Review: 7th Sea, Second Edition

7th Sea, Second Edition, is a trojan horse RPG – a hippie-smoking narrative indie game disguised as a big-budget trad game. Even its pseudo-European setting and swashbuckling, piratical leanings imply it will have rules for swimming, climbing rigging, initiative even. And it doesn’t, really – it has one unified resolution system for everything. It’s beautiful, fast-playing, and very, very good.

The Fluff – “Are we doing accents?”

In the pursuit of high-stakes swashbuckly pirate action, 7th Sea sets itself in a squished up map of Europe where each nation in Theah is very easily identified as its real-world analogue. Even the map is recognisably European, so if you can’t work out that the red-haired kilt-wearing barbarians of the Highland Marches aren’t Scots, you can check an atlas. I’ve no problem with this – and it is of course just an iteration of the setting of the first edition, which was apparently a much-loved aspect of the game. I’d expect a good deal of outrageous accents in play if I’m anywhere near the table.

The setting descriptions in the rules are a bit, well, basket-weavey. I’m not sure if I really needed to know what the average Castillan peasant eats to jump into the game, and it feels rather like a potential barrier to play rather than a boon; I found myself skimming once I’d worked out it was Spain, and then coming back to find the adventure hooks hidden within the descriptions of fashions and history. And this is the first bit where it comes across as a traditional game; there feels like an expectation that you should read the 96 pages of setting chapter before you start creating your character, even though there’s probably no need at all.

It’s worth giving a shout out to the system’s alternate settings – The Crescent Empire, which is the near / middle East analogue, is out now, and offers an inventive take on Arabian Nights-style swashbuckling, and New World – Jaguar Knights and pseudo-Aztec sacrifices and Ifri – their Africa – are lined up for release. I’ve only really dived in The Crescent Empire, and it really is impressive – and probably merits a separate review which I’ll get to soon.

The Crunch – Ready you magnetic fish!

As I said in the introduction, this is the most indie you’ll find in a shiny 300-page hardback. You roll a pool of dice, count Raises (which you make by summing dice to 10), and take action in order from them. That’s how you do everything. Action Scenes see you act in order of the number of Raises you have at each turn, Dramatic Scenes use a more narrative initiative order (as in, one determined entirely by the GM as suits the fiction). There are no difficulty levels, and an implication that players might try to use whatever combination of Trait and Skill they like to accomplish their task, under some negotiation with their GM.

One wrinkle is that every challenge or scene seems to be bespoke to the specific situation, and there’s advice that the GM will pre-plan these out, which makes it seem more complex than it is. What 7th Sea really needs is some general examples of, for instance, a shipboard battle, a tavern brawl, a chase through alleyways, a high society ball – that the GM can quickly grab and pick options from to invent scenes on the fly.

At every turn, it feels like there’s more to the system – and many of the early commentators on the system I think were disappointed in this – but, brilliantly, there isn’t. PCs have various Advantages that tweak the rules in certain circumstances, but like Fate’s Stunts, they are exceptions rather than interfering with the core mechanic. Even duelling, which adds the most additional rules, really just allows you to zoom in on the action in a combat sequence. Villains have two stats and one dice pool, and¬† groups of mooks – Brute Squads – just have a Strength.

The sole exception to the unified-system appears to be magic, which is specific to each Nation and both game-breakingly powerful and awesomely cool. You won’t be slinging spells regularly, but you can be sure that if there’s a magic-user in the group they will have additional – and very flavourful – ways to interact with the story and bring trouble their way.

The One-Shot

In fairness, there are a couple of cool things about the system which I don’t think translate well to one-shot play. Firstly, the experience system (such as it is) is player-specific multi-step Stories that are collaboratively written and plan out what the PC needs to achieve to get his next XP boost. The villain rules have resource management stuff for the villain to try schemes to raise his strength and an economy for sending stuff after the PCs. I can see an awesome game (not a one-shot) where the players just arrive with their own stories and the GM plays his villain’s schemes and gets in the way of them – but I’m not certain how that would work for one-shot play, although setting it up in a similar way to player-led PBTA might work.

These are the pregens I’ve made up for this game, and they give a fair indication of how straightforward the system would be to grasp for players – although you want to ensure that a player who is happy to get to grips quickly with additional rules and exceptions takes any PCs with magic or dueling. The setting is certainly easy to grasp, and the unified system will certainly make sense – but, as with everything, watch out for players who are drawn to a big hardback book expecting more rules than they find!

I’m looking to tidy up my own quickstart adventure and post it on here, and I might even have a bash at some generic scenes for the game and put them out there – but in short, this game might be my new hotness for a while.

Running Blind – Prepping a One-Shot for the First Time

This Sunday, at Go Play Leeds, I’m set to run 7th Sea 2nd Edition, John Wick’s game of fantasy swashbuckling set in the pseudo-European world of Theah. I’ve never run the game before, and I haven’t played it either. Normally I’d always say that the best prep for running a one-shot is to be a player in said game – it’s much easier to learn a system by doing than it is to read the rules. Not having had this luxury, I’ve had to find my own way with the game. I’m just about ready, and I thought I’d share my tips for prepping a game you haven’t played before:

Start with the Pregens

I started by creating my pregens, trying to use my own guidelines here but also ensuring a simple concept to bind them together. I’ve gone for a ship’s crew, seeing them as a roving band of ne’er-do-wells not restricted entirely to piratical interests but also unaffiliated to any nation. I had a few ideas about core archetypes – so I have a big bruiser, a quick duelist, and a socialite – and can hope they fit together.

Generating a party not only familiarises you with the resources on the character sheet (7th Sea 2nd Ed has a good skill economy), but it helps to have internalised them, so you’re not looking for the right skill or power at the right time. On my pregen sheets, I give brief rules for each advantage and/or power, and writing them down helps me learn the options my players have.

EDIT: I’ve added a link to the pregens to the downloads page, or you can find theme directly here.

Know the Rules

Some folks would say to read the rulebook cover to cover, but I’m not sure how useful it actually is to prep from cover to cover. Generally I think you need to know what you need to know well rather than knowing everything well; depth is better than breadth of knowledge in this case. I’ve read (in this order) the resolution mechanics, the character generation chapter, skimmed the GM advice section, and then followed character generation, while skipping back to the backgrounds of the Nations of my characters to check that my concept fits. Much of the rest of the book I’ve skipped, and will absorb further down the line.

I wouldn’t necessarily recommend this approach for every game, but also that’s probably what I do for every new game. I try to make sure that I know really well the stuff I actually have to know. I’ve ignored, for instance, the ship combat rules for now – I’m going to run that like a normal Action Scene, and lots of the GM rule sections on stuff Villains can do between adventures.

Keep It Simple

My adventure plot is pretty straightforward, and is structured using the scene resolution mechanics presented in the book (note that I’m planning one of my short reviews of 7th Sea soon after I’ve run it, but in a nutshell, I’m convinced that this is a loosey-goosey narrative indie game disguised as a mid-90s trad game, and disguised really well) tightly. There’s a fight scene, a sandboxy high society party for them to investigate in, an infiltration and a final confrontation.

As always, my starting scene is heavily framed and launched (in fact, it begins with the PC’s ship being boarded and in the middle of a pitched battle) and the options spread out from there. There’s some collapsible¬†elements to allow for how much time is left – I’m not sure how quickly the game will play out, and at least at Go Play I’ve got a good amount of time to play with – I can take anywhere between 3 and 5 hours and there’s no session following my players have to get out for. My structure was scribbled out on one page of an A4 notebook, and while it took a while to get down in between reading and thinking about the game, it was an important step before I started my prep proper.

Bash out a Draft

After this, I’ve actually written out in Word what I want to happen at each scene. By forcing myself to write this up – which I wouldn’t do for, say, 13th Age, or a game I’m more experienced with – I force myself to actually consider the structure and order in which I introduce and teach the game. So far my draft runs to just over 2000 words, which is probably my norm for a fully-formed con game draft for a new game; I’ll add a few notes to it as I get ready for the actual game and tidy it up, it’ll stay around that mark in terms of length.

Come Clean

I’m running the adventure on Sunday, and I’ll share my prep after that. I’ll be telling the players straight up that I’ve not run the system before, and that while I’ll be the main arbiter of the rules, feel free to pipe up if I miss something. We’ll muddle through, and I’m confident that the bits of the game that I’ve prepped will work. The bits I’m missing out – which include the Story system, which I’m going to replace with an alternative XP system – are all easily missed from a one-shot.

So, now I need to have another pass at my adventure and get the last bits of laminating done. After I’ve run it, I’ll share my prep on here, as well as the pregens I’ve created for it. How does your experience of prepping a new game differ from mine?