Location Ideas: Ghost Ships
Updated: Mar 4
I've been thinking about writing this post ever since I had a conversation about this very topic months ago with a very good Twitter friend of mine! I've always been fond of spooky stories, and those set at sea have often really captured my imagination. This is probably because I'm terrified of drowning or open water! The idea of being surrounded by endless ocean is scary enough, without throwing in some supernatural shenanigans on top! But ghost ships can provide a very cool way to throw in an interesting mystery or change up the tone of a campaign for your players, and in turn this pens up the potential for some EXCELLENT role play!
Ghost stories, particularly those at sea, have a very rich history! Ghost Ships are also known as Phantom Ships, and in the real world often refer to a ship that has been found abandoned with no sign of the crew on board, such as the very famous Mary Celeste, a brigantine that was discovered adrift in 1872 with no sign of those that manned it. It is the mystery of the crew's disappearance that makes it spooky, and not an actual spirit. There might actually be stories about the ships themselves disappearing also, such as the HMS Atlanta that disappeared in 1880, and is allegedly a victim of the mysterious Bermuda Triangle, an urban legend that describes a triangle-shaped area of sea that is supposedly responsible for many disappearances of ships and planes.
These kinds of stories spark a lot of folklore and tales of haunted ships throughout many cultures also - many have heard of the Flying Dutchman, a ship said to be captained by a sailor condemned to eternally sail the seas; The Phantom Canoe of Lake Rotomahana is a spirit canoe of New Zealand folklore that was said to appear eleven days before a deadly eruption near Mount Tarawera; the Chasse-galerie is a haunted canoe that paddles the skies of Quebec; the Chaleute its a mythical ghost ship found in Chilote mythology that sails the Chiloé canals and lures people aboard with the sounds and sights of a fantastical party! Some are even said to be responsible for odd lights off the coast, such as the Fireship of Baie des Chaleurs or the Princess Augusta.
There are also a ton of examples of Ghost Ships in modern media and pop culture! Anyone who has watched the Pirates Of The Caribbean series will know how frequently they appear - both as a reinterpretation of the story of the 'Flying Dutchman' and in the form of a curse on the ship 'The Black Pearl'. An episode of Supernatural also featured this famous trope, as well as classic films The Goonies and The Fog! Plenty of video games include them too - The Return Of The Obra Dinn, The Dark Pictures Anthology: Man Of Medan, Resident Evil: Revelations, and even Microsoft Flight Simulator X. Many an author has told a ghostly tale featuring Ghost Ships as well, or even referenced them - J. Habakuk Jephson's Statement by Arthur Conan Doyle, The Rime Of The Ancient Mariner by Samuel Taylor Coleridge, and 'The Demeter' referenced in Bram Stoker's Dracula.
So how do we go about inserting them into our game? The great thing about this trope is that it can be as fantastical or horror-themed as you'd like, dependant on the setting or themes within your world! If you are playing a game rooted in historical accuracy, it might be better to have the focus be on the mystery of what happened to the crew - plenty of ships were abandoned or forcibly wrecked in order to claim insurance throughout history! They would also be a great place for murder mysteries or stolen valuables to make an appearance.
If your setting is more fantastical, you might enjoy having them the subject of some magical effect, or the crew be victims to a creature, spirit, or nefarious NPC. I also really love the idea of the ship itself being some kind of creature? Perhaps ships have been disappearing because they have fallen victim to a monster that roams the seas in the guise of another boat! For a fun stat block, check out Kobold Press's Carnivorous Ship (Tome Of Beasts II, page 56). It is equal parts awesome and horrifying! Below, I will set out some roll tables to help you build you very own Ghost Ship!
Tale (Roll 1d6):
Every good mystery or ghostly encounter has a tale behind it. What are the circumstances behind this ship? Is it a local legend, or a recent tragedy? Figuring out what stories are being told about the spectral ship will help you figure out what you want the truth of the matter to be!
As the party arrive in the dockside town, they hear that a ship that was due in port a few days ago has not turned up. The local families of the sailors have become rather worried. Arrangements are being made to investigate the disappearance.
At the local tavern, an elderly resident tells a tale of a ship seen off-shore on dark nights. It looks like it is on fire and many a time the villagers have rowed out to rescue any survivors, but once they arrive there is no sign of the boat.
A festival is held in town in honour of the well-known local legend surrounding a ship that was found completely abandoned some years ago. No one knows how it ended up that way - some people believe it to be some form of supernatural event caused by an angry deity or spirit and so celebrate the festival in the hopes of appeasing it.
The residents of the fishing village are being terrorised by a spectre that is rumoured to have lost their love at sea. They wait on the clifftop every night, looking out over the ocean and wailing loudly. It is said that bringing them evidence of their lover's death will help them move on.
A local historian has noticed that over the last few decades, the number of ships that have disappeared unexpectedly has dramatically risen. They are trying to have this investigated but the local authorities are uninterested.
While reading up on some local legends, the party stumble upon the odd story of a ship that is said to haunt the seas nearby. It bears the same name of a ship that disappeared a century before, belonging to a famous seafaring explorer.
Encounter (Roll 1d6):
Setting the scene of how the party first encounter the ship will be hugely important in building the atmosphere and excitement around it. Will it be a brief sighting from afar? Or a sudden, looming structure appearing seemingly from nowhere?
A member of the party sees, at quite some distance, a ship sailing along the horizon. None of the other party members can see it.
During the night, the party are awoken by a cacophony of loud music, laughter, and sounds of celebration. If they follow it to its source, they find a boat lighting up the nearby river and coming into dock. It seems that some other people in the town can see and hear it too, but not everyone. All who can find it strangely alluring and the party must make WIS saving throws to resist temptation.
While travelling by boat, the weather becomes exceptionally misty. Emerging from these mists is a huge vessel that dwarves their own boat. It heads right for them.
The seas are lonely for quite some time, but as the party travel they spot a distant ship that is travelling in their wake. It gains on them slowly, and as it gets closer a crew on board can be spotted. Perceptive party members may notice that the people on board are following particular patterns, as do their cries to each other.
The party notice a strange ship adrift in the ocean. Its sails are tattered, masts half-broken, and it is designed in the style of a much older boat.
Though the ship is some distance away, the sounds of panicked sailors can be heard across the waves. They cry out for help and appear to be under attack, though it is unclear by what.
Clues (Roll 1d6):
On board the ship, the party may find some clues to what happened and important context around why. OR they may find something that confuses them further! There are tons of different ways that a mystery could play out.
The lifeboats on board are all intact and present. There is no sign of anyone having left the ship other than if they had all jumped overboard.
Everything about the ship's decor and presentation implies that it has been lived in up until very recently. There is even fresh food laid out to eat. There is no sign of the crew and the silence is overwhelming, but perhaps the party are not alone after all.
The party find some strange jewels or money on board. When touching it, they must make a CHA saving throw to avoid their cursed nature.
The ship's log or a crew members diary indicates strange occurrences leading up to the disappearance of its crew. This could be the telltale signs of a monster in the waters, one of the crew members acting oddly, some context around the ship's unusual cargo, or bizarre weather conditions.
There are a number of weapons, tools, clothes, etc. on board that make it clear that the ship is very old. Intelligent members of the party will be able to deduce that the boat is from a much older time period.
There are some strange carvings along the hull of the boat's interior, made either buy some kind of creature, or a crew member.
Culprit (Roll 1d6):
So what is actually the truth of the Ghost Ship. Is it a mystery with a very factual, logical explanation? Or is there some magical or supernatural cause? Ultimately, your party will get to face this and there are some great ways that such an encounter could play out!
The party find themselves on board with an undead crew, some with the intent of helping the party in the hopes of moving on by atoning for their sins in life, and others extremely hostile to interlopers on board.
The boat has been caught in some very strange weather conditions. These stems could be a perfectly natural though rare occurrence, or they could be arcane in nature with some strange effects.
The ship itself is alive and made of organic matter, mimicking the look of a boat. Any crew are now just mindless imitations of people that are under its direct control. It eats other boats.
A nefarious NPC or group is behind the boat or the crews disappearance. They were trying to use this to gain some kind of compensation, cover up some criminal activity they had been engaged in, or had sent the boat as a way of testing their arcane experimentation that then went very wrong.
The ship is far too clean, and this is because there is an Ooze of some kind living on the ship. It has eaten and digested the crew, and now lies in wait for more people or creatures to board the ship.
An undead spirit haunts the ship, searching for vengeance of some kind or a way to get back to the world of the living. They make themselves known to the party very slowly, becoming more and more unsettled by their presence.
I hope that these tables of Ghost Ship ideas have been useful to anyone wanting to include one in their story or adventure. They can be rolled, OR combined in some way to for a compelling narrative that is sure to hook your players! However you choose to use them, let me know!