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The “golden age of piracy”

May 12, 2017 Leave a comment

I guess most people watching Black Sails probably follow it for the boobs, blood and scowling. There’s plenty of each – Rackham’s charmingly incompetent, Silver’s charmingly hapless, Flint manages to get progressively less charming – slowly at first, then all at once. As character-driven drama it’s pretty much par for this “golden age of TV” – you can see that by turns it wants to be Game of Thrones or Boardwalk Empire but it’s just a bit too self-conscious about its basic trashiness.

But I’m sitting there thinking “I can’t take it any more, I need to know what year it is!” And so I finally look it up. And of course it’s 1715 – the obvious choice, to within 5 years either way. The moment we all know pirates from, due largely to Captain Charles Johnson’s popular trawl of the Newgate broadsheets* and, less directly but more fundamentally, to Henry Everie, Aurangzeb and the East India Company. You can read all about it in Robert Ritchie’s Captain Kidd and the War against the Pirates, which is very good at tying all the various kinds of extortion together.

It’s the time when most of our favourite characters come together (Blackbeard, Roberts, Low, England, Rackham and his titillating 3-way with Anne Bonney and Mary Read – and we know them all because of Johnson). It’s also the elegiac last gasp for “golden age” piracy, so we can place a reassuring capstone on it. Interesting times.

And I was vaguely disappointed because I was hoping somebody would’ve thought of setting things outside this critical decade – at some point when buccaneers were first abandoning their shoreline barbecues and getting up in Johnny Spaniard’s fries. Because goddammit Flint might want to copy Henry Avery and settle one big score, but his long game is pure Captain Morgan… or more exactly a royalist alternative American Revolution. And I was assisted in this misapprehension by Flint’s ship,
which could easily date from 1660, looking exactly like a warship of the Second Anglo-Dutch War:

(Flint’s Walrus, left, Isings’s war council before the 4 days’ battle, 1666, right.
BTW you can click on the pictures for full size. I finally figured out where wordpress hid that in their new interface).

And this misapprehension is actually quite lovely, because it is entirely plausible to have an elderly trader/warship kicking around the colonial service and getting swiped by some pirate – even 60 years later, as the show’s timeline demands, bravo!

But then it’s been refitted with a wheel instead of a whipstaff, and that’s frankly a bit too up-to-date in 1715. I’ll let it go – wheels are familiar to the audience and the steering gear of wheels even makes an important plot point… fine.

But. The Ranger.

I don’t want to say The Ranger is quite out of period… I’d have to do some more research, but she looks an awful lot like a second-half-of-the-18th-century English East Indiaman or warship. Look how flush that deck is, the low sterncastle, the rounded counter. If she’s not simply anachronistic she must’ve come off the stocks at Deptford 6 months ago and somehow wound up in Charles Vane’s possession. Maybe he posed as a Royal Navy post-captain and heisted her right out of the Medway. That’s a series I’d like to watch (albeit with a different actor for Vane).

What am I looking at? Well, flatness of the deck for one thing (we know that pirates often cut off all the fore and sterncastles to make a big fighting surface, but this is clearly a factory-done job). And restraint in ornamentation. And again, the Walrus is lovely:

Look at the carved woodwork on that transom – pure 17th century flair – and it even looks like someone’s nicked all the gold leaf off it, which is perfect. But the Ranger is just painted beading, like Nelson’s Victory (1765) or the Belvidera (1809):

…of course this is nit-picking, especially since all the ships are wildly over-sized for our pirate brethren, whose historical models preferred small, nimble sloops for which it’s easy to find spare parts.
amitytt
It’s funny to see businesswoman Eleanor Guthrie talking to the captains seriously about their running costs when they’re all sailing around in ships that strain colonial governments’ budgets – the squadron in Nassau bay could probably give the Royal Navy at Kingston a serious worrying.

Anyway as of episode 8 it’s a lot of tense, swashbuckling fun. Even if it’s weird that the pirates are so bad at sailing in moderately bad weather.

 

*Funnily enough in 1724, the year of Johnson’s publication, the biggest draw at Tyburn execution grounds was not a pirate but serial escape artist Jack Shepherd, who deserves his own place in your game.

Bonus links: Digital Domain did a bunch of the fx for Black Sails. The way they construct scenes is fascinating.
The inestimable Dirk Puehl retells Long Ben Every’s capture of the Ganj-i-Sawai here.
The Spanish Galleon that later becomes the Revenge is probably based on the Nuestra Senhora de la Concepcion y de las Animas (1690).
Cindy Villar‘s Pirates and Privateers pages are pretty great.

It is characteristic of the show that somebody makes a passing joke about a missing character that he’s probably gone to Port Royal to meet up with Avery – both are missing in 1715, Avery is presumed either to have disappeared into a respectable life god knows where or to have been killed by some murderhobo or to have been bilked out of his fortune by Devomnshire merchants (which would be typical of Devonshire merchants but there’s the problem of where the money would’ve gone from there). Port Royal sank into the sea like Sodom, Atlantis or Irem of the Pillars in the earthquake of 1692. And nobody comments or explains the joke.

Countercolonial Heistcrawl: some maps

August 2, 2016 Leave a comment

Over the past year or so I’ve concluded that the best way to make progress on CCH is to start a campaign, and for that I need some campaign materials – factions, equipment/units, characters… and maps.
…..for player-facing maps I like period productions a lot, with all their elisions and doubts:

hendrik-hondius

Here’s the whole spice islands region, a couple of thousand miles across.

If you’re playing non-Europeans there are excellent reasons for not using these European charts. Still I think the style gain from using something more culturally appropriate…
1447004582-377_Ramayana-Scene-from-Wat-Phra-Kaeo--a061
is probably exceeded in usefulness by the gain in clarity of using something more recognisably map-like, with some pretensions to uniform scale.

…all that said, charts on a suitable scale for tactical encounters are really a recent development, and CCH’s landscape isn’t supposed to map precisely onto Earth’s (after all, I want players to contribute their own islands without fear of having Indonesians or Malaysians complaining that they’re misrepresenting their people), so I’m moving away from just using Google Maps co-ordinates.

Blah blah blah here’s an area map for the game, lifted and lightly toasted from some geographically-appropriate islandy bits – obviously, ignore text and (most) roads marked on it. Hexes are 6 (nautical) miles across, so this map is about 150 nm wide:
cch_play_area1_rough

The game starts at 2 tiny islands that are rather dimly-outlined on this map – here, zoomed in and highlighted:
glowy_tactical_area
Here’s a tactical-scale map of those islands  – hexes are 100 yards (20 hexes to a nautical mile), per the last post’s ship combat rules:
phiphi_BOTH_HEXGRID_rough

Water depth in this last map is keyed to the draught of different ships – a big East Indiaman can sail safely in the darkest part, the lighter part would be deep enough for a size 3 cargo vessel, the lightest blue is for size 2, 1 and reed galleys only, and white is exposed beach sand.
No prize for identifying the islands I swiped for either of these – in fact, if you research them it’ll probably mislead you.

Dutch ships in the 17th century: a diorama for CCH

December 9, 2013 3 comments

One day soon (goaded by Michael Moscrip) I’ll post an actual thoughtful gaming article full of usable goodness, but from now until Christmas it’s gonna be lazy photoposting.

I’ve talked before at length about the diorama as an art form and a form of knowledge (and if you want more of that go read Steve Quinn‘s delightful book and hunt through the archives at fuckyeahdioramas). This here, though, is (a) pure pleasure; (b) a handy establishing shot of the Borg Invasion Fleet for Counter-colonial Heistcrawl –
the diorama of the Texel roadstead at the Jutters Museum, on Texel in the North Netherlands:

all

Texel is an island just off the coast of north Holland, strategically situated where the unfettered North Sea hits the sheltered and shallow “inner” or South Sea (Zuiderzee). The island has abundant water that stays drinkable for an unusually long time in barrels (due to some mineral inclusion I don’t really understand) and livestock. Through the period of the East India Companies the “roadstead” (shallow narrows between the island and the mainland) was the premier staging point for fleets leaving the Netherlands in all directions.

texel_map

Ships would gather at Texel to wait for a favourable wind and tide to sweep them out into the North Sea and English Channel – sometimes for months at a time. They would be repaired and refitted and emptied of cargo and filled with fresh crew while at anchor in the Roads. If you wanted to gauge Netherlands sea power, your best bet was to hang out at Texel.

The diorama shows it “sometime late in the 17th century” – before the lustre had gone off the Golden Age. And I don’t know how many ships is has, but it’s a lot.

fluit

If you plan to play CCHeistcrawl and you really want to be alarmed about the navies that will grow up out of the first half of the 17th century, check out Willem van de Velde’s pictures of them arrayed against each other, fighting over ownership of the Atlantic:

1280px-De_slag_bij_Terheide_-_The_Battle_of_Schevening_-_August_10_1653_(Willem_van_de_Velde_I,_1657) velde_schoonevelt

The diorama shows merchant ships, whalers, fighting ships. Ships with battle damage from one of the Anglo-Dutch Wars:

battle-damage

Warships whose decorated spiegel sterns bespeak notable captains.

spiegel

Little service vessels bustling around the great hulls like birds on a hippopotamus.

rowing-boatcareenleeboards

And everywhere contrasts: between the big ships and the little houses of the people that serve them:

2-frigatesbeach-houses

between those houses and the cannon fort that defends the mouth of the Roads:

fort

and between the costly business of war and the ruthless efficiency of Dutch trade:

battle-damage-2simple_fluit

that last image – the Baltic fluyt – is what the Dutch want to bring to the East Indies. Minimal crew, narrow deck, hull stretched out for cargo like an old shoe. That’s the ship that feeds the kitchens of Amsterdam with grain. Useless for fighting, optimally adapted for bulk extraction of resources. It only operate in places where you’ve already won the wars. In our own timeline it won’t be a practical instrument of colonialism until after the 1760s, and then it’ll be the English who wield that power, and they’ll adopt the faster Blackwall Frigate, and later the even faster clipper:

D9898THE Sea Witch

In the meantime (1600-1800, more or less) the Dutch will rely on their big East Indiamen, difficult to tell apart from warships:

van_strij1790 voc ship and warship detail

(the East Indiaman is on the right), heavily armed and crewed – vehicles for soldiers, sailors (European, Chinese and Malay), guns and pepper. They’ll station old, leaky ones on port defense and shuttle routes around the Java Sea, and use them to provide an artillery backbone for the fleets of native canoes and caracoas that will fight all those obscure internecine wars between local princes that will slowly, but surely, grow their influence and colonies and arrogance.

Screen Shot 2013-12-05 at 2.41.59 PM Screen Shot 2013-12-05 at 2.41.30 PM…unless you stop them.

But they won’t be easily dissuaded. See, the Indies trade will supercharge their economy – which they need because they’re already in massive growth of population and a war for independence with Spain. From 1600 t0 1665 Amsterdam, hub of the Indies trade, will grow sharply, from this:

amsterdam1600

to this (click to make much, much bigger):

Amsterdam1662

It’s the realisation of a plan they come up with in 1610 – the year CCH begins – because right then they can see that they’re going to need a lot more city. For more and bigger houses, to accommodate their wealth. And although not all that growth can be credited to the East India trade (and it’s hard anyway to pick apart the influence of one trade among many in forming a commercial hub and economic powerhouse), some specific centres can be identified directly as indispensible parts of the machine:

Amsterdam1662_comments

Reward for getting this far: a bunch of fun dioramas from fuckyeahdioramas, including some delightful Japanese whaling ones especially for Arnold K:

tumblr_lfutbbGcD91qbua3eo1_1280tumblr_lfusjiPq8B1qb7smmtumblr_lfusk3B7gI1qb7smmtumblr_lfusku0GrA1qb7smmtumblr_lfuslq5nry1qb7smm      tumblr_lfusldSBJU1qb7smm tumblr_lijnluUUR91qz6rwyo1_1280  tumblr_l4t6qxuQnL1qzpyz2o1_1280 325494.tifordovician_life-500tumblr_lbw52rhVcA1qa1853 tumblr_m96v87G7ee1qz53p8o1_1280  tumblr_lihd9odGV41qdn731o1_12806329678_500

by the way… Dubrovnik

September 6, 2013 1 comment

no posts in a long time, and this one’s quick and lazy…

But Dubrovnik’s about as perfect a coastal fantasy fortress town as you could ask to find. And I for one didn’t know about it. Here, have some images and maps (google sat). Just swipe it wholesale; the Croatian tourist authority will probably thank you:

dubrovnik-old-town-from-the-fort-3-pics-658-659-662-crop-sh-s-m-c-ss-m-black-watermark-30

(janettelarobina) The fortifications are intimidatingly huge up close, but overlooked by a cliff, so there’s a catapult challenge.

There’s a straight main street from the harbour to the big gate, suitable for triumphal processions or standoffs between local princes and invading revenants.

CruiseDubrovnikMapGroupToursCroatia-67431247677044_800_600-1

The traditional trading circuit takes advantage of currents and also provides a 2-port buffer between the rival principalities. As the old sailor’s saying goes, “Hvar washes away all enmities.”

It dominates an island trading network and maintains an uneasy truce between the Korcula and the Sipangu.

Fort_Lovrijenac,Dubrovnik,Croatia

Why do most of those guns face inland?

It keeps a string of vassal forts along the coast and around the islands that would be perfect troublesome gifts for enterprising adventurers.

Rixos_Libertas_Dubrovnik-1

the amphitheatre and Contesting Pool are useful for public address out of season

It holds annual contests against the King of the Sea, watched by anxious crowds from the surrounding lands, who fear the day that the mer-folk throw off their ancient shackles and destroy the shipping they all depend on.

DubrovnikPalaceHotel-exterior

archaeologists are divided on whether the landship “irrupted” from the soil like a tooth or was blasted out.

It stands guard against the Machines of the Underearth, whose landship thrust out of the ground 1400 years ago and remains, undecayed and indestructible, as a reminder of the contingent nature of human power. The equally undecayed Invasion Bridge has become an indispensable part of the local economy.

And if the PCs arrive as Southern Barbarians, without a Kuna to their name, it offers the infamous Galley-workers’ Barracks for accommodation.

dubrovnik11

Inmates pay for their food and lodging with labour, and even see a little extra money at the end of the year! It is currently estimated that a galleyman could save enough to buy citizenship after 137 years’ service.

Have two interactive maps and two photo guides for further information/inspiration.

Dubrovnik-(Croatia)

of course, there’s a chain to protect the little harbour’s mouth. The stories of underwater caves leading right beneath the fortress are foolish local legends.

(BTW: on the map kick, check out the change in datasets between google maps’ coverage of post-Yugoslav, kinda-independent Montenegro and weirdo shut-in Albania. One satellite covers the Montenegrin side of the border (with brightly lit river), another has the other side of the river, and a third, older-looking (who knows, really) image takes over from a few miles into the territory. But if you’re short of unfamiliar gaming ground to hexify, just trolling up and down that coast has a bunch of gems for you)

trade goods by theft rating

September 25, 2012 4 comments

Somehow over the past 2 weeks I’ve missed a great series of posts by Telecanter about procedural/random trading games. Right at the beginning of that series he asked about lists of trade goods and what might make for a short memorable set of actually fun trade items (the first goal being to make trade an interesting part of the game, D&Trav style, and the second goal being to not have the players go “really? 3 weeks as pirates and all we have to show for it is millet?”). His list is a good length and evokes a fairly specific milieu, which is to say generic-DnD (or as I like to call it, 1630 Amsterdam).

But I thought: what makes trade goods fun? How would you rank and classify trade goods by their fun potential?

…how would you go about stealing them?

Small: requires a 2-man con, typically 5-30 minutes:
gold*; precious stones; ambergris, incense, exotic perfumes, nutmeg; foreign collectible ephemera; incriminating coins; letters; passports/permits for extraordinary behaviour; declarations of war, property, inheritance or price hikes; erotic statuary that embarrasses the local bishop-prince; homunculi or genie lamps; poisons, potions, medicines; keys; crystal balls, magic compasses, hypnotic pets; deep secrets of the universe; insignia of office.

Medium: 5-man con with a handcart or dray:
High-grade cognac, laudanum, rare concoctions; worldeconomychanging seedlings; gunpowder; cinnamon; experimental small arms; enriched uranium; invasive species; quarantined pets; silver, amber, furnishings, mirrors, pearl-handled arquebuses, spice-boats, models of revolutionary fortifications/ships/catapults/oubliettes/hydraulics; experts, spies, witnesses; mermaids, circus freaks, incognito princelings; carpets, tapestries, silkworms, finely carved writing desks suspected of containing hidden drawers; clockwork automata, enigma machines; cultural signifiers of authority.

Large: you’ll need a crane:
Cannons; cacao trees; meteorites; rum, wine, champagne; coffee, tea; qat; experimental vehicles, engines, battlesuits; elephants, giraffes, prize bulls; cult statues; shrines containing the Truth of the World; silks; horses, pigs, alpacas, young dragons; devil-summoning pipe organs; durian; glue; masts, spars, anchors, vital ship parts, deck knees; roc eggs; fused-together crew members; Thark lances; disabled fliers, Montgolfier balloons, fighting kites, diving bells, MRI scanners; terracotta golems; sarcophagi.

XL. Just steal the goddamn ship:
Grain, pepper, coriander, sugar or anything else that’s just loaded loose in the hold; quicklime; coal, coke, anthracite, mercury, saltpetre, cinnabar; glazed temple bricks, carved marble capitals from the First Cathedral of Constantinople/Temple Mount/Parthenon, guardian statues; fishtanks, narwhals, hallucinatory groves for transplanting whole into imperial gardens; bitumen, lamp oil, kerosene, nitroglycerine, Greek Fire, Azoth, skrying pools; strategic relief maps; dimensional gates; ships.

Note: stases and totems containing gods and monsters may be found at all these scales.

* Gold may be “small” in historical settings but it’s probably at least “medium” in vanilla DnD and may be “large” in anime-inspired settings. Tartary, being tied to flailsnails, is much richer in gold than I’d like it to be. If anyone has any suggestions on what to do about that I’d love to hear them.

The Grand Prizes from Carcosa Wacky Races

August 8, 2012 5 comments

…are still partly secret, but they have now been (mostly) collected. The race is over, the angel has died and collapsed into the crater it made in the ground, Chixi’lu got melted into glass, and out of the 15 vehicles that set out, there remain:

Eribotes’ steam machine, now shucked out of its turtle shell and reduced to a trike, suitable for 2 persons;
Haakon’s shellcasing, now willingly powered by Lord Chancellor the Pelgrane (at least until he can get properly healed up, they you all better watch out – Pelgranes harbour grudges for a long time);
Hon’dar-soo’s two sea bulls;
and Poison and Keek’s flying baby altar, now augmented with a big gas-burning propeller on top.

Joan’s sharkbowl just isn’t the same without Earl’s soulburner providing motive power. That said, it’s still as dangerous as ever, due to the presence of Count Charodon, the vampire hemoshark, who even now is tenderly trying a fin on the ground, to see if he can walk.

That’s it. Everything else is dead and/or broken.

Until Oogah the caveman, who ever since his tussle with a Hound of Tindalos has been riding this race on borrowed vehicles and with one hit point, surfaces in the river, at the helm of a spaceship-sub-possible-angel-escape-pod.

…why is space navigated using submarines in Tartary? How would surface dwellers like you know that?

Art credit goes to Robert Simons, whose Nautilus I totally stole. I hope he doesn’t mind. Check out his portfolio site – lots of awesome stuff I would be ripping off wholesale if I were to do a Moby Dick/stop the pigeon sequel…

although if you look askance at it just right it looks either like this:

deck plans:

or like this:

Jim Lad and Tin Knocker: Classes for a Romantic Cornwall campaign

July 30, 2012 2 comments

so +Stuart Robertson (of Strange Magic) piped up on the old “how to refigure demi-humans for a humanocentric game” concertina again, and I loves me a rollicking sea tune.

Here’s your basic 7 classes for a Treasure Island/Jamaica Inn/Smuggler’s Cove game. Adjust seasoning to taste for Pirates of the Caribbean, Hardy, Melville etc:

Dwarf = Miner: functionally the same as ever but no immunity to arsenic poisoning. Bluff exterior probably covers up an abused and abusive interior with moments of secret, solitary poetry.
Thief = Smuggler: actually a respected profession among the lower/adventuring orders, though with “fisherman” as inevitable legit cover.
MU = Engineer: for a Stevenson’s Rocket type steampunk feel. Real world examples include Humphry Davey and Isambard Brunel. My first thought was “parson” because of the bookish, useless-in-a-fight angle, but they have no magic in this setting.
Cleric = Fishwife: handy with a (blunt) rolling pin, a bandage and a hearty scolding.
Halfling = Preventive Man: These are the King’s Men who try to stop the smugglers. They’re not all hapless redcoats; some are sneaky spies and/or gamekeepers – Johnny Law in general, and they’re no shorter than anyone else.
Fighter = Haybaler: a big, burly farmhand with drinking capacity to match his fists. Alternatively Navvy, Gunner’s Mate, Dock Worker
Elf = Whippersnapper (whether ‘prentice boy or cabin boy or plucky orphan or maid is pure window dressing). The Jim lad class, knows more than he should, listens in while the parsons and engineers are jawing in the pub, but still yearns to grow up into a “proper” profession.

I like the purity of the basic 4 or 7, but if you wanted to expand this:
Bard = Parson of the fulminating fire’n’brimstone persuasion, or Agitator/rabble rouser, to borrow a leaf from the Hill Cantons. John Wesley was arguably both;
Assassin = Pirate and Ranger = Highwayman, or vice versa – maybe you never quite know what you’re up against there;
Paladin = Musketeer (I thought we were in Cornwall? Yup, all paladins are foreigners on a mission of some kind);
Druid = Moonshiner. Eh? What’s Dust doing over here? Well, I’m using it for “crazy old coot who lives off in the woods doing something the law wouldn’t like.” And although there’s plenty of those in Cornwall, there’s no professional archetype, so I’m reaching for a spiritual cousin. Actually in Cornwall this would probably be “gypsy,” but there’s the old racism card.

This would be better if the classes really mapped onto ways of dealing with problems in the world, but they don’t in DnD either, really, once you get into the demi-humans.