Saltbox Test Run

Today several New York Red Boxers took the plunge, and play-tested some of my saltbox rules. We rolled up some mid-level characters (30k xp), and set out to sea.

What Worked?

  • Encounters: I feel pretty good about my encounter tables, and my random encounter mechanics (between random encounters and the day’s event at sea being an encounter, about 1/4 chance of at least one sea-beastie).
  • Clerics: It is a wilderness crawl, so some spells that are marginalized in dungeons get a chance to perform – the party cleric cast Speak with Animal on a shark, Growth of Animals on same (arguably to his detriment) and Speak with Plants (requiring me to role-play Strangle Weed)
  • Inferred Wind: Between reaction rolls for the weather and Marsh/Cook for the wind effect, I just let the result of those rolls and player intent imply the wind direction. It felt a little fake at times, but it sped things up considerably
  • Evasion Roll-Offs: I liked it being a bit more interactive, even if a strategic (and expertly placed!) fireball rendered it moot.
  • The Players: They threw themselves into it, and were willing to talk through the rough spots in rules far more than I could reasonably have expected.

What Failed?

  • Char Gen: I wanted there to be some economy of sailor-type abilities and potential boat-funding cash to affect how the party set out to sea. The generation was really slow, and the players were entirely uninterested in hiring onto a boat for a lay in the profits.
  • Encountered Ship Generation: There were many things I over-prepared for, why oh why didn’t I have a handful of encountered ships all rolled up? I had three different undead ships, I couldn’t work up a few pirates?
  • Harpoons: Necessary to emulate whaling, their relationship to “normal” weapons was a bit too obscure. I had intended them to have broad impact on a small but vitally-important niche, but their limitations as weapons frustrated people. I should have explained this better.
  • Navigation: The 72 and 6 miles hexes make calculation easier… until ships are damaged, wind is weak, and evasion wackiness is in effect.

What was Iffy?

  • Every day is determined by four random rolls, and it took some effort to shape them into a coherent description of the day’s events.
  • Mapping- The player map was (to my mind) suitably un-detailed, but the lack of hexes meant a little too-much of the DM just explaining things.  Probably not worth the mystery.
  • Frequently encounters (like sharks) are both low-reward and mechanically awkward (fighting a water-bound beastie from on-deck).  A sea serpent can rear up to attack characters on deck, but a lot of stuff is perhaps too-easily ignored.  Then again, people fly right over random encounters on land, so why worry?

The Encounters

  • A school of mako sharks, one of which was grown into a 8HD monstrosity while being spoken to by the party cleric
  • A longship crewed by buccaneers, who were roasted by a fireball and finished off with missile weapons. The mast was burnt down, but the deck was only charred and the ship salvaged.
  • A morass of strangle weed, which the party convinced to disgorge both their ship and a couple of items from my Salvage subtable (a barrel of harpoon heads, and a denuded fruit tree).
  • A SEA DRAGON of sub-adult size (7HD). The players handled this encounter very well, negotiating with the dragon and extracting valuable information, as well as agreeing with it to trade some jewels for a magic potion.
  • The SAME SEA DRAGON, who the party betrayed as part of a scheme to gain access to it hoard. This went fairly poorly for them, striking a goblin harpooneer down, and rendering helpless all but one party member.

James, a while back, had the brilliant notion that a sea dragon’s breath weapon is a spew of noxious, fertilized sea dragon larvae. I took this to mean that anyone struck down by the weapon must not only be healed, but cured of disease to avoid “hatching” into a sea dragon newt in 1d4 days. The party’s plan was almost brilliant: They used their massive haul from the sale of the longship (and the buccaneers’ treasure) to buy the inn in which they were to meet the dragon, and stuff it with barrels of whale oil that they intended to ignite. Unfortunately, the dragon rolled up charm person and find traps, which colluded to dampen the effectiveness of their timing (although it also meant some of the dragon’s spells were exhausted). They incinerated the inn, killed 9 hireling fighters, and made enemies both in town and in the dragon’s lair. They did manage to chase the thing off, but not before suffering heavy casualties. That sea dragon breath weapon is nasty!

Here’s one of my daily 2d6 rolls at sea:

Events at Sea (Daily, 2d6)

2 Outbreak!: Roll on Diseases at Sea Subtable
3 Batten the Hatches!: Roll surprise: 1-2: Sudden encounter with a storm, 3-6: Change course for day or encounter storm
4 Land Ho? 1d6, 1: kelp/sargasso forest, 2-3: reefs/shoals/rocks, 4-5: wrecked ship adrift, 6: uncharted island/islet
5 Albatross: Is it wounded? An omen? Crew morale check at  -1
6 Salt Air and the Deep Blue: Nothing out of the ordinary
7 Avast!: Ocean Encounter, roll for type
8 Salt Air and the Deep Blue: Nothing out of the ordinary
9 Ships Ahoy!: Ships sighted on horizon; roll on Men Subtable
10 Sea-Legs: 1 of the ship’s marines becomes effective as a sailor
11 The Corpusants! The Corpusants!: A thunderstorm far off the starboard, and St. Elmo’s Fire on the masts at dawn; crew morale check at +1
12 Fruits of the Sea: Salvageable wreckage, roll Salvage Type subtable

6 Responses to “Saltbox Test Run”

  1. 1 David Wellington
    March 6, 2011 at 7:00 am

    It was a great session, Ben. I really got into playing my goblin harpooner. A couple of points come to mind:

    1) The confusion about harpoons probably arose because they were presented during chargen as something really special. We had the option to spend 3000 gold on a magic harpoon, and I took that to mean they would be more effective than other weapons. Part of the problem is simply the relative ineffectiveness of 5th level fighters versus 5th level M-Us and Clerics. I was hoping the harpoon would help bridge that gap. Of course, I was hopped up on cold medication at the time. If we were to have another session (I’d be down with that!) I’d probably focus more on crossbows, with a normal harpoon for specific missions.

    2) The final encounter really came out of the fact that we knew these were expendable characters. We would have acted quite differently if we had plans of chasing down the giant Foom or delving into merman politics!

    3) Hiring on to an existing crew would be fun in retrospect, taking orders from an Ahab or a Jack Aubrey, having to make the best of encounters gone bad… I think we’re all too used to sandbox games where we have to be masters of our own destinies!

    4) While much of the mechanics of sea life were abstracted, I really got into the nautical theme. I really wanted Blue Tam to get a deep sea diving rig (with brass bubble helmet) and go exploring in shipwrecks. The tech level of B/X prohibits that sort of thing, of course, but maybe a more steampunk-style millieu (or clockworkpunk, or whatever) would have been awesome. Though it was pretty cool how he housed that Viking longship!

    Thanks so much for running this. I had a blast!

  2. 2 James Nostack
    March 6, 2011 at 4:05 pm

    “We would have acted quite differently if we had plans of chasing down the giant Foom or delving into merman politics!”

    Speak for yourself. Making a kamikaze run on a Dragon has always been my goal. I’m glad I got to follow through on it.

    PRO-TIP: Don’t speak to sharks, they are the assholes of the sea.

  3. 3 Charlatan
    March 6, 2011 at 4:30 pm

    @Dave: I’m glad you had fun! I hope we can run some of this stuff again sometime this Spring. I want to to see how the unrolled parts of those encounter tables play.

    @James: It was a lot of fun playing the dragon, and that town-leveling fight was very entertaining (for me). But it may have been even more fun playing the seaweed and the sharks, which was a bit of a curveball for me.

    Edit in the post: Also too slow was generating an encountered ship. An oversight on my part, thanks for helping me out there. I’m going to save that longship for future use.

  4. March 6, 2011 at 5:40 pm

    I had a blast and am further convinced that this represents a really fertile vein of D&D adventuring!

    I think that serving on another commander’s ship (perhaps as part of an infiltration or espionage mission) would be a great way to get into the crew politics that are a fun part of the Aubrey/Maturin books – all the ways that personalities come to the fore on an unhappy ship, etc. Maybe there should be a shipwreck survival table that makes it likely that PCs whose ship is destroyed (say, by an enlarged shark) will be picked up by another ship, to make this kind of scenario more ocmmon. My feeling is that when the PCs are in charge they want to pay attention to their goals and not be distracted by the grumblings of NPCs, whereas if you’re rescued but enslaved by another captain, every below-decks complaint will be a tool you could use to foment mutiny.

    Great work with the special wondrous items. With things like the rod of water breathing, Blue Tam’s shipwreck-diving dreams don’t seem beyond B/X tech at all.

    What if harpoons were presented not so much a weapon in themselves as the ways that the PCs can use their ship as a weapon? On an individual level, a harpoon is just a spear with a disadvantage (it gets stuck in the victim). The problem comes because D&D damage mechanic tends to assume the individual level, so if we try to make harpoons effective at this scale we get problems like in 2E where they make ordinary spears obsolete. IMO, it’s only when paired with a ship that harpoons come into their own; no ordinary dungeon situation is going to let us harpoon something and then drag it along behind us at speed, banging it against this nice solid hull we’re bringing with us. This way you could apply some real-world whaling strictures; it’s clear for example that you’ll do better as a whaler if you’ve got a whaling longboat as compared to a canoe, and if all the efficacy is concentrated in the harpoon this is going to be hard to represent.

  5. 5 Charlatan
    March 6, 2011 at 6:36 pm

    @Tavis: That’s an interesting thought, and I’ll have to ruminate on it. To some extent, I think the problem may be solved just by highlighting the niche the harpoon fills: You’ve battled the sea serpent down to 1/3 of its hit points, and it has decided to flee. There goes your money onto the evasion tables… unless a harpooneer lands a blow, and the line holds. The potential for the entire profit potential of a week of sailing to come down to a single roll is the reason I wanted to make sure there were some lightly enchanted harpoons easy to come by… but maybe thinking of them as the “ram” of a launch boat works better.

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Past Adventures of the Mule

March 2011

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