Having raised over $1.4 million dollars on Kickstarter and winning six Ennies at Gencon 2017, John Wick Presents’ 7th Sea, 2nd Edition has become one of the most recognized new RPGs on the market. 7th Sea does not disappoint those looking for a unique world of swashbuckling action, though the rule set can be a bit jarring for those used to a more mechanics oriented role playing experience.
“7th Sea is a tabletop roleplaying game of swashbuckling and intrigue, exploration and adventure, taking place on the continent of Theah, a land of magic and mystery inspired by our own Europe. Players take the roles of heroes thrown into global conspiracies and sinister plots, exploring ancient ruins of a race long vanished and protecting the rightful kings and queens of Theah from murderous villains.
In 7th Sea, you are a Hero, an icon of Theah ready to live and die for causes that matter. You bravely take on a dozen thugs with swords, knives and guns all on your own. You are the trusted knight, a loyal bodyguard or even an adventuring queen herself.
In other words—you are d’Artagnan, Milady de Winter, the Dread Pirate Roberts, Jack Sparrow, Julie d’Aubigney, and the Scarlet Pimpernel all rolled up in one!
This is a game of high adventure, mystery and action. This is a game of intrigue and romance.
This is 7th Sea.”
The Theory (Setting and Mechanics):
Theah consists of ten nations, each modeled after a European counterpart during a pivotal or romanticized period of its history; Montaigne, Theah’s parallel to France, is influenced by the decades leading up to the 1789 French Revolution, while the England/Wales equivalent, of Avalon, is heavily based on the Arthurian legend popularized in the 13th century. Regardless of the time period each nation’s culture is drawn from, the game’s overall feel is that of the mid-1600s to early 1700s, commonly referred to as the Golden Age of Piracy. Several supernatural elements, ranging from player accessible sorcery to ghoulish monsters to mysterious, decaying ruins of ancient civilizations, keep a fantasy element prevalent and serve as a reminder that Theah is also a land of magic.
7th Sea takes a more narrative-oriented approach with its rule set, choosing to emphasize how a character is a hero over how skilled or powerful a character is. Character creation is simple, with the majority of a character’s aspects defined by which nation they hail from and choosing two of several predefined backgrounds. Later steps in the process allow for players to more uniquely define their character . Game play is divided between free form role-playing, dramatic scenes (scenes of building tension where heroes have time to think and plan while navigating dangers), and action scenes (scenes where the adrenaline is high and every second matters). Resolving challenges is handled by rolling pools of dice to get ‘raises’, which can be spent by a player to either succeed at a risky action or create an element in a scene for the party to interact with. Acting in accordance with a hero’s backgrounds, virtues and flaws rewards a player ‘hero points’, which can be spent to enhance actions or active special abilities. Player advancement is handled at the end of story arcs and involves collaboration between the player and gamemaster on what aspect of the hero’s sheet makes the most sense to grow.
The Reality (How well it actually works):
The setting of Theah falls into a sweet spot of being familiar enough (thanks to its European roots) for everyone to immediately grasp, but different enough to feel like a fantasy setting. Each nation has anywhere from six to nine pages of description and covers a variety of topics, painting broad strokes while leaving gamemasters and players to fill in the finer details if they lack the supplement books. The ‘Life in Theah’ chapter deals with aspects of the setting that apply to the multiple nations or the whole continent and fills in several areas not addressed in the nation’s section.
Despite its simplicity, character creation allows for a plethora of different concepts to feel fully developed. All aspects feel as if they build towards a whole, and even without the game of twenty questions at the beginning of the section players will have a solid idea of who their hero is by the end of the process.
The narrative-first approach makes it so characters are capable of heroics from the start of play, a refreshing change from the fighting of oversized rats and ill-tempered housecats normally required in early adventures. In 7th Sea, it’s the methods of those heroics that’s important, with the results of the action being decided by the dice and the action itself left mostly to description. An Ussuran bodyguard who takes out four bandits with his fists functions the same mechanically as a Vodacce street urchin who leads the town guard on a chase through back alleys and picks them off one by one with her superior knowledge of the terrain. Behind the scenes each player uses raises to get rid of the brutes, but on stage two different confrontations happen which emphasize who each hero is. This deviation from the standard RPG method of action/result gives way to a number of normally difficult to achieve concepts and scenes while rewarding players (and gamemasters) for creativity. Gamers used to more rules heavy systems may initially feel chafed or cheated by such a simplistic rule set that functions more off description and adaption than optimization and assigned roles. Some options can offer greater rewards from number crunching but at its core 7th Sea seeks a different mentality that may be a deal breaker for those looking for a more rule centric game.
One of the areas where the 7th Sea really shines is its take on magic. From the destiny warping Sorte of the Vodacce Fate Witches to the demon binding of Sarmatian Sanderis, players are given unique and flavorful options to explore the mystical side of Theah. All of the provided sorceries run off their own subsystem which successfully meshes mechanics and lore, further connecting heroes to the world. The double-edged nature of magic in 7th Sea also provides excellent fodder for personal stories.
For all it does right, 7th Sea falters a bit regarding clarity. The rules light system becomes vague when outside of combat and can leave players and gamemasters guessing when it comes to what heroes are capable of without the need for dice. Dramatic scenes suffer from a similar problem of being nebulous as to how much can be accomplished or effected with one ‘raise’ and what heroes can do when they no longer have raises to spend to push the scene forward.
Preparation seems to be the best solution to countering both issues, with predefined ‘can and can’t’ helping to dictate the actions available in various scenes. Gameplay can easily lead the plot off the rails though and a steep learning curve is present for understanding how to improvise a dramatic scene.
The Payoff (Conclusion):
7th Sea, 2nd edition takes a different approach to the nature of a roleplaying game and is rewarded for it. The world is imaginative and friendly to new players, the rules are simple and don’t ask players to sacrifice concept for efficiency or optimization, and overall the game is a great deal of fun for all involved (particularly when you bring in accents from the matching European countries). While some mechanics are less than clear, preparation and experience can help maintain the flow of game. To those hesitant of the narrative-first rule set, I urge you to set numbers aside and remember when you first began role playing and all you had to work off of was a concept; you won’t be disappointed by the results.