7th Sea Players Guide
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It's life on the high seas for me! Swashbuckling and sorcery together for an exciting new roleplaying game.
7th Sea takes place within the 100 years between the fall of Rome and the Industrial Revolution. <grin>
France is the courtly land of Louis XVI, Spain in embroiled in the inquisition, England is a bizarre mix of Arthurian and Elizabethan, and Norway is home to both brutish vikings and shrewd money-lenders. Every nation has its own unique form of sorcery, which only the nobility may wield and which are all cleverly created to be sublime and mysterious even to those who are fluent in them, and also difficult to use offensively in combat. (no magic missiles here!) The game is touted as high-seas swashbuckling, but actually more consideration is given to the inland cities and politics than pirates. On top of everything else, the game also includes the ruins of an ancient civilization, full of deadly traps and mysterious magical treasures, should you want to take your game in an 'Indiana Jones' direction.
Unfortunately, despite the richly detailed and wonderfully unique setting, actually sitting down and playing this game is a huge disappointment, especially if you're looking for the kind of high drama that the theme of the game is built on. First and foremost, the combat system is attrocious. Since I've been playing a lot of Tony Hawk Pro Skater recently, the analogy that immediately comes to mind is to imagine a skating video game, where you're skating smoothly through a park, but every time you approach a rail or a ramp or something else you can do tricks on, the game suddenly and jarringly switches to a turn-based, step-by-step, tactical game, in which whether or not you're able to do a trick is determined pretty much at random and has nothing to do with how much flair or style you put into it. In 7th Sea, as soon as the villain draws his sword, or throws his drink in your face, or crashes through the window, everyone rolls a number of dice equal to their speed, and the numbers on these dice determine which actions (1-10) you get to go on this turn. This may seem like a fair and reasonable system, but when you have more than two heroes, and when the villain has brought along henchmen (which he has to to stand a chance against more than one hero) you end up spending most of combat staring at the ceiling until it finally rolls around to your action, at which time your only choice is to slash the villain with your sword, since you can't do something cool and swashbuckley like pull the rug out from underneath the villain because you don't have the rug-pulling skill, or slice off the villain's moustache because you don't have the moustache-slicing skill, or even leap up onto a table because you don't have the leaping skill. The combat system also has a horrible multiple-hit-point system, wherein every time you get hit you take so many 'flesh wounds', which you roll against, and if you fail the roll you get 'dramatic wounds' and your 'flesh wounds' reset to zero. Not only does this add to the already painful number of die-rolls (roll for initiative, roll to hit, roll to parry, roll for damage, roll to soak), but it creates a nasty precedent of min/max-ing, wherein you can build up your opponent's flesh wounds with sword attacks, and then shoot them with a pistol, which does more bonus damage than a sword for however much they miss their soak roll by.
Non-combat rolls are also counter-intuitive, since the system is so heavily stat-based (as opposed to skill-based), so a witty, landlubbing French nobleman who has one point of navigation because he was interested in boats as a child would have far greater success navigating a ship (due to his high Wits stat) than a slightly less intelligent Viking navigator whose six points of navigation reflect the fact that he's been doing it his entire life. Another facet of the stat-based system is that, in addition to other bits in the rules, it encourages to the point of forcing players to create 'well-rounded' characters with equal levels on all their stats, which again contradicts the genre since 'well-rounded' and 'dramatic' do not go well together. I realize that these are rather niggling details that are common flaws with any game, but they've become very pointed to me in the four months that I've been running a game of 7th Sea, and the entire group has bemoaned the confusing and counter-dramatic mechanics, and despite the numerous changes we've made to improve the rules (such as dropping the 'flesh wounds' completely and giving everyone an 'armor class'-like number based on their strength) we still spend three hours at the end of every five hour night complaining about how the system simply does not work, and are now finally 'giving up the ship' as it were, and switching to a different system to continue our game in the beautiful 7th Sea world.
The one great element in the mechanics, despite all my complaining, is the concept of 'drama dice'; a reward players receive for doing something dramatic despite the stumbling-blocks against doing so inherent in the system, and which allow you to add an extra die to any roll you make. You can also receive drama dice automatically for using specific skills like 'tagging' (which is what you use to cut the villain's moustache off instead of actually wound him), and which allows for fun things like the example in the players guide, in which a dashing hero is dueling against a villainous priest in a cathedral full of candles, and taunts the priest by dousing a candle with his sword blade whenever the priest makes a mistake in his fencing, and only kills the priest once all the candles have been extinguished. (Mechanically-speaking, tagging the priest and thus gaining a drama die every time he extinguishes a candle, and then ending the fight by blowing the dozens of drama dice he's gleaned from tagging all the candles to put the smack down on the priest.) Unfortunately, cute little intricacies like this come as too little too late to save this game from itself, and feel more like those bittersweet happy moments you had with the ex-girlfriend who otherwise beat you, screamed at you, and spent all your money.