Campaign Starter: Sailing the Sapphire Isles

Sailing the Sapphire Isles

A campaign starter for Dungeon World by Jeremy Strandberg

(2017 CC BY SA), inspired by Dirk Detweiler Leichty & Brian Holland

Before creating characters, roll 8d6 and take turns assigning them to the questions below. Set the remaining 2 dice aside. 

What happened here recently?

  1. A storm that’s left you crippled and shorthanded

  2. A narrow escape from an Imperial man-o-war

  3. Open revolt by the Empire’s far-flung provinces

  4. The Pirate Queen’s capture and the shattering of her armada

  5. A tenuous treaty between Empire and merfolk

  6. A successful raid on a fat merchant ship

What here is not what it seems?

  1. There’s a spy for the Empire in your midst

  2. The prisoner in the hold keeps a dangerous secret

  3. These islands… they aren’t on any of the charts!

  4. You joined the crew under false pretense 

  5. You’re smuggling dangerous, valuable cargo

  6. You’ve been flying a false flag since leaving port

Who or what is really in control here?

  1. A fickle sea god, punishing you for your sleights

  2. The curse that was  but recently laid upon the crew

  3. Merfolk (territorial & xenophobic) and their pets

  4. The Imperial armada, who dominate these waters

  5. The rebellious Imperial noble funding the voyage

  6. The admiral who sent you on this mission 

What (else) should we be on the lookout for?

  1. Sea monsters… big ones

  2. The Cult of the Shark, hunting what’s rightly theirs

  3. The Ambrose, which sailed out of Death’s Black Gates 

  4. The captain’s obsession, and its dire repercussions

  5. Pirates and buccaneers, who prey on these waters

  6. A maze of sandbars & razor-sharp reefs

What here is useful or valuable to us?

  1. A map to the fabled Isle of Laarn

  2. A vast treasure, buried somewhere on this island or lying in a sunken wreck

  3. A fearsome and far-flung reputation 

  4. A compass pointing toward your heart’s desire

  5. A favor owed you by a powerful sea witch 

  6. Your ship, fastest on the Sapphire Seas (+1 Speed)

What is about to happen?

  1. A ship-killing storm bears down

  2. A bloody mutiny boils, long overdue

  3. Three sails are set to intercept you

  4. An innocent is about to be executed on ship

  5. You’ve dropped anchor and your boats approach a mysterious, ruin-dotted isle

  6. Your quarry’s been spotted, after months in pursuit

When all questions have had a die assigned to them, set the two remaining dice aside and spend some time to extrapolate the results and flesh out the world. 

Starting Disposition

Next, create characters and establish Bonds. While or after Bonds are established, GM, ask any or all of the following:

  • Which one of you, if any, is the captain?

  • Which of you are officers? What is your post?

  • Which one of you was crew long before the rest?

  • Which of you are clearly still landlubbers?

  • Why did you go to sea? Why did you join this crew?

Starting Disposition

Now, take those 2 remaining dice and total them up:

10+ You start play with the initiative—there’s an opportunity for you to seize, time to make a plan, and/or an opening to exploit.

7-9 You start play facing down danger, but things haven’t gone south just yet—it’s tense!

6- You start pinned down, imprisoned, or on the run

The GM will set the scene. What do you do?

When Things Calm Down

Follow the procedure in The Perilous Wilds (“Draw the Map”) to create the Sapphire Isles together. 

Your Ship

She’s named the… ?Peerless  ?Dark Star  ?Sea Fox  ?Prince’s Pride  ?____________________

All three start at +1. Add +1 to one of your choice:


Choose 2 advantages:

?Increase a second stat by +1

?She’s fitted for war (a ram, artillery, arms and armor for the crew); +1 to All Hands on Deck to attack!

 ?Spacious cargo: add an extra ? to “Low Stores”

 ?Unsinkable: add an extra ? to both “Crippled” and “Sinking”

Choose 2 disadvantages:

?Reduce one of the ship’s stats by 1

?Cramped: permanently mark Low Stores

?Old & falling apart: permanently mark Battered

?Bitter crew: permanently mark Grumbling

?Savage crew: it takes work to keep them in line when they have the opportunity for excess

?Distinctive profile: the ship is easily recognized


?Low Stores (worrisome, but no effect just yet)

?Depleted Stores (cannot Refit at sea)

?Battered (mostly cosmetic damage, no effect just yet)

?Crippled (can’t sail)

?Sinking (taking on water, getting worse)

?Doomed (it’s going down, quickly)

?Grumbling (the crew isn’t happy, but no effect just yet)

?Miserable (need convincing to roll +Crew)

?Depleted (-1 ongoing to Crew and Speed)

?Mutinous (good luck with that)

Crew Members: Chayan Shiv, Jem the Tooth, Jezibel Mra, Jon “Scurvy” Montalix, Long Nadja, Mosi First-Born, Nym Glynlar, Old Geiss, Pitr the Cut, Precious Kito, Rafaal Goldtooth, Rawiri, Tomas Filch, Tue Birch, and any unused names from your playbook 


When you chart a course across the open sea to a known destination, ask the GM roughly how long the journey should take. Then, roll +INT: on a 10+, you chart a sound course, though the GM might still pick 1 from the list below; on a 7-9, pick 1 from the list below; the GM might decide to choose another:

  • You’ll need to mark Low Stores (or Depleted Stores) by the journey’s end

  • The route goes through perilous seas, shoals, etc.

  • You’ll risk running afoul of ___ 

All Hands on Deck

When the ship and/or crew acts despite an imminent danger or suffers a calamity, say how you all handle it and roll…

+Speed if you try to outrun or outmaneuver it

+Hull if you hunker down or power through

+Crew if you rely on the efforts of the crew

On a 10+, it works as well as can be expected, but the GM might still choose 1 from below; on a 7-9, it works, but the GM picks 1 and might ask you to pick another.

  • You’re not quite out of trouble just yet

  • Individual crew members are endangered

  • It’s taxing; mark a condition on the ship


When you spend days drifting or at anchor to recover, make repairs, resupply, or modify your ship, roll +Crew: on a 10+, spend 3 on the choices below; on a 7-9, spend 2;  on a 6-, spend 1 but ask the GM what crisis interrupts your work.

  • Remove a condition from the ship

  • Work quickly, reducing the time spent refitting

  • Trick out the ship for a specific purpose; take +1 forward to All Hands on Deck for that purpose

If you Refit at open sea, spend 1 less. If you Refit at a port of call, spend 1 more. 

Hold Your Breath

When you plunge beneath the waves, hold Breath equal to CON+1 (minimum 1), or CON+3 (min 2) if you take a deep breath first. Each time you roll 2d6 to make a move, pick 1 (after you roll):

  • Spend 1 Breath

  • Mark a debility (that you haven’t marked yet)

  • Take your Last Breath

GM Toolkit

Ship names:  Agile, Arrowhead, Augustus, Beautiful Boy, Bittersweet, Blackwater, Califax, Catspaw, Drakken, Diamon, Emris Ray, Fisher of Men, Goodwind, Gray Lady,  Hammerhead, Magicienne, Manx, Matilda, Mistcutter, Mother’s Love, Orphans’ Hope, Poor Ginny, Rogue, Seadevil,
St. Tristram, Starlight, Unswerving, White Zephyr, Wyvern

Islands, Features, and Ports of Call:  Arzikos Isle, Azur’s Gate, Bay of Skulls, Bulqetz’s Maw, Cyclops Bay, Forsaken Reef, Fort Leuthil, the Gauntlet, the Iron Cove, Honor’s Landing, Isle of the Troll King, Kotri’s Teeth, Luin Tol, Pearl’s Sorrow, Oxl Bay, Port Aran, Refuge, Seadevils Hole, Silverhaven, Skyheart, Stoneheart Rock, the Shattered Isle of Ai, Tower Island, Twelve Head Bay, Vaknot Isle, Victors Rest, the Withered Witch

High Imperial Names: Anfalen, Amkissra, Calarel, Delshandra, Elisven, Ellarian, Haramara, Llamryl, Mihangyl, Naevys, Onas, Ornthalas, Quamara, Rathiain, Ryfon, Selenlar, Shearah, Sundamar, Sylvar, Vulas

Merfolk Names:  Aaz, Aqogzus, Bozdaatus, Braok, Butana, Didrezo, Drursuqux, Druz, Ekuros, Grougruuxxuask, Gugo, Huss, Kersho, Ocugit, Orqochozk, Ozorau, Raz, Sozdoz, Sraexl, Ursesia, Uttiusz, Vizzk, Zothroax

Sailor Names: Addonia Lefthand, Akbar ibn Raman, Baalat, Belin the Fish, Big Coen, Bitse Firdotter, Carolien san Vez, Chavi Two-Punch, Hagen Wyrmson, Hemit dan Hemit, Javiar san Luz, Little Jebel, Jinoquo, Junia the Snake, Keka Wavedancer, Kesi Venkrisja, Lashe Godel, Leoz the Block, Lexia Vash, Nanti Drak, Ninye Noee, Oki, Onyesha, Pale Ingfreid, Pashe, Rajabu, Rangi Wyrmson, Red Bayana, Rinke dan Germ, Rozelle the Lute, Slick Sebastan, Sno, Ubaldo, Velerea, Ol’ Wile

Useful references:

Ship Conditions:

The PC’s ship (and other ships, if you like) can suffer conditions. A ship marks a condition when:

  • A move (like All Hands on Deck) says it does

  • It’s your turn to make a move, and you choose to apply one or more conditions to a ship

  • The fiction demands it

Applying a condition to a ship is like dealing damage: it’s a GM move on its own, but you can also do it as part of another GM move when it makes sense. If they run aground on the sharp corral of Kotri’s Teeth, you’ve put them in a spot but the ship might be Sinking, too.

Ship conditions last until they Refit or take some other fictional action to remove it. Conditions often require that the PCs make moves to get something done despite that condition, or to keep it from getting worse. But that won’t remove the condition.  Parley might convince a Miserable crew to keep going onward to the next island—but they’re still Miserable. An All Hands on Deck roll might stabilize a Sinking ship, but it’s still got the condition and it’ll take ongoing efforts from the Crew to keep it stable.

Setting Sail:

When the PCs set sail for a location they can see (even if it’s simply “we sail west”), make GM moves (change the environment or point to a looming threat or introduce a faction or whatever) to describe what they encounter. 

When the PCs Wayfind, note the challenges indicated by the roll. Also note any encounters that your prep demands. En route, use your GM moves to introduce these encounters in whatever order makes sense.

If you’re unsure what they’ll encounter next or on the way, ask them to roll the Die of Fate (d6) and see what they find:

1a Danger

2a Danger that hides or points to a Discovery

3-4nothing of interest (a small isle, a shoal, etc.)

5a Discovery, guarded by or harboring a Danger

6a Discovery

Use the tables in The Perilous Wilds to generate Dangers or Discoveries on the fly.

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