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Pirate, Why Do You Plunder?

If you are enjoying reading Neverland Fantasy Role-Playing or Neverland - The Impossible Island and want to run the setting like I do, your mind might turn to pirates. Or maybe you have another sea or space based pirate RPG you enjoy. We know what pirates do, but why do pirates plunder? Why flout the law and risk a hanging? Here are d6 ideas why your player character might choose to say, “A pirate life for me.” While these ideas are written with the high seas in mind, they can easily be ported into space as well.

pirate.jpg

picture courtesy of Pixabay

1. Revenge

Someone did you wrong. Maybe you were made to walk the plank but managed to swim to shore or were marooned on a desert island. Once you make it back to another crew you likely want to work your way up the ranks and plot to extract your revenge one day. Revenge may be something that drives you or it might be in the back of your mind waiting for the right time to be brought to fruition.

2. Rum-Soaked Dreams

You drink a lot. Life seems to blend seamlessly between rum-fueled dreaming and real life. You talk to the unseen, you never walk in a straight line, and your crew never knows exactly what you may do next. However, you always come through in a fight or when sailing the high seas. You are chaos incarnate and dangerous as hell when swords cross.

3. Press Gang

Piracy was not a choice because you were press ganged into it. Then you found out you were good at fighting, drinking, and raiding. And your old life seemed dull by comparison. You have taken to the pirate life, but you remember those who forced you into it. Whether you want them to pay for kidnapping you remains a choice you haven’t made just yet. Until then you will sail and loot and live your new life.

4. Ruthless

You might have been kicked out of the Royal Marines for brawling, just avoiding the hangman. Or the merchant marine cashiered you for drunkenness. You are just too mean and too rough for legal work on the seas. But as a pirate those violent skills and lack of impulse control can take you far, if you avoid angering the officers. And if they cause you too much grief, well, mutiny can always lead to a brand new command if needed.

5. Wanderlust

You kill when needed and take what you need. But what you really enjoy are new port towns to visit, hearing a new foreign language, and smelling salt spray from many different seas. Maybe you collect seashells or take notes on what you’ve seen or you only feel truly alive while at sea. You want to sail and keep sailing and you’re willing to kill to keep enjoying the privilege.

6. Buried Treasure

You’re in it for the gold. You want to be rich or maybe you just want piles of loot. You know you have to be careful if you aren’t the captain to keep your greed hidden. Dead men tell no tales may be a cliché, but it is a cliché for a good reason. If you discover the location of buried treasure you have be very careful who you share that secret with.

Next time you decide to play a pirate, pause for a moment and consider how your pirate joined the life and why he stays. Then hoist the Jolly Roger and sail off to unearth buried treasure and take to a life of skullduggery on the high seas. Or pick up a blaster, board a beat up starship, and head for the Outer Rim as a pirate in search of merchant prey.
 
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Charles Dunwoody

Charles Dunwoody


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I thought there was a fuzzy line between "private" and "privateer", with the latter having a commission to capture enemy merchant vessels? And, that often "privateers" might become "pirates" (haha: not "privates"), if their commission expired, or if they just didn't want to stop plundering, or if they weren't careful enough about whom they attacked, or because of political expedience.

Also, might not there be pirates which were lawful military vessels which due to circumstance went rogue? Either, because of a lost war, or because of disrupted supply lines, or just because they could?

TomB
Historically, very few fully commissioned ships had crews go rogue.
Many privateers, however, did go rogue.

Privateers are more than just "licensed pirates" — their licenses require turning over the hulls, and often, most of the cargo, for a fraction of market value.

Privateers generally were restricted to targeting civilian shipping flagged to one nation only. Some were authorized to take on military shipping, as well, but that was far too risky for most.

Most of the actual commissioned ships had home ports to return to, and most sailors had families to return to in said home port. It's not unheard of for a ship's crew to have a few guys take a small craft and head for neutral turf while the ship was heading for home. I can't think of any that went full pirate due to the war ending; a few were cases of an abusive captain triggering a mutiny, and then the mutineers turning pirate, until they could find a safe port and buyer for the ship.

As noted by JD, most pirates are the same kind of guys who would be doing crime ashore. Even the modern Ethiopian pirates are not average joes, but are the kind of guys who would be fleecing elementary kids for lunch money if the elementary kids had any lunch money to be fleeced of. They're the segment willing to use violence to solve problems not even thinking that other ways could exist. If their neighbors had money for drugs, they're likely the ones who'd be running the distribution and kidnapping chemists to make the drugs.

Most privateers were men of dubious rep, often former navy, hiring crews that were looking for violence. Many tried to use the same (brutal) techniques as on the Navy's ships, but without the leverage of family and friends at home. A number pushed too far, and a mutiny took them out. Others got voted off the ship. Others forgot that they had restrictions on targets. A handful played both sides until they got caught.
 

I think basically the way you make pirates palatable PCs in a roleplaying game (or palatable protagonists in any medium) is, you depict 'the authorities' as so evil and corrupt that the outlaw pirates (at least the PC pirates) are the good guys. This holds true from the Pirates of the Caribbean movies, to the One Piece manga/anime.

There's even sorrrrrta a historical basis for it, in that piracy was an option for escaped slaves and other outcasts, in the horrific colonial Caribbean world. Of course the pirates themselves committed plenty of atrocities too. > _ < But, I think establishing that "the law is corrupt, the authorities are corrupt, piracy = REBELLION" is one of the best ways to set up a sympathetic-pirates game.

Except that the seamen being killed on the ships your pirates are attacking are just working men. The passengers the pirates are robbing and raping are just civilians. The value of the cargo the pirates are stealing will be passed on the taxpayers or consumers. So , no, it's not rebellion, it is killing innocent people for small amounts of money.

No, there's no historical basis for it.

Its simple banditry, except on salt water. You would use the same logic for PCs who are waylaying travelers and caravans on land.
 

Historically, very few fully commissioned ships had crews go rogue.

Very true.

One of the few, the HMAV Bounty, saw the crew burn the ship to avoid detection, knowing that the full might of the Royal Navy would be descending upon them. Stealing a navy vessel is an affront that few nations would ever tolerate. Even capturing merchantmen was a dangerous thing; the line 'to the shores of Tripoli' in the Marine Hymn refers to a very young USA going to war against pirates.
 

MGibster

Legend
I suspect most pirate campaigns are decidedly ahistorical when it comes to the behaviors and motivations of these scurrilous freebooters. I ran a Pirates of the Spanish Main campaign years ago and while the PCs were "bad guys" they weren't really bad guys as they didn't do anything different from PCs in many other games.

Admittedly, I am utterly fascinated by how a group of murderers, thieves, and rapist, these hostis humani generis as they were known as, were watered down and are now appropriate material for pre-school children. Was it Peter Pan? Because they were trying to murder children in Peter Pan so at least they still have a hard edge to them.
 

Ulfgeir

Adventurer
I suspect most pirate campaigns are decidedly ahistorical when it comes to the behaviors and motivations of these scurrilous freebooters. I ran a Pirates of the Spanish Main campaign years ago and while the PCs were "bad guys" they weren't really bad guys as they didn't do anything different from PCs in many other games.

Admittedly, I am utterly fascinated by how a group of murderers, thieves, and rapist, these hostis humani generis as they were known as, were watered down and are now appropriate material for pre-school children. Was it Peter Pan? Because they were trying to murder children in Peter Pan so at least they still have a hard edge to them.
Wasn't just the pirates that tried to murder children in Peter Pan. Tinkerbell tried having on particular child killed...
 

MGibster

Legend
Wasn't just the pirates that tried to murder children in Peter Pan. Tinkerbell tried having on particular child killed...
And, heck, even Peter went out of his way to kill a pirate though he had the decency to wake the guy up first. Treasure Island is another book for young people that no doubt cemented our love for piracy. But the pirates in those books are menacing, even a Blind Mr. Pew managed to be menacing, in a way that most pirates aren't presented to day.

"'One more step, Mr. Hands,' Said I, 'and I'll blow your brains out! Dead men don't bite, you know.' I added with a chuckle." -- Jim Hawkins to Israel Hands aboard the Hispaniola. I'm hard pressed to think of many stories for young people where it's acceptable for a 12 or 13 year old boy to grab a pistol and threaten to blow someone's brains out. How times have changed.
 


Admittedly, I am utterly fascinated by how a group of murderers, thieves, and rapist, these hostis humani generis as they were known as, were watered down and are now appropriate material for pre-school children. Was it Peter Pan? Because they were trying to murder children in Peter Pan so at least they still have a hard edge to them.
It was Treasure Island, which was a monster hit in the 19th century. And those pirates aren't great people, by any means, but Long John Silver's charisma and moral waffling goes a long way.
 

I'm hard pressed to think of many stories for young people where it's acceptable for a 12 or 13 year old boy to grab a pistol and threaten to blow someone's brains out. How times have changed.
I'm reading Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix with my 13 year old currently. I think there's a lot more acceptance of students doing justifiable violence and even homicide when necessary today. The people who object get a lot of attention, but they're not winning the battle.
 

MGibster

Legend
It was Treasure Island, which was a monster hit in the 19th century. And those pirates aren't great people, by any means, but Long John Silver's charisma and moral waffling goes a long way.
I read Treasure Island as an adult when I had to write an paper for my English Lit class about the influence Johnson's A General History... had on fiction. I consider Silver to be one of the great all time villains of fiction. He's a cold blooded murderer with a fever for treasure but the dude is charming as all get out and genuinely shows affection for Jim.
 

MGibster

Legend
I'm reading Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix with my 13 year old currently. I think there's a lot more acceptance of students doing justifiable violence and even homicide when necessary today. The people who object get a lot of attention, but they're not winning the battle.
I think it's a bit different though. I think we're a bit more accepting of fantasy violence with spells and even swords than we are of a 13 year old kid with a gun.
 

I think it's a bit different though. I think we're a bit more accepting of fantasy violence with spells and even swords than we are of a 13 year old kid with a gun.
PG-13 is now the standard for "family fare," and it's pretty damned violent. I think popular culture has moved on from where we think of it as being.
 


I think folks are focused on pirates as a fun element of fictional games here.

I got that. But the subject of real life was raised as well.

I also find it odd that there is a great deal of effort to twist logic so as a play a reprehensible role on sea as a PC, but little effort to base campaigns on banditry and road murder. Yet both are identical occupations.
 

MGibster

Legend
I also find it odd that there is a great deal of effort to twist logic so as a play a reprehensible role on sea as a PC, but little effort to base campaigns on banditry and road murder. Yet both are identical occupations.
I don't think of swords as weapons. Which is silly because swords are totally weapons. But if I got on the subway and saw a guy with a sword I wouldn't feel the least bit alarmed until he started threatening someone with it. If I see a dude with a rifle, I'm going to be a little nervous. It's just that a sword being used as a weapon is so far outside of my life experience that I don't think of them as being weapons.

It's similar with pirates. While I don't have a lot of experience with banditry or road murder, these things happen on a regular basis. I've been on the receiving end of attempted burglaries and one attempted mugging so these things seem very real to me. But piracy? That's about as far removed from my life as knights and ninjas. I can play a fantasy version of a pirate just as easily as I can a knight or a samurai.
 

I don't think of swords as weapons. Which is silly because swords are totally weapons. But if I got on the subway and saw a guy with a sword I wouldn't feel the least bit alarmed until he started threatening someone with it. If I see a dude with a rifle, I'm going to be a little nervous. It's just that a sword being used as a weapon is so far outside of my life experience that I don't think of them as being weapons.

It's similar with pirates. While I don't have a lot of experience with banditry or road murder, these things happen on a regular basis. I've been on the receiving end of attempted burglaries and one attempted mugging so these things seem very real to me. But piracy? That's about as far removed from my life as knights and ninjas. I can play a fantasy version of a pirate just as easily as I can a knight or a samurai.

Interesting and detailed viewpoint. Makes sense.

I've cleaned up countless disputes involving recent immigrants who settled their issues with brush hooks, cane knives, and machetes, plus the locals who use box cutters and lock blades, so anything with an edge gets my attention fast, but I see your point.
 

MGibster

Legend
I've cleaned up countless disputes involving recent immigrants who settled their issues with brush hooks, cane knives, and machetes, plus the locals who use box cutters and lock blades, so anything with an edge gets my attention fast, but I see your point.
Ha! I was thinking to myself how I might react to someone with a Kaiser blade on the bus. Cane knives, Kaiser blades, machetes, etc., etc. I typically think of as tools rather than weapons. But I admit I'd be suspicious if I observed someone carrying a Kaiser blade outside of the proper context. That context being working or hanging in the tool shed. If some dude stepped onto the subway carrying one I'd be mighty suspicious.

The first time I ever saw a Kaiser blade it was hanging in my father-in-laws work shed. I pointed to it and asked my wife, "What the #^$@ is that?" Yes, I'm a city boy. Though I did judge the Kaiser blade to be an acceptable weapon in a pinch were I to find myself imperiled by zombies.
 

I got that. But the subject of real life was raised as well.

I also find it odd that there is a great deal of effort to twist logic so as a play a reprehensible role on sea as a PC, but little effort to base campaigns on banditry and road murder. Yet both are identical occupations.

I think as soon as the thief with backstab was introduced into D&D we started the trend of playing violent criminals as PCs. And the assassin followed. And both are still in the PHB 5E today.
 


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