Sunday, October 14, 2012

Buccaneers in the Time of Dragons

Lately my reading into colonial history has taken me to the 17th century Caribbean basin, and the rise of buccaneers, and later pirates.  One striking component, as you read about the life stories of notorious buccaneers and pirates, is how their rise to glory or infamy parallels the murder hobo career of characters from D&D or your favorite retro clone™.  They start out as poor fighting men, usually ex-hunters or military, who turn to raiding to earn a better life.  Early success wins them a ship, and as their name grows, more and more men flock to their banner and they become capable of launching larger raids - sometimes with multiple ships or small armies of buccaneers, eventually sacking major towns and forts.  In the twilight of their career, they take their fortunes and retire to governorships,  plantations, or high stations in the military - or they're killed in action.  It's a 50-50 proposition.

The issue I see with such a campaign arc in D&D is that it doesn't handle large scale combats very well, and certainly not if characters are just low level participants.  I imagine smaller raiding and boarding actions can be handled tactically, using the standard rules, but it would become unwieldy once more than 50 or so combatants per side are engaged.

If you were to go outside of D&D to borrow ideas from a system that handled ship-to-ship combat, chases, boarding actions, and similar aspects of high seas action, what would it be?  I also think it beneficial to shift the scale as appropriate; perhaps the distance-based combat ship-to-ship starts abstract, but when the ships reach boarding range, play moves from a strategic scale to a tactical scale and the players resolve the remainder of the combat using standard rules.

I'm not averse to looking at Sci Fi either, I imagine a starship-based game could have similar issues where the combat needs to shift from ship-to-ship combat to personal combat.  Not everyone can be the captain, after all.  I might be missing some game approaches that handled transitions and troupe play.

Incidentally, following the muse a bit, I've been sketching notes for a short horror scenario in colonial waters that involves a derelict Spanish vessel drifting along the coast.  Was it part of one of the famed treasure fleets, lost in a storm, or is something else at play?  The adventure hook is being asked to join a merchant's expedition, either out of Jamestown (to the north) or up from the Bahamas, to find and recover the derelict after it was spotted by a vessel just making port; adventurers are needed for the kind of fighting and exploration of which the regular sailors are ill-prepared.  Although it's free form, some of the potential encounters involves French pirates, native villages along the coast, and a dark horror from the Mesoamerican hinterland.  It's shaping up to be great fun. But it's got me thinking again how an actual saltbox type campaign might be played out.


  1. There are a few good systems for ship-to-ship action. Thieves' Guild VI is the volume of that game dedicated to pirates and fantasy ship actions. Pirates of the Fallen Stars for AD&D 2E includes a system that (as I recall) is reminiscent of the systems in Spelljammer. High Seas, a supplement for Flashing Blades, has some extensive stuff on ships and is largely set in the Caribbean. It has cannons, though, and no magic, so it isn't necessarily completely suitable without some reworking. GURPS has good vehicle rules.

    Of those, for D&D-type games, I think that the Thieves' Guild and Pirates of the Fallen Stars ones are most suitable.

    Also, there's a Palladium Fantasy product on ships. It might be useful.

  2. Thanks for the ideas - it looks High Seas is available as an inexpensive PDF on RPG now, whereas the other two I'd have to hit ebay or perhaps Noble Knight for an old copy.

    I'm not worried if something doesn't cover D&D magic, just something that I can borrow ideas on chases and long range combat, that hopefully is a) fast b) somewhat abstract, so it lets us resolve that kind of stuff but then get to the interesting things where the players have a role, like ship-board combat or parley.

    1. Also check Amazon. That's where I found of copy of Thieves' Guild VI for a reasonable price (currently I see a copy for $12 before shipping).

      High Seas can be had from FGU directly for $6 and shipping.

  3. High Seas has about 4 and a quarter pages specifically on ship to ship combat (one page of which is a long example),and covers chases and boarding actions; it's fairly abstract, but looks like it wouldn't be too difficult to adapt. (It's got other sections that cover ship building and trade and pirates.) PCs are not counted among those killed by gunfire and general melee, but should fight using the normal personal combat rules, one enemy per ship combat turn. As far as I can tell after a quick scan, it covers single ship to single ship combat only.

    For those who want more detailed rules, High Seas recommends Heart of Oak (from Privateers & Gentlemen, also from FGU), Skull & Crossbones (FGU), Wooden Ships and Iron Men (Avalon Hill), and Frigate (SPI).

  4. In terms of biographies of Pirates/Privateers/Murder Hobos, you can't go by William Dampier. There is a good biography of his called "A Pirate of Exquisite Mind". At one point it details a plan of his to lie in wait for the treasure ships of the Spanish that once a year made the journey from the far east across the Pacific to the West Coast of the Americas. He knew that his ships could not hope to take on the "Ships of the Line" that were in the treasure fleet. But he knew that the crews would be wracked by scurvy after the voyage and the ships had from time to time made the journey via the seasonal winds and arrived with all hands dead. He was hoping to find the arrivals before the Spanish ships that were waiting for their arival on the Western Side. How is that for a scenario kernel?