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Unearthed Mundana: Naval Ghost Stories

This article was first broadcast in Episode Seventy Seven on 19th June 2019.

Lennon: Oh, the year was 1778 — how I wish I was in Sherbrooke noooooow…
Ryu: Lennon? Doing some remodeling on the guild house?
Lennon: No, I’m going sailing! Building myself a boat, off to the high seas!
Ostron: Sailing to where?
Lennon: Oooh, avast, ye landlubber. You don’t need a destination; the joy is in the sailing!
Ryu: You have no idea what you’re going to do out there, do you.
Lennon: Look, Columbus didn’t need directions —
Ryu: — and Columbus thought he landed in India!
Lennon: Well… I’m sure inspiration will come to me!
Ostron: Would you mind if we offered some suggestions?
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With the release of Ghosts of Saltmarsh, it’s possible for campaigns to spend more of their time on the water and have meaningful gameplay experiences while on the high seas.

However, while the Saltmarsh book provides several sea-themed adventures, a lot of the action actually takes place on land, and there are no other sources for official D&D adventures set on the high seas. Of course you can look at typical stories about storms and pirates from history, but this is D&D. People want fantastic creatures and magical experiences.

Fortunately two things sailing across oceans produces are boredom and time, so a huge range of fantastic stories have been thought up by cultures throughout history. A lot of them have actually been incorporated into D&D already; sirens, merfolk, and kraken are all creatures and races that exist in D&D, for example, but we’re going to look at some other pieces of folklore that haven’t been tapped directly yet.

We’ll start with St. Elmo’s Fire. For those who aren’t aware, St. Elmo’s Fire is a phenomenon where colored light starts wreathing around and sparking off of things, usually a ship’s mast. There’s a well documented scientific explanation for it, but back when scientists were focused on trying to turn lead into gold, St. Elmo’s fire was usually seen as an omen from a god or gods, depending on the culture. So if there’s a god involved, either because the DM is relaying a message or because a character is appealing to their diety or patron spirit for information or a sign, a manifestation of St. Elmo’s Fire could be the visual sign that something is happening.

A common superstition that focuses more on bad omens has to do with the bird Albatross. Primarily sourced from one poem, it was believed that Albatrosses brought good luck or wisdom unless someone killed it, in which case a curse of sorts would be laid on whoever slayed the bird and bad luck would befall anyone who associated with them. The same general story could be applied to any other benign or minimally annoying creature harassing a ship and could be used as a thematic element for a character backstory, or as a way to introduce a malevolent entity that harasses or curses a player character or NPC.

A mixed blessing surrounds the presence of a creature called the Klabautermann. The creature is described as a kobold that has complete expertise with all kinds of boats, rescues sailors that fall overboard, and even provides pleasant music for the ships it’s on. However, you’d better hope you never find it, because apparently it only becomes visible if the ship it’s on is doomed in some fashion. This whole legend would be easy to port over to D&D in a variety of ways, from having the creature be a willful, powerful entity bound by the rules above, or an innocent creature ignorant of the disasters it causes when it reveals itself.

Tattoos are commonly associated with sailors but in bygone eras the tattoos actually had a metaphysical purpose. Sailors believed the tattoos would be noticed by gods and spirits of the sea and would help their fortunes. For example, sailors would often get tattoos of chickens or pigs because they believed God wouldn’t sink a ship with such creatures on it because they can’t swim. Tatooing a compass or a representation of the north star was believed to help the sailors find their way home.  Tatoos with magical properties are already a thing in D&D, so this would be something that could easily be made practical in a campaign.

Of course one of the most well-known sea myths is that of the Flying Dutchman, a mythical boat. As with most old myths the details vary, but a few things are consistent with representations of the ship:

  • The ship is never able to make landfall
  • The crew is made up of dead sailors
  • It is always accompanied by storms

Beyond that the variations start. Some tellings suggest the crew is made up of merely dead sailors, but in others the crew are all guilty of some sort of crimes and the ship is a form of punishment. The ship itself is also given sentience and a will of its own in some versions, with the crew at the mercy of its whims and simultaneously forced to tend to it.

The subject of the dutchman’s captain is also something that changes frequently. A few real life sailors were sometimes named as the ships’ captain, mostly ones who were renowned for being able to sail at great speeds but were lost at sea. The next most popular figure to be helming the ship is a personification of death, or sometimes Davey Jones, a figure usually associated with death among superstitious sailors.

Regardless of which pieces of the myth you subscribe to, the whole thing is ripe with ideas that can be implemented in a D&D campaign. The ship could be crewed with undead with a lich in charge, or it could be a vessel captained by a devil with a hoard of damned souls on it. Or you could go to the actual reason sailors possibly saw phantom ships, an optical illusion, and introduce a plot where a spellcaster is using an illusion to terrorize an area.

What we’ve covered here are many universal sailing myths that are largely culture agnostic (though many of them originated in western cultures). Other cultures and mythologies have their own stories and myths that focus on the seas so if you aren’t inspired by any of the stories presented here and still want more material, check around for myths focusing on sea gods or sea creatures.

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Ryu: So Lennon…
Lennon: No, you’re not talking me out of this! I shall voyage upon the high seas!
Ostron: Did you account for the fact that the nearest coastline is two hundred miles away?
Lennon: I did, and I was meaning to talk to you about that.
Ostron: Oh, no; you explicitly told me you’re never letting me teleport you anywhere again, so sorry.
Lennon: Hey, Ryu, Peaches can tow a boat on a trailer right?
Ryu: Yeah, why don’t you try it? She also needs to be fed, so have fun with that.
Lennon: Okay, before I do that I’m going to go over to the scrying pool and see if the listeners have suggestions on how to befriend a T-rex…

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