Friday, September 19, 2014

Surrender the Booty!

Shortly after Gen Con and my last post, I kind of hit a point of physical and mental fatigue.  Progress on most projects stopped.  In fact, just about the only thing I managed to accomplish in the last month is some work on Pirates of Tortuga, my new weekly campaign.  In the last few days, I have started to come out of that malaise with a desire to get back to things.  First the blog here, and then perhaps more ambitious projects.

As Friday, September 19th is Talk Like a Pirate Day, and since my current weekly game is also pirate based, it seems only natural to cover that topic.  I collected a number of pirate themed game materials over the years.  Some of them were excellent.  Below are five of the most useful I have found.  Since my current campaign is historically based, I am limiting myself to games set in our own past.  Green Ronin's Freeport, Frog God Games' Razor Coast, and of course my old favorite Alderac Entertainment Group's 7th Sea are all excellent games with pirate themes set elsewhere,  If you need a little more fantasy in your pirate games, I urge you to look to them.  For gaming on the Spanish Main, I present these gems:

GURPS Swashbucklers

This book went through three editions.  This is not
 the last, but it is by far the best cover.
For gamers who cut their teeth in the late 1980s and early 1990s, GURPS sourcebooks were the best place to go to get information about any genre,  Even if you did not like the GURPS system, their books were packed with setting details you could use.  GURPS authors did their research and the content was of superior quality even if their production values were somewhat austere.  One of the best of these sourcebooks was GURPS Swashbucklers by Steffan O'Sullivan.  As the name would suggest, it covers both pirate campaigns and continental European adventuring in the style of The Three Musketeers.  The main entries all contain solid coverage of the main themes of a swashbuckling campaign.  The real gems, as is the case in most of the best GURPS supplements, are the sidebars.  These small one or two paragraph treatments of the esoterica in the genre are where an enterprising GM can find details to make his game really sing.  Likewise, the details in the sidebars are just the right hooks to hang a character concept on.  I do not run many GURPS games any more, but my shelf of GURPS material still gets used in just about whatever game I am running and Swashbucklers shows exactly why.

Campaign Classics: Pirates

How dangerous can he be wearing
pantaloons like that?
Written in 1990 for a game system that nobody I know ever played (or at least talked about playing), Pirates a supplement for Rolemaster/Hero System still merits a mention nearly 25 years later.  This is largely for the same reason I mentioned GURPS Swashbicklers above: it is so full of useful campaign material that it doesn't matter whether you use the system or not.  Pirates is a far more focused sourcebook than its GURPS counterpart.  As a result, it delves deeper into the world of pirates.  The real strengths of the book are twofold.  First is the amount of information it gives about the various locations in the Caribbean.  Later pirate games do this, but no one does it quite as well.  Each entry about an island or town is just a paragraph or two (Except for major locations like Port Royal and Tortuga which are necessarily longer), yet gives a good feel for how to make that location different from the others.  The second strength is the maps. Using a combination of historical maps and more modern cartography, Pirates has the best and most comprehensive maps of any pirate genre role-playing supplement ever.

Skull & Bones

 Skull & Bones  is my favorite of the more modern pirate based games.  A d20 supplement, Skull & Bones adds elements of horror and supernatural to the Spanish Main.  This has some intriguing implications since the work introduces the concept that both voodoo traditions and Christian relics can have power in the Caribbean.  As a student of history, I tend to prefer historical campaigns that do not incorporate the mystical, but I do appreciate what the authors are trying to convey.  Where I find Skull & Bones most useful, however, is in its organization.  Gaming material has undergone a lot of changes since the first two entries were produced, and not always for the better.  One of the real leaps forward between the old school and more modern efforts is in the presentation of material.  Skull & Bones adds considerable new information to the genre, but it really shines at presenting the material in such a way that the game player can easily access it.  A thorough table of contents, index, and logical presentation of material may not seem like that big a deal, but every GM who has ever spent time at the table thumbing through a rule book looking for some obscure rule or table can attest to how useful these things can be.

The Pirate GM's Right Fist

Not as fancy as the other entries, but just as

If you want to run a pirate game, but you are cheap, then have I got a deal for you.  At a paltry $1.99, The Pirate GM's Righ Fist is just the ticket.  Black Shark Enterprises is a new, independent producer of (thusfar) exclusively generic pirate based gaming materials.  Right Fist was their first entry on DrivethruRPG.  Fourteen pages of tables and a short essay that are worth every penny.  Designed for the GM who is either running a game on the fly or just needs a little inspiration between sessions, the tables cover most of the things that GM could need fast.  Quick random encounters on land and at sea.  What is that merchant ship carrying?  Need a ship name fast?  Where is that ship headed?  Roll some dice and there is the info right at your fingertips.  In general, I am not a fan of the whole random table for a dollar part of the field.  The amount of thought that went into these tables, however, is enough to change that opinion.  Also, the number of interesting details about pirate life that Mark S. Cookman, the author squeezes into the two pages at the end of the supplement make this one of the most useful pirate supplements to be had at any price.  He has advertised a product for ship to ship combat to be released later this year.  I anxiously anticipate it.

 Buccaneers & Bokor, Issue One

Did I mention it is free?
If $1.99 is too steep for your wallet, how does free grab you?  Buccaneers & Bokor was a short lived emagazine in support of Skull & Bones.  They are all still available on DrivethruRPG cheaply.  Each of the issues was worthy of mention and has information useful to the pirate GM.  The first issue, however, has two things going for it that the others do not.  First, it is free.  It is hard to beat free.  Second, it contains a set of tables for random adventure generation that are hard to beat.  Gareth-Michael Skarka has created a system of table that he has adapted in various Adamant Entertainment products across genres.  At their base, they emulate a screenwriters pitch (and frankly Mad Libs) where the tables insert random elements into the following sentence: "The main characters must [DO] [SOMETHING]  at [LOCATION] but have to contend with [COMPLICATIONS] while being confronted by [OPPOSITION]." The sentences when filled in can usually make an interesting plot.  Even without using the sentence structure, looking over the table of random words can get ideas flowing.  It helps that some of his words are not always typical for the genre.  Used this way, they are a bit of a word association brainstorming exercise.  The rest of the issue is worthwhile as well, with a glossary of pirate lingo, a brief adventure, and a mythical pirate island all rounding out the offering.

These are some of the most useful items in my treasure chest.  Got any treasures I missed?


  1. Heirs to the Lost World is a great one, still in print and seeing regular action at Con of the North in Minnesota. I'm not the author but I am biased since I did the editing. It has a great wager-based stunt mechanic; probably the best stunt mechanic I've seen in a pirate game with some pulpy flavor.

    1. Heirs to the Lost World is new to me, but I will admit that the splash page has my interest. I note it is also at DriveThruRPG, It may well make it into my next RPG buying binge. Magic does not work in my present pirate game (although one of the PCs thinks it does), but that doesn't mean that it won't in the next.

  2. Privateers & Gentlemen and Flashing Blades (in particular the High Seas supplement), both by FGU. Although both have a much more military component to their basis - as in you are more likely to be on the side of one of the various navies than a pirate. Although privateering is a semi-respectable position to take in this regard. [Beat to Quarters [Omnihedron Games] on the other hand is a pure navy game of the period though, with the focus being on the British navy.]

    Mongoose produced a Pirates expansion for their edition of Runequest. Don't know if it has been reprinted in Legends yet.

    Furry Pirates [Atlas Games] needs a definite mention despite being anthropomorphic (furry animals). The history and background are actually quite excellent (and derived from real world history with some appropriate substitutions such as "English sea dogs" being literally English sea dogs), and it can readily be run without any furriness at all. It doesn't just concentrate on the Spanish main, either, but also the very rich Indian ocean - something which a lot of pirate games miss, even given the most successful hauls were taken here. Although they do also add magic, but in a much more traditional form for the 17th Century than most games. The system is quite good too.

    Thieves Guild VI [Gamelords] was the special pirates issue of the Thieves Guild series and does an excellent job for adding pirates to a D&D game. The naval stuff is quite appropriate for this period. Although the setting here isn't real world either (and naturally includes monsters and magic). I still use it now for naval stuff in D&D (and PDFs of it are still available).

    Gloire [Rattrap Games], especially with its Under The Black Flag supplement is a tabletop skirmish game covering pirates. Some may argue that a skirmish wargame isn't a role-playing game but I am afraid I have to differ.

    There's New Dimension Game's Pirates although truth to tell I've only glanced at the core rules. I'd classify this as a heartbreaker really, although they did produce a lot of adventures.

    Also ICE's All Hands on Deck which was a forerunner for Pirates.

    [_Lace & Steel_ [TAGG/Pharos] has probably one of the best fencing systems I've encountered and while the focus is on swashbuckling in a fantasy world the adventure included in the game opens with the PCs being impressed.]

    [And for pure fantasy swashbuckling you can't beat Swashbucklers of the 7 Skies. But that is definitely not a real world example, given it features levitating islands and flying ships.]

    1. Reverance, I am familiar with quite a number of these by name, although the Thieves Guild VI was completely unknown to me. They have indeed converted the Runequest Pirates to the Legend System. I *almost* played in a session of it at Gen Con this year until it was brought to my attention that it ran from midnight to 4:00 am! I have a number of New Dimension Games' Pirates material, but I found having a different table for everything to be way too fussy a system for me. I have pulled some ideas from that game, however.