Posted in Gaming Advice, Set Piece

Set Piece: A Ship in a Storm

The deck bucked to the starboard as the wave crashed into the ship’s port side.  Sabastian could not keep his balance and slid across the quarter deck on his rear.  The jackline was the only thing that saved Sabastian from a watery grave.  He held onto the line with all his might as he slowly tried to get his feet below him. 

The captain was yelling orders from the wheel but Sabastian couldn’t hear a word of it above the wind and the rain and the churning seas.   This is bad.  The worst storm he’d seen.  Lightning arched across the sky above them, the thunder that followed did little to mask the load Crack that came from mizzenmast.  Even with sails stowed the mast had taken on more stress than it could bear.

Sabastian looked up just in time to dodge the tangle of rigging falling toward the deck.   Sabastian picked himself off the deck and found himself staring at the wave,  it was larger than their ship and was about to hit them once again on the port side.  It was then that he realized he no longer held the jackline. 

(image from The Perfect Storm ©2000 Warner Brothers)

Introduction

I’ve been reading a lot of the 7th Sea Second Ed. Corebook lately and it’s got me jonesing for some high seas swashbuckling action.  A storm on a ship is a great encounter for the players to fight the elements rather than an enemy. (though having a ship battle in a storm is action extraordinaire) Now don’t think this Set Piece is only for ships at seas.  I’ve run this more times as a spaceship in an ion storm/nebula/fill in the blank/ type storm than I have one at sea.  I’ve even done this encounter with the players in an airship.  It’s always a fun time.

Scene

The players’ ship his run afoul of some nasty weather, can their ship survive? Can they stop themselves from going overboard?

Mood

You can start a scene(or session) like this in medias res if you want.  With that, the mood needs to be action, risk, and consequences.  The players cannot control the scene they just have to adapt.  Do they try to climb up and untangle the shattered topmast stay from the rigging or risk the main mast being damaged as well?  In medias res is a great way to have the storm be a jumping off point to something else you have planned.

However, if the storm is the main part of your session, then there should be some build up, some foreboding.  Your players see the storm on the horizon,  they cannot get out of its way but they can batten down the hatches and be better prepared for what you throw at them.   Be ominous in your descriptions, be foreboding, make it seem like this is a full on hurricane the players are about to face, make them sweat.  Also, make sure you allow time for character moments.  If you feel comfortable try to force some player dialogue, some interactions.  Ask the player what their character is feeling. What is her demeanor is as she ties down the main sail? This kind of “stressful downtime” can give players a chance to flesh out some of their character’s personality.

Threats

Everything not tied down on the ship can be a threat.  Obviously the wind, water, lightning and the ship itself can be threats the PCs need to overcome.  If the hull gets punctured, or masts break, or things get washed away, it is something to overcome.  A scene like this can be difficult to GM because the players can see this as you really screwing with them since you set all the stakes.  To avoid that, try asking them, what happens next.  Or take ideas that players say off-hand and run with them.  It can give them some agency in the threats and situation.

Mechanics

Before you do a scene like this jot down a few ‘scenarios’ “The Mast cracks” “water rushes into the captain’s quarters threating to wash away their map” “a crew member gets flung over the side” ” Water is threatening to ruin the cargo” just some ideas you don’t really have to do more than that.   If the players have prep time before the storm, they could really button up some of your ‘scenarios’… great.(more on that later)

As the storm hits, start small with any obvious prep you think of that they may have missed.  A sail wasn’t stowed properly and is coming loose. Give them a chance to cause their own trouble.

Then let time pass.  Describe the storm, the waves, the spray on their faces, the color of the sky,  the things going on..  Ask the players “where do you station yourself? What jobs do you undertake during the storm?”  Then transition into your first scenario.

Storms aren’t usually quick things.. Don’t try to pack every disaster into the first scene. Once they solve the first crisis.  Let the players have breathing room, time to make some recovery rolls or apply some healing, maybe some banter, or a character moment.  Describe how the seas are getting worse, make them make some Resilience or constitution checks. If they fail, give them a slight hindrance on their first few rolls of the second scene.  Then start scene two…… and so forth…

You can put two scenarios back to back or on top of each other especially towards the end to ramp up the climax.

You don’t have to run every scenario…. The storm could last all night, you can even have an hour or two between each dramatic scene.  However, if the players’ prep makes one of your scenarios easier, or obsolete, make sure you run it or at least mention it.  Show them that their forethought really paid off. (make sure you include this scenario when calculating rewards (like XP) too)

Don’t try to run the whole storm as a combat encounter.  Doing so will tempt you to pile on disaster after disaster and you will run through your entire list of scenarios in what amounts to an hour of time for the characters.

Tips

Have some NPCs on board.  I know this isn’t directly related to this scene.  But I’ve learned early on in Star Wars RPGS and other games that it is always good to have some NPC crew, passengers, prisoners, family, what-have-you on the ship during scenes like this.  It gives the players something else to worry about and you, as a GM, something else to leverage other than the PCs’ lives.  It complicates things in a good way. Saving yourself is survival, saving the stowaway dangling off the edge of the ship clinging desperately to a cracking rail is heroic.

When running these scenarios, threaten things the players cherish.  “You brace yourself as the wave crashes into you, holding your ground, but a glint of gold in the water catches your eye as it washes towards the port bow.  It is then that you realize your father’s scimitar is no longer at your waist.”  Just don’t overdue it.   Everyone shouldn’t be a target.

A storm is a GREAT time for plot to happen.  Maybe this is the opportunity the cruel first mate has been waiting for to take out the captain.  Or better yet, the captain gets killed naturally leaving the players to deal with the cruel first mate.  Maybe this is when the assassin in disguise tries to fulfill his contract and kill a PC, or a crew member fearing death professes his love to a PC.   Just because there is a dramatic storm going on it doesn’t mean plot has to take a back seat to spectacle.

A Storm is also a good time to have Loss.  Kill an NPC (or a player). Nature is cruel, death doesn’t always come at the hands of a villain.  Having an NPC or two perish in a massive storm is realistic. Whether they are washed overboard or impaled by sharp debris.   If the NPC in peril is important to a PC make sure they have a chance to save them.  (as a GM it is sometimes refreshing to be able to kill off NPCs whose story is complete and has no further usefulness)

Know when to stop.  Take the temperature of the room, if the player’s nerves are shot, if their characters are on their last legs, give it a rest.  They survived the worst of it.  Time to deal with the aftermath.  Make sure this scenario doesn’t overstay it’s welcome.  You don’t want them refusing to enter the ocean ever again because they don’t want the chance of another storm.  So keep a close eye on everyone make sure they are having fun.

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