One of the perennial problems I have with spacefaring SF games is ship-to-ship combat: the stakes (and in particular the potential for a total party kill) are often so high that I often feel that I can’t risk it. Blow up a starship, and the inherent unfriendliness of space to all life more or less guarantees that you’ve killed everyone who was still onboard – and in my experience even if you provide escape pods player character groups typically either use them far too early or leave it way too late to use them.
This being the case, part of me wonders why we don’t see more nautical games out there. If your ship is blown up in space, you’re fucked, but if your ship is sunk on the high seas your chances of survival are far superior. If friendly ships are nearby, it is decidedly possible to survive long enough for rescue – if unfriendly ships are closer, you could even opt to be taken prisoner, unless the people you are fighting are total cutthroats. And even if you are left drifting on a raft with minimal supplies, it’s much more viable to try to find some sort of dry land than it is to hope to find a habitable star system if you’re stranded in some random part of space.
So, today I’m going to take a look at two nautical-themed games, both of which riff on Chaosium’s Basic Roleplaying system. One of them focuses more on the strict, regimented life of the navy in the age of fighting sail; the other takes a look at piracy during its golden age, with options for a more swashbuckling and fantastic take on the genre besides.
Privateers & Gentlemen
Fantasy Games Unlimited had a funny old business model – essentially, rather than designing his own games, owner Scott Bizar instead got his start by soliciting and publishing games by various hobbyist designers, and a bit later also developed a sideline in picking up interesting games from smaller publishers who had gone bust. On the one hand, this was doubtless a boon to the gaming community, giving an early outlet to independent designers in an era when the self-publishing route wasn’t as clear and easy as it is today and saving deserving games from obscurity. On the other hand, in later years the ownership of the IP of the games in question has become a matter of controversy – the original creators of Bushido were put off making a new edition by the difficulty of reclaiming the copyright and trademark, Chivalry & Sorcery‘s rights were sold off for what is rumoured to be a startling sum (a circumstance which perhaps is fuelling the high prices demanded for the other lines), and the creators of Villains & Vigilantes are caught up in a full-blown legal face-off with Bizar.
It would be interesting to know what Jon Williams thinks about all this. Better known as Walter Jon Williams, he’s the author of Hardwired, a well-regarded novel from the classic era of cyberpunk, and he successfully fought a drawn-out IP battle against Wired magazine after Wired scared NovaLogic away from making a videogame of Hardwired and tried to ride roughshod over Williams’ trademarks. Back when he was simply Jon Williams and before Hardwired ever came into the picture, Jon Williams was cutting his teeth writing a series of naval adventure novels in the tradition of C.S. Forester and Patrick O’Brian entitled Privateers & Gentlemen, and as another offshoot of his interest in naval history put out a naval wargame called Heart of Oak in 1978. Roleplaying supplements followed, and in 1982 Fantasy Games Unlimited reprinted the lot in a boxed set under the Privateers & Gentlemen title.
Privateers & Gentlemen consists of three volumes: Heart of Oak, the ship-to-ship wargame, Promotions & Prizes, the main set of RPG rules, and Tradition of Victory, a setting guide with some extensions to the rules. It’s evident from the text that Williams gave the material a thorough update for this release; moreover, it’s clear from what he says that these updates are made in the light of extensive actual play, which is reassuring to say the least: it means that what changes are made are by and large made for the sake of playability and enjoyment.
In particular, there’s several points in Heart of Oak where Williams says he could go for a more precise simulation on some things (like the precise type of cannons in use on ships), but he decided not to because it would slow the game down too much. Heart of Oak is, at its oaken heart, a wargame where the primary problem is movement and positioning, so much so that it opens with a slow and careful tutorial about how the game models movement and positioning in light of the major factors governing how sailing ships actually work – wind direction, facing of the ship, wind strength and how many of the sails are actually unfurled. A ship can actually sail in any direction except directly into the wind, but its direction in relation to the wind will affect its speed. Further control over speed can be exercised by unfurling or rolling up sails, but in stronger winds you can’t unfurl all the sails lest they be damaged, and indeed in the game there are several circumstances where risky behaviour or just plain bad sailing can cause damage to your ship (often by knocking down one or more masts because you let the wind put too much force on them).
The game, then, consists of working out initiative and then taking turns to move ships according to the movement rules. At any point during the movement phase, you or your opponent can declare that a ship is firing its cannon (though there are obviously limits on how often you can do that based on the process of reloading the guns), and just what facing you and the ship you are firing on are at in relation to each other has an effect on how damaging a shot is. Best of all is if you are able to shoot an enemy ship directly in the stern, since then the cannonballs will go crashing through the stern windows and travel the full length of the ship causing damage all the way, but Williams offers players some sound advice from Lord Nelson, who pointed out that “No captain can go far wrong who lays his ship alongside the enemy”.
A particular point of pride of Williams is the way that in play the game naturally encourages players to first adopt Nelsonian tactics (in general it’s best to let your fleet go along in an orderly line to prevent enemies from slipping in to blast you in the butt), and then after further play start to adopt the sort of speculative tactics which could well have emerged in the wild, had technological advances brought an end to the age of fighting sail. In particular, once steam engines allow you to build warships that can move around how they like regardless of which way the wind is blowing, the movement and positioning considerations which are simulated in Heart of Oak and which are clearly so crucial to naval battles of this era suddenly become irrelevant.
Heart of Oak looks like it would be a fun enough wargame to play by itself, but as anyone who’s read the Hornblower novels will know that it’s the rich atmosphere of life aboard ship that makes those stories work, and it’s that atmosphere that provides fodder for the roleplaying rules provided in Promotions & Prizes. Apparently the first edition of the game focused exclusively on the British Royal Navy (from which the basis of running games for other European navies can be extrapolated), but for this revision of the game there’s also the option to focus on privateer crews, or US Navy forces. This presumably is the result of Williams’ research for his novels, which focus on the exploits of the proto-US Navy against the Royal Navy during the War of Independence.
The foundation of the system used here is essentially Basic Roleplaying; not explicitly, mind, but the borrowings from Runequest and the early Basic Roleplaying pamphlet are fairly evident. The stats don’t directly map to the standard BRP stats, but are close enough, and your baseline skills (in combat and out of combat) are influenced by your starting stats. Whilst combat skills are percentile-based and non-combat skills work off a D20 roll, they still use the good ol’ “successfully use a skill, get a chance to improve it” system that’s a hallmark of BRP. Even the weapons table is somewhat reminiscent of that from Runequest, with chances to strike and parry and minimum Strength and Dexterity levels required to use them.
That said, if you had to pick any system available in the late 1970s or early 1980s to riff on for this purpose, Runequest would be a decent one due to the emphasis it placed on personal origin and social status – matters of crucial importance when it came to the internal politics of navies of the era. Toffs have the linked advantages of wealth and privilege behind them; characters of lower social rank will have to work harder to be noticed by their superiors. As a fun twist you even get to choose whether you have a political allegiance to one of the parties of the era (Whig or Tory for the UK, pro-aristo or pro-bourgeoisie for the European navies, and Federalist or Democratic-Republican for the US) – Williams not only gives vivid descriptions of the parties’ positions and their particular relation to their respective navies, but also there’s the more immediate concern that if your superior is of your party they will be more inclined to help you out than if you disagree on politics. (There’s a particularly nice explanation here of the decidedly strange position of the US parties around the War of 1812 – where the Federalists had traditionally been pro-Navy, but in this case were seen as selling out the country, whereas the Democratic-Republicans had been anti-expansionist and consequently anti-Navy, but at the same time were at least seen to be mounting an effective defence against the British and Canadian forces.)
My major criticism of the book is that it doesn’t quite give enough guidance as to how groups of PCs are supposed to be set up and work together. It does a great job of setting things up for a lone PC, and if you wanted to run the game as a one-on-one deal it’d be great, but otherwise to take into account multiple PCs you would need to so some work. For instance, in any particular year you need to roll dice to see whether the Navy even has employment for you, so if you ran rules-as-written there you’d most likely leave at least one PC ashore. Then you need to roll to assign each character to a ship, and it’s deeply unlikely that you’ll all be assigned to the same ship. Even if you assume each ship is sailing together in a little fleet, each ship has to roll its own individual mission.
None of these obstacles are insurmountable, and it’s viable to run the game either having all the players be crew on the same ship or having them each running their own ship in their fleet – the latter might be preferable given that the ship-to-ship combat system is Heart of Oak, which puts a lot of emphasis on line tactics. But it’s certainly odd to see it such a prominent feature of the game when Williams goes out of the way to say that you should, of course, make sure to keep the player characters together and involved in the game and ignore the rules if that’s necessary. It’s almost as though he realised that there was this problem with the duty assignment process early on, but couldn’t work out how to change it to adapt it for group play.
Tradition of Victory expands the material in Promotions & Prizes, perhaps the most useful sections being those for wacky encounters during shore leave and an expansive history of the “Age of Fighting Sail”. For the most part, it’s stuffed with setting details which, along with those in Promotions & Prizes, really help the setting come alive.
On the subject of historical accuracy, one thing noted in Promotions & Prizes the game notes is that the social status rules assume that the player characters are white male adherents of the politically fashionable religion of their home nation, and points out that anyone who didn’t fall into that category would have a rough time in the navy (though examples do exist even of women who crossdressed to get in the navy). The game takes the stance that players are entirely free to play whatever character type they want, though they should be aware that they may have to deal with severe IC discrimination based on their decisions. (In keeping with the long naval tradition of buggery, odds are given for deciding whether an NPC is gay or not, and if they are gay whether they dare actually act on it, and it’s noted that whilst in principle there was a death penalty for sodomy in the navy this was almost never actually enforced, though lesser charges were frequently bought instead.)
On the one hand, “it’s historical!” is used all too often to justify discrimination in games with little historical basis – so often, in fact, that my hackles tend to rise whenever a game designer justifies any decision along these lines on the basis of historical accuracy. At the same time, it’s notable that back in the 1970s and early 1980s it was far from uncommon for games to have stat caps or other modifiers for female characters based on old-fashioned assumptions, but there are no such mechanical penalities applied here, only the social penalties which pretty much undeniably existed back in the day.
Ultimately, the stance Williams takes here is the only stance you can reasonably take if your motivation for playing a historical RPG is to play a historical RPG, in which everyone has agreed that part of the point is to create the immersive experience of living in a different era with different values, including values which in the modern day we would find abhorrent. Frankly, that’s exactly the sort of game I would be inclined to use Privateers & Gentlemen for in the first place, since for more fantastic or counterfactual games there are a plethora of options out there – such as, for example, Blood Tide.
Charlie Krank’s tenure as President of Chaosium, which lasted from Greg Stafford’s departure in 1998 until Greg and fellow Chaosium founder Sandy Petersen returned to take back control of Chaosium earlier this week (by the way: HOLY SHIT, GREG AND SANDY ARE BACK IN CHARGE AT CHAOSIUM), is likely to be a controversial one as far as the history books go. Certainly, the company’s fortunes during this era have been decidedly varied, their track record on paying freelancers decidedly patchy, it took an outrageously long time for Chaosium to catch up and finally get in on the PDF market and more recently there’s been issues with them delivering on some of their Kickstarters. On the other hand, Chaosium have at least survived the last 17 years, which was far from a sure thing back in the wake of the Mythos CCG and associated fiascos, and under Krank’s tenure Chaosium have at least come up with some smart ideas.
One of the smartest, by my reckoning, are Chaosium’s range of monographs. Available both in Call of Cthulhu-specific and more generic Basic Roleplaying-based lines, monographs are products – adventures, supplements, settings, sometimes even entire games – written by hobbyist authors and submitted to Chaosium for publication. Those accepted are published on the understanding that Chaosium provide minimal editorial and layout help, and consequently make no guarantees to the buying public as to the quality of the monographs themselves. Not quite worth the cost back when they were only available in print, the monographs are perfect products for the PDF era; produced with minimal overhead to Chaosium, they provide a nice trickle of almost-passive income, as well as a pool of products where they have the option of developing them into fuller pieces. (For instance, Cthulhu Invictus was originally a monograph before being revised as a fully professional supplement.)
I suspect it has also helped in these post-exclusivity days, in which thanks to Mongoose Publishing releasing their version of Runequest under the OGL with an SRD and all (plus other, more developed games based on that very OGL coming out under their own open publishing arrangements, such as OpenQuest and the OpenQuest-derived Renaissance system which is better optimised for black powder-era games) means that it’s really easy for people to put out Basic Roleplaying-compatible games and products without involving Chaosium at all if they want to. (Of course, game mechanics aren’t patentable, but the benefit of an OGL that says “so long as you obey these terms you can use material from our SRD all you like without copyright infringement” should not be underestimated when it comes to giving people the confidence to actually publish.)
This being the case, the monograph scheme seems to me to be the perfect counterbalance to this situation. Despite its varied fortunes, the Chaosium name still has a substantial reputation associated with it, and I’m sure for many fans there’s a specific attraction to seeing their fan works published under the Chaosium name. By offering such fans a route to market that allows them to not only use the Chaosium name, but actually have their games promoted through Chaosium’s website and DriveThruRPG sections, Chaosium’s monographs may have a reputation for variable quality that comes from them leaving the editing and layout to the authors, but they still represent a very tempting alternative to simply just publishing your product by itself, especially if you don’t fancy all the work associated with trying to promote your own products full time. Unless, like the publishers of OpenQuest and Renaissance, you want to make an actual go at the whole game publisher thing, I’d say the monograph scheme offers a great deal.
Blood Tide isn’t a monograph, but it feels like it could have originally been intended as one before being selected for greater things. Like many monographs, it isn’t quite a standalone game – it’s a supplement in Chaosium’s support line for their big fat Basic Roleplaying book, and requires that volume to play. Instead, it combines author Kenneth Spencer’s application of the principles in that book with some of his own inventions (notably, systems for ship-to-ship combat, swashbuckling stunts, and voodoo) to provide support for piratical seafaring adventures using BRP.
One thing Spencer seems particularly aware of is how the flexibility of BRP can usefully support the flexibility that is possible with this sort of history-plus-weirdness supplement; although the default setting provided involves a healthy dose of supernatural shenanigans and unlikely swashbuckling, Spencer explicitly notes that the supplement could also be used to play a straight historical game, and here and there suggests options to support that.
That said, the weird Caribbean setting presented here is actually kind of interesting. Existing in the wake of a monstrous magical experiment by early European colonisers, the Caribbean is a region where the old spiritual and magical traditions of indigenous peoples, colonisers and slaves alike are at a disadvantage when set against syncretic systems like Caribbean voodoo, specifically cooked up not only to blend African, local, and European religious and occult ideas but also to take into account the unique conditions in the local environment. Thus, whilst it might still be possible for a European occultist working from a Hermetic grimoire or an African shaman drawing on their traditions to accomplish magical effects (represented by the BRP sorcery system) and there’s a certain legitimacy to everyone’s religious outlook (though in that sort of everyone’s-actually-right way which contradicts everyone’s beliefs just as much as it supports them), the esoteric momentum is currently behind voodoo and all the genre-appropriate action that inspires.
The game setting, therefore, provides a syncretic metaphysic which not only naturally supports the worldview of Caribbean voodoo, but also tends to come down on the side of motley multicultural pirate crews as opposed to straightlaced, conformist government navy sorts. On the one hand, you’d need to take great care in a game featuring these ideas not to use voodoo in an appropriative manner – and arguably Blood Tide has already done that by turning it into an RPG magic system – but on the other hand it’s a nice example of how a game’s cosmology and magic system can support its assumed themes, and if you wanted to riff on The Secret of Monkey Island, On Stranger Tides, or Pirates of the Caribbean then the systems provided here help capture the feel of the supernatural aspects of those stories.
The setting material provided here also provides useful insights into various piratey locales, as well as a string of stats for various famous pirates. A particularly nice touch is the provision of a number of fully-detailed crews, who could make equally good support NPCs on the player characters’ ship or excellent rivals. With all the support material provided here, it would be very easy to run a sandboxy game straight out of the book.
What would make that process somewhat easier would have been another editing pass after layout, because there’s a number of typos, mangled tables, and “See Page XX”s littering the thing. This might be acceptable on a BRP monograph, since those are explicitly marketed as not having benefitted from professional-standard editing; indeed, the very personal flavour of Blood Tide makes me wonder whether Spencer originally wrote it as a monograph, only for Chaosium to select it for more exalted status. Whatever its origins, though, Blood Tide is presented as a professional product and as such deserves a somewhat better editing job than the one it received. Still, this isn’t quite enough to turn me off it, either as a BRP game or as a general supplement discussing the golden age of piracy.