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Counter-colonial Heistcrawl: state of play

February 14, 2018 Leave a comment

The PCs have hit a critical point: they’ve got boats, have rescued some people who need nursing back to health but could serve as crew, and have rescued/acquired a navigator who has some idea of where they are.

Here’s their fleet:

1 prahu (Malay tramp trader or fishing boat) with sails like this:

but with outriggers like this:
outrigger sampan manila model

1 junk (half of this matched pair, the other half is still in the hands of Chinese pirates:
chinese junks in japan_woodblock2

1 korakora (Philippine viking ship). Those usually look like
but this one’s a 2-hull model that looks more like a Polynesian voyaging canoe
big catamaran

also a straightforward 12-man dugout canoe (you can imagine that, right?) and a totally pimp 6-man dragon boat that looks like it got lifted from some royal parade, kinda like a mini version of this:
Screen Shot 2018-02-14 at 10.21.29 AM
It’s clearly valuable but not very practical, being twice as long as it needs to be for 6 people.

This is their current situation, stalking the remaining Chinese junk, also hoping to trade with villagers on the bigger island for food. Except they’ve just now seen some towering white canvas sails approaching from the NW, which they spied while shinning up some species of “breadfruit” tree.


More generally, they’re east of Borneo, south of Sulawesi. According to their Makasarese navigator, Sulawesi’s outlying islands are about a week away to the north. There are islands closer to the south (maybe only a couple of days, since the wind’s with you) but he doesn’t know the people there. Past those islands the currents get crazy, the water gets deeper and colder, therefore good for whaling, and then after that there’s the Great Spiritland, where he’s heard things get kinda out of control. Trees that bear women as fruit, walking mountains, stuff like that. And out to the east, maybe a week to 10 days away, are the island of nutmeg and cardomom and cloves.


Tiki’n’D2: the joy of veils

July 27, 2017 3 comments

“These aren’t really drinks. They’re trade winds across cool lagoons. They’re the Southern Cross above coral reefs. They’re a lovely maiden
bathing at the foot of a waterfall.”

So a little while ago there was an article on Kotaku that sorta celebrated D&D and sorta concluded it was obsolete:

“It is he, the smiling, all-knowing dungeon master, who controls the game’s mysteries. An afterthought, players are the puppets who act out the fantasy.

“Today’s Dungeons & Dragons adventures ask more of the player and less of the dungeon master. Scenarios are open-ended. Dungeon dimensions are less particular, to leave room for players’ whimsies. On top of their race, class, alignment and stats, today’s character sheets want to know why the player adventures, and what they ultimately hope to gain. Today’s Dungeon Master’s Guild, an official D&D website that publishes anyone’s adventures and additions to the game, tells us who really owns its legacy. It was Gygax who originally fought against making the ruleset open source.”

Greg Gorgonmilk disagreed: “The general thesis seems to be that giving the GM too much control is a bad thing, as though the responsibility of the other players should go beyond their characters. This is something we see in New School games a lot and it has its strengths and drawbacks but most notably (at least for the purposes of this article) those games are not like any iteration of D&D that I am aware of.”

Screen Shot 2017-07-27 at 14.56.28.png

…Christmas 1982 I got Traveller Deluxe and Moldvay Basic from two rather distant relatives. It took a month and the help of a schoolmate to overcome the initial confusion but then I was slowly, uncertainly hooked.

One of the things that slowed me down – one of the most distinctive elements of this new way of neither exactly playing a boardgame nor exactly playing let’s pretend – was the role played by the DM. I had no exact analogue for it and all the things I did already know betrayed me one way or another.

Like a novelist, the DM holds all the secrets and knows what’s in every cave. But that’s where the novelist metaphor ends and every other part of being a novelist – narrating what the heroes do, directing their actions, revealing the inner mental lives of the characters, using multiple perspectives to reveal facets of a story – are actively harmful to playing the game. You’ve seen The Princess Bride, of course. You know how Peter Falk breaks off the narrative to tell the kid “it’s OK, she doesn’t die here. We can stop if it’s getting too scary”? When I saw that I’d already DM’d just a little and I knew it was terrible form – threatening to take the experience away because the kid didn’t like it or it was getting too intense, deferring to the writer as ultimate guide. No. It canceled the stakes, brought the players’ engagement up short, stopped them making the decisions that could ruin them.

The other frequent metaphor, that of a referee, was equally misleading – a strictly neutral ref might adjudicate in a game of skill or luck but the DM’s thumb could never be free of the suspicion of tipping the scale. I was just getting to the age where I could recognize that answering “I got you” with “did not!” was foreclosing the game I had been invited into and replacing it with an argument nobody wanted. So for our fledgling play group it was, I think, a great but only semi-deliberate act of trust to assign the position of DM with its peculiar double responsibilities of playing the opposition and refusing to advocate for them. Never to pull punches, but also to telegraph the cues a skillful player would use to avoid getting punched. If we didn’t quite understand the awesome responsibility those first few times, we soon found out as we played with capricious, cruel and uncommitted DMs after school – people who were intrigued enough to try but not engaged enough to try hard.


I recently got to play Braunstein with Dave Wesely (+Zach H’s photo is of B4: Piedras Marrones) and I was startled by how lightly – almost invisibly – he refereed. Braunstein 1 is pretty much a statless larp in which all the scenario building is front-loaded in the character packets. Each player gets a role, a set of objectives and something to trade with, and then the game begins and people wander around learning puzzle pieces from each other, finding out why their objectives are complicated, negotiating and cajoling and threatening. Dave’s job, once it was on was, I’d say, maintaining simultaneity. Letting the room know when player-initiated events had happened (but not that they were player-initiated). Running NPCs’ responses when needed, although I hardly saw any, there were so many players.

It made me think hard about the players’ responsibilities. They were there to make their characters spring to life, sure. They needed to play their parts, pursue their objectives (on which others’ objectives depended), cause trouble. But they absolutely were not there to advance a story. There was no pressure to keep one foot on either side of the fourth wall, to have any consciousness of plot or structure or opportunities for character development. Their responsibility was to live as fully and inventively as possible inside the space.

Big deal. So far so trad. Where’s the Tiki?


1933; Prohibition ends and ERB “Don” Gantt opens a bar/restaurant called Don the Beachcomber, casting himself in the title role, sporting colonial slacks and an Indiana Jones hat. This new bar combines several innovations into a new formula that will transform American drinking culture. Most of the elements are not new but, (to belabor a metaphor) they make a new synthesis, which flourishes in the post-Prohibition environment.

And the new thing is mystery. The exotic.

Nobody wanted mystery in their drinks during Prohibition (or again during the war), when the provenance of spirits was a major concern because the bathtub stuff could cripple you. The bartender’s job was to shake clean mixes in plain sight from imported bottles displayed proudly over the bar. The classic 20s cocktails – the Martini, Manhattan, Negroni – were simple 2 or 3 ingredient drinks that showcased the qualities of individual ingredients. Bond drinks vodka Martinis because their crystal clarity makes it hard to conceal drugs. Cloudy sours – the Rickey, Sidecar, Collins and so on – might make it harder to identify a particular doubtful spirit base but to be well made, they need the best ingredients. Trust in the bartender was strictly limited and customers often led the effort to find and share new mixes. When Erskinne Gwynne “crashed into” Harry’s Bar in Paris with his Boulevardier Cocktail, he was part of a rowdy emigre drinking crowd that was inventing and publishing its own cocktails and relying on Harry to spin the bottles and keep count.


Don takes a sharply different tack. Instead of branded bottles on the bar he sells potions from a menu, made with a wild variety of under-specified rums and a bunch of secret “Don’s mixes,” which stay secret and have to be distributed from HQ as the franchise takes off and Beachcombers spring up across the US. The rum is suspiciously cheap and it shows amazing variety exactly because it’s less controlled, standardized and valorized. It comes from a plethora of small producers. During Prohibition it had run into Florida under the radar, was unpredictable and a little bit dangerous: an irreplaceable and explosive fuel for the Harlem Renaissance, the low-rent end of the 20s’ roar.

Screen Shot 2017-07-27 at 15.18.56.png

So when Don puts his elixirs on the menu with names like Tropic Breeze and Zombie Punch he’s offering his customers a taste, not of what they expect, what they’ve helped design, but of forbidden pleasures they’ve heard of but been afraid to try for the past 14 years. And he doesn’t shake them in the open, he makes them with an electric blender in the back bar and brings them out in ornate, opaque mugs, discreetly veiled by fruit garnishes and umbrellas.

You don’t ask what’s in them. Even the bartender doesn’t know. So you get on with playing your role up to the hilt, causing trouble, taking no responsibility for what’s going on with the service because you don’t have to know how it works. And that’s how it opens up a space for magic – there’s that little bit of a surrender to fate.

So I’m not here to say which approach is better. I love Martinis and Pearl Divers equally – I even mix them sometimes. It occurs to me that Gwynne probably represents a free sharing OSR blogger more than a storygamer, while Don was unquestionably into monetizing his intellectual property even more than Gary but I guess that goes with being Phandaal, legendary creator of lost arts and inspirer of cargo cults. What I do take issue with is the idea that the player is an afterthought in either approach. It’s all set dressing for the players and the things they choose to do.

RETCON: time (the inevitable tyrant) got in the way of this post being as good as it could have been. Happily I can edit posts later, so here is Jeff’s necessary weigh-in: don’t go gently into that good night that is the game ending for your character. This is what I failed to say: the rules are good and important but they’re not as important as the game at hand, just like your lovingly created world is important but ultimately less so than moments at the table.


Counter-colonial Heistcrawl: previous high scores

June 15, 2017 Leave a comment

One of the reasons I’ve been blogging so little here of late is that it inevitably takes me a whole day to write a post. I’m going to try to keep this one short because it’s a simple point, relevant to the campaign I’ve just started running (after 15 years gestation – that might be why I’m reluctant to start campaigns, too).

Have you seen Black Sails? It’s trashy but better than I expected (see previous post). In fact on the trash violence to interesting plot axis, I think I prefer it to Game of Thrones.

It so happens I’m discovering it just as my son is re-playing Assassin’s Creed 4 (the pirate one – Black Flag). Both treat the same loosely-historical events in fairly similar ways – the struggle between the pirate anarchs (sometimes dignified as a republic) of Nassau and the nascent British Empire, the latter personified by Woodes Rogers with his pardons and pirates-turned-king’s men. The historical events take place during the period 1715-1720. The TV and video game versions seem to compress it all into a few months.*

So. 1715 is a terrible time to be starting a pirate republic:

  1. there’s more peace between the big pirate empires – Britain, France and Spain – than in the previous hundred years or more. As a group they are disinclined to welcome a competitor (cf. WW1, which was really about not wanting to set a place at the Great Power table for upstart Germany).
  2. although there are plenty of malcontents in the American Colonies, the local power-holder landowners still look to the homeland for preferment – if you want to start up an American Revolutionary Republic in 1715 you first have to engineer a real peasant uprising and kill all the aristos and then still have resources and trade networks to fight off the British counter-attack. In case you’re thinking the actual American Revolution offers a better model, note that it’s a tax revolt by an already-established gentry class – people who already have a working political system for controlling the masses, which they can adapt to new ends. Every fort they can take by ideology rather than force is part of a political machine the English built for them.
  3. the British are already thoroughly networked across the Caribbean and if nobody stops them they will certainly colonize it all. They have a lot of ships, a lot of places to repair them, and a lot of resources to recruit crews. It seems anarchic and it’s definitely full of holes a ship or captain can hide in, but it’s the anarchy of capitalism – there are in fact even venture capitalists in London and Boston trying to exploit the temporarily-anarchic situation by sponsoring “privateer” agents abroad, which is as sure a sign as you’re likely to find anywhere that the pirate bubble is about to burst.

Both Black Sails and Black Flag do a good job of peeling apart the micropolitics of trust that are the basic problem for any gang of murderhobos that wants to turn into a working polity – not everybody understands the same things at the same time. Many people just want to be murderhobos. Nobody wants to invest their treasure in a communal chest. Independent ship captains already command pirate republics (wooden ones) – why should they want to be represented by some wig-wearing tax-collector on land?

But neither one really addresses the bigger picture of why a republic in Nassau is doomed to failure, while one that encompasses the eastern seaboard of North America just might work. Fair enough, dramatically – the pirate genre is really all about Great Man history, not long-reaching economic forces – but that bigger picture is important to the kind of exercise I would like CCH to be. In CCH I want the players to seriously consider first what they have to do to survive the day, and later what they have to do to make a safe space for themselves and people like them. And they can learn (anachronistically) from the mistakes of Blackbeard, Vane, Anne Bonny and all…

  1. the Caribbean pirates never try to make allies, except among equals. They probably fear to lose their independence (fair) but by victimizing everyone indiscriminately, they make themselves the common enemy of all. They do not learn to play politics. England (later Britain) tries several times to recruit them when its own prospects are uncertain. The pirates keep refusing because they rightly guess that Britain will never offer a really good deal – their problem is they lack the presence of mind/discipline to lie to her convincingly (with some exceptions).
  2. they’re trying to establish themselves in the very heart of the imperial project. Caribbean sugar is the starter fuel for colonizing the Americas. That’s why there’s so much merchant shipping to prey on, but it’s also the resource that the imperialists will fight hardest to keep. Basically the Navy will come here sooner or later, which is not true of Madagascar or Mauritius or even the coast of India if you know who to attack (smaller native capitalists, Mappilas, the Portuguese) and who not to attack (the British or French) there.
  3. they declare a tiny castle outpost in defiance of nation states. There’s really no way they can get big enough to become a real threat because they’re not ambitious enough and they’re too public, too early. Compare and contrast with Germany, which definitely won its pirate phase – Prussia was a dead state in 1814. It was reconstructed after Napoleon to act as a buffer between Russia and Europe. It reformed its armies (took care of getting the best equipment), seized a bunch of German-speaking pocket states that the big players didn’t care about (grew in the dark) and focused hard on industrializing (exploited a technological weak point) until it was big enough to be a threat… and then it moved (in restrained ways as long as Bismarck lived) on the big, old players.
  4. ETA: my son makes an excellent point: Nassau is also never self-sufficient. Black Sails suggests it could be if it made an alliance with the planters of the island but it doesn’t, so there you are.

I’m not saying that CCH must follow my vision of a teleological course, I’m not saying it’s the game where you emulate Prussia or anything like that, I’m just saying the pirates of Nassau show some classic traps.

1610 (the opening date for CCH) is a much kinder moment to start than 1715, if you did want to build a strong, working polity in Southeast Asia. The Spanish and Portuguese have been annoying the locals for a century and all they’ve got to show for it is a trading post empire of isolated fort-factories sitting on a set of resource-flow routes – one for cinnamon, one for pepper, one for dye-woods…. not the kind of thoroughly interlinked plantation colony Britain will develop in the Americas a hundred years later. The legal control environment is not so much a Swiss cheese as a few strands of spiderweb stretched across a dark and unknown jungle. Nobody even knows all the kingdoms out there, and inside those kingdoms, nobody has hegemonic control of anything – the general political mode is to have villages pay tribute to warlords when they can be forced to, not nation states with defended borders. Stone forts are rare (and are generally either European colonial, Chinese, Japanese or Mughal).

Perhaps most critically, the fundamental basis of power is not land or even money but manpower. That’s what local rulers fight over, and what Chinese commercial networks export, in return for unique island products. It’s what the European colonists really need (even if it’s not what they most desire). There is rich loot to be grabbed in the form of spices, Spanish silver, Indian gold, sea cucumbers (the Chinese love ’em), perfumes, dyes, cloth etc. so there’s ample opportunity for piracy, trade and smuggling, but the key to long-term success – the key to independent survival – is nakedly and unquestionably uniting people.

* There’s basically one literary source for all this “history” and it’s superbly written, so it’s ideal genre fiction writing fodder and it sparked a pirate genre that’s still playing out today. Seriously, Captain Charles Johnson was the Tolkien of 1725 (or maybe he was Daniel Defoe all along – the case is not definitively settled) – if you want to be an instant expert on the “golden age,” go read him (the paperbacks are cheap, the etexts only cost you time).

** Black Sails has some gorgeous imagery, though. The carved ivory title sequence is a delightful synthesis of familiar elements into a typically 18th century harmonious, murderous whole.



Countercolonial Heistcrawl: some maps

August 2, 2016 Leave a comment

Over the past year or so I’ve concluded that the best way to make progress on CCH is to start a campaign, and for that I need some campaign materials – factions, equipment/units, characters… and maps.
…..for player-facing maps I like period productions a lot, with all their elisions and doubts:


Here’s the whole spice islands region, a couple of thousand miles across.

If you’re playing non-Europeans there are excellent reasons for not using these European charts. Still I think the style gain from using something more culturally appropriate…
is probably exceeded in usefulness by the gain in clarity of using something more recognisably map-like, with some pretensions to uniform scale.

…all that said, charts on a suitable scale for tactical encounters are really a recent development, and CCH’s landscape isn’t supposed to map precisely onto Earth’s (after all, I want players to contribute their own islands without fear of having Indonesians or Malaysians complaining that they’re misrepresenting their people), so I’m moving away from just using Google Maps co-ordinates.

Blah blah blah here’s an area map for the game, lifted and lightly toasted from some geographically-appropriate islandy bits – obviously, ignore text and (most) roads marked on it. Hexes are 6 (nautical) miles across, so this map is about 150 nm wide:

The game starts at 2 tiny islands that are rather dimly-outlined on this map – here, zoomed in and highlighted:
Here’s a tactical-scale map of those islands  – hexes are 100 yards (20 hexes to a nautical mile), per the last post’s ship combat rules:

Water depth in this last map is keyed to the draught of different ships – a big East Indiaman can sail safely in the darkest part, the lighter part would be deep enough for a size 3 cargo vessel, the lightest blue is for size 2, 1 and reed galleys only, and white is exposed beach sand.
No prize for identifying the islands I swiped for either of these – in fact, if you research them it’ll probably mislead you.

Counter-colonial Heistcrawl Rules v 0.1

July 28, 2016 1 comment

To people waiting for TikinD part 2, sorry, you’ll have to wait a bit longer.
To people who’ve been waiting for CCH for like a decade, well…. this is very far from complete but it’s the best way I know to share the current state and crowdsource feedback on it. I would like to start running CCH in the fall this year (hahahaha), so this is trying to get that moving. If you’d like to play over hangouts, please comment here or on G+

The basic concept: it’s 1610. You are ordinary inhabitants of a more-or-less historical Southeast Asian archipelago that looks and smells a lot like the Spice Islands.

The Portuguese have been around for a century and everyone hates them, but they’re more or less stalled. Now the Dutch have shown up and they’re like the Portuguese on steroids. They’ve already attacked 2 islands and demanded tribute, so what are you going to do?
The obvious answer is: UNITE THE PEOPLE! GET ALL FLASH GORDON ON IT AND THROW OUT MING. This might be that game. It’s not so easily done, though – there’s already the Portuguese and Spanish (ugh), there are English people sniffing around (smell like Dutch but pretend to be nicer?), there’s Chinese mafias and expansionist Mappilas from India and warring sultans and roving bands of slavers and the Japanese are acting weirdly secretive and expansionist at the same time. And there are even actual Ming loyalists (Chinese Ming, like the porcelain), who say they need to take China back from someone or other. And something’s got the old spirits all riled up.

Oh yeah, spirits.
They’re everywhere but it’s easy to think they don’t exist. The Dutch don’t seem to believe in them, although some people say they’re working for some big dark spirit. Sometimes you can catch them in contracts, or in jars, but that’s dangerous work. Think Princess Mononoke and Spirited Away and Yokai and… sure, Pokemon I guess.

Mechanically it’s some sword-waggling, piratical RPGing on a more-or-less DnD mould and some Civilisation-type domain gaming – if Civ were based on actor-network theory and not Toynbee/Gordon Childe technological determinism. When people join together to do actions they do them better, so even on the rowboat where you start, you should be thinking about yourselves as a unit, not a party of individuals.

Wait, what? Combining together

Essentially, you’re like slightly lower-powered Risus characters – you have 3d in your professional skill, 2d in a second skill and 1d in a hobby and you roll off against your opponent and the winner wins the round, and then they erode the enemy’s ability to resist by 1d, demonstrating to them that they have entered a death spiral and should make alternative plans. Fine.

BUT unlike Risus if a friend comes to help you, then together you can add 1d to the skill of whoever is taking the lead. If a total of 5 people band together then they can roll one roll at +2d. 10 people makes +3d, and so it goes, 20, 50, 100, 200 etc etc.
To usefully add to a skill, at least half the people combining must have at least 1d in it or something related. (I thought about going with strict doubling ie powers of 2 but I figured (a) people might be more familiar with the old coinage 1-2-5-10 scheme and (b) if anyone was really fussy about the numbers and power steps that might be a sign that this isn’t the game for them.)

Sure, there are some things this won’t work for (proverbially, making broth. More obviously, sneaking), but for building ships or castles, or for fighting, or for persuading local rulers/godlings of your sincerity, it works great.

And if you can add boats or cannons or pikes or walls to your efforts, then you can get bonus dice from that too (*full, flawless, intuitive system/schema TBD).

So, obviously, splitting apart

…is the key to the whole exercise. Add to your network, weaken the enemy’s. And that’s why it’s a heistcrawl: mostly you’re 2-5 randos out in the weeds trying to make trouble for the world’s greatest and most ruthless exponents of capitalism. So you fetch up outside a coastal fort full of wine-soaked Portuguese dons, bristling with cannons, and…
Screen Shot 2016-07-28 at 11.48.14
what? Frontal attack? Hardly. The trick might be to sneak in, poison the well (penalty to numbers, fighting ability), plant contradictory orders (dividing officers and forces), kidnap the priest’s girlfriend (sabotaging a morale specialist), wet the powder and spike the guns. Then gather all the drunks and ruffians you can find and charge the fort yelling as hard as you can, watch the Portuguese flail around, get cursed by their magic man, fail to fire anything and eventually run off into the jungle where you can pick them off 1 and 2d at a time.


So it’s not quite Risus. You get 3 skills/tropes – one at 3d, one at 2d, one at 1d. They should be of the breadth of sailing, gunnery, melee, riding, shipbuilding, animalcraft, plantcraft, spirit sense – not as narrow as “sword” nor as broad as “thief.”

Also choose a profession. This is what you appeal to when you say “but I should be able to do this because I’m a _” and it gives you 1D or a default roll off your attributes when successfully invoked. Example professions include: pirate, smuggler, concubine, procurer, medium, monk, bodyguard/mafia hood, magistrate, spirit medium, cunning man, builder, fisherman, whaler, scout, merchant, legal opiner, scholar, “viking” slaver, diver, navigator

Also roll 6 DnD type stats, but only record the bonuses/penalties (+1 for 13-15, +2 for 16-17, +3 for 18). These are straight numeric mods (eg 3d for archer +1 for dex bonus) except if there’s a pure exercise of attribute (eg bend bars/lift gates for str), in which case you can roll it as dice like a skill. Wis is perception of spirits, Cha doubles as magic power.

Default status

is freeman/basic sailor/soldier/merchant’s agent/farmer.
majapahitmarineun8    rasinah

If you’re secretly a ship captain/priest/village judge/longhouse master/princess that’s fine, write your story. But you start the game without the benefit of that higher status because you’re far from home and nobody cares.


Also you don’t get a Risus-type thematically-appropriate comedy backpack of tools. Life is hard and people with a lot of loot tend to get stabbed in the Moluccas.

Level of Destitution (d6)
  1. shipwrecked. You have sodden clothing and personal effects up to earrings, hair ornaments. Also roll 1d6+8 on Table B. Save vs. INT or you’re also suffering from amnesia
    2. where’d you get that? roll 1d6+14 on Table A and 1d12 on Table B
    3. one good friend. You have the basic tool of your trade** plus roll d8 twice on Table A and 1d12 on Table B
    4. practically minded. You have the basic tool of your trade** plus d12 twice on Table A and 1d6 on Table B
    5. expert scavenger. You have a machete plus 3d20 on Table A
    6. Temporarily distressed person of substance: roll 3d20 on table A, 2d12 on table B

** a kris or a marlinspike or a feely map or spirit-wrangling flywhisk or grapnel/multitool or glassware or whatever.

Table A

1. crowbar
2. dagger
3. shield
4. food, drink and backpack
5. lamp and flasks of oil (3)
6. melee weapon
7. armour: leather or improvised equivalent
8. bow or crossbow with 10 arrows/bolts
9. small raft (size 1)
10. mirror
11. rope (50′)
12. grappling hook/anchor
13. pouch with 20 silver dirhams
14. musical instrument
15. hammer, chisel, pick + 8 iron spikes
16. writing box and seal
17. arquebus + 10 shots
18. small barrel of gunpowder.
19. Barrel of arrack
20. 3 caskets grape shot, with powder

Table B

1. lucky medallion (re-roll 1 failed saving throw)
2. potion of healing
3. lockable iron-bound chest
4. guard animal (dog, lynx, monkey or similar)
5. riding or pack animal (camel, pony, goat)
6. size 2 boat
7. armor: scale or exotic
8. loyal family retainer ( a standard grog with a couple of charming quirks).
9. map
10. book – holy text or instruction manual
11. holy symbol or badge of office
12. spirit in a jar
13. slip of paper with a spirit contract – eat and then specify what you need
14. bird in a cage that repeats spirit chatter

Mustering-out Hooks

You may draw once or twice from the Barrel of Many Things

Things in the world that have something to do with you:
  1. a ship
  2. a fort, bay or haven
  3. a contact – smuggler, informant, fence, carpenter, smith, spirit go-between
  4. a weapon – cannon, bomb, spirit, blackmail, poison, disease
  5. a debt – blood, goods, mafia, spirit
  6. a diminished god from a foreign land
  7. a massive cache of gunpowder
  8. several gallons of the interloper’s “holy water”
  9. a sibling rival – kite pilot, long-distance swimmer, pirate, magistrate/king/official
  10. the washed-up corpse of something massive
  11. a spring that bubbles with blood or a cistern filled with teeth
  12. Hungry Grandmother’s bottle of secrets
  13. a funeral barge, surrounded by silence
  14. a Dark Child
  15. a commander of the invaders, disgustingly ill, on a mission
  16. one of the enemy’s ships, on the edge of mutiny
  17. one of the enemy’s Holy Books, foolishly translated into a tongue we understand
  18. the ashen remains of an ancient Obsidian Queen’s funeral pyre
  19. a relic of a foreign saint
  20. one of the teeth of Brother Shark
Your relation to it:
  1. It’s rightfully yours but currently captive
  2. It’s marked on this map
  3. It’s known to be abandoned, there for taking,
  4. It’s lost in a useful way
  5. It’s in danger from something esoteric
  6. It’s been swiped by an enemy
  1. you are blessed/cursed in some way
  2. you are bonded/owed in some way
  3. you have a mysterious ally/enemy
  4. your memories/skills/loyalties/reputation/status/soul have been stolen/augmented/crippled/replaced
  5. your tribe’s priest/captive spirits need you and only you
  6. you are a captive spirit


If you achieve some goal or do something remarkable that really changes the world around you in a session (lay demon to rest, steal large ship, rout fort, corner the market in candles made from Europeans) add 1 skill point. To increase a skill, beat its current value in points (4 points allows you to increase a 3d skill to 4d).

Ship combat

I can’t believe it’s taken us this long to get here.

We play on hex maps because we are geeks an they suit our tastes.

1 hex = 100 yards. 20 hexes = 1 nautical mile

1 round = 1 minute.

You cannot sail into the hexside from which the wind is blowing.

You can row in any direction.

Ship size

Ship size refers to a combination of factors – for sailing ships it maps closely to the crew requirements, which also model the number of dice of skill required to control the ship.

If a ship has double the crew required, all rolls are at +1 (not +1 die, just +1). Once you have twice as many crew as the ship requires, the remainder are simply passengers (or, more likely, a second or third Watch, allowing the ship to operate while some crew members are asleep).

Ships will founder if their cargo capacity is exceeded. 1 crewman or passenger may be carried per ton of cargo capacity left open for them.

If the crew is too small for the ship’s requirements, the ship resists sailing – roll its size in dice against the commander’s skill (with mods). Most ships have their own spirit – if this can be persuaded it may add to the commander’s dice pool or simply allow command.

A ship of Size 1 = 1 crew required; raft, rowboat: carries 1 ton or less of cargo in addition to the crewman.
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Size 2 = 2 crew required. Typically 15-40’ sailing boat. Typically carries 1-10 tons of cargo/passengers. Cutter, workboat, pinnace
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Size 3 = 5 crew required. Typically carries 10-60 tons. Prahu, large Sampan, small Junk/Jong, Dutch sailing barge, small dhow, small galley
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Size 4 = 10 crew required of which 1 mate in addition to captain. Typically carries 60-150 tons. Duyfken, fluyt, Chinese ocean-going junk, large dhow, war galley like in the Battle of Lepanto, average war coracora
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Size 5 = 20 crew of which 4 are mates/petty officers. Carries 150-500 tons. Golden Hind, large fluyt, large junk, largest booms, flagship coracora
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Size 6 = 50 crew, at least 9 of which are mates/officers. 500-2000 tons. East Indiaman, largest junks, largest naus/carracks
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Size 7 = 100+ crew of which 19 officers. 2000-10000 tons or more. Zheng He’s treasure ships, legendary Srivijaya jongs.
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Light and Heavy Construction

The baseline construction for ships here is Indian wooden planks, sewn together, cross-braced with decks at size 4+.

Ships may be made lighter – from hides stretched over bamboo frames (for size 1 or 2 only) or from reeds (theoretically any size). This gives them -1D for resisting gun fire, but may give +1 hex movement.

They may also be made heavier – from timbers fastened together with wood or metal nails, with heavy internal bracing. All junks/jongs and European vessels of size 4+ are made this way. This gives +1D to resist gun fire but -1 hex/round speed.

Rowed ships

Rowed ships need 1 step more crew than sailed ships for the same size of ship, so while a size 4 sailing ship requires 10 crew, a size 4 rowed ship requires 20.

If the ship is purpose-built for many rowers (making it a galley) then the number of rowers may be increased by 1 step, increasing speed by 1 hex/round. You cannot increase speed by more than 1 hex/round this way.

Rowed ships can charge for 1 round per die the commander has in leadership. Charging increases speed by 50% (round up).


An English galleas is really made for sailing but may be rowed in extremis. It is heavily built, so -1 hex speed. It is not a galley, so cannot be usefully overmanned with rowers. So if it is adequately manned (10 crew for a size 3 galleas) it may do 1 hex every 2 rounds under oars. If charging it can manage 1 hex/round. For performance under sail see below.

A Timawa coracora is a lightly built (reed) galley and the Viking/slaver Timawa commonly double-crew them. Such a double-crewed coracora can do 3 hexes/round. The Spanish were alarmed to find them capable of burst of 15 knots – that is, they can do 5 hexes/round when charging.

Weather and ship size and range

Weather is rated 0-6

If your skill + help from the crew exceeds the weather, you don’t have to roll. If they’re equal/weather is bigger, you roll – its rating is how many dice it rolls. If you lose a roll-off, you take damage to hull strength.

Crew help only counts if it’s from officers – you should have 1 officer per 10 crew. All officers must have at least 3d (professional level) in an applicable skill (sailing or leadership). So if for example you have 3d in captaining and a size 4 ship (10 crew, including 1 officer/first mate) then conveniently you get 4d skill to go with your size 4 ship.

0 = becalmed. Ranges can extend to full, only rowers can move.

1 = breeze suitable for dinghies, no penalties for anyone moving, cannons etc limited to 5 hexes effective range. All sailing craft do 1 hex/round (modified for build, as noted above).

2 = windy. 2 hexes/round.

3 = topgallant breeze/choppy. Size 3+ do 3 hexes/round, size 1 or 2 and galleys do 2 hexes in their desired direction and drift downwind 1 hex

4 = gale. Size 3+ can do 2 and drift 1 downwind. Size 1 or 2 and galleys do 2, drift 2.

5 = storm. All ships do 1, drift 3

6 = hurricane. Drift 5.

So e.g: the Duyfken, a size 4 Dutch jacht, sees a storm on the horizon (weather 5). The captain is professional (3d in captaining) and has 1 mate (out of 10 crew, all as it should be), so they get 4d to roll against the 5d storm. They would be well advised to run for a harbour.

Astute readers will have noticed that large Dutch ships with competent captains and well-ordered crews only have to roll against the worst hurricanes/typhoons. This seems to be historically accurate. Notably, when Dutch ships were lost accounts tended to blame either division in the crew (reducing dice by 1) or a bad officer standing in for the captain or, rarely, pre-existing damage that would’ve given the ship a reduced effective hull size/strength. The latter condition is much more common in English accounts from the 18th century.


If you’re rowing, then turning 1 hex side costs half a hex of movement, rounded up – ie turning 1 or 2 sides costs 1 hex worth of movement. Turning 180 degrees (3 hex sides) costs 2 hexes worth of movement. While turning you do not move forward.

If you’re sailing, it costs half a hex of movement to turn 1 hex side, rounded down. So you can turn 1 hex side for free each round. If you want to turn more than 1 hex side then it costs 1 hex for each 2 sides you turn. Turning 180 degrees (3 sides) costs 1 hex of movement (1.5 rounded down).
Exception:  crossing the wind with the bow (tacking) always costs 1 extra hex of movement for a sailing vessel, so it costs 2 hexes total to tack across the wind – 1 for the 2 hexside turn, 1 extra for crossing the wind. It is therefore equally costly to tack as it is to “wear” ship (turn downwind and then up the other side, crossing the wind while facing away from it or  jibing, to use modern British parlance).


Small arms (arquebuses, bows, spears) only damage ships of size 1.
Swivels only damage ships of size 1 or 2. They might as well always fire grape shot.
Cannons damage everything.


Spear = same hex
Bowshot = 1 hex
Arquebus/snaphance/swivel = 2 hexes
Cannon = 5 hexes
Cannons firing grape shot = 4 hexes
Culverin (long range, small-bore cannon) = 15 hexes

All ranged weapons can shoot at double range for -1d effectiveness. Roll gunner/archer skill of leader, modified by how many weapons are shooting in a volley (2, 5, 10 etc).

Weather limits range of shipboard weapons – becalmed (weather level 0) allows guns to shoot their full range, level 1 limits all weapons’ range to 5 hexes. Every level increase decreases total maximum range by 1 – so at weather 3 cannons have range 3, arquebuses still have range 2, archers still have range 1.


Cannons are carried on 2 even broadsides and optionally a few facing front and back. If there is just one big gun, it faces forward or back.

Damage is by weight of shot and rolled vs hull strength (for round or chain shot) or crew size (for grape shot) – 1lb = 1d, 2lbs = 2d, 5lbs = 3d etc.

The Batavia (size 6) carries 50lbs (6d) of cannons on each side + 10lbs forward and back.

If a ship carries more dice of cannons than its size it is overloaded and at -1d against weather.

Culverins are special long range cannons (15 hexes). They are never larger than 8lbs each. Really truly they shoot half the poundage of balls we count them as, but it doesn’t matter because the guns and powder charges and damage are all doubled so just count them like other guns but long range.

Hazards of cannons

Most cannons are bronze (“brass”). These can fire 1d6+2 times in a battle before they heat up and risk exploding (cannoneer’s skill sets the limit – roll vs 2d difficulty)

Iron cannons are strangely unpopular and poorly controlled, but can potentially be much better than brass (people with money will realize this quite soon).

Any time a crap iron cannon is fired, if it gets all sixes or 4+ sixes on the roll it explodes.

Good iron cannons can shoot indefinitely without risking exploding.

There are also “wood” and “leather” cannons. These might be like crap iron guns or like brass guns or something worse. They definitely don’t sound good and they didn’t catch on once lots of foundries were established, so.

Any cannon can come loose, especially if damaged in combat/storms. A loose cannon goes flying about the deck when fired, forcing its crew to save vs. a messy and sudden death.

Tiki&D 1: Gary’s Hawaiian shirts

June 8, 2016 19 comments


I’ve been wrestling with how to write this post for a while. It’s tempting to write a book… instead I think I’ll try to keep this brief and useful for gaming.

History teaches you that context is important – the culture behind events not only shapes them, it also gives them meaning. Culture is practice (what people do every day) and imagination: what people think the world and society around them is like. How they imagine it used to be and/or how they’d like it to be.


I grew up in Cornwall – far from the matrix that spawned DnD, while being confusingly close to the imagined source of its medievalish elements. Because I grew up there I couldn’t see it in the Romantic terms Gygax & co seemed to see.


Tolkien was my guide to Romantic medievalism (and we all know the arguments about whether that’s a primary source for DnD or not), not Ivanhoe or Vance’s Lyonesse or Anderson’s Three Hearts. I had almost no exposure to the titles in Appendix N – I actually had to special order Barsoom books, once AD&D had told me about them, because they weren’t on local shop shelves. A big part of my involvement with the OSR over the past few years has been trying to understand where Gygax was coming from with his peculiar gloss on medieval England.

As for the rest of the specifically American imaginary landscape that DnD borrowed from, I’d get little glancing references from time to time but they didn’t mean any coherent thing. Elvis movies, Westerns… When He-Man or Xena turned up, they were completely sui generis. Carcosa took me totally by surprise.

So when Natalie Bennett prompted me to look at the cultural complex of Tiki it sent me off down an archaeological rabbit hole that’s still extending in front of me, with side tunnels into the invention of tourism and Thailand’s “Land of Smiles” and just what European ex-pats were doing in Samoa in the 1880s.

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But two things seem really clear:

  1. DnD and Tiki are horns on the same goat.
  2. Tiki informed the attitude of a lot of early DnD.

Tiki shows a bunch of similarities with DnD – from the spats between the two great progenitors of Tiki, Donn Beach and Trader Vic, to the difficulty in reconstructing its early forms. Both Tiki and DnD have risen and fallen as cultural movements. Both are enjoying current revivals significantly nurtured by guys called Jeff. Sometimes the influence is direct – according to Chirine Ba Kal:

Prof. M. A. R. Barker was out on the West Coast at USC Berkley at the beginnings of
the Tiki craze, and… some of his artwork from that time is stylistically very similar
to some of the menus from the local Tiki watering holes. …every year, to celebrate
the Tsolyani New Tear’s holiday, I decorate my game room with my extensive
collection of Tiki artifacts and items.

Most of all, both offer a temporary escape into a carefully crafted fantasy world from the routines of modern life for a table-full of people at a time, provided they aren’t too self-conscious about putting aside their regular uniforms. When Gary and Dave started doing this with dice at the end of the 60s it had already been running in specially-created imaginative environments for the previous 30 years.

kahikisc10_jpg085e49f9b903afd56ba3223d446f72e3Kahiki210735191814_b4aa3c9803_bThe starting points and equipment might be different, but both immediately devolve into hours of chatting and dreaming for a group of friends who don’t want to rehash the concerns of their week. For what is the DM but an attentive barman?

I said I’d try to keep this useful. OK, here’s the thing:

Tiki is not just (or even principally) a set of rum cocktails or a style of interior design:
Tiki is an attitude – a way of engaging with the world – that I think is important for understanding early DnD. And that attitude is seriously unserious – it takes elements that it knows are ridiculous and accepts them as authentic; true-in-the-moment. It holds consequences lightly and laughs at its own pratfalls. It’s touristic in the sense that tourists are always playing a role – the interested outsider, there but not fully committed; the lost ingenue; the troublemaker. It never forgets that this temporary tropical island paradise has walls – that outside lies the Minnesota winter (or Hollywood’s greasy pole or Houston’s endless parking lot), so it never has to worry about what its fantasies look like from the inhabitants’ side. Those “inhabitants” are helping to create the imaginary.

Tiki is a shared joke (that you can take as seriously as you want). I think this might be what John Wick has always missed with Tomb of Horrors. There’s a kind of Bob Hope “you’ll like this one” wink in that module: as a player you’re supposed to go “d’oh I can’t believe I fell for that.” But you’re not going to if your DM isn’t laughing with you but at you. The deadliest dungeon ever made is like the deadliest cocktail (and there’s a very gamer-like machismo around drinks like the Zombie and the Suffering Bastard… which belies their decidedly un-macho umbrellas and fruit presentation) – you’re a fool if you order it… so of course you do and that makes you the fool of the evening as you drink it. Some further performance may be necessary.

Tiki is deliberately bad taste. I don’t really mean post-modern, but rather it’s generating its own aethetic and it is deliberately not going to be too picky about what sources go into that aesthetic. If classicism is a conservative impulse that tries to reproduce good taste by reinforcing a set of rules, Tiki is a liberal one that embraces novelty, plays up the exotic, and knows it’s titillating.  It is an important part of the attitude not to frown and say “I don’t think that fits here” but rather to strike a referential pose and roll with it for a while.
…so does anything go? Well, no… but that’s part of being a good barman – if the customer hates the drink you mixed, it goes in the fire and you make them a new one. Everyone has to be ready for that possibility. Nobody should go into a traumatized funk if a move doesn’t work.

Corollary – Tiki has a freewheeling attitude to appropriation – of other cultures, others’ artwork, anything that passes by. This was more charming in DnD before the publishers got all protective of their own IP and started canonizing it as PI. But if you’re running Tiki DnD, you’re going to be dealing with issues of appropriation if only because Tiki himself has been rudely stolen from Polynesia.

If actual offended Polynesians come and try to stop your game – and if they won’t be bought off with an offer of drinks – then I’d say your best defense is the opposite of what you usually hear, about being culturally sensitive or paying attention to the “original meaning” of whatever you’ve nicked. Instead, pile on so much of your own creativity that the appropriated parts are transformed into something new. That’s what artists do.

Thinking about it, the slow evaporation of the Tiki mood from DnD just might be what defines the edge between James Malichewski’s Golden and Silver ages. When DnD got its visual style defined as heavy metal it acquired metal’s earnestness – the wargamer tourists of the 70s gave way to a new player base of DnD natives who took it all very seriously and wanted to know just how heavy that axe was. Kitsch, whimsy, a lack intensity – these became signs of poor commitment.

With thanks and apologies to Trey Causey, Scott Martin, Steve Sigety and Chirine Ba Kal, all of whom have been quoted out of context and may want to disavow this whole thing.

Things to do in a shipwreck

May 5, 2016 Leave a comment

Because +Handy Haversack asked, here are some circumstances of shipwreck and typical responses from the age of sail, swiped from the corpus of shipwreck stories, mostly Dutch and English but a few Arabic in that piecemeal Orientalist mode that it’s so hard to escape. I’ve deliberately kept these historical rather than fantastical because I assume you can add all the uncheckable fantasy elements you need. And this is not supposed to be exhaustive – in particular it doesn’t tackle the Small Boat Journey that so often rounds out a shipwreck tale. I might get to those sometime soon…

What to do if the ship is sinking:
The Dutch East India Company had a clear protocol for what to do in a shipwreck:
1. obey the officers.
2. try to save the ship.
But then, their rules were written by the money men, safe on shore. Abandoning the ship could be punishable by death if they caught up with you. If you were the captain a wreck would probably end your career.
“Women and Children First” and the trope of noble self-sacrifice really only started in the 19th century long after the wreck of the Meduse and might have been apocryphal/literary until the Titanic. The idea of the captain sacrificing himself to save the rest of the crew and female passengers goes back to the wreck of the Halsewell (1786) but it was a remarkable act, not common expectation.
Muslim seafarers (before the 19th c) would throw stuff off a ship in peril to lighten it (most peril coming from storms/high waves). Once the cargo and guns and spare spars were gone, you could draw lots for the people. Non-Muslims and slaves might offer a buffer-zone before you got to such dire straits, though.
Ideas of fairness in general become really important during wrecks – indeed, are defined by them. Crews tend to mutiny (especially if not free laborers) and personal leadership becomes important. In the 19th century, contracts are canceled at the moment of wrecking, so the steward staff are all immediately fired, which might help to explain the breakdown of social order a bit, but probably not all that much.

What I have observed from British, Dutch and Portuguese accounts, is that people respond to the things they can see and deal with right now. You can distract the crew from fighting a fire by shouting that the merchant is getting away in the boat – suddenly everyone will deal with the boat and nobody will be fighting the fire. Chaos is everywhere: a small group of determined leaders can make the difference between saving the ship and losing it, or rescuing the crew, or just swiping a boat and escaping.

A point about lifeboats: before the age of passenger ships (1860+) these were mostly unknown (except _maybe_ in Zheng He’s Treasure Fleet). Whether the ship carried 30 or 1300 people, it would probably have 2 or 3 boats, each capable of carrying maybe 20 people, for running mail/small stores/shore missions. Life rings were also only adopted in the 19th c. Usually “man overboard” meant “man lost” especially if the ship were a slaver or warship or on the usual slaver routes, because sharks would follow those ships. Even non-slaver ships would sometimes fish up sharks on quiet days, to haul them on deck, torture them for being evil, and then throw them back… to be eaten by sharks.

So what happens in a wreck and what do you do about it?

Causes of Wreck:
     rocky lee shore: total loss of ship almost certain 😦 But land nearby 🙂 But so are the smashy waves that will grind your ship (and loose people) up on the rocks 😦 Your best bet is a sturdy surf boat, nervy steering and good luck. Rapid loss of ship leaves little time for grabbing stuff before leaving, maybe half the cargo will wash ashore in some sort of recognizable condition. Ashore there might be wrecker villagers, eager to knife any survivors/witnesses to their looting. Or cannibal savages, or in Muslim lands a proper legal system and trusted friend-of-merchants where the salvage might be stored awaiting a proper claimant.
Style moves: using masts/spars to form a bridge to safe land/cliff. Throwing small party members to boats that are far enough offshore to avoid the smashy waves.

     sand bar/reef out at sea in worst case can be like rocky lee shore, in best case, ship might float off again at high tide with minor damage. After initial shock (possible falling spars) wrecks tend to progress slower. If there’s a safe shore nearby, order can be maintained and many boat journeys made to rescue crew and even cargo. If there’s only a small group of dry islands, “rescue” may be worse than wreck: mutiny is likely.
Longer wrecking events have a typical pattern:
1. shock, officers on deck, injuries from falling rigging, assessment of damage. Warships and East Indiamen might store barrels of grenades on the mast heads to use against boarders, so those can spice things up.
2. crew either orderly but impatient (require strong officers) or despairing and mutinous (will break into, in order: liquor stores, munitions, ships’ hand weapons). Despair tends to increase, so this is probably a morale roll every hour, quicker if the ship starts to break up.
3. some people get off in boats, everyone else resents them, suspects they’ve run away. Small acts of looting, especially if there’s alcohol, chests of money
4. crew actually removed to safety, attempts to save cargo. This is very hard to achieve: people are exhausted. Generally it’s easier to get them to dive for treasure days later than to go back into the ship for those silk bales right then and there.
5. new situation ashore. Usually only the captain and 1st officer know where you are. Hexcrawl to guess which direction you should go for help.

     storm/high seas ships generally have a max height of waves they can deal with. Exceed it and the water gets in and the boat goes down. You can increase this maximum by lightening the ship (see previous comment). You should also keep just one small sail up to help you steer into the waves so they don’t hit you on the side, maybe throw out a sea anchor, otherwise ride it out. This shakes the rigging and cannons loose, makes a mess of the deck, and can eventually shake the timbers of the ship apart – they start by leaking (stuff rags in) and can wind up splitting right off their nails/stitching/keel-posts. Then it’s Sindbad time: cling to a lump of wood and drift. Storms produce the most floating wreckage, some of which can be used for rafts/new boats. Then it’s small boat journey time (prob another chapter in this ridiculous comment set).
Reasons for storm-wrecks:
1. navigator impious/cursed. This is terrible – the navigator’s the only guy who can get you to safety. Solution: repent or jettison.
2. merchant impious/cursed. Jettison – may be grabbed by some other sign of his metaphysically dangerous condition (whale, Rama, conch-woman)
3. test of faith: hang on, stay together, no arguing, obey the captain/chaplain.
4. supernatural disapproval of your mission/cargo/destination/sect (especially popular with Portuguese). Solution: mutiny (risky, see below)
5. mutiny. God doesn’t like it when you disobey orders. Dutch stories tend to go “we were OK until the mutiny, then we hit the rocks. Then almost all of us died but the last 20 rallied behind the captain and he got them out of the storm.”
6. bad luck. Maybe you had women aboard or someone put the books upside down or the model ship back to front. Solution: none, just deal with the new situation.

fire or structural failure these are both negligence issues, and tend to begin slowly and build. Fire in the hold is a nightmare: there’s nowhere to go, lots of nooks and crannies for it to hide in, and the hold will act as a smoke-trap, but not enough to stifle the fire. Solutions: throw water into hold in buckets (smokey! Unlikely to reach source of flames) or dive off ship and drill holes in bottom to drown flames deep in the hold (always popular! Success depends on how low down the fire is, managing to plug the holes afterwards). Flammable things typically kept in holds: barrels, grain in open bins, cloths, spare spars, sails, oil and pitch for maintenance, rope, strong liquor (explosive!), coal for cooking or maintaining colonies, gunpowder magazine. This last one sank the Nieuw Hoorn – when fire first broke out (when the under-steward dropped his candle in an open barrel of liquor) the crew made a bucket chain and doused it…. or so they thought for several hours. But it turned out burning alcohol had dribbled down the inside of the ship and got into the coal, making for a long, persistent, chokingly smokey blaze. The crew tried the bucket chain and drilling holes, but the fire kept burning. Eventually a good number of them mutinied, tried to escape in the boat, were discovered by the master who tried to ram them… and then the ship blew up. The master survived, unconscious in a section of the stern that floated through the night, to be rescued by the deserters.

Structural failure is just bad building or maintenance… or sabotage. In notorious cases 18th century British warships sank because their keels had rotted through. Big ships sink slowly – it can be possible to pump them out enough to go across the Atlantic… and so therefore it’s possible for desperate naval or company money-men to keep ships that are basically sinking in service, as long as they don’t have to face down the pumping crews. If a keel rots badly enough, the masts can come loose from it. This kind of slow wreck can take days to unfold and for a while it’s unclear if you’re actually sinking or if the leak might get better.  Alas, ships full of water sail slower.