As I sat down to begin writing, Bon Jovi’s ‘Wanted Dead or Alive’ showed up randomly on my musical playlist. This is the theme song for one of the few television shows I’ll occasionally watch, ‘Deadliest Catch’. If you’ve never seen it, it is a reality television series that portrays the lives of crab fisherman in the Bering Sea. Whether you like the show or not, the different types of conditions and hazards those fisherman experience on the water are truly amazing.
This, in turn, got me thinking about one of my favorite tabletop roleplaying podcasts, Dungeon Master’s Block. For the past few months they’ve talked about their nautical campaign, Voyage on the Unending Sea. It’s a fantastic campaign that occurs almost completely in a nautical setting. Although you may not be planning on running an entirely nautical campaign, ocean voyages and boats are often part of many campaigns at some point.
Here are nineteen adventure ideas and mishaps for your nautical campaigns or adventures:
Dark Water – In the 90’s cartoon, The Pirates of Dark Water, there was an evil substance known as ‘Dark Water’. Imagine a black tar in the ocean that has predatory instincts and evil intent. Since the series was never completed, viewers never got to truly explore the full truth of what this Dark Water was, but a few things were certain. It devoured boats that encountered it and all sailors were scared of it (except the crazy ones).
Ghost Ship – Many view the idea of a ghost ship as a ship run by ghosts of its former crew but I propose a different idea. What about a derelict ship loosely afloat in the middle of the sea? It might be haunted or it might not be. Either way, stumbling upon a ship that is drifting in the ocean but contains no sign of a crew could be a very interesting mystery adventure for players to encounter.
Giant Sea Creatures – Giant sea creatures come in many shapes but only one size, giant! Whether it is a squid, crocodile, sea turtle or some other type of creature, a giant one should, at minimum, be a sight to behold for the crew. It may be a hazard for the crew, like a giant squid trying to swallow the ship whole. Or, it could be a sign of good fortune, like a giant sea turtle floating by during sunset. These are not to be confused with giant sea monsters, such as the hydra, kraken, or leviathan.
Harpies – Harpies are female monsters that are a cross between a bird and a human. In Greek and Roman mythology, they steal food from people and carry away those that they consider evildoers. Although they can fly long distances, they’re often found nearby land or some sort of rocky outcropping where they can nest and live it. So if you’re being attacked by a harpy, there is a good chance that land is somewhere nearby.
Hurricane – Nothing messes up a sea voyage like a good ole’ hurricane. Hurricanes are bad when you’re on land. They’re doubly bad when you’re on the ocean. Even if a ship manages to survive a hurricane, the damage that it can cause to a surviving ship may force it to land and repair to continue the voyage. If you’re a gamemaster that is looking to try and force your players to stop at a specific land location during an ocean voyage, throw a hurricane at them!
Hydra – A serpent-like water monster that is often depicted as a multi-headed dragon. They often have a poisonous breath that can be used as a weapon and blood that is toxic to smell or touch. Hydra heads typically have regenerative powers where if they lose one head it will often grow back after time. Sometimes, when one head is lost it even sprouts more than one additional head which allows the hydra to continue to grow in size and strength as it is damaged and regenerates.
Ice – One of the worst things a boat in the middle of nowhere can encounter is ice. It famously took out the Titanic and has been the harbinger of doom for numerous other vessels. Whether it is a large iceberg or simply a sheet of ice covering the water, ice on the open sea provides both a barrier and a movement hazard.
Kraken – A kraken is a very large sea creature that often features very large tentacles for arms. Krakens are often depicted as a form of a giant squid, most likely because the legend of the kraken originated from actual giant squids observed by sailors. They have morphed into giant sea squids that have large bodies, sometimes almost humanoid and even with arms. Their gaping jaws are extremely large and they use their tentacles to swallow entire ships whole. Kraken are very similar to leviathans.
Leaks – Small leaks or damage to the hull of a ship can range from minor annoyance to a critical ship evacuation. Small leaks may take time and resources to repair the leaks and prevent further damage. While large leaks or damage may cause portions of the ship to be closed and cut off from the rest of the ship. Leaks or hull damage can be used to add stress to a ship’s crew by giving them a constant reminder that they are one major problem away from sinking to the bottom of the sea.
Leviathan – The word leviathan is the same as saying “a large sea creature.” Leviathans come in many shapes but only one size… huge. They are sometimes depicted as very large fish, or tentacled creatures, or a long sea snake. Regardless of how the creature is represented, it will be a sea vessels largest enemy. True leviathans are large enough to swallow a single ship whole and powerful enough to destroy a large fleet. Leviathans are very similar to krakens.
Mutiny – Mutiny is a revolution at sea where mutineers attempt to overthrow the current leadership of the vessel. The act of mutiny takes on a different meaning than any other type of treason since no one on the vessel is immune. You’re stuck out at sea and you have to choose a side. Choosing the wrong side may cost you your life.
Naval Mines – The traditional naval mine is an explosive that floats on top of the water or just under the surface. If a mine is struck by a ship, it will explode damaging the ship. Although mines are typically laid in an area during war time, they also can be found protecting coastal areas or may be remnants from an older conflict.
Pirates – What is a nautical adventure without pirates? Rather than using them as a one-shot, I highly suggest using them as a reoccurring enemy if you are planning on more than just a simple adventure on the high seas. A pirate crew might be one of the few groups of humanoids that you may encounter more than once on the high seas. Their boats are often recognizable. They often have more than one. And, they replenish their ranks at an alarming rate. Use them as a reoccurring villain not a one-shot throw down.
Reefs – Reefs are outcropping that lie below ocean or sea water. They typically are fairly shallow, no more than fifty to eighty meters, and are made up of rock, sand, coral, or some other material that is gathered below the water surface. Reefs can serve two purposes in your nautical adventure. One, it could be a navigation hazard. Existing just below the water, a reef may cause a ship to navigate around it due to the dangers of running into it. Or two, it could be an area of underwater exploration for lost treasure or something else of value.
Sirens – There are several different versions of the mythological siren, but most accounts have them as beautiful and dangerous singers who lure sailors to their deaths. They are beautiful female humanoids that can be found singing beautiful songs that draw sailors to them with their enchanting melodies. In some stories they are viewed as cannibalistic monsters, dressed in the skins of their victims. It is rumored that sirens were fated to only live until mortals passed by them, so their desire to prevent this from happening was very strong.
Slavers – Slavers are basically pirates but with a specific agenda. They may prey less on other ships and more on coastal villages but they often operate the same as pirates would. One distinct difference though could be in the structure of their ships. Instead of having a massive hull to store stolen treasure, they may have a hull that is converted into a prison area. A slaver fleet may even have one specific ship that is designed to hold and transport slaves.
Stowaway – The stowaway problem could come in many shapes and sizes. It could be a small child that the crew now feels obligated to take care of. It could be a saboteur that causes numerous problems on board while the crew tries to locate him. It could be a larger problem, like rats carrying the plague or insects that are eating the wood in the ship or the food onboard. Whatever type of stowaway is onboard, it should bring up a discussion with the group on, “How do we deal with this problem?”
Water Elementals – Encountering water elementals in water is a scary proposition. They’re in their environment and you’re not in yours. They could be serving the wishes of a commanding force or simply protecting their home territory. And who knows how many there are, you’re encountering water elementals IN WATER.
Whirlpool – Whirlpools in oceans are created where two strong currents meet. The most powerful whirlpools occur where there is a narrow channel with fast moving waters that meet together. Of course, the phenomenon could be completely unnatural as well, like a mad sea god. The biggest danger of the whirlpool is obviously the strong current that could draw a ship into the vortex of the water and threaten to destroy the entire ship and crew. It’s kind of like the black hole of the ocean.
There are numerous other possibilities for adventure when running a seafaring scenario or campaign. These are just a few ideas for difficulties that an ocean voyaging crew may encounter on the high seas. The open seas are a very dangerous place where its crew will be exposed to many dangers and complications.
What are some mishaps, dangers, and encounter ideas you have for a nautical campaigns or adventures?