Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Interlude--The Jonah

Okay. I know I've been putting up a lot of short posts recently, but that's how my inspiration's been running of late. Here is another interlude, along with a fortune that I think is pretty cool.


Interlude 18: The Jonah
It's no secret that sailors are a superstitious lot, believing in all kinds of signs, practices, omens and other such things. Usually this just makes them more colorful characters, habits and tendencies that are entertaining but have little real effect on the world. Occasionally, however, these beliefs manifest in a way that is downright dangerous for the people involved.
The notion of a Jonah is an example of how superstition can turn nasty. Based on the story from the Bible, about a man who brings misfortune upon his ship because of his religious faith, a Jonah is a person who is believed to be bad luck, pure and simple. This association goes beyond avoidance or special treatment, though; other crew members begin wanting to eliminate the unlucky character so as to prevent call kinds of imagined calamities.
Note: This interlude is inspired by the movie Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World, a movie that provides an excellent depiction of life aboard a ship at sea.

The Rumor Begins
The belief that one of the characters aboard the ship is a Jonah can arise in a number of different ways. One possibility is that it is first mentioned in response to a disaster of one kind or another. For example, if a sailor was climbing the ropes but then took a nasty fall, or if there was a bad spell of weather for an extended period, that might be enough to provoke an accusation. In such a case, the GM could choose the victim of the claim based upon circumstance.
On the other hand, the idea that a member of the crew is a Jonah could also be raised by one character specifically as an attack against another. In this case, the idea spreads because one or more characters are telling it to others. This possibility could require some additional adjudication on the part of the GM, but could also make for a more intriguing series of events.

Dealing with the Problem
Once the rumor has started, it becomes very important for the PC's to deal with it. This is because other sailors begin plotting to take action against the accused, and because the Jonah in question begins to wonder if he/she is indeed a danger to the ship and crew. The GM could let the PC's discover the source of the rumor via a DC 20 Gather Information check; alternately, the situation could provide for extensive roleplaying. (As combination of the two elements is always an option, of course.) If the belief has arisen because of unfortunate events, the PC's might be able to quash it by demonstrating why those occurrences happened. In such an instance, they could make a DC 20 Diplomacy or Sway check to convince the superstitious crew members, with bonuses or penalties assigned for a particularly good speech or for providing convincing evidence.
On the other hand, if there is a specific culprit behind the rumors, exposing him/her could require a DC 20 Gather Information, along with more concerted action on the part of the PC's. This might entail spying on said character to overhear proof of the lie, or perhaps even a duel ashore in the tradition of pirate crews.
In either case, if the PC's fail to take the appropriate actions, the rumor of a Jonah aboard a ship could result in the maligned character trying to leave, or in the crew rising against him/her.

New General Fortune: Jonah
Your luck tends to be very strong--for good or for ill.
Drawback: For you the rules of one and twenty apply to all d20-based checks, not just to attack rolls and saving throws. Moreover, failure usually provides some kind of negative consequence, at the GM's discretion. This might include a failed Climb check causing a fall, a botched Concentration check resulting in a spell accidentally targeting an ally, or the like.

Sunday, May 27, 2012

Interlude--The Competition 2

Today's post is another interlude, one that details contests of skill that sailors could conduct while at sea.


Interlude 17: The Competition 2
A previous interlude provided suggestions for using competitions as a non-combat challenge during an adventure. While those situations were appropriate for downtime on land, it is also possible that some friendly competition could arise while the ship is at sea. Given the penchant for sailors to boast about their prowess at a variety of activities, it's only natural that they might challenge one another to show off their puissance when it comes to the tasks commonly performed by seamen.

This can also be a good opportunity to develop the personalities for other members of the crew. Indeed, players whose characters are not skilled in these activities could claim an ordinary sailor, give him/her a name, and have that character compete. This could help increase the challenge for the PC's, and might lead to some good-natured ribbing if a lowly swab outperforms an officer. Additionally, these details could increase the drama later during combat situations, if sailors with established names and personalities are injured or killed.

Race to the Top
It's an old and time-tested means for sailors to test their abilities against one another: who can be the first to the top of the mainmast, and back down again? This contest allows for two competitors—one going up the starboard ratline, and one going up on the port side.

To resolve this competition, characters involved should first make opposed Initiative rolls. The character who wins gains the initial upper hand, and a slight lead on the opposition. From that point onward, the characters should make opposed Climb checks. Technically speaking, each character involved moves one quarter of his speed, or one half of his speed with a full-round action. The higher check is a little bit faster, however, and gains a slight lead on his opponent. While this check doesn't change the distance that each character travels, it does represent who moves a little more quickly and thus can reach the goal a little more quickly. (The exception to this is that characters who fail to make the DC 15 check come to a halt, and don't make any progress in their climbing. In such an instance, the character who falls behind must manage to catch up in distance travelled, and have a higher number of compared successes.) In this way, the characters should continue to make opposed checks until they reach the top of the mainsail, at which point the character who has won the most opposed checks wins.
Note that characters with a higher speed, especially barbarians, have a distinct advantage in this competition. In such cases, the opponent must win initiative and manage to reach the top of the mainsail through successful checks before the opponent with the higher speed can do so.

In a Bind
To resolve this contest, each of the characters involved should make Profession: sailor checks to represent how quickly each character can tie the appropriate knots. Given the number of knots, it is best that from two to six characters compete. In the event that there is a tie after all of the knots have been attempted, the person running the competition could certainly devise some more complicated tests, perhaps involving splices. Some possible knots include the bowline, bowline on a bight, clove hitch, figure-eight knot, sheet bend, and square (reef) knot.

Ready, Aim, Fire
This challenge is especially appropriate if the ship should become caught in the doldrums, and if the captain just wants to give the gun crews a little practice. Whatever the case, the ship should be riding at anchor. To arrange it, somebody in a rowboat should haul out appropriate targets—barrels or crates that have been irreparably damaged, excess timber that has been cut away, and the like. These should be taken to an appropriate range, perhaps a hundred yards, and left floating.

At this point, gun crews take turns preparing and firing their piece (treat the debris as having AC 15). This should be resolved as normal, recording how many attempts it takes to hit the target. Subsequently, those who attempt the challenge must manage to hit the target with a smaller number of shots. In the event of a tie, the target could be removed to a greater distance for another round of shooting.

Thursday, May 24, 2012

Interlude--The Menagerie

Today's post is inspired by two elements. One is the history of Hans Sloane, a member of the Royal Society whose private collection helped to found the British Museum. The other is a comment one of my players made during this week's session, about bear wrestling.


Interlude: The Menagerie
The 1600s and 1700s are a time of great growth for science. Leading the way in the study of animal and plant life are the naturalists, individual who spend as many hours in the field, cataloguing new specimens, as they do in libraries reading about others' discoveries.
Doctor Mordechai Smith is just one such fellow. Born and raised on the island of Jamaica, he is just as comfortable amidst the buccaneers of the Caribbean as he is with the gentlemen and ladies of upper-crust English society. He is permitted to associate with the latter company, it should be noted, because of the fact that he is a skilled surgeon, and knowledgeable in medicines of which other doctors have not yet heard. Even so, he feels more comfortable in a seaside pirate camp than the wealthiest manor home. Indeed, such companions are far more useful to him, when it comes to collecting specimens, than fancier folks ever could be.

Dr. Mordechai Smith

Buccaneer 3/Warrant Officer 3; CR 6; Size medium; HD 6d8+12; hp 39; Init +0; Spd 30 ft.; AC 11 (+1 dueling jacket); Atk +4 (1d6, walking stick) or +4 ranged; SQ Survivor +1, Expert Pilot, Resilient; AL NG; SV: Fort +6, Ref +2, Will +7; Str 10, Dex 10, Con 14, Int 12, Wis 17, Cha 12.
Background: Colonist (Knowledge: local and Profession: doctor).
Skills: Appraise +10, Heal +14, Knowledge (local) +10, Knowledge (nature) +10, Listen +14, Profession (doctor), Spot +14, Survival +14.
Feats: Alertness, Herbalist, Self-Sufficient, Track.
Fortunes: None.
Equipment: Gentleman's clothes, dueling jacket, surgeon's tools, buccaneer knife, journals, writing supplies, walking stick.

Mordechai Smith, at first glance, looks little different from any of the other genteel folks living in Port Royal. This appearance is deceptive, however. In fact, he could be comfortable if marooned on any island in the Caribbean, and in many other places around the world. Smith enjoys the simple companionship of such people, nearly as much as he savors the thrill of new discoveries.

Using Mordechai Smith in a Campaign
The buccaneer doctor can be incorporated in a campaign in any number of ways; a few of the possibilities are detailed here.
  • In his unending pursuit of medical knowledge, Smith could hire the PC's to accompany an expedition into a remote location. This cold be in pursuit of a new specimen, or perhaps to a location as detailed in “The Temple.”
  • Following a murder involving a rare poison, Dr. Smith is implicated. Perhaps someone stole it from him, or perhaps he was behind it.
  • One buccaneer, inspired by Smith's collection of animals, could capture a bear and bring it to the Sign of the Boar's Head for some wrestling matches.
  • Smith could hire the PC's to help transport his menagerie. If they ran into difficulties—such as those presented in the interlude “The Storm”—the situation becomes more complicated when some of the animals escape their cages.

Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Three More Treasures

Today's post details three more treasure items, these ones taken from the legendary history of the Mediterranean region. Meanwhile, I am still working on my next adventure, "Treacherous Waters," along with more articles about the corsairs of the Barbary Coast.


Cloak of Aroudj
Baba Aroudj—otherwise known as Barbarossa, or Redbeard—was one of the most notorious corsairs ever to work in the Mediterranean. During his career he commanded corsair galleys in war with the Knights of Malta, was held captive for three years in one of their strongholds before being rescued, claimed numerous Christian vessels as prizes, and even became the ruler of Algiers for a time. Through it all he was known to wear a cloak of crimson brocade, one that he only lost when he was killed in battle. At that time the cloak was taken to a cathedral in Cordova, Spain, where it was used to adorn a statue of Saint Bartholomew. Since that time it has come to be known as La Capa de Barbarossa.
What most people don't know, however, is that the cloak in that cathedral is a duplicate. The location of the real one cannot be verified, but it is believed to have been passed as loot between Spanish sailors, Barbary corsairs and other such adventurous types. In game terms, it provides the benefits of a cloak of protection +2 (in the same manner as a ring of the same name).

Icon of Saint Andrew
One of the more visually distinctive elements of Greek Orthodox Christianity is the use of icons, small painted images that depict Biblical scenes, saints and other such subjects. Included among these are ones that portray Saint Andrew, a fisherman by trade and disciple of John the Baptist, and one of the first people to recognize Jesus Christ as his Messiah. While most are mundane in nature, a few convey a special blessing, granting a +2 bonus on Profession: sailor checks to the members crews who carry them on their vessels.

Lotus Wine
In his epic tale The Odyssey, the Greek poet Homer tells of a location on the Mediterranean Sea where the native people feast on a lotus plant. It has a soporific effect, causing them to fall into an apathetic, narcotic-induced state. What is more, the Greek historian Herodotus claims that they lived somewhere off the coast of Libya, and that they obtained from the lotus plant a drink akin to wine.
Whether or not these stories are true, it is known that people occasionally find bottles of a curious beverage that does have a soporific effect on imbibers. The lesser version of it functions like a potion of sleep, while the more powerful one functions like a potion of deep slumber. Each one must be consumed by the target of the spell-like effect.

Monday, May 14, 2012

New Pirate-Related TV Show

While checking out Blastr.com, I found news of a new series on NBC starting this fall: Crossbones. The blurb for the show is listed below, and the full article is available on the website.


It's 1715 on the Bahamian island of New Providence, the first functioning democracy in the Americas, where the diabolical pirate Edward Teach, aka Blackbeard, reigns over a rogue nation of thieves, outlaws and miscreant sailors. Part shantytown, part marauder's paradise, this is a place like no other on earth - and a mounting threat to international commerce.

To gain control of this fearsome society, Tom Lowe, a highly skilled undercover assassin, is sent to the pirates' haven to take down the brilliant and charismatic Blackbeard. But the closer Lowe gets, the more he finds that his quest is not so simple. Lowe can't help but admire the political ideals of Blackbeard, whose thirst for knowledge knows no bounds - and no law. But Lowe is not the only danger to Blackbeard's rule. He is a man with many villainous rivals and one great weakness - a passionately driven woman whom he cannot deny.

Sunday, May 6, 2012

Corsairs Timeline

Over the past couple of months I've been working on a supplement dealing with the corsairs of the Mediterranean Sea, an area just as rife with intrigue and nautical action as the Caribbean itself. I've decided to break up the information into different posts, and the first is presented below. I intend to follow this one, which isn't very crunchy, with more specifically game-related material soon.


Corsairs of the Mediterranean
Say the word pirate, and people tend to think of the buccaneers and others who operated out of the many islands of the Caribbean Sea for about two centuries, from the middle of the 1500s until their end during the 1700s. While the history of those scallywags is certainly sensational, it is by no means more nefarious than that of the corsairs who were active throughout the Mediterranean Sea, including the coast of North Africa, but even beyond.

History—The Rise and Spread of Islam
When one considers the rise of piracy in the Caribbean Sea, it is relatively easy to choose a single event that altered the region's history forever—“In 1492, Columbus sailed the ocean blue.” In the same way, one can look at the history of North Africa and find an event that was just as definitive—the rise of Islam and the Muslim conquest of North Africa.

610—Muhammad begins preaching Islam.
629—The prophet leads the conquest of Mecca.
632—Muhammad dies.
642—Alexandria falls under Arab control.
643—Arab armies conquer Tripoli.
711—Muslim forces cross into Spain from North Africa.
800—Two great rulers, the Muslim Haroun al-Rashid and the Christian Charlemagne, live at the same time and exchange correspondence and delegations.
969—The Fatimid army completes its conquest of all of Egypt and North Africa.
1096—European forces join together to launch the First Crusade, eventually leading to their capture of the Holy Land.
1118—The Poor Order of the Knights of Christ and the Temple of Solomon is founded.
1147—While the Second Crusade accomplishes little in the Holy Land, Christian forces do retake Lisbon from Muslim control.
1171—Saladin takes control in Egypt.
1187—Saladin's forces reconquer Jerusalem, leaving the Christians in control of just a few coastal holdings. The Third Crusade, led in part by Richard the Lion-Hearted, fails to reclaim Jerusalem.
1270—King Louis IX of France leads an unsuccessful attack on Tunis. A year later he is joined by Edward I of England in striking again, but fails once more.
1291—The Knights Hospitaller, after fleeing the Holy Land, settle on Cyprus.
1302—Some time after this date, the Templar knight Roger de Flor founded the Catalan Company, a band of mercenaries that fought first for the Byzantines and then for others.
1307—The Templar Order is disbanded and many of its members are arrested.
1309—The Knights Hospitaller conquer Rhodes.
1340—The Battle of the Four Kings pits the rulers of Castile and Portugal against those of Granada and Fez.
1362—Sidi Ahmad ibn Ashir, a saint rumored to be able to calm storms, dies.
1453—Ottoman forces capture Constantinople and name it Istanbul, capital of the Empire.
1487—Kemal Reis begins leading corsair attacks against Christian vessels.
1488—Portuguese sailors round the Cape of Good Hope for the first time.
1492—Christopher Columbus sails for the New World; Jewish citizens are expelled from Spain.
1510—Spain conquers the Penon islet outside Algiers in an effort to reduce corsair activity; it would change hands several times before falling under Ottoman control.
1522—Ottoman forces expel the Hospitallers from Rhodes.
1530—Charles V of Spain gives Malta to the Hospitallers (for the payment of a single falcon a year); they become known as the Knights of Malta.
1534—Khair ed-Din “Barbarossa” takes control of Tunisia and holds it for a year.
1541—King Charles V attempts to invade Algiers, but his efforts are foiled by powerful storms.
1544—Khair ed-Din leads an attack on the island of Ischia, taking thousands of prisoners to sell into slavery. This kind of raiding soon became a common source of income for the corsairs.
1551—Tripoli falls under Ottoman control.
1571—Christian forces defeat the Ottoman navy at the Battle of Lepanto.
1574—The Ottoman Empire regains control of Tunisia.
1601—Zymen Danseker, a Dutchman, travels to Algiers and teaches its corsairs European sailing techniques.
1616—Corsairs raid Iceland for slaves.
1675—The English Navy attacks Tripoli but does not conquer it.

This brings the history up to the Golden Age of Piracy. It leaves the various European powers, divided by their own squabbles, poised opposite the Muslim cities and countries which themselves aren't exactly united in purpose.