Home > Uncategorized > Pirates, privateers or psychopaths?

Pirates, privateers or psychopaths?

So Eric Minton of The Mule Abides has been wondering what to do with players who slaughter their hirelings once the horses are loaded, and Cyclopeatron’s been worrying about how the sleep spell turns his players into sadists and murderers. In short, why do players act like psychopaths, and what should you do about it?

The comments show the obvious poles – do nothing, that’s the game on one side and punish them mechanically on the other, and a larger punishing camp who want the pain to be felt in the idiom of the game-world. Although so far the extent of that re hirelings seems to be have the free market sort it out (make reputation count, have hirelings sign on with other groups who sometimes bring a few back alive, reduce the quality/usefulness of the hirelings who stay with the group). The most popular solution seems to be to reduce the mechanical motivations for hireling slaughter (by decoupling xp from hireling wages) and to make sleep less useful.

I think the root of the problem lies elsewhere. St. Yossarian’s comment on Cyclopeatron avers:
your actions should always be defined in context, with the social mores of the world, region, and dungeon in which your gameplay is taking place

and then proposes a bunch of ways in which the world might act back against PC-perpetrated outrages against those mores:
Do the goblins refuse to surrender, knowing there’s a party of people around murdering defenseless goblins in their sleep?Do the goblins raise a huge party and slaughter the children of Pleasantshire in retribution for the slaughter inflicted on their hunting party?

That’s fine, if there’s a world out there with mores to act back, and if the players have some mental model of that world that expects consequences. But very often those worlds are woefully thin backdrops to the real action, which happens in a purpose-built, limited-consequences, racialized funhouse heterotopia, made specifically to support pyschopathic behaviors – what happens in the Tomb of Horrors stays in the Tomb of Horrors. In particular, very often PCs have no social role to play at all outside the dungeon. They are defined functionally, by the means they use to extract cash from monsters: fighting, stealing, fighting with magic or fighting/turning/healing. They may possibly belong to guilds. They may possibly get hit up for taxes and tolls. They may be given jobs to do by the local lord. But none of this gives them any more traction in the world than the Man With No Name or High Plains Drifter. They don’t expect to find romance or support dependents or receive gratitude from the populace even enjoy their famous carousing (which tends to wind up in fights. Ahem).

And that’s pretty much a definition of pyschopathy or sociopathy: the PCs don’t engage with the world or other people like they matter because they can’t see them mattering: it’s a problem of suspension of disbelief. The DM who is disturbed by torture or summary execution is probably working with Kantian ideas – bad acts are bad in themselves – modified by racial categories – killing goblins isn’t bad – which they take for granted because it’s their world. They know where they’ve drawn the lines between the people who matter and the ones who don’t. But the players are in a landscape that consists only of threats. Villages are cute scenery because they are low-threat areas, but they have little to do with the reward system of the game.

I propose a different, not very OS solution: get the players to define their social role and history. They aren’t fresh out of the character mills. They have mothers and maybe kids. And they aren’t PCs, nor even “adventurers:” nobody considered themselves an “adventurer” until the 19th century had made the East safe and pliable enough to support such a conceit. Are they bandits, pest control, defenders of the faith, knights errant or what? Mike Monaco reckons “pirates” is a good description for his players, and I think that’s probably true of most groups conceptually but it’s already a big step up socially from where most groups are today, because many pirates drew up constitutions to maintain peace and order among themselves, because they knew their categories between hunter and prey weren’t all that reliable and they planned, many of them, to retire some day and actually spend that loot.

Maybe more desirable than “pirate” (or bandit/gangsta/warlord) is “privateer.” History is not authoritative, but it does come up with good ideas, even for handling dungeoneering groups, hireling fees and murderous employers. A sailor on a Dutch privateer in 1600 could expect 2 months’ advance, one share of all loot (compared with the captain who could get 4-8 shares) and compensation in the event of being disabled or killed, paid to a named beneficiary. They also organized their own insurance cooperatives, to bail them out if they got ransomed by slavers. All this was handled by independent agents so everyone knew it was equitable. If you signed on you got a license to kill, pillage and spend, as long as you only did it to enemy forces. You weren’t generally required to keep prisoners alive but you could face legal consequences for abusing your own people, and those prisoners might be worth money or influence back in town. And you got benefits, both on the job and back home: privateering was a respectable business. It could even be heroically patriotic. It could lead to riches, good marriages and political power – a direct stake in the business and government of the city, region and state. And you could keep sailing and adventuring while you did it. Don’t fancy becoming a burgher with a little garden and a Calvinist governess for the kids? Malay and Bugis captains around the same period had similar career paths and social status while evoking more of a piratical or Beowulf vibe. Think it all sounds too modern? Warrior cultures the world over, from the Masai to Beowulf’s Geats to pre-Islamic Bedouin tied their fighting men to the communal hearth: you brought riches back from the unknown and you made them valuable by exchanging them back home for reputation. Through your mighty deeds you fed and protected the village, under your watch no poor child went hungry, and the men who went out with you did so to share in your success, not because you paid them a pittance like the semi-slaves of early modern merchant shipping, but because you were showing what heroism was.

Just imagine that.

I aim to pay my Joesky tax in the next post with a bunch of real-world solutions to the hireling hiring problem, and extra-disgusting ways in which people could get forced into dangerous, dirty jobs, all courtesy of the Dutch East India Company.

  1. mikemonaco
    April 15, 2011 at 12:59 pm

    This is a great post, pulling together a lot of related posts.

    I’m not sure I’d really say the PCs in my game are pirates; I was just trying to say the problems of how to divide loot fairly and how to enforce rules within an outsider subculture were handled similarly by pirates. There’s only one truly sociopathic PC in the game (there were two until that player got a second shift job).

  2. April 15, 2011 at 6:37 pm

    Great post. I think this leads back to what you’ve discussed before–a sort of disconnect with a coherent world.

    On the topic of adventurers it would be most instructive to look at how similar people interacted with power structures, hsitorically. I don’t know when someone would have started using the term to refer to themselves, but its attested well before the 19th century.

    I think the earliest examples that we can see as rough models are in the age of exploration. Certainly the conquistadors for adventurers–largely after self-agrandizement and wealth, whatever else. They had patrons, I’ll grant, but I think that’s a dimension easily added.

    Into the 18th and 19th centuries, we see the real heyday with fillibusters. These are perhaps more explicitly focused on conquest (but given that D&D characters are eventually suppose to found domains, apparently so are they).

    Once again, interesting stuff!

  3. April 16, 2011 at 12:19 am

    Trey – you’re probably right about the “adventurer” thing; maybe even Odysseus would have considered himself one (ie Homer had the identity in mind when he wrote him). I was overstating for effect and trying to point out that for someone to assert that they have no local ties/obligations, you have to already have a complex enough social world that it can spare some people who claim they are not social

  4. April 18, 2011 at 5:26 pm

    Good post. One idea it sparks is: since the best way to get players to behave a certain way is to show them, maybe the best starting adventure for a new campaign is to have a more experienced adventurer higher them on, drawing up a pirate/privateer contract. They don’t have to *complete* the adventure; they could head off for a ruined tower along the way, abandoning the NPCs that hired them, if they feel like it. They can steal the horses and head off off for the next town. They can do anything they like, but at least they have a glimmer of some kind of system, with consequences for those who breach it.

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