I had dinner this week with Dr. Sam Willis, who’s our historical expert on Seasun’s Pirates of the Caribbean project. If you haven’t followed him on Twitter (@DrSamWillis), you might want to give it a try — he lives a much more interesting life than homebody writers such as myself. Exhibit A in this regard is his recent dive for a shipwreck off the coast of where Kenya meets Somalia.
Apparently there’s been a wreck there that the locals have known about forever, but only recently did anyone scrape together the funding and the interest to find out what it was. Because it’s on an ancient (okay, 14th century or so) trade route from Singapore past India and up into the Persian Gulf, the place is lousy with shipwrecks. The Chinese government got interested, thinking the wreck might be Chinese. There were some fragments of Chinese pottery washing up on the beach, so it was worth a dive. Turns out the wreck was Portuguese, so the Chinese funding dried up, but there might still be other Chinese wrecks out there. Not to mention the historical value of the Portuguese wreck to Portugal or historians who specialize in the time period.
Having recently written up a page on this blog about Shadowrun’s Cyberpirates, this immediately brought up some questions and scenarios that could make good RPG fodder. In that supplement, the authorial team didn’t deal with sunken treasure too much. Speaking just for myself, I figured that treasure-hunting for Spanish gold from the Age of Sail was going to be a lot less likely than treasure-hunting for Yakuza bullion on the yacht you sank last game session.
But the way Sam described it made me want to revisit the subject. For starters, the rule in the modern world is no longer “finders, keepers.” Ever since some guy in Florida found a Spanish treasure galleon with emeralds the size of golf balls back in the early 20th century, governments and museums got pretty active with the court decisions. If you don’t find it in international waters (a few miles off the coasts, where the water is usually so deep you’re not going to casually find stuff anyway), your claim on the treasure is pretty tenuous. Museums will argue in court that you don’t have the resources to research or curate the artifacts, and they do, so it’s in the public and societal interest that they get the goods you found. Sam told us the story of a Templar treasure stolen out of Jerusalem by the Knights of Malta that was sunk by the British off the coast of Egypt. Who gets the rights to a treasure like that? If you answered “Malta,” “Britain,” “Egypt” or “Israel,” you get half credit. If you answered “the guy who found it,” you get none. The governments involved will bring out the lawyers and the experts you probably can’t afford. A brief article on the subject is here and legal links are here if you’re so inclined.
All of this could make for an interesting RPG adventure or two, because while the average PC violates ten laws before breakfast, his employers’ motivations are usually rooted in some kind of legal situation they need to get around. Let’s see what we can come up with to start you off:
- A historical team with no government funding hires the player characters as muscle because they’ve figured out there’s a valuable wreck near an obscure coast. They intend to pay the PCs with either grant money or loot from the wreck. Why do they need muscle? Because there are pirates up and down the coast who will pick on any unarmed research vessel. (Researchers make good hostages.) This scenario is a little more immediately cinematic than the others, because it gives the PCs the thrill of actually going under water and grabbing the sunken treasure themselves, which of course can lead to the inevitable underwater combat scene.
- A historical team with government or corporate funding shot off their mouths and while they were in port arranging their expedition, an unscrupulous treasure-hunter figured out their dive location and scooped them. Faced with complete failure, the historians want the PCs to steal back the treasure. The claim-jumpers are going to sell it at a black market auction full of tough pirate customers, or else have a deal with a highly lethal corporate acquisitions team. Said team is packing a magical expert, which the treasure-hunter is not. Bonus points if you can punch someone on the deck of a ship and yell “that belongs in a museum!”
- A treasure-hunter hires the player characters, insisting he has a claim to a treasure pulled out of an old wreck. The treasure is currently in the hands of an unscrupulous corporation that hired a smarmy lawyer. With a judge’s blessing, they acquired “his” treasure and are now turning the magically interesting parts (there’s always a magical widget, isn’t there?) over to their magical research division. The PC’s job is to break into the highly secure magical research division headquarters, and if they succeed, they get to keep some of the good stuff.
- The unscrupulous corporation has heard about the historical team, knows they’re on to something good, and hires the PCs. The PCs are told to get close to the team, observe them, and strike at the best possible moment to abscond with the goods with no witnesses. The corp probably lies to the PCs and says the historians are grave robbers who deserve what’s coming to them. Maybe the PCs have fake identities ready to go to pose as security for the historians, or maybe they pose as buyers. Either way, the PCs have to make the moral decision to follow through or side with the historical team against their sociopath employer.
That’s what I’ve got off the top of my head. Game on.