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Nautilus, But Nice

Gaming with Captain Nemo and the Nautilus

by John Nowak

Captain Nemo

In the 1860s, there were a series of inconclusive sightings of a large and unknown sea creature. The fact it was capable of great speed became clear when it was spotted twice, within three days, at positions 2100 miles apart. Assuming the two sightings were of the same object, this would require its being able to swim at 27 knots; an almost unheard of speed for contemporary vessels; even a speedy frigate like USS Abraham Lincoln, was capable of only eighteen. It was suggested the sightings were simply misidentifications of whales or other known phenomena.

On March 5, 1867, the Canadian passenger ship Moravian collided with something in the middle of the Atlantic, cracking her keel but not sinking her. She must have hit something very hard and heavy, floating just under the surface.

On April 13, the Cunard liner Scotia was struck at 15 degrees longitude and 46 degrees latitude. She was able to limp home to Liverpool.

Scotia had a sharply defined, triangular hole below her waterline. She had been impaled by a sharp object which penetrated almost one and a half inches of iron plate, which had then withdrawn itself. The physical evidence was unimpeachable: Scotia had been hit by a self propelled ram.

Later, Captain Nemo would tell Professor Arronax the collision with Scotia had been accidental, which seems reasonable: Nemo did not attempt to finish off Scotia, and Nautilus was not equipped with a periscope or sonar, making collisions a real risk while near the surface. Nemo never explained the incident with Moravian, and it is possible the Canadian ship's accident did not involve Nautilus at all.

After two collisions, the maritime powers became alarmed. The possibility the monster was a hostile submersible vessel was proposed and rejected. It seemed unlikely such a ship could be constructed secretly, since no private individual had the resources and no major power could do so without exciting the attention of spies. The noted French marine biologist, M. Arronax, author of the two volume Mysteries of the Great Submarine Grounds , suggested the monster was a giant narwhal: a "sea unicorn."

The frigate USS Abraham Lincoln was modified as a whaler and sent out to kill the monster as a threat to navigation. The ship was fortunate to have aboard M. Arronax, his servant Conseil, and the Canadian harpooner Ned Land. After a long hunt, Abraham Lincoln found Captain Nemo's Nautilus.

Abraham Lincoln pursued the submarine. Nautilus matched her speed, staying just a few miles distant for most of a day. Abraham Lincoln was able to hit Nautilus with a nine pounder breechloader: the light weapon was unable to penetrate the hull. At night, Nautilus came to a stop. Abraham Lincoln came close enough for Ned Land to bounce a harpoon off her. Nautilus used her ballast pumps to sweep Abraham Lincoln's deck, knocking M. Arronax and presumably Ned Land into the water. Conseil dove in after his patron. Nautilus counterattacked Abraham Lincoln, contenting herself with taking out the frigate's rudder. The ships disengaged, and Nautilus later rescued Arronax, Conseil, and Ned Land. Nemo informs Arronax he has a right to execute them after the attack by Abraham Lincoln (he obviously considers Nautilus to be a warship at war), but instead keeps the three prisoner.

Nautilus' action against Abraham Lincoln is quite odd, given what we later learn about the submarine. The high safe cruising speed of Nautilus was nearly twice the flank speed of Abraham Lincoln , and Nautilus did not attempt to escape by submerging for any extended period of time, or by simply outrunning her on the surface. Perhaps Nautilus was damaged, and unable to make more than 20 knots or submerge safely for long. Since Nautilus had a body aboard at this time (a funeral takes place before Arronax is introduced to Nemo) it seems reasonable to suggest Abraham Lincoln stumbled across Nautilus shortly after her quarry had been engaged in battle. While Nemo made no mention of this to Arronax, it would be reasonable for him to conceal it from his guest; Nautilus was a ship at war and warfare is deception. Nemo would rarely tell Arronax what his plans were, and it would not be surprising for such a high technology prototype to have gremlins aboard. It is possible the somewhat erratic 60,000 mile journey of Arronax was punctuated by mechanical failures and delays Arronax was never informed of.

"Whether this person was thirty five or fifty years of age I could not say. He was tall, had a large forehead, straight nose, a clearly cut mouth, beautiful teeth, with fine tape hands [Nemo] was certainly the most admirable specimen I had ever seen."

-M. Arronax.

In saying "My name is Nemo," the master of Nautilus is quoting Ulysses' self introduction to Polyphemus: the word means "nobody." Even in 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea it is obvious "Nemo" is a nom de guerre and probable the ubiquitous "N" insignias refer to the ship's name. Nemo is an elusive character, and deliberately so. M. Arronax is a marine biologist, so impressed with Nautilus as a technical accomplishment it takes the rugged Ned Land to bring him back to reality. Much of Nemo's personality is only hinted at, because the narrator of the book barely notices it.

Mysterious Island answers most of the questions about Nemo. Popular opinion was ironically correct: neither a private individual nor a sovereign nation could have built Nautilus . Nemo was Prince Dakkar, a private individual who was a sovereign nation, ruler of one of the 500 or so independent principalities of British dominated India. Dakkar attended European colleges and distinguished himself as a brilliant naval engineer.

Dakkar backed the losing side in the Sepoy mutiny of 1857-58. His parents, wife, and two children were killed while he watched, and his homeland "destroyed" (presumably put under military government and parceled out to allied rulers). Contrary to the Walt Disney film, Nemo never explicitly mentions torture.

The historical Mutiny was an unusually hideous affair, even by the standards of 19th Century warfare. Atrocities by both sides were common, and the massacre of Dakkar's family cannot in justice be considered anti British propaganda on the part of M. Verne.

After the destruction of his homeland, Dakkar fled with a group of loyal friends, building Nautilus in secrecy, using machine parts subcontracted from around the world.

It seems likely that Nautilus had been under design and construction for some time, although she was completed too late to serve in the Mutiny. If this is true, Nautilus was designed to challenge the premier naval power of the world, a wunderwaffen which missed the war she was built for. It's easy to imagine Dakkar begging the organizers of the Mutiny to hold off until she was at sea, and experiencing the frustrating delays any high technology engineer goes through, until the organizers decide they simply can't wait any longer.

Historically, the development of the attack submarine was almost entirely driven by antagonists of Great Britain. David Bushnell's Turtle of the American Revolutionary War is often considered the first attack submarine. The United States Navy's Hull #1, the USS Holland, was originally named Fenian Ram . The Fenians were US based Irish rebels who invaded Canada twice during the 19th Century, before it was illegal for US residents to attack foreign countries. Finally, Germany's U boats of the First World War made the submarine an essential element of modern navies. Verne was right about the target of the first practical submarine warships; he just had it built by the wrong country.

" A number of sailors of the Nautilus had come up onto the platform These sailors were evidently of different nations, although the European type was visible in all of them. I recognized some unmistakable Irishmen, Frenchmen, some Slavs, and a Greek or Candiote "

- M. Arronax.

Note Arronax does not mention Englishmen, and that the Crimean War had Great Britain supporting the Ottoman Empire (which included a rebellious Greece) against Russia. Nemo sinks at least two British warships while Arronax was aboard, and the only formal connection Nemo has with the people of the surface is giving treasure from the ocean bottom to help finance Crete's insurrection against the Ottoman Empire.

Nemo clearly maintains an emotional tie with his homeland: he rescues an Indian pearl diver and gives him a gift of a bag of pearls.

Despite his war, Nemo's first love remains oceanography. Arronax is impressed with Nemo's accomplishments as a fellow scientist. Nemo takes Nautilus to the South Pole (Verne didn't know Antarctica was in the way), and in general indulges Arronax's scientific curiosity. It's possible Arronax was the only person aboard able to talk about marine biology at Nemo's level, and that Nemo wanted his work preserved.

Nemo is a rather Westernized individual. The motto of Nautilus ("Changing through changes") is in Latin. Nemo is from India, but we don't know if he's Hindu, Muslim, or Sikh (although the name "Dakkar" hints he isn't Sikh.) Nautilus buries her dead (although cremation is perhaps tricky two hundred feet under water), and the graves are marked with a cross; it seems likely Nemo is either Christian or tolerant, or both.

Nemo smokes cigars, and Arronax does not mention anything aboard Nautilus which would have looked out of place aboard a European ship. Nemo's extensive art collection is apparently all European. The uniform aboard Nautilus is similar to Western naval norms, and Nemo plays an organ, not a sitar.

Arronax and his two friends escape Nautilus before she sailed into the Maelstrom, a severe tidal whirlpool near Norway. It is a scene that smacks of deliberate misinformation. By this point, Nautilus was a hunted ship. She was attacked by a British warship; the sailors aboard Abraham Lincoln presumably told the world she was a submarine, and there was no reason to hold the trio prisoner any longer. In fact, allowing the prisoners to escape with the news of Nautilus ' "destruction" may have been Nemo's plan. Submarines are very good at vanishing.

" I also hope that Nautilus has survived where so many other ships have been lost if Captain Nemo still inhabits the ocean, his adopted country, may hatred be appeased in his savage heart! May the contemplation of so many wonders extinguish forever the spirit of vengeance! May the judge disappear, and the philosopher continue the peaceful exploration of the sea!"

- M. Arronax.

According to Mysterious Island, Nemo and Nautilus escaped the Maelstrom, eventually to come to rest on the castaway island. Nemo dies, Nautilus' last survivor. It is a tired old man who is buried in a wrecked Nautilus in the pages of Mysterious Island, far from the coral graveyard of his friends and crewmates.

Unfortunately, Verne goofed his chronology. M. Arronax's chronicle of his voyage aboard Nautilus cannot have been printed long before 1870. The hero of Mysterious Island is a Union Army combat engineer who escapes a Confederate POW camp. He recognizes Nemo at least three years before Arronax could have printed his book. Worse, the Nemo he meets is a frail old man, at least ten years older than the vigorous captain met by Arronax in a few years. Aside from the temporal displacement, Prince Dakkar of Mysterious Island is much the same man as Nemo in 20,000 Leagues.

The obvious question in playing Nemo is, is Nemo a piratical terrorist or a national hero struggling against cruel tyranny? The only possible answer is yes.

It is true he attacks British warships without warning, but England killed his family and he wants them to suffer for it. It's not laudable but it's understandable. He restricted himself to military targets and used minimum force against neutral warships: Abraham Lincoln attacked Nautilus repeatedly, was filled with sailors who would realize she was a submarine, and the most deadly ship killer afloat, yet Nemo let her escape.

Nemo is furthermore devoted to his crew. He is the second man on deck during the fight with the kraken; the first opened the hatch and had been immediately killed. His crew reciprocates; this pan national mix is certainly willing to die for him, but as individuals, they remain ciphers: redshirts in the grand tradition.


It has been claimed that modern nuclear submarines can outperform Verne's fictional creation. This is a debatable point. Certainly Verne's Nautilus is faster than and can dive much deeper than Los Angeles class attack submarines, if one trusts published statistics. Of course, modern subs are built for stealth first with speed and depth coming in second. Silence was not a major concern for Nemo, working in an era without hydrophones, sonar, or antisubmarine warfare.

Nautilus was a warship at war, and M. Arronax was at best a neutral prisoner in that war. It is possible Nemo misled Arronax about certain elements of Nautilus' design, but this article will assume he was mostly honest.

Nautilus was cigar shaped, 232 feet long with a maximum width of 26 feet (70.7 and 7.9m, respectively). She has a surface area of 6032 square feet, and submerged displaces 1500 tons. She is of an unusual double hull construction: instead of an lightly constructed outer hull for streamlining and a rigid internal pressure bearing hull, her outer hull is pressure bearing. Arronax did not make a mistake here, because he described Nautilus bouncing a nine pound cannonball. She probably has no more than one and a half decks.

She has a cruising speed of 30 knots and flank speed of around 45 knots (56 and 83 kph). She refuels once during the book, so her cruising range is probably in excess of 60,000 miles. By way of comparison, the VII C U boat of World War II had a cruising range of 9000 miles.

In the course of the book, Nautilus dives to five miles, although Nemo admits this is an extreme strain he does not care to subject her to for very long. This is about twenty times deeper than modern military subs are designed to reach. Most of the ocean floor is between one and two and a half miles deep; the Mariana Trench is between six and seven miles.

Nautilus uses ballast tanks. These tanks are emptied by pumps: not pressurized air or the constant volume pumps used by modern subs, but extremely powerful brute strength pressure pumps which would do credit to a fire department. These pumps can be used as water cannon.

She can remain submerged for 24 hours comfortably, and can extend this by 48 hours with reserve tanks. Electrolysis of oxygen from sea water is mentioned, but is not used because Nautilus does not have scrubbers to remove carbon dioxide from the air.

Nautilus ' crew wears heavy sweaters and sealskin caps: it's probably cold aboard, and her heaters don't do a very good job at keeping out the chill of the depths. Arronax doesn't mention feeling unusually cold, nor does he describe condensation on the metal walls.

Arronax doesn't mention sonar or periscopes. Instead, Nautilus has a dorsal mounted searchlight and pilot box, which are retracted into the hull when she is planning to attack. At battle stations, Nautilus is blind. She must have directional hydrophones so a target ship can be rammed.

Arronax specifies her diving planes are amidships, where we would now consider the worst possible place. Clearly, Nautilus was intended to maintain a constant trim even while diving or surfacing. The clutter described in her 12,000 volume library wouldn't survive many extreme attitude changes, or a ram. The library must be kept in bookcases or shelves with bars to lock the volumes in place. His art must be securely fastened to the walls. Loose books or maps would become projectiles in bad weather.

Nautilus as described would have a tendency to pitch while submerged and roll while surfaced. Sharklike, she would have to maintain a fairly high speed to keep any control at all. She probably has trim cells in the extreme bow and stern. Of course, she was a high technology prototype and major design flaws are realistic.

Nautilus carries a pinnace, a large sailboat with a telegraph wire connecting her to Nautilus . This wire would break if stretched too far. Its length is not mentioned, but 1000 yards is probably generous.


Verne's Nautilus was not nuclear; this was not on the horizon as a possibility in the 1860s. When Nemo was asked about her engines, he replied they were electric: this is obvious obscuration on his part. Electricity is a means by which energy can be transmitted, not generated.

Nemo never did describe Nautilus 's engines in detail, but he may have let the secret slip accidentally. At one point during M. Arronax's stay, Nautilus refuels with sodium. If sodium mixes with water, it generates heat, then decomposes the water into oxygen and hydrogen, which recombine violently. The reaction does not require atmospheric oxygen, and could theoretically be used to power a submarine.

Crew Compliment

At 1500 tons, Nautilus was a large and comfortable vessel; she probably had a crew of about twenty. This is convenient for role playing: small enough to be manageable, but large enough for referees to slip in an occasional "new" crewman, to make room for a new player or non player character.

Nautilus in the Movies

Nautilus has always been shown as much wider and heavier than the vessel described by Verne. The Nautilus used in the classic Disney film would probably displace close to 4000 tons if it's the length described by Verne. This is probably because slender cigars aren't visually interesting.

The Nautilus shown in movies often has a retractable ram. A retractable ram is a questionable bit of engineering: it would occupy space inside the hull to protect a solid piece of steel. Perhaps the ability to recoil instead of snapping off might be useful.

The Nautilus from the Disney film has a saw toothed dorsal ridge stretching from the base of the ram to the to the roof of a (non retractable) pilot house. It's not in the book, but it is visually impressive and makes quite a bit of sense. Instead of piercing a hull, the ridge cuts the hull like a saw, and probably delivers less shock to the crew.

Role playing with Nautilus

The 19th Century is a very ripe time period for adventuring. The superpower of the day Great Britain can be played equally well as mother empire, honorable antagonists, or villains without being too a historical. The source material is superb; a personal favorite is Farwell's Queen Victoria's Little Wars .

Adventure hooks are easy to come by. Verne and HG Wells are highly recommended: Wells is by far the better writer (after translation, at least) but Verne knew more about science and could be relied upon to examine an idea more thoroughly. Wells' ideas were, by and large, more "gameable." A referee with HG Wells in a pocket could send players to the Island of Doctor Moreau, or into a hack and slash fight against rats which have eaten the Food of the Gods.

In "Into the Abyss," Wells postulated a self aware submarine species, pointing out that if they sank after death, there would be no reason they would be known to Human science of the time. He describes a simple vertical speed braking system similar to the one used on Trieste 's descent to the bottom of the Mariana Trench.


Weaponry is a major concern in any role playing game. The late 19th Century was the period that magazine rifles began to become practical, yet had not yet passed into general military use. This means it's perfectly reasonable for player characters to use Winchesters while the Faceless Minions of the Bad Guy use Martini Henrys with 1/8 the rate of fire. Mean, but reasonable.

Nemo's crew is equipped with pneumatic rifles firing charged capacitors which deliver a fatal shock to their targets. They're bulky, very short ranged and probably inaccurate.

Malf (crit) DMG 6d SS 15 Acc 3 Max 50 Wt 20 RoF 1/2 Shots 10 ST 12 (9 underwater) Rcl -2 Cost 1500 / 2 per round. TL5. Metal or conductive armor does not protect.

The Maximum range above assumes the gun is being used underwater. In the open air, the shell will fly much further, but it's a low velocity round following a parabolic course, and the sights are not designed for this. In the air, give it 1/2 Damage 50 yards and Max 300: attacks beyond 1/2 Damage range do full damage, but are at -5 to hit.

The electrical shock forces the target to make a HT roll at -3; if the target fails, its heart stops. This is how the weapon was able to kill large sharks with a single shot. CPR wasn't invented yet, but merciful referees should allow revival with a successful First Aid or Physician +3 roll.

Nautilus does carry conventional weapons in her armory, which Nemo gives to the heroes of Mysterious Island . She probably carried quite a bit of equipment M. Arronax never saw.

Nautilus's diving gear are described as surface pressure hard suits. They are not wet suits or scuba suits, and are too bulky to allow a wearer to swim. Instead, divers walk across the ocean floor, which is very convenient for referees who don't want to bother with depth markers. Wearers can barely move without water to buoy them up: suited divers are wheeled about Nautilus on racks. Arronax describes working at 30 atmospheres of depth; close to 1000 feet underwater.

Verne does not mention nitrogen narcosis, "rapture of the deep," which affects divers who go too deep or too quickly with severely impaired judgment, usually compared to drunkenness. Interestingly, he states his divers need to descend slowly, but neither nitrogen narcosis nor the bends should affect a diver in a constant pressure suit. In a blooper, he states the breathing apparatus uses a tongue switch to toggle valves while inhaling or exhaling, but then has divers taking naps without suffocating. For a book written ninety years before Jaques Cousteau, his work is more than impressive.

If we assume M. Arronax was ST 10 (he is not described as a powerful man) and that the weight of the diving suit and all his equipment took him to XHvy encumbrance, the total weight was at least 200 pounds. Less twenty pounds for the gun and sixty pounds for the air tank, and the suit itself weight about 120 pounds. Underwater, assume Move 1 for anyone with a Base Move of six or less, and Move 2 for anyone with a Base Move of 7+.

A Nautilus diving suit is DR 20 over the torso and Vitals, DR 30 over the Brain and Head (solid copper!). The three portholes ion the helmets are -5 to hit and are DR 10. The limbs have DR 15.

The suits do not have necks. The helmets are immobile and the wearer turns his head inside them. A -2 to Vision rolls is in order. In any but the shallowest and clearest water, apply a 1 to Vision rolls for each yard of distance: even the electrical lamps of Nemo have trouble cutting through water.

The air tank is DR 30. Breaching a high pressure air tank will cause a nasty explosion: 6d6 and triple damage for the guy wearing it.

Victoriana for Gamers

Space: 1889 supplements may still be found in gaming stores; these are excellent sources for inspiration and flavor.

GURPS Horror reprinted parts of William Barton's "Gamer's Guide to Victorian London" from Fantasy Gamer #2 . There is probably no better introduction to the possibilities of the era.


Arthur Conan Doyle believed a set of photographs showing two girls playing with fairies was genuine on the grounds that two girls "of the artisan class" could not possibly be clever enough to set up a paper cutout and photograph it with a live model. Doyle's reputation is exaggerated.

Class was a very real thing in this period, and lower class NPCs can count on being underestimated.

The US and Global Politics

At this time, the United States was a regional, not a global power. The extraordinary network of alliances that exists today had not been formed, and the notion that British, Canadian, and French forces would serve under and American supreme commander would have seemed fantastic. The US Navy was not a serious challenge to the supremacy of the Royal Navy, although the ambition was there. In 1903, Sir Garnet Wolseley predicted that the dominant superpowers of the 20th Century would be the United States and China, but he was a remarkably perceptive man speaking at the twilight of British supremacy.

The tight alliance between Great Britain and the United States did not exist until after World War II. The two powers were at the brink of war throughout much of the 19th Century. Although some co operation for mutual benefit did take place, it would be a mistake to portray them as allies.

Captain Nemo as a Player Character

This involves a great deal of difficulty. Don't try it at all unless you have a volunteer.

Nemo limits the game considerably. He's made an oath to never walk on dry land other humans have walked on, so he needs to remain at sea. He is also at war with Great Britain, which limits plot possibilities. It is possible he could tear himself away from his oaths, but it's hard to imagine his shaking hands with a representative of Her Majesty's government on dry land under the impetus of anything short of an invasion from Wells' Martians.

Players under an NPC Nemo

Nemo commands the Nautilus, and it's usually a mistake to put player characters under an NPC commander for any length of time.

Nautilus under a PC Captain

Since Nautilus has a small crew, it actually makes sense for the captain to command landing parties. Nemo may be dead, or retired, or the admiral of a small fleet of Nautilus class ships.

Captain Nemo in GURPS

ST 11
DX 12
IQ 16
HT 11

Basic Damage: 1d-1 Thrust; 1d+1 Swing

Basic Speed: 5.75; Move 5

Dodge 5 Parry 6 (Axe/Mace)

Advantages: Charisma +2, Appearance (Attractive), Acute Vision +2

Disadvantages: Intolerance (the British), Bloodlust, Oath (Never walk on populated land), Sense of Duty (conquered peoples), Sense of Duty (the crew of the Nautilus ), Enemy (Great Britain, 6 or less).

Notable Skills: Area Knowledge (Oceans)-15, Armory-13, Art (Hobby)-14, Ax/Mace-12, Boating-12, Botany (Specialty: Marine)-18, Chemistry-17, Diving (Hard suit)-14, Engineer: Chemical-20, History-16, Language: English-15, Language: French-15, Mathematics-14, Mechanic: Dynamos-16, Mining-14, Musical Instrument: Pipe organ-13, Navigation-14

Download the three page Acrobat (PDF) format map of the Nautilus (470 kb).

John Nowak is a software tester for a financial information firm in Stamford, Connecticut.

Before he was seduced by the Green Side of the Force, he wrote a variety of "Car Wars" material for Steve Jackson Games.

This article is reprinted with permission from Pyramid Magazine, copyright Steve Jackson Games. By the way, Pyramid is a nifty online magazine in its own right, and well worth checking out. For the historical RPG fan, it's a great value just for the weekly "Suppressed Transmission" articles by Ken Hite.

Posted Monday, 04-May-2009 19:52:46 EDT

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