View Full Version : Looking for "real" informations about sea, ships, pirates, ...

2016-12-13, 05:25 AM
I'm looking for help to gather info on some subjects ...

My group of players want to start a sea-based campaign where they'll probably be pirates or something like that.
We'll probably use Pathfinder and i'm thinking about using the skull & shackles adventure path.

I'd like it to feel as real as possible, with problems like running out of food, bad weather, ship damage, value of trade/plunder goods being important and memorable elements of the game.

Unfortunately i must confess that i'm totaly clueless about everything concerning ships, sea, ...

So, i'm pretty confident that some people can point me to info or books that can answer my questions.

More precisely, what i'm looking for is info on the following:
1/ ships:
- size of different types of ships ?
- how many sailors needed to run each ship ?
- size of the cargo and how many passengers ?
- food and water, how much time does food stays edible ?
- Damage to ships: are there nice systems out there to handle ship-to-ship fights ?
- How does repair work ? for example sails have been torn during a storm, how much time to replace them ? and what "spare parts" are usually on board ?
2/ sea and navigation
- speed of different ships (obviously dependant of weather) ? Does a ship continue to advance at full speed at night ? is it safe ? How does cargo affect speed ?
- Weather and its effect on navigation ? Is there somewhere a nice (but not too complicated) to handle the evolution of weather over the days and according to seasons (not just a d20 rool, saying "oh today it's sunny but yesterday there was rain)
- if speed of ships can be difficult to know or tedious to work with, duration of travel. How many days for crossing the atlantic or other merchant trips ?
- orientation: i want to have something with more depth than just a roll telling me they arrived where they want or that they're lost. I don't know if any interesting system handling that exist ?
- any useful "real" info that i probably never heard or thought about
- what about trade and plunder ? Are there sensible info out there on the value of a variety of trade goods and more importantly what % of it can they expect to sell stolen goods assuming they can find buyers. And what about salary of sailors and everything ? I'm pretty sure that without thinking this trough, the way pathfinder "economy" works will quickly destroy the interest of plundering a spices or silk ship
3/ rolepaying ideas and tips
- what do you think about skull and shackles ? i already read some reviews, but any other advice is good to hear
- Any tips about a pirate campaign using pathfinder ? what class to avoid, what spells or magic items "ruin the fun" ?
- what should i be careful about ? you've run a pirate campaign ? what are the pitfalls ?

That's a lot of stuff, but hopefully many people have experience about this.
I don't mind altering some rules ... for examples, i'll probably alter or remove spells creating food as it would ruin the "fun" of running out of food

So any ideas, or better any good book, scenario or even another system to recommend would be greatly appreciated !

Thanks for your time

2016-12-13, 05:36 AM
Sounds like you need to read Sodomy and the Pirate Tradition (https://www.amazon.co.uk/Sodomy-Pirate-Tradition-Seventeenth-Century-Caribbean/dp/0814712363/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1481625347&sr=1-1&keywords=sodomy+and+the+pirate+tradition)! :smallbiggrin:

2016-12-13, 06:16 AM
So, you need to check out:

Of Ships and the Sea (https://www.google.com/webhp?sourceid=chrome-instant&ion=1&espv=2&ie=UTF-8#q=of%20ships%20and%20the%20sea%20pdf)
Stormwrack (https://www.google.com/webhp?sourceid=chrome-instant&ion=1&espv=2&ie=UTF-8#q=stormwrack+pdf)
Golden Voyages (https://www.google.com/webhp?sourceid=chrome-instant&ion=1&espv=2&ie=UTF-8#q=al+qadim+golden+voyages+pdf)

You can also take a peek at the Spelljammer (https://www.google.com/webhp?sourceid=chrome-instant&ion=1&espv=2&ie=UTF-8#q=spelljammer+3.5+pdf) setting (and ignore the stuff about running out of air). I'm not sure how much the newer (3.X +) versions go into detail about some of the info you are requesting, but the original (2nd ed) version had some pretty good rules for it. Mostly, though, you can use the Spelljammer ship maps

Now, if you are looking for real accounts of ocean travel from the 1400's - early 1800's, I suggest a trip to your local library....

2016-12-13, 07:57 AM
Just a warning, a pirate campaign will get boring. You can only raid and plunder so many times til it gets to be old hat. Plan an overarching campaign that goes beyond pirating ships. My recommendation is to check out the spelljammer campaign and seek inspiration from there as far as adventures go. Yeah a raid every now and then is cool but as a major plot point blah. Your characters will either die or get rich and once rich what is their motivation to keep doing it?

2016-12-13, 10:42 AM
Your characters will either die or get rich and once rich what is their motivation to keep doing it?

You could, of course, not have them capture Spanish treasure galleons quite so easily. Have them go after some Dutch merchants to start with.
There's certainly no guarantee you'll get rich as soon as you've captured your first ship. The ship itself may be the most valuable category, and it will require a crew to take somewhere you can get rid of it - unless anti-piracy cooperation is high, in which case you better sink that ship and skeddadle. Whatever riches you do manage to get you'll have to split with all the crew on your own ship. And you have to deduct the costs of operating a vessel in the first place.

2016-12-13, 11:23 AM
Yarr, me matey.

Skull & Shackles book 2 and Razor Coast: Fire as She Bears! cover a lot of the stuff you asked about, the latter in particular.

2016-12-13, 03:41 PM
It wasn't just the food that would go bad; after a few days, the water stored on a ship would be almost undrinkable; grog wasn't made to stretch out the booze - you'd mix a little rum in with your water to kill the stuff that was growing in it.

Speaking of having things growing in your comestibles, look up some period recipes for hardtack, maybe even bake some seabiscuits up for your players - the weevils are optional. :smallsmile:

Incidentally, depending on the region and time period you want to emulate, not only is night sailing probably not a thing, even living on the ship may not be; the Greek biremes and triremes made landfall each night.

2016-12-13, 05:21 PM
Since you're considering pathfiner, there is the Pirates of the Inner Sea player companion. It's small and half of it I think was about pirate npcs/factions, but I think at least some of your questions are in it. I can give you some of the information on the ships. Edit: Actually dunno if I am allowed to post it because of copyright. I'll just say there is a section in that book at least that has a list of pirate ships, a description, their size and crew size

Pirate campaigns can be a lot of fun, but I second you would want some kind of overarching plot still. Im in a 1 player, 1 DM pirate campaign that we started over two years ago and are now on 200+ sessions (been on hiatus the last few months to take a break from it), and its gone in phases of typical pirate looting, and more adventuring/political content.

Jay R
2016-12-13, 06:39 PM
Just a warning, a pirate campaign will get boring. You can only raid and plunder so many times til it gets to be old hat. Plan an overarching campaign that goes beyond pirating ships. My recommendation is to check out the spelljammer campaign and seek inspiration from there as far as adventures go. Yeah a raid every now and then is cool but as a major plot point blah. Your characters will either die or get rich and once rich what is their motivation to keep doing it?

For planning adventures, start with the Errol Flynn movies Captain Blood, Against All Flags, and The Sea Hawk. Then I recommend Tyrone Powers' Black Swan and Son of Fury: The Story of Benjamin Blake.Treasure Island. Cutthroat Island. Peter Pan.

There's lots of good ideas for pirate adventures (http://www.imdb.com/list/ls033395810?ref_=tt_rls_5) that aren't just raiding and plundering.

Martin Greywolf
2016-12-14, 05:22 AM
Well, if you want this to be a good RPG campaign, give up on any realism at all. Age of Sail piracy is a nasty, boring thing, where you're much more likely to be killed by scurvy than enemy action. You don't plunder gold, you plunder food, medical supplies, timber and cloth to keep your ship going. Most ships you plunder won't fight back, and you won't plunder everything they have, because both them and you want to do as little fighting as possible.

If you want a good, quick primer on what a life on a ship was like, watch Master and Commander - that's what fighting a one ship on one ship fight looked like most of the time.

Your real problem is that making running out of food/supplies engaging is really, really hard. And what do you do once that happens? Few skill checks for fishing? That's not what i want out of my pirate adventure. About the only way to do this is to limit where your players can sail by cargo hold capacity (relative cargo hold capacity, bigger ship can well have smaller relative capactiy because it has more people to feed and more sails to repair), and upgrading it serves as unlock for new areas.

Also, ship combat is hard to do if you want the cannons to have effect on both ship and crew, d20-style hit points aren't very well suited to handle it. It can be done, but it's usually clunky in some way. Moving the ships around in any realistic fashion is also a problem, there are rulesets for it, but they are fairly lengthy, and memorizing them, let alone internalizing them to a point where you can use them well, is problematic (unless you have a player who played Guns of Icarus, World of Warships or some other game that had realistic ship-like movement).

As for info on Age of Sail piracy, there is a ton of sources around - just watch some document about, for example, Drake, and you're set. You don't want 100% scholarly accuracy, after all, just enough information for things to make sense.

2016-12-14, 05:44 AM
We'll probably use Pathfinder and i'm thinking about using the skull & shackles adventure path.

The adventure path actually contains rules for a lot of the stuff you want. You don't actually really want to emulate a realistic world if you're running pathfinder anyway, since pathfinder breaks a lot of the age of sail rules from the get go - Purify Food and Drink means you stores never get bad for one.

2016-12-16, 02:43 AM
Thanks for your answers

@hymer: well that's an aspect i indeed never thought about but as i'll be running a fantasy campaign, it won't be an male-exclusive environnement. but thanks anyway.

@Mutazoia: I'll definitely try to get my hands on those and have a look. And spelljammer ? And never tought this could be useful, i'll have a look too. thanks for those "links"

@Corsair14: Yeah, you're totally right. I don't want it to be raid and plunder only, of course some campaign plot is needed, maybe some unknown land exploration or something else ... Spelljammer again ? i totally need to check this !

@hymer 2: As i'm reading different advice, maybe my problem is more an economic problem. What I mean is I want the piracy to sound realistic and not having after 2 raids the players either thinking "why the hell are there pirates, that's totally pointless" or "why the hell isn't everyone a pirate, we're rich !" if you know what i mean. What i fear is that pathfinder (and fantasy rpg in general) doesn't simulate well economics (i know that's not the point of the rules, let's not please start that conversation). So without overhauling the whole item/value system, i want to think about this beforehand instead of having some pointless or aberrant situation raising during the game.

For example, they have their ship and they capture another one or even get attacked and get their hands on the ship of the attackers. They'll probably want to sell it. How much will it be worth ? Even if they sell it far beneath the value (because it's a stolen ship, damaged, it's black market, ...). Won't the share of each sailor be enough for them to stop piracy and settle down (not every dude, even in a fantasy campaign is pirate for the love of it) ?
Or is it even possible to split their crew to bring back the ship ?
That's just one situation that can off course be solved, but i want to be prepared to have an more or less realistic answer to those kind of situations.

@ComaVision: Oh, never heard of this one, thanks i'll have a look there too

@TheCountAlucard: That's exactly the kind of things i don't know and i'm looking for ! How did it work for example for columbus ? Did they sail at night ? And for sea merchants in the middle ages ? As opposite to the columbus example they stayed close to the coast, so did they stop sailing at night to be careful ?
I must admit i won't have time to read full history books about columbus and the likes, so that's why i'm looking for guidelines.

@Sajiri: I'll check that ! I'm womewhat cautious about what's proposed in rpg ... For example i runned the kingmaker adventure path and after some time it turned out that the system for managing cities and kingdoms was really clunky ... so this time i want to be prepared beforehand.

@Jay R: Thanks. I'm not sure i'll have time to read those but just reading the back or the critics can ideed bring me some ideas, that's great.

@Martin Greywolf: I indeed understand it's quite difficult to balance between realism and fun. Some of your ideas there are indeed very interesting ... limiting access to certain zone depending on ships which they can gain access to during the campaign as they progress in "pirate level" could be very nice, i'll think deeper about that.
I'll definitely google drake and see what i can learn (yes, i know, i suck at history ;) )
And you're last sentence is exactly on the spot. I don't want my campaign to be a boring historical documentary but i don't want to say stupid/incoherent/impososible/illogical stuff during the game.
Thanks a lot.

@Mechalich: yeah, i started to read the beginning of skull & shackles 1 ... need to go further ...
Did you run it ? What do you think about it ?

In fact anyone ran Skull & shackle to the end, or at least a good part of it ?
What are your experience with it ? Any comment ? Any difficulties arised ?
If you could please share your experience i'd appreciate

Thanks for all those answer, and please keep ideas, tips and references coming !

2016-12-16, 11:11 AM
Some cursory research on google says that yes, with a sailing ship you do indeed sail at night. In open ocean it's too deep to drop anchor, so you post some people to keep watch to make sure you don't run into anything and just keep going, waking people up if you need to change course.

As for piracy: if you just hoist the jolly roger and start attacking ships at random, you're committing a hanging offense in essentially every jurisdiction at once, and no matter how much money you get you won't have very many places to spend it, and, if you're successful, they'll send warships after you. This is a pretty strong deterrent to doing that for people with anything to lose, which means that most pirates who fly the jolly roger are already people who can't go home because they've committed hanging offenses (mutiny is a common one. also a good way to acquire a ship)

If someone's issued you a letter of marque, though, that means that your attacks on cargo ships are acts of war rather than piracy and you can go home and spend your loot there. Having a letter of marque can be quite profitable.

As for the money, let's break it down. A sailing ship listed on the equipment list is 10,000 GP and has a crew of 20, needing a minimum of 10 people to function at all. It can fit 120 passengers or 150 tons of cargo, on top of its crew. Because it's a wind vessel, the DCs for the profession (Sailor) checks to maneuver it are 10 higher than the equivalent DCs for e.g. a chariot; the DC is another 10 higher with a skeleton crew, and my cursory reading of the rules says the base DC is 5 out of combat and 20 in combat (in other words, DCs are 15 and 30, or 25 and 40 with minimum crew). The sample pirate ship has 50 people on crew, giving it redundancy and the ability to place a prize crew on a captured ship without losing maneuverability on either ship, even in the face of heavy losses.

Standard D&D loot-selling rules say that a privateer will be selling a captured ship for half its base price, so that's 5,000 GP. Knock that down by the cost of repairs, let's estimate that takes another 1,000 off whatever you get from your buyer. If you're selling illegally (i.e. you don't have a letter of marque), you'll need to, one, find a port where that's possible, and two, you probably won't make as much because you have fewer buyers.

So let's say optimistically that you're able to get a battle-scarred stolen sailing ship taken off your hands for 3,000 GP. But let's look back at that crew of 50 people. They're all going to want a cut of the loot; split fifty ways, that ship's 60 GP. A sizeable chunk of change for a non-adventurer, but an adventurer might have used charged or single-use items that cost more than that in the course of the fight (a single charge from a wand of a second-level spell, for instance). Then remember that before you can divide this treasure you have to repair and resupply your own ship (maybe another thousand GP, bringing the per-pirate share down to 40).

That assumes you can find a pirate, group of pirates, or wannabe pirate with 4,000 GP burning a hole in her pocket and a need for a ship. Maybe you're better off keeping the ship and building a fleet.

annnd that's why pirates prefer to attack ships with valuable cargo (for cargo, you're looking at the range of twenty gp per ton (wheat) to ten thousand gp per ton (silver, marble, salt, possibly wool*) most likely, unless you hit a ship full of gold; as a rough estimate based more on Sunless Sea than real numbers you're looking at 75 tons out of 150 being cargo and the rest supplies. notably, trade goods sell for full price, and are fungible enough that the black market premium will probably be smaller, and 10 tons of something like mint or mustard is worth as much as the ship), raid coastal settlements, and maybe even quest for treasure on dry land and use the ship as a way to get from adventure to adventure over trying to flip captured ships. Finding good ships depends on the strength of your contact network on dry land (since a ship with a hold full of wheat (20 gp/ton) and one with a hold full of black pepper and vanilla (4,000), or marble or silver (10,000 gp/ton) look the same), though, which is both another expense and a reason why being a pirate is difficult enough that most people aren't.

*wool is given with a value by area rather than weight, so it may well be worth more if the DM decides that a square yard of standard wool cloth weighs less than a pound, which is probably should. This is completely absurd, but it's what the rulebook says.

2016-12-16, 11:31 AM
As an aside, lots of cloud cover is gonna make night navigation hard, as the stars are a handy way for one to get one's bearings at sea.

When deciding who to take prisoner on a captured ship and who to send down to feed the fishes, you'll always want to check for a surgeon and a carpenter. Unless there's a particular someone you're after, these should be your first priority on "who stays and who goes."

Ships were absurdly high-maintenance - leaks could and did spring up just from changing speed. And while it doesn't take skilled hands to make oakum (think a form of caulking, made from pitch and bits of line too old and frayed to keep using as line), it's far better to have too many carpenters than too few.

And if an injury occurred on the high seas? It was likely to be a pretty bad one (the forces exerted on the many moving parts of a ship were often on par with that of industrial machinery - if a line snapped unexpectedly, it could very well lash a sailor and cut him all the way down to the bone; having one's hand between a belaying pin and a rail when a sudden wind takes all the slack out of the line could crush the hand badly enough to necessitate amputation), so you want as many professionals who can actually keep sailors alive as possible. Even if you have to kidnap them. :smalleek:

2016-12-16, 12:37 PM
The value of a surgeon really depends on how high-magic your world is, though. In a typical D&D world, healing magic is better than surgery (a surgeon can amputate your hand, a cleric can restore it), but you want the cleric to be someone you can trust, considering they can kill with a word (depending on level and deity, they might also be able to set the ship on fire as easily as anything else).

Carpenters, though, you absolutely need. You're going to need bigger repairs than a Mending spell can do, more frequently than your cleric can cast Make Whole.

2016-12-16, 09:30 PM
Well, even divorced from the danger of capturing a man who can kill you with a word (after all, the OP was mainly looking for real-world sailing/piracy information), a surgeon also doesn't lose access to his ability to perform surgery when he discovers he rather enjoys being on the giving end of piracy rather than the receiving, where a Lawful Cleric might.