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The Serpent Barque

In Wander Ships: Folk-stories of the Sea, with Notes upon their Origin (1917), Wilbur Basset relates a tale that I cannot help adapting for my sea-borne menagerie.  Not a ghost ship, this one: This is a ship of devlish nightmares in the shape of a Chinese dragon.

The tale begins with some tiger hunters searching for a ship to carry their unexpected prey:

“Back toward the hills,” he said, “where the sun has not yet come, but a few li from Foochow, we set a trap for the great tiger. This morning we heard noises, and coming to the cage found in it a hideous serpent that goes upon his belly and upon short legs. His eyes are dead. and upon his head are horns. At first we were afraid, but the cage is mighty for strength and he cannot escape.”

The hunters appear to have found their man- a junk captain sailing for the South, and Formosa:

“We will see your serpent,” [the captain] said, “and if the cage is strong and your money rings true, he goes south with me.” The captain slipped out of his padded jacket and into a stout coat and went quietly over the side into the boat. Pulling ashore, they dragged the heavy boat upon the beach and made their way to the lonely valley where the cage was. They looked in very frightened upon the prisoner and he seemed small and not so terrible in the sunlight and they forgot their fears and laughed at him.

Pitiable fools, really: Dragons are proud, and- as they discover at sea- do not take mockery lightly.

[A] hoarse and raucous sound, half scream, half roar, once more blared forth, and they saw in the fierce light the broken bars of the cage and the horrid body of the serpent, emerging from his prison. The eyes were as festering pools in some foul desert, lusterless and dead, and above the slimy neck the head seemed raised in the half light to the level of the menacing cloud that was sweeping by and that mingled its vapors with the noxious breath of the monster. During that moment of awful visions, when death from wave monster and storm glared at them as in the light of day, the crew seemed to cling to life only by virtue of that tenacity which marks the sailor of every race. The gulf of darkness that succeeded swallowed up their fears with the great wave, the vision of the monster and the storm cloud, and as the little craft sturdily surmounted the crest of the following wave, so rose their confidence and fortitude, self assertive and buoyant, and they took heart and prepared to defend themselves.

… With fear drawn faces they drew back, then rushed it with uplifted blades. But their blows never fell. Out of the fetid nostrils of the beast issued a cloud of breath that broke upon them with the suddenness of tropic night, encircled them in the roaring of a thousand tempests and drifted lazily on to leeward over their stricken forms. … So quickly had moment passed that but for the broken bodies on there seemed no hold for memory to reconstruct it. No man approached the dead comrades. No man was to take up the fallen sword of the dragon slayer; none dared approach within reach of that death dealing breath.

The junk is abandoned to the dragon in a storm, but rather than sink, it is piloted by the beast:

No man knows the fate of the unhappy junk ,whether she still carries her foul passenger and cruises restlessly up and down the stormy yellow seas, or whether her ribs are bleaching long since upon some lonely strand. Some say she cruises still and is waiting for a captain.

Basset’s notes interpret the tale as a plague metaphor and, as he moves into a broader discussion of the folklore of plague ships, report this snippet from Assemani’s Bibliotheca Orientalis:

Perhaps the oldest European legend of phantom ships is of brazen barks seen off infected ports during the great plague in Roman times. These were veritable devil ships, whose crews were black and headless demons.

Now we’re talking.  Below are LL-style statistics and a description of Bastard Serpents, an unusual subtype of dragon known to pilot ships at sea with a crew of corpses.

Bastard Serpent

The Bastard Serpent is a debased dragon. The parentage of this subtype is unclear and likely variable, though they certainly lay some claim to the red dragon’s bloodline.  Unlike most of their nobler kindred, the bastard serpent is wingless and cannot fly- a humiliation spawning a pridefulness and disdain unusual even for a dragon.  It is a capable swimmer, and at adulthood its serpentine form can encircle smaller ships.  These serpents’ scales are brackish and ruddy, and covered in a thin, muculent film. They uniformly possess a fearsome crest of horns.  They are typically (80%) found in the command of a felucca, skiff, or junk manned by a charred and headless crew.  The falling pitch of this dragon’s horrid breath reduces many victims’ heads to ashes, but those left intact festoon the ship now manned by their former bodies. From this Serpent Barque, the Bastard seeks out victim ships to plunder.

Bastard Serpent
No. Enc.: 1 (+ crew)
Alignment: Chaotic
Movement: 90’ (30’), swim 180’ (60’)
Armor Class: 1
Hit Dice: 8 (5-11)
Attacks: 3 (2 claws, 1 bite) or 2 (1 head butt, 1 bite) or 1 (breath)
Damage: 1d6+1/1d6+1/3d8 or 4d4/3d8
Save: F8
Morale: 9
Hoard Class: XV
XP: 2,060
Habitat: Ocean, Coastal caves
Probability Asleep: 30%
Probability Speech: 100% (3 1st level spells; 3 2nd level)
Breath weapon: Cloud of burning pitch
Breath Range, Shape, Type: 30’ gob; Burning Pitch

Special abilities: Spells; Animate Dead on victims of its breath weapon once daily as Serpent’s Crew

Serpent’s Crew

No. Enc.: 5-10

The remaining flesh of these headless undead is burnt and ashen, and emits a charnel reek.  Treat as zombies controlled by their dragon master; the sight and smell of Serpent’s Crewmen requires a save vs paralysis or flee in fear.


Rolling Up Lots of Buccaneers

My at-sea encounter tables have a subtable for the types of men aboard that ship on the horizon, but much to my shame I did not pre-gen any ships (and crews) for my first play-test. Definitely a mistake: Rolling up 1-6 ships and their officer corps (they’ll generally all have at least two Fighters of level 2+, and some possible mages and clerics thrown in) is not like rolling up a pod of whales. I decided to remedy this in advance of my next go-round.

For a more-or-less completely fleshed out pirate/buccaneer officer, doughty enough to have survived all the way to level 2 (or more!), I went with the following:

  • Average hit points (4.5) per die, rounded up.
  • Chain, sword, crossbow unless magic is indicated
  • The Marsh/Cook rules for magic items (5% chance per level on swords, armor, miscellaneous weapons, potions, scrolls, miscellaneous magic, and rods/wands; results that cannot be used by a Fighter become no result)
  • Dexterity assumed to be 9-12, Strength and Constitution 8-18

The STR and CON range was a bit of a problem- I didn’t want to deal with totaling three dice and re-rolling totals below 8 for the dozens of fighters I was sketching out; I also didn’t want to change the relative probability of results of 8 and over (not too much, anyway). Time for a weird table:

Fiddly NPC Ability Scores Ranging 8-18
1d20 1d12
1-13 1-3: 9; 4-6: 10; 7-9: 11; 10-12: 12
14-18 1-6: 13; 7-10: 14; 11-12: 15
19 1-8: 16; 9-12: 17
20 1-10: 8; 11-12: 18

This gave me some variety in hit points from the CON bonuses, and some potential surprises in melee from STR.

If I cared less for the actual score than for the bonus, I would have disregarded the d12 roll in all cases but a 20, and rolled a d6 (1-5: -1; 6: +3).


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

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


Saltbox, pt. 1

Maybe it’s the approach of Spring, maybe it’s a quasi-nautical tangent in the game I play in: I’ve been thinking about the Sandbox at sea (edit: I’m not alone, right, James?). My table-making tendencies are in high gear. But before I start in with tables and minigames, some easier observations:

Remember In Praise of the 6-Mile Hex? A hex with a height of six miles has side and diagonal lengths that are close enough to 3.5 and 7 to make calculation easy, and it breaks down into subhexes… well, it’s in the link.

If you “zoom out” at the proportions discussed there, you’re at hexes with a height of 72 miles. A 72 mile hex has sides approximately 42 miles long, and a diagonal just over 83 miles (call it 84! It’s not modern mapping!). Still fairly easy to calculate against, and has a bonus for ocean hex crawling: Large sailing ships, galleys, and sail boats cover 72 miles in a day. Small sailing ships are a bit faster (90 miles, a hair over the diagonal), but still fit pretty nicely.

Neat! It also means that my wilderness mapping hex paper- about 24 hexes long- covers more than 2M square miles. This is big enough to map a sea the size of the Caribbean and then some. When I drop down to the 6 mile scale, I can map two hexes from the larger map- enough to get several medium islands, like Jamaica, or half a large one.

But I can also use the fact that many smaller islands are less than 6 miles, combined with the Cook/Marsh dictum of land being visible 24 miles at sea (thus requiring entering the hex), to not map smaller islands on the big map at all. I can plan a few volcanic isles, or atolls, or maybe even a transient island that surfaces for days at a time on the back of an ancient turtle, and use them as chance encounters at sea. I like the idea of sailing under the decorative scrolls on your map, and finding both sea serpents and uncharted ritual islands.


The World of the Thief-Dabbler

In worlds within which magic and roguery mix, it is inevitable that the bottomless well of arcane potential is drawn for acts of petty criminality.  Let us consider some of the unfortunate charms and hexes born of the Thief-Dabbler!

Prestidigital Adherence
Level: Magic-User 1
Range: Touch
The miscreant mage is able, by means of this spell, to instantly transport an object weighing up to one pound into a bag or pocket on his person, so long as the caster is in physical contact with the object when the spell is cast.

Tergiversant Testimony
Level: Magic-User 1
Range: n/a
Also known as mystic mendacity, this spell allows the caster to tell the target of the spell a lie regarding a recent event that matches the event’s apparent outcome. The target adopts this lie as a true memory, receiving a saving throw versus spell if they are confronted with contradictory evidence.
“I did not throw this lamp to the floor! I tried to catch it when it fell from the table.”
“Pick your pocket? I tripped on that flagstone!”
“I’m sorry, but I think you wrote that entry in your ledger before you paid me.”
(The last would require a save versus spell if the clerk counted the contents of their changebox).

Boon Contrivance
Level: Magic-User 1
Range: 1 large table
This spell allows the caster to determine the outcome of a minor chance occurrence immediately before it happens, and is used almost exclusively in conjunction with sleight-of-hand maneuvers to affect gambling outcomes.


Dungeons and Dragons in Non-Contemporary Art

After the art and discussion at the excellent “Dungeons and Dragons in Contemporary Art” panel (November 6 at the Allegra LaViola gallery), I couldn’t leave off thinking about fantasy as a kind of (forgive me!) discursive mode.  Looking at Casey Jex Smith’s ‘Lehi’s Vision’, in particular, suggested a mutable fantastic mode as historical artifact; it depicts a Modern, architectural fantastic that calls to mind Albany’s Empire State Plaza, the emblematic colonial (and ancient) fantastic of the Sphinx-guarded tomb, a corporal fantasy reminiscent of the Bosch’s demons and Raleigh’s natives in the 16th century, the environmental fantasies of Hokusai’s water, and a suggestive contemporary fantastic of sublimated video-gamers watched over by smiling Beholders.

Lehi's Vision - Casey Jex Smith

Chris Hagerty also touched on the changeable character of fantasy in history in his discussion of Alma-Tadema’s mythic Greco-Roman history of Victorian England, and Piranesi’s 18th century dungeonesque architectural fantasies. I was still thinking about the panel and show the following week, when I visited two exhibitions at the Morgan Library and Museum.

The first,  “Mark Twain: A Skeptic’s Progress”, is drawn from the NYPL and Morgan collections of Twain material, and includes some of the gouache drawings that illustrated Clemens’s published works.  Many of the drawings are allegorical, and as a group seem heavily influenced by the style of newspaper cartoons.  One was particularly eye-catching: ‘They Passed in Review’ from Following the Equator (1898).  Drawn by Dan Beard, also known for founding the Boy Scouts, it depicts (to borrow from the text) Twain in the “mellow dream-haze of history”: He stands in an attitude of surprise or fright,  confronted by a procession of hybrid creatures.

They Passed in Review - Daniel Carter Beard

Much of Following the Equator deals with Clemens’s travel in the South African Transvaal, his disgust with the effects of colonialism on both the colonists and the colonized, and his frustration with the tolerance of racial oppression.  This all comes to a head in the Boer Wars, and Beard’s drawing foregrounds these events in the drawing in the person of Paul Kruger, presented with the body of a rhino, and a dark-skinned man with the body of an antelope (probably a reference to the Matabele).  They are among a group of regionalized colonial hybrids pushed forward by a parade of aristocratically-dressed centaurs, but also surrounded by a Pinto-Cowboy hybrid and some animal hybrids.  I am tempted to read the drawing as a proposition that colonialism made monsters of us all, but fended off from the claim by the shadowy presence of a herd of caveman-mammoth hybrids in the distance.  The illustration suggests a critical assessment of Clemens’s historical moment, but one attached to a longer view of monstrosity in human history.

The second exhibition, “Roy Lichtenstein: The Black and White Drawings: 1961-1968”, includes some material that gestures back to the specific questions motivating the panel.  In particular, two pieces from the mid 60’s, the drawings for “Temple of Apollo” (1964) and “Diana” (1965), seemed almost like illustrations from the Moldvay rules.

The exhibit notes that, as he perfected his benday dot technique, Lichtenstein deployed the patterns more texturally.  He also drew subjects from material outside of the print forms from which he developed his visual style.  “Temple of Apollo” is based on a photograph for a Greek tourist postcard, the eponymous temple fallen into ruin.  The temple is rendered in a simple line.  The background has a banded appearance created by allowing two fields of very slightly offset dots to overlap.  I found myself comparing the piece to the Moldvay Basic illustrations for the Carrion Crawler and the Skeleton; a reaction partially explained by the formal similarity of the work, but also by the role of the post-apocalypse in D&D’s mode of fantasy.  As Tavis Allison observed in the Escapist: “If you’ve got darkness encroaching, ruins, and fallen empires, then you’ve got the Dungeons & Dragons apocalypse, whether it’s 2008 or 1975.”  I also think back to Zak Smith’s observation that D&D may function as a shared visual lexicon, and wonder to what extent that language is comprehensive as well as expressive.

Lichtenstein and LaForce

“Mark Twain: A Skeptic’s Progress” and “Roy Lichtenstein: The Black and White Drawings: 1961-1968” are on view at The Morgan Library and Museum through January 2, 2011.  The museum is free to the public Fridays after 7pm.

Past Adventures of the Mule

December 2021

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