Pirates & Corsairs

Under a black flag we sail and the sea shall be our empire.

LORE

Pirates & Corsairs, LARP character Icon

Piracy is far from being restricted to a particular time period or geographic area. Pirates have been hunting seas and waterways for millennia, with archives of their pillage and plunder going as far as Antiquity.

Of course, when someone mentions the word ‘’pirate’’, a particular image comes to mind, and this image is pulled from a very particular period of sea-faring history known as the Golden Age of Piracy. Heavily influenced by works of fiction such as Treasure Island, or more recently the Pirates of the Caribbean franchise, the modern icon of the pirate can nevertheless be placed into a historical context, often pinpointed as roughly a century-long episode going from 1650 to 1750. However, corsairs or privateers, essentially state-licensed pirates, remained largely present for another century.

The close relationship between pirates and privateers must not be overlooked, with most large outbursts in piracy being the direct results of corsairs being demobilized at the end of wars, going rogue, and pursuing their raids without legal authority after the termination of their contracts.

Many pirates’ dens such as Tortuga, Nassau, and Port-Royal began as privateer rally points, until their crews turned to freebooting, the port authorities often turning a blind eye to the legality of their trade.

Pirate crews were famously egalitarian for their time, often recruiting maroon slaves as crewmates, and freeing the captives in the slave vessels they captured. It is estimated that about one third of pirates were of African descent during the Golden Age of Piracy, a career path that was perceived as emancipatory for many enslaved folks. The existence of famous women pirates also solidifies this egalitarian mindset, with every crewmate of merit having a chance to rise to a respected status with effort and some luck. The pirates spat on the laws and hierarchies of their time, living as outlaws on the sea. It was a hard life, but one of freedom.

Characters

In LARP, pirates can lean on different stereotypes depending on the setting and the mood of the play. They can be festive, open-minded, and social characters full of far-fetched tales, drinking stories, and eccentric superstitions.

This fun and charismatic version of the pirate is a likable scoundrel, some sort of anti-hero that sails in shady waters but feels pretty approachable. It’s a very popular take and one that has been seen a lot in popular culture with characters such as Jack Sparrow, who cranks that flavour to the max.

A different approach is to play the pirate as a more modern barbarian: a brutish, violent, bloodthirsty, and intimidating character that doesn’t play by any rules and takes what they want by force if needed.

This archetype leans on the fear factor associated with pirates, making them villains that threaten civilization by their sheer violence and greed. Their vices are numerous but only serve to make them even more fearsome, like an unpredictable drunk that could snap at any moment.

Finally, a more historical approach would be to recreate the particular archetypes typically found aboard pirate ships of the Golden Age of Piracy, and take inspiration from real-life pirate figures. A veteran privateer or sailor turned rogue, an ambitious street urchin that enrolled young on a ship, an escaped slave that found freedom in crime; any of these backstories can lead to a nuanced and complex character to roleplay. In any case, there is certainly a lot of potential in playing a freebooter in LARP, characters living at the edge of civilization, travelling abroad, often coming from low classes, but surprisingly cosmopolitan thanks to their rich life experiences and the diversity of sailors they befriended on the way.

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Costumes

Pirates are sailors first and foremost, and most of their clothing is heavily influenced by what is worn in the navy or trading ships. Long buttoned frock coats may be worn by captains and their officers to highlight their authority in a parody of naval military, but most pirates preferred simple and comfortable shirts, sometimes with a woolen jacket to protect them from the weather. Likewise, tricorn hats and other eccentric headwears served no practical purpose on a ship, with the wind and rain likely to simply throw them into the sea, so these fashion items were more a display of status than something any regular crewmate would wear.

Simple headbands or knitted caps were much more common. The iconic pirate look is more of a fantasy than anything else. Luckily, most LARP aren’t exactly historical reenactment, so feel free to lean in the cliche with large hats, big coats, and all the swagger you can bring into your play. Don’t forget a flask if you want to carry your rum at hand. When weapons are concerned, black powder flintlock pistols are the way to go, with more specialist weapons such as the blunderbuss that is also quite iconic for pirate boarding parties.

In melee, the cutlass is the most famous weapon of the Golden Age of Piracy. This short saber presents a protective shell expanding from the guard, offering a deadly and nimble blade for close-quarter combat. Scimitars were also popular among the islamic pirates of the barbary coast, reinforcing the idea of short, curved blades as the ideal for ship combat. Boarding axes were also often used, as were knives, both being as useful as tools as in battles, and thus easily available on a ship. Rapiers can also be fitting, especially in the hands of famous or prideful pirates.