OSR: Pirate Campaign Planning

First, in case you missed it, I've got a new book out. The print version is now available. You can get it here. There's also a free dungeon built with the book in mind.

Anyway, I'd like to run an OSR type pirate game. The Alexandrian Dark Souls project is on hold for the following reasons: I can't get the overall player motives to work, it's sunny and cheerful outside, and I can't muster up the depressive mindset needed to do it justice. OSR group 1 is also on hiatus for the summer.

So instead, piracy.

I'm going to take every decent island-based module I can find and mash them together. It's going fairly well so far. I'm also going to use every part of Richard G's "counter-colonial heistcrawl" setting that I can. He's done the hard work; all I need to do is add in a few islands. The Age of Sail isn't my area of expertise, but it is his (more or less). I'll take his ideas and apply them to a fictional setting.

To give you an idea of the notes I'll be writing, here's my draft conversion for D&D 5th Edition's Tomb of Annihilation.

Action Between an English Ship and Barbary Pirates,  Willem van de Velde

Major Principles

1. Piracy is only possible where there is insufficient power to disrupt it. It only works in areas outside the direct control of a major power or when used as a tool by a major power. The game is set in all the areas outside of direct control, where piracy is practical and viable.

2. Every situation has at least three sides. Every location has at least three factions. Every item is desired by at least three people. Add more factions if you want, but at the bare minimum, everything is unstable. People can and will switch sides.

3. Everyone is people. Everyone has goals, politics, borders, traditions, and schemes. Describe things based on the PCs’ perspectives. The same ruler could be a king, a headman, a war-chief, and a high priest to four different people. The same spear could have a dozen names. Everyone has a story.

4. There are knock-on consequences to everything. Every choice leads to something. Everything ripples and connects and interferes. There's no mechanic to track this. It'll just happen.

The Setting

The year is... 15##... or maybe it's 17##... or maybe...

There are still blank spots on the map. There are a few well established colonies and many, many half-started projects. The major Old World powers start wars on a regular basis.

The Old World Powers

You can't sail to the Old World. Well, maybe you can, but it's either a late game scheme or a very desperate plot. They aren't on the map.

By their enemies: dull, perfidious, slovenly, lustful, and pompous.
By their allies: sober-minded, cunning, practical, romantic, and dignified
Adjective: Wexlish

By their enemies: hot-blooded, insipidly religious, cruel, and greedy.
By their allies: honourable, pious, disciplined, and expert explorers.
Adjective: Tarraconese

By their enemies: decadent, provocative, lustful, and gluttonous.
By their allies: proud warriors, intelligent, passionate, and refined.
Adjective: Valoch

The Ranstead League
By their enemies: greedy, sadistic, passionless, liars.
By their allies: relentless merchants, efficient, sober-minded, cunning.
Adjective: Leaguers, the Stead

They're all still made of people, and people will do the damnedest things sometimes. Most of the time, it doesn't matter who you're dealing with, except they're all fighting each other in some combination back in the Old World and occasionally the war spills into the New.

There are other powers, but they are mostly local, concerned with one particular area and the defense of their local commerce. The map is bordered by these powers. You can attack them but it's best not to. They are still must stronger than most pirate fleets and they are willing to make alliances with other powers.


It's everywhere and it's not going away without a hell of a fight. The Old World powers need labour to run their projects and support their colonies. Ships need sailors. Pirates need a ready source of cash. It's an accepted part of life, even if most people recognize that it's awful and amoral and hideously hypocritical. People will justify almost anything for a profit. The PCs don't need to, of course, and they might eventually be able to do something about it.

Supernatural Elements

Subdued and ambiguous. The world doesn't need them to function. They mostly come in the form of items, curses, and bargains with stronger powers. There are still strange races, but they aren't player characters, at least not initially.

Think about the first Pirates of the Caribbean film. There are 3 supernatural elements: the undead curse on the crew, Jack's mysterious broken compass, and the pirate-calling curse on the gold. The undead curse has a specific backstory, means to be removed, and plenty of great plot hooks. The compass is just a cool magic item that only grows in utility throughout the series. And the pirate-calling curse on the gold functions in a thematic way (it only works when the gold touches seawater), and was presumably added by the undead pirates trying to gather all the gold.

Anyway, point is, the rest of the setting doesn't require or casually acknowledge supernatural elements. Think Dracula, not Curse of Strahd. Or think of the "Jonah" arc in Master and Commander; isn't that supernatural too?

No common-or-garden wizards, no casual teleportation, no healing potions. Just a world with some weird stuff in it. Magic can be explained as coincidence and superstition. If supernatural or spectacular elements are introduced immediately, there’s no sense of wonder. If everything is strange, nothing is strange.

Who are the PCs?

They run the ship. Who wants to play a carpenter's mate and take orders from the GM's sadistic NPCs? Nobody.

Potential PC Roles:
Captain: sets the general orders for the ship, selects prizes, has final word in all matters of battle.
Quartermaster: supplies, crew morale, and general ship operation. Has veto power over the Captain in all matters save battle. Effectively the first mate.
Ship's Surgeon: crew health, strange books and knowledge, emergency surgery.
Master Gunner: accurate with a cannon or a musket, a rare skill.
Murderous Bastard: reputation for nailing people's feet to the floor. Not someone you want to cross.
Rat Bastard: the greasiest sneakiest most duplicitous person anyone has ever met.

Esoteric Options:
The Crew in General: see: The Extras
Weather Witch: a lucky charm. Maybe some power, or maybe just luck and bravado.
Spirit Talker: the dead are everywhere.
The Fence: legitimate means of getting stolen goods to market, somehow.

Gold for XP
Still in place, but with a few adjustments. The gold needs to be spent (and spending it frivolously gives a bonus) and everyone gets a share. Loot a ship carrying pots and pans? They don't count for XP until you trade them for coin and spend the coin.

Some roles earn more shares. More shares = more XP, but a higher risk of being voted out of your position, murdered in your sleep, hanged for your crimes, involved in a complicated revenge scheme, etc. Being a Captain or a Quartermaster is hard.

Character Generation
Standard GLOG stuff. I'll be building new classes. Instead of a Table of Races, I'll use a "Who Were You?" table for backgrounds in the same format. The crew is going to be a mix of cultures and worldviews. Very nearly every sort of person became a pirate at some point.

The Classes won't be the Roles above. Roles are something you do; Classes are the tools you have to do it. Or not; it's just a class, after all. It's not restrictive.

The Game Itself

Players start off in a situation where stealing a ship and taking up piracy seems sensible.

They'll explore, steal, meddle in local affairs, start wars, flee disasters of their own making, play one major power against the other, and generally try to carve a place for themselves in the world.

There aren't any pirate republics or cabals when the game starts. Some might form, but right now, alliances are small and local and entirely self-serving.

They'll also discover supernatural elements, manipulate them, and probably end up needing to reverse or outrun their own folly.

I'm hoping to create islands and situations with maximum potential energy using my setting notes and conversions. Things are delightfully precarious.


  1. This seems very promising!

    I particularly like the idea of the supernatural existing, but being widely discredited. Maybe it's just because I've been reading Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell, but the idea of the party wizard using some minor cantrip and changing the worldview of everyone who witnesses appeals to me. (If there are any party wizards at all, of course.) The fact Yoon Suin is on your map delights me as well - the Slug-Men are weird enough in a setting with Dwarves and Elves and Orcs, but if every PC is a Human, they'd come completely out of left field.

  2. a very intriguing proposal. I ran a pirate campaign a way back using the warhammer system and it has a lot of potential, it can give the players a lot of agency. Logistic can be a challenge though - how to handle them?

  3. Awesome! I'm going to attempt a seagoing campaign myself soon, so I'm looking forward to seeing what you cook up.