Wednesday, May 25, 2016

Skill: Seamanship

Seamanship always seems to have
something to do with ropes and
One of my players recently asked what is the value of the Seamanship skill, and why he should spend points on it. For the most part, it feels like my research turns up, "because you should have it if you work on a boat." The reason why I don't think it is a big problem is because it only costs one point. In any case, not having an especially good reason for it bothers me, so I looked into it, and even though there are not a lot of reasons for it, I've compiled what I could find.

Below are a few RAW (rules as written) applications of Seamanship.

  • Basic Set - Campaigns
    • p. 466 describes its use when on a ship in a storm.
    • p. 469 describes how it is used to maintain your balance in unstable conditions.
  • Low-Tech
    • p. 51 describes how it can be used in the absence of an especially trained navigator.
That's not a lot of applications. Let's broaden the search, by looking at applications of crewman.
  • Basic Set - Campaigns
    • p.466 explains that the skill is used for Control Rolls in perilous situations.
    • p.470 describes how we can use skills to fix a damaged ship.
Cool, two entire extra uses.
What does the internet say? On the official Steve Jackson forums, we have this post. Two favored approaches to the skill:
  • Treat is maybe as a professional skill. (I'd argue the skill needs to be average difficulty if this is the preferred way to use it.)
  • Treat it as a source of improved defaults for any ship related tasks. For example, if a player doesn't have knot-tying (why don't you have knot-tying?) and they need to tie knots for boat reasons, they could default from Seamanship - 4 or DX - 4.
Finally, some house-rule applications I have been toying with:
  • It can be used in a similar capacity to the Naval Training perk requiring a roll before each battle though.
  • It can be used as a complementary skill for any use of another related skill.
  • In particularly choppy waters, it might be considered a cap to all skills, similar to how swimming works for actions while treading water.

Other Thoughts

Not all skills are created equally, obviously, and it is a weird pitfall I think to consider them all equal but I've seen the argument online. 100 points of Altered Time Rate is better than 100 points of Hobby Skill (Pig Husbandry), probably, in most campaigns, unless the campaign is about breeding the ultimate pig. I feel like everyone should have this skill in my campaign because it is about pirates, and if it helps, maybe the point limit for the campaign should be thought of as "199 points, plus this skill for free" instead of "200 points, but you need to spend one on this skill."


  1. In a heavily maritime campaign it could also be used like Riding as a cap on other skill use in rough conditions.

    1. Ah dang! I was thinking that and I forgot to include it! Incorporating it into the list now.

  2. Remember also that in many navies many ships companies where largely made up of civilians press ganged (legally kidnapped) of the streets. And many Ship Masters would be appointed/commissioned for political/financial reasons. Many/most of whom would have no such skill. Many pirate crews were made up of just such people who went AWOL at the first chance. This would indicate that Seamanship should not be mandatory but at least daily rolls vs. the default of IQ-4 should be required to avoid minor mishaps etc. You should also re-read the description of Crewman of which Seamanship is a subset of.
    This is the ability to serve as crew aboard a specific type of large vehicle. It includes familiarity with “shipboard life,” knowledge of safety measures, and training in damage control (the use of emergency equipment to control flooding, fight fires, patch the hull, and so forth). Make a skill roll for basic map or chart reading, practical meteorology, or to recall laws and regulations that pertain to your vehicle.
    This skill also lets you steer the vessel. It is easier than Piloting, Submarine, and similar skills because it only includes knowledge of how to steer. Specialists handle such activities as plotting courses and operating sensors. These experts report to the captain, who in turn tells you how to maneuver. Make a DX-based skill roll whenever you take the helm – but note that your effective skill cannot exceed your captain’s Shiphandling skill (p. 220). The average Crewman skill of an entire crew can be used as a measure of overall crew quality. The GM rolls against average skill whenever the vehicle arrives or departs, in unfavorable conditions, or in battle. Failure and critical failure results depend on the circumstances.
    That is a list of VERY important things that you don't seem to be considering. Seamanship, as written, is almost a mini-WIldcard skill.

    1. Ah! very helpful! A lot of that I thought I read but for some reason I wasn't finding it.
      I definitely agree with the mini-wildcard thing, and that's what I meant about the "professional skill" thing, which usually allows the same type of usage for other jobs.

  3. It should also setve to let you recognize how fast a rival ship can move based on sail conditions, ie do they have some sails battened. I just readL Spague De'Camp's Honourable Barbarian that had some neat descriptions of its use

    1. You know, now that you say this, it feels a little familiar. I think I might have read it somewhere, but it might have been associated with the ship handling skill?

    2. The main character, Kerrin, is anephew of one of L'Sprague's other characters, Jorrin. In this story he is a passenger on a ship who later commandeers the ship of a bunch of rapey pirates after distracting them with stories while a companion drugs them. He, being the only one with seamanship(a skill acquired while a passenger) becomes the effective capatain, with two companions acting at default, although one of them drops a point in it after a month or two.

    3. Ah! I heard L'Sprague is a pretty good author, I should check some of those books out.


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