The Sea Dragon’s Maiden Voyage, Part II

In Part I, I outlined a skill challenge I used aboard a ship, and promised the combat encounter that followed; before we get into that combat encounter for the Sea Maiden, I wanted to highlight two other things I did during this adventure, and my thoughts on how they worked out. 

Arcane Ballista on the forecastle. The sailor henchmen are the pink starburst.

I’ve long been a fan of using special terrain features to add spice to combats.  This particular combat, however, was my first time actually trying it, and I think it went very well.  I used the Arcane Ballista from the D&D Miniatures “War Drums” line, framing it as a deck gun that the players could fire on their turn using a minor action.  Since the card that came with the mini was written with 3.5 rules, I had to come up with some 4e mechanics governing how the ballista was to be used.  I required a difficult arcane or thievery check to operate it, and then an intelligence or dexterity attack vs. AC.  Once the ballista had been fired (hit or miss), it took a full round to reload, so the team couldn’t just gather around it and fire it six times a round.  I struggled the most with determining the damage output of the ballista.  I wanted to make it good enough to be enticing to use, but not so overpowered that it would break the combat.  Obviously, the damage would be force damage, but how much?  I eventually settled on 3d6 for the 4th level party, rationalizing that rolling lots of dice is fun, and the average damage didn’t seem too out of line.  Being that the PCs were on a ship, I also gave the ballista a push ability so the players would have the opportunity to shove their adversaries overboard.  Here is what the finished product looked like: 

Arcane Ballista 

  • The arcane ballista requires a DC 22 arcana or thievery check every time you want to operate it.  This skill check is part of the minor action to fire it.
  • Powerful Blast  recharge: 1 round; Minor Action Ranged 20; Int+5 or Dex+5 vs. AC; Hit: 3d6 force damage, and you may push the target 1 square.

 (Sorry about the formatting, but you get the picture…) 

In retrospect, I may have changed the push to 2 squares, and perhaps made the arcana/thievery check a one time thing.  Other than that, I think it went very well.  Two of the PCs (trained in arcana and theivery, of course) made a beeline for the ballista as soon as I handed them the mechanic.  It’s something I will definitely do again. 

Arrrrr! Sing a chanty and man the topsail! (Artwork by Wesley K. Hall)

The second thing I tried was giving each of the players a henchman.  This idea I owe entirely to Wesley Hall over at, who proposed the idea of “reverse minions.”  He’s created three: the Merchant, Soldier, and Farmer.  These were the inspiration for my henchmen, the Sailor.  I wanted to make mine more sturdy than 1 hp, so I took the idea of a “two hit” minion, and turned it into a power.  Here is a pdf of the final result, with artwork courtesy of Wesley Hall.  They are set at level 1, but can easily be leveled up with the PCs, if you so choose, by using the SlyFlourish cheat sheet.  Just use the minion damage, atk vs def for the attack bonus, average AC, Fort & Will -2, and average Def for Reflex.  The defenses you could tweak a bit depending upon the flavor you want to give the henchmen.  

How did they go?  I’d say swimmingly. (See what I did there?)  The group immediately gave their “cabin boys” names and personalities without any real prompting.  While I didn’t give them a lot of opportunity to roleplay them, I suspect there would have been shenanigans.  The combat they were involved in wasn’t broken by the addition of the henchmen, and because they only have the one attack, things weren’t really slowed up either.  

In planning to use them, the biggest question I had was: would the players involve their henchman in combat, or opt to hide them in order to keep them around for roleplaying opportunities later?  I mean, sure, two hits is twice as hardy as one hit, but it’s still pretty fragile.  Involving them in combat would mean a pretty good chance of henchman death, and there wasn’t a replacement waiting in the wings.  I did make it clear at the start of combat that their henchmen were either in or out; they couldn’t choose to run and hide after the first hit.  In the end, only one of them chose to leave their sailor out of the combat, which was fortunate because he ended up being a hero later on.  Only one of the henchmen died, though several of them took their first hit.  I still haven’t decided whether the henchmen will stick around, given the PCs current predicament, but if they do, I expect that the group will have a lot of fun with them. 

Well, this post has run a little long, and rather than tax your attention span even more, I think we’ll put off the combat encounter until next week.  You’ll be highly amused when you see how it ends, I guarantee it.  See you then!

One thought on “The Sea Dragon’s Maiden Voyage, Part II

  1. Alphastream

    Cool ideas! I love how the ballista and giving the players NPC henchmen could change the dynamic of play. Players may try to accomplish goals through them over time or find ways to express their personality/backstory.

    In combat, the henchmen could be an asset (“Steer while I fight these guys”) but also a liability (giant squid attack, must free henchman from tentacle). That kind of dynamic shift would be very different and enjoyable. Thanks for the ideas!


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