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Blackbirds - Arrr!

Started by Jeffrey Miller, April 30, 2003, 10:29:03 PM

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Jeffrey Miller

A fellow Forger and I were chatting via IM a couple weeks ago, and using "pirate speak" to emphasis some humorous point in our discussion, when it suddenly hit me that a) there isn't a truly Pirate-Only RPG that I could think of, and b) anything that I knew of that would work for a Pirate game would highlight the parts of the genre that I thought were most interesting, and certainly wouldn't emphasis the style of game play myself and the people I game with enjoy.

With that in mind, I started thinking about pirates. Pirates represent a variety of archetypes -- brigands, scourge of the sea, liberators, free thinkers, savage brutes, mercenary freedom fighters, barbarians, heroes, villains, even role models.  Whether cartoon-ish and bumbling oafs afraid of a ticking crocodile or blood-thirsty cannibals hunting for haunted treasure, they play an important role in the archetypical psyche of Western civilization, a role as strong and as influential as that enjoyed by the Cowboy, the Astronaut, or the Rock Star.  Over the years, our culture has produced uncountable books, films, cartoons, costumes, and musicals to the idea of being a pirate;  there's even an International Talk Like A Pirate Day.

There can be little argument as to the importance of the idea of The Pirate in our collective mythology, a well from which we all draw the water of creativity from.  I'd say that the availability of pirate motifs and archetypes is as rich a source as Westerns to most Americans.

With that in mind, I've been kicking this character mechanic around for a couple days, and I think that I like it.  Specific numbers are, of course, up to a playtest or three to shake out.  I also freely admit to being influenced by both Miles Christi and PTA right now.  

My questions are three:
- Does a system of character creation such as this manage to grab at the archetypes of the genre without sacrificing the ability to defy those archetypes?
- Is there a system out there that I'm unfamiliar with, but you are, which accomplishes something akin to this?
- Does this at all add anything to the goal of fulfilling setting or genre expectations brought  to the table by players?

Of course, if you have any other thoughts, suggestions, or commentary, I'm open to constructive critique. I'll be posting other portions of this separately later this week.

I need to note a couple things:
- this uses a card-based mechanic, with 4 stats: Sailing, Cursing, Fighting, and Drinking, which are rated on a scale of 2-6 (yes yes, there's a reason, which I'll elaborate on in a separate thread). Also, my name for That Guy is "The Admiral" =8^D
- the Special Abilities granted by Plunder are activated with Plunder Points, which are interesting enough to also warrant their own thread.
- each piece of Plunder will eventually have its own Special Ability, which range from goofy to useful to idiotic to damn cool

There are four Abilities in Blackbirds ? Sailing, Cursing, Fighting, and Drinking.  These Abilities are measured on a scale of 2 through 6, and are generated by selecting Plunder.  Starting with a base rating of 3 in each Ability, each item of Plunder you select adds or subtracts modifiers to these scores.  The score itself is both a way for you, the player, to have some sense of the relative measure of your character, but it also serves a mechanical purpose.  For Brief and Extended Contests, the rating of the ability is the number of cards you will draw as your character tests themselves against the world.  


Pirates are a distinctive lot, gathering about them the loot and detritus of several civilizations, cultures, and lands.  They are as flamboyant as they are dangerous, and can be easily recognized at any port they put in at.

During character creation, players work together as a group to divide amongst themselves the spoils that their Pirates have accumulated in their exploits.  It is up to The Admiral to determine the final list of items for the players to select from, as the number of items to offer the group to choose from, like the Pirate spoils themselves, are capricious and subject to the whims of Lady Luck (and a favorable wind.)  The formula is:

(num of players) * 3 - (1/2 num of players, rounded up)

This will necessarily engender some amount of tension during the character creation process by creating a situation in which some players will necessarily receive more pieces of Plunder, while some will receive fewer.  Regardless of the final number to be chosen from during actual character creation, the list of Plunder to choose from is determined by conducting a  round of voting, in which each player votes for 3 items they would like to see in the game, and then tally the votes and pick a number of items as per the score above.  If this does not generate a list of preferred items large enough to fulfill the quota for the group, a second round of voting may be held, but no more than two rounds of voting are allowed.

Players may select no more than 3 pieces of Plunder each, and no piece of Plunder  marked with a * may be doled out to more than one Pirate per Crew.  Sure, multiple Pirates may have a scar, or a stripped shirt, but how many surly sea dogs are going to have peg legs?

Each item of plunder has certain bonuses and penalties that apply to the four main attributes.  Starting with a base score of 3 in each ability, make the appropriate adjustments as you record each piece of Plunder, and note the final score for each ability.  No ability can be less than 1, and can never be higher than 6;  if either case exists, adjust either upwards to the minimum of 1 or downwards to the maximum of 6.

Pirates may also choose to have zero pieces of plunder, and instead relying only upon the base score of 2 in each ability.  If a player chooses to play this sort of character, someone who is completely new to the Pirate scene, more power to them!  In fact, if you want to play an entire Crew of new recruits to the Pirate lifestyle, so be it!  You will have plenty of opportunity to accrue Plunder as the game progresses.

While a character may acquire multiple pieces of Plunder as their story, they may never apply the modifiers from more than three at any time.  Acquiring a new piece of Plunder doesn?t require the player to apply it immediately to the character;  instead, the player may opt to change which three pieces of Plunder they are going to use at the beginning of each game session.  This is the only time that players are allowed to shuffle or modify which pieces of Plunder apply to their characters.

It is entirely possible for a character to have what might be considered Plunder but not take advantage of its ability modifying power, due to having more than 3 pieces of Plunder in their possession.  In this case the Plunder, if it is not amongst the 3 chosen by the player at the beginning of the gaming session, is not considered to have any mechanical effect (although obviously it would still be in existence, and could easily become part of the story.)

gold earring ? You manage to encompass both swarthy, masculine edginess with an exotic allure.  This is a look for the Pirate on the go. (  D  S +1H  C)

hook* -- Whether lost to an alligator or a dare, you?ve made lemonade with lemons, cultivating an entire image around the frightfully wicked implement that?s taken the place of your hand.  People tend to leave you alone in bars, and answer questions much more freely.  (  0D  +2S  +1H  0C)
Special Bonus: The hook, properly sharpened, is a great boon to climbing.  Gain two extra cards for each Plunder Point spent (spending no more than one per Contest) when scaling vertical faces, walls, cliffs, trees, ships rigging, idols, etc.

peg leg* -- When the mizzenmast came down in the Nor?easter 5 years ago and shattered your leg along with the deck, your shipmates left you for dead in Montego Bay.  You?ll show ?em.. you?ll show ?em all!  (  -1D  -2S  +2H  0C)
Special Bonus: What most people don?t know is that your peg leg is actually hollow.  Spend a Plunder Point to declare that you have any reasonable (as determined by The Admiral) item of suitable size stashed away in there ?for just such an emergency?.

eye patch* --  It might have been a lucky shot by an defending crew or just the first day with your hook, but you?re missing an eye.. or, at least, you wear an eye patch.  What is under it is your own business.  (  0D  0S  +2H  0C)

parrot* -- Purchased from a vendor in Tahiti, this green, red, and yellow squawk box is usually found perched nearby repeating important plot points, obscenities, or embarrassing secrets its overhear when its not demanding crackers.  (  +1D  0S  -1H  0C)

limes -- Scurvy is actually a very real danger, and the Pirate who has a few limes hidden away in his gear is sure to look and feel his best when he hits port.
Special Ability:  Player may "give a lime" to anyone whose Drinking score has been lowered to restore one point of Drinking.
 (  0D  0S  -1H  +2C)

This is only a partial listing of the various items of Plunder I?ve worked up, but hopefully you get the gist of the idea.

To reiterate:
- Does a system of character creation such as this manage to grab at the archetypes of the genre without sacrificing the ability to defy those archetypes?
- Is there a system out there that I'm unfamiliar with, but you are, which accomplishes something akin to this?
- Does this at all add anything to the goal of fulfilling setting or genre expectations brought  to the table by players?


Matt Wilson

Them what dies'll be the lucky ones!

What I'm thinking of right off the bat is that there are some significant gamist elements going on, so you might want a few rules to level the field. Like if there's an uneven amount of booty AND some items are better than others, am I going to get doubly screwed before we even start playing?

And even if that's a yes, how hard will it be to "catch up" in play? Can I overcome my supposed disadvantage, or will I always be behind?

Jay Turner

Ooh... Pirates!

A few thoughts from reading this so far:

1) I like your chargen system a lot, but based on what you have, I'm not sure it serves your goals completely. I like the idea that all pirates are essentially equal, save the results of their experiences. My concern here is that without examples of Plunder that defy genre stereotypes, you're going to end up with genre stereotypes as characters. If character generation is entirely based on Plunder, the types of Plunder out there will be very important to setting the mood and genre of the stories. Will you include guidelines for players creating their own Plunder?

2) I have issues with the word "Plunder" in the way you use it. When I think "plunder," I think of "loot" or "treasure" (and sometimes, "booty", depending on who's around). I think of positive items of worth taken from past exploits. The examples of Plunder, however, support that Plunder is really scars, equipment, and the like that the pirate has brought along to (hopefully) positively impact his "pirateness." I'm not sure what I'd suggest otherwise, but maybe something tongue-in-cheek like "Souvenirs", as in, "I won the battle, but I brought back a wee souvenir... *knocks on his shiny new peg-leg*" A tiny issue that doesn't affect much, but I was confused until I read your examples.

3) Are you looking to reproduce a specific pirate genre, or will you try to span over them all? Would you like the game to range from swashbuckling to Cap'n Hook to hardcore pirate death stories? It seems like what you have so far supports wacky cartoon pirates and stereotypes well, and I think it'd be fun to play, but I'm not sure it'd reproduce grittier pirates quite as well.

I'm not sure that answers your questions, but those are a few thoughts I had
Jay Turner
Zobie Games">

Jeffrey Miller

Matt, good question!  The numbers presented here are rough, but I think you've got a good point.  There's only a limited amount of results-space to play in, so the final numbers will be much tighter to a null-result;  that is, the amount of the bonus (or penalty) will be much smaller.  

The chief differentiator should probably be the special ability, that way its up to the players to create advantages out of what they've choosen, and comes out in a more narrative fashion.

As to catching up in play, I'm not sure it'll be a major crisis, especially if the bonuses are flattened out.  However, never fear! Wait till I post the rules on Plunder Points, there's some really kooky ideas about how to get ahead of other players while making 'em happy, arrr!


Jeffrey Miller

Aren't pirates fun! :)

Jay, I see your point about the genre stereotypes.  Some of my best experiences in genre-games like Deadlands or Dust Devils seems to come from the idea that everyone at the table had tropes and archetypes that they could instantly grab at.. the namelesss drifter, the slow-drawin' clumsy (but deadly accurate) gunfighter, the saloon girl, the horse that is always draggin' you to safety.  In my original list of Plunder, I was aiming at outlining all of the high-points of "what sort of props do pirates tote around with them".

That said, I do have some items of Plunder, not included here, that are still within the genre but aren't Pirate items - native totems, a law-degree from Oxford, a letter of Marque.  Hopefully that will broaden the appeal. (the actual list of Plunder items is around 30 strong at the moment)

I'm not sure exactly how to allow for designing Plunder, other than a "suggest it to The Admiral and see what s/he says" -- which works just fine for me and my players.  I don't think anything more than that would be required, or would fit terribly well.

One bit that I'm not sure if you noticed or not was that the players themselves vote on what's availible, so player-input drives the level of historical reality or "outakes from the Hellraiser-My Little Pony movie" effect.

re "Plunder": Souvenier.. hmm.. that has promise.. :D

As for what genre of Pirates I'm shooting for, no, its not meant to be a simulation of buckling swashes across the 7 seas, but to reproduce games somewhere on the continuum between Peter Pan/Legend of Zelda to Treasure Island to the edge of a camp Deadlands-esque story.

Thanks for the feedback! :)


Jay Turner

Okay, I see where you're going. I think what you have works well for that.

I'm curious about the other Plunder items you have, but I won't ask for a whole list here. Just know I'm looking forward to learning more about it. :)
Jay Turner
Zobie Games">

Mike Holmes

First, Run Out the Guns is a weird version of Rolemaster that's all about Pirates. It's a key resource, IMO, for anyone doing a piratical RPG. It's so  different from RM as to really be an entirely different game; so if RM normally puts you off, I'd still recommend looking at it if you can.

It's got more of a Sim bent than I think you're looking for, Jeffrey. Still, it has all sorts of cool info. And, of course, see GURPS Swashbucklers.

As to building "plunder" (and I agree the name should change), why not just allow the player to assign any stat mods to any item. As long as they add up to zero total. Or maybe +1. Something like that.

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I think the list of Souveniers (just putting in my plug for that term) should include a bunch of examples, but the actual items might be best left to player discretion.

Maybe I have a knife that gives me a bonus to Drinking instead of Fighting...cuz I be usin it to nock me bottle's of rum o'course.

That sort of thing.

Jeffrey Miller

Valamir, the players vote on which 3 items they'd like to see in the game, and the top N items are offered to them to divide amongst themselves as they see fit.

The list of Plunder items is not insubstantial; here's the actual list as it stands right now.  I think I hit most of the high (or low?) points of what I remember from the movies, shows, and books I'm familiar with.. anything obvious I'm missing?

gold earring
peg leg
eye patch
mangy dog
treasure map
stripped shirt
knit cap
head scarf
bottle of grog
nasty scar
Captain's hat
Naval uniform
battered telescope
brace of pistols
belaying pin  
gold doubloon
native fetish
voodoo doll
brass sea lantern
china tea set
degree from Oxford
calico dress
fluffy white shirt
Tiki mask
jade amulet

Jeffrey Miller

Mike, thanks for the good resources.  I've been pouring over my copy of GURPS Swashbucklers for a couple days, but in the end.. eh, its GURPS, and doesn't really offer anything special (other than neat historical information distilled into one volume.)  

You're the first person in a string this morning who've recommended picking up ROtG, and as soon as I can find a copy, I'll give it a look;  my first impression from surfing around the web is that its far more Sim then I'm interested in, but I'll give it a fair look all the same.

What I'd like to end up with is a game that provides easy access for people, lots of genre hooks to hang their hats on, as it were, and is playable for 3-5 sessions.  In my experience, thats the most number of sessions it seems that deep or off-the-beaten-path genre games are good for, outside of a group of people dedicated to the setting.  That's just IME, of course.

Quote from: Mike HolmesAs to building "plunder" (and I agree the name should change), why not just allow the player to assign any stat mods to any item. As long as they add up to zero total. Or maybe +1. Something like that.

Sure, that's easy enough, and is a nice guideline.  Thanks for the idea :)