I think something that almost every GM seems to go through is the elusive “ship game”, where the characters are all members of a crew of some kind of ship (sailing or space) and they go around doing various odd jobs. My group has tried to run this game numerous times with many systems and we’ve just wrapped up the latest attempt: a mini Scum & Villainy campaign.

Dwiz over at Knight at the Opera has talked about running a pirate game in a great manner of detail and I think it’s a great post. One of the three pillars he talks about are “social challenges” between the crew. I’m going to spend this post trying to flesh this out a bit using ladder tables. You’ll need to be familiar with that post.

One of the tricky things with a pirate game is that the PCs are usually in positions of authority on the ship, and then it’s either a) a tiny ship with just the PCs or b) a big ship with a big crew that is sort of nebulous and filled with random NPCs.

We can use procedures to make the crew a living, breathing entity filled with unique and exciting individuals.

The Encounter Is Coming From Inside The House

The main grist of encounters on a sea-faring ship game should come from within. People are unpredictable and NPCs providing a constant churn of change and struggle has the exact sort of feel I’d like for a pirate game. Dealing with storms and sea monsters is good fun—necessary, even—but those should be the extraordinary encounters. Not to mention that by developing the crew into a living and breathing entity, the players will feel a lot more drawn in if Hartley ‘Seagull Kisser’ Sutherland is the one grabbed by the kraken’s tentacles as opposed to Pirate NPC 13.

It’s a lot of work to ask of the GM to consistently create encounters with the crew that have lasting implications, even using standard random tables. Instead, I propose that we introduce a system that makes certain NPCs stand out, and then use those NPCs to drive the game.

The Crew Ladder

The table itself is below. The rules for using it follow.

Result Effect
0- Reset Marker to 4
1 If any of the crew has the Nemesis tag there is an immediate mutiny
2 The crew kills 1d3 Loyalist NPCs
3 Add the Nemesis tag to a crewmember
4 The crew kills 1 Loyalist NPC
5 The crew is working discordantly. Take disadvantage on the next crew-wide check.
6 If there are any Nemesis’, roll on the Nemesis’ Encounter Table
7 Roll on the Crew Encounter Table
8 Add the Nemesis tag to a crewmember
9 The crew is steady
10 Add the Loyalist tag to a crewmember
11 Roll on the Crew Encounter Table
12 If there are any Nemesis’, roll on the Nemesis’ Encounter Table
13 Reset Marker to 9
14 Roll on the Crew Encounter Table
15 One of the Loyalists works to defuse tension. They have a 1-in-6 chance of removing a Nemesis tag
16 If there are any Loyalists, roll on the Loyalist Encounter Table
17 Add the Loyalist tag to a crewmember
18 The crew is working harmoniously. Take advantage on the next crew-wide check.
19+ Reset Marker to 15

Using the Table

New crews should start at the 9 position.

There are a set of conditions, tallied after each turn, that add one of two types of dice to a roll. Light dice and dark are both d6s.

  • Light dice are positive, moving the crew down the table
  • Dark dice are negative, moving the crew up the table

The table assumes that there are three types of “turns” that can trigger a roll:

  • Travel turns, while sailing from one place to another
  • Action turns1, such as fighting another ship, scouring an island for treasure, etc
  • Downtime turns, while the crew is resting in port

After the turn completes, tally up your pool and roll all of your light dice and dark dice. Take the highest die from each type and add them together.

The GM tallies the turn’s dice and concludes that the pool has 2 light dice and 1 dark dice. They roll and get +6, +2, -5. They would move down 1 space on the board.

Travel Turns

Add a light die:

  • For each Loyalist

Add a dark die:

  • For each Nemesis
  • If any of the crew was injured
  • If any of the crew died
  • If the weather was bad
  • Special: add 5 dark dice for each Nemesis that vanishes or dies

Action Turns

Add a light die:

  • For each Loyalist
  • If the crew won any engagements or major fights
  • If the PCs saved any members of the crew
  • If significant booty was gained

Add a dark die:

  • For each Nemesis
  • If any of the crew died
  • If the ship was severely damaged
  • Special: add 5 dark dice for each Nemesis that vanishes or dies

Downtime Turns

Add a light die:

  • For each Loyalist
  • If the crew was paid this turn
  • If the majority of the crew was not called upon to work
  • If at least one of the PCs caroused with the crew

Add a dark die:

  • For each Nemesis
  • If the crew wasn’t paid this turn
  • Special: add 5 dark dice for each Nemesis that vanishes or dies

Running the System

After a turn, when you move up or down the ladder, follow the instructions for the spot you land on. If the ladder table doesn’t change (if your highest two dice match and cancel each other out) then the turn is “free” and acts a pressure relief valve—the PCs don’t have to deal with anything.

When you need to create a new Loyalist or Nemesis use your favorite method to generate an NPC. Give them a single descriptive trait (just one!) and whatever else your system needs.

Whenever the PCs need one of the pirate NPCs they get a random Loyalist or Nemesis. If there aren’t any current special NPCs they can instead deal with an “extra” but make a note of them—that extra becomes the next Loyalist or Nemesis. This is an important step—the PCs never get off easy. If they charge one of their pirates to handle a side mission while they assault the fort, they’re either putting one of their Loyalists at risk or depending on one of their Nemesis’ not to screw them over. This is what drives conflict in the game and will make the characters memorable.

When you need to know how the crew as a whole acts just combine all of the personality traits of the named NPCs. If there is 1 Nemesis with “bloodthirsty” and two Loyalists with “cunning” and “greedy” then your pirate crew as a whole is bloodthirsty, cunning, and greedy. Act accordingly.

To begin with a running start just create a few of the tagged NPCs before the game begins. If the ship starts in a strong position, give them Loyalists. If the PCs should be struggling from the get go, load it up with Nemesis’.

Encounter Tables

There are three encounter tables you need to build: a general one for the crew, a Loyalist one, and a Nemesis one. I think it’s important that these are handcrafted by the GM, to set the tone and theme, but you don’t need to start with huge tables. A d4 or d6 table for each is a good start, and you just need to spend some prep time restocking the encounters whenever you use one. Prismatic Wasteland has a handy checklist to help building encounters.

Crew wide encounter tables should be your wild cards. You can use them in lots of ways:

  • Draw both the Loyalists and Nemesis’ into a situation together, with the potential to lose on either side
  • Flesh out the world
  • Show what it’s like to lead a crew in your world
  • Introduce new rumors or leads that might have been picked up in port

Nemesis encounter tables should be charged situations that are tough to resolve in a satisfying way. They should be dangerous and even possibly violent. Some ideas:

  • A chance for a Nemesis to recruit another Nemesis if the situation isn’t handled correctly
  • A chance for a Nemesis to start a mutiny
  • A Nemesis trying to convert or corner a Loyalist
  • A situation that requires immediate and irrevocable action

Loyalist encounter tables should be a mix of charged situations, ways to improve relationships, and ways to find out new information. Some ideas:

  • A chance for a Loyalist to recruit another Loyalist
  • A request from a Loyalist for something that will cause potential problems down the road
  • A demand from a Loyalist, with the consequences of denying it being that they’ll lose their Loyalist tag
  • A small piece of history or lore about the Loyalist to make them memorable

For the non-pirates

The framework here is solid enough that it can support many different situations where the PCs are running a large organization. To hack it, you’ll need new “turns”, new entries on the ladder table, and possible new tags to apply to NPCs.

Here are some ideas to get your brain spinning:

  • Bandits. (Change nothing. It’s basically pirates on land.)
  • A keep on the borderlands. (You’ll need less cutthroat entries on the table and new turns—you won’t be travelling as a “group.”)
  • Running a fast-paced restaurant. (New entries, new turns, new framing for encounters.)
  • A group of unidentifiable hackers scattered around the world. (New entries, new turns, new encounters.)

Do you have any ideas for groups this might work for? Any thoughts or snags that you can see? I’d love it if you left a comment below!

  1. This is not a per round turn like combat, one “turn” would be an entire ship battle or the entire time spent searching an island for hidden treasure.↩︎

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