Brac’s Guide to Piracy is the fourth of Chamomile’s ongoing series of kickstarter 5e zines. Each of which is focused on a specific topic of D&D, this one, obviously, is focused around piracy. A topic near and dear to my heart. I’ve run countless pirate campaigns, and campaigns that turned into pirate campaigns, and the mechanics have never delivered. I’ve got a hard copy of this one, and plan to review that, with screenshots cropped from the pdf (with permission). You can pick one up at Drivethrough in physical or digital versions.
Brac’s dives into a subject that is weirdly prevalent in the RPG space. Every game has a pirate supplement, and every publisher has their pirate splatbook. The problem is, almost none of them really deliver. The actual rules for pirate guns, sailing ships, and swimming are usually missing. When I run a pirate game, I end up having to spot fix, or spontaneously invent systems and all sorts of work that never quite fits the actual I’m running. Brac’s follows the same layout as the previous with a half book focused on players, and half on DMs.
You Are a Pirate!, is the section for players. We get 7 aquatic races, 4 of which get full stat write ups, and 3 are references to WoTC published races. Locathah, Merfolk, Merrow, Naiad, Sahuagin, Sea Elves, and Tritons. Of them, the Merfolk surprisingly is the most interesting to me. I’m sure there’s a big pile merfolk homebrews and variant rules out there, but I like Siren Song ability being attached. At level 1, its pretty minor, but at level 3, they can start to charm, bless, or sleep which seems like a fun addition to a merfolk.
Hoist the Colors: Ships and Sailing, is the portion on ship combat, and that’s the first hard one for the book to tackle. Brac’s treats a ship almost like an additional character. Your ship has 6 skills with the ships ability scores rolled in combination with the crew’s ability scores. to resolve most situations. Cannons (for shooting), Rigging (for speed and agility), Frame (for durability), Supplies (for stock and preventing exhaustion), Spotting (for spotting…) and Morale (for commitment). We get some guidance for ship scale combat, changing to 30ft squares, and 30 second rounds, and each crew member gets something to go each round. Overall, I feel like it works, its simple enough without being too abstract. I’m sure I’ll use it for my next pirate game. I do like the out of combat use for supplies, and think that’s a really nice way to track how long you can go out at sea. The one thing I do like quite a bit, is that there isn’t an abstract HP translation for ships. Something that always comes up, is the blaster wizard player just asking “Can I stand on the deck and launch fireballs”. With these rules, the answer is just “sure” with no real effort.
Ships of the Vermillion Sea, is mostly ship stats. Its about what you’d expect, but the stand out to me, is that it isn’t just 15 versions of fancy names for basically the same ship. Sure, you get the classics, but there are also Astral ships and Vampire ships. Ships that are more “fun” than normal. Lots of games get sucked into historical realism (for whatever era of human history dragons existed in) and forget that D&D is supposed to be cool. Throw some cool stuff in.
Lastly for players, is Recruiting, Restocking, and Repairing. This is the logistics of having a crew. There are some rough rules here, but mostly this is player advice focused around how a pirates game is different than a knights game. Recruiting walks the players through how to get and keep a crew. A key insight to me is the side bar “Your Crew Are All Pirates”. You aren’t a feudal lord paying peasants coppers a day to build your castle. You’ve hired murderous thieves who decided that they didn’t want to do backbreaking labor for pennies. If you try to stiff them, they may just up and murder-thieve you, or at best just ditch you and find someone else.
Running a Pirate Campaign is the DM half. There are some key differences between a pirates and a more traditional knights campaign. A pirates game by its nature is a game about freedom. In knights, the evil baron can send troops to force you to engage with a plot, or declare you hunted outlaws and folks will stop working with you. If you don’t they can torch the village. In a pirates game, you can just sail away. Pirates don’t have a castle, and they are supposed to be hunted outlaws. If the baron is upset with them… that’s not really a problem. And if the players end up villains, well that’s sort of what pirates are. Dashing, handsome, sometimes noble, but ultimately villains and anti-heroes at best.
What I like most about this section is the break points and level by level breakdown of how a game should play. This is always a strength of Chamomiles, and I think its way more valuable than a lot of the DM advice I see out there. Essentially we get a level by level breakdown for running a pirate game, from level 1 to a little past 10. At level 3, your characters will probably have these powers, and this sort of quest is a good foundation. when they hit level 5, this sort of thing kicks in, and these sort of antagonists should start to show up. You could use this structure as a blueprint for a very solid pirates module, or as a new DM who just doesn’t know what sort of adventure to prep.
One thing a pirate game needs is a good rogues gallery. Pirates are notable because they are all cool, stylish, and interesting. There’s no such thing as a named generic pirate. Sir Kensington can be the White Knight, and the DM doesn’t really have to think about it again for a long while. Throw out the pirate Captain Skinner ‘The Hook’ Churchill and your players are going to wonder about the hook, what he does that’s so nefarious, and all sorts of questions. The book gives us 30 named pirates, broken out into 5 D6 tables, with backstories and hooks so you can throw a couple into your game. Especially handy when your players want to assemble a crew, and ask you to come up with 6 interesting pirates on the fly for them to choose one of to actually do anything with.
The other thing a pirate game needs is someone to steal from. What good is a pirate without treasure? The book contains 50 random encounters 1-3 paragraphs in depth each, that you can use while traveling to give that pirating flavor. The book wraps with a discussion of ports. Both your own hidden one, and the ones your pirates will siege, and an entry on the pirate region of the Blades Coast campaign setting hinted at throughout these book.
Overall the book is a great guide to running pirate games. You can use it to structure your game, its got rules to play the various pirate mini-games you’d want, and it has enough stock pirate stuff for you to put a game together quickly. My big take away, is that once this whole guidebook series is out, I’m going to pull them all together, and run a big open world game using the content.