I'm a big fan of the classics (hunting a giant whale/shark, a ghost pirate mystery, negotiating with or around sirens and merfolk) and the classics with a little twist (the kraken-lich, for example).
Others that come to mind are a sentient hurricane with a floating castle in it's eye, a lone druid in a rowboat with a gargantuan baleen whale as a companion, and the simple but terrifying threats of the doldrums or ice floes and dying of exposure/hunger/thirst.
The sea is both terrifying and alluring in it's vastness and power. Isolation, helplessness, wonder and the dichotomy of serenity and fury are the themes I play with, regardless of the specific encounter
- Assuming sailships -
The long chase, to run away from a ship barely on the horizon, lasting for days, with nowhere to hide around but the sea, grey and unforgiving, this can make for a game fraught with anxious tension.
The sea as a setting makes it interesting to bring forward the passage of time as a narrative element.
The mist where there shouldn't be and what will be heard there, maybe even seen such as a ship that was lost to unknown circumstances a century prior.
The broadside to broadside pass when undergunned but fighting for time, having to hold the bigger ship back.
The obvious stuffs, like pirates, Krakens, turtle dragons, storms, ghost ships...
Running out of water (oh, the irony), food reserves spoiling, rat infestations, disease, the boat catches fire...
Wonderous and unexplainable oddities, like a hole in the waters of the ocean that goes to the ocean floor, ships fall for miles before crashing into dry land at the bottom of the ocean. Or a Bermuda triangle type of place, where compasses spin and the wind comes from multiple and unpredictable angles and the current crosses itself making navigation almost impossible.
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From my travel charts, one for each ranger terrain:
Sailing DC20 to change scouting roll by 5. Crafting on a small boat counts as distracted. Crafting on a large ship has no penalties except in storms.
Common threats: Crab swarms (CR4) hidden among seaweed floats, Sharks in water (CR2), Desperate seabird swarm (raven swarm, CR3), Barnacles (Treat as trap +10 (1d4/x20), 1 bleed on crit).
0-5 Cloudy night and day, lose navigation point (lose 1 day getting back on track if they cannot pass navigation DC 12/15 check).
6-11 Pass by a mass of floating trash (Mundane loot or food as per appraise rolls if PC's can pass perception check).
12-17 Large School of fish follow your boat for a few hours (chance to fish if they have the tools and can pass survival to bait and cook).
18-24 Rough waters (Possible ship damage, delays, knocked overboard, etc).
25-30 Pass a familiar ocean rock formation, Pass DC to find a current that increases travel by 1 day (gain 2 days travel today).
31-36 Pass a natural ocean funnel, see pretty fish.
37-42 Pass a deserted island. 1D4: 1: resource rich island is Guarded by gillmen. 2: deserted. 3: Signs of lost treasure (DC25). 4: Hostile locals/boars.
43-48 Find rats on board (Players rolls for quantity) PC's have limited time to find before they breed (swarms)
49-54 Uneventful, sunny day, easy progress on crafting/training.
55-60 Disease outbreak (pass disease DC to not get sick).
61-66 Trading vessel travelling the opposite way (Diplomacy captain to stop and trade).
67-72 Pirate Vessel travelling the opposite way (Sail or fight, but decide quickly).
73-78 Crewmate celebrates a birthday, eat pancakes from ship stores (no food cost this day)
79-84 Pass a familiar landmark seen as lucky by the crew, get drunk with the captain (DC25 to politely decline).
85-90 Rigging/oars/rowers break/mutiny - fix, fight or diplomacy (or lose 2 days doing nothing as it resolves itself?)
91-96 rainstorm. 1d4 - 1:Food damaged lose 20% supply. 2:Ship damaged. 3:Crew members lost/injured. 4:Refill water barrels.
97-99 Sea monster, air monster flyby attack.
exactly 91: 1d8: 1:Stowaways discovered. 2:Ghost Pirate ship rises from the depths. 3:Tropical island. 4:Mermaid/Gillman raid/toll. 5:Crewman steals from the party. 6: Invited to a high stakes gambling game 7: Giant squid attack (CR9). 8: Kelpie (CR4) Lure (1d4+1 Kelpies) against crewmen and party.
Our games have been featuring seafaring a bit lately. Without being the focus of any of the campaigns, they've played a prominent role in a few.
The most cinematographic was one of the sessions I ran a while back, I'd say. The PCs were slave mutineers, who took back control of a ship captured by orcish pirates. After gnomish corsairs drew the escort away and banged up their ship a bit, they had managed to overtake the orcs, and claim the ship as their own. They attempted to make way quickly for the coast. Any coast, because none of them had any idea about sailing or geography, but they knew time was of the essence. And indeed, the pirate ship found them anew and chased them. Following an unsuccessful attempt to flee, the pirates caught up with them, but they had prepared.
They presented orcish hostages as a distraction, and then opened fire with their ballistas and smokesticks. Through the chaos caused by the widespread smoke and the alchemists' fire, one of them snuck into the cargohold of the pirate ship, and found explosives. He successfully managed to rig them up to blow, and did some amazing acrobatics to escape. They then managed to veer the ship away from the pirates at the right moment, escaping harm from the massive explosion. A few fellow slaves (NPCs) died, but it was overall a resounding success against the much superior force.
Otherwise I can remember quite a few encounters where my character (and occasionally others) jump onto various sea monsters attacking the ship. A kraken, an aboleth, dragon turtles, and a bunch of other monsters.
I think adding weapons to the ship and making the captain a core aspect of the battle helps make the naval battle shine, though, because otherwise it's mostly the same as a ground battle.
In one encounter my ninja was sneaking around an enemy ship. While below, I got noticed by a creature with scent so I retreated into a room. Rather than follow, they locked my in. I wound up punching a hole in the side of the ship and used the Ring of Seven Lovely Colors to leave the room through the hole. Quickly I went onto the deck where I got tagged with Glitterdust (I was invisible, so I wasn't surprised). I then had to jump about to attack them. I made the enemy wizard teleport out, allowing us to eventually win this battle.