I've been rereading my 1e books for a campaign that would be set on a series of Caribbean-type islands with the potential for plentiful naval combat. Since I'm not too concerned about realism, the "Waterbourne Adventures" rules from the DMG (pp. 53-55) will be sufficient. However, I am having trouble determining how quickly a ship in motion (particularly a sailing vessel) can turn during combat.

Here's what the rules say about turning (that I can find): "Any oared ship can move forward from a complete standstill in one round. Galleys are able to do a pivot only if they are dead still in the water. This action requires a certain amount of skill or else the oars may be damaged. Any ship wanting to turn must let her momentum carry her twice her length before such a procedure may begin."

What this tells me is that all moving ships must proceed twice their length before beginning to turn after being at a dead stop. There is nothing that I can find about how long a turn would take to complete (whether 60, 90, or 180 degrees), though, once a sufficient turning speed is reached - as opposed to the "Aerial Adventures" rules that build on the class ratings to give a sense of how far different creatures can turn per round (my preference would be to find something like that for ships).

Is this something I just need to make up rules to cover? Please note, I've already checked Margaret Foy's article in Dragon #116; it had illustrations of different types of turns, but no timing rules. Even something as simple as "a standard ship traveling at 1/2 speed can turn 60 degrees per __" would be sufficient for my purposes

  • \$\begingroup\$ "Something like [Aerial Adventures] for ships" - you can try adapting the AD&D2 Spelljammer rules, particularly War Captain's Companion (the supplement that contained an expansion/revision of the basic rules). It's a hex-grid-based system that incorporates maneuverability class. \$\endgroup\$
    – Alex P
    Feb 25, 2014 at 15:14

3 Answers 3


I checked the DMG, DSG and WSG. All have some rules for ship movement but none of them covers how fast ships turn. DSG and WSG cover smaller craft, the type that a party may take and crew themselves.

Please have another look at that Dragon article. Margaret Foy's article in Dragon #116 does cover turning speed, just not in the way you may hope for.

Ships Under Sail

Table descriptions Table Ia gives basic information about each kind of galley and ship.

It goes on to say:

The numbers under maneuverability refer to which type of dice are rolled to determine how many rounds, plus or minus adjustments (See Tables II and III), it takes to change from one point of sail to another. This reflects time spent adjusting the sails, yards, and rigging. When maneuvering from one tack to another, the adjusted roll is tripled.

This would indicate that turning a ship is not a simple matter as a x degree turn can take multiple rounds. For example, using the noted table Ia shows that a Longship (base maneuverability rating of 8) of "acceptable" make with an "acceptable" crew will take 1d8 rounds to change the "Point of Sail" from one position to another, say from Port Running Free to Port Board Reaching. That's a simple 30 degree turn. It's not like in the movies where some dude spins a wheel and it's done. There is so much more to do. Sails are trimmed or let out. Yard arms are moved. Rigging has to be climbed so sailors can get in position to make the changes. Yes, the rudder has to be adjusted. So with the bigger vessels this can take several minutes.

As worded, I think one could take the changing the Point of Sail to an extreme and say the same amount of time would be required to make any turn. So the same Longship could go from the Port Running Free position to the Starboard Reaching position, a full 120 degrees, in the same 1d8 rounds. After all your crew is just repositioning sail and rigging so there is nothing that says they have to stop at each intermediate Point of Sail position.

Ships Rowing

Galleys have sails as well as oars. When they are not under sail power they have different rules for movement.

Table Ic gives additional statistics for galleys.

It goes on to say:

A galley must travel a certain number of rounds on one course before it can take another. This is listed on the table as maneuverability (oar). It is affected by the level of crew ability (see the diagram on page 15).

The wording is a bit puzzling here but I would suggest that what is trying to be said is that when making a galley (operating under oar power) turn one would use both the rudder and the oars. Turn the rudder and have the oars on one side slack off and/or the opposite side speed up. So, again, the course correction is not an immediate thing. Making the large vessel turn takes minutes and goes beyond the movie wheel spinning.

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    \$\begingroup\$ Thank you for this - I think the system described in the Margaret Foy article (which I missed during my skim) could work with a little embellishment. What it really seems to be missing is a sense of how long from setting the new tack it takes to point the ship in the desired direction. I will probably hand-wave that and say the ship is turned as soon as the "Point of Sail" is changed. \$\endgroup\$
    – Craddoke
    Jan 26, 2013 at 3:02
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    \$\begingroup\$ Sounds good. You may also want to look at the follow up article in Dragon 130, it has an expansion of the same material for "Oriental Adventures". More ship types never hurts. \$\endgroup\$
    – Leezard
    Jan 26, 2013 at 6:10

The actual performance of a ship varies widely based on the ship design, mode of power (i.e. rowing vs sailing vs paddlewheel vs propeller etc), weight, build materials, wind direction, current direction and strength and so forth. Any rules governing them can easily get complex very quickly.

Using the simplified example from the Dragon article you refer to, you can probably use an extremely simplified set and state something like at 1/2 speed turn up to 20 degrees per 6 second round or something like that.

You might also see if you can track down rules from the various ship based games that have been out there, such as 7th Sea or Pirates of the Spanish Main.

  • \$\begingroup\$ Thank you. This answer largely agrees with my first thoughts on the matter - either I need to invent some simplified rules (with or without maneuverability classes) or I need to supplement from a different system. Thanks especially for the leads on other relevant systems! \$\endgroup\$
    – Craddoke
    Jan 24, 2013 at 18:43
  • \$\begingroup\$ @Craddoke You should wait a bit before accepting though, there might be someone out there who would be able to come up with an actual RAW answer from one of the other Dnd games :) (I wouldn't be surprised if 3.5 had something relevant) \$\endgroup\$ Jan 24, 2013 at 18:45

This is a bit late to add in on but I'm running 2e hombrew during the golden age of piracy. What I've done for the turning issue was two stats on each class of ship one turn which list the degree of turn a ship can make in a round example a galleon can only turn 45* and then a drift stat this is the number of inches foward an to the side they must go to turn. On that galleon under full sail is 4 so to turn 45* is a 4x4 inch in a round. Half sail lowers the drift numbers on that galleon it lowers it by half. Now a sloop which is small and very maneuverable had the turn of 130* in 2 drift. So even though a galleon could carry much more cannons it was possible for the sloop to tear a galleon apart by firing and moving never presenting the galleon with a broadside.

Another note about the drift stat, no ship can easily stop and at the end of a ships move phase they actually drift in the direction of the wind the drift stat. Also if the anchor isn't dropped this continues each round.


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