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Sunday, 8 January 2023

2003: 50 Fathoms

1974 is an important year for the gaming hobby. It is the year that Dungeons & Dragons was introduced, the original RPG from which all other RPGs would ultimately be derived and the original RPG from which so many computer games would draw for their inspiration. It is fitting that the current owner of the game, Wizards of the Coast, released the new version, Dungeons & Dragons, Fifth Edition, in the year of the game’s fortieth anniversary. To celebrate this, Reviews from R’lyeh will be running a series of reviews from the hobby’s anniversary years, thus there will be reviews from 1974, from 1984, from 1994, and from 2004—the thirtieth, twentieth, and tenth anniversaries of the titles. These will be retrospectives, in each case an opportunity to re-appraise interesting titles and true classics decades on from the year of their original release.


50 Fathoms: High Adventure in a Drowned World was the second Plot Point setting to be published by Great White Games/Pinnacle Entertainment and the second Plot Point setting to published. Like the first, Evernight, it was published in 2003 and introduced both a complete setting and a campaign, in this case, a Plot Point campaign. A Plot Point campaign can be seen as a development of the Sandbox style campaign. Both allow a high degree of player agency as the Player Characters are allowed to wander hither and thither, but in a Sandbox style campaign there is not necessarily an overarching plot, whereas in a Plot Point campaign, there is. This is tied to particular locations, but not in a linear fashion. The Player Characters can travel wherever they want, picking up clues and investigating plots until they have sufficient links and connections to confront the threat at the heart of the campaign. In 50 Fathoms the threat consists of a trio of Sea Hags who are downing the world of Caribdus, literally under fifty fathoms!

50 Fathoms: High Adventure in a Drowned World begins with the dark history of its doom. The Sea Hags were once three witches in Ograpog, condemned by King Amemnus to death by drowning from the rising tide. With their dying breath, they cursed Caribdus, the land itself, to drown as they were, and so the rains began and the seas began to rise, flooding the land and forcing the inhabitants of Caribdus to either take to the seas or retreat to ever smaller islands. Caribdus is home to several different species, all of whom have learned to adapt to the changed world. These include the Atani, weak, but winged humanoids who can fly; Doreen, semi-aquatic hunters and nomads, who fell prey to the vicious Kehana when they were forced to flee their drowning island; the walrus-like Grael, strong, but both slow and slow-witted; the cruel and callous shark-like Kehana; the squid-like Kraken whose home is the last of their fleet of their navy’s Great Ships and who have an affinity with elemental magic; the Red Men or Half-Ugak, massive and brutish, unworldly and unwise; and the Scurillians, mean-spirited crabs with an eye for detail. (It should be noted that Half-Ugak are the product of rapes by the Ugak, which twenty years on from the publication of 50 Fathoms, does put the species on a par with the half-Orcs of Dungeons & Dragons.) There are no native Humans on Caribdus, the nearest being Masaquani who always iconically embody their body shape, in form and personality. The choices offered here all lend themselves to a very non-traditional fantasy.

However, there are plenty of Humans on the world of Caribdus. All have come from Earth, caught in a terrible storm and led by the Maiden to the world of Caribdus, sometime between the sixteenth and the eighteenth century—that is during the Age of Sail. Privateers, pirates, explorers, officers, soldiers, marines, merchants, sailors, surgeons, whalers, and more have made their way to the Drowned World and made it their home. Called ‘Visitors’ by those native to the new world, they have been arriving for the last thirteen years, initially caught in the Flotsam Sea, a slowly twisting, sinking whirlpool fouled by a morass of green debris, jutting timbers, and the bloated corpses of things that that could have been human or they could have been something worse. The lucky ones escaped to make a new life, the rest drowned in this sodden aquatic quagmire. Some Visitors have taken up their old lives on this new world, including many pirates, priests continue to practice their faith and have spread among the natives, whilst Torquemada directs the Inquisition against those who practice the elemental magic of Caribdus. Besides the Inquisition, the British East India Company and the Spanish Guild operate trade cartels across the Thousand Islands. Others take to the new world adapting to it and adopting new lives and aims—treasure hunters and salvagers sail and dive on the new sea bed to find the riches lost to the rising waters, ship’s mages take up the study of elemental magic, able to protect and propel the ship depending upon the elements studied, whilst dreaming mastering all four elements, and Questors, perhaps the bravest, most noble of this world seek for a way to end the rain and the reign of the Sea Hags.

A Player Character in 50 Fathoms looks like a standard Savage Worlds Player Character. This is indicative of how little has changed between editions of the roleplaying game, such that were a Game Master to pick up the current rules the differences are minor. The rules and setting content can really be divided between those that would fit a historical style of game set during the Age of Sail and those that fit the fantastical world of Caribdus. Edges and Hindrances such as Arrogant, One Arm, Close Fighter, Master & Commander, Merchant, and Rope Monkey would all suit a historical, mercantile, nautical, and piratical campaign, whereas Kraken Bone Sword & Armor, Elemental Mastery, and Mark of Torquemada, all integral to the setting of 50 Fathoms. Similarly, the rules for goods, trading, and selling, weapons, ships and sailing, fighting below deck and crew upkeep, and so on, would work in a historical campaign. The weapons include cannon and firearms, noting the problems with having wet powder, gaffs and hooks, whilst also including the Jumani Chain, a fearsome Masaquani pirate weapon consisting of a chain shot with extra links to turn it into a deadly flail. Armour is typically donned only prior to battle as should the wearer end up in the water, there is a greater chance of him drowning. When worn in water, its armour bonus acts as a penalty on Swimming rolls. Boats and ships range in size from the humble dinghy and the wave rider to the galleon and the man of war—only Black Beard and the ‘Hero of the High Seas’, British Admiral Nelson Duckworth command one of the latter vessels. The rules for ship-to-ship combat are written as an expansion to the core rules and bolt on easily enough since Savage Worlds was always designed to scale up from traditional parties of Player Characters to relatively small skirmish battles which can be run as miniatures battles, keeping the players involved in both, of course. The rules barely run to a page-and-a-half in length, so lean towards being run as part of the narrative of the roleplay, rather than as full miniatures rules. There is also a list of pirate lingo.

The main addition in terms of the rules and the setting of 50 Fathoms is for ‘Elemental Magic’. Earth magic is used to help grow crops, speak with and control mammals, mend ship’s timbers, and so on, whilst fire magic is used for destructive purposes. Water magic is used to heal, make sea water drinkable, and control the many beasts of the ocean, and so Water Mages are valued aboard ship, whilst Aire Mages are the most highly valued as their magic move vessels even when becalmed, calm storms, speak with avians to find land, and toss aside enemy missiles! Mages in the setting initially only study one type of elemental magic, but can study the others. Doing so until is difficult as elemental spirits are jealous and actively impede the casting of all magic. This lasts until the Mage has mastered all four elements and becomes an Archmage, able to balance the four elements. In game this is represented by a Mage taking the Elemental Mastery Edge, once for each of the other three elements he needs to study. 50 Fathoms also includes fourteen new element-themed spells and a list of all of the element-themed spells in the rulebook at the time.

There is a short gazetteer of surviving lands and locations of Caribdus, known as ‘The Thousand Isles’, but the setting is really described in the section for the Game Master, called the ‘Captain’s Log’, which takes up two thirds of the book. This presents the world of Caribdus and the background to the campaign in more detail as well as describing the various surviving and interesting places. Many of the have a symbol attached them, which indicated that the location has a Savage Tale attached to it. For example, in the lawless pirate town of Brigandy Bay, almost anything can be bought and sold at the Black Market. Amongst the more exotic merchandise can be found a treasure map for $1000. Allegedly, the map shows the location of one of the dread pirate L’Ollonaise’s cache. It turns out the map is true and leads to the Savage Tale, ‘L’Ollonaise’ Vengeance’. Not every location has an attached Savage Tale, some have more than one, and some require a certain entry to be rolled on a table. The advice for the Game Master covers the types of the adventures that the Player Characters might embark on, including carousing, pirating, privateering, salvaging, and trading, and includes both tables of subplots and booty, but the meat of the campaign consists of some forty-one Savage Tales, ranging in length from a single paragraph to several pages in length. The ‘Encounters’ chapter at the end of the book includes all of the major NPCs and monsters that the Player Characters could run into as part of the campaign.

The campaign itself begins with ‘Maiden Voyage’. This is the opening Savage Tale and places all of the Player Characters as the crew aboard a small sloop. At the end of the Player Characters are invited by an NPC to continue into the events of the second Savage Tale. This is ‘Tressa the Red’ and it is marked with a skull and crossed weapons to indicate that the Savage Tale is part of the campaign against the Sea Hags. There is a total of eight of these and together they form the spine of the 50 Fathoms campaign. However, they cannot be played in linear fashion as there are typically Rank requirements for each one, and in order to acquire sufficient Experience Points to go up in Rank, the Player Characters will need to explore and adventure elsewhere. This gives the chance to learn more about the world and its dangers as well as the nature of the threat they face. This is where the Plot Point format comes to the fore because the Player Characters are free to travel wherever they want and, in the process, discovering more of the world and potentially triggering more Savage Tales contained in the ‘Captain’s Log’. Play then is very player driven and the players have a lot of agency in what their characters do and where they go. This does mean that the campaign is episodic in nature rather than having a great linear plot and this more open structure means that the campaign is easier to prepare and run since it plays through location by location rather than by plot.

The Savage Tales themselves will take the Player Characters back and forth across the Thousand Isles. They will find themselves conducting jail breaks, searching the Flotsam Sea for artefacts, facing down legendary pirates—including Blackbeard himself, who is, of course, immortal, diving on wrecks on the sea floor, fighting ghost ships, going whaling, acting against the opium trade, going bear hunting, and even facing down an invasion from under the sea in dingy Dunich! There is a wide array of Savage Tales in 50 Fathoms, all of them different and all of them offering a variety of excitement and adventure. Beyond that, the 50 Fathoms Companion expands upon the gazetteer in 50 Fathoms and adds another forty Savage Tales. Many of these can be run as part of the 50 Fathoms campaign or specifically after it, and include a a mini-campaign of its own. 50 Fathoms: Fire & Earth also adds another mini-campaign.

Physically, 50 Fathoms is well presented, and the illustrations are suitably practical, nautical, and scurvy! The book is done in greyscale throughout, but that would have been standard for 2003. The map of the Thousand Islands is perhaps a bit small to be used with any ease.

50 Fathoms: High Adventure in a Drowned World combines pulp sea-going action and mystery with pirates and fantasy for a great campaign. It is as still as a fun and exciting as it was in 2003 and it still stands out as one of the best of the Plot Point campaigns from Pinnacle Entertainment Group.


  1. This is the best breakdown of how Savage Worlds Plot Points work.
    Well done!

  2. Good writeup... It's got me hunting out my copy again.