Boats! And chases!

Anyone run these more complicatedly than “Make a Piloting vs test”?

My PCs are heisting a boat from an unfriendly port in a bit and I kind of don’t want all the action to be on land. Our Elf has several sailing skill songs and so I feel like testing those matters.

My initial plan would be to fudge some Strides on to the boats and use the foot chase setup, but anyone done anything else?

"Use [Range and Cover] when your characters are in a skirmish, a riot or chase in which at least one group has missiles and the will to use them. "

Quoted and bolded because I feel like the chase aspect of Range and Cover doesn’t get enough love.

Of course, it’s not so applicable if neither side has cannon or ballistae or spells or similar, but setting the Objective as, “If you get Out of Range of both weapons, you escape” vs, "If you get Too Close to Shoot, you can (attempt to) board, " has worked for me in the past.

There’s also some old archived wiki stuff for ship-based R&C.

Linked Tests, of course, are an option. I’ll sometimes use “orthogonal” Linked Tests, where each player makes a test that links into the Big Important One, rather than into a sequence (though that might be heresy) – which is basically just worse Help; honestly, I feel like good, colorful Help could use some love in these circumstances, though I appreciate that it doesn’t always feel as impressive as a bunch of tests.

Looking more closely at this example, if there’s someone on the port that can reach out and hurt the ship or people thereon, you might leverage that – a series of obstacles like ones in the Linked Tests example, each failure resulting in a shot taken at the ship or another ship on the chase. Looking at a situation from an Obstacles-first persepctive has helped me make sense of Linked Tests in the past.

Dunno if that was helpful; it’s late in the day for me! :sweat_smile:


So, one thing I will start by saying is that there’s nothing wrong with a versus test.

In the other hand, if you have torchbearer you can steal the torchbearer conflict mechanics and use them in burning wheel to complicate any interaction!

I like the advice above: if you’re not using Range And Cover then my go-tos for a ship-based set of skills include:
Navigation, Piloting, Command and Almanac/other weather-based Skill.
With options for the PCs to try and leverage other things such as Shoal-wise, Power (for rowing) and Knots.

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Range and Cover is a good thought, the boat they are stealing has a single forward mounted ballistae but they have an Elven Bow so it’s not like they aren’t dangerous

But the Elven Bow is in the hands of their only pilot!

I’ll probably make it a range and cover instead of a chase if they fail a few tests, since they’d really rather get out of there. Their Druid and Namer can probably get creative to make it more of a fight than a “chase while being shot”.

(The PCs are in a hostile kingdom to the south filled with gold and cannibals because of some Conan homages, but obviously the island of Crete during the age of the Minoans and the Venetian Republic are the themes, since that’s far more their jam than some weird racial tropes.

The Vaun have massive salt mines and constantly want slaves for it, and so that’s how the PCs got there. The Foreign Dock is explicit that no one can sleep on ships, except slaves and watches, with watch sizes being limited by ratios with slaves. So they bribed two of the 7 people running the Hoy who enslaved them, waited to one of their watches, and are going in.

Last session was one group going to calm down some slaves that were making noise and, half by accident, half by design, ending up with 5 new people added to the heist.

This Tuesday their former captor is likely to raise the alarm since a few failed Inconspicuous tests passing out bribes means he and his bosun know their plan, and are just waiting until they can catch their confederates in the act. So probably some very quick and stealthy ropework to prepare a hoy to sail, and then getting out to sea. Possibly with a conflict with the shipmaster or the dock workers who dislike boat theft and foreigners.

Next Tuesday, if all goes well, boat chase)

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Let’s develop a system. Seafaring has been lingering on my to-do list for…ahem…years…certainly not decades.

The major issue I have is that a seafaring system needs to cover a lot of…gr…uh…ocean. Specificity is key in simulations like this. The simulation of operating a boat is different from that of operating a ship.

So, in order to save us some work, let’s look at your specific situation, @silverwizard.
What vessel are your protagonists thieving? (What’s a “hoy”?) How many crew does it require? How many masts does it have? Does it use oars?

Who will pursue your crew out to sea? What are the waters like? How will we know if the crew has successfully escaped pursuit? How will the crew reach another port?


(I don’t know, matey, what’s ahoy with you?)

(I’m so sorry.)


A hoy is a small sloop with about 5-15 crew, Hoy (boat) - Wikipedia, picked specifically to be easy to crew with a small pirate crew and within theft range of the party. Generally needed 30 crew to be fighting fit. But even accidentally rescusing 5 slaves, they’re still only 10 mostly untrained sailors.

What does escape look like? Well, obviously, they are out of sight of the last group that wants to chase them! The Golden Kingdom probably doesn’t care if forgeiners steal a boat from foreigners, as long as they made enough effort to say they tried and their port is a safe one. The pirates/slavers of course care, and might have enough money/charm to convince another boat captain to care (especially the large galleon they rescued slaves from). Getting out of sight is going to be hard because we’ve established spyglasses exist though.

I figure that probably the activities would involve weather, the terrain of the sea, the speed of the boats, magic (they have a Bard using Faith, a Druid using very different faith, an Elf, and a Spirit Binder), their forward mounted ballistae probably means they can ambush, and I could see some clever use of Monster-wise or Sea-wise to bring in a Scylla or Charybdis if they are clever.

I figure the waters are gonna be usage of Slip of the Currents, Weathersong, and Almanac during the event.

That’s not so obvious to me. A good deal of piratitcal fiction seems to involve “hunting” a ship across long distances. I don’t know the specifics – Predicting which of the few viable ports your prey will scurry off too, Trusting that they’re sailing out of the wind while you’re sailing with it? Catching them when they’ll have to resupply? – I don’t know. But the ocean is a big, open space with somewhat fixed and known winds and currents. It seems like being out of sight wouldn’t end the chase. And if you get to a relatively closed-in space with lots of ports and islands to hide in – say, the Carribean – that’s maybe a different animal… :person_shrugging: :thinking:

Some semi-deterministic factors in a naval chase seem to be terrain (or lack thereof), air currents, water currents, ship manueverability, ship speed-ability (I don’t know), ship supply (and consumption and stuff), morale… :thinking:

But, like you say, your situation may not involve a prolonged, pirate-hunting kind of scenario.

That’s definitely true! But the Spirit Binder promised the Roden in the pirate crew that they’d bind her cult’s Volcano’s spirit in order to disgrace her former Visionary! So they have a secret destination known only to the cult. But that’s not always a common situation :wink:

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Okay, so that’s a fat, lubberly vessel that’s unlikely to outrun its own mother. Dig it.

Necessary Minimum Crew: Pilot and a crew of sailors (riggers). To move this ugly squab we’re going to need to get sails aloft and to keep the helm pointed in the right direction. The Rigging skill implies that a crew tackles a high obstacle test using help.

At sea, the crew will need to keep the wind gauge if they are to have any hope of outrunning their opponent. The wind is a fickle master though, so she might not be blowing in the direction they want to head.

In general, the crew will have three options: run, tack and close haul
Run moves the ship in the direction the wind is blowing. If the pilot can keep the helm pointed and the crew can fly the right amount of sheets, it’s the fastest method.

Tack moves the ship in zig zag pattern, back and forth, in the direction against the wind. This is a slow process. It’s tiring for the crew and demanding for the pilot and split second timing is required to move the helm and keep the sails from luffing and the ship from stalling.

Close hauling is when the ship’s helm is pointed a few degrees off of the wind gauge and the sails are angled so that the ship appears to move into the wind. It’s a tricking maneuver, but it can grant as much speed as running with the wind. Ships like hoys have a hard time maintaining a close haul because of their shallow keel draught. While they move forward, the wind also pushes them sideways and they tend to slide across the water.

Okay, next up: sails, or hoy vs galleon


Even with a shallow draft, hope you know where those shoals are…

If Luke is gonna bust out the nautical madness, it’d also be time to distinguish between Piloting and Helming!


Despite the ocean creating some rather long, uninterrupted sight lines, it is possible to lose pursuit while at sea!

To win at this game, one need only break contact with one’s pursuers. Once they can no longer see your sails, pursuit turns into luck and guesswork. Simple, right?

Night: The best time to lose pursuit is at night. Once darkness comes on, a clever crew can change course, luff sails or raise more sheets to elude pursuers. Of course, operating at night is dangerous. You may veer off course, lose crew overboard, run into an obstacle or just generally suffer from an accident.

Weather: Weather reduces visibility—rain and fog are obvious, but wind can kick up swell so tall that it becomes difficult to track the horizon.

Inattentiveness/boredom: Chases at sea are long, slow and, dare we say, boring. It is rather too easy to fall asleep or simply lose track of time and thus lose track of your quarry.

Terrain: Nearer to land, a chase can take a crew among rocks, islands, lagoons, bays, etc. These can be used to break contact, but navigating close to land is a dangerous game.


Optional crew

There are a few roles that are not strictly necessary but are quite nice to have aboard a sea-going vessel:

Carpenter: Perhaps not the one who first comes to mind, but I think the carpenter is just shy of necessary. The carpenter can make repairs to the ship while its afloat (before, during and after combat, for the bellicose readers among us). Their primary repair function is, of course, plugging leaks.

Navigator: If leaving the sight of shore, it’s quite nice to have a mate aboard who knows the wind, currents and stars—who can read a map and keep time. Navigation is necessary if moving to a port or destination that takes you out of sight of shore, across open ocean.

Burly Yelling Mate: Clear communication on a ship is as necessary as it is difficult. Typically, one crew member is assigned to coordinate the sailors in the rigging so that they function as a unit when attempting to operate the big machine they’re all aboard. Different cultures have different names for this role, but in Western European navy tradition, they’re often called a bosun.

Cook: Sailing is hungry work, and keeping crew fed is a full-time job. Without a cook, mealtimes can be a bit of a disaster.

Purser: Another role with many names, but one that’s proven necessary time and again. Since food and water are scarce at sea (and maybe alcohol a bit too plentiful), it’s usually a good idea to put someone in charge of the stores to make sure everyone gets their fair share.

Leader: Sailing vessels are complicated machines, so having someone coordinate all of the other roles to function as a cohesive unit can improve performance. The role of leader is absolutely the least necessary of the optional crew roles.


A couple of nits about sailing:

  1. “close hauled” and “tacking” are two descriptions of basically the same thing. When tacking against the wind, the pilot “close hauls” the boat to try to make the best time to windward
  2. The fastest point of sail is actually a “reach” - when the boat is oriented 90 degrees to the wind.
  3. Depending on wind speed, the fastest speed a boat can travel is called it’s hull speed, and depends on the square root of the length of the boat - for example an old fashioned 30’ boat can go up to about 7 miles per hour, while a 60’ boat can do about 9-10 miles per hour. So in a sailing race, a longer (even if it’s bigger) ship often means faster, unless the wind is very light.
  4. I believe from @silverwizard 's description of this Hoy being a pirate-y vessel, he’s probably referring to the meaning as a sloop-rigged coasting ship, not a barge. Quoting from further down the wiki link:
    " In the sixteenth century, Sir Roger Williams considered that a combination of manoeuvrability, shallow draught, and heavy artillery made the hoy the most effective warship in Dutch coastal waters."
    So even without cannon, this should be a smart sailor and a very fast ship for its size, and should be fairly simple to sail, as a sloop rig is much less labor intensive than many of the older rigs.

Personally, I’d do it with a series of linked tests to get out of the harbor and set up the initial conditions for your chase. If everything goes without a hitch (yeah right) they basically get away before any effective pursuit can be made. If the alarm goes up while they are still in port, consider the following possible consequences:

  1. Artillery fire from the fort guarding the port
  2. Small rowed boats are very dangerous to potentially unskillfully handled sailing ships, especially in protected waters. The pirates may have access to some longboats to try re-capturing their ship if it’s having a hard time getting out of the port
  3. Another ship in pursuit seems the least likely consequence in your scenario - it would have to be ready to put to sea, the captain convinced, etc.

Let’s say our players escape the harbor, and are chased. First question in sailing is always, where is the wind, and who has the advantage. Perhaps the players can use a wise to predict / time their escape to take advantage of this? With their relatively light and handy ship, they could easily outrun the galleon simply by sailing up wind - a galleon is a square rigger and can’t beat up wind to save it’s life. Similarly, if the winds are light, their lighter ship will be much faster than the giant, wallowing galleon. However, if a gale where to blow up, with both ships trying to run down wind, the galleon would overtake them in no time. So - set up the initial conditions for your chase based on narrative / consequences to their escape.

@luke has very good points about secondary roles on board, chase conditions etc. A range and cover or a series of linked tests would be an excellent chase at this point.

If you have an interest in telling stories about sea chases, there can be no better reference than the Master and Commander series by Patrick O’Brien. He took his ship combat descriptions from actual ship combat reports from the time, and they are spectacular! A big take away for me from reading the series is how much depended on the weather, so keep that DOF handy, and change the weather regularly!