Naval Combat Rules for D&D 5th Edition – Part 1

Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3 | Part 4

I just started running a new campaign set in Vodari, a homebrew world where an entire continent sunk nearly 1000 years ago. Today, my players find themselves in a world where civilization has risen again on the scattered islands that remain. Adventurers in Vodari need to travel by sea and sometimes they run into other ships or monsters.

I needed to create a  way to run these battles for the 5th edition rules of D&D. For ideas I looked at Pathfinder’s Skull & Shackles, D&D’s 2nd Edition Forgotten Realms: Pirates of the Fallen Stars, D&D’s excellent Stormwrack book, Furry Pirates and other sources. If you are looking for really detailed ship to ship combat rules, converting Pathfinder’s rules to 5th edition would be a good fix, but if you just want to slip in the odd sea battle, then these rules might work well.

Getting Started

There’s a few more things to worry about before a sea battle can start than a normal encounter. For simplicity, I am going to focus on the rules for combat between just two ships. I will discuss more advanced combat in Part 2 and I’ll discuss additional ships and boarding in Part 3.

Here is a checklist:

  • Weather. Will the weather be a factor with wind, storms or waves? See page 109 of the DMG to roll random weather
  • Location. Are the boats close to shore or in the middle of the ocean. Are there any obstacles such as rocks, reefs or partially sunken ships? Is there strong enough current to move a ship?
  • Speed. How fast is each ship moving? Can it speed up?
  • Visibility. A calm sea and clear sky offers great visibility from the crow’s nest with the ability to spot another ship up to 10 miles away, overcast 5 miles, raining 1 mile and fog 100 to 300 feet.
  • Position of the Ships (Facing). This is just like positioning tokens for monsters and PCs, only now the tokens are rectangles and facing does matter.
    • It might be a good idea to sketch out the positions for you players, if you are not using grid combat.
    • You might wait to do this until the ships are close to each other. If you have a big enough table or screen, place them at long range.
  • Range. How far away can either ship start to fire at the other ship with weapons or magic? It is important that you and your players know the distance between the two vessels.
  • Initiative. If either ship is in range and both ships are aware of each other, roll initiative.
    • Ships have no initiative bonus.
    • If one ship clearly should go first, skip the roll and place that ship first in the order.
  • Ship. What are the basic stats for each ship in the battle?
    • How many crew are on the ship?
    • How many HP does the ship have?
    • What attacks and damage can a ship fire each round? What is the range of each attack type? How much damage can the ship make by ramming another ship?
    • What amount of damage can a ship take to its hull before it is holed?

Sample Ship

Here are some minimal stats based on the ‘Sailing Ship’ page 119 of the DMG and then modified.

Ship Caravel (Sailing Ship)
Speed 3 mph or 30’/round
Crew 20
AC 15
HP 300
Damage Threshold 15
Size 30′ x 90′ (1 square x 3 squares)
Speed 30′ (1 square) per round
Propulsion Wind
Cannons Port 3, Starboard 3, Bow 1, Stern 1
See page 255 of DMG for stats

Officer Actions

It would be pretty boring to have your players sitting around during the combat while one person does all the work. So let’s give them all a job. For more officer actions options read part 2.

Assign them jobs such as:

  • Pilot – have the pilot make a Dexterity check to make sure they are controlling the ship well, failure can result in the ship slowing, not turning, etc.
  • Cannoneers – have your players man the cannons and let them roll the attacks and damage. Two to three crew are required to operate a cannon.
  • Spellcasters – have them make their own attacks, put out fires, mend the ship, etc.

Damage and Repair

  • Let’s go with cannons (see page 255 of DMG) firing iron balls for this example:
    • Medium Cannon. 1d20+6, range 600 feet/2,400 feet, hit 44 (8d10) bludgeoning damage. It takes one action to load the cannon, one action to aim it and one action to fire it.
  • Repairs to the ship can be made when the vessel is berthed (see page 119 in DMG) or if a player uses powerful magic spells such as fabricate (the mending cantip can not fix a boat). Don’t be afraid to let a player get creative with a spell slot.

Very Simple Combat Example

Let’s try out these rules in 5 rounds of sample combat at medium range. I recommend a grid with squares representing 30′ for naval combat.

Assumptions:

  • 2 identical Caravels 700 feet from each other both traveling 30′ per round
  • Weather and conditions are clear and with a light wind.
  • Ship A has initiative.
  • A ship is drifting/holed at 0 HP
  • Boarding or ramming can take place if you can reach the other vessel on your turn
  • Skip piloting checks and officer actions for this example
Round Ship A Ship B
1 HP: 300
Move: 30′ east
Facing: Bow pointing east
Range: 670′
Bow Cannon:

  • fires with disadvantage due to range
  • Attack Roll (d20): 7 & 10
  • Miss: 7+6=13 vs. AC 15
HP: 300
Move: 30′ west
Facing: Bow pointing west
Range: 640′
Bow Cannon:

  • fires with disadvantage due to range
  • Attack Roll (d20): 14 & 13
  • Hit: 14+6=20 vs. AC 15
  • Damage: 45 (8d10)
2 HP: 255
Move: 30′ east
Facing: Bow pointing east
Range: 610′
Bow Cannon:

  • fires with disadvantage due to range
  • Attack Roll (d20): 4 & 7
  • Miss: 4+6=10 vs. AC 15
HP: 300
Move: 30′ west
Facing: Bow pointing west
Range: 590′
Bow Cannon:

  • fires within regular range
  • Attack Roll (d20): 18
  • Hit: 18+6=24 vs. AC 15
  • Damage: 44 (8d10)
3 HP: 211
Move: 30′ southeast
Facing: Bow pointing east
Range: 560′
Bow Cannon:

  • fires within regular range
  • Attack Roll (d20): 10
  • Hit: 10+6=10 vs. AC 15
  • Damage: 36 (8d10)
HP: 264
Move: 30′ northwest
Facing: Bow pointing west
Range: 530′
Bow Cannon:

  • fires within regular range
  • Attack Roll (d20): 5
  • Miss: 5+6=11 vs. AC 15
4 HP: 211
Move: 30′ east
Facing: Bow pointing east
Range: 500′
Bow Cannon:

  • fires within regular range
  • Attack Roll (d20): 12
  • Hit: 12+6=18 vs. AC 15
  • Damage: 45 (8d10)
HP: 219
Move: 30′ west
Facing: Bow pointing west
Range: 470′
Bow Cannon:

  • fires within regular range
  • Attack Roll (d20): 12
  • Miss: 12+6=18 vs. AC 15
  • Damage: 34 (8d10)
5 HP: 177
Move: 30′ east
Facing: Bow pointing east
Range: 440′
Bow Cannon:

  • fires within regular range
  • Attack Roll (d20): 14
  • Hit: 14+6=20 vs. AC 15
  • Damage: 35 (8d10)
HP: 184
Move: 30′ west
Facing: Bow pointing west
Range: 410′
Bow Cannon:

  • fires within regular range
  • Attack Roll (d20): 12
  • Miss: 10+6=16 vs. AC 15
  • Damage: 43 (8d10)

 

Other Considerations

  • Is there gunpowder in your world? Do cannons exist or do ships fight with magic and ballistas/siege engines?
  • Do you players sink and kill a defeated boat or do they take survivors as prisoners?

What’s Next

  • In Part 2 and Part 3 I’ll be looking at more complicated battle examples with piloting checks, officer actions, boarding and additional ships.
  • Continue to Part 2
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Shawn Ellsworth

Shawn is an author and co-founder of Tribality.com. He first got into tabletop RPGs through ninjas and then by playing a Kender in Dragonlance. Years later, he can be found running games in the Nentir Vale and his own Seas of Vodari campaign setting.