So, I’m playtesting my contribution to the Deluge zine that is part of Knight Owl Games’ Aquatic Adventures Kickstarter, which you should totally check out.
My contribution, “So, You’ve Angered a Sea God…” is inspired by The Odyssey, The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, and the story of the whale ship Essex (which inspired Moby Dick, though I haven’t read that). It includes a system for generating a minor deity who was somehow angered by someone in the crew—possibly an NPC sailor who messed up at the last port, or possibly the PCs when they ransacked the deity’s old, ruined temple in their last adventure—and a system for rolling up complications that the sea god inflicts on a ship’s crew.
There’s also a simple mechanic for escalating the risk of terrible events if the offense goes unrectified, and for deescalating risk somewhat if the crew or PCs make an effort to smooth things over with the deity. (This mechanic secretly also makes some deities harder to appease than others: characters need to know who is offended, and they’re likelier to find out when things get really bad.)
I’m not sharing the system here—you can late pledge for the books here if you want to see it—but I thought I’d share a few recent roll-throughs. I’m freely making up the crew and PC reactions, but the torments and the Divine Rage Ratings that drive the escalation/deescalation are all the result of rolls, as is the information about each deity.
Week 0: The ship somehow angers Mul-Epek, a deity of sea battles whose patron beasts are the octopus and seahorse, and who hungers for… yeah, human sacrifice.
Week 1: A contagious illness—let’s call is Green Gills Fever—breaks out on the ship. The ship’s crew is disabled for a week, but nobody dies. (Yet.) Divine Rage Rating: +7.
Week 2: There is a rash of thefts committed by a minor crew member. Divine Rage Rating: +16.
Week 3: The entire crew is plagued with nightmares featuring the offended god. They are deprived of sleep and morale suffers. +21 to future rolls. The crew becomes terrified, and prays to the deity, reducing its anger slightly. Divine Rage Rating: +15.
Week 4: A higher than usual number of dangerous encounters continues. (Random encounters are at double the normal rate.) The captain believes the encounters are merely poor luck, and that the deity has been appeased, but the crew continues to pray to the deity, as they are not convinced. Divine Rage Rating: +16.
Week 5: Fog rolls in, surrounding the ship, obscuring the stars, and making navigation difficult. Soon the ship is lost, and collides with a rock in the middle of the sea. The PCs, and some of their crew, escape in rowboats. Divine Rage Rating: +18. Crew members determine that the deity is still angry, and toss the captain into the sea after slitting his throat. Divine Rage Rating: +5 .
Week 6: A fierce tempest lashes the drifting rowboats for 2 days, during which 3 crew members are lost. Divine Rage Rating: +14.
Week 7: The crew, furious, slit the throats of the first mate, the navigator, and one of the PCs and hurl them into the ocean. Divine Rage Rating: -19, which is enough of a human sacrifice to slake Mul-Epek’s thirst for human sacrifice. The torments cease, though the surviving crew is still stuck in rowboats on the open sea.
Week 0: The PCs insult Glameogh, goddess of sea travelers, whose patron beasts are whales and terns, and who desires sacrifices of gold and jewels, mocking and then robbing her priests, who had the temerity to solicit a donation “to assure safe passage” before the ship sets out.
Week 1: Fog rolls in, surrounding the ship, obscuring the stars, and making navigation difficult. Soon the ship is lost, but it narrowly avoids a collision with a coral reef. Divine Rage Rating: +10.
Week 2: Fierce tempests lashes the ship for 4 days straight, resulting in the loss of 6 crew members. (4 are thrown overboard, one falls from the rigging and breaks her neck, and the last is crushed by moving cargo down in the hold.) Divine Rage Rating: +20.
Week 3: One night, parts of the rigging simply rot overnight and fall apart. Several days are spent trying repurpose what remains so the ship can be minimally functional. The crew begins to mutter about a curse, bad luck, or a sea god’s anger, but nobody knows yet that it is Glameogh who has been offended, so there is not much they can do. Divine Rage Rating: +22.
Week 4: The mainmast spontaneously splits and cracks, falling apart. The crew is now terrified, convinced that a deity has been offended. Divine Rage Rating: +30. The PCs realize that they probably angered Glameogh, and by magical means, they inquire how to appease her. They learn that a large sacrifice of gold and jewels, or a commitment to quest in her service, or possibly both, will be necessary to quell her rage. They decide to perform both, before something truly terrible happens, and toss hundreds of gold coins and gems from the cargo, to the bottom fo the sea, and to commit to a quest in service of Glameogh. The quest commitment instantly quells Glameogh’s rage, and the crew are able to return the ship to a semi-functional state even without the main mast, hobble to a nearby port for repairs, and live on.
Week 0: Unbeknownst to anyone, a crew member cheerfully offends Mechadalth, god of sea beasts, when he steals a swordfish from the god’s altar in the temple to unknown gods at the port. The swordfish is holy to Mechadalth (as are flying fish) and the god can only be appeased by acts of artistic tribute.
Week 1: The guilty crewmember wakes to discover that he murdered the ship’s navigator in his sleep. He flees, to avoid being killed for the crime. Rumors abound and morale suffers. Divine Rage Rating: +6
Week 2: The first mate goes missing. (He has been tied up, gagged, and stuffed into a crate in the cargo hold, again by the offending crewman, again in his sleep, but he has no idea he has done this.) Divine Rage Rating: +7.
Week 3: A Tempest lashes the ship for 2 days straight, and 6 crew members are thrown overboard and lost. Additionally, for an hour on the second day, cockroaches and rats rain from the sky onto the ship, and the crew finally realize someone has offended a god, though they have no idea which one. Divine Rage Rating: +14.
Week 4: The guilty crewman strikes again, this time murdering the captain in his sleep. (In both their sleep, in fact.) He is not caught, but suspicions are growing about him. Divine Rage Rating: +15.
Week 5: There is no wind at all for eight days in a row, and the sun is scorchingly hot as the ship is stuck in place. The crew is certain that a divine curse plagues the ship. Divine Rage Rating: +24.
Week 6: The ship springs a major leak suddenly. The crew scrambles to keep the ship afloat, and grows more resentful, demanding the problem be addressed. Divine Rage Rating: +32.
Week 7: A somehow still-alive swordfish is discovered in the cargo hold, screaming the name of Mechadalth over and over. Divine Rage Rating: +36. The crew panics but since none of them knows about Mechadalth, they throw a sailor overboard, which would affront Mechadalth except that the sailors also throw the swordfish into the ocean, which appeases the deity in a minor way. Divine Rage Rating: + 31.
Week 8: Dysentery breaks out among the crew, killing 11 of them despite the PCs doing their best to cure who they can with their magic. The surviving crew are now completely miserable, and the only ready they don’t mutiny is because they are deathly ill. Divine Rage Rating: +35.
Week 9: A titanic swordfish begins ominously following the ship. Divine Rage Rating: +38. The crew has recovered enough to attempt a mutiny, but not enough to carry it off. However, several important crew members and a major ranking member of the crew die; a few so-called “ringleaders” of the mutiny are punished with death to prevent a recurrence, but not many—the ship can’t afford to lose too many people.
Week 10: The ship is lashed by brutal storms, and literal blood rains down from the heavens. Divine Rage Rating: +42. The terrified crew, forced to work to keep the ship afloat, sing as they work, and happen to improvise a song about Mechadalth. The blood rain stops, and as they continue to sing, the storm itself ends. Divine Rage Rating: +38.
Week 11: A large number of flying fish begin leaping over the ship constantly. Divine Rage Rating: +39. This terrifies the crew, who begin again to sing, but since of Mechadalth. Older crewmembers have carved swordfish from chunks of wood and toss them into the ocean, while begging the god for mercy and forgiveness. Divine Rage Rating: +23.
Week 12: The ship springs a major leak, and the crew must scramble to repair it. Divine Rage Rating: +24. They sing hymns to Mechadalth daily, offer more carvings, and two of the crewmen carves the ship’s figurehead into the likeness of a swordfish in the god’s honour and rename the ship “The Swordfish of Mechadalth,” begging for the god to forgive the crew for their offense. Divine Rage Rating: -27. The torments cease.
A certain amount of that—like determining when mutiny breaks out and how it proceeds, deciding when characters figure out how to appease the deity, and how appeasement interacts with an ongoing torment all are kind of judgement calls that would need to be figured out in play, because contributions were limited by page size—not that I’d want to necessarily mechanize all that stuff anyway. I think a bit of improvising is good in cases like this, as it allows for more narrative freedom and leaves more room for players to do things the GM might not think up.
The other thing is that the torments might not literally be week by week: characters might somehow reach an isle for restocking or repairs; they could arrive at a viable port out of dumb luck; they could end up using magic to hide the ship, or organize intercession by one of the other gods of the world, especially if they’re faithful worshippers of some other, more powerful sea god. The torments might also let up temporarily—to permit some, you know, adventuring—and then kick in again when the ship is turned homeward.
But I’m pretty pleased that my two tables and one little dice mechanic is sufficient for generating a series of events that emulate, in an interesting way, familiar narratives of divine wrath upon a sailing ship.