Travel is such important aspect of fantasy and sci-fi worldbuilding, DnD games and fantasy novels, and ships are one of the most common means of transport! So whether you’re about to create your next fantasy ship to sail the high seas, a science-fantasy flying ship, or a sci-fi spaceship to explore a galaxy far away, here are five tips to take your ships to the next level!
1. Decide the reason your fantasy ship or spaceship exists
As with most things you worldbuild, knowing why it exists in your world is extremely important! In this case, ships are usually tools that people use to travel —so a great way to start is deciding where the ship’s captain or crew wants to go! You can get into deep character profiling if you want, but it’s not necessary yet (we’ll get back to this later!). Instead, think about the crew’s mission. Are they going to explore an unknown part of the world or the universe? Are they pirates looking to loot other ships to get rich? Or maybe they’re just a transport ship… for extremely dangerous products! The decision you take here will completely change how your ship works and how it feels to your audience. It’ll be the basis of a tonne of worldbuilding decisions you make later. So it’s a great place to start!
2. Decide what your ship is good at
Once you know what the ship does (and why), you need to come up with the how! Don’t worry – you don’t have to jump into deep mechanics of sails, quantum engines and faster than light engines. But for a deeper ship design, think about how each feature you put in affects the rest. For example, speed is good for any ship, but the weight it carries will probably influence the speed. Smaller ships will probably be faster than huge military vessels that are filled to the brim with heavy weaponry. A super-specialized fantasy ship that’s all about hunting down magical beasts might have some sort of anti-magic field generator. A ship that’s fast might be highly maneuverable, or it might not be – that depends on your design.
And what about transport ships? Well, if you’re carrying a bunch of fragile stuff, you probably want a very stable ship. This usually means a wider hull —and if you want to go really deep into the physics of it, look at how real-life ships or airplanes (if you’re building airships) manage to stay stable, even if pilots let the controls go. Real-life is always a good source of inspiration if you need some! Think about how it defends itself from pirates or natural dangers too —the world is full of dangers and no one wants to lose their precious cargo!
Remember: your ship won’t excel at everything, it will have its pros and cons. But it’s up to you to decide what these are. They will influence what kind of battles, conflicts and scrapes your ship gets into – and how it gets out of them again!
3. Give it a name that captures its spirit!
What’s in a name? Well, everything! The ship’s name is one of the first things that your readers or players will know about the ship – maybe even before they see it – and first impressions are very important! Usually, a ship’s name defines its mission and tells its story and purpose in a single word. You can see this in many fictional works: Star Trek has several ships with names that clearly do this, such as the Defiant or the Voyager. And it’s true in real-life too! After all, the Titanic didn’t bear this name for being a small ship, did it? Ships can also be renamed, which is a significant part of their story. For example, if they change hands, or if their mission changes, their name might change to reflect this. If your ship has a complex history, making it clear that the name has been changed is a great way to show that to your players or readers!
4. Create a memorable ship captain (and crew)
Time to talk about characters! Ships are cool and all, but if you want the most memorable ship, you need a memorable crew! And unless your ship is powered by an AI (looking at you, Hal), there will be someone driving it. Actually, even if it’s driven by a super-intelligent computer, it can be considered the ship’s crew too (like Andromeda!). Everyone remembers Captain Hook, Captain Jack Sparrow, and Captain Davy Jones, as much as they remember those iconic ships. Friendships have been forged and ended over who’s the best Star Trek captain (I want to know your opinions in the comments below!). So now’s your turn to create a memorable crew!
If you’re looking for a full guide to what makes a great character, check out this post on writing compelling characters! But here are a couple of pointers. First off, don’t get overwhelmed! Creating the full crew is not an easy task, especially for huge modern ships or space ships. But here’s the thing, you don’t need to! Think about the last Star Trek episode or movie you watched: do you remember every single person on board? If you do, I’m impressed… but I’m guessing you probably don’t! So, the first step is thinking about who will the iconic characters be. Usually this is the captain, of course, and then a few officers: perhaps the ship’s cook, the doctor and the first mate? It’s up to you who you pick. Then, just follow our tips to create characters and make sure to tie their motivations, flaws, and skills to the ship’s purpose and story!
5. Give it a distinguishing feature and a story
You know how a quirk often makes a character feel more real? It’s the same with ships! Is your fantasy ship scarred from a battle with a kraken? Is it supped up with upgrades from that deal you made with the sea dwarves? Does it have a magical perk? Or maybe it just made the Kessel Run in less than twelve parsecs, like the Millenium Falcon! Whatever it is, it should be something that makes it stand out from similar ships.
And once again, the ship’s purpose that you defined at the beginning of this blog post comes in handy! A transport ship won’t probably have battle scars… but if it does, now that’s a story to tell! Think about what the ship can encounter in its journey and the unusual lasting effects it could have. Or do it the other way around: what unusual things would your ship need in order to avoid or defend from danger? This is the part where you can most easily let your imagination run wild to come up with something that will impact your readers or players.
The Shipwright Challenge has started —check it out and start writing your ship! What kind of ship will you write about? And if you don’t have a World Anvil account, create one now to participate in the challenge!