My Pirate Campaign Turns One Year Old!

It’s the one year anniversary of my Pathfinder campaign, Reavers on the Seas of  Fate.  Let’s take a look back and see how it’s gone!

We have every session written up in multipage glory if you want to read the blow-by-blow.  I hope some of the folks who wrote some of the adventures I used – Second Darkness, the Freeport trilogy, loads of the Bleeding Edge (Green Ronin), Wicked Fantasy Factory (Goodman Games), and Penumbra (Atlas Games) modules – do, and see how they come out in play!

The short form is that our brave would-be pirates have:

  • Lived through an encounter with a ghost ship
  • Avoided being slain by the Chelaxian Navy (several times)
  • Gone to Riddleport and got in with Saul Vancaskerkin, a minor crime lord, and help run the inn and gambling hall the Gold Goblin
  • Run afoul of other factions in Riddleport – pretty much all of them
  • Uncovered a hidden temple of serpent men and eventually rooted it out
  • Nearly gotten assassinated (several times)
  • Gone to join a pirate crew to infiltrate and assault a Chelish manor inhabited by a creepy degenerate family
  • Been framed for the assassination of a crime lord and weather an attack on the Gold Goblin
  • Been blackballed by the crime lords of Riddleport, to some degree at the behest of Elias Tammerhawk, leader of the Cyphermages, and have to go on the lam
  • Gone to the ancient ruins of Viperwall and endure loads of voodoo to get some idol that Serpent’s Cyphermage girlfriend says will prevent some kind of evil ritual involving the Riddleport Light
  • Fought a Hellknight
  • Gone to help Jaren the Jinx, son of the infamous pirate Black Dog, grow his arm back, over the bodies of Shark God cultists and druid witchy women with mutant hulks in tow
  • Fought Black Dog’s ghost, during which Tommy accepted his geas to fight the chosen of the Shark God, and looted his pirate treasure
  • Broken into the Riddleport Light during a storm and massive supernatural outbreak, and fought their way to the top

The characters are fourth level.  That’s about right for a year of play.  I ran a five year campaign once that topped out at around level nine.  If you want to powerlevel, play WoW.  I like a more realistic progression, and to me D&D is the most fun in the levels 1-10 range.  Outside that it breaks down.  And in my experience, it is extremely, extremely seldom anyone goes past about level 14.  I’ve been in a lot of gaming groups over time and NONE of them have.  Class design that focuses on level 12+ and “epic level” stuff is all a waste to me.

Even though the characters are fourth level, and I’m also not hugely generous with the loot, they are master killers.  That’s what really “settling in to your level” gets you.  All the players know how to make the best use of what they have, and also understand that fights aren’t always level appropriate.  Any fight can be a fight for your life, so even at level four these boys are in it to win it.  I have to make bosses 8th level now to stand a chance.  Heck, they took down a level 12 ghost last session. I think the fights against the really powerful serpentfolk early in the campaign, while scary because the party felt so overmatched, really helped orient expectations well and their routine tactics are well done.

The art Paul did for the characters has really helped bring them to life (we use paper standup minis with the art on them, too).  And everyone has really embraced the scheming life of a Riddleportian, and all have their own cool agendas going on.  I’ve tried to help stress the ethnic origin of each of them, too, to keep them nice and distinct – Sindawe being Mwangi (African) and Serpent being Ulfen (Viking) are the easiest, though I need to do more with Serpent’s.  Tommy as a halfling, which are seen as a slave race in Cheliax, has worked out well.  Wogan is Chelaxian but doesn’t really play up that part of his life, he’s more about god and guns, which is also fun.

We’ve had our rough spots.  We lost Ox when Bruce moved out of town, which was sad.  We also had a time where Chris (Sindawe) was very frustrated with the game, but we talked through that.  I try to run a lot more realistic/organic game, and a lot of adventure paths as written kinda have the obvious “clue bar” you press to dispense clues, and so he thought that he/the party was doing something wrong when they were banging on the clue bar (and/or a hapless captive) and the answers weren’t falling out.  But since we’ve aligned expectations he’s been enthusiastic.

And the NPCs have been colorful.  They often have 1-3 NPCs with the party, which is a challenge for me from the time-share point of view but is gratifying in that they see other people in the game world as somewhat “real” and helpful, people you can actually make friendships with or fall in love with, not “dialog tree” soulless automatons out of a computer game.

The Pathfinder rules have served us well.  I could deal with them being a little less complicated – maybe take a half step back towards 2e from 3e – but no bad balance problems.  Note that they don’t have a wizard, except for Serpent’s girlfriend Samaritha.  Serpent is powerful and his snake Saluthra is super powerful, but he’s a good sport about me enforcing the whole animal intelligence thing on Saluthra; it doesn’t just wade into combat and fight like it’s a PC.  When Serpent specifically sics her on someone, she’ll grab them and squeeze them to death; then sometimes it’s hard to coax her off that victim and on to another. Sindawe is impossible to hit with his super-AC, but tends to flurry misses (monk disease).  Tommy doesn’t do much damage at all, unless he is sneak attacking, but that’s fine.  Wogan casts/heals and uses his guns; he needs another feat or so to get good enough at the guns to be hitting reliably though.  He doesn’t channel as much as one would think.  Samaritha sometimes does clever things when that’s needed, otherwise she belongs to the “magic missile it until it stops moving” school of thought, which is quite effective on the balance really.

I have set the expectation that my rulings on specific situations trump “what the rulebook says,” and everyone’s not always enthusiastic about it, but I think it is an important driver to the overall feel of the game.  I value realistic response over rules and organic over predictable.

And it’s so easy to run 3e and 3.5e adventures with little to no conversion.  Rules wonks can be such bitches on forums and whatnot.  Treat 3.5e adventures as 1 CR lower and 3e as 2 CRs lower and you’re done; I’ve done it with like ten modules successfully now.  I sometimes convert big bosses but mainly that’s because I want to use some specific new cool thing from the Pathfinder rules.

I’ve also used the opportunity to make some new rules.  Chases, mass combat, naval combat, gunpowder weapons, Infamy points…  I’ve been happy with them.

You’ll notice there’s a lot of sex and violence in the Reavers’ lives.  We all watch R-rated movies and so our game is R-rated.  I am somewhat concerned by people who are all about Human Centipede but then demand their D&D to be squeaky clean – that seems a bit mental to me.  I’m striving to have Reavers qualify to be the next big HBO series!  I actually take a lot of inspiration from the TV show Sons of Anarchy for the campaign.

Next session, we will complete the first big plot arc, and along with it the first chapter of Second Darkness (Shadow in the Sky) and the Freeport Trilogy.  I have some places I can go from there but I want to cue off the players’ interests.   I can head them into the new Serpent’s Skull adventure path, Razor Coast (if Nick Logue ever gets his crap together and gets it to the printer), more Freeport stuff…

I hope you’ve enjoyed reading along.  Feel free and chip in below with questions, comments, etc.  If you’re one of my players, I hope you’ve been enjoying playing as much as I’ve enjoyed running!  You should also feel free to share your likes and/or dislikes about the campaign below.

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12 responses to “My Pirate Campaign Turns One Year Old!

  1. I’m pulling together Second Darkness, Serpent’s Skull, Shackled City and Savage Tide together for a future campaign. I have a couple of questions:

    Do you change any of the treasure in your adventures to account for the slower XP progression?

    Do the players have their own ship yet?

    I don’t mind some sex and rock ‘n’ roll in my games – do you handle the liaisons between characters and NPCs mostly off screen? How do you handle it at the table?

    Any major conflicts between the party members?

    • I don’t really change the treasure per se. First, a lot of the Paizo APs are treasure shy at low levels. Also, a lot of the gap is covered by my penchant for realism – it ends up with the PCs not being able to just loot everything. If the cops are banging on the door, or the criminal’s allies are coming back with reinforcements, or you are racing the clock to save someone from sacrifice, you don’t have time for an in depth search and loot. You can’t always carry everything (the PCs are really struggling with Black Dog’s treasure right now; they keep staging it to semi-secure locations as they proceed through the adventure). And sometimes you have to sell in some little crap town and take a loss. And there are expenses, including brikes and shakedowns by the Chelish navy or others. And NPCs demand a share – if someone tells Thalios Dondrel he doesn’t get a share or gets a half share “because he’s an NPC,” he cuts them. I’m trying to make sure they understand WHY it is that pirates tend to take their treasure and bury it, so that they do the same in turn.

      They don’t have their own ship yet, that’s something to aspire to. Besides, they know in my world you don’t get far running a pirate ship at level 4; the Chelish Navy would blow you out of the water or you’d spend your free time having other pirates taking all your loot. Most of the pirate captain types they’ve met are in the level 8 range; you could probably get away with it with a party of 6th level.

      Liaisons are sometimes off screen, sometimes on screen, depending on their plot and character development importance. Think about a series like True Blood or The Sopranos. A lot of people are having sex all the time, but it’s shown when it is relevant. Sex (and combat, incidentally) are not times when the plot “turns off.” So most random brothel visits aren’t gotten into, but let’s talk about the time when Sindawe was propositioned by someone he thought was just a Mwangi shopkeeper but turned out to be “Mama Watanna.” Well, this is an important plot development, so after they went upstairs, we returned to the middle of the action. “You’re lying on your back and the woman is riding you vigorously when things start to get weird; you look over and the floor of the room is writhing with a carpet of snakes! When you look back up at the woman, she is still panting in ecstasy but her hair has grown several feet longer to where it touches the bed.” They’re scened exactly like an R rated movie – in fact, truth be told, the sex scene in Angel Heart was the inspiration for that one. And it was a huge turning point – would he try to lop her head off, or freak out, or what? Luckily Sindawe believes that once you’re in the saddle, you’re there for the duration.

      Most others have gone unremarked… I think we’ve “been live” during some sexual scenes with Lavender Lil (when Sindawe and Thalios visited her; I wanted to see if anything would happen that would provoke Tommy’s jealousy, but wisely they kept it quiet) and Iesha (to reinforce what a crazy use-sex-to-manipulate person she is). Character development also happens from showing when and how people engage in sex.

      I think going into it somewhat is important to frame relationships, too. If a PC is actually involved with an NPC, it’s a way to build bonds and define the relationship. “You have a nagging girlfriend. Uh, I’m sure you bone her from time to time but let’s not mention that” is not a compelling bonding experience for a PC. The more realistically complex/messy relationships are in the game, the more PCs respond to NPCs and the world as if they are real, which in turn gives you the kind of play experience all these “oh do I have enough strikers and what about the treasure parcel” troglodytes will sadly never experience.

      No really major conflicts in the party yet. There’s sources of tension. As I mentioned I kinda tried to provoke some Lil jealousy between Tommy and Sindawe, but that never triggered. Sindawe and Tommy being evil conflicts with Wogan’s ideals a bit. (Tommy’s torture of the assassin Jesswin put everyone off some.) And everyone thinks Serpent’s girlfriend is an evil agent, but he does too really so it’s not so much intraparty conflict as just a source of tension. I’ve tried putting in some treasure everyone might want, but they’re pretty good about just dicing for it and letting bygones be bygones. Sindawe has a strong “I must get payback” streak though, so if I can get anyone to mess with him he’ll feel obliged to return it. I do have a couple other things cooking, we’ll see what happens. I believe some healthy party conflicts are interesting and desirable (again, like any TV show you’ve ever watched).

      Dramatic construction wise, my inspirations are The Unit, The Shield, Sons of Anarchy, Rome, Deadwood, True Blood, and The Sopranos.

      • Cool answers, and gives me something to think about. My Kingmaker game hasn’t had the opportunities for such shenanigans yet, but with Fey such deals and opportunities will arise.

        There was a few hilarious scenes as my female players tried to get a prudish werewolf to “cut loose a little” at the Frog Pond. Erm… long story…

        Anyway I’m really enjoying following your game, and at some point I’ll use your campaign as inspiration for a pirate game of my own.

  2. Sons of Anarchy = Damn Fantastic!!!!

  3. Grats on the one year anniversary! My game hit two years in July and my players are currently at 10th level.

    On ridiculously low-level characters almost killing much more powerful monsters, last Tuesday in our modified 1E game a cloud giant shook us down (we were all 1st level) for our few magic items. He took my cursed ring of delusion (I thought it made me fly… very dangerous) and some potions. The DM rolled for random encounters and got cloud giant… we did the encounter and he rolled again… cloud giant. The only logical thing, as we were coming out of the mountains, was that he got to the bottom ahead of us… the hard way. Since it was my cursed ring that he took, the DM made me roll the falling damage for him… he had 1 hp. But we RPed with him and didn’t kill him. It was awesome.

    Sorry to go off-topic.

  4. How often are you playing? We started playing a weekly game of Kingmaker in July, using the standard progression table, and we just hit sixth level. We have been noodling around just a little bit, fishing for experience, but even so, I wouldn’t have thought it would make that much difference.

    Then again, there are some big experience rewards for city building at certain points, and that one propelled us from fourth to fifth quite quickly, as I recall.

    For what it’s worth, it was reading your summaries which got me over my trepidation regarding D&D3. I missed it completely as I was out of gaming for its lifespan, getting back in just in time for the Unmentionable Edition, so all I heard were horror stories about how clunky and horrible a game it was. And yet there seemed to be nothing clunky about your summaries, so when my group thought about moving away from The Unmentionable, I was a strong supporter of trying Pathfinder, and so that’s what we’re playing now. I’m enjoying it immensely.

    • We play every other week, about 5 1/2 hours a shot. (Alternate weeks are the Lighthouse game.) I don’t use XP progression at all, I use “give them a level when I want to.” It removes about 20% of the unfun work of being a DM.

      Glad you’re enjoying Pathfinder! And glad you got over the Edition Which Must Not Be Named. :-) Yeah, 3e is only clunky if you let it be. If you play it like 4th, where the rules are god, then it probably is. I think over the course of 3e, something happened to change player/DM expectations in that vein (probably the ultimate ascendance of the CRPG helped). It was going on before 4e, so I don’t blame 4e for its genesis, just for being an enabler for the dysfunctional.

      • Yes, we’re not using all the rules at the table, and we make a lot of on the fly rulings; I’d imagine if we were sticklers, we would use all the rules from the book, and it might get a bit complicated, but then Pathfinder allows us to be that flexible without falling apart, something the fine balance of The Unmentionable did not.

        I might mention your experience method to my GM, as we’re quickly outstripping our foes in combat. We fought a nine-headed hydra last night, with a hit point bonus, but did over 300 points of damage to it and put it down in a round and a half. Then again, we did then fight some will-o’-wisps and got kicked around by them pretty badly.

  5. How long did you know your crew of gamers before setting up this campaign?

  6. Let’s see… Since 2003, looks like. I tried to run a campaign before they really didn’t groove on, the Mutants & Masterminds campaign The Redeemers (summaries in the summary section here as well), and haven’t GMed for them since that till now.

  7. Pingback: Open Design’s Kobold Pirates land in Green Ronin’s Freeport! | Game Knight Reviews

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