Roleplayer's Library Review: Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Seas by Jules Verne

Cover Art and Design by Jim Tierney

In this time of steampunk love, I though it would be apropos to review one of Verne's best remembered tales of wonder, science, and adventure. When a ship is sunk by a mysterious attack, made by either a "massive narwhal" or something else, the U.S. Navy launches the Abraham Lincoln, and the celebrated naturalist Professor Pierre Aronnax, his ardent manservant Conseil and the burly Canadian whaler Ned Land, are serendipitously aboard. When the vessel finally encounters the culprit behind the sinking ships, a pitched battle pitches them into the brine, and into the hands of the Nautilus, and her mysterious architect, Captain Nemo.

This book applies to:
Tephra, Iron Kingdoms, and other Steampunk RPGs
Mage the Ascension
Mage: The Sorcerer's Crusade? (It would be better in Victorian times, really)
Call of Cthulu
D&D and Sundry, if you hold your tongue just right
Warhammer 40k Rouge Trader, if you hold your tongue just right, hop on one foot pat your belly and your head all at the same time.

Reader's Notes:

If you do not like Carl Linnaeus's binomial taxonomic system, then skip the paragraphs where Arronax and Conseil have science-gasms over naming the different fish they see. Murky Master is not responsible for gray matter liquefaction.


How Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Seas to the DM

This book is almost a non-fiction reference for the DM of any sea-dependent plot or setting. 20,000 Leagues is almost part travelogue, part adventure novel in how Verne describes Arronax' journey through the ocean. After getting aboard the Nautilus, he is taken to Indonesian islands, Malay, the Red Sea, the Antarctic, and even up to Norwegian seas, encountering giant pearls, Atlantean ruins, maelstroms, giant squid, and sharks.  From those scenes, a DM could be inspired to create neat localities and set pieces for his underwater world, either on Earth or elsewhere. I especially enjoy Verne's version of Atlantis, and might steal the scene with the giant pearl and or the underwater graveyard.

I get the impression from Verne that he did his research, so this book offers a snapshot into those parts of the world around 1870, when it was published. Thus, its also a history book for the time period as well, especially in describing a particular sea battle and in the scenes at the Malaysian Pearl Fisheries.

But speaking of inspiration, Verne's description of the toys that Nemo and company use is great fodder for a steampunk game. Verne gives an almost foot by foot description of the Nautilus, but still keeps Arronax from seeing every room in there, allowing a DM to go ape-shit with weird laboratories, strange prisons, or other junk in the Nautilus itself. Mage the Ascension games featuring Sons of Ethers recreating the Nautilus, or some of its tech, would be better ran with someone who read this book. I LOVE the underwater rifles and the shock bullets.

You know you want this is your game. By Rene Aigner on Deviantart
Captain Nemo himself, the most well known facet of the book, is also an excellently drawn character. He is one of the best characters that "hero" or "villain" does not describe well. If I were to write him up (tempting), I am tempted to give him a derangement of some kind, but not a really bad one (certainly not a Marauder here). He's cool, he's pissed, his inviting, and harsh all in the same scene at times, and clearly knows his element.

As for how this might apply to D&D or Rogue Trader, I am thinking that DM's could find inspiration in the general thread of the story: Someone, jaded by the world, builds a mighty ship that haunts the places where Man dare not tread, and occasionally strikes out at mankind. The PCs are somehow along for the ride, discovering wonders that no one else will see for a long time.

So, taking your PCs on a ride in a submarine through an ocean of fire, through the stars, or even through the ocean is possible. In Warhammer, this would be some crazy ass ship that somehow survives in an otherwise in hospitable part of the Expanse. For a Rouge Trader game though, I would be tempted to make it less of a wondrous journey and more of a terrifying one. Maybe the captain and his crew didn't really "survive", at least not in a good and wholesome sense...

On that note though, could you imagine such a plot ran under the auspices of the Elder Gods in COC? I get goosebumps at the idea of running through the Nautilus from a thing that should not be...

How Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Seas applies to the Player

Players who plan on having sea faring characters can get some miles out of this book. A rendition of Conseil, Arronax, Land, Nemo, or even one of the crew could easily by done in a game with a modern setting (Mage the Ascension characters with the Legend merit come to mind). Arronax shows players how to be an inquisitive scientist, while Land makes a great brute and Conseil can help players model a truly devoted soul (and in the world of darkness, he is easily turned into a Malkavian, especially if Conseil's bond turns very dangerous...). Captain Nemo is a study in composure under stress as well as giant Victorian melancholy, especially for players of Victorian age games who ask themselves "How do I pull of the Victorian eccentric without making a fool of myself?"
A great protriat of the Captian himself by MadLittleClown on Deviantart

Vulgar and coincidental magic effects for Son of Ether or similar paradigms in Mage can be found in this book. The Nautilus would be a wonder, the submarine busting through the icepack in Antarctica would probably be a coincidental effect, and, depending on the time period, the electrocuting shell of the Nautilus and the electro bullets could be Vulgar effects (in modern times, I would call them mostly coincidental, perhaps only disbelievable if you where in some sort of steampunk get up, and were not at a con. Hell, even then I hesitate.)
Players preparing for underwater games may also be able to get a handle on how to make character that will be effective underwater, if you pay close attention to the type of skills you need in the various underwater settings of the book. Off the top of my head, for Mage, I would take good care to get points in Survival with an underwater specialty, Jury-Rig or Engineering and Climb. 

The Bottom Line

Obviously, this is a Son of Ether's delight for a resource (guess what Murky's favorite tradition is...). I confess that I don't know much about actual steampunk games like Iron Kingdoms, though I would love to try them out. Still, I'm sure you can at least build your characters equipment from this book. For DM's this book offers a treasure trove of accurate, 19th century history and geography, vital for a setting based on Victorian age earth, but also a great inspiration for your home brewed underwater worlds. You can also lift the main plot at transplant it into a Rouge Trader or Call of Cthulu game with ease. 

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