Ahoy, laddies! This weekend I had a great idea for a TTRPG campaign that basically explores the question: “What if the high seas of your fictional fantasy world were (suddenly) off limits for everyone?” What if the use of the seas were forbidden? No gathering of natural resources, no travel and no trade allowed?
Well, of course the answer would heavily depend on certain characteristics that are likely to differ between one fictional world and another. Like the mere existence and the size of oceans (and other bodies of salt-water), the things to find in them (food, monsters and/or treasures), their connectedness and relative position to each other, their cultural significance (i.e., being the source of identity), and of course the number of political parties interested in certain parts of the seas and their geo-strategic role for certain realms and areas important to your story.
Depending on all of these data, the impact of limiting access to the seas could be either minimal or life-threatening. The latter would open up a plethora of possible adventures: a search for the reason for not being able to use the seas would be a logical first task, a fight against those upholding the restriction would most likely follow, or at least a quest to lift the dark curse, please the gods of the seas or restore order, where chaos reigned before. But really, the options are countless.
The most important question would of course be: “Why isn’t it possible to use the sea (anymore)? What is the mythical, magical, natural, or even mere cultural reason, when did it take effect, and how is this restriction implemented?” Or so you think. In fact, the most important question for any game-master starting a new campaign will be: “Why should my players care?”
There could be worlds, in which the landlubbers for various reasons never even started to use the seas in the first place, and therefore developed a way of life devoid of everything maritime or nautical, avoiding the coasts, maybe even fear them; the salty water, everything living in or coming out of it – unless someone curiously asks the important questions: “Why?” and “What’s out there?”
There could also be worlds, in which the seas once (or even until yesterday) were of the utmost importance to the peoples – maybe even to those not directly living on the shores. Where going to sea and using it were essential and highly valued – until one day (or today) it was forbidden or extremely dangerous, which would cause major problems, until someone would say: “No, this can’t stay this way!”
There could be worlds of course, where opening up the seas (again) isn’t an option at all. Here, the inhabitants of this world would have to cope with the results of the restriction in creative ways, especially if they are bound to achieve something that would be much easier, if they only could get on a ship and sail somewhere, or reach into the water and get something that is urgently needed. “But how do we do it?”
After thinking about a motivation you can finally go for the technical details. Fantasy worlds for TTRPGs are full of possible reasons for restricted or blocked access to the seas: Cosmic events may influence basic rules of physics or magic, and establish a new order of things; Gods are all-unknowable, all-powerful, sometimes warring each other, and very fickle; Leviathans and other titanic sea-creatures have their own agendas, are territorial or invasive; Natural Disasters can devastate whole eco-systems in no time, be it by a change of salinity, temperature or sea-level; Maritime Nature Spirits might react harshly seeing their domain polluted, plundered, damaged or destroyed; Eccentric Wizards, Weird Scientists or Sinister Cultists might find blocking off the seas will further their goals somehow, or they could just accidentally break something, while boldly experimenting at the fringes of their knowledge; Supreme Naval Powers might take the seas for themselves by force, using physical and magical blockades, not willing to share with anyone, at least not for a very high price (which not always is to be measured in coins); …
So, next time you ask yourself: “What could I throw at my players, that I haven’t done before?”, or: “What could be a twist in the world that I am building here?” take a minute and think about the importance of the seas in your world – and maybe deny your gaming group something they’ve always taken for granted. You’d be surprised how they might react. Adventure awaits!