|Jennifer Wick, John Wick, and Kevin Wilson|
|Alderac Entertainment Group, Players' Guide, 252 pages; Game Masters' Guide, 254 pages|
|A review by Don Bassingthwaite|
Oh, we seem to have wandered quite far from the party. Never mind, I'm sure the next path will take us back. Now as I was saying, the wretched villains actually taunted me with my own trousers. It was quite intolerable! Common pirates threatening... we turn here, I believe, sir... threatening me! Me!
Sir, you look quite pale. That wouldn't be because of these corpses my companions hold, would it? A foolish thing, that, fear of a corpse. They are only empty vessels after all. Far more prudent to fear the man made them that way. Ah, I see you recognize that body. Was he a business associate of yours perhaps? Do you know he's the one who waved my breeches in my face and dared me to take them from him? It's difficult to fight in a crowded cabin with your nightshirt tangled between your knees -- but not impossible. Making the improper assumption that a man is harmless merely because he appears to be so is a very grave error. Wouldn't you agree, sir?
A strange thing happened last spring. I was minding my own business, surfing around on the Web, poking into the sites of various game publishers to see what new products they had on the go, when I decided to take a mosey over to the Alderac Entertainment Group's site. AEG makes the Legend of the Five Rings RPG, a game that has consistently caught my eye in the stores. Lo and behold, though, there was something more on their site: an announcement for an upcoming game called 7th Sea. A game about pirates -- or to give its more accurate description, a game about "swashbuckling and sorcery, piracy and adventure, diplomacy and intrigue, archaeology and exploration" (because saying 7th Sea is about pirates is like calling a seven-course dinner "a little something to tide you over from lunch to breakfast").
Whoa. That caught my attention. I love swashbuckling. I love the movies, I love the books (for six years running, I was the only one who took The Pyrates by George Macdonald Fraser out of the Meaford Public Library -- and then I moved away), and here was a game that claimed not only swashbuckling but magic and the bones of an intriguing world to boot. 7th Sea came out last summer and I got my grubby mitts on much anticipated copies of the Players' Guide and the Gamemasters' Guide. Ahhhh... and I'm pleased to say that initial sigh of delight as I cracked the covers stayed with me right through. Good game!
Now there have been other swashbuckling games out before, pirate sourcebooks for everything from Dungeons & Dragons to GURPS, and I'm sure I remember seeing dedicated pirate games (though for the life of me, I can't remember any in particular). What was it about 7th Sea that grabbed me and wouldn't let go? I'm pleased to say that the answer to that is easy. It's the setting. The pirate supplements and character kits for Dungeons & Dragons were grafted onto medieval worlds of wizards and knights. It just didn't ring true: too hard to imagine the characters without suits of armour and too easy for magic to save the day. 7th Sea, on the other hand, doesn't come with any of that baggage. It is its own world and its own time: Théah, 1668.
Well, almost its own world and almost its own time. It doesn't take much to realize that Théah is more than loosely patterned after Earth, specifically Europe. Avalon (properly the United Kingdoms of Avalon, Inismore, and the Highland Marches) lies just west-northwest of the continent, across a narrow stretch of sea from the imperial glories of Montaigne and the sun-drenched, Church-dominated lands of Castille. To the east are the petty kingdoms, devastated by decades of religious war, that once formed the country of Eisen. To the south the treacherous city-states of Vodacce tear at each other's throats where once an old and glorious civilization thrived. In the ice of the far north, the Vestenmannavnjar are abandoning their life as sea raiders to take up trade and a new identity as the Vendel (a transition that is moving swiftly but not particularly smoothly). In contrast, life in the vast expanses of Ussura goes on as it has for centuries, caught between civilized west and unknown east -- mysterious Cathay and the barbarous Empire of the Crescent Moon.
Likewise, culture, fashion, and technology echo Europe's 17th century. Even some of the people and events of history are easily recognizable: the navy of red-haired Queen Elaine of Avalon defeats the Castillian Armada; monk Matthias Lieber nails a piece of paper to a door in Eisen and begins the Objectionist Reform; Ilya Sladivgorod Niklovich, the new Gaius of Ussura, gains a reputation for cruelty and becomes known as "Ilya the Terrible."
Have the designers wimped out by borrowing so much from Earth? No. As they imply in the beginning of the Players' Guide, using a familiar setting makes it a lot easier to get into the game. It's a far simpler to figure out a setting that you're somewhat familiar with than it is to jump into something that's totally alien (and I wouldn't hesitate to point out that at one time or another every GM out there, no matter what the system they're using, has done exactly the same thing by creating "Vikings" or "Greeks" or such for their players to encounter).
For 7th Sea, the idea works brilliantly. Players and GMs alike know what they're getting into (more or less) and a little research in the history section of the library (or the adventure racks at the video store) turns up scads of material for stories, characters, and atmosphere. The nations of Théah have been plucked from the prime eras of their Earthly counterparts (which is how an Elizabethan queen can appear in a Restoration setting), making a world that is not only familiar but that resonates with tales of heroism and derring-do. At the same time, the game designers have managed to create a world that is fresh and surprising.
One of my absolute favourite constructs from 7th Sea is the Vaticine Church, also known as the Church of the Prophets and the dominant religious force on Théah. The structure and history of the Vaticine Church is similar to that of the Catholic Church of the 17th century, right up to the Avignon Papacy (on Théah a move of the centre of the church from Vodacce to Castille), the Protestant Reformation ("the Objectionist Reform"), and the Orthodox Church (Ussura follows a different tradition than the other nations of the west). The brilliance of the Vaticine Church as a gaming construct, however, comes in its basic philosophy, that "the Creator made the world as a riddle for humanity to unravel." As a result of this philosophy, science on Théah is more advanced than Earth's of the same time period and the clerics of the church are active in the support of science. It's a fascinating bit of work, complete with its own "bad guys": the Théan Inquisition is a terrifying force of ignorance that seeks to choke off the beneficial research of the Church.
Of course, there are other more fantastic elements that separate Théah from Earth. One is the presence of monsters -- not many and not as ubiquitous as the D&D orc, for example, but nastier because of their scarcity. Others include the mystic walls and mazes of fire that close far Cathay off from the rest of the world, and the ancient ruins and artifacts of Syrneth. Someone or something walked Théah before humanity did and they left behind all manner of curiosities, from eerie monuments to deadly devices. Possibly related are a number of powerful immortal beings scattered through the world, including the Sidhe of Avalon, and Babushka, the iron-toothed protectress of Ussura. Also possibly related is the legendary Seventh Sea itself, a strange place spoken of in sailors' tales. And then there's sorcery.
In many ways, it might be possible to play a long campaign of 7th Sea and never encounter a monster or a Sidhe, set eyes on a Syrneth artifact, or even hear tell of the Seventh Sea. It's almost impossible, however, to avoid sorcery. On Théah, sorcery belongs to the nobility (and only the nobility, the legacy of ancient pacts with dark forces) and as such is part of the flavour of each nation: the mages of Montaigne cross vast distances with flashy Porté magic, the Vestenmannavnjar wield the elemental runes of Laerdom, Avalon sorcerers use Glamour to channel the power of myth and legend, and Ussurans are gifted with the shape-shifting powers of Pyeryem. Most feared of all, though, are the veiled Fate Witches of Vodacce -- only the women of that country have the ability to manipulate destinies through the use of Sorte magic. And yet in spite of the presence of sorcery in 7th Sea, it's not an overwhelming force, partly because it is restricted to members of the nobility, partly because each type of magic is limited in what it can do, and partly because it's very costly (in game terms) to have even a little talent for sorcery. It's a good level of magic, sufficient to provide wonder and a little supernatural help without dominating the setting. Characters don't necessarily suffer for not having magic to back them up -- two of Théah's nations don't have magical traditions themselves! The focus of the game is firmly on swashbuckling action and even the magic serves that focus.
In fact, it's clear that the designers had a very good idea of what they wanted when they designed 7th Sea. Not only are setting and sorcery cast in service of adventure, so is the game mechanic. I've never seen a system that works quite so well with the flavour of the game. 7th Sea is played with 10-sided dice and players have a target number to beat. A number of dice are rolled with only a few kept and those kept dice are added together to try and beat the target number (a system players of Legend of the Five Rings RPG will recognize as well). Easy enough. But this is a heroic game. What do you do when it's time to buckle some swash? You call a raise -- a player can voluntarily raise the target number assigned by the gamemaster to obtain greater effect from his or her action. Not only do you succeed, you succeed with style! It's a great idea, one that really captures the whole mood of the game.
Other more specific rules help out as well. The number of actions a character takes in a round depends on their Panache score. Falling damage is negated by landing on a soft surface. Combat rules cover leaping onto tabletops, swinging from chandeliers, and taunting your opponent. Naturally there are rules for various styles of swordplay, each taught by different schools -- swordsmen can be as distinct as sorcerers. I'm particularly impressed by the way 7th Sea handles opponents in its rules, creating three levels of bad guys from nameless masses of Brutes (anything from palace guards to foul pirate crews) that fall down the moment a hero hits them to truly dangerous Villains -- dangerous because they have all of the capabilities of a hero.
Wow. Unfortunately, the only down side of having all of these little add-in rules is that there is a lot of stuff to remember. Players and gamemasters will find themselves flipping around a lot to see how to do things, what effect certain skills will have, and so on. Each type of magic works in a different way as well. It doesn't help that the necessary information to cover all of this is spread out through the books. The Player's Guide is particularly nasty this way, with a little bit of information here and a little bit there. This isn't a problem unique to 7th Sea, of course -- I've seen it in other games -- and it may very well be that there is a rationale behind the organization but it's not a rationale that makes it easy to look things up on the fly. As you use the book, you do get used to where things are, but until then it tends to be confusing. I'd highly recommend that players come up with little cheat sheets for themselves and that gamemasters... well, gamemasters better do a lot of memorizing. Use stickynotes to flag the important bits.
Some people might also be questioning the decision to split the game into two books -- yes, in order to play 7th Sea you have to buy both the Players' Guide and the Gamemasters' Guide. However, the very nice thing about 7th Sea is that you really do need both books. The amount of information that is duplicated between them is very small. The Player's Guide covers, naturally enough, character creation, skills, sorcery, and combat, along with a general overview of Théah and some of the most gorgeous colour art to grace a game book in a long time. Everything a player could reasonably need to know is here. The only thing I'd say is missing is a little bit more detail on the various nations and factions of Théah. As mentioned above, the nations are Earthlike enough that it's easy to jump into them, but a bit more information wouldn't be amiss.
What the Players' Guide doesn't cover, the Gamemasters' Guide fills in. I am highly impressed by the 7th Sea Gamemasters' Guide. Most gamemasters' books that I've seen tend to be rehashes of player information sparingly touched with original bits. Not 7th Sea. In fact, the 7th Sea Gamemasters' Guide is probably the single most useful book of its type that I've ever read, with great gobs of secret (and not-so secret -- knowing the typical food and fashion of Castille would probably not prove unduly harsh on most players) information for GM eyes only. Some rules appear only in the Gamemasters' Guide, a rather nice feature because it means that the GM has the say on them, hopefully resulting in speedier game play. The Gamemasters' Guide is also rounded out by an extensive section that lays out some very good tips on the art of GM'ing for the novice -- and, dare I say it, even the more initiated GM. I've GM'ed in various games for years and I still like reading over GM tips. You never know when you'll find some new insight, besides which the tips sections are often a peek into the minds of the designers and how they conceive of the game. For example, swashbuckling might bring pirates to mind, but as the Gamemasters' Guide demonstrates 7th Sea can also be run as a game of intrigue among the silver-tongued courtiers of Montaigne or of exploration in the dark catacombs of Vodacce or even of daring revolt in the face of the Castillian Inquisition. Or all three!
There are some very interesting looking things on the horizon for 7th Sea. Already released are a gamemasters' screen and adventure as well as the Pirate Nations sourcebook. Coming up are sourcebooks for the various nations, beginning with Avalon, and AEG has started fan clubs modelled after the various secret societies of Théah, presumably as a way of putting out tailored game information. A collectible card game, No Quarter, is out and reportedly doing very well. There are rumours of miniatures. AEG is putting a lot of work into 7th Sea. 7th Sea deserves it. It's a fine game, certainly one of the most original I've seen in a long time, and if AEG can keep future books up to the benchmark set by the Players' and Gamemasters' Guides, 7th Sea is going to be making some noise for a long time to come.
And now, sir, I shall ask you to draw your sword. If it makes you feel better, I shall allow you to fight with your trousers on.
Don Bassingthwaite is the author of Such Pain (HarperPrism), Breathe Deeply (White Wolf), and Pomegranates Full and Fine (White Wolf), tie-in novels to White Wolf's World of Darkness role-playing games. He can't remember when he started reading science fiction, but has been gaming since high school (and, boy, is his dice arm tired!).
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