how to sail

The 4e removal of the 3e “Craft” and “Profession” skills didn’t really make much of a difference to me, for the most part. As the 4e people say, “If you want to be a baker, just write ‘baker’ on your character sheet.” Baking doesn’t come up much in my campaign, more’s the pity. Sailing, might, and I kind of miss having a skill for it.

How do you handle sailing checks? Do you use balance checks for running the rigging? Nature checks for spotting storms? I couldn’t even decide what attribute is the key one for sailing a ship. You could make an argument for several: Dexterity for climbing the rigging, Intelligence for doing navigational calculations, etc.

Thinking about that, it seems logical to make sailing be a whole-party skill challenge. However, since there aren’t really enough appropriate skills, maybe they should just be ability checks.

Here’s how you might handle a storm at sea:

“A sail breaks loose. Someone strong needs to haul on the rope before a mast breaks.” The fighter makes a Strength check to haul on the rope.

“A wave hits the ship’s quarter, sending the wheel spinning and breaking the helmsman’s arm. Someone with a high Constitution needs to grab the wheel and hold it straight, no matter how much abuse they take from the wind, rain, and bucking of the wheel. Not the fighter, he is still hauling on the rope.” The sorcerer, who has a decent constitution, grabs the wheel.

“Someone with a good Wisdom should climb up in the crow’s nest and watch the wind direction.” Cleric climbs into the crow’s nest. Etc.

If the party succeeds on half or more of their checks, they succeed at the challenge.

What should be the DC of these checks? Straight ability checks have much less variation than skill checks; and the few abilities and items that boost ability checks are often suboptimal choices and might as well be rewarded anyway. You can expect that if all the players are heroic level, using their best or second-best ability, they will have +3, +4, or +5 bonuses, plus half level. If the DC is 15 plus half level, allowing players to succeed on a d20 roll of 11 or better, a party of 3 or 5 characters would have about a 50% chance of success, and a party of 4 characters a 70% chance of success. If the DC is 10, an odd number of PCs have a 90% chance of success, and an even number has 95%. We’ll say, therefore, that DC 10+1/2 level is easy and DC 15+1/2 level is hard.

At epic levels, player abilities are higher: top ability bonuses average +7 instead of +4. Therefore, you can safely pitch more DC 15+1/2 level challenges at players, or, on the other hand, just let the PCs succeed more. One of the benefits of being high level is that you are good at everything, and that might translate into more sailing successes.

How is the re-usability of this skill challenge? If the PCs have a ship, they may face sailing challenges often. When a sailing check is needed, each PC can have an accustomed role. Everyone makes their check and the successes are tallied. There’s one or two roles per ability:

STR oarsman (or rope hauler, if needed)
CON helmsman (or pumper, if the skip is sinking)
DEX topman (rigging) (or weaponmaster, in ship-to-ship combat)
INT navigator (or sailmaster, to get maximum speed)
WIS lookout (or pilot, in dangerous waters)
CHA captain or mate (or leader of the boarding party, in shipboard combat)

5 Responses to “how to sail”

  1. James C. Bennett says:

    in general, that looks like a pretty good ad hoc system. I bet something similar would work well for mass-combat battles.

    What would you suggest for groups like mine [Paladin (CHA + WIS), Cleric multiclassed to Bard (WIS + CHA), Chaos Sorcerer (CHA + DEX), and Fey Pact Hexblade (CHA + DEX)] that don’t have all the ability-score bases covered? I guess I would just make sure there are at lest 2 roles available per Ability Score, and at least 3 for Charisma with my group of hams.

  2. paul says:

    Hmm – I MIGHT be tempted to say that, without help, this charismatic group will have some difficulties charming the boat onto its proper course. If they hire a crew, though, the crew will be extraordinarily motivated.

  3. Brandonshire says:

    I like it though I still think you could fairly easily slip skills into almost everyone of those situations. Athletics instead of a Strength check for hauling in the ropes, Endurance instead of Constitution for holding the wheel in place against the weather and such, Nature instead of Wisdom for trying to figure out what the wind is doing (I think Nature is especially applicable here!), Acrobatics for moving around on a roiling ship, theivery for manipulating the ropes and tying knots perhaps? etc.

    I suppose there might not always be an totally applicable skill (not totally sure what to us for navigation, but perhaps these sorts of challenges should be saved for more dramatic times like just keeping the boat from wrecking, rather than for less dramatic things like navigation etc? I mean Nature might still make sense in terms of reading the stars, currents, and winds and such, though it might make sense to break something like that down a bit too).

    Not that I have any problem with your system, it’s especially useful for those times when something unexpected comes up and you can’t really figure out a skill to use, but I think in general I’d still probably want to call for skill checks if I can, just since I already know how the DC’s for those should work for the group.

  4. Thorynn says:

    Seems like everybody has pirates and the high seas on the brain: just did some pirate hooks (get it?) and I’m literally embarking on the beginning of a pirate campaign tonight!

  5. ranthoron says:

    Navigation should IMHO be nature – finding the right stars to follow etc…

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