Excerpts 08/05/2005

By Richard Baker, Joseph D. Carriker,
Jennifer Clarke-Wilkes

Grab your water gear and get ready to make a splash in your D&D campaign with Stormwrack. The third in a series of beautifully illustrated supplements focusing on play in specific environmental climes, Stormwrack contains rules on play in watery environments. Not only are rules for sea campaigns offered, but rules for including water environments in land-based D&D campaigns and dungeon adventures are also covered. The excerpts below include information about the book itself, the darfellan race, the legendary captain prestige class, and the dreaded Sable Drake and her crew.

The Sable Drake

A lean, black killer of the seas, the Sable Drake cruises the blue waters of the coastal trade routes, hunting for fat cargo ships to plunder. Years ago, when the Sable Drake first appeared, she was just another pirate ship. Now when news of the Sable Drake's latest victim reaches the taverns, the sailors pray to their gods that their own ships might never encounter this dark scourge.

Stories of the Sable Drake can be heard in every seaport tavern and inn frequented by sailors. Bounties have been proclaimed far and wide for its sinking. Many ships have fruitlessly searched for the elusive wolf of the sea and its hidden base, but none that returned ever sighted either.

The Sable Drake and its captain, Naki, can be encountered during the course of a sea journey, or as the result of a direct search for it by adventurers. The trick is in surviving such an encounter for, unlike most goblins, Captain Naki has the intelligence to outthink her opponents -- and she's been thinking about how to gain advantages for over a decade, so she is very well prepared. The Sable Drake is an encounter suitable for characters of 4th to 6th level.

The History of the Sable Drake

The history of the Sable Drake begins with Captain Naki. A dockside slave in a stinking little port, she was press-ganged by pirate raiders in need of a new cabin "boy." The butt of a thousand cruel jokes, she became the target of unceasing bullying. Then on one raid she was injured by a foe on a ship the pirates pillaged. When the moon next came out, she changed into wererat form, and those who had bullied her the most paid with their lives. Her status among the pirates changed completely as a result, and she became a full-fledged member of the crew. In spite of her sudden elevation in status, she still harbored a poisonous hatred for her former tormenters. When chance opened the way soon afterward, she betrayed them all to the hangman for a very large reward.

Naki realized that piracy was a trade she had learned well and was well suited to. Once she had gained some control over her new state, she returned to the sea. She used her reward money to commission the building of a swift, lean predator of a ship and recruited a crew from among her own people. Under her sharp and pitiless eyes they learned, made way for more apt pupils, or died. Naki is usually fair, and never purposelessly cruel. Her crew respects her abilities and wisdom and are very loyal; they also fear her greatly. New recruits are eager to join, for her crew has prospered over the long years of successful raiding. Her marines, much better equipped and trained than the average goblin, form the Sable Drake's primary combat force.

Her ship, stained a dull black to blend in with the night, has been heavily modified for her purposes by skilled and greedy artisans. During her eight years as a pirate captain, she has fought many battles and plundered more ships than she can tally. One key secret to her success is information: She has spies in every port. Naki likes to know the crew and complement of any ship she attacks and never tangles with a force she doesn't think her crew can handle. The rumors now whispered in the din of raucous portside taverns are that the Sable Drake is a devil ship, capable of exploits no other ship can equal. All agree that seeing a black shadow of a ship slide out of the night, demonic captain at the helm, is a nightmare from which there's no waking.

Introducing the Sable Drake into the Campaign

The Sable Drake can slip into any campaign with a settled ocean coast or good-sized inland sea, through which or along which a large amount of trade must occur. This is the shipping that the Sable Drake terrorizes. The secret pirate base will be someplace on a wild and deserted part of the coast, yet not too far from one of the major seaports. It's best if the PCs start to hear rumors about the Sable Drake two or three sessions before they actually end up dealing with the goblin pirates.

One way to give the PCs a personal stake in the matter is to have the pirates capture something they care about (a special item ordered for one of the player characters, a relative or friend of the PCs, a trading ship they own a share in) during one of their raids. They could also be attracted by the large bounty on the pirate crew, not to mention the value of the ship itself if captured. Currently the goblins are holding two people for ransom: One or both of their families could approach the PCs to arrange a rescue or to act as agents and escorts in the payment of the ransom.

A possible method of finding the ship might be to backtrack from a local shipwright who secretly maintains the Sable Drake (and has become rich from his share of the spoils), who said the wrong thing while drinking in a tavern near the player characters, starting them on the trail. Alternatively, a specific cargo that had been on a ship lost to pirate attack could show up in a local market and be traced back to the fence who bought it from the pirates, and who could be persuaded to share clues about the pirates' next target. Finally, the PCs could lure the pirates by spreading rumors of a valuable cargo being sent on a specific ship, then sailing on that ship themselves in hopes that the pirates take the bait.

If you want to just throw them in cold and take them by surprise, have the PCs take a journey by ship, only to have their boat attacked by the Sable Drake. Remember, though, that the goblins are anything but stupid. They do not take suicidal actions and will try to destroy the heroes' vessel with flame or from range if they can't win a boarding action.

Encountering the Sable Drake (EL 6)

Many ships anchor just off shore at night, or even beach themselves. Some use magic to light their passage through the dark hours or to scry out the way ahead. None of these methods can save them once the Sable Drake sniffs out their wake. Out of the night slides a shadow, black sails blotting out the stars. At the last moment, the shocked watch spots the pirate ship and raises an alarm, even as the first poisoned crossbow bolts slash out of the darkness.

Captain Naki does not normally engage ships during the day. Bright light is no hindrance to her people but it bestows no advantage either, and she never willingly gives up an advantage. She retreats from foes who attempt to catch the Sable Drake during daylight hours, or tails them if they try to flee. Day or night her crew keeps a vigilant watch, and short of sneaking up on the Sable Drake underwater or while invisible, catching the goblins by surprise is virtually impossible.

Once night falls, Naki willingly joins battle. The darkness is her friend, and she well understands the huge advantage surprise and superior vision can give her crew. Sleep-befuddled enemies -- struggling to don their armor, unable to discern what is happening in the gloom, and unsure of what they face -- can't fight as effectively as the well-prepared goblins.

Captain Naki tries to panic her targets into surrender when possible. The plunder is the same whether she fights for it or not, and a dead body can't be ransomed, unlike a living hostage. However, she does not hesitate to attack if an immediate capitulation does not occur.

Naki's crew consists of the following goblins.

Naki, goblin wererat expert 1/adept 3: hp 26.

Ikup, goblin expert 2/warrior 1: hp 14.

Kumi, goblin adept 2: hp 12.

Marines, goblin warrior 1 (8): hp 7.

Sailors, goblin expert 1 (8): hp 3.

Trainees, goblin commoner 1 (4): hp 2.

See The Crew of the Sable Drake, near the end of this adventure, for statistics on each of these foes.

Naval Tactics

Naki allows Ikup to command the Sable Drake in naval combat so that she will be free to use her magic in the battle. Ikup's Profession (sailor) modifier is +5. Naki takes advantage of her crew's darkvision and attacks during the blackest part of the night. She maneuvers her ship so that it comes in behind and either from slightly to the left or right of the rear of the enemy ship. This approach exposes the enemy helm (and usually its command crew) to immediate attack while shielding the Sable Drake's helm as much as possible. Since the Sable Drake's only ballista is mounted at the bow, this gives it the best shots at the enemy ship. When the target ship is close enough, the crew readies ropes and grappling hooks.

Naki drinks her potion of mage armor and quietly blesses her crew, who all take their positions with readied weapons. A perfect grapple approach would see the front half of the Sable Drake alongside the rear half of the enemy vessel. Naki, along with a trainee carrying a conch-shell horn and two sailors, climbs up to the armored crow's nest. Only then does the captain identify her ship and give the prey their one chance to give up without a fight.

Unless the other ship immediately surrenders, the Sable Drake's marines and sailors open fire with ballista and light crossbows (using poisoned bolts). The ballista crew fires at any obvious leaders, enemies trying to set up improvised barricades, or large knots of defenders. Crossbow-armed sailors target any exposed enemies. If none are available, they ready actions to shoot wizards or sorcerers as they try to cast, followed by clerics, leaders, and archers. Captain Naki casts sleep at the largest number of enemies possible.

The Pirate Brig: Brigs are among the most nimble ships built. The design resulted from an attempt to copy the elf wingships, and only the wingships are more maneuverable. A brig has two square-rigged masts, with a fore-and-aft gaff sail attached to the aft mast. Brigs possess some unique sailing qualities, and a skilled master can maneuver one with ease and elegance. A brig is a smooth-hulled, full-decked vessel built for speed and handling -- the favored vessel of deepwater pirates, when they can get one. It is uncommon for two reasons: It is an advanced design only the very best shipwrights and architects can craft, and its limited hold deters bulk cargo merchants from using it.

Brig: Colossal vehicle; Seaworthiness +3; Shiphandling +3; Speed wind x 35 ft. (good); Overall AC -3; Hull sections 8 (sink 2 sections); Section hp 70 (hardness 5); Section AC 3; Rigging Sections 2; Rigging hp 80 (hardness 0), AC 1; Ram 3d6; Mounts 2 light; Space 50 ft. by 10 ft.; Height 10 ft. (draft 5 ft.); Watch 6; Complement 30; Cargo 25 tons (Speed wind × 25 ft. if 15 tons or more); Cost 8,000 gp.

Boarding Tactics

As soon as the distance is less than 30 feet, goblin sailors throw six grappling hooks to lock the ships together and pull them into contact. Once the ships are connected, the two sailors in the crow's nest throw pots of snakes (Tiny vipers) or jars of very slippery sea slime (nonflammable, counts as a grease spell) at clumps of defenders; they hurl nets at single targets. Just as the ships touch, the goblin marines hurl their one volley of poisoned darts, targeting any defenders trying to attack the grapples and secondarily anyone preparing to resist boarding. They then jump aboard the enemy vessel. Any who have the chance toss their caltrops to cover any entrances enemy reinforcements might come from, then use tanglefoot bags to try to immobilize defenders closing with them. They then draw their scimitars and charge.

Captain Naki observes the battle from her perch in the armored crow's nest. This location is big enough for her and the three crew with her, or two Medium beings. Each occupant has an excellent view of the two ships, plus a cover bonus of +8 to AC and a +4 cover bonus on Reflex saves. Naki directs the fire of the two sailors and tries to cast her spells for maximum effect. She uses her wand of summon monster I to drop fiendish monstrous centipedes and scorpions behind any organized defensive positions, ordering them to attack spellcasters or give flanking bonuses to her marines. She uses ghost sound to distract foes and make them think there are threats behind them. She might send her weasel familiar, Chitter, to deliver items or specific orders to her apprentice Kumi or first officer Ikup. If a particular enemy warrior is causing a lot of trouble, she might send Chitter to deliver a touch of fatigue spell against that foe or assume hybrid form and deal with the foe herself. She also gives broad tactical orders to her crew via conch horn (blown by the trainee with her in the crow's nest).

The other three trainees support the initial boarding action by slinging or throwing stuff at enemies or onto the enemy ship. After fighting has begun, they stand ready to put out fires that might start on the Sable Drake, recover and tend to any wounded, and (if a retreat is ordered) cover the marines and cut the lines. They are stationed near caches of pots of slippery sea slime and bags of caltrops, which they use to hinder foes, and wet blankets and buckets filled with sand and water for fighting fires.

Caught between Hulls

It is quite possible that goblins, PCs, and NPCs will fall into the sea between the ships during battles. When this happens, he or she can attempt the difficult climb back up (DC 25 Climb check) or try to swim out from between them. Either way, at the end of each round a creature remains between the ships, there is a 50% chance that the ships grind together.

All creatures caught between the ships in this way take damage according to the lower ram damage rating of the two ships (see page 97). If there is a tie, use that shared rating. For example, if both ships had a ram rating of 3d6, then anyone caught between the ships would take 3d6 points of damage.

Defending the Sable Drake

When the pirate ship prepares to attack a target or defend itself, the goblin crew set up a large number of traps to give themselves an advantage against any foes who attempt to board the Sable Drake. (Given the poor visibility and heat of battle, it is unlikely that any boarders will be stopping in the heat of battle to make careful searches.) The following devices and methods should always be considered to be in place, so long as the goblins have a half hour or more to prepare.

Broken glass and sharp metal bits embedded in boards are fixed to the tops of all the ship's outer railings (Spot DC 20 to notice the jagged protrusions). These rails are built to the normal height for humans, so the goblins just duck beneath them when this trap is in place. Anyone jumping onto or grabbing hold of the encrusted railings triggers a trap. For those jumping on the railing, treat this as an attack by caltrops. For those grabbing the railing, the trapped railing makes an attack with a bonus of +0. Shield, armor, and deflection bonuses do not defend against this attack. If the creature grabbing the railing is wearing heavy gloves, he or she receives a +2 bonus to AC for purposes of this attack. If the attack succeeds, the target takes 1 point of damage and a -2 penalty on all skill attempts and attacks using hands. Spellcasters wounded in this way must make a Concentration check (DC 10) to cast spells. These penalties continue for 24 hours, or until the creature receives at least 1 point of magical healing or has the injury successfully treated with a DC 15 Heal check.

There is a 30% chance that a given 5-foot section of railing has been rigged to break away and collapse when grabbed or jumped on (check only once per railing section). A rogue can make a DC 20 Search check to notice and avoid the trap. This is in addition to the broken glass on top of the railing. A breakaway section snaps outward and collapses under the creature, who must succeed on a DC 15 Reflex save or fall backward and take 1d3 points of nonlethal damage. If the check fails by more than 5, the creature falls into the sea. Depending on which side this happens on, he or she might fall between the ships (see Caught between Hulls, above).

Some sections of deck are greased with slime, have been weakened to cause heavy beings to crash through, or are littered with caltrops. These are marked on the Sable Drake's deck plan. The goblins avoid these sections themselves and try to use them to guard their flanks at every opportunity. Use the rules for the grease spell for slimy sections (Spot DC 15) and standard caltrops rules for the sections littered with them (Spot DC 12; see page 126 of the Player's Handbook), and treat the weak sections as concealed 10-foot-deep spiked pits (Search DC 25, Reflex DC 20 avoids falling).

One-shot ejection traps powered by rope-tension await at the foot of each of the steep stairs that go from the main deck to the quarterdeck. A character can notice the unusual flooring with a DC 25 Search check. Each of these can fling a Medium creature 20 feet into the air and 20 feet sideways, either into the sea or back onto the enemy vessel, depending on the side triggered (Reflex DC 20 avoids the trap). There is a 25% chance that a trap will not work properly. Should this happen, one in four times nothing will happen; otherwise the trap flings the character 30 feet straight up with no sideways drift. The goblins arm these unreliable traps only if enemy forces actually start to board. Then they try to entice foes onto them by defending the top of the ladders.

Rat Swarms: Since becoming a wererat, Naki has perfected her ability to communicate with normal rats. As all sailors know, a ship with no rats either has not yet been completed or has already been sunk. Rats are endemic to large ships at sea, and of course Naki uses this fact to her advantage. She can call together one rat swarm per 8 hull sections of ship. Thus, from the Sable Drake she can call together one swarm to do her bidding. If she were to board the PCs' ship, she might be able to call more than one additional swarm if their ship is large enough.

Each swarm requires separate actions to call and command. Naki must be on the deck of the ship, or inside the hull, to call a swarm from that ship. She must be within 30 feet of a swarm to command it. Naki gets a +2 bonus to her rat empathy checks if in hybrid or rat form. A swarm obeys only the following commands: "Come," "Attack that foe," and "Disband." It attacks anyone (except Naki) who enters its square or whom it crawls over along its path, but the rats do not stay to continue the attack against random targets of that nature. The swarm does not attack new foes without orders and breaks up after 2d6 rounds without any orders.

It takes a swarm 1d3+1 rounds to gather in front of Naki. Calling the swarm is a full-round action, as is commanding it to change what it is doing. Other than that, the rat swarm takes no concentration to maintain. Rat swarms can move between grappled ships by crawling over the ropes and planks that bind the ships together.

The rats on the Sable Drake know Naki and will obey without a check being required. Naki can also call a maximum of two rat swarms while in the main chamber of the pirate base (see below). When calling swarms in the base, or on ships other than the Sable Drake, Naki must make a DC 12 rat empathy check for the swarm to obey the call itself, as well as whenever she gives it orders. She can try to call a swarm or give it orders on subsequent rounds if she fails a check, but each is still a full-round action.

Rat swarms are detailed on page 239 of the Monster Manual.

Disengaging from Battle

If the battle is too close to call after several rounds of combat, Captain Naki might order a sham retreat, assuming hybrid form (if she has not yet done so). The marines fall back to their own ship and wait for the enemy to reach the railing traps (see preceding section) and the first of the booby-trapped deck areas. Then Naki leads a counterattack against the disordered foe, while her sailors attempt to kill or disable those who fell victim to the traps but are still trying to get back into the battle.

If the battle goes badly, Naki orders a general retreat back to the Sable Drake. She comes down from the crow's nest and moves to the quarterdeck. From that vantage point, she casts burning hands and throws flasks of alchemist's fire to set the enemy ship aflame, as well as to block attackers from getting onto her ship. She activates her Quaal's feather token, using the whip feather token as a dancing weapon (see page 264 of the Dungeon Master's Guide) to defend herself and her ship from boarders, and orders Kumi to activate the fan feather token to stir up a wind to fill the Sable Drake's sails and get her ship away. Naki takes her hybrid form only if about to enter personal combat, in order to surprise and demoralize the enemy.

The grappling lines the pirates use have been soaked with flammable oil for the first several feet behind the grappling hooks. The goblins either chop these apart or set them afire if required, to fire the enemy ship and to break the grapples when the Sable Drake is trying to run. If enemies get on board and overcome the various defensive traps, so that there seems no hope of defeating them, then Captain Naki plays her last card: She threatens her hostages in an attempt to force the enemy to leave her ship and let it go. If they agree to such a bargain, she honors it and safely releases the hostages. If the negotiations fail, or treachery is attempted after a deal is made, she does her best to kill the hostages. When all is completely lost, Naki uses her potion of water breathing to flee into the sea and try to swim away underwater, taking dire rat form to enhance her skill.

Goblin Melee Tactics

When in doubt about what tactics the goblins use, remember they always strive to fight smart. During melee combat, the marines always seek both to flank their opponents and to gain a height advantage over them, clambering up onto hatch covers, cargo, railings, and so on. The goblins rely on their high Armor Class and the bless spell to stand up against their invariably larger foes. They always attempt to kill or disable the weakest, easiest targets first to gain a local numeric advantage.

They can see perfectly, and move unhindered, while their usually shoeless foes are greatly hindered by the dark, swaths of caltrops, and thrown tanglefoot bags. Any particularly tough opponents are targeted with crossbow fire from the sailors still on the Sable Drake. If possible, wounded marines retire from the fighting to get a potion of cure light wounds or a healing spell from Kumi.

If it is night (which Naki will try to ensure), the goblins try to put out (or throw overboard) any lights they can to maximize the advantage of their darkvision. Humans and halflings have poor night vision, and even elves do not see well in complete darkness. The DM should be careful to limit descriptions of what PCs can actually see of the conflict to the limited range of any light sources the goblins have not yet quenched.

The goblin marines wear high-top, reinforced, hobnailed boots. These let them ignore caltrops and vipers sprawling on the deck; they dig into the wood of the deck to give good footing even on surfaces that are wet, oily, blood-slicked, or slimed. The defenders are very unlikely to enjoy the same advantage, especially if they don their armor hastily. Any movement on the part of vulnerable people through caltrops, oil, vipers, or slime should be dealt with by forcing Balance checks, damage, attacks, and slow movement, as appropriate. The goblins know they are too small to have any real chance of pushing or tripping defenders off the ship into the sea, so they do not attempt such actions. Always keep the goblin sailors in the rigging and crow's nest active, sniping at and suppressing enemy spellcasters and archers.

The goblins are small and weak. But even weak opponents can be very dangerous when they fight smart. They understand this well, and always maneuver for flanking advantage, even triple-teaming foes. They do not spread out their attacks across many foes. They gang-attack one foe until they take it down, then move onto the next. They also attack the least-armored foes first, leaving heavily armored ones till last. They know that if they quickly reduce the number of enemies they face, they will take fewer casualties in the long run. Goblins do not fight fair -- they fight to survive, and win.

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