I’m an unrepentant role-playing gamer; an addict, if you must know. My gateway drug was the original Dungeons & Dragons – the boxed set with the pseudo-Smaug red dragon on the cover. My grade school chums and I played at every opportunity, from quick encounters at recess to marathon weekends of goblin-slaughtering and lair-looting. OD&D was just the beginning. From there, I branched out into other games: AD&D, Traveller, The Fantasy Trip, Gamma World, Star Frontiers, Call of Cthulhu . . . the dragon’s share of my formative years were spent tooling around the galaxy, delving into catacombs, or losing my sanity to various squamous and rugose horrors.
The games changed over the years. Oh, I still delve into OD&D, part of the so-called “Old School revival”, but most of my gaming time is spent playing D&D 3.5 or a homebrewed d20 version of Warhammer 40K: Dark Heresy. I’ve explored story games like Grey Ranks and In a Wicked Age, where the tale being told is more important than the framework of rules.
The other day, while digging through some boxes in search of my SSOC #24, I came across a game I picked up in the early Eighties but never played. It was called Pirates and Plunder; according to the box it was a “totally new role playing game from Yaquinto that introduces you to the awesome world of the Golden Age of Piracy”. Its blurb is as seductive now as it must have been in 1982:
“You will undertake the dangers and deprivations of sea voyages and shipboard life, the taking of a fat galleon in a savage hand-to-hand melee, the sacking of a rich Spanish town and the taking of captives to be held for ransom . . . or amusement. Trudge through dank and deadly jungles to ambush a mule train laden with riches and otherwise accumulate wealth and glory in a world where such things have real value.”
I don’t recall, now, why I never played it. Most likely it was purchased during one of those times when I didn’t have a steady gaming group (most of them had discarded RPGs in favor of, you know, girls). Reading it again, all these many years later, I’m struck by how different the games of today are from their antique brethren. Pirates and Plunder gave you no choice of character classes – you played a pirate, and that was the end of that; everything else, from height and weight to skill with musket and blade, was randomly generated by rolling two 10-sided dice. Thus, you might come away with a pirate who has the swagger of Errol Flynn and the fighting prowess of Terence Vulmea . . . or you might be saddled with the Spanish Main’s answer to Gomer Pyle. After years of optimization and endless lists of feats and skills, I found a certain charm to the system, and a certain truth: as in real life, just throw the dice and let the gods decide.
Rather than have chapters explaining how the game works followed by an introductory scenario, Pirates and Plunder’s author, Michael S. Matheny, constructed the explanations of the games rules and systems around the introductory scenario – you learn the game as you play. Fittingly, you start off in a cell, captured during a bungled raid on a Spanish colony in the New World. After rolling the particulars of your characters, an altercation with other prisoners leads to the basic rules for fist fighting; later, your captors make you fight one another for their amusement, putting your skills with cutlass and rapier to good use. Later still, after an old pirate helps you to escape the clutches of the Spaniards, your skills at stealth, survival, and musketry are tested. It is all very simple and surprisingly elegant.
Like most old school games, Pirates and Plunder expected Game Masters to do their homework. The Golden Age of Piracy is discussed only in the broadest of terms, with repeated suggestions that GMs become familiar with the literature of the era, with Sabatini and Stevenson and Chambers among others. Myself, I’d add REH in there – and this system, its combat brutal and quick, would make for an excellent REH simulation in the right hands.
Pirates and Plunder is long out of print and likely hard to find, as it was written in an age before Creative Commons and Open Gaming Content. If you happen to stumble across it, do snap it up – and if you’ve played it before I’d love to hear how the game fared in actual use.