I recently bought the WorldWorks Games “Maiden of the High Seas.” It’s a huge, beautiful papercraft ship for use in D&D and other fantasy games. As I’ve been cutting, gluing, and folding, I’ve also been brainstorming ways to incorporate it into adventures. After all, it would be a little depressing to do a bunch of work putting it together only to let it gather dust on a shelf somewhere. One of my brainstorms involved a large scale naval battle. Unfortunately, the size of the finished ship and the time it takes to build just one disqualifies using the papercraft model for such an endeavor. It occurred to me, however, that there is a way to simulate something like this within your game – by dropping an already complete miniature ship battling game into your D&D adventure.
A few years ago, I got into the game “Pirates of the Spanish Main” by WizKids games. I have quite a ship collection. All my cards have been sitting unused on my game shelf for a while now, and it occurred to me that I could drop the entire rules set, slightly modified, into a D&D adventure.
For those of you who have never played Pirates of the Spanish Main, it’s a cross between a collectible card game (CCG) and a miniatures battling game. Your ships come as pieces that you punch out of a plastic card (think credit card) and assemble. Assembled ships are a little less than an inch across, and generally two or three inches long. Each ship has a number of masts with cannons attached, a cargo hold size, a given speed, a point value and usually a special ability. Players build fleets in a “point-buy” system; in other words, players agree on a number of points to build fleets with, and use the point value assigned to each boat (and special crew members) to choose ships. Movement is free-form (there’s no grid). During gameplay, players move around to attack one another’s ships, land on islands (which are also included in ship packs) and gather gold.
I hadn’t read the rules in a while, but after a quick refresher, I decided that I could slightly modify the rules to work in a D&D setting. Here are the changes I made:
Drop the Exploration & Gold Gathering Aspect
For the purposes of what I want to do, there’s no reason for players to gather gold. They’re only engaging in a naval battle. So immediately, the rules for exploration, pillaging others’ ships, and cargo hold capacity get thrown out.
Drop the “Ram,” “Pin,” and “Board” Rules
Pinning and Ramming add something to the game, but they’re too detailed for what I’m trying to do – make a boiled down version of the game. Plus, I have in mind a battle with one or two really big ships (the DM) against several smaller ships (the PCs). Having one of the DM’s ships pinned during the combat would be akin to the PCs stunning a solo monster. There’s a fairly good chance one of my players will want to try and ram anyways, in which case I’ll fall back on the rules as written, minus the pinning aspect. Boarding is something I would want to “zoom in” on and use the big papercraft model ship for, so I’m dropping those rules as well.
Use a Grid for Movement
Dungeons & Dragons players are used to using a grid for movement, and to be honest, I always thought the free-form movement rules for the original game were a bit fiddly. I replaced free movement with a simpler, grid-based, rule: short equals 2 squares, and long equals 3. I left the rest of the movement rules intact.
Adding a Risk Component
I needed to incorporate an aspect of risk to the battle as well. After all, if there’s no fear of death, why would it be fun? So I added the following rules:
- If your ship is sunk, you need to make a moderate DC athletics check every subsequent turn. If you fail your athletics check by 5 or more, you sink below the waves, and die. (Note: Hardcore DMs could probably leave out the “by 5 or more” part. I certainly considered it, but I guess I’m a bigger softie than I’d like to admit.)
- If you haven’t died, any ship can pick you up as a minor action by stopping in one of the squares you sank in. You are now considered a musketeer aboard that boat, and roll your own attack roll on that ship’s turn.
Making it More Familiar
Finally, I decided to use the action economy that D&D has, to make the game more familiar. On their turn, each player gets a minor, a move, and a standard, with the same “trade down” system that D&D uses. Not only does this put the players farther up the learning curve, it will also move the combat along; the original game only allows a move OR an attack on your turn.
An Anachronistic Problem
Of course, there is also a “fluff” issue we have, but it’s easily solved. Most D&D settings do not have gunpowder, let alone cannons. Instead, we’re going to say that every ship has a wizard in each crow’s nest. These wizards are one-trick ponies, but they do that trick really well: they can only cast “Force Orb” (PHB p. 160) as an at-will power. There are varying degrees of ability among these wizards, which explains the different ranges and to-hits of each cannon. Finally, it’s a good way to explain why there are only a number of cannons as there are masts, and why you can no longer shoot the cannon when the mast is destroyed. You might also introduce the “mast wizards” earlier in the adventure to help players suspend disbelief when you introduce the naval battle. As a note in the rules, I described them as wizards that have been nicknamed “canons” because they are generally smarter than the rest of the crew.
Check out our Downloads page to view the full rules set that I gave my players as a handout.
The idea is to have one or two big ships on the DMs side against one ship per PC. Referencing ship point values is the best way to make sure the encounter is balanced. For example, the DM could pit two 15 or higher point ships against five or six 4-6 point ships. The best resource I have found on ship names and their point values is at Miniature Trading. They have complete lists of all the ships, and their point values, though you have to click on a ship’s name to pull up its point value.
Unfortunately, at the time of this writing, WizKids no longer makes the Pirates of the Spanish Main booster packs. Fortunately, at the time of this writing, the secondary market for these little ships is still booming. Aside from the Miniature Trading site, you will want to check out Ebay and Amazon, and you can also check out online game sellers like Troll & Toad. Most dealers that carry Magic: The Gathering cards and D&D Miniatures will carry the ships as well. I might also mention that there were several expansions to the game such as Pirates of the Revolution, Pirates of the Barbary Coast, etcetera, so feel free to use ships from those collections as well.
Hopefully, I’ve sparked your imagination a little bit. Perhaps you have no use for naval combat, but there are a myriad of miniatures games out there. What others could we easily drop into our D&D games to change things up?