Wednesday 12 December 2012

Abstract Naval Combat Rules

Naval Combat with wind-powered boats is complex.  There are different ships with different capabilities, different manoeuvres that can be done, and wind plays a major role.  Evil Stevie does a good job of capturing the experience while simplifying it somewhat, BUT at the same time I'm looking for something even more simple and, by necessity, abstract. I should also mention that I'm assuming fairly small ships, certainly not 28-gun frigates!

I want to have ship-combat, but at the same time, I don't want to lose focus on the individual party-members' actions.  So combat will have Ship Turns, which last a fixed number of rounds.  Each Ship-Turn the relative position of ships can change for the remainder of the Turn.

Ship Status

In this system, any two ships in a particular action have one of the following relationships to one another:

  • NOT ENGAGED-cannot fire fixed guns/board one another
  • ENGAGED-can fire fixed guns on one another(note that if Ship A is engaged with B and B with C, then all three are considered engaged with one another)
  • ALONGSIDE- holding parallel course alongside another ship.  Can attach boarding hooks, board each other, fire small arms

Additionally, a ship's sailing ability depends on the following statuses:

  • ABLE
  • DISABLED- sails are too damaged to effectively move
  • STOPPED- sails are down and ship is stationary--effectively Disabled
  • UNMANNED- not enough crew manning it--still moving, but effectively Disabled
  • MOORED- attached to one or more other ships(similar to UNMANNED)
  • If one ship is faster than the other, the faster ship may FORCE ENGAGEMENT or FORCE ALONGSIDE.  This means that the slower ship cannot evade, but it also means the faster ship is pointing straight at the slower one, not manoeuvring, so it will not get to fire heavy guns this turn.

The Ship Turn

The Ship Turn lasts 6 combat rounds, but it also has a few other ship-related phases that happen only once per Turn.

Phase 1: Crew Assignment

For the ship to function, some of it's crew need to be assigned duties.  These duties keep them busy and they will not be able to take other actions during the Combat Rounds.  If they do abandon their posts during the Combat Rounds(by choice or due to injury) then it is considered as if no one was assigned the duty that Ship Turn.  Duties include:

  • Helmsman and Riggers: a ship must have a Helmsman and one Rigger per mast or the Ship will be considered UNMANNED.
  • Gunner and Powder Monkey: for a Heavy Gun to be reloaded and fired it requires a gunner and possibly one or more Powder Monkeys(see Heavy Gun descriptions)
  • Bailing water from a hull-hit: at the end of the Individual Combat Phase, subtract 1 units of water from the damaged ship at end of turn
  • Fixing hull damage: at the end of the Individual Combat Phase, subtract 6 points of hull-damage(Carpenter Only)
  • Repair sails: at the end of the Individual Combat Phase, subtract 6 points of sail Damage
  • Putting out fire from exploded powder barrel
  • At Ready: sailor is waiting ready to take someone else's place if they are unable to man their post(by choice or due to injury)

Phase 2: Individual Combat

Six consecutive combat rounds.  Each crew members may engage in a number of actions during a round:
  • Throw a boarding hook at a ship ALONGSIDE their ship(thus keeping the ships alongside as long as someone is holding onto the rope)
  • Convert a boarding hook into a Tie, thus making the ships be Moored together
  • Cut-off a boarding hook or Tie using a knife, sword, axe
  • Fire small arms at another ship's crew(For ENGAGED assume 300ft range.  For ALONGSIDE, assume 30ft or use combat grid, miniatures, etc.)
  • Standard combat actions, including crossing over to a MOORED ship or jumping/swinging/climbing over to an ALONGSIDE ship with a successful ability check(fail by more than 5 and you're in the water!)

Phase 3: Heavy Guns

After the 6 combat rounds, the gun crews have had time to reload their Heavy Guns. During this phase, the gunners can fire their heavy guns.  Each ship should roll it's initiative as 1d6+Helmsman Skill Bonus to see who shoots first.
  • Heavy Guns can only be fired at ENGAGED ships
  • If a ship has Heavy Guns on both sides, only one side can fire on any one particular ship
Firing Heavy Guns works as follows:
  1. Choose a target ship
  2. Choose a target area: Rigging, Deck, Hull.  (ALONGSIDE: relative deck height determines which.  MOORED: aim at specific thing opposite the cannon, generally hard to hit moving crew-members this way)
  3. Roll an attack die to see if you hit(1d20+gunner skill vs. ShipAC).  Bonuses: +4 stationary ship, +8 alongside, etc.
On a hit, depending on where you aimed:
  • Rigging: Roll for damage, subtract from ship's Sail Points.  Speed is reduced proportionally. Once Sail Points reach 0, the ship is DISABLED.
  • Deck: list the significant items on deck and determine one at random.  Typical items include:
    • Mast- hit means it falls down.  Sail points reduced proportionately.
    • Helm- hit means ship cannot be steered, only started/stopped.  Helmsman takes 1d4xHD damage from shrapnel.  This will take the Ship's Carpenter a long time to fix.
    • Heavy Gun- gun is disabled.  If it had powder, it explodes and anyone manning it takes 1d4xHD damage.
    • Powder Barrel for a Heavy Gun- ignited.  Anyone manning the gun takes 1d4xHD damage.  Ship is now on fire.
    • Character- takes 1d10xHD damage.
  • Hull: ship takes hull damage according to cannon.  Ship takes on water-units at the rate of Hull-Damage at the end of each Ship Turn, starting next turn.
    • A hull hit on a small boat like a skiff will result in one occupant, chosen randomly, taking making a saving throw or taking 1d10xHD damage.

Phase 4: Ship Control

Since ship's manoeuvre slowly, so navigation actions happen once per Ship Turn.  As such, at the beginning of each Ship Turn, the Helmsman of an Able(or Alongside) ship should declare one of the following manoeuvres(usually at the Captain's orders):
  • ENGAGE with another ship for the remainder of the Ship Turn
  • PULL-ALONGSIDE an already Engaged ship for the remainder of the Ship Turn
  • EVADE another ship(Counters that ship's attempts to engage.  If the ships are already Engaged and the other ship is attempting to pull alongside, they remain engaged but not Alongside)
  • FLEE(must be Disengaged from all opposing ships, though faster ships can still engage it)
  • GET UNDERWAY if the Ship is Stopped, hoist the sails and get sailing
  • HOLD COURSE, don't engage anyone. Just keep sailing, others may engage you if they want
Now determine which ships are ENGAGED or ALONGSIDE each other for the next Ship Turn.


  1. Have you looked at the very simple space combat rules in X-Plorers, the very rules-light 0eD&D inspired sci-fi game?

    It's available free, here:

    1. I'll take a look, thanks!

    2. There's also Stars Without Number, which has both a free pdf edition and is like D&D crossed with Traveller, from my shallow reading of the rules. I didn't pay much attention to its (space-)ship combat rules, but I'd imagine they'd be slightly more sophisticated/complex.

    3. I ran a sample combat and quickly realized that mixing heavy guns with individual actions was too darn messy. So I made it a separate phase as per X-Plorers.

    4. After a playtest, I decided I'd better simplify it further. So ship-related actions are now only once per Ship-Turn.