It's strange to me, then, when I hear about people playing RPGs (sometimes from modules) where pirate ships are run by an iron-willed captain whose word is law and the crews are near-slaves. This has something of a pedigree in the adventures of Conan, but it doesn't really make sense. Set aside the question of how such a captain would avoid death at the hands of the crew - how would they recruit new crew members to replace deserters and casualties? The historical answer from the Golden Age of Piracy was that the pirate crews were relatively free places, especially by comparison to the barbaric state navies of the day.
Golden Age pirate ships were typically governed by written "articles" (the Pirate Code) and members of the crew usually voted on major decisions. The captain and officers were charged with presenting a course and making decisions when a vote would be too time-consuming (such as in conditions of battle) but they were far from dictators. At the risk of drawing the analogy a bit too far, the set-up isn't too far from the division between the legislature and executive in modern parliaments, and many captains were simply voted out of their leadership position when they incurred too much risk for too little reward.
This is an interesting set-up for the referee and scenario-designer alike. Pirate-based adventures offer plenty of action and not a little intrigue. NPC captains could provide a new school point-to-point adventure, while putting the PCs in charge makes for a "hex sail" style. And these roles need not be fixed. A really superior pirate RPG scenario would include more than one NPC candidate for ship's captain with notes on the course they would set, together with the schedules of fat prize ships in the adventure area.
Here's a sample set of ship's articles for use in RPGs:
A Pirate's code
Section 1: The rights of the crew
- Every member of the crew is an equal in the ship's endeavours and takes an equal share in her provisions.
- On matters of vote; every member of the crew may speak, every member of the crew may vote.
- No member of the crew may be disciplined without a vote being called.
Section 2: The sharing of prizes
- The Captain and Quartermaster receive two shares each; the Boatswain, Carpenter, Doctor, Gunner, and Master one and one half share each. Other officers receive one and one quarter share and other crew members a single share each.
- The general fund is not to be divided until the crew goes ashore. Any member of the crew found with the least item stolen from the general fund shall be marooned for betraying the ship's company.
- Crew members who suffer permanent injury are to be compensated for their disability.
Section 3: Regulation and discipline
- On pain of death, no member of the crew shall by negligence or design endanger the ship with fire.
- Any member of the crew who deserts their post in battle or otherwise betrays the ship's company is to be marooned.
- No fighting on board. Members of the crew whose enmity demands satisfaction by violence must take their quarrel ashore and settle the matter there under the guidance of the ship's quartermaster and fighting only to the first blood. Those who fight on ship shall suffer the lash.
- No gambling for money. Those who gamble on ship shall suffer the lash.
- No member of the crew shall drink to the point that it interferes with their duties. Those who report too drunk to work shall be put ashore in a town or other settled place with no share of the ship's prizes.
- The orders of the Captain and officers are not to be questioned during battle.
Although pirate codes often differed in reality, this is a fair starting point for a pirate adventure in a fantasy roleplaying game - but just a starting point. Player characters will inevitably create and fill offices such that they receive equal shares. The referee might make the position of "ship's mage" a widely recognised role, especially in a setting like Bruce Heard's Calidar that is rich in flying ships.