Skull & Shackles
Originally Besmara was a powerful water spirit with an affinity for manipulating sea monsters. She gained fame among primitive tribes for her willingness to drive these creatures toward rival coastal villages; later, when tribes began boat-raids on other settlements, they found she could be bribed to fend off these attacks with her monsters or arrange for predation-free sailing for the aggressors. With this long history of playing both sides, she leveraged power for herself by destroying and consuming rival spirits of wood, gold, and battle, and eventually became a minor goddess of piracy, sea monsters, and strife. She is comfortable with her current level of power and notoriety, and knows she cannot unseat a major deity such as Abadar or Gorum (though if she had an opportunity at such a prize she just might take it), so she entertains herself by raiding the outposts of celestials, fiends, and minor deities.
Besmara’s existence as a deity predates the Age of Enthronement by several centuries, and as a spirit millennia before that. Her power as a goddess has waxed and waned in response to the naval power of coastal empires, but even when at her most vulnerable she has found ways to escape capture or destruction. She doesn’t care about good and evil, only pursuit, battle, and reward. She grants spells to righteous privateers battling the Chelish navy and to murderous buccaneers who give no quarter to defeated opponents—much like the war god Gorum, her interest is in the conflict, not the consequences of its resolution. She enjoys strife more than peace, as when two nations squabble she has more opportunities to plunder both sides and blame her attacks on the victim’s rival; her followers have been known to stir up trouble by sailing aggressively (or even attacking) while using a temperamental nation’s colors or falsely claiming to be “legitimate privateers” as they attack in peacetime.
In her interactions with sea monsters, she doesn’t play the motherly, brood-creating role that Lamashtu does, but rather the clever bully who keeps other bullies in line through physical threats and force of personality—her monsters are like vicious dogs who reluctantly obey her command to heel only because she can hurt or kill them, rather than loyal beasts who comply out of respect, love, or devotion. She has few priests, for pirates are more superstitious than religious, but she counts among her followers anyone who has made a desperate prayer to her when facing death on the sea or given tribute to gain her favor. Aquatic races usually venerate their own gods and avoid attracting her attention, for her monsters prey under the sea as well as upon it.
Besmara has a buccaneer’s heart and mind. She gives chase if she wants something, or lets her prey escape for a time if she wants the challenge of giving it a head start. She retreats from a superior force if she doesn’t think she can win, but doesn’t believe fights have to be fair. She is loyal to an ally as long as that alliance serves her interests, and thinks nothing of betraying someone who is no longer useful to her, teaming up with an old enemy for a common purpose, or fighting against a former ally. Her personal code of conduct is simple and straightforward, and most pirates follow something similar, even if they don’t worship her as their patron. She hates anyone who tries to restrain her, her activities, or piracy in general, putting her in opposition to blockade f leets and most countries’ navies. Though she is quite competent at winning battles involving only a few ships, pirates rarely command entire fleets, and she makes no claims of being a war deity.
It is common practice for pirates to throw a treasure chest or two overboard before a risky battle as tribute to the goddess, though this is never a guarantee of her favor. Isolated caches of this tribute litter the sea floor, left alone by aquatic races (who understand to whom it belongs) and usually guarded by strange creatures of the deep sea sent by the goddess or her agents. Such creatures usually have no interest in these treasures, but watch over them because the loot attracts tasty surface-dwellers, and because serving the Pirate Queen in this way means she is less likely to find another, more dangerous task for
them. The greatest of these sites contain sunken ships, either deliberately sunk by wary pirates or lost because of great battles, whose crews have transformed into draugr. If these caches are ever stolen, the goddess’s reaction ranges anywhere from sending a scourge of sea beasts after them, to cursing the responsible party to drown at sea, to allowing the looter to retire in luxury—all depending on the thief ’s reputation, her mood, and any sentimental value she may have for the lost treasure.
Nearly all of Besmara’s followers are pirates or pirates by any other name. The rest are folks who profit from strife (such as war profiteers, dog fighters, and similar low-class folk), officials in “pirate towns,” a few intelligent sea monsters, pirates’ spouses, and prostitutes whose clientele comprises mainly pirates. Even such strumpets, harlots, trollops, and rent boys who rarely or never set foot on pirate ships indirectly profit from successful piracy, and pray to Besmara that their favorite buccaneers return with lust in their hearts and many coins to spend. Some of these consider themselves “sacred prostitutes” of the goddess, though this devotion often consists of little more than a “pirate queen” costume and roleplayed seduction (the goddess herself laughs at these mortal antics). Male prostitutes among the faithful are often referred to as matelots (a term also sometimes given to the male spouse of a pirate).
Besmara appears as a brash, raven-haired pirate captain of any race she pleases, dressed in a stereotypical costume—typically colored pantaloons, black boots, a blousy shirt, and a hat (a bicorne, tricorne, or bandana), with gaudy jewelry and perhaps an eye patch, and carrying a rapier, saber, or cutlass. Sometimes her skin is greenish or even bluish, and she may sport one or more scars on her face and neck, either from a blade or the suckers and beak of a great squid. She may have slow-burning matches braided into her hair, or breathe wisps of blue-green fire that ignite nearby combustibles. Despite her inhuman origins, she does not take monstrous form, even when angered, though swarms of crabs, predatory fish, and tentacled monsters have crawled out of her clothing, nearby water, or even thin air to do her bidding. Those who oppose her on the water feel seasick; those who oppose her on land feel hung over.
Besmara intervenes in the form of gold coins spinning, seabirds flying in odd patterns, mists concealing one’s approach from enemies, enemies dropping weapons or having their weapons misfire, and opposing ships’ sails tearing or burning. She shows her anger through stored food spoiling in a matter of moments, potable water turning to sludge, peg-legs splintering and hooks growing burrs against the wearers’ stumps, dead seabirds falling from the sky, sudden growths of barnacles on hulls, the wetting of black powder, the tearing of sails, foul-smelling winds, and an increased presence of sea monsters.
Besmara is chaotic neutral and her portfolio is piracy, sea monsters, and strife. Her favored weapon is the rapier. Her holy symbol in most seas is a skull and crossbones on a black or red field, though Ulfen pirates often use a viking helm with crossed swords behind it instead of the design familiar in southern waters. Her domains are Chaos, Trickery, War, Water, and Weather. Nearly all of Besmara’s priests are clerics or rangers, with a few bards and druids, and every few decades an antipaladin champions her more destructive aspects. Her most common title is the Pirate Queen, though she is also known regionally as the Black
Lady, the Sea Banshee, and Sailor’s Doom.
Rather than having a defined deific domain, Besmara wanders the chaos of the Maelstrom aboard her idealized pirate ship, the Seawraith. While depictions of her vessel vary with the source, reflecting the observer’s cultural notion of a warship—everything from a galleon to a longship to a junk—the Seawraith uniformly inspires fear and respect. She can change its appearance or configuration at will, as well as the environment around and within it, just as any deity in its home realm. However, this power only extends about a hundred yards from the ship itself, requiring her to use conventional methods of battle when she raids planar outposts. Fortunately, the ship’s mobility and her chaotic powers make it very difficult to find should she wish to be hidden, and several vengeful divine entities have sought her in the Maelstrom for centuries, only to give up in frustration. Sometimes Besmara leads an armada of petitioner-crewed ships, or drags f loating wreckage, loot, and crazed, undying sailors in her ship’s wake, or even the Kelpie’s Wrath, her herald. The Seawraith is also a constellation in Golarion’s sky.
Besmara’s followers are greedy folk. While some take to the seas in search of adventure or the joy of exploration, most people with that mindset gravitate to more benign deities, leaving those who lust for gold above all things as the predominant members of her f lock. Such followers covet the belongings of others—whether actual riches, property, titles, fame, or lovers. If someone has something they want, they think it’s fair to take it. Most are chaotic and love their personal freedoms, avoiding tyrants who prey on the weak not because they disagree with this philosophy, but because they don’t like someone else telling them
what to do. Her followers hate staying in place from day to day, and are usually content with a few days in town to carouse before returning to a ship and heading out again. The Pirate Queen’s followers have many superstitions about good luck (cats, figureheads with open eyes, pouring alcohol on a deck), bad luck (whistling on deck), and evil spirits (wearing gold jewelry wards them off) in addition to other pirate traditions and beliefs.
There are no formalized rituals common to all churches, but services are generally upbeat, with singing, bootstomping, dancing, and the lighting of incense or matches (particularly slow-burning matches and fuses). Burials are one of the few somber occasions, marked by a short prayer and either burial at sea (weighted down with a chain, cannonball, or a heavy but inexpensive treasure) or burning a rowboat or raft bearing the corpse. Most priests consider it undignified to abandon fallen allies to be eaten by a sea monster unless doing so would save other crew members from an early death (such as giving sharks dead bodies to eat so living crew members can safely escape a sinking wreck).
As is befitting a chaotic pirate goddess, the church has no official stance on marriage, breeding, or raising children. Some pirates never marry, some have many spouses, some have children, and some choose to acknowledge or train them. Very few in the faith embrace celibacy, save those with an obvious disfiguring condition or venereal affliction.