Our most recent installment of our one-shot-o-rama had me in the hot seat with the swashbuckling fantasy game from the mid-90s, 7th Sea. This game was a cornerstone of my one-time mancrush on John Wick. Elements from this system tie into my usual house rules for my games.
The last time I tried running this, I co-ran it with my then-wife. We blended in some elements of Kushiel’s Dart, The Scarlet Pimpernel and Holy Blood, Holy Grail. She and half of the players were pretty rules averse, so after the first session we mostly ran it diceless. I was left with the feeling of, “I didn’t get a feel for the rules” and “I hate teaching rules to people.”
This has been on my list for a while, so when people told me I could run whatever I wanted, I did so. I sent out some basic setting information over email, and people had the edges of characters they were interested in playing by the time we hit the table. Five people RSVP’ed “Yes.” Two of them cancelled at the last minute, which ended up affecting logistics for the game both for better and worse.
I was a little uncertain how to proceed with setting up a game, even a one-shot. Some of the nations are vastly different from one another and some are at war. There isn’t a built in conceit about why the PCs are all together.
The overall opinion I got from the peanut gallery was that I should constrain character options and have the PCs all thematically linked. I opted not to do that, just because I wanted to see how the game worked without a whole lot of monkeying. As it turned out, the PCs all linked their concepts together.
I had a hard copy of the core rules and a PDF of a rules compendium on my laptop. I had people make characters the day of, limiting them to just what could be found in the core rules. I have most of the setting PDFs, but I didn’t break them out.
The process took us two hours. Sharing books slowed things down, but only a little. There were also some murmurs of discontent when they realized that this was written by the same person who drove them mad with Houses of the Blooded. Many jokes were made at the author’s expense.
To the credit of the setting, the characters were instantly evocative without having a whole lot of detail. The PCs formed a trio of Vodacce of a nefarious sort. (Two of the players made their characters twins, with the family name of Corleon.) We had a fate witch, a duelist who studied two different schools, and a Vodacce with Avalonian blood who was both a duelist and a Glamour sorcerer.
I had this great simple plot where the PCs fail to prevent a damsel in distress from being abducted, then they have to seek out the pirate captain who kidnapped her in order to rescue her from his ship.
What I ended up with was a three-and-a-half hour combat session. Really. We had a light garnish of setup. We had this long ass combat. We finished the fight and just called it a day. We spent a half hour debriefing and debating the merits of the rules.
Some of this was my fault. In order to improve the odds of the girl getting kidnapped, I beefed up the main villain. But I think I beefed him up too much. And I didn’t give him the easy out. He wasn’t quite willing to abandon his entire pirate crew just to escape with the girl. Also, I had prepped the battle assuming I’d have two more players than I actually did. Then I didn’t adjust the numbers to accommodate that.
Some of this was just the system. On top of lack of familiarity, each combat exchange involved a lot of dice hucking. First you roll to hit, then if you hit the other person can try and actively dodge, then you roll damage, then you roll to see if you can withstand the damage. It’s a pretty common model in games, especially from the 90s, but it slowed combat down a LOT.
Combat was essentially a mini game all to itself, which tried to convey the feeling of fencing duels. It was neat and kinda fun, but it was so involved that players were constantly checking back to their sheets or the book to see what they could do. And, ultimately, the concept of the combat didn’t forgive the length of time we spent with it.
At a glance the five core attributes looked like they were equally important in the game. Panache determined when you could act, Finesse was needed to hit, Wits was needed to dodge, Brawn allowed you to resist damage, Resolve determined how much time you could take before you dropped.
Really, though, Panache was a mighty stat. Being able to act multiple times in a round was very important, especially since your secondary level of defense relied on being able to have spare actions you could use. Outside of combat Panache seemed like it had less viability in most skill checks. But in combat, Panache was crazy important. I’m strongly reminded of the effect oWoD’s Celerity and Shadowrun‘s wired reflexes had on the dynamic in combat.
The Brute Squad rules were brilliant, and not something I often see repeated. In short: a mob of up to six goons acted as a single unit, much like the swarm rules you find in other games. A single hit took down a Brute, much like in D&D 4e, but clumping them together really spead that aspect of combat up. The only game I’ve seen do something similar is Anima Prime.
Combat was also much more “lethal” than anticipated. It’s hard to call it genuinely lethal, since you only get Knocked Out. PCs only die if it’s dramatically appropriate. But assuming you could hit a target, the target was pretty much guaranteed to go down. I started pulling my punches towards the end of combat, in part because the bad guy was a little overpowered. There was also an aspect of what you might call “damage creep.”
In other systems that have a “soak” mechanic (like oWoD or Shadowrun), withstanding damage meant you withstood damage. You weren’t hurt if someone just lightly tags you. With 7th Sea, you accrued “Flesh Wounds.” As in, “It’s only a…” Every time you were hit, you gained Flesh Wounds. Every time you gained Flesh Wounds, you made a Brawn check to try and prevent your Flesh Wounds from becoming a Dramatic Wound. But even if you make the Brawn check, the Flesh Wounds don’t go away until combat is over. And the more Flesh Wounds you get, the harder the Brawn check becomes. As an added bonus, if you miss by a significant margin you get more than one Dramatic Wound.
In any prolonged combat, it seems like you’re probably going to take a couple Dramatic Wounds. An average starting character can take two Dramatic Wounds before he’s hindered, four Dramatic Wounds before he’s Knocked Out. Flesh Wounds go away after the encounter. PCs only heal Dramatic Wounds after receiving medical care or between “Stories,” an arbitrary time unit to cover a plotline. While that seems like a nice thing, where PCs can’t really hide and spend days healing (and hence stretch believability when the villain is still around to be attacked), it does sort of mean that you are a little screwed when it comes to recovering from damage.
I would like to comment on how the rules worked outside of stabbing each other, but we only had one non-combat roll. The players who took sorcery felt a little underwhelmed by what it granted them for the cost. The PCs who had been previously blessed by the fate witch enjoyed that bonus die for their combat rolls, and it could have been useful as an investigation tool. But the player who took Glamour was pretty underwhelmed by the benefits. (“I can become stronger, but can’t use it for anything in combat?”)
Compared to the Leading Brand
Because the game came out over a decade ago, it’s hard to really compare the game to newer games that have used similar game design elements. So before thinking about how it stacks up with later games, I figure I can look back through time.
7th Sea came out in 1999, about a year before Dungeons and Dragons 3.0. There were probably other similar fantasy games that came out about that time (like Lace and Steel), but I don’t recall playing any of them. Wikipedia tells me that other games I have played (like Warhammer Fantasy and Castle Falkenstein) came out much earlier.
D&D 3.0, like all the incarnations of the game, succeeds in that it’s a pretty clear setup for why you all know each other. It’s sometimes a conceptually dubious setup. (Really? Roving bands of tomb raiders scouring the countryside for loot?) But it’s a concept that works.
7th Sea lacked that. A cursory glance at the GM book had lots of great John-Wick-style hints for running a good game, but nothing I could find about, “Why would an Ussuran Shapeshifter, a Vendel barbarian and a Vodacce fate witch do… anything together?”
From the point of view of having many years of GMing under my belt, I’ve learned enough to provide a setup for the game and let players make characters that fit into that. But for less experienced GMs, I imagine it could be rough. I’m having horrible flashbacks to my college-age World of Darkness games, my first attempts to run something outside the shadowrun/dungeon-crawl mold. Horrible, horrible flashbacks.
Mechanically, I think that 7th Sea kicks D&D 3.0’s ass up and down the field. 3.0 invariably became an exercise in math for me, especially if you wanted your characters to be vaguely competent. (“My wizard got killed by a cat!!!”) 7th Sea did not have as much gratuitous number crunching and went out of its way to establish the PCs as heroes. More than that, they were swashbuckling heroes. (Well, except for the Vikings and the Slavs.) There were persistent rewards throughout the game for falling into the heroic swashbuckler mode. I could easily see playing Zorro, the Scarlet Pimpernel, any of the Musketeers, the Count of Monte Christo, Captain Jack Sparrow or the Dread Pirate Roberts in this game. The system not only supports it, but it pushes you in that direction.
Looking forward in time, the game doesn’t compare as well. There have been lots of frankly brilliant games that have used ideas similar to 7th Sea that have improved upon the model. Anima Prime, Savage Worlds, Spirit of the Century and D&D 4 all spring to mind. And, as a general rule, they run much more smoothly out the gate than 7th Sea did. Most of them are pretty fast and provide room for descriptive action. D&D 4 provides tools for having threats scaled to the PCs, which would have been useful for this game.
The only hesitation I would have in just running 7th Sea in another system is that there are several quirks to the cosmology and the backgrounds for characters that don’t port over well. Magic is very expensive and very specific in its use. Characters are able to start out with money and political power, which often doesn’t port over well to d20. (I haven’t looked at how they handled it with Swashbuckling Adventures, but I don’t imagine they did much better with it than the d20 rules for Fading Suns.)
The last game I might compare it to is Houses of the Blooded. I have dim recollections of Wick saying that Houses was the game he wanted 7th Sea to be. Quite honestly, I will take 7th Sea any day of the week over Houses. The setting is far more evocative and easy to hook into and the rules seemed to work better. (Or, at the very least, it was easier to make sense of the rules.) In five minutes players had character concepts that instantly came to life thanks to the setting, whereas there was no spark with the characters we had for our Houses one-shot.
I would be more inclined to port the 7th Sea system to Houses of the Blooded than to use the Houses system.
I continue to love the setting, even with all the weird Lovecraftian stuff they put in later. As frustrating as I found combat, I would still be fine with using the rules as they stand. I’d be a bit more inclined to replace Backgrounds with Aspects, and probably streamline combat so there were less die rolls. Possibly nerf Panache. But overall the system was not so rough that I’d never use it again. I may be inclined to avoid combat a bit, but that describes most of my games anyway.
Next up, assuming we get enough people, we’ll be taking White Wolf’s old Adventure! system out for a spin.