A Motley Crew
In roleplaying games, the focus of the action is focussed, logically, on the Player Characters. They are the stars of the show, and rightly so. The game is enhanced, of course, by having interesting NPC's, and hopefully these colorful supporting characters appear in the adventures that a GM runs. In a nautically flavored—perhaps even piratical—campaign, however, a good source of roleplaying opportunity is often overlooked: the crew. In addition to handling the rigging, swabbing the decks, etc., the members of a ship's crew can become individuals with their own personalities, a real part of the story that is told in a campaign.
Note: This article is inspired by one of the handouts provided with the Golden Voyages sourcebox, one of the first supplements for the 2nd Edition AD&D Al-Qadim campaign setting, written by David “Zeb” Cook.
Creating Crew Characters
When it comes to tracking the abilities of a ship's crew, start with a basic stat block. Assume that a fresh batch of recruits all have the same statistics, and use those to fill in the details below.
The Crew of ___________________________________
Class and Level ____________________; CR _____; Size __________; HD _____; hp _____; Init +_____; Spd _____ ft.; AC _____; Atk +_____ ( _______, _______________) or +_____ (_______, _______________); SQ __________________________________________________; AL _____; SV: Fort +_____, Ref +_____, Will +_____; Str _____, Dex _____, Con _____, Int _____, Wis _____, Cha _____. XP _______________.
After filling in the statistics for the base crew member, decide on a name for each character. It's not important to fill in the details just yet, as those can be developed through game play.
These crew members can really take on their own personalities in two different ways. The first is through interaction with the Player Characters and other NPC's. Whenever something notable happens, it can be listed under the Details section of the stat block. Examples of this include the following possibilities.
- During a transoceanic voyage, the PC's and crew members become involved in a series of competitions, a la the Interlude “The Competition 2.” If one of the crew members should have a particularly strong showing, that could be noted.
- While exploring a remote island, the PC's run afoul of a giant squid. While attacking, it grapples a crew member and drags him/her overboard. If the PC's can save that unfortunate person, that could be noted.
- To liven up an otherwise unremarkable journey, the GM decides to add a little illicit shipboard romance. One of the crew members, perhaps after being given the Woman Disguised as a Man fortune, fits the bill; that should be noted.
- If at any time a crew member is killed, that should also be noted.
In this way, the GM eventually accumulates a list of crew members with distinct personality traits, without having to do a lot of planning.
Just like with Player Characters, crew members can also gain experience points and thus improve their abilities. Once they've gained enough XP to gain a level, they advance just like other characters. For example, if a ship starts with a crew of 1st-level sea dogs, and they gain 1000 XP, they can be advanced to 2nd-level characters. Skill increases, new feats and other changes should be discussed by the players to best represent the development of the crew. At the GM's discretion, these NPC's could also gain some of the crew feats detailed in Issue 4 of the Buccaneers & Bokor e-zine.
Some suggestions for XP awards to crew members include the following.
Basic voyage: 50 xp
Transoceanic voyage: 100 xp
Circumnavigating the globe: 500 xp
Each battle survived: 200 xp
As always, the GM should feel free to modify these numbers, and to award XP based on the story in a campaign, as desired.
Gaining or Replacing Crew Members
It is a sad fact of life, but over time some crew members will be killed by simple attrition, strange mishaps and the like. Given that, the PC's should have occasional need to replace crew members. When such a time comes, the GM has two options.
The first option is simply to let the PC's find crew members of the same experience and abilities. Doing so might require the use of Knowledge: local, Gather Information, Diplomacy and/or Intimidate checks, depending on the circumstances. The GM could even keep the results of such checks secret, and thus let the PC's run into trouble for bad rolls. For example, the PC's might hire a group of scallywags who prove to be mutinous, thereby running into trouble during the middle of a voyage.
Another option, however, is to choose groups of crew members based upon the circumstances in a campaign. For example, the PC's might first recruit a group of similarly-minded buccaneers while working out of Port Royal. Later, when they help free some slaves, those grateful souls might volunteer to help crew a vessel. After that, during adventures in the Mediterranean, the PC's could hire on some Algerine corsairs who've been impressed with their skills. In this way the crew becomes a truly motley group of people, as befits the nature of pirates.
Indeed, this could be especially appropriate if the PC's come to own multiple ships, in which case different characters can command different vessels with different types of crew members. Should that happen, the GM can create separate lists for the different captains, and the opportunities for roleplaying multiply from there.