Pirates of the Burning Sea is a persistent-world RPG set within the turbulent Caribbean during 1720. Players begin their seafaring career as a swashbuckling pirate from the organized "Brethren of the Coast" or as a citizen from the three warring nations of England, France, or Spain. No matter which faction is selected, players will set sail as a ship captain with the opportunity to engage rival nations and pirates in naval combat. Player-versus-player encounters are supported, and characters can specialize in four different professions: naval officer, free trader, privateer, and pirate.
Traveling by ship is accomplished using the traditional directional keys on the keyboard, with variable wind playing a key factor in movement. Once a player's ship approaches a target, the ensuing battle will take place in an instanced area isolated from the real-time world. Players will then be able to steer their ship, raise or lower its sails, and fire cannons to reduce the rival vessel's armor. Damaged ships can be sunk, boarded to engage its captain and crew in swordplay, or captured by those of the "pirate persuasion."
While ship-to-ship combat is an important part of the action, players are also free to explore their surroundings on foot. Character progression involves earning experience through swordfights, naval combat, and by completing quests on land and at sea. Players can explore ancient ruins, visit bustling towns, attack fortresses, and team up with others to engage in full-scale raids to conquer (or defend) one of the game's 100-plus ports on behalf of their nation. The player-driven economy involves choosing which production goods to specialize in, then building the structures to manufacture them. Players can also design their own sails, flags, and even ships, with the help and support of the in-game community.