Arrrr, shiver me timbers, landlubber—it’s time to talk pirate! Playing in a pirate D&D campaign can be really fun if you’re into the genre, and come on, who wouldn’t want to sail the seven seas with a parrot on their shoulder and a hook for a hand? Let’s look at five tips that will take your pirate games to the next level!

1. Dig into the FUN of pirate adventures

The first step, as always, is to think about what makes being a pirate fun! This is a game, so fun should always be a priority. For example, maybe you enjoy the aesthetics and having a cool pet, maybe you like the idea of being able to sail anywhere in the world, or maybe you’re just there for that shiny loot! If you’re a player, make sure your pirate concept fits the GM’s vision and what your fellow players want out of the campaign. If you’re a GM, remember that different players could understand “pirate D&D campaign” in different ways, so make sure to establish the proper expectations in session 0. If you don’t want them looting random ships or going to random places you haven’t prepared, there’s nothing wrong with telling them before the game starts.

2. Lean into the tropes, then subvert them in your pirate D&D campaign

Tropes are one of the most useful tools you have as a creative! Now, just because a trope is popular among pirate stories, that doesn’t mean you have to use it. Just like how you won’t use a hammer for a screw just because it’s there in the toolbox, you need to be aware of each trope’s purpose. The best way to do this is, of course, by reading books and watching movies or series about pirates! You can also read non-fiction books or watch documentaries about the Golden Age of Piracy if you want to be more accurate to reality.
I like to group tropes into three categories that could be useful to you if you’re wondering how to make a dnd 5e pirate:
  • Character tropes: things that a character can have or do. For example, peg legs, pet parrots, eye patches, hook hands, and saying “arr!” between every other sentence.
  • Character type tropes: there are character archetypes. For example, the “noble” blaggard captain, the jolly cook who makes disgusting food, and the privateer with a clear code of honor.
  • Plot tropes: this is all about what happens to the characters! For example, seeking freedom, looting stuff, assaulting other ships with scimitars, and finding lost treasure on a deserted island

Now think about how you can subvert them! Instead of copy-pasting a trope, compare it to the campaign setting and find how you can tweak it so it’s a better fit for the world.

3. Get inspired by a real-life trip to the seas!

Part of making a setting believable is adding details that feel real, and there’s no better way to do this than taking to the seas yourself! GACUCON is the greatest way to do this, as they are a cruise ship full of geeky activities like cosplaying, RPGs, and more. Sign-ups for next year’s cruise are open! The D20 Cruise in 2023 will be a 5-day cruise with a 24/7 D&D convention center, so you’ll not only experience the sea but you’ll also get to play your favorite games as much as you want!

When you’re on the ship, make sure to take in (and even write down!) everything that you feel. What does looking to the horizon feel like? What does the sea smell of? How does the fresh air coming from the sea feel against your skin? These are all things that your pirate characters will feel constantly, so it’s important to get them right! If you have personal experiences, the players will definitely feel it.

4. Get inspired by some real pirate history and movies!

Earlier I mentioned that getting inspiration from different sources is very important. The truth is that even great writers take inspiration from other books or movies, and they definitely do their own research on the topics they write about! The History of Pyrates by William Defoe is a great resource if you want to go beyond Wikipedia on your non-fiction research (you can download it from Project Gutenberg).

If you’re looking for inspiration from other fiction works, here’s a list of movies and series to get you started!

  • Pirates of the Caribbean (movie series)
  • Black Sails (TV series)
  • Our Flag Means Death (TV series)
  • Peter Pan (movies, animated and live-action)
  • The Pirates of Penzance (movie)
  • Treasure Planet (animated movie)
  • Treasure Island (movie)
  • One Piece (anime)

As you can see, even though these are all pirate stories, they are from wildly different genres, but you can probably draw inspiration from all of them! Choose your favorites and add them to your world’s meta document to always have them handy.

5. Create great sea monsters for your pirate D&D campaign!

If you want to run a pirate D&D campaign your players will spend many sessions on the sea, so you have to make sure it’s an interesting place to be! To do that, make a list of points of interest that can introduce conflict to the story. An example of conflict is, of course, sea monsters! Krakens and sea serpents are two of the most popular sea monsters, but you can come up with your own. In fact, it doesn’t need to be a sea monster! Anything that introduces conflict (another ship, an islands, a mysterious magical phenomenon) will spice up the campaign enough.

If you decide to create an actual monster, though, take a look at our 5 tips for homebrewing monsters!

We had a whole interview about this with our friends at GACUCON! Watch it on YouTube:

What are your tips for creating pirate characters and campaigns? Let me know in the comments!

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