This system for naval combat is 98 pages long, 1 page front cover, 4 pages of advertisement, 3 pages of SRD, 1 page ToC and 1 page back cover, leaving us with 88 pages of content.
So here we are – by now the third naval combat system for Pathfinder – after Paizo’s system fell flat of my expectations and after EN Publishing’s book thoroughly disappointed me, let’s see whether this supplement can do the trick!
We kick off this sourcebook, as is only prudent, with an explanation of the terminology used as well as a handy diagram that explains how a ship is positioned in relation to the wind. In order to have a ship, one requires ship construction-rules – these are very concisely-presented here: Essentially, each vessel has locations, which could be thought of as 20-foot cubes that can be individually targeted by hostiles. How you place your locations is mostly up to you, though you have to adhere to certain conventions regarding length and breadth and height, allowing you to also add additional decks by stacking multiple locations atop one another. It should be noted, that one hull location could contain one or several decks, though! Each location-cube belongs to one of two classes – hull or rigging. Both types have different stats, costs etc. and their relationship has crucial consequences regarding the ship’s attributes.
Attributes? Yes, ships have a str-score of 30+no. of hull locations + build modifiers and they also have a dexterity of 10+rigging locations-hull locations + build modifiers. (The latter, in case you’re wondering, offer the choice between sleek and broad hulls. Ship armor-class is calculated just like with a regular character, though rigging is slightly harder to hit. It should also be noted that the rules depict not only touch AC (should you ever require it), but also the susceptibility of a ship from below the waves in a rather interesting manner and that they aren’t silent on this matter either regarding AC. Carrying capacity, hit points – all of that is very intuitive and makes creating ships and grasping the system exceedingly easy.
Now where things get slightly more complex would be with movement – your ship has 3 movement rates, or speed values. Each point of speed roughly corresponds to 20 feet of movement – but why not simply go with the movement? The answer’s simple, really – you actually could do that. But speed is also a resource AS WELL AS a restriction. Ships have no brakes in the traditional sense and thus you *HAVE* to move the value of your speed rating each round – furthermore, naval maneuvers like turns etc. have an associated speed cost. You thus have to actually plan movement rather carefully, adding a VERY cool tactical dimension to the combats that is easy to learn while offering opportunities aplenty for strategies and finesse – after all, sailing against and with the wind modifies your available speed. Putting essentially resource and restriction into one value is, in my humble opinion, a stroke of genius. Of course, ships also have a maneuverability and your ship’s load influence how agile your vessel turns out to be – again, the rules here are very much n line with how characters work.
Now if you’re like me, then you tend towards a relative preference toward simulationalist approaches – I tend to have my PCs track rations etc. For people who prefer this additional spike of realism we get advanced rules herein – the first of which would be the impact of wind speed on a vessel’s speed rating. More complex, yes, but rather easy to grasp. And if you don’t think that can be utilized for maximum awesomeness, I once ran an adventure based on the absence of wind – essentially stranding the players on the equivalent of the Méduse’s grisly tale – no combats, just slow psychological descent into madness as the veneer of civilization started to crumble. Glorious. Of course, the more obvious use would be to handle ships sailing before a storm, as the sidebar “Riders on the Storm” suggests. Now beyond sails, engines (both steam-powered and alchemical, in varying efficiency-classes) and oars are also handled, and once again parallel to characters, ships get their own CMBs and CMDs and saves.
Saves? Yep. Though as objects, ships are immune to will-saves, ref and fort-saves, while hard to do, can be rationalized – which the pdf btw. also guides a DM through, explaining how to narrate a successful save. As you could glean from me spilling the beans about alternate means of propulsion, there are a lot of customization options here – 8 sizes of cannons, rams, crow’s nests – it’s easy and essentially just like equipping your character – locations having a certain amount of space, i.e. slots. There you go – elegant and intuitive. Where there are cannons, there better be grape shots, chain shots and the like and yes, for everyone who despises gunpowder in their games, reskinning is always an option here. Speaking of options – while cannonballs of a uniform size are the default simplification for fun’s sake, there are rules to explain how to handle different cannonball-sizes, if you want that level of realism. the same holds btw. true if you’d prefer realistic load times – these have been, due to the presence of magic and to keep cannons cool, significantly shortened to between 1 and 3 full-round actions. For once, that’s a simplification I will keep in my game.
Now I’ve mentioned grape shots. I shuddered upon reading this, for while the mechanics of the grape shot are solid, they don’t take individual ACs into account. Well…UNLESS you take a look at yet another alternate rule that lets you take these into the equation as well! Even before ship armor, miscellaneous equipment like fire pumps, specific locations and the like come into the equation, we a thoroughly customizable base system of rules that is concisely presented and easy to learn, while providing just the level of realism you choose for your group.
Specific locations? Yeah, from smuggling compartments to brigs, captain’s quarters etc., we have quite a few customization options here.
But a ship is only an object – we also need a crew. Recruiting a crew is done via relatively simple rules…but what about morale? We are introduced to a new loyalty-score, which is modified by the captain’s level, his/her cha-mod and the mods of navigators, chaplains etc. – oh, and lost battles, pay, time at sea, charms and dominates – all of these are taken in. Additionally, charismatic captains may actually inspire their crews! Now we all have seen this: A basic issue in most naval combat systems would be that they degenerate into a one-on-one between DM and the captain’s player.6 officer roles, all with benefits and vacancy penalties and special actions in combat does an excellent job in engaging the WHOLE PARTY, even beyond the capabilities of the respective classes that fill the roles. Now how does that work? Essentially, your players roll initiative twice – once for the level of their characters and a second, naval initiative wherein they may make the respective naval actions, ensuring that they don’t have to spend actions to encourage the crew when they’d rather be flinging fireballs or swashbuckle through the riggings. It seems counterintuitive at first, but in play it works wonders – also due to each role using certain attribute-modifiers for their respective naval initiative. Food, crew placement, crew advancement, officer and enlisted roles – there isa neat level of detail going on here.
Now how does naval combat work? First, the most upwind ship may claim the weather gauge, which nets some bonuses (tough e.g. the +2 speed bonus may not fit in all strategies…once again, careful deliberation…) – but only until another ship manages to steal the weather gauge via skill or luck: Again, we have a neat dynamic herein that expands the tactical possibilities of naval combat. After that, the combat (with the exception of naval initiative) works much like a regular combat – but there also are 13 special naval actions introduced alongside 5 special attacks (including crossing the boards). We also get a handy table for spotting ships, some new skill uses (Can you disguise a ship? Yes, you can!) and an abstract, but relatively elegant way to determine losses among the crew (and prevent them, if you’re a ship’s surgeon. Of course, there is also the final resort of self-destructing engines, if available – and yes, the consequences are dire and the situation narrative gold.
Of course, as you’re probably noted by now, specialists could have a field day here and yes, if you’re so inclined, then a total of 9 feats allows you to improve your capabilities in that specific field – which is awesome, for while the system does not require such an investment, it rewards those that do. Now magic and naval combat is where a certain other naval supplement came totally apart – so how does FaSB deal with it? In one word: Perfectly. Instead of spamming us with useless over-specialized variants of spells, we get new uses for spells: Chill/Heat Metal+ cannon = useless cannon for duration of the spell. Zombie-crew? Possible. Control Winds vs. Control Weather? Covered. Fabricate? Repairs ship-location. Prestidigitation can btw. be uses to flavor gruel if food is scarce, thus offsetting the loyalty-penalty for eating gruel all day. We also get 9 spells, one of which temporarily transforms a part of the sea into GLASS., potentially trapping ships… Oh, and yes, there also is a ghostly crew for the wholesome necromancer captains among us.
Not content with all of that? Why not build levitating ships? Ships made from bone, coral or locations perpetually engulfed in flames? Masts that prevent casualties by means of feather fall? Enchanted bowsprits? Sails that steal souls? On the character level, what about enchanted rum? Magical hammocks? Tiny mechanical monkey with an extradimensional holding space? Harnesses that conjure forth ghostly whales to draw the ship? Yes. All here.
Now so far, we’ve limited ourselves to combat, ship-building and crew – but what about pursuits? Fully covered. Terrain obstacles for naval pursuits? Easy creation guidelines, various samples provided.
Don’t want to stat a lot of crew? We get quite a bunch of sample statblocks (though it should be noted that they use Razor Coast’s simplified gunpowder-rules), but thus no gunslingers. The book mentions “Brace of Pistols” as a great supplement and I concur, though I consider the absence of gunslingers still a huge pity. Now while there are a lot f relatively generic statblocks, the occasional weird one is in here to spice all up and sample characters galore accompany this chapter.
Beyond a pirate’s song to sing and animated cannons, we also get full-color ship record sheets, 5 sample ships and finally, a 1-page appendix of sample ship names.
Editing and formatting is still very good, though a couple of minor typo-level glitches could be found herein. Layout adheres to a drop-dead gorgeous two-column full-color standard. Artwork is mostly thematically fitting stock art and the pdf comes fully bookmarked for your convenience. The hardcover of the book has solid production-values, though the paper feels slightly thinner than in other FGG-releases. The cover-illustration is a bit blurry in both the pdf and hardcover and was probably not intended as such.
*Ähem* In case you haven’t noticed…look what’s absent from this review: Yes. Serious complaints. This system is hilariously easy to grasp, working with established design-tenets and expanding them in a smart way that borders on being brilliant. Neither in 3.X, nor PFRPG have I ever seen such a concise, well-presented naval combat supplement – creating ships is exceedingly easy and fast, naval combat proved to be engaging for the whole group instead of for just one player and this supplement, unlike some books I’ve recently reviewed, does a splendid job at NOT creating logic bugs in-game. At working with the system and producing something that transcends and mops the floor with each and every naval combat system I’ve seen so far, offering a surprising amount of easy customization options and actually rewarding tactical combat decisions. Strategy, fun, easily implemented and presented in a truly concise manner, Lou Agresta & John Ling’s “Fire as She Bears” is THE system for naval combat: Whether it’s “Skull & Shackles”, “Razor Coast” or something completely different – this supplement is a, let me emphasize that, MUST HAVE.
Seriously. Naval combat has never worked so smoothly, so seamlessly, so elegant. Heck, if I ever run En Publishing’s Zeitgeist-AP, I’ll ignore “Admiral o’ the High Seas” and stat the ships with this. In spite of the work, the result will make it worthwhile. This is the perfect blend of options, solid rules, toolkit and makes for an extremely tight supplement, one I can’t praise enough. I wouldn’t be Endzeitgeist if I had no complaints, though – the lack of sample gunslinger-characters is a very minor detriment and honestly – I wished this had been a massive 200+page book with even more options, items, naval actions, magic items and sample ships.
…Yeah. That’s about all the negativity I can muster against this superb book. This is non-optional. I want sequels…plural. Enchanted viking-ships, perhaps? After all, the Northlands Saga is impending…
This belongs into the library of each and every DM who only contemplates running naval adventures, a superb offering if there ever was one and the system that banished Mongoose’s 3.0 “Seas of Blood” and Paizo’s own system into oblivion. It’s that good. My final verdict will clock in at 5 stars +seal of approval, in spite of minor flaws here and there as well as this being a candidate for my Top Ten of 2013. From here on out, this will be the only naval system that sees any use at my table. Congratulations to the authors for a superb job!