The party’s journey continues across the world’s oceans. They have faced monsters both above and below the surface, and even contended with enchanted weather. But they are not done yet, and further dangers await!
Below you will find the expanded encounter descriptions for the second half of our Ocean Encounters d20 Chart. They should contain all the questions and advice you need the build the encounters in your own world.
11 – A mutinied captain floats along the ocean on a single plank of wood, offering a reward for safety and even more for the delivery of his ship.
Floating in the waters of open ocean, the party finds a single man clutched to a plank of wood. He is dehydrated and starving, and his clothes are tarnished by salt and sun. They bring him on board, and he explains that he was a captain of his own ship until his crew unjustly mutinied against him. He tells the characters that he has access to many riches, offering to pay them if they ferry him to a port. They are offered many times the pay if they reclaim his ship for him.
A single man floating through the ocean is another classic of ocean encounters. Once again, the use of one character for the party to interact with allows you to focus on exactly who he is. For building his identity, ask the most pertinent questions. What were he and his crew doing? Why was he mutinied? And most importantly, is he telling the truth? These are the kinds of questions the characters should be asking of him, and so they are the details you should have prepared. The man is offering rewards, so he must be either rich or knowledgeable. Define exactly who he is and how he acts, and build the encounter around him.
If tracked down, the crew should be a reflection of their captain. They had a reason for mutinying, so they are likely his opposite in some way. The party may open with combat against them, but always be prepared for them to take a more measured approach. Make sure the crew has answers to the same questions the players asked the captain. Keep in mind that they will be responding from a different perspective, likely believing themselves to be in the right against the captain. You are free to simply have them be greedy, evil pirates, but putting them on equal moral ground to the captain can provide more interesting dialogue. This, of course, all depends on the morality of the party, and how they deal with less straightforward decisions.
12 – A pod of dolphins crests the waves beside the ship, but their numbers decrease over time. A shark is picking them off. Right as the party realize, a much larger shark eats the first.
The sun is shining and the day is serene. As if the scene could not be more picturesque, a pod of dolphins crest and swim alongside the ship. The party and crew watch on with smiles, but slowly realize the dolphins’ numbers decreasing every time they disappear beneath the waves. They eventually catch sight of a shark that is attacking when it swims into view to take another meal. But as it goes for the kill, it is pulled into the jaws of another, monstrously large shark.
To be blunt, sharks are a common phobia and you can use that. The creature doesn’t even need to become a threat to the ship for you to use the fear of it as the basis for an encounter. Because of this, the shark can either be an occurrence that quickly disappears or can develop into combat. If you decide that it is content with the food it has, feel free to have it leave. For many players, the description of the beast will be enough, even if the encounter might feel short to run. If you do wish to extend both the encounter and subsequent nightmares, simply have the larger shark try the boat. Maybe it could inflict minor hull damage, which forces the crew to stop and a party member to make repairs. They need to dive to fix it, but have lost sight of the creature.
Unlike other ocean encounters, developing this into combat can result in a somewhat simple fight. The shark can only really attack the boat while players shoot at it. That said, always be ready for someone to try and mount the beast. Because let’s be honest, someone always will. What this does mean is that you can tailor the fight to be more about scaring the shark away before it irreparably damages the ship, rather than just killing it. If you want to expand it even further, take a note from an encounter my brother once ran: the megalodon is part of a sahuagin hunting party, with at least one riding on its back while others attack the ship’s deck.
13 – A single man is found in a rowboat, rowing in circles. Lights dance in the water beneath him, as water faeries enchant his mind.
Sailing across open seas, the party catch sight of a single rowboat. Sitting in it is a man, rowing his craft in tight circles. He pays the party’s ship no notice as they approach, his eyes staring off into the middle distance. They try to call to him, but his mouth absentmindedly forms long whispers and unsettling grins. The party pulls their ship nearer to him, hoping to understand, and catch sight of orbs of light dancing in the water around his boat. Beneath the waves are a cluster of water faeries, enchanting the man in playful deception.
A personal favorite creature archetype has always been tricksters. They make building multi-layered encounters much easier and more dynamic. But you need to be sure that you know the reason for the encounter. Why are the faeries doing this? It could be as basic as personal enjoyment, or you could give them more sinister motivations. From this, how will they react to player intervention? Will they try to bewitch the characters as well, or retreat and keep their distance? The interaction between the faeries and players is the bulk of the encounter. The fun here is that the faeries are not human, and therefore need not subscribe to our sense of logic.
The most likely outcome will be the man being freed and taken on board. This means building his character, but also determining what the faeries will do after the encounter. If they are harmless tricksters, it is entirely possible that they will do nothing. Equally likely is that they might follow the party’s ship. They may be pleased to find more people to play with, stowing away on the vessel and playing tricks and pranks on the crew. Hostile faeries, provided they were not killed in the interaction, could place a bad luck curse on either the party or the man they found.
The other consideration to make is the man himself. Building his backstory and character is much the same as any other. Determine who he is, how he got there, and where he wants to go. For a more detailed character, think about specifically why he was targeted by the faeries. Was he the cost of a deal his former crew made? His story should influence his goals, and players will likely want an explanation for the situation they found him in.
14 – A tiny island can be seen nearby with only a single tree giving shade to a table and four seats. On one of them sits a ghost, who would gamble his greatest prize: a medallion that his soul is secretly bound to.
Sitting in the middle of open waters is a palm tree, surrounded by no more than 50 feet of sand on each side. Under the tree is placed a small wooden table, set with four equally aged chairs. But one chair is occupied. The spectral blue form of a long-dead captain rests, shimmering in the ocean winds. Upon the party’s approach, he greets them gleefully and directs their attention to a chest of gold. The spectre offers to gamble with them. He bets both riches and his medallion, neglecting to share his desire to lose and have it taken from the island. He is bound to the curio and wants nothing more than to leave.
As stated in Part 1, your ocean encounters should be broken up with moments of levity. This can perfectly fulfill that, while also rewarding the party with bittersweet loot. The first step here is the mechanical setup. For one, the purpose is not combat, though you don’t really want the party just stealing the gold. A solution that also stays in-theme is having the gold coins be ghostly and ethereal, but have the captain give one as a display that he can make them corporeal if the players win.
Step two is the gambling games themselves. There are some fantastic resources to be found online for games requiring only dice. I have personally run and enjoy the games Matt Mercer used for Critical Role’s Marquet setting, as well as Reddit user Mr_Sacks’s ‘Dragon’s Hoard‘. They are all very simple to explain and run, allowing for a break from the critical thinking of combat. While running these, be mindful of the captain’s objective: he wants to lose the medallion. Dragon’s Hoard especially has dice rolled in secret, so feel free to roll extra dice for him and substitute the lower results into his total. Build the players’ confidence so they keep betting. If they do attempt to identify his cheating, feel free to have them discover the numbers on his dice magically changing. A player should be rewarded for a keen eye.
The character of the ghost is the best part of this encounter. You can craft him however you like, but I would advise allowing yourself to have fun playing him. He has been stuck on the island, waiting to gamble his way off. He may have been driven slightly insane, teetering between distinguished sailor and maddened castaway. Play on his charisma while gambling. If the players win, he should be overjoyed to be free. Maybe he pledges his service to their ship, providing a useful ally but also permanently binding him to the vessel. His purpose should be to lighten the mood through his interactions. Ideally, he can annoy the characters while still making the players feel rewarded.
If you want an example backstory for the ghost sailor, feel free to check out the story attached to our Ocean Assets pack!
15 – A pod of kelpies crest alongside the ship. They are harmless if left alone, but touching them causes a person to become attached and pulled under the waves.
The party catches sight of what they believe to be dolphins as they travel. A collection of shadows swim alongside the boat, before leaping from the surface in a beautiful display. The creatures resemble horses, with their hindquarters replaced by a fish’s tail. They appear harmless, curiously investigating the party’s vessel. Some get even closer, sniffing up at the side of the ship. But nature is often perilous. A single touch will cause a character to become bound to it as they dive deep into the ocean waters.
One of the best ways to design ocean encounters, or encounters of any kind, is to incorporate real life mythology. Many examples of this allow you to threaten the characters without combat. That said, you are relying on your players not having the same understanding, or at least not applying it. If you are worried about this, you may wish to disguise the kelpies. How you do this is up to you, but could simply be substituting the horse half for another animal. Kelpies are also said to be able to take human form, though this may be more suspicious due to mermaids and sirens being more commonly known. Try to play more into a character’s wish to investigate the unexplained.
An alternative for player’s not engaging is always to threaten the crew instead. If your players are keeping a distance from the kelpies, have them instead tempt less discerning crew members. Another character leaning over the ship’s edge forces action from players whose character knows what is happening. If they were staying away from fear of not knowing what is happening, sacrifice a crew member as an example. It sounds harsh, but causes the same tonal acceleration as the sahuagin of Encounter 4. And a player character watching it happen and trying to help may just find themself attached as well.
How a bound character escapes is up to your own judgement. Player characters can hold their breath for a forgivingly long time, giving them multiple chances to free themselves. Many will simply kill the creature. You are free to assign a skill check DC, as well as an amount of damage needed to be dealt to cut their hand or body free. According to official rulings verbal spells can be cast underwater, so teleporting away is an option. Try not to let it get to the point of a character dismembering themself. If one of their own is killed or significantly hurt, the helpies may scatter. They are not inherently hostile, and should act more like animals than hunters.
16 – An enormous shadow appears under the boat, following it for hours. Over time, crew members enter unresponsive standing comas. The effect eventually targets the party as well.
The day was quiet and strangely devoid of animals. But as the last rays of sunlight fade, a gargantuan shadow drifts under the ship. It stays with them for hours, lurking below the ship long into the night. Over time, the crew members on deck stop moving. They just stand still, staring off into the distance. The party likewise feels an influence pushing into their mind and dulling their senses. Whatever is under the ship is taking their minds, and they don’t have long.
This can be made into almost anything, the same as Encounter 8. Using Lovecraftian horrors is another classic, and provides near limitless freedom for ocean encounters. Your first port of call is perhaps the most difficult: why is it happening? The creature, if it even is a creature, should have a motivation for affecting the crew. It could be gathering information, observing the memories of other beings. Contrastingly it could be wresting control to have them carry out its will. Answering this question will act as the basis for the rest of the encounter, and determine the upper bounds of its effect on the party.
The effect on the crew is straightforward, but targeting the players is more complicated. They should be given time to react, while still feeling the threat. One method is a system similar to basilisk petrification, with characters making ability checks to resist and feeling a growing affect with each failure. A set number of losses would mean succumbing entirely. Players could also have advantages depending on class. How might it interact with a cleric or warlock appealing to their benefactors? The second consideration is how the effect manifests for players, which will depend entirely on the creature’s goal. Siphoning memories could force party members into flashbacks or illusions. Characters could simply lose consciousness, but it feels better for players if they are still involved in some way.
Finally, prepare for the result of the encounter. Your characters should have a way of getting away without losses. Whether this means confronting the creature below, escaping it, or using protective magic, be ready to allow them to win. This is unfortunately difficult to plan for, as it will come down to the combination of the creature’s motivation and how your characters react. You can try to predict them, but always keep your plans open for however else they might respond. Finally, what if the creature wins? The characters and crew could experience lost time or awaken to find the ship moved off course. If they were controlled, perhaps they come to in a port or in possession of an unidentified relic. Don’t have them wake to anything drastic, as removing player control is a cardinal DM sin. Keep it minor.
17 – A ring of jagged rocks encircle a hole in the ocean. The bottom is too deep to see, and the cascading vortex is pulling in nearby ships.
In open ocean lies a field of jagged rocks, protruding from the surface like teeth. They encircle a vortex of water, collapsing into darkness. The flowing water creates strong currents, which drags in any ship that strays too close. Ruins of these boats alert the party, but the current is already pulling them toward the center.
Some encounters are easy to bypass. The key to running them is play into your players’ curiosity; they might skip it, but it will leave burning questions in their minds. In this case, surviving the vortex should come down to skill checks. The first would be perceiving and identifying the danger in time to think and react. From that, they may decide to keep a safe distance, or they may prefer a closer look. Be clear in describing the risk of straying too close, as the DC’s for getting free should increase with proximity. The exact checks will depend on your party’s strategy, as well as the roles they fill on the ship.
If you wish to expand the encounter further, give the characters a reason to get close. You may wish to have another ship pinned against the rocks, with crew calling for help. By motivating players to get close, you force them to think carefully about their plan. This situation can rapidly snowball. Have them describe their actions and intentions in detail, but do not be too harsh in your rulings. There should be risk in taking a smaller craft for a rescue, but you do not want to be unfair in forcing unnecessary skill checks. Aiding the other crew should also carry a reward, whether it simply be gold, or having them join the party’s ship.
The dependence on having a ship can make ocean encounters much riskier than their terrestrial counterparts. For this encounter in particular, spend time planning what happens if they fail. There is a chance for the party to be scuttled against the rocks, and even fall into the vortex. A higher level party gives more freedom as they can survive greater threats, such as the vortex being a portal to the water plane. Even if it’s as simple as knowing that they can reach port by rowing for a few days, a lower level party should have a way of avoiding death even after failure. Likewise, ease up on the effect of the vortex’s core. Falling in may simply spit them out of a similar vortex, in a very different location and several days off course.
18 – An emaciated pirate is found drifting in a rowboat, and promises the location of treasure to anyone that would ferry him to a nearby port. Authorities are after him, and offering a much smaller reward.
A man is found drifting the waters in a small rowboat. He wears the garb of a pirate, and spins the party a fantastical yarn of his adventures. Included in his story is a treasure, which he promises to his rescuers in exchange for delivering him to a particular port. Hours later, a naval vessel passes the party’s ship. They explain their search for a fugitive, and the description matches the pirate. His head carries a bounty, significantly smaller than the treasure he promises.
Playing again on the idea of a man adrift, we add on the all-time classic of pirate treasure. Take the use of cliches and run with it. The pirate character should be a shifty, charismatic renegade, like almost every pirate in modern media. Play him as your own Jack Sparrow or Edward Kenway. Your goal is to make the party like him, while still knowing they shouldn’t trust him. Communicate his character through the stories he tells, always questionably bordering on the fantastical. He should be telling the truth about his adventures, though heavily embellishing them. This way even the most discerning players and characters will be on the fence about his intentions. He may be a storyteller, but he’s not technically a liar.
The authorities tracking him should be something of the opposite. Unlike most of our other ocean encounters, the idea is to make this conversation a moral decision. While the pirate is friendly, albeit untrustworthy, the navy should be played as righteous and militant. They might be in the right for chasing a criminal, but they don’t have to be nice about it. This can depend on your world, but you should place the focus on weighing what is right against what is rewarding. Make neither side perfectly good or bad. It allows you to gauge the morality of newer parties, and can also inform their later interactions with both pirates and navy.
Concluding the encounter is easy if they hand him over, but what if they don’t? Your party may choose to pursue the treasure, so you need to know both where and what it is. To make this step more engaging, build from a single question: what didn’t the pirate tell them? It could be that the treasure is enchanted, and he needed muscle to get past its guardians. Maybe it was taken by his former friends, and he walks into their camp claiming the party is now his new, more loyal crew. Once the situation is dealt with, determine how much he intends to split with the party. By now he could view them as allies, but he may still try to swindle them for a larger cut. He is a pirate, after all.
19 – From a mile away, the crew is engulfed in the smell of rot. They can follow it to an enormous shell, being harvested for meat by poachers. The men they find are embarrassed for being found, but not equipped for combat.
As the party sails, they find the air around them poisoned by the stench of dead ocean life. The smell is sickening them as it blows from a collection of ships up ahead. Moving closer, the party is able to identify the cluster as a band of poachers cutting meat from an enormous shell. Their ships are clearly equipped with the tools that killed the beast. Knowing their actions are illegal, the poachers attempt to bargain for the party’s silence. They are no fighters, but will do anything to not be caught.
Similar to Encounter 17, this can be avoided entirely. Do not have the smell affect them mechanically until they are very close, as it will dissuade them from investigating. Putting the encounter directly in their path may be enough, but if they still intend to avoid it you can make use of their crew to hint them along. Covering their noses and mouths in a mask could prevent the need for making saves against being sickened. You can show this by simply having crew members do it. Likewise, a crew member could identify the smell and alert the party that poaching is highly illegal. The party may ultimately still choose avoidance. The final decision is up to them, and there is only so much hinting you should do as a DM before letting it go.
Hopefully your party does choose to engage with the poachers. In this case, you can have some fun by subverting their expectations. Have them be caught off-guard from being found in the open ocean, rather than act like bandits. They can be embarrassed and flustered, trying to negotiate while having little leverage. Use one of them to act as a leader, and try to convince the party to let them go. Our other ocean encounters are built from the party being put on the back foot, but the intention here is to have them in control. Playing the lead poacher like a negotiator with average or low charisma is a great way to do this. It will let the talkers in your group fill their role, and eliminates the chance of the situation devolving into combat.
If the party does accept a payoff, you can use this as a point of conflict with their own crew. Assuming the party themselves aren’t pirates, the crew they travel with may be morally opposed to poaching. While the players shouldn’t lose crew members from this alone, having other characters disagree with their actions will make them feel more layered and real. This is by no means necessary, but is a great way to bring their ship to life and inject realism into quieter moments outside of encounters.
20 – A ship of affluent travelers with a live band pulls alongside the party, offering for them to come aboard and celebrate with them.
A larger, brightly colored vessel drifts into view. From it, the party can hear music, cheers, and celebration. It sails closer to them, and affluently-dressed party-goers call for the characters to join them. On their ship is a live band, bar, and all sorts of gambling and revelries. They are happy for the party to participate for the night, departing cheerful and rested in the morning.
Sometimes you want to avoid combat, and other times you want the exact opposite of combat. Especially if your party is rolling for encounters, surely rolling a 20 should be the best result? For this, we have a party boat. The purpose of this is having fun without consequence; a respite from any sort of conflict or danger. Let your characters enjoy themselves and cut loose. Refer to Encounter 14 for links to some great gambling games needing only dice, or look online for other betting and casino systems. Take any festival or gambling minigames you can find and throw them onto the decks of the ship, so that any kind of character can enjoy themselves. I can guarantee that of all the encounters here, this one will stick out most when your players think about their journey.
While preparing the games, give them a reason for celebration. It doesn’t need to be particularly deep or layered, just enough to explain when a player asks why. Having them originate from the party’s destination can also be a means to inform players, and flesh out the area. Tying the revelers into the world is advised, to make the encounter feel less like a gimmick. You also have an entire boat of characters for players to interact with, many intoxicated. If your party is looking for information, drunk nobles are a fantastic source.
You may wish to make the celebration more sinister in some way, but in this case I would advise against it. Having them celebrate something the party opposes, or even positioning the boat as some kind of trap can be an interesting twist, but is not necessary. Let your players enjoy themselves and focus on the minigames. The only loss should come from bad dice luck and the weighted odds of gambling. The house always wins, but playing should still be fun. And fun is the real reason we all play.
And that’s it, the last of our Ocean Encounters! Hopefully there are enough ideas and variety for you to bring life to your campaign’s oceans, and run some encounters your party will never forget. Let us know what you think, as well as your own ideas for running them. If you do use them, we would love to hear how they play out in your games! And if you want to use the entire list as a random table in your game, I recommend using the convenient master list here.
Also feel free to suggest other settings we could build encounters for. It could be your favorite terrain or even a particular map. We’d love to know what you think.
And finally, if you’re now inspired to embellish your campaign with colorful, hand-drawn material, please enjoy our gallery below: