Tela: The ship that found herself

In my latest session of Tapestry, earlier this week, one of the player characters, Sangmu, the trollwife shaman/healer, decided to investigate something she had been wondering about: Did their ship, Dola’s Fortune, have a spirit? It had a name, and following the custom of its builders, it had eyes painted at the prow, below the waterline, to watch for hazards, so she thought this seemed possible.

Sitting on the deck, she went into a trance and stepped out of her body, making sure that her silver cord was still connected. The ship was visible on the spirit plane, in the form of a ship, but didn’t show any reaction to her. Thinking she might need to be visible, she stepped over the side, and went into the ship’s visual field. The ship noticed her, and this led to a conversation.

What Sangmu learned from the conversation was that the ship knew that it had “bipeds,” like most ships, and considered bipeds important: Ships with good bipeds had long lives, ships with bad bipeds didn’t last as long, and ships without bipeds tended to die. But it hadn’t known that bipeds could talk or had any awareness. It commented on how the other ships would envy it for having such a superior biped! Sangmu also learned that the ship thought of itself as choosing what direction to sail in; it regarded the activities of its bipeds as internal processes that might contribute to this decision but didn’t lessen the fact that it had a spirit and free will.

Sangmu finally made arrangements to talk with the ship every few days to find out if it was in good health, and I told the players that all Shiphandling rolls to maintain the ship would be at +1.

I think I quite bemused some of my players, but I thought this seemed like a fairly logical implication of the idea that an inanimate object can have a spirit. And if any inanimate objects in the Bronze Age would have spirits, ships would be among them.


Splendid! This seems thoroughly reasonable for the setting. But is Shiphandling really the right skill for maintaining it?

Ships and boats certainly had souls in my fantasy setting Gehennum, and required anaesthesia for repairs. But PCs were mostly dreadful lubbers, and paid a lot more attention to the daimons of houses and castles, even cities. I recall one adventure involving euthanasia for a hulk that was beyond repair (the PCs drew it up a beach, arranged a big party for it, got it high as a kite on opium and bhang, and burned it to ashes while it was in a coma), and another that involved a magician having given a boat control of a number of bestowed effects (the PCs never worked that out — they figured it was a sandestin).

In the World of Isles (where Gehennum was set) it was usual for ships’ captains to talk to their ships and cultivate a relationship with them, the captain and ship being partners and the crew their servants. A captain was usually something very like the priest of his ship. But few knew enough of the relevant mystic discipline to hear their ships talking back.

Well, perhaps not. I proposed it off the top of my head, without checking the skill writeups. But the +1 could apply to whatever skill.

Do you have a particular suggestion for the proper skill in mind?

“Crewman” seems obvious to me.

Routine repairs would be Crewman (Seamanship). Larger ones would be Carpentry. Shiphandling would probably be the skill for organising careening the ship to clean her bottom.

I mostly agree with that. Observing the ship’s condition for problems is Seamanship (note that it includes damage control), and so is making minor repairs to keep it going. Most routine repairs are Carpentry, which is the analog of Mechanic for sailing ships, though Sewing applies in some cases, I think. There’s presumably an Engineer skill that you use to design new ships or modify existing designs (it ought to be called Naval Architecture, but I don’t think that term is used in GURPS); it wouldn’t be a repair skill, though.

The ability to consult the spirit of the ship seems to give an alternative to Seamanship; instead of asking a sailor to inspect something, you ask the ship itself if anything hurts or doesn’t feel right.

I think that Shiphandling may still come in for large jobs, and also for assessing whether the ship’s condition has deteriorated enough to make further sailing dangerous until you get it into better shape. What do you think?

Minor stitching is probably under Seamanship. I reckon you’d need Sewing to make a new sail, or repair one that had been so damaged it was more a question of re-using the cloth.

Yes, that’s Engineer (Ships) or culturally equivalent term.

That seems plausible, although unless you’re going to talk to the ship all the time, the biped inspections should be maintained. The great usefulness of talking to the ship is that it can tell you about structural problems early in their development, and in places that the bipeds can’t get at easily.

Shiphandling certainly seems plausible for deciding how urgent a problem is: that’s clearly a “captain’s task.” I’m not sure about using it for repairs, though: remember that it has a Seamanship prerequisite, so a captain may well be using his own Seamanship skill.

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Certainly the +1 to whatever skill reflects the assumption that the crew are going to be carrying on their routine inspections as well. Otherwise, at best, you’d break even, and conceivably going by what the ship says might result in a penalty.

Perhaps a better place to apply the +1 might be to the ship’s HT rolls to go on functioning if stressed or damaged, because it will have been better maintained?

That seems like a good idea. It will take some while to improve the condition of the ship to that point, of course. The fastest way to get there would be to do a refit: unload everything, beach the ship, inspect the entire ship, fix everything wrong, including what the ship tells you, and replace all the worn parts (mostly sails and ropes).

In one of my earlier campaigns, which two of my current players were also in, one of them played the role of a privateer captain in the Atlantean fleet, sailing the Pearl Bright Ocean (I used GURPS Cabal as a major source). He had built his own ship, and had the firm belief that it was his true wife, and thus was estranged from his family, who had arranged a suitable marriage for him are were offended when he didn’t go along. And he had Blessed: The King’s Two Bodies, focused on his ship—so if he was hurt his ship was damaged and vice versa. I remember one scene where a band of yithoglu goaded a kraken to attack his ship, and he felt a sense of being entangled in clinging tentacles, rather like a hentai scene in anime. That sounds a little like the relationship that Agemegos describes. . . .