Pathfinder RPG: Skulls & Shackles
The Life of a Pirate
Roles Aboard a Pirate Ship
A pirate crew is more than just a mob of cutthroats on a ship;
all crew members have specific roles and responsibilities,
with harsh punishments being meted out upon those who
shirk their duties. Listed here are some of the standard
roles aboard a typical pirate ship. Not all of these roles
might be represented on every vessel, but such details can
help players understand their characters’ daily duties.
Boatswain: The boatswain, or bosun (pronounced
“bosun” either way), is responsible for the upper deck of the
vessel and above. This makes the boatswain accountable
for all rope, rigging, anchors, and sails. At the start of the
day, the boatswain and those under her weigh anchor, raise
the sails and report on the general condition of the ship’s
deck to the captain. As she oversees many of the ship’s
basic daily labors, the boatswain is often responsible for
keeping discipline and dispensing punishment.
Cabin Boy/Girl: Servant to the captain and other officers,
this low-ranking and typically young crew member assists
other sailors in their duties and runs various errands
across the ship, requiring him or her to gain a measure of
understanding of almost all the ship’s roles.
Captain: The ultimate authority on any ship, his word
is law to all on board. The captain chooses where to sail,
what to plunder, and who fills the other stations aboard
the vessel, among many other command decisions.
Leadership often proves perilous, however, as a captain is,
above all, meant to secure success for his ship and crew.
Failing to do so increases the threat of mutiny.
Carpenter/Surgeon: No matter what enchantments or
alchemical unguents augment a pirate ship, its heart and
bones are still wood. This simple fact makes the carpenter
one of the most important positions aboard any vessel.
Carpenters are chief ly responsible for maintaining the
ship below the deck, finding and plugging leaks, repairing
damage, and replacing masts and yards. As the crew
member most skilled with the saw, the carpenter typically
serves as a ship’s surgeon as well—bones cut just as easily
Cook: While the quartermaster normally allocates the
rations, the cook and his apprentices make and distribute
meals to the crew. Although some better-outfitted vessels
employ skilled cooks to attend to the captain and the
officers, many cooks are drawn from crew members who
have suffered crippling injuries, allowing them to still
serve even after such trauma.
Master-at-Arms: Concerned with the security of the
ship, the fitness of the crew, and the dispensing of justice,
the master-at-arms typically is one of the most feared and
dreaded of a ship’s officers.
Master Gunner: The master gunner is in charge of all
shipboard artillery, ensuring moisture and rust don’t ruin
the weapons and that the crew knows how to use them. On board ships with firearms, the master gunner maintains
the vessel’s cannons, firearms, and powder supplies; on
ships without such weapons, she maintains the ballistas,
catapults, and so on.
Quartermaster: The quartermaster oversees the supplies
and items stored aboard the ship. She maintains the
supplies of food and weaponry, oversees the disbursement
of food to the cook, and doles out the rum ration to the crew.
Rigger: Riggers work the rigging and unfurl the sails.
In battle, next to that of a boarding party, the riggers’ job
is one of the most dangerous, as they pull enemy vessels
near enough to board.
Swab: Any sailor who mops the decks. Also used as slang
for any low-ranking or unskilled crew member.
To maintain the obedience and effectiveness of their crews,
most captains enforce strict schedules and shipboard laws
upon their vessels, all maintained by the swift dispensation
of brutal punishments. The following presents (in order
of severity) the game effects of a variety of typical nautical
punishments, which the PCs have the potential to face
or inflict during their piratical careers. Most of these
sentences are meted out just before the evening meal, at an
event typically referred to as the bloody hour. Victims are
tied to the whipping post on the main deck and their backs
stripped for punishment—with penalties doubled for those
who resist. Although the victim is bound, the punishers
simply lash their victims, and are not allowed a full-round
action to make a coup-de-grace. A roll of 1 on such an attack
is treated as a non-damaging fumble that still counts as a
strike, much to the amusement of the crew.
Rope Bash: Little more than an admonishment—and
occasionally used as a sign of endearment—a rope bash
is a single attack with the hefty, sealed end of a ship’s rope
that delivers 1 point of nonlethal damage.
The Lash: This is an attack using a whip. Damage dealt
by the lash during bloody hour is typically nonlethal.
Cat-o’-Nine-Tails: This is an attack using a cat-o’-ninetails,
also referred to simply as a cat—a Medium version of
which deals 1d4 points of slashing damage on a successful
hit. See page 18 of Pathfinder Player Companion: Pirates of the
Inner Sea for more details on this weapon.
Confined in the Sweatbox: A cramped metal box left
on deck and exposed to the sun, a sweatbox is terribly
confining and replicates unbearably hot conditions. Each
hour a character spends in the box, she must succeed
at a DC 15 Fortitude saving throw or take 1d4 points of
nonlethal damage. The DC of this save increases by +1 for
each consecutive hour the character spends in the box.
Any creature with fire resistance is immune to the effects
of the sweatbox. Victims typically spend 8, 12 or even 24
hours locked up in the sweatbox.
Keelhauling: The most frightful of pirate punishments
is keelhauling, as it generally ends in death—often by
decapitation. Being keelhauled involves being tied to a rope
looped over a ship’s keel and dragged down one side of a
ship, underwater across the barnacle encrusted hull, and up
the other side. Keelhauling takes several rounds and can be
done either fast or slow. If done fast, the barnacles cut deep
and flense the victim, dealing 1d6 points of damage per
round. If done slow, shallower cuts are incurred, dealing
1d3 damage per round, but the risk of drowning increases
(see page 445 of the Core Rulebook). In either case, the victim
can make a DC 20 Ref lex save each round to take half
damage. How long keelhauling takes typically depends on
the vessel, with a keelhauling on a ship like the Wormwood
taking 6 rounds if done fast and 12 rounds if done slow.
With time on their hands and precious few places to go,
Shackles pirates have come up with an astonishing array
One way pirates amuse themselves is through songs and
stories. Pirates love a good sea chantey, and characters with
Perform skills quickly find themselves popular members
of the crew (although pirates aren’t generally big on Chelish
Opera). If a character succeeds at a DC 20 Perform check, he
gains a +2 circumstance bonus on all Charisma-based skill
checks made to interact with any listener among the crew
for the next 24 hours. A Perform result of 9 or lower, however,
indicates that the next time he attempts to use Perform to
entertain the crew, everyone ignores him unless he makes a
successful DC 15 Bluff or Intimidate check before doing so.
Aside from telling stories, singing songs, and other
recreations (all of which might be simulated with
the Perform skill), these pastimes have two things in
common: they are dangerous, and they are played for
money. When betting on any of the following games, the
minimum bet is 1 gp, and the maximum ready cash any
NPC in the lesser crew is likely to have is 20 gp. Some
people are bad losers—the ramifications of this are left
for the GM to decide.
Arm Wrestling: Not merely typical arm wrestling
bouts, such matches are usually conducted on a barrel top
covered in broken glass, knives, or caltrops. Participants
make opposed Strength checks, with the higher result
determining the winner, and the loser taking an amount of
damage equal to 1d2 + the winner’s Strength modifier as his
hand and arm are pushed onto whatever lies on the table.
Hog Lob: Participants lob a lead ingot covered in
a greased piglet skin, the “hog,” as far across the deck as
possible. This game is resolved by d20 checks between any
number of players, who agree on a bet beforehand. The hog
counts as an improvised weapon, imposing a –4 penalty
on all rolls using it unless the thrower has the Throw Anything feat.
Checks are resolved as attack rolls using the
character’s CMB. Characters toss the hog a number of feet
equal to their adjusted rolls; for example, a character who
gets a result of 22 throws the hog 22 feet. Some pirates claim
to have participated in games played against Asmodeus
using a live hog.
Heave: This potentially deadly drinking game is played
with rum and takes place between any number of pirates,
who bet to predict the winner beforehand. Each pirate
drinks a half pint of rum in one swig. Doing so forces
participants to make a successful DC 15 Fortitude save or
have the damage dealt by the rum ration increase by +1
(see sidebar; this is in addition to the normal effects of the
rum ration). This DC increases by +3 for each consecutive
drink. Pirates then take turns drinking until only one
is left standing. Some tales tell of entire crews drinking
themselves to death through this game, leaving ships of
drunk ghosts wandering the shipping routes.