- A Campagin setup from movie or book plots
- This time: The Pirates of the Caribbean trilogy setting
Whenever I watch movies or read books, I always imagine what other turns the story could have taken. I usually imagine how to reproduce the situation at the gaming table in order to motivate players to explore the setting in a different way.
When I watched the original Pirates of the Caribbean trilogy last week, these usual thoughts spontaneously expanded and a new idea was born: Flash Inspiration.
In this new category, I will present you what I imagine the initial setting setup for a particular book or movie to be like, assuming the protagonists are PCs that find their way through the setting, and the final movie or book is just one possible playthrough with this setup.
I will present you Entities, Relationship Grids, Plotmaps, and Gunmen lists like those detailed in my Campaign Plantation System that encompass the setting elements of the story as I understood them to be like, and a final paragraph about what we can learn about this playthrough.
Obviously, there are three PCs in the original Pirates trilogy:
- Elizabeth Swann: Her player decided to play the wealthy daughter of the governor of Port Royal who is much more capable than her role in society allows her to show. They and William’s player decided they would both have some romantic interest in the other.
- She owns a coin that William Turner brought with him when they found him passed out on a piece of driftwood as a child.
- William Turner jr.: His player wanted to play a blacksmith of unknown origin living in Port Royal, handing over the family backgrounds of his character to the GM.
- Captain Jack Sparrow: His player wanted to play a special, eccentric character that would bring life and conflict to the group. They are a very committed player that prepared an intricate backstory for their character, so the GM would have a lot of stuff to work with:
- His father is the keeper of the pirate codex.
- Twelve years ago he forged a pact with Davy Jones to get him the fastest ship on the oceans and make him its captain for a dozen years, all in exchange for 100 years in Davy Jones’ crew.
- His crew mutinied against him and left him on a desolate island.
- He owns a magical compass that points towards its holder’s greatest desire.
- He is a known pirate.
- He knows a witch doctor.
- He owns a gun with a single bullet that he swore will kill Barbossa.
- Governor Weatherby Swann: The father of Elizabeth; he only wants what’s good for his daughter, whatever that may be. He is also responsible for the upholding of the law in Port Royal. Governor Swann is not overly brave nor resolute, but his understanding and unconditional love and trust for his daughter label him a good human.
- He will support his daughter with everything he can.
- He knows the king and can ask him for support if needed.
- He is the representative of the Royal Navy.
- He will stick to the law, but still grant everyone a fair trial.
- Commodore James Norrington: Commodore Norrington wants to ingratiate with governor Swann by marrying his daughter. He has a solid career in the Royal Navy and would never even consider what he would do without it.
- He tries to win Elizabeth’s favor whenever he can.
- He sticks to the rules to avoid endangering his career.
- He is a good person at heart.
- Lord Cutler Beckett: Lord Beckett is the representative of the East India Trading Company and also in charge of Port Royal’s navy. He is power-hungry and selfish.
- He has a personal stooge that gets his hands dirty for him.
- He pursues his duties with a sadistic satisfaction.
- He wants nothing more than power. Should he learn of anything that could give him such power he will fanatically try to control it.
- He would do anything to bring more power and wealth to the East India Trading Company. Including sacrificing himself.
- To him, everything is just good business. He regards every interaction with other people as a mere exchange of goods and services.
- He seeks to destroy all pirates, as they are business’ greatest danger.
- Captain Hector Barbossa: Barbossa was Jack’s first mate and started the mutiny against him. After leaving Jack on a desolate island, he led his crew to steal the Aztec gold treasure of Cortez, which resulted in a curse on him and his crew. He understood that handing back the gold together with a bit of the thieves’ blood will lift the curse, but the remorseful Bootstrap Bill sent one coin to his son to have the crew cursed for eternity. Barbossa threw Bill into the sea and now tries to find his son in order to lift the curse for good. They are headed to Port Royal.
- Hector loves life. He painfully regrets that he cannot feel or taste anything due to the curse and would stop at nothing in order to lift it. Yet, he fears not dying more than death.
- Hector is a pirate to the core, ruthless, cruel and deceptive.
- Barbossa upholds some kind of weird chivalry that he possibly uses to denounce his conversational partners.
- When it serves his purpose, Barbossa can be very loyal.
- Barbossa does not approve of the council’s decision to trap Calypso.
- Davy Jones: Davy Jones once was a human that fell in love with Calypso, the Goddess of the sea. She charged him with the duty to captain the Flying Dutchman and safely ferry the souls of the dead over to the other side. When she abandoned him, Jones cut out his heart to never be hurt again. He started to enlist the dead for his crew instead of ferrying them over.
- Jones’ primary emotion is bitterness. He feels betrayed and wants to prevent that from happening again.
- Jones hates it when his authority is eroded.
- Jones’ heart is hidden in a chest on an abandoned island. The key to it is always around his neck.
- Jones possesses a music box that is dear to him.
- Jones wants to claim Jack’s part of the deal.
- Jones commands the Kraken, a giant and ancient beast of the sea.
- The Flying Dutchman can appear and disappear by dropping beneath sea level, taking shortcuts through Davy Jones’ Locker.
- Davy Jones’ Locker is at the end of the world and can only be reached during the green flash at sundown.
- Davy Jones can only enter the land once every 10 years.
- Both Davy Jones and his crew have been distorted to sea creatures by his bitterness.
- Tia Dalma/Calpyso: Calypso is the heretic goddess of the sea. Her powers over the oceans are nearly limitless, but the High Council decided to seal her away in a human body with ancient magic to take over the seas themselves. The spell was sealed with nine 8 Reales coins (which in truth were just different bijous), thus trapping her in the body of witch doctor Tia Dalma.
- Most people don’t know about Tia Dalma’s true identity, and she would not disclose it.
- Tia Dalma knows of many things and possesses, trades, and collects different magical artifacts.
- Tia Dalma wants to return to power, but does nothing actively in order to get herself free.
- Tia Dalma is sorry for the grief she causes, but also recognizes it as her nature. Calypso is vagarious like the sea.
- Tia Dalma is able to bring people back from the dead.
- Tia Dalma still loves Davy Jones, Jack Sparrow, and all her other amours, but will never be able to stay faithful or interested long enough.
- William Turner sr./Bootstrap Bill: William Turner went to sea to become a pirate with Jack Sparrows crew and even took part in the mutiny against him. He then regretted the part he played there and sent a cursed coin to his son William to rob Barbossa of the ability to lift the curse. When he was sentenced to drown for eternity, Davy Jones offered him 100 years servitude on the Dutchman instead, which Bill accepted.
- Bill loves his son more than his life and would do and sacrifice anything for him.
- Bill is Davy Jones’ messenger that is sent to people indebted with Jones to remind them of the upcoming payback.
- The High Council of Pirates: The high council consists of the nine most influential pirates of their time, each endowed with one of the nine 8-Reales coins. They can elect a pirate queen or king, but have not done so in a long time since everyone always votes for themself.
- Each and everyone of them is selfish and will do nothing that harms their own purpose.
- The current captain of the Black Pearl is always a member of the council.
- There is a certain song that, once sung, results in a summoning of the high council.
- The council can use their 8-Reales coins to free calypso from her human form.
(Not all are used in the movies of course.)
- Whenever someone is addressed by the name of Turner in presence of the Pearl’s crew, Barbossa will imprison them and try to find out if they are related to Bootstrap Bill.
- Bootstrap Bill comes to Jack to remind him of his debt
- The Flying Dutchman claims a ship of dead men
- The Flying Dutchman claims a ship Jones thinks hosts Jack
- Jack gets the chance to rescue Elizabeth
- Norrington proposes to Elizabeth
- Becket takes a chance to take over Port Royal
- Jones releases the Kraken
- Norrington gets a chance to get either key or chest of Davy Jones’ heart
- Someone has to be rescued from Davy Jones’ Locker
- Tia Dalma brings someone back to life
- Tia Dalma hands out artifacts
- The Song of the Brotherhood is sung
- Bootstrap Bill learns that his son is alive
- One of the Nine Captains of the Council dies and appoints a PC their successor
- Someone lands on a native island and is appointed king or queen by the inhabitants that in fact plan to eat them
- Mutiny on the ship the PCs are on
- William and Elizabeth meet when he delivers a sword to her father
- Jack arrives at Port Royal to get a new ship and crew in order to win back the Black Pearl
- Somehow, the characters’ paths intersect
- In the evening, Barbossa’s crew of undead pirates attacks Port Royal and tries to find the lost Cortez coin as well as Bootstrap Bill’s offspring
What We Can Learn
- Mistrust: The overall theme for the Pirates movies is mistrust. Everyone betrays everyone else, and even friends, allies, and lovers deceive and doubt each other. The main characters are probably the most deceptive of all, and this is where a great deal of the fun and dynamics of the plot comes from.
- Allowing your players to plot against each other to reach their own goals can really breathe new life into your game. If it is secret notes (or WhatsApps) written between player and GM, scenes with single PCs, or just not saying what one is up to until the very last moment (deceiving everyone, including the GM) – your game will feel a lot more rogue and piraty, and the consequences of PC decisions will probably be a great deal more dire. Also, as the movies show as well, it will give your players the opportunity to have their characters grow, change, and develop (and finally get the chance to do something truly heroic).
- Connections: As you can see from the Plotmap, each Entity (including the PCs) is connected to at least two other Entities, thus creating a rich network of social dynamic and revelations.
- It is absolutely fine to have bottlenecks in your Plotmap – as long as the connector is a PC that will be pulled into the different parts of the setting (and will probably carry the other PCs with them). Also, the movies (and in a game likely consequences) override this bottleneck by organically forging new connections between plot elements (in the movies this is the control Beckett gains over Davy Jones). This kind of connectedness will organically generate new stakes, consequences, and setups for your players to cope with.
- Hatred: As the overall color tendency of the Relationship Grid shows, many Entities feel a fair bit of hatred against a lot of the other characters. Sometimes, they even hate or mistrust Entities they are supposed to be allied with (indicated in gray).
- To make your game feel even more rogue, let the default relationship between your Entities be fear or hatred. This way, most of them will have enough agency to continually produce more Gunmen, which might make the game more chaotic, but the general sense of hostility will rub off on your PCs and make for a much more violent, antagonistic plotline.
- Brief Hook: These four bullet points really are the complete Hook Adventure. Once the setting is as well established as this one is, there is not much more needed to get the players into the setting than bringing them together and then jeopardizing some part of their life. Everything that happens from there is either a consequence of the PCs actions and decisions (or default) or a gunmen sent to spice up the game.
- Just get the PCs together and put some Entities connected to them at risk, teasing a number of antagonists or dangers – this is usually enough to get the game flowing. Everything else will develop naturally from here on, and if you do get to a halt, simply throw in some gunmen and you are back on track.
- Death Is Not the End: As the movies show, when a character dies (even a player character), it is not certain they are really gone for good. Barbossa is brought back from the dead by Tia Dalma, Jack is rescued from Davy Jones’ Locker, William’s inevitable death is averted by turning him into the Flying Dutchman’s new captain, those who died at sea are enlisted in Davy Jones’ crew, Jack is shot but saved because he stole some of the Aztec gold, and so on.
- The setting beautifully illustrates how a setting can include possibilities to revert death and still keep death a high stake. Let your players think everything is over when an important character or even one of the PCs themself dies – and then suddenly introduce a possibility that’s deeply integrated into the setting, offering the reversal of the loss – but either at high cost (constraint to only be able to enter land once every 10 years), or by turning it into an adventure all by itself (travel to the End of the World).
- Backstory Matters: In the above Plotmap, I assumed Tia Dalma, Bootstrap Bill, and Governor Swann to be player connections that have been forged into the setting because of the backgrounds of the PCs. This results in a deep integration of the PCs into the setting, connecting them to enough Entities to make the story personal.
- Try to incorporate at least one connection per PC into the setting and intricately connect them to other Entities. This way, you ensure a personal story, the feeling of empowerment, and all the necessary ties for gunmen to get your game running smoothly. As the example illustrates, even empty back stories (orphans etc.) can provide enough input to deeply links a PC to the setting. Take whatever the players throw at you and make something beautiful out of it.
Please tell me what you think about this format, and if it is helpful to understand the general structure of organic adventuring. I for my part had lots of fun putting this together, and could see myself doing it for more movies or books in the future.