The cloth sails hang in tatters, yet other sails, spectral things of blue light, propel the ship forward. On deck, it’s crew, seemingly unconcerned about the hideous wounds that mar their translucent bodies, work diligently, combating a storm that has long since broken, preparing for a battle that came and went years past. For them, it is not over. For them, it will never be over.
Who doesn’t love a good ghost ship? The Flying Dutchman. The Black Pearl. The… unnamed ship carrying Death in the Rime of the Ancient Mariner? I thought it had a name, but google is telling me I was wrong… Come on, Coleridge, we need details!
Oh well. Whatever the name of them, exploring a ghost ship is our next stop in dungeon ideas. (For the last idea for a dungeon-outside-of-a-dungeon, go here.)
The Ghost Ship
Large sailing vessels can start anywhere around 150 feet long and get up to twice that. At dozens of feet wide, and with multiple decks, that leaves you thousands of square feet of exploration space. The nature of the ship allows for these spaces to be used in unique ways, too. Do players climb the ropes in the rigging? Has the bilge flooded, necessitating swimming to find the lost treasure in it? How does the ship pitching and rolling affect the combat on the main deck?
Speaking of combat, the enemies inhabiting a ghost ship are as varied as the undead that fill most gaming systems. In Pathfinder, there’s even a fair number of specifically aquatic undead, such as Draugr and Brykolakas. Make them the crew, throw in a ghost captain, and you’ve got yourself some baddies. Of course, maybe you want to go further. Maybe “ghost ship” doesn’t mean a ship with ghosts on it, but rather a ship possessed by the spirits of the dead. With that mindset, the ship itself can be an enemy. Rigging ropes lash out to try to snare players. Deck boards become like water, players dropping into them, before solidifying again, trapping them in the wood. The bell that calls sailors to arms rings and rings and won’t stop it’s infernal ringing, and each time it does it drives the players one step closer to madness. Ok, so you might have to play with the rules a little bit to get some of those effects, but it could be well worth it.
A ghost ship as a dungeon really shines when it comes to the plot of your adventure. Unlike ancient tombs or deep caverns, your players aren’t likely to just randomly explore their way onto a ghost ship, so why are they there? Do they have to find a way to escape? Perhaps a cursed compass teleported them here, and they have to find it’s pair on the ship to get off. Has this ship been sinking merchant vessels? The ghost captain has to be destroyed to save innocent lives. Or maybe they have to find a way to break the curse that has kept the ship sailing? Deliver it’s last load of cargo, expose the traitorous first mate who sold them out to an ambush, return the stolen cursed treasure to the forbidden land from which it came. The nature of ghosts and undeath mean that simply destroying the ship and its crew may not be enough… They will just return the next full moon, or the next time an albatross is slain, or when a poor soul accidentally sails over the sunken wreck, or whatnot. “Winning” the dungeon could require problem solving outside stabbing the boss bad guy until it’s dead, then.
What do you think? How would you work a ghost ship into a campaign? Mechanically, what would make a ghost ship different from any other boat? Let me know in the comments.