Wednesday, 10 November 2021


I used to think the DIY old-school scene needed to take more inspiration from James Joyce* than Ulysses 31. I have since revised that opinion.

Characters L-R: Yumi; the eponymous hero, Ulysses; Telemachus and finally the robot Nono

Ulysses 31 was a Japanese-French anime released in the early 80s, charting the voyage of the titular hero through space after being cursed by the Gods of Olympus. You don't need to have studied classics at a posh English school to recognise that this children's cartoon was a sci-fi retelling of Homer's Odyssey. The (literally) epic storytelling, stylish animation and (figuratively) epic soundtrack (U-le, U-le, UlySSEEEEES!/Flying through the ga-la-k-SEEEE!)would insure that the cartoon would have a lasting impact on young Gen Xers and older millennials around the world.

My question is this: would it make for a good campaign?


This year is the ruby anniversary of the show.

Rather than paraphrase the rather good wikipedia page I'm going to copy and paste directly:

The plot line of the series (made by the French Jean Chalopin) describes the struggles of Ulysses and his crew against the divine entities that rule the universe, the ancient gods from Greek mythology. The Gods of Olympus are angered when Ulysses, commander of the giant spaceship Odyssey, kills the giant Cyclops to save a group of enslaved children, including his son. Zeus sentences Ulysses to travel the universe with his crew frozen until he finds the Kingdom of Hades, at which point his crew will be revived and he will be able to return to Earth. Along the way they encounter numerous other famous figures from Greek mythology who have been given a futuristic twist.

...and if that doesn't quite grab you, how about this intro?


Campaign Tone: Space Opera

As is perhaps predictable for a children's series inspired by Greek mythology, Ulysses 31 is at the opposite end of the spectrum to hard sci-fi. While tech certainly impacts the story and drives the plot, it plays a subordinate role to the fantastical: this is a science fantasy or space opera campaign. 
It's worth noting that the series was produced in the immediate aftermath of Empire Strikes Back and the cultural influence of Star Wars was at its peak.

The Odyssey, ship from Ulysses by Yann Souettre.

Throughout the show the Gods of Olympus loom large as antagonists, and each episode witnesses the core cast visit a new world wherein one of the gods' servants attempts to ensnare or otherwise double cross them. So, while there are robots and spaceships and laser beams there are also gods, sorcerers and magical curses. 
While many of the episodes draw directly from The Odyssey, others take their inspiration from other classical myths or more generic fantasy/sci-fi, and always with a technological "overlay". This kitchen sink approach is very reminiscent of early D&D, with an emphasis on the familiar-yet-fantastic over internally consistent worldbuilding.

Sidebar: the imaginary spectrum I constructed with hard sci-fi at one end and space opera at the other could in fact be broadened to encompass a certain kind of fantasy worldbuilding where it's necessary to formalise magic and fantasy "races" have clearly defined taxons. Nothing wrong with that at all, just that the level of player buy-in can be extreme. Furthermore a thick-skin is required, as the people most likely to interrogate your world in detail are going to be strangers on the internet zooming in on all the contradictions in your conlang and mismatched timelines. Likewise truly hard sci-fi: are you prepared for your campaign to be derailed by a debate about faster-than-light travel?

Player Death, Troupe & Crew Play

Ulysses 31 is a children's show, and as such death is never a likely outcome, even before we consider the extreme levels of plot armour the show's title provides the central protagonist. This can work in a "trad" or "OC" play (the terms are used as defined buy The Retired Adventurer's post, - an interesting interpretation of the prevalent RPG "cultures of play") but I prefer higher stakes in the game.

The objective of a Ulysses 31 inspired campaign is to get back to earth. Framing an OSR i.e. highly lethal campaign in this way has a major impact a TPK means the campaign is over. Of course, dead PCs an be replaced with NPCs picked up along the way (who are likely to share the PC goal of wanting to return to earth having pissed off the gods). There are of course, other alternatives.

I think a lot about troupe play and have a post in the works, so will gloss over it for the time being. By troupe play I am referring to the practice of players running more than one character simultaneously: instead they run a "troupe" consisting of a central PC and numerous retainers, apprentices and other attendants. 

However, in the original series the action focuses on the core group of Ulysses, Telemachus, Yumi and Nono: to emulate this while retaining high lethality it is necessary to rotate "cast" members as a result of death or injury. This is easily accomplished if the "adventuring party" are the "away team" sent by a larger crew to investigate whatever they have encountered. To put it brutally, the crew represent a non-renewable resource that the players have to manage as they navigate through Olympian space and attempt to get back to earth.

The crew of The Odyssey, trapped in suspended animation

Of course, in the original series the crew were sent a death-like state, with only Ulysses exempt: Yumi and Telemachus are spared the sleep-curse by virtue of already being in a medically induced coma in the sick bay; Nono, being a robot, is apparently beyond the reach of the Olympians' power. If I recall correctly, only Numinor (Yumi's brother) is raised from this magical slumber before the end of the series, though this could be worked into the game in some way as a feature... maybe the Gods of Olympus have decided that at least four of the crew must be "awake" at any one time, and as party members are killed off, more are awakened.

Final note: a significant background character throughout the series is Shirka, the ship's computer.


Linearity and Depth

As there's an aspect of linearity to this sort of campaign (there is a fixed end point) maybe this works better as a depth-crawl rather than a sandbox. The journey into the depths of uncharted mytho-space in search of the kingdom of the dead is one that is perhaps better abstracted. Player agency is addressed through the decisions players make upon the worlds they encounter along the way- i.e. how they resolve the encounters.

Of course, players may be presented with a clue about an upcoming encounter (a distress signal- real or siren call?), and the choice they make is whether to engage with the encounter or work around it. Of course, the desire to engage with the material might be driven by in-world factors (character moral compass in response to distress call; the need to source fuel or other supplies).

One game session might represent the ship's computer detecting signs of life, habitable worlds, a fuel source etc. after weeks of drifting through deep space. This is generated randomly by rolling a die and adding the current "depth" to the result, then consulting one or more tables. Depth increases as the party delve deeper into the mysterious realm of the Olympians, though of course it could reduce were the characters to turn around.

Here follows the episodes of the original TV show, many (but by no means all) inspired by the Odyssey. Again, i started to paraphrase episode descriptions but ran out of steam and most of these are pasted from wikipedia.
  1. Cyclops A blind cult sacrifice children to a robotic panopticon in order to restore their vision.
  2. The Black Sphere Ulysses meets an old scholar named Heratos and his assistant, a young Zotrian woman named Atina. Heratos gives Ulysses a map that he says is to the Kingdom of Hades, but is actually to the Graveyard of Wrecks and Hulks which no-one has ever left alive, because the gods threatened Atina's life if he did not deceive Ulysses. While there, Telemachus finds the black sphere which contains a map of Olympus.
  3. Flowers of Fear The Odyssey comes across a lifeless city world. On hearing that its people had the technology to bring the dead back to life, Yumi takes Numinor to the planet to revive him. However, she learns why there is no life in the city.
  4. Chronos, Father of Time Ulysses is saved from a Trident attack by Chronos, the god of time (depicted with two faces like the roman God Janus), who wants to use him as leverage to be allowed to reenter the home of the gods.
  5. The Lost Planet The ship passes a moon that brings Numinor back to life, since it's from his home planet of Zotra. When they investigate, the children disappear and Numinor suspects they've been kidnapped by a legendary witch.
  6. Guardian of the Cosmic Winds Aeolus, King of the winds, kidnaps Ulysses to provide entertainment for his daughter's birthday party. Unable to watch her father's cruel sport, she frees the captives and helps them escape.
  7. Sisyphus Ulysses encounters Sisyphus, a king condemned to fill a crater with boulders for all eternity for having dared to want the secret of immortality. Zeus has promised Sisyphus he can leave if he makes Ulysses take his place.
  8. Mutinous Crew A space storm revives the companions as crazed automatons who take over the ship and try to crash it into space glaciers with the help of a trident battleship. [Note: what is described as a "space storm" was produced by planet-sized statues of crocodiles which are never encountered again]
  9. Secret of the Sphinx Passing through the domain of the great Sphinx, Ulysses must answer his riddle to leave safely. His treacherous daughter kidnaps the children and plots to make Ulysses her slave.
  10. Temple of the Laestrygonians The Odyssey arrives on a tropical planet, where the ruling tyrant uses a magic prism to shrink them.
  11. Charybdis et Scylla Trying to help a stranded astronaut, Ulysses tries to find a hidden base on one of the deadly twin planets Scylla or Charybdis.
  12. The Seat of Forgetfulness Ulysses follows a Trident carrier in hopes of learning more about the way out of Olympus, and finds himself trapped in bizarre worlds. To save the children, he will have to give up his memories.
  13. Sirens Pirates kidnap the children to force Ulysses and No-No to brave the danger of the Sirens, said to guard a map of the Olympus universe.
  14. Doppelgangers Coming across a piece of Zotra that could bring Numinor back to life, Ulysses and Yumi pursue it to a swamp planet where they are ambushed by monsters who can copy their forms.
  15. Before the Flood Ulysses and the crew land on a planet similar to prehistoric earth. They encounter a winged female named Sauria, whose people are under attack from mutant vultures called Keconopters.
  16. The Magic Spells of Circe The crew of the Odyssey are enslaved by the magic of the enchantress Circe and turned into pig-people to build a tower that will house all the knowledge of the universe.
  17. The Hidden The shapechanger Nereus calls Ulysses for help when Shark Men, servants of the gods, take over his planet.
  18. Atlas Mercurius, the bubble-dwelling "grandson of the gods," enlists Ulysses' help in taking a jewel from the brow of the giant Atlas under the promise that it will give him the power to send Ulysses home.
  19. Lost in the Labyrinth Princess Ariadne comes upon the Odyssey, and asks for Ulysses' help in saving her lover Theseus, who has been exiled to her father's labyrinth to be killed by the fearsome Minotaur.
  20. The Magician in Black Ulysses is saved from an attack by the most powerful magician in the universe who breaks the gods' curse on his crew; however, as payment for his services, demands to hunt Ulysses's best men. 
  21. The Lotus Eaters Needing raw materials to repair the Odyssey, Ulysses travels to a world where the inhabitants are addicted to eating seeds which induce amnesia.
  22. The City of Cortex The Odyssey is dragged to a planet populated by machines, and governed by the tyrannical computer Cortex. One of its inhabitants, a "female" robot named Nanette, falls in love with No-No. (This is a reference to a play called No, No, Nanette).
  23. Strange Meeting Ulysses and the children are sent back in time and meet the original Ulysses, Telemachus and Penelope of Homer's epic.
  24. Rebellion on Lemnos Princess Hypsipyle of the planet Lemnos is found by Ulysses; she tells them that the women of her planet are being forced by the Shark Men to build ships for the gods.
  25. Calypso The Odyssey responds to a distress call from Queen Calypso, who tells him that if he saves her planet she will tell him the way back to earth. Calypso has been ordered by Zeus to betray Ulysses, but she falls in love with him and cannot carry out the gods' orders.

Having written (well, copy pasted that list out) it's evident that perhaps a randomised "depth crawl" would be inappropriate- each episodes denotes a unique encounter as Ulysses and his crew head towards Hades and the final test, rather than more generic encounters that can be recombined in more interesting ways (I'm thinking specifically of the Ynn model where location+detail overlaid with encounters/events/and treasure creates an almost infinite world).

So maybe this should be a sandbox, with the pieces of the star map leading home (or to Hades) scattered around this remote sector in the deepest darkest space- it therefore becomes a kind of investigative sandbox and a major driver of exploration.


Doesn't this look to be the the coolest show?


My own brief contribution to the ongoing "system matters" debate: the amount, tone and flavour of player-facing material is one part helping people understand the type of experience they are likely to have. Furthermore, Chargen is an important part of introducing players to the kind of world they are going to explore: it's why it's near the start of the book! Beyond that, if you want to Rolemaster to play a game set in the universe of 80s US soap opera Dallas who gives a fuck.

Now that my position is clear, here's some games I thought about using for this kind of campaign.

Solar Blades & Cosmic Spells

Diogo Nogueira has produced a plethora of genre-specific books jam-packed with sandbox generating material riding atop a super-light rules chassis. I'm planning on mining his urban fantasy game Dark Streets and Darker Secrets for my upcoming play-by-post weird fiction/Horror in Hollywood Esoteric Enterprises campaign.

Solar Blades and Cosmic Spells is his take on space opera- 456 pages of it, in fact. And this isn't tedious fluff and lore, this is pages and pages of "gameable" content. Of particular interest (if the Gm wanted to run a random episodic campaign over a fixed number of sessions) is the titles generator on page 326. I love the idea of rolling up a title ahead of the session, then prepping material with that particular title in mind.

Buy it here (PoD option available):


There is a great deal of crossover between this volume and the aforementioned. It's tempting to say that SB&CS is the game of the 70s & 80s, Star Wars-derived Space Opera, Hypertellurians is the game of the pulp space opera that inspired Star Wars... but i think that would be over-egging it. I could also claim that while both games are old-school inspired, the advance-driven-by-wonder has a certain "storygame" vibe- which I like, by the way.

The "Ultranaut" archetype is a great fit for Ulysses, too.


I always felt like Traveller was an industrial sci-fi game, the sort of game that you'd be playing you were playing the Alien movie without the Alien... but I think this is more to do with era in which it was produced than anything else, and there's a definite space opera bent to some editions of the game. I've just acquired the classic edition via bundle of holding (link below) but haven't had a proper look yet. Probably a good chance for me to disclose something.

This game, and the two above, are available to me purely as a consequence of pariah's inclusion with Bundle of Holding's "Old School Cool" offer earlier in the year. Hypertellurians and Solar Blades and Cosmic Spells were both included in the bundle, and as a contributor I was provided the opportunity to grab a free download of the bundle. Bundle of Holding have also been very generous in sending me links to all their offers. There's no strings attached but I feel it is something you should be aware of before I send you off to check out these games.

That said, check out this cool offer:

Stars without Number

Any game set in space should look at SWN: as with all Kevin Crawford's works, it's just so comprehensive and detailed and gameable... the PDF is free to download: if you like it, I heartily recommend getting the hardback version too:

In terms of a Ulysses 31 campaign I'd definitely be using this to fill in any gaps or if I wanted to shift the tone. 

Any Planet is Earth

While SB&CS and Hypertellurians  will be good at providing character concepts, and both books supported by Stars Without Number have absolutely tonnes of sandbox material, I'd be sorely tempted to use some variant of Jim Parkin's Any Planet is Earth as the actual engine. Why? Because it's so unobtrusive- simply put, there's no gumph to get in the way of the fiction. Granted, plenty of players will be desirous of greater crunch, and that may well be the decisive factor in the selection of a game... but Any Planet is Earth would be my first choice for mechanical reference, in that I'd have no need to refer to it during the game!

While the rules themselves are lighter-than-air, the game packs some nifty tools for the GM side into a comparatively slim volume and for this I recommend it even to GMs with a predilection for something crunchier. Check it:

God Speed, Ulysses...

That's it, just some thoughts buzzing round the old brainbox, vomitted onto the internet for all eternity. Doubt I'll get a chance to run this any time soon, but I'd ;love to hear back from anyone giving it serious thought.

In the meantime, you can watch all the original episodes on YouTube:

*Footnote to first line: annoyingly I'm now thinking about a James Joyce RPG. Sometimes my brain really can fuck itself.


  1. Good post! Gets the grey stuff moving.

  2. I almost forgot about it.

    Here's a much better quality YT playlist, by the way:

    1. You're right, they're of much better quality on that playlist. Thanks!

  3. I found this series terrifying as a kid - great theme tune but man it was dark in places...

    1. Yes indeed- the first episode featured attempted child sacrifice! Also the Sisyphus episode was proper nightmare fuel—somehow more evocative than the original myth.