Don't Forget Your Boots

Meandering aimlessly around the GURPS landscape

Tag: skills

Not Every Pirate Can Sing A Shanty

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!

Every-Pirate Skills (and other traits)

There are certain Skills that are all but ever-present in a pirate-themed GURPS game.

Seamanship is the most common Skill aboard a pirate ship. Having points in Seamanship is what makes a person a useful crew-member. Since we’re talking about a 17th-century sailing ship, a point in Knot-Tying should be considered a prerequisite for Seamanship. A member of the crew who is going to go aloft in the rigging would be wise to invest in Climbing, as well.

The counterpart to Seamanship is Shiphandling. It’s the skill of directing the crew. Page 220 of the GURPS Basic Set: Characters tells us that one needs points in Leadership, Navigation (Sea), and Seamanship before buying Shiphandling. Only a handful of people will need this Skill, but it’ll be a key skill when it comes time to take a prize. Similarly, Freight Handling would be of great use to the crew, but only a few members would need points in it to supervise loading and unloading of cargo.

While Navigation (Sea) will tell you where to go, Weather Sense will tell you when it’s best to stay home.

A knowledge of smaller boats is likely to be useful and common. Boating (Unpowered) is required to take out a rowboat, while Boating (Sailboat) is necessary if under sail. Smaller boats can often transition back and forth from one specialization to the other, so it’s best to invest in both.

If a character is going to aim the cannon, that character needs to put points into Gunner (Cannon), while those using mortars will want Artillery (Cannon). Loaders and assistants don’t appear to need either Skill, though it could be helpful. A skilled crew might improve rate of fire, for instance.

Now that we’ve sailed up to a target and unloaded the cannon, it’s time for boarding. Most pirates are going to want some sort of combat skill for when the fighting moves from ship-to-ship to hand-to-hand. (Also useful for settling fine points of justice between sailors.)

The favorite ranged combat skill is Guns (Pistol), for flintlock pistols, with Guns (Musket) close behind, for longer arms. A TL4 sharpshooter might have Guns (Rifle), but they would be more commonly found on land. At TL4, it was expected that a gun would be fired and then be used as a melee weapon for the rest of the fight (see GURPS Low-Tech pg 63, under “Musket or Rifle” and “Pistol”), so a pirate might also want Axe/Mace or Two-Handed Axe/Mace for the follow-up.

The classic pirates’ weapon is the Cutlass, customarily used with the Shortsword skill. It also offers the option of a hilt punch, using Boxing, Brawling, or Karate. Other melee weapons commonly used during the Age of Sail include the boarding pike (not the Pike from GURPS Low-Tech, which has a Reach of “4,5”, but the Spear, with a maximum effective Reach of 2), the boarding axe (certainly used with Axe/Mace skill, but could use the weapon stats of a Hatchet, Axe, Small Axe, or even a Pick), and all manner of knives and improvised clubs.

Historically speaking, few 17th-century sailors knew how to swim. Cinematic pirates, on the other hand, all seem to be Trained By An Otter, and it works well for them.

Pirates who find themselves marooned on some deserted shore had better hope they have points in Survival (Island/Beach) or possibly Survival (Jungle). Knowledge of several languages is also quite common among pirates.


Regarding traits beyond Skills…

Sense of Duty (Brethren of the Coast) [-10] and/or Code of Honor (Pirate’s) [-5] are highly recommended. Remember, this isn’t an attempt to be true to history. The pirates might be unwashed, violent thieves, but they’re the Good Guys!

Most pirates aren’t rich (yet!), and the usual pirate load-out (cutlass, pistol or two, rags, bare feet) isn’t all that expensive. A Wealth level of Struggling or worse is recommended, but not required.

One who has been convicted of piracy, but not hung for it, might have Social Stigma (Criminal Record). They’re also likely to be sporting a stylish brand, just like Captain Jack Sparrow.

Speaking of which… being a pirate puts one firmly on the wrong side of somebody. In this case, that means Enemy (Spanish Navy, 9 or less) [-20] at a minimum, for nearly any conceivable PC. The price is based on “a city police department” from GURPS Basic Set: Characters, page 135, figuring that’s the default value for “wanted by the authorities”. A really famous pirate might bump up to a -30 point Enemy, if pursued by entire fleets or especially powerful ships. Off-hand, the only way I can see for a member of a pirate crew to avoid taking the Enemy would be if they could claim to be serving under duress. Such a state of grace wouldn’t last long. It’s hard to claim one’s innocence when caught red-handed, forcing captives to walk the plank.

 

The Subjective Nature of Skill Rolls

The GURPS rules largely exempt PCs from being manipulated by others’ social skills. Perhaps because of this, I’m seeing a different class of skill being used for intrigue among the PCs. I’m not sure what to call them – In fact, that’s why I’m writing this particular post, to work through and organize my thoughts about the matter – but they seem to be the skills that involve a contest.

The most common example would be the regular pouch-snatching, where there’s a contest of the thief’s skill against the Perception of any observers. (According to the Rules As Written, the thief should be using Filch, but I made the decision early on to fold that skill in with Pickpocket. Perhaps an error on my part, now that I think of it with the benefit of hindsight…) Given a high enough level of skill, the thief can pretty much count on getting that purse. As we’ve seen, though, when circumstances conspire to raise the observers’ Perception score, as with Mississippi Jed’s PER+Magery roll to see magic when Needles lifted the ogre’s pouch, it’s not always a sure thing.

Another example came up during discussion, as a pure hypothetical. Like most of our hypothetical discussions, it concerned PC-on-PC crime. The question was, could Jed be trusted to sell off the loot? If he left with the goods, and returned with cash, how could the others know he hadn’t pocketed much of the proceeds already? One of the other PCs offered to simply go along and keep an eye on him. That put the kibosh on any intricate plan to just stick the money in his own pocket, but… Jed has the Merchant skill, and the observer doesn’t. What if he gets tricky, as con-men are wont to do?

Well, I reasoned, if Jed were to go out of his way to perform some white-collar crime (as a sideline to the more blue-collar crime that the entire party engages in, as a regular thing), and wanted to conceal it, we’d be talking about a contest of Merchant versus Merchant. Likely IQ-based for the con-man, and PER-based for the observer. (I dunno, I could see IQ-based for the observer as well, if it matters.) At that point, considering the relative effective skills, either the dice gods speak an unlikely judgement, or Jed wins and takes the money.

What would this look like?  Any transaction more complicated than “same time, man, I don’t know you!“, I would say. Once the two hagglers start talking about delivery fees, and handling, and points*, and… well, let’s just say they can snow an unskilled observer.

A skilled magician can fool the untrained eye. As far as the person watching is concerned, that coin vanished. They could swear in court that that is what they saw. Because their PER roll couldn’t beat the magician’s Sleight of Hand.

A ninja assassin creeps up behind her target. Contest of Stealth vs Perception. When the ninja wins the contest, the target never knows what hit him.

In combat, there’s the Feint. If the rolls go against you, you don’t know you’re being set up until it’s too late.

There was actually a great example that came up, over and over, in the Space Cowboys game, and it even had to do with the Merchant skill:  when the PC goes out to do wheelin’ and dealin’, that PC almost always comes back thinking it was a job well done. He took the deal, after all. If you know the contract is going to screw you over, you don’t sign! It’s only in time, if at all, that the PC might notice that he lost the contest of Merchant after all, and let the cargo go for less than the going rate… even if the player knows immediately that he rolled a critical failure.

No matter what the skill, there’s a point where the expert can just overwhelm the layman. There’s a point where the layman just can’t tell the difference between “this is over my head” and “this is bogus”. In GURPS terms, we find that point with a contest of skills.

Revisiting the question of an unskilled observer keeping an eye on Jed, who’s out to line his pockets at the expense of the group**:  what’s the observer to do?  Sure, he could step in and put a stop to anything he doesn’t understand, but then, at best, we’re talking about using the observer’s Merchant skill with Jed’s reaction bonus. I’d have to be feeling really generous to allow that, even. More likely, in that situation, I would say it’s really the observer who’s attempting the roll, so it’s the observer’s stats that count… but with a -1 or -2 penalty for the annoying backseat driving.  Imagine two bankers trying to negotiate a mortgage deal while one is constantly interrupted by a kid saying “I don’t understand that” and “Why don’t you just do this”.

If they want to reap the benefits of the high skill, they have to give that PC a free hand to operate. A character with a skill of 18 is going to do things that the character with a skill of 6 never thought of. The character with the 18 might even do things that the character with a 6 knows as mistakes!  (“Don’t try this at home, kids. We’re experts.”) But, then, by definition, this means that the actions of the character with 18 can’t be followed by the character with 6.

Even if one PC can’t Fast-Talk another, they can still manipulate one another. They just have to manipulate each other’s subjective reality, by controlling the available information. If you never see it, if you never perceive it, it doesn’t exist for you.

* Please keep in mind, all of this is just fluffy background for a Quick Contest of Merchant. I’m not at all advocating any sort of complex financial arrangements in Dungeon Fantasy. Personally, I’m pondering on how much further streamlining of the loot-selling process I want to do…

** Also keep in mind that, to my knowledge, Jed hasn’t actually done anything like this, nor really offered to do anything like this. As far as I know, he was playing as straight as a crooked man can… until the party mentioned how they had whacked his former partner. I’m not sure what his mental state is, after that.

 

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