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50 Fathoms, a GM's impressions

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  • 50 Fathoms, a GM's impressions

    I just finished running a group through the 50 Fathoms plot point campaign. It took us about 10 months start to finish (at about 3-4 hours a week), and we likely would have run longer if two of the players hadn’t moved away. I wanted to offer my thoughts after spending nearly a year running a game in this world and seeing it through to the very end of the plot point campaign. There was a lot we didn’t do – this is a massive world, after all, and we had to rush the end a bit – but I think I have a very good understanding of what did (and sometimes didn’t) work for us.

    (While I avoid spoilers, I do talk a bit about the campaign structure. The review might be considered spoiler-adjacent by prospective players who are sensitive to those discussions.)

    First, 50 Fathoms is an amazing setting. The fantasy-meets-pirates-meets-horror concept is incredibly appealing, and it’s well executed here. The rules and themes support each other wonderfully. The flavor of the world is very strong and present on nearly every page of the book, with evil curses, undead pirates, walrus warriors, wind wizards, and displaced European and Asian sailors all working with and against each other. This is the kind of setting that Savage Worlds seems designed for and the setting and campaign makes the most of the “fast, furious, and fun” tone of the rules.

    I was particularly happy with the ship specific rules and could easily lift those parts out and profitably reuse them in other settings. Crew upkeep, shot types, trade, interception, etc. all work great to capture that Age of Sail feel. The only struggle here was interpreting some of the more abstract chase results from the core SW rules; collision and handling complications seemed particularly awkward to integrate on the high seas. The travel times and map scale still seem inconsistent to me (it seems that walking is faster than sailing), but that’s really only a problem if your party is going to do a lot of overland travel, and my group did virtually none.

    The individual plot point adventures are mostly very strong. From that initial fight against the Ugaks to the final showdown, there’s plenty of opportunity for fans of combat, skill challenges, puzzles, and roleplaying. If you’ve got a creative, engaged group, and are willing to let them find their own solutions to the setting’s ridiculous problems, you’ll have a lot of fun. Our best session was, in my opinion, the jailbreak in Paltos. That adventure in particular provides a good sense of place, a few NPCs worth fleshing out, and multiple approaches to resolving the problem. While it was a standout, it was only one of many amazing nights we had in this world.

    That said, I do feel that the plot point campaign, and many of the associated savage tales, don't always give the GM what he or she needs. NPC descriptions and motivations are practically non-existent, so you need to be prepared to fill in a lot of the details. The same is also true of the context and connections of the adventures, especially outside of the plot point adventures. The lengthy Angus McBryde arc is frustratingly ambiguous about how the elements of the story are linked together. Even smaller story elements, like the slave ship and Mamoto, rely exclusively on chance to get resolved. The GM needs to anticipate and manufacture virtually every link between the individual adventures, which defeats the purpose of running a pre-written campaign. I wasn't expecting Pathfinder AP levels of detail in the design, but I was frustrated at how often the 50 Fathoms campaign just doesn't bother with any details at all.

    It’s worse when that stuff happens in the context of the plot point campaign. There’s a whole bit about retrieving the lost sword, which requires the crew to be in the right place to pick up the lead, but there’s nothing driving them to that place and no incentive (besides money, which wasn’t an issue for the crew by then) for them to follow up the lead. New GMs will be thrown by “If the players do X” approach to adventure writing when the alternative to doing X is that the whole adventure grinds to a halt. That’s where the game tends to rely on GM improvisation to link elements of the story that should have been linked by the designer. (It also doesn’t help that, once the lost sword is found, the campaign never explains why it was so essential in the first place or what to do with it once you have it; it literally disappears from the narrative.)

    The campaign has two major arcs, what the Dungeon World crowd would call Fronts. The first is the Drowning of Caribdus and the second is the Trade War. The setup for each arc is immediately arresting and GMs and players alike will find lots of compelling narrative and mechanical situations in each arc. Sailing through dangerous waters to reach the archmage, convincing the governor to give up the old diary, figuring out what (if anything) to do about the impounded ship -- these are all awesome adventures where the dice and the RP come together to create meaningful moments in the minds of the players.

    The biggest problem is that the adventures in each arc exist in isolation from everything else in the world. I realized after one mid-campaign session that they players were chasing yet another unconnected side quest and ignoring the danger Equias warned them about in session one. I imagine other groups will have the same experience, mostly because the campaign never raises the stakes on the curse; early on, the crew hears that things are getting worse, then the very next adventure introduces a deus ex machina to preserve the status quo.

    Similarly, Dunich is wasted as a “town of the week” style adventure when it should absolutely have players worried about what it means for New Madrid or Baltimus. But players won’t even find out about Dunich unless they randomly decide to go there. And if they do go there, nothing in Dunich matters to anything else in the world. Those relationships and connections have to be created entirely by the GM. The whole setting is full of this kind of approach and I didn’t catch it early enough to really pull everything together in the right ways. I would have much preferred the book to offer small hooks to tie the small adventures (the rival fencing schools, the opium runners, etc.) into the larger arcs that the world is built around.

    All in all, we spent over 120 hours at the table in this world and we all had an absolute blast. The flavor of the world is really clever and engaging and it’s a refreshing alternative to the standard fantasy tropes. The rules for ships and crews are smartly designed with just enough crunch and bookkeeping to scratch that itch, but just enough flexibility to let the story drive the action as needed. I had hoped using a Savage Worlds plot point campaign would save me some prep time and, while the SW rules are absolutely a time-saver, the campaign requires more GM hacking than I had expected, mostly because it falls short on connecting the various threads of the story.

    I would absolutely recommend 50 Fathoms to players if the GM has a handle on the material. I still recommend it for GMs, though a little less enthusiastically due to all the extra work that's required to tie the world and the adventures together.

  • #2
    Great review. What will you be playing next?

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    • #3
      I have be a player in another 50 fathoms campaign and I can agree it was fun but it seamed disjointed at times.

      Originally posted by SteveB View Post
      I was particularly happy with the ship specific rules and could easily lift those parts out and profitably reuse them in other settings. Crew upkeep, shot types, trade, interception, etc. all work great to capture that Age of Sail feel. The only struggle here was interpreting some of the more abstract chase results from the core SW rules; collision and handling complications seemed particularly awkward to integrate on the high seas. The travel times and map scale still seem inconsistent to me (it seems that walking is faster than sailing), but that’s really only a problem if your party is going to do a lot of overland travel, and my group did virtually none.
      I had a quick look an average of 5 knots (5.7mph) was regarded as fast passage on most ships. The Cutty Sark a very fast ship once average 15 knots for six days but even that ship normally only averaged around 8 knots. When you take into account the extra distance you need to sail around somewhere and the waiting for tides etc it is quite possible to walk or ride somewhere quicker as long as there is a road or the land is passable.

      I found that the ship class names did not match there real world version quite annoying as I kept making assumptions based on my knowledge and had to keep remembering the game world versions did not work like that (I would change the names).

      I think if I was to run it I would simplify the cargo rules to hired spaces and merchants paying for transport to locations. Also in our games the trading rule only matter earlier in the campaign.

      Originally posted by SteveB View Post
      It’s worse when that stuff happens in the context of the plot point campaign. There’s a whole bit about retrieving the lost sword, which requires the crew to be in the right place to pick up the lead, but there’s nothing driving them to that place and no incentive (besides money, which wasn’t an issue for the crew by then) for them to follow up the lead. New GMs will be thrown by “If the players do X” approach to adventure writing when the alternative to doing X is that the whole adventure grinds to a halt. That’s where the game tends to rely on GM improvisation to link elements of the story that should have been linked by the designer. (It also doesn’t help that, once the lost sword is found, the campaign never explains why it was so essential in the first place or what to do with it once you have it; it literally disappears from the narrative.) .... larger arcs that the world is built around.
      We as players floundered around knowing at times we need to do something or go somewhere and could not figure out what or why. I felt I wasted a lot of time becoming an arch-mage and fixing the stone circle thinking it was related to the great drowning by then its real power was moot.

      Originally posted by SteveB View Post
      I would absolutely recommend 50 Fathoms to players if the GM has a handle on the material. I still recommend it for GMs, though a little less enthusiastically due to all the extra work that's required to tie the world and the adventures together.
      I agree there is a lot of fun to be had but needs some work to get its full potential.

      Comment


      • #4
        New to the forums and still fairly new to Savage Worlds. I've been running a Rifts campaign for the last year, but I'm planning on taking a break from it and shifting over to 50 Fathoms for awhile.

        I appreciate the review. Having a heads-up as to what to expect playing out the campaign is incredibly helpful. It sounds like I'll have to do a lot of prep work ahead of time (but that's okay, as I have a couple of months before we even dive into chargen).

        Just curious, though... Do you think a campaign needs to follow the plot point campaign?

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        • #5
          I can't speak for SteveB, but as a GM that has run a 50 Fathoms campaign, I do think you can run a campaign that ignores bot of the plot point campaigns in the book (the "main plot" campaign and the golden triangles campaign).
          The funny thing is that the players will almost inevitably stumble into the main plot point campaign - most of the interesting stuff in the setting affect the PPC and vice versa. But, you can choose to ignore those hooks if you want to.

          The main problem with ignoring the PPC is that it removes one of the few GM-determined end points for the game. In my (painful) experience, a game is better when it ends at a satisfying point.

          Good luck!
          I hope you find the above post useful. And not insulting, because I was trying to be helpful, not insulting; being a pedantic jerk, that isn't always clear.

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          • #6
            I've recently read through 50 Fathoms and hope to run it for a group at some point, it's one of the few truly inventive fantasy settings in my collection, almost all the races fit perfectly with the ocean based nature of the world and you could even remove the Earth connection and change all humans to Masquini if you wanted to (not that I want to, it's half the fun). Plus it's always easy to get people excited about playing Pirates, and Savage Worlds allows the crew to be more than decoration and to actually help out in ship battles or have the players take a squad of marines (or brutes) with them when adventuring on land.

            Even the book (or at least the explorers edition version I have) is really well done, with only one 'wait what' when I was reading through the rules bits (the Musketeer Edge, characters with it just don't want to use regular muskets at all, as rifled muskets loose their additional reload time). The fluff is amazing, much better than my original exposure to Savage Worlds (which was Evernight, which suffers a bit too much from being 'D&D but not'). I can see why it's sometimes regarded as the best of the official settings, there's a well put together world and lots of player freedom once they have a ship (which the book recommends essentially doing as quickly as possible, a nice change to a lot of 'and now the players should do this' adventures that I've read).

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            • #7
              I'm about to run 50 Fathoms this week. This review was very helpful! At least now I know what to watch out for.

              My plan is to start simple (Ugak fight) and have the players tell me where they would like to go next, at the end of each session (when needed). I hope that that would give enough time to prepare the next session. I've been reading and skimming some of the Savage Tales and plot points but have to agree with the OP, lots of detail missing or waiting to be filled in by me.

              Next to that I still have a lot of things that are unclear. Rules-related: use or don't use the chase rules of the Explore Deluxe Rules? Crew, I assume they gain XP together with the PC's but who decides on what skill as they are a single 'group' with identical stats, right? Draw an encounter in each and every 'square' they sail into? ...

              Anyway... Nice review Thanks for sharing! I'm looking forward to give it a go.

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              • #8
                Originally posted by Pokke View Post

                Next to that I still have a lot of things that are unclear. Rules-related: use or don't use the chase rules of the Explore Deluxe Rules? Crew, I assume they gain XP together with the PC's but who decides on what skill as they are a single 'group' with identical stats, right? Draw an encounter in each and every 'square' they sail into? ...

                Anyway... Nice review Thanks for sharing! I'm looking forward to give it a go.
                When I ran 50F, I used a customized version of the chase rules from the then current SWEX. If I was to run it today, I'd still use them as I really don't care for the chase rules in SWD. As an aside, it looks like the chase rules are going to be changing yet again in SWB, so I'm curious to see those.

                Crews level up per the rules for Allies on pg 81 of SWD. I let the players do the rolling and decide what Advance to give them.

                Random encounters per pg 59 of 50F says "Each day the party spends crossing a sea zone or exploring outside of a town, draw a card from your Action Deck. If the card is a face card or higher, an encounter occurs." So unless their ship is really slow you won't be drawing for each square they sail into.

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                • Pokke
                  Pokke commented
                  Editing a comment
                  Thank you!

              • #9
                Had your players tried to own multiple ships at once to have a fleet?
                Do you think a fleet would mess with game balance at all?

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