This week I’ve been on a cruise with my wife and some of my closest friends. On a whole, it’s been pleasant, but we’ve also experienced a few surreal moments that inspired some adventure hooks I invite you to steal.
A passenger ship that sails across the ocean or through the planes already has some advantages. It’s a contained space, so the player characters are forced to interact with those around them; yet, it can also be large enough to encompass several encounter areas, areas of relative risk, safety and mystery.
From the outset, the party must be separated from the crew and other passengers. Perhaps the PCs were coerced into boarding the ship in the first place while the others are there of their own free will. Is there a conspiracy among the crew, and are the other passengers active or passive participants? Maybe something in the food has changed them. Lucky for our heroes, they arrived late and missed the first service, or the meal wasn’t to their liking – are they vegetarians? Those who did eat are transformed – mentally or physically – into something… sinister.
Once the ship sets sail, its passengers find that its key resources are concentrated in a few nodes. As a result, those nodes become focal points of conflict and chaos. Some passengers panic, others become obsessed with getting what they need. The player characters must either fight, or find other ways to secure the supplies they need.
Another characteristic of sailing vessels is the constant motion of the ship. This can be severe enough to cause unwanted movement if a character’s reflex (in D&D 4e terms) fails. Over time, motion sickness becomes a concern, and a PC’s fortitude is tested. A bad roll leads to nausea. Nausea leads to impaired abilities and endurance checks. Failed endurance checks lead to healing surge losses.
The ship board adventure also lends itself to factional divisions. The officers may be in control of the ship’s functions, but does the housekeeping and wait staff share their agenda? Among the passengers there might be a handful of cultures. When push comes to shove, how will the Shadar-kai from deck two treat the orcs staying on deck seven?
After a few days, the ship will reach a port, but that port will not be the kind of place the PCs will want to stay. It is, however, an opportunity to resupply (at inflated prices) and recover from motion sickness. Port towns know that when a ship docks, tourists come, and port town inhabitants are prepared.