Sailing the 7th Sea is exciting but choppy

7th Sea (2nd edition) cover

7th Sea (second edition) by John Wick Presents is a roleplaying game of swashbuckling and sorcery in a fantasy version of 17th century Europe. I’m currently running a short campaign. The players and I are having fun, but I’ll probably never run it again and one of the players who had intended to run it himself has been put off from doing that. Some of the mechanics are great and powerful additions to the RPG designer’s toolbox; in other places the core rules feel unclear and frustrating, putting a burden on the GM to make rulings.

This isn’t a thorough review of the game (Rob Donoghue has you covered if that’s what you want), but it is a look at some specific areas that I feel are worthy of greater attention. First up is Stories, and players taking the helm for their own development.

The best thing: Charting a course with Stories

7th Sea has a really strong built-in pitch (“swashbuckling and intrigue, exploration and adventure”), one that appeals directly to me and people I roleplay with, but I’d never played the first edition and so I wasn’t particularly invested in second edition until I learned about Stories.

Stories are the way that characters advance (and develop) in 7th Sea. Before a game starts, players come up with an arc for their character. To start it can be quite broad, just a starting point and a destination (or Goal), plus the number of story beats (Steps) until they reach that destination. Steps aren’t necessarily accomplishments that hinge on the roll of the dice; they can be anything that the player wants to happen that will drive their character’s arc. A Step could be a moment to do something awesome, a notable failure, a choice, a happenstance. It could be big or small, loud or quiet, proactive or reactive.

The player gives the outlined Story (with at least the next Step planned, preferably more) to the GM, who will weave it together with all of the other players’ (and their own) Stories to produce the narrative of the game.

At the end of the Story, once all of the Steps have been hit, the player character gets some advancement. The longer the Story (the more Steps it has), the more time it will take to get there, but the bigger the payoff in advancement. For example, you can get a 1-point advantage in a single session with a single-Step Story, or make a four-Step Story to get a 4-point advantage.

The idea is to give each player control over what sort of character they want their Hero to be (now and in the future), what sort of struggles they will face, and what sort of spotlight they’ll get to make their Hero shine in the way the player wants. It’s a way of ensuring that players don’t miss out on character development or spotlight just because the opportunity comes when they aren’t expecting it (a problem I have all too often). It even lets players introduce backstory, supporting cast, or twists to the tale that the GM might not have planned for without this level of player engagement.

Long story short: I am loving the Stories mechanic from a GM’s perspective, and I’m dying to try it out from the players’ side of the table.

Stories are a distillation of the idea to give players more authorial control of their characters, even in more traditional games. It’s the latest step in a movement that has previously included Keys in Lady Blackbird, Milestones in Marvel Heroic Roleplaying, Aspirations in Chronicles of Darkness, and even the Quests (and most of the other rules) in Chuubo’s Marvelous Wish-Granting Engine. 7th Sea‘s version isn’t the furthest extreme of the idea (like Chuubo’s), but it is the best way I’ve seen so far of implementing the idea in a traditional game set-up, and it’s the version most easily ported over to other game systems. I’m sure it won’t become the norm (some games still run on the principle of “play to find out what happens”, and that’s fine too), but I do hope the idea spreads and is adopted more widely in future roleplaying games.

That all said, there’s room to improve too. Stories take some getting used to and the guidance isn’t really adequate to coach new players through the process. There’s also no incentive to have different Stories intersecting to encourage drama between player characters, so that’s left up to the GM to manage. The good news is that game designers are a smart bunch, and sooner or later someone will come along with yet another refinement of the system, for which I cannot wait. Rob Wieland already has some Story hacks that could be cool to try, so the process is already starting.

The most interesting thing: Do or do not, there is no try

Stories are great, but they aren’t as interesting as the game’s resolution mechanics, Risks and Sequences. Risks and Sequences front-load the work (like Stories do, but at a more granular level). More importantly they mean that there is only a vanishingly small chance of an unforced failure. This is so rare in roleplaying games that it transforms what a dice roll means, which has fascinating implications for the game but is mind-boggling to actually play.

In a standard Risk, a player builds a pool of d10s based on their traits, skills, and a handful of other things, then rolls them all in advance. Dice are grouped into sets that total 10 or more, which are called Raises, and then Raises are spent to accomplish actions, avoid negative consequences, and unlock extra opportunities. Actions usually cost one Raise, which means that the dice roll needs to be truly abysmal for a Risk to actually fail: the total of all of their dice would need to be less than 10 in most cases, and in this game it isn’t that unusual to be rolling 10 or more dice.

Risks are for single actions, but there are two other standard resolution mechanics: Action Sequences and Dramatic Sequences. These each have their own section in the rules, but I wasn’t able to wrap my head around the differences until I set them out in this chart:

Risk Action Sequence Dramatic Sequence
When to use? Rolled by 1 Hero when no Villains are present. Each Risk is a distinct action. Multiple characters (Heroes and/or Villains) acting together. Fast-paced and risky. Multiple Heroes (Villains may be present but do not act mechanically). Slow-paced.
Step 1 GM sets the stage GM sets the stage, including how long the sequence is expected to last and what the dangers are.
Step 2 Players set their Approaches. Don’t choose Trait and Skill, but say what you’re doing and what you want to accomplish.
Step 3 GM chooses Trait and Skill for each player, players add any bonuses (e.g. new Skill Flair, and description Flair)
Step 4 GM explains why the action is a Risk, what the Consequences of the Risk are (there’s always at least one), and what the Opportunities are (if any) GM explains what the Consequences and Opportunities are (if any), and when they occur. (Time Limits are set as “something happens on Raise X, i.e. when everyone has fewer than X Raises) N/A. GM doesn’t do this here.
Step 5a Everyone rolls dice and makes Raises
Step 5b If there are unused dice, GM can buy them for a Hero Point (and also gain a Danger Point)
Step 6 Using Raises. Raises can be spent to:

  • 1 Raise to succeed at an Action
  • avoid Complications or active Opportunities
  • 1 Raise to create a new Opportunity (create advantage)
  • inflict wounds 1 Raise per Wound
  • 1 Raise to apply Pressure
  • other things as determined by abilities

Improvising costs +1 Raise, as does being Unskilled

No Raises means something changes

Most Raises goes first. Villains win ties, Heroes decide ties amongst themselves.

Basic Actions cost 1 Raise. (Costs are the same as for Risks.)

You can avoid Wounds outside of Action order by spending Raises 1 for 1.

You can only do each Action once, including avoiding Wounds from Consequences

If competing, most Raises spent wins. Do it in order. Original bid cannot be changed.

When nobody has Raises, ask if the Action Sequence is still necessary. If yes, start again. Otherwise, it’s over.

No strict order. Players say what they want to accomplish, which costs 1 Raise each (if in line with Approach)

(Apologies if this is a bit rough. It’s the reference I actually use in my game to keep all the rules straight in my head. Several sessions in and I still refer to it regularly.)

Ok, so that’s how Risks and Sequences work (in a bit of a dry way), but how does this affect the game?

First of all, because the number of Raises represents how many things you can do in a given time and, in Action Sequences, how soon you can start to do them, a character’s traits and skills now represent how fast they can move and react when doing certain things. This isn’t unreasonable. If I have a high Sailing skill, then I am presumably well-trained and therefore react quickly and complete tasks quickly when I am sailing. If I have a high Notice skill, then I am perceptive and can spot things faster than other people. The curiosity comes when certain sub-systems mean some (but not all) Skills represent quality as well as speed, like the way duellists use the Weaponry skill rating as the number of Wounds they can inflict and prevent.

Connected to this, Villains only have two stats (Strength and Influence), and that’s really handy for my GM prep but I honestly can’t work out what those stats mean when converted to this rolling-determines-speed perspective. Non-Villain NPCs are even less clear, because they have no stats at all and I’ve yet to find a satisfying way to work out when they act in a sequence.

Second, since failure almost never happens, there are no consequences of failure. Instead, the Consequences of a Risk are the logical result of succeeding at the desired action if no precautions are taken. Running through a room that is on fire would logically lead to being burned if you don’t take precautions. Jumping across rooftops could logically mean you smash through a thin roof if you aren’t careful. Consequences can be bought off with additional Raises, but they are reframed as a side-effect of the thing you want to do, not as a result of being unable to do that thing. It’s strange then that there is a rule for intentionally failing a Risk (a decision the player makes before rolling to earn a Hero Point) and that it explicitly says that the Hero suffers all Consequences, even though Consequences in this game are not the result of failure. The assumption is that the Hero has still made the attempt (they dashed into a burning room), but just hasn’t succeeded at the actual goal (they haven’t got out the other side), probably because the Consequences were so serious that they prevented it (trapped by flames). That makes more sense for some Risks and Consequences than for others.

What’s more, the lack of meaningful unforced failure changes the dynamic around when Risks should be rolled in the first place. In other games, the adage is to never call for a roll unless success and failure would both be interesting. In 7th Sea, that’s irrelevant, and the adage needs to be restated as: never call for a roll unless the act of attempting the action could have negative repurcussions on the character or the world. The core book just says a Risk is “a dangerous or important action”, which really doesn’t drive home the key point.

All of this boils down to Risks and Sequences in 7th Sea being a mechanic built on resource management (where the resource is Raises, i.e. time) and choices. That’s an intentional choice by the design team (see this Reddit comment by system designer Mike Curry that says as much), and it’s new and interesting in the scheme of roleplaying games in general (a successor to things like the risks in Psi*Run), but sometimes it feels like there are gaps where the idea hasn’t been followed to its natural conclusion.

Speaking of which…

The most frustrating thing: Reddit isn’t a suitable replacement for an official Errata

We’ve been playing a fun game of 7th Sea using the rules from the core rulebook and a couple of supplements, but it hasn’t been plain sailing. The core rulebook has rules that aren’t clear, or aren’t well explained, and in one case we’ve found the rules are actually wrong. The systems lead Mike Curry has been very engaged with fans on the r/7thSea subreddit, and he’s cleared up a lot of things since the playtest versions of the game, but I don’t know why John Wicks Presents haven’t put out an official errata on their website at least. They’ve released over half a dozen 7th Sea books since the core rulebook came out, but the only patch for the rules underpinning those books is buried in the middle of a bunch of comment threads on a community website.

Here are some examples to show what I mean.

Parry and Riposte for Duelists

The rules for duelling do not make sense in the rules as written. Specifically, the timing of Maneuvers that respond to damage (Parry and Riposte). The core rulebook says the following about these Maneuvers:

“You can only activate Parry on your Action, immediately following the Maneuver that caused your Wounds.”

“You can only perform Riposte on your Action, and you must perform it on the Action immediately following the Maneuver that caused the Wounds you are preventing.”

These seem consistent when you read them, but the requirement to only use them on your Action means that the flow of a duel is thrown off. What if a Villain has three more Raises than a Hero? Can they damage the Hero repeatedly without the Hero defending themself? The classic back-and-forth of a duel is lost.

Instead, here’s what the updated rules should be according to Mike Curry:

“You can perform Parry even when it is not your Action, but you must perform it immediately following the Maneuver which caused the Wounds you are preventing.”

“You can perform Riposte even when it is not your Action, but you must perform it immediately following the Maneuver which caused the Wounds you are preventing.”

These rules make sense, mean that Duellists have meaningful choices when other characters are acting against them, and preserves the natural flow and rhythm of the fight.

(Highlighted without further comment: the thread in which the linked comment was made is called “Official source for Errata?”)

How many firearms can you carry?

7th Sea has rules for firearms, which include a rule that it costs 5 Raises to reload a firearm before it can be fired again but says nothing about how many for can carry. The designers thought about the issue and then ignored it, as discussed on this thread, but Mike Curry has also (more recently) come up with a solution that works really well:

Oh, and to address the “Brace of Pistols” dilemma directly with this particular approach, I’d probably rule that it’s an Action regardless of if you want to draw a new pistol or reload one you have.

So you can have one pistol, or you can have 100. Mechanically, it doesn’t matter. It’s just a question of how you are addressing the “reload” mechanic — by literally reloading, or by drawing a fresh pistol.

Other minor clarifications

Spending a Hero Point doesn’t cause the Signature Item to reappear in your possession. It’s simply present in the next scene. [link]

Unlike Pressure, Improvising costs an extra Raise every time you do it in a round, not just the first time. [link]

Advantages like Lyceum that modify the face numbers of the dice don’t say when they are modified, so players can do it when it gives the best result (when interacting with other mechanics like exploding 10s or removing low dice in Sorte). [link1, link2]

To be clear, I’m not saying that it’s bad that such ambiguities and errors crept into a published book. These things happen, I get it. But even though the game’s designers know that there are things to fix, they don’t seem interested in putting out an official correction. That baffles me.

I have a handful of other issues, including the presentation of the setting material (you really don’t need 17 pages of setting information broken down by nation immediately after your 98-page chapter of setting information broken down by nation), but I think going into that would be getting away from the point.

Conclusion

To sum up, my players and I are having fun playing 7th Sea. There are mechanics that are potentially game-changing for the hobby (if other games use them), but too many little frustrations mean that it’s not a game that will stay in our regular gaming rotation.

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One thought on “Sailing the 7th Sea is exciting but choppy

  1. mpduxbury November 12, 2018 / 10:58 am

    Whilst it’s very frustrating that JWP haven’t produced an errata that contains all of these rules corrections/clarifications in a single place, I’m very glad that you have in this blog post!

    Like

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