Tuesday, February 14, 2017

7th Sea: Into Something Rich and Strange

I’ve never been a pirate guy.

Not the Pirates of Penzance, nor Caribbean, nor Treasure Island, Nor Muppet Treasure Island, nor Yellowbeard, nor Sid Meier’s, nor even Dark Water.

So when I got offered a review 'ding & dent' hardcover of 7TH Sea, I went for it with a firm meh. I liked Wick’s work and I thought I could find some things to lift for my magical Renaissance setting. Plus it would be an interesting game for my TGI Thursday online series.

When I got the books, I read it cover to cover. I almost never do that with a core book. Instead I skim until I need to run it. I turned around and bought the 7th Sea pdf so I could easily make cheat sheets. When the Heroes & Villains supplement came out, I bought pdf immediately. I’ll keep buying them as they land. Now, today, I regret not backing this Kickstarter. I have a bunch of projects I’ve supported- fulfilled and unfulfilled- I’d have dropped in retrospect to support this one.

In short, I dig the new 7TH Sea.

I ran two sessions of it online. I’m basing my impression that plus my read-through of the core book and Heroes & Villains. You can see the actual play videos here (Session One, Session Two). Again, I received a review copy of this, so feel free to take this with a grain of salt. But I’ll tell you, I absolutely dig not expect to like this as much as I do.

My knowledge of the original 7TH Sea setting extended to skimming splat books and looking to cannibalize the Freiburg boxed set. While I once had the core books, I never got far with them. That’s mostly because 7TH Sea echoed the mechanics of Legends of the Five Rings, a game loved for setting but not system. Also, as stated above: not a Pirate guy. I did like the idea of swashbuckling and musketeer RPGs like Lace &Steel, But 7TH Sea seemed super-Piratey. The CCG did nothing to disabuse me of the notion.

I’d followed the discussion when John Wick first got back 7TH Sea. The original setting had been problematic- laced with weird stereotypes, exoticism, and erasure. Wick promised to fix that. I can’t say if he has completely, but it feels pretty solid to me. The nations seem vibrant and, while they have historical analogues, possess their own character. That’s complemented by art that feels much more inclusive than most rpgs.* Good art, solid art, compelling art—all of which opens up the world and the stories to anyone.

Since I only planned to run the two sessions, I didn’t intend to delve deeply into the background. I wanted to know enough to get by. I’d slogged through the morass of too many rpg worlds. But that didn’t happen. I breezed through. The book opens with a little set up and then runs a quick cavalcade of the nations. There’s no massive timeline and footnoted research. Instead we get short but substantive discussions of each country. These offer perspective and don’t overstay their welcome. You can jump around or read through; the book doesn’t punish that choice. Instead it rewards you with intriguing puzzles. There’s much suggested but not fully explained, leaving enough imaginative space for the GM.

This set up smoothly transitions into character creation. That character begins by discussing what Heroes look like from each place. Then you have some easy choices to quickly assemble your PC. Backgrounds give starting elements, players spend to set their skills & traits, and then choose from a not overwhelming list of advantages. You’re over halfway through the book before you even realize it. That’s a combination of style, layout, and graphics.

THE RULES   To cover this, I’m lifting from my 7TH Sea cheat sheet
Dangerous or important actions are called Risks. When you make a risk, you roll a number of d10s = Trait + Skill.

In a Sequence, the GM sets the scene and you narrate your approach. Sequences can be Dramatic, Action, or Combat. That determines the Trait + Skill combination used to complete your action. It’s a tight list: five traits and sixteen skills. The GM may also establish Consequences and Opportunities for the sequence. All Risks have at least one consequence. Consequences can be things like breaking equipment, opposition arriving, taking wounds, etc. Opportunities are the “If you do well, you can X” bits. I’ll come back to that Opportunity idea later.

When you roll your dice, you assemble the results to make sets of ten. Each set is a Raise. Sometimes, you may use dice that add up to more than 10. That’s okay; it’s still a Raise. But if you don’t have enough points to make a 10, you can’t use those dice. Luckily there’s a mechanic for those extra dice.

You then use those Raises to complete actions. Consider them an action currency. Spend them to complete the task, avoid consequences, and get the benefits of opportunities. In combat, they’re a countdown clock as well.

Several small rules make this work well. First, players don’t have to spend their Raises only on their chosen Approach, they may Improvise. If a Hero wants to take an action outside the scope of the skill or trait rolled at the beginning of the sequence, they must spend an additional raise. Additionally if they don’t have the required skill, they pay an extra raise. High Skill levels (3-5) also offer extra dice tricks for those rolls, a small and easy to track mechanic.

The rules encourage creative approaches. Every time you use a skill you haven’t used before in a scene, you get a bonus die. Every time you give a quip or awesome description before taking an action, you get a bonus die. Not doing that means leaving money on the table. Characters can also apply “pressure.” They choose a particular action (“Attack Me,” “Run Away”) and spend a raise. If the target wants to do something besides that action, they must spend an additional raise.

You start with one Hero Point. You gain one when: you activate your Hubris (like a disadvantage or trouble aspect); you say “I fail”; you play in line with your Quirks (1 per session); the GM buys unused dice. This last one you’ll see most often. The trick is that when a GM buys those dice, they also get a Danger Point which they can use to power the opposition. Players can use hero points to add a bonus d10 before their own roll; add bonus 3d10 to another hero’s roll (limit one per round); active a special ability; act while Helpless.

If multiple characters take actions at the same time, the game goes to rounds. The GM sets the stage, again laying out any Consequences or Opportunities. Players declare their Approach for the round and roll raises. The player with the most raises describes their action and spends what they want. You may spend multiple raises on an action, but can’t later go back and add to it. Then play shifts to the player with the next most raises. This means that you may “act” multiple times in a round. Villains always go first when tied with players.

If the action isn’t about combat, but instead about something like crossing a burning room, you don’t have to go to order. You can instead check if players have enough to do what they want and determine how they spend their raises.

These operate like Action Sequences, but turn order isn’t as important. Players roll to get raises to spend on the cool things you want to do: infiltrate a household, be awesome at a ball, pick up word on the streets, etc. The GM states the circumstances of the sequence in general and what you can expect. This includes the sequence’s scope, any dangers you’re aware of, and generally the sequence duration. These facts aren’t set in stone, and can change as the sequence progresses.

Causing wounds is a Risk. In a combat, you spend 1 Raise to cause 1 Wound. You may spend additional raises to cause additional wounds. You can also spend raises out of action order to negate wounds 1 for 1. You can take wounds for allies by spending those raises out of order. The dueling mechanics are closely connected to this. There’s a set of standard maneuvers for duelists, with each style having one unique move. Duelist can spend their raises in combat to create additional effects.

Players mark wounds on a spiral track of twenty tics on their sheet. There’s a Star every fifth box. That’s call a Dramatic Wound. When you’re shot with a firearm, you always take a Dramatic Wound in addition to other effects. You can’t negate that with raises. Thankfully it takes 5 raises to reload a gun. A Hero with one or more Dramatic Wounds gains one bonus die on all risks. A Hero with two or more Dramatic Wounds grants two bonus dice to Villains rolling against them. A Hero with three or more Dramatic Wounds has exploding 10’s on all risks. In this case, if you roll a 10, you immediately add another d10 to your roll. A Hero with four Dramatic Wounds is Helpless. There are special rules when this happens. Standard wounds heal quickly, Dramatic wounds slowly.

Overall it’s a clean and basic system. Everything above is the backbone. They are some twists and sub-systems, like the dueling mechanics, but 7TH Sea is easy to pick up and explain.

Running this as a two-shot meant we didn’t hit some of 7TH Sea’s interesting elements.
  • I’ve never seen an experience system quite like this. You write up a story for your character—a goal with a set of steps. You work through the story in play. The number of steps determines the kind of advancement it can be spent on once completed. The book offers several pages of ideas and templates to build these. It’s the most character-individualized development system I’ve seen.
  • There’s a set of structures for creating Villains. They have a Villainy rank split between Strength and Influence. Villains can invest Influence into Schemes, which can pay dividends. They can also use Influence to purchase secondary villains, Brute Squads, bribe officials, gain information, etc. Heroes can undermine a Villain’s stats indirectly or directly. The Heroes & Villains supplement offers rules which revise and replace some of these.
  • There’s a cool sorcery system. Several different styles exist and they’re completely different. I mean completely: conception, rules, effects. Each arises out of a particular national tradition and reflects that ethos. There’s destiny magic, portal control, gifts from nature, sinister bargains and more. We had a single sorcerer in our game, using Porte magic. Unfortunately we didn’t get a chance to see much of it executed.
  • There’s a rich section on Sailing. Players can gain a ship, which can have its own advantage-like Background. There’s good detail of sea bound life in addition to the mechanics. Like the rest of the rules, these don’t bogged down in detail.

I enjoyed running 7th Sea and I would run it again. I ran my own story, inspired by the first moment of the quickstart: an explosion. I went in another direction after that. I focused more on action than social scenes, something I’d like to correct next time I run. For PC pre-gens I picked twelve Heroes from the Heroes & Villains supplement. I tried to have a nice mix of nations, sorcerers, rogues, and duelists. To kick everything off I had the players define the villain they all hated, resulting in “The Viper.”

Part of my prep was reading Rob Donoghue’s sharp posts on the game. He helped me visualize some of the elements. I recommend checking those out if you’re interested. I don’t have a central thesis about the game beyond “It’s excellent.” But few details struck me as I ran it:

The adversary structure works for me. I like simple tracking for foes. I’ve also come to enjoy villain elements tied to an activation: PbtA’s hard moves, Coriolis’ darkness points, Chill’s tokens. Here Danger Points serve that purpose. I like that they come mostly from player choices. If the players want to sell their extra dice back for Hero Points, the GM gets equal Danger Points. These can also be used to add dice to a Villain’s pool and a few other options. I would like additional GM elements to spend these points on. RD has some suggestions and I’ll look at that before I run again.

I also appreciate the system for the lowest level foes: the mooks. Here they’re called Brute Squads. Each squad has a strength, representing the number of fighters involved. A Brute Squad isn’t treated as a character, but instead as a Risk. If you’re facing a Strength 6 Brute Squad, you need to deal six raises worth of effect to negate it. That would be wounds from combat, morale cracking from intimidation, or positioning from acrobatic trickery. If you only partially reduce a Brute Squad’s strength, they deal wounds equal to that remainder at the end of the round. It works well. Brute Squads can also have special abilities. I love the one where the squad can lose a strength point to carry off a vulnerable NPC.

I tend to be pretty loose with “skill calling.” I usually give players a couple of options depending on how they frame things. I’ll listen to good arguments about applying an offbeat skill to a situation. Most GMs do that, but I’m really loose. I don’t think that’s a great approach with 7th Sea. You only have sixteen skills, so they each have a broad reach. Not sticking close to the book definitions means that the improvisation and ‘no skill’ mechanics have less meaning. I’m going to tighten that up if I run again.

Ahead of the game, I worried most about the Duelist rules. I’d heard they trumped everything else in earlier 7th Sea. I’d also seen Rob Donoghue mention they required some special handling. I saw that a little in play. Bottom line: a duelist is significantly more dangerous in combat. They have many options and deal more damage. That means when you have a combat sequence, you need to have challenges for them (large squads, duelist villains, etc) as well for as the non-duelist characters. If you watch the AP you’ll notice that when dealing with Brute Squads only, I had the duelists abstract a bonus to the wounds they dealt, rather than going tic by tic. That’s not something in the rules, be aware of that. Brian mentioned to me that he’d heard dueling was a slowdown point for the rules, like Netrunning in Shadowrun. I don’t think that’s true. The GM just need to keep things moving.

While I dug 7th Sea, it presented a challenge to my usual GMing approach. The book has excellent examples of play, well worth reading through. (On dueling in particular, you should check out the sample duel from the Heroes & Villains. Some sequences frame a differently than I’m used to. At the start of a non-combat sequence, the GM lays out the situation and costs if there’s a Risk involved. The players declare what they’re rolling (skill & trait) and then spend raises to avoid consequences and gain opportunities. That’s a moment that can potentially break the flow. Instead of players declaring actions, rolling and then narrating results, the order shifts a little. The GM sets the stage more explicitly.

With multiple people working in the action sequence, I had to pause and configure the situation. How many opportunities do I need we have multiple players in the scene? How do I give the players a chance to narrate their results? Does it seem interesting to go through each person’s result? Dramatic Sequences present a different problem. They generally occur over a wider range of time. I haven’t quite got a sense of the scale—especially if different players in parallel end up working in different spans. How many rolls are we expecting? Just one for the whole sequence? The example in the book seems to suggest that. But if one player uses up their raises in an interaction and another’s slowly working through their’s what happens? I’m not sure about that.

I suspect with play, I’ll figure this out. At the table I stumbled over it in session one where I had two parallel groups operating. One triggered combat, so I pushed the other forward to involve them. For action sequences, I probably need to think about them in a more trad way. Picture it as the players needing to get at least an X result, and having the potential to do better if they roll well. Overall I need to run more and/or watch others run it. I may be making this more difficult than I need to.

One of my big stumbling blocks was opportunities in sequences. On the one hand, the GM’s expected to put some forward. The rules say they’re optional, but you’ll want to have them there to add color. Raises are a currency in the game. If you have a currency in play, the GM needs to give the players something to spend that on. On the other hand players can generate these opportunities themselves. Several of the PCs’ talents relate to that. The book calls these “narrative permission slips,” but doesn’t explain much beyond that. That left me (and the players) uncertain about the scope.

Here’s where that’s a problem. I mentioned above my tendency to be loose with skills. I’m the same way with scenes and elements. “Is there a chandelier?” Yes. “Can I see something heavy to put against the door?” Yes. “When I push the captain of the guard to safety, can I slam the door behind him so no one can reach him?” Yes. In some of these, I could have said, “Yes, if you spend a raise for that opportunity.” That gives the players something to buy, encourages thinking, puts pressure, and works with the rules as written. That would also have modelled the kinds of opportunities players could have explicitly asked for.

If I ran again, I think I’d spend some prep time brainstorming opportunities. It might be worth just doing a big list of interesting details for sequences. It’s a reverse of thinking about costs & consequences or soft moves. I need envision memorable and useful opportunities. That’s assuming I’m thinking about opportunities correctly. I’m not entirely sure I am. I’d like more guidance on that and I’m hoping later books will consider that.

At the end of session two, we did a round of Roses & Thorns, giving our impression of the game. Rich said an interesting thing, that my experience with Fate gave me a leg up in running this. I don’t think he’s wrong—there’s a parallel openess in the approach. But 7th Sea is just different enough that I can just fall back on my old tricks and style. It requires some thinking. I’m looking forward to doing that more because I can see a definite payoff.

If you’re interesting in the genre at all, I recommend buying this. Consider getting a hard copy, because it’s a lovely book.

Reminder: I received a review copy. But then I went and bought the pdf and the pdf of the supplement.