A Too-Convenient Ship
It’s enduring trope in RPGs that the PCs often need to escape the consequences of their actions. This encounter – which assumes only that the party must flee somewhere they might find a boat – takes the trope and turns it into a trap. What a stroke of luck that the fleeing PCs stumble upon a cutter, rigged for sea and waiting to be commandeered as an escape vessel! Little do your players know that the cutter was left there as a decoy.
A revenue cutter, taken from the 1810 painting A Trinity House Yacht and a Revenue Cutter off Ramsgate by Thomas Whitcombe
This version of the encounter uses the above ship. Any vessel will do, provided you change the details of how the vessel has been trapped and sabotaged. This cutter carries twelve small three-pounder guns on her weather deck. The dark panels you see in the gunwale of the ship can be removed to slide the muzzles of the cannons out. She’s also got a cramped cabin just above the rudder. You can see the window beneath the dinghy hanging from the stern. She ordinarily carries a crew of 30 sailors, but she can be sailed by a single party of PCs if everyone knows what they’re doing.
We should also talk about the canvas the ship carries.
1. The big aft sail, from the boom (the horizontal spar behind the head of the man in the white hat) to the gaff (the parallel spar well above it) is the mainsail (pronounced ‘main-sul’), the ship’s primary means of propulsion. When the mainsail is not in use (which is usually only at anchor or at the pier), the gaff is lowered until it’s right on top of (and running along) the boom. The sail is then scrunched up and tied around the gaff and boom.
2. Above the mainsail, from the gaff to the topsail yard (the teeny little spar parallel to the gaff at the very top of the mast), is the topsail (pronounced ‘top-sul’). The topsail is used when you want a little extra speed. It’s raised by hauling on a halyard, a line (rope) that runs along the mast and is tied to the topsail yard. When the topsail is not in use, the topsail yard is lowered until it touches the gaff. The sail is then scrunched up and tied around the topsail yard and gaff.
3. The two sails forward of the mast are jibs. Jibs provide a bit more speed, but also make the ship more aerodynamic. Jibs are raised by hauling on halyards that are connected to the tops of the jibs. They are taken in or let out by hauling on the jib sheets, which are lines (ropes) connected to the corner of the triangular sail that points out towards the water. When the jibs are not in use, they are lowered, wound around themselves, and laid along the bowsprit and bow. (pedant’s note: these jibs may actually be cutter staysails, but I can’t quite tell if the luff is attached to a stay)
Clear as mud? Honestly, half the fun of working with ships is getting use this incredibly specialized jargon. I grew up on sailboats and circumnavigated the globe in an unrelated expedition – take my word for it.
Anyway, the people the PCs are trying to escape have left this cutter here deliberately. It’s a trap! The idea is that the PCs (or people like them) will steal the cutter to escape, and thereby trap themselves aboard her on the open water, where they can easily be captured by faster ships with bigger crews.
The cutter is trapped in six ways:
1. Her weather deck is criss-crossed with tripwires, all connected to the ship’s bell. Anyone coming aboard her, unless they are very, very careful, will trip and ring the ship’s bell, alerting the constabulary.
2. The jib and the topsail have been unfurled, untied from their halyards and sheets, and then refurled with the halyards and sheets tucked inside. They look like they’re ready to go, but as soon as you try to raise them, the lines will simply slide out from within the sails. Without jibs and a topsail, the cutter will be easily overtaken by pursuers. Halyards and sheets of the era are normally spliced to the sails, not tied. Re-splicing them to the sails will take hours. Tying them will take seconds, but the knots are likely to fail in a heavy wind. When they fail, the lines will crack like whips and are liable to badly injure someone. Coincidentally, a storm is brewing when the PCs are preparing to put to sea.
3. An unlit lantern has been hung from the stern just below the cramped cabin. A striker in the lantern has been connected to the ship’s anchor chain. It may take a few strikes (each one triggered by moving the rudder), but the cutter will soon be carrying a lit lantern that pursuers can see, but the party cannot. Good luck escaping into the dark of night! PCs might be able to spot the lantern’s light at night reflecting off the ship’s wake.
4. The barrels of gunpowder aboard the cutter are empty. There are cannonballs aboard, but without powder, they’re useless.
5. The cannons’ touch holes (to which you press a lit match to fire the gun) have all been soldered shut. Even if you were to find some gunpowder, you still couldn’t use the cannons.
6. There are no flags aboard the cutter. She won’t be able to enter any port without flying a flag.
If the PCs come aboard the cutter slowly and cautiously, they may uncover many – even all! – of the ways she has been sabotaged. They may take steps to mitigate many of the traps. If, as seems more likely, the PCs rush aboard the cutter in a great hurry, they’re more likely to uncover the traps one-by-one at the worst possible moment. They ring the bell as they come aboard. They try to hoist the topsail and jibs after leaving the harbor, and find they cannot. They try to hide under cover of darkness, but their pursuers can always find them, thanks to the hidden lit lantern. They prepare for a fight and find the ship is toothless. Best stand by to repel boarders!
Separately, are you going to Gencon this year? I'll be running four games from Molten Sulfur's upcoming RPG, Making History. If you’ve enjoyed the content on this blog, you will love these games. Event registration starts Sunday! Check out this post for more information and for signup links!