Once a month here on the Molten Sulfur Blog, I run content taken from our book Archive: Historical People, Places, and Events for RPGs. This post is one of eighty entries in Archive, each more gameable than the last!
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Image credit: Mario Carvajal. Released under a CC BY 3.0 license.
You’re out sailing just before dark when a storm catches you. You reef the sails and prepare to ride it out. The wind and waves toss you about like a child’s toy. After hours so sick you’ve nothing left to throw up but bile, a concussion strikes the boat with bone-jarring force. You’ve stopped moving. When the howling storm fades and the sun rises, you emerge topside to survey the damage. Your boat has run aground on a small sandy island surrounded by an azure sea. The hot sun tickles your skin. The breeze plays in the branches of a stand of trees. It's your very own tropical paradise – and your very own barren prison.
Cays, commonly called ‘keys’ in Florida and parts of the Caribbean, are small, low islands. They are usually sandy and situated on a coral reef platform. Most have some sort of hardy vegetation at their center, ringed by a broad beach. The largest even have small forests, and may encircle lagoons. Few cays have a source of fresh water. The only thing to drink is the rain. Cays may move during storms, bedeviling navigators. Anything built on a cay may eventually fall into the sea as the sand underneath it slowly travels elsewhere.
Surviving being stranded on an uninhabited cay is grueling. The hot, humid tropical weather promotes dehydration. The pearly white sands and turquoise sea are beautiful but equally inhospitable. Fish, birds, sea turtles, and the odd coconut are the only food. And the only source of fresh water is likely the same squalls and showers that threaten to destroy whatever shelter you build. Assuming your boat wasn't holed by the storm, to get it ungrounded, you'll have to dig it out and wait for high tide – grueling work on a diet of gull and rainwater. By the time you escape or are rescued, you're more likely to resemble a political prisoner than a sailor.
Though some cays go untouched for years, others are frequently inhabited. They are likelier to contain tourists than permanent residents, as few people want to live on islands that could be torn apart by hurricanes or typhoons. Different cays have different points of interest. Major’s Cay in the Bahamas boasts pigs that swim out to approaching boats, expecting to be fed. Heron Island in Australia is perched at the southern end of the Great Barrier Reef. And there are some cays, like Parrot Cay and Pine Cay in the Turks and Caicos region of the Caribbean, that are private islands hosting resorts, spas, and other luxury accommodations.
Cay Islands in Play
At your table, shifting cays could complicate an ocean voyage, requiring navigation checks to adjust to the new seaways. Failure could provoke exciting encounters: tropical monsters swimming out to the ship while she's beached on a sandbar, angry resort owners demanding compensation for your gouging up their pristine beaches, or opportunistic locals glad to help unground you for a considerable price. PCs fleeing a bad situation with no idea where they'll end up (perhaps via escape pod, parachute, or panicked teleportation spell) could wind up on a barren cay and have to survive. Or you could even use a shifting cay to change up your campaign setting. A storm might move a cay to block an important channel. Rerouting trade and travel could ruin trading towns along the old route. Forcing travel along a previously unused overland route would require pathfinders (like the PCs) and might trigger conflict with those who live along the trail. Boomtowns might spring up along the new road, with all the lawlessness, danger, and opportunity they entail.
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