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Ranks aboard ship

Saigonnus

Auror
I was just thinking about how most science fiction and fantasy novels use the traditional naval system of ranks to arrange sailors on a ship. Either they are like Admiral, Captain, Commander, Ensign etc. and in the case of Sci-fi, the added Engineering Chief, Chief Medical Officer etc...

I am looking for idea on how a ship might be organized without resorting to the "same-old thing" as everyone else as if the planet evolved in a different way from Earth in regards to naval traditions. How might this be accomplished?
 
Personally I would look into the history of the ranks. More specifically, the words chosen. I just looked up the term ensign, and it seems fitting. The word itself refers to a mark, standard, flag, or such similar things. Considering that one of the duties of an ensign is to carry the colours, the term makes sense. So I suppose you would have to look into the jobs of different individual ranks, and go from there. Also, if you have positions on a ship that don't exist in a real life navy (magic, fantastical weapons, etc.), then I would assume that those would work their way into the ranking system as well, and would require names for said ranks.
 

Saigonnus

Auror
What you said makes sense, got me thinking on the right track. But what if I wanted to do away with the hierarchy in general? or at least for the most part. How could a ship operate if ranks didn't really exist?
 
What you said makes sense, got me thinking on the right track. But what if I wanted to do away with the hierarchy in general? or at least for the most part. How could a ship operate if ranks didn't really exist?
This is an interesting thought. I guess it would boil down to how society develops. I would imagine some form of command would be necessary, unless you're either operating with a hivemind, or a group that is just SO incredibly well-trained and disciplined as a unit that they can operate without a commander. Considering the idea that roles were given names based off of their job, those would probably not change as much in terms of duties or classification. The change would likely boil down to how each type of role would interact with each other. Then, assuming that the commander is killed in battle, the question of leadership becomes apparent.

One of the benefits of the ranking system is that if the captain goes down, there's someone ready to immediately assume command of the vessel. If that person dies, there's another. And so on. So, in the absence of this, you would have to develop some kind of system that determines who assumes command in such an event. Perhaps a select few promising individuals are trained as officers, and then given the same rank as other sailors as a bonding technique? Or perhaps it's an on the fly meritocracy type situation. Or perhaps they draw lots. Not so sure about the latter two, but perhaps the first has potential.
 

Saigonnus

Auror
Or perhaps it's an on the fly meritocracy type situation. Or perhaps they draw lots. Not so sure about the latter two, but perhaps the first has potential.

I was thinking much the same... like a "captain of the moment". Something like the situation dictates who is captain. Since it is kind of for a sci-fi thing... I was thinking if it's a situation primarily involving engineering, then the "chief engineer" (or whatever I end up calling them) would be captain. A trade mission, then the Quartermaster (or insert name here) would take control until the mission is over. Random encounter with hostile pirates? The combat captain takes over.

That also leads me to thinking about how a ship is designed... I understand the need for the consolidation of command in one place, but if sci-fi movie and series teach us anything is if you attack the bridge, then the command structure is crippled for however long it takes for the next highest officer to assume command.
 
I was thinking much the same... like a "captain of the moment". Something like the situation dictates who is captain. Since it is kind of for a sci-fi thing... I was thinking if it's a situation primarily involving engineering, then the "chief engineer" (or whatever I end up calling them) would be captain. A trade mission, then the Quartermaster (or insert name here) would take control until the mission is over. Random encounter with hostile pirates? The combat captain takes over.

That also leads me to thinking about how a ship is designed... I understand the need for the consolidation of command in one place, but if sci-fi movie and series teach us anything is if you attack the bridge, then the command structure is crippled for however long it takes for the next highest officer to assume command.
That makes sense to me. I would imagine that each of these officers would have some level of leadership training. It would make sense in a system where any of them could theoretically take command.

You brought up something that I often think about in sci-fi. I always wondered, in a world with highly advanced technology, why is the bridge always so exposed? I mean sure, you get to have the viewing deck, which is aesthetically pleasing, but it seems quite vulnerable. Why not place the bridge deeper within the hull, with large screens projecting the view from the main deck? It could create a nice, tense situation where the cameras go out, and an officer takes the risk of going to the viewing deck. Another potential solution is keeping the officers separate, although then you're relying on your communications not going out (another potential crisis to explore).
 
You should look into self steering teams (also called self organizing teams), often used in IT settings. You give a lot more power to make choices to people lower down the command chain, which means you need fewer people to tell other people what to do, which means you need less of a command chain.

It doesn't mean that no one is in charge. You always have someone giving orders. It just means that people are more free to interpret those orders and are trusted to do the best job they can.
 
One issue in a human setting is that leaders are often born, not made, or at the least, not everyone can be made into a leader. Command positions could be done that way, but in the long run is it most efficient? A technocracy of this sort would have potential advantages and disadvantages. But I think it would work for a book and could be interesting.
 

Saigonnus

Auror
That makes sense to me. I would imagine that each of these officers would have some level of leadership training. It would make sense in a system where any of them could theoretically take command.

You brought up something that I often think about in sci-fi. I always wondered, in a world with highly advanced technology, why is the bridge always so exposed? I mean sure, you get to have the viewing deck, which is aesthetically pleasing, but it seems quite vulnerable. Why not place the bridge deeper within the hull, with large screens projecting the view from the main deck? It could create a nice, tense situation where the cameras go out, and an officer takes the risk of going to the viewing deck. Another potential solution is keeping the officers separate, although then you're relying on your communications not going out (another potential crisis to explore).

I had the idea that that issue in particular is addressed as part of the story. A battered, battle scarred, overcrowded ship in this post-apocalyptic future find a damaged derelict and tow it to a makeshift shipyard to refit it. The command crew had been killed by a direct attack on the command deck, so the guy in charge of the refit moves it to the middle of the ship behind the bulkheads.
 
I had the idea that that issue in particular is addressed as part of the story. A battered, battle scarred, overcrowded ship in this post-apocalyptic future find a damaged derelict and tow it to a makeshift shipyard to refit it. The command crew had been killed by a direct attack on the command deck, so the guy in charge of the refit moves it to the middle of the ship behind the bulkheads.
If you think about it, you could even make it a large part of the world in terms of the evolution of ship construction. Perhaps those exposed command decks used to be common, but have since been done away with for the obvious reasons. You could even feature an older ship ran by a veteran who refuses to have his vessel refit to the more modern standard. Or some could view ships that maintain the old design as classics. Hmm... now you're REALLY making me put my worldbuilding hat on :p
 

Saigonnus

Auror
One issue in a human setting is that leaders are often born, not made, or at the least, not everyone can be made into a leader. Command positions could be done that way, but in the long run is it most efficient? A technocracy of this sort would have potential advantages and disadvantages. But I think it would work for a book and could be interesting.

I would be interested to hear your point of view on advantages and disadvantages. I myself can think of a few; like more fluidity among the crew, more upward mobility, that you are never wont of a captain, that anyone might be given command, even just to travel from place to place. On the opposite side, you'd have those situations that are more than one thing... A hostage situation... who takes charge? The combat captain or the security captain? or the best diplomat? All three? I suppose it would be good to have multiple points of view in those circumstances... so all three show up and then they fight for 15 minutes about how best to proceed. :LOL: Not exactly good in situations with a timer.

I suppose that would be easy enough to overcome with an SOP about how to deal with certain things that have happened before. Perhaps the procedure states that diplomacy has to take precedent, unless they are dealing with a knowingly hostile and/or viscious force.
 
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skip.knox

toujours gai, archie
Moderator
There's actually some precedent for role-based authority. In the Middle Ages, ships sailing from Venice to the Holy Land typically had a captain and a patron. The one had command of the ship and sailing, but the other set the destination, had authority over the pilgrims themselves, and typically held an investment share (the ship did a little business along the way, because ... Venice). Up in the Baltic, ships often had an investor or two on board, who handled affairs when the ship was in a trading port. Nor was the role of the navigator purely secondary.

If it was a ship of war, matters were rather different, but even there one might have a high-ranking noble or even a king on board, whose authority could be imposed on the ship's captain. This was certainly the case in at least a couple of Crusader fleets.

Oh, and don't forget harbor masters and pilots.

None of that is probably directly useful, but at least it shows there's precendent for a distribution or flexibility in authority.
 

Miles Lacey

Maester
Pirate ships didn't have ranks as such. Every person on board had specific roles which they were usually either elected to do or appointed on the basis of their expertise to perform. The roles included:

The Captain. He was elected to run the ship. Only in combat or pursuit did he have absolute authority.
The Navigator. They were in short supply so they were highly sought after, as well as their maps, charts and equipment like telescopes.
The Quartermaster. Responsible for enforcing the Captain's orders, deciding who got what loot, dealing with minor infractions, deciding what was taken or left behind on a raided ship and the day-to-day running of the ship.
The Boatswain. Made sure the ship was fit to sale and for combat.
The Cooper. Made and maintained the barrels on a ship. Wooden ones for storing water, food etc, not the other sort.
The Carpenter. Ensured the ship's structural integrity. Made sure holes and other damage was repaired, keeping yardarms and masts sound and functional, deciding when the ship needed to grounded for repairs and worked as surgeons chopping off limbs.
The Doctor or surgeon: Self-explanatory. Their medicines were worth their weight in gold.
The Master Gunner. Kept cannons, cannon balls, gunpowder, the shot and anything else to do with making sure the cannons did their job.
The Musicians. Musicians provided music to relieve the often tedious life at sea. Musicians were exempt from the harsh and demanding work on board a ship. Surprisingly, they were highly sought after by pirates who often kidnapped them!

Maybe the OP could look at the actual functions of what various ranks do and name them after those duties.

They could take a leaf out of martial arts and have various ship crews or navy ranks indicated by a coloured belt, shirt or collar patch. A white belt could indicate an ensign while a three stripe black belt could be the equivalent of a fleet Admiral.
 
You nail the advantages, at least under ideal situations. Skip brought up the captain and the patron. Even in a situation such as this, what happens when they disagree? Patron says we’re going to X, the captain thinks thats suicide, or the patron disagrees with the slower/safer route to get there? If the situation is critical and the disagreement strong enough it will come down to who has the crew’s loyalty. In a situation as you describe, let’s say there’s a battle at Point A, and a dire diplomatic situation at Point B and they can only go to one? Somebody must make this decision. Now, if there’s a higher authority to dictate who is in charge and communication is more or less instant, great, but if they’re on their own and they can’t agree then tensions will rise between them and crew. Tension in isolation situations such as ships are always heightened.

Another problem with technocracy is that the best at a thing might not be a leader. The strength of a quality captain is not that they do everything, it is leadership and the ability to delegate power. If the Commander of Negotiations is failing, but they are “in command” there is no one with the authority to point out that they are failing and with the authority to say that we should try Plan B. Plus, high pressure situations are best handled when people can look to one person without question. Say Star Trek... Crew looks to Kirk no matter the situation. Kirk then either takes command or delegates to a specialist or even a person out of the chain of command for a solution. Also, humans tend to see their specialty as the most important thing... witness office politics. So, if a convoluted and multi-headed situation arises, having a captain as delegator/prioritizer in chief is a good thing.

I would be interested to hear your point of view on advantages and disadvantages. I myself can think of a few; like more fluidity among the crew, more upward mobility, that you are never wont of a captain, that anyone might be given command, even just to travel from place to place. On the opposite side, you'd have those situations that are more than one thing... A hostage situation... who takes charge? The combat captain or the security captain? or the best diplomat? All three? I suppose it would be good to have multiple points of view in those circumstances... so all three show up and then they fight for 15 minutes about how best to proceed. :LOL: Not exactly good in situations with a timer.

I suppose that would be easy enough to overcome with an SOP about how to deal with certain things that have happened before. Perhaps the procedure states that diplomacy has to take precedent, unless they are dealing with a knowingly hostile and/or viscious force.
 

skip.knox

toujours gai, archie
Moderator
In looking back at the OP, the key element that strikes me is the desire for interchanging roles, and that's a real stumbling block. There can be shared or distributed authority, even situational authority, but the navigator is still the only navigator and there can only be one person being captain. The OP was asking for ways to change that.

I don't see how without introducing some fundamentally non-human attributes. Which is fine--this is fantasy! So, to take one example, everyone on board agrees they're going to sail to Port X. The route could be in shared knowledge or could be in books or a computer, or other external knowledge base. Anyone can be the navigator because all Trilligs (our hypothetical people) know how to set a course. They might have that ability prior, or they might chant a spell that gives them the power for a time, or the current navigator passes the skill by mind meld. Similar things might be done across the ship, from cook to carpenter to coxswain (had to get in the alliteration). It could be as simple as tapping tentacles.

Working out the dynamics could be interesting in its own right, but you will also want to explore the consequences. What does it mean to the society of the ship, and also of the larger society? Maybe the larger society behaves one way, but Sailor Trilligs are a special breed. Whatever the case, it feels like there's a loss of distinguishing traits, when anyone can be what the other just was. Which could be cool--maybe they take on even physical attributes--but it would make narrating a story a real challenge. You could have a "normal human" passenger who observes all this, though.

But the OP asked specifically about ranks. In my speculation, ranks would be more like roles. Not a hierarchy but simply a set of job descriptions, like roles on a farm.

Anyway, those are my somewhat scattered thoughts.
 

Saigonnus

Auror
You both made excellent points and I appreciate the input. You are absolutely right in that not everyone is cut out to be a leader, but I was thinking that the only ones in any "department" eligible for being captain would be someone capable of doing the job in the first place; otherwise you are just courting disaster. Humans are dynamic creatures capable of being many things all at once, why not embrace that concept? Having worked in many industries over the course of my life, one thing that is apparent is that cross-training is fundamental to the success of nearly any enterprise. Abilities you learn in one job can sometimes cross the boundaries into a different job altogether. The same would be true if you had no outside assistance, only able to rely on your crew and their abilities to get things done. Cross-training would play a central part of that.

Skip, the farming reference is pretty accurate with my line of thinking as well. It'd be like changing hats... one moment you are engaged in a diagnostic of the engine, the next, you are on the bridge, preparing to oversee a mining operation, then when the mission is over, you are overseeing the refit of the mining laser that had caused you problems and delgating others to completing the repairs of the ablative armor that was damaged during the last pirate attck.

As a teacher, it is a reflection of my everyday life most days... one class focuses on Architecture... another about Sustainability... others about grammar topics and vocabulary... Mars exploration... Mermaids and whether they exist(ed) or not... :LOL:

So kinda like a skill-based mesh rather than a hierarchy. I think I can work with that. :)

On a similar topic: There is a TED talk about "Multipotentialites" from Emilie Wapnick that was informative. She basically asserts that there are two "types" of people: Specialists and Polymaths. The main idea of the talk is that society at large is designed for specialists, and Polymaths are often forced to emulate their specialist peers to suceed instead of using their gifts to better mankind.

Why some of us don't have one true calling

I am a polymath by the way. ;)
 
Pirate ships didn't have ranks as such. Every person on board had specific roles which they were usually either elected to do or appointed on the basis of their expertise to perform. The roles included:

The Captain. He was elected to run the ship. Only in combat or pursuit did he have absolute authority.
The Navigator. They were in short supply so they were highly sought after, as well as their maps, charts and equipment like telescopes.
The Quartermaster. Responsible for enforcing the Captain's orders, deciding who got what loot, dealing with minor infractions, deciding what was taken or left behind on a raided ship and the day-to-day running of the ship.
The Boatswain. Made sure the ship was fit to sale and for combat.
The Cooper. Made and maintained the barrels on a ship. Wooden ones for storing water, food etc, not the other sort.
The Carpenter. Ensured the ship's structural integrity. Made sure holes and other damage was repaired, keeping yardarms and masts sound and functional, deciding when the ship needed to grounded for repairs and worked as surgeons chopping off limbs.
The Doctor or surgeon: Self-explanatory. Their medicines were worth their weight in gold.
The Master Gunner. Kept cannons, cannon balls, gunpowder, the shot and anything else to do with making sure the cannons did their job.
The Musicians. Musicians provided music to relieve the often tedious life at sea. Musicians were exempt from the harsh and demanding work on board a ship. Surprisingly, they were highly sought after by pirates who often kidnapped them!

Maybe the OP could look at the actual functions of what various ranks do and name them after those duties.

They could take a leaf out of martial arts and have various ship crews or navy ranks indicated by a coloured belt, shirt or collar patch. A white belt could indicate an ensign while a three stripe black belt could be the equivalent of a fleet Admiral.
I was actually just thinking I needed a list of the different roles available on a pirate ship, so thanks for the list! :)

I think Demesnedenoir brought up one of the main reasons why you don't see this multi-role organization come up more often. When the shit hits the fan you can't waste time finding the right person to put in charge. You want to know immediately who you have to look to and who will make the decisions.

I think the experience of a lot of companies with matrix organizations shows that having multiple people you answer to creates confusing situations and usually doesn't work. Just imagine a fairly new recruit getting two contradicting orders from two commanders, both of which seem valid. Which one do you follow? What if there's four of them who could potentially tell you what to do?

Of course, it's not something which can't be fixed. But it is something to be aware of (and a potentially nice source of conflict of course)
 

Saigonnus

Auror
You make a good point. It would be chaotic if you didn't have a definitive commander. It could be easily handled through scheduling... from Zero-hundred hours to eight hundred hours; Bob's in charge. From eight to sixteen hundred; it's Lance and Sixteen to Zero-hundred it's Lucy. That's unless something comes up that requires more specialized talents.

That's actually what I kind of thinking. You always have someone leading the ship, but I was thinking how it could be done without the strict hierarchy. It would actually be pretty dynamic in regards to scheduling, because you could have the best options from each department on the command roster, getting practice

Another option would be to use AI. The computer analyzes the situation and appoints the best overall choice. I like the scheduling option better really
 
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