Seafaring Merchants - Check my Work

I just started a game where the players want to engage in ocean navigation for trade and exploration. They are siblings, and their mother is a wealthy merchant who financed a ship and crew. The players will run the ship. One is a navigator & astrologer, another is a quartermaster, and another is a pilot. And they are beginners playing their first game and I haven’t run this sort of game before so I thought I should brush up on what skills might be useful and how they might come into play.

I’m hoping you’ll check my work.

Useful Seafaring Skills
• Artillerist (if it has a catapult or similar)
• Astrology (as a fork to Navigation)
• Command (effectively giving orders)
• Heraldry (to identify other ships)
• Knots
• Navigation (plot a course)
• Pilot (steer a ship through storms, ports, and shallow waters)
• Rigging (complex maneuvers, boarding actions)
• Seamanship (ship maintenance, mending stuff, pumping water)
• Ship Management (supplying a ship for a voyage)
• Shipwright (building and repairing big ships)
• Signalling (communication with another ship)

I could see a series of tests like this for a “routine” jaunt from one port to another: Astrology to pick a good date to depart as a linked test to Navigation to see if you get where you want to go, and Pilot to steer into a foreign port or through dangerous waters.

If they run into problems and are delayed at sea perhaps a Ship Management test to see if the ship is well-enough supplied to not suffer problems. A failed Ship Management failure could lead to a Seamanship test.

Running into another ship would probably start with a Heraldry test to identify it, and a Signalling test to communicate with it. If a fight breaks out, Pilot test to avoid a fight or engage skillfully, a Rigging test to ensnare or un-ensnare from another ship, Command to effectively lead a crew in battle, and Shipwright to repair the ship if it’s majorly damaged and manages to limp to shore (another Pilot test) in a place where repairs could be effected.

I’m having trouble thinking of a Knots test that wouldn’t seem nit-picky. Although I could see it forking into a Rigging test.

Dealing with foreign port authorities might require Haggling, Resources tests, and various social skills. Problems could lead to Bureaucracy tests or gods-know-what. Finding a buyer or seller could be Streetwise to safely find the right part of town, followed by a Circles test and doing deals will probably be Haggling and Resources.

It seems the profits on trade deals are all these fricking Resources tests, with Haggling reinforcing these opportunities.

Of course all this needs to be angled depending on their beliefs. They’re still working on that. For now I’m just trying to build a framework to tweak from.



If you set a consequence of failure for a, say, Astrology test that they get caught up in a storm, then Knots seems the ideal skill for the Intent “Rope up so we can still move around but don’t get washed overboard”

Similarly, if they need to berth somewhere that isn’t a proper port, use Knots to moor in a way that allows them enough play not to settle onto sharp rocks when the tide goes out but also holds them tight enough to not bash into the rocks in the swell. Doubly useful if you dangle illicit profits in front of them or they seek to smuggle of their own free will.

Appraisal can also be useful instead of/as well as Haggling.


Thanks, DaveHiggins. Good ideas for Knots!

Totally agree regarding Appraisal.

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Are you giving them a crew? The obstacles for larger vessels are quite high. They’re designed to be undertaken with help!

Yeah, they have a crew. I can definitely help them by sprinkling in some skills there. I was thinking of suggesting they circle up a couple more specialists for their crew with strong skills they think might be important. I also prepared for them a handout (i’m loving roll20, btw, thanks for the suggestion!) of useful seafaring skills and how they might come up.

Got a weather witch on the crew?

Yes, one of the PC’s is a weather witch!

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With a crew, you can do intra-crew drama! You can create factions amongst them and get up to all kinds of trouble. You can also do “recruitment” from other crews or from unsuspecting souls while onshore. You can do stowaways. Mysterious or troublesome passengers, too.

My favorite ship trouble though is sinking whilst in the deep blue sea. The tension of pumping out the below decks while desperately caulking leaks, waves lapping over the bows, the shipping sinking lower. Tossing the cargo over. Then the water and food… Great drama!


Perhaps check out The Return of the Obra Dinn on Steam for some inspiration, too. Amazing game.


Wow, that looks rad!

It’s not everyone’s cup of tea, and the interface takes some getting used to, but it was my favourite computer game that year, and it’s by the same guy who made the amazing Papers Please, Lucas Pope.