Skull & Shackles
Ships cannot function without order and structure. Every captain has her own preferred rules and enforces those edicts in different ways. While the rules may vary from ship to ship, pirates as a group have developed general codes of conduct. When pirates capture an enemy ship, they sometimes offer the crew a choice: join the pirates’ crew, or face slavery or death. A crew willing to turn pirate must sign or swear to a code of conduct.
Some articles of a code of conduct mention the most common punishment to be delivered if a sailor breaks a specific rule. Others leave such matters to the captain’s discretion. Punishments include whippings, being put ashore at port, marooning, keelhauling, and death—naturally, vicious and criminal captains tend to gravitate toward more sadistic punishments.
A pirate put ashore at port is dismissed in a loud and obvious manner, so word soon spreads of her disgrace, inhibiting her ability to sign on with a new crew.
Marooning involves putting a pirate ashore on a deserted island with nothing but a canteen of water and a knife. These islands are often tiny, with little vegetation and practically no animal life. Marooned pirates face a slow death by starvation, or a quick death through suicide.
Keelhauling is the practice of running a long rope underneath a boat and tying the offending pirate to one end. The pirate is then dragged overboard and under the ship, which is often encrusted with a coat of sharp-edged barnacles. If the pirate is dragged quickly, the rapid passage along the barnacles results in deep cuts and occasionally limb loss or complete decapitation. In contrast, by pulling slower, the crew can allow the offending pirate to sink farther and avoid most risk of lacerations, but this greatly increases the risk of drowning.
Pirates killed at sea are most frequently stabbed and unceremoniously thrown overboard, where they are devoured by the sharks that tend to follow boats. Another, more theatrical execution style involves binding and sometimes weighting down the condemned sailor, then forcing her to step of into the sea and drown—the infamous “walking the plank.”
Most ships adhere to elements of the sample codes presented below, with captains picking and choosing as befits their individual inclinations.
Most of a pirate’s code focuses on mutual defense and avoiding conflict through equal wealth distribution.
• Every member of the crew gets an equal share of treasure.
Anyone caught taking more than his fair share of loot,
or refusing to report its discovery in a timely manner,
shall be marooned. The captain receives extra shares of
any treasure, as do shipwrights, carpenters, and offirs
to lesser degrees.
• Every member of the crew must tend to his own weapons and keep them ready for battle.
• Anyone who shows cowardice in the face of the enemy or deserts in battle shall have his throat cut or be marooned.
• No crew member shall hide his abilities from the crew. A sailor who can perform magic shall use his abilities on behalf of the ship.
• No crew member shall take a position on a new ship or talk of leaving until each crew member has acquired at least 1,000 gp worth of treasure through his labors.
• No fighting is allowed between crewmates. Quarrels shall be set aside until shore leave, at which point grievances may be settled with violence on shore.
• All crew members must obey the captain and his officers.
• Any pirate found stealing from crewmates shall take 30 lashes and be put ashore at port.
• The person who spots a sail shall have fist pick of its loot.
• Any crew member who loses a limb in service to the ship shall be paid 800 gp for its loss.
• Every sailor has an equal right to vote in decisions put to the crew by the captain.
Often called a “privateer’s code” or “gentleman’s code,” the following strictures are usually adhered to only by officers or those sailors whose captains consider themselves to be more than simple criminals—most frequently buccaneers who operate with government approval.
• A privateer shall not engage in one-on-one combat with an unarmed foe.
• Passengers and prisoners who may be objects of lust to crew members are not to be imposed upon or harassed.
• A privateer shall never refuse satisfaction to an honorable opponent.
• A privateer shall always accept the surrender of an honorable foe—such prisoners may later be ransomed or press-ganged into the crew.
• A privateer shall not beat or mutilate slaves or prisoners.
• A privateer shall never attack from concealment nor strike down an unsuspecting foe from behind.
• A privateer shall take what she deserves by virtue of her strength of arms, but shall not plunder the poor.
• A privateer’s word is as strong as her steel. She shall never break a promise nor renege on an agreement.
• A privateer shows discretion in conversation and does not pry into matters that don’t concern her