View Full Version : [3.5] Shipboard Combat in D&D?

2009-03-10, 08:22 PM
So, I'm working on planning out the next segment of the campaign I'm running, and for a decent amount of time, the characters are going to be on board ships. There will be two instances where they're going to be boarded-- the first by lizardfolk, the second by pirates. The lizardfolk part isn't an issue, it's a small boarding party that the party will be able to handle.

The pirates are the problem. The party's going to be on a decent sized merchant ship with a crew of NPCs. I've built the Captain and the First Mate, but I'm not bothering to put together stats for 30+ crewmen. Similarly, I'm planning to build stats for the pirate captain, his first mate, a few top crewmen... but I don't want to build every single little 1st level warrior or rogue who's tagging along. My plan is that the PCs will get tied down fighting the enemies with class levels while the two crews battle it out around them.

I just don't know how to handle the crews. My players will, I'm almost sure, go charging to the defense of whatever NPC they've gone and gotten attached to, taking out sailors in one or two hits while the major NPCs battle it out off in a corner. Best case scenario is only a couple of the PCs run off, which means I have a split party. I also want to add a level of realism to this-- logically, members of the crew would attempt to defend their leaders, so a low-level pirate might try to stab the sorcerer in the back or something.

I've thought about pre-rolling stuff for the crews and having them act on initiative 0, and just kind of describe it as a mass of action: "You see a pirate run so-and-so through, while crewmember z sends a pirate plummeting over the side of the ship", etc. But that doesn't really allow for much in the way of interaction with the PCs.

Thoughts? Suggestions? Am I crazy for even considering this and should I just have my party sail peacefully down the ocean for 8 days, thus making the players crazy paranoid that nothing's attacked them?

The Rose Dragon
2009-03-10, 08:24 PM
Stormwrack likely has some suggestions. I'm just too lazy to open the book, though.

2009-03-10, 08:36 PM
Stormwrack likely has some suggestions. I'm just too lazy to open the book, though.

I looked through Stormwrack before posting here, actually. :smallfrown: They've got pages and pages of figuring out how to handle everything BEFORE the enemy ship boards you... after that, they assume it's just normal combat. Which it is, sort of, except for all the background minions. Oh, and the spontaneous balance checks due to the movement of the ship/slippery deck.

2009-03-10, 08:37 PM
Heroes of battle should have some good rules for shifting battle fields filled with mooks.

2009-03-10, 08:40 PM
There actually *are* important things about shipboard combat in Stormwrack, including the modifiers for the slippery deck due to water / blood, different conditions the boat would be in, cover from the mast / boxes / whatever is on the deck. Stuff like that. I'd look through it for some more but it looks like you already have the book XD

The Rose Dragon
2009-03-10, 08:41 PM
Also, there is always 7th Sea d20 to plunder for ideas (though I don't know how useful that would be, since I don't have the book).

2009-03-10, 08:46 PM
There actually *are* important things about shipboard combat in Stormwrack, including the modifiers for the slippery deck due to water / blood, different conditions the boat would be in, cover from the mast / boxes / whatever is on the deck. Stuff like that. I'd look through it for some more but it looks like you already have the book XD

Yeah, I've seen that, and that will be handy... I guess it's more trying to figure out what the heck I'm gonna do with the little buggers in the background. This is what I get for having players who are all great at roleplay and want names and descriptions for every bloody NPC they come across. I've made up 17 unique characters for this one ship alone, because I know that if I don't I'm going to be left going "This crewman is... uh... a human. Female. Her name is... uh... uhm... Sarah?". And despite that, they'll still want to have a nice long chat with her. Hence my concern for what's going on with the crew in the background-- people that the party likes are probably going to get injured or die, and I want them to be able to react to that.

2009-03-10, 08:59 PM
Pre-roll the combat that will happen in the background, while the PCs deal with the important tasks. If it can be helped, don't mention any names of the NPCs that get offed during the battle - Because then they'll try to jump in and help poor Sarah, dragging things on and on.

Divide the forces into groups, and give each group their own initiative - Instead of every crewmember getting their own. I'm not too experienced with large battles, but this is what I've done in the few times I had to GM one.

2009-03-10, 09:10 PM
Could you use Mob rules for most of the crew? Or will most of them be cowering too far from the action?

Because I've seen various Mob rules turn up on the Homebrew forum a number of times.

2009-03-10, 09:35 PM
I'll second modifying the mob rules for mass combat as a good idea, but I don't think it would work as well for ship to ship. Here's what I'd do:

Figure out the stats for 1 basic crewman on each side, and assume all unimportant NPCs on the same side have equivalent stats, even if they have different fluff. Then see how each side would stand up to each other in a fight. Assuming 1st level and similar stats and equipment (humans are all wearing equivalent stuff, lizardfolk have no armor and worse weapons so they don't get any advantage number-wse [a stretch, but it works]), humans will go down in one hit and lizardfolk in two, with somwhere between a 30-50% chance of that hit occuring. Flanking increases that by 10% and of course means they're being outnumbered, charging increases hit for both sides by +10%. Just roll/make up an initiative order for the flunkies and flip a coin or roll 10*d10% to see who wins, and use their basic AC/hit/damage rolls only when the PCs get involved. It seems like a lot of rolls for 30+ guys, but once the first wave of attacks hits you should have considerably fewer, and you could roll those ahead of time if you wanted as well.

2009-03-10, 10:44 PM
There's a third-party d20 supplement about this exact thing out there called "Broadsides!" (http://home.flash.net/~brenfrow/d20/broadsides.htm)

I managed to get it for free in a giveaway a couple of years back, but you can still pick up the watermarked official PDF from RPGNow (http://www.rpgnow.com/product_info.php?products_id=1524&it=1) for only $9.95. You can also find it pretty easily on Amazon and eBay (or, at least, Google tells me that's true). Either way, you might take a look at it.

EDIT: Actually, I looked back over it, and most of the combat stuff is actually ship-on-ship combat and stuff. There's still a handful of feats, PrCs, spells, items, and stuff, though, so you MIGHT find something of interest.

2009-03-10, 11:15 PM
So what you're really asking about is mass combat? Though I'm not very familiar with it, I believe the most relevant sourcebook in this case is Heroes of Battle rather than Stormwrack.

In the interest of simplicity and drama, I'd suggest just describing the scene in general terms, letting the PCs intervene where they want (using identical stat blocks for the nameless mooks, and arbitrarily diverting more into the "sub-encounter" as you deem justified or necessary) and making up a suitable aftermath for whatever parts of the action they don't get involved in. Have the major enemies identify the PC's as a significant threat and accost them after a few rounds if you want to resolve things fairly quickly and neatly. Let the PC's sweep up any remaining mooks with few, if any, rolls once the main action is over.

2009-03-10, 11:48 PM
There's loads you can do. Balance checks on deck for slipperyness or boat movement, typically only if you run or charge but it varies. Concentration checks for casters if the ship is moving violently, and/or from stormy weather. Climb checks for ship rigging (rope ladders). Those climbing are flat-footed. Bull rush people overboard to take em out quickly (look up the bonus to resist for a low wall in DMG or SRD). Swim checks once you're overboard. Combat modifiers, like the high ground AB bonus for fighting on stairs or cover from masts. Etc.

2009-03-11, 07:25 AM
I did this once to change the mood of my campaign. The PCs ran afoul of pirates and had to defend themselves.

The combat began with the PC's ship's captain sighting the pirate ship. The pirate ship was of elven make and was faster (because Elves Are Better (http://tvtropes.org/pmwiki/pmwiki.php/Main/OurElvesAreBetter)--seriously, the elven ship in Stormwrack is the fastest one there as far as I can remember). The pirate had its crew of regular scalawags (Ftr/Rogues), plus an ogre barbarian, a ranger sharpshooter, a hobgoblin warblade (dual-wielding katars), a wizard, and the captain (rogue/swashbuckler).

First, I had the pirate wizard let loose two fireballs from maximum range (about 700+ feet away, IIRC). The PC wizard counterspelled them quickly. He then responded in kind.

That explosion blew away the entire initial boarding party except for the ogre. The sails were made of handwavium and didn't sustain any serious damage, so the pirate ship caught up eventually. Running alongside the PC ship, the ogre leapt over the gap to board the PC ship and wreak havoc.

Fortunately in the time it took for the ship to catch up, the PCs did some serious buffing. The Enlarged paladin swiped an AOO across the ogre's belly as he leaped over the paladin. The ogre was dead before he hit the deck. The ship turns away, and the PCs cheer.

Then the friendly captain and his first mate (a half-orc fighter/barbarian) both take incapacitating arrow shots from the sniper. (The captain was busy piloting the ship the whole time, while his first mate guarded him).
The pirate then turns back and attempts to ram the PC ship.

The pirate captain took his ship around for another pass and attempted to ram the PC ship. The PCs all shifted to ranged weapons while the pirates had their gunner (the hobgoblin) fire their ballista.

The still-enlarged paladin took a hit, but otherwise both sides did not really significantly hurt each other. Then the pirate ship rammed the PC ship.

The remaining mooks on the pirate ship didn't really matter; the wizard neutralized them AND the pirate wizard with Black Tentacles. The rest fought in desperation, but it ended with the hobgoblin being thrown overboard, chainmail and all. He had no ranks in Swim and sank like a stone. The sharpshooter was Baleful Transpositioned into place in front of the paladin, and he gave her a very close haircut. Finally, the pirate wizard was Baleful Polymorphed into a snail.

Fun combat. I suggest that while statting the pirate boarding party is good, I only had the friendlies "man the sails!" Most of them were too occupied maintaining the ship in its maneuvers to actually fight, which is why the PCs are there. The only statted friendlies were the ship captain and the first mate, but even then I took them out of the second half of the encounter so that the PCs could take sole credit for defeating the pirates.

2009-03-11, 07:41 AM
d20 rules for shipboard combat, you say?

Mongoose's mass combat rules (www.mongoosepublishing.com/pdf/conanmasscombat.pdf) for Conan, combined with the rules from Mongoose's The Pirate Isles for Conan if possible. d20 rules for shipboard crew vs. crew combat, 95% compatible with D&D 3.5. Possible minor tweaking required (replace Defense with AC and so on; obvious stuff) and you're good to go.

2009-03-11, 12:54 PM
This is one of the times I swap back to 2e version of combat, because it functions so much better and faster. Especially with lots of fighters. This way you can group bunches of allied fighters and enemy fighters together and have them go whole hog at one another. The PC's can then either engage a boss, help the little guys, or engage in a counter-boarding action. Nothing more fun than being attacked by pirates, then stealing their ship.

2009-03-11, 03:22 PM
I'd suggest rerolling for the mooks... or rolling during combat for the mooks.

If the party isn't involved in that part of the fighting - just narrate it. It gives you more control over the battle, and is a lot less work. It also leaves more room for you to have dramatic things happen.

Olo Demonsbane
2009-03-11, 05:14 PM
If you know your players will go to help the NPCs, heres what I would do:

1. Roll separate rolls for all of the mooks before combat.
2. Plan who will attack who if no one interfears
3. Run the combat and roll with it.

2009-03-11, 08:19 PM
Seems like the best strategy is going to be rolling up combat for the mooks beforehand. I'm going to have two or three sets of battles going on near the PCs, ones that I'll actually bother to have on the table with minis and everything. I'll just narrate what's going on there, and I'll have the standard stats for each side's crew handy, so if someone intervenes I can adjust. Plus it'll make maneuvering harder for the party, they'll have to step over corpses/pools of blood/comrades who failed their balance checks/etc.

Thanks for the help everyone!!! :smallbiggrin:

2009-03-12, 01:39 AM
For mass combat you can generalize rolls. And since most humans have less than 3 hp, keeping track of the grunts on either side is easy.

I usually tally such situations {as far as the grunts} like this:

22 active
3 injured
3 dying
2 dead

Grunt pirates:
18 active
4 injured
4 dying
4 dead

beforehand is good, and is good as a guideline, but doesn't account for heroic PC actions. They may surprise you and save all the sailors.

2009-03-12, 06:57 AM
Seems like the best strategy is going to be rolling up combat for the mooks beforehand.

No, seriously, the best strategy is going to be using the free mass combat system from Mongoose I linked. It's dead easy.