Wednesday, January 4, 2012

Yo Ho Yo Ho a Pirate's Life for Me

I have, for a very long time, wanted to play in a pirate game. Not just any pirate game , a good pirate game. I think the best explanation of what I was looking for is the song Life of a Pirate, by the Rambling Sailors.
Yo Ho!
Chorus: It’s wonderful living the life of a pirate
With the freedom to take what we can
And we’ll sail the world over, searchin’ for plunder
Not fearin’ to face any man, not fearin’ to face any man

We call no man our master, no lord and no king. 
Not long in one place do we stay.
And this world is for those who can grab it, and hold it. 
Possession’s the law of the day.
So we take what we want, we don’t bother with buyin’. 
 After several failed attempts I was finally involved in an excellent pirate game this weekend. It’s hard to get a pirate game right, because pirates can mean different things for different people. I’d like to share what some of the bad things were in the games that didn’t work. Then I’d like to share some of what worked for me in the game that did.

Don't ask what his wife's name is.
The first pirate game I got involved in was late in Third Edition. We had just finished a fairly long running campaign that was ostensibly Roman themed. To be honest,  the only thing Roman about it was every other NPC was a high ranking Senator who we dared not upset, and we all had names like Bigus Dickus. By the end I think we were all looking forward to some freedom. Freedom which comes from being pirates, having the wind at our backs, the open ocean at our feet and the only Senator the one we had kidnapped and were holding for ransom.

 I think my first clue that it wasn’t going to be all the awesome pirate-y goodness I was looking for was when one of the other players decided to play a Were-Shark, and he was our captain. Alright, our captain is nicknamed Sharktooth, I can deal with this. At least we’ll have the freedom of the high seas where we can capture treasure laden merchantmen.

No I don't know what that has to do with being a pirate either.
Unfortunately, that’s where I was wrong. It seems the dm thought it would be awesome for the game for us to explore a new continent and open diplomatic relations with an empire of wasp people. Now, if you are like me, you may wonder what that has to do with being a pirate. So, we got bogged down in negotiations with the wasp people and found out that they were an Evil Empire ™. I’m really not sure what exactly happened after that because my life kind of fell apart so I had to drop out of the game. In any case, I really did not feel like I got to actually be a pirate in that game.

You heard me 11!
The second game actually had a lot more promise. Not only was it a pirate game which had real dm buy in,  it was also an Airship pirate game. We really turned the idea up to eleven. The game had a great deal of potential. We had a good party that worked well together. We even had some really great adventures, like when we crashed a burning ship into the floating fortress of Captain Blood to cover our infiltration. The real problem was that the dm was kind of a jerk. First, he had a hard time with any deviation from his plans, and anytime the players started to feel awesome he ramped up the difficulty. That campaign ended in a tpk and we all decided it would be better to take a break from gaming rather than make up new characters.

This brings me to the awesome pirate game. I think there were several reasons why this game worked for me. The most important was the atmosphere. Everything in the game contributed to the feeling of being pirates. It began with an excellent hook, which could have been written by Robert Louis Stevenson.

Note: The weirdest person in the room was not Gonzo
We were escorting a strange old man to Tortuga. He was paying us handsomely and said there would be more for us once he arrived. Unfortunately, he was being chased by the infamous scalawag Captain Black Jack. Just as we were about to escape the villainous Black Jack by sailing into a storm, a stray shot mortally wounded our passenger. Before he died he cut open his stomach and pulled out a magic egg and left us with a cryptic clue. “There is more treasure waiting for you where the Sun meets the sky, and she is waiting for you.” It was just enough information to get us started, but not so much that we felt like we were being railroaded. 

As we continued, the game’s atmosphere continued to portray the life of a pirate. Tortuga was just as rough and immoral as you would expect. We had the opportunity to interact with sea dogs and wenches. Of course, the people we talked to warned us to stay away from the treasure. The DM did an excellent job tantalizing us with threats and really made us want the treasure and the mysterious lady waiting for us on the island “where the sun meets the sky.”

Isla de Meurta
When we arrived on the island the DM’s description brought to mind lost Atlantis and the Isla de Muerta. It was creepy, but there was plenty of treasure to keep us going forward. Everything was frozen, as if the people were turned into statues in the middle of their daily business and a glowing spirit woman kept beckoning us downward, deeper and deeper into the heart of the lost city. At the end, we had to escape back to our ship with the city falling to pieces around us and the water closing in on us. From beginning to end it was a pirate adventure.

Sorry this post is not about you
In addition to the atmosphere, there were a couple of other things that made the adventure successful. First were the DM’s naming conventions. It may seem small, but it is hard to keep immersed in a pirate game if none of the people or places have pirate names. By using names like Tortuga and Captain Black Jack the DM was able to keep us engaged in the game in a very simple way.

Second, the DM gave us the freedom to pursue our goals in our own way. For a very linear treasure hunt style adventure we had plenty of opportunities to explore the world and make decisions which affected the game. For example, I set up an ambush for Captain Black Jack on the docks so instead of having to fight him and his whole crew we just had to fight him and his first mate.

A wretched hive of scum and villany
I have learned a lot about running theme games from examining what worked and what didn’t in the pirate game. First, atmosphere is very important. A little bit of research and description can help a game immensely. It was obvious the DM had seen and enjoyed some of the same pirate movies that I had. We even had a moment where we broke into songs from the movie. Second, little details like names can make or break the atmosphere. Calling the pirate town Tortuga may have seemed cheesy, but it worked quite well. Finally, give your players interesting choices and have them affect the game. If you have a huge combat planned but the players come up with an interesting way to circumvent it, don’t punish them, run with it. It will improve your game. One final thought; at the end of the game we talked about the game and it brought up an interesting difference in perspective. From my perspective, the game was very open and I felt like the players were driving the adventure. The DM, on the other hand, asked us if we felt she had pushed us too much. If she pushed, then she pushed the exact right amount.

Until next time, remember, don’t let the DM tell you no. It’s always “Yes and…?”


  1. I love pirates. It's a shame the best pirate game you've been in so far has been in 4e.

  2. Thanks for the comment. Maybe someday I'll get in a pirate game that isn't 4e.

  3. I completely relate to your early disappointments. I too have had multiple false starts trying to play a pirate game. It so important to have a group that works well together and has a shared vision. Another thing to consider is the game system. 7th Sea is a great cinematic system where playing a group of Pirates can be a lot of fun. If you like swashbuckling daring do, that may be your best bet. If you prefer more of a D&D style, look at Pathfinder. They have lots of wonderful pirate resources built into the game and two great pirate centered locations from which to launch and call home.