Naval Combat Rules

The following rules govern ship-to-ship combat. They are partially based on standard Pathfinder rules and on Paizo’s Skull and Shackles Player’s Guide and partially inspired by Sid Meier’s Pirates!.

Crew and Officers

The characters on a ship in combat are separated into crew and officers. Crew are considered to be on the rigging, below decks, or manning the cannons, and generally are not represented on the deck of a ship during combat for ease of play, although they are considered present. They can also be collectively damaged by ship-to-ship attacks targeting the crew, such as grape shot.

Player characters are always considered officers, and some NPCs may be officers as well. Officers have some additional options to direct the crew during naval combat, and are usually immune to attacks targeting the crew. Both crew and officers are damaged by area-of-effect magic attacks.


The main armament of any modern ship is the cannon. Most ships divide their cannons evenly between the port and starboard sides of their ship. Some vessels also have a limited number of aft cannons and fore cannons. Cannons can fire in a 45 degree arc – the range and damage of cannons depends on the kind of ammunition they are loaded with.

During combat, the crew can load and fire cannons by themselves. It takes the crew 2 full rounds to load a cannon, and the crew fires cannons on the third round. A fully manned ship has enough crew to handle all cannons simultaneously. Most ships fire all cannons facing the enemy every three rounds.

Officers and Cannons In Combat

Although the crew can handle the cannons by themselves, officers have a number of options to direct or assist the crew in combat. Unless otherwise specified, an officer must be on the main deck to use these options.

  • Issue Order: As a move action, an officer may issue an order to the cannon crew. These orders can be applied to a single cannon or to any number of cannons. It is confusing for the crew for two different people to give them orders at once in the thick of combat; once an officer gives an order, the crew is 50% likely to ignore any orders received by other officers for one round. The possible orders are:
    • Cease Fire (The crew will stop firing, but will continue to load any unloaded cannons.)
    • Change Ammunition (The crew will switch ammunition types as long as the cannons are not already loaded. If they are, the crew will switch for the next shot.)
    • Dump Ammunition (The crew will dump ammunition currently in the cannons, allowing them to be reloaded again without firing them. This action takes the crew one round.)
    • Fire When Ready (The crew will hold fire until the target comes within a specified range, and will then Open Fire on that target.)
    • Open Fire/Change Target (The crew will start firing at the designated target.)
    • Stand Down (The crew will stop firing and reloading cannons.)
    • Warning Shot (The crew will fire once at the target, and then Cease Fire. The crew can also be directed to miss deliberately with this order.)
  • Aid Aiming: As a standard action, an officer may make a DC 10 Profession (siege engineer) check or a DC 15 Profession (sailor) check. If the officer succeeds, all cannons on one side of the ship may ignore the attack penalty from the first range increment until the beginning of the officer’s next turn. Aid Aiming effects stack with each other (so if two officers Aid Aiming, the cannons can ignore the first two range increment penalties, etc.).
  • Manual Firing: As a standard action, an officer may fire one cannon using her own ranged attack roll or Profession (siege engineer) check. The cannon must already be loaded, and the officer must be adjacent to the cannon she is firing.

Defenses and Ammunition

The mechanics of naval combat revolve around each ship’s hull and sails, which have their own sets of hit points. A ship whose hull has 0 HP starts to sink, and a ship whose sails have 0 HP is dead in the water.

Cannon attacks on ships damage hull and sails, meaning that a ship which absorbs enough broadsides is sure to lose quickly. There are three types of ammunition for cannons, which damage the two types of defenses differently.

Ammunition Statistics

Name Damage Critical Range Misfire Type
Round Shot 6d6 ×4 120 ft. 1 Hull
Chain Shot 4d6 ×4 90 ft. 1 Sails
Grape Shot 6d6 ×2 30 ft. 1 Crew

A cannon’s maximum range is 10 times its range increment (round shot, for example, can fire up to 1200 ft.). Cannons count as direct siege weapons and firearms. Like firearms, they misfire when the natural result of their attack roll is too low. A cannon that misfires becomes broken, and its misfire value increases by 4. A broken cannon that misfires explodes, doing 6d6 damage to all within 20 feet (DC 20 Reflex half). The crew will not fire broken cannons, but will replace them with a spare if any are available. It takes 3 rounds for the crew to replace a cannon.


Hulls typically have hardness (whereas sails and crew don’t). A ship whose hull has less than half its HP is broken. A broken ship suffers a -2 penalty to its AC, a -2 penalty to all checks to drive the ship, and its crew may fire and load only half of the ship’s cannons per side. A ship whose hull has 0 HP is wrecked and sinking. A ship sinks in 10 rounds. Each additional hit on a ship reduces this time by 1 round.

Round shot directly damages a ship’s hull. Round shot consists of traditional cannonballs.

Sails and Rigging

A ship whose sails and rigging have less than half their HP is slowed. A slowed ship has its maximum speed halved. A ship whose sails have 0 HP is stopped, and cannot move unless it has oars.

Chain shot directly damages a ship’s sails. Chain shot consists of two smaller cannonballs connected by a chain.


In addition to the hull and sails, a ship can suffer crew damage. Crew damage inflicts casualties on the crew which maintains the sails and rigging, loads the cannons, and patches holes in the hull as best it can. Therefore, while the crew does not have its own HP total, any damage dealt to the crew does full damage to both hull and sails. However, crew damage cannot reduce the hull to less than 1 HP (so crew damage cannot sink a ship).

Any area of effect attack which covers at least half of a ship does double damage to the crew. The crew can be healed by area of effect healing (such as channeled energy), and it likewise heals twice as quickly if the area encompasses at least half the ship. The crew has its own saving throw bonuses.

Grape shot deals crew damage. Grape shot consists of canvas-wrapped stacks of smaller round shot, several of which may be fired at once.

Saving Throws

As attended objects, ships have their own saving throws. A ship’s Fortitude, Reflex, and Will saves all get the same bonus. This bonus is equal to half the captain’s Profession (sailor) bonus plus the ship’s base save, which depends on the type of ship and is noted in the chart below.

Ship Statistics

These statistics refer to an average ship of the given type. Individual captains may customize or configure their ships differently. A ship’s touch AC is equal to its regular AC.

Name AC Hull Hardness Hull HP Sails HP Base Save Cannons Max. Speed Acceleration
Barque 2 5 500 150 +4 6 60 30
Brigantine 2 5 600 300 +6 16 60 30
Diamanteau 2 10 800 400 +6 24 60 30
Frigate 2 5 750 375 +6 20 60 30
Merchantman 2 5 600 250 +4 10 60 30
Merrunner 4 5 500 250 +8 6 90 30
Seadragon 2 10 1200 600 +8 32 60 30
Sloop 2 5 500 250 +6 10 90 30
Trade Galeón 2 5 700 300 +6 16 60 30
War Galeón 2 5 900 450 +8 28 60 30

Repairing Damage

Sails and rigging can be repaired at sea. Any officer who spends a day working can make a DC 10 Craft (ships) or Craft (cloth) check to restore 10 points of damage to the sails, or 5 on a failed check.

Hulls cannot ordinarily be repaired at sea. Each day a ship spends being repaired in port, as long as the captain pays for ship repairs, 50 points of damage are restored to both hull and sails.

Crow’s Nest

Many ships have a lookout point in one of the masts, called a crow’s nest or something similar. Although this is a very defensible position against boarders, it is exposed against attacks from other ships. Crow’s nests can be targeted by standard attacks, as well as by round shot or chain shot. A crow’s nest has 25 HP and an AC of 10. Due to the ship’s rigging, a crow’s nest and anyone inside has cover from attacks on the crow’s nest’s ship. If the crow’s nest is destroyed, anyone inside falls to the deck below. A crow’s nest can usually hold one Medium creature carrying up to a heavy load.

Piloting a Ship

Most ships have a dedicated pilot, who is an officer. The movement rules are the same as the rules in the “Movement” section at this d20pfsrd page. Captain Amield Charmaine prefers to pilot her own ship in combat.

See Also

Naval Combat Rules

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