Living the Game — The Sextant

Everyone dreams. Gamers dream better.

We may throw rule and dice into the equation, but ultimately, it is just a shared world that lives in our heads. Magic, demons, gods and damsels in distress populate the world, but occasionally “real” things bleed into the realm. The most common “real” items are the weapons and armor every PC hordes. Perfectly legitimate, since without these items, their “Player Character” becomes a “Player Snack” during the first combat encounter. Weapons and armor descriptions literally fill volumes of game books. They are they most studied and examined part of the equipment list. If I say “cutlass,” any fantasy gamer worth his dice instantly gets a picture in his head. The dream has a bit of reality and is the better for it.

Sadly, this intense focus leaves out a massive list of mundane, but interesting items or skills that can add so much to the game’s reality.

Today, I bring a forgotten item to the fore. I present to you the humble, but historically significant sextant.

The Cardboard Sextant

Yes, this is a picture of a cardboard sextant. A sextant is actually a precision instrument still used for navigation by sea and air. They are too exensive to play around with, so I found the “Cheap Sextant” on the Celestair web site. It only cost $25.00. I also paid the extra $7.00 for the bubble level to help with accuracy. I have not assembled the extra attachment yet, so you could see how the package arrives. It took about two hours to put together.

How will this improve your game? Understanding a sextant, even a cardboard one, will improve you. Whether a player or a DM, you can now speak with some authority about navigating with the sun. You understand the limits and abilities of a sextant. Here are just a few tidbits that you can throw out at a game session to awe the other players.

Sextants use basic geometry to determine the angle of the sun relative your position. This allows you to determine the latitude. Longitude requires some additional information to calculate and, most importantly, a precision clock set to a known location’s time. Hence “Greenwich Mean Time” was born

You can use a sextant to estimate the altitude of a mountain, so long as you know how far away it is.

Using a sextant with heavy cloud cover is very difficult to impossible.

I used the sextant above to take a few readings on a sunny day. While not the most accurate, it did get a result in the “ballpark” in terms of my latitude. I am not about to go sailing with it, but it was an enlightening experience. The fact you have to look directly into the sun surprised me. There is a built in shade/filter, still it was a bit disconcerting.

While taking my reading, I could, for just a moment understand what early mariners felt, trying to find their place on the globe, with primitive equipment. Where a single miscalculation could destroy your ship. It was a terrible responsibility to navigate a vessel. I think I understand that a little better now.

Reality adds depth and gravitas to any gaming session. It also provides unusual plot hooks that are not cliches. A ship with a damaged sextant is well and truly lost, especially if magnetic north does not exist in the game. Could be a great way to get the PCs “lost” and stumble into some trouble. Perhaps a crazed seaman jumps ship and runs off into a mysterious green-hell of an island, carrying the only sextant. The PCs much catch him or risk the waves without guidance. In either case, at least it is not a princess you have to rescue.

The sextant allowed the conquest of the seas and deserves a place in the greater gaming world.

Here is the link to the cheapest sextant in existence.

Cheap Sextant Link

May you dream better!

Trask, the Last Tyromancer



Trask is a long-time gamer, world traveler and history buff. He hopes that his scribblings will both inform and advance gaming as a hobby.