In a sea-based campaign, talk will turn to shipping and trade. I’m not sure there’s a single area in the Dungeons & Dragons genre with more rules variation than ships and the sea (with the possible exception of unarmed combat). Ship names, size, hull points, movement, cargo, combat abilities, weather effects—all vary wildly. Most of those systems seemingly start from scratch and create another game within the game, instead of sticking to the core simplicity of 1st Edition. I tackled this in my blog post on naval adventuring, without discussing trade. As 1e has little information on trade, I borrow from other resources (primarily Gaz 9—the most detailed resource for naval trade). BECMI uses different standards for ships, so I’ve converted and simplified those stats for 1e. I’ve also created generic trade goods.
The PCs need only to find a ship, hire a crew, load a cargo, and sail to parts known (and unknown) for adventure and profit.
A small merchant ship of 25’-40’ with 6d6 hull points can be purchased for 5,000 gp, for a crew of 10 and a 5-ton capacity. A large merchant ship of 50’-80’ with 12d4 hull points can be purchased for 15,000 for a crew of 20 and a 15-ton capacity. Used vessels are available for 20%-70% the cost of a new one (d6 × 10%) + 10%, with additional costs of 20%–70% of a new ship’s cost to refit the vessel.
Repair and Upkeep
A vessel loses 10% of its speed and 1 hull point for each 1,000 miles sailed without maintenance. Ship maintenance costs 1 gp per 1,000 miles traveled per the ship’s maximum hull points. Maintenance takes one day for every 10 gp of expenses. As long as damage is less than half of a ship’s hull value, repairs can be made at sea. If damage to the ship is more than half of its hull points, the ship must put into port for repairs. Dry docks reduce the time required for general maintenance by 20 to 80 percent.
A major overhaul at a dry dock is required every 10,000 miles or one year at sea. Dry docks cost 15 gp per day per 10 tons (± 50% based on port size). This repair can also be done by beaching the ship, taking twice the normal time at additional risk to ship and crew.
Crewmen must be of the sort needed for the vessel and the waters it is to sojourn in. Sailors cost the same as heavy infantry soldiers (2 gp per month) and fight as light infantry. They never wear armor but will use almost any sort of weapon furnished. Oarsmen are considered to be primarily sailor-soldiers; they cost 5 gp per month, wear any sort of armor furnished, and use shields and all sorts of weapons. Marines are simply soldiers aboard ship; they cost 3 gp per month and otherwise have armor and weapons of heavy foot as furnished. More experienced crew earn 50% more for each additional level of skill/experience.
For every 20 crewmen there must be one lieutenant and two mates. Mates conform to specifications of sergeants and cost 30 gp per month. A lieutenant can command as many decades of troops as he or she has levels. A captain can command as many scores of sailors as he or she has levels. The level of the captain also dictates the number of lieutenants which can be commanded. The cost for captains and lieutenants are 100 gp per month per level.
Employment of captain and crew is a matter of offer and acceptance. There is of course always the press gang option for gaining crew: 2–16 burly sailors or soldiers armed with swords but wielding clubs. Outnumbered or incapacitated citizens may be shanghaied onto the ship (with appropriate ramifications for skill and morale).
The bulk of a crew’s pay is in shares of the ship’s profits as well as a share of any prize or treasure taken at sea. ~50% is the traditional share of the profits (and all of the losses) for ship owners, with the remainder paid out to the ship’s crew. For any crew, the master captain gets a 25% share, each lieutenant gets 5%, each mate 1%, and the crew share 5% between them. The remainder goes to the ship owners.
In a merchant sailor’s guild, roughly 50% of the cargo carried is transported for hire. A variable amount is charged, based on volume, weight, and value of goods. 40% of those shipping fees go to the ship’s crew as shares (the remainder goes to the Guild). About 20% of guild shipping is carrying goods on consignment, with 10-40% of the profit goes to the ship’s crew. About 30% of guild shipping is speculative cargo bought and sold by the captains themselves, with 80% of the profit going to the ship’s crew as shares.
Depending on the size of the port, one or more different goods will be available. While there could be a complicated listing of specific cargos available and demanded at each port (wine, cotton, fish, etc.), a simpler system defines generic cargo as the associated components: value, distance, demand. These basic components can be used to determine profit for any shipping venture.
Ship tonnage is a measure of the cargo-carrying capacity of a ship. Good availability can be calculated on the basis of the number of available “loads” of goods, defining one load as a half-ton of goods. Considering the load capacity for carts and wagons listed in WSG, one cart can carry one load, or two loads per wagon (a large wagon with many horses can carry four loads). A 10-ton ship can therefore carry 20 loads of goods.
Merchants in port will buy and sell cargo. Depending on port size, there will be d6 ± 2 merchants interested in transacting with the PCs (modified by the PCs Charisma Reaction Adjustment). Merchants take d4 weeks to arrive; one half of the merchants appear the first week in port, one quarter the 2nd week, and the remainder at 1 per week. Each merchant can deliver a varying quantity of goods.
To determine the potential profits, first determine the Base Price of the available good:
- Per load (d10): Low (1-3: 50 gp), Medium (4-7: 100 gp), High (8-9: 150 gp), Precious (10: 500 – 1,000 gp1,2)
1The suggested value for monsters is 100 gp / HD, times 10 for each special or exceptional ability.
210% of all Precious cargos will be worth 1,000-10,000 gp
To calculate the number of loads available from the particular merchant, roll 2d8, then subtract the previous roll for the Base Price, and modify ± 2 based on the port size.
Merchant interest at the destination is calculated similarly to the port of origin. The Sale Price at the destination is determined using the Base Price Adjustment Table, adjusting the roll for distance hauled, demand, port size, and value of the goods. Roll 3d6, modified by:
- Distance: Short (< 50 miles, -2 adjustment), Medium (< 500 miles, 0), Long (6, > 500 miles, +2 adjustment)
- Demand (d6 modified ±1 with a Trade proficiency check): Low (1–2, -2 adjustment), Average (3–5, 0), High (6, +2 adjustment)
- Port Size: ± 1
- Bargaining proficiency check: ± 2
- Precious goods: -2
|Base Sale Adjustment Table (3d6)|
There is a 5% chance per port that a NPC will offer to hire a vessel for d12 cargo loads of goods to another destination. This chance increases by 25% if the crew actively solicits such work. A shipper is typically charged 40 gp per ton (two loads) of cargo space per 500 miles, with a minimum fee of 100 gp, with no requirement to fill the hold. Normally half the payment is made in advance, and the remainder paid by the shipper’s agent upon arrival. Bonuses for early delivery and hazardous travel conditions are negotiable.
A ship can accommodate 20% more people than the standard crew complement. There are typically 2d4 – d4 passengers seeking passage at any port, ± 2 depending on port size at both port of origin and destination. Passengers are usually charged 20 gp per 500 miles traveled. There is also a 5% chance per port visited that one or more passengers travelling together want to hire a ship to go to a destination of their choice. If this occurs, they desire to sail to the most remote port within 2d20 × 100 miles. If passengers hire a ship to go to the destination of their choice, they pay as if they shipped enough to fill the cargo hold at 40 gp per ton of cargo space for each 500 miles, with a minimum fee is 100 gp. A round-trip fee can be charged if there is no possibility of cargo at the destination.
Cargo cannot be unloaded until inspected by Customs. Customs inspectors normally board within d6 hours. In a busy harbor this could be as long as d20 hours. Customs officials generally have an Appraisal skill of 10 + d8. If a failure is on an odd number, the evaluation is low. The appraisal is off by 5% times the amount of failure.
After evaluating a cargo the customs inspector assess a tax which can range from 1% to 100% of the goods’ determined value, with an average customs fee of 2d10 percent.
At a dock, five crew can unload one load of cargo per hour during daylight with reasonable weather conditions (provided the cargo is not particularly awkward). Adverse conditions can double or triple that time. Loading the ship takes 50% longer as the cargo must be carefully stowed and secured. If dock workers are available they can be hired for 2 sp per hour.
Moving cargo to the shore in smaller boats increases loading and unloading time. At anchorage, it takes 75% longer to offload to a dock (one long boat required per five crew), and 150% longer if unloading to a beach. Rowing a loaded jolly boat through the surf additionally requires a Small Craft proficiency check for each round trip.
The Navigation skill is required for safe and accurate sea travel. Navigation checks are made for each week of travel. When a Navigation roll fails, a ship goes off course or becomes lost at sea. After a storm, a successful Navigation check pinpoints the ship’s current location and heading. Any time the ship encounters fog or overcast skies, a failed Navigation check will cause the ship will drift to a new heading, turning one hex facing for each point the roll was failed, and delaying travel appropriately.
Ships which do not have the appropriate charts are at risk when they navigate, especially if the vessel travels out of sight of land. Navigation rolls without the correct sea charts suffer a – 2 penalty. The chance to find the proper chart is 75%, adjusted for the size of port. The cost is 2d12 gp, also adjusted for port size. The chance of finding a chart is reduced by 10% for every 500 miles distant, and the cost increased by 5%. One chart is needed for every 1,000 miles traveled.
The crew require one barrel of water per week per five crew. Iron rations for the crew cost 3.5 gp per week per five crew (2 sp per day per crew). A small sailing ship can carry one month’s worth of food and water, a large sailing ship 2–3 months. The space taken up by crew provisions does not normally affect the ship’s cargo space. however, additional supplies can be taken on: two weeks of additional food and water for five crew equals one “load,” (discussed later) and costs 9 gp. Once the crew has purchased additional water barrels, the future cost is reduced to 7 gp per week as long as they have a supply of fresh water.
A crew living on iron rations for more than a month becomes susceptible to scurvy (and other vitamin-related diseases). 10% of the crew will be affected by scurvy for each week the crew goes without fresh food. Those with scurvy lose one point of Constitution and Strength each week until either reaches zero, and the crew member dies. Those points are regains at a rate of three for each for each week with fresh food. Eating edible cargo reduces the cargo value by 10% per week that the cargo is eaten.
In dire straits the crew can fish. On the sea lanes or high seas there is only a 10% chance per week to net enough fish to feed the crew, increasing to 50% when within 100 miles of the coast.
There are a number of port fees that are the cost of doing business. Most ports charge a port entrance fee of 10-20 gp (depending on port size). It is possible to find a moorage berth 80 percent of the time. Ships that cannot find a berth may anchor in the harbor at a distance from the docks and quays. Moorage costs 1 gp per day for each hull point, or a flat 5 gp per day to anchor in harbor.
Representatives of the harbor master visit newly arrived vessels to assess docking and other service fees. When an arriving vessel is inspected, the harbor master asks its port of origin and the next destination. This information is posted at the port authority office. The representatives have the authority to quarantine or turn away undesirable ships. They can also require or provide pilots, required to navigate in and out of difficult harbors for a 10-60 gp flat fee. They can also provide towage at a cost of 1 gp per hull point, required for large ships through congested harbors.
Port agents can be used as middlemen to ease process of the buying and selling of cargo. They have Appraisal and Bargaining skills of 10 + d8 + a d6-1 bonus. They make 2d10 + 5% of the sale profits or purchase, but remove the requirement for an available merchant at the cost of one level of demand.
TSR 2011, Dungeon Masters Guide, 1979 (pp. 29-34, 53-55).
TSR 2020, Wilderness Survival Guide, 1986 (pp. 33).
TSR 9236, Gaz 9: The Minrothad Guilds, 1988 (pp. 12-14, 23-41).
TSR 1071, Rules Cyclopedia, 1991 (p. 70-74).
TSR 9346, Pirates of the Fallen Stars, 1992.