Mike's Sea Hex Advenure Guide (now with extra ramble!)

edited April 2014 in Story Games
Evening all,

I thought I'd make a new discussion about this rather than bogging down the current OSR threads with this rambling discourse. I've been asked to lay out my encounter tables used in recent IRC sea hex adventures and expand on the whys and wherefores of my design choices. I guess this is a methodology of sorts. It'll probably go on for a few posts but I invite everyone to interrupt with questions and generally give me a hard time: it's certainly not a proven methodology and needs robust and critical eyes passed over it.

To introduce the newcomer to what this is: I'm running some Oldschool Dungeons and Dragons over IRC with some Story Games folk and we had lots of fun with a scenario involving starting play on a ship out in unknown waters trying to reach port (a city previously established in regular land-based play). The players are part of the crew and undertake the archetypal oD&D exploratory hexcrawl through the Unknown to some known safe-haven. The following... stuff is what I used as a Dungeon Master (Sea Master?) to generate the sea hex exploration, or "sexploration" as it's been misleadingly referred.


Sexploration is pretty setting agnostic. A mysterious stretch of magical islands in temperate seas would probably fit in most D&D-inspired games whether they are strictly High Fantasy or not. Generally we're assuming the play is breaking new ground in terms of Hex Exploration and everyone's pretty prepared for weirdness and pulpy sea adventure. It's no revelation to suggest that the best games are the ones where we're all on-board in terms of genre, mood, colour etc.

The two Master Texts here are Homer's Odyssey and Lewis' Voyage of the Dawn Treader: two tales about typical crews of largely unremarkable vessels sailing unknown waters and discovering the supernatural or fantastical, which is positioned as being concealed from the "real world" by its isolation out in an uncharted ocean. The third Ur-text is Star Trek.1 The supernatural experience isn't the motivation for travel (these aren't new-age pyschonauts) but usually for material or intellectual profit, or a desire for safety - the incursion of the fantastical, the unexplainable, is a test or distraction from the main motivation to travel.

Star Trek is the best example of this: always pushing onwards episode after episode, however engaging the Planet of the Romans or meeting God himself is. The "Mission" or cause is the greatest good and these traumatic side-shows offer colour or variation but not the safety and stability of home. The seafarer quests for safety and freedom from fear. It is a reactionary mode but it contrasts well with the invasion (sometimes subtle, sometimes aggressive) of fantasy situations. The fantastical is both intriguing and colourful (definitely extraordinary) but ultimately all of these mystic encounters are in some ways threatening, especially if they seem to offer the security the player-as-seafearer desires. The lure of Safety (the profit that comes from living to see another day) should out-way the lure of Potential (new treasures to quest after, to gain) is a principal that needs to be the foundation of the Sea Exploration; prolonged time in this high-encounter Unreal environment is antithetical to mortal life.

1 - Followed by The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, Sindbad the Sailor, The Legend of Zelda: Link to the Past/Wind Waker, Prince Valiant, The Moomins, Pirates Movies of the last 70 years, Tintin, Moby Dick, 20,000 Leagues, Pirates of Blackwater, Monkey Island, Earthsea, Kidnapped, Gulliver's Travels, Treasure Island, Muppet's Treasure Island, etc.


The text I bring to table are the Basic and Expert Dungeons and Dragons rulebooks (Moldvay, '81). This isn't very important as the game I actually play is B/X or Next Best Offer. The B/X-or-NBO works by only being driven to reference the text when you're not being able to reach an agreement about a good way to resolve a conflict or introduce a new elements to the fiction with your players: if anyone offers an agreeable "Offer" of how to resolve the current issue then I'd rather use that than consult Moldvay. B/X is worth reading though, it defers to random tables more readily than later editions. Random Tables, detailed/populated (A table of potion types) or abstracted ("An encounter has a 1-in-6 chance of occurring when you enter a hex"), are an essential part of how I see this kind of D&D working. Everything has to be expressed, if it is to be expressed mechanically, as a table - even the most vague high-low, 50/50 1d6 rolls. It's a healthy mental habit for the kind of low-intentionality DM mode I find useful. It's likely that I'll spend the majority of my creative energy with the central encounter table in a hexcrawl: interpreting results, repopulating, generating new tables. In effect, the rules I write myself (the tables I populate) are more utile at-table than two whole books of published material.


Just like Star Trek, it's easy to start in media res - in the middle of things - with some simple preamble. "Space, the final frontier. These are the voyages of the Star Ship Enterprise..." But lets give the situation a bit of a immediate kick, some problems, to encourage pro-active characters and stimulate immediate adventurous pay-off. So:

You are the crew of a sizeable merchant ship named... (?).
You are [4d6] days from the nearest known port, (name?), but the threatening...

1. ...pirate galleon...
2. ...storm front...
3. ...ubiquitous leakage...
4.(pick two from the above)
5.(all three)
6.(all three and there is a 50% chance for each PC to start locked in the brig for serious yet unspecified crimes)

...will come to bear in (1d4) days if no action is taken.

Undertake perilous seahex or die. New characters only.
If the players all agree that this seems like a challenging scenario that they could imagine characters in, then we move on:
Your new character's rank aboard is...


1. ...the lowest rank, either (roll high) a cabin boy or (roll low) indentured labour.
2. ...part of the crew! an able seaman
3. ...part of the crew! a carpenter
4. ...part of the crew! a cook
5. ...Bosun's Mate - a petty officer raised from the ranks, so to speak
6. ...a Clerk - someone's gotta keep the records, the keys and the purse-strings.
7. ...Midshipman. A junior officer. Literally, roll 10+1d6 for your age.
8. ...Lieutenant. Command watches, lead press gangs, impose your captain's will.
9. ...Captain. You command the day-and-night running of the ship.
10. ...Master. You are the legal owner of the ship. You employ a captain to maintain and run her for a large fee. Three things: She is in peril. The crew's pay in is arrears. You are aboard. Negotiate likely (heavy and valuable) cargo with DM.

There are 10+2d10 crew aboard. There are 2d6 officers. Roll likely dispositions normally. A 1,000 xp quest reward for the party if the ship makes it, and 10,000 if the party ends up in possession of the ship upon reaching safe port. Additional XP may be gained from the sale of any cargo (10% of GP value is taxed at port by the local lord).
Now the players can roll Attributes and complete character creation with an eye on the social positioning (and resulting microcosm) amongst the crew. Anyone who's heard the word "mutiny" knows exactly what kind of relationships are on the table here.

The NPC crew are populated around the PC rolls using the above table to help: there needs to be at least one of each. It's likely that some NPCs with outrank PCs, but it's fairly unproblematic if a PC Lieutenant naturally commands the crew more than an NPC captain. Players should be encouraged to name and characterise the crew - there are a limited number and setting up a list is useful for determining who gets knocked overboard in a storm and which NPCs are available for players with the deaths of their PCs (the NPC pool is the number of player "lives" in the video game sense).


  • edited April 2014
    My general rule is that boatlife isn't particularly adventurous. It's your occupation and while I'm sure this involves periods of exhilaration it's not unreasonable to suggest that the well prepared vessel will arrive at its intended location without much hardship. What I'm getting at here is that generally moving your ship from hex to hex doesn't require any sailing rolls, or a real sailor's eye to the wind and etc. The ship basically moves 1 hex every 12 hours - this is assuming that the crew are working in shifts to get the most out of the wind and are working efficiently. Certain encounters change the weather to the degree that it might effect this Movement Rate, then it's just a case of getting into X/D&D and using the becalmed or running-before-a-storm rules - or invent your own!

    Sea Hex Encounters

    Boop! Here we are at the beating heart of things, folks. Whew. Sorry for the delay there.

    So, the Sea Hex Encounters are where I want to spend most of my time as a DM. It's where the real meat of the creative output of Dungeon Mastering is. Glorious.

    So here's the idea: Encounters are this traumatic fantasy experience intruding into the otherwise mundane seafearing life. You roll on the table when you enter a new hex (so every 12 hours, so there's a chance of a Day Encounter and a Night Encounter). These are notable events, like the episodes of the Odyssey, that challenge a sailor's sanity and trust in a loving God. Sailors are superstitious by default, it seems. Each Encounter is intended to have multiple approaches: very few are openly antagonistic and involve experiment on behalf of the curious. Curiosity tends to be rewarded (for better or worse) in this game. Players tend to flee or ignore blatantly dangerous situations but the perils of the sea (storms, pirates, leakage) will force them into interactions sooner rather than later. Sea Encounters should be painted in primary colours with an emphasis on pathetic fallacy and a shift from a more everyday naval social history game into the High/Weird Fantasy at Sea genre.
    When you enter a hex there is a 1-in-3 chance of an encounter:

    1. The weather turns ugly and a vast whirlpool or sea-spout nears. Sailors are convinced this a manifestation of the Sea God
    and an expression of his displeasure. You will need to evade this shipwrecking force.
    2. A Sea Monster approaches. Perhaps it's a squid, a serpent, a prehistoric herbivore, a swimming giant or some other large
    monster. Perhaps draw up a wandering monster table. Monster reactions as normal.
    3. Some ravaged vessel floating listlessly. Perhaps it's a ghost ship, a plague ship or crewed by the undead or feral seamen
    turned to cannibalism.
    4. A tiny vessel appears. Perhaps it's a hopelessly lost fishing boat, an escape raft, crewed by some random monster species
    transporting a random/likely magical item, or a floating shop-boat like you'd find on the canals of the capital where a
    shadowy proprietor sells cursed items.
    5. The sea is filled with strange fish or the sky is filled with strange birds. Perhaps of many sorts, dangerous, delicious and/or
    valuable. Perhaps there are so many fish or birds that the ship is halted by their volume and damage occurs to the hull or
    sails & rigging. What could be attracting them?
    6. A flying monster circles the ship, perhaps curious or preparing to attack. It could be Stirges, the Roc, Giant Albatrosses, an
    Air Elemental or a Sea Drake. Monster reaction as normal.
    7. The wind changes. A portent! Perhaps something strange blows in on this new wind? Hot air from the south carrying silvery
    powder that coats everything, a damp breeze filled with acrid spores that stain the sails or unseasonal cold/heat with snow
    and sleet/ashes and cinders. There's a strong chance that these droppings could put the crew to sleep, or leave and take the
    wind with them - becalming the ship for 1d6 days.
    8. Strange lights appear. This could be St. Elmo's Fire, water fairies, ghost lanterns/spirits, pillars of flame/luminous cloud,
    glowing corpses marching beneath the waves, pulsing petals on the wind or immortal fireflies that can be gathered and held
    in jars indefinitely.
    9. Something vast and terrifying, such as a leviathan or a swarm of recognisable dead, passes under the ship going South to
    North. It doesn't interact with you in any way, only spooks the crew mightily.
    10. A bottle on the waves. Perhaps it contains a message, a map, a potion, a small magic ring, a tiny model of your own ship,
    a ghost or a genie?
    11. An undersea vehicle is spotted, surfaces and hails the ship! It could be Nemo's Nautilus, a Mer-chariot or a starbeast
    12. A flying craft in seen in the sky! Perhaps it is seen at a distance, or maybe it comes close to hail your ship. Maybe it's a
    flying galleon, a Miyazaki airship, Goku/Bastian on his Flying Nimbus/Falkor or a Giant Levitating Stone Head piloted by
    Psionic Lizardmen.
    13. A fog bank rolls in. Visibility is nil and there is some terrible danger ahead for sure. Perhaps it's a terrible shoal or
    sandbank with a mysterious isolated lighthouse, a series of 100-foot granite needles jutting out of the sea, or a place where
    the crust of the Earth has given way and the Ocean drains into an abyss.
    14. Pirates. A terrible black ship on the horizon. Evade or prepare to be boarded.
    15. A Merchant Ship. Are these people you can trust or are they more cut-throat than the pirates? The Cargo is something
    very, very disturbing.
    Whew. Ok. Yes, I agree - these are a little vague. I hope you can work them into a tightness (sub-tables or whatever you need) that works for you. Hopefully there's enough brain-fuel to push you off in the right direction. There's no depth to the rabbit hole if you want to follow the leads: following the cinders on the wind might lead to chance of finding a burning ship or fire island. Just depends how much you want to reward curiosity.

    Every time the players enter a new hex I roll a d6, roll on the Encounter table on a 1 or a 2 and roll on the Island Table on a 6. Islands are much like Encounters - they're fundementally supernatural events - but are an environments that can be explored, charted and lead into dungeons or more involved Encounters.
    Island Encounters

    1. A Tiny round islet covered in thick yew trees. In the centre of the island is a pool of still, clear water. This water has a
    magical effect. Perhaps it turns whatever touches it into gold, stone, incorporeal or drinking it causes some potion effect.
    2. The Island is a Monster! Maybe a huge turtle, earth dragon, squid or simply animated and angry about humans cutting
    down trees, digging holes or some other natural transgression.
    3. A desert island with cliffs and palms. Lurking in the sand are two halves of a brass scarab amulet, anyone who touches
    them must make a Will Save (or whatever) to resist putting them together. When the pieces are combined the brass scarab
    glows and flies off leaving a trail of golden sparks. About 50 meters distant it burrows into the ground (or sea if you're back
    on the ship) and a huge lion head made of sand rises from that spot. Stairs lead down its throat but if anyone approaches it
    will declare that only the "pure of heart" may enter. Inside: Treasure, Magic Items, a Genie.
    4. This island is actually a Giant Ant colony rising out of the sea floor itself. The Ants will defend their tunnels to the death
    but are highly intelligent and earnest attempts at communication might be profitable.
    5. A mountain rises out of the sea, the summit spouts flame and molten rock, freezing fog and ice or maybe something even
    stranger. Obviously elemental creatures or demons makes their home here, or there is an entrance to some elemental realm
    or underworld.
    6. A ship made on a Giant's scale has broken on a reef. What extraordinary and oversized things will be found inside? What
    impractical cargo has survived?
    7. A flying island with a ladder reaching down to the sea or a tall rock spire with spiral stair. Perhaps there is a palace,
    observatory or temple up there.
    8. A jungle/forest island populated by some Monster race that has made a peaceful but pretty strange culture. Who knows
    how they'll react to these aliens washing up on their shores?
    9. Dinosaur Island.
    10. A high level Wizard, Cleric or Elf has a house on this lonely island. It can only be seen in sunlight, moonlight or under
    some other condition.

  • edited April 2014
    Ok, you should have just about everything you need to get started. Players should be encouraged to move quickly (it's dangerous to linger) and trigger encounter rolls often.

    Oh, if it helps here's a table of interesting cargo your ship or other ships could have. These were generated by my IRC players, so thanks to them!
    Adventurous Cargo Table, roll as many times as you like.

    01. slaves ....................................21. a diplotatic delegation
    02. spices.....................................22. walrus ivory
    03. drugs......................................23. exotic insect cysts
    04. breeding pair of giant sheep...24. machinery to put the locals out of work
    05. everlasting ice (sculpture).......25. coffins full of dirt
    06. Ambergris..............................26. clay tablets containing secrets of ancient craftsmen
    07. The Ark/Grail.........................27. animated furnishings
    08. sleeping clay golem...............28. a dentist
    09. visiting sultan, with harem.....29. fireworks
    10. tapestries/carpets..................30. giant stone fist
    11. tiny white coffin of a child......31. fairy seeds
    12. wizard weaponry....................32. crystal children
    13. drugged giant........................33. a frozen illithid/starman
    14. silk.........................................34. a chained prisoner of great power
    15. exotic hardwoods...................35. tulip bulbs
    16. tobacco..................................36. impossibly fast, metal hulled coastal cutter
    17. dyes.......................................37. refugees
    18. bottles of "Essence"................38. wine/liquor
    19. a pirate sabuteur....................39. plague
    20. kidnapped nobles...................40. oil
    That's all for now. Hope this is useful to someone. Any questions?

    Kind regards,
    Mike Burrell
  • edited April 2014
    Looking over your ur-texts I felt like recommending "The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket". It's the only novel-length piece ever written by Poe. The book goes into tremendous detail about life onboard a sailing ship (as a stowaway, at first) and veers wildly between hardcore nautical realism and high seafaring fantasy. Different era, obviously, but there's tons of source material to be mined in there, and I think you'd love it, personally.
  • Another recommendation: Try to get your hands on a copy of "Crimson Cutlass" (an out-of-print RPG by George Rahm, 3-book set (c) 1979, 2nd edition set 1989). You won't be sorry.
  • Mike,

    This is a fantastic write-up, and very well presented. Thanks! I didn't expect this level of detail. What a pleasure!

    I'm curious about a few things:

    1. It looks like some of the lists/tables have evolved since the original posting. (And is the cargo list much shorter than the original one you made in the game? It seems to be.) Were there any particular important changes/modifications which came along during that process?

    2. I find it interesting to read people random tables, because each DM/GM has different improvisational skills and therefore needs different input from tables. Yours, for me, often provide information I wouldn't feel I need (a tiny island covered in yew!) and omits information I would prefer not to improvise at the table (like the effects of the water in the pool), because I wouldn't want my improvised decision to be affected by the players' declarations of how they were handling the situation - I find it difficult sometimes to feel objective/unbiased when doing that.

    (I don't know if there's a question there, or if it's just an observation for now...)

    Anyway, thank you!
  • Question! Normally a hexcrawl involves rolling for terrain, for weather, for the presence of roads - I suspect because all these things impact rate of travel and ease of foraging. Most of that doesn't apply to a seacrawl. Apart from changing out the nautical adjectives, what procedural changes do you think you'd make if you transitioned to land? Would you still abstract it down to the same two event tests per day, n days travel to your destination, don't worry about the small stuff?
  • @Paul_T, the tables have been neatened up a little: a few overly distracting or boring options have been removed. I'm sure I could squeeze you guys for some more cargo options (and probably will) to make up a 100-entry Master table later on if you feel I've short-changed your input. ;)

    Common! A tiny island covered in yew is exactly the kind of detail that sticks with people, and if the tables start planting these colour seeds then more ancillary details bubble out. The reason I've left the specifics to the DM, especially on the islands, is that you've actually got loads of time, once the players spot an island and decide that, yes, they'll explore it, to work out exactly what the pool does. The Encounter is rolled, you read the table - pick Gold (maybe I should have been more explicit, like AW bulletpoints) from the options - and then settle how the gold works in your head. Meanwhile, the players will still be arguing about who's going to risk going ashore.

    @Veav, I think I would make several smaller encounter tables for different terrain types. The physicality of the game-world interests me, but not the minutiae of trying to realistically depict our world. The main difference is that few people travel overland by night, where ships might sail on. One Wilderness Encounter per day of travel and a Wandering Encounter roll at night.
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