RPG Naval Combat, Part I

Combat naval de Iquique del 21 mai 1879 - oil ...

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Naval combat is full of details.

Environmental shifts may upset everything. For an age-of-sail vessel a change in the wind, or patch of fog, can change an entire battle. Even with later designs, storms, floating debris, rocks and reefs, powerful currents, and – at the most extreme – tidal waves, hurricanes, and volcanic eruptions can easily damage or overwhelm any ocean vessel. Space is usually calmer, but even there you can have solar flares, meteorites of various sizes, radiation storms, and whatever demented disasters the physics of the setting will support.

When it comes to the ship itself…

  1. Cargo may be damaged or destroyed – including fuel, water, food, and other vital supplies.
  2. Drive and power systems may be damaged or destroyed. A mast may need splicing, a sail may be carried away or burned, the boiler may be threatening to explode, or the engine may lose power.
  3. Fire (or radiation leaks, or magical flare-ups, or whatever) may break out – which is especially bad if it’s near a magazine, or fuel stores, or a stock of canvas or tar, or anything else which burns or otherwise reacts really well – or explosively. It’s not like you can walk home.
  4. Instruments – whether for navigation, communication, or observation – may be damaged or destroyed. And yes, even rather primitive ships will have flags, lights, gadgets for navigation, and other instruments.
  5. Officers, crewmen, and passengers may be injured or killed.
  6. Steering systems – rudder, screws, altitude thrusters, diving systems, or what-have-you – may be damaged.
  7. Structural damage is often the least of it. Barring a major explosion or a collision with a much larger and tougher ship, a ship can survive enormous numbers of holes before it starts coming apart. That’s why so many wrecks are more-or-less intact; they failed to keep out the water (or whatever), they didn’t fall to bits.
  8. Water – or whatever hostile environment your craft may travel in or on – may be coming in, meaning that leaks need to be plugged, hatches that must be sealed, passages that need to be negotiated may be filled with something nasty (or vacuum), or support gear (pumps, atmosphere recyclers, etc) may need to be repaired or manually operated.
  9. Weapons may be damaged or destroyed – or simply run low on ammo, especially if a magazine is hit.
  10. Wreckage may be dangling over the side and acting as a sea anchor, or blocking access to vital areas, and will need to be broken through or cut away.

The trick here is that the character’s usually don’t care about the details.

Unless a character is dealing with it directly, that sort of stuff is simply background scenery – and even if they are, the details generally boil down to one of “You can fix it given a bit of time”, “You can try to fix it”, “trying to fix it will be dangerous” (perhaps you have to risk blasts of flame and steam to work on the boiler of a steam system), and “you can’t fix it at the moment”. Subcategories here would be “you can live with it”, “slow disaster”, and “fast disaster” – but most RPG combat systems call for ablative damage (since it gives the characters a chance to realize that they’re outmatched and pull out before they’re killed, making for longer games), hence things will always start with slow problems and build from there.

Seas – whether or water or space – aren’t like ordinary terrain. They don’t offer much cover save for the occasional patch of obscuring material or massive chunk of rock, they don’t provide meaningful height advantages, and they don’t allow characters to do a lot of independent maneuvering. Most characters are effectively going to be riding on a platform that moves around a bit with respect to some other platforms – and, once again, the details won’t matter.

Ships are complex and fascinating things, but for game purposes, ship-to-ship combat since the cannon came along mostly consists of (1) trying to maneuver so that you have more weapons bearing than your opponent does, (2) firing as many of the weapons you can bring to bear as quickly as quickly you can, and (3) handling damage control. Once in awhile you have (4) trying to get your opponent to run into a hazard (running aground, lured into a minefield, or asteroid field or some such), but most of the time such hazards are fairly obvious, and are easily avoided.

Yes, you can ram – but that often leads to the destruction of both ships if they’re of similar size, and is usually only a useful tactic if you can’t use guns for some reason or if the enemy ship is a LOT smaller and more fragile than your own.

You can end a naval battle by…

  • Winning.
  • Losing.
  • By one side or the other escaping.
  • By enacting a truce (whether by surrender of one side or the other, by mutual exhaustion and drifting apart, or by some diplomatic feat)
  • Or by boarding the enemy ship and ending the naval battle in favor of personal combat.

In reality, boarding actions are pretty rare. Most of the time, if you’ve beaten an enemy down to the point where this becomes practical, you might as well just demand their surrender. It’s going to be a more viable option in this system though, because it’s exciting and players like it.

So to command a ship in naval combat, you’re going to need to:

  • Know exactly what your ship (and hopefully those of your opponents) can – and, more importantly, CANNOT – do
  • Have enough tactical skill to pick out a good course of option within those limits
  • Have enough skill as a pilot (if you’re doing you own piloting) and leader (if acting as both ship captain and commander) to actually make your ship and crew do it.

Yes that’s right; the commanders are going to be spending their time watching the situation and issuing orders, relying on a set of skills that most player characters – who are used to operating in small, independent, units – are often not going to want to invest in.

Many other skills are useful before and after a fight. Navigation, Weather Prediction, Diplomacy, Geography (or perhaps Galaxography), Deception, and Intimidation may all help you locate the fight, avoid storms along the way, negotiate for passage and supplies, figure out where your enemies are going, bluff your way past an enemy fortress, or get an enemy to surrender – but none of them are much help during the actual fighting.

Of course, once you’re in position to injure your enemies, you need to actually do it.

Ship-mounted weapons are usually large and powerful, and they’re often numerous – but they’re also notably inaccurate. Like it or not, “precise fire” is more or less a myth in naval combat. This is another major reason why real-world naval engagements not too uncommonly result in victories for inferior ships; it only takes one or two really lucky shots to really ruin your day.

Why is it a myth?

Instrumental systems – at least as yet – only target ships as a whole. Just as importantly, at least for game purposes, they don’t allow a lot of human input; exchanging missiles or remotely-directed gunfire with a distant ship basically amounts to “push the button and hope” – especially if you’re firing missiles at a target that’s on or over the horizon. That’s really rather boring, and so doesn’t belong in a game.

Human-directed weapons are firing from an unstable, moving, platform, at an equally unstable, moving target, are normally too big to readily direct by hand (adding in lag time), their operators often have limited visibility (which gets worse when smoke is involved), they’re run by crews rather than by individuals, and they’re usually being directed to targets by someone who’s up on the bridge who is aware of the tactical situation, but only has a limited knowledge of what’s going on with the guns. There may (will later on) be mechanical assistance with reloading, but one or two shots per minute under actual battle conditions is pretty standard for main guns. That’s why there’s usually a fair amount of time to maneuver in between shots – and why a quick turn to allow you to fire your OTHER broadside was such a good maneuver in the days before turrets.

For simplicities sake – and playability – I’ll presume that naval-scale energy weapons, missile launchers, and similar weaponry have similar cycling times. Given that we don’t even know what laws of physics will be involved in this sort of thing in any given setting, that seems like a reasonable compromise. Secondarily, the officers, crew, and player characters are going to be presumed to be busy with orders, dodging fire, and other minor activities – so their personal actions are going to be reduced to the ship combat timescale as well.

Thus a good gunnery officer – one who can tell from the bridge whether or not the guns currently have a worthwhile chance of hitting and can come reasonably close to the optimal moment for firing – is worth his or her weight in gold.

So that’s what our rules will need to cover – hopefully in a simple, quick, and easy system that won’t get in the way of the game.

That’s next.


3 Responses

  1. While it was clearly noted as Age of Sail or later, I do want to mention this is clearly for ships armed with cannon. Earlier vessels tended to rely heavily on rowing, had lots of men shooting arrows, and tried to board and defeat the enemy by conquest if possible. Whole classica wars sometimes depended on armed men fighting aboard ship, from the battles between Rome and Carthage to the English fending off Vikings.

    Even then the early parts of the age of sail featured enough boarding actions to matter – the Spanish Armada specialized in galleys and could easily have demolished the English had the weather been different that day. And the Armada was hardly considered old-fashioned. So boarding actions are possible at least before you have the big 50- or 100- gun frigates emerging.

    Secondly, experienced crews were able to do some pretty precise shooting, at least by the Civil War era. That’s when effective rotating turrets and similarly improved gun carriages came into being, but gun ranges were still short enough that you could control it. By World War 1, gun ranges had increased agan to the point that you wound up firing a lot of shells (and praying) again. Still, the era of long naval duels was over, and that coffin got nailed shut when air power became dominant in WW2.

    • That is why it says “since the cannon came along” in the start of the combat section. There’s no point in addressing earlier “launch a few missiles and then board” tactics since – as far as the characters are concerned – such situations don’t differ very much from land-based combat, and most games already cover that pretty well.

      The Spanish Armada’s 151 ships included 28 actual warships, 20 galleons, 4 galleys, 4 (Neapolitan) galleasses (a type of ship with both sails and oars, the forerunners of later frigates, not especially well adapted for boarding – and certainly not for ramming, a tactic that had pretty much vanished long long before), 61 armed carracks and hulks, and 34 light ships. What with the weather, the four galleys and one of the galleons were forced to leave the fleet. It probably didn’t help that the Armada wound up being commanded by Medina Sidonia, a courtier with no sea experience.

      Even then boarding actions were pretty rare. The Spanish galleons carried plenty of men for boarding – but, like it or not, boarding a ship requires either stealth (in which case we’re back to an area most rules sets already cover, since there won’t BE a naval battle involved) or a relatively slow approach to avoid a collision that might well sink your ship.

      If you’re making a slow approach against an unwilling target, your opponent needs to be too slow or crippled to avoid you and unable to shoot too effectively; otherwise they’ll do massive damage to your ship and crew. Boarding was thus mostly limited to situations where you had already more or less won, but wanted a capture – or to unusual situations where both ships were crippled or unable to fire but neither would give up.

      Commerce raiders and pirates did a good deal of boarding of course – but merchant vessels need most of their capacity for trade, and so are – in military terms – essentially pre-crippled (thus the common need for escort ships). Again, you don’t really need naval combat rules for that. All you need is to either rule on the matter or roll on a quick table – perhaps (1) Merchant gets in a lucky shot and escapes, (2-5) Merchant gets away through clever sailing, luck, fog, or some such, (6-8) Merchant inflicts some light damage and a few casualties before surrendering, (9-18) Merchant surrenders in the face of overwhelming firepower, (19) Merchant fights it out, doing modest damage to your ship and crew before sinking, (20) you take light damage and must fight a boarding action with the usual combat rules to take their ship.

      Now as far as precise shooting goes… how “precise” do you mean? Ships can, in general, be taken out of action by a very small number of precise shots. For example, in the Age of Sail, taking out the steersman and his wheel was pretty crippling. Add in a couple of masts, and a ship was pretty much dead in the water. A mere three precise shots would do it – yet this almost never happened, and you don’t see “sniperships” as major forces in naval history. Instead you see the expenditure of a great deal of ammunition per ship eliminated – and you get the classical “broadside” and “fire as your guns bear”. Ships fired a great deal in hopes of hitting something vital, rather than attempting precise shots.

      For true precision you need relatively short ranges, modern cased ammunition to provide well-standardized propellant forces (or energy weapons, which don’t use propellants), a stable platform (available only to very large waterborne ships or spaceships), a way to rapidly move a weapon which is too heavy for human musculature to handle, an elimination of lag time, and fine control of several other factors.

  2. I was being more specific about the era, not quibbling over it. While you’ve read a number of novels and factual histories of the period, I bet many of your readers have not. Theyre more likely to have watched pirate movies than read about the unpleasant terror of actual fighting ships. Hence, I put limits on the technology under discussion one way to the other, and noted the Armada as being the tail end of one style of fighting and the Civil War as the dawn of another (notably, the break points being when cannon became cheap enough and ships manueverable enough to present a credible fighting threat, and when early turrets, steam engines, and more standardized shells came into common use).

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