The philosophy of these naval combat rules is that the Pathfinder Role-Playing Game is designed for folks to fight face to face. So the goal of this system is not to accurately model ships maneuvering and shooting each other. It’s to get ships close enough for combat to begin using the normal rules. Along the way, though, horrible things should happen to the ships so that the combat environment is interesting.

For more detailed naval combat rules, see our upcoming sourcebook, Admiral o’ the High Seas.

Naval Combat

There are three ranges—short, medium, and long. At short range, ships are within 25 ft. of each other, close enough to board or ram. Ships outside short range but within 150 ft. of each other are at medium range: ranged attacks are possible, but imprecise. Ships farther apart than 150 ft. but within 400 ft. of one another are at long range; at this range attacks are ineffective, at least during this era of technology. Most naval encounters start at long range.

Each turn is about a minute long, and consists of four steps—location, range, bearing, and attack. Most basic ship actions require the captain to make a Command check (d20 + his Command score). Sometimes enemy ships make Command checks too, but usually the PC captain makes a check against a DC equal to 10 + the opposing ship’s captain’s Command score, as if the enemy decided to Take 10.

During the turn, each PC chooses how to contribute to battle, such as by acting as captain, directing the crew as bosun, aiding maneuvers as the pilot, aiding attacks as gunner, repairing damage as engineer, or warning of danger as look-out. Characters might also spend their turn to attack, but few PCs can muster as much destructive force as a cannon volley.

Because of their size, ships do not have hit points like creatures. Rather, attacks can damage components (weapons, sails, crew compartments, etc.), damage crew, or damage hull integrity. Damaged components usually change the environment when tactical combat begins (smoke and fires, collapsed rigging, listing deck, etc.). Enough hull integrity damage can sink a ship outright.

At the end of a naval turn, if the ships are at short range, either side can choose to move to normal tactical combat. Once tactical combat begins, the mundane crew of the two ships function more like terrain than actual combatants, because the hassle of tracking 40 NPCs doesn’t add much to the play experience. Characters might still spend their turns to direct the crew instead of acting on their own, and could even deploy shipboard weapons as devastating area attacks.


The GM should have maps of all ships, stats for the vessel, and details of the crew. The GM should describe the environment and starting location, then list notable locations the encounter might move to.

Naval Turns

Action in naval combat is focused on the party’s actions. There is no initiative, and all actions resolved “simultaneously” in the same one minute turn. An entire naval encounter can usually be resolved in just a few minutes, leaving the lion’s share of time for tactical combat.

One PC acts as captain throughout the whole turn. The other PCs can choose during the course of the turn which crew roles they want to fill, as needed.

Turn Stages

Each naval combat turn has five phases. All ships involved in combat act simultaneously, but the focus is on what the PCs do.


During this stage, the PC captain makes a Command check. If he succeeds, he can stay in the current sea location, or move the encounter to a different location, such as a deadly whirlpool, or a crowded ship graveyard. Failure means the enemy ship makes that choice.

If the winning ship wants to move, the losing ship can refuse to move. In this situation, the winning ship can choose to end the encounter by sailing away, or to continue. If the encounter continues, the losing ship takes a –5 penalty to Command during this turn’s Range and Bearing stages.

If the ships move into a sea location with dangerous terrain, resolve those conditions now.


During this stage, the PC captain makes a Command check. If he succeeds, he can stay at his current range, or move one range step closer or farther away. If he fails, the enemy ship makes the decision.


During this stage, the PC captain makes a Command check to see how good a bearing he can achieve. He can get a critical success (natural 20), succeed (beat the DC), tie (equal to the DC), fail (below the DC), or critically fail (natural 1). How well he rolls determines what angle the two ships end up at.

There are 5 angles.
  • Side to Tail. The ship picking its bearing can fire broadside, and the other ship can only use rearward weapons.
  • Side to Point. The ship picking its bearing can fire broadside, and the other ship can only use forward weapons.
  • Point to Tail. The ship picking its bearing can fire forward weapons and/or ram the other ship if the two are at Close range.
  • Point to Point. Both ships can fire forward weapons.
  • Side to Side. Both ships can broadside.
On a critical success, the PC captain can pick any bearing. On a success, the PC captain can choose from 2 to 5. On a tie, the PC captain chooses either 4 or 5. Failure means the enemy captain can choose from 2 to 5 (so they could fire broadside against your point, or ram you from behind). Critical failure lets the enemy captain pick any bearing.


For each of its firing arcs, a ship can make one attack against a target in that arc (d20 + its attack bonus against the enemy ship’s Defense). A successful attack causes one hit, plus an additional hit for every 5 points by which the attack roll beats the target’s Defense.

Attacks at Close range use the full attack bonus. Attacks at Medium range take a –10 penalty. Attacks at Long range are normally impossible. For each hit, roll on the table below to determine the location struck.

If the rolled component is already destroyed, or if the ship doesn’t have the listed component, the ship takes 1 point of Hull Integrity damage instead. For instance, hits to weaponry deal Hull Integrity damage if the ship has no weaponry, or at least no weaponry on the side of the ship that was hit. Roll 1d10 on the following table to determine the hit location.

Hit Locations

1–2 Rigging or Engine
3–4 Main Deck
5–6 Miscellaneous
7–8 Gunnery Deck
9–10 Hull

Effects of hits are detailed in Ships and Crews, below.

Ramming Speed: If the ships are at Short range, the captain who won the Command check during the Bearing stage can choose to ram. His ship must be oriented with point toward the opposing ship. The PC captain makes a Command check to aim well, or to reduce damage from a hit.

Ramming deals 2 points of Hull Integrity damage to the target, plus an additional 1 for every size category the attacking ship is larger than the target. The attacker takes 1 point of Hull Integrity damage. If the attacker fails his Command check, halve the damage to the target and double the damage to the attacker.


If two ships end up at Short range, begin tactical combat. Place the ships on the battle map in an orientation determined during the Bearing stage.

The ship with the higher Command check determines the starting distance, from adjacent to 25 ft. apart.

Ships and Crews

Ships are like characters, but have a few rules of their own.

Ship Locations

Ships have 5 main locations.
  • Rigging. On a steam-powered ship, this is replaced by an engine room.
  • Main Deck. The exposed upper deck, this also includes fore- and aft-castles on typical sailing ships, or command bridges on steam ships.
  • Miscellaneous. This section includes a variety of internal components below the main deck, like brigs, sick bays, laboratories, crew quarters, or holds.
  • Weaponry. On small ships, the main deck might double as a gunnery deck. On magically powerful ships, a gunnery deck might be supplemented by a Brand, a supernatural weapon that must be operated by magic-user. This section also includes the ship’s magazine—the ammunition stores for cannons, or the charged energy for Brands, both of which can explode if disturbed.
  • Hull. This is whatever element of the ship keeps it from sinking.
Crew Locations

Because ship weapons can damage crew based on where they hit, it is useful to have a map for each ship, especially the main deck. Before attack rolls are made each naval turn, every PC should have chosen where he is. Crew usually keeps to the same location unless the bosun directs them otherwise.

Crew Roles

Every turn, each PC can take one action to aid the ship. Someone must act as Captain, or else the ship automatically fails all Command checks.
  • Captain. Decides ship’s movement. Must be on main deck.
  • Navigator. Plots courses to grant bonuses for maneuvers. Must be on main deck.
  • Look-Out. Helps avoid hazards and tricks. Must be in rigging or on main deck.
  • Gunner. Aims shipboard weapons, or uses own ranged attacks. Usually on gunnery deck, but varies based on ship’s weapons.
  • Engineer. Repairs damage, or adjusts ship components to improve performance. Must be in whichever location he’s fixing or modifying.
  • Bosun. Manages the crew and can grant small bonuses in various roles. Must be in whichever location he’s directing crew.
Characters might also attack an enemy ship, or try some other task. It’s impossible to cover every tactic, but usually you can rule that an effort grants a bonus or penalty to some other aspect of the rules already detailed. Weather magic might aid a Command check in the Range stage, while feigning damage to lure an enemy in might aid a Command check in the Bearing stage.


The captain’s Command score is equal to half his level plus the highest ability modifier out of his Intelligence, Wisdom, and Charisma. He must be able to communicate with his crew. During naval combat, a captain can hand off this role to another character between turns.

Other crew roles can grant the equivalent of rerolls on specific actions. This typically represents the difference between the captain giving specific orders (“Set a course at 15 degrees North Northeast at twelve knots”) and the captain providing general goals and trusting his crew to carry them out (“Cut them off so we can bring our port guns to bear”).


One PC can act as Navigator at a time. Once per turn, after the captain makes a Command check, the navigator can make a Dexterity or Intelligence check. The ship uses the better of the two rolls.

The Navigator can instead try to use evasive maneuvers. This increases the ship’s Defense by the navigator’s Dexterity or Intelligence modifier.


One PC can act as Look-Out. Whenever the captain would make a Command check to avoid the danger of sea terrain, the look-out can make a Perception check. The ship uses the better of the two rolls. Opponents attempting a trick must beat both the captain and the look-out’s Sense Motive.


One PC can act as Gunner per firing arc. A gunner lets the ship roll twice for its attacks. Also, the gunner can choose the location of the first hit each turn.


Multiple PCs can act as Engineer, but each needs crew to help him, based on the size of the ship, which might leave certain aspects of the ship under-manned. An engineer can choose one damaged component and make a saving throw (or roll an unmodified d20 vs. DC 10). On a success, the component is repaired.

The engineer can instead try to repair 1 point of Hull Integrity damage, but in a given encounter, no more than half the ship’s Hull Integrity (round up) can be repaired. Repairing damage can halt listing or sinking.


One PC can act as Bosun at a time. By efficiently relaying the captain’s orders, he can grant a +2 bonus to any one Command check, or to an attack roll, after the check or attack has been rolled.

Personal Attacks

For ease of gameplay, we try to limit the use of personal attacks before tactical combat begins. However, a character can spend his turn to use a single ranged or area attack power against an enemy ship. Assume that during the other 9 rounds worth of time, conditions of waves, winds, and visibility make attacking pointless or ineffectual.

The attack must be able to reach 800 ft. (160 squares) at long range, 150 ft. (30 squares) at medium range, or 25 ft. (5 squares) at short range.

The PC can aim the attack anywhere he normally could. Most attacks do nothing against a ship, and are only useful for injuring crew.

Non-Player Ships and Crew Roles

Usually ships controlled by NPCs cannot take advantage of crew roles. Each ship will have a captain who determines its Command score, but for ease of play the GM generally won’t have any NPCs trying to improve the performance of the ship. In special circumstances, however, the GM might have a prominent NPC perform a crew role.

Damage and Hull Integrity

Ships do not have hit points the same way normal creatures do. Instead they have a Hull Integrity score. Attacks can deal multiple hits, and each hit can either damage components, damage crew, or damage hull integrity.
Component damage is detailed in the appropriate sections below. Hull Integrity damage is detailed under hull.

Crew Damage. Whenever an attack hits a location where crew are active, it also causes some collateral damage from splinters and debris. Whenever a hit causes crew damage, the attacking captain or gunner chooses an area burst 1 somewhere in that location. Each creature in the area makes a saving throw. On a failure, the creature takes 3d6+7 damage. On a success, the creature takes half damage, or no damage if it is a minion.

Rigging/Engines. One hit damages the rigging. A second destroys it. Damaged rigging incurs a –5 penalty to the captain’s Command score. Destroyed rigging means the captain automatically fails Command checks, and the ship is immobilized. When the rigging is destroyed, creatures in the rigging and on the main deck suffer crew damage. Add some quantity of blocking terrain from fallen masts, and mark locations with fallen rigging, which count as difficult terrain.

Engines work much the same as rigging. However, a destroyed engine fills the ship with smoke and does crew damage to everyone near the engine. This damage is fire damage. Damage to an engine might also represent disabled rudders or screws, with the same mechanical effects.

Main Deck. Hits here only cause crew damage. The main deck is never destroyed, though sufficient hits might create difficult terrain or even holes in walls and floors.

Miscellaneous. Each round, choose one component that can be damaged by a miscellaneous hit. This prevents ships from stocking up on fancy galleys and luxury pool halls to defend themselves from sinking. One hit to a given miscellaneous component destroys it. Creatures inside suffer crew damage.

Weaponry. One hit damages a ship’s weapons in that firing arc, and causes crew damage to some of the crew operating the weapons. When tactical combat begins, the ship is affected by smoke. Damaged weapons take a –5 penalty to their attack rolls, and they cannot fire if that same firing arc fired last round, due to difficulties in reloading and reaiming.

A second hit destroys the firing capabilities in a given firing arc, and deals additional damage to crew in that area. In tactical combat the ship is affected by fire as well as smoke.

Hull. Every hit to the hull, or hits to an already destroyed component, deal 1 point of Hull Integrity damage. When a ship’s Hull Integrity is reduced below half its full value, it lists. If it is reduced to 0 or below, it is flooding and may sink.


During a naval encounter, a listing ship cannot change locations, and it automatically fails all Command checks unless it can be repaired. During tactical combat, a listing ship has one side sloping toward the sea. Any creature that cannot hold onto a railing or other support treats all movement as difficult terrain. A creature that is knocked prone slides 10 feet toward the water.

If the ship’s hull integrity is repaired above half, the ship rights itself.

Flooding and Sinking

During naval combat, a ship reduced to 0 hull integrity is immobilized.

It automatically fails Command checks, and during the Bearing stage the opposing ship can approach at any angle. It sinks two turns later unless repaired.

During tactical combat, at the end of the ship’s turn each round, the Captain rolls a percentile, with a 50% chance of success. Once the ship has failed three saves in this way, it begins to descend 5 ft. per round.

On a natural 20, the ship stabilizes, floating but perhaps partially submerged.

As with listing, the ship might be stabilized by repairs.

Ships in Tactical Combat

In tactical combat, ships are basically giant pieces of terrain that can be moved if enough characters spend their actions to do so.


To represent the simultaneity of multiple ships maneuvering at once, all ships act at Initiative count 0. Each ship’s captain has a Command score, equal to half his level plus the highest modifier among his Intelligence, Wisdom, and Charisma. The ships move in order of lowest Command score to highest, giving the canniest and most commanding captain an advantage.


When a ship takes its turn, it moves up to its speed. If there is no one in command or if the ship lacks sufficient crew to pilot, the ship drifts the same number of squares it moved last round. The ship can only move forward or diagonally forward.

Close-combat maneuvers force ships to move at less than their full speed, so a ship’s speed entry does not accurately reflect how fast it travels over long distances. These ship-based tactical combat rules assume that ships are moving at less than their full speed in order to be able to better avoid obstacles and engage their foes. (Also, a ship traveling at speed 20 would go off the edge of a typical battle map in a round or two.)

If a ship is stationary and fully crewed for two consecutive turns, it can switch between moving forward and backward. Ships move backward at half speed.

Turning and Maneuverability

When the captain decides to turn his ship, the vessel must move a number of squares equal to half the ship’s length, after which it will rotate 90 degrees. For instance, a cutter that is 35 ft. long (7 squares) would have to move 3 squares before it could turn, while a barquentine that is 75 ft. long (15 squares) would have to move 7 squares before it could turn. Very long or slow ships might have to move for several rounds before they can turn. Movement during turns when the ship is short-manned don’t count. A ship’s axis of rotation can be any square along the aft line of the vessel’s space. If the arc of the turn would hit an immobile object, it cannot turn. (In the advanced rules, such turns will be possible, but will count as collisions.)

Some ships have maneuverability traits that adjust how they turn.

Ship Terrain

Many spaces on a ship will be difficult terrain, crowded with spare lines, barrels of supplies, and the various tools used to keep ships in working order. Characters should be encouraged to use these in improvised attacks.

Rigging can be entered from any space adjacent to the edge of the ship, or adjacent to any of its masts. Most rigging can be climbed with an Acrobatics or Athletics check (DC 10). For ease of play, assume that characters can occupy any space above the ship, up to the maximum of the rigging’s height.

Falling overboard is a great risk, so most ships have railings along their edges. If forced movement would take a creature through the railing and off the ship, that creature gets a +5 bonus to its saving throw to avoid being thrown overboard. Climbing up the side of a ship in steady waters requires an Athletics check (DC 10).


When two ships first make contact they are immobilized on their next turns as hull grinds against hull. Thereafter the two ships can move normally, though intrepid sailors might toss grappling lines to hook the vessels together.


Ships in these quick-play rules require 2 crew to pilot (15 for a big ship, half as many for a steam ship). Being crew takes a standard action. It helps to have minions. Ships require a captain. Being captain is a free action. Declaring an ally to be the new captain is a move action.

At initiative count 0, all ships move, but only forward or diagonally forward. If there’s no captain, or if not enough crew work to pilot, a ship drifts at the same speed it moved last round. Ships can turn 90 degrees after moving forward 3 squares (7 squares for a big ship).

When two ships first move adjacent, their movement stops and neither can move the following turn.

Command Score

A character’s Command score is equal to half his level plus the highest bonus among his Intelligence, Wisdom, and Charisma. So a 6th level character with an 18 Intelligence would have a +7 Command score. Different ship and crew traits can grant bonuses to Command in specific circumstances.