A Pirate’s Life For Me

by mshrm

A question came up concerning the upcoming Pirates campaign:  Will it be like the Space Cowboys game, where there were certain jobs on the crew that had to be filled or else everybody dies stranded in the cold vacuum or, even worse, goes broke… or like the Dungeon Fantasy game, where there’s a defined mission but how you accomplish it is up to you… or the apocalypse game, where part of the fun was throwing together a bike mechanic, a clown, a bookbinder, and an elderly gardener, and throwing them to the wolves? Will the players need to coordinate to make sure everybody has a job, and all the work gets done? Or can they take a more free-wheeling approach?

The answer is, a little bit of both. Let me explain…

Pirate society — at least, the GURPSified, romanticized pirate society I’m aiming for — is going to be made up of a few broad classes of characters. There will be a few cabin boys, powder monkeys, and addlepated mascots, coming in around 25-30 points, or even less. Nobody will listen to them, and they’ll be largely disposable. Next, there’s the bulk of the crew, the able seamen, the ones who do all the climbing and lifting that goes on in the background. They’ll be somewhere around 75 points, give or take. When it comes time for group decision-making, they’ll be doing the voting, but they’re unlikely to come up with any plans on their own. They need leadership. Finally, there’s the exceptional characters, 100+ points, who make up the skilled crew and the folks who stand out from the crowd. The leadership, in other words. This is where you’ll find the PCs. Whatever their apparent rank, they’re 150 point characters, so they’re certain to shine brightly.

Any ship worth using for piracy in the 1660’s is going to have several dozen crew. GURPS Low-Tech Companion 2: Weapons and Warriors suggests a sloop of war as a common ship among pirates, carrying a crew of 70. With a crowd that size, there’s no need to have a PC covering every noteworthy position. The less-exciting jobs can be left to NPCs. (As an added bonus, there should be plenty of semi-nameless NPCs hanging around to be promoted to full PC status, in case of sudden, unexpected PC loss!)

Since the NPCs will be handling the boring work, I expect the PCs will gravitate towards the exciting jobs. When it comes to piracy during the Age of Sail, that means boarding, above all else. The whole draw of a pirate game is the possibility of swinging ship-to-ship with a cutlass clutched between your teeth and a flintlock in both hands, clinging to a ratline with your peg-leg and sheer wickedness. Who’s going to pass that up to play the ship’s accountant? Therefore, I expect certain skilled jobs to be restricted to NPCs, for those who wouldn’t be taking part in any villainous derring–do, like the ship’s surgeon. Those guys are probably half-captive anyway.

Specific jobs on a pirate crew are somewhat fluid. If you’ve got the skills, you’re in the running for the gig. For whatever reason, it’s a cliche that anybody who knows their way around a kitchen can gain a position of respect among a pirate crew, by taking over cooking duties from whatever hapless slob got stuck with the job last. The crew could even vote in a new captain. PCs need to be defined by what they can do, not their title. In particular, no PC can drop points into Rank and claim the captaincy. There’s no “captain” template, there’s just the person in charge when the cannons start firing.

So. Let’s get down to brass tacks, shall we?

At the beginning of the first session, the PCs will be among the crew of one Captain Courvoisier, an older buccaneer who has been heard to fondly mention his looming retirement. Anybody who wants a particular job on Courvoisier’s crew needs to take the appropriate skills. If two people want the same job, and there’s no other way to settle it, we’ll handle it the pirate way, and open with a duel… 😉

I doubt anybody will want the position of carpenter, or sail maker, or surgeon. It’s unlikely that the position of master gunner would be interesting, but with all the cannon and explosions and so forth, it might be. Finally, on a properly run ship of the Royal Navy, there would be a dedicated navigator. A pirate ship might, or might just have a person or two with points in Navigation (Sea), handling those duties in addition to their own.

Then there’s the leadership team. The captain is in charge overall, so long as he keeps the support and confidence of the crew. The captain needs the skills of a boarder, being expected to lead from the front. The quartermaster is in charge of stores and loot, and is supposed to represent the crew to the captain. The bosun is in charge of the ship itself and its maintenance. (The bosun’s the one who’ll tell folks to swab the deck. The quartermaster’s who’ll flog the sailor who tells the bosun where to go.) The bosun needs more core seamanship skills than the others, but what all three need is social skills. A charismatic captain doesn’t need to know the stern from a hole in the ground, but an unpopular captain won’t stay in charge for long.

Speaking of social skills, Long John Silver went from ship’s cook to pirate captain. Plenty of PC-grade characters start off in the galley.

Most of the pirates on a ship will be just plain sailors, with a sprinkling of cabin boys. (And cabin girls, I hear, in the case of one PC.) They’ll need solid seamanship skills to play the role. Given the point totals, I would expect any PC starting at this level to be quickly promoted to a position of responsibility.

There’s one other position that’ll be filled on the campaign’s pirate ships, even though it’s not a traditional navy post. Many ships will carry a bokor, a sorcerer skilled in the ways of voodoo. Like the captain, a ship’s bokor might not have any great skills as a seaman. Instead, the bokor’s job is to handle the spirits. Specifics vary from sorcerer to sorcerer. One might whistle up the wind, while another might scry for rich, easy targets. Aside from helping, in whatever way, with the taking of prizes, a bokor is expected to be the ship’s expert in all things uncanny.