Thanks to the popularity of the recent ‘Pirates of the Caribbean’ films it is a historical era that most people will be familiar with. It is also an area that Doctor Who has explored several times over the years.
Like the Victorian era, the age of piracy combines well with the science fiction elements that make up Doctor Who. Pirates have their own mythology, there are elements of exploration, man battling the elements in a small vessel and the conflict that is part and parcel of being a pirate.
This makes it a fine setting for your own campaign. There are so many ways to use the setting that you can not only create a unique adventure but even return to the same period without worrying about repeating yourself.
The pirates themselves can perform several different roles in an adventure. They could be the enemy, preying upon innocent people. It can’t be forgotten that pirates primary function was to attack other ships, steal and murder.
They can be presented as inhuman, playing up their legend. It is said that Blackbeard set fire to hemp in his beard to give himself a flaming visage. The aim was to create fear, to see the pirates as something more than human.
You can also take the approach that these were people, with human flaws. The Doctor and his companions soon found that Captain Avery and his crew weren’t as intimidating as they first appeared, instead they were terrified of the Siren that cursed them.
If you wish to go further with this approach you can have the pirates be the player characters allies. Certain historians believe that most pirates of the era weren’t as violent as they were portrayed, most of it just being lies to improve their reputation.
Player characters could find that the pirates are just desperate men struggling to survive. You might even take the Robin Hood approach and have the pirates use stolen treasure to help the poor.
For the best of both worlds you could involve the player characters in a conflict between two lots of pirates, one good and one bad. This allows you to have the player characters fighting both alongside and against pirates, allowing the clichés of sword fights on the rigging and walking of the plank.
‘The Curse of the Black Spot’ was for the most part a ‘base under siege’ story. In such plots an isolated location is important. The characters have no where to run and they can’t expect help from the outside world. A ship fits that criteria perfectly.
In that particular episode the ship wasn’t in motion, no wind to fills its sails and the waters had become still. Such environmental hindrances aren’t required to ensure that a ship is isolated.
All it needs is for the attacker to be able to move more quickly than the pirate vessel. This can make the ship feel as if it isn’t moving at all, preventing them from simply escaping. If the attacks occur far enough from land and any from any shipping routes then the crew are truly on their own.
This isn’t the only type of story you can do with pirates. Exploring the ocean the pirates might discover something that isn’t on their maps. This could be a previously undiscovered island with its own secrets, an aquatic alien craft or portal to another world.
This could be linked to a mystery, with ships going missing in a particular region. The player characters could get involved to discover if it is just the work of pirates or whether it has an alien origin.
A traditional pirate plot is the search for treasure. Doctor Who characters aren’t supposed to motivated by greed so they would require another reason to join the hunt. The most obvious solution is that the treasure contains an alien artefact that either poses a danger to Earth if it remains or that would disrupt history if it fell into the hands of humans.
It could also have something that is needed to allow the TARDIS to work, similar to the Doctor’s occasional need for mercury. The element should be rare enough that finding the fabled treasure, which contains that item, is the best chance they have obtaining it.
Such a hunt needs the games master to consider several factors. The pirate who buried it needs to have some background, maybe even a legend and an appropriate curse to frighten anyone from looking for their treasure.
Next you need to decide what the treasure contains, where it was hidden and how. It could be in the remains of a shipwreck on the bottom of the ocean floor or among the jagged rocks of a distant island. It could be buried in a remote location or hidden in caves or down a pit.
Lastly you must decide how cryptic the pirate made the trial to the treasure. Is it on a map and if so how many parts does it have? Is the location described in fragments of the ships log? Is a medallion or other device needed to lead treasure hunters to the treasure? Are their riddles that need answering and traps that need disarming? Are any of the original crew still alive to reveal the pirate’s secrets?
Once that is established you can decide how many people are involved in the hunt. If it is just the players then the focus is only solving the puzzle of where the treasure is. If they ally themselves with pirates they’ll need to decide how they can recover the treasure without the pirates taking what they’re after.
If there are more than one group looking for the treasure, whether it be another group of pirates or a ship despatched by one of the many governmental powers in the area, then the treasure hunt becomes a race.
Different people might have different parts of the puzzle required to find the treasure. Not only would these factions all be trying to reach the same location they would also try to steal these clues from each other, to aide their hunt.
An adventure can also concentrate on the purely historical conflicts that occurred in the region. In the Caribbean there were several rival naval powers including Britain, Spain, the Netherlands, Portugal and France.
Not only were there sanctioned naval vessels but pirates could work for one of these powers as mercenaries, targeting the trading vessels of rival nations. Pirates could also be free agents, making enemies with everyone.
There are plenty of stories that be told of the people caught up in this blood shed and struggle for power. Player characters could experience this first hand or get caught up in the plight of someone from that era.
Introducing an alien presence into this volatile period in human history can make an adventure even more explosive. There are plenty of aquatic species that would fit the bill from the Sea Devils, the Zygons and representatives from any one of the multiple versions of Atlantis.
Player characters can get involved by having their TARDIS materialising on a pirate ship but they could also find themselves cut off from their time craft. They could find themselves press-ganged, snatched from an inn, be knocked out in an ally or have their food drugged. Either way they awake on-board ship, wondering if they’ll ever find a way home.
The age of piracy would make an excellent period for any player character to come from. Combining elements of Jamie and Leela, such a character would make an easy transition to space opera style adventures.
The conclusion of ‘The Curse of the Black Spot’ showed how the concept of space ships and exploring vast regions is easy to grasp for a nautically minded person. Such a player character could prove to have an interesting outlook on a traditional Doctor Who adventure.
Any games master planning to run a pirate adventure would do well to remember their nautical terms, to avoid having a pirate NPC struggling to recall what the front of a ship is called.