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How to Run an Ocean Adventure

The party climbs aboard and takes to their posts. Sails lower, the ship lurches against the waves, and the horizon soon swallows the last glimpses of land. An ocean adventure awaits. Many dangers and disturbances await them, but their travel is not a series of progressive events. Many of their days are quiet and uneventful, and those times that aren’t have rippling effects.

To accompany the restructuring of our 1d20 encounter charts, we’re introducing articles to focus on the practical use of random or structured encounters. Finding encounter ideas and planning them for your own game is only one part of adventures. The key to making encounters great is by integrating them into the journey. Doing this requires handling of pace, downtime, and effective transitions between each moment. This might seem easier than the encounters themselves but it is these details that can set great DMs apart. It can also prove to be a challenging factor for even those with experience. We’d like to help with that.

Galleon Ship (banner dread)

1d20 Ocean Encounters

Planning your ocean adventure’s connective moments, along with your encounters, can be difficult and time-consuming. But don’t worry, because we have you covered. We have two lists of Ocean Encounters, 20 encounters in total, that are perfect for use as random rolls or crafted occurrences. We’ve created them in a way that aims to inspire and guide, rather than acting as a definitive method. You can adjust them however you wish for your own campaign, for all party levels and formations.

10 Encounters at Sea | 10 More Ocean Encounters

If you’re looking for something a little more convenient, we are also introducing a series of ‘Encounters by Environment’ PDF’s. Each one comes complete with the content you’ll find here, with detailed tips for running games in the chosen environment, as well as the accompanying 20 encounters. Even better, they are packaged with a handful of maps chosen especially for the encounters.

Part of a Larger World

Like every aspect of a story and campaign, context is key. Your players’ journey across the oceans will likely come either as the campaign setting or as travel between two locations. Include and modify encounters to reflect the situation of both the party and the world, incorporating links to other content. Your goal is to make it feel seamless and integrated into the larger landscape.

When planning your encounters and ocean adventure, first consider the broader context. What is the state of the world? How populated are the seas? Oceans can often act as a neutral space or ‘no man’s land’, with no governing body or rulership. This gives you an opportunity to have encounters feel self-contained and independent but comes with the risk of the content feeling like filler. Consider having a faction of pirates or navy act as a controlling force and show their influence through the sights that the party crosses. They only need to be small, such as passing a ship aligned with the group, but serve to remind players that they are still a part of the world and lands that they are sailing either from or to. If the seas are riddled with pirates, your party needs to feel that.

Sailing Ship Map Assets, build your own sailing ship map
Before setting sail, the party needs a ship. You can make your own with our Sailing Ship Assets, found here.

Another way to circumvent this without the use of a large faction is to foreshadow what the party might face. If you plan on using a select number or random list of encounters, have townsfolk mention these dangers before they depart. You can start by identifying the most likely threats to arise, such as pirates, sahuagin, or aberrant weather systems. The party might overhear conversations, read news of other victims, or the crew may even warn them. This acts as a way to build excitement as well as link the future encounters with the coastal settlements. It shows that the world is connected by the characters that inhabit it, reminding players of what they previously heard when the encounters do appear. The effects of these factions and oddities should visibly echo outwards through the world.

The other important detail of the journey is the party’s role on the ship. Do they own and/or captain it, or are they hired crew? This will determine their approach and responsibilities within each encounter, as well as in the travel downtime. A position of leadership will require them to control the situation of encounters and protect their crew. Most decisions will fall to them, but do their crew agree? Constantly putting the ship in danger could erode the relationship with those they’ve hired. Conversely, the party acting as crew under another captain will mean giving them ways to maintain their agency. You don’t want the player characters to just be taking orders. Instead, modify your encounters to make the players pivotal. An example is having the captain and leaders focus on controlling the ship, requiring players to focus on defense and problem-solving.

Quiet Moments

One of the more challenging and less discussed aspects of roleplaying games is the time between encounters. Running each encounter can require minute detail and consideration, but the connective tissue is just as important. You want each stage of an ocean adventure to flow seamlessly into the next, without feeling like encounters are constantly barraging the party. The key to this is to keep a consistent tone and maintain pacing, without ignoring the less eventful moments.

Many groups will favor a ‘fast-travel’ or hex crawl system, in which there is less focus placed on the connective time. While this is not my personal style, as I feel it can make encounters come across like random video game fights, it is an effective way of approaching travel. The key to running these alternatives is to use quicker descriptions of what passes by and any minor occurrences. Focus less on the downtime and more on each encounter’s introduction, covered in the next section. Doing this effectively can have your players feel the time passing by in-game without your game actually slowing.

Time in Between

The description of travel is universal across all environments. Ocean adventures, in particular, come with the specific drawback of being open and largely empty. This limits you from being able to describe passing landscape and places more emphasis on the downtime of each character. Boats require constant management and upkeep, after all. Describe any sights that pass by, such as distant islands or ships, but keep it concise. Perhaps something they see is related to an approaching encounter, such as a suspicious boat or signs of conflict. Otherwise, you need only give a brief description of the weather before handing the reins to your players. Days on the ocean are long and arduous so give them something to do. It could be related to either controlling or helping the ship, or progressing a personal goal. Whatever they choose should require a roll, determining their success for the current downtime period.

An example of this from a campaign I have been a part of was when we acquired a ballista. We scavenged it from a previous battle and outfitted it onto our ship because, well… why not. The problem was that none of us knew how to use it. Learning to load, aim, and fire the contraption became the goal of the party’s rogue, who would spend his downtime on the ship practicing. Our DM would ask us what we did for each in-game day, with the other two of us either training or simply tending to the boat. Our rogue would be making tinkering checks or attack rolls as target practice, using the ballista. Eventually, he was able to gain proficiency with its use.

This is only one example, but it shows the advantage of ocean travel: the players are essentially stationary. Obviously, the boat is moving, but those aboard are effectively in a large building. They have many options for downtime activities. Characters are not riding a horse or stuck in a small cart, so let them make the most of the ship’s space. Crafting, training, and researching are only a fraction of the possibilities. Let your players be creative and encourage them to consider how their character passes their spare time. Give them the opportunity to initiate conversations, plan, and just chill out. This is great for both the pace of the game and immersive roleplay.

There are a plethora of official and homebrew resources for determining time and gold requirements, but you may wish to be generous with how long it takes the character. Try to balance the achievability with the work required to make it feel rewarding.

Returning to Camp

Hero Tokens 2, prefabs
Personalized tokens can make your crew even more unique and memorable. We have multiple sets of free Hero Tokens for download. Better yet, you can use our Token Editor to color your own!

Likewise, other characters surround your players. This aspect is dependent entirely on their context and the present characters but is especially important if you intend for the crew to stick around for some time. If a player is unsure of what to do, or if you simply want to break the pace of daily rolls, have a crewman approach them to speak. It can occur in an organic setting, such as during a meal. Moments like these are perfect for bringing the characters to life and building a relationship between them and the players. How the party conducts itself can also influence how the crew will later respond to their decisions. Happy workers will act with loyalty, but anyone treated badly might object to risking themselves for a captain they don’t respect. If your players are the crew, it’s similarly important that they understand the people above them.

The most obvious reference to make here is returning to the Normandy in Mass Effect games. Like Bioware companions, your ship’s crew should have opinions on the events they are witnessing and can take the time to ask players. But don’t feel the need to do this with every crewman. Rather than overloading players with new faces and names, take a handful of those with the most important roles. Three to five of them can act as the faces of the entire crew, making it easier for players to remember and feel connected to them. The rest of the faceless crew are also available as cannon fodder to show the stakes of certain encounters. Finally, remember your pacing for these interactions. Try to keep them concise, or at least emphasize that the ship is still progressing as they occur.

As Danger Arises

Part of keeping your game running smoothly and fluidly is the transitions between different events. This is a small detail in terms of time within the game but is an important aspect of creating atmosphere. When you are using a system of random encounters, with each having different introductory events, you want them to feel natural. You don’t want your ocean adventure to have the equivalent of playing a video game and hearing music swell as you enter a circular room. Most of this comes down to how it is handled during the game, rather than anything that can be done in planning. This can make it a difficult skill to learn and practice. Luckily, there are a few tips to remember that should help.

Calm Before the Storm

One aspect that you can work into your planning is to have encounters use a slow build. You’ll notice that many of our ocean encounters use a weather system or situation that gradually worsens before becoming a threat. This works to slowly build tension and craft an atmosphere for your players. Rather than the ship grinding to a halt against seaweed, it loses speed over an hour, for example. Try to fit your transition to the tension you want in the actual encounter. A threat meant to come across as unsettling should appear over time, while an ambush can accelerate much faster to put the party on the back foot. Slower builds should use the same description you would for quiet moments, increasingly laden with clues of what approaches. It shouldn’t take long for a player to notice, at which point control is handed over to their investigation.

Slower introductions work due to oceans, as expansive planes with little to form cover, tending to use encounters initiated by something that could be seen from far off. If your encounter involves coming across a wreck, abandoned ship, or floating survivor, mask your description with other sights that lead to it. The party’s ship might follow a coastline for some time before coming across the broken form of another boat. Use that time to describe the area. Similarly, daily activities might be interrupted when a perceptive character happens to see a dot on the distant horizon. Perhaps their gaze absentmindedly follows a flock of gulls before falling on it. Again, the purpose is to use a simple, clean transition between what would already be happening and the encounter’s introduction.

Ocean Surface RPG Map Assets, banner
Our Ocean Surface Assets have everything you need for encounters and the clues that lead to them. Like many of our maps, they’re also completely free. You can download them here.

Tone of Delivery

Perhaps the most difficult aspect of these moments is actually playing them out. This comes down to a level of acting skill, to bring about the planned tension. This means that it is, unfortunately, an aspect of running the game that few people possess out of the gate. Be mindful of this and allow yourself time to learn. My personal problem in these situations is avoiding smiling or laughing. What I find to be the best method for avoiding this is to get out of your own head. Rather than focusing on which of your notes to read out and what information to get across, place more emphasis on the tone of the encounter. Leave the detailed information for once your players begin investigating and taking control. It is better for your first port of call to be establishing the atmosphere and pulling your players into the situation.

A great way to begin learning these skills is to watch other people doing it. Matthew Mercer, in particular, has a fantastic method of placing himself within a character. Describing events with the same emotion that a character would have in observing it is a great way to get out of your own head and project the encounter’s tone. If the shape on the horizon is ominous, inject fear or confusion into your voice. If sahuagin violently burst from the surface with tridents in hand, try to use a level of anger and ferocity in your descriptive tone. You have an entire crew to choose from, so select one and use their ground-level perspective. This is an effective way of telling your players what their characters should be feeling, which helps to shorten the divide between the player and character, thereby immersing them.

Maybe the most important detail to remember for this is one that applies to the whole game: we play with friends, for fun. Ultimately, you should never feel stressed if you mishandle an encounter or session. Your ocean adventure will have plenty of more opportunities. Use any mistakes as lessons and always remember that the people you are playing with are not judging you for it, so you shouldn’t either. You might not be as good as Mercer, but you don’t have to be. As long as everyone is having fun, you’re doing perfectly.

Once the Storm has Passed

The final consideration is what comes after each encounter. How does the party progress? What has changed? Pay some mind to the results of the encounters you use and what lasting effects they might have. There are standard effects like characters being injured and requiring rest, but the ocean setting also brings greater threats, such as damage to the ship. This makes it important to give your party a reprieve after a harrowing encounter. They might have another fight on the same day but, for the moment, allow them to recuperate and deal with the consequences of what they just faced. Likewise, be prepared to provide solutions to possible issues. If a megalodon has broken the side of their ship, consider having the next encounter use an empty ship with salvageable wood. Just be sure to include challenges in reaching it to emphasize the consequence.

Many encounters, including our own, have longer-lasting effects. Some introduce characters, while others can shift the context of the next encounter. When planning your ocean adventure, give some time to loosely plan how these things will change your party’s path. It is nigh impossible to predict every eventuality but it is important to be ready for changes that could affect your campaign. Your party might adjust its course or take a more hesitant approach to future danger. These modifiers are also a brilliant way to have encounters flow into each other and feel less isolated, by affecting each other. Your adventure will feel more like a single trip rather than a series of episodes.

Your ultimate goal for the encounter resolutions is to move back into the territory of ‘quiet moments’. This might require them to first solve a problem caused by the encounter but should always lead to giving them a moment to breathe. If they have a new character on board, let them interact and have fun with them. You and your players can relax while you plan the next life-threatening disaster behind the scenes.

Ocean sea water tile texture map assets, banner
Obviously, the most important part of ocean adventure maps is, well… the ocean. Don’t worry, because our Ocean Water Textures are free to download right here.

What’s Next

With all of these things in mind, you should hopefully be confident and ready to run any ocean adventure. Similar articles are coming soon for the other environments we have covered. You can also expect them to be included in all future encounter releases. We want to make the entire process easier and help with those troublesome areas of campaign management that might not get as much coverage. Once again, consider downloading the PDF version to have all our advice and encounters in one place.

What did you think of our advice? If you have any comments, responses, or questions, we would love to hear them. And if you have advice of your own or any tricks you’ve picked up, please do share them in a comment below.

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