Going Aquatic Part 1
It’s time for a conversation. It’s time to talk about aquatic based tabletop RPG campaigns; and specifically why they’re maligned, and why you should give one a shot!
NOTE: This post was in development and mostly written prior to (at the time of writing, still unfolding) events surrounding the OceanGate submersible.
There are two things that often happen with games. First is a demand for supplemental material that covers all possibilities. The second is the book on aquatic adventures collects dust on the shelf or languishes in the back of a storage medium. The book is well designed, its reviews were excellent, and art is solid. But it’s unused. Online, people say that those kinds of campaigns are boring and don’t work well. But why? Where does all this come from?
What’s the Problem?
From my perspective, I think there’s three challenges this style of campaign and more broadly, setting face.
The first problem is pirates. Say “aquatic” regarding a tabletop RPG setting and the first place many people run to creatively is “pirates”. And don’t get me wrong here, pirates are cool and have a place in many genres of game, but they’re too dominant an image and narrative in this case. Pirates aren’t everyone’s bag, but when people instinctively go “Arrr! Matey!” and start doing their best Jack Sparrow impression, it gets old quick. So the first problem is forcing pirates back into their place as a potential part of things, but not the dominant image of it.
Second up is that, in all honesty, a general knowledge of boats and waterways is absent in modern society. People who aren’t from coasts, who don’t live by lakes and rivers, and who don’t regularly travel to those places just don’t have the frames of reference for a lot of things in these campaigns. There also isn’t a lot of media happening in these settings either. There was a golden age (I’ll cover that later) where there was a bunch of great stuff, but since then, not much. So people just don’t know what’s up, and that deters many people from trying it.
Finally, there’s the concept that basing a game in an aquatic setting, or that’s even linked to a waterway is “too limiting”. I think this comes from the perceived freedom of land-based adventures to players and GMs alike. It doesn’t matter how railroad-y or linear a game is; it’s the perception that “freedom” is there and the idea of the characters being “trapped” on a ship or sub or “constrained” to islands that’s apparently a deal breaker.
Challenging the Narrative
Time to dip into science fiction. If you like Star Trek, Dr. Who, Star Wars, Firefly, or many other top science fiction shows, congratulations. You’re absolutely set for an aquatic game. Because all those shows simply replace water with “outer space”. Want to go another direction? Over on the Anime side of the nerd show, One Piece has clocked well over 100 manga volumes, has over 1000 episodes, and 15 feature films. Yes, I realize it adds to the pirate issue, but more on that later. The point here is that the baseline is there to make it work.
Why Run a Water Campaign?
To save time typing, I’m just calling it a water campaign now, but I’ll differentiate between surface and subsurface settings. So why run these settings?
Foremost is variety, and this is especially notable in surface-based aquatic campaigns. Whether it’s a complex labyrinthine river system in a unfathomably large canyon, or the high seas, this campaign is where variety lives. This type of campaign means that the GM and players can experience a larger campaign setting with relative ease. The key to remember here is that, much like overland travel in a conventional land based game, there’s no requirement to “play” the trip. Have a random encounter or two if you want, but there’s no need to bog the game down in the minutiae of running daily ship’s life. Enjoy the downtime, make plans, and enjoy the trip! Every port is different, every island a new mini-setting, every coastline a new challenge.
The surface is fun, but subsurface games are the tension is! Much more akin to space-based games, subsurface water campaigns thrive on the continuous background claustrophobia of having no way out. Every excursion? Potentially deadly. Every stop? A momentary breath of freedom. Every malfunction? A potential disaster. These campaigns trend more technical than surface-based ones, but for the right group, they’re absolutely perfect. They can also provide a lot of variety, as different stations and locations have the added effects of isolation to make them more unique than the relatively better connected surface world.
The Pirate Problem
As I wrote earlier, pirates are both a problem and represent one of the single most successful examples of this subgenre. But there’s something to keep in mind here, and that’s the larger world building effort. Pirates are inextricably a part of this kind of campaign, but the key to remember is that they’re functionally bandits in most cases and should appear about as often in your games. They’re fun, but seldom the main show outside a pirate port scenario. So spare their use unless that’s the main focus of your game.
Now, we need to talk about One Piece. One Piece is all pirates, all the time, but how does it work without getting exhausting? The answer is simple and twofold. They’re not “pirates” in a conventional sense; they’re more akin to adventuring parties and then eventually more like private armies made up of multiple adventuring parties under a leading one. And then there’s that the world is built around their relationship with the dominant world government and tied into its deep lore. In short, One Piece works because it does almost everything it can do to not be a conventional pirate story.
So, where can you find some great thematic inspiration? Right here.
In the 80’s and 90’s, there was a short-lived but awesome period where this kind of stuff was big in the media, and I’m not just talking about straight to VHS B grade nonsense. DeepStar Six (1989), The Abyss (1989), and Leviathan (1989) led the way. Then the 90’s brought us the hunt for Red October (1990), Waterworld (1995), The Sphere (1998), Deep Rising (1998), Deep Blue Sea (1999), and Virus (1999). On TV, we got SeaQuest DSV that ran from 1993 to 1996 across 57 episodes, and Ocean Girl from 1994 to 1997 that clocked in at four seasons and 78 episodes.
In the 00’s and 10’s, we got The Perfect Storm (2000), the excellent Master and Commander: Far Side of the World (2003), The Cave (2005), Sector 7 (2011), Dark Tide (2011), Aquaman (2018), and Underwater (2020). Over on TV we got Sea Patrol (2007) for five seasons, The Deep in 2010 (a personal fave), Last Resort in 2012 for one season, The Last Ship in 2014 for five seasons, Siren in 2018 for three seasons (creepy and awesome), and Vigil in 2021. So there’s stuff out there that’s recent, but it’s overshadowed a lot by other media.
Then, of course, there’s anime. I love anime as an inspiration for tabletop RPG stuff, because it’s a lot less anchored to and limited by “reality”, making it a better match for games. There’s also a metric tonne of shows based in, on, or around water. Some good ones include Gargantia on the Verdurous Planet (2013), Nadia: Secret of the Blue Water (1990, and arguably one of the best adaptations of Jules Verne’s work ever), Amanchu! (2016), Studio Ghibli’ Ponyo (2008), Arpeggio of Blue Steel (2013), Wave!! Surfing Yappe!! (2020), and The Aquatope on White Sand (2021). There’s whole lists of shows, so doing a google search is a good plan here.
But most of those are Sci-Fi, my game is Fantasy!
That’s fine! The stories, activities, and all that translate easily between the two. The difference between a fusion reactor powered sub filled with powered exploration suits and a magitech mana fuelled undersea ship with magic clockwork excursion suits is nil unless you’re deep into a crunchy and technical game. Seaside settings translate easily, people fish no matter what, surfing is a relatively low-tech activity, and magic makes diving as easy as technology. Stories of exploration, friendship, conflict, and the like are fairly universal as well. So the transition from one to the other or back is relatively easy.
Aquatic adventures and campaigns are good, but they’re under-serviced. I’ve talked before about how the idea that non-European coded settings are set up to fail by a lot of publishers through a lack of support, advertising, and expansion. They say “these settings aren’t popular”, minimize costs around it, then point when it fails to gain traction and say “told you so”. Aquatic campaigns and settings for established games that usually happen on land suffer from similar issues. They don’t get the necessary supports they need to thrive, because like non-European coded areas, a lot of GMs and players don’t have the anchors (no pun intended). And in turn, publishers don’t give them the support they need to overcome this. It’s a vicious cycle. So check out some of the inspirational materials, and try an aquatic game!
Watch for my next post on games that have aquatic settings or strong aquatic themes!