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Basic Information

A Pirate is someone who engages in Piracy. Specifically, and for the purposes of this page, piracy by sea - consisting either of seizure of ships at sea or amphibious attacks on land targets.

Within a story, they tend to serve one of two purposes: either the heroes are dashing piratical swashbucklers, or else the pirates are terrifying and ruthless villains; either Chaotic Good or Chaotic Evil. Both concepts, and nearly all the tropes, characters and concepts we have regarding pirates today come from the Golden Age of Piracy… well, except for that bit about them being the mortal enemies of the ninja.

However, piracy has been around since long before the 16-17th century and continues to this day, pretty much wherever there is an absence of capable navies willing to enforce control of the sea.

Julius Caesar was taken hostage by pirates - who made the fatal mistake of assuming that he was joking when he promised revenge once released - and the Romans fought several subsequent wars before Pompey Magnus could justifiably claim to have eliminated piracy in the Roman seas1.

After the fall of Rome piracy was more or less endemic to European seas until the late middle ages saw the return of national navies - and even after the threat of indigenous pirates was suppressed Islamic Barabary Corsairs raided for slaves and plunder throughout the Mediterranean and as far North as Cornwall as late as the 1600s2. For much of the medieval period it was, indeed, quite common for piracy to be as much of a side-line as a profession - when one vessel encountered another and thought they might have an exploitable opportunity an otherwise mercantile voyage could suddenly feature a bit of piracy. Obviously this sort of piracy tended to include the murder of the defeated crew where professional pirates might have ransomed them or just turned them loose to be robbed again in the future.

Once national governments started taking control of the seas again European pirates, unwelcome at home, began to move to the fringes of European power, inflicting misery on the peoples of the new colonies - their reign in the Caribbean3 is what is often known as the Golden Age of Piracy, although they were active elsewhere as well.

Elsewhere, European travellers encountered strong pirate populations in the Indian Ocean and South East Asia. Arab slavers and pirates operated freely along the African East coast (much as European pirates were involved in the opening up of the Atlantic Slave trade … and preying on it) and the patchwork kingdoms of pre-colonial India spawned a great many "sea dacoits" whilst the lawless archipelagos of South East Asia were prey to Japanese and Chinese pirate junks and the prayas of Dyak pirates. Eventually the colonial powers and their navies followed and rooted them out as well4, settling in a period of relative peace at sea that lasted into the modern era, when moral cowardice and shrinking naval budgets have combined to enable a small scale revival.

Modern venues for piracy include the Horn of Africa and the Malacca Straits (both historical venues risen from the dead) and, to a lesser extent, the Caribbean (again) where there is a significant tendency to steal small private watercraft for use in the contraband recreational drugs trade. In the modern era, "piracy" is also used to describe violations of intellectual property rights. Oh, and the "porch pirates" who steal parcels from the doorstep before the recipients have a chance to take them inside.

Note that until the mid C19, a pirate might be able to obtain a government contract - known as a "Letter of Marque and Reprisal" (or just "letter of marque") - which immediately transformed him into a privateer. Such a document usually included a pardon for any previous criminal (although not always civil) offences against the contracting nation and its citizens.

Costume and Characterization


Behavior, Codes, and Terminology

  • Democracy Common pirate practice was for the crew to elect the Captain and Quartermaster, who would then appoint other officer positions. This form of representative democracy predates the US Constitution by more than 100 years. interestingly, a pirate captain was typically elected (either in a ballot, or by default because he recruited the crew) but in many cases only commanded when in combat with the quartermaster (usually also elected) in charge the rest of the time and a lot of non-urgent decisions being made on consensus. In a privateer crew the two key positions tended to be appointed by the backers - although the captain could also initiate matters by seeking them out - whilst the quartermaster tended to be their business agent.
  • The Jolly Roger
  • Run Out The Guns
  • Going on Account - embarking on a voyage for a share of the profits rather than a fixed wage.

Crimes, Punishment, and other nasty things Pirates do to you

Pirate Booty

Historical Pirates

Fictional Pirates

Pirate Variants

See Also


3. non-fiction book: The Pirate Primer by George Choundas
4. non-fiction book:The Invisible Hook by Peter T. Leeson
The TV Series Black Sails is also interesting. Set as a sort of prequel to the classic novel Treasure Island it manages to present a fairly balanced picture of Caribbean piracy towards the end of the golden age, without either demonising or sugar coating the pirates. Only a few anachronisms and relatively little gratuitous sex.

Game and Story Use

  • A band of pirates can make a good Adventuring Party, especially if they're the swashbuckling chaotic good type, or at least privateers. You get to use the Walk the Earth and Adventure Town tropes, but transported onto the high seas.
  • If in doubt "good" pirates are those that do little actual piracy (except possibly attacking other "evil" pirates) but instead sit around drinking rum and practicing their democracy - evil pirates, on the other hand, are a bloodthirsty tyranny where the Captain rules with an iron hand, both to keep his crew of dangerous nutters together without them killing one another and to avoid his subordinates attempting to replace him thought a Klingon promotion.
  • Pirates can be a scourge, menace and challenge for the PCs.
    • Threat of piracy can spice up seaborne travel.
    • An amphibious raid by pirates can be a sudden surprise twist for a campaign set in a coastal region.
    • Perhaps a dread ship with a black flag pursues the PCs to the ends of the earth.
      • Or the PCs are racing said ship to their hometown, in hopes of saving their families.
        • Just hope it doesn't end like the subplot in The Watchmen.
  • As evidenced by the Pirate Variants section (above), it's very easy to transport the pirate meme to other settings. See the Golden Age of Piracy page for more ideas.
  • The classic pirate image and accent is a vary powerful trope / meme. With a single "Arrr" everyone knows what type of character you're playing. This makes a pirate a really good PC archetype for a free-wheeling one-shots or a good Villain of the Week.
  • Counter-piracy operations are a good option for a campaign - they were traditionally shoe string operations for most navies and/or subcontracted to privateers, enabling the PCs to play the officers or a relatively small enforcement ship with a fairly free hand to "take, sink, burn or destroy" all pirate shipping and to conduct amphibious raids against pirate bases. Liberating slaves, re-capturing plunder and rescuing hostages will be key operations and political intrigue and treachery with local government can inject some role-playing interest.
    • This sort of campaign can be modelled on any of the historical campaigns - from Pre-Pompeian Rome, to medieval pirate hunting (perhaps in the employ of the Hanse, the Fuggers, the Medici or even the Templars) to a classic "Golden Age" game to the Bombay Marine's operations in the Laccadive Islands or Raffles' suppression of the Dyaks. You could even put them into a modern setting, perhaps as part of a PMC, hunting pirates on the Horn of Africa.
    • For an amusing variant on counter piracy work, consider a former pirate and privateer, now a significant figure in colonial politics who believes that the pardon that came with his letter of marque has absolved him of all the harm done during his free range pirating career. Who then finds himself cast in civil damages by one or more shipping conglomerates. This can be played several ways, from a basically heroic privateer hunted by early villainous corporations to a cunning blow against a civillain who thought he'd got away with it, depending what side the PCs are on. Can be played as legal drama, investigative or a trigger for one last job.
  • Pirates were traditionally considered hostis humani generis - a kind of outlawry. A great media blackwash if there ever was one.
  • Conversely, elements of the social bandit may apply to the portrayal of pirates - as usual, there is a certain amount of creative distortion applied in most cases, but their practice of crude democracy, egalitarianism and anti-authoritarianism can lead to them being whitewashed in some modern portrayals (typically those that either overlook or leave out the armed robbery related parts of being a pirate).
    • Particularly common is the trope - often justified - of the pirates asking a captured ship's crew if they had any complaints about their officers and frequently exacting a violent punishment of some kind against those officers considered tyrannical or negligent towards their men. This was a thing that happened in some cases, but was often a prelude to trying to recruit men from the ship's crew by essentially bringing them into joint venture with the pirates.
  • The part-time pirate is a useful trope - at one point, the south-west of England was full of small ports whose inhabitants freely interchanged their trades between fishing, smuggling, legitimate seafaring and piracy/privateering. This rougher sort of seaman is probably an ideal choice to round out an adventuring party's ship crew (think of the men recruited to crew the Hispaniola in Treasure Island - whilst ostensibly recruited as merchant crew, most of them were (former) pirates of one kind or another and thus either Smollett and Trelawney were remarkably naïve or were hiring men who would not be adverse to some more adventurous work as required) … as long as they are up for the risk of them not being entirely pleasant people.
    • For added amusement have tavern talk complaining about pirates preying on the trade out of the port - saving for later the fact that the complainants have quite happily pirated other trade in their time.
    • Consider a run down, partially expired port, mainly supported by fishing with the occasional shipload of luxury goods and a small general trade. Wrong genre savvy players may suspect you of ripping of Innsmouth (which is also worth a shot), but in fact you are looking at a port with a moribund legitimate trade just about lively enough to disguise a far livelier business of smuggling and piracy. As above, any given sailor might have worked in any or all of the available fields without being (much of) a villain and the place is liable to make a great adventure town - or at least a place to set off from on adventures.
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