Movement and Order


Within each crew, members hold various positions, from the rank-and-file to the master of the vessel. These positions vary by culture and by type of ship. But there are only two roles that matter for these rules, the commander and the navigator.

Aboard most traditional vessels, both are embodied in one person, the captain. But everyone has to sleep; when the captain is below decks, the commander (for purposes of these rules) is whichever crew member “has the deck.” Likewise, well-funded vessels often recruit highly skilled navigational officers who direct the course of the vessel, their precise guidance fulfilling the captain’s more general orders.

Whenever Charisma-based skill checks are called for to deal with the crew or enemies, these are made by the assigned commander. Whenever Intelligence based checks with navigator’s tools or water vehicles are called for, these are made by the assigned navigator.

The roles of commander and navigator must be assigned prior to using these rules. If a reassignment of roles occurs during an encounter, it will not take effect until after any already-declared checks have been resolved.


Characters can row a boat for 8 hours per day, or can row longer at the risk of exhaustion (as per the rules for a forced march in chapter 8 of the Player’s Handbook.) A fully crewed sailing vessel can sail all day, assuming the sailors work in shifts.

Seagoing vessels stay close to shore when they can, because navigation is easier when landmarks are visible. As long as a ship is within sight of land, there is no chance of the vessel becoming lost. Otherwise, the ship’s navigator must rely on dead reckoning (tracking the direction and distance of the ship’s travel) or the sun and stars.

Staying on course requires an Intelligence (navigator’s tools) check. Use the Wilderness Navigation table on page 112 of the Dungeon Master’s Guide to determine whether a ship veers off course.


The DM can pick the weather to fit the story’s needs or roll on this table each day, adjusting for the season as appropriate.

Weather Chart

d20 Wind
1-4 None
5-12 Light
13-20 Strong
d20 Precipitation
1-12 None
13-17 Light rain or snowfall
18-20 Heavy rain or snowfall

Strong wind imposes disadvantage on personal-scale ranged weapon attack rolls and Wisdom (Perception) checks that rely on hearing. A strong wind extinguishes open flames, disperses fog, and makes flying by nonmagical means nearly impossible. A flying creature in a strong wind must land at the end of its turn or fall.

Light precipitation lightly obscures everything beyond 50 feet from the ship. Heavy precipitation heavily obscures everything beyond 100 feet from the ship and lightly obscures everything closer. Heavy rain extinguishes open flames and imposes disadvantage on Wisdom (Perception) checks that rely on hearing.

Strong wind and heavy precipitation effectively constitute storm conditions. A crew caught in a storm loses sight of all landmarks (unless there’s a lighthouse or other bright feature), and Intelligence (navigator’s tools) checks are made with disadvantage.

In a dead calm (no wind), a ship that relies on sails has a speed of 0. It must be rowed with its own oars, if any. In the case of larger vessels, the ship’s boats can tow it at 1/2 mph.


Ships at sea encounter one another at a set range. This typically comes down to the weather or the lighting conditions based on the time of day.

Maritime Encounter Distance

Conditions Encounter Distance
Clear weather, daylight 10 miles
Clear weather, dark of night 3 miles
Light precipitation, daylight 8 miles
Light precipitation, dark of night 2 miles
Heavy precipitation, daylight 5 miles
Heavy precipitation, dark of night 1 mile

Ships usually spot one another at the same time. However, there are exceptions.

Near dawn or dusk, a ship nearer to the horizon with the rising or setting sun is spotted 2 miles before it spots a ship opposite the rising or setting sun. Ships oriented toward one another on a north-south line still spot one another at the same distance at these times.

At night, a ship running without lanterns is spotted at half the listed distance. If there is no moon, the darkened ship is only spotted if the two ships get within pistol shot of one another.

One ship might spot another sooner under other circumstances too, as in the case of totally-derelict watch crews or magical concealments.

When one ship spots another but is not spotted in return, the aware vessel can automatically chase or flee successfully each phase until the other ship becomes aware of the opposition.


This expanded version of the chase rules is intended to dramatize naval chases, which take hours or days at a time. These rules only apply to large, sail-powered vessels.

Chasing and closing scenes are organized into phases. Each phase in a ship-scale encounter represents 1 hour in the game world. Chasing and closing immediately precedes a naval combat or an escape.

Summary of Chasing

1. Determine Distance. Use the Maritime Encounter Distance chart to determine the initial encounter distance. This becomes the following distance at the start of the chase.
2. Chase by Phase. Each hour, alter the following distance as indicated in the Chase rules. If the following distance ever reaches 2 miles greater than the current encounter distance (determined by prevailing time and weather), the fleeing ship may escape. If the following distance gets down to 1 mile or less, use the Engaging rules.
3. Engage by Phase. When within 1 mile of each other, hourly alter the following distance as indicated in the Engaging rules. If the followin distance increases to 1 and 1/2 miles, the fleeing ship may choose to return to Chasing rules. Ships may exchange shots while Engaging, if their guns have the reach. At 0 miles following distance, ships may fire broadsides, grapple together, or both.
4. Join Battle. Even if the fleeing ship gives up running, perhaps sending more hands to the guns, continue using the Engaging rules to determine the range of battle. Either vessel may alter its intent and flee as circumstances warrant.


If two ships wish to close with one another, no testing is required. The vessels close at a rate per phase determined by combining their speed ratings. Skip the Chasing and Escaping rules and go straight to Engaging.

If two ships wish to avoid one another, each can go its own way as it wills.

Only if one ship wishes to flee and the other wishes to fight, are these chasing rules required. In a chase, the following ship automatically closes with its quarry if it is a faster vessel; each phase, reduce the distance between the two vessels by the difference between their speeds. If the ships have the same speed, the two navigators make opposed checks. If the chaser wins, reduce the interposing distance by 1/2 mile. If the chaser loses, increase the distance by 1/2 mile.

At the end of each Chasing phase, each participant must make one check on the Sailing Chase Complications table. If a complication comes up, it affects the other (non-rolling) participant the chase. If multiple ships are involved on the receiving side of the chase, the DM selects which vessel or vessels are affected by the complication.


If a chasing ship falls behind its prey by a certain distance, the prey has escaped. The distance required for an escape is 2 miles more than the Encounter Distance indicated for the prevailing conditions on the Maritime Encounter Distance. Often a chase will run hot until reaching sunset or encountering a storm.

A ship escaping in clear weather and daylight conditions does so because it has a tremendous lead and is below the horizon. Such a ship escapes automatically.

A ship escaping under any other lighting or weather must succeed in an opposed Intelligence (navigator’s tools) check. Failure indicates that the pursuer correctly guesses the ship’s course and encounters its quarry again at dawn or when the storm passes, at the distance indicated on the Maritime Encounter Distance chart.


When a chase gets to within 1 mile, the pursuer begins closing to engage; the chase becomes more dramatic and shots might be exchanged.

At this point, even if the pursuer is a faster ship, the two navigators make opposed checks. This represents frantic navigation to find their ships’ greatest speeds or to best position themselves for battle. A faster ship has advantage on these opposed engaging Intelligence (water vehicles) checks, regardless of the Position rules described below.

In each phase of engaging, the vessel of the winning navigator can hold distance, close one-quarter mile, or add one-quarter mile of distance. These quarter-mile increments can make a great difference if one ship’s chase guns have greater range than another’s. Chase complications are not rolled for during Engaging phases.

If engaging ships move out to one-and-a-half miles of distance between them, either ship can attempt to flee, returning to the rules for Chasing, above. If the chase goes the other way, a pursued vessel will often give up running after a few phases of engaging. Surrender might induce a pursuer to stop shooting, or the pursued vessel might simply wish to dedicate its largest possible number of crew to fighting.

If the ships close to 0 distance, the two vessels can come alongside one another. While at 0 distance, the vessels can deliver murderous broadsides or attempt to grapple, or both.


Sailing Chase Complications Chart

d20 Complication
1 The ship collides with a hidden shoal, sandbar, iceberg, or floating debris. The ship suffers 5d20 damage that is not reduced by DT. A successful Intelligence (water vehicles) check will prevent a pursing vessel from increasing distance by 1 mile or a fleeing vessel from reducing distance by 1 mile. A natural 1 rolled on this check means the ship is stuck or hopelessly entangled, and requires 1d4 days before it can sail again.
2 A dark portent appears. Perhaps an albatross lands on the quarterdeck or a distant flash of lightning appears out of a clear sky. The superstitious crew are shaken unless the captain passes a difficulty 11 Charisma (Leadership) check. Failure means that half of the crew effectively produce no actions for 1d4 phases.
3 An unexpected current or wind shift momentarily reorients the vessel or turns its sails. If the affected vessel had superior position, the ships return to neutral position. If the ships were neutral previously, the other vessel gains superior position.
4 One of the crew falls overboard. If the vessel leaves him behind, the ship’s morale may be affected in the future. The crew believe his ghost might haunt them (and maybe it will). The DM determines what future effect this will have.
5 The watch spots some large, seagoing thing in the distance. It might be another ship or some sort of sea monster. Roll 1d10. On a 1-7, the thing is neutral but may later report having seen a chase. On a 8-9, the thing is hostile and tries to join the chase acting against you. On a 10, the thing is friendly and may help your chase.
6 The hull or rudder snags an ancient collection of floating nets, seaweed, or a combination of such things. The drag reduces the vessel’s speed by 1/2 mph for 1d6 phases.
7 A sharp impact, perhaps from a shattered mast floating partly-submerged or maybe a brief attack from a sea monster, holes the hull. Patching requires 15 immediate crew actions and the ship suffers 3d20 damage not reduced by DT.
8 Strange weather suddenly appears. Make an immediate roll on the weather chart, rerolling any result that does not constitute a “change” of weather.
9 A cannon breaks loose of its ties or a ship’s boat becomes unstayed. The large object flies across the deck killing 1d4 – 2 crew members and requiring 10 immediate crew actions to make it fast.
10 In the strain of the chase, a sail tears, cordage snaps, or some other event fouls the rigging. Reduce speed by 1 mph until 20 crew actions are spent on repairs.
11-20 No complication.


At any given point in a naval confrontation between two ships, one ship might achieve a superior position to the other. A superior position is advantageous to steerage, particularly relating to chasing and maneuvering against the other vessel. This can also mean the inferior-position ship is “under the bow” of the superior ship or is otherwise subject to a majority of the superior’s guns while only able to bring to bear a minority of its own guns.

Throughout naval encounters, navigators are often called upon to make opposed Intelligence (water vehicles) checks. A navigator who beats his opposite number twice consecutively achieves a superior position or, if his opponent currently has superior position, returns the two ships to neutral positions. Losing the upper hand like this is dangerous to the inferior-positioned ship. While a vessel holds superior position, it gets advantage on Intelligence (water vehicles) checks opposed by the other vessel’s navigator and advantage on siege engine attacks against that vessel.

Position is not always down to consecutive Intelligence (water vehicles) checks; a navigator can avoid acquiring a superior position or yield it to the other vessel. When two ships close without hostile intention, traditionally neither attempts to take a superior position to the other. When a more powerful vessel interdicts a less powerful vessel, the lesser vessel typically places itself under the bow of (at the inferior position to) the interdicting ship by way of surrender. Combined with striking its colors, this signals an intention to surrender or not fight.

In an encounter with more than two vessels, a ship can have superior position to one and inferior to another at the same time. The DM will resolve any potential conflicts that may arise based on the potential for dramatic outcomes.


Surprise can occur between ships, but this is not based on perception distance because ships are generally visible from miles away.

Under the right circumstances, if allowed by the DM, a commander can attempt a Charisma (Deception) check using false flags or disguising the capabilities of the ship, opposed by the opposing commander’s Wisdom (Insight) check. This check can be attempted at any point after the ships spot one another, and may represent a series of measures taken over the course of many hours.

Success indicates a successful ruse; the false surrender, feigned national allegiance or ship injury, or the threat of false gun ports have done their job. Many ship captains are too “honorable” to use certain deceptions, but using false flags (replaced with true colors before fighting) is widely considered sporting.

If combat does occur, any ship that doesn’t realize the threat is surprised at the start of the encounter. During its first turn, a surprised vessel can’t maneuver and its crew can’t take actions. Individual vessels can be surprised even if others in the same flotilla are not. In addition to this outcome, a surprise check can sometimes convince an enemy captain to avoid combat altogether or to close with a stronger foe.

Movement and Order

Heroes of Freeport Randy Randy