Category Archives: potbs

Vocational Guidance Counsellor

When starting out in Pirates of the Burning Sea I was drawn by the prospect of naval combat and sword fights, fearsome broadsides and boarding parties, chasing dastardly pirates around the Caribbean and consuming large quantities of rum. At the career selection screen the game presented three options:


A naval officer like the heroic Admiral Lord Nelson, working up to captaining a mighty ship of the line with devastating firepower ensuring the Britannia rules the waves! A noble calling!


A privateer like the dashing Francis Drake, commanding a nimble frigate, sweeping down upon treasure-laden galleons in the name of His Majesty in between games of bowls and wearing enormous ruffs! The scourge of other nations!


An Independent Trader like…. erm… Derek Trotter. Buying and selling stuff in the ship equivalent of a Transit van. The stuff of… sitcom.


Needless to say Freetrader didn’t sound like what I was after at all, I picked Naval Officer for the prospect of some Really Big Guns, and that seemed to suit the game. Pirates of the Burning Sea has plenty of missions on offer, and they generally involve either sailing around shooting other ships with guns, or running around stabbing people with swords, historically areas in which the Navy has tended to excel. There are variations, of course; sometimes you stab people with swords, then hop into your ship and shoot other ships with guns. Sometimes you have to shoot other ships until they stop, then board them and stab people with swords. Sometimes you just need to have a nice chat with a few people, although it often turns out a smidge of sword-based stabbing is needed just to really emphasise what you were saying. For about 25 levels, all was going swimmingly (or rather sailingly, with a bit of swimming here and there when overambitious naval encounters led to regrettable negative buoyancy situations). Then I got bitten by the shipbuilding bug, and it turns out Freetraders actually have quite a few advantages when it comes to trading and production. Who would’ve guessed?

This is a bit of a dilemma. My Naval Officer isn’t completely useless at production, and with a bit of assistance has set up a shipyard, but has some drawbacks compared to a Freetrader, notably not being able to globally search all auction houses to hunt down bargains and not having access to the really big hauling ships to shift large quantities of raw materials. On the other hand a Freetrader isn’t completely useless at fighting, but isn’t really up there with a Naval Officer, especially if specialising in the “travel quickly around the map avoiding taxes” skills rather than the “SHOOT PEOPLE IN THE FACE WITH CANNONS!” range.

It’s a shame PotBS has the three fixed classes from the start. The early levelling process seems to be very similar for everyone; there’s no difference at all in avatar combat as far as I understand, any class can pick any of the fighting styles. There are very few restrictions on early ships, Freetraders can quite happily captain the same brigs and light frigates as low level Naval Officers and Prvateers. The quests are the same, including the nifty main story quest, apart from class-specific quests every five levels that see Naval Officers climbing up the ranks (mostly by sinking the French), Freetraders brokering deals or engaging in industrial espionage etc.

For somebody new to the game there’s a fair bit to get to grips with without even considering the economy, and I suspect I’m not the only player to only take an interest in production after a couple of months of more combat-focused operations. With an EVE-like skill system you’d perhaps have the option of pausing with the combat development and switching to build up your production skills for a while, but less structured skill systems can be a pretty tricky proposition as per the big debate a couple of months back. A model that would seem to fit rather nicely would be the tiers of increased specialisation of Tabula Rasa, where everyone started out as a Recruit for five levels before selecting Soldier or Specialist, then from e.g. Solider to Commando or Ranger, Ranger to Sniper or Spy. In Pirates of the Burning Sea I don’t think it would do any harm for everyone to, say, start out in the Navy for ten or fifteen levels before deciding whether to continue that career, resign to focus on trade, or go freelance as a privateer. Something else Tabula Rasa had was a cloning system, so that before making one of the specialisation decision you could create a clone, and follow an alternate path without having to re-do the earlier levelling. Obviously cloning wouldn’t fit in so well with the 18th century (apart from that Doctor Who episode where it turned out Calico Jack was part of a Sontaran clone army out to seize a Spanish galleon carrying what the crew thought was an Aztec relic but was really the Great Key of Rassilon), but family members would make sense; if you’ve had enough of trading, return to a “New Family Member Introduction” point as the brother/sister/uncle/second cousin and select a different career.

In the absence of such mechanisms, in a bid for the best of both worlds I’ve settled for rolling a Freetrader alt on a second account to focus on production while the Naval Officer keeps shooting people (with guns). It works quite well, running two instances of the game in different windows, as when one character needs to make a long journey for a class mission or to pick up some exotic supplies you can indulge in a spot of what Van Hemlock has dubbed “Galleon Bowling”: point your ship at the destination on the other side of the map, accelerate to full speed, then alt-tab over to the other character (or a web browser, or go and make dinner or something). When you return you get 50 points if you can just click to dock at your destination port (with 10 bonus Danger Points if the journey took you through a red PvP circle and you blithely sailed AFK through pirate infested waters), 25 points if you’re bumping into the coast in the general area but out of clicking range, and 0 points if you forgot you were supposed to make a course adjustment halfway through and ended up in Newfoundland.

Businessmen, they drink my wine

After doing what seemed like the hard work of Pirates of the Burning Sea shipbuilding (cutting down trees, sawing logs into planks, making oak frames, sewing hemp into ropes and canvas), I had almost everything required for the grand launch of HMS Will This Thing Float? Chucking a bunch of sailors on a ship with no food isn’t the best idea, though, so the final items I needed were some packages of Ship Provisioning. Turns out they’re one of the trickiest elements of a ship for a sole trader to put together, needing goods from all over the place: cheese, hardtack (made from wheat grown in plantations), cured meat (from hunted game or cattle from pastures), cured fish, beans, refined sugar, rum (from molasses from the sugar refining process, plus barrels) and wine (made in a winery from grapes grown in vineyards). The Van Hemlock Provisioning Company, Suppliers of Comestibles to the Gentry (Fine Cheeses a Speciality) had some of the list covered but the only vineyards in the game are in the north-west corner of the map, a bit of a trek from our base in the south-east corner. There was only one thing for it: a Booze Cruise! Off to Tampa, pick up a load of wine, back via a distillery in the Antilles for some rum, that ought to get the shipbuilding party swinging.

After the short hop (2237.576 miles, according to Google maps, though that’s as the crow flies and doesn’t take into account skirting around Haiti, or bumping into Santa Clara for about ten minutes while AFK making dinner) we burst into Tampa’s auction house much like Withnail, demanding the finest wines available to humanity. At this point the plan hit a slight snag: it turns out that the French traders had got wind of my participation in the occasional sinking of a merchantman or two of theirs, and despite protesting about the legitimacy of the action in a declared warzone, they refused to deal with me.

Fortunately the Freetrader representative of the Van Hemlock Provisioning Company who’d also made the trip had been sensible enough not to repeatedly open fire on potential trading partners, so I shuffled around a bit outside the auction house and tugged at their sleeve. “Scuse me, mate… if I give you a load of doubloons, can you go in there and buy me some wine?”

If you want to build a ship, don’t drum up people together to collect wood and don’t assign them tasks and work, but rather teach them to long for the endless immensity of the sea

Until recently our little fleet in Pirates of the Burning Sea had been patrolling the Caribbean on behalf of His Majesty, preserving the shipping lanes by hunting down pirates or seizing the ships of the dastardly French and Spanish when they challenged our rightful governance (it’s all legitimate with letters of marque and everything, honest). Then, while searching through the hold of a Spanish merchantman that was definitely supporting their war effort and didn’t just look like it might be loaded with gold or silver, certainly not, Flamboyant Admiral Sven found some weird book thing about Wealth and Nations or something[1], and he hasn’t been quite the same since… Alongside the usual cries of mainsheet splicing and yardarm hauling can now be heard “set sail for the quarry, we need more limestone!”, “does anyone have some common cheese, cured fish, hardtack, rum and a few sacks of beans?” and “avast, #ERR! off Column D, hoist revised inputs and prepare to recalculate SUM() functions!”

PotBS has a deep economy, a bit like EVE Online; resources such as limestone, iron ore, forests and fertile soil are distributed around various ports, and players can set up quarries, mines, logging camps and plantations to exploit them. The raw materials are converted into manufactured goods in player-built mills and forges, which in turn can be made into outfittings, consumables or further components that can eventually be assembled into entire ships, which other players promptly try to blow into matchsticks, a few of which can be gathered up to start the process again. There is heavy interdependence between the various resources and components and no quick way of transporting limestone from a quarry in one port to a forge in another port, you have to load it up onto a ship and sail it over. Materials can be bought and sold at auction, but again need hauling from the place you bought them if they’re required elsewhere.

All in all, there’s quite a lot to get to grips with. There is a good tutorial mission that gets you set up with a logging camp and lumber mill and takes you through the process of producing material, but I did it right at the start of the game at the same time as learning everything else in lessons such as Basic Ship Control, Leading a Boarding Party, Which One Is Starboard (Hint: Not Left) and Skull and Crossbones Flag: Good or Bad? By the time we actually got interested in production my logging camp was shuttered, and the lumberjacks were all off shopping and having buttered scones for tea; for anyone just starting up, I’d perhaps suggest leaving the economy tutorial for a while until you really want to get into production so that it’s fresher in your memory, but it’s not too tricky to go back to.

Our first goal was to produce Unrest Supplies, a method by which traders can contribute to the overall PvP campaign through economic warfare. It’s not like our rag-tag crew are going to be a critical component of the British war effort, but the Unrest Supplies need components from a few different types of structures so it seemed like a good way of dipping a toe into the ocean of manufacturing before taking the plunge into bigger enterprises like shipbuilding (or, if it turned out to be a bit cold, running back up the beach of naval combat and having an ice cream instead). Slightly randomly we’ve plonked down a bunch of structures from Guyana to Nicaragua, hauled a load of ore and tar around, and made a pretty decent start. Suitably emboldened I’ve set up a shipyard and, as as per the title quote of this post from some Antoine de Saint-Exupéry geezer, taught my fellow society members to long for the endless immensity of the sea. I don’t know how things work in French shipyards but I can tell you it’s sod all help in PotBS, so after we’d been staring out to the ocean for a while I figured collecting wood and assigning tasks would actually be a much better idea, so I… well, I’ve… it’s just that… I… downloaded a spreadsheet to help. It’s pretty simple, though, couple of VLOOKUPS, no dynamic pivot tables, I can give it up any time. Really. Just one more shift-F9 and I’m done…

[1] (Pedant’s Corner: if you spotted that Adam Smith’s Wealth of Nations was published 50 years after the setting of Pirates of the Burning Sea, award yourself one point)

I’ve got two legs from my hips to the ground

I just picked up via Slashdot an interesting piece from Moving Pixels on irreversible consequences in games, which ties in with something I’d been meaning to write about in Pirates of the Burning Sea.

As the author notes, in the majority of single player games there’s some sort of save or checkpoint mechanism such that a player’s first instinct on encountering in-game disaster is to reload and try again, much like many of us computer-y types are conditioned to hit Ctrl-Z for Undo when faced with possible calamity (“Aaaargh, I didn’t mean to delete that, I meant the bit below, Ctrl-Z Ctrl-Z Ctrl-Z Ctrl-Z Ctrl-Z… wait, too far, Ctrl-Y Ctrl-Y[1]“) She also considers styles of game with more final consequences:

The first is the MMO, where the real-time environment should prevent the player from undermining causality. Not being an online gamer, this sounds viable to me in theory, but I’ve watched a little too much Final Fantasy XIV and World of Warcraft over friends’ shoulders to believe that there is a great deal of consequence to those games that cannot be overcome with patience and diligence.

It’s certainly true for WoW, and to a greater or lesser extent for most MMOGs I can think of. You can’t reload if something goes wrong, or pause to go and make a cup of tea, the world moves on regardless. Probably in no small part because of this, though, very few actions have great consequence. You “die”, it’s a bit of setback while you wait to be resurrected or pop back up in some camp or graveyard; even back in the Good/Bad Old Days, when MMOGs were Proper And Not Dumbed Down /Even More Horrific Timesinks Than They Are Now, and you had to run back to your corpse, uphill both ways, naked, in the snow, *and* you lost XP (and were thankful!), it was mostly a question of how much time was needed to get back to your previous state. In some games, generally involving “impact” PvP, your opponents might get to destroy or take your weapons/armour/spaceship/hand towels, making defeat more painful (or victory sweeter), but it’s seldom of massive consequence in the grand scheme of things.

Players can add their own consequences; I don’t believe any major MMOG operates with an official permadeath rulset (i.e. if your character dies, that’s it, they really are bereft of life, resting in peace, have run down the curtain and joined the choir bleedin’ invisible etc.), but players can elect to do so themselves, deleting a character upon death. It certainly sounds like an interesting way of playing, and an antidote to the lackadaisical attitude that can set in when you know it doesn’t *really* matter what you do, but I’m not sure it’s something I’d like to do a lot of. You really have to trust the rest of your party when your life is in their hands (and vice versa)…

Course the sandboxiness-or-otherwise of virtual worlds, and the impact players can have upon them, is a well-worn theme, so it’s not much of a shock that in most MMOGs your character’s actions don’t have massive consequences for the world at large, but it’s perhaps more surprising that there are so few actions that have irreversible consequences for your character after you’ve picked your class, race, sex, name and appearance (and most MMOGs allow you to edit some or all of those later, for an in- or out-of-game cost). The Winter-home festival in Lord of the Rings Online is perhaps a good case study, there is a stage where you can choose to help either the rich or poor, and the game points out in no uncertain terms that you really, truly have to choose one, you won’t be able to return and do the other quest later, underlining how out of the ordinary it is, even though the only result is a different title and set of cosmetic clothing.

Pirates of the Burning Sea gave me an idea of how comparatively trivial consequences can have an impact when they’re irreversible, perhaps demonstrating why they’re so rare in MMOGs. When you buy a ship in PotBS it has a Durability rating, effectively “lives”, the number of times it can be sunk. You can also lose equipment and certain types of cargo each time you’re sunk, so there’s a more tangible risk to combat than in many games, albeit not right up there with something like EVE, you don’t take to a row-boat after your ship is sunk, at the tender mercy of your attackers. The other night a small group of us got a bit too adventurous, taking on a high level NPC in a PvP area, enabling a pair of level 50 Pirate players to sneak in and attack. We had no chance of defeating them and ran away with all speed, and thanks to a couple of heroic sacrifices I managed to get clean away and sail to a safe harbour. I felt a bit guilty until slightly later, when undocking to head back to a less perilous area it turned out they were still lurking and jumped me. I lost the ship, and it’s enhanced sails and guns.

Didn’t bother me at all. Well, all right, there might have been brief cursing (like a sailor, you could say), but the ship still had three or four durability points, and the fittings were commonly sold on the auction house for a few hundred doubloons a time. If you sail into a warzone, you can’t always expect to come out. No, the most devastating thing that happened was in a PvE mission. (Warning: the following paragraphs contains spoilers for the mission “Falling to Pieces”)

A previous evening nobody else from the society was around, so I flipped through my mission journal and found something around the right level, with a little “solo” icon next to it. That suggested it might have a bit of a fun story associated with it, so I toddled along, and sure enough there was much adventure on the high seas chasing down an evil brigand who turned out to have loaded his ship down with gunpowder; flung clear of the blast, I ended up on an island, and had to gather components to construct a rudimentary raft to escape. Very derring-do. Rendezvousing my ship again, I collapsed on its deck, exhausted, sunburnt, wounded but ultimately victorious. Waking up, though, the barber-surgeon had some bad news. My leg had become infected. He’d had to lop it off. Sure enough, my character had a peg leg.

Opening up the character customisation screen, I checked the options. Feet: high top boots (with peg leg), folded boots (with peg leg), fine shoes (with peg leg)… I was stuck with it. I was outraged! It didn’t effect performance as far as I could tell, I was no less effective at sailing or fencing, but my lovely character that I’d taken so much care over the design of! Ruined! Spluttering, I put a long skirt on so at least it wasn’t so obvious, and headed straight for the wiki to see how this monstrous injustice could be righted. Sure enough a reward from the following mission is a wooden leg carved so finely nobody could tell it’s not real (i.e. you get the normal leg/feet options available in character customisation again), so it’s not really an irreversible change, more a way of unlocking additional customisation options, if you ever want to go back to the peg leg.

I’m sure there is more scope for deep consequences, but it’s a tricky balance when you might not like the results. And as the first Slashdot comment points out, “Look, if I wanted my actions to have consequences, I’d be living real life, not playing video games!”

[1] One text editor I used had Ctrl-Y for the possibly-more-traditional “delete line” instead of “redo”, which meant the above scenario went horribly wrong more than once…

The existence of the sea means the existence of pirates

Spinks has an excellent write-up of Pirates of the Burning Sea with the pertinent observation, in light of the furore over certain Rift coverage, that “Bloggers have claimed that you need to play an MMO intensively for several months to really get a good feel for it, and while there’s something in that, I also think that within 30 mins or so I should be able to get a sense of what a game is about.

I’ve been sailing around the Caribbean for a month or so since PotBS went free-to-play, though only popping in once or twice a week, which I believe means this piece falls under the “Slightly More Than First Impressions But Not A Full And Comprehensive Review” category, and is thus eligible for the terribly prestigious Pulitzer Prize For The Best Slightly More Than First Impression Of Something But Not Full And Comprehensive Review Of The Year. I’ve reached level 22 so far, just about out of the starting region. The attention to detail and general feeling of the world that Spinks talks about are carried nicely through the tutorials and out into the main world through a series of story quests involving a mysterious map, the Knights Templar, and of course plenty of swordfights and naval engagements on the high seas. These are solo quests, a little like the single player Tortage section at the start of Age of Conan, and rather nifty to potter about in if there’s nothing else much going on.

Group-wise a few of us from the Van Hemlock collective have sallied forth on several Tuesdays as a motley fleet of two to six ships with a wide range of levels, as levels aren’t so much about rigid stratification in PotBS, more like EVE’s skills as a mechanism of gradually making more powerful ships available. Though the smaller ships need to be a bit careful about concentrated enemy fire they still play a useful role in the fight. We’ve tackled a few instanced group missions, but mostly been out and about on the open seas helping the British war effort; not so much in direct PvP as that’s a bit scary, especially in an established game with grizzled veteran pirates on the lookout for prey (though our Flamboyant Admiral Svven seems to have developed a bit of a killer streak, taking on assorted buccaneers (and the French) with some success), but we can still make make a contribution towards destabilising enemy ports by hanging around them and sinking NPCs.

I’m not completely convinced by the swashbuckling, or avatar combat; when boarding an enemy ship it’s you and four of your crew versus the enemy captain and four of his crew (with both of you allowed a number of waves of reinforcements), and there may well be subtleties and nuances that I’m missing but it always seems to rapidly degenerate into a scrum of quite similarly clad figures that you vaguely point yourself towards and mash AoE attacks while shouting “GET ‘IM! Hit him with a bucket, ruffle his hair up, RUN, CHARLIE, RUN! Hit him with a broom, tip him over…” Some PvE missions also involve swashbuckling, which tend to be a series of smaller fights and thus slightly less chaotic; they’re not a bad way of breaking things up, and often quite fun or interesting in story development, but not something I’d want to be doing too much of.

Naval combat is really the heart of the game, and works much better. Unlike the more frenetic swashbuckling you’ve got time to consider your actions, what course to plot taking the wind into account, what sort of ammunition to use (whether to knock out enemy sails, take out the crew or just bash great big holes in the hull), whether to try and board enemy ships or just sink them. Cannon take a while to reload, and all but the very smallest enemy ships can withstand a battering, fights aren’t just a case of “wham, bam, I rather believe I’ve sunk your ship ma’am”. Though our close-formation sailing leaves a little to be desired (“No, *my* left!” *crunch*), a little co-ordination and concentration of fire has led to triumphs over larger fleets of higher level enemy (NPC) ships, including three of us under level 30 taking on a so-called “treasure convoy” of 8 level 50 ships, plundering a couple, and escaping (relatively) unscathed. Our bounty for such a triumph? Some fish. Maybe in hindsight we should’ve attacked them *after* they’d picked up a cargo of gold instead of before…

Another major aspect of the game is the economy, though I’ve only dipped a toe into it by completing the tutorials. There’s a guide to shipbuilding on the PotBS Wiki, and it seems like rather a lot of work quarrying and harvesting the raw materials, hauling them around the Caribbean and turning them into components for the ships. Plenty to get your teeth into if that’s your thing, and if not then you might be able to salvage and buy a few bits and pieces to kit yourself out without going into mass production. One of our Society gathered most of the requirements for a ship but was missing a couple of vital components, prompting a ferocious hunt for… Fine Cheese and Fine Wine. Nobody was entirely sure if they’re important structural elements of a frigate, or if holding a new ship launch party without suitably upmarket refreshments is a faux pas so grievous as to result in immediate expulsion from the Navy, but eventually the comestibles were located and the new ship duly completed.

Not having played the game prior to it becoming free-to-play I’m not sure quite how it’s changed, but I haven’t bought anything at all in the cash shop (or “Treasure Aisle”) yet, and it doesn’t really seem to be a problem so far. Perhaps it’ll be more of an issue towards the end-game; looking at the comparison of membership plans I can see additional dockyard slots perhaps being useful for a few different styles of ship, and more economy slots if that’s something I do start to dabble in, but I wonder if Flying Labs are a smidge too generous towards free players at the moment. Still, that’s hardly a damning indictment of them, and I think Pirates of the Burning Sea is another good example of the benefits of free-to-play. I suspect I’d burn out if focusing heavily on it, so it’s not something I’d be keen to subscribe to long term, but for a bit of a jaunt now and again it works very well and I’ll probably subscribe for a month for the “Premium” status or buy some cash for the in-game shop as a general signalling of approval for what they’re doing.