The year is 1802. The Barcosa, a merchant ship equipped with cannons, sets sail from Amsterdam under Captain Claas de Ruyter to buy goods in Java. The ship’s hold is filled with bricks and weapons. Chief merchant Henk Kuipers manages gold and silver coins which are to be used to buy spices, textiles, and fine fabrics.
What follows is the journal of Gerrit van der Zee, a sailor aboard the ship. How we came into possession of it is something we cannot divulge, but it is enough to say that the journal covers about three weeks, and that van der Zee had no idea upon leaving Amsterdam that this would be The Last Voyage of the Barcosa.
The voyage was off to a strange start before we even left port, as we were joined by eight passengers. Three figures wearing long robes carried a jade chest into their quarters, decorated with strange symbols and secured with heavy locks. Two javanese nobles and their bodyguards came aboard for a trip home – they were carrying a lot of old books and a mother-of-pearl flute, but those have apparently been locked in their quarters as well. Finally, a new merchant had a large cage of sorts loaded into the hold, covered in thick black cloth. It does not sound as if anything is inside it.
The crew mutter, as they always do, but hopefully the passengers keep to their own business and let us do ours.
Marieke and Frey are arguing. Apparently they both had an inclination to quit the ship before its departure, but neither wanted to leave without the other, yet nor did either talk to the other about it. Now they’re yelling at one another about ‘communication’. Normally I would be of a mind to step in and mediate, but their shouts have a tinge of worry to them that makes me flinch away.
The whole lot are playing some sort of childish prank on me. This droning voice, like someone saying ‘soon’ but drawn out over minutes at a time, has been deafening me and driving me mad. I missed Captain de Ruyter’s orders today until he was screaming in my face, but everyone insists they hear nothing of the droning. At one point I moaned in pain and the droning stopped. Now if I am the one to repeat ‘soon’, as under my breath as I can to avoid odd looks, whoever is droning away stops.
Sleep is difficult.
We must have picked up some disease in Amsterdam, or it was brought aboard by one of the passengers. No one has ever seen the like – first the eyes become irritated, then the afflicted begin to ooze some disgustingly viscous fluid from them, as if constantly crying. The ooze is the blue of a robin’s egg, according to Kuipers, and over time the whites of the eyes begin to take on the same color. The javanese and their lot do not seem to be stricken even as they wander among us, but the robed ones and the merchant haven’t left their quarters.
We came across another ship today, drifting without a crew, still with all of its lifeboats. We pulled alongside and boarded her to try and gain some salvage, but someone had rigged oil and a lit lamp as trap deep in the hold – given that the lamp was still lit, the crew can’t have been gone for long. The fire spread quickly sending us racing back up to the deck and struggling to push off before the blaze could reach the Barcosa as well.
No sooner had we untangled ourselves, the burning wreck drifting away from us, then a heavy storm started to blow up. The last I saw of the wreck it was capsizing under the high waves that were buffeting us as well. During the storm lightning struck the ship, killing the cook and two others.
One of the robed figures has emerged from their quarters and has apparently told the captain that they will be able to take the cook’s place for the duration of the journey.
The damned droning has finally stopped, but now everywhere I go on the ship I hear a melody. It is eerie, besides the fact that I cannot seem to escape it, but it is also… seductive. Unlike the droning, I do not mind hearing it. I want to keep hearing it.
It tells me that this is the journey upon which I will get what is owed to me.
Pirates crossed our path today. We traded cannonshot with them in a stern chase, but it soon became clear that our fire was not enough to dissuade them, and they had the faster ship as well. Captain de Ruyter was about to order us to prepare to repel boarders, when the merchant took him aside.
I don’t know what they discussed, only that the Captain’s next orders saw Troubridge tied up and lowered in a lifeboat that was set to drift behind us, with some rolled up message tucked in a pocket. The pirates stopped to pick up the lifeboat, and never renewed their pursuit.
The navigator has vanished. No one saw them go overboard, there are no lifeboats missing (aside from Troubridge’s), and every inch of the ship has been scoured… except for the passengers’ quarters. The navigator’s own quarters are covered in writing, scrawled across every scrap of paper and carved into every plank with what I assume was the navigator’s cutlass (which, aside from its scabbard, is also missing). Roughly half are navigational notes that go in circles, the rest are the words “I have to get out” repeated over and over again.
The Captain says it was cabin fever. I do not think anyone believes it.
We were playing cards, with an extra ration of grog being the only stake, when Kuipers accosted me of cheating. I responded with a good-natured jab about he had cheated all of us out the bonus pay on our last journey but suddenly Yaél flipped over the table and came at me. Of the rank and file sailors she and I have sailed together the longest, yet she was screaming about how I was a cheat and a robber and I had cost her everything, trying her best to strangle me.
Kuiper and the others pulled her off and I fled – the Captain has ordered her to be locked in the hold.
All of our supplies have spoiled.
The quartermaster has been cursing up a streak about needing to fish in order to stay alive, blaming the dockworkers back in Amsterdam.
I have little doubt, however, that the robed figure who took over the galley duties is to blame.
It was just past third bell when the cannons suddenly fired off on their own. They had not been rolled forward, and the hatches were closed, so each one of them blew a hole in the hull, and shrapnel blew back into the ship and killed several crewmembers.
How were they loaded with no one noticing? How did whoever fire them get them to all fire at the same time?
The melody is no longer the only strange thing I heard today, and this time I am not the only one hearing it, even over the sounds of trying to repair the hull. Sounds of an argument, a loud one, kept coming from the hold. Most of the voices were unfamiliar, as well as the language they used, but every so often I heard Yaél’s swearing or the Captain’s brusque shouts.
When Yaél began cackling like a madwoman over the sound of the strange language, the rest of us found excuses to be up on the deck.
There’s no going back. There is no way to stop this. The navigator is gone, the fishing won’t be enough to get back to Amsterdam, our eyes are oozing and my ears are full of melodies and we are losing sailors and sense as if the two are racing one another towards oblivion. Wherever this ship is headed, we have no other option but to try and get there alive.
Yaél went overboard today, screaming. I do not know how she got out of the hold, no one has admitted to helping her. All I know is that she was holding the black cloth that had been covering the merchant’s cage down in the hold.
The last thing she screamed before she plunged into the water and vanished was “It took my face!”
Frey walked by me today, and I would swear upon anything that I saw something slithering underneath his skin, like a worm moving just under the dirt. My stomach roiled at the sight, but I said nothing. What could I say?
When did Marieke and Frey stop arguing?
The ship is… changing. The color of the wood is changing, the light given off by the lamps seems to just make the shadows deeper instead of casting them back, the ropes have an oily texture to them. Nothing even smells right, and all the conversations are quiet ones.
The melody tries to soothe me, but I am terrified.
The stars no longer keep their places in the sky. Our nights are full of new and strange constellations, and every compass spins wildly – even if our navigator was still here, I think they’d be as lost as the rest of us.
Somehow, this does not add to my worries. It feels as if this means we are getting closer to wherever this journey is taking us. Maybe we are getting closer to the end.
We are beyond the reach of our god, now. Perhaps he is even dead, or never existed. Now my prayers go to whoever may be listening and willing to answer them.
For whatever it is worth, I truly believe someone is listening.
I looked into the true face of the Captain today. The dignity, the command, the drive, it was all gone. The grimace that stared back was that of a monster who feeds on the offal of other monsters, and thus strives to keep them fed so he can profit in turn.
We are the most recent meal.
The crew have all jumped into the sea. They wanted me to come with them, to join them, to be one with them. I cut my way free, and Marieke and Frey were the last to go over the side, saying they would miss me until we met again.
They were holding hands.
All that remain are the Captain and the passengers and myself, and I am truly alone.
One of the javanese nobles burst from his quarters and lunged at me in a frenzy, screaming about how we had dragged them all into the fires of hell. I have taken to wandering the ship with my cutlass in hand, sleep impossible as we drift along without a crew to sail the ship.
I cut him down and left him on the deck. I half expected the bodyguards and the other noble to stab me in the back, but they did nothing. Never even said a word.
The Captain is merely the one who brought us here, but something else is truly responsible for what has been happening. The rules of the earth are gone – another world’s forces are pulling at the ship now, and the Barcosa could no more resist them than the tide or gravity.
The Captain and the remaining passengers have changed, overnight. Their eyes are glassy, their skin a pale blue, there are slits on the sides of their necks that look like the gills of a fish.
The robed figures have lowered their hoods, bustling about on the deck. The noble and the Captain have been having pleasant-sounding conversations in a strange language. The merchant approached me and offered me condolences for the loss of Yaél, “a terrible accident.”
I should be afraid of their appearance, but they’re acting more like people than they have in days.
Something has woken up. It comes to me in the melodies, through the stars, as an undertone to the language the others are using amongst themselves.
It has slept for centuries.
It asks me only to be a gracious and respectful guest.
A body washed up to the ship. With none of the others seeming to notice it, I hauled it from the sea.
It was clutching a watertight satchel, within which was a journal.
I had to blink my eyes several times, cloudy as they suddenly were, to take a proper look.
The corpse had my face.
I am going home.
Created by Philipp Teich, ‘The last voyage of the Barcosa’ is an eerie journaling RPG that puts you into the perspective of a crewmember of the doomed vessel during the three weeks before it vanishes forever – how exactly we got van der Zee’s diary is definitely something that you shouldn’t think about very much.
You need the game (which is either two pages or a little pamphlet, depending on how you printed it), a diary-keeping method of your choice, and a single six-sided die. You can choose or roll for a profession aboard the ship (sailor, cook, quartermaster, etc.) and a first and last name. That done, for every day you roll your six-sided die for what category of occurrence happens: Events, Confrontations, or Visions.
Each category comes with a list of options, sixteen of them in fact. Some of the Events above include a mysterious disease breaking out on the ship or the navigator disappearing. Crewmembers arguing or the drifting ship are examples of Confrontations. If you experience Visions, like Gerrik you might be overwhelmed by a noise only you can hear or see something awake after centuries of sleep. In addition to the basics of the occurrence, each ends with a question that prompts you to respond to it.
Whichever category you get, you roll 1d6 and follow the prompt to create a diary entry, crossing it out afterwards – if you happen to get a crossed out prompt again in the future, you proceed to the next highest.
Hold on, 1d6 on 16 item lists? Well, aside from the ‘next highest’ rule, as things become more dire that d6 roll is going to get added to. Each of the entries has 0-2 symbols next to it, and if you get an entry with symbols you tick that many boxes off of the Doom Clock. After you’ve ticked seven boxes (any extra symbols get tossed out) something else happens that same day (such as the storm), and all further Event/Confrontation/Vision rolls add +4. Then, there’s another row of boxes for the Doom Clock, only six this time, and you continue to play. Following rows of the Doom Clock get smaller and smaller and add more and more to your rolls. The rows past the first also prompt you to roll for Insight when filled, such as “Why can’t the disaster be stopped?”
Eventually, the final row of the Doom Clock is filled and the ship vanishes forever, with your last entry hinting at its final fate.
It’s a decidedly creepy game with a distinct lean towards the eldritch and squamous, gamified enough to keep things interesting, and (thanks to said mechanics and to the variety) possessed of a good amount of replayability – it will nearly be impossible to tell exactly the same story twice even if you wanted to.
You can get The Last Voyage of the Barcosa on itch.io for $2.50 – there is also a separate version in German for the same price – which will get you both a digital version and an A4 version you can print. There are no formal community copies, but if you need a free one (either for a review or because you can’t afford it) you can reach out to Teich at email@example.com to receive one.
What story will you leave behind to be found on the waves?