Sunday, December 22, 2013

Pirate: The Golden Age by A Konstam & D Rickman Illustrated By G Rava

Pirate: The Golden Age

Bringing a wide variety of visuals to the reader through historical paintings and illustrations to unique paintings done by Giuseppe Rava, Pirate: The Golden Age brings a very narrow focus on the time period of 1714 until 1724. Mind you, the authors note that this is not necessarily the 'official' Golden Age or that people always abide by it, as it is noted that some consider the era from 1690 to 1730.


One of the things the book touches on is how terrible life for people aboard a ship was. One of the problems with trying to bring this type of 'mentality' to a role playing game like Dungeons and Dragons, is that most settings have been so white washed that were circumstances for people so terrible, the players would probably wind up fighting against those establishments.

The book notes for example, that one of the problems faced by crews were the very basics of provisions. Being a pirate meant that if you needed to forage for food or take it from others, hey, no problem. In most fantasy games, due to the use of magic on a small level that even clerics tend to have, this might not be an issue. Provisions? No problem. Bam! Create food and water. Having such a grim and reality based setting would have other bleed into the campaign.

Another issue on a more fundamental level was the hatred of authority. Due to the harsh terms of life on ship, those who became pirates often had a shorter life span but many claimed they were happier for it as they were in charge of their own destiny at that point. This one might not be that hard to do depending on where in the setting the characters area. Native Thayian's who are fighting against their own country? Those or Amn or the other 'Old Kingdoms'? Not necessarily a problem. People in Waterdeep? What, do they need more holidays? The 'good' nature of the default settings work against such assumptions here.

There is also the perception of a pirate's life. Some were notorious and for the profession, 'long lived' and could easily attract crews. Who didn't want to sail with a legend?

Appearance: One of the weird things about the book is this divergent tangent on how the pirates looked. It essentially says everything that we know from popular medium for the last hundred years and more is nonsense. That it's all a manufactured look. It spends a lot of time talking about this aspect of things.

In a role playing game, historical accuracy isn't that important necessarily. The games often try to encompass what is popular and what is thematically and visually appealing. Historical accuracy though, can play a role in well, historical games and this section does a good job in talking about the 'real' clothes that pirates wore and how they appeared.

A Pirate's Life

The book hits a few interesting points that somewhat feed back into earlier bits that lead into recruitment. Because life was so terrible for those on a ship, being a pirate wasn't necessarily a bad thing. The common crews had voting rights and many a mutiny was carried out. Whose going to turn in a pirate when that happens? His fellow pirates?

One thing that book touched on I thought interesting was the idea of 'articles' or written documents that were a pirate code of conduct. It helped to keep the crew in line with a set of goals and ideas to follow. The other bit that provided authority was the vote by majority. These two things allowed the majority to rule whereas on land and on 'official' business, you did what you were told or else.

Another bit I never considered, is that according to this book at least, pirate crews tended to be higher than normal crews so that they could overwhelm their enemies. This leads to more mouths to feed and the potential for a lot of bored people to be on board a ship drinking and gambling.

For the attacks on other ships, pirates tried to pick their targets carefully and use overwhelming force. In a RPG this is much more difficult in dealing with any fantasy setting. There are so many variables in terms of what could be on any ship at any time it would almost seem pointless. A ship with a single spell caster may be more than a match for a ship with cannons and a full rowdy pirate crew of fighters. Many spells have a long reach and could quickly turn the tide of battle.

But on the other hand, it notes that one of the reasons the pirates use such overwhelming force is to avoid fights in the first place. In the historical context here, if you were injured, well, chances of recovery were not necessarily high. Infection and bad medicine could easily turn even minor injuries into death. This is something essentially hand waved away in role playing games because hey, who wants to play the guy who had a cut on his left arm that has to have the arm chopped off due to gangrene?

The book does a solid job of providing background information for this slice of time. It gives the reader enough information that they should be able to pluck details that lend life and a touch of historical context to the game.

The art by Rava is enjoyable. The style on the cover is similar to what's on the inside, but there are many better paintings that have a wide variety of uses. For example, he does an average pirate on page 19 with a cutlass style weapon in the center of the page and surrounding the pirate are the various articles of clothing with the identifiers on the previous page. This let's the reader see the different types of clothing that would be common and provides the reader with some terminology to add to the description. Knowing that pirates wore knitted gloves to keep the chill out while wearing wide-legged petticoat breeches and trousers that were ankle length or longer is good to know.

His image of the pirate captain on page 30 provides us with what I'd call the gentleman pirate. It's a great illustration that could be yanked out whole and used to introduce a specific NPC that the Game Master created or for those players who want to have that 'authentic' ring to their character and point out their player wearing a cloth cap trimmed with fine fur and a gentleman's short sash.

One of the things I know a lot of readers enjoy though, are the weapons of the time and Rava captures them well on page 39. We see a wide variety of axes, guns, and cannons in use along with the dreaded grenadoes that were made of cast iron and loaded with gunpowder and lit with wooden fuses. I was like "wooden fuses?" but yeah, that's what was used. Very solid illustrations. I particularly enjoyed the illustration of a pistol with a cloth sling to illustrate that such weapons were easy to lose but tying them up prevent that from happening.

Because of the 'generic' time frame of most fantasy settings, Pirate: The Golden Age should find a lot of use for any reader that wants to add that dash of detail they may feel is otherwise missing.