Expedition of Zheng He
The largest junks ever built were possibly those of Admiral Zheng He, for his expeditions in the Indian Ocean. According to Chinese sources, the fleet for He's 1405 expedition comprised nearly 30,000 sailors and over 300 ships at its height.When I read the above, numerous ideas spring to mind. Just to simplify, say that you have a fleet of large ships, two to three hundred of them with a total manpower of twenty to thirty thousand people. What could you do with that? Here are a bunch of possibilities that come to my mind.
The dimensions of Zheng He's ships according to ancient Chinese chronicles are disputed by modern scholars (see below):
• "Treasure ships", used by the commander of the fleet and his deputies (Nine-masted junks, claimed by the Ming Shi to be about 420 feet long and 180 feet wide).
• "Horse ships", carrying tribute goods and repair material for the fleet (Eight-masted junks, about 340 feet long and 140 feet wide)
• "Supply ships", containing food-staple for the crew (Seven-masted junks, about 260 feet long and 115 feet wide).
• "Troop transports" (Six-masted junks, about 220 feet long and 83 feet wide).
• "Fuchuan warships" (Five-masted junks, about 165 feet long).
• "Patrol boats" (Eight-oared, about 120 feet long).
• "Water tankers", with 1 month's supply of fresh water.
Some recent research suggests that the actual length of the biggest treasure ships may have been between 390–408 feet (119–124 m) long and 160–166 feet (49–51 m) width, while others estimate them to be 200–250 feet (61–76 m) in length.
One possibility is that the fleet of ships is controlled by a maritime power in your world in order to (pick the goal). Perhaps it is conquest of surrounding dominions or perhaps it is exploration. Regardless, the fleet is military in nature. The PCs are mercenaries in the employ of the government, either in possession of their own ship or based on one of the many barracks ships that are accompanying the expedition. Or maybe they are spies of a competing power, trying to thwart the aims of the fleet. This idea could work for any level of PCs. Low level PCs could interact with the common soldiers (or marines--seaborne infantry), the masters of the smaller ships, and the daily "normal" happenings throughout the fleet. High level PCs could interact with the Admirals in charge of the fleet and the governing council.
Adventures could be event-based based upon the politics and situations that the PCs find themselves in as part of this massive fleet. Adventures could also be location-based as the fleet visits various strange locales and the PCs have to explore the lands or islands that the fleet encounters.
Another possibility is that the fleet of ships is not attached to any land power, but is, in fact, its own political entity. A literal floating city made up of numerous ships, housing all of the normal functions of a city, but in a collection of moving vessels whose position changes relative to all of the others over time and whose makeup changes as some ships (or groups of ships) leave the main body and others return to it over time. It would obviously include (much) smaller vessels that taxi passengers between the larger ones.
If one accepts the literal floating city as a campaign idea, what is the nature of that city's voyages? What are their origins?
- Perhaps it just voyages from place to place with no discernable rhyme or reason (at least to the commoner aboard one of its many vessels). The PCs would just be along for the ride, and their adventures are determined merely upon the circumstances of the cruise.
- Perhaps the leadership of the city are searching for a particular place, object, or person. The PCs are actively involved in the search, whether as mercenaries or otherwise. Or perhaps they don't give a hoot about the overall reasons for the voyage and are out for themselves.
- Perhaps the city voyages to discover its past. How many science-fictions stories are about humans in space trying to find the mythical 'Earth'? Translate that idea to fantasy and an ocean voyage, and it works as well.
I'm sure there are other ways that this basic idea could be used in a campaign. If you can think of any, I'd love to hear of them.