Mass Naval Combat

Running Mass Naval Combat

A fleet battle begins as a result of two fleets encountering each other on the high seas. During a mass naval conflict, players do not draw upon their characters’ abilities—instead, they use their fleet’s squadrons to make attacks against the enemy, with their characters serving as commanders on the ships. A mass naval combat plays out over the course of multiple rounds, with each round consisting of a battle phase and a rout phase.

At the start of a combat, place each fleet’s ships on the table as representations for the attack—this works best if you use photocopies or printouts of the ship counters from the Skull & Shackles Player’s Guide. For each squadron, place a number of appropriately sized ship counters on the table so that they are adjacent to each other. Actual placement on the table is irrelevant; since these fleet battle rules are streamlined and simplified, the allocation of damage represents the ships maneuvering and shifting position during the battle.

Battle Phase

At the start of a battle phase, each fleet’s admiral makes a Profession (sailor) check to determine initiative. The admiral whose result is higher gains the upper hand in that battle phase, which grants all of his squadrons a + 1 bonus on attack rolls. This Profession (sailor) check is made at the start of each battle phase.

Each fleet then takes turns making attacks with their squadrons. The winner of the initiative roll gets to make the first attack, using any one of his squadrons. The other fleet then makes its first attack, using any one of its squadrons. Attacks with squadrons go back and forth during the battle phase until all squadrons able to attack have done so—a single squadron can only attack once per battle phase. if one fleet has more squadrons than the other, the additional squadrons attack at the end of the battle phase after the other fleet has used up all of its attacks for that round.

Attacking: When you attack with a squadron, pick one of the enemy fleet’s squadrons as your target. Roll 1d20 and add that squadron’s attack value. if the result equals or exceeds the enemy squadron’s Defense Value, you deal damage as appropriate for your squadron. if you miss, you still deal 1d4–1 points of damage (damage from a miss can never be increased by any other effect). This damage is an abstract combination of siege weapons, ramming, spellcasting, missile fire, and even boarding actions against enemy crews.

Assigning Damage: The damaged fleet normally gets to assign its damage by marking (either by crossing out of by placing a marker such as a die, penny, or some other counter) the amount of damage on the targeted squadron. This damage doesn’t all have to be on the same ship—you can spread it out in any way you wish among all of the non-sunken ships in your squadron.

Critical Hits and Fumbles: A natural 20 on an attack roll always hits and allows you to assign damage to the enemy as you wish, rather than allowing the defender to allocate it (you do not deal double damage with a critical hit, though). A natural 1 always misses entirely (and results in no damage at all to the enemy fleet). Every time a squadron scores a critical hit, its morale score increases by 1; each time it rolls a fumble, its morale score decreases by 1.

Effects of Damage: Each point of damage reduces a squadron’s total hits. When a particular ship takes an amount of damage equal to its hits, it becomes disabled. A disabled ship does not count toward its squadron’s damage rolls, and increases that squadron’s loss count by + 1. A ship that takes damage while it is disabled sinks and is removed entirely from the fleet, increasing that squadron’s loss count by + 1.

Losing a Squadron: Each time you lose an entire squadron (as a result of either damage or mutiny), increase the loss count for each surviving squadron by + 1.

Abandoning Ship: For simplicity’s sake, you can assume that a commodore’s ship is the last to sink in any squadron. Note that not all characters on a sinking ship automatically perish. Typically, a ship sinks slowly enough that officers and crew can abandon ship, and there’s usually ship’s boats and other pieces of wreckage to grab onto. Once a battle is over, you can assume that any significant characters who were on a sinking ship survive, either by escaping in a boat, by clinging to flotsam, or by fleeing via magical means. The ultimate fate of a significant character on a sunken ship depends more on the results of the actual battle itself. if the imperiled character’s fleet wins, she can be rescued after the battle, but if her fleet loses, the best she may be able to look forward to is capture by the enemy—more of ten, such victims are merely left to perish via the countless methods the sea presents for death.

Rout Phase

A rout phase occurs after each battle phase. At this point, each surviving squadron must succeed at a DC 10 morale check by rolling 1d20 and adding its morale check modifier. Failure indicates that the squadron takes 1d4 points of damage to its morale score. A squadron whose morale score is reduced to 0 immediately mutinies and is removed from play.

Fleeing a Battle: At the end of a rout phase, an admiral can attempt to flee the battle entirely. When he does so, the other fleet immediately gets one free attack using any one of its squadrons and can target any one of the fleeing fleet’s squadrons. The fleeing admiral makes a Profession (sailor) check at a –4 penalty, opposed by the other admiral’s Profession (sailor) check. if the fleeing admiral’s check result is higher, his fleet escapes; otherwise, every squadron in the fleeing admiral’s fleet takes 1 point of morale damage and the battle continues into a new round.


A fleet wins a battle once all of the enemy’s ships are removed from play, either by disabling or sinking all the ships in play or by causing squadrons to mutiny. When victory is secured, the enemy fleet’s flagship is rendered defenseless, allowing the victors to board the flagship at once.

PC Defeat: if the PCs are defeated, the repercussions of that defeat are described in the text of the adventure. In general, the enemy captures and/or executes the PCs, resulting in a loss as if the PCs had all been defeated in regular combat. A defeated fleet generally disbands. In the unusual case of a PC fleet managing to surrender or even escape before it is destroyed, every squadron takes 1d8 points of damage to its morale score.

PC Victory: if the PCs win the battle, they capture the enemy flagship. In most cases, the fleet’s commanders refuse to go down without a fight. At this point, the PCs resolve the conflict by engaging in shipboard combat against the enemy, but because of their recent triumph, all PCs gain a + 2 morale bonus on attack rolls, skill checks, and saving throws made during this shipboard combat.

All surviving squadrons gain 1d4 points of morale with a fleet victory, minus 1 point for every ship in that squadron that was sunk during battle (minimum 0 morale gain).

After a battle, any damage to non-disabled ships are repaired at the rate of 1 hit per hour as the crew works to recover from the battle. Disabled ships must be towed back to a harbor, where repairs can be made at the normal cost (see page 16 of the Skull & Shackles Player’s Guide). A disabled ship is reduced to 5% of its total hit points.

Sunken ships and ships that fled a battle after their squadron was reduced to 0 morale cannot be repaired they must be replaced.

Experience point awards for defeating a fleet should be tailored to be a CR award roughly equal to the party’s average party level at the time the battle took place. For particularly tough or easy battles, the GM can adjust this award upward or downward as she sees fit.

Mass Naval Combat

Skull & Shackles MattDroz