Ship Combat

Pilot Actions


When combat begins, the pilot of a ship should roll initiative as normal—the ship moves at the start of its pilot’s turn. If a ship has no pilot, it moves on the turn of the last creature that was its pilot, or on a turn determined by the GM. If they wish to take actions in combat, the PCs (and important NPCs involved in the combat) should roll initiative at this time as well.

The Upper Hand

At the beginning of every round, each pilot makes an opposed sailing check to determine who has the upper hand that round. This represents the vagaries of luck, skill, and the environment, whether catching a favorable gust of wind, taking advantage of a fast current, sliding down the back of a large wave, or disrupting an opposing ship’s wind with your own ship’s “dirty air.” The pilot who succeeds at the check gains the upper hand, and can immediately reposition her ship by one square in any direction as a free action. For every 5 by which the successful pilot’s check exceeds the opposing pilot’s check, the pilot with the upper hand can reposition her ship by an additional square. On a tie, neither pilot gains the upper hand.

Alternatively, the pilot who wins the upper hand can change the heading of her ship by 90 degrees. For every 5 by which the successful pilot’s check exceeds the opposing pilot’s check, the pilot with the upper hand can change the heading of her ship by an additional 90 degrees.

A ship that is upwind of another ship (closer to the direction of the wind) is said to “hold the weather gage,” and gains a +2 bonus on the opposed check to gain the upper hand.


At the start of a pilot’s turn, she can take any of the following sailing actions (except the “uncontrolled” action) by making a sailing check to control the ship. The pilot must take whatever action is required before doing anything else that turn. Just as in normal combat, a pilot can perform a standard action and a move action each round. Once the pilot has selected an action, or takes some other action forcing the ship to become uncontrolled, the ship moves. If a ship has less than half its crew or has no pilot, or if the pilot takes no action, takes some other action instead of piloting the ship, or delays or readies an action, the ship takes the “uncontrolled” action.

Full Ahead (standard action): With a successful sailing check, the ship’s current speed increases by its acceleration (usually 30 feet), but no higher than its maximum speed. The ship can move forward or forward diagonally. In other words, each time a ship enters a new 30-foot square, it can choose any of its forward-facing squares—the one directly in front or either of the squares directly forward and diagonal. This allows the ship to swerve. A pilot who fails her sailing check does not accelerate and can only move into a square directly in front of the ship’s forward facing.

Hard to Port or Hard to Starboard (standard action): The pilot can turn the ship while it moves forward at its current speed. With a successful sailing check, the pilot can change the ship’s forward facing either left (port) or right (starboard) by 90 degrees at any point during the ship’s movement. Do this by pivoting the ship so that the rear square of the ship takes the place of the ship’s former forward facing square. If a ship’s current speed is twice its acceleration, the pilot takes a –5 penalty on the sailing check. If a ship’s current speed is three times its acceleration, the pilot takes a –10 penalty on the sailing check. If its current speed is four or more times its acceleration, the pilot takes a –20 penalty. On a failed check, the ship does not turn, but can be moved forward diagonally during its movement. Note: A wind-propelled ship that turns into the wind (its forward facing is pointed in the opposite direction from the wind) is said to be “in irons” and takes the uncontrolled action until its pilot turns it to face another direction.

Heave To (standard action): With a successful sailing check, the ship’s current speed decreases by 30 feet. On a failed check, the ship does not decelerate. Either way, the ship can move forward on its current facing and can move forward diagonally. If deceleration reduces a ship’s speed to 0, some amount of inertia will continue to move the ship forward. The ship moves forward (either directly forward or forward diagonally) 1d4×30 feet before coming to a complete stop. Having the Expert Driver feat reduces this distance by 30 feet (minimum 0 feet).

Make Way (standard action): With a successful sailing check, a pilot can make a tricky or difficult maneuver that forces an enemy pilot to react. The result of this sailing check then becomes the DC of the enemy pilot’s next sailing check. On a failed check, the ship’s speed remains constant, but the ship cannot move forward diagonally, and the enemy pilot makes his next sailing check at the normal DC.

Stay the Course (move action): With a successful sailing check, the pilot can move the ship forward on its current facing at its current speed, and it can move directly forward or forward diagonally. Failing the check keeps the speed constant, but the ship can only move directly forward, not forward diagonally.

Full Astern (full-round action): With a successful sailing check, the pilot can move the ship backward at a speed of 30 feet, moving either directly backward (the reverse of its forward facing) or backward diagonally. On a failed check, it does not move backward. A ship may only be moved in reverse if its current speed is 0.

Uncontrolled (no action): When the pilot does nothing, if there is no pilot, or if the ship has less than half its crew, the ship is uncontrolled. An uncontrolled ship does nothing except take the uncontrolled action until it stops or someone becomes its new pilot. An uncontrolled ship moves forward only (it cannot move forward diagonally) and automatically decelerates by 30 feet. Even if a ship does nothing, it can still perform ramming maneuvers (see Ramming).


Ships typically don’t have attacks and do not threaten any area around them, though some ships can be fitted with rams. Some ships also carry siege engines. Provided that the ship has enough additional crew to operate them, these siege engines can make attacks. While individuals aboard a ship generally don’t play a significant role in ship-to-ship combat, important characters such as PCs might still become involved if they wish to fire siege engines or if an enemy ship is in range of their ranged attacks or spells. When attacking a ship, you can attack the ship’s structure, occupants, propulsion, or control device. You can also attempt to grapple and board a ship. In addition, a ship can make a ramming maneuver or shearing maneuver as part of its movement.

Attacking the Structure: This is an attack against the ship itself. If the attack is successful, the ship takes damage normally.

Attacking an Occupant: This is a normal attack against a ship’s occupant—any creature that is a passenger, pilot, crew, or providing propulsion on a ship. Occupants get partial cover (2 to AC and +1 on Reflex saving throws) or greater against attacks coming from outside of the ship. Occupants in a forecastle or sterncastle have cover (4 to AC and 2 on Reflex saving throws), while those inside a port or hatch have improved cover (8 to AC and +4 on Reflex saving throws). In general, once combat begins among the occupants of two ships (such as when boarding), ship-to-ship combat should be replaced with shipboard combat.

Attacking Propulsion: A ship’s means of propulsion usually has its own set of statistics, while creatures propelling a ship use their own statistics. See Attacking an Occupant above if crew members providing propulsion are attacked. Individual ship stat blocks detail their means of propulsion.

Attacking the Control Device: A ship’s control device is an object with its own statistics. When a control device is destroyed, the ship can no longer be piloted.

Attacking a Siege Engine: Siege engines mounted on a ship have their own statistics. Siege engines benefit from cover as occupants on a ship.

Broadsides: Some ships can carry a large number of siege engines. Rather than bog down ship-to-ship combat with numerous individual attack rolls, siege engines can be fired in “broadsides.” All siege engines of the same type on a single side of the ship can fire at once. Broadside attacks can only be used to attack the structure of a ship or propulsion. Make a single attack roll for all of the siege engines in the broadside. If the attack roll is successful, all of the weapons hit their target. If the attack roll fails, all of the weapons miss. On a successful attack roll, take the average damage of a single weapon and multiply it by the number of weapons in the broadside to determine the total damage dealt.

For example, a sailing ship with a bank of 10 light ballistae on its port side fires a broadside attack. A single light ballista deals 3d8 points of damage, for an average of 13.5 points of damage. If the attack hits, the broadside deals 13.5 × 10, or 135 points of damage.

Grappling and Boarding

When the crew of one ship wishes to board an enemy ship and attack its crew, they must first grapple the other ship. To grapple, the two ships must be within 30 feet of one another (in other words, they must be in adjacent squares on the battle mat). If both pilots want to grapple, grappling is automatically successful. The two crews throw out grappling lines and draw the ships together. If both ships are reduced to a speed of 0 as the result of a ramming maneuver, they are also considered grappled.

If only one pilot wants to grapple, she must make a combat maneuver check against the target ship’s CMD, using the base CMB of the ship plus the pilot’s sailing skill modifier (or Wisdom skill modifier if she is using that ability to control the ship) as the total CMB of the grappling maneuver. If the check is successful, the target ship is grappled. On the next round, the two ships are moved adjacent to one another, and the speed of both ships is reduced to 0. If a ship has less than its full crew complement, the pilot takes a –10 penalty on her combat maneuver check to make a grappling maneuver.

Breaking a Grapple: The pilot of a grappled ship can attempt to break the grapple by making a combat maneuver check against the opposing ship’s CMD, but at a –4 penalty. If the check is successful, the crew has cut the grappling lines and the freed ship may now move as normal.

Boarding: Once two ships are grappled, a crew can board the other ship. The pilot with the highest initiative can choose whether to board the opposing ship with her crew first or wait for the opposing crew to board her ship. Characters boarding an opposing ship are considered flat-footed for the first round of shipboard combat, due to the difficulty of climbing over the ships’ rails and finding footing on the enemy deck. Characters using a corvus to board another ship are not considered flat-footed.


To ram a target, a ship must move at least 30 feet and end with its forward square in a square adjacent to the target. The ship’s pilot must make a ramming combat maneuver check against the target’s CMD, using the base CMB of the ship plus the pilot’s sailing skill modifier (or Wisdom skill modifier if she is using that ability to control the ship) as the total CMB of the ramming maneuver. If the check is successful, the ship hits its target, dealing its ramming damage to the target. The ramming ship takes half that damage. A ship’s base ramming damage is listed in its stat block. If the pilot’s combat maneuver check exceeds the target’s CMD by 5 or more, the target takes twice the ship’s ramming damage. If the combat maneuver check exceeds the target’s CMD by 10 or more, the target takes twice the ship’s ramming damage and the target’s speed is immediately reduced to 0. Regardless of the result of the combat maneuver check, the ramming ship’s speed is reduced to 0.

If a ship collides with another ship or a solid object (an immobile structure with a hardness of 5 or more), it also makes a ramming maneuver, regardless of the pilot’s intent. There is no combat maneuver check for this ramming maneuver; its effects happen automatically. When a ship makes a ramming maneuver against a solid object, to determine how much damage both the solid object and the ship take, allow the ship to enter the solid object’s space. The ship will only travel through that space if the damage is enough to destroy the solid object; in all other cases, the ship takes the damage and its speed is immediately reduced to 0 as it comes to a sudden stop directly in front of the solid object.

A ship can be outfitted with a ram on its forward facing. A ship equipped with a ram deals an additional 2d8 points
of damage with a ramming maneuver, and ignores the damage for the first square of a solid object it enters, and all damage from ramming creatures or other objects (such as other ships). A ram can be added to a Large ship for 50 gp, a Huge ship for 100 gp, a Gargantuan ship for 300 gp, and a Colossal ship for 1,000 gp.

If a ship has less than its full crew complement, but has at least half its crew, the pilot takes a –10 penalty on her combat maneuver check to make a ramming maneuver. A ship without at least half its crew complement cannot make a ramming maneuver.

Damaging a Ship

Ships have hit points and hardness based on their primary components. Most ships are made of wood (15 hit points per 5-foot-square, hardness 5). When a ship is reduced to below half its hit points, it gains the broken condition. When it reaches 0 hit points, it gains the sinking condition.

Broken Condition: Ships—and sometimes their means of propulsion—are objects, and like any other object, when they take damage in excess of half their hit points, they gain the broken condition. When a ship gains the broken condition, it takes a –2 penalty to AC, on sailing checks, saving throws, and on combat maneuver checks. If a ship or its means of propulsion becomes broken, the ship’s maximum speed is halved and the ship can no longer gain the upper hand until repaired. If the ship is in motion and traveling faster than its new maximum speed, it automatically decelerates to its new maximum speed.

Sinking Condition: A ship that is reduced to 0 or fewer hit points gains the sinking condition. A sinking ship cannot move or attack, and it sinks completely 10 rounds after it gains the sinking condition. Each additional hit on a sinking ship that deals more than 25 points of damage reduces the remaining time for it to sink by 1 round. A ship that sinks completely drops to the bottom of the body of water and is considered destroyed. A destroyed ship cannot be repaired—it is so significantly damaged it cannot even be used for scrap material. Magic (such as make whole) can repair a sinking ship if the ship’s hit points are raised above 0, at which point the ship loses the sinking condition. Generally, nonmagical repairs take too long to save a ship from sinking once it begins to go down.

Repairing a Ship

The fastest and easiest way to repair a ship is with spells. Mending is not powerful enough to meaningfully affect an object as large as a ship, but make whole affects a ship as if it were a construct, repairing 1d6 points of damage per level. In addition, more mundane methods can also be used to repair ships. Because of their specialized construction, ships (as well as oars and sails) usually require the Craft (ships) skill to repair. Depending on the nature of the damage, skills such as Craft (carpentry) or Craft (sails), or even various Profession skills, can be used to repair ships with the GM’s approval. In general, a day’s worth of work by a single person using the appropriate skill to repair a ship requires 10 gp of raw materials and a DC 10 skill check, and repairs 10 points of damage on a success, or 5 hit points on a failure. Fabricate can also be used to create the raw material needed for repairs. New oars can be purchased for 2 gp each.


Fire is an ever-present danger on every wooden ship, but while most ships are not in danger of going up in flames from a dropped torch or lantern, alchemical or magical fires can be much more dangerous. Note that many instantaneous fire spells do not automatically catch a ship on fire, but those that deal fire damage over multiple rounds have a better chance of causing a fire on board a ship (see Magic).

When a ship takes fire damage (such as from Alchemist’s fire, flaming arrows, certain spells, and other effects at the GM’s discretion), it must immediately make a Fortitude save (DC 10 + damage dealt) or catch fire. Unless an attack specifically targets a ship’s means of propulsion (such as sails), it is assumed that such attacks affect the structure of a ship itself.

Once a ship has caught fire, it automatically takes 2d6 points of fire damage per round (ignoring hardness) as the fire spreads. The ship’s crew can attempt to extinguish the flames as a full-round action for the entire crew, allowing the ship to make a Reflex save (DC 15 + the number of rounds the ship has been on fire). A successful saving throw means the fire has been put out. A failed saving throw results in the ship taking the normal 2d6 points of fire damage for the round.

A ship must take the “uncontrolled” action each round that its crew attempts to put out a fire, as they are not sailing the ship at this time.

Those who would like more detailed rules for fires, spreading flames, and fighting fires can use the system presented in the “Catastrophe!” article in Pathfinder Adventure Path #30: The Twice-Damned Prince.

Creatures can attack ships with spells. Ships are objects, so spells that can only target creatures have no effect on ships. However, because a ship is actively crewed and piloted, it can make saving throws against spell effects. Ships are immune to most spells that require a Will save. A ship without a crew is considered an unattended object and cannot make saving throws.

The effects of most spells on ships can be determined normally. However, certain spells have different effects in naval combat. The effects of these spells are detailed on the page Spell Effects in Naval Combat. GMs can use these examples as guidelines for determining how other spells not listed here affect ships. For the most part, these effects only apply during ship-to-ship combat, not during normal combat aboard a ship, though some affects (such as starting fires), could still apply, at the GM’s discretion.

Ship Combat

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