Wednesday, December 16, 2009

More on ships - the Crew

Ship's Crew

Of course, a skilled and reliable crew was as important to a successful expedition as a sturdy and reliable ship. With a crew of only about twenty sailors, every man had a place on the Caravel. Some of the more important positions included:

Captain - A good captain will have served in every other position on a ship, and know the workings of the ship inside out. Some captains, however, attain their position through wealth or position in society, and must rely more heavily on the other ranking crew members. A captain needs to be familiar with supplies, travel times, costs of provisions, materials, and repairs, and a dab hand at maintaining crew morale is a must, especially for long voyages.

First Mate - As the captain's right-hand-man, the mate needs to be just as familiar with the workings of the ship as the captain, and also serves as a force for intimidation and order as well, especially for smaller crews with no official "sergeant-at-arms", and may also serve as quartermaster, allotting provisions and alcohol rations as necessary.

Boatswain - The boatswain is essentially the foreman of the deck crew, overseeing the basic operation of the ship, inspecting the rigging, planning and scheduling sailor's work duties, etc. Getting on the boatswain's bad side was a good way to spend a long voyage scrubbing out decks and emptying slop buckets.

Pilot/Navigator - A must for any but the shortest, shore-hugging voyage, the Navigator is responsible for plotting a course and knowing where exactly the ship is at all times. A Navigator lives and dies by his knowledge of the seas he travels, and jealously guards his maps and charts (cool map at the link). A Navigator with an extensive and accurate collection of charts is able to hire himself out at a premium. Not unlike the priests of a mystery cult, Navigators closely keep their secrets, preferring the masses to remain ignorant of the scientific truths they utilize. They are able to use an hourglass, the stars, the wind, position of the sun, magnetism, and other less obvious clues of nature to know where they are at and where they are going.

Arms and Armor

Despite the popular Hollywood view of ship-board combat, sabres and pistols waving, the common arms of the common sailor were a lot less glamorous. Swords were typically the arms of the nobility, requiring expensive training, and pistols, also expensive, don't often feature in most pseudo-medieval fantasy campaigns.

Pin - The most common shipboard weapon was the Pin, a heavy wooden, clublike implement (sometimes filled with lead for added weight) used to secure rigging, hatches, and within easy reach all over the ship. It makes for a handy and deadly weapon. Suggested damage for the Pin is 1d6.

Hook - Used for hauling cargo and pulling heavy ropes, rigging, and sails, the Hook was another weapon always within easy reach, and was often used in combat to pull an enemy sailor into a death-blow from a knife or hatchet. Suggested damage is 1d4, and target must save vs. Paralyzation or suffer automatic damage from a weapon held in the assailants other hand.

Hatchet - The hatchet was also kept within easy reach at all times, as often rigging needed to be cut free quickly to avoid damage to the ship or sails in inclement weather. It's short handle made it an effective weapon in crowded shipboard conditions. Suggested damage for the Hatchet is 1d6.

Crossbows - Crossbows were a common weapon of medieval ship-to-ship combat, and special oils and grease were needed to keep strings, screws, and cranks functional in the salty sea air. Quarrels dipped in pitch and set afire were a particular menace. Unlike traditional long or short bows, crossbows required little training and were more effective in cramped conditions.

Armor - Armor is typically not worn on ships, more due to its restriction on movement than for any fear of sinking (many sailors couldn't even swim, and freezing cold often finished off those that could!), but some more militant crews wore piecemeal scraps of leather, helms, bracers, coats, boots, and the like (this sort of "armor" should convey a bonus of no more than 1 or 2 to AC). Ship's marines usually wore whatever armor their infantry counterparts wore, though they typically engaged in sea-to-land combat, not ship-to-ship. Sailors, spending months or even years aboard their ships, become intimitately familiar with their confining deck conditions, and its recommended that ship-to-ship attackers suffer a -1 penalty to-hit defenders.

Sand - An another important defensive implement on ships was sand, and many barrels were kept on board. Sand was used to douse fire (such as that from naptha or "greek fire"), and to give slippery or bloody decks more traction.


  1. Cool post! I remember having an issue of a now dead polish RPG magazine with a very long article describing how to DM a successful "sea campaign". I found some of the information useful. Perhaps one day I'll translate it and post it. Anyway, great job!

  2. This comment has been removed by the author.

  3. Outstanding! My players sail for the Isle of Dread on New Year's Day, and again, this is good stuff to have on hand. Most of my current knowledge of shipboard life is of the Napoleonic Era, although I expect there is some crossover...

  4. I take it all this ship research is relevant to a certain other project...

  5. Thanks for the info. Im in grade 8 and I'm currently learning about Ship and Navigators.

  6. What is your full name Al i'm doing an assignment and need to know


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