For the next session we roll, my players will be faced with pirates. My question is how would you determine what kind of damage chained cannonballs inflict? (By chained cannonballs I mean two cannonballs that are chained to one another, and then shot out of a cannon. Kind of like a rocket powered bolas) When an individual is really hit by chained cannonballs, their body is generally destroyed in a very rapid and gore-filled fashion. So would being hit by something this devastating fall in to the inescapable death category? (Given players dont have anything to mend their bodies)

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    \$\begingroup\$ What rules are you using for ship to ship combat in general? \$\endgroup\$
    – mxyzplk
    Commented Oct 9, 2015 at 0:21
  • \$\begingroup\$ I homebrewed some rules, I give the ships an AC and if the cannon's attack successfully lands a hit I roll percentiles to see how devastating the damage was to the ship's structure \$\endgroup\$
    – Bear
    Commented Oct 9, 2015 at 1:07
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    \$\begingroup\$ Great, that is helpful. So: if you homebrewed the system, why can't you can homebrew this detail of the system? If you're stuck on something, now's the time to edit the question to describe what's preventing you from homebrewing this, so we can help you surmount that obstacle (whatever it is). \$\endgroup\$ Commented Oct 9, 2015 at 2:15
  • \$\begingroup\$ Are the players the only ones on the ship, or are they mixed in among a larger crew? \$\endgroup\$
    – Liesmith
    Commented Oct 9, 2015 at 7:37
  • \$\begingroup\$ It's eight players mixed in to a 50man crew \$\endgroup\$
    – Bear
    Commented Oct 9, 2015 at 16:24

3 Answers 3


Historically, chainshot (the technical term) was very much less effective against people than grapeshot (canister of musket balls) or even than roundshot (single ball) precisely because the latter tore up large impaling splinters, and indirect casulaties were heavier than direct. Chainshot was normally fired at masts and sails, in the hope of bringing down important parts of the rigging (which might of course land on the characters).

What this leads to is that you will need to abstract some of the details. If the party were in a battle between two armies you would presumably not roll for every shot aimed at their unit, but use battle rules to obtain a casualty rate. Similarly, make a roll (perhaps modifed by the relative tactical skills of the captains) to see how much damage is done before the pirates board. If it is high, the characters make a saving throw to find out whether they are knocked unconscious or just entangled in a fallen sail for a few rounds.

  • \$\begingroup\$ Pretty much spot on. Chainshot was aimed high to take out rigging and sails - they were chained together so the chain could catch the relatively impossible-to-hit stays and running rigging. Grapeshot was aimed at deck level to make a mess of the crew. Round shot was aimed at the hull, to both potentially sink the ship by holing the hull and to make a mess of the gundeck crew via wood shrapnel. The only way a character should be hit directly by chain shot is if the opposing gunners are really terrible. \$\endgroup\$
    – T.J.L.
    Commented Oct 9, 2015 at 13:17
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    \$\begingroup\$ "The only way a character should be hit directly by chain shot is if the opposing gunners are really terrible." Or if he happens to be in the wrong part of the rigging at the wrong time. Climbing rigging was a common damage control procedure... \$\endgroup\$
    – Zeiss Ikon
    Commented Oct 9, 2015 at 14:59
  • \$\begingroup\$ @ZeissIkon Or if the character were acting as a sniper in the rigging, a standard battle stations for Marines on US ships during the age of sail. (We got that from the British) \$\endgroup\$ Commented Oct 9, 2015 at 23:09

Chained shot would not be used in an antipersonnel role. Instead you'd have grapeshot or deck guns being used to hit the crew of a ship.

This doesn't mean that your characters aren't going to be hit by falling tackle, spars, masts, sails and other sailing bits and bobs though...

I'd suggest having the characters take damage from shrapnel, deck shot, grape shot and falling debris. Cannonballs however, will definitely hit with the chunky-salsa rule in full effect if you decide to include them. Ain't no personal armour protecting from that!

If you want the added danger of an instakill, roll for damage on every attack. It might be that a perfect shot coupled with several failing rolls would lead to them being hit by a cannonball. That way, if they're really unlucky they are going to get instakilled by a direct hit, else they are knocked out of the way by shrapnel or debris (roll for damage) or are incredibly lucky.

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    \$\begingroup\$ Because we have votes, it's expected that answers will avoid redundantly saying who they agree with, and just focus on answering the question the best they can. I've removed the references/endorsements of other answers for that reason; in any case, they didn't seem to be necessary to the points being made. \$\endgroup\$ Commented Oct 9, 2015 at 17:25
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    \$\begingroup\$ The character could be injured by chain shot if they are in the rigging as a sniper. This was very common in the age of sail combats. Any of your bow using characters might help the battle a lot sniping at enemy leadership form the rigging, but at the risk of being hit by chain shot. (snipers is why US Marine officers adopted the quadrefoil on the tops of their hats, so that friendly snipers would not shoot them.) \$\endgroup\$ Commented Oct 9, 2015 at 23:03
  • \$\begingroup\$ good point - perhaps if following this route make it more dangerous for the characters who willingly put themselves in more dangerous positions? \$\endgroup\$
    – Miller86
    Commented Oct 10, 2015 at 8:23

If you want to model the cannonballs realistically, a direct hit is most definitely an instant kill. But if you want to give your players a chance to survive a cannonball attack, you can have an attack "hit" without making the big ball of metal smash the character's face or the chain splitting him in two.

For one, they can take second-hand damage caused by a cannonball hit. Have one of the balls hit the ground they're standing on, making them fall through the deck and take fall damage. Or have a big splinter shoot out and stick in a limb of your choice.

Another way to model "damage" is through battle fatigue. Maybe the character is able to dodge the ball by jumping away with all he's got. He can't reasonably jump around for dear life for too long. Eventually his body won't be able to keep up, or he'll slip, and the attack will hit its mark. It all works well, both mechanically and in roleplay, but if your players are unfamiliar and/or unwilling to count fatigue as damage, this might not go over well at the table.

Whichever way of dealing damage you choose, you can take the damage of familiar monsters to help you gauge the difficulty of the encounter. If you notice during the encounter that your initial assessment was wrong, feel free to modify the encounter live. Have a canon fail if it's too hard, or bring out the flaming chained cannonballs if the characters are going through swimmingly.


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