Ship Exploration and Sea Based Adventures

There comes a time in every game world where one wants to explore the world. Sure, the DM can sit down and just finish drawing his maps, but where is the fun in that? Today we are going to be exploring, this can be challenging, and an entire campaign all of its own. Instead of a villain which fuels the players, it is exploration and adventure itself that keeps them going.

The Science of the Known World

Now, before we can begin exploring, we must have a society that is advanced enough to perform such crazy antics as leaving the coast and setting the heading for open, and unknown sea! Up to this time, ships kept to the coast, always within sight of land. It was believed that the world was flat and one didn’t want to fall off of the other side. At some point, some great mind figured out that if the world was flat, then we wouldn’t have any water, so it must be some other shape. Science has to be ready, else you can sail forever without hitting any land what so ever! Astronomy is used to guide the ships, the night sky must be known and elements picked out which can be used for navigation. In our world, we’ve always used the North Star for the Northern Hemisphere, and with this star, we can also determine exactly what Latitude we are traveling. Once we add Latitude to our charts, we are ready to see what else is out there.

Longitude was known, but until the advent of a clock which could keep time accurately even while at sea, this was never known, and maps suffered for it. The Captain of the ship could only guess at the exact Longitude based on carefully tracking the ships speed and distance traveled. In theory, this should had worked, but it rarely did, not until a clock was invented in the late 17th century did we finally have a tool that could give us exact Longitude.

Maps in the New World

Captains were responsible for purchasing their own maps and sea charts, these were produced by merchants who discovered that wind and water current on the Oceans and Seas were very reliable, thus were formed established trade routes, highly used one were remarkably accurate, however many maps on the market were very dubious at best. The land could be there, but it was rarely where it was suppose to be. Some maps were absolute frauds! Made by men who never so much as set foot in a boat! Maps were also highly guarded and horded. Accurate maps were worth top dollar and never ever shared as a Captain with an accurate map was able to establish more personal power then a Captain with a lesser chart. Each Captain also constantly worked on his own maps, which he used for personal use, and maybe he sold them. The highest bidder for any sea chart was the Admiralty. This was military secrets, the French government was constantly trying to steal British maps, and vice versa, thus espionage became a popular national past-time.

Charts were, many times, incorrect, and made for beauty then actual function, however they were a necessary evil, thus the PC’s will need to purchase one before heading out. Few men were capable of producing excellent maps, if you want to get into some fascinating research, check out any book about Captain Cook, one of the greatest map makers of all time. He (re)discovered Australia and New Zealand as well as explored the islands in the South Pacific, it is a truly fascinating read! And can give you lots of ideas for creating suitable adventures, and getting an idea of what this kind of life was like.

Government at Sea

Officers are almost always born into this trade. Professional sailors started very young, when they are still children. Once they become men the go before the Admiral Board and answer questions which are posed to them, if they pass this test, then they become officers.

Navigators were rarely officers, but made more money then the Lieutenants, however once you were a Navigator you’ll never get promoted. It is the Navigator who collects the information collected by the captain and determines their location on the chart. If there is a problem, he will alert the captain so that he may fix his heading.

Scientists were given privileges and treated as civilians, and were also necessary for discovery. One sage on Botony collected plants, and determined if they were healthy for consumption, as well as collecting information on any properties that natives use them for.

Zoologists were very popular on a ship, usually paying the men for animals which could be studied and collected. These creatures were never taken alive, the Zoologist usually killed the creatures humanly as possible, and stuffed them. They collected bugs, and birds as well as drew pictures of them. This was big money, as books on creatures are always popular.

The Ship Surgeon was also a necessity on all ships. In D&D this can be a cleric, but it will also always have a leech present as well. Scurvy is always a big problem, as is decease and when one man got sick or injured, it was usually on such a scale that it was too much for one cleric to handle alone.

The Ship Captain was of course the most important position on the ship. This will always be at least 10th level fighter. He is responsible for the ship and all the lives on her. He will oversee all of the men, he will discipline them as he sees fit, assign job duties, and even establish a diet! It was Captain Cook that discovered that citrus fruit kept scurvy at bay, and really established a working diet that kept his men healthy. This stuff wasn’t always pleasant to eat, however it was rich in vitamins which sailors usually gave up for more neutral flavors. The men hated it, but Cook ate it as well and never complained, and the men did notice that it was keeping them healthy and alive.

The Boson was the man directly in charge of the crew. He was commonly elected by the men and was the man who more often then not dealt with the officers. He paid the men their rations, kept the daily duties in order, and it was his hand that normally disciplined the crew unless the officer chose to do it personally. This was a hard job, as complaints always went to the Boson and he was expected to do something about it, however lacked the real power to get anything done unless it was the will of the officers.

Navigation was a dangerous practice, and normally given to the young sailors to give them experience so that they can become officers themselves one day. It took two people to determine the ships speed. This was done with a length of rope that was dropped at the back of the ship for a specific amount of time and the knots were counted. A preferred speed is at least 5 knots, but a good ship could obtain up to 12 with a good head wind. Larger ships were slower, normally only able to obtain 8 knots, thus pirates and merchants preferred smaller ships, while military convoys preferred large ships which were slower but more heavily armed.

Another part of navigation was the astronomer, this wasn’t a scientific position, it was a common sailor who was trained to use the sun, and the stars and give these readings to his officer who would take it to the navigator. This job was coveted as any sailor worth his weight wanted to be a navigator or an officer, many times it was the officer himself that would check these readings. As said before, this was to check the latitude which could be calculated, other instruments would also be checked on a regular basis, some were experimental. Scientific knowledge is build upon through trial and error, and a captain will collect a few of these items to test them out. Most fail utterly, however a few work well and become common on every ship.

The really dangerous jobs were those that looked for obstacles. Of course everybody knows of the lookout. This was a terrifying chore! You are several feet above the ship on a post that is swinging like mad with the ocean. It is like standing on a ladder that is constantly in motion!!! It was this man’s job to look for land, other ships, wrecks, ice burgs, and whales. He would be skilled at observing ships and identifying them as quickly as possible.

Another dangerous job is checking the depth. For this a boy would be dropped from the stern of the ship, in a harness. He would then drop a weighted line and make sure that the bottom of the ship wasn’t going to touch the ground. He also looked for small objects floating in the water that could damage the ships hull. He could be hanging there by a chain for hours at a time! Two men would be responsible for him and his safety, if this man was injured, they would be held responsible for it and punished accordingly. The boys that did this became skilled at judging water depth and observing hidden shoals with almost superhuman accuracy. This job was hazardous as hell, however it was beneficial to all who preformed this task. While at open sea, the time spent hanging was kept to a minimum, only as long as it took the sailor to judge how many leagues deep the water is, but closer to land where the dangers of grounding or cutting the hull this was a full time job unless the actual depth was previously known by a good and well trusted chart.

In Game Applications

Chances are, we aren’t going to want to actually play long sea voyages out. It will be your job as a DM to do all of the prep prior to the actual voyage taking place. For this we can determine how many days that the voyage will take and see what will happen between here and there and assign our encounters accordingly. Much of the voyage will be reaction, but we will need to see if they get lost, and how long it takes for them to discover and correct their heading. We’ll also check weather once per day, if a storm is determined it is a judgment call to see if it is something that you want to role-play or not. If the storm is taking place during an encounter with a monster, or if the storm threatens to bash the ship to pieces or require the skill of the PC’s to avoid crashing into an island then you may want to role-play that on game day, but keep checking all of your stuff assuming that the ship survives.

Repairing the Ship

For this article we’ll just assume that Small-Medium Seaworthy Vessels have 10hp, and Large ships have 20hp. These aren’t the same as character hit points, but structural. A guy with a sword can’t sink a ship, however ramming or cannon fire can. We won’t deal with ship to ship combat during this article, and you can find the exact hit points for a particular vessel in a good manual. We need these hp to determine day to day damage. For game purposes I suggest rolling a 1d4, a roll of 1 or 4=0 points of damage, 2=1, and 3=2. But feel free to tinker. Barnacles and constant battering will wear away at the hull, this is repaired by the ships crew with finding a place suitable for dry docking. This is when a ship is purposely grounded and pulled to shore onto a soft sandy beach so that the hull can be cleaned, cocked, and repaired. A crew can patch holes and tears in the hull with short bits of rope soaked in tar. If the damage is too extensive then a ship’s carpenter will have to find suitable wood to make new boards. Tall trees are also used to make new masts which can get broken by wind or attack, it is usually a good idea to have at least one backup mast. Extensive repairs can take weeks, simple patch ups and regular scrubbings just cost a day or two.

We can check for hp cost once per month, this will be deducted until suitable land can be discovered to dry dock the ship. If the ship is reduced to half of it’s hp, it will also travel half as fast, say an average speed of 3 knots. 3/4th hp and the pumps won’t be able to keep up and the ship will take on water. At 0hp the ship will sink.

Pumping was done manually until the power of steam was harnessed. Large seaworthy vessels normally had 3 pumps down in the hold that were manned by 3 sailors per pump. This was laborious work, and a chore rotated as often as possible, however the duty normally took at least an hour. Any hp damage will result in sailors having to man the pumps.

Small Ship . . . . . . . . . . .3d6hp
Large Ship . . . . . . . . . . 1d12+11hp
War Ship . . . . . . . . . . . 7d6hp

This only should be used when off of an established trade route and you have no idea what the weather will be. You can also use the tables described in the DMG if you don’t like these, particularly the 2e way of establishing wind direction is much better then what I have listed here, it is just a judgment call.

Direction (1d8)

1. N . . . . . . 5. NW
2. S . . . . . . 6. NE
3. E . . . . . . 7. SW
4. W . . . . . 8. SE

Force (3d6)

3. Calm/ 0-1 mph
4-8. Light Breeze/2-7 mph
9-12. Moderate Breeze/ 8-18 mph
13-15. Strong Breeze/ 19-31 mph
16. Strong Gale/ 32-54 mph
17. Storm/ 55-72 mph
18. Hurricane/ 73-136 mph

Any wind of Strong Gale or above has a chance of damaging the ship, these checks are made every 6 hours. Failure indicates that men are blown from the ship, and/or hull damage, the actual damage is up to the DM because it depends on the situation.

The first number is Strong Gale~Storm~Hurricane and is checked with 1d100

Capsizing: 1%~20%~40%
Broken Mast: 5%~25%~45%
Broken Beams: 10%~35%~50%
Torn Sail &/or Fouled Rigging: 20%~45%~65%
Man Overboard: 10%~50%~70%

Adventures at Sea

Most of the time, the Government itself wants this information because it can expand it’s territory by sending colonies later, it can also establish new trade routes, seek new cultures, and/or new technologies.

It is best that the Navigator and the specialized scientist/sages are not PCs, the PC characters can protect these men, this is because these men should be extremely skilled at their crafts, more skilled then any common adventurer. Map making really isn’t all that gamey, you’ll want to focus on other things then rolling against a characters map-making proficiency skill, or at least I assume as much. Also, if you are using low-level PCs, then they will also need an experienced Captain to teach them the ropes and control the men. Eventually, because of death or some other factor, they may eventually captain their own ships, but they won’t be respected by the men unless they are at least 10th level.


It is absolutely impossible to randomly determine land mass effectively, but we can try! It is best to just put land where you want it, and randomly determine what is on the land itself.


01-75 none
76-90 Underwater Reef
91-96 Small Island
97-99 Large Island
00 Huge Landmass

That generator absolutely sucks. I sure as heck wouldn’t want to use it, but I guess that it would work in a crunch. We should know the general area, or at least what it can look like. It can also be just peppered, Go look at a globe and you can see how things work. Islands usually form clusters, and Ships will stay near them. You should determine visibility normally, and it follows the standard rules in the DMG.
Once you do hit land, a quick survey of the area can be done. One doesn’t want to get too far from the ship, nor ever leave it unprotected, but a small group can scout the area.

For this, you should use a hexagonal paper. You should draw in rivers, as these can’t be randomly generated, nor can the outline of the island or land mass, but the actual terrain can be.

Terrain Guide:

tundra, steppe, savanna, prairie, heath, moor, downs, meadow
Scrub: brush, veldt, bush, thickets, brackens
Forest: woods, jungle, groves and copses (light forest)
Rough: badlands
Desert: barrens, waste, flat, snowfield
Hills: ridges, bluffs, dunes
Mountains: mesas, glacier, tors
Marsh: fen, slough, swamp, bog, mire, guagmire, morass
Pond: pools, tarn, lake
Depression: gorge, rift, valley, canyon


Read your pulp adventure stories to get lots of ideas for encounters. Most of the time you should have a plan, but sometimes we don’t. For this you can randomly generate inhabitation as well.

It is however preferred that we fill the smaller islands with native tribes of lesser technology, with these people we can explore ideas that normal games just don’t give us. We won’t speak the same language, this language barrier must be breached, somehow. We also don’t know how the natives will treat the party, for this we’ll have to really rely on their CHA score, as well as use the Random Encounter Reactions table in the DMG, we’ll also want to check to see if anybody is surprised, and how far away they are by using the Encounter Distance table, also in the DMG but all of this stuff can also be found on the back of a good DM screen.

Alternatively, there could be a nation that is superior to your current one, in the short blink of human history, throughout most of it, we didn’t know each other even existed! The possibilities are exciting and near inexhaustible.

Inland Exploration

Ocean worthy ships won’t worry about this, they will spend all of their time charting the coastlines. Further exploration will no doubt have to be done at a later time, for this, the giant ships will have to carry smaller boats that can be maneuvered on River. It is always preferred to explore UP river, versus down it, because if you get caught in a current, you’ll be open pray for any number of catastrophes that can’t be easily avoided. You’ll also want to hire a local guide, somebody who knows the area and can help you avoid pitfalls. Losing a boat in the middle of a dark jungle would be fatal to any party, the odds of coming out alive would be nil and none.


A King may also have a high level PC construct a fort in a new land. THIS is exciting play, but unfortunately out of the scope that this article is capable of containing. Thankfully, most of the rules in regards to building forts and castles are thoroughly documented by AD&D rules, so this level of play can be obtained with less pain then one might think.

Ocean and Sea travel can open up new possibilities to a dying game world, and you can still keep the current continuity going. There are more possiblities at Sea, then just exploration. If the nation is at war with a rival, PC’s may obtain Letters of Marque, which will allow them to legally plunder enemy ships and sack enemy villages, towns, and cities . . . Well, as long as the war is going on. It would just be a crying shame that they didn’t get word from the King in time wouldn’t it?

Hunting Pirates can be very profitable as well! They could be press-ganged into joining a crew for a short period of time. And there are always hints of pirate treasures and forgotten ruins to be had. The fastest way of travel is with ships, and while basic D&D does not fully support the act of leaving the coast to explore uncharted realms, this doesn’t mean that that goes for us Expert players and DMs who definitely want to head off of the map. As long as it is fun, then we aren’t playing incorrectly, now are we!


Anonymous said...

One word: WOW! I love this.

Darn. That's four words.

Alexis Smolensk said...

As usual, the very sort of simplistic and casual overview that anyone could throw together after two or three days research. Much of your beginning dialogue really fails to get to the meat of the issue, being exactly "how" does one explore the world...

Don't take this too hard, but it frustrates me that you've taken all this time to write this lengthy post but you've offered so little. Your storm table, for instance, fails to grasp the real potentials for the various weathers a ship must face: rime, for example, that freezes the ropes; fog, blinding the ship; mist, not as thick as fog, but limiting the opportunties of seeing another ship before it is too close to avoid; heavy rain as opposed to light rain; rain that lasts all day as compared to a thunderstorm; snow; funnel clouds...and so on. And what about the height of waves or wave crests? What provisions have you offered for the doldrums?

You have only three sizes of ship? What about snaikas (single masted merchant ships), cogs (deep merchant ships), galleys, galleons, hulks (massive grain supply ships), ketches, yachts, dhows, catamarans...where are my stats for all of these items?

You think the wind direction should be random? Do you know any place on earth where the wind direction floats about all points of the compass? Shouldn't it depend on what landmasses the ship is moving away from, or towards, or between? Or how far north we are? Or what season it is? And what about ocean currents? Don't you think the ship will encounter these?

The terrain guide is lifted practically word for word out of the first edition DMs Guide. And the landmass generator--shouldn't the DM have a better concept of what's over the horizon than this?

Sad, I say. Very sad. Back to the drawing board for you.

RipperX said...

Hey greywulf, thanks!

To alexis, thank you for reading as well. Well, at least kind of reading it. Looking it over and then bitching about it, then.

All of the questions you ask can be answered in the post itself, but like DMing, it requires YOU to actually interpret the information.

I think that our DMing styles clash, or perhaps you are just asking to much?

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