So, Pyramid has an upcoming issue on Swashbucklers and Pirates. I’m playing in a Pathfinder Skull and Shackles campaign GMed by +Jeromy French.

This puts me in a piratical mood, and I was thinking this morning about what would happen if the typical DnD or Dungeon Fantasy world were to take to the open seas. This really applies to most magical fantasy tropes.

Ah, my ship. My glorious vessel, perhaps similar to the ships in the picture.

“They might have the weather gage, but we have the weather gods.”
       – Master and Commander

The ships portrayed in the Aubrey-Maturin novels (if you haven’t seen it, go see Master and Commander. It’s good.) seem to range in length from about 100 to 170 feet or so. Why does this matter? Well, the Wind spell has a base cost of 1/50, meaning you can enclose most ships in the spell’s area of effect for the base cost of the spell: 1 point of energy gives you a 50 yard radius. And for the price of exhaustion of one man (say, 8 FP), you can get a ship from the doldrums and becalmed to steering in a couple of knots of wind for eight hours. Then he can rest for an hour and a half and do it again. It ain’t fast, but it’s not motionless, either. With a few mages, or some sort of manastone or other power source, no ship would ever be motionless. That’s kind of a big deal.

You can also shift the wind by 22.5 degrees with the same spell. While many age of sail ships had issues going directly into the wind, again, one magic spell later, and you can all of a sudden get that much closer. With enough magic, the concept of “the weather gage” largely irrelevant.

An army travels on its stomach.
                     -Napoleon Bonaparte 

Another big deal in long-distance sailing is of course food and water. A frigate would carry a shockingly large quantity of food and water, with “six months’ stores” being a common figure.

Guess you don’t need that if you can purify water, eh? Or create it? Essential food, at six meals to the pound, is 1-2 man-days of food per pound. For a 250-500 person crew for 180 days, that’s less than 45 tons of food. That seems like a lot, but it’s probably not. A thousand-ton ship wouldn’t even notice it (it’s only slightly more than the weight of the crew). If you need a gallon of fresh water per day (ish), call it 10 lbs per man per day, that would normally be 450 tons (you’d probably never carry that much, after all, that’s 450 cubic yards of water).

You can see where this is going. Cornucopia for powder and shot, perhaps. Or bolts for ballistae and stones for catapults if that’s your thing. Forget a ship’s surgeon doing more harm than good – ships would probably sail with an alchemist for various potions, and more than one cleric both as a spiritual leader as well as for healing. Gods of water would be big, as would death or thievery for those of a piratical bent.

Of course, just because you can cast spells doesn’t mean an opposing ship’s wizards will let you. So an evenly matched duel would still be on terms that make the sailors important, if the various supernatural forces are cancelled out by each other.

Finally, if your response to all that is “frack that, you scurvy dog, I’ll hang you from the yardarm!” then you can always go Dresden on it’s ass: Water grounds magical energies. On the open sea, you’re on your own.

Healing and whatnot might be divine, and still work. Learned Prayers for wind might also be OK, though a quick look at GURPS Powers makes it look frightfully expensive.


Sorry it’s been a bit dry this week, but work’s been really busy. Today also marks the first time that I’ve tried to embed an image in the flow of text. Blogger handles this quite well, with autoflow around the picture. You guys know what this means, right? Pretty soon, my blog will inevitably have graphs.  

15 thoughts on “To be a Pirate King!

  1. Did you get involved in the "impacts of magic on an economy" discussions over at SJG? Many of the same issues arise when wizards are allowed to violate the laws of conservation.

    1. True enough. Magic is magic, and so is reliable divine intervention. Still, there is tremendous fun that could be had with taking advantage of some of this, and imagining how you'd run a DF Pirates campaign is just neat.

    2. Well, it's almost too mundane what you have here. If you're going to invest magic like that into travel, why not enchant the ship to levitate to avoid the drag of the water? Or enchant her to fly entirely under her own power?

      I begin to see why in much of fiction magic is useful but not as powerful as it is, often unintentionally, in games.

  2. I wrote up some notes for this for my conversion of the Savage Tide Adventure Path, but the article is behind our wiki firewall. Hmmm. Can I copy over the relevant bits?

    Enchantments of the pirate schooner Sea Wyvern
    * The entirety of the ship has been permanently enchanted with a modified Resist Fire spell. She will still burn if set on fire, but it requires a great deal of heat to do so.
    * There are two magical, ivory hoops that can purify five gallons of water per minute on board. One is located in the galley and the other in the officer's wardroom. The hoops cannot be broken and require no energy to operate in normal mana areas. The Purify Water effect has been master enchanted and will continue to work in Low Mana areas, dramatically increasing the ship's range.
    * There are 11 magical lanterns that provide the equivalent of torchlight on the ship, and another two that provide the equivalent of daylight. The bright ones are reserved for the captain's mess and the officer's wardroom. The other 11 are usually distributed among on the main, crew, or orlop decks, with 2 available for use in the hold.
    * There is a magical compass in the wardroom that always points to Sassarine. It will provide the exact time at the merest touch.

    The ship still needs to stock food and have a weather mage to control the winds (and an alchemist or priest to cure the crew), but it's inherently immune to fire; always has fresh water; there's plenty of light, even in the depths of the hold; navigation is easier because of the absolute fix to the home port. Navigation could be improved by having a second compass that pointed to a city distant from the home port, thus allowing triangulation of location.

    I figured that stocking food wasn't a big problem (even at 5 lbs/day, it's a trivial amount for any ship) but water (at 8-10 lbs/day) was, and Purify Water items are a lot cheaper than Purify/Create Food items.

    1. I think the big deal about Essential Food would be that for a pound or half-pound per day, you get all the nutrition (and presumably calories) you need, and it never goes bad. Bad food and poor nutrition (scurvy) were a big deal, and this simply fixes it.

      Of course, you get the best of both worlds – the spell says the closer you start to food, the better it is. Though really, there's no reason not to get your Essential Food onboard before the voyage starts.

      It's the seafaring equivalent of MRE, I guess.

  3. I did actually play a weather wizard on a ship. Man, that was a blast! After calming down a huge wave (one could say I was fighting a volcano) I started to ask myself if I'm not a bit too useful for my points.
    And I didn't even use ceremonial magic with the crew (only a later reading of "Fantasy" opened my eyes to it).
    I think that Throw Spell could be really useful in a ship battle. Kind of weather-bomb.

  4. You know that GURPS Dungeon Fantasy N: High Seas Adventures is out there just waiting for a writer to write it, right? And, say, now that I think about it, you're a GURPS writer, right? Just saying.

    Also, correct me if I'm wrong, but I believe that Wind, as an area spell, has a height of only 4 yards. If you want to get full use of the sails, you might have to stack wizards.

    1. Hmmm. DFn: High Seas? That's . . . pretty cool.

      The wind spell mentions going to 300' – it's basically purpose-built for this sort of thing.

      I took a quick look at Control and Create Air in Powers, but threw up my hands in non-comprehension about how I'd make the wind blow with a power. On first glance: mind-bogglingly expensive. The way I might have to go about it is to figure out how many pounds of force that drives a typical sailing ship (David Pulver can probably tell me) and build it as Telekinesis with that much force (base on 8xBL or something for TK of that ST). Then you could do the 1/5 cost as a Learned Prayer for divine stuff. I might also find RPK and ask him how you'd do this in Ritual Path Magic.

    2. Ah, serves me right for posting without looking at the books. 300 feet it is.

      As for Powers, I think you can do it with a single level of Control (wind). Per p. 92, wind is an occasional element, and it requires the Natural Phenomena enhancement at +100%. This gets you a radius of effect of level * 0.1 miles, more than enough to cover a ship. P. 90, top of the middle column, says that you can cause your element to flow at a Move equal to your Control level, and Move 1 is about 2 mph. That's enough to move a becalmed ship.

      Add a Magical limitation for -10% and you get a final cost of 29.

    3. That's great – I missed the 0.1 miles thing. That makes it 6 points as an alternate ability/learned prayer. Is that 29 points per level? So you can make a 2mph wind blow for each 30 (ish) points, or 6pts/level as a learned prayer? That's not bad for what you get on the high seas.

  5. Cornucopia for powder and shot would make a big difference. In movies, at least, powder rooms blowing up are the cause of 3 out of 4 ships sinking. (I think kraken are the number two hazard.) More realistically, in the Jack Aubrey novels powder was expensive and many Captains saved it for battle, so their crews didn't get much practice beforehand. With unlimited powder green crews can quickly be trained up to crack shots.

  6. I have a PC in my GURPS campaign who has a nautical bent and is looking to purchase a sailing ship. This article is well-timed and I, being the resourceful GM that I am, will naturally pillage this article for everything it is worth, delving into all of its little nocpoks and crannies and winnowing every little tidbit of information that I can get from it. Mr Langsdorf, if you would like, you could email a copy of that article with all the wonderful bits of info to me at broncosix.himebaugh at and I would be forever in your debt. Cheers to all.

  7. The difficulty of magic on the open sea is already part of 4th edition Banestorm as well. However, you could still have some savings by creating Essential Water and Essential Food beforehand, giving that much more space for gunpowder and shot, or crew berths, or extra supplies of a non-comestible nature.

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