20 Pieces of Ship Dressing

Typically when the PCs take an ocean voyage, the GM hand waves most of the details. Even if something occurs during the journey, the focus is on the encounter, not the actual vessel the PCs are on.


A ship is an excellent place to build verisimilitude into a campaign world. Essentially, the PCs are a captive audience, and the ship can become a detailed backdrop to roleplaying encounters and more.

Use the table below, to add minor points of interest and detail to the vessel; some can be nothing more than a trivial feature while others could spark an encounter or even side quest.

  1. A sailor has left a tangled mass of wet rope dangerously uncoiled on the deck. Unwary passengers could trip and fall.
  2. Wet footprints mar the deck. They lead from the rail toward the ship’s stern and to one of the hatches leading below decks. A close look at the footprints suggests that whoever made them was probably not human.
  3. A bucket, half full of seawater, stands on the deck against the rail. A wet rag lies nearby. There is no sign, of the sailor meant to be washing the deck.
  4. A perceptive PC spots strange scratches in the deck partially hidden by a barrel. Investigations reveal what looks like a treasure map carved into the wood. Maddeningly, the map bears no names, but a skilled sailor might recognise a certain cluster of oddly-shaped islands.
  5. The ship’s deck is in excellent condition. Spotlessly clean, it is washed down every morning by the crew.
  6. The ship’s sails have seen better days; they are patched in several places and show signs of many repairs.
  7. During the night, the hull springs a minor leak. The next morning, several crew members are hung over the side to aid in effecting repairs. The work takes much of the day, and while it is completed the captain orders the ship’s sails furled to lessen stress on the hull.
  8. Several pennants fly from the ship’s mast. Perceptive PCs notice the flags change design most days. It transpires the captain is superstitious and commands the pennants adjusted based on the weather, the ship’s location, direction of travel and which oceanic power he is trying to appease. He has a complicated system that not even the first mate understands.
  9. During the voyage, the captain has the crew start on a program of maintenance. The first thing they do is paint the ship’s rail a bright, jaunty yellow colour.
  10. The crew has a strange tradition; every new member must carve his name into the ship’s mast. Deceased or lost hands have their named effaced to avoid bad luck falling on the vessel. A surprising number of names have been scratched out, and the remaining names ascend the mast for a quite some distance.
  11. Sawdust and wood shavings litter one part of the deck. Scattered among them lie the ship’s carpenter’s tools.
  12. A perceptive PC discovers an empty wineskin stuffed behind a badly coiled rope on deck. If the PC uncorks the wineskin, he detects the scent of wine; clearly, it has been drunk recently—perhaps during last night’s watch!
  13. Beautiful carvings of dense underwater forests teaming with fish decorate the doors leading to the captain’s and passengers’ cabins. Perceptive observers detect the hint of long, sinuous tentacles in several of the carvings.
  14. The vessel’s portholes feature double shutters akin to storm shutters. If questioned about this, the crew relate the captain had them installed after the ship nearly sunk in a particularly heavy sea which saw some of the cabins flooded.
  15. Pirate attack is a particular nightmare of the ship’s captain. Thus he has installed weapon lockers in several places on deck containing heavy crossbows plentifully supplied with bolts. Similarly, he requires every member of the crew be armed at all times.
  16. The vessel has two rowboats securely lashed down on deck protected with storm covers. Each is supplied with a small barrel of water and a week’s hard tack biscuits for six passengers. Sometimes amorous crew members or passengers sneak into the rowboats for some privacy.
  17. Three empty barrels are lined up on deck ready for cleaning. The crewman overseeing the work has forgotten to secure the barrels; they might fall over, roll about the deck and injure an unsuspecting passenger.
  18. The ship’s mascot—a ragged parrot—has got a taste for wine. Often grumpy and hungover in the mornings—the crew think it is funny to get him drunk—he perches on a rat line looking glum and tired.
  19. Barnacles coat the hull, below the waterline. The growths are visible from time to time, as the ship breaks through the waves. When the ship encounters calm weather, the captain sends crew members down on nets to scrape them off.
  20. The ladders linking the ship’s various decks are particularly steep. Unwary passengers or those using the ladders in high seas have a greater than normal chance of slipping and falling.

Want More?

20 Pieces of Ship Dressing appears in 20 Things #22: Ocean Voyage.

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