Friday, June 10, 2022


It's Friday afternoon, which means my time to post is limited...but I wanted to get something up on the blog before the weekend hits.

Tuesday's dinner with the padre went fine...nothing big to report. He's just a normal dude...a big kid in a lot of ways (he's in his early 30s) so many folks are. Age and geographic origin are far more a determining factor of personality than what a person does (or doesn't do) for a vocation...I've found it much the same even regardless of whether a person is a rock star or active military, politicians or drug dealers. Some folks alienate themselves from "normal humans," surrounding themselves by a bubble of subculture and/or sycophancy that fills their world view. But sit them down for a meal, crack a bottle, and act nonchalant and everyone becomes just another house guest. I don't know why I ever expect it to be different.


It's only in the last few years that I've grown to understand and appreciate the importance of maritime trade...both to our present society and the length and breadth of human history/development. Which is pretty ridiculous given my life spent in Seattle, my father's time in the navy, my paternal grandfather's career as a merchant marine, my almost-career in stevedore shipping (thanks to the father of my college best friend), and the amount of time I've spent staring out to sea from coastlines all around the Pacific Northwest.

Ships and shipping. They are the lifeblood of human society, and have been for thousands of years.

Ha! Here's an anecdote: I don't remember the year that I first found (and purchased) a (used) copy of Original D& was probably around the age of 14 or so...long after my friends and I had moved full-time into AD&D. I found it incredibly interesting: it's scale, it's scope, it's well as the primitiveness (is that a word? spellcheck says yes!) of the artifact. The first thing I did with it was sit in my room and create a character...something like a 7th level magic-user...and draw up blueprints of a ship, so that I could run the naval combat rules and see how they worked. You see, I'd always found the B/X rules to be a rather poor system, and the AD&D rules to be overly complex given the other crunch of the DMG.

Small sailing ship
Here, in OD&D, I found a vastly simple system married to a far more interesting set of naval rules. And I always had a hankering for pirate films and swashbuckling stories. My favorite bits of most of the fantasy literature I'd read was all the sea battle stuff.

But the sea isn't just an "interesting location" (or unique environment) to have an adventure or stage a battle. The fact is that the sea...and deep water in a RESOURCE that humans have long exploited for good use. It is (and has been) the best way to transport large amounts of material from one place to another. Ready access to the sea is what allowed great civilizations to grow and flourish into world spanning empires. Without the ability to move freight (and specifically food) over water, the world's largest cities would never have reached the immense levels of population that they did...and those immense populations enabled all the technological and societal advances that have created the world in which we live.

For a game like Dungeons & Dragons...a game that ostensibly takes place in a world lacking commercial air travel, super highways, and railroads...maritime trade and shipping should be an incredibly important part of the world building which (I've been harping on a lot the last few months) is integral to solid campaign play.  Rules for naval battles become imperative when trade routes...and the shipment of goods by sea...become the "way things get done." It can't be taken for granted!

And, yet, it kinda' is. Reviewing the various rules for ships across the various old editions, my main concern is "how much can these ships carry?" What's their cargo capacity? How much lumber, how much grain, how much quarried stone and marble? How much treasure, for goodness sake?! And this, sadly, is the information I find explicitly lacking from MOST of the instructional texts.

Except for B/X, that is, which (instead) is woefully, woefully inaccurate. Check out these numbers:

Small Sailing Ship: 100,000cns cargo capacity
Large Sailing Ship: 300,000cns cargo capacity
Longship: 40,000cns cargo capacity

The "small sailing ship" is compared to a medieval cog, and given roughly the same rough specs (as far as length, beam, etc.). But 100K "coins" is only 5 tons of cargo space, whereas the actual range of such vessels was 30-200 tons burthen. "Great cogs" (the comp for a "large sailing ship") had cargo capacities of 300+ tons, not 15 and some as high as 1,000. Even the snekkja (the most common Viking longship) had a cargo capacity of some 10 tons, the D&D equivalent of 200,000cns weight...five times the listed amount in the Cook/Marsh Expert set.

Even though the DMG fails to list carrying capacity for ships, it's a simple matter to calculate the actual cargo capacity of a pre-steam ship using the vessel's length and width (i.e. its "beam"). The DMG states that "it is up to the DM or the players buying or constructing" a ship to determine its exact dimensions but, for example, gives a range of 50'-80' length and 15'-25' beam for a "large merchant" ship...well within the spec of a 12th century cog. Given an average of 65' length and 20' width we can thus determine such a ship's carrying capacity as roughly 113 tons burthen.

For the price of 15,000 g.p. (the standard cost for a "large merchant ship" per the PHB) perspective merchants gain themselves an excellent means of earning a living. 100 tons of "bulky treasure" (bags of grain, for example) has a rough value of 10,000 g.p. but the markup might be significant given the the supply at the point of embarkation, the demand at the given destination, and the length of the journey in between. For cargo of a "precious" variety (say spices or gold ingots) such a treasure ship has the capacity to make fortunes for all its investors with but a single voyage. 

Assuming it's not attacked by pirates, sunk by a storm, or destroyed by a sea monster.

Going over the potential opportunities for D&D adventures that such lines of thought produce, I am somewhat saddened by my choice of setting for my world...after all, my fantasy Washington State has only one coastline to ply with ships. Yes, does have miles of rivers to explore, but river travel isn't the same as the open doesn't hold the same romance in my imagination, all apologies to Sam Clemens.  Still, small watercraft trading with the various communities around the Olympic Peninsula seems like a pretty awesome campaign idea for players in the low-to-mid level range (as my 3rd level PCs are)...and a "small merchant" ship (5,000 g.p. cost; average 20.7 tons burthen) would be a great way to start.

Now I just have to get them out of friggin' Idaho.


  1. I mean...oceanic trade by Northern European standards is perilously close to being coastal trade by modern ones. Sailing to the New World in a cog would not have been a fun time.

    1. Indeed not. However, I think that a campaign set in the Mediterranean Sea and surrounding land masses would offer an excellent (and extensive) campaign setting.

    2. It would, but that's getting to be a much bigger scale than just Washington.

      Though if the PCs haven't explored too far, you could always just plunk a big inland sea in the Columbia Basin.

      This topographic map suggests it's not even too big of an adjustment:

      And think of the fjords.

  2. Lewiston is America's most inland ocean port. So Idaho has got that going for it.

    1. That's probably where I'll try to direct would be a good idea to skirt the Red Empire as much as they possible.

  3. In C.S. Forrester's novel, "Lord Hornblower," the crew SAILS the Porta Coeli, an 18-gun brig (typical mass, 159 tons, 60 ft. long) up the Seine River to Rouen. There are issues with the wind, but it was done regularly ... and the Columbia is certainly bigger than the Seine.

    Forrester knew his stuff. You may rest assured the at least the lower part of the Columbia is another "sea" to ply.

    1. Ha! That's good stuff, Alexis...thanks!

      I've spent the last two hours of my morning researching ships from the 9th to 14th century, making notes on dimensions, length-to-beam ratios, trying to establish prices/constructions costs. I think my players first "waterborne adventure" is going to come courtesy of Lake Coeur d'Alene (they'll be sailing south along its 25 mile length to get down to Plummer, and thence to Lewiston). But I need to get an idea of some of the goods available in the region.

      (*sigh* ...I really wasn't interested in developing Idaho, but it appears that's going to be a necessity)

      Mapping out the Columbia (and its larger tributaries) is looking to be a monumental task, and not one I'm looking forward to. I know I should probably "embrace the challenge" and all that, but Man O Man I have a lot on my plate right now!


    2. If you want to run a campaign on the water, you could read Jack Vance's Showboat World. It's one of my favourite entertainments.

    3. Harn's "Pilot's Almanac" is a pretty decent gameable extrapolation of late medieval seafaring, and has a lot of the ship data you've been compiling. 10 kinds of ships ranging from galley to longship to cog to carrack, each in 4 sizes, with length, beam, depth, burthen, necessary crew, cost, and a bunch of simulation parameters (relative sail & oar performance, hull strength, watertightness, rigging, ...)

  4. is a great resource on ship types and other details. Not sure if you were previously aware of it

  5. That displacement formula is good to know. Whenever I have time to think about it, I've been working out expanding the ships from the Rules Compendium into a spectrum of sizes with different rigging options (as opposed to ships a la carte, as they're listed in the book), and those cargo limits always kind of irked me. I mean, even assuming those limits don't include the weight of the crew, their provisions, and all the tools and extra spars, rope, and other miscellanea a ship could be assumed to have on board, in many cases they still just seemed miniscule.

  6. Yeah, odd gap. Though 'the dungeon' was a good way to structure 'adventure' activities, Odysseus, Sinbad and James T Kirk showed that 'port of the week' stories could work too.
    The learning curve may have been uneven; a group might have one person who knew boats? But those mechanical traps in the late 1970s favoured players with an engineering bent.
    Good winds!

    1. I’m a Sinbad fan from waaaay back. He was for me what Conan or (*shudder*) He-Man was for other boys: the ideal adventurer/hero.

      The advent of the internet allows every person with a google search access to rudimentary sailing knowledge, so there’s no longer an excuse to skip such knowledge…thank goodness!

  7. JB, the next sin I see on X63 is the speed data. In general, smaller vessels are going to be slower than larger ones, not faster. When you're getting specific with your vessels' tonnage, you may as well get their speed corrected. The maximum speed will be about 1.34 X √L, where L is the length on the waterline (2/3 of the length overall, classically) in feet and the speed is in knots. Non-military vessels probably wouldn’t carry enough canvas to drive the boat to that speed because it takes more crew and beefier gear that would add expense to the vessel’s initial and operating costs and cut into cargo capacity.

    Keep in mind, too, that speed is the best, through-the-water speed a classically shaped hull is apt to achieve under ideal conditions. Easy to manage versus optimized sail configurations, too little or too much wind, too much sea (greater wave height and shorter period), time since the hull was last careened, and so on will all affect actual speed through the water. Actual course, since one can’t always sail the most direct path toward one’s destination, and favorable or contrary currents will all affect speed-made-good. For my own navigational planning purposes I typically use 3 knots made good over the course of a day which is 45% of my theoretical hull speed.

    If you haven’t seen these already, let me recommend the Coast Pilot as pure gold a nautical campaign.

    1. Right on Sterling...I'll be sure to take a look. Thanks for the info!