Ships & Combat at Sea

Our campaign takes place during the Age of Sail, a time when sailing ships dominated trade and warfare. Ships will likely play a large role in your character’s life. Our ship rules are based on the rules for Infernal War Machines found in Baldur’s Gate: Descent Into Avernus, the ship rules found in Ghosts of Saltmarsh, and my starship rules used in our SW5e campaign.

Stat Blocks

Ships (and other mechanical vehicles) utilize stat blocks, similar to what you would find in the Monster Manual for various NPC creatures, but with the following considerations:

Crew & Cargo Capacity

Crew capacity describes the minimum number of crew members needed for the vehicle to function, the total number that can embark on the ship comfortably (more may be able to squeeze on, in some circumstances), and the experience level of any NPC crew aboard (if applicable). Cargo capacity describes how much cargo the ship can carry, represented in tons.

Armor Class

Vehicles typically have an armor class of 10 + its Dexterity modifier. When a vehicle is stationary, attack rolls made against it have advantage.

Hull Points

A ship’s hull points can be restored by making repairs to it (see the Repairs section later in this chapter). When a ship drops to 0 hull points, it becomes disabled and may begin to start sinking. Ships that take damage after becoming disabled automatically start sinking.

Speed

Ships measure their speed in hexes, as opposed to feet. All ranges in ship-scale combat are abstractions, as the sea is vast.

Maneuverability

Ships cannot turn on a time, they carry existing forward momentum into a turn. This is represented by a ship’s maneuverability rating, which is the number of hexes it must move forward before it may alter its facing by one hex face.

Provisions

Crew require food, water, and various sundries in order to survive. Provisions are measured in portions. A portion is enough food, water, and sundries to keep a single medium creature alive for a day. The value displayed on the stat block is the number of portions that this ship can carry without having to sacrifice crew or cargo capacity.

Ability Scores

A ship has six ability scores and corresponding modifiers. Its size determines its Strength. Dexterity represents its handling and maneuverability. A ship’s Constitution reflects its durability and quality of construction. Ships usually have a score of 0 in Intelligence, Wisdom, and Charisma.

Upgrades & Modifications

Ships can be upgraded and modified, which grant bonuses, new features, and abilities to the ship and its crew.

Action Stations

A ship doesn’t have actions of its own. Ships rely on crew to occupy various stations and use their own actions to operate the ship’s various functions, such as operating the helm or firing cannons. Any option that appears in the Action Stations section of a ship’s stat block requires a character’s action to perform.

Sailing Checks

The addition of these ship rules comes with a new skill: Sailing. The Sailing skill uses Wisdom. Proficiency in the Sailing skill can be obtained through character background or by training and experience during the campaign. The Sailing skill is used for various actions aboard the ship, particularly during combat.

Rounds and Phases of Combat

Like combat between characters, ship combat occurs over a number of rounds until one side flees, surrenders, or is otherwise defeated. Unlike rounds between characters, a round of ship combat is divided up into two phases, resolved in order. Initiative is rolled every round (in the form of a Sailing check), as opposed to once at the start of combat, and it is done by only one character aboard each ship participating in the encounter.

Phase 1: Helm Phase

At the start of the helm phase, the helmsman of each ship involved in the encounter makes a Sailing check (described above).The helmsman with the lowest result must move their ship first, followed by the next lowest, until all ships have moved. This check is repeated each round during the helm phase, so the order of movement can change from round to round. If the ship has no one occupying the helm station, the ship acts as if the helmsman had rolled a 1. If there is a tie, the two helmsmen in question should each roll again and compare the results; the pilot with the lowest result (or, in the event of another tie, the lowest Initiative modifier) moves first.

Phase 2: Action Phase

During the action phase, crew members use their actions to utilize certain ship features, such as firing cannons. Actions are performed in the same order in which the helmsmen acted during that round’s helm phase. Once all participants in the phase have completed their action phases, and there are still combatants engaged in the fight, the next round begins, starting with a new helm phase.

Action Stations

Crew can occupy various stations, called action stations, aboard a ship. When occupying an action station, that crew member can use their action to perform one of the actions available for that station during the action phase (unless they are in the helm station, in which case they act during the helm phase).

A crew member not occupying a station can move and take actions as normal, as if they are in regular character-scale combat.

Helm Station

The helm station is where the helmsman controls the movement and direction of the ship. The helm requires a crew member to operate. A ship with no helmsman automatically fails Dexterity saving throws. Helmsmen are specially trained crew members who operate the helm of a ship. The helmsman can take any of the following actions during the helm phase:

Sail. As an action, the helmsman can use their action to propel the ship up to its speed or bring the ship to a dead stop. The helmsman is able to alter the ship’s course. A ship will continue to sail on its present course and speed until the helmsman commands otherwise. How quickly a ship can turn is referred to as its maneuverability rating (explained below).

Maneuver. As an action, the helmsman can use their action to attempt one of several special maneuvers:

  Evade. The ship moves up to its speed and can turn as normal, and gains a +2 bonus to its AC until the start of the next Helm Phase. To perform this maneuver, the helmsman must make a Sailing check (DC 15). On a success, the maneuver is performed. On a failure, the ship simply moves as normal.

  Hard Over. The ship moves forward up to half its speed (without turning) and rotates 180 degrees to face the aft edge at the end of its movement. To perform this maneuver, the helmsman must make a Sailing check (DC 15). On a success, the maneuver is performed. On a failure, the ship moves forward half its speed but doesn’t rotate.

  Cut Across. The ship moves as normal, but it can move through 1 hex occupied by an enemy ship without provoking an attack of opportunity (as explained under Moving Through Other Ships, below). To perform this maneuver, the helmsman must make a Sailing check (DC 15). On success, the maneuver is performed. On a failure, the ship moves as normal but suffers the normal penalties for moving through an enemy hex.

Maneuverability Rating

A ship must travel a certain distance in a straight line before being able to alter its course (turn) one face of a hex. The maneuverability rating of a ship is inversely derived from its Dexterity modifier (the higher the Dexterity modifier, the lower the rating, the faster the ship turns). These ratings go from 0 to 5, relating to Dexterity modifiers ranging from 5 to 0, respectively.

A ship with a 0 maneuverability Rating is able to turn two hex faces at a time after only moving one hex forward.

Moving Through Other Ships

Because ship-scale combat relies heavily on abstraction, ships can pass through hexes containing other ships, even enemy ships, as long as they end their movement in an empty hex.

Moving through an enemy ship’s hex provokes a special ship-scale attack of opportunity. The enemy ship can fire any one of its weapons from any arc at the moving ship.

Wind Direction

Wind direction is important, as ships struggle to sail upwind. Ships sailing into the wind treat each hex of movement as difficult terrain.

Master Gunner’s Station

The master gunner’s station is responsible for directing the fire of a ship’s weapons, particularly if they are NPC-crewed. A creature occupying the master gunner’s station is referred to as the Master Gunner. The Master Gunner may take one of the following actions during the Action Phase:

Order Attack. The Master Gunner uses its action to order each of the ship’s NPC weapon stations to make attacks. Separate attack and damage rolls must be made for each weapon. If the Master Gunner is proficient in Martial Ranged Weapons, the Master Gunner’s proficiency bonus may be added to the attack roll.

Micromanage. The Master Gunner can use its action to give special instructions to a particular NPC weapon station, gaining advantage on the attack roll and dealing maximum damage if the attack hits. If the Master Gunner is proficient in Martial Ranged Weapons, the Master Gunner’s proficiency bonus may be added to the attack roll.

Weapon Stations

Each weapon on a ship is represented by an individual weapon station. A creature occupying a weapon station is referred to as a Gunner. Weapon stations are normally crewed by NPC crew members, but individual weapon stations can be taken over by player characters, should they choose to do so. Weapon stations can be fired every round and are reloaded automatically as part of their sequence of fire. A Gunner may take the following action during the Gunnery Phase:

Attack. The Gunner uses its action to make an attack with the weapon station. If this is an NPC crew member, the attack is resolved using the ship’s crew rating as a bonus for attack and damage rolls. If the Gunner is a player character, the attack and damage are resolved as if that player is wielding a Martial Ranged Weapon.

Weapon Range

Unlike character-scale combat, which measure ranged weapon ranges in feet, ship-scale weapons measure their range in hexes. Ship weapons have one of three ranges: short range (5 hexes), medium range (10 hexes), or long range (20 hexes). As with character-scale ranged attacks, an attack with a ship’s weapon is made with disadvantage if fired beyond its listed range increment. Firing at even further range results in compounding disadvantage for every range increment beyond the first. A ship can fire at a target up to 10 range increments away (which is 200 hexes for a long range weapon).

Firing Arcs

Ship weapons can only fire in an arc originating from the side of the ship they are mounted on. For instance, weapons mounted on the bow (front) of the ship fire in a front-facing arc, weapons on the port (left side) of the ship fire in a port-facing arc, and so on.

There is one exception: weapons that are mounted as a turret in the forecastle (the area, typically raised, at the bow of the ship). These weapons can fire in the port, bow, or starboard arcs.

Damage: Ship-Scale vs Character-Scale

The damage values represented within the ship rules are intended to be used when ships engage other ships. When a ship attacks a character-scale target, such as a creature, the damage is multiplied by 10. When a character-scale entity targets a ship, the damage is divided by 10.

Attacking with Multiple Weapons (Broadsides)

Many ships have lots of weapons and resolving weapon attacks individually can take up a lot of time. Instead, you may elect to fire all of the weapons in the same arc at once, in a massive broadside attack. To do so, make a single attack roll with advantage. If your attack hits, roll damage as if all of those weapons had hit. For example, if you fired 5 cannons that deal 1d6 damage each, roll 5d6.

Captain’s Station

The Captain’s Station is a special station present on all ships. A creature occupying the captain’s station is referred to as the Captain. The Captain can take any of the following actions during the action phase:

Demand. As an action, the Captain makes a demand of a single crew member to improve their performance, giving them advantage on an ability check, attack roll, or saving throw. To perform this action, the captain makes an Intimidation check (DC 15). On a success, the action is performed. On a failure, the crew member has disadvantage instead.

Encouragement. As an action, the Captain attempts to encourage a crew member to improve their performance, giving them advantage on an ability check, attack roll, or saving throw. To perform this action, the Captain makes a Persuasion check (DC 17). On a success, the action is performed. On a failure, nothing happens.

Taunt. As an action, the Captain yells a taunting message to the enemy vessel, giving them disadvantage on their next ability check, attack roll, or saving throw. To perform this action, the Captain makes an Intimidation check. The target ship’s Captain then must make a Wisdom saving throw, and the results are compared. If the Intimidation check is higher than the Wisdom saving throw, the taunt is successful. On a failure, nothing happens.

Motivating Command. As an action, the Captain can attempt to motivate a single crew member, granting them an additional action on their next turn. To perform this action, the Captain makes a Persuasion check (DC 20). On a success, the additional action is granted. On a failure, nothing happens.

Moving Speech. As an action, the Captain attempts to inspire the crew with a moving speech, giving advantage on all ability checks, attack rolls, and saving throws made by the crew until the start of the Captain’s next turn. To perform this action, the Captain makes a Persuasion check (DC 20). On a success, the crew is moved. On a failure, nothing happens.

Boatswain’s Station

The Boatswain’s Station is present on all ships. A creature occupying this station is referred to as the Boatswain (pronounced BOH-sen), and is responsible for managing deck activities, which includes the rigging and sails. The Boatswain can take any of the following actions during the Action Phase:

Improve Trim. As an action, the Boatswain attempts to maximize sail efficiency by improving the trim, increasing the ship’s speed by 2 hexes until the start of the next Action Phase. To perform this action, the Boatswain makes a Sailing check (DC 15). On a success, the action is performed. On a failure, nothing happens.

Into the Tops. As an action, the Boatswain orders men to take positions in the rigging with muskets, sending harassing fire down on the enemy ship. To perform this action, the Boatswain makes a Sailing check (DC 15). On a success, the enemy is struck by harassing fire and has disadvantage on its next ability check, attack roll, or saving throw.

Carpenter’s Station

The Carpenter’s Station is present on all ships. A creature occupying this station is referred to as the Carpenter, and is responsible for maintaining the ship’s hull. The Carpenter can take any of the following actions during the Action Phase:

Repair. As an action, the Carpenter attempts to repair hull damage on the fly. To perform this action, the Carpenter must make a Carpenter’s Tools (Strength) check (DC 15). On a success, the ship regains hull points equal to 1d6 plus the Carpenter’s proficiency bonus.

Patch Up. As an action, the Carpenter attempts to remove a critical damage condition (explained below). To perform this action, the Carpenter must make a Carpenter’s Tools (Strength) check (DC 15). On a success, the ship loses one critical damage condition.

Taking Damage

As a ship suffers damage, it loses hull points. When a ship is reduced to 0 hull points, it is disabled. The ship can also suffer from critical damage conditions when it takes critical hits, wear and tear (which is expressed as exhaustion), and system failure. All of which are explained below.

Critical Damage Conditions

Whenever a ship receives a critical hit, there is a chance that it will receive a critical damage condition. For each critical hit, a crew member (usually the Captain) must roll on the following table to determine the outcome:

Critical Damage Condition Table
d20Critical Damage Condition
1Fire. The ship has caught fire, and it is spreading rapidly. All creatures on board this ship take 1d6 fire damage at the start of their turns until this condition is cleared.
2-4Rudder Damage. The ship can move in a straight line only until this condition is cleared.
5-7Torn Sails. The ship’s speed is reduced to half until this condition is cleared.
8-10Loose Cannon. One of the ship’s weapons (attacker’s choice) can’t be used again until this condition is cleared.
11-13Blinding Smoke. Smoke lingers on the decks of the ship, blinding the gunners until this condition is cleared.
14-16Wet Powder. Flooding in the lower decks reaches the powder magazine. All weapon station attacks are made with disadvantage until this condition is cleared.
17-19Falling Rigging. Spars, ropes, and blocks rain down on the deck from above, causing disadvantage on all ability checks, attack rolls, and saving throws on board until this condition is cleared.
20Splinters. Splinters fly along ballistic trajectories across the deck of the ship. All creatures on board must make a Dexterity saving throw (DC 15), taking 2d6 piercing damage on a failed save, or half as much on a success.

Ship Exhaustion

The harsh conditions at sea and the demands of combat can cause a ship to stop functioning properly, until it eventually breaks down. Such wear and tear is represented using exhaustion, as described in the Player’s Handbook, with these modifications:

  • When a ship reaches exhaustion level 6, its hull points drop to 0 and becomes disabled.
  • Each level of exhaustion earned has a chance to affect one of the ship’s systems, determined by the Game Master.
  • The only way to remove the effects of exhaustion on a ship is to repair it.

System Failure

Certain situations can lead to total failure of any of the ship’s components. System failures are a more severe and lasting form of critical damage. The Dungeon Master determines when system failures occur, the severity of failures, and what systems on board are affected.

Disabled

A ship becomes disabled when it reaches 0 hull points. When a ship is disabled, it cannot move under its own power, nor can it take any actions. The ship cannot benefit from repairs until the disabled condition is removed. If the ship takes any damage while suffering from the disabled condition, it automatically starts sinking.

Sinking

Sinking ships flood with water and are eventually claimed by the sea. When a ship begins to sink, its Captain rolls a d6 to determine how many rounds the ship has before it is completely underwater. This time should be used to get crew up from below deck and into lifeboats (your ship does have lifeboats, right?).

Repairs

When the guns have gone silent and the smoke has cleared, the damage needs to be repaired. Creatures on board may attempt to make repairs to the ship, provided they meet the following criteria:

  • The ship is not involved in combat.
  • The creature making the repairs is focusing solely on the repairs.
  • The creature must be able to access the damaged area in need of repair.
  • The creature must have the right tools for the job (usually Carpenter’s Tools, but not always).

Remove Exhaustion

If the ship has one or more levels of exhaustion, a creature can spend 8 hours (a full working day) trying to reduce the ship’s exhaustion by performing maintenance. The ship must be docked at a port or shipyard, and the creature must have the materials to make the necessary repairs. After 8 hours of repair work, the creature makes a DC 15 Strength (Carpenter’s Tools) check. If the check succeeds, the ship’s exhaustion level decreases by 1. If the check fails, the ship’s exhaustion level remains unchanged, though the repair can be attempted again using the same materials. Multiple creatures can work together to perform the work faster.

Restore Hull Points

If the ship has taken damage but has at least 1 hull point remaining, a creature can spend 8 hours (a full working day) trying to restore hull points. The ship must be at anchor or docked at a port or a shipyard, and the creature must have the materials to make the necessary repairs. After 8 hours of repair work, the creature makes a DC 15 Strength (Carpenter’s Tools) check. If the check succeeds, the ship regains 1d10 hull points. Multiple creatures can work together to restore hull points faster.

Repairing a Failed System

Repairing failed systems will involve special tasks depending on the system in question, often involving the use of various tools, materials, and expertise. This sometimes may turn into an adventure on its own, as players source the various elements needed to complete the repairs.

Restoring a Ship: Removing the Disabled Condition

Should your ship become disabled, not all is lost. If the ship is towed into a port or shipyard, a creature can spend 8 hours (a full working day) overhauling the ship. The creature must have the tools and material necessary for the repairs. After 8 hours of repair work, the creature makes a DC 20 Strength (Carpenter’s Tools) check. If the check succeeds, the ship is no longer disabled.

Adventuring with Ships

Travel Speed

Most ships of this time period were capable of sailing at a sustained 8 knots (9.2 mph or 14.8 kph), which we will simplify to 10 mph for the purposes of crawling across the hex map at 1 hex per hour.

Provisioning

Ships need crew to operate, and crew need food, water, and sundries to survive. Provisioning ships is simplified with the portions system. One portion per day is needed to keep one crew member alive and well with a modest lifestyle aboard. One portion costs 5 sp.

Repair Materials

Look, as much as I love the Age of Sail and wish we could dig right into all of the nitty gritty of maintaining a ship of this time period – I know you probably don’t care for too much detail. So we’re going to simplify all of the various materials needed to keep a ship maintained into one catch-call abstraction called Repair Materials. It costs one unit of repair materials to repair one hull point of damage, remove one critical damage condition, or lift the disabled condition. Repair Materials cost 100 gp each.

Crew

Almost all ships require crew to operate. A ship’s minimum crew requirement is determined by a number of factors, but mostly by its size. The minimum crew required to operate the vessel is the first number indicated in a ship’s crew capacity entry on its stat block. The second number is the maximum crew complement of the vessel, which includes passengers as well.

NPC Crew

Since we won’t have a player party numbering in the hundreds, we must rely upon the NPC crew to perform many of the basic functions of the vessel, such as furling and unfurling the sails, running pumps, weighing anchor, and firing the many cannons on board most armed vessels. NPC crews have ratings that simulate their level of training and experience.

These ratings translate into the modifier used when you roll dice on their behalf: Green (+2), Regular (+3), Veteran (+4), and Elite (+5).

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