Naval Combat

Naval battles are a form of mass combat. In order to portray naval combat — filled with thunderous broadsides, sinking ships, and brutal boarding actions — player characters take on various shipboard roles, lead teams of crew, and make decisions that vitally affect their ship’s continuing ability to fight.

The ship-based combat rules here function much like the existing combat rules. Participants proceed in order of initiative, performing all their actions on their turn. An officer — especially a PC in the role of an officer — may take two distinct kinds of action every turn: she has the option to take her regular action (standard + move, in its various permutations), plus she may also opt to take a naval action, which affects the ship as a whole and its combat with the opposing ship.

  1. Determine if the ship furthest upwind can Claim the Weather Gauge
  2. Have every player Roll for Initiative twice: once for normal initiative and a second time for Naval Initiative
  3. Perform Actions in order of initiative, highest to lowest.
    1. On normal initiative, perform actions from the Pathfinder Core Rulebook and other sourcebooks.
    2. On Naval Initiative, perform naval actions from Fire As She Bears
  4. At the end of the round, and before the new round starts, apply the Effects of Damage and any destroyed Locations to the ship
  5. Count Casualties
  6. Move Crewmen between Locations as desired
  7. If any ship stole the weather gauge during the round, apply bonuses accordingly
  8. Repeat step 3–7 until combat resolves.

The following tasks can be initiated during a character’s Naval Initiative in the round. The basic name of the task is followed by the officer who is typically in charge of the function, plus a brief description.

Standard Naval Actions:

Extinguish Fires (Mate): The Fire Chief is a Mate specifically assigned to the task of extinguishing fires aboard the ship. Fires aboard ship are almost as dangerous as holes in a Hull Location, and this Mate’s sole job is to lead crewmen into those Locations and extinguish the fires. Extinguishing a fire requires the Mate to attempt a DC 20 Reflex saving throw. If his saving throw is successful, the Mate and his crew extinguish the fire in 5 rounds. For every 5 points by which he beats the DC, he reduces the number of necessary rounds by 1, to a minimum of 2. Damage from the fire affects the Location each round the fire burns. For example, if the Mate rolls a 31 for his Reflex saving throw, the amount of time necessary to extinguish the fire in that Location is 3 rounds. Magic can greatly aid this task. Failure on the Reflex saving throw indicates that the Mate and his crew fail to make any progress; failure by more than 5 (including rolls of a natural 1) indicates that the Mate and his crew failed to extinguish the fire and also take 2d6 points of fire damage in the process.

Fire the Cannon (Mate): On the Mate’s command, the crew assigned to a cannon can fire the weapon. The Mate decides upon the target (Hull Location, Rigging Location, or crew in a specific Location). For each cannon under his command, the Mate rolls an attack roll and adds his base attack modifier plus any appropriate modifiers (including range increment penalties and his Dexterity modifier). Any weapon specific feats the Mate possesses that apply to cannons (such as Exotic Weapon Proficiency and Weapon Focus) as well as ranged attack-specific feats (such as Point-Blank Shot or Far Shot) are included in the attack, even though the Mate isn’t directly firing the weapon. The number of cannons a Mate can command is limited by the number of crewmen he commands (max 20) and the number of crewmen needed to man the particular cannon (round down).

Example: A 9-pound cannon requires four crewmen to operate it. The Mate commands 20 crewmen and therefore may fire five 9-pound cannons. The same Mate commanding the same 20 crewmen can only fire two 32-pound cannons, as they require 7 crewmen each to operate.

Regardless of this value, a Mate can only command cannons to which he has line of sight, and the crew of those cannons must also have line of sight back to the Mate. For example, if a ship has two gun decks in one Hull Location, it will need at least two different Mates to operate the cannons — one on each deck, plus an additional Mate if the number of crewmen needed for the cannons on either deck exceeds 20. The Equipping Your Ship section details the various cannons available for your ship, including the reload times and number of crew required to properly operate them.

General Orders (Captain): The Captain is in charge, and so while Mates and the Navigator direct their crewmen, the Captain directs up to 20 Mates. It is the Captain who decides on the specific course to sail, the tactical moves, and when to ram the enemy. She places great trust in her officers, often giving them leeway in making follow-up decisions as needed. For example, a Captain is probably not going to micro-manage the Fire Chief as he extinguishes fires; she’s going to trust him to make the best decisions to accomplish the task.

Grapple a Ship (Mate): Any ship within 50 feet of your ship can be grappled. Doing so requires the use of grappling hooks and ropes long enough to reach from your ship to the enemy ship. The Mate commands the crew and makes the necessary CMB checks against the target ship’s CMD. A successful check secures the enemy ship, preventing it from tasks such as turning or fleeing without first breaking the grapple. To simplify the task, use the standard grapple rules and assume that all the ropes, hooks, and so forth are being used (and defended against) in the most proficient way possible. A grappled ship can be boarded by the attacking vessel.

Inspiration (Captain): As detailed under “Loyalty Score” above, a ship’s Captain (or other officer in charge if the Captain is dead or otherwise incapacitated) can give a rousing speech to inspire the crew during combat. This special action occurs on the Captain’s Naval Initiative.

Lead a Boarding Party (Mate or Captain): A grappled ship can be boarded. A Mate (or sometimes, the Captain directly) takes a band of 20 marines to the enemy ship, where they engage the enemy’s crew in hand-to-hand combat. Allow the Mate in charge of the boarding party to make an appropriate check (Intimidate, inspire courage, Diplomacy, and so forth). The check should be determined by the Mate’s personality and actions — the famed pirate Blackbeard was known to set his beard on fire, for example, intimidating the enemy crew. A successful check during the Mate’s Naval Initiative grants his crew a +1 morale bonus to attack and damage rolls, or inflicts a –1 morale penalty to enemy crew’s attack and damage rolls, accordingly. This bonus lasts for a number of rounds equal to the Mate’s character level. The Mate makes this special Naval Action at the start of the boarding action; if he fails his check he cannot try again during that combat.

Position Your Crew (Any): During the course of a battle, you need to move crewmen from one Location on a ship to another. Between rounds, the Captain can automatically shuffle crewmen about as needed. But if you need five sailors up in the rigging right now, it requires an officer to take control and make it happen. As discussed, during his Naval Initiative, any officer can order up to 20 crewmen to follow him to a specific destination on the ship; once they arrive, the officer can then command them to take any appropriate actions. For example, a Mate on the gun deck can order 5 marines to follow him to the ship’s rigging, then order them to lower the main sail to aid the Navigator in accomplishing a task. Once these marines leave their starting location, they’re no longer available to the gunnery sergeant in that location.

Reload a Cannon (Mate): Reloading a cannon often requires more than one round’s worth of ship-based actions. The times given in the table in the “Equipping Your Ship” section assumes a full complement of crew available to perform the necessary tasks. For each missing crewman, extend the time by one round.

Repairs (Mate): The mate and his crew are tasked with making emergency repairs to the ship. The Mate makes a Knowledge (engineering) or appropriate Craft check (such as Craft [carpentry] or Craft [shipbuilding]), and the result determines how long it takes him and his crew to make the minimum repairs. A DC 15 allows the repairs to be made in 2 rounds, restoring 5d6 hp to the Location being repaired. For every 5 points by which he beats the DC, he and his crew repair an additional 1d6 points of damage, to a maximum total of 10d6 or half the Location’s maximum, whichever is less. In order to make the check, the Mate and his crewmen require appropriate materials and tools. Hit points restored in this manner are temporary and only last for 24 hours before needing follow up work — work that can be done on a less stringent deadline.

It often makes sense for PCs with access to magic that allows water breathing as well as increased mobility underwater to take this naval action.

Scuttle Ship (Captain): Scuttling the ship is a special task that is not undertaken lightly. When the decision is made, the Captain directly commands the crew to damage the ship in such a way as to cause the most significant damage. Typically, this task is as simple as going to the ship’s hold and punching holes into the Hull Locations. A scuttled ship takes on 5,000 pounds of water per round, just as if the Below the Waterline Location was reduced to 0 hit points.

Ship’s Movement (Navigator): Movement for the ship, including all Naval Tactics such as sharp turns or sudden stops, occurs on the Navigator’s command. She commands, directly or indirectly, all crewmen responsible for the sails and navigation. Her battle commands include tasks such as raising or lowering sails to affect the ship’s speed, turning the rudder, and similar functions (see Naval Tactics, above for further details).

Surrender (Captain): When defeat is imminent, the Captain can order surrender. When this order is given, the ship’s flag is taken down (known as “striking colors” in naval parlance) and crewmen lay down arms. This action is an exception to the rule that only 20 crewmen can be directly commanded.

Take Unawares (Captain): During combat, a Captain tries to get the upper hand on the opposing Captain through the deft sailing of her ship.

To catch the opposing Captain unaware requires the two ships’ Captains make opposed Profession (sailor) checks. The defending Captain gains a +10 circumstance bonus to this check, to simulate just how difficult it is to pull off this maneuver. Success prepares the ship to execute a Special Attack (see Special Attacks, below, for more detail).

If, at the very beginning of an encounter, one Captain is somehow unaware of the enemy ship, the attacking Captain automatically succeeds on the Take Unawares check and no opposed roll is required.

Water Bailing (Mate): When a ship starts to take on water, a Mate and her crewmen are dispatched below deck to begin bailing. The worst case scenario requires several Mates and their associated crewmen forming a “bucket brigade” either up to a higher deck and over the side, or through a porthole. Magic is a welcome aid in this task, as is a pump. A well-trained crew forming a bucket brigade can bail 500 gallons a minute — hardly enough to make a difference, but maybe enough to buy the repair crew a bit of time.

Leadership Roles:

PCs on a ship each take on one or more leadership roles, influencing the crew’s ability to operate their ship.

Mates (various)


Your ship has a maneuverability rating that helps determine how quickly it can adjust course. Your ship’s Dexterity score determines this rating, as shown on Table 5: Maneuverability Rating. If your ship is burdened with a medium load (see “Carrying Capacity” above), her maneuverability rating is one step worse than the table’s entry; a ship with a heavy load is two steps worse.

Dexterity Rating Bonus
19+ Perfect +10
14 to 18 Good +5
11 to 13 Average 0
7 to 10 Poor -5
1 to 6 Clumsy -10

During tactical movement, if you wish for your ship to move in anything other than a straight line, you (or another appropriate crew member, such as the Captain or Navigator), must make a Profession (sailor) check to shift course, applying the appropriate maneuverability rating modifier.

Maneuver DC Speed Used
Sudden Slow 15 varies
Sudden Acceleration 15 varies
45 Degree Turn 15 2
90 Degree Turn 20 3
180 Degree Turn 30 4

Sudden Slow: With a successful check, you quickly reduce your ship’s Speed, reducing the number of squares it moves on this and subsequent turns. You may choose for your ship to move as low as 1/2 its Speed during the Naval Tactic. For every 5 points by which you beat the DC, you may choose to reduce your ship’s Speed by an additional 1 Speed for the round, to a minimum of Speed 1. This becomes your new Speed, unless another Naval Tactic or action subsequently changes your ship’s Speed. Failing the check means your ship’s Speed remains unchanged for the round.

Sudden Acceleration: With a successful check, you quickly increase your ship’s Speed. In order to make use of this Naval Tactic, you need to be sailing at less than your maximum Speed given your present heading under the current wind conditions. With a successful check, you immediately increase your speed to any value between your current Speed and your maximum. You can use this additional Speed in this round, and in subsequent rounds, you use this new value as your Speed. During this maneuver you may not turn in such a way that your tactical movement speed changes category; for example, you may not accelerate toward your maximum speed at the same time that you turn from a Base Speed heading to an Into the Wind heading.

45 Degree Turn: By making a successful check, you spend 2 Speed to change your sailing direction by 45 degrees. Failure requires you to spend 4 Speed to successfully navigate the turn. If you do not have enough Speed remaining, you start the Naval Tactic this round and finish it next round by spending the remaining amount of Speed necessary. If you have Speed remaining in the second round after (and only after) paying for completing last round’s Naval Tactic, you may use it normally.

90 Degree Turn: By making a successful check, you spend 3 Speed to change your ship’s direction by 90 degrees. Failure requires you to spend 6 Speed to successfully navigate the turn. If you do not have enough Speed remaining, you start the Naval Tactic this round and finish it next round by spending the remaining amount of Speed necessary. If you have Speed remaining in the second round after (and only after) paying for completing last round’s Naval Tactic, you may use it normally.

180 Degree Turn: By making a successful check, you spend 4 Speed to change your ship’s direction by 180 degrees. This turn is an extremely tight, sudden movement. Failure results in your ship turning 45 degrees and then capsizing.

Naval Combat

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