Tuesday, March 6, 2012

Savage Worlds 50 Fathoms New Player's Guide Explorer Edition Review

Publisher: Pinnacle Entertainment 
Written by: Shane Lacy Hensley 
Art & Graphic Design: Cheyenne Wright 
Price: $9.99 
Pages: 60 

Full Edition w/GMs Section (future review) 
Price: $19.95 
Pages: 210 
Score: 5 Piraty Flintlocks (or stars) 

Intro blurb from Pinnacle: The world is drowning. The natives say that King Amemnus sentenced three witches to be drowned by the rising tide. With their dying breath, the witches cursed Caribdus, the land itself, to drown as they were, under fifty fathoms of the cold dark sea. 

 Those that survived adapted to their wet new world. Crab-like Scurillians, massive Grael, lonely Doreen, mysterious Kraken, cruel Kehana, and the near-human Masaquani now sail the seas aside the new arrivals from Earth's age of Piracy: dashing corsairs, bloodthirsty bucaneers, and savage sea dogs drawn from the mists of earth on unfamiliar tides. Many believe these visitors are destined to defeat the Sea Hags and save Caribdus from its watery grave, but most seem interested only in joining the plunder of forgotten treasures in a drowning world.

Confession Time:  On January 18th 2012, or thereabouts, the Troll and I were discussing the forthcoming 50 Fathoms new release. I had excitedly shared that I had bought the 1st edition hard back years ago but sadly, it sat unread and unloved due to playing our Savage Worlds space pulp house setting. As the years went by and we were busy saving what was left of the galaxy, there it sat, staring at me, reminding me of the potential piraty adventures awaiting!  Now with the new edition I am compelled to jump in the deep end and enjoy. 

First Glance: Great cover! Great Art! Great setting! Shane's foreword resonated strongly with me. A 6.5" x 9" format of 60 pages means I'm actually going to get to read it and start playing! Site Printing License means I can print out a copy and give to my buds so there's no barrier to getting started. Brilliant approach! The Savage Troll immediately turned around and purchased the full 50 Fathoms! How's that for great word of mouth marketing?

Impressions:  Shane's Foreword shares how 50F came into existence and is an excellent example of why I like Pinnacle so much.  I enjoyed hearing Shane's creative processes and unique story from him personally. I also recall the first time I saw Waterworld and the only big memory was when Costner's (grumpy unlikable) character swam deep down to get some 'dirt' currency. You saw tall buildings long since flooded...and I remember thinking, "How cool would adventuring through those now ancient ruins and all the treasure they would contain!" Honestly, that was the only really cool part of Waterworld but it was a cool visual and the memory that stuck with me. After reading the foreword, I felt like I was now a part of the 50 Fathoms story.

As a child, I saw the Swiss Family Robinson and their awesome tree-house. Still vivid are the scenes where the kids fought off a band of pirates. In 1975 I visited Disneyland and Robinson tree-house which is now Tarzan's tree-house. It was all tangible and real as were the Pirates of the Caribbean.  Then Disney's Pirates of the Caribbean entered our movie library and pirates, even crab-claw pirates, were more popular than ever. Shane and his wife, Michelle thought so too.  

Caribdus, The Heart of 50 Fathoms:  Caribdus is the physical setting in 50 Fathoms. It's an alien planet that was inundated supernaturally by a curse. Three hags were captured for evil doings in the city of Ograpog and sentenced to be bound and drowned by the rising sea. Their dying breathes uttered a curse that brought rain and storms deluging the world and the witches under 50 fathoms.  We begin 13 years later. The hags remain a mysterious undead force in the realm, hidden in the Devil's Cross which is surrounded by the Flotsam Sea, a 60 league swirling morass of floating death and decay.  And just how did the pirates, corsairs, and other ocean bound souls from Earth come to Caribdus? The Maiden: a mysterious spirit that draws "visitors" from Earth through a fierce storm onto the Flotsam Sea.

Hmmm... Dr. Who totally ripped the Maiden idea off for it's Curse of the Black Spot episode....kind of..except in 50F you wake up in the Flotsam Sea instead of a futuristic ship's med bay... but 50F's Maiden came first.

If you thought Pirates were the scourge of the open seas, then you'll soon discover they are the least of your worries. For in Caribdus, truly HERE THERE BE MONSTERS!  As a Visitor, you can be any sea-worthy type from the year 1400 to 1815. As a Caribdan, you can be one of the several unique racial types and many avail themselves of the Caribdan elemental magic.

  • Doreen - dolphin-like humanoids. The 'grey people' are air breathers but can hold their breath for a long time.
  • Kehana - a race of cruel fishmen who are the mortal enemies of the Doreen.
  • Grael - a large, dim-witted race of sealion-men.
  • Atani - beautific avian race that glide on the ocean breeze. They live in the huge trees of the last remaining Carroway forest.
  • Kraken - an unnerving and magically gifted race. Their once powerful navy assaulted the Hags at their lair in the Devils Cross. The remains of thousands of ships are the jetsam of the Flotsam Sea. A single Great Ship captained by High Admiral Caspian gathered the surviving warriors and mages. The few Kraken that remain are lone wanderers. 
  • Masaquani - the dominant inhabitants of Caribdus. The Masaquani developed much like humans through the dark ages but missed the feudal period, including development of armor and gun-powder instead having the us of magic. They are an exotic race extreme in their biological diversity. They quickly adapted to the Visitor's gun-powder however.  
  • The Red Men (half-Ugak's) - avage barbarians like red-tinged neanderthals that are strong but cultural outcasts.
  •  Scurillians, a small group of sentient giant crabs.  They were the result of a powerful Kraken mage mixing magics. Once sentient, they revolted and destroyed their maker.  
Now if you can't do something truly piratey fun with all this, you aren't trying.

NOTE: In the sections below, new sections continue to be bold and underlined. Important ideas will have  bold subject headings and bold and italicized items. For example Hindrances: Branded - shows that Branded is a hindrance. 
New Trappings: Hindrances & Edges for Caribdus   
Hindrances:  Branded (Major), Jingoistic (Minor/Major), and Squanderous (Minor) are some of the new hindrances that will help flesh out your new 50F character. These three, if played accurately will really set the tone for a Caribdan adventure. You can't hide your branded face. Pirates will take you in and the British East India Company would just as soon hang you.  I'm most familiar with an English or American take on a jingoistic worldview. Part and parcel of the British Navy's attitude was the superiority of the Englishman. Whether disdain for the Frogs or native savage Masaquani, you couldn't really play this genre without including it. Squanderous plays into one of the key trappings of the setting: Cabin Fever. More on this below.

Edges:  My brief overview will again not do full justice but it will give you a taste. I'll focus on the really unique.  In Caribdus, there is only one type of Arcane Background - Magic and it's the native elemental magic. A Mage must choose a single element of earth, air, fire, and water. For the Kraken, there's the Kraken Bone Sword & Armor made from the bones of the long-dead leviathans. It's magical when used/worn by the Kraken but not others. Also, Natural Swimmer makes a lot of sense for a water covered world.  Since characters spend their lives largely on the sea combat Edges include Bilge Rat and Improved Bilge Rat where scampering and fighting below decks gives you the advantage.  Leadership Edges such as Board 'Em and Master & Commander are musts. Some one's gotta grapple and board and the ship's Captain gives the commands.   In the Professional Edges there are some great trappings that bring earthy issues into Caribdus. The Mark of Torquemada ...because no one expects the Spanish Inquisition...not even Caribdus! The dread Inquisitor himself seeks to eradicate the mages of Caribdus. Your joining his cause and gaining the mark gives you Improved Arcane Resistance...but at a price.  If you want to take advantage of using the rigging, as any pirate worth his salt would, Rope Monkey is brilliant. This'll get you from one end of the ship to the other pronto. With a (climbing) raise, you'll also surprise your target as you swoop down. It also lets you take less or no damage if you fall from the rigging.  The Social Edge of Frugal lets you save half when Carousing (see below Setting Rules) and adds +2 to Smarts rolls to avoid getting drunk. The Weird Edge of Storm Chaser also seems right at home in Caribdus. Storms, especially in the Flotsam Sea are inevitable. The Storm Chaser loves it, gets +2 to all Boating rolls and may draw two cards each round during a storm keeping the most favorable. With Wind Sense (the next Weird Edge) you get three cards.

For sake of brevity, the Gear is as you would imagine. Ships, booty, cargo and implements of combat abound. Native coin in silver and gold are the standard. Eight silvers equal one gold. While this passage is brief, I do not want to undervalue the selling and buying that is such an important part of this setting. A good GM will understand that the economics of Caribdus demands its place in the adventures. Keeping stock of goods, food, water, and the all important carousing keeps the crew healthy and happy. Paying the crew, keeping stocked, and selling booty requires streetwise and merchant skills that play a pivotal role. Keep your powder dry and your brass monkeys stacked and ready.

Ships and ship based combat play a large role in 50F. As in Gear, I'll be brief but to enjoy the setting you will want to become well versed in the mechanics of ship size, speed, handling, toughness, crew, cargo space, guns, and ultimately cost. Several examples are built in the Player's Guide. To help with the visuals, Pinnacle has graciously given several free downloads to help bring life to the game with 3 ship maps. The Typical Brig, the El Marione, and the Gray Coarser: Fleure du Locke. To build your own there's a nice ship and crew sheet ready to go.

Setting Rules
Happy Crew and Ship Shape:  As with any setting, the flavor of Caribdus comes from it's special setting rules. Ship-centric rules abound to give us that life on the sea feeling. Navigation in Caribdus is an adventure in and of itself. You discover that staying along the coastline helps immensely. Careening -beaching the ship and removing barnacles etc.., is part of keeping your ship in good shape. As important, if not more, is keeping your crew fed, paid, and well rested. Fatigue was a very real issue in the world of wooden ships and sailing men. Cabin Fever is the mechanic for keeping track of the crew fatigue status. After 30 days at sea, the crew is Fatigued. A night spent Carousing resets the crew's fatigue clock. As mentioned above, crew mates spend quite a bit of their gold on carousing. A week of carousing removes a fatigue level. Think of this like the wound levels. 60 days at sea makes for a cranky crew. Pulling into port and carousing resets the clock, but it takes two weeks of carousing to remove the two levels of fatigue. It also has a cost. 1d6 x $5 each night per person. This can be rushed (see Rushing) if needed. Also, Carousing has a natural effect of adding to the character's Streetwise rolls. Wine, women, and song are the recipe for a happy crew.

Ship Combat
In a future review I'll have some ship to ship combat examples. 50F keeps it Fast, Furious, and Fun using the Chase system with some modifications. Repairs, maneuvers, boarding, and cannons are all accounted for. In Maneuvers you have your classic Broadside, Crossing the T (raking from stem to stern!), Hard About, and Shearing. Only a game example will really do justice to this but you get the idea. When those Critical Hits and Fires wreck your ship, only a repair at port will fix it!

I will quote the PG directly: "Shipping is the life blood of Caribdus." Given that this setting will be familiar territory to most pulp gamers, Pinnacle has spent a lot of time making sure setting feels "lived in." You have a variety of employment opportunities. In Caribdus three companies have signed the "Treaty of the Great Ports" and control the Thousand Isles.Without the seal of approval from the Harbor Master from the cargoes' port of origin, you're considered a pirate!

  • Spanish Guild in New Madrid - the second largest city in the Free Towns was settled and named by the Spanish. Crime is high here and smuggler's work is plentiful.  The only standing Catholic church is here and, ironically, has distanced itself from Torquemada, though few know it. 
  • British East India Company in Baltimus - The most sophisticated earth trading company lives in the most advanced city with the only port deep enough to accommodate a Man of War. Grand Galas and colorful characters abound.
  • Kieran Trading Guild in Kiera - home to the Kieran Empire, governed by the Emperor Jannis Jant. Kiera is an ancient city with tall black spires gilded with gold. The Kieran Empire controls the Coaker Mountains, the last remaining source of iron in Caribdus.

The islands aren't self-sufficient and need trade. So, smuggling abounds and is profitable...and dangerous. Cargo space on ships is put to good use. Pirate Ports are popular and are bound to be sites of Pirate vs Privateer confrontation action. These ports are where a lot of business of trading the commodities is done. The Commodities are in five categories: food, goods, gunpowder, iron, and timber.  Privateers have  purchased "letters of marque", essentially a pirate hunting license. They hunt down those pesky pirates and smugglers. They have permission to stop and search any vessel and 'inspect' them for proper papers and cargo. There's a Master Trading Table that helps identify profitable goods for each of the destinations. Another livelihood is Whaling which takes up a whole page to flesh out how it works. It's not enough to just have a character. You have to make a living and this setting's strongest feature is the emphasis on the ship enabled commerce system.  Let the fun begin. 

Pirate Lingo, The Caribdus Gazeteer, and Magic!
These final three sections of the 50F Player's Guide wrap up the book. The one page Pirate Lingo! section is more of a dictionary for nautical terms of the wooden ship era. For some real piratey fun visit the Pirate Dictionary page that celebrates Speak like a Pirate day on September 19th. If you follow Drive Thru RPG's newsletter, I believe I remember their celebration of this day a few months back.  The Caribdus Gazeteer is your "Welcome to Caribdus" guide and gives you a thumbnail description of all the locations and personalities a well versed Caribdan would know.

Lastly, the Magic of Caribdus is elemental: Earth, Air, Fire, and Water. As you can imagine each element has it's own unique and powerful capabilities. A Mage that controls the air can be quite useful on a ship. There is an edge that allows a mage to add an additional element. One that learns all four becomes an Archmage. Only one is known to exist but the Kraken were said to have many Archmages when they battled the Sea Hags.

The Spells section has several new spells that are unique to Caribdus. Here are just a few:
  • Becalm: slows a ship's Top Speed and Acceleration by half.  Very handy to slow down someone who's pursuing you. But, it also can give you +2 to a ship's Boating skill when in a Storm. 
  • Storm: (minor Spoiler - rules from the GM's section) A Caribdan Storm is a terrible thing. 1d6+3 is rolled representing how many 30 minute increments the ship is in the storm.  The GM draws a card (see chart below) to see how rough a storm is for that 30 minute segment. The ship's Captain makes a Boating roll, subtracting the modifier from the the Storm Severity table based on the drawn card. Damage, also on the chart, is applied against a ship's toughness. Every round the roll is missed, each character must make an Agility roll (add +2 if tethered) as well as non-characters in groups of 10 for large ships. A failure means you are washed overboard and must make a Swimming roll every other round to avoid drowning. A critical failure means a character has been hit by driftwood for 2d6 damage. Storms are nasty.
        • Storm Severity
          • CARD          Penalty          Damage
          •     2                  -4                 5d6
          •   3-10               -2                 4d6
          • Jack-Ace         -0                  3d6
          •    Joker            +2                 3d6
  • Zephyr: Used to push a ship along, even in a calm sea. In daily travel it can increase it's Travel Speed by 1 or 2 with a raise. It can cancel a Becalm spell.  In combat, it improves a vessel's current Handling by +1 and its Acceleration and Top Speed by 25%. It can be used multiple times but cannot cause a ship to exceed double it's base Acceleration or Top Speed. Another nifty use is to dispel swarms of razor wings.
Savage Worlds use of Trappings for existing spells and powers is terribly clever. This simple approach is very effective in keeping the rules light yet easily captures the uniqueness of a setting. A Bolt can become the fire mage's Fire Fist of Death or the water mage's Wet Willie of Death! A Barrier spell by a water mage could be a water wall of drowning! Whatever you thought of the Last Airbender movie, the 4 water tribe benders (mages) enveloping the fire bender Commander Zhao and just letting him drown was brilliant...and probably happened in 50F first.

Last Words
I look forward to playing 50F and have for quite a long while. Thanks Pinnacle for bringing this great game setting back to the forefront and giving me the excuse to finally jump in.  My next move is to get into the full 50F book and master the GM info. For those of us time crunched gamers, in a practical move, I'll get the original 50F figure flats, print out the free ships on my wife's large format printer and jump in the deep end, full pun intended.  There's a free character Sheet available at Pinnacle's download page as well. It is easier than ever to get started quickly with paper figures and maps. I would like to revisit this topic with all the fun additional resources I've discovered. Those will have to wait for another day. Also, over the years, when Shane and others at Pinnacle were interviewed, they referred to the Plot Point Campaign in 50 Fathoms (full edition) as the best example of it's kind for those of us endeavoring to create our own. This too is something fun to experience for the first time.   

Yo ho, yo ho, a pirate's life for me.

Keep it Savage!

* All images used with consent of Pinnacle Entertainment Group. 

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