Not Every Pirate Can Sing A Shanty

by mshrm

There are some Skills that deserve an honorable mention in the life of a buccaneer, which I overlooked the other day.

Pirates were famous for their music. Sea shanties* would coordinate the labor of groups of sailors. They would play musical instruments when attempting to intimidate their targets. I would expect Singing and Musical Instrument to be well-represented among the Skills of the crew. Either one might be useful as a complimentary skill for Seamanship or Intimidation.

Considering the important role that music plays in most ritual magic, I could see both Singing and Musical Instrument to be helpful to a bokor. I don’t think I would go so far as a complimentary skill roll, but appropriate music might count towards “traditional trappings”, which can substantially reduce the amount of energy required by a ritual.

One of the players asked about Heraldry. My first thought was, if a pirate can tell an English flag from a Spanish one, how much more detail does he need?

Turns out, the real world was more complicated than that.

Still, I don’t recall Jack Sparrow wasting too much brow-sweat on the difference between the flags of Genoa and Naples. When it comes to broad questions of “Is that ship with us, or against us?” or “What language should we use to yell at them?”, I doubt I’ll require anything more than a Perception check to get a good look at a flag. If you want to be sure to be able to tell Prussia from Royal Prussia, or to know why any ship flying the flag of Saxony is suspicious, go ahead and put a point into Heraldry.

That’s for the flags of nations, mind you. Pirate captains had their own flags, as well. One might also identify those with Streetwise, Area Knowledge (Caribbean), or any of several flavors of Current Affairs.

There’s another way 17th-century sailors could identify friend or foe at a distance. Ever hear someone say “I like the cut of your jib” or the like? A jib is a kind of sail, a triangular one ahead of the foremast. Different countries favored different ways of rigging them. The “cut” was the same as in “the cut of one’s clothes”, referring to the way the sail was shaped. The shape of a sail would be visible from much further than the details of a flag, so a knowledgeable sailor could tell a ship’s nationality from the shape of its jib. A roll against any of the “sailor” skills — Boating, Seamanship, or Shiphandling — will reveal the nationality of the crew, even if a ship is trying to conceal its allegiance.


* Yeah, I see the bit where Wikipedia says there have been work songs since who-knows, but the true “sea shanty” didn’t really come into its own until the early 1800’s. I’m hanging my hat on the bit where it says you might find traces of them as early as the mid-1500’s. When history adds color to the game, it’s allowed to come indoors. When it starts tracking too much realism around, out it goes!