New Unearthed Arcana, ahoy! This month we get some sweet rules for ships and managing them!
We get some new rules on improved stat blocks, the components that make them up, the officers and crew that run the ship, hazards and mutiny, and downtime management. These rules work together to put together an improved seafaring experience and I’m excited to dig into them! There’s not a lot of analysis going on this time, so I give each part a quick rundown and my thoughts on the rules.
Ship Stat Blocks
Ships have new stat blocks, that while resembling existing creature stat blocks, have a few differences that work in their favor. They track capacity for crew and cargo, the main four components, and any actions the ship and its crew can take.
There are four main components, being Hull, Control, Movement, and Weapon. Each of these have their own AC and hit points, allowing them to be targeted and destroyed individually, and some also have minimum damage thresholds, making glancing damage meaningless and places importance on big attacks on these parts.
The Hull is the frame of the ship, and if it is destroyed then the ship is wrecked. Control is whatever mechanism allows turning and maneuvering, such as the helm of a ship where the wheel controls a rudder. Generally if this is destroyed the ship is unable to turn. The movement is whatever actually propels the ship forward, be it sails, oars, or some form of engine, and you can imagine the aimless drifting that would occur with their sudden absence. And finally are any weapons mounted on the ship, such as harpoon launchers (I personally can’t wait to harpoon a Kraken).
At the end of each stat block are actions the crew can take on the ship. Some larger ships can only move at half speed or fire a portion of their weapons with a reduced crew, making keeping them alive in a fight rather important! Of course, any character can take normal actions on the deck of a ship; these actions are for the crew taken during the ship’s initiative.
There are a small number of other differences; crew, passenger, and cargo capacities are all listed, as is travel pace. You’ll also notice that the ship itself has no hit points, but rather the different components, Hull especially, have them.
Overall I like this breakdown and change in the statblocks. It keeps things recognizable but highlights the differences between a living creature and ship, and for me that makes the prospect of seafaring a lot better as a DM.
Officers, Crew, & Mutiny
When it comes to running the ship, you need officers who know what they’re doing and can direct activities. There are a total of six positions, and a person can only fill one role at a time, though a ship may have multiples of a given role. Not everyone has a role, and those are just considered crew; these are the majority of those running the ship and doing the handiwork.
Here’s a quick rundown of the six roles
Captain – In charge and give orders
First Mate – Keeps morale up with supervision, encouragement, and discipline
Bosun – Gives technical advice and leads repairs
Quartermaster – Plots the ship’s travel and has nautical knowledge
Surgeon – Takes care of injuries and illnesses
Cook – Cooks food to keep crew healthy
The crew represents the rest of the sailors on board the vessel. They are measured with a quality score that measure morale, skill, health, and more. As the number goes down, the likelihood of a mutiny increases, but as it goes up so does their loyalty. Being kept in good health and getting to spend time ashore increases their quality, but illness, injury, and causalities suffered will decrease it quick.
Once the crew’s quality score gets low enough, the captain must make attempts to keep the peace else face a mutiny. The lower the quality the harder it is to keep the crew in line, and the higher likelihood the captain could find themselves dead or imprisoned on their own ship.
These are some solid, albeit light, rules for the people on board the ship. The mutiny rules are simple and easy to adjudicate as a DM, and keeping the officer positions limited with a generic crew makes the logistics a breeze to handle.
Travel at Sea
The speed of a ship determines how fast it can move, but there are certain activities that crew and officers can take during the day. Anyone can draw a map, though often a captain will be the one to do so. Anyone can also forage and fish for sources of food. The last activity anyone can try is to notice threats, which includes finding dangers hidden on the ship itself.
Then there are four activities to be taken by specific officers. First is an attempt at raising morale by the First Mate, but only on crews with a quality score below the default of 4. Second is Navigate by the Quartermaster to prevent the crew from becoming lost. The Bosun can attempt to repair components of the ship, even non-hull components that are completely destroyed. And finally the captain can attempt to stealthily move or hide in poor visibility conditions.
These activities combined allow a crew to add a bit of action to their daily voyage, and can be what’s needed to prevent a mutiny or drifting endlessly at sea. Overall I like them combined with the generic downtime activities already present in the game
Of course, the seas are treacherous and never a walk in the park. These rules break them down into environmental hazard and everything else.
Environmental hazards can represent icebergs, storms, and strong waters. When encountered, each officer takes a check in a specific skill and the crew also rolls a d20 adding their quality. The result of those combined scores determine the fate of the ship and the consequences, meaning small vessels will fare much worse in hazards. The results range from the crew quality increasing all the way to major component damage and crew members taken overboard.
Other hazards include emergency maneuvers, conflicts, fires, plagues, and infestations. Each of these demand a different check, from moving away from a kraken bent on capsizing a ship to putting out a literal fire, and the consequences for failing each is detailed.
I like this approach to hazards, though I wish the consequences were a little more open. Most focus on component damage or crew quality, and having some unique ship statuses or other effects could be exciting and refreshing.
Ships in Combat & Crashing
Ships will of course come across enemy ships on open waters. They use their own initiative, and the captain, first mate, or bosun can issue two special actions. One grants advantage on a single weapon attack for the crew, and the other allows the ship to move full speed ahead and move a little faster than normal.
Crashing happens when a ship runs into an object or creature that is a size smaller than it or bigger. The ship has to make a Constitution saving throw or take damage based on the object or creature as well as stop moving. Assuming it does pass, the creature or object is displaced or destroyed as the ship continues through. Creatures hit get a chance to make a Dexterity saving throw for half damage
This is a neat and tidy approach to combat and crashing; the crashing rules make sense and are easily changeable for any odd effects the DM needs to take into account, and the combat allows the captain and other officers to help the ship out slightly during a fight instead of doing their own actions.
Owning a Ship & Downtime
Now, owning a ship is a big task. It requires hiring a crew and shelling out for resources. Luckily, we are given an expedited downtime resolution mechanic for a ship you let set sail on its own. Whenever the ship returns to port, you roll 5d20, and that is how much gp you earn from the ship after costs. If any of those rolls are a 1, there is a complications table to roll on that goes from losing all profit to your crew deciding to smuggle and getting caught, becoming imprisoned and your ship impounded.
While this resolution mechanic may be a bit light for some DMs, this works well for a DM who doesn’t want to simulate a ship every 4 weeks on in-game time using a more complicated method. Also this way, the DM can easily modify this existing structure for more complications, more or less dice for profit, or other factors that affect success.
I have to say, travel in general can be a bit bland. Every DM I know wants to run a seafaring campaign, let alone a session, but I often see questions on how to make travel and seafaring escapades fun. I think this month’s Unearthed Arcana hits the nail on the head. It provides enough for most DMs, is easily customizable for those who want a little extra something, and at the very least highlights the major bits for those who want to start from scratch. This month’s UA gets a big thumbs up!
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