Launched this year on official Talk Like A Pirate Day (yar), Pirate Borg has rapidly become one of the most successful hacks of a popular TTRPG since Blades In The Dark. To learn more about the swashbuckling success found with the games publication by Free League, I had a chance to chat with designer Luke Stratton about what went into the design of the game, how he wants to change pirate stories, and the Secret of Monkey Island.
So why combine Pirates and Mork Borg? Where’s the overlap there and what inspired you to make this game?
Over quarantine, I was running a Dungeons & Dragons game online, and I was out of work. That led to starting a Patreon drawing battle maps of pirate ships. After a few months I was getting pretty burned out prepping the campaign and drawing maps all day, so I took a break from running the game and let some of my players run games for a few weeks. Kevin, one of my players, was dying to run Mörk Borg for us. I was aware of the game, but hadn’t played it. We played 3 or 4 sessions, and it was the MOST fun we’d ever had playing an RPG.
I joked to a buddy of mine that I should hack Mörk Borg to fit my pirate setting, as it fits the vibe of a grimdark pirate setting more than 5th Edition D&D. I got to work, and what started as a short pirate hack zine turned into a book about twice the size and triple the word count of the original!
The grimdark, rules-light nature of Mörk Borg was perfect fit for a grimdark pirate game. It’s deadly, magic is hardcore, there’s not a lot of chance of survival, and if you do, you’re basically a legend. Sounds like a pirate game to me!
What is the “Dark Caribbean?”
It is the setting for Pirate Borg, and also the title of my next project, a big setting book. Its an alternate history version of Earth, where the Caribbean is overrun by undead known as the Scourge. There are lots of derelict ships and temples filled with treasure. Also, when you kill undead, they leave behind an ectoplasmic dust called ASH that is VERY valuable and powerful.
Do you think Pirate Borg is in opposition to traditional narratives around pirates?
Pirate Borg is a fantasy game about fantasy pirates. It’s as inspired by the Disney ride Pirates of the Caribbean and movies as it is by history. Much of it is inspired by history, but as I say in the intro: Pirate Borg is a game about grog-swilling pirates, undead galleons, arcane treasures found in ancient temples, and high seas adventure. It’s not a game about slavery, sexual violence, genocide, or any of the other abhorrent real parts of our history. Please treat these topics with the respect they deserve, or leave them out of the game altogether and go hunt some skeletons.
What is the game’s relationship with the history of colonization and imperialism in the West Indies?
I love Caribbean Golden Age of Piracy as a game setting, but as part of history it’s pretty controversial, as so many terrible things happened back then. I didn’t really want to “gamify” those things, so I altered the setting to make it more about fantasy pirates fighting undead than about genocide, slavery, and what not. Essentially, the island natives of the Caribbean have disappeared due to the undead presence in the region (though they can be found in certain places as you’ll see in the Dark Caribbean book), and slavery was eradicated prior to the scope of the book. Obviously if people want to add these elements back into their home games, they are welcome to, but I wasn’t interested in having those parts of history in my game.
How did you go about integrating the folklore of pirates and the West Indies into the game? Why not keep things “realistic” ?
Continuing off the thoughts in my last answer, I grew up playing Secret of Monkey Island and riding the Pirates ride at Disney World. In the same way we don’t think of knights actually fighting dragons and wizards, there is almost a zeitgeist out there for fantasy pirates. Ghost ships, buried treasure, walking the plank, magic relics… these things are all great in an RPG. But the dip into real history is so rich that you can’t ignore it. Henry Morgan, Blackbeard, Ponce De Leon… their stories read almost like a fantasy novel.
At the start of COVID, I played in an online Oak & Iron campaign, which is a historical miniatures game. There were Engligh, Dutch, French, and Spanish factions. Of course I was part of the Pirate faction (we won BTW), and I modded all my ship models to look like ghost ships, or flame ships, or bone ships. I just love that vibe, like a Alestrom album cover. The history of the period is fascinating, but at this point I’m more interested in the lore and folktales. Firelock Games is actually working on a historical pirate RPG, Under the Black Sail, which looks great. But I’m more interested in playing Sea of Thieves than reliving history!
There’s a rather ghoulish magic system in this game. How did you come up with it?
I liked the magic system in Mörk Borg, which is all scroll based, but I wanted to have a more involved system in a way. So in Pirate Borg, I added Ancient Relics and Arcane Rituals. Relics are like low level scrolls that can stun you or even break after you use them. Then the Rituals are like powerful magic, perhaps live witchcraft, Lovecraftian magic, or necromancy. They are like the more powerful scrolls in Mörk Borg, but when you fail at all, very bad things happen. In my experience, this is very fun at the table, as new pirates are easy to come by and hard to keep.
How do you design ship combat in a rules-light game?
Over the years, I’ve played a lot of different pirate games: Pirates of the Spanish Main by WizKids, Oak & Iron by Firelock Games, and then video games like Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag, Sea of Thieves, and Sid Meier’s Pirates! About a year before starting Pirate Borg, I had written a rules supplement for 5th Edition D&D called Limithron’s Guide to Naval Combat. It was designed to be a little less “realistic” and more fun for a group of RPG PCs to engage with. It was very well received by that community, so when I got to rewriting those rules for Pirate Borg, I just made them even simpler and faster to understand to match the vibe of Mörk Borg. Essentially, one player acts as the captain – they decide where to move the ship. Then each PC can take one action for the ship. They aren’t stuck to taking the same action each turn like in some game systems where you pick a role or station on the vehicle.
What sorts of stories do you think people will tell within Pirate Borg?
Tales of treasure, exploration, fear, drinking and carousing, and hopefully, laughing with your friends! We hear a lot of people saying how much more fun they have playing Pirate Borg compared to other systems, and that makes me really happy.
Tell me about the art of the game. How did you decide on a “look?” How do you fit the Mork Borg artpunk vibes into pirates?
At first, I really was going for the same style as Mörk Borg: bright yellows, splatter inks, neon accents and what not. But I was playtesting with some friends and the vibe didn’t match my map art style at all, and it just didn’t feel very “piratey”. For Pirate Borg I shifted to make the book and art a little more in-world, and added the treasure map look, using more old newspaper fonts and a little less of a modern magazine look. For the actual printing I went with all uncoated paper to give it more of an old book feel. For the actual illustration, I just fell into an art style more inspired by Chris Boroussa and the Darkest Dungeon team, Mike Mignola, comic books, and old school RPG art. I also used a lot of public domain images from the actual era in the background, so you might see an old ship painting or an etching of a Caribbean town, but with my graphic design and art on top.
Who’s your favorite historical pirate?
Blackbeard all the way. He just doesn’t seem like a real person, and has provoked so many good stories and tropes. My favorite fantasy pirate is probably LeChuck, especially from Monkey Island 2. LOVE me a good ghost pirate!
Images via Free League Publishing
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