Campaign Classics : Pirates

Introduction and Product

For a period of the late 1980s and early 1990s, Iron Crown Enterprises and Hero Games formed an distribution alliance which brought together two very different game systems, Rolemaster and Champions, (or strictly speaking the 'master and hero systems) into some publications. The fourth of these was 'Pirates', a 160 page softback book concentrating on the 17th century, but with a little bit of material for centuries on either side. The cover art, by Susan Hunter, is a little on the romantic side of representing pirates with a dashing young man but with good technique and a little dash of creativity in the washed background of ships. The internal art whilst having some evocative elements, is sometimes a little lazy in technique for the new pieces and sometimes very well detailed. The product makes good use of appropriate out-of-copyright material and whilst there is a fair bit of filler pieces (including repeats) there is many contextual pieces as well. The old maps are an absolute delight, for example.

The layout is pretty much two-column justified with serif text and sans-serif headings. There are fifteen chapters overall, split over three main areas, a Player's Section, the Setting, and a Gamemaster's Section. The writing style is overwhelmingly formal, emphasising content over style. There is however, atrociously, some parts of the Player's Section which are simply copy-and-pasted from the Rolemaster character generation section to the Fantasy Hero character generation section, which a single presentation would have done quite adequately with different system rules highlighted as necessary.

The Player's Section

As suggested the Player's Section begins with character generation rules for Rolemaster and Fantasy Hero, including some basic (i.e., combat-oriented) equipment. The author, influenced by movie logic, assigns power levels to whether characters are "The Leading Man", "The Supporting Cast", or "Extras". Rather oddly for the setting and genre, there is a requirement that "The Leading Man" will be a "goody-two-shoes". Expectations of character behaviour and participation are reduced according to power level. Power levels in Rolemaster are not defined by additional class levels but in terms of bonus skill ranks, whereas in Fantasy Hero they are defined by starting character points. Whilst a range of standard character classes and package deals appropriate to the setting, of particular interest is the difficult prospect of magic-using characters. Whilst these are sensibly reduced to witch, shaman, and animist professions and there are restrictions on magical spell lists (Rolemaster) and effects (Fantasy Hero) in most cases there are not increases in development point or character point cost.

A potted geography of the world of pirates is provided with a few paragraphs dedicated to the main setting locations (including the West Indies, Africa and the Indian Ocean) and history, with a few pages each covering the 16th and 17th century, especially in reference to the politics and religion of western Europe, and slipping a little in to the 18th century. Three general campaign periods are offered, the Elizabethan Campaign (1558-1603), the Buccaneer Campaign (1630-1670), and the Pirate Campaign (1670-1725). An entire chapter is dedicated under the heading "People of the 17th Century" which covers life in colonial areas, the social classes, normal life experiences of the buccaneer and pirates, letters of marque and pirate articles, money and trade, and even short sections on woman in the pirate world (including a couple of interesting historical examples) and religious life.

A chapter is also dedicated to 'Ships and Sailing', and 'Combat'. The ships chapter gives details of ship types with an emphasis on rigging and ship layout (with handy illustrations), informative sections on navigation, sailing issues, ship life, and maintenance, along with a poorly keyed travel table. Whilst the combat section begins with fencing and firearms rules for Rolemaster and Fantasy Hero and various swashbuckling maneuvers, there is a significant section on ship-to-ship combat with specific characteristics for the two game systems, movement and maneuvers, and boarding actions. As always the case with Rolemaster it's the "criticals" that kill you.

The Setting and The Gamemaster's Section

The section for The Setting is just under twenty-five pages and as such can be combined with The Gamemaster's section. It is mainly an potted description of the world of the period with very brief notes providing a general description, a background, the current ruler, any local customs, and additional notes. It concentrates on the regions of the campaign (The West Indies and the Spanish Main, Africa and the Indian Ocean), but also includes a chapter on The Rest of the World. Most of the descriptions are effectively only a couple of paragraphs with some exceptions running for a quarter of a page or more (e.g., Bahamas, Panama, Tortuga, Madagascar). The maps provided are visually appealing in an old style, but are frustratingly lacking with sufficient keyed information (e.g., the location of major locations mentioned in the text!), and the language maps are over-sized for the paucity of information provided. The Setting section concludes with at a timeline of major relevant events from the late 15th throuigh to the early 18th centuries. There is the sensible suggestions early in the chapter to be quite loose with the history after the campaign has started (so characters do not gain advantage from the players knowledge) along with the setting information in areas that are relatively undiscovered by Europeans.

The Gamemaster's Section begins with a description of flavoursome hints for running swashbuckling adventures, noting the usual flashy maneuvers, but also the importance of ransome and the propensity to spend money as fast as it is received. Several general adventures hooks are provided, which are pretty much as expected with elaboration into adventures styles (simple, episodic). Brief description is made for the inclusion of the supplement in other campaign settings and styles, such as the inclusion of magic, pirates in space, or with the ICE campaign setting, Shadow World.

A Game Statistics chapter defines standard character types (thugs, rogues, soldiers and sailors, merchants, gentleman/nobles. priest/scholar, Indian/African warrior) and statistics for Rolemaster/MERP and Fantasy Hero. The layout for the Fantasy Hero characters is quite poor, taking up multiple pages. Following this is a description and statistics for several well-known historical and fictional figures, including Henry Morgan, Francis L'Ollonois, Blackbeard, Long John Silver, with the same layout issues. A typical NPC crew is added, and a selection of normal creatures appropriate for the main settings; finally the layout issues are resolved with the FH statistics. The chapter concludes with a description of non-monetary treasures that can be found in a Pirates campaign which, with an incredibly limited imagination, basically means weapons.

The book concludes with some twenty pages of scenarios, making up some six scenarios in total and in contrast with the chapter introduction which claims three.
The first scenario is really just designed to introduce characters to the setting and the ship-to-ship combat system as they pick off a straggler from a main fleet. The second really doesn't have much more in terms of a plot development - this time instead of a fleet's straggler, it's buccaneers taking on a fortified
town. The third however is a combination of investigation and exploration for a fabled treasure which involves some colourful NPCs and some significant challenges. The fourth scenario is rather like the second but with an east African and Arabic take on the matter, the fifth a smuggling scenario with the usual challenges enhanced by intra-crew conflicts, and the sixth a sort of "lost worlds" setting as the characters find themselves trapped in the mythic Sargasso Sea. Ultimately all of these scenarios lack sufficient narrative hooks and work will be needed by any GM to flesh them out to be sufficiently entertaining. The book concludes with a reasonable bibliography.


Despite a lack of flourish, a lack of solid integration to the game systems it is designed for, and some poor layout decisions Pirates is actually a fairly useful resource. The location and timeline descriptions, although fairly brief for each specific component, do cover and enormous scope and interestingly evoke a global sea-faring sense to the reader. The shipping and ship-life descriptions are among the best available and in their own right valuable for any campaign of such a nature. One will probably find use in the standard NPC descriptions and the adventures, whilst pretty plain in their own right, can serve as useful setting seeds for further elaboration. Overall this is a handy supplement for any existing historical-based pirate campaign.

Style: 1 + .4 (layout) + .7 (art) + .4 (coolness) + .5 (readability) + .6 (product) = 3.6
Substance: 1 + .9 (content) + .5 (text) + .4 (fun) + .6 (workmanship) + .4 (system) = 3.8

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