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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

Great idea. I really do like the idea of a code. Especially one like number 3 that creates moral dilemmas. What do you do when a pirate known for savagery is in need but you're a pirate with lines you won't cross? Do you follow your Pirate Code or break it? And what follows after? That makes for some great roleplaying and spins off future adventures.
This is a continuing dilemma in Black Sails
 

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Bohandas

Adventurer
Still, I cant help but think some people totally miss the point of being a pirate.

View attachment 132184

In defense of that image, technically if they're a privateer (ie a pirate who does what they do as a mercenary rather than as a freelance bandit) they escort the captured ships to a prize court and the prize court awards them a cut. Generally the terms of their letter of marque would not permit them to take their cut directly.
 

The real-life pirate codes -- actually a set of bylaws agreed to by the crew of each ship, which were surprisingly democratic during the heyday of piracy in the Caribbean -- were fascinating and very gameable.

A sample one.
I listened to a book about the "real" pirates of the Caribbean, and one big takeaway for me was how much pirating was a reaction to the European navy at that time.

Sailors were often forced or tricked into naval ships. They would be paid when they returned to land, so the captains would severely limit the sailors' ability to leave the ship. Mortality was extremely high, so it was very likely you would never be paid.

Compared to that, if you had to be stuck at sea, being a pirate made a lot more sense.
 

I listened to a book about the "real" pirates of the Caribbean, and one big takeaway for me was how much pirating was a reaction to the European navy at that time.

Sailors were often forced or tricked into naval ships. They would be paid when they returned to land, so the captains would severely limit the sailors' ability to leave the ship. Mortality was extremely high, so it was very likely you would never be paid.

Compared to that, if you had to be stuck at sea, being a pirate made a lot more sense.
Absolutely. The Golden Age of Piracy was very much a reaction to what else was happening at the time. It's misleading how depictions of that era often divorce from the fact that it's taking place during the Colonial Era in the Americas, with their well-documented problems. Blackbeard's ship, the Queen Anne's Revenge, goes down off the coast of the Carolinas, for instance.

Anyone interested in learning more about the context of pirates -- which remains incredibly gameable -- could do worse than to read Under the Black Flag or Empire of Blue Water or even to watch Black Sails (the cringey stuff early on gets addressed by the end of the first season). Sid Meier's Pirates! is also educational in that regard, although it mostly shows Central and South America colonies, since that's where the Treasure Fleet comes out of.
 


MGibster

Legend
D&D PCs tend to make a career out of kicking in the door of the homes of other sentient beings, killing them, and taking their stuff. It's a bit odd to me that folks clutch their pearls at the idea of doing that while on a boat.
D&D PCs tend to be good guys. In the words of Minsc the Wise, "Butt-kicking! For goodness!" You might see a Paladin kick down the door to a goblin stronghold because they've been robbing from the nearby town whereas pirates are more likely to rob a relatively defenseless merchant who hasn't been bothering anyone. But the more romantic version of the pirates is what most people tend to play. At the very least we gloss over their crimes because we're just out to have some fun.
 

You can have your cake and eat it too by providing lots of unwholesome ships to prey upon.

  • Maybe you're raiding the ships of an abundantly evil empire (go ahead and make them devil- or demon-worshippers, just to eliminate all doubt).
  • Maybe you're raiding slavers' ships, both liberating their human cargo going in one direction and of the goods they used with their ill-gotten gains (triangle trade) coming back.
  • Maybe there's a whole merchant line owned by a bloodthirsty pirate admiral who sells his stolen goods after slaughtering all the peaceful merchants on board.

It's not hard to have it both ways for piracy with fantasy worlds.
 

You can have your cake and eat it too by providing lots of unwholesome ships to prey upon.

  • Maybe you're raiding the ships of an abundantly evil empire (go ahead and make them devil- or demon-worshippers, just to eliminate all doubt).
  • Maybe you're raiding slavers' ships, both liberating their human cargo going in one direction and of the goods they used with their ill-gotten gains (triangle trade) coming back.
  • Maybe there's a whole merchant line owned by a bloodthirsty pirate admiral who sells his stolen goods after slaughtering all the peaceful merchants on board.

It's not hard to have it both ways for piracy with fantasy worlds.
You can make the ships be literally devil's and demons too! I mean, how cool would it be to raid...

* A living Mind Flayer Ship mind-controlled by its illithid captain

* A flaming devil ship made of bones, manned by the souls of the damned

* A golem ship in which the sailors are part of its clockwork immune system, fighting off invaders

* A mummy's funeral barge, pulled through the water by a giant saltwater crocodile, guarded by undead and monsters

In the world of a D&D game, there's no need to make pirates villains (unless you want them to be). They can just be adventurers (who say Yarrr a lot)!
 

smetzger

Explorer
Currently running my second campaign in Freeport...
  • no direct piracy, but you do get to fight pirates
  • in general saving a 'civilized' pirate port from evil cults

Currently the city is caught in between 2 super powers that are at war. Both of which a are using ships from Freeport as privateers, but they are pressuring Freeport to take a side and be exclusive to them.

In general the pirates in Freeport are do piracy because that is the lot that life dealt them. But then again, most people outside of Freeport would consider anyone in Freeport a 'pirate'.
 

In the world of a D&D game, there's no need to make pirates villains (unless you want them to be). They can just be adventurers (who say Yarrr a lot)!
Lord knows that plenty of "legitimate" D&D player characters are considered criminals at one point or another. (Sometimes they haven't even done anything to earn it!) Stick them on a boat, and that makes them a pirate.
 

D&D PCs tend to be good guys. In the words of Minsc the Wise, "Butt-kicking! For goodness!" You might see a Paladin kick down the door to a goblin stronghold because they've been robbing from the nearby town whereas pirates are more likely to rob a relatively defenseless merchant who hasn't been bothering anyone. But the more romantic version of the pirates is what most people tend to play. At the very least we gloss over their crimes because we're just out to have some fun.

Sure, the paladin is allowed because they're sanctioned by the crown and the goblins are considered undesirable.

At sea, that's called being a privateer.
 

Tonguez

A suffusion of yellow
The Makassar people of Sulawesi were renowned sailors and fisherman but were labelled Pirates when they resisted the Dutch colonisers.

most of the Pirate Captains in the Carribean were either Privateers or ex-navy whose commissions had lapsed leaving them stranded and penniless - their crews were often criminals or escaped slaves though
 

Sure, the paladin is allowed because they're sanctioned by the crown and the goblins are considered undesirable.

At sea, that's called being a privateer.
I would guess that's a lot more formal than many D&D player character groups. I've been a player in and a DM for many groups where everyone just did whatever they want, without any sort of official recognition, except -- sometimes -- after the fact. At sea, they would definitely be called pirates by someone.
 

I would guess that's a lot more formal than many D&D player character groups. I've been a player in and a DM for many groups where everyone just did whatever they want, without any sort of official recognition, except -- sometimes -- after the fact. At sea, they would definitely be called pirates by someone.

The paladin (in the aforementioned example) is (by definition) sanctioned by a religion which is deemed "good" or desirable by whomever the authority was which wanted the goblins eliminated.

Perhaps there wasn't a formal contract or letter of marque, but the base idea is more-or-less the same: someone decided that it was acceptable to use violence against elements deemed undesirable (such as goblins, the Spanish armada, etc) and the PCs are given permission to keep the loot, spoils of war, and plunder left over after successfully removing the undesirable elements.
 

The paladin (in the aforementioned example) is (by definition) sanctioned by a religion which is deemed "good" or desirable by whomever the authority was which wanted the goblins eliminated.
That may have once been true, but you can have a paladin who just serves a cause nowadays, without any formal hierarchy involved. We live in an era of Chaotic Neutral and every other alignment of paladins.
 

Bohandas

Adventurer
It's worth noting that the golden age of piracy was smack dab in the colonial era. In those times the legitimate businesses and authorities were already basically pirates to start with. If you can get by without the patronage of some random king or queen then why shouldn't you? Someone's gonna plinder everything and it might as well be you.
 

That may have once been true, but you can have a paladin who just serves a cause nowadays, without any formal hierarchy involved. We live in an era of Chaotic Neutral and every other alignment of paladins.

I wasn't attributing my statement to a specific alignment. "Good" was meant to denote a position which has been subjectively deemed such.

In a game which presupposes that any cause is valid, what makes the paladin's religion or cause more ethical than that of a goblin shaman? As the answer (I think) appears to be "because the players are the PCs," that seems to illustrate that members of a D&D party are at least somewhat comfortable with killing and looting.
 

Bohandas

Adventurer
You can make the ships be literally devil's and demons too! I mean, how cool would it be to raid...

* A living Mind Flayer Ship mind-controlled by its illithid captain

* A flaming devil ship made of bones, manned by the souls of the damned

* A golem ship in which the sailors are part of its clockwork immune system, fighting off invaders

* A mummy's funeral barge, pulled through the water by a giant saltwater crocodile, guarded by undead and monsters

Or a ship made out of the fingernails and toenails of dead men like in the myth of ragnarok

 

You can have your cake and eat it too by providing lots of unwholesome ships to prey upon.

  • Maybe you're raiding the ships of an abundantly evil empire (go ahead and make them devil- or demon-worshippers, just to eliminate all doubt).
  • Maybe you're raiding slavers' ships, both liberating their human cargo going in one direction and of the goods they used with their ill-gotten gains (triangle trade) coming back.
  • Maybe there's a whole merchant line owned by a bloodthirsty pirate admiral who sells his stolen goods after slaughtering all the peaceful merchants on board.

It's not hard to have it both ways for piracy with fantasy worlds.
Your top skirts on Jyhad; it's a truism that Jyhadi believe they are fighting evil. Also, they do differ a bit - the Muslim "Pirates" of the Barbary Coast in several periods were noted to enslave those who would not convert, and press into service aboard those who did convert. Those who refused both of those two outcomes and/or attempted to revolt were summarily executed.
 

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