Shiver me timbers, what is it with the monoculture of Piratey stereotypes in this popular culture’s fiction today, especially in tabletop role-playing games (which I have spoken of before)? I have to wonder: Do you all really have only such a limited imagination? I speak, of course, of the idea, that “Swashbuckler” seems to be a synonym for “good” Piratey types somehow.
Don’t believe me? Well, I may not have seen the whole of the World’s seas and oceans, but generally, if you want to play someone who is somewhat like a Pirate, but who is also distinctly not really a bad guy (as if we Pirates were all bad guys), someone who is a somehow nautical-themed person from the Age of Piracy or Age of Sail, who can also be used afar from ships & seas (as only a few of those stories you’ll play are bound to be set on salt water), you’ll almost every time end up with a recommendation to play a “Swashbuckler”.
It was the first suggestion in our new game of Pathfinder 2, where the Swashbuckler is it own class, presented in the Advanced Player’s Guide (while the “Pirate” itself is only a lesser Archetype option), it is the additional class presented in the Dark Waters adventure for the Four Against Darkness solo TTRPG, and even in boardgames swashbuckling obviously seems to be the activity that all the sailors and smugglers go for, as stated in the very first sentence of the rulebook’s Overview section for Ahoy!
These are just the examples that I encountered over the last fortnight!
I guess my problem with this very monolithic identification with “Swashbucklers”, even if they are alright by themselves, is that there is more to the image of this type of character than the nautical theme and that the nautical theme really is much more diverse. Just take a look at the great crew cards of the abovementioned Ahoy! for a second, starting on page 22 of the rulebook linked:
Here we have a plethora of people that you should be able to play and that all share, what I’d call the Sea Dog trait (the Sea Dog is even a specific crew member in this game). Simple Sailors are working together with Pilots, Gunners, Powder Monkeys, Shipwrights, Nobles – and even Sea Witches, if you’d like a bit of a more supernatural taste. And their factions are named after political ideas, or their main way of income: smuggling.
Or think about Stevenson’s Treasure Island, where Long John Silver is a cook – and not even a bad one – besides being a scheming cut-throat with a silver tongue. In terms of the most popular TTRPG out there: is he a Rogue or a Bard? Dr. Livesey is a medical doctor, while Mr. Trelawney is a landowner, who just happened to serve as an officer in the British Navy a while back – and don’t get me started on Jim Hawkins: a scrawny tavern boy, learning the trade of combat and sailing on the go.
Finally, there is the problem with the flair – or maybe better: esprit, that comes with the title of “Swashbuckler”. When you look up the word in the Cambridge Dictionary, the description seems to be modest, but there’s already a hint of recklessness in it: enjoying dangerous experiences? Well, I don’t know, if I do. Looking further, you may even find adjectives like “flashy”, “showy” or “bombastic”, or connections to franchises as Dumas’ The Three Musketeers and the movie Puss in Boots, with the protagonists swinging from chandeliers into battle. (How many chandeliers did the typical environment of a sailor or Pirate contain, what do you think?)
It’s this strong connection of the “Swashbuckler” to courts, chivalry and fine swords that makes me wanna throw up my clams sometimes. Don’t get me wrong: Dumas’ story is a classic, but when I imagine a Piratey character for a game, I do not think of D’Artagnan or his comrades. I want grumpy & mad Old Salts, sturdy and cunning Sea Dogs and the occasional Scallywag. I want to see the fight against oppression and the struggle with nature, salted with treachery, mystery and treasure.
So, me hearties, no matter if you’re thinking of creating a new game, expanding an old one or just be playing it: Be more diverse! Embrace all the options in a Piratey setting and don’t just cling to the same bad thing everybody does. Thank you.