Toy Soldier: A Spelljammer Saga

A series of novels set in the Spelljammer® fantasy universe


Development Notes for Chapter Eight "A Few Good Elves"

Posted on November 29, 2011 at 12:45 AM

The letters at the beginning of the chapter allow me to cover important events with relative alacrity, doing it in snapshots rather than a running narrative.  But that allows me to get right into the real meat and potatoes of it.


This chapter was inspired by a folk song I'd heard called "The Royal Oak."  Here are the traditional lyrics of the song:


The Royal Oak


As we was sailing all on the salt seas,

We hadn't sailed months past but two or three,

Not before we saw ten sail of Turks,

All men-o'-war full as big as we.


"Pull down your colours, you English dogs!

Pull down your colours, do not refuse.

Oh, pull down your colours, you English dogs

Or else your precious life you'll lose!"


Our captain being a valiant man,

And a well-bespoken young man were he:

"Oh, it never shall be said that we died like dogs,

But we will fight them most manfully!"


"Go up, you lofty cabin boys,

And mount the mainmast topsail high,

For to spread abroad to King George's fleet

That we'll run the risk or else we'll die!"


The fight begun 'bout six in the morning,

And on to the setting of the sun.

Oh, and at the rising of the next morning,

Out of ten ships we couldn't see but one.


Oh, three we sank and three we burned,

And three we caused to run away,

And one we brought into Portsmouth harbour,

For to let them know we had won the day.


If anyone then should enquire

Or want to know our captain's name,

Oh, Captain Wellfounder's our chief commander

But the Royal Oak is our ship by name.


From The Penguin Book of English Folk Songs, Williams and Lloyd

Collected from Moses Mansfield, Surrey, 1912


Here is a video clip of a Renaissance Faire music group called the Jolly Rogers performing the song. This is the version that I originally heard which made this scene come to me:


You need Adobe Flash Player to view this content.


Incidentally, a filk of this song, tailored for this battle, will appear in the next chapter somewhere. :)


I thought this would be a very cool battle to imitate for the purpose of my story, and in the spirit of Patrick O'Brian, I thought I would actually look it up and do my best to adapt the blow-by-blow details of the battle to the Spelljammer® setting.  There was only one problem with this plan: there is no historical evidence that this battle ever actually happened.  I was deeply surprised, what with the specific details given and the language being very true to that of the British Royal Navy, but this battle, as far as historians can tell, never existed.


Well, that was disappointing on one hand, but on the other, it meant that I was free to do things as I pleased.  I still wanted the battle to be very technically accurate, and hopefully, to capture both the feel of high seas swashbuckling adventure and aerial dogfighting.  In order to do this, I had to have a very good grasp of the technical layouts of all the ships involved.  More than anything, I needed a grasp of ship maneouvrability and also the positioning of the weaponry, so that I would know what could actually be brought to bear in each encounter, and how often it could fire.


Silverblade the Enchanter is an amazing 3D artist who has happened to work on some very detailed images of Spelljammer® material, including a marvellous re-imagining of the classic elven man-o-war ship.  I have borrowed several of those pictures to get an image in my head of "The Queen's Dirk."  I have created an entire folder devoted to this on my website in the Photos section.


Silverblade's re-imagining of an elven man-o-war is armed with 1 medium catapult, located on the Castle Deck, 2 light ballistae, located in the eye ports at the bow of the ship, and 4 medium ballistae.  One each is located on the upper and lower sides of the abdomen section, one is located forward in front of the Castle Deck aiming over the fo'c'sle (which is a seafaring lingo short form of "forecastle," called the Battle Deck on the images,) and one is in the stern of the ship behind doors which open to expose it so that it can fire (the one I refer to in the passage as the "stinger.")  This actually means that the best firing position for an elven man-o-war would be directly head-on, or directly behind.  You would not want to approach anything along its side to fire at it, since it would be very difficult to bring more than a single weapon or two to bear.


In the second edition Spelljammer® setting, maneouvrability is expressed in an A to F rating; A being able to hover and literally turn on a dime, and F being a tub that you need a whole parsec to turn around in.  Both the elven man-o-war and the Scorpion ships are rated at Maneouvrability Class C, which is actually the top end of nimble for a man-o-war sized ship in this game.


However, Captain Yvoleth is a battle-hardened veteran of the First Unhuman War, and while he has been semi-retired, the Queen's Dirk is his own personal ship, not one owned by the Navy.  For this reason, it makes sense for him to have done a little personal modification.  Veteran Spelljammer® players will tell you that this is in your best interest, since you are usually one or a handful of ships going up against larger forces.  Wise players who like elven men-o-war will "rig" their ships, increasing their MC to B from C (which I always did, personally.)  I also thought it would make sense for him to have mounted the catapult on a rotating turret, providing a 360 degree firing arc; meaning it could fire backwards and forwards.  With these modifications, the best firing position for the Queen's Dirk is actually flying ahead of a pursuer, which would enable it to bring more weapons to bear at once.  Of course, most ships have the majority of their weapons forward mounted, so this may not be ideal for that reason.


Such as the Scorpion ship.  Here is the deck plan from Spelljammer® for it, taken from the book called "Lost Ships":



A Scorpion is typically armed with two forward-facing heavy catapults and one forward-facing heavy ballista, along with those claw grappling rams. So they want to be facing the ship they are firing on and they definitely don't want a ship behind them (no weapons could be brought to bear at all.) Comparatively to the elven man-o-war, the weapons of a Scorpion do more damage when they hit. But, because there are less of them, they hit less often.


Another thing that it was necessary to take into consideration was reload time. Catapults are slower than ballistae to reload but do more damage; heavy weapons take longer to reload than medium weapons, which take longer to reload than light weapons. So another thing to consider is what is available for each ship to fire at any given time. Also, each weapon requires a number of crew to fire; again, heavy weapons require more crew and light weapons require less, so if you are down a crew member or two, it takes more time to fire the weapon that is short of crew members. (Which is why the stinger is a little slow on the draw after the abdomen window hit; a member of their gunnery crew was taken out.)


So understanding all of this, you can see that the Queen's Dirk has twice as many weapons as any one given Scorpion ship, and is more maneouvrable. So its best strategy is to use that maneouvrability, weaving in and out, and force the less nimble Scorpion ships to try to maneouvre in close quarters. while firing off whatever will come to bear as quickly as possible.


Now for a little gaming geek lingo for the Spelljammer® fans out there. I never did make the conversion to the 3rd edition ship combat system. I don't like it. It is certainly more consistant with the 3rd edition vehicle rules, but the extreme variations in hit points based on materials, combined with hardness ratings and so forth, guarantees that each ship should be made of metal and the elves are going to get their asses kicked right out of the stars. I thought this was inconsistant with the campaign setting and so have been mostly running with the second edition ship combat rules with some conversions, such as giving to hit modifiers instead of THAC0s, etc. It's not perfect but it does work.


But we did do a mostly 3rd Edition conversion, and one of the things we made use of were the new Spelljammer® prestige classes detailed in the Dungeon Magazine issue #92 "Shadow of the Spider Moon"®, since they were just perfect for many characters we had been playing in our ongoing Spelljammer® campaign, which had started maybe a year before the 3rd edition conversion. "Stellar Corsair"® was a sure fit for Captain Sable Valor: "Planetary Explorer"® was ideal for my intrepid elven explorer Alesander Tremayne, and "Spelljammer Ace"® was made for Shaundar.


However, this adapted poorly to our game's mismatched combat system, so we made the following alterations: We allow our Spelljammer Aces to use the helm as many times per day as they have Spelljammer Ace® class levels. That's the training I discussed in a previous chapter. We also changed the way things work slightly, but essentially, an Ace can temporarily increase speed or maneouvrability, they can reduce the likelihood of the ship getting hit, and at higher levels, they can dodge hits that otherwise would have connected.


So, how would that actually work if this were possible in reality? I hit upon a couple of ideas. One is that in order to get the ship to manoeuvre faster, it would have to be more synchronized with the will of the spelljammer, so he would have to take command of the sail crew of a ship. And in order to get it to travel faster, he would either have to call upon his own magical reserves or he would have to use the laws of physics and metaphysics to aid him. You will see several examples of both of these aspects in this chapter (and some appeared in the scenes about dodging asteroids in Garden's roots and at Aces High.)


So, now we have a ship that has been rigged to be more manoeuvrable, with a Spelljammer Ace at the helm who can make it more maneouvrable still for short periods, and give it bursts of speed, firing less damaging weapons at twice the rate that the others are firing.


There was one more requirement for making this battle possible, and that was limiting things, somehow, so that the ten ships of the orcish fleet couldn't simply surround the Queen's Dirk and let her have it. A field of obstacles was the way to do that, but I didn't want yet another flying sequence in an asteroid field. But that's when I hit on putting it in the rings of Glyth (and the information for this was acquired from the supplement "Realmspace" and from the Beyond the Moons website.) For that reason, this battle will be refered to by the Elven Navy as "the Battle of Glyth's Rings," and in my story, it is the opening gambit of the Second Unhuman War in Realmspace.


Now, I did not actually dice out this battle; it is entirely visualized, and may not even be possible by the rules of the game. I think it is logical based on what I know of the game system, however. It is also adapted to a 3D visualization, since by necessity, Spelljammer® combat is laid out on a 2 dimensional hex board.


I proceeded on an assumption that some spelljammers are faster than others, and so some of the ships were drawn away from the others by trying to pursue the Queen's Dirk. This separated them into two groups (flotillas) that were ultimately easier for one ship to fight than all ten at once.


In order to keep track of everything, including where all the ships were and how much damage each one had taken and by what and where, I made diagrams of each stage of the battle. If you are interested in having a look at them, or keeping them handy while you read my description in the text, you can find them in the Photos section in the folder called "Battle of Glyth's Rings."


Now, for those paying attention who are tactically savvy, you probably are aware that the last three ships that ended up fleeing, which had only taken minor damage by this point while the Queen's Dirk had taken some fairly heavy damage, could have taken her out. So why did they run instead? Well, I reasoned that the initial fleet in the Realmspace system, here to test the strength of the elves and to prune off as many lone ships as they could to reduce the overall fleet size, was probably populated mostly by expendables; notice that we had one scro commodore in the whole works. Goblins do not have orcish morale; orcs do not have scro morale. Basically, they figured it wasn't worth the effort, and while their leader was occupied with the boarding party, they bailed. Do keep in mind, also, that these were the slowest of the ships in the fleet, and therefore had the lowest level people on the lifejammer or the least experienced spelljammers on the helm. They saw the Queen's Dirk flying circles around the other ships of the fleet, kicking the crap out of them and causing them to run into each other, and thought, basically, "screw you guys; I'm going home."


I hope this scene captures what I intended to capture and is an exciting read for you.


Blessed be,


Categories: Development Notes

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