This supplement for Pathfinder and D&D 4th edition is 81 pages long, 1 page front cover, 1 page editorial, 1 page ToC,1 page back cover, leaving us with 77 pages of content, so let’s check this out!
So, if you’ve been following the Zeitgeist steampunk-AP by EN Publishing, you may have noticed that the naval combat rules used by the AP are different from those used by Paizo in “Skull & Shackles”. Well, that’s because this supplement in the basis for them.
We kick off the supplement with general considerations on technology level, availability/feasibility of teleport and similar means of travel before getting into the meatier aspects of the rules, namely ship statblocks. Ships have sizes (D’uh) and a hull integrity – this is the amount of shipboard weapon damage it can take before the vessel sinks. Ships also have a defense value, which essentially acts as a form of DR against shipboard weapons. In Pathfinder, ships have a touch AC of -3 and +0 to all saves, which feels a bit weird, since usually, the size of a vessel should influence the AC, whereas here a single default value is assumed. Ship saves, when called for, usually are rolled versus a fixed DC 10, at times modified, but more on these intricacies later. The Maneuverability-value applies to some command checks and essentially determines how easy a ship can be turned around. The Speed is also a fixed value (like 7) that denotes the amount of 5-foot squares a ship can travel in combat (and the amount of knots per hour it makes). It also applies to some command checks and double the value equals the vessel’s maximum speed. Each vessel has a command rating depending on captain and crew, a minimum amount of crew members required to run it and an entry that denotes how many crew members are required for maximum functionality as well as an entry on how many people can make up the vessel’s crew.
Height, length, breadth, decks, weaponry and total cost are also displayed in a ship’s given statblock. and before getting into battle, hazard pay for crew as well as plotting a course and following it – essentially, via simple skill-checks solutions, the basic stuff is covered. One particular thing you’ll have noticed by now is that the system, since it was designed for two systems, teds to provide Pathfinder information in a slightly greenish tint and brackets – which should annoy me, but honestly, it blends unobtrusively in and seriously does not impede the flow of the text – plus, it makes ignoring it easy for 4th edition DMs. Still, I wished the authors had e.g. provided tables for the skills.
Chops, small crash hazards etc. – most minor annoyances in battle can be negated by aforementioned command check, which btw. constitutes a d20+1/2 level+ highest mental attribute modifier…which is a bit problematic. While an elegant way that allows characters to easily command vessels, it also means that ranks in Profession (sailor) and similar skills are essentially wasted – once relative mastery in such a peculiar field becomes so easy and requires no investment from the characters, it takes away from the sense of accomplishment when actually doing something awesome as a captain.
Now Stern chases are covered via an abstract system that approximates different round-lengths for the ships depending on how close they are – per se a cool idea that manages to make the chase per se be more tight – the system per se is simple, requiring only one side to get 3 successes over the other and makes for a nice, fast to play solution…until you start taking it apart: While we are told that failure of a navigator in such a chase might grant the other a bonus from +2 to +5 or allow a navigator to incur a penalty on one round for a bonus in the next, we get no hard guidelines – essentially this is do as you please” – which isn’t bad, but also fails to provide a solid framework from which one can glean what would be appropriate. And no, CR-modifications for encounters based on naval hazards are not provided- why? Because, if you haven’t gleaned it, naval combat essentially happens in naval rounds…and it follows abstractions. Take counterspell defense – if you have a ship’s mage, said mage can briefly ward a ship 3/day, reducing damage of an incoming spell by 10. Only…that’s not how counterspelling works. Also: What kind of resources does this shield cost? Why doesn’t it scale with the level of the ship’s mage? Where things get completely ridiculous is with the dinner plate defense – mage hand + plate =blocked AoE-spells or rays thanks to PERCEPTION? Sorry, but that’s just so incredibly NOT how it would work: Mage Hand has a duration of concentration, which means usually maximum one spell in effect per caster, at close range. Worse, even with a readied action, the plate could only be moved by 15 feet: NOT enough to cover a whole vessel… Yes, I guess that this is intended to be a fun countermeasure to spells, but it ends up being ridiculous, Pythonesque even (Sailors of the penetrated plates, anyone?) and also does simply not work as a strategy as presented – the rules directly contradict it.
Where any semblance of dual systems fall apart is with the mechanics of hitting hooks into sea serpents and similar huge creatures to drag them towards the ship – first of all, the sample creatures usually have an array of spell-like and supernatural abilities. Secondly, the whole maneuver may work against “Defense”,, but essentially would be a drag/pull-maneuver in PFRPG – don’t expect CMB/CMD or the like here and while the system works at least within the proposed subsystem in 4th edition, it also mentions strikes and honestly, just doesn’t feel like you could simply insert a given creature into the equation – removing tethered hooks is in no way dependant on the creature hooked (Kraken!) nor are actions given for e.g. servants to remove the hooks. All in all, an abstract maneuver not thought through to its logical conclusion.
Next up would be different crews (and morale categories that modify the difficulty of e.g. command checks) as well as two feats that allow you to take e.g. multiple elite officer roles and optional modifications for ship-shape, crew size etc. to further modify the basic rules and add more variety to the respective components. Mutiny is also mentioned shortly, as are supplies, but it is here that the supplement also fails – supplies, water, disease – essential components when it comes to the well-being of a crew (not to start with superstitions) are basically only glanced over in the most cursory of ways. While I get WHY this was done, the fact is that a lot of people out there, me included, actually DO track water-consumption, food resources etc. -if only so survival means something. In the context of perilous journeys on the ocean, such components should NOT be simply a half-developed backdrop – more often than not, survival may be just as exciting as straight out combat. So in that particular department, the supplement, at least for me, fails miserably – in either system.
Sooo….naval combat. Each round of naval combat consists of 5 phases: maneuvers, location, terrain, bearing and attack. In the maneuver phase, perception-checks are made by the look-outs and maneuvers are being decided upon – it is here that it becomes evident that the aforementioned chase is essentially handled like a naval combat – why don’t the chase-rules just mention that? Oh well. Essentially, the maneuver-phase allows for tactics via 6 different maneuvers, which usually pay for a bonus in one phase with a penalty in another and thus allow for some strategy…but also could have used more variety. A total of 10 maneuvers (6 basic maneuvers and 4 situational ones) to choose from may be enough for sojourns to the seas, but in full-blown nautical campaigns, they’d get boring fast. In the Location phase, blocking an enemy, pursuing ships etc. become possible – again, why first list the chase and then, pages later, provide the other rules – the chase rules aren’t bad, I just don’t get why they’ve been divorced from the combat rules on which they’re based in the first place. In the terrain-phase, hazards are dealt with. In the bearing phase, competing command checks are made to determine whether the ships can outmaneuver one another and bring weapons to bear. I do like that we have multiple degrees of success and failure here, with varying effects and consequences. However, with opposing d20-rolls, much is left to chance and at least in Pathfinder, that’s a violation of how such things are done – usually, one would shoot for roll versus fixed value. In the attack-phase, a ship can fire from each of its firing arcs and hit other vessels – each hit hitting one of 4 potential regions of a ship, with varying consequences: Each hit constitutes a STRIKE. One strike means damaged, 2 broken and, as always, 3 and you’re out, i.e. the component has been destroyed. This, again, is rather abstract for my tastes and becomes problematic and overly general once exotic materials and enchantments enter the fray: What if components are guarded versus a special damage type? How much damage does a strike cause when applied in regular damage terms? What about weapons used to decimate the crew? There are some significant holes here, and while we get rules for volleys and a simplified alternate way to track crew damage, I still would have liked more diversified rules there and better synergy with the other levels of battle.
Where the system does something RIGHT would be with the officer roles – a ship has a total of 6 officer-roles, all of which allow players (and NPCs) to influence the performance of their ship in varying degrees and phases, allowing for a nice and dynamic experience that feels superior to essentially the “one player versus DM”-experience the default naval combat rules for Pathfinder provide – if your group isn’t as large as mine (over 6 players), you’ll be fully covered and have things to do for every player. On the magic side, though, we once again get a massive failure, when an “Arcana check (DC 10 + half the level of the target’s highest level component)” can be made to bypass the shoddy arcane defense rules on which I harped before. In my opinion, this particular component is overly simplistic and works in neither system. What’s nice, though, would the very real possibility for burning boats to sink, though we are not introduced to shipwrecked rules.
Boarding actions, with and without grids, crew templates – there is quite a lot to be found here. Speaking of which: What I really, really love about this supplement are the myriad floor plans for vessels of all sizes – in lavish full color, with grids – there are so many of them, they actually accompanying the respective ship statblocks, it’s just awesome – especially since we also get zeppelins, airships and the like. The fluffy write-ups of sailor’s superstitions are awesome as well, though actual mechanical consequences would have been neat. Extensive information on real-world ghost-ship legends, some fantasy ports and 4 legendary vessels (which include an undead whale) also feature here, before we get easy to follow design guidelines to create your own ships, including a wide array of additional components, which, yes, even include a time machine. Unfortunately, you won’t find Pathfinder rules for these and much like the previously mentioned components, several of them come apart when taken into the design-context of the respective system.
The pdf concludes with 2 pages of sheets for vessels, a short summary on Admiral Lord Nelson’s life and a one-page adventure hook/synopsis for you to develop.
Editing and formatting per se are top-notch, I didn’t notice any glaring glitches. Layout adheres to an easy to read 2-column full color standard and the pdf is layered, allowing you to customize it and make it more printer-friendly. The artworks are universally thematically fitting stock art and the floor plans of the ships are awesome and full color. The pdf comes extensively bookmarked for your convenience.
Author Ryan Nock has created a system that works in this supplement, and one that perhaps is a bit more fun for the whole group than the default ship-combat of the respective systems. That being said, this pdf has issues, many of which can be attributed to it trying to provide one system for two vastly different roleplaying systems. Instead of working with the rules and design-assumptions of D&D 4th edition and Pathfinder, Admiral o’ the High Seas creates its own system, necessitating quite some conversion work on the DM’s side. I wouldn’t complain about that.
What I do complain about is that the system introduced herein may work on its own, but roleplaying systems are not like computer games – mini-games that suddenly follow radically different assumptions don’t work here. If arcane batteries can that easily be countered, why don’t fortresses follow these rules? Armies? How does one raise a defense shield on a ship? How much resources does this consume? Can it be raised on land? Why not? I get that the system endeavors to make magic artillery not as overpowering by providing countermeasures, but instead of working with the systems, it jury-rigs an ill-conceived concept together, which, when thought to its logical conclusion, makes no sense within the reality of the game world. Since all rules are connected, taking this system and divorcing it as thoroughly as this pdf does from basic rules assumptions and how things are handled results in an almost jarring backlash.
Worse, while the options herein allow for a more tactical approach, it just doesn’t cover enough: With some many moving parts via spells, magic items, smaller vessels, flying animal companions etc., this supplement falls painfully short of accounting for the myriad of options potentially available. Now, again, I understand this is partially due to being system-spanning, but my point is: It doesn’t work as well as it should in D&D 4th edition and in Pathfinder, it flat-out fails. The latter ruleset has obviously been an afterthought at best, with A LOT of rules differing completely from how things are done in the syntax and grammar of the rules and many options herein simply lacking PFRPG-equivalent rules.
This supplement shows that its system actually works, is fun and provides something to do for players – but it doesn’t fit seamlessly into the given rules-systems (though D&D 4th edition works MUCH better with this than PFRPG) and potentially breaks some of the underlying tenets on how your campaign world works in the first place – hardness, hit points, damage of spells etc. – all that is NOT THAT UNMANEGEABLE. This system could have worked with the rules instead of against them – it has all the makings of a good supplement. But it execution is at times lackluster and it suffers from trying to cater to two audiences, ultimately missing one completely and not perfectly hitting the other either. In the superb Zeitgeist AP, these rules may work – because naval combat is used as interludes. But in prolonged naval campaigns, all those small glitches, all the unaccounted possibilities, all the cracks in the system and the relative few tactical options WILL sink this supplement – I guarantee it.
How to rate this, then? For D&D 4th edition, this is a valid supplement, if not a perfect one – it leaves many small options to be desired, but does provide some fun and a relative easy system – 3 stars. For Pathfinder, this supplement fails – it ignores design-tenets, rules-information seems to have been forgotten for many pieces of crunch and the information provided is barebones and reeks of an uninspired, shoddy conversion at best. For Pathfinder, I’ll settle for a final verdict of 1.5 stars. My final verdict will fall in-between at 2.5 stars. I’ll round down though, since the huge amount of logic issues this supplement may bring up can thoroughly destroy any sense of immersion and internal logic in a given setting.
You can get this supplement here on OBS.