How would you handle naval combat in PF 2?


In a few sessions my players in will be confronting some pirates at sea and intend to engage in ship-to-ship combat. I'm not entirely sure how to handle rules for that (I may not need to; they also intend to board the pirate ship and continue combat predominantly on the deck, but I would like to have some options open since they chose their ship specifically for the weapons it carries). I used to play Pathfinder 1e many years ago, but never ran any nautical encounters involving ship-to-ship combat. Looking them over in the PF1 SRD, they seem pretty complex, though I would be willing to take a stab at trying to convert them to some degree.

My question to everyone else is: has anyone run any naval encounters in PF2, or has anyone attempted any conversions? I don't know how to tackle sailing and engaging in naval combat within the 3-action system (and maybe I shouldn't! I just haven't thought of an intuitive solution).

Thanks for any advice! This also may belong in Homebrew, and I apologize in advance if it should be posted over there instead.

I'd take a look at Starfinders Vehichle chase rules and adapt those for 3-action system.

Malk_Content wrote:

I'd take a look at Starfinders Vehichle chase rules and adapt those for 3-action system.

Ah, I forgot about Starfinder - excellent, I'll take a look! Thanks.

You can use the PF1e ship combat rules, but you will need to change the actions required for the various ship operations. Perhaps 1 action for ship operations that take a move action, 2 actions for ship operations that take a standard action, and 3 actions for ship operations that require a full round action. The ship combat rules are available in the free to download skull and shackles player's guide, or here. See in particular the rules for advanced naval combat.

For example, stay the course would require 1 action on the captain's part, heave to would require 2 actions, and full astern would require 3 actions.

Sovereign Court

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The upcoming Gamemastery Guide is supposed to have rules for vehicle combat.

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I would handle it narratively for now. Having each player take relevant skill challenge type rolls and keeping a point track, with successes counting as one, failures negative one and crits double.

That way everyone contributes and it doesn't slow down what should otherwise be an exciting scene.

Boarding would be used to remove people from certain tasks.

In a race it would be a series of athletics and perception checks for instance as people rush to take the best advantage of all conditions. First to 10 points for a moderate length race.

DCs would be simple DCs adjusted by circumstance.

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Ugh. I have extremely rough drafts jotted down as notes for skulls & shackles once that project starts, but if it's a matter of a couple weeks and a one-off I'd suggest to just go with Grog's suggestion and handle the thing in a way that's epic, cool, and satisfying without it having to be balanced or challenging. Subsystems are for prolonged usage.

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I too would handle it narratively/exploration mode rather than drill down to round-by-round actions.

Naval combat is slower than hand to hand combat, so I think that exploration mode works fine for it.

The crux of a naval engagement comes down to outmaneuvering the enemy ship so that you get it in a favorable position where you have control of the tempo of the battle. This is called having the "weather gauge" - a term that means your ship is upwind of the enemy ship (a less meaningful term if the ships are not sail powered, of course). But basically, a ship with the weather gauge has "won" the maneuvering ahead of the battle and can dictate how the battle is fought. The downwind ship cannot approach the upwind ship on its own terms, and if the downwind ship tries that, the upwind ship can simply move away if it doesn't like how it's shaping up. However the upwind ship can approach whenever it feels the timing is right.

All of that mumbo jumbo can be done with skill checks. I'd do it this way...
Jobs on the ship:

Enemy ships is close enough to be seen. Have the Lookout roll perception vs enemy ship's Stealth.
Crit Success - You get the drop on an unsuspecting enemy. +2 to skill checks for the rest of the fight
Success - You see the enemy ship and can react first. +2 on the NEXT check.
Failure - The enemy ship spots you first
Crit Failure - The enemy ship gets the drop on you. -2 to the NEXT check.

The ships are closing into combat range. Have the Pilot roll Athletics, Nature or Survival or an appropriate Lore (you'll have to pick here, there is no "drive" skill anymore, but any of those skills could represent muscling over the wheel, reading the weather, etc.) to maneuver the ship as best as you can.
Crit Success - You've managed to maneuver so that you can get the first shot in. Your ship may fire once without being fired on in return.
Success - You've brought the ships together and you have the best position. +2 to the NEXT roll.
Failure - The enemy ship has the better position. -2 to the NEXT roll.
Crit Failure - The enemy ship outmaneuvered you completely. They get a shot on you that you can't return.

Next is a series of simultaneous attacks back and forth until one ship or the other tries to escape (go back a step but successes mean you can disengage) or close to board (go back a step but successes mean you bring the ships alongside and Encounter mode begins with sailors attacking in hand to hand).

To fire weapons: Have the Gunners roll skill checks. You could give the players proficiency in the ship's guns and do it like an attack roll, or use a skill of your choice. Either way, the enemy ship is also rolling against the player's ship. Roll one attack from each ship per "round," unless one ship has an obvious firepower advantage and then maybe that ship gets 2 attacks to the enemy's 1 attack.
Crit Success - An enemy ship's system of your choice is taken out/suffers a hit
Success - A random enemy system is taken out/suffers a hit
Failure - Miss

Ship systems (feel free to add HP to these systems if you feel a ship is particularly robust and/or want the battle to take longer):
Steering: -2 to any maneuvering once it's taken out
Propulsion: (sails typically) ship cannot maneuver once it's taken out
Guns: -2 to attacks per hit here - you could have multiple hits possible
Crew: Less-healthy enemies when boarding happens
Magazine: all systems take 1 hit. This assumes blackpowder/alchemical ammo.
Hull: a certain number of hits here will sink the ship

The captain gets to roll whenever anybody else rolls, representing the quality of leadership provided. Results:
Crit success - Result of active roll is one step better
success - Active roller can use the captain's result if it's better
Failure - no effect
Crit Failure - active roller's result is one step worse

I envision it all playing out this way. There is initial sighting, a roll to see who has the best position as the ships approach, then a series of back and forth attacks as the ships fight at range, then either one sinks, flees, or they close to boarding range and have it out on the decks until one side gives up.

Traditionally in Napoleonic era naval engagements (you know, lots of sails and cannons on wooden ships), the idea was to try to knock out the enemy ship's ability to maneuver, at which point you can sink them if you just want them gone, you can try to intimidate them into surrender by positioning yourself such that you can attack with cannons and they can't, or you can close and board if you think they are weakened enough that you can capture the ship with only minor damage. Getting a surrender or winning a boarding action was typically preferable because even a banged up ship is still quite valuable.

Pirates would often use a very swift ship, lightly armed, and stuffed with sailors. Their preferred method was to dash in, board with overwhelming numbers, and capture a more or less intact ship as they wanted the cargo and ship in good condition so they could sell it for lots of money.

Warships would more often batter each other quite a bit before sinking or boarding. A captain might strike his flag and give up to preserve the lives of his crew if the ship became disabled.

Merchant vessels would try to run, and some would have light armaments that they could try to disable a pirate vessel with if they came under attack. But a good day for them is to see no other ships at all, as their big goal is to get from point A to B with ship, crew and cargo intact, get paid, and move on with life.

jdripley wrote:
Lots of good stuff

This is great - I will take most people's advice of handling it in Exploration Mode, that seems smart for now. I knew the GMG would have rules for this, but I wasn't sure it would come out in time for my game. I'm going to aim for a more narrative approach. Thanks!

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I expect the GMG will take all of that splat I just wrote and replace it with an elegant and more malleable system. But that ought to do you in the meantime!

Pathfinder Roleplaying Game Superscriber

We currently have no stats for ships in PF2, and no systems for dealing with naval combat. The system used in PF1 is laborious and overly simplistic, taking no account of wind force and direction, which are key components in any naval engagement dealing with sailing ships.

You also need to decide how "advanced" the ships are in your setting. Prior to the widespread availability of ships' canons, the only viable modes of combat were ramming and boarding. Pre-gunpowder artillery (ballistae and catapults) were either too weak or too inaccurate to do appreciable damage to an enemy ship. Early canons were also too weak to do significant damage to the ship itself, and were primarily useful in an anti-personnel mode.

Only once canons were placed on lower decks with gunports were they able to be made big enough to damage an enemy vessel. Historically, this didn't happen until the late 15th century.

Of course magical artillery, such as fireballs and the like, changes this situation dramatically.

I wrote about this subject recently on my blog, A Dragontooth Grognard, and am grappling with it myself since I'm writing a series of pirate-themed adventures.

As others have pointed out, we're hoping for a robust and totally re-thought set of ship combat rules from the upcoming GMG. I'm holding off finalizing my own ship combat rules until we see just what Paizo has in store for us.

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