Ship Of The Line
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Basic Information

In the Age of Sail, the Ship of the Line was a purpose built Warship1 mounting at least two full length decks of guns. These ships were designed to participate in massed fleet actions (hence the name, from the traditional "line of battle" formation) and were built and armed accordingly. The actual number and size of the guns mounted on such a ship varied by nation and era but the "74" - a two decked variety, named for its theoretical armament2 might be regarded as typical and was used (in varying classes and designs) by many nations. The majority of ships of the line were two-decked (and mounted additional guns in the quater-deck and forecastle), with heavier examples having three decks of guns. Occasional forays were made into four decked ships, but these generally turned out to be more trouble than they were worth, being top heavy, poor sea-keepers and normally straining the limits of current material science.

The Royal Navy classified its ships (and, by reference, those of other nations) in a series of "rates" which divided more or less as follows (figures for guns and crews are nominal):

  • First Rate: Three decks, 100+ guns and crews of 800+
  • Second Rate: Three decks, 90-98 guns, crews of ~750
  • Third Rate: Two decks, 64-80 guns, crews of 500-720.
  • Fourth Rate: Two decks, 48-60 guns, crews of 300-400 (later this rate included "razees" - third rates with some or all of their upper works removed to create, effectively, a "super frigate").

Below these came the fifth rate or six rate frigates and then smaller "unrated" ships. In practice the third rates (such as the "74"s mentioned above) were the most common - first rates being expensive, unwieldy and too big for most duties and fourths (of the two decked variety) providing a poor level of firepower for their size. Ships of the second rate also tended to be neglected as they suffered from most of the drawbacks of a first rate, without the commensurate firepower. Some smaller navies, however (notably the Dutch) made extensive use of fourth-rates - in the case of the Dutch due to a preference for shallower draughts on their ships and the occasional private ship (for example larger ships of the Bombay Marine and better armed Indiamen in general) could qualify as a fourth rate in terms of armament (although very rarely crew).


1. full source reference

Game and Story Use

  • In any campaign set in the age of sail, these should probably feature … but not too much, given that they will normally only operate as part of the fleet.
    • They do make quite good "cavalry" - if the PCs ship is crippled and being overrun by French boarders, there's nothing like seeing the English fleet running down the wind towards them.
    • If, on the other hand, they happen to be French, this is their signal that they're not going to win this fight.
    • GMs will generally struggle setting a party on one of these - you might succeed in making the captain and flag NPCs and having the players run various inferior officers (surgeon, lieutenants, marine officer(s) and possibly the master … for example), but there's still a reasonably restrictive environment and the problem that it was rare for a ship of the line to do anything all that interesting. Unless, for example, she's acting as a depot ship or headquarters … perhaps a third rate, sent out to a remote area during peacetime to act as local HQ for anti-piracy/insurgency/slaving operations: starting off with the flagship and one or two light ships, lieutenants would probably have opportunities for detached commands in boats and small captured vessels.
  • Any one of these things is a small floating town (examine those crew figures again) with substantial resources and technical skills aboard. Quite a lot could be achieved by one of these if it was, say, sucked through a portal to somewhere.
  • Weirdly, in their time warships were actually preferred for use as troop-transports over civilian shipping (mainly because they already had the catering capacity for a large crew, which merchantmen generally didn't) … where a ship had had her guns removed for sole (or at least primary) transport use she was described as being en flute; a reasonably common fate for a RN two decker fourth rate (although a compromise might be to pull the main battery and maintain the forecastle and quarterdeck guns).
    • Bluffing an opponent that your ship is a fully armed ship of the line with a reinforced marine contingent, rather than a nearly helpless transport flute packed with vomiting soldiers could be a useful achievement. As could the reverse if trying to lure something like an American heavy frigate under the guns of a third-rate. The flute could also be sailing on delivery, perhaps expecting to receive the armament of a condemned ship waiting at its destination.
    • Bear in mind that it was also quite common to flute a ship by dismounting her guns and stowing them in the ballast. With her cargo put ashore, it could well be entirely possible for a flute to at least partially re-arm herself with a few weeks of carpentry work (mostly to build new gun carriages) - although she'd probably need access to a supply of ammunition as well.
    • Speaking of condemned ships, a ship of the line too frail to stand into battle could still serve on in a variety of roles, including a floating warehouse, headquarters, barracks or prison. These ships, stripped of their rigging and often with the decks roofed over were known as hulks and were common sights in harbour in any major port (actually, many navies still keep unseaworthy ships afloat for depot work, but it tends not to be as blatant anymore).
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