Tag Archives: Naval Conflict

Large Scale Naval Conflict – Post Playtest

The players made short work of my "solo" ship

I mentioned a post or two ago that I had tried my Large Scale Naval Conflict rules with my group.  I thought I’d write a few words about how it went, and how I might have done things a bit differently.

First however, for those of you unwilling to go back and read the original article, the gist is this:  use the miniature ship battling game “Pirates of the Spanish Main” as a starting point, and pare the rules down so they can be learned in about 5 minutes.    

The advantages to doing this are twofold.  First, the miniatures for this game are really quite stunning.  Moving little model ships around the battlemat when you’re simulating a naval encounter is really the only way to go, in my opinion.  Second, since it’s already a miniature battling game, the mechanics are already there, and only have to be tinkered with (or not!) to successfully bring them into your 4e Dungeons & Dragons adventure.    

First, the setup.  Each of my players had a two mast ship, worth about 5 or 6 points.  The number of masts rougly corresponds to hit points – without any masts, you can’t move or shoot, and if you’re hit, you sink.  The points are merely a measure of how “good” the ship is.  I had two ships, plus a special crew member.  The first ship was a 5 mast, 21 point ship (El Acorazado), and the other was a 3 mast, 8 point ship (El Corazon Del Mar).  The first ship had a special ability that required a player to make two successful hits to remove one mast.  On top of that, the pirate crew member they were after (Joaquin Vega) had a complimentary ability that ignored the first hit as long as the ship had all its masts.  So basically, my big bad solo ship could take two hits from every player, every turn, without showing any damage.  It was the third hit that took out a mast.  The second ship was there to lend support, be a distraction, and balance out the points (I had 28, my players had 30).      

Now, a ship gets one shot per mast, so the two mast ships that my players had were going to have a difficult time damaging my ship.  I was ok with that because it was 5 on 2, so the odds were stacked against me otherwise.   It was my way of balancing the encounter, and keeping the ship threatening.  Otherwise, the sheer number of cannons on the players’ ships would easily take out mine.  This way, I was able to keep shooting for a few more turns.  

So how did it go? If the metric we’re using is fun, I’d say it went very well.  If the metric we’re using is challenge, I feel I could have done a better job.  Even with a “three hits to damage” setup, I was only able to sink one of their ships.  I did have another of their ships down to no sails as well, but in the end, it was too easy for them to use the force of numbers to hem me in and pound me with cannon fire.   

 Here are a few tweaks that I would suggest if you’re considering doing this as well: 

  • Instead of a second “medium sized” ship, I would have used several smaller ships (think minions).  I had opted for two ships in order to keep my turns simple, but in the end, that wasn’t really an issue.  Having more cannons on my side would have been helpful, as well as more ships to run interference.
  • Don’t be afraid to put more than one type of crew member on your ships – having a musketeer AND a helmsman makes you more of a threat.  I wouldn’t recommend more than two, however.  Since crew members have point values, you can use that to keep the encounter balanced.
  • Like D&D solo monsters, give your big ship an “action point.” 

Finally, I realized that I didn’t need the “correct” ships to make the scenario work.  As long as each ship had the correct number of masts, it would be possible to make up cards with the rest of the relevant stats to reference.  You’re not playing the “official” game; the ships are mostly for visual appeal, so having the “right” ship to go with the stats in front of you isn’t necessary.  That’s good news, because I’m guessing you can pick up some of the less desirable ships on Ebay for pretty cheap.  If you need ideas as to what different ships can do, I’d suggest this link to Miniature Trading.  Pick any of the Pirates of the Spanish Main expansion sets, and sort by “Type” to get all the ships.  Hover on any ship name, and you get a popup picture of the mini; click on it, and you get all its stats.  Pretty cool. 

I would definitely do this again.  I’m not sure the opportunity will come up again anytime soon, but I’m going to keep it in my little bag of tricks.  It was a lot of fun, and I highly recommend it. 

So, I’m sure I didn’t cover everything.  Do you have any questions about how the scenario went?  

Large Scale Naval Conflict In Your D&D Campaign

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?