Shiver Me Timbers – Fate Naval Battles


Ahoy, gamers! Someone of G+ posted a question about how to use Fate Core to have a naval battle, and it got me thinking; the key to a naval battle in Fate is not maps and tactics, but about the narrative. Just like in a Horatio Hornblower story, you might not understand which ship is how far away from that ship, but you know at any given time who is playing it safe and who is reckless, and who is winning.

(And to any fans who were hoping for my Umdaar stuff, none of that this week… unless you want to have a flying-air skiff battle!)

An ancient shot of me, during the infamous Pirate Ninja wars.

An ancient shot of me, during the infamous Pirate Ninja wars.



Naval Battles use a variation on the Swashbuckler Duel, found in the Fate System Toolkit. Any player that succeeds with style on of their actions gains the “The Upper Hand”; if they do, this replaces the boost or extra invoke they would normally receive. They keep the upperhand until an opposing character gains it.


Most naval combat actions will use the following three skills: Shoot for disabling and attacking, Pilot (which is based on Drive) to maneuver close and dodge attacks, and Physique to withstand attacks.

Here are some sample ships:

Small – Sloop – Pilot +3, Shoot +2, Physique +1 – 2 Stress Boxes, 1 Consequence

Middling – Frigate – Shoot +4, Pilot +2, Physique +2 – 3 Stress Boxes, 2 Consequences

Great Ship – Galleon – Physique +5, Shoot +4, Pilot +1 – 4 Stress Boxes, 3 Consequences


There are two ranges (which are similar to zones): close and long range. All ships start at long range.

Long Range: While at long range, your cannons are too far away to deal large amounts of damage- as such, you can’t make an attack action at long range. You may, however, still use Shoot to pepper the enemy with light fire in the hopes that you hinder them in some way (ex. tear a sail, or knock out a few spar, demoralize the crew). It is also too far to use any personal skills, like Deceive, Provoke, Empathy or Rapport.*

*Optional Rules – You may use attempt to personal skills with Flags, such as pretending to have a friendly ensign or provoking them with a black flag.

Maneuvering into Close Range: A player may attempt to move their ship into close range with the enemy ship; this uses the overcome action. The defender rolls to defend against the action: this represents them either maneuvering to stay at long range or to force the encroaching party into a bad position. Use the following outcomes:

Attacker Succeeds with Style: you move into close range; also, you ,may either take a boost to gain the upper hand.

Attacker Succeeds: you move into close range.

Attacker Ties: the defender chooses: to have the attacker stay at long range (but the attacker gets a boost), OR let the attacker pull into close range (and the defender gets a boost.)

Attacker Fails / Defender Wins: the defender gets a boost. In addition, the defender chooses when the attacker stays at long range, or moves to close range.

Maneuvering – Succeed at a Cost: If you fail to move in close, you may choose to Succeed at a Cost; if you do, you are automaticlaly pulled in close, but the defender choose whether to gains a boost or the upper hand- this is definitely a risky move!

Maneuvering out of Close Range: As an action, you may attempt to move your ship from close range into long range. If you are unopposed, it happens automatically. Any enemy ships that are in close range may attempt to oppose you; both ships use their Pilot skill.


Attacks: If two ships are in close range, they can exchange one of two types of attacks: a Broadside Attack or Raking Attacking. A Broadside attack is easy to do, but very dangerous; a Raking attack is safer, but may only be done if you have the upper hand.

Broadside Fire: If you are in close range, you may deal a Broadside attack. Roll your Shoot plus 4dF as normal; however, the resulting shifts of damage are dealt to both the enemy ship AND your ship* (to represent their return fire); a player can add invokes to deal more shifts, but this will also deal more shifts to you. After you determine the number shifts dealt, both your and the defending ship rolls to defend- the attacked ship may use Physique or Pilot to defend, but you may only use Physique to defend against broadsides that you initiated.

*The exception is merchant / cargo ships: during a broadside attack against a merchant ship , the maximum number of shifts you can deal to yourself is equal to the merchant ship’s Shoot ability. This makes merchants easy prey!

Example: Delilah controls a Middling ship (Shoot +4, Pilot +2, Physique +2) and makes a broadside attack against a small ship (Pilot +3, Shoot +2, Physique +1); her middling ship has a Shoot of +4, rolls +1, invokes an aspect for a total of 7 shifts of stress. The defender can defend with Physique or Pilot, and chooses Pilot, as it is higher (+3); one the defense roll adds +2, thus, the small ship suffers 2 stress. Delilah’s broadside also deals 5 shifts to her own ship, which she can only defend with Physique (+2); she also rolls a +0, which means she deals 5 stress to herself. (A very dangerous turn of events!)

Strategy Tip: You’ll notice, of course, that a smaller boat that has lots of fire power but little defense has little incentive to initiate a broadside (unless the target is outnumbered). However, a more robust ship with high defense and lots of stress boxes can initiate several broadsides and survive.

Raking Fire: Raking attacks represents you pulling up perpendicular to the enemy, a maneuver called “crossing the T”; this means all of your guns are facing their ship, while their relatively unarmed aft or stern is facing you. Raking fire can only be done if you are in close range and have the Upper Hand. However, a raking fire attack deals shifts of damage without dealing any damage to you. (This makes it ideal for smaller crafts that have low defenses.)


Here are a few extra rules about having several ships fighting at once:

Formations: Allied ships are organized into formations. If a side has 3 or fewer ships, they will always be in the same formation. If a side has 4 of more ships, they can split into formations (these can’t start smaller than 2, but can break into smaller groups mid-battle). When a moving the group, they all move as a single group, which takes up the action for all of those ships for this exchange.

Close Range & Formations: Whenever you move into close range with a ship, you count as close range with all of the ships in that formation. Also, if a ship approaches you want to defend against it, you must defend with the lowest Pilot skill in the formation; you’re only as fast as your slowest ship! Likewise, when trying to escape from close range, you either escape as a formation (using the lowest Pilot), or have a ship break formation and leave on it’s own.

UPPER HAND – 3+ Combat – If there are more than 3 characters in conflict, use these following additional rules for the upper hand:

  • Gaining the upper hand for your ship does not automatically grant it to your allies; however, you may have several characters on your side that have each earned the upper hand independently.
  • Whenever you gain the upperhand, and one or more of your opponents have the upperhand as well, choose which opponent you steal the upperhand from.
  • Each ship may only have one “upperhand” bonus- however, if you if you already have the upperhand, and an opposing ship has the upperhand, you may remove their upperhand bonus.
  • If you gained the upperhand during a previous turn, you may pass it to any of your allies; however, this be done at the start of your turn, before taking your action, and passing it does not allow your ally to steal an upperhand bonus from any enemy (i.e. you only steal it when you first succeed with style).

That’s it, folks! Until next time, GAME ON!

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