Thursday, August 3, 2017

What Do I Know About Reviews? 7th Sea 2nd Edition

The Kickstarter surrounding this game reached legendary status last year. Back when it was going on, however, I was finishing up my return to school, which equals no Kickstarter for me. I was interested, because I had heard a lot of positive things about the original edition of the game from some of the local gamers that had played it.

After seeing lots of commentary on the game flying around the internet, I finally picked up the PDF. Like Blades in the Dark, this game has had some high-profile discussions floating around it, including more commentary from the always engaging Rob Donohue on his blog.

While I try to form my own opinions in as much of a vacuum as I can, the higher profile a product, the harder it is to avoid any commentary. There has certainly been some heated debate online over this particular game.

As always, I’m reviewing this game from the standpoint of recommendation, not “merit as art,” so bear that in mind.

With all of that in place, let’s set sail.


What’s the Cut of Her Jib?

I only have the PDF copy for review now, although the hard cover has been available for some time now. The PDF comes in at 307 pages, including an Index, a map, and a character sheet.

The artwork is top notch. The opening picture in the book is designed like a movie poster, complete with credits. Each chapter starts with a two-page spread. The maps included are impressive. The pages are a light parchment, with headers written in faux handwriting. The formatting is attractive and easy to read. In addition to the two-page chapter spreads, there are several half page pieces of art. It’s really a nice book to look at.

A Day’s Work

The book starts out with a six-page short story. That’s six large pages of dual column print. The story itself is well told and amusing, and is a story about swordplay, romance, and swashbuckling.

If you have read some of my past reviews, you know my preference on this matter. I don’t mind a page or two of fiction that directly ties into topics that are about to be introduced, and I really like “in universe” documents or essays used to convey information about the setting. Full blown short stories, however, aren’t one of my favorite additions to a game book.

It’s not that it’s not a good story. It’s not even that I’m not likely to pick up an anthology set in the world if such a thing were to come out. It’s just that my brain is here to learn a game, and reading a story that doesn’t directly illustrate something coming up in the text gets me out of the “learning a game” groove.

To reiterate, however, the story is amusing, and definitely in the spirit of the setting.

Chapter One:  Welcome to 7th Sea

This section is a general introduction to the style of game this will be. There is a quick explanation that the setting is not unlike a more progressive 17th century Europe, but in addition to more progressive attitudes, there is also magic as well. The game is about romance, intrigue, and swashbuckling in various flavors.

There is also a somewhat "old school feeling" admonition to stay away from the GM section if you are a player, which feels kind of dated to me. The reason given is that knowing GM facing information may “ruin the magic trick,” but I’m so acclimated to players knowing how every aspect of the game works, this just feels odd.



Chapter Two: Theah

This is a very lengthy chapter that goes into the setting of the game. It is written in third person “voice of God” style, discussing the setting as if it were a real place. There are no summaries about potential adventures in various countries, or digressions about what types of adventures are common in different regions. There is no reference to this being a setting for a game at all.

A lot of detail goes into what amounts to historical minutia gleaned from the cultures from which the analogies are drawn, such as what countries have what type of hat, buttons, or pockets. There is also a section at the end of each nation’s description that goes into common names from that country. To be honest, I almost wish a bit more shorthand was utilized.

In a few places, the broad descriptions of cultures and practices feel a bit too on the nose and stereotypical. The general description of the continent mentions that there is more diversity of appearance in Theah than in Europe, and that nationality is a stronger factor than appearance, and I’m glad that the book notes that. However, the descriptions of the various nations tend to describe the ethnic traits that you would expect for each region, and the artwork generally depicts the traits you might expect for the nation used as a basis.

In general, the setting is more accepting of female adventurers and leaders, and the analogy of England has a strong female queen, as an example. However, the plight of women in Vodacce is a bit disturbing, even if it leaves room for a background and a cultural norm to strive against.

While you can certainly see places in Thea that will be good for swashbuckling adventures, there is also a lot of time spent on discussing haunted ruins, warfare, and trade. To be honest, without presenting the game rules and expected story beats before the setting information, the setting feels like it could just as easily be about more typical human-centric D&D dungeon delving or large scale mass battles. To a certain extent, the setting, as presented, reminds me of the setting information in the Iron Kingdoms RPG core rulebook.

Not that Thea is an over the top steampunk fantasy world, but that it has many distinctive nations, broad plots that could be applied to many different types of games, and more information than may be needed to convey the tone of this specific game. In other words, this feels like a world built for multiple game types, and this information isn’t completely tailored for just the RPG experience.

I don’t want my discussion of the setting chapter to come across as too broadly negative. The longer I read about the setting, the more interesting it is. It just doesn’t inform me about how the game plays or how campaigns should take shape. At one point while reading about the use of gilders versus other coinage, I was worried that the game was going to be keeping track of exact exchange rates, for example.

Not all the nations are as direct an analogy to real world cultures as others.The existence of magic changes the landscape, but so do recent changes in this game’s version of the church, fallout from the War of the Cross, and how various monsters and supernatural creature affect different nations and customs.

Overall, it’s a very compelling setting, but I was getting very impatient waiting to see what the mechanics of the game look like. For a chapter that spends most of the time explaining what the setting is like, as if it is a real place being explained, there is an oddly jarring analogy that references college football in one section.

Chapter Three:  Making a Hero

All the nations mentioned in the previous section get another summary in this chapter. This confirms to me that the setting information could have gone in the back, in the GM section, as these primers are more than enough to give the players an idea about the nations their characters will be from.

Starting in this chapter, the tone is much more conversational. It talks to people playing the game, and acknowledges that this is a game book. It references pop culture influences. It’s very entertaining in tone.

The characters are built by choosing their nationality and two backgrounds. Characters get a certain number of points in an attribute, and a certain number in skills. Nations and backgrounds can add to some of these. Quirks come from backgrounds, and if a character acts in accordance to a quirk, once per session they can pick up an extra hero point. They also pick a Hubris, which is a negative trait that they can invoke to do something against their better interests to gain a hero point. A GM can also invoke this, but if they do, the player can refuse the hero point offered to them by the GM.

While the set-up again is like Iron Kingdoms, if you are familiar with that system, this section does not have a useful feature from the Iron Kingdoms RPG. The Iron Kingdoms RPG has adventuring company templates that serve as an explanation of why the party is together and the types of adventures they will have. This chapter doesn’t offer that kind of guidance.

Characters can also pick up traits, which may be easier to pick up if they are from some cultures than others. These may grant extra dice on some roles, or give them narrative permission to do things when a hero point is spent, rather than rolling any kind of Risk to resolve the situation. These can also be used to gain access to sorcery--nationality is very important when it comes to sorcery, as sorcery is restricted to specific cultures, and no one outside of that culture is going to have access to that sorcery option (although there is a trait that allows for a character that was born in one culture and raised in another, granting options from both nations).

Players start a story for their character. They come up with what that story will be, what the first step is, what the end of the story is, and what the reward is. Rewards are the way characters can advance--a three step story can be used to buy a three-point trait, for example. Stories might include things like revenge against a guy with an unlikely number of fingers that killed one of your parents, and your first step may be learning that count’s name.

Chapter Four: Action and Drama

This chapter explains how to use the attributes and skills that you assigned in character creation. Whenever a character is attempting to do something that may be considered risky, it’s considered, well, a Risk.

When resolving a Risk, a character chooses an approach to the task, and the the GM will mention what attribute and skill would apply based on the approach the character describes. The character rolls their dice, and for each set of dice that totals 10, the character gets a Raise, which is a “point” that they can spend to do a thing in that scene.

Raises can be spent to cause damage, pick a pocket, jump across a chasm, or whatever makes sense in the scene. If they do something that is not in line with their initial approach (if they recklessly charge into battle, then get cautious before everything is resolved), that action costs an extra raise. If the action also involves a skill that the character doesn’t have, it costs an additional raise, so doing something that doesn’t match your approach and for which you aren’t trained could cost three raises.

If there are multiple characters in conflict, this becomes an Action scene, and everyone involved announces their general intentions and approach, rolls their dice, and the people with the highest number of raises gets to go first and spend however many raises they want, then the next highest goes, etc. Not all raises need to be spent at one time, but once a character spends their raises, if they are no longer the character with the highest number of raises, the next person down goes.

Once all raises are spent by everyone in the scene, if there is a need for more action, everyone rolls again and continues the sequence above. In addition, GMs introduce opportunities that the players can seize with a Raise to get something extra in a scene, and consequences, which are things that will happen if they don’t spend raises to mitigate the consequence. For example, if a room is on fire (they like that example a lot in this book), if you haven’t crossed the room or found some way to protect yourself from fire when the round is done, you will take a number of wounds based on the established consequence. It’s possible to partially mitigate a consequence, so if a fire is going to do 5 wounds at the end of the round, and a player only has three raises to wrap themselves in a blanket to protect their skin, they only suffer two wounds from the fire.

Characters have a wound track where they can take multiple wounds, and then take a dramatic wound, and the wounds are arranged on a spiral. If you get four dramatic wounds, you are incapacitated. If you take your first and third, you get bonus dice and your 10s explode, respectively, and when you take your second, villains get bonus dice on actions against you.

Characters can also spend a Raise to apply Pressure, meaning that the villain must spend extra raises to affect anyone else in a scene--but villains can do the same thing to heroes as well. Raises can be spent to fend off wounds, but if you get shot with a firearm, you always take a dramatic wound in addition to the regular wound, and you can’t ignore the dramatic wound from a gun with a raise (well, not without sorcery, but that’s later).

Dramatic scenes allow each player to pick an approach and roll dice, but they only do this once. If you attempt to get information and maybe some profit from sneaking into a mansion during a party, for example, once everyone has spent their raises, that scene is over, and no one gets anything else useful from it. Characters that run out of raises before the scene ends, however, can still spend hero points to do things that traits might allow them to accomplish automatically.

I’m very intrigued by this system. I have already heard the potential downfall of this system, in that players and the GM can get locked in a cycle of negating wounds until someone runs out of raises. There is a sidebar that says “don’t do that,” but sidebars saying “don’t do this thing that is clearly the best option under these rules” don’t seem to be the best way to address problems with the rules.

Game Master Rules

This section goes into rules that are GM facing. GMs can award a hero point to “buy” dice for their danger pool whenever players have dice left over that aren’t used to make raises. They can spend these dice in several ways, such as to just add dice to their rolls, to do something like getting the focus of all the heroes at once (forcing them to spend more raises to do anything but deal with the villain), or to increase the cost of raises to 15 for one round. They also need to spend a point from the danger pool to murder a hero.

Villains are assigned a certain number of points, which are then split between strength and influence, with strength being their pool in action based endeavors, and influence their pool for political and social maneuvering. Villains can also invest their influence to buy other villains to help them, or to sink into a project. If that project comes to fruition, the villain then increases their total influence from that point on. Some PC actions can undermine influence and lower that rank for a villain.

  • Honestly, as a stat to use for social and political Risks, I like Influence. As something to track as being invested in things, this reads as overly fiddly, especially in a game as narrative as this.
  • Yes, characters cannot die unless murdered by a villain, and a hero can spend a raise to negate a murder.

Brute Squads are NPCs that just deal damage at the end of the round if not dealt with. They have a strength equal to the number of people in the squad, and do damage equal to the number of people in the squad if neither the Brute Squad nor their damage is negated by the end of the round.

Monsters can be Brute Squads or Villains, and they get special monstrous traits, like dealing more damage at night, or gaining the ability to regenerate (by spending points from the danger pool and removing wounds).

Players that do unheroic things, like torturing prisoners or killing a helpless opponent, gain corruption. Corruption spirals upwards. The first villainous act nets a character 1 corruption. The second nets them two more. The third three more. So, someone that has done three villainous acts has 6 corruption. Each time a character gains a point of corruption, the GM rolls a 10-sided die, and if the roll is equal or lower than the corruption, they become an NPC villain. A character can start a redemption story to remove corruption, which needs to end with a heroic act.

I like the corruption track, and I love the redemption story remove corruption, but I’m not a fan of the random roll to take a character away from a player. The GM needs to warn the PC that their act is not heroic before assigning corruption, but I think I favor games that have corruption that has consequences, but doesn’t remove agency (such as Force and Destiny).

Chapter Five:  Sorcery

This chapter deals with the various flavors of sorcery in the setting, which ranges from making necromancy flavored alchemical balms and concoctions, to ripping holes in reality, to having a personal devilish thing that can be bargained with for favors and information, at the risk of setting it free.

All of them are very distinct from most magic found in other games. The effects tend to be split up into narrative permission to be somewhere the character shouldn’t be, to get narrative permission to have information the character shouldn’t have, or to gain some bonus in certain situations.

Depending on the form of sorcery, a character may be required to injure themselves as a sacrifice, uphold a specific code of honor or lose access to the magic, or even automatically take corruption whenever certain magic is used. The greater the stricture involved, the broader the effect tends to be. For example, asking your spirit to cause an avalanche will cost you corruption, and another level of corruption if innocents get hurt, but you have the ability to potentially wipe out a whole town by asking for one thing.


Chapter Six:  Dueling

This section deals with various dueling styles. If a character takes a trait that gives them access to one of these styles, they can do special things in action scenes if they meet the conditions of the style. For example, some styles require a weapon in each hand, while others require a free hand.

Characters can do things like doing extra damage on a hit for only one raise, negating extra damage with a parry maneuver, or cancelling out all the raises a character has when isolating them by locking them up with their weapon in a defensive stance.

The styles are presented with almost as much backstory as the sorcery above. It’s also harder to pick up a dueling style than to learn magic or join a secret society. Learning a dueling style is almost always the result of completing a story which is structured to find an instructor and impress them.

Some styles can only be taught if a specific teacher approves the student, and others are taught by wandering performers in a circus. The variety of styles, backstories of the school, and teachers makes dueling just about equal to sorcery in flavor.

Chapter Seven: Sailing

This section goes over the rules for sailing. Ships can have specific stories, which grant bonuses to some actions in certain circumstances. Ships also have a death spiral (damage track) much like characters, with critical hits replacing dramatic wounds. When a ship is incapacitated, it can be plundered, but crews can usually escape the ship unharmed.

If a significant part of the ship can be salvaged when a new ship is built, and that part is integrated into the new ship, the story still applies.

When specific things happen to a ship’s crew (such as being boarded by pirates or sailing to a faraway country for the first time), the crew gets the benefit of an “adventure,” which gives some other bonuses under specific circumstances.

NPC ship crews have a strength rating, and roll the strength in dice to make raises in scenes like PCs or villains, but they must spend all their raises in one action (so they all attack at once, or they all work on mitigating damage to the ship).

I like some of the nautical superstitions and practices thrown into this chapter, but like the setting information, it feels like it could have been summarized a bit more succinctly.  

Chapter Eight:  Secret Societies

Several secret societies are spelled out in this chapter, from underground secret reformers, wandering vigilantes, monster hunters, and anti-war activists. A character can choose to join a secret society, and there isn't a cost associated. They just decide they want to be a member. They can only be a member of one at any one time, however.

If a character does something for a society, they gain favor with them. Favor can be spent for things like secret knowledge, some extra muscle, or a specialist hero to aid them on a mission.

The final secret society is not available for PCs, but is a council of uber-villains that is the biggest, most secret bad guys in the setting, and make for nice “secret masters” when you want a conspiracy to go deep or bigger than you originally had planned.

This is one of my favorite chapters in the book, but I’m a sucker for organizations and secret societies in a setting.

Chapter Nine: Game Master

This section gives a lot of good, solid game master advice. However, the advice isn’t specific to this game, or to its mechanics. There is a section devoted to a few campaign styles, like privateers or monster hunters, but it doesn’t go into some of the specifics I had hoped for. As an example, nation is very important, and it seems rare that you would have an especially diverse group of adventurers. It seems as if you either pick one nation to focus on, and explain the one or two oddballs from other countries that ended up there, or you pick a secret society, and explain why everyone is part of the same one.

I really wish more about why different nationalities would work together would have been addressed, especially after the book addresses national character so much.

While this section gives some suggested adventure structure ideas, I would have rather seen more “drilled down” examples. The examples of play are good when they appear, but I would have liked to have seen something more akin to a “scene template,” describing common scenes that might happen, what the opportunities and consequences for them would be, and how to run them. For example, crossing a battlefield during a mass combat, or fighting a ship that outclasses your own.

Looking at the tools in the GM Rules section, I can see how to start putting together some ideas for this, using opportunities and consequences, but better actual advice using these rules would have been nice.

The advice in this section is much more “how to run good games, in general,” and much less “how to use the rules in this book to tell good swashbuckling stories.” I wish it had been more tailored to this book, and good but general advice in specific games is part of what makes me expect more from game advice books that aren’t tied to a game system. Solid, general advice is often ubiquitous, even if GMs don’t always take it to heart.


I Am Not Left Handed!

The setting is intriguing and has a lot of room for varied adventures. The resolution mechanics are simple and evocative. Sorcery and dueling schools are wonderful. Stories are a great alternative to other forms of character advancement. National backgrounds and secret societies provide a lot of narrative texture to work with.

The Shrieking Eels!

I can see some brilliant tools for storytelling in this game, but they are deceptively simple, and I feel as if this game would take more system mastery than it appears on its surface. It almost reminds me of my read through of Marvel Heroic, before I started realizing the little extras that could be done with the Doom Pool that were buried in the rules. The text spends too much time in places that don’t enhance this specific product. Not enough specific examples of how to do common scenes in the book. Not enough guidance on how to put together a theme for an adventuring party, or how to get different nationalities to work together.

To Blaive!

I really like the basics laid down in this book. The setting is great. The rules look interesting, and seem to provide some really varied and versatile tools. The problems is that it spends way too much time on the big picture things--deep setting details, general GMing advice, rules twists like investing Influence or even layering adventure mechanics on top of ship stories. More page space really should have been spent showing exactly how to use the tools provided to do specific things. Parts of the book feels like getting a cool Lego set, but only getting the picture on the front as a guide on how to build the neat thing they show on the box.

Because of that, I know this is going to be tricky for some gamers to warm up to. I can picture a split not unlike what I saw from more traditional supers gamers when Marvel Heroic came out. However, much like with Marvel Heroic, I can see a lot of potential with these rules. Unlike Marvel Heroic (for someone that really loves that game, I was hard on it when it first came out), I’m seeing that potential right out of the gate.

If you like pirates and swashbuckling, and you like more narrative mechanics, I don’t think you’ll be disappointed by the purchase, but realize this game is going to be a greater investment in system mastery than it appears due to the simple mechanics. I can’t tell you to pick the book up only for the setting, but the setting itself is very engaging, and may be a selling point for people that want a fantasy 17th century world that has a lot of details worked out for them already.

**** (out of five)


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