Jul 182019

Engines fall into two basic categories: those designed for space travel and those designed for atmospheric conditions. Both kinds already exist, but it is mostly engines intended for space travel which get mentioned in our work. There appears to be a correlation between how often an engine’s functionality is explained and how fictional it is; the more fictional, the more explanations are given. Writers have as little interest in learning and explaining actual technology as the audience, who typically understands it to some degree. But fictional tech? We’re all ears.

Air Breathing Engines

Engines for atmospheric conditions are the sorts of engines currently in use by planes on Earth. We don’t need to invent anything or get into details of whether it’s a rocket or turbine engine unless we desire to. We should just be aware that characters may need to remark that they’re switching to “so-and-so power” as they enter a planet’s atmosphere because the space engines they were using might not be suitable. This minor touch adds realism. Slower-than-light (STL) engines might also be used here and it’s up to us to decide a given ship can use such engines both in space and in an atmosphere. This is one way to distinguish between ship types: some vessels might have engines that can be used anywhere and be considered more advantageous than ships that must change propulsion.

Space Engines

Space engines can be divided into two categories: those that allow faster-than-light (FTL) speeds and those that do not. For STL engines, propulsion is similar to atmospheric engines in that matter is ejected, usually from the rear, to propel the ship forward through normal space. This is one reason slower-than-light engines could be used in an atmosphere. STL drives propelling a ship at high velocities can cause time dilation, which is when two observers experience a difference in how much time has passed. Some stories discuss a captain not letting the ship go too fast using those engines, generally, to avoid this problem.

Some FTL engines are discussed next and are all public domain ideas anyone can use.

Jump Drive

As the name implies, a ship with jump drive essentially teleports between two locations in an instant. This may be safely called a “jump drive” or something else. The main problem with such technology is that it eliminates all conflict involving travel and not having enough time to reach a destination by an important date. Consider using this sparingly or placing severe limits on how often such a drive can be used, such as it uses too much power, relies on a rare fuel source, is expensive to manufacture, or is too large for ordinary ships. Ships equipped with jump drive do not experience time dilation.

Hyper Drive

A hyper drive moves a ship into hyperspace, a fictional, separate dimension adjacent to normal space. As a result, ships in hyperspace are often depicted as being unable to communicate with those in normal space. Normal physics, such as the barrier to FTL travel, may not exist in hyperspace, allowing the ship to traverse great distances quickly. It takes time to travel in hyperspace but those traveling this way experience time normally and experience no time dilation upon returning to normal space.

Warp Drive

Warp drive is a conceptual FTL drive that is public domain despite being heavily associated with Star Trek. The idea includes multiple velocities of warp, such as warp one being far slower than warp ten. Instantaneous travel is not possible with warp drive. The ship suffers no time dilation and remains in normal space. Despite our use of the term “space”, there are plenty of objects with which a ship could collide, which begs the question of how deadly such an impact would be. Without high-speed automated navigation systems and equally impressive shields, warp speed is unwise.

Jul 152019

The previous two chapters focused on how to determine travel times using the sort of locomotion available on Earth-like worlds. Space travel falls under two categories: existing technology from Earth and invented technology. As I’m not a rocket scientist, the former is best left for those in the know to explain. World builders tend to be focused on imagined technologies anyway, and there’s no telling what detail you might want to know and utilize about real technologies. More to the point, the limits of real technology eliminate interstellar travel and therefore whatever we’re hoping to achieve.

The Realities of Space

Writing fiction doesn’t free us from the realities of space, such as the intense cold or lack of oxygen. Some will think gravity doesn’t exist either, but gravity is everywhere and causes all rotation (i.e. orbits). The conceit of artificial gravity has long been accepted so that we only need to address it if we want to, such as designing a rotating ship.

The question we must address is whether to pretend certain realities are overcome by technology (or magic) or not. It’s recommended to be consistent in a single product. For example, in the Star Trek universe, food replicators that make lunch appear from thin air is as unrealistic as the teleportation devices that move matter (including people) between places. Being equally unrealistic (or realistic) is wise and helps the audience accept the reality we’re presenting; otherwise, incongruities creep in. Having food replicators and teleporters but no artificial gravity would be an example, as the gravity, or a simulacrum, would be easier to achieve from a technological standpoint.

When inventing technologies for space, creating a hierarchy of believability might be wise, if we’d like to have some things achieved while others are still imaginary, even to our advanced inhabitants. Maybe we want them to have achieved artificial gravity (so actors have a much easier time on screen) but still have the need to grow and cook food. At one time, the communication devices of Star Trek were considered fantastic but have been eclipsed by reality.

Generally, advanced communication is easier to achieve, as this often means little more than smaller devices with greater distance or computing power or capabilities, and sending of signals (not matter) long distances. Those signals can contain data just like here on Earth. This suggests that an advanced program, such as a hologram or A.I., could be sent vast distances, with the possibility of corruption in transit.

Any technology involving non-living matter is easier to create than something involving living creatures. This is especially true of transportation. Creating a new propulsion system using newly discovered elements from far flung solar systems is more believable than a technology that bends time and space and causes matter to just end up somewhere else in an instant. Such abilities are best seen as rare because making them commonplace implies the characters have other godlike abilities, too, and their lives become too easy, which reduces conflict, the heart of every story.

Jul 082019

Where to start depends on our goal. If trying to determine the travel time between two places, follow the steps outlined in “Ship Speeds.” You’ll need to decide on the distance first, then whether the trip is along a coast, the open ocean, or both. Then consider what sort of issues you’d like characters to face on the journey. You may need to slow them or accelerate their travel based on story needs. If trying to decide what weaponry or personnel ships have on your world, the sections on this will assist a decision. The section on ship types will help you determine the style of vessel you want, but when it comes to rated ships, it’s largely immaterial which you choose unless you intend two or more ships to go to war with each other.

Jul 052019

It’s beyond the scope of this book to describe all the personnel needed on a ship, but in a fantasy world, we have new humanoid species and occupations that can be added to the typical crew from Earth vessels. This can be true in SF, too, but the crafts there are usually spaceships. Ships often had livestock and even plants, mostly for consumption, which means our invented plants and animals can be aboard, too.


Many fighting ships have military on board for the combat that might ensue when ships entangle (on purpose or not). Any sailor can engage in the fighting, but trained military are typically aboard during fleet actions. We can have such people onboard any vessel as standard crew, their numbers depending on overall ship and crew size. Larger numbers of such warriors will need quarters set aside for them (they may not be berthed with the sailors), but we needn’t go into such details unless desired.

Close Range

Knights are an obvious choice for hand-to-hand combat. They weren’t on ships during the Age of Sail for the reason of gunpowder: bullets, and by extension cannons, had rendered armor useless. If we lack this issue on our world, then knights might figure heavily in the military aboard. A single knight could be present to represent knightly values or a kingdom on formal terms, or a group could be there in expectation of combat at sea. They can be available for missions ashore. However, even in a world without guns, knights still sink rather handily once overboard. They also make fine targets for archers.

Pirates wouldn’t have knights on their ships and might think twice about attacking such a ship, if knights are assumed to be aboard. Why would they assume this? British ships-of-the-line were known to have marines aboard, so a ship belonging to a country of our invention can, too. Raising the country’s flag might warn off pirates.

Ninjas or other forms of martial artists could be highly prized, due to their superior rope climbing skills and balance on those yard arms. Imagine how quickly they can board an enemy ship at close range.

Aboard a ship, unless there’s a duel of some kind, the fighting is in close quarters, so space constraints would render weapons such as a staff less effective. Consider the weapons used by your warrior class which is routinely assigned to a ship, and whether they’re appropriate under these conditions.

Long Range

If guns don’t exist on our world, archery is the obvious long-range weaponry fired by one person at a time (as opposed to a cannon). This can happen before and after ships entangle. These can be long/short bows or crossbows that fire flaming arrows into rigging or the hull (or people). Consider where such individuals might be stationed as ships battle.

Jun 272019

On Earth, if a ship in the Age of Sail has weapons, it has cannon, which requires gunpowder, which in turn means our world almost certainly has guns. If we don’t want guns on our fantasy world, then no cannons either. That means a ship with no fire power and hence a lack of drama. Where’s the fun in that? We can either keep the cannons or replace them, the latter requiring some understanding of what we’re replacing. We’ll need some details on how fast cannons fire, how far, and how many people are needed to do this. Then we can consider alternatives. For example, wizards may provide an equivalent to gunpowder, but if that alternative exists in enough quantity for cannons to exist, then wouldn’t guns, too?

The Cannon

A 36-pounder, meaning a cannon that fires balls weighing thirty-six pounds, is among the largest cannon aboard ships and requires fourteen men. A powder boy brings gunpowder from below decks; gunpowder is wisely stored somewhere less prone to explosions. This role is eliminated in a world without gunpowder. If we invent an alternative to the cannon, and there are a hundred such weapons, we’d have a hundred fewer crew aboard, which in turn reduces supplies needed.

A chief gunner aims the gun and primes it for firing, but does not fire the cannon; one of the other gunners does this. This role would still require an alternative, but the role would likely need a different name. The chief gunner is in charge of the crew, who practice together but seldom do so with live shot due to the cost. Not practicing with live shot affects the chief gunner’s ability to practice aiming, but the rest of the crew can at least become efficient, affecting speed of firing, which is two to three shots in about five minutes.

The rest of the men are called gunners. Some gunners prepare the cannon for firing, as follows. One gunner shoves a wet cloth down the barrel between shots to put out any sparks before more gunpowder is loaded. One man inserts a cannonball while another rams it in. This is followed by another wet cloth wad to prevent the ball from rolling out if the cannon is aimed downward. These various details and personnel are specific to the firing of a cannon and might be replaced by a different number of personnel depending on what replacement weapon we devise.

Cannons require men whose primary job is moving the cannon back and forth. Prior to firing, it must be pulled away from the hull because it is loaded from the barrel, but must be fired with the barrel protruding from the hull. This means men pull the cannon back, several people perform various loading operations, and then the cannon is shoved against the hull before firing. Cannons have huge recoil, meaning they leap backwards when fired. This means several crew are needed to shove the thing back into place. We might not need these men with an alternative weapon that lacks recoil.

Smaller cannons still have the powder boy, chief gunner, and at least two other gunners for cleaning, loading, moving, and firing a cannon, so the number of men depends on cannon size due to how heavy it is to move around between shots.

Jun 242019
By Oars

The top speed when using oars for propulsion doesn’t matter much for travel because crews can’t sustain it for long, despite one trip being done at 8 knots (which we can have our swaggering hero achieve because he’s awesome). Ships would travel under sail for a trip of any length, with the oars being saved for a battle or a crisis. With favorable winds, a ship can do 2-3 knots while an unfavorable wind is half that (1-1.5 knots). For more details on calculating travel times, consult the next section.

By Sails
On Rivers

Surface currents on rivers are arguably stronger than those on larger bodies of water due to the narrowness of the channel. The narrower the river, the faster the current, but depth can also make it faster. A river is not uniformly wide or deep and will become wider, and therefore slower, the longer it flows. This means river speeds farther inland are faster. A river’s course also affects speed. Water flows faster in the center of a straight channel, but when it curves, the outer corner is fastest and the inner one slowest. Characters who are inexperienced sailors might be unable to utilize the currents well unless they happen to be keen observers and figure this out. How fast do rivers typically flow in knots? The extremes are almost 0 knots to 6 knots, but we’ll typically want to aim for 1-4 knots for travel. Faster than 4 knots on a river might mean it is treacherous.

What’s a Privateer?

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Jun 172019

A privateer is not a ship type but any ship operated by private individuals, or a group of them, for profit. They are given the right, via a letter of marque, to engage in acts of war on the seas by their sovereign power, which takes a percentage of any captured prize. Profits are otherwise split among crew and owners. The possession of the letter of marque, and the return and sale of prizes to the sovereign power, is what distinguishes a privateer from a pirate.

Not surprisingly, some pirates sought the letters (often illegally) to absolve their actions. Others acquired letters from opposing countries at war (not admitting to this, of course). They then attacked both sides as desired. For example, a privateer might have letters of marque from England and from France, using the former against French ships and the latter against English. Only he and his crew, and possible owners, might know this.

Privateers who didn’t return captured prizes, or who otherwise violated their agreement, could be declared pirates. Some countries refused to recognize the letters of marque from their enemies and hanged captured privateers as pirates, or at least threatened to, leading to negotiations for an exchange of prisoners, for example.

As for the ships, they were heavily armed, fast, and highly maneuverable, as they were intended purely for assault. Since they captured ships and sailed them back (treasure inside), there was arguably less need for their own cargo space beyond provisions. Anything larger than a frigate was unsuitable (i.e., no ships-of-the-line).

Sloop vs. Sloop-of-war

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Jun 132019

To most of us, a sloop is basically a sail boat, having a single mast that is fore-and-aft rigged. If there are two masts, it’s called a cutter instead (and is typically larger). There are other minor variations on this, each with a different name, but they are not ships of war and therefore might only figure in our work if our characters need a small, wind-powered vessel. Another option would be the galley (oar-powered long ship).

Figure 57 Sloop

Sloop-of-war (Corvette)

This ship is not to be confused with a sloop. As its name implies, it’s a warship, having a single gun deck with eighteen guns. It is considerably larger than a sloop and often has two masts. Eventually, three-masted versions were built and then resembled a small frigate. However, a frigate is square rigged; sloops-of-war have varying sail configurations, from all square-rigged to ketch riggings or snow riggings (googling this will reveal familiar images). The name corvette was later applied to them. The ships are not rated, having too few guns for the rating system of Britain, but we can rate them as we like on our world (i.e., seventh rate).

Figure 58 Corvette

Figure 58 Corvette

Galleons, Ships-of-the-Line

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Jun 102019

The galleon has two features that distinguish it from other round ships: masts and prow. Like other round ships, it has a mainmast and foremast, but the rear mizzenmast is lateen-rigged. It sometimes has a fourth, even smaller rear mast. This lateen style allows superior sailing that could save days or weeks over long voyages in the open ocean. An instantly recognizable feature is a long beak jutting forward from the prow.

Figure 55 Galleon

Figure 55 Galleon

For authors, these features require explanation that may gain our audience little in understanding. This is especially true of the beak, which has no functional benefit aside from helping sailors tend to sails, which few readers will care about even if we understand the details of such things and wish to convey them. The beakhead is where sailors crapped, the waste falling directly into the sea, but this is true of all round ships, not just the galleon; oddly, it is the rear of round ships that has an area called “the poop.” This is also from where the expression “I gotta hit the head” originates, as the latrine is at the head of the ship and therefore downwind.

Gun Boats

If we wish to explain to our audience what a galleon is and how it differs from other round ships like the frigate, the difference between square and lateen-rigging and the possible impact on maneuverability and speed is what to mention.

Since our world might not have guns, a new name might be needed for this small vessel that carries one or more large cannons (or whatever missile weapon we invent). They are cheap and easy to build and therefore more expendable. Used in coastal waters, they are no match for large ships, but a score of them can do horrific damage to a lone ship, which can’t sink them all fast enough. This boat is either powered by sails or oars.


A ship with sixty or more guns, which includes all first, second, and third-rate ships, the ship-of-the-line acquires its name from being designed for the line of battle when two fleets fight each other in two parallel lines. This allows for firing broadsides at each other without fear of hitting their own ships. Smaller ships are not considered strong enough to withstand such a barrage from these vessels, the largest ships afloat, and therefore aren’t part of the line, if present at all.

For an interesting cross-section of the interior of such a vessel, view this diagram: http://www.artofworldbuilding.com/warship.

Figure 56 Ship of the Line

Figure 56 Ship of the Line