Transport: 60/200

Other Ships and Boats
Those four ship types constitute what I envision as the most commonly encountered vessels, but certainly there's room for others. In addition to the coracles, dugouts, and skiffs that would be piloted by simple fishermen, there are undoubtedly other more exotic vessels at sea. Elven catamarans, dwarven submarines, gnomish paddlewheels, and orc war rafts are just a few of the possibilities that spring to mind.

And keep in mind that perhaps one reason oar-powered ships have proven to have greater staying power in the Wilderlands than in our own history is due to the fact that in a world where you can literally have a skeleton crew at the banks, you can travel non-stop day and night without worrying about wearing out your rowers...
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