May 1, 2024

Down by the Seaside

Inspired by some seafaring adventuring in the earlier sessions of my current campaign, and by some writing on a project that cannot yet be named, I was thinking recently about random encounters with a nautical theme. And because I talked not long ago about always setting up encounters with multiple possible directions, sharing some nautical encounter setups seemed like a fine idea.

These encounter setups work for characters on a ship at sea or traveling along the coastline close to the water. They can be used as random encounters, as the setup for a series of encounters you build out from these initial ideas, or as an initial-encounter hook for an even larger adventure.

Art from the Dungeon Master’s Guide

Yo Ho Ho

As the characters approach a small fishing village, they spot a pirate vessel anchored offshore and bloodthirsty buccaneers shouting in the streets. If the characters storm in looking for a fight, the pirates might simply be enjoying some shore leave and paying the locals well for food, drink, and entertainment. Alternatively, the settlement might be the hiding place of a first mate who fled the pirates’ service with a collection of treasure maps, and the buccaneers will tear the town apart unless the first mate and the maps are found — or the characters stop them.

Saved from the Sea

Shattered wreckage spotted on the water turns out to have a near-unconscious humanoid clinging to it — a survivor of a shipwreck. The survivor might be a sailor whose gratitude for being rescued sees them offer to lead the characters to a site of buried treasure. Or the survivor might secretly be a member of a cult, pretending to be adrift and waiting to be rescued, and leading the characters not to treasure but to the cult’s island enclave to be sacrificed.

Merfolk Meeting

The characters spot a strange vessel rising from the water — an open-deck magic submersible crewed by merfolk. The merfolk might be making initial forays toward trading with the folk of coastal towns, giving the characters the opportunity to set up initial contacts or even act as brokers for trade between the settlements of the coast and the undersea. Alternatively, the merfolk might be on a mission of vengeance, looking for a pirate vessel or local warship whose crew slaughtered a pod of dolphins under the merfolk’s protection — and willing to take their revenge against any surface folk.

Strange Waters

One or more rare sea creatures — whales, dragon turtles, and so forth — are seen swimming through shipping lanes, local fishing grounds, or other waters they would never normally travel through. The characters first need to deal with the creatures damaging watercraft or docks, then determine what’s caused this strange migration. It might turn out that the creatures have been driven from their usual waters by some sort of magical disaster that needs investigation. It could be the case that corrupted merfolk druids or sahuagin enchanters have directed the creatures to attack folk of the surface. Or the creatures might be under the magical control of a cult seeking to claim territory along the coast, acting as the vanguard of a much larger aquatic assault.

Sudden Shipwreck

Along a coastline the characters have traveled multiple times, a shipwreck is suddenly visible at low tide where no wreck was seen before, in waters with no dangerous obstructions and with no storms in recent weeks. The wreck might be a vessel that foundered when a cursed but valuable magical relic on board forced the crew to abandon ship. It might have been disgorged by a natural portal recently opened in the seabed, and through which aquatic monsters from another part of the world will be drawn if the portal isn’t closed. Or it might be a rare mega-mimic with a penchant for feeding on underwater treasure hunters.

Mysterious Lighthouse

When traveling in a storm or attacked by seafaring monsters, the characters take refuge in a remote lighthouse that reveals itself to be empty, despite its magical light shining from dusk to dawn. As the characters explore, they might discover the lighthouse staffed by the benevolent ghosts of all its former keepers, who have a quest they need fulfilled. Or they might discover that the magically automated site is now used as a meeting place by a nefarious seafaring cult, whose members arrive to deal with the intruders who tripped their magical alarms.