Monday, August 23, 2010


The reader of penny romances, or the viewer of the cinematic works of Mr Douglas Fairbanks, would have no difficulty in recognising a pirate, could they meet one. And indeed it is almost impossible to venture down the docks of Teleleli (or any city of great wealth but modest virtue) without bumping into a drunken vagabond on shore leave, or as the pirates call it, "arrrrr and arrrrr". Our hypothetical viewer would be surprised to learn that they beheld one of the better-behaved of the crew; pirates who commit minor offenses are frequently voted the punishment of being confined to the ship during shore leave (a punishment known as "yo-ho-home detention"). They would note with approval the pirate's harlequinesque clothing, drawn from all corners of the world, and their healthy frame, indicative of a vigorous outdoor life, marred no doubt with some scars. Perhaps they are accompanied by a monkey, or a foul-mouth parrot scarce more gaudy than they. Their only puzzlement would arise from the lack of pistol (the ship-board equivalent being arrows designed to set the opposing ship on fire), the pirates' expertise with a diving suit (a necessity when one might be trading with mermaids or robbing the halls of an undersea king), and of course the replacement of gold with shells and amber.

Each pirate crew will have its own document, usually called the Articles, Charter Party, or Custom of the Coast. It will lay out the duties of each crew member, and punishments for failing in them. It will also cover the division of plunder, and give amounts of compensation for wounds.

Each crew member will have to sign or make their mark on the document, then swear an oath to abide by them. The oath is usually taken on an axe, crossed swords, or the skull of a former crew member or enemy. The document itself is posted in a prominent place, such as the door of the grand cabin.

New recruits from captured ships sometimes sign the Articles, either voluntarily or under threat.

Carpenters and navigators, being rare and valuable, are likely to be forced to sign Articles under duress. Those who do not sign are likely to fare better if the crew is captured and sent to trial.

Pirates on the verge of capture or surrender usually burn their Articles or throw them overboard, to prevent the papers being used against them at trial. However it is likely that a typical document might run as follows:

I The Captain to have Authority during times of Battle; at all other times, Affairs of Moment to be decided by a Majority of the Crew.
II Every Crew Member to have a vote in Affairs of Moment; equal title to the fresh Provisions, or strong Liquors, at any time seized, and may use them at pleasure, unless a Scarcity makes it necessary, for the good of all, to vote a Retrenchment.
III The Lights and Candles to be put out at eight o'clock at night: if any of the Crew, after that Hour still remain inclined for drinking, they are to do it on the open deck.
IV To desert the Ship or their Quarters in battle, will be punished with death or marooning [to be 'marooned' is to be left on a small island or unexplored coast, with a minimum of provisions.]
V No striking one another on board, but all Quarrels to be ended on Shore, to first blood. The Punishment for striking to be Sov's Law. [Sov's Law, otherwise known as Sod's Law or, more formally, Seti's Law or Sovereign's Law, is a flogging. This is considered most humiliating, associated as it is with slavery.]
VI If any of the Company shall steal any Thing to the Value of five shells, they shall be marooned or hanged. For theft of less Value, they shall suffer what Punishment the Majority of the Company see fit.
VII Any of the Company who does not keep their Arms fit for an Engagement, or neglects their Business, shall be cut off from their Share, and suffer such other Punishment as the Company shall think fit.
VIII If any of the Company shall lose a Joint in time of an Engagement, shall have 400 Shells; if a Limb, 800.
IX The one that sees a Sail first, shall have the best Sword or Bow aboard of her.

A common punishment for minor offenses is to be given the 'Dog Watch' or the 'Graveyard Watch'. This means that the malefactor must keep lookout while most of the crew is asleep. The Dog Watch is from sunset until midnight, while the Graveyard Watch is from midnight to sunrise.

Some pirate crews carry a Letter of Marque (sometimes called a Letter of Marque and Reprisal) from a particular government or noble. In theory, this gives them official sanction to plunder ships of hostile nations. Thus the crew, if captured, should be treated as prisoners of war, not tried and hung as criminals. In return the crew is required to give up a portion of their plunder to their patron. Some crews who carry Letters of Marque style themselves privateers rather than pirates. Note that Teleleli is so faction-ridden that a Letter of Marque originating there would be of no value.

A Letter of Marque is no guarantee. It will be much more useful if the crew in question has a relatively honourable reputation, and has refrained from plundering neutral ships (or even the ships of the land they supposedly fight for, as has happened). Naturally all sides tend to honour their own Letters of Marque more than others; but some pirates have been executed by their own side.

Pirate crews vary greatly in their sense of honour, or lack of it. Some only rob the wealthy, rather like Captain Mission in our own world. At the other extreme, there are low rogues who will slaughter or enslave all on board after accepting their surrender. Most pirate crews prefer their victims to surrender, for practical if not moral reasons. There is a widespread practice of flying a flag featuring a skull and crossbones or an hour-glass, indicating that the pirates will slaughter all opposition if they do not surrender. The skull and crossbones is a symbol of the God of Unnatural Death, while the hour-glass is said to indicate that time is running short. Likewise most pirates will free any slaves they find, and show little mercy for slavers, if only because they increase the size of their crews thereby, and because the feeding and guarding of slaves is outside of their expertise. Those who style themselves privateers will usually at least make pretence of civilised behaviour (which might be worse for slaves, should the privateers decide to honour the property rights of their masters).

There are a few pirate crews whose 'rules of engagement' are not readily explicable. For example one ship is captained by an ancient computer. Some say the computer resembles a cat made of metal. Others say that it resembles a human fetus in a jar, suspended in liquid. In any case, the computer believes that the world, being flat, is in constant danger of tipping over. To prevent this, the ship sails around under its direction, taking objects from one place and putting them in another. Thus a ship that crosses their path will find themselves interrogated as to their destination. They may find themselves loaded down with precious jewels (the pirates always give something that the recipient will want to keep). On the other hand they may find a certain portion of their cargo thrown into the sea, or taken to be given to a ship going somewhere else. Sometimes even this is not enough, and the ship is sunk, and the captured crew taken to some far island and marooned. The pirates are, at least, humane within the bounds of their mission, and will not slaughter those who surrender, nor mistreat prisoners.

Likewise, the crew of the Peony only plunder red items. They will let any ship go unharmed if it has no red items, but they will kill without mercy anyone who hides so much as a piece of red underwear from them. One of their crew carries a detailed colour chart, so that they may distinguish red items from pink, brown or orange.

Other well-known pirate captains include the halfling Lorena Hobbit, and the talking sheep Baa-Baa Rossa. The latter is rumoured to be related to the famous talking sheep bard, Lady Baa-Baa.


  1. Players should have to write their own Articles to guide their company of characters. Right after character creation...

  2. Interesting idea. By the way, the example I gave here is heavily based on real pirate crew's charters.


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