Monday, September 19, 2016

7th Sea Second Edition - A Review

This past weekend, I had the opportunity to run a 7th Sea session at Charm City Gameday. It was interesting, illuminating, and a lot of fun. Mostly, it required that I read pretty deeply into the system so that I was prepared. Now, of course, I have a lot of Thoughts(TM) that I want to share.

Rather than bludgeon you with a single epic post, I'm going to break it up into three. Today, I'm going to give a basic review of the game. I'm mostly going to stick to the facts, trying to give you enough information to make up your own mind. The next one is going to be a specific post-mortem on the intro session, noting some of the surprises that came up, and the things that worked and didn't work. Finally, I'm going to do a bit that explores my own personal reactions to the game, that likely won't be as fair and balanced as this review.

I'll start with a bit on me. If you look at the 7th Sea tag over there, you'll be able to see that I'm a big fan of the original game. It's a marvelous setting (particularly if you ignore the Secret Society books), and a really interesting if clunky system. I have long maintained that 7th Sea was right at the top of my list of games that desperately needed a new edition.

And now we have one.

For reasons that aren't entirely clear to me, Wick decided that he needed to alter the setting in addition to the system. I have a lot of feelings about this, mostly because I don't think it was necessary. But, once I got over the shock, I'm actually good with most of the changes. What are those changes? Here's a quick bullet list:

  • The map was overhauled. Mostly this affects the relative positioning of Castille, Montaigne, Eisen, and Vodacce. The new geography actually makes a lot of their history make a bit more sense. Also, the ridiculous Trade River cutting through the heart of the continent is gone.
  • The Castille-Montaigne war is now over, and the setting is picking up the pieces. In addition to the recently concluded Thirty Years War in Eisen, this gives a lot of the continent a very war-weary feel. 
  • Wick added a new Nation, the Sarmatian Commonwealth. Loosely based on Poland, it has had a very interesting new wrinkle. The dying king just declared that every citizen is noble, and hence has a voice in the Council. Instant democracy, but still playing under old feudal rules. Given that I have little context of Poland at that time, I'm still having trouble really grasping the new nation. But it seems cool.
  • Sorcery has been totally reinvented. The Bargainers seem to be completely written out. Laerdom is gone. Castille has access to alchemy. Eisen has access to a weird anti-monster sorcery that uses parts from dead people and monsters. Usurra is no longer just about shape-shifting, but gets an array of gifts from Matushka. Glamour is now much more explicitly about embodying legends, as each glamour mage is explicitly the reincarnation of a Knight. The Sarmatians have a sorcery that is about making deals with literal devils. Porte and Sorte are the same in broad strokes, with little changes in the details. You are going to want to throw out everything you know about sorcery from first edition, and learn it again from scratch.
  • Speaking of throwing things out, all of the metaplot around the secret societies are gone. For now at least, they are just groups of people working toward common goals. If you belong, you can ask the society for Favors, but they will ask Favors of you, too. I can't say I'm unhappy about this.
One of my biggest complaints about the setting changes doesn't really have to do with anything substantive. Rather, I don't like the fact that all the people are gone. The only personalities named in each section are the top leaders: l'Empereur, Queen Elaine, etc. Even those personalities aren't given any flesh. After spending a lot of time thinking about icons in 13th Age and faces in Fate, I'm very sensitive to the fact that I tend to build settings this way. It's all about groups as collectives, but without people for the characters to actually connect with. The original 7th Sea had a fantastic array of NPCs. This edition does not. But maybe we'll see that corrected in future sourcebooks.

If you came into this edition looking for a cleaned up version of Roll and Keep, get used to disappointment. That system was completely ripped out and trashed. A fairly archetypal story game system was put in its place, with a few artifacts from Roll and Keep kept for familiarity. Lets review how it works, in brief.

You have Traits (the same five from 1st edition) and Skills (goodbye Knacks!). When you want to do something, it's a Risk. It's called a Risk because it's only worth rolling the dice if there are Consequences. The GM describes the Risk, the Consequences, and any Opportunities that may be available. In simplest terms, the Risk is the goal of the scene (escape the burning building, bribe the harbor master, silence the guard, etc.), the Consequences are the bad things that will happen (catching on fire, getting arrested, raising the alarm, etc.), and Opportunities are additional good things that may come from the scene over and above basic success (snatching the villains' plans off the desk, making a long-term friend, lifting the keys to the back door, etc.).

You describe your Approach (a description of how your character wants to overcome the Risk), which dictates which Trait and Skill you use. You roll a number of d10s equal to Trait + Skill + Bonus Dice (one for being descriptive, one for using a Skill you haven't already used this Scene, plus any from Advantages or other rules). You then match up dice to create sets that add up to at least 10. Each set gives you a Raise. You spend your Raises to do things. One Raise is enough to succeed at the Risk. Each Consequence can be bought off with a Raise. Each Opportunity can be purchased with a Raise. So the number of Raises you have is a rough measure of how much you can get done in the Scene. (You can also have Sequences, which are basically Scenes that have a series of Risks back to back. The most obvious example would be a combat.)

This creates a dynamic that is going to be very weird for your average gamer. Because you have left behind the standard mechanic of: declare action; GM reveals target number; roll dice; determine success. There is no target number, because success is essentially guaranteed. Instead, you declare your action in very general terms, roll your dice, then see who gets to describe their successes first. You don't lose a combat because you failed, you lose because your opponent succeeded more. The best description I have come up with it so far is that we have left any kind of simulation far behind. Instead, we are engaging in collaborative writing, and your dice tell you who gets to write the next paragraph. (For existing fans of story games, this may seem obvious and natural. For those of us who are a little less on the narrative side of GNS, it's neither obvious nor natural.)

There are the other common elements of story games. You have Hero Points (side note: why the hell did Wick not keep calling them Drama Dice?), which are your plot shaping currency. You have Advantages, which are ways that your character is differentiated, and many of which give you an auto-success at a specific kind of action at the cost of a Hero Point. You have Backgrounds, which function as character creation packages that also come with Quirks, engines for generating Hero Points. (For fans of Fate, these are like pre-defined Aspects. The pre-defined part really annoyed me when building characters.)

The other clever piece of the system are Stories. Pretty much every system needs an advancement mechanic. This one is highly narrative. Suppose you want your character to buy a 4-point Advantage, or raise a Skill to rank 4. You need to build a 4-point Story to justify the change in your character. The Story is a particular sub-plot for your character to pursue, and it has a number of milestones along the way equal to its cost. So if you wanted to raise your Weaponry skill to 4, you would need one step of searching out a teacher, one step of convincing the teacher to take you on, one step of defending the teacher from a rival school, and one step of proving your mastery in a duel. (This is a pretty poor example, the book gives much better ones.) Once you complete the Story, you get the bonus. You obviously would negotiate with the GM for times for your Story to come up during the overall arc. 

One of my primary issues with the system is that it doesn't hang together well. It has several different engines that each work well separately, but don't always interact in obvious ways. For instance, sorcery is run entirely by description and Hero Points. Your Traits and Skills are largely irrelevant. Consequently, if you want to call on your sorcery in a Risk, what do you roll? Also, what makes one sorcerer better than another? Similarly, how should the GM apply penalties that aren't actual Consequences, but should make the action harder? Requiring an extra Raise seems arbitrary, and often harsh. If you want to illustrate that your character is an amazing marksman capable of pulling off impossible shots (a la Quartermain), how do you do that? There's not enough granularity in the system to really distinguish between the Best Ever and the merely Great (and not even really from the merely Very Good).

Another big issue I have with the system is that there is no such thing as passive defense. You can't build a character that is a big brick wall, impervious to the slings and arrows of lesser mortals (whether that be physical or social). Sure, there are Advantages that let you spend a Hero Point to automatically say "no". And you can always spend one of your own Raises to say "no". But those are active defenses. This particularly comes up because it makes the Resolve Trait largely worthless. There aren't going to be many situations in a swashbuckling tale where your declared action is going to be "I endure". But being able to endure harsh conditions is part of the genre. Again, I think this stems from the lack of granularity in the system. As it stands, an attack does 1 Wound. Period. You can stop this by spending 1 Raise. Period. What might have been much more interesting is if the attack dealt a number of Wounds equal to the Trait used to attack, and if you spend 1 Raise you prevent a number of Wounds equal to your Resolve. But applying that sort of house rule would require re-leveling the whole system.

Honestly, the final result here doesn't surprise me. We ended up with a system that has a lot of stubs of interesting ideas that are only held together in play by a strong GM and common consensus. If you've read Wick's various essays (e.g., Play Dirty), that very much fits with his style. He has routinely stated that the system should inspire, then get out of the way. For someone who is a skilled writer and also skilled at negotiation, that is right in his wheelhouse. But for those of us who are either slow at coming up with what happens next, or poor at negotiation, we need more of a system to help propel the action along. If you are good with inventing collaborative fiction as you go, you may well enjoy some of the clever ideas here. If you are not, you will likely stumble more often than you fly.


  1. Curiously, I think that hack for damage might work in the absence of Duelist Styles, since it effectively makes everyone a duellist with access to the main attack and defense move. Possibly drastic, but not necessarily a terrible idea.

    1. You would need to adjust the Duelist styles. You might need to adjust the Death Spiral. You would need to do recalculation and playtesting of how deadly it makes combat. You would also probably want to increase the amount of damage Brutes do and then have Resolve protect against some of that, too.

      Baked into the system early on, it would be an easy change. Going back to rebalance, it will be tedious but very possible. Of course, then you also have to keep it in mind every time a new sourcebook hits your table.

      Probably not worth it.

  2. To address your point about 'I endure' I'd revisit the side bar on pg 182 (if I correctly pulled up the final edition PDF, if not it's called Dodging with Dodging in the ). The way they intend it to be done would be something like 'I shout and intimidate the Brutes so they can't attack anyone else' rolling Brawl + Intimidate with the result they can't attack anyone else, opportunities such as one breaks and runs and risks such as take X wounds. Also look at the section on 181 'Taking Another Hero's Wounds.'

    The Best in the World/Very Good/Good problem is basically addressed by the additional effect of having 5/4/3 in a skill (10s explode/15 for 2 raises/reroll) which substantially improve your ability to rack up the raises and therefore do amazing things while using that skill. However, you are prevented from going over 3 at character creation which causes problems. You can't create someone who is Best in the World or even Very Good at character creation, which I definitely find to be a bug narratively. Mechanically it sort of makes sense and is probably the result of unpleasant experiences with min/maxing during playtesting. I'll probably house rule the limit to 4 rather than 3.

    1. But see, that's still *active* defense. That is just parrying with Intimidate rather than parrying with Weaponry. Which is a nice solution to how you switch up your skills. But still requires you to declare your Approach as "I make things not happen" and soaks up your Raises.

      I want a Vesten warrior who just laughs at the feeble pokings of a rapier. Or a Vodacce princeling who is utterly unmoved by amateurish attempts to rattle him. Or an Inish pirate who spits in the eye of a hurricane and says "Bit windy today, but nothing like back in '58" while calmly tending to the ship.

      The system just doesn't give you any mechanic for ignoring effects. You can cause effects. You can counter effects. You can shift the effects around. But you can't just ignore them.

      Hmm. If the higher ranks in skills are supposed to be that much more powerful, then we've resurrected the problem with Swordsman Schools from 1st Edition. I can't build an awesome character, I have to slog my way through mediocre to get to awesome. Sure, that's the standard D&D arc. But that's also one bug that story games are supposed to fix. As you say, though, it's a fairly easy bug to house rule around.

      And I just realized that I slightly cheated my players in the session. I completely forgot about rank 3 skills granting a reroll. Dang.