Vacations with Pirates – The Siren’s Citadel

November 15, 2021

One-shot RPG adventures are great for players and GMs. For players, one-shots offer a chance to try something new — a new genre, different character types, or even a hot new RPG system.

One-shots also offer fresh opportunities for GMs and can recharge the creative batteries. Adventure authors approach pacing, threat levels, and scene descriptions entirely differently. Without the ongoing expectations of a campaign, players behave differently, which challenges GMs in fun new ways. And finally, a one-shot might teach you that you’re really good (or bad) at GMing certain genres.

Years ago, after a long fantasy campaign, our group wanted something new. I was one of two rotating GMs, and we each had a different idea of what new kind of genre we could run to give everyone a break. We argued back and forth between cyberpunk and swashbucklers. Folks were passionate… so we split the group in half and ran both.

Cyberpunk vs. Pirates! (They both won)

Neither campaign lasted very long, but the break was much needed. Players and GMs came back together a month or so later recharged and ready to dive back into fantasy.

My co-GM who ran the cyberpunk game learned that his players really enjoyed tough, non-nonsense fights. Cyberpunk is a dangerous genre, and the players loved the tense action. We injected this sense of danger — being outnumbered and outgunned — into our fantasy campaign with great success. He also learned that cyberpunk was a tough genre to run. Lots of contained urban spaces and similar character archetypes made it really hard to come up with new cyberpunk ideas every week.

When I ran my swashbucklers game, my players told me they loved having a ship and a sandbox to play in. They liked the freedom that came with sailing the Caribbean and following rumors and leads. As a GM, I learned that it’s hard to put individual characters in the spotlight when there weren’t as many diverse character types vs. fantasy games. Finally, we ALL learned that RPG systems are terrible at handling ship-to-ship combat, and we were disappointed we couldn’t make this work better in our game.

All were terrific learnings that made us better GMs and players! By the time the mini-campaigns fizzled out, we returned reinvigorated for our fantasy game.

(And here’s where I ask if anyone has successfully run a long cyberpunk campaign or found a ship-to-ship combat ruleset they love in an RPG… let me know in the comments below!)

Enter… The Siren’s Citadel

This month’s free adventure returns to my nostalgic “sojourn” with pirates. The Siren’s Citadel is a swashbuckling adventure set in 1689. Fresh off a disastrous privateering expedition, the heroes are stranded on the island of Nevis and pressured to perform a dangerous hostage exchange for the desperate English governor. The PCs soon end up in a race to discover the island’s mysterious Secret Citadel, where they are drawn into one of the world’s most scandalous events…

I wrote The Siren’s Citadel thinking about the lesson’s I learned from my swashbucklers mini-campaign:

  • My players loved verbal repartee. One of my players actually printed out a list of real-life 17th century insults to better “arm” himself… so I made sure to insert lots of NPCs that liked verbal sparring as much as actual fighting. You’ll find lots of fops, bravos, and rogues for the PCs to deal with in The Siren’s Citadel. Even throwaway soldiers are happy to talk to you before drawing weapons.
  • My players loved exploration and sandbox style pirate adventures. While The Siren’s Citadel isn’t a sandbox, there’s a whole interlude where the PCs get to freely explore the island. I also included three pages of mischievous side-quests for when the PCs arrive at the secret citadel. (Yes, this means that unless GMs reign in their players, this is unlikely to be a single-session one-shot!).
  • My players liked a light touch of fantasy with their swashbuckling. When my group kicked off my swashbuckling campaign, we agreed we wanted a smidge of fantastic elements, but not too much that it would feel like the fantasy RPG we were taking a break from. We thought this worked, making the genre feel more Indiana Jones vs. Pirates of the Caribbean. The Siren’s Citadel takes a similar approach, with one “maybe it’s a divine artifact?” moment and a cave creature that could potentially-maybe be a real one.

Alas, there is not ship-to-ship combat in this adventure. Ah well… one day!

Stray Observations

While creating The Siren’s Citadel, I discovered a few things worth sharing:

  • Porting this adventure to 5E was a pain in the port poop deck because so many D&D classes include spellcasting by default. I ended up finding a good non-spellcasting ranger on WotC’s site, used the excellent The Pirate Class 5e as inspiration (seriously, go buy it if you are thinking of running a swashbuckling game), and found a good noble class on the web for another character. I think the adventure works fine if you include spellcasting, but it’s not the feel I wanted here.
  • In case you wanted to ask, I tried 7th Sea for a bit, but I couldn’t fully wrap my head around the system or the quasi-historical fantasy setting. I’m hoping 7th Sea picks up some popularity on the convention circuit so I can try it again with a GM who loves it.
  • I usually include an Extending the Adventure section, but I think this one needed a “Keeping it Shorter” section for GMs who want to funnel their players a bit more, given all the side-quests that might tempt them away from the main plot. If someone asked me to run this in one session, I’d get rid of the island exploration in Part 2, and just have Richard Reve take the PCs directly to the citadel, with a brief encounter again with the fops on the way there.
  • I’ve been getting dangerous with Dungeondraft. The adventure’s VTT assets includes maps for many of the key locations.
  • The end of the adventure includes a big romantic competition. GMs should absolutely customize this section to the preferences of their group. Be inclusive, have fun — you’re pirates and swashbucklers after all.

What lessons have you learned from your one shot exploits? Let me know in the comments below…

Download The Siren’s Citadel – Free!

And if you want to find out more on my thoughts on how to run a great pirate adventure, check out my YouTube video!

Related: Swashbuckling Horror in a Haunted House

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  1. Looks good so far. However there’s a typo on page 7, under Northern and Eastern Clearings.
    Even a cursory glance spots the sh6 apes of limbs
    I assume ‘sh6 apes’ should be ‘shapes’?

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