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Friday 31 March 2023

Friday Fantasy: Bottled Sea

The classic hex crawl is an open-ended sandbox-style adventure in which the players and their characters explore a large geographical area, containing various Points of Interest, each of which can be explored individually or perhaps in a sequence determined from clues found at each location. Typically, the Player Characters will have a good reason to explore the area, such as being tasked to find a specific location or person, but instead of knowing where the location or person might be, only know that they are somewhere in that region. Armed with limited knowledge, the Player Characters will enter the area and travel from one hex to the next, perhaps merely running into a random encounter or nothing at all, but perhaps finding a Point of Interest. Such a Point of Interest might be connected to the specific location or person they are looking for, and so might contain clues as to its location, then again it might not. In which case it is just a simple Point of Interest. Initially free to explore in whatever direction they want, as the Player Characters discover more clues, their direction of travel will typically gain more focus until the point when they finally locate their objective. Classic hex crawls include
X1 Isle of Dread for Expert Dungeons & Dragons and Slavers for Advanced Dungeons & Dragons, Second Edition, whilst more recent examples have been Barrowmaze and What Ho, Frog Demons!.

Bottled Sea
is a hex crawl—or sea crawl (seabox?)—from Games Omnivorous dotted with the flotsam and jetsam of the ages, coral-reefs stung together from debris from across the universe, wrecks both sunken and afloat, technology scavenged and jury-rigged to new purpose—survival, dolphin-riders, Mother Sea Cucumbers spraying acid, Mimic-Islets that swallow ships whole, strange tides that sweep ships away, and more. The Bottled Sea is an in-between dimension where ships lost at sea end up, from past, from today, from the future, and from elsewhere. Here survivors search for the food and water necessary to survive, but also myths of the Bottle Sea, rumours of solid land, and salvage that can be used to make repairs or even something better. At the heart of the Bottle Sea is the Harbourage, a palimpsest of waste and rubble kept assiduously buoyant, where Travellers are always welcome, especially if they have resources, in particular, the rare dirt, paper, and plants, to trade and use as currency. Four factions vie for control of Harbourage. The Collectors are a masonic lodge of inventors working haphazardly to create an article island. The Ichthys are amphibious mutants, highly capable deep-sea salvagers, who want a greater unity between the sea and the surface. The Shepherds are an ascetic cult which worships and herds Sheep for their wool and their milk, and want to take its herd home. The Rainmakers are priests of the rain.

The Bottled Sea takes its cue from the publisher’s earlier The Undying Sands, being part of its ‘Hex-n-Screen’ format series. It is thus a hex crawl of a different stripe. First, it is systemless; second, it is improvisational; third, it is random; and fourth, it is physical. The Bottled Sea consists of four elements. These are forty hex tiles, Game Master Screen, two double-sided card sheets, a cloth bag, and two pamphlets. The hexes, done in sturdy cardboard and full colour using a rich swathe of tones, measure six-and-a-half centimetres across. Their backs are either blank or numbered. The former show simple calm seas on their front, whilst the latter have locations on their front. There are eighteen such locations, all of which are different. There is the floating city of Harbourage, home to the four factions which dominate the Bottled Sea. On their journey across the Bottled Sea, the Player Characters may run into the Alabaster Fingers, colossal rocks scoured by guano and inscribed by Myths; the Drifting Dealers aboard their lashed-together ships, ready to trade salvage and other goods; the Hives, where enigmatic Beekeepers harvest and sell hallucinogenic honey; and the Great Dross Reef at the shallowest point in the Bottled Sea, a combination of rubbish and coral. There are many more, the most notable of which is the Floating Hexahedron, a sealed cube of highly polished, reflective material, which so far nobody has been able to gain access to and has any idea as what might be inside. The style of the artwork on the hexes is busy and cartoonish, but eye-catching, and gives the Bottled Sea a singular look which sets it apart from both other gaming accessories and neighbouring regions.

The Game Master Screen is a horizontal, three panel affair. The front depicts a paddle-galleon on the Bottled Sea itself, about to be overtaken by a tempestuous storm. The back is the meat of the supplement. Here, from left to right, it explains what Bottled Seas is, how to use and the best way to use it; tables of myths, salvage, pelagic—meaning open sea—encounters, weather, and details of the locations across the Bottled Sea—including areas of Solid Ground and the Mythical Whirlpool. Two locations are described in detail, one The Beacon, a lighthouse home to a Wizard, said to be able to use magic or psionic powers, depending upon, of course, who you ask, whilst the other is the Harbourage. Here can be found the Sea Lion Milk Farm, the Museum of Discarded Curiousity, the Blood Polo Sharkadrome, the Oyster Ranch, Wishing Windows, and other establishments. These require development upon the part of the Game Master, as they are not as detailed as other locations (and tiles) on the Bottled Sea, and similarly the entries on the tables of tasks and jobs will also need some development.

The first of the two posters has a full illustration of The Beacon on the one side and Harbourgae on the other. The second depicts and describes not what is on the Bottled Sea, but in the Bottled Sea. On the front is a cross section of the sea below the surface with various creatures and features illustrated and numbered, whilst on the back, ‘What is in the Sea’ provides a quick description, plus rules for fishing and deep-diving.

The Bottled Sea also includes two small pamphlets. ‘The Floating Hexahedron’ describes the six-sided, very shiny polyhedron, which literally floats above the surface of the Bottled Sea. The Shepherds from the Harbourage make an annual pilgrimage to wherever it is currently located, but like everyone else, cannot find their way in. What is inside is thus a mystery for everyone. The means to open it can be found somewhere across the Bottled Sea and locating said mean will form part of the backdrop to any campaign set on the Bottled Sea. The pamphlet provides basic descriptions as to what is inside the Floating Hexahedron, its major features, and also some adventure hooks to bring into play. The one piece of advice for the Game Master is that she should watch the 1997 film, Cube. The smaller, but longer pamphlet, ‘Watercrafts’ details some ten of the water-going vessels on the Botted Sea, from Rubbish Raft and Hydro-Cage to Catamaran Wavecutter and Benthic Bell. All have a lovely illustration, a short description, and details of their speed, price, crew requirement, power source, and cargo capacity. These are very nicely done and the illustrations are thoroughly charming. These are all vessels that the Player Characters can encounter, build, purchase, or sail—or depending upon their scruples, attack and/or capture.

So that is the physicality of Bottled Sea. What of the random nature of Bottled Sea? Simply, the hexes are placed in the cloth bag and drawn one-by-one, as the Player Characters cross or explore one hex and then move onto the next, creating the region hex-by-hex. If the hex is simple sand dunes, the Game Master might roll on the ‘Pelagic Encounters’ or ‘Weather’ tables to create random encounters. When the Player Characters reach a numbered location, they can explore one or more of individual places there, the Game Master improvising what will be encountered there based on the sentence or two description given for each. There is more detail for Harbourage, The Beacon and the Floating Hexahedron, especially the latter, and thus more for the Game Master to base her improvisation upon. This randomness means that playing Bottled Sea will be different from one gaming group to the next, more so than with other hex crawls or scenarios.

So that is the random nature of Bottled Sea and the improvisational nature of Bottled Sea? What of the systemless aspect of Bottled Sea? No gaming system is referenced anywhere on Bottled Sea, yet there is an assumed genre within its details. So it is weird. It is more Science Fiction than fantasy, especially with the inclusion of the Floating Hexahedron and many of the watercraft. However, it would work with Player Characters from any setting with a tradition of sailing, whether the ancient world or the Age of Sail or the modern day. Player Characters can come from the same setting, perhaps the same ship, or from an array of backgrounds or settings. Then depending upon what style and tone of game that the Game Master wants to run, a Bermuda Triangle style game could be using a fairly mundane ruleset, such as Savage Worlds or Basic Roleplay. However, there are numerous choices for a more fantastic style of play considering the Science Fiction elements of the setting. Numenera would be an obvious choice, as would Electric Bastionland: Deeper into the Odd, Hypertellurians: Fantastic Thrills Through the Ultracosm, and Troika!. It could even be run using Rifts if the Game Master wanted to! A more generic rules system would also work too, as would any number of Old School Renaissance retroclones. Another genre to shift Bottled Seas into would be that of the Post Apocalypse, for example, using Mutant Crawl Classics Roleplaying Game – Triumph & Technology Won by Mutants & Magic or Barbarians of the Ruined Earth. However, Bottled Sea underplays its Post Apocalyptic elements, so the Game Master will need to bring them into play more. Ultimately, whatever the choice of rules, the Game Master will need to know them very well in order to improvise.

As suggested by the range of roleplaying games which Bottled Sea would be a natural fit for, its influences are equally as diverse. Those given include Waterworld, New Weird, and a Canticle for Leibowitz, but there is also the feel of boy’s own adventure or Saturday morning cartoons combined with elements of horror, such as the Floating Hexahedron. Of course, Bottled Sea need not be run as a standalone mini-campaign, but as an extension to an existing one. All the Game Master need do is provide a reason for the Player Characters to visit the Bottled Sea. For example, the Bottled Sea could be a rumoured location of a device of the Ancients in the Third Imperium for Traveller or what if the Player Characters were passengers from a crashed starship in the MOTHERSHIP Sci-Fi Horror Roleplaying Game?

In terms of play, Bottled Sea sort of traps the Player Characters within its confines. It keeps them within its limits until the last hex is drawn from the bag and they can find their way out. By that time, the Player Characters will probably have visited every hex and encountered multiple threats and dangers, and if they have engaged with any of the four factions to be found in Harbourage, they are likely to have found employment too, and that will drive them back out onto the Bottled Sea again. How or when that will happen all depends upon when the city location is drawn during play. What this means is that the Bottled Sea is a mini-campaign in its own right.

Bottled Sea is fantastically thematic and fantastically presented. A Game Master could grab this, set-up the Game Master’s Screen, pull the first tile, and start running a mini-campaign. However, that would take a lot of improvisation and improvisational skill upon the part of the Game Master, who also has to know the game system she is running the Bottled Sea with very well to run it easily. All of which is needed because the textual content of The Undying Sands really consists of prompts and hooks with little in the way of detail—if any. Perhaps a better way of approaching Bottled Sea—especially if the Game Master is not as confident about her ability to improvise—is to work through the locations, especially Harbourage, and prepare, prepare, prepare. Some Game Masters may relish the prospect, but others may wish that there had been more information given in Bottled Sea to make the task easier for them.

Ultimately, Bottled Sea gives a Game Master the means to improvise and run a fantastically pulpy campaign in a range of genres against a weird Science Fiction, lost worlds, lost at sea background. How much improvisation and how much preparation is required, will very much be down to the individual Game Master.

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