Roleplaying

Six Tips for Running a Ship-Based Campaign

Arr, me hearties. Gather round, for tis time for a yarn about adventure on the high seas! No wait, I promise to stop talking like a pirate if you’ll keep reading. No doubt most of you are familiar with the traditional structure of roleplaying games: a small group of characters is called on some kind of adventure. That’s a fine structure, but have you ever considered running your campaign upon the deck of a ship, with the players taking on the roles of officers most noble?*

If so, you’ve probably realized that running a game set on a ship presents both unique opportunities and unique challenges. Whether you’re considering a spaceship, steamship, sailing ship, or airship, the pitfalls will be largely the same. Here are a few tips to make your job easier.

1. Consider the Party’s Command Structure

Being captain means you get a chair. Everyone else has to stand. Being captain means you get a chair. Everyone else has to stand.

Most roleplaying games avoid the thorny question of who to put in charge by putting no one in charge. For a group of four to six individuals, that’s a reasonable strategy. Important issues can be decided by discussion, so there’s no need to give one player authority over others. Ships are a little different.

With ships, a command structure is expected. Ranks like “captain” and “first officer” are synonymous with a naval environment. If your campaign is set in a Star Trek style universe, you may have no choice but to assign ranks in a hierarchical structure.

This can lead to problems fast. Many players deeply resent any sort of control imposed on them by another player. They signed up to express their agency, not to do what someone else says. This can lead to PCs bristling at even the most reasonable order and the group devolving into infighting. The other side is that sometimes otherwise-reasonable players will go mad with power, issuing unreasonable commands for no reason and expecting the party to hang on their every whim.

You have a few options to prevent this. First, if you know your group well, you can put the right player in charge. You want someone with enough charisma so others won’t chafe at their commands but also someone who won’t abuse their authority and try to micromanage other PCs. Ask the players for their input so they’ll be invested in whomever is chosen as captain.

A second option is to have an NPC captain. This won’t work for all games, but it has a major advantage in that many players who resist any authority from their peers don’t mind it at all from the GM. Of course, this takes away agency from the entire party, but you can mitigate that by having your captain NPC take a hands-off approach to leadership. They should issue only vague commands like “go get that treasure” and then let the PCs figure out the specifics themselves.

Finally, you invest each PC with an equal amount of authority. A simple way to do this is construct a scenario where each character has an equal, financial stake in the ship. When all the PCs are co-owners, no one has more authority than anyone else. Important issues should be solved by discussion or by each PC casting a vote. This sort of unorthodox command structure won’t work for every campaign, but it neatly sidesteps the problem of one player having authority over others.      

2. Give the Ship Some Personality

The lights are on but no one is home. The lights are on but no one is home.

No matter the medium, if a story is set on a ship, the ship should be more than a means of getting from one place to another. It should have a character of its own, and all the best ships do. The Defiant is a spartan-warrior ship that punches above its weight class. The Galactica has a maternal feel, with its warm interior and deadly firepower to use against any who threaten its crew. Serenity has been through much and carries the scars to prove it, just like her crew.

Visual- and prose-medium stories often make their ships unique via detailed description. The story shows how cool and unusual a ship’s interior is and how it makes a special sound whenever the main drive fires up. A GM who’s really good at description can do the same thing, but for most of us, different tactics will be needed.

In roleplaying games, an easy way to grant a ship personality is to give it a unique ability that other ships don’t have. If most ships in your setting get around via warp drive, give the players’ ship an experimental teleportation engine. The range is short, but because it’s a unique mode of transit, the ship will feel special. Just be careful that this special ability isn’t game breaking.

You can also make the players’ ship very high performing, but unreliable. When the ship works, it’s the top of the line, but half the time its basic systems don’t function properly. I call this the Millennium Falcon approach. The Falcon is obviously a special ship, but for most of The Empire Strikes Back, its hyperdrive is completely inoperable. Give your players a high-powered battleship that was on its way to the scrapyard because of faulty sensors, and they will love it with all their heart.

Finally, you can let your players add their own personality to the ship by customizing it. Ideally, any extras the PCs add to their vessel should be represented mechanically. If they decide their ironclad leviathan hunter should carry a newspaper press, give them a bonus on social rolls with anyone who’s read their articles.* You’ll need to be careful that the PCs’ custom jobs aren’t overpowered, but otherwise this is a great way to make a ship feel unique.   

3. Plan for Extra Mobility

ship-map

When your PCs get around on foot, it’s fairly easy to figure out where they’ll be going next. You know all the cities along the main road, and can plan accordingly. The party might throw a curveball your way by going cross-country, but they’d need a strong motivation.

When your players command a ship, their mobility is greatly increased. Even ships bound to the water have a great deal of freedom, which only increases with air and spaceships. This becomes a problem when the party sets sail for somewhere on the other side of the ocean, somewhere you have no content planned. GMs who are really good at improvisation can wing it, but the rest of us mere mortals will have trouble.

One option is to ask your players where they plan to go at the end of every adventure. Present them with a few options to choose from at the session’s end, and then come back the next week with an adventure ready to go. Unfortunately, this won’t work 100% of the time. What if your current adventure runs long, and the party finishes it an hour into next week’s session instead of tonight like you expected? Do you cancel the rest of next week’s session so you can go home and plan?

A better solution is to plan your adventures as generally as possible. Instead of crafting a story where High Duke Edmonds of Seatown hatches an evil conspiracy, make it about someone in power in a town somewhere who hatches an evil conspiracy. That way you can fill in the specifics based on where your players decide to go.

You’ll also need to make sure your plots are extra appealing, because if they’re not, your players might just leave. Ideally, you always want your adventure hooks to seem cool and fun, but it’s especially important here, because the PCs can easily sail away from any adventure they don’t like. For example, I once played in a Serenity module that expected the PCs to spend several sessions currying favor with various factions on a small moon before any paying jobs became available. If we’d had no means to leave the moon, we might have gone along with it. But since we had a fully functional spaceship, we packed off and went looking for jobs that would actually pay.

Making your adventures appealing to the players is a post-length topic, but a few quick options include:

  • Give NPCs who request assistance sympathetic characteristics.
  • Make it clear what kind of reward the PCs will receive.
  • Use the PCs’ personal connections. PCs are more likely to stick around and help their true love than a bunch of strangers.

While there’s no absolutely right way to make your adventures more appealing, a ship’s ease of mobility means you’ll want to spend more time than normal making sure the PCs will actually want to stick around.  

4. Prepare NPCs for the Crew

Umm, we're going to need a bigger ship. Umm, we’re going to need a bigger ship.

Unless your party’s ship is really small, it’ll probably have an NPC crew, be they Starfleet officers or thieving pirates. Chances are equally good that the ship will have way too many crew members to give them all names, let alone faces and backstory. Without familiar details, your players will quickly think of the crew as little more than a host of drones who exist only to do the PCs’ bidding.

This creates a number of problems. For one thing, players will think nothing of throwing away the lives of a faceless crew. You may suddenly find the PCs solving every problem by sending wave after wave of their own men against it. More so, players will actively resent it if the faceless crew ever causes them any kind of inconvenience in the same way they might resent it if their toaster suddenly decided to burn their toast. Forget any stories of the crew getting too frightened to work properly or muttering mutinously in the night; your players won’t enjoy any of that because they won’t see the crew as people.

Fortunately, an easy solution is to craft a handful of NPCs to serve as stand-ins for the crew. On a small ship you might only need one, and three or four should be the absolute maximum. If there are multiple factions within the crew, each NPC should represent one. If an NPC is unhappy, players will know the crew is unhappy. If the PCs earn the NPC’s loyalty, they’ve earned the crew’s loyalty.

These NPCs should be useful, but not too useful. Ideally, they have one or two decent skills related to their job on the ship. That way the players will have a mechanical incentive to stay on the NPC’s good side, but the NPC won’t ever be in danger of stealing the spotlight for themselves.  

5. Plan for Increased Party Power

broadside

Giving your party a ship means far more than increased mobility. Ships also increase the amount of power a group of PCs can bring to bear. Ships carry weapons, large weapons. There’s nothing like an orbital bombardment to make an enemy think twice. Players are smart, and they won’t see any reason to infiltrate the villain’s stronghold when they can just blast it apart with cannons.

Even if a ship doesn’t have weapons, it can sometimes be used as a weapon. Spaceships and airships can drop rocks on ground-based enemies or just knock them over with the engine downdraft. Clever players will think of innumerable ways to leverage the power of their ship against any who challenge them. Beyond the ship itself, the crew also provides a boost in power. All the PCs need do is acquire a cache of weapons, and suddenly they have a loyal fighting force. The villain won’t get halfway through their monologue before they are mobbed by the PCs’ marine platoon.

You can solve many problems by scaling up your threats. Your threats could be another ship, a giant sea monster, or an armored space station, so long as it’s something the PCs need their ship to deal with. At that point, the PCs’ roles as officers become far more important than their individual strength or speed. While a dramatic duel against the villain can still happen, the PCs will spend most of their time leading repair teams, coordinating artillery fire, and standing shoulder to shoulder with their crew in a boarding action.

But not every problem the party faces can be a ship battle. For some variety, place an important objective somewhere neither the ship nor crew can reach. If the shipment of McGuffin Crystals is impounded at the center of a busy spaceport, the PCs can’t just fly their ship in to get it.* Add some security officers who would be alarmed if the ship’s entire crew disembarked at once, and you have a situation where it makes sense for a small, highly skilled group to solve the problem on their own.

Social conflicts are also a great way to keep the PCs’ ship from becoming a crushing advantage. While having a warship will help when negotiating treaty rights, it won’t craft the document for them.

6. Set Adventures On the Ship

Definitely nothing creepy in here. Definitely nothing creepy in here. Interior of Battleship Texas by Adam Cuerden used under CC BY-SA 4.0

Your party’s ship is more than just a means of transportation or a floating weapons platform: it is also a location primed for adventure. Think of all those episodes of Star Trek or Battlestar Galactica that never leave the ship. While TV shows do it to save money,* you can do it to save storytelling energy and increase player investment.

By setting a session or two aboard the party’s ship, you’re making use of an existing asset when you’d otherwise have to create a setting from scratch. Even if you didn’t map out the ship’s deck plan, you probably have a decent idea of what’s on board. You know there’s a bridge, an infirmary, an armory, etc. The set pieces are already in place; you just need to add a problem for the PCs to deal with.

Using the party’s ship also builds player investment in their vessel. They’ll care more about the fate of the ship once they’ve battled intruders for control of the deck or risked their characters’ lives to bail out a flooding hold. Alternatively, if the players are already invested in their ship, then any threat to it will pack extra emotional power.

A ship is a great environment for a session because it’s automatically isolated. Whatever the threat is, the PCs have few, if any, paths of escape because they’re out in the deep ocean or the cold void of space. A horror-themed session will go over particularly well for just this reason, perhaps with some kind of monstrosity stalking the corridors.

But you aren’t limited to horror. Straight action can work as well, with a swarm of bloodthirsty pirates climbing aboard for hand-to-hand combat. Or the ship might be caught in a powerful storm, and the conflict is against nature instead of a conscious antagonist. Just keep in mind that the ship’s crew will still be around. If you want your party to deal with a small-scale problem aboard their ship, incapacitating the crew will help a lot. Unless the problem is a mutiny, of course.


Basing your campaign upon the deck of a ship adds many challenges. Ships invariably change the type of game you’re running and can be a real problem if you’re not prepared. But if you are prepared, ships provide unique opportunities that cannot be found onshore.

Looking for an evening of fun? Uncover your lost memories and battle the supernatural in our stand-alone game, The Voyage.

Read more about

 

Comments

  1. SunlessNick

    Regarding NPC’s… A very old issue of the Dragon magazine had an article on running a Start Trek campaign, and suggested a couple of NPC’s for each service department. And then went on to say that the NPC’s should be as likeable as possible – and whenever the ship took x% casualties in the crisis of the week, each NPC had a flat x% chance to be one of them.

  2. Alverant

    I was thinking about a spaceship-based campaign. But what’s a good system to use? I’m most familiar with the heroes/chapmions RPG but I know that’s not well known. I want a good system that people can pick up quickly if they don’t already know it.

    • Oren Ashkenazi

      You got lots of options. Personally, I recommend Mouse Guard, and then putting your Guards Mice on a ship.

      But if mice aren’t your thing, here are a few more options:

      -Fantasy Flight Star Wars

      -Seventh Sea (haven’t tried 2nd ed yet).

      -Serenity

      -Star Wars D6

      -Burning Empire (gotta cut out a lot of the scene building stuff)

      -Various Star Trek RPGs.

    • Adam

      I was gonna suggest Star Wars D6, too!

  3. Adam J. Thaxton

    This article comes along right when I’m planning three different ship-based campaigns. One Star Blazers/Voltron/Galaxy Express/Robotech style space opera, one set in a post-industrial fantasy world on the ocean waves, and one in that same setting but with an airship. This is all wonderful advice, and I wanted to thank you for it.

    The airship campaign will have the ship with a very literal personality. As in, she’s about as smart as a dog and has her own agenda.

    • Oren Ashkenazi

      Oh man that’s awesome. What system(s) are you using?

      • Adam J. Thaxton

        For pretty much all of them, cortex/Firefly for ship-to-ship combat, with a different system for the ground, because I have discovered that I can pump out a ship around five minutes tops that way, and the players like it and caught on really fast (once I started representing plot points with actual tokens).

        Space Opera: Silhouette CORE on the ground. The pitch is that Earth has been under attack by an alien species for some time and another culture sent us a message that they were sending us a ship that could take care of the problem, but something went wrong with the unmanned system halfway to Sol and we’re going to have to go pick it up ourselves. For plot points I have some duty chips a friend of mine in the Navy kept from his time in it, they’re poker chips with duty listings carved on them/written on them in sharpie.

        Airship Thing: Mutants & Masterminds on the ground; the setting is essentially a fantasy setting that has had its industrial revolution by standardizing and even mechanizing animistic rituals. The pitch here is that a former crew of ne’er do wells has died and left their closest relatives joint ownership of the boat, and if they don’t take her themselves, she will stripped for parts and rendered down for meat and glue. United Tribal Confederacy of Charnra requires that she be utilized for registered operations at least once a month in order to be classified as active. For plot points and hero points I have a pile of button transistors from the 1960s and 70s.

        Boat Thing: Mutants & Masterminds on the ground. In that same setting, there are big flotillas that live out on the broad oceans. PCs will be crew of a ship they will build together during a build session. I was gonna crib liberally from Sea Hunt, Assignment: Underwater, Man From Atlantis, Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea, and Voyage of the Mimi. For this I have shark teeth.

Leave a Comment

By submitting a comment, you confirm that you have read and agree to our comments policy.