I’ve always thought that the grand Age of Sail — roughly from 1770 to 1815 — was woefully underused in role-playing games. RPGs either focus on medieval-style settings and the occasional early 18th-Century pirate game, or went past the Age of Sail into the Victorian Era and beyond. But if you look at world events over those 45 critical years, you’d find an utterly rich setting for excitement and adventure. Don’t believe me? Go see Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World. If you don’t come out with some grand RPG ideas, you weren’t paying attention.
The movie focuses on the brave crew of HMS Surprise, a 28-gun frigate tasked to find and defeat a French privateer off the coast of Brazil in 1805. Russell Crowe plays Capt. “Lucky” Jack Aubrey, a brash, cagey Royal Navy officer in command of the Surprise. Paul Bettany is Aubrey’s best friend, Dr. Stephen Maturin, the ship’s doctor and a man of science and letters. The chemistry between the two is quite good — it reminded me of the whole Kirk-and-Spock thing from Star Trek, but without the 60s high camp. Aubrey and Maturin complement each other perfectly, matching bravado with analysis and charisma with reason.
I’m not going to go into the intricacies of the plot here, other than to say that Aubrey chases the 44-gun French ship through ice and heat and storm until finally catching up with her for a final(?) climatic battle.
What struck me about this film — and why I’m writing about it on RPG.net — is its intense attention to detail and its compelling period story. As some of you might know from my column here on RPG.net, I’m writing a game called Spacebuckler, a space fantasy RPG set in an alternate Solar System during this very same time period. I’ve done an immense amount of research about life at sea, naval combat and the history of the time period. And by God, the folks who did this movie nailed it. I’ve never seen a more accurate depiction of the Royal Navy during tihs era. Life on board a frigate in 1805 was cramped, smelly, sticky, unbearably cold, disgustingly hot, and bloody as hell during battle. Master and Commander is unflinching in its depiction, and you find yourself rooting for the men and the ship even in everday activities, which to us in the 21st century seem dangerous and daring.
Of course, given my writing, I’m rather biased about this film, and my focus is probably different from most moviegoers. But there’s great acting, a good (if occasionally predictable) story and some cinematography that will blow you out of the water, so to speak. It’s a great film, and I hope it inspires gamers to take a fresh look at seaborne adventures in general and this facinating era in particular.