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.
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.
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.