For a DnD 5e pirate campaign, remember these elements and character/story tropes:
- Know the rules of Renaissance era tech
- Consider the world build
- Create story beats of revenge, treasure hunting and/or exploration
- The Sword Fighter
- Treasure Hunter
- Tempest Sailor
- Ghost Pirate
A pirate campaign has different elements from the run-of-the-mill DnD 5e basic. Gun powder, ship navigation and character themes will be much more prevalent. The good news: this gives the DM and players room for creativity. With this article, I want place together a few need-to-know game functions, along with example stories and character builds.
However, if you’d like to check out a premade pirate adventure, check out my original adventure, Dead Man’s Tale, by clicking here or below.
Know the rules of Renaissance era tech.
First of all, let’s talk about renaissance era firearms, as this will relate to classic pirate weaponry.
Obviously, the ammunition used for these projectile weapons are bullets, which you can buy 10 of for 3 gold. Along with bullets, you will need to carry gun powder in a water-resistant powder horn. You could either choose the traditional prof + Dex bonus attack modifier against your enemy’s AC, or choose a DC saving throw of 15 (Dex) for the attack roll. Dealer’s choice.
Muskets will cost about 500 gold, dealing 1d12 piercing damage at a distance. The range is set to 40/120, and the weapon must be reloaded after each shot. You can generally do this as an action, which feels closer to reality than some special bonus action (unless, perhaps, your gifted with the Sleight of Hand proficiency).
Pistols are similar as one-shot, reloading weapons. These weapons deal 1d10 damage with a range of 30/90. This could be paired nicely with a cutlass or other saber in the main hand. For the sword, remember that most slashing weapons are generally Power based, while most stabbing (or fencing) weapons will use Dexterity.
I would also argue that blunderbusses are fair game, so you could take the shotgun damage (2d8) and apply it to a single blast. Note there is no pump-action here, just a one-shot spray. It’s also going to take more than one bullet, as these basic shotguns did. For this, you will use the Burst Fire property to spray 10 bullets within a 10-foot cube area.
Handheld fuse bombs are fair game as well, dealing 3d6 fire damage against a DC 12 Dexterity saving throw.
Consider the world build
In my mind, as a guy in America, the idea of pirate stories brings the Caribbean islands to mind. Of course, pirates in the real world have been a global issue for a very long time. From East Asia to Europe to Africa to the Americas, if you have a boat and are willing to steal, you’re a pirate. We love a good outlaw in the USA, so naturally pirates are popular here.
Your pirate story can take place wherever—make up an island chain, base it off influences from classic pirate stories. All of the races available in DnD can be infused into this pirate story. We wouldn’t want to drop the opportunity for a goblin cutthroat on the high seas.
However, the story and setting could be modified to fit a pirate campaign. There are themes that commonly go with a swashbuckling adventure.
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Setting and Monsters
Whether the setting is tropical or arctic, one thing is for sure: you’re going to spend some time in or around the water. This means islands, beaches and coastal towns are likely to show up along the way. Maybe these islands are nations, maybe the world has nothing but island nations. It’s a good place to start.
The monsters and wildlife along the way could come from the sea itself, such as krakens, merfolk, kuo-toa, aboleths and my personal favorite, dragon turtles. They could raid your ship or be as big as your ship. There are options to battle underwater, too, but be warned, the firearms won’t shoot when they’re wet.
Other creature encounters can be found on the islands themselves. I like the concept of a lush jungle island full of dinosaurs, lizardfolk and insects of disturbing size. The beaches could have sea hag encounters or giant crabs. Maybe the first encounter could be an ornery plesiosaur laying her eggs on the beach. Excuse me, ma’am.
Create story beats of revenge, treasure hunting and/or exploration.
A few dungeon ideas could be based around an expansive seaside cave system or an ancient jungle temple. The most obvious pirate idea is the search for buried treasure, so these locations make for logical choices. Maybe the treasure is a ruse, meant to lure unsuspecting cutthroats to unleash an ancient evil from its prison. Either way, it makes for a nice pirate vibe.
Another traditional pirate story is one of revenge. Your party could be a group of castaways, left to die by their captains. When they meet each other, they could hatch a plan for some serious payback. These adventures could start with a survival scenario, leading to a commandeered ship and subsequent high-seas battles. You’re a pirate, Harry!
Using the world of islands idea could make a perfect long-term campaign for those who love to explore. Each island could be a different environment, civilized or wild. This type of game could be focused on retrieving a number of artifacts, spread across the world. The official Dungeon Masters Guide has examples of wilderness exploration and survival situations for such campaigns. Potentially, you could even carve out a hardcore campaign where food and rations come into play. DnD Minecraft, anyone?
Sample Character Builds
Reimagining the campaign in different genres allows for an extra layer of creativity when you build characters. Most of us are well aware of what a Fighter should look like in a classic DnD setting—pretty much a knight. We know Wizards where robes and Rogues where black. In the pirate campaign, however, we have new tropes and character archetypes to work with.
Therefore, we’ll need to reskin these classes to suit or thematic needs. Consider these four pirate character build-outs for inspiration.
The Sword Fighter
A classic pirate, this character is a sword-dueling, pistol-blasting mercenary. Whether your swashbuckler is the captain or hired muscle, he or she is a classic sword fighter. For this build, choose the Fighter class with the Duelist fighting style. You can easily fire off a shot with one hand, then reholster the spent pistol to gain your +2 bonus damage with the sword hand.
I think the maneuvers offered by the Battlemaster path offer an enhanced “sword fighter” feel to the character. Techniques that disarm opponents or offer advantage on the attack roll make for an impressive character. This is the era of the Three Musketeers or Zorro—that on guard fencing style of fighting is rich in pirate lore. Remember to choose a sword that fits your Power or Dexterity modifier, whichever you choose to be highest.
Of course, you could also choose the Swashbuckler Rogue class, as introduced in Xanathar’s Guide to Everything. This class grants the Fancy Footwork and Rakish Audacity at level 3. Fancy Footwork allows you to be protected from enemy attacks of opportunity after a strike. Rakish Audacity gives you a bonus to your Initiative roll equal to your Charisma modifier. Plus, you can add your Sneak Attack against a creature if your within 5 feet of it. Remember, no other creature can be within 5 feet of you and you can’t pull this off if something gives you disadvantage.
Thematically, this is the pirate with a dagger in his/her mouth who scrambles to the crow’s nest of the ship. Obsessed with treasure, this is the character who’s most experienced with dungeon crawling, finding traps and picking locks.
If you haven’t guessed it by now, we’ll be using the Rogue class because, well, pirates are rogues. More precisely, I went with the Thief path as it relates to picking locks and stealing booty. In a world of treasure and curses, it’s important to have a character on the team who can spot and disarm traps. This character could have Perception, Sleight of Hand and Investigation as skill options.
Not to mention, this character could be an asset with a revenge campaign. Go ahead and plant some evidence against another ship’s captain to cause mutiny. For this type of rogue, perhaps Deception should be considered.
This character build came to me when I tried to imagine the ultimate sailor. Sailing and boat mastery is an epic skillset—it oozes adventure. So, who would make the best seafaring character build? It’s probably one who is connected to the sea and sky, a magic-based navigator and weather predictor. Therefore, I came up with two possible options: Tempest Cleric or Coast Druid (Circle of the Land).
The Druid character would be one with the sea, pulling mana from the various islands they grew up on. Falling under the Circle of the Land, I picked the Coast as this Druid’s land, giving them special spells such as water breathing, water walk and control water. I mean, who doesn’t want that kind of spell-weaver on board.
The second option is in the Cleric class build: The Tempest Domain. Worshipping a god of the sea, such as Poseidon, this cleric calls on divine power for smooth seas. Spells such as fog cloud, gust of wind and, of course, control water could come into play in interesting ways. Besides, Turn Undead could help with those pesky cursed monsters, skeletons and ghosts.
Zoinks, Scoob, this is a fun pirate trope. Naturally, this ghost fella needed to be mentioned after the Cleric. They could have a fun dynamic. The two classes that come to mind are Necromancer Wizard and Hexblade Warlock.
The necromancer build is obvious. You’re undead and know the secrets of the grave, granting your magic with other undead extra umf. Create zombies on the fly to aid your crew in battle. Or, bring bodies from the earth to help man the ship. As a ghost, you’ll receive a +1 bonus to Intelligence (or Wisdom, but not for a wizard build), so that should help.
The second choice that makes sense is the Hexblade Warlock. Maybe your pirate sword looks otherworldly, as if cursed by your dark patron god. For the sea, I’m thinking The Great Old One would be a good choice, adding that Lovecraft flavor to a seafarer. This could be the reason you’re a ghost in the first place, gaining the ghost race’s +2 Charisma modifier to beef up your Warlock spells.
Now, for the adventure
Hopefully, I’ve sparked the creative machine inside your head and you’re ready for your own pirate adventure. Comment and let me know what you come up with!
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