D&D 5E Storm at Sea Skill Challenge


Hi all,

During the last session of my Tomb of Annihilation campaign, the sailing ship the PCs were on (Golden Seahorse) was attacked by a pirate ship (Dragonfang). They defeated the pirates without too much trouble and took Elok, the wereboar captain, prisoner. As they were only 5 days into a 14-day voyage to the Snout of Omgar, they decided to turn around and take Dragonfang and her captain back to Port Nyanzaru to claim the bounty.

Because the sorcerer PC inadvertently destroyed Dragonfang's sails with a vitriolic sphere, they have had no choice but to tow Dragonfang back to port. They've also press-ganged the surviving pirates to fill in the gaps in their own ship's ranks, after several of the sailors perished in the fight.

I established that Elok is a difficult prisoner, as he can easily escape his bonds by shapeshifting. They've basically had to keep him under 24-hour guard, knocking him out with a magic weapon/spell every time he wakes up.

When they were only one day away from returning to Port Nyanzaru, a tropical storm blew in. I decided to end the session there so I could figure out how best to proceed. I think I'd like to run a skill challenge of sorts.

There are three main parts to the challenge, as I see it:
  1. The PCs need to keep Golden Seahorse afloat and avoid having too many sailors washed overboard
  2. The PCs need to prevent Dragonfang from foundering, coming lose, sinking, etc or else they won't be able to claim the bounty on it
  3. The PCs need to stop Elok from getting free, rallying his pirates, and causing trouble during the storm's chaos

Ghosts of Saltmarsh has some rules for handling both crew conflicts and storms, but they are quite basic. I need something a bit more nuanced.

If anyone has any ideas, I'd love it if you'd share them with me!

Thanks in advance!

p.s. In case it matters, there are four PCs and they are all level 7. None of them have proficiency with water vehicles, but one has proficiency with navigator's tools. This same PC, however, suffers from seasickness.

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Just some thoughts... I haven't played the adventure, so I'm just spitballing.

I think a scenario, depending on how your table is, would be having to make a choice: keep this pirate alive or save their lives.

I think an interesting story would/could involve having to rely on letting the pirate captain and crew free in exchange for the party letting them go. I don't know this particular NPC or their crew, but every character should be primarily interested in their own survival, even if it's just a D&D npc. As a friend always says to me irl 'very few people choose to take the worst choice, most people make the best decision they can with the info they have in hand'. That pirate captain does not want to drown any more than the PCs do.

As far as how bad/difficult it should be for PCs with no experience with ships and only one with navigator tools proficiency - well, I grew up along Lake Michigan. The story of the Edmund Fitzgerald's wreck was always a living story to me - that was a story of twenty-nine men who did this for a living getting taken under, what chance do level 7 pcs have?

I'd say the session should be a lot of wear and tear, but don't let the players know that generally speaking, they'll live. Go the Die Hard route (the first one) and let them get their butts kicked and have to find many weird skill and stat checks or spell use to keep the ship together.

Something else? Maybe they get tossed overboard and get rescued by merfolk -- well, now they owe a debt to the merfolk.... just random thoughts. Maybe there's something good in there for you.


Not your screen monkey (he/him)
Since it sounds like the PCs hired the ship, they aren’t the ship’s crew or leadership and maybe shouldn’t be counted on to making primary seamanship checks. That said, focus on them making decisions that make sense to meet their goals.

Skill challenges work best at determining levels of success and you’ve got some good ones here. Lots of good actions and successful checks can mean success at all of the objectives, a bit less success/more failures means one goal fails but the others succeed, and so on.
As I see it, they want to:
1. Keep their ship afloat
2. Preserve their crew
3. Keep the pirate ship successfully in tow
4. Keep the pirates pressed into the crew under control
5. Keep the pirate captain in custody

And the fun part is you can let them know that some choices they may make can make these tasks easier/harder. So if they fail at #5, #4 is at disadvantage. But if they cut their losses with #5 by ganking the pirate captain, they have advantage on #4. Cutting the pirate ship loose should make #1 and #2 easier.

But if they can’t come up with good ideas or make tough decisions if pushed with failures, don’t be afraid to sink them. Seriously.

While your idea of skill challenge is interesting, it could be blended with the timer idea from LU explained in this very forum. I put it to good use and it's working to enhance tension. It might require a lot of dice but generally gamers have buckets of them so I hope it will work... We have three concurrent timers:

1. The storm is going to sink the ships. If left unattended, it will capsize them, but it's not really clear how long it will take, and the duration of the storm is unknown as well.
2. Elok is trying to survive, and knowing he'll be hang if taken back for bounty, jumping off and reaching a debris is actually a slightly better position than he's in (maybe he also has some sea magic to help him reach the shore), so his goal is to escape and flee, but clearing from his jail will take an uncertain time
3. The crew will try to survive, irrespective of their status (hired or captured pirates) because they want primarily to not get drown, but their numbers is dwindling because the storm put a few of them overboard... how long will they stay in enough number to keep the ship afloat?

I'd run the first timer as the larger one, a 10d6 slow pool. The storm leaves when it is exhausted. Unattended, it will last 17 iterations on average. Manoeuvering at the helm can help remove dice from the pool (I'll let you adjudicate the DC needed) and the various weather spells or water control spells or storm sorcerer's class feature they might know could also remove dice. Go for 15 minutes round. They could also summon elementals (at level 7, they can cast the 4th level spell) and try to put it to good use. This is probably the hardest timer to modify, but it will allow the character proficient with navigator's tool to shine (it's rarer than Stealth or Arcana, so why not...)

Meanwhile, they have to deal with the other problems...

First, there is the Elok evasion pool. Since he's basically able to shapechange out of his bonds, escaping will be very quick for him (we're going with 15 minutes rounds). Maybe a medium 4d6 pool would be appropriate, if left unattended. Keeping an eye on him will monopolize a character's attention, and each character after the first add one die to the pool each round. If the pool expires, Elok tries to escape, irrespective of guards and tries to avoid fighting to get out. While he's bound, he can plead for his life "I forfeit the Dragonfang, but swear to the local sea goddess not to give me to the guards when in Nyanzaru and I'll use my... triton magic to drive away the storm" [whether he has triton magic, and whether breaking this oath will have consequence is up to you...] So unless most of the group spends his time overwatching him, the pool will run out and they will have to deal with him.

Second, there is the state of the ship and crew. I'd size it according to the difficulty you want to assign to the situation: if it's a slower pool than the storm's one, then even without character intervention, they'll survive it (supposedly, 0 die in the pool means the boat capsize), if it's smaller, then they'll need the characters to do things to survive (I'd advise a 10d6 pool as well, but medium at first (sailors are wiped overboard) then slow (when the ship is starting to get structural damage). Have the lost dice represent sailors lost to the storm or variously injured. The playuers can "get dice back" into the pool by repairing things, healing sailors when needed, maybe doing some feat of strenght to help those under a broken mast to get free... If the pool starts depleting quickly, players will panick, not knowing it changes pace mid-way... it will increase tension.

Other ideas: have them make Religion checks to know that sacrificing the younger sailor to the local sea goddess is known to appease her wrath. Whether they want to act on this information is up to them... (I expect them not to) but unfortunately, the local sailors do know the legend as well and they'd very much consider it once there is only 3 dice left in the structural pool. (So passing the check will allow the players to anticipate any action against the youngest sailor). Actually engaging with the sailor on the topic might help identify alternative appropriate sacrifices (non-living) to help drive the tempest away should the PC choose to reason the sailors out of their murderous idea instead of just killing the first mate to incite compliance among the remainder of the crew.

Have the provision go overboard. They are 5 days out of the nearest port? That will be an interesting journey (but if they can create food and water for them, can they for the remainder of the crew?)

I'd have the Dragonfang threaten to capsize due to badly attached crates of loot in the hold at some point during the storm, with the dilemma to the players to cut the rope between the ships or spending some of their time to fix the problem.

(maybe more as I think of them).

Edit: I agree with the thought above that you should be ready to sink them and having the various pools in the open will help show them that you're not fudging things in their favor.
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Could go with a hybrid of 4E's skill challenge.

As @billd91 stated, looks like there is 5 activities for the characters to accomplish. You could go round-robin around the table, having each PC make a check towards one of the five activities. PC's have to X (say 3 or 5) many successes before 3 failures on each activity.

Some ideas for checks:

1) Keep their ship afloat
- Make a Strength check, using Carpentry tools to repair damage caused by the storm
- Make a Dexterity check, bailing water from the hold of the ship
- Make a Perception (Wis) check to watch for rogue waves
- Make a Persuasion (Cha) check to direct the crew to preserve the ship
- etc.

Failures indicates damage to the ship and/or water being taken on. After the 3rd loss, the ship begins to flounder and will sink if emergency measures are not taken (perhaps autofailing all other actions).

2) Preserve their crew
- Make a Persuasion (Cha) check to issue warnings to crew members
- Make an Athletics (Str) check to save someone from going over the side
- Make an Acrobatics (Dex) check to navigate the deck and help a crewmate
- Make a Performance (Cha) check to get a work chant going to aid the crew co-ordinate their efforts.
- Make a Survival (Wis) check to keep from being battered on deck
- Make a Constitution save to keep from being nauseated on the rolling deck
- etc.

Success indicates the crew works effieciently, allowing them to help with other duties, giving advantage on one other check for the turn. Failure indicates the crew takes losses - perhaps someone of import (Captain, Bosun, Cook, Surgeon, etc.) each additional failure past the 3rd indicates additional crew losses.

3) Keep the pirate ship successfully in tow

- Make a Strength check to keep the towed ship in line
- Make a Nature (Int) check to sense how the ship should steered so the towed ship isn't swamped
- Make a Perception (Wis) check to see the state of the towed ship in the storm
- etc.

Success means the pirate ship is kept in line/brought in close, and possibly can be used to repair the main boat or keep her bouyant while repairs are made. Failure indicates the towed ship begins to adversely affect the main ship, adding an automatic failure to one other action per turn until cut loose or somehow fixed.

4) Keep the pirates pressed into the crew under control

  • Make a Deception (Cha) check to placate the pirates with false promises
  • Make an Insight (Wis) check to keep the pirates from becoming unruly
  • Make an Intimidate (Str/Cha) check to scare the pirates into behaving
  • Make a Weapon attack with a bludgeoning weapon (such as a whip or belaying pin) to cow the pirates into behaving
  • etc.

Success means the pirate crew realizes that it is in their best interest to help navigate through the storm, and grant advantage on one check a turn to keep the ship afloat or preserve the crew. Failure indicates a mutiny of sorts, either making the other actions more difficult or a fight breaking out.

5) Keep the pirate captain in custody

  • Make an Insight (Wis) to keep an eye on the captain
  • Make an Intimidate (Str/Cha) to keep the captain in line
  • Make a Weapon attack to daze the captain
  • etc.

Success might mean he offers advice on how to tow the pirate ship or keep the pirate crew in line, giving advantage on those checks. Failure means the captain escapes his bonds, and can begin making trouble (perhaps disadvantage on towing the pirate ship or keeping the pirate crew in line)

At the end of each go-around, whatever activity (1-5) didn't have the PC's take action, gains a strike/failure/complication against it. The party will have to keep multiple plates spinning to


Thanks for all the suggestions so far, everyone! I’m beginning to see how this might play out.

@billd91 is correct that the PCs are passengers on board Golden Seahorse. The ship was chartered for them to take them to a remote island on behalf of a wealthy benefactor. (That same benefactor is stumping up the funds for the bounties on the pirate ships/captains.)

So with that in mind - maybe the NPC crew should make the checks to keep Golden Seahorse afloat while the PCs focus on keeping their prizes safe.

I’ll give them a chance to make some preparations as well, as the storm won’t be super sudden. They’ll be able to see it coming, and it will build up over time.

So they could, for instance, have one of their number crawl out across the ropes to the towed ship before the weather gets too crazy to assist with steering / bailing / etc. (I imagine there would need to be a sailor or two on board Dragonfang already to steer it, like when you’re towing a car behind another car.)

This group isn’t the most proactive, so while I’m inclined to make this a player driven event, I think I will at least need to give them some prompts and guidance instead of leaving it entirely up to them to decide what needs to be done.


Great Old One
This group isn’t the most proactive, so while I’m inclined to make this a player driven event, I think I will at least need to give them some prompts and guidance instead of leaving it entirely up to them to decide what needs to be done.

Honestly, I would run this in a completely different way, considering that:
  • The characters do not have the skills themselves (so a skill challenge is not appropriate, even assuming that it serves a purpose, for me it's only a technical counter for DMs not feeling enough sure of themselves to manage a situation without guidelines, or wanting some counters to justify a result to players).
  • The players are not the most proactive.
What I've done for as long as I can remember running scenarios beyond exploration and roleplay, is running an NPC-centric game (not NPC-driven, it's not about the NPC taking the reins, it's about how the PC interact with and manage the NPCs).

Just create a number of interesting NPCs among the crew, possibly organised in factions, each with motivations, skills and ideas as to how to manage the situation, and let the PC interact with them, or coming to prompt the PCs to offer solutions if the PCs are not going to them. If the PCs have no idea and are not proactive at all, at least they can choose between the alternatives offered, but it might also prompt them to really take command, offer ideas, and organise the NPCs around their plan.

And the nice thing is that you do not need mechanics for that, apart from simple checks for social interaction if needed, and a lot can be passive anyway.


The Storm has 3 escalating phases: (1) Rolling Waves & Darkening Clouds, (2) Crashing Surf & Whipping Winds, (3) Whirlpool & Lightning Strikes.

Each phase involves each player rolling on the Random Storm Event Table. At phase #1 it's a d6 (1-6), then at phase #2 a d6+2 (3-8), then at phase #3 a d6+4 (5-10). You might want to add more options – for time's sake, I'm just giving you a baseline to design your own from.

No matter what, the players' priority is keeping the ship afloat and most of their crew alive. If they fail there, none of those other objectives really matter. In fact, if the players aren't the ones operating the ship, you may just want to make that a bygone outcome – the captain and crew WILL skillfully succeed in navigating the storm, unless something interferes with them doing that.

Random Storm Event Table (d6 > d6+2 > d6+4)
  1. Group of pirates attempt to free Elok the wereboar
  2. Sea state causes loose items and people failing a DC 10 Acrobatics check to slide around the deck. Maintaining concentration spells requires DC 10 Con save.
  3. Navigator / lookout must make a DC 15 Perception check or low visibility causes the ship to begin traveling off course. I'd probably roll a 1d4 to determine which of four hexes the ship veers off from intended direction of travel.
  4. Light sources, even covered light sources, are at risk of being extinguished (torches auto-extinguished, lanterns extinguished on 4-6 on d6), light stones might get knocked around deck.
  5. ...
  6. Dragon turtle sighting off the port bow cresting the white caps! Morale is shaken, and men are flailing at simple tasks, or lashing themselves to the ship and faltering at following commands. The pirates and Elok claim a sacrifice "in blood or gold" is required to pass safely or everyone shall perish. A rousing speech would get the sailors back to work... or perhaps the dragon turtle could be leveraged by clever players to help their situation.
  7. Group of frightened pirates attempt to board and cut loose the Dragonfang, seeking to flee the "mad men steering into the storm." Or some of the crew may seek to cut loose the Dragonfang with pirates still aboard, "cuz they're already damned men" to save themselves.
  8. Sails snap loose and threaten to tear, sending rigging and possibly the mast collapsing unless two people get up there and quickly secure the sails.
  9. ...
  10. Lightning strikes a random part of the ship, per call lightning, but also illuminates some hazard that needs to be dealt with immediately or the ship will suffer damage. This won't sink the ship immediately, but will require beaching the ship after the storm to fix the breach in the ship's hull.


No matter what, the players' priority is keeping the ship afloat and most of their crew alive. If they fail there, none of those other objectives really matter. In fact, if the players aren't the ones operating the ship, you may just want to make that a bygone outcome – the captain and crew WILL skillfully succeed in navigating the storm, unless something interferes with them doing that.
That's a good point and ties in nicely with what some others have said above. I can just say that, unless the pirates among the crew cause too much trouble, the crew of Golden Seahorse are competent and experienced enough to weather the storm on their own.

So the PCs can focus on preserving their prizes - e.g. making sure that Elok doesn't escape his bonds and wreak havoc among the crew and/or escape to his own ship and making sure that Dragonfang doesn't break free and/or sink, etc. And during all that, the PCs have to try and avoid being struck by lightning or being knocked overboard themselves.

I appreciate that you've all now given me multiple different ways to run this mechanically. I shall review them all more thoroughly and figure out which would work best for my group.

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