Friday, September 18, 2009

Sea Adventures and Micro-Cultures

I've never been a fan of sea adventures. For some reason the whole idea bored me. I liked it when the GM would just make a few rolls and say, "Normally it takes two days to travel to Mystery Island, but due to poor weather it took 3 days." Cool. I can live with that. I jump out of the boat and start the real adventure.

During a campaign where Rob and I co-GMed the players got themselves captured by slavers. The next session was a ship adventure as the slavers took the players to a slavers' auction in another kingdom. Instead of dreading the session I decided to take charge and make it a memorable experience.

One aspect of the game I am fairly good at is creating micro-cultures. I guess I would define micro-cultures as a group of people bond together because of a situation not because of geography or religion. Their common bond is the situation and the laws and customs developed out of this situation. So I created a micro-culture for the slave boat. I wanted to give the adventure depth by developing these laws and customs. The antagonist, the captain, needed to drive this micro-culture. So the first thing I did was create the captain of the ship. I wanted to play with stereo types and make him fun and dangerous.

The Captain
I made him a young man and sounded like...well, imagine John Cleese playing an American who is talking in a bad British accent. Throw a little Tim Roth into the mix. He would strut up and down the benches of slaves as they rowed the ship. He would pick favorites arbitrarily and play the other slaves off of one another. For example, one of the players stole extra food. The captain caught him. The captain made him choose which other slave would not eat. The player had to eat the food next to the one who got none. The captain also had the habit of asking for volunteers. Usually it would be for tasks with benefits such as handing out the water or food. But he also would ask for a volunteer to use as bait to fish for sharks.

The Ranks
The captain used a simple system of rankings by what row of benches the slave sat in. The players started in the back row and move forward. The closer you got to the front the more water and food you were given. Some slaves were allowed to roam freely and asked to help patrol the other slaves.

Some of the players learned small tricks from the other slaves on how to maintain their strength and fatigue. One trick was to keep moist cloth pieces under their tongue. Another was when they would be shackled and unshackled to make sure it was done in different places as not to create sores. If the captain saw one of the slaves limping, the slave was fed to the guard dogs. Waste not, want not.

The Special People
There were a few people the captain knew would bring a high price so they were never thrown overboard. One of the players was an albino elf who had taken the attractive advantage. The captain nicknamed him 'snowflake' because he was to pretty and delicate. He ordered his men when they beat the elf to not touch his face or cut his skin. One of the guards was over zealous in his punishment and slapped snowflake and bruised his face. The captain apologized to snowflake as the guard was disemboweled then thrown to the sharks. Snowflake always got asked his opinion and the captain would take his advice and twist it into a punishment for the rest.

The Climax
The adventure climaxed at the slave port when one of the other prisoners, a very strong NPC, became enraged when he saw two of his tribe hanging over the side of another slaver's boat. The distraction gave the players enough time to attack a few unprepared guards and made a break for it.

I didn't overdue the details in the beginning. I wanted the flexibility to alter the situation to make it interesting. I wasn't sure how far I could push the players. They were going from heroes fighting for mounts of treasure, to slaves scrambling for cups of water or crumbs of food to keep their strength up. I wasn't sure how well they would do with the transition, but I figured if I could make it fun they would go along with it and they did. Throughout, I gave them glimmers of hope. That escape was possible. I created a few memorable NPCs to create floating village. The captain by far was the star of this adventure and was talked about long after the adventure was over.

This adventure turned out to be a high point in the campaign. After that adventure I learned I could make a sea adventure exciting and fun. The players taught me they were willing to put up with almost anything if you made it fun and gave them a chance. The entire session the players were shackled until the ending and they had a blast. Who knew?


  1. It sounds like a terribly tricky thing to do! I'm not sure my players would want to get too immersed in the concentration camp atmosphere of slave vs. slave...

  2. That sounds like an awesome adventure, and really adaptable to the inside of a dungeon. I'll have to keep the microculture concept in mind.

  3. I, too, think this is a great idea (i.e. "the micro-culture"). Of course, I LOVE sea adventures (I don't know why no one else seems to...).

  4. The problem I have with sea adventures is that there never seem to be any "interesting and simple" rules about sea adventuring! With wilderness you have different terrain types, different monsters, dwellings, dungeons, and so on.

    If only you could boiler-plate some sea-faring rules onto D&D that made it fun to run a sea adventure. Maybe i'm just not looking hard enough at the existing D&D rules?

  5. @Alex, it was when I first started, but it was like making an island village in a way. It was a lot like a concentration camp, but it was for one session only. The players were great and went along with it.

    @David, glad to help. The field I am in I am constantly seeing these 'micro-cultures' developing and I find it interesting and very adaptable to the way I game.

    @JB, Rob and I were discussing a sea campaign. I thought it would be cool to run it like the original star trek model. Player control a ship in the far seas (space) comes across islands (planets) and monsters (aliens). Of course there would be other ships out there (klingons and romulins) to compete for resources and to have someone you can broadside. Sounds good. Whether it would play well I have no idea.

    @Paladin, the rules that I encounter I hated. So that's why, for this instance, I stayed focused on the group dynamic on the ship than worry about wind speed or hull structure. Even if there were good rules I still don't think I would make sea faring a regular thing. Although I just talkabout running a sea campaign.

  6. This was really interesting on two levels: (1) I hadn't really thought of the concept of micro-culture with respect to gaming--although I think about it all the time at work, as I am the CEO of a nonprofit with 60 coworkers...hopefully not similar to a slave ship! and (2) my current C&C campaign is set in a large island system--I alternately embrace it then kick myself for setting up something that might end up being very complicated to run. You've got some good stuff here that is both informative and gives me some hope. Thanks!

  7. Sounds wonderful - slavers playing games like that would add lots of flavour to the Slavelords scenarios.

    Now I've got that 'ooh, nostalgia' thing going - darn!

    The microculture thing is an eye-opener, I'd be intrigued as to your thoughts on how to run a cell structure organisation.

  8. @Rusty Battle Axe, I'm glad you got something out of it. It sounds like we may be working in similiar fields. And I liked to hear more about your C&C campaign. I've been learning the ropes of that system and pretty excited about play testing my new adventure.

    @satyre, it would depend on what the goal of the oranization was. Is it a terrorist group on forgein soil trying to terrorize the populace? Or is it a resistance group, like the French Resistence, trying to take their land back from an invading force? Then you have all the varations of organized crime. So its hard to know until you know the purpose of your cell group.

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  10. Tim did a really good job with this.

    The way it came about was that I was running a GURPS campaign in the Wilderlands using Hommlet and the Slavers from the AD&D's A series.

    I know an unholy combination. I ditched the Elemental Evil stuff in Hommlet and replaced it with slavers as the antagonists.

    It was never foreordained that the players would be gallery slaves. I had an event planned where the slavers would try to bag the players if they reached a certain level of success.

    I asked Tim help as co-DM by this point and asked to handle the gallery sequence if it came about. I told that it needed to be cool, that they have a fair chance of escaping or staging a mutiny, and that had to be done mostly through roleplaying.

    They were successful enough to trigger the ambush and I succeeded in bagging them. Then Tim took it from. They still talked about the whole thing years later.

  11. @A Paladin In Citadel.

    Traveller not boring
    Star Trek not boring

    At least to some.

    Figure out why those games are interesting then there a good chance that a Fantasy Campaign will likewise be interesting.

    As far I see it boils do having one or all of the three M's/


  12. @satyre said...

    Sounds wonderful - slavers playing games like that would add lots of flavour to the Slavelords scenarios.

    Actually you not far off of the mark. The gallery sequence was done to link Hommlett with the Slavelords.