Friday, July 1, 2011

Sources for Nautical Campaigns?

It's hard to resist the call of the sea.

Even my land-locked genetic coding has a tough time not having my imagination get swept away with the creak of wooden hulls, the sights and smells of exotic island markets, the roar of whitecaps—and creatures more fearsome—especially when spending my lazy vacation days being pounded by saltwater.

It doesn't help that my hammock reading is being taken up by alternating between the exploits of Dave Arneson's infamous alter-ego Captain Harchar (courtesy of Barker's Death of Kings) and those of the more terrestrial, but equally impressive, Zheng He.

So folks I was wondering if I could harness the collective brain trust out there and ask for some good solid source material--partial to books, but whispers in the ether and musty old scrolls will do too. 

In particular, I am looking for I am two basic varieties of works: 1. ones that lend themselves to healthy verisimilitude around pre-Renaissance ships, maritime cultures, sea-based trading, etc; and 2. sources that encompass the weird and wonderful: myths, monsters, locales, and the like.

What should I be reading and why?


  1. On the Very Serious shelf, I nominate the travels of ibn Battuta and ibn Jubayr: unrivaled real world source for Arabian Nights. Also Willem Bontekoe's Memorable Description of the East Indian Voyage is post-renaissance early modern but the perfect real world source for that classic almost-cannibalistic deep sea adventure, wreck and open boat journey vibe. summary here

    There's a ton more but I've got to go now. Stephen Girard's journal also perfect for exploration and occasional piracy, but my refs are skewed a bit because I have access to an a academic library: not everything I think of is on amazon or

    On the brilliant trashy shelf, but also early modern, George Macdonald Fraser's The Pyrates and the almost as brightly coloured Captain Charles Johnson's Robberies and Murders of the most notorious Pirates.

  2. Matching up with your second variety, as well as a fine system for incorporating encounters based on where the Players decide to sail, and how to manage morale, supplies and trading of goods along the way, I highly recommend 50 Fathoms for Savage Worlds (if you can find a copy.) I ran the campaign presented in the book and its companion PDF with little modification for one of my best games ever.

  3. If you can hang on until September to plan your campaign I will finally write up my findings from Goitein's 5 volume Mediterranean Society, which is as close to real honest-to-goodness Sindbad sea-trading action as you're going to get. How much a camel can carry, avoiding shakedowns on the Nile in the 12th century, what to do with 200 sacks of pepper now that a revolution's broken out at Muscat, all that.

  4. It's not fantasy related, but B. Tuchman's The First Salute - about how the Revolutionary War and the colonies were truly maritime/nautical history subjects. For RPG campaigns, even fantasy ones, a couple of things from history that offer some adventure opportunities:

    * Piracy has the popular appeal of freedom, but to settlements and towns awaiting shipments, it was a huge problem. Even a landbased fantasy campaign can offer a hook: a ship captain will pay quite a bounty for someone who finds magical items that offer structural damage at a distance. (i.e. don't sell that wand of fireballs to the magic store - a cargo captain will pay twice as much!)

    * The British naval strategy of 'Line Ahead' with it's signal conventions and strict control over multiple ships was so enforced that a captain risked years of imprisonment for breaking it.

    * Much of maritime success involves information, even spycraft, on shore. Expected times of delivery and departure. Tracking resources/provisions. Knowing local waters and where to acquire the best maps. All of this seems to offer 'bridges' that can get a land based party to the docks to earn some coin.

    While centuries from medieval Europe, a lot of the events can translate into rich experiences because they are woven into the fabric by which even a humble candle seller earns his daily bread, while not requiring mountains of research into detail that could slow down sessions.

    The biggest problem with a nautical/seafaring campaign is that so many of the forces involved seek 'smooth sailing' which isn't eventful, and running counter to expectations of 'adventure'.

  5. A heaping pile of thanks to all three who have responded, a lot of meaty things that I will mostly be tracking down and I appreciate you taking the time to help a brother out.

    I read a selection from Ibn Battuta many years back in an History of India class as an undergrad, I remember at the time wanting to read more. Now I am definitely motivated to move forward on that.

    "I will finally write up my findings from Goitein's 5 volume Mediterranean Society, which is as close to real honest-to-goodness Sindbad sea-trading action as you're going to get. How much a camel can carry, avoiding shakedowns on the Nile in the 12th century, what to do with 200 sacks of pepper now that a revolution's broken out at Muscat, all that."

    Now this is exactly the kind of granular detail that I obsess on, so I will definitely have to check that out. Why the September deadline? Something getting published?

    Tuchman's Distant Mirror is a longtime favorite, scratch a detail or two in the Hill Cantons and you will find a piece of her influence. I will definitely hunt down a copy.

    Your list makes me think we should spend more time thinking up "deep hooks", something a bit more than just an adventure hook--more like deeper implications of setting parts that can play out over time in an organic basis.

  6. Honestly, Moby Dick is the biggest influence on my ocean-going stuff. I've been building some adventures around William Hope Hodgson, too.

  7. Sorry, I know that neither of those are in the historical milieu you asked for. I blame fatigue.

  8. Allan Cole and Chris Bunch's Far Kingdoms series (The Far Kingdoms, A Warrior's Tale and Kingdoms of the Night) make great reading for fantasy adventure on the high seas.

  9. @ckutalik: The list I presented was in the context of 'get the characters to the docks', but the point is well taken.

    I like the term 'deep hooks'...

    @charlatan75: historical mileu be damned! Moby Dick is a perfect inspiration.

    There certainly could be plenty of intrigue on a ship (Master and Commander...)

    I'd pay real money for a tournament module written based on a (scaled down) version of the Titanic catastrophe. Story contains a built in time limit. A large mass of NPC's - alignment tests every other minute - certainly opportunities to save lives. Challenge of player skill and creative thinking (would your character bother getting to lifeboats or would you head for the dining room furniture and start building rafts?)

  10. It doesn't take up the whole book, but several chapters of Louis L'Amour's The Walking Drum, a novel set in Europe during the late 12th century, cover the protagonist's adventures on a slave galley at sea. Similarly, Peter Tremayne's Act of Mercy concerns a murder that takes place on a ship in the late 7th century.

    A little after your requested time period (it's set in the years 1588-1593), Rafael Sabatini's The Sea Hawk is nevertheless a really good, mostly overlooked novel. I recommend finding the 1924 silent film adaptation, as well (the 1940 film under that title is not the same story).

  11. re september: it's because I have to finish my PhD thesis on shipboard society and space on Dutch East Indiamen. Which, again, is later than you want, but if you're curious I could send you the bibliography in a couple of weeks. I'm thinking most of what I'm reading is a far cry from the gameable inspirational reading you need, though...

    I haven't read it yet, but the novel Journey to the end of the Millenium was recommended to me. Oh, and Alan Villiers' Sons of Sinbad should be worth a look: an Englishman who built and sailed a dhow in the 20s: likely to be close to the authentic spirit of adventure, which doesn't have much to do with the authenticity of historical periods.

    "None but pilgrims should embark upon the sea, for under the sea there is a fire, and under the fire there is a sea." Arabic proverb/hadith.

  12. For nautical stuff I tend to reach for a book from my collection of Wordsworth Erotic Fiction. Nautical but Nice.

  13. Neal Stephenson's System of the World trilogy, while set in the early 18th century, contains some details of seafaring. Also, as suggested above, Pat O'Bren's Aubrey/Marutin series.

  14. Here are my inspirations for a high stakes, high pulp, high level, sea going campaign arc:

    Horatio Hornblower (great BBC series)
    Patrick O'Brian
    Pirates of the Caribbean movies
    CS Lewis Voyage of Dawn Treader (book and movie both)
    Jurassic Park
    The Odyssey
    Isle of Dread Expert Adventure
    Chateau D'Amberville adventure
    The real history of Easter Island
    Githyanki, fanaton, white apes of barsoom, t-rex, hags, heartless vampire zombies, kraken, and hopefully at some point Dragon Turtle!

  15. Oh and sahaugin and kua toa, how could I fail to mention the bane from the ancient depths, and the terror of the shallows?

  16. Oh, yeah! The Odyssey! And Ulysses, for a slightly different take, as well as The Voyage of Bran mac Febal.

  17. I spend half day on the road and I come back to a wave (we suffer no puns here in the HC, Kent) of info. Thanks again to all for feeding my book habit--eventually there will be a place in mi casa not filled with teetering piles of printed matter.

  18. For a few pages of quick & dirty nautical mechanics, read "Maritime Adventures" pp. 43-46 from Lamentations of the Flame Princess "Rules & Magic" (free pdf available). I hope to use these to run Module X1 (Isle of Dread). You may also want to check out Goodman Games' DCC55 (Isle of the Sea Drake); N4 (Treasure Hunt); U1-U3 (Saltmarsh series); and PC3 (The Sea People).

    For literary inspiration don't forget Lovecraft's "Dagon", and for historical backround I would be interested in Kievan Rus' (Viking Russia 9th-13th Centuries) and the Hanseatic League.

  19. Gaming stuff: If you can find it, the Pilot's Almanac from Columbia Games was an excellent look at seafaring in the world of Hârn. Thieves' Guild's sixth volume is all about the pirates in a fantasy setting, and there's a Palladium Fantasy supplement on the subject, too. Don't forget Pirates of the Fallen Stars, which was pirates in the Forgotten Realms (though some people don't like the 2E material), and I seem to recall another supplement which was more generic.