Friday, October 2, 2020

An OSR Underwater Setting: Re-Examining Point Nemo

Earlier this year, I made a handful of posts writing rules for an underwater campaign setting, Point Nemo, which Anne of DIYandDragons has helpfully looked over. The last mention of the setting on the blog was over six months ago, when I announced a playtest and a roadmap for the product, and talked about getting the zine out by Q3 2020.

Which given current circumstances is more than a bit embarrassing. That playtest never got off the ground, and looking back on it now I can say that it wasn't very well thought out. I had rules, but barely any content with which to playtest them. In addition, the whole thing was GLOG-based, which limited the possible pool of participants of the playtest, and which would limit the end product as well.

Add to all that the fact that I have never before published a product, or made a competent dungeon. In retrospect, the zine was much further outside my abilities than I had thought. Ignorance is bliss.

Phobia by Flora Silve

Point Nemo is still around, and I fully expect to one day publish it, but it will not be soon. I figure I need to publish a decent product, something simple like a dungeon, before moving on to creating settings and rules. 

I also plan to update the draft rules for use with OSE/S&W rather than GLOG. They're mostly the same, except that GLOG has a big focus on attribute tests, which really don't show up elsewhere.

In the meantime, I want to take a moment to more thoroughly describe what a Point Nemo setting/campaign would look like, which I don't think I ever really pinned down.

The Setting

Point Nemo is set in the ocean of your preferred fantasy world. Earth-similarity is assumed as a starting point, since the ocean is weird enough before involving magic or monsters. 

It's not a setting which requires a long and involved history with a mountain of proper nouns. Rather, it's a collection of assumptions which can be safely made of a great number of fantasy worlds, and into which world-specific material can be readily reflavored or added. It contains mundane elements like pressure sickness, sharks and shipwrecks, but also more fantastic elements, such as zombie submariners, narcospecters and sea-bottom artificial environments. Since the great majority of published fantasy worlds, as well as those played every day at the table, don't prescribe much detail about their oceans, the material in Point Nemo may be quickly adapted by modifying the relevant fantastical elements and adding those implied by the world, such as Triton civilizations or Deep One temples.

This approach has its limits, of course. If you're playing in Arnold K's Centerra, and Arnold has decided that the deep oceans there are coated in sentient enchanted mercury, the zine's material likely won't be of too much use.

But so long as your world doesn't go to those lengths, the level of tolerance should be quite high. Whether you're looking at Age of Sail high piracy, Victorian steam(ship)-punk, Lovecraftian adventures beneath the waves, or something even wackier, Point Nemo should be able to fill in your setting's oceans quite well.

The Campaign

What would an adventure or campaign played using Point Nemo look like?

I intend for the end product to include a decently sized (and playtested) adventure, mixing wilderness and dungeon exploration. Exploration of the unusual features of the sea bottom, whether shared with our world or unique to yours, is the draw. Point- or hexcrawling along the ocean bottom is a unique proposition, with its own considerations for spotting landmarks and locations of interest.

A self-contained adventure would include a wilderness environment, with a dungeon or three hidden among the locations, and a variety of objectives scattered about. Relatively simple, applying a preexisting wilderness structure to the undersea environment.

A full underwater campaign, however, in which the vast majority of game time took place underwater with the expectation of long term play, would involve a different dynamic. Rather than exploring a set area, the campaign dynamic would focus on depth. Going deeper into the ocean requires greatly expanded equipment or abilities, and operating under conditions at deeper and deeper ocean levels is increasingly wearying. The various levels of the sea are analogous to levels of a thickly sliced dungeon, where even accessing the lower levels for more than a few turns is a major proposition. 

Starting from an island or coastal town, and/or a mobile base such as a boat, the progression would involve gradually exploring from the shallows on down, assessing the treasures to be found deeper, and setting up progressively more advanced forward bases underwater. Obtaining magical diving gear to plunge into the midnight zone, reestablishing the air seals on an abandoned dwarven deep-sea geothermal plant, or stealing a sea-lich's submarine are all examples of mid-high level objectives which give the party more security, mobility and options in their deep sea adventures. 

Certain temptations would exist as well, such as seeking out inhuman mutations which allow easier deep-water operation in exchange for becoming a pariah on the surface, or swearing allegiance to the sea-elf queen in exchange for protection from narcospecters. The arc of such a campaign takes the party from new explorers ho haven't figured out how to avoid the bends, to seasoned, equipped and highly knowledgeable deep sea adventurers who can spend weeks or months at a time without breaking the surface.

The final goal of such a campaign, the equivalent of the infernal dungeon level or the holy grail quest in another campaign, would very likely be Point Nemo. What is Point Nemo? It's the singular point on the planet's surface furthest away from land, where the nutrients from coastal runoff do not reach, where hardly any marine life survives, where land is a distant myth, and any mistake leaves you hopeless and alone in one of the most inhospitable locations in the world. In our world, that place is located in the South Pacific, over 1600 miles away from the nearest island. In your world, it may well also be the center of a giant ocean vortex, at the center of which lies a submerged megatemple that has remained untouched since Atlantis fell.

That is what Point Nemo could feasibly deliver on: flexible deep-sea adventuring across a wide range of levels, with custom equipment, monsters, basic and advanced rules for underwater play, and sample adventures ready to go. That product is not complete, nor is it soon to come to market. I remain convinced it is a good idea which deserves as good a treatment as I can give it, and I'm going to gather experience making and publishing good products before I bring it to light.

If you find yourself inspired by this, let me know below, especially if you might one day like to be involved in playtesting. Likewise if you take it upon yourself to make rules or  setting for this very thing, let me know!


  1. You sold me with zombie submariners (lichjammer under the seas!) narcospecters (I don't even know what that means but it sounds interesting), and sea-bottom artificial environments in a Weird Victorian cosmic horror setting. Given the Nemo reference I expect a lot of electricity as well!

    I actually wrote some system neutral mechanics for underwater / outerspace campaigns recently. It has become clear to me that I failed to coherently convey them in the way I had intended, but I hope they might inspire someone on some level:

    1. I do recall seeing your post a while ago, though I admit I was bamboozled by it. My approach to the undersea crawl is to use finer 2-D movement, on the level of hexes if it comes to it, while having more discrete movement between bands of depth in 100' intervals. A big sign saying 'moving to this point will bring you to the evening zone' when necessary. When zooming into combat, movement up and down in a small band is possible, but at those speeds the bends can be easily contracted. The big idea is that the sea floor is usually what's interesting, not the open water above it, so it's really 2-D exploration with geographic conditions pegged to depth.

  2. This is such a cool proposal! You really could run an entire campaign underwater, with visits to the surface as just brief interludes like "you sell the pearls, buy a speargun, refill your oxygen tanks, and return to the depths..."

    But you could also have a meaningful world above-water, where a mutation that keeps you below comes as a real cost, and where you can use secrets and treasures from below on land, as well as intel and weapons from above in the sea. (Maybe you alternate sessions, above and below?)

    I also think your point, above, about the surface of the sea-floor being essentially a 2D environment makes a lot of sense.

    1. I'm glad you like it! And thanks again for mentioning the post. This was the kick in the ass I needed to consider the project in a new light and start to move forward again.