PF Your experiences with "Skull & Shackles"

Celebrim

Legend
So, I decided to take a break from GMing, after a steady 10 years of doing prep week in and week out, and graciously one of my players with only a little bit of prior GMing experience stepped up to the job. After discussing what we wanted to do, the group decide to play a Pathfinder AP, and after discussing which ones I owned (and which were thus off the table) and which ones were well rated, we decided to play "Skull and Shackles".

It's going.... OK... I guess. I mean I'm having a lot of fun playing as a player for the first time in 15 years, but considering this is an adventure path and the amount of supplemental material involved, the green GM is struggling far more than he should have.

I can't really comment on the text, as I haven't read it, but the GM seems continually frustrated by the lack of clarity in the descriptions. Can't tell if this is an actual problem with poor editing organization or just a new GM cutting his teeth.

The other problem I've noticed is that the CR guidelines that they are giving the GM are pretty much ridiculous, and more misleading than helpful. He's struggling to figure out what a balanced encounter should look like, since the numbers that they are labelled with are consistently bad measurements of the challenge.

But what I can tell is the biggest problem is that the mini-game construction is less than ideal. I mean, I can often figure out why the mini-games have been constructed as they are and what constraints the designer felt that they had, but the results feel really unsatisfying anyway. More on that in a bit, but first, a bit of a review of the play thus far:

Chapter 1: I thought the conception of Chapter 1 overall was brilliant. Having the first part of the game be largely around social challenges and winning allies was one of the most novel and interesting scenarios I've seen for a game. Obviously, this section is very linear and railroady and some players may balk at the lack of agency involved in being kidnapped right off the bat and placed in the hands of tormentors well beyond their ability to resist, it felt fine to me given the conceit of the story and is an appropriate start to a Pirate adventure. The minigame around winning friends is reasonably well designed, and it's cool to level up by turning enemies into allies rather than just killing things. The minigame here involving being a member of a crew was decently designed, but overly repetitive in practice and I felt it really didn't have to be. While I have the experience to have made this section really shine, for a novice GM there just didn't seem to be enough suggests for hooks and bangs to drive the action. What they did have worked pretty well, but from talking with the GM, he definitely could have used more fleshed out minor NPCs and more motivations and minor events to propel the role. Lastly the sailor minigame ultimately felt irrelevant, as there was no way to mess up bad enough to actually impact the ship.

Overall, I would give Chapter 1 an A-, good effort marred by some poor balance choices, obvious rails, and a lack of detail that could have been cleared up relatively easily.

Chapter 2: One problem we have hit on early on is that we mutinied successfully before the game expected it - pretty much as soon as we got away from most of the officers - and then immediately ran into the problem that sailing the ship as an officer had no corresponding minigame. Initially, since we were on rails anyway, the fact that we had no real rules for determining how well the ship was being sailed didn't seem to matter, but the further we've advanced the bigger the problem it was. I guess there is an assumption that we just have enough competent crew to control the ship, but it feels like that if you are going to have a redundant sailor game with little impact on the ship, that an officer game of actually sailing well would be worthwhile. I want the experience of being a pirate captain, which I would think would involve the normal zero to hero D&D arc, and yet with no ship sailing game to fail or succeed at there is no real marker of both the struggle and the ultimate victory.

But the biggest problems in chapter two have to do with verisimilitude and playing to simulationist aesthetics and not gamist aesthetics. In particular, we seem to be simultaneously in a sandbox but also expected to handwave the actual mechanics or reality of owning a powerful armed sailing vessel crewed with cutthroats.

a) The scale of the game seems inappropriate to sailing vessels. After a bit of rough math, it turned out that the Shackles were 15th the size of the real Caribbean, and more on par with say Lake Michigan. While the problem is partly smoothed over by the fact that distance per day for sailing vessels seems to be about 1/2 of what is realistic, it still leaves the playing area really too small and cramped, so we are playing deliberately off the map - with the result that our novice GM has to really just wing it.

b) There is this weird expectation that we aren't going to have a crew aiding and abetting our villainy. The boarding action minigame seems to divide combat into PC's versus NPCs, while the crew are entirely in the backdrop. Unfortunately for the GM, we didn't really know that, so we spent 10 days recruiting a crew and are sailing around now with 80 low level characters constituting a small army. The GM has no tools for dealing with this sort of mass combat, and the Paizo mass combat rules are intended to handle an entirely different scenario in details and in scale and as such don't work as a minigame for the crew combat. The situation seems likely to only get worse, as we could easily recruit more if we wanted. The feel of this section is as if they were going entirely for ‘Pirates of the Carribean’, and don’t expect someone to go, “There is no way a 38-gun frigate could be sailed to Tortuga by two people.” The fact that we are ordering our crew to act like pirates and attack things we are supposed to be fighting wrecks the suggested scenarios, something I couldn’t be expected to know until it happened. Again, I get that they are trying to deal with XP awards in a way that favors the PC’s leveling up, but this feels in play like we are supposed to know as players the metagame design and interact act with that, and not interact with the fiction. I’m starting to feel guilty for interacting with the fiction of the game, since the minigames don’t support it, and just mess things up for the novice GM.

c) There are some weird assumptions in the ship operations minigame. First and most obviously, the amount of pay you need to give the crew doesn't seem to scale with the size of the crew, which is something we had to patch right away. Beyond that, the game seems to have made some wildly unrealistic assumptions about how pirate ships would distribute shares, entirely at odds with anything believable. As best as I can tell, the game expects us to pay our crew far worse than they were paid working for the cruel masters we induced them to mutiny against and kill. I know it’s trying to deal with wealth by level issues in a relatively simple manner, but still, it’s weird and counterintuitive and basically doesn’t expect that the players will proactive engage with wages as an in-game issue. Beyond that, the plunder point system which is intended to simplify things, has some weird issues as well. Ships don’t really have the ability to store many plunder points, and so far plunder points have proven pretty scarce. The result is that the most valuable thing on the sea is ‘prizes’ – that is, captured ships – but this works against what would be desirable for play, because splitting the party across multiple ships just makes for a headache for the GM and reduces RP, however economically efficient it is. It seems like a combination of ships being fat with plunder and higher costs to operate crews would have resulted in better gameplay.

c) The ship vehicle rules are both unrealistic and poorly serving the games intended tropes. It seems all sailing vessels regardless of size are intended to be simulated with a single stat block. The party has inherited a standard stat block ship, which seems to represent a sort of typical mid-sized three-masted pirate ship like you might expect to find in a movie. But the technology of the setting is all over the place, with everything from 4th century BC ships to ships which appear to be 16th or 17th century in conception and possibly later in some cases. The integration of these different technologies is haphazard at best, and there are many reasons to think that the most powerful ships in the game are oared galleys of various sorts. But who really wants to be a pirate commanding an oared galley? And if rowed galleys really are important to the setting, why is the expectation that we’ll have such a tiny crew? Many galley’s had hundreds of rowers and marines on them. If we really tried to seize such a behemoth by boarding it, we ought to be just overwhelmed by the numbers even with our 80 crew, and yet the expectation by the designer seem to be that a crew of 80 is a large number. Why go for Pirate tropes in the art and story direction, and yet have physical mechanics that prioritize playing like this is Ben Hur or Cleopatra?

d) The ship to ship ranged battle rules are mix of good ideas with bad ones, and seem to come down to a poor mix of abstraction with granularity. Since the ability to close the range is based entirely on generating large differences in the sailing skill check, owing to the fact that most ships move the same speed, closing takes a long time. (Galley’s, continuing the trend of being superior in just about every fashion to other sorts of ships, are faster, but again, few are going to want to play pirates and then end up with mental images for Carthage and Rome (and certainly the book art doesn’t provoke those images)). But since the designer didn’t want players to play out the tedious process of closing to the grapple (where the action is), ships are placed so close together at the start of the minigame that the range of the ship’s weapons are ultimately irrelevant. The game really doesn’t provide for any sort of ‘artillery duel’, and reinforces this by making the cost of ammunition for ship’s weapons prohibitively expensive. Ship’s have 1000’s of hit points, but ammunition does less than 1 hit point of damage per gold piece spent. The result of all that collectively is to make you wonder why they even bothered to have ship to ship rules given that they seem to want you to just handwave that away and treat the combat as if the ship’s could just as easily be dry land.

Also, as a small note, shooting the ship’s control device is so easy and such a winning strategy for both prey and predator, that there is hardly any reason to shoot anything else. The situation is so unrealistic, that were this an actual thing that could be done in the fiction, you’d expect ships in the setting to be constructed with armored barbicans around the control device (as the bridges of battleships were) so as to make them relatively invulnerable to assault. One session after hitting on that strategy, we are having to patch the rules because it’s so degenerate.

e) I love the idea of the Infamy/Disrepute minigame, as it feels very much how I thought Birthright should have played, with the PC’s gradually gaining authority over the setting and the ability to assert their will over it. But gaining Infamy seems too easy, while gaining Disrepute seems too hard. It’s left up I think a lot to the GM, but again, with a novice GM this isn’t the best, and we have yet another system that is just not really living up to its potential. Additionally, Disrepute feels like one of those video game consumables where you never spend it because you feel you ought to save it until you really need it, and so you never spend it because you never really need it. Cool idea just feels like a little more polish would make it even cooler.

Anyway, that was a bit rambling, but the tl;dr version of this is, if you have run S&S before, how did you deal with the disconnects between the minigames and the fiction they are intended to support? Was it something that bothered you at all?
 
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Celebrim

Legend
Forgot to say, since I am a player:

PLEASE NO SPOILERS ABOUT PLOT DETAILS.

Thanks.

I'm just interested in a rules/procedures discussion with the intent of aiding the GM.
 

Inchoroi

Explorer
I've read the whole thing, and the problems don't really go away from what I can tell. For my purposes, I plan on re-writing all the ship stuff (and almost all of the second adventure), as I don't like any of it. As for useful advice, however, I'd point your DM towards the Paizo forums. Every adventure has a "GM Thread" where I'm sure he can find someone else with the same problems.
 

ccs

39th lv DM
Hopefully your DM read the whole path 1st. Because there's named NPCs in the 1st volume that you'll likely interact with who aren't really described - either physically, motivation wise, or both.
But later they become important.
Of course by that point actual play may well have diverged, with descriptions & motivations (even fates) considerably different than what the AP reveals....

When we played this most of the mini-games had to be re-worked/scrapped.
For ship to ship combat we ended up using a game called Sailpower by Sea Dog Game Studio + a couple of ship models from Ares Games. Essentially we used a ship based minis war game we were familiar with.
When the action went hand to hand we used PF for the action surrounding the characters & continued with the abstracted SP system for the rest of the crews.

On map scale/travel times - we just treated the map as "Not to Scale" and made up a table of average travel times between the various islands.
 

Inchoroi

Explorer
Hopefully your DM read the whole path 1st. Because there's named NPCs in the 1st volume that you'll likely interact with who aren't really described - either physically, motivation wise, or both.
But later they become important.
Of course by that point actual play may well have diverged, with descriptions & motivations (even fates) considerably different than what the AP reveals....

When we played this most of the mini-games had to be re-worked/scrapped.
For ship to ship combat we ended up using a game called Sailpower by Sea Dog Game Studio + a couple of ship models from Ares Games. Essentially we used a ship based minis war game we were familiar with.
When the action went hand to hand we used PF for the action surrounding the characters & continued with the abstracted SP system for the rest of the crews.

On map scale/travel times - we just treated the map as "Not to Scale" and made up a table of average travel times between the various islands.
The majority of the important NPCs get a treatment in future adventures; especially ones like Harrigan and such, they don't get any real detail since the PCs aren't really supposed to fight him during the 1st book of the path. The other NPCs that are in there but aren't detailed I would just create from whole-cloth, as it were.

Unlike, say, Rise of the Runelords, Skull & Shackles can't really be run "out-of-the-box." The DMs got to take it apart and make it his own to run it right.
 

Celebrim

Legend
The majority of the important NPCs get a treatment in future adventures; especially ones like Harrigan and such...
Well, while we have all assumed Harrigan will be some sort of reoccurring villain, quite honestly I don't consider Harrigan a remotely important NPC. If he's a reoccurring villain then he's an antagonist which we will no doubt have to fight, which makes him no more important than a future sea monster of some sort.

Harrigan is just a stat block. He's no where near as important to the game as a character like "Crimson" Cogsward, Sandara Quinn, Rosy Cusswell, Ratliner Ratsburger, or "Barefoot" Sam' Toppins. So yes, that leaves the DM creating them largely out of whole cloth, where - were it me writing this game - I'd spend 5-7 sentences each on them providing a basis of character for what or likely to be far and away the most important NPCs in the game. That is, the character likely to be the petty officers of the PC's pirate ship for pretty much the whole campaign. As a guy with 30+ years experience and one of my strengths is the ability to breathe life into NPCs, a failure to detail minor NPCs is not a huge failing. But for the guy running a D&D inspired game for the first time, making up all this in the middle of learning the art of DMing is challenging.

But really, that's a minor complaint. The bigger complaint is that as you say, the AP does not seem to be runnable out of the box, and there are major problems with the design of the minigames designed to deliver the pirate experience. I'm in the middle of overhauling all the rules of the game to help him deliver that experience, and:

a) I'd like to know if that is normal, or if my distrust of the rules is misplaced, and...
b) If it is normal, what sort of rules sets have been adopted.

So far I've amended plunder point rules, rewritten all the ship stat blocks, created a mass combat system to run boarding actions between crews, and built a pirate officer minigame for daily operations on a ship (and automated it with a computer program so that it wouldn't get tedious like the sailor minigame). I need to do something with random weather generation, and review the Infamy rules.

The GM is going to rewrite all the random encounters to get the CR's right and the level of challenge appropriate - right now we are mowing through the challenges because we've got 30 1st level characters with short bows and ~25 1st level characters with crossbows plus the PCs peppering enemy crews in the lead up to the boarding action, and even if the chance of hit is low, that's just overwhelming everything we're supposed to be fighting. Most ships are forced to surrender even before our boots hit their decks, despite the fact the PC's are just 4th level.

My biggest remaining challenge is with ship to ship combat. I've written a ship to ship wargame before, so I know considerable details about making one realistic. However, the problem with ship to ship combat whether we are talking great age of sail or Starfleet, is that is not easy to keep everyone at the table engaged in the combat and having useful choices to make. My guess is that is the real reason that the AP writer made the ship to ship combat so unimportant, but I'd be interested to see if anyone had solved the problem.
 

Xenonnonex

Adventurer
The writing and adventure design ability of Paizo is actually quite overrated. Even arguably the best AP from Paizo the Rise of the Runelords needs extensive rewrites of its combat encounters. I can only say Paizo APs read better at first glance but they need extensive rework to make them remotely playable. The emphasis on combat resolutions rather than on actual roleplay is also quite annoying.
 

S'mon

Legend
I think these are all fair criticisms of the Paizo style in general, and Skull & Shackles in particular - I own it and have read some but not all of it, while I have run several other PF APs.

Clarity & Presentation - Paizo write primarily for the reader on their couch, not the GM at their table. The material tends to be incredibly verbose, and often irrelevant to at-table play. I have learned over time how to treat the material as a buffet and not be bound by what's written down. Eg you get a great NPC with a few paras of backstory, who is "Remains in room - fights to death - suicides if captured". The GM can delete that last bit, take her out of her room, create links with PC(s), make her a cool part of their own campaign.

Balance - S&S is known as ridiculously deadly in the early chapters. There is a general issue that 3e/PF balance is very tenuous even to start with, without author 'errors'. I had a lot of trouble running Curse of the Crimson Throne in PF, with the 2 min-maxed PCs slaughtering everything with ease while the 2 non-minmaxed PCs were nearly helpless. I solved this by converting APs over to 5e and making/converting my own stat blocks, with the PF ones as a guide. This is pretty easy, certainly easier than using a multi-column PF BBEG stat block as written.
Re S&S balance in particular, I don't have an issue with most merchant ships being so outmatched they surrender immediately; pirates don't go in for fair fights! I think the main thing there is that pirating per se shouldn't take up a large amount of play time. In Queen of the Black Coast REH covers three years of pirating in a couple lines. The interesting stuff happens when things go wrong.

Minigames - Paizo are legendarily awful at these. My best advice is to ignore whatever mechanics they give you and run the situation the same way you normally would. Eg instead of a chase sequence mini game in Curse of the Crimson Throne, I used a battlemat of rooftops, and the standard rules for jumping, climbing etc. Players will thank you for this, trust me! Likewise, instead of a doing an actual tarot/harrow-card reading & trying to interpret the results, just improvise some suitable NPC dialogue from the reader suitable to the PC - "I see the queen & crown - there are great things in your future, Lord Zerda! But the snake means you must be wary..."

Overall, I find the better PF APs (prob including S&S) to be well worth using, but sadly they are probably least suitable for a new GM, and most suited to a very experienced GM who knows when to ignore instruction. For a newbie GM I'd recommend something like Adventure Anthology #1 at basicfantasy.org
 
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Celebrim

Legend
@S'mon : Well, as long as it isn't just me. In retrospect, I guess I should have researched this more. Paizo's high production values fooled me into thinking that their writing quality would be higher than it is. My assumption was that an AP would be something suitable to being run by an novice GM, but it's not really working out that way.
 

Arilyn

Adventurer
Although, I usually find the over arcing stories to be good in the APs, I never run them as is. I remove a fair number of combat encounters, tinker with others, and yeah, often alter the "mini games."

Crimson Throne is a good example. It's a great AP, but I actually drastically shortened the end, as part 5 and 6 were two long deadly "dungeon crawls." This meant I had to rewrite later encounters to make them easier.

I would never run an AP exactly as written. Wayyy too much combat and unnecessary encounters.
 

S'mon

Legend
Another thing about the APs is that fitting widely varying campaign concepts to the 6-book format has a Procrustean effect as the work is compressed or (more commonly) stretched to fit the allocated space. A lot of AP concepts look like they'd fit 3 or 4 books better than 6. Quite a few look like they'd better suit a start level higher than 1st. Writers are paid to fill the space of a book/issue and so are incentivised to throw in a bunch of word salad. After all if they include too much actual content the PCs will exceed the expected level!

Re S&S in particular, I'd say the press-ganged concept is a good fit to 1st level (unlike eg Kingmaker's 'go conquer the untamed territory on our southern frontier'). Like most APs it looks a bit stretched-out to me, with Book 5 a more natural climax than Book 6, and should probably end a few levels lower, just creeping over 10th level I'd say. But not having GM'd it yet I can't say for sure.
 

amethal

Explorer
As for useful advice, however, I'd point your DM towards the Paizo forums. Every adventure has a "GM Thread" where I'm sure he can find someone else with the same problems.
Just echoing this. The Paizo forums' GM threads are extremely useful for GMs planning to run adventure paths. (Massive spoilers for players, obviously.) I find they do an excellent job of identifying potential problems in advance, which gives me plenty of time to do something about them.

You can also post your own problems there and see what solutions the community has come up with - particularly if, like me, you run these APs many years after they came out (we are currently 2/3 of the way through Legacy of Fire ...)

(For example, several problems with Second Darkness can be solved by requiring all the PCs to be elves, and I also ran a prequel set several decades earlier where the PCs got to do a few missions for the protagonist - obviously, you can only do this is you know what the problems are before you start the campaign.)
 

Xenonnonex

Adventurer
Clarity & Presentation - Paizo write primarily for the reader on their couch, not the GM at their table. The material tends to be incredibly verbose, and often irrelevant to at-table play. I have learned over time how to treat the material as a buffet and not be bound by what's written down. Eg you get a great NPC with a few paras of backstory, who is "Remains in room - fights to death - suicides if captured". The GM can delete that last bit, take her out of her room, create links with PC(s), make her a cool part of their own campaign.
Goddamn this. Paizo write well. Very well. But teasing out what is important for the adventure in their purple prose is like teasing blood out of a stone. It is very easy to miss crucial details. Because it is all embedded in word noise.
I have now come to appreciate the clarity you get in a 5e adventure.
 

Jacob Lewis

The One with the Force
Surprised this hasn't been mentioned already (or I missd it).

There was a module released some time after the Adventure Path was printed called Plunder & Peril. It was a collection of three "piratey" adventures set in the Shackles for 4th level characters, which made it ideal for fleshing out the sandbox-like approach of the second module. At 64 pages, there is plenty of detail and ideas to mine, if not transplant wholesale into the original campaign.

And if memory serves, I think it was based on the new scenarios created for the Adventure Card Game of the same name.
 

Inchoroi

Explorer
Surprised this hasn't been mentioned already (or I missd it).

There was a module released some time after the Adventure Path was printed called Plunder & Peril. It was a collection of three "piratey" adventures set in the Shackles for 4th level characters, which made it ideal for fleshing out the sandbox-like approach of the second module. At 64 pages, there is plenty of detail and ideas to mine, if not transplant wholesale into the original campaign.

And if memory serves, I think it was based on the new scenarios created for the Adventure Card Game of the same name.
Yes, I have that one as well. It's actually pretty good, and, while it's a little late for the OP's DM to pick up now, I'll be adding it to the campaign whenever I start the actual writing.
 

Celebrim

Legend
Serious question -> have you tried running this with 5e? For ease of play. You will be moving away from Pathfinder's annoying and poorly designed minigames.
No, I haven't, and at the current level of play I don't think it would result in any ease of play. D20 only starts to get to be annoying when the fiddliness stacks up at higher levels. The only real advantage I could see to 5e play is that some of the pervasive magic is toned down.

As for mini-games, just because Pathfinder's are poorly designed does not mean I wouldn't need minigames. For example, the very basic problem that Pathfinder tries to handwave away the mass combat minigame and run PC combat as if it was a separate event from the actions of the crew, and as if the actions and abilities of the crew were irrelevant to play would not go away if we switched to 5e. Likewise, switching to 5e wouldn't solve the problem of unrealistic stat blocks for sailing vessels, nor would it solve the problem that at every level of play there isn't really good guidance for sailing those vessels. Indeed, in a bit of ironies, the only ship rules I've seen for 5e are so similar to the Pathfinder Skull & Shackles rules, I wouldn't be surprised to discover they have the same author.
 

billd91

Hobbit on Quest
Chapter 2: One problem we have hit on early on is that we mutinied successfully before the game expected it - pretty much as soon as we got away from most of the officers - and then immediately ran into the problem that sailing the ship as an officer had no corresponding minigame. Initially, since we were on rails anyway, the fact that we had no real rules for determining how well the ship was being sailed didn't seem to matter, but the further we've advanced the bigger the problem it was. I guess there is an assumption that we just have enough competent crew to control the ship, but it feels like that if you are going to have a redundant sailor game with little impact on the ship, that an officer game of actually sailing well would be worthwhile. I want the experience of being a pirate captain, which I would think would involve the normal zero to hero D&D arc, and yet with no ship sailing game to fail or succeed at there is no real marker of both the struggle and the ultimate victory.

But the biggest problems in chapter two have to do with verisimilitude and playing to simulationist aesthetics and not gamist aesthetics. In particular, we seem to be simultaneously in a sandbox but also expected to handwave the actual mechanics or reality of owning a powerful armed sailing vessel crewed with cutthroats.

a) The scale of the game seems inappropriate to sailing vessels. After a bit of rough math, it turned out that the Shackles were 15th the size of the real Caribbean, and more on par with say Lake Michigan. While the problem is partly smoothed over by the fact that distance per day for sailing vessels seems to be about 1/2 of what is realistic, it still leaves the playing area really too small and cramped, so we are playing deliberately off the map - with the result that our novice GM has to really just wing it.

b) There is this weird expectation that we aren't going to have a crew aiding and abetting our villainy. The boarding action minigame seems to divide combat into PC's versus NPCs, while the crew are entirely in the backdrop. Unfortunately for the GM, we didn't really know that, so we spent 10 days recruiting a crew and are sailing around now with 80 low level characters constituting a small army. The GM has no tools for dealing with this sort of mass combat, and the Paizo mass combat rules are intended to handle an entirely different scenario in details and in scale and as such don't work as a minigame for the crew combat. The situation seems likely to only get worse, as we could easily recruit more if we wanted. The feel of this section is as if they were going entirely for ‘Pirates of the Carribean’, and don’t expect someone to go, “There is no way a 38-gun frigate could be sailed to Tortuga by two people.” The fact that we are ordering our crew to act like pirates and attack things we are supposed to be fighting wrecks the suggested scenarios, something I couldn’t be expected to know until it happened. Again, I get that they are trying to deal with XP awards in a way that favors the PC’s leveling up, but this feels in play like we are supposed to know as players the metagame design and interact act with that, and not interact with the fiction. I’m starting to feel guilty for interacting with the fiction of the game, since the minigames don’t support it, and just mess things up for the novice GM.

c) There are some weird assumptions in the ship operations minigame. First and most obviously, the amount of pay you need to give the crew doesn't seem to scale with the size of the crew, which is something we had to patch right away. Beyond that, the game seems to have made some wildly unrealistic assumptions about how pirate ships would distribute shares, entirely at odds with anything believable. As best as I can tell, the game expects us to pay our crew far worse than they were paid working for the cruel masters we induced them to mutiny against and kill. I know it’s trying to deal with wealth by level issues in a relatively simple manner, but still, it’s weird and counterintuitive and basically doesn’t expect that the players will proactive engage with wages as an in-game issue. Beyond that, the plunder point system which is intended to simplify things, has some weird issues as well. Ships don’t really have the ability to store many plunder points, and so far plunder points have proven pretty scarce. The result is that the most valuable thing on the sea is ‘prizes’ – that is, captured ships – but this works against what would be desirable for play, because splitting the party across multiple ships just makes for a headache for the GM and reduces RP, however economically efficient it is. It seems like a combination of ships being fat with plunder and higher costs to operate crews would have resulted in better gameplay.

c) The ship vehicle rules are both unrealistic and poorly serving the games intended tropes. It seems all sailing vessels regardless of size are intended to be simulated with a single stat block. The party has inherited a standard stat block ship, which seems to represent a sort of typical mid-sized three-masted pirate ship like you might expect to find in a movie. But the technology of the setting is all over the place, with everything from 4th century BC ships to ships which appear to be 16th or 17th century in conception and possibly later in some cases. The integration of these different technologies is haphazard at best, and there are many reasons to think that the most powerful ships in the game are oared galleys of various sorts. But who really wants to be a pirate commanding an oared galley? And if rowed galleys really are important to the setting, why is the expectation that we’ll have such a tiny crew? Many galley’s had hundreds of rowers and marines on them. If we really tried to seize such a behemoth by boarding it, we ought to be just overwhelmed by the numbers even with our 80 crew, and yet the expectation by the designer seem to be that a crew of 80 is a large number. Why go for Pirate tropes in the art and story direction, and yet have physical mechanics that prioritize playing like this is Ben Hur or Cleopatra?

d) The ship to ship ranged battle rules are mix of good ideas with bad ones, and seem to come down to a poor mix of abstraction with granularity. Since the ability to close the range is based entirely on generating large differences in the sailing skill check, owing to the fact that most ships move the same speed, closing takes a long time. (Galley’s, continuing the trend of being superior in just about every fashion to other sorts of ships, are faster, but again, few are going to want to play pirates and then end up with mental images for Carthage and Rome (and certainly the book art doesn’t provoke those images)). But since the designer didn’t want players to play out the tedious process of closing to the grapple (where the action is), ships are placed so close together at the start of the minigame that the range of the ship’s weapons are ultimately irrelevant. The game really doesn’t provide for any sort of ‘artillery duel’, and reinforces this by making the cost of ammunition for ship’s weapons prohibitively expensive. Ship’s have 1000’s of hit points, but ammunition does less than 1 hit point of damage per gold piece spent. The result of all that collectively is to make you wonder why they even bothered to have ship to ship rules given that they seem to want you to just handwave that away and treat the combat as if the ship’s could just as easily be dry land.

Also, as a small note, shooting the ship’s control device is so easy and such a winning strategy for both prey and predator, that there is hardly any reason to shoot anything else. The situation is so unrealistic, that were this an actual thing that could be done in the fiction, you’d expect ships in the setting to be constructed with armored barbicans around the control device (as the bridges of battleships were) so as to make them relatively invulnerable to assault. One session after hitting on that strategy, we are having to patch the rules because it’s so degenerate.

e) I love the idea of the Infamy/Disrepute minigame, as it feels very much how I thought Birthright should have played, with the PC’s gradually gaining authority over the setting and the ability to assert their will over it. But gaining Infamy seems too easy, while gaining Disrepute seems too hard. It’s left up I think a lot to the GM, but again, with a novice GM this isn’t the best, and we have yet another system that is just not really living up to its potential. Additionally, Disrepute feels like one of those video game consumables where you never spend it because you feel you ought to save it until you really need it, and so you never spend it because you never really need it. Cool idea just feels like a little more polish would make it even cooler.

Anyway, that was a bit rambling, but the tl;dr version of this is, if you have run S&S before, how did you deal with the disconnects between the minigames and the fiction they are intended to support? Was it something that bothered you at all?
I've played Skull and Shackles and have read it. I think it's a thoroughly enjoyable AP - some of the challenges are a bit tough at the start, though, when healing resources are likely to be light. I've also found that relying on a summoner as your arcane caster has problems since their spells are pretty heavily stacked on the shorter range.

About some of your specific points:

A lot of the mini-games/abstractions are intended to allow the players to interact with the fiction without being bogged down in mechanics. We didn't feel any lack of officers-running-a-ship minigame. Our players picked the positions they took on the ship and we hand-waved the day-to-day so we could focus on the decisions on where to go and who to get cozy with.

That worked quite well for us - same with the shipboard combat aspect where we focused on the opposition officers while our crews duked it out. None of us wanted to push 20-odd tokens around the board, rolling for each one's attacks. Our GM narrated the rest based on the buffing we gave the crew compared to the resources of the opposition. And if he narrated one of our particular favorites getting in trouble (like Barefoot Samms or Rosie Cusswell, that gave us a chance to effect a rescue.

I mention this because I think we were better prepared for the assumptions of the campaign than you seem to have been. Much of this is covered explicitly or implied in the player's guide. And it fits our style of play fairly well.

But, yeah, you've noticed a couple of things. The scale of the sea is tight, particularly if you want to think Caribbean Sea - it's not as bad if you're thinking of the density of the Philippines. Still kind of tight but that's easily adjustable.

The issue with paying the crew not scaling - they probably assumed players would continue with crews on the scale of the Man's Promise - about 20 sailors. Now that you've spotted it and have 80 crewmen, you know to drop 4 points of plunder paying them off when you sell in port rather than just 1.
And yes, taking ships is more lucrative. But you don't have to split the party if you've built a trustworthy crew (i.e. not like Scourge and Ploog) to sail it home with a prize crew - it's also a good excuse for PCs to take the Leadership feat. I was playing captain in our campaign - as soon as I was able to take Leadership, I took it and we made Rosie Cusswell my cohort. I gave her a prize ship to captain and started to build a fleet... which you will eventually want if you ever want to be Hurricane King.
 

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