A few weeks ago a friend of mine began a campaign of the swashbuckling RPG 7th Sea. This is her first time serving as the game master of a tabletop game, and I had been assisting in her role by providing advice or answering questions as she prepared for the game. During sessions, I would operate in the player role, experiencing the game from the perspective of someone portraying a single character in the game’s world. This setup – mentoring from the GM side while also playing the game as a player character – has given me a pretty unique perspective on 7th Sea compared to other first impressions of RPGs. I’m experiencing both sides of the table all at once. When something happens to me as a player, I also have a view behind the screen that allows me to understand the GM mechanics that made the scene play out the way it did.
The pitch of 7th Sea is a strong one – play a crew of heroes in the spirit of The Three Musketeers, The Princess Bride, or Pirates of the Caribbean. It’s a game where swinging across the rigging with a cutlass in your teeth, kicking a goon into the water as you do so, and then parrying a pair of blades from a cruel naval captain all in one swift motion is the sort of action you’re angling for. The game has a fully-fleshed setting complete with multiple countries which each have extensive descriptions of their culture and history. Your nationality is important as it determines some of your basic abilities as well as giving you unique backgrounds which describe your character’s life before their current crew. In our particular campaign we are playing as the crew of a ship known as the Dirty Dragon, a pirate vessel where every sailor is like family. There are magical shenanigans galore as we search for treasure to line our pockets all while discovering the secret behind the mysterious identity of our ship’s captain.
The premise is an exciting one and our GM has done a great job so far of crafting interesting scenarios for us. The players have fully embraced our crew of quirky characters and there’s a lot of laughter to be heard around the (virtual) table when we play. Unfortunately, I don’t think 7th Sea itself gets to take very much credit for the fun which we are experiencing. While I appreciate what the mechanics are trying to do and am glad we all took a shot at playing something different than our usual fare, I find the 7th Sea system to be uniquely frustrating as a result of its quirky rules.
7th Sea is divided structurally into two types of scenes: the dramatic sequence and the action sequence. An action sequence, of course, is a combat scene, when heroes deal and receive wounds from squads of brutes or dangerous villains until one side is defeated or surrenders. Dramatic sequences are for any other situations which are risky or interesting: sneaking onto a rival vessel, seducing the duchess to gather information, running from a tumbling boulder after removing the sacred treasure from its pedestal; the list goes on. Any situation that doesn’t quite qualify as either a dramatic sequence or an action sequence is essentially just an opportunity for roleplaying, and there are no clearly defined lines for when these sorts of scenes should transition into one of the other two.
Let’s look first at dramatic sequences. When a dramatic sequence begins, the player declares their approach to the situation. For example, for a dramatic scene in our game involving stealing crates of jewelry from a marketplace to carry back to the ship, I chose to approach by standing by until the time came to do some serious hauling, at which point I would use my impressive physique to carry the crates back quickly. Based on this description, the player rolls dice equal to one trait (a quality such as brawn, wits, or panache) and one skill (a practiced ability such as sailing, weapon fighting, or hiding) in order to form a pool of numbers. Adding these numbers together into sets of 10 creates “raises” which you then spend to take actions. In my case, I was using brawn and athletics together, a combination which gave me 7 dice to work with. On average, you can expect raises equal to half your dice pool, which turned out to be true for me in this case – I got 3 raises which allowed me to take three actions during the scene.
One of the big limitations to this mechanic is that an action which differs from your approach requires you to spend an extra raise for the action. So if your situation changes and you need to act differently, your pool of potential actions suddenly diminishes. The idea here is for you to stick to your approach, but the problem is in a lot of the situations which are appropriate for dramatic sequences chances are good that a couple of different skills will make sense to work together. Want to infiltrate an office building on the docks to procure another vessel’s papers? Both Hide and Theft will probably make sense for your approach, but you can only pick one and will have to spend double to engage in the other. If you shoot a gun are you Aiming or using a Weapon? Yes. The answer is of course both, but your goal as a player in 7th Sea is to lobby for the GM to see things your way so that you can somehow manage to use your best skills in every scenario while changing your approach as rarely as possible. Your approach is expected to last the full length of a dramatic scene, which means you’ll roll dice one time to resolve a whole sequence of actions while already committing to exactly how you’re going to resolve them.
I think it’s valuable here to take a moment to discuss what the raises are supposed to feel like or what they are meant to accomplish. In many tabletop roleplaying games, you roll dice to see if an action succeeds or fails. You may say “I aim the cannon and fire a powerful shot directly into the hull of the opposing ship,” but on a pitiful roll of the dice your shot goes wide or the cannon jams and your turn comes to an end. Raises are meant to avoid that problem by giving you narrative authority for a moment – you roll dice to earn raises and then use those raises to say “this definitely happens.” A single raise can encompass a series of smaller actions that all build up to a meaningful one, allowing for those cool moments where you leap off of the bar, swing from the chandelier, barely tumble through a closing door and punch out the thug who was trying to escape with your coin purse. The intent of the raise system is to give you the opportunity to narrate a competent, daring hero who always pulls off moves that defy expectations.
Despite this intent, what I have found is that the raise system actually works to suck some of the tension out of dramatic sequences by removing the random element from the game. What’s random is the number of actions you get, not the outcome of those actions. Add this to the frustration of only being able to reasonably perform actions that fall into a narrow category and dramatic sequences lose their luster pretty early on. Raises are meant to add freedom to the game but in reality they have the opposite effect, restricting your creative options to a set of predefined and overlapping skills.
Action sequences use a similar approach in the sense that you’re still adding together a trait and a skill to roll a pool of dice for raises which can then be spent on actions, but there are a few changes. The big one is that action sequences are resolved in rounds, which means you do get to roll dice multiple times during a scene and you can change skills as needed. This makes action sequences a lot more granular and focused (pretty standard for most games) and with that has the benefit of moving away from one of the most frustrating aspects of the dramatic sequences – the inability to realistically change how you are approaching a situation. The petty distinctions between two skills that might be closely related or often pair together – such as theft and hide – matter more when broken down into small rounds consisting of only a couple of key actions. This change, while small, makes action sequences a lot more tolerable for me in 7th Sea’s core rules.
Actions in battle meant to harm the opponent inflict wounds. The damage system in 7th Sea involves a “death spiral” where wounds build up to dramatic wounds with bigger consequences, and as you gain more and more wounds the scenario spirals and intensifies. Wounds are inflicted at a rate of one per raise spent, meaning you can deal as much damage in a turn as you have actions to burn. Of course, this only applies to the heroes and villains – squads of nameless goons are more easily eliminated as you can take them out at a rate of one goon per raise. Raises are also your defense and initiative – whoever has the most raises is the character whose turn it is, and you can spend raises to negate the raises spent by an opponent to defend against their attacks.
The damage rate of one per raise seems reasonable at first glance. It essentially reflects how good you are at the skill you are using by having you deal higher damage when you roll higher, rewarding you for using the trait and skill which gives you the largest combination of dice. Where it gets frustrating is when you factor in just how many raises you need to accumulate in order to defeat your opponent. A villain with a Strength of 10 is meant to take a dramatic wound at every 11th hit, meaning you’ll have to cumulatively get 44 raises in order to win the battle. That’s a significant amount when the average number of raises for a roll is 3, particularly when you consider that some of those raises will likely be spent dealing with adjoining brute squads, protecting vulnerable assets that the villain attacks, and defending the player characters themselves from damage.
Put another way, 7th Sea confuses “compelling or difficult battles” with “long battles,” making stronger enemies much slower to fight and giving the GM multiple tools to slow the game down. Monsters can inflict fear which reduces the number of dice rolled by the players. A danger point spent by the GM makes it so that dice must add up to 15 instead of 10 to create a raise, greatly reducing the number of raises for a round. When working together, these features can really drag out a battle even if there is very little physical threat posed to the player characters. In a game where the goal is supposedly to have exciting swashbuckling battles with people swinging off of objects and performing daring feats mid-battle, the action sequences themselves are slow and rely a lot on the ability of the GM and the players to describe exciting scenes rather than the ability of the rules to create them.
It doesn’t help that the book offers very little guidance on any ways to circumvent the wound system. During a fight with a pair of lizard monsters kidnapping crew members from our ship, I had the idea to stun a lizard, tie it up with the severed tail of one of its allies, and then throw it into the sea. Such an action fits really well with the idea of a battle on the high seas, but didn’t translate clearly into damage and seemed like it would be a killing move on an enemy not designed to be killed in a single raise. The GM had to make a call there about what to do totally unsupported by the text of the game. For a first time GM, having unclear rules to work with can really complicate the process of running a game. My friend is having to do design work to make up for the shoulder-shrugging approach of the original designer who didn’t write in how to handle scenarios where use of a raise would circumvent an enemy’s “death spiral.” It’s another example of the weird contradiction of 7th Sea, a game that in its attempt to give you more freedom instead creates structures that restrict your creative freedom.
Our group is still playing 7th Sea and we’re enjoying the experience, but the game itself deserves little credit. 7th Sea promises swashbuckling action but yanks all of the tension out of “dramatic” scenes while action scenes go overly long rather than feeling quick and punchy. We’ve already begun the process of hacking new rules into our campaign to try and address these issues; for that reason, I’m not sure I’ll have much to say about 7th Sea beyond these first impressions. We are in a sense ceasing to play it, instead using the game as a springboard to move towards our own vision of what a swashbuckling game might feel like. I’m glad we took the risk of trying out a new game and got the opportunity to experience something different. That said, 7th Sea as written is a “different” experience that I won’t be returning to anytime soon.