Designer's Notes: GURPS Atlantis

Designer's Notes: GURPS Atlantis

Something Rich and Strange

by Phil Masters

Full fathom five thy father lies;
Of his bones are coral made:
Those are pearls that were his eyes:
Nothing of him that doth fade,
But doth suffer a sea-change
Into something rich and strange.
-- William Shakespeare, The Tempest.

The point about GURPS Atlantis is that Atlantis is what you make of it -- or what other people have made of it over the last couple of thousand years.

The brief for the book was pretty simple, and quite broad; a treatment of Atlantis -- the Atlantis Myth -- in game terms. That made me decide to try and avoid getting too specific in the opening chapters; with everything from Greek philosophy to superhero comics to worry about, it would have felt unfair to pin readers down to a single viewpoint too early on. However, gamers have a natural and justified aversion to vague and waffly generalizations in game books, so the second half of the book, the last three of its six chapters, consists of game-usable treatments of Atlantis. ("Worked examples," in Bill Stoddard's felicitous phrase.)

By the Book

The other thing I wanted was to try to be quite rigorous about some things. This is a bit of a habit among GURPS writers and fans, to the extent that it sometimes becomes a joke, but while I was prepared to be cinematic and dramatic, I found some of the secondary source material on which I had to draw rather annoying. To explain: "Atlantis" is an idea with a clearly-defined first known manifestation. It's all there in the surviving works of Plato. And yet, many later uses of the name more or less completely ignore Plato, and go their own way with this idea of a lost land under the sea. Well, that can be entertaining enough, but I decided to stick to Plato's sometimes weird images as closely as possible. This had the added virtue of making chapter 1 easier to write; this is, so far as I know, the first RPG supplement where the Father of Western Philosophy really deserves an "Additional Material" credit. Though it'd be hard to ship him his comps (and I doubt that he'd approve of RPGs anyway).

On the other hand, the more generalized image of the Lost Land clearly has great appeal, so while chapter 1 went back to Plato and went over his ideas in detail, chapter 2 looked at the alternatives and spin-offs -- the odd little tales of drowned towns from along the coasts of northern Europe, Arabia's "Atlantis of the Sands," the dingbat imagery of the Theosophists, and so on. Then, the idea of rigor gave me another angle. As numerous modern writers have realized, the invention of undersea travel makes visiting a sunken Atlantis a somewhat-viable proposition. But there's more to venturing underwater than a facemask and a pair of flippers per PC. So chapter 3 is about the sea itself -- the vast, dangerous, bizarre environment that happens to cover most of the surface of our home planet. Here, I was traveling out of my own familiar environment, so I recruited some helpful assistance through the Pyramid boards, which in turn ensured that the book would include some detailed and interesting treatments of subjects which GURPS has only discussed in passing before -- subjects like the evolution of submarine technology, and the complex dangers of deep diving.

(Talking of rigor -- the more research I did for this chapter, the more exasperated I became with all too many writers and films. It soon became clear to me that deep-sea exploration is a complex and risky enterprise. Cinematic writers may be entitled to skip over some of the practical problems, but all too often they give the impression that they just plain don't know and don't care. This book tries to make realistic games involving deep dives a little easier to run -- which should mean that they can be as tough on the PCs as realism demands.)

Anyway, that was the set-up; the worked examples then took Atlantis back into high fantasy, out into the twisted world of conspiracy theory, and off into the weirdness of steampunk or supers stories. Which done, the book went into the invaluable process of playtesting.

One More Theme . . .

During which, one theme was mentioned occasionally which I hadn't covered much, and which, I'm afraid, I couldn't justify covering much more in the final draft. (GURPS book projects work to a page count.) That theme was, broadly, "Atlantis of the Future." A class of myths that's lasted this well surely doesn't have to end here.


For one thing, some people came up with ideas for merging ideas from this book with GURPS Traveller, which I did manage to use in partial, truncated form. One involved space travelers -- Droyne or Vegans, most likely -- lurking on our world in the Bronze Age; I do find the idea of Odysseus and his crew meeting a "one-eyed" Vegan amusing, if slightly implausible. (Really, Droyne/Ancients make better candidates for the role of Secret Atlanteans.) Another playtester suggested using the myth as a model for events on a Vilani-occupied world during the Long Night; a PC party gets sent to look for artifacts that were placed there during the fall of the First Imperium, only to discover that terraforming or climatic shifts have rendered their maps largely useless, and the old colony was located in a deep valley that's now completely flooded. Here, as usual when playing with "sunken Atlantis survives" stories, we have to assume implausibly rugged domes and logically-previously- superfluous life support systems, but there's always ways round that sort of thing, and it does get us an interesting place to visit.

Disasters Closer to Home

Another thread that I wasn't able to exploit properly in the final draft of the book looked at our own world, and asked which familiar cities we could sink. The prosaic snag with this subject is that we can't sink most of them more than a few feet, even with every known flood defense overwhelmed by catastrophic events and worst-case global warming. Somehow, wading knee-deep through the streets of an abandoned London lacks the sort of melodrama we've come to expect from a neo-Atlantis story, and "fell into a swamp" doesn't sound as good as "sank beneath the waves." Holland was noted as one country in a really confrontational position with regard to the sea; apparently, bits of it would be 20 feet under if all the dykes collapsed. Other cities at or below sea level were mentioned -- Miami, Bahrain, Dhaka, Bangkok -- as well as the good old possibility of California being hit by a big enough earthquake and falling into the Pacific, but the candidates that looked best was those which scored highest for style.

Venice is an obvious name here, of course, being a city of canals, with severe flooding problems, as it is; somebody threw in the idea of a drowned Venice inhabited only by vampires, which has a certain gothic charm. It was also pointed out that modern Cairo is more or less at sea level; given a rise of just a few feet, the entire Nile delta might flood. Alexandria, on the current coast of the delta, would obviously suffer badly; the great city of the Hellenic era is already largely under the harbor, for one reason or another, and that comes complete with the classical architecture that Atlantis imagery demands. Near-future scenarios in such a setting could combine cyberpunk glitz, Middle Eastern intrigue, and sunken-city melancholy.

Meanwhile, another thread was addressing the subject of New Orleans -- a city located, by some genius of an urban planner, not only in a swamp, but also below sea level. Actually, the subject of possible threats to that city proved complex (so that we were treated to the unusual sight of RPG fans admitting that they weren't entirely sure what the results of a particular development would be), but the first place anyone looked for trouble was a set of river control projects north of the city. One projection was that if they were lost, the river would silt up, destroying its usefulness as a port; then, knock-on effects involving deposition and erosion patterns on the coast would cause the Mississippi delta to erode away, so that New Orleans eventually flooded. This would take a while; someone suggested that the place might be under a dome (and hence even more humid) by then, leading to more proper quasi-Atlantean imagery. (Don't ask why anyone would build such a dome instead of fixing the flood prevention measures.) Anyway, New Orleans's somewhat louche reputation seemed to make some people think that it was a natural target for disasters.

Which is wandering away from Plato's tale, perhaps. But that's what happens when you go looking for a philosophical metaphor in the middle of the ocean; you get your feet wet.

Article publication date: May 18, 2001

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