The Pirates (Haejeok: Badaro Gan Sanjeok, 2014), Dir. Lee Seok-hoon. (IMDB)
Although The Pirates is clearly designed as a Korean-flavored knock-off of the then-popular Pirates of the Caribbean film franchise, for what it is, it’s actually pretty good. I mean, don’t go in expecting historical veracity or brilliant dramatic performances, but if you’re looking for inspiration for a nautical campaign set around the coasts of Jeosung (or a nautical leg of a larger campaign in the setting), it’s very much worth checking out.
For one thing, it’s one of the few Korean historical films set at any point earlier than the middle of the Joseon Dynasty. In fact, it’s set during the transition from the fallen Koryo Dynasty (from which Korea’s modern English name is derived) and the beginning of the Joseon Dynasty. Characters actually talk smack about the new upstart dynasty, and sometimes express a rough-and-tumble wistfulness about the passing of the old, which is refreshing given how often films only present us with the seemingly-eternal Joseon Dynasty. For a GM running a game in a non-unified fantasy setting like Jeosung, this may prove a useful model when considering how peasants of different regions might think of the leaders of other regions.
The movie is also unusual in a few other ways: for one, it gives a good look at both sanjeok (“mountain bandits”) and haejeok (“sea bandits,” which is to say, pirates). Although the tale features a MacGuffin of dynastic importance, many of the characters featured are commoners who provide a better model for the average band of RPG adventurers. There’s a fish-out-of-water quality to the way the hill bandits take to sailing that would be fun if worked into an RPG, including seasickness and characters gaining their proficiency bonus in seamanship the hard way.
The few shipboard battle scenes included are definitely useful for considering how to run and describe a mass combat at sea (even if, it’s worth noting, the cannons on the ships might be somewhat out of place in Jeosung). There are also scenes, like some of the encounters with a whale, that serve as a great reminder of how powerful and story-changing random encounters—even nonviolent ones—can be for an adventure, as well as how one truly tough random encounter can destroy an entire ship in seconds flat, without leaving time even for an initiative roll. That said, the film also mixes in some comedy and some real menace, too, with villains worthy of a rogues’ gallery-type writeup.
There’s even an entertaining and admirably tough female lead in the pirate captain Yeo-wol (played by Ye-jin Son): as martial women are something of a rarity in Korean historical films, it’s noteworthy and fun, right down to the bewilderingly romantic scene in which she ends up boastingly comparing battle scars with her male counterpart, the leader of the hill bandits. The film probably wouldn’t pass the Bechdel Test, of course: Son’s character is pretty much the only important female character in the story, but she is central, and gets in a good bit of the action, and like several other characters in the story, she would make for a great archetypal character, whether as inspiration for one of your players or as an NPC they meet somewhere among their adventures.
The other great thing about the movie is that it’s basically recognizable as a caper: not only could it be both easily and directly adapted to a fantasy adventure scenario, but it also demonstrates how other similar caper narratives of this kind could also be easily adapted. It’s as simple as dropping some rumors that a priceless object is at large, and then detailing the various NPC factions and monsters who might pursue it. If you played it right, the quest for that almighty MacGuffin could even form the spine of a grand adventure campaign.
Note From Aurélien, Writer of the Koryo Hall of Adventures
An altered version of the Yeo-Wol character almost made it into the book as a legendary pirate turned military general during the time of the Dragon Kings, joining forces with the man she fell in love with, an admiral for one of those kings. The two of them became a force to reckon with and their memory was carried through the ages, and they became a model to build jangseungs-protective totems. This thread ended up on the cutting board but I will most likely write a story about them in the future. I was planning to use this image as a template to get an illustration done for the book, but it didn’t fit in the budget and I couldn’t get it done unfortunately.
The Koryo Hall of Adventures draws on Korean history and culture, as well as the experience of living in Korea, and not all players and Game Masters are familiar with this cultural background. Appendix K, named as a riff on Gary Gygax’s now-celebrated “Appendix N,” attempts to provide a list of references to help better visualize this campaign setting. In this series, Gord Sellar covers movies, television series, books, music, and other works that offer inspiration, adventure seeds, ideas, helpful visuals, and more.