Black Flag (2002)
Mike Benninghof & John R. Phythyon (Avalanche Press LTD)
Man, reviewing Avalanche d20-stuff is depressing. All for One (and One for All long official title for a 64 page supplement) was short but just long enough to do what it needed to do but had some weird thematic inconsistencies and niggling issues with equipment, Aztecs was far too short for what it set out to do and under-performed on some of the things it actually attempted, and now we get Black Flag, a mechanically tight historically accurate pirate game for the d20 system that has the noblest of intentions and its heart in the right place, if only it had had an extra 100 pages. This thing could have been the go too game for historical pirate themed swashbuckling with a dose of grit, ah la the well known Sid Meier’s Piracy: Gold edition game that has been ported to just about any system in existence before 1995. Instead this almost feels like the free demo or a teaser before you fork over the sheckles for the full product. It’s functional but where is the fucking content?
Enough yammering. The product starts, in true Avalanche Fashion, with a busty pirate babe on the cover followed by a 3-part historical primer on the Golden Age of Piracy and the conditions of a Sailor’s Life in the Carribean circa 1714-1730s. It, like all the primers we have seen thus far, gives an excellent overview of the setting, the major players (including that swaggering Naval Alpha-male nation of the 18th century, the Dutch!) the Economy of the New world (i.e Silver, Sugar, Rum and products from the distant Orient), the causes of Piracy, a number of major harbors mentioned by name with some very useful tidbits and an excellent historical overview of both Slavery and Faith in the Carribean. The ugly reality of unchecked capitalism and the horrors of slavery are neither sugar-coated nor polluted with the foul miasma of political correctness, and thus by its very objectivity it is rendered all the more horrible. The role of the fanatic order of the catholic Jesuits is nicely expounded upon, allowing one to bring the religious wars of the prior century to the Carribean. Some nice hints on slave uprisings that should make for some interesting, if gruesome, encounters.
The second part of the primer concerns ships, shipboard-life and everything vaguely related to ships, from the importance of periodically scraping your hull clean of barnacles, to ship manufacture in the Carribean, ship Navigation and the various types of ship crewmen. It is great and chock-full of information, but again, I think an opportunity has been missed. Ideally, this information should have been transformed into d20 rules. Instead, we are promised a more detailed ruleset in the Ship & Foam supplement which would never arrive. No rules for scurvy or malaria either, which is bullshit. Rations and the weaponry of the Age of Sail are given ample coverage here, a sensible choice that keeps the actual mechanics on the light side, relying instead on that most ancient of hobby-horses, GM’s discretion.
The third part is specifically geared towards Pirates, those lovable ragamuffins of history and pop-culture. Just about anything from command structure to clothing gets a treatment including a (probably necessary if one is to play this game with a hypothetical female player with an interest in Historical Pirate emulation) section on Pirate women (some cases, less rare then one would assume). All three sections combined give an excellent overview of the Caribbean in the 18th century and the bare bones needed to run the game. The only problem is that is about all you get.
The 4th section dutifully and with admirable brevity introduces us to the classes in Black Flag. Only the Rogue and the Fighter remain unchanged (the Fighter being known as the Soldier and being proficient with firearms but otherwise identical to the fighter we known and love). The rest of the standard classes may not be selected. Instead they introduce us to the Merchant (a social interaction/bartering/jack of all trades class), the Noble (described in my review of All for One), the Priest (same, though they must be from the order of the Jesuits) and the Sailor. A grim necessity in a game that will probably take place mostly at sea, the Sailor is the only class that has the essential Navigation as a class skill but is otherwise not that different from a Fighter with some odd nautical abilities (high level sailors may actually put a Sailor’s Curse upon someone, which explains a use for the Remove Curse ability of the Cardinal prestige class that also originated with this game which predates All for One & One For All)).
The game also introduces Class templates; essentially a single level class that you can take if you want to further specialize your character. An interesting system that allows for more customization without adding to the class bloat of later D20. The Escaped Slave, Carpenter, Cook and Officer are introduced here, each granting one or two abilities (nothing special, usually a bonus feat) and some bonuses to certain skills. Perfectly serviceable. Prestige classes are also present, since this is d20 yadda yadda. We are already familiar with the Cardinal class and the Physician, but we are introduced to the Navigator, a class with a vast array of ship navigation related abilities that will be wasted since Black Flag does not devote enough time on ship travel and navigation to make that a viable option, as well as ship piloting, see again, not enough pages. Those wishing to Russel Crowe it up may elect to select the Captain prestige class, reserved only for those natural leaders born to command (i.e not all captains have levels in the Captain class), inspiring gallantry (a fucking flat +2 to all rolls that is insane) in your companions and fear in your foes.
Feats! Feats are the same as in All for One, which leads me to believe Avalanche could have saved everyone time and money by printing both of them in one book. No seriously hear me out! Alongside the familiar addition of Bribe, Black Flag adds the Navigate skill along with an admirable list of modifiers for such things as chart quality, possession of a compass, having been off course for several days and night being overcast. This is a USEFUL skill but the business of ship travel ideally needed its own section, which it never got. I am disappoint. There is a Piloting skill and a list of Piloting skill modifiers but it is never really made clear when a Piloting skill check is required. An opportunity to add the Piloting skill to an intricate ship battlesystem tragically wasted. Oh well. Perhaps Green Ronin’s Skull & Bones did it better?
Equipment is one page. Admittedly, almost everything that you need is there. As in the previous game, damage stats for melee weapons (Dirk and Cutlass) are absent, though I believe DnD 3.5 had stats for the Dirk. Notably missing is a list of monthly wages for typical Npc crewmen, which would have been of tremendous use. Same goes for prices per cargo per tonne (Sugar/Rum/Hardwood etc. etc.). Ship repair rules are missing (as is the price for these goods and services). The game teases us with the existence of 100 pound siege mortars but we have to make due with the 50-pound cannon carried exclusively by Spanish ships of the line.
Ship stats and prices are covered in insufficient detail. Each ship has an AC, a speed, a damage reduction, the number of guns it can carry and a cost. What each ship needed to make this game PLAYABLE is maneuverability, minimum crew, max crew size and so on. Lengthy descriptions of ship types are given in the primer above, thus far the only noteworthy detail in this section is that one cannot purchase a 60 gun Ship of the Line, it being a warship beholden to nations alone. The type of cannons a ship can field is dependent on size. A fun rule later on allows you to increase speed or AC by loading lighter guns then your ship can handle, or decrease it by mounting heavier guns (i.e more Dakka).
Additional new rules should not cause great consternation. Our friend and confidante Grievous Bodily Harm returns to the field once more, this time made slightly more horrible by the existence of the Flintlock, a more modern version of the old Matchlock and thus more accurate and dealing more damage, with a lower misfire chance. The flintlock musket deals 2d6 points of damage per shot and crits on a 16-20, or, if we follow the rules, on a 11-20 should Monsieur obtain the Deadeye shot feat. Interesting point for consideration, Matchlocks don’t work in wet weather and have double misfire chance onboard ships.
Cannon rules are more extensive then they were in AfO. Cannons may fire different types of ammunition; Vanilla canonballs, Grapeshot (essentially a giant shotgun) or chain-linked shot and bar-shot so as to deal more damage to the rigging. Different ammunition deals different damage to crew, hull or rigging. Grapeshot deals only crew damage (a ridiculous amount of crew damage (4d4 for a 4-pound volley) but for some reason still deals damage in a 10 foot radius from the blast. Ships take damage in the form of percentage points and ships dropping below a certain percentage in hull or rigging get slower or can no longer maneuver. This combat system needed rules for maneuvering, facing and a way to quickly resolve mass volleys and crew fatalities following a hit. As it is it is functional but only just and wonky to resolve individually. The more detailed ship to ship combat system we were to see in a forthcoming supplement was sadly never made, which is a shame.
We end with the Panache rules, which I have already covered them in my prior review.
Black flag is well written and its rules-set is generally on the nose but it is simply not sufficient for what it sets out to do. If you are dead set on running this you would need to do the following things yourself:
– Create a hex map of the historical Carribean, with at least barebones data on settlements, goods, factions and so on. Also create random encounter tables.
– Create an easy to use way of resolving battles between ships, add grappling rules for boarding.
– Create rules for cargo space (missing in the rulebook), cargo prices per harbour and so on.
– Design, using guidelines in the Dungeon Master guide, monthly cost for crewmen of various specializations.
– Add rules for navigational hazards, storms, ship maintenance, ship repair, mutiny, scurvy, random weather tables and so on and so forth.
–> Finally play fun pirate game based on d20 system. Alternatively, check out Skull & Bones by Green Ronin, based on the d20 system.
Pros: It’s fucking pirates. Good setting. Nice balance between fluff and crunch.
Cons: Not nearly enough info to run the setting properly. Wasted opportunity for a pirate sandbox game.
Final Verdict: A valiant attempt but nowhere near enough material to do the setting justice. Heavy-handed railroading might allow one to get some fun out of it. Why do you keep hurting me like this Avalanche? 5 out of 10 dubloons.