Sunday, January 16, 2022

"Let's be Pirates"

Image by Ego Altere, courtesy
of Pixabay
In the late 1990s, I had an odd mix of players who came and went from my AD&D2e campaigns, which were often short due to the sheer instability of many of my friends' lives. One particular abortive campaign in 1995 really shaped me as a DM, and is the reason I will forever stay in the Old-School camp of gaming.

The premise of the campaign was this: a legion of hobgoblins and goblinoids are building up in the ruined forts of a lost empire under a powerful new leader. If left unchecked they will mass into an army and sweep into the prosperous kingdom of Tantlin and crush much of its Northern Reaches and Heartland before they can muster a meaningful defense.

My hopes for the campaign was that the PCs would warn the authorities and start the campaign raiding against goblin camps, scouting out danger, and eventually hitting leaders to weaken and break the goblin war machine. Or adventure to find magic and secrets that could arm their homeland against the invaders, I also had a few diplomatic intrigues noted down as alternatives.

Cover: Red Hand of Doom
©2006 Wizards of the Coast
So basically, The Red Hand of Doom, but ten years before its publication, and with demons instead of dragons.

Session One

The first adventure had the PCs hired to look for ancient documents in a ruined beehive fort; I used the map straight out of the AD&D2e Campaign Sourebook and Catacombs Guide, which is one of the best resources published for DMs ever, in my opinion.

The PCs encountered a camp for advance scouts with Worgs and Goblin riders, although most of the scouting party was out (to return at a set time that would hopefully give the PCs an opportunity for Ambush.) One wall was painted with a crude map covered in notations about the area, including the best plunder and most desirable captives in the local community.

The battle plans were not very specific, and difficult to translate fully as there were lots of abbreviations, pictograms, and code, but the players got the impression that the plans are for a pretty sizable force. They realized that this was a prelude to invasion.

"Beehive Fortress" Map from the AD&D2e
Campaign Sourcebook and Catacomb Guide
Map by Dave Sutherland; ©1990 TSR
Now this was a mixed group. I had a couple of veteran players who were very serious, but one of them was forced to invite along a younger brother and a cousin of his or he would not be allowed to play (one of several passive-aggressive gambits by his family to try to make him stop playing D&D.) The brother and cousin did not take the game seriously, and were still coming to grips with the idea that all player actions are going to have meaningful consequences.

I expected that this would shape the campaign in a risky, combat-heavy direction. But I didn't expect the gambit I got.

"Well, this sucks! Let's run away, steal a ship, and become pirates! Everything here is doomed."

And the other players laughed and agreed to this course of action.

There was a set to the players affect that told me that they were looking forward to me pushing them back on track and carrying on with my "plot." Certainly, at the time, that was a very common thing for DMs to do... and even encouraged in some RPG books. Some of my players didn't believe that Dungeons & Dragons had the total freedom it was purported to have. And I could tell they were testing the waters. I will confess that the temptation to have them captured by a goblin press gang was high... but I decided to honor the covenant of the DM...

"Okay, I said," are you returning to town for supplies, or just stealing them from the goblins."

"Stealing them from the goblns!"

I dutifully rolled some random encounter and weather tables, checked for getting lost, etc., and after a few minutes told them "You have no real difficulty heading West to the coast of the Raz sea, you have a near brush with a lion, but it was more scared of you than you it, and ran off. it did take longer than expected, and your horses were starting to look tasty before you reach the port of Errol. The guards are on high alert after a few goblin raids, but are generally friendly."

I let the players seek out a pirate captain and set sail.

Session Two

Goblin from the AD&D2e Monstrous
; ©1999 TSR
My players started session two in media res attacking a damaged merchant ship under the banner of Captain Flynn (from, the port of Errol, naturally) and finding it has been commandeered by goblins working with Sahuagin, with plans to careen it and turn to privateering for the Horde themselves.

I allowed players who wanted to make new, piratey characters to replace old characters if they wished.

After the battle, the players, not wanting to take orders from a mere NPC, stage a mutiny, mind-controlling several crew, and scouring the captain's log for charts and clues they plan on hitting a few known caches.

I rolled with the pirate thing and kept the invasion progressing on the mainland I figured that they might be interested in privateering, smuggling, hunting for weapons to fight the hoard, or maybe just taking the odd goblin ear bounty on top of treasure hunting and capturing merchant ships.

Session Three

The players pillage a couple of monster-infested islands. They satisfy themselves with low-level treasures found on the surface and avoid serious dungeon crawling. Or even really looking for dungeons. Then they head to port. They find the port they left is dealing with a sudden influx of refugees, goblin raids left several burnt out buildings, and lost ships are forcing rationing. They get wind that their ship might be commandeered and their crew pressed into service. They narrowly evade having their plunder stolen by Sea Wolves. One player is infected with lycanthropy.

Session Four

The PCs head north to a small island held by Tantilin that they figure would be free of the mainland goblin threat, and thus easier pickings. They find the island under hobgoblin control, the locals whose heads do not adorn the dock are enslaved. They barely escape with their lives and put into a blind cove to try to sneak to town where they can hand over the intelligence on the hobgoblins without risking their ship or crew.

They find the port under martial law, swarming with soldiers under a military governor who does not take kindly to freebooters trying to hand over intelligence and then walk away without naming their ship. They barely escape.

The Aftermath

This was the point where my players made a sobering realization. Yes: their agency went all the way within the constraints of the game world. They could choose anything and no "plot" was going to be forced on them. But that meant not only did everything they do have consequences, but everything that they chose not to do had consequences, too. They did not slow the enemy advance, or even tell the Margrave of the lands they started in. they did not let the navy know about Goblin reavers at sea. That meant that the goblin army had weeks to rally, gather intelligence, and then advance on an unsuspecting populace.

And that changed the pirating game. Finding safe ports got harder. Martial Law spread, and so did refugees, crime, disease, curses and famine.

They felt guilty about this. Their characters, after all, could have just spent an extra three days and a little gold, and saved hundreds of lives in their home village, and hundreds more by letting Tantlin choose a battlefield in the Reaches rather than the Heartland. And if they had chosen to keep striking at the goblins, they could have slowed the attack by months and possibly crippled the goblin forces before they fully mustered. And believe me, I wasn't trying to make them feel guilty; I was creating a backdrop where pirates had a chance to shine.

But this revelation had made them understand that as far as the game world was concerned, their choices had significant moral weight within the game world. Their characters were craven and depraved in their indifference.

They asked me to end the campaign and start another one where they could try to play differently, and more heroically. I was fine with that. After all, I wanted them to enjoy playing the game, and heroic characters sounded more fun to me.

In the long run, my players also got more out of D&D once they had this moment. They felt like their in-character choices had weight and that made the sense of risk climb. Not only could their characters die (which happened often enough in my games,) but they could cause innocent lives to be lost... or save them and make the game world a better place. It made the game more engaging to them.

Ultimately it also meant that my one problem player left the group: he wanted to play a game where there were no consequences and he was free to rape, burn, and pillage to his heart's content. realizing that Dungeons & Dragons wasn't going to give him that put him off. I am sure GTA was his jam a couple of years later. And my campaigns had 100% less rape, 60% less burning, but only around 10% less pillaging accordingly; which were perfect numbers for me.

I also had a lot less trouble organizing groups, because this experience made them want to play more in the end.

Consequences and risk make the game better, and the bigger the consequences, the batter the game in my experience. I took this forward, making sure that every campaign offered a lot at stake from the beginning and let the characters decide how to best respond to it. It definitely has made me a better DM.


  1. This is how it's done.

    "Let's be Pirates" Should be a meme of how to run D&D right

  2. What a fantastic anecdote! This what I love about a "sandbox" approach and why I loathe railroads. About a decade ago I was running the original Enemy Within campaign for WFRP 1e. Despite that campaign's sainted status it is still, very much, on rails. We got to one point where one of the characters developed a mutation that was pretty overt. Given that there is so much focus on Warhammer of "Chaos bad - burn it!" it became pretty hard to proceed with the campaign as written. The players tried a few ways to "cure" their companion (who was, mutation aside, a pretty good guy) and basically came up against bigotry and hatred at every point.

    So they decided to throw their lot in with the forces of Chaos.

    I absolutely LOVED this and gleefully threw away the rest of the campaign and allowed this glorious, bloody and (pun fully intended) chaotic nonsense to unfold.

    The game didn't last much longer after this, but it burned brightly and gloriously (and produced a much more satisfying ending that TEW ever did).

    1. Yes! This is exactly the kind of play I love: when things go completely mad and everyone rolls with it