Ahoy, Captain

James Maliszewski over at Grognardia recently wrote (discussing the old Companion rules) about "a promise on which D&D had never quite managed to make good -- to provide rules and guidelines for the endgame of a character's adventuring career... domain management rules, [and] also a mass combat system. Together, these two systems addressed issues D&D had had ever since 1974..."

Well, for me I'll add a 3rd "itch" that I was never quite able to scratch: Naval rules. Man, I loves me some boats. Medieval pirates and sea monsters and broadsides from mad wizards and all that. But D&D never had a ruleset that actually made all that happen.

Ship combat is at an awkward scale, actually. You kind of want the ships to be maneuvering at one scale, but when they crash together for a boarding action, you kind of want to run standard D&D group melee. You've got like, a few score crew per boat which is both too big (for D&D man-to-man melee) and too small (not the hundreds-per-column you see in mass combat). If you figure out a system for ship-to-ship action, then you'll have a whole other problem if you try to scale up to squadrons of multiple boats. If you make a boat model at D&D outdoor scale (1"=30 ft), you'll find that your miniature figures don't even fit on the boat! (More on that, perhaps, at another time.)

When I got my AD&D DMG, there's a section on "Waterborne Adventures" that has details on ship sizes, winds, daily speeds, capture, and fires. It immediately attracted me. But whenever I turned to that section and tried to make it work, I ran into trouble. How many men per boat? (It doesn't say.) What's the tactical per-round move? (It doesn't say.) How fast can you change direction or beat against the wind? (It doesn't say.) How do I run combat between so many men? (Doesn't say.)

So I never really got to use that section. Over the years, I've tried to write my own several times, which is predicated on first writing a mass-combat system that makes sense.

It was about a year ago that I got my own copy of the Original D&D White Box set. 3 tiny little books. I get to Volume 3 (equivalent to the DMG), and... oh wow, here all that stuff is. Standard crew per boat. Per-round moves for each direction in the wind. Rules for changing direction, stepping sails, oarsman fatigue.

Basically, OD&D had all the tactical information you need on boat-to-boat actions. When Gygax wrote the AD&D DMG he basically expanded on all that stuff, by adding strategic elements he'd earlier left out (daily moves, sizes of the boats, historical notes, structural hits). But dangit, he hadn't thought to copy over all tactical stuff over that I needed! So that's why the AD&D naval rules always felt frustratingly incomplete to me (for, like, almost 30 years).

But wait... now how do I manage the crew-to-crew combat, the missile fire, catapult shots, and all that? Oh, yeah: "All missile fire, including the various forms of catapult fire, are as in CHAINMAIL." (OD&D Vol. 3 p. 30). So now I'm printing out pages from my digital copy of Chainmail to get that up and running.


So at the end of the day, I guess there was a very cohesive set of naval D&D rules, available at least as early as when I got started with the game in 1979. It's just that to find them, you had to put together a copy of Chainmail + Original D&D + the AD&D Dungeon Master's Guide. (Passingly similar to all the page-flipping you'd do for monsters after OD&D added different monster attacks in the Greyhawk supplement.) I'm just now starting to try a few playtests of all this stuff put together with some wee model boats to see how it all hangs together. Looks good so far (which is both a great relief and also a bit of a melancholy lost opportunity).

But I still wish the damned miniatures fit on the scale boats.


  1. I know this is old, but Gygax/arneson, before this fantasy game, wrote naval rules called Don't Give Up the Ship (DGUTS). if you can find a copy, they are pricey, it covers much of this. and I think they expected you to swap in other games as situations came up (see: Chainmail :)

    1. Good point, and I agree. I was actually searching for a copy of that for the better part of 10 years and finally got a copy earlier this year (link). This article probably deserved a forward-link to that, so thanks for reminding me!