Game: Black Flags
Publisher: Avalanche Press
Review Dated: 18th, March 2002
Reviewer’s Rating: 8/10 [ Really good ]
Total Score: 10
Average Score: 5.00
Black Flags is the first Avalanche Press book that I’ve picked up. Avalanche Press came highly recommended to me by a historic rpg fanatic of a friend. His games are all about realism and about historical accuracy and apparently no other company out there that even comes close to Avalanche. So, when I saw a brand new Avalanche d20 book I snatched it up.
There’s also a sexy picture of a female pirate on the front cover. Did I forget to mention that? My local retailer tells me that this is fairly common move for Avalanche Press, they’ll decorate the front cover of the book with some eye candy, very much in the Luis Royo style but then fall back to almost no internal artwork. Well. The artist is actually Lorenzo Sperlunga of Heavy Metal fame and there is internal artwork. There is internal artwork but it’s very different from the cover, the inside art matches the text of book in that its all about the best way to represent the historic facts in a rpg.
In some ways Black Flags: Pirates of the Caribbean is so blatantly shoe-horned into the d20 system that you wonder why they made the effort. In other ways, though, you’ll be very glad that Avalanche did manage to squeeze the game into the system that you know well since they really do manage to bring the dangerous Caribbean to life for you.
The introduction makes it crystal clear that the aim of the authors was not to produce a set of swashbuckling rules. That said; there are is a good set of panache rules at the back of the 64-paged book and if your players are used to fantasy, even low fantasy, then I’m willing to bet there will be plenty of close encounters with swashbuckling scenes. Even if you’re an historic gamer then I think the very nature of roleplaying games will lead to dramatic sword fights, adventures and intrigue which sounds a bit like an Errol Flynn movie to me.
This isn’t a book about pirates in general. Black Flags concentrates on one period of time – the early 1700s, one part of the world – the Caribbean and it does so very well. The first three chapters of the book are entirely history. You’ll find out just which islands are under English control, which are under Spanish control as well as the other big players. It’s pretty interesting too. The book provides all the minutia of detail you’ll need to describe the daily life of these rough sailors. How rum is made, where the phrase “pieces of eight” comes from, whether “walking the plank” is a myth or not, whether there actually are scantily clad female pirates as the cover suggests, how hard it is to fire a canon from a ship’s deck, how some Colonial Powers slyly used “legal” pirates and all sorts of details like that. One of my favourite sections was actually the Black Flag section. A black flag (made famous by the skull and crossbones of the Jolly Rodger) means that if the rival ship offers any resistance at all then no mercy will be shown at all. There’s also a whole strange sea etiquette about which nation’s flag you’re flying at any one time. A merchant ship will typically have a whole collection of different flags and if the Captain feels it would be wise to be French for a while (they’re sailing through French navy patrolled seas, for example) then they’ll fly the French flag! That seems to be considered fair play. However, what’s considered unfair and a serious crime is to keep on flying a false flag while you’re firing. So a ship that sets about quickly switching its flags over as it approaches you might very well be about to open fire!
The forth chapter provides a slew of character classes. Clearly you can’t transplant a magic wielding cleric into your game if you want to be historically accurate! In fact, simple matters such as the Dungeons and Dragons alignment mechanics, which don’t really hold up to real life situations, are given a look over and re-addressed with possible solutions.
The fifth chapter introduces suitable feats and skills for a game in the historic setting. “Save Limb” is an example of a feat that a superb surgeon might have. There’s also a whole lot of interesting rules for nautical navigation here, the difficulties of sailing without a compass for example. The piloting checks are different, one’s actually working out where you are and the other for making the ship sail where you want… and the DCs here increase in nasty ways if you try and pilot through a narrow strait, in the dark and in a storm!
The last chapter follows on nicely from chapter five. The flow from such dangerous nautical accomplishments into the rules for panache and for canons is a fairly natural one. The rules here also make sense, Avalanche Press might not be one you’d think of first when you list d20 companies but they do seem to know the system.
Not a history fan? I think Black Flags might still interest you. I think an sailing adventure in Ravenloft would be great. There’s nothing stopping you using the sailing rules for any fantasy game either, if you want a fantasy companion book then Seas of Blood seems like a natural choice.
Black Flag may have been my first Avalanche Press book but I doubt it’ll be my last.