Nearly everyone on the internet has heard The Wellerman a dozen times, with different variations popping up every day. Maybe you’ve even experimented with other sea shanties, because frankly when you are stuck at home the unity of the working-class’s songs helps you feel like you are part of something greater than yourself.
That’s a large part of the reason that ShantyTok exploded off of Tik Tok to take over all social media. Now, it’s even inspired people to start talking about the best film about the Age of Sail — Master & Commander.
Frankly, you need to add shanties to your D&D game too. There lots of ways to do this, from just a single character to an entire campaign. Do it. Have fun. Embrace the zeitgeist, and make your gaming community a group of unified purpose — surviving a sea and sometimes even a captain that hates you.
Every Class Can Be A Pirate/Privateer/Sailor
First and foremost, realize that any and every class can be a sailor of sorts. The obvious way is through the use of the Sailor/Pirate/Privateer Background. You already know this. You also know about the Swashbuckler, because you are a wise soul.
But there is more than that. Every single Bard in the core D&D game can fill a role on a pirate ship, so can every Rogue. Most Clerics make sense, etcetera, etc. Be creative in the roles and purpose on a ship. Your concept belongs there, even a fully armored Paladin, with those drawbacks, belongs aboard a galleon in the Age of Sail.
Just a quick glance at Tasha’s Cauldron of Everything shows some great concepts for your shanty-singing adventurer;
- Artificer: Artillerist – Who needs gunpowder when you have magic cannons?
- Cleric: Order Domain – Someone has to keep the law of the ship and boost the crew.
- Druid: Circle of Stars – The blessings of the sky are vital during a trip across thousands of miles of ocean.
- Rogue: Phantom – The latter Pirates of the Caribbean movies lean into tales where dead men talk.
- Warlock: The Fathomless – duh
Making the sea even a small element of a campaign gives space for your shanty-singing glory.
Seas of Voldari
What if every character was part of the story of the sea? That’s what Tribality’s Seas of Voldari explores. Their words describe the setting and ruleset well.
The Seas of Vodari campaign setting was created to support seafaring adventures that focus on the crew of a ship hunting sea monsters, exploring mysterious uncharted islands, visiting bustling port cities, following maps to find buried treasure, and battling cutthroat pirates. The setting is also well suited to running campaigns in its large port cities, with swashbuckling heroes getting mixed up with fierce rivals, notorious crime syndicates, feuding nobles, and scheming politicians.From the sales page for Seas of Voldari
The added classes, races, and backgrounds make life at sea the key element of most adventures. Add them to your existing campaign and your players have more options to enjoy their sugar & rum & tea.
Be Creative: Add Shanties As A Landlubber
While The Wellerman is all about the Age of Sail, shanties were not confined to life at sea. There are shanties about building railroads, working mines, and every other activity that requires a group to work in unison in miserable conditions — the marching and running songs of soldiers are related to shanties.
Hi ho, hi ho
It’s off to work we go
Yes, your dwarves should sing shanties. Your drudge cutting down trees for the lumberyard should sing shanties. Your Bard at the bar should sing shanties, and so should your Battle Master.
All times of needed unity are appropriate for the musical style.
This can add more ideas during campaign prep or character building.
Watch Black Sails. It’s Hulu, Starz, and Prime (season 1) for no additional charge. The season one trailer opens you to the TV prequel for Treasure Island, but it’s season 4 that gets my blood pumping.
There’s also the now-classic cartoon Pirates of Dark Water, which is especially handy if you want a Seas of Voldari campaign. It’s hard to track it down, but if you can find it the mix of piracy and fantasy is perfect for a Dungeons & Dragons.
The films, books, comics, and such inspired by life at sea is numerous. Your approaches to integrating that into your campaign should be as big as the ocean.
For forty days or even more,
the line went slack then tight once more,
All boats were lost, there were only four
and still that whale did go.
The quest of the Wellerman is the quest of Ahab, and a familiar quest for any adventurer, because it’s never done, merely paused for a bit of song and rum.