saltbox, pt. 2

What are the touchstones in fiction for the sandbox-at-sea? Three broad genres come to mind: Ocean voyages in mythic antiquity (Argonautica, Odyssey), swashbuckling in the age of gunpowder (Aubrey/Maturin), and whaling. There is a model in all of them for a space of incidental adventure (a roving commission!), sometimes in service of a much-larger goal (Ulysses and Jason knew their win conditions), but I gravitate to Moby Dick for my inspiration.

The crew of the Pequod is paid in shares of the valuables retrieved. They are at the margins of society and of unusually cosmopolitan composition for the social setting. The greenest among them enters into whaling motivated by a mix of melancholy in day-to-day life, and “an everlasting itch for things remote”:

I love to sail forbidden seas, and land on barbarous coasts. Not ignoring what is good, I am quick to perceive a horror, and could still be social with it – would they let me – since it is but well to be on friendly terms with all the inmates of the place one lodges in.

But the more experienced are both less desperate and more restrained:

Starbuck was no crusader after perils; in him courage was not a sentiment; but a thing simply useful to him, and always at hand upon all mortally practical occasions. Besides, he thought, perhaps, that in this business of whaling, courage was one of the great staple outfits of the ship, like her beef and her bread, and not to be foolishly wasted. … For, thought Starbuck, I am here in this critical ocean to kill whales for my living, and not to be killed by them for theirs; and that hundreds of men had been so killed Starbuck well knew. What doom was his own father’s? Where, in the bottomless deeps, could he find the torn limbs of his brother?

… and of course, there are strange rituals, mysterious omens, dangerous combats, near-mutinies, blood-forged magical weapons, and at least one hugely dangerous monster on the random encounter table too strong for the adventurers to overcome.

Drawing on all this, I have some goals for the mass of tables determining a day in the saltbox:

  • It must be possible nothing happens, because the sea is vast and lonely
  • It must be possible one day holds many events, because the sea is also dangerous and teeming with life
  • It must be possible to hunt/chase beasts at sea
  • It must possible to encounter, parley with and perhaps pursue and capture other ships
  • and vice versa
  • It must be possible to encounter un-navigable obstacles (scylla/charybdis)
  • It must be possible to discover uncharted territory
  • It must be possible to encounter and survive epic storms

What struts for action am I missing? What useful fiction am I ignoring? And what do I have to offer for reading a post this long? I’ll post some tables after our first play-test, but for now here’s a draft of my player map:

The North Seas?
Big version here

14 Responses to “saltbox, pt. 2”

  1. February 27, 2011 at 6:47 pm

    I’m really interested to see what you produce because this is very relevant to my interests right now.

    I would say bigger influences on my conception of sea adventures would be Sinbad, and the Voyage of the Dawn Treader.

    Although, two things I hope I can make a part of play are the need for fresh water and the risk of scurvy.

  2. February 27, 2011 at 7:33 pm

    Another excellent point of reference is The Boats of the “Glen-Carrig” by William Hope Hodgson.

  3. 3 Charlatan
    February 27, 2011 at 7:51 pm

    @Telecanter: I’m following your posts on this stuff pretty closely, they’ve been great. I think I’ll have some play-testers the first weekend in March, but I’ll almost certainly lose my patience, and post the disease subtable sometime this week. It’s easier than doing the half-mile scale mapping…

    @migellito: Not only does it look good, but some cheap kindle editions. Thanks!

  4. February 27, 2011 at 9:56 pm

    Another thumbs up for the Hodgson. I think there’s an edition of all his weird sea stories somewhere I’d love to check out.

  5. 5 Scott LeMien
    February 28, 2011 at 1:34 pm

    Is the ship itself a player managed resource vehicle that is fun to play?

  6. 6 Naked Samurai
    February 28, 2011 at 3:02 pm

    Thumbs up for ‘saltbox’.

    Do you have an endgame? Is it island hopping, or just boat combats?

    You could set up a couple quests entirely based on random encounters. For example, but on a ‘Marie Celeste’/’Flying Dutchman’ ghost ship they are trying to find. Maybe other encounters might increase the chances of it showing up.

  7. February 28, 2011 at 4:01 pm

    Coming at this from a slightly different direction, there are some really outstanding examples of how to handle all of this coming from the world of video games. The procedurally generated sandbox with distant ports, perhaps best exemplified by the Sid Meier classic “Pirates”, Sea Dogs and surprisingly “pirates of the caribbean: armada of the damned”. A few “gamey” mechanics worth considering, that still have a place in old school inspired sandbox play:

    – treasure maps/message in a bottle: self explanitory, surely something you are contemplating, but here it is (this is also a good way to introduce potential XP bonuses without “patrons”)

    – simple “merchant” economies: assuming there are multiple ports of call, you can establish a few key trade goods and have a table for prices in each that represent good/bad buying/selling conditions. “Drug Wars” is a great example of an extremely simple execution of this mechanic, that remains fun to play.

    Can’t wait to play, I’m going to make this work this weekend, too awesome to pass up!.

  8. 8 Naked Samurai
    February 28, 2011 at 4:35 pm

    It’s all about arbitrage!

  9. 9 Charlatan
    February 28, 2011 at 5:21 pm

    @Scott: This is a good question. I want to make templates for several different ways the players might get onto the water depending on how much of that management they want to engage in (hire on to a crew, invest in a ship, charter a ship, buy a ship). It’s one of the central concerns to making the oceans a location for play rather than simply space traversed between locations. As far as navigation, I feel okay starting with standard hex-crawling and rules for getting lost (though on an atypical scale for most days).

    @Naked: I think in this, the watery setting doesn’t diverge fundamentally from a traditional hex crawl. The seas are crawling with monsters, dotted with islands, contested by social factions, and traveled by some singularly powerful entities who can shrug off most machinations of men, fish or otherwise. If you played long enough, I suspect your concerns would begin to shift to the latter items in that list: You’ll map the whole ocean eventually, but in the process you may aggravate storm giants and dragon turtles, or become embroiled in the internecine wars of mer-kings.

    @Bodacious: If you can’t salvage the water-logged journal describing the Isle of Dread from a storm-ravaged wreck at sea, abandoning your pursuit of hydra ambergris for an even bigger prize… what’s the point? I also agree that mercantile hooks are significant- for example, most of the wealth from sea creatures is in their bodies, and I think a B/X-style game has to engage with that source of wealth (and xp) to work in an ocean setting. Trade arbitrage is a nice way to phrase reward monies, as well.

  10. 10 DeForest
    February 28, 2011 at 8:32 pm

    The original series of Star Trek hits all of your bullet points if you substitute ocean for space and island for planet. In fact a lot of science fiction may have ideas you could riff off of by making that substitution.

  11. February 28, 2011 at 9:31 pm

    Sid Meier’s Pirates! gets another vote from me. The ships were a resource, for sure, but there were other elements of resource management too. When you put into port, your crew disbanded and took their shares, so you wanted to keep at sea as long as possible, to get the most out of your veterans. On the other hand, if you waited too long without paying, your crew would get ornery and mutiny. Finally, your captain’s career was finite: afer the advanced age of 30 or something, your days were numbered, so you wanted to rake in a few large hauls and then retire, hopefully after marrying the governor’s daughter or something (I generally died a broken down drunk).

  12. March 3, 2011 at 1:05 am

    You know, I can’t help but think that Traveller’s system for trading would work really well for this.

    Oh, and another thumbs up for “saltbox”!

  13. March 4, 2011 at 9:26 pm

    This is a great idea.
    There are free verisons (for the kindle, ect..) of “The Ghost Pirates” and “The Boats of Glen Carrig” and “Moby Dick” (my favorite novel of all time!) on Project Gotenberg.

  14. 14 Invincible Overlord
    March 5, 2011 at 1:39 am

    a couple more “It must be”s
    * It must be the possible to get lost, and swept away by a current or storm to unexpected waters
    * There must be lands/islands that are entirely unknown and those that are heard of but uncharted
    * There must be treasonous mutineers

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Past Adventures of the Mule

February 2011

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