Part 3 its not really discussed in much detail. The meeting with Tsadok and the tests say this.
In this case, the Pirate Code requires the ship’s captain and officers to undergo “Testing” to determine whether they’re worthy of becoming Free
Captains themselves. (page 8)
Then when they meet Tessa (page 15)
Tessa introduces herself and congratulates the PCs on being named Free
So this indicates that they are not Free Captains before they meet Tsadok but are when they meet Tessa so the meeting with Bonefist and the Letter of Marque makes them Free Captains.
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This is one of the things that are not explained in details, and where we each have to make our own decisions.
My take is that Free Captain means you're recognised as a 'legal' pirate by the Hurricane King. This means that if other pirates attempt to attack you, the king will be pretty pissed, and perhaps put a bounty on the attackers head. He might even decide to hunt you down himself.
On the other hand, if you're not a Free Captain, you're fair game. Everyone can attempt to take your ship, and you only have your own abilities for defence.
Furthermore, it's my understanding that the Schackles work like a feudal system. A Free Captain can extend his/her protection to other ships, threathening vengeance if people dare mess with them. So if you're sailing under Tessa Fairwinds banner, and is attacked by someone, the HUrricane King might not care, but Tessa will have to punish the attacker to preserve her good name and reputation.
So once the players have become Free Captains, they're technicaly safe from other pirates... that is, as far as pirates respect the law, and as long as other pirates are afraid of the Hurricane King. Some might believe they can get away with a quick attack anyway.
They could extend their protection to other ships, such as equipping captured ships as pirates in their own right, but the Hurricane King doesn't care, and it will be up to the PC's to enforce their protection of subordinate ships.
Hm, my take on the whole thing was that
a) you have to be regarded as one of the "official" and recognised captains of the Shackles, not some half-pint freebooter, who will not respect the Pirate council's orders, ahem "guidelines". Which might also mean that you will receive no official chance to voice your opinion on council matters
b) That you are not beholden to another captain (except the council), and not part of another's fleet.
c) you actually had and have to plunder and pillage, and be well-known for it
d) that you cannot actually rule over estate in the islands ithout being beholden to another captain.
Basically : turning from journeyman pirate (semi
-independent, running his command as part of a fleet like the players' (PCs') squadrons in AP 5 and 6 ) into a fully fledged "master-level" pirate.
Just my way of seeing it
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I'm treating it as a feudal system as well. The Hurricane King is the feudal chief of the entire region. All the Free Captains have individually sworn fealty to him and agreed to pay tributes, provide ships at times of war, and to abide by whatever treaties he negotiates (Sargova). In turn he agrees to protect the Shackles from outside interference (Cheliax), resolve disputes brought before him, and grants each of his captains a "fief" in the form of the Letter of Marque and maybe a small port.
The King or the Council handle legal and other disputes among the pirates in cases where they don't want to come to blows. Most of the pirates smart enough and dangerous enough to become Free Captains recognize that it's better to abide by the Council's decisions than to let petty disputes evolve into open warfare between fleets. If they have a disagreement over, say, which of the ships in a battle has first claim to prizes they can take it to the Council and either work out an arbitration or settle it with a duel or something. You might not get what you want, exactly, but you can expect more or less fair compensation and also that the situation won't escalate into a destructive conflict where everyone loses money.
The Free Captains system also helps clamp down on disruptive minor pirates. Each Free Captain has a bunch of lesser captains who work for them under the terms of their letter of Marque. The Free Captain is entitled to a share of their booty but is also responsible for disciplining them. The King expects the Free Captains to keep their vassals in line. The Free Captains are also expected to shut down unlicensed pirates that they encounter either by destroying them or pressing them into the fleet so they can be controlled.
Basically the goals are the same as feudalism - To corral a bunch of dangerous independent war bands into a cohesive whole, to minimize internal conflict, and to coordinate defense against external threats. When the system works everyone is left free to go raid the Inner Sea knowing that they can find a safe harbour and a ready market for their plunder once they return to the Shackles. They can also be confident that their own ships won't be molested by other Free Captain's ships and that their bases and forts will be left alone. And if they Cheliax navy stages a significant incursion the Free Captains will band together to kick them in the teeth.
In practice there's certainly a lot of harassing, skirmishing, "accidental" boarding actions, and so forth, but the system usually keeps things to a dull roar.
Guys like Harrigan are quite dangerous to the system. With significant power all by himself and a steady following he could upset things sufficiently for Cheliax or another outside threat to make a solid go at invading. All of the Free Captains together have more than enough ships and skill at arms to crush all but the largest multinational fleets. But without that unity they're vulnerable to being drawn into an extended conflict that the chaotic Shackles aren't well equipped to sustain.
Frankmanic has it pretty well covered, I'm having Sandara be tasked with keeping the Shackles Free, shaking the Council up enough to get them 'honed to a keen edge' after they have become 'fat and complacent' and Besmara has all but told Sandara, that Cheliax is coming.
The players are having to support Sandara in her crusade to keep the Shackles from tearing itself apart before Cheliax takes advantage.
Avimar Sorrinash won't be making that easy though, my players have gone out of their way to anger him, so he's throwing in with Harrigan's fleet, (He has no idea of the end result of his actions of course).
Also assuming the death of Sorrinash, it gives the Hurricane King more reason to disregard the players actions, as they have been entirely disruptive to the status quo thus far. The Hurricane King does not appreciate waves not of his own making.
I'm treating it as a feudal system as well. The Hurricane King is the feudal chief of the entire region. All the Free Captains have individually sworn fealty to him and agreed to pay tributes,.....Most of the pirates smart enough and dangerous enough to become Free Captains recognize that it's better to abide by the Council's decisions than to let petty disputes evolve into open warfare between fleets. If they have a disagreement over, say, which of the ships in a battle has first claim to prizes they can take it to the Council and either work out an arbitration or settle it with a duel or something. You might not get what you want, exactly, but you can expect more or less fair compensation and also that the situation won't escalate into a destructive conflict where everyone loses money.
Hmm, for one I have never seen any hint as to the pirate "king" being a feudal lord supported by vows of fealty and an exchange of duties.
TWOWAY OBLIGATIONS ? A central part of any feudal society ? Usually highly regulated ?
Or even anything declared through divine right ( I do NOT see Besmara and her priesthood supporting such an institution, only everyone tearing it down ). Shifting alliances and a mostly decorative "figurehead" title, yes, but the pirate "king" looks more like a "capo-di-capo" to me.
Second : Pirates are SMART ? Since when ? The entire real history of western piratehood is one of being essentially not "smart" or "wise" or "trusting in far judement".... as is the hollywoodeque one ? Everyone wise either became pretty lawful, once sucess was achieved (say, Francis Drake) and would not be supported (ahem, rather reviled) by Besmara....
All of it sounds very unpiratish to me (IMHO).... "take what you want, give nothing back" seems a far more of a pirate motto than "king of the Free Pirates" ( sorry if I roll around some, laughing)... Doesn't "Free" indicate a tendency for (local) tradition over rule and sensible laws, and a distinct wish to be FREE from such oppression/rulership ?
I've explained it to my party that the society of the Shackles is like the Mafia, with the Hurricane King as the Don and Free Captains as essentially 'made-men', recognized as legitimate members of Shackles society but expected to contribute and not make waves (pardon the pun) by doing actions that are bad for business.