13th Sea or Maybe 7th Age

fancyWhat follows here is going to look very familiar to fans of 13th Age and Everway. I am entirely ok with this.  I note that I am SUPER appreciative that the new 7th Sea is not overrun with NPCs who are much cooler than the players, but there is still a place for NPCs, and that place is making your game more awesome. So with that in mind:

 


Populating Theah

This is an optional rule set designed to help the GM and players add some faces to their version of Thea. it uses the Sorte deck to create a number of iconic roles, then ties those roles to the players and to the setting.

Step 1: Select the cards

Eventually there will be an official 7th Sea Sorte deck, and it will no doubt offer a great many more face cards to use as Arcana, but until that happens, we’re going to work with the Arcana in the main book, which largely align with the major arcana of a tarot deck.  So when I say ‘deck of cards’, for the moment, I mean an Sorte deck by proxy.  I’ll update this once there’s more to work with.

Select a number of cards equal to one plus twice the number of players (so for 3 players, draw 7 cards). The easiest way to do this is to just randomly draw them, but there is no harm in a little theater at this point – have each player draw one, then have the GM draw a spread of them perhaps. However you accomplish this, this stack of cards is now your story deck.

Step 2: Three Cards Per Player – the good, the bad and the the uncertain

Perform the following step once per player – make a note of the cards they select, shuffle them back into the deck, then proceed to next player.

Each player is going to end up with face up three cards – one will be upright, one will be upside down, one will be sideways. These three cards and their positions are your hero’s reading.

readingHow exactly this happens depends on you and your group, but I’d suggest chosing from the following:

  • Player chooses cards and position
  • Player chooses cards but randomly deal positions
  • Player randomly draws cards but chooses positions
  • Player randomly draws cards into positions

Feel free to mix it up within your group. If one player wants to choose and another wants to let the cards fall where they may, then let them. it won’t hurt. The player also has the option to draw and play any card face down (we trust them not to look). The GM will make note of what card it was, but will not mention it to the player. There is no obligation to do this, but peopel who like awesome thing may want to consider at least one card face down.

For context, the card which is upright represents an ally or patron – someone who is on the Hero’s side. This does not mean they’re an unalloyed good – a meddling parent might fall in this category – but they mostly come down in the hero’s favor.

The card which is inverted represents an enemy or nemesis, someone who works against the hero. It might be a personal vendetta, or it might be that their goals simply conflict with the hero. Whatever their motive, they are interested in the hero in a problematic way.

(Importantly, there is nothing that says an ally is a good guy or an enemy is a villain. Life is a little more complicated than that.)

The card on it’s side is….complicated. The hero’s relationship with this figure is neither good nor bad, but is certainly interesting. Perhaps they are tied to the hero through conflicting ideals (the love the hero, but duty makes them enemies), or by an unknown agenda. Or perhaps they’re related – family is almost always complicated.

Once this has been done for every player, you’ll notice that there will be some overlap between the cards selected, but there is no guarantee that the roles will align. My enemy may be your ally and may be her complicated relationship. That is a good thing.

Now that we’ve assigned these abstract roles, let’s see about putting some flesh on them.

Step 3: Attach Faces to Cards

You can ABSOLUTELY invert steps 2 and 3, and if you’re getting player participation in this step then I would even encourage it. However, this step is a little time consuming, so I am technically putting it after step 2 so the GM can do this after the game as needed. But if everyone is into it, then take the time to flesh out the cards first. It very much changes the tone of step 2 (since it’s now about actual characters, not abstract cards) and you might find that preferable.

Each card is associated with a certain type of person, as described in the card. The exact details and suggestions are found in each card’s entry (below), but it is up to the GM (and the players, if they’re contributing) to decide who the card is associated with.

There’s no catch. The card could be anyone. If you want The Emperor to be L’Empereur of Motaigne, then so be it. Scale doesn’t matter – the only thing that matters is that this character would be interesting in your game. But on the other hand, you are free to make up a character to suit the role – The Emperor in your game might rule the empire of Motaigne, but in another game, he may be One Eyed Dougal, the kingpin of crime in Carleon. In both cases he is a powerful, arrogant but commanding figure with great resources at his disposal, the difference is which be your game is going to see a lot of.

But there’s a further trick – you shape your game with the cards you select. If you decide to assign L’Empereur to The Devil, or even The Lovers, you are making some pretty explicit (and pretty cool) changes to some of the assumptions people might have going into it.

The Default Deck

Some of these are roles rather than names – this is intentional, both to support future products and to allow you to fill them in on your own. Also, some of these are SUPER on the nose, but if it is subtlety you seek, that princess is in a mother castle.

  • The Fool (The O’Bannon)
  • The Road (El Vagabundo)
  • The Magician (Koshchei)
  • The Lovers (Valentina Villanova and Juliette)
  • The Wheel (Sigvald Gunnisen)
  • The Devil (Cardinal Verdugo)
  • The Tower (Niklas Träge)
  • The Beggar(Stanislaw II)
  • The Witch (Matushka)
  • The War (Elsa Posen)
  • The Hanged Man (Good King Sandoval)
  • The Coins (Head of Močiutės Skara)
  • The Thrones (Elaine)
  • The Moonless Night (Giovanni Villanova)
  • The Sun ( Head of Riliscaire)
  • The Prophet (Head of The Knights of the Rose & Cross)
  • Reunion (Head of the Invisible College)
  • The Hero ( El Vagabundo )
  • The Glyph ( Head of the Explorer’s society )
  • The Emperor (L’Empereur)

Making Your Own Faces

The default deck is very universal, touching all parts of Theah (though it’s light on Pirates). You should absolutely treat it as a starting point, and customize it to suit your campaign. Specifically, if there are things you aren’t interested in, then remove them from the deck! If your game is never going to touch Ussura, then you absolutely need a new Magician and Witch. I am only using the characters from the book because they’re a common touch point – they should absolutely be tweaked to your game.

Faces and Secrets

Some players may have opted to play some of their reading face down, so they explicitly don’t know who is in that role for them. That’s straightforward enough. The next question is whether you want to keep any more of the deck hidden from them, or more specifically, keep hidden from them what characters are tied to the cards in the deck.

I would only suggest doing this with the enthusiastic buy in from your players. Secrets are not intrinsically bad, but they’re not intrinsically good either – they’re only useful insofar as they drive fun or exciting reveals. If your players want to be surprised, then don’t deprive them of that. But if they’d rather have the full picture (to better equip them for writing their own stories), then you should support that.

Step 4: Using the deck and readings in play

It would be entirely possible to come up with some baroque system whereby the elements coming into play from a character’s reading impact their hero point generation or give them a benefit on shortening stories or otherwise have some sort of mechanical hook. But doing so would rather miss the point. The purpose of this system is not to drive mechanics, but rather to attach some faces to the setting in a way that ties them directly to players.

For players, the reading is mostly informational. Notably, it gives them explicit permission to write anyone in their readings into their stories, but create no obligation to do so.

For the GM…well, there are LOTS of tricks.

First and foremost, this has just created a vast trove of useful passive information that you can use to make your game more awesome. You could never touch the cards again and still reap great benefits from this approach. But why stop there?

You now have a great tool for answering questions on the fly. Found yourself up against a wall looking for a twist to keep your players interested? Flip the next card and behold the secret mastermind about to be revealed! Sure, maybe it won’t make much sense, but it’ll get you thinking in new ways, and you’ll find that can be a great way out of a jam.

You also have a tool for crafting stories. You can cast fortunes with the deck you created for this game, and take them as inspiration for a story. There are lots of potential spreads, so I’m going to illustrate two simple ones.

First, you can mirror the player’s spread – 2 cards, then one card sideways. The first card is the past, the second card is the present, the third card is the thing in balance. What that means is up to you, but you already have people and a relationship – odds are good you can lay some meat on those bones.

spread1Second, you could go for a fancier 6 card spread. You can either cast this yourself (reveal them in order) or do it with the players to see what it gets them thinking. You can just do this generically, but if you start with a very clear question, it makes things work much better The six cards, arranged according to the illustrations are:

  1. The current situation. This is the card the other stuff is about.
  2. The likely Outcome
  3. The Pursuer – something Making trouble
  4. The Inspiration – an ally or help
  5. The Manipulator – something hidden that is influencing events
  6. The Crux – the pivot point, the thing that what happens will depend on

spread2

GM Tip: People can be bigger than themselves. If the cards suggest that L’Empereur is present, he need not show up personally. Someone in his sphere of influence, like a musketeer or spy

Even if you forgo any other use, consider just doing the following – flip three cards at the start of any session and leave them out as threat and promise.  You’re not obliged to touch upon any of those three in play, but you will be reminded that you can.

Step 5: As the World Changes

Players are free to change their readings between sessions as their story evolves. No Problem.

If a card needs to be retired (say, if the person it’s linked to is killed), then that card gets shuffled back into the main deck, and a new card is drawn and placed in the story deck. It’s given a new face, and players may update

Step 6: Ok, fine, Have Some Damned Mechanics

If you absolutely must have some mechanics, consider the following.

  • The GM must do the 3 card flop at the beginning of a session. For every card that shows up on a character’s spread, put one hero point and one danger point on the card.
  • At any point in the game where a helpful or complicated card on a hero’s spread might help them out (directly or indirectly) that player may take a hero point off the card. The GM then takes a Danger point.
  • If the GM wishes to use the threat to complicate things, she may take a danger point off a chard that is at least one hero’s threat or complicated.  The hero whose threat that card is may take a hero point (if there’s more than one, the GM takes enough danger points to pay everyone.

Kill Your Cliffhangers

cliffhangerThe Invisible Sun kickstarter has me thinking a lot about how to handle gameplay in a world of erratic schedules and spotty attendance. I think there are a lot of techniques for dealing with this that I either take for granted or don’t think about very much, and I would like to really unpack them into something useful.

The rub is that there are two different categories of issues here, one that stems from an excess of time, one that stems from a shortage. There are a lot of great techniques for dealing with an excess of time – flashbacks, one off scenes, bluebooking, parallel play and so on. These are great ways for players to participate in the game outside of the time at the table, and these contributions can be pulled into play. This is fun, and I’ll totally get back to it at another time, but my real problem is at the other end of the spectrum.

What can you do when there’s not enough time to play and scheduling is a problem? As folks get older and there start being things like kids and more demanding careers, this is a real concern. This is certainly the space I’m in, and I’ve put no small amount of work into finding tricks for dealing with this.

The first and most critical change has entailed a change to the underlying structure of the games I run. This takes a number of different forms, but their shared purpose is to make it logical for players to come and go with some frequency.

The most straightforward solution to this is to support these comings and goings in game. This isn’t hard if the game has some underlying weirdness – there can be some in-setting reason for people to become dimensionally untethered, slip out of time or fall back to the waking world at inopportune moments (and re-appear just as easily). I infer that Invisible Sun does this through The Shadow, and it’s a good trick.

This trick can be used in a lot of places, but not everywhere. Sometimes it’s just a poor match for the setting, and you need to figure out another approach. The solution I’be found works best is a combination of fixed locations, episodic play and an ensemble cast.

Fixed location games are those that take place in one general location, such as a city or a space station. The nature of the place is such that adventure and adventure opportunities come to the location, and the heroes only rarely need to venture outside of it. Examples include Babylon 5, Deep Space Nine, and any number of fantasy cities, with the best examples probably found in shared fiction, like Sanctuary or Liavek.

One element of this location is that characters need to have a role within its context. This might be a position of importance (head of security) or just proximity (it’s the port they call home) but whatever form it takes, it serves as the thing the character is doing when not in play. This is not just for color – it is the thing that provides the explanation for why they’re not available. Even if it would be great to have Security Officer Rimbaldi along on this bug hunt, he’s got a matter to deal with over in the diplomat wing, and he can’t get free.

This idea of a role creates a problem for using starship crews or magical academies as the heart of a fixed location. It’s not impossible, but you need to take steps to explicitly address why some people are only available some of the time.

Even without the role, the fixed location makes it very easy for the group to reconnect whenever necessary. If the game is on the move, you not only need to justify a departure, but also figure out how people get back together, and that can be even more of a bear.

Episodic Play is one of those ideas that seems like it should be simple, but fights against a lot of habit. As the name suggests, a session of play is more like an episode of a television show than a part of a serial. There are a lot of implications to this, but the biggest one flies in the face of decades of GM advice, some of which I have authored myself – it means you need to retire the cliffhanger.

Yes, the cliffhanger is a time-honored tradition, one very strongly baked into our lore. When you see a good depiction of gaming in the media, it almost always ends with the GM introducing something terrible then announcing “and we’ll see you all next week!”, to the collected groans of the table.

So this is hard advice to give, but if you have uneven attendance, cliffhangers are going to make you’re life harder. Not only may you lose players between cliffhanger and resolution, you also need to deal with players who missed the cliffhanger coming in for the resolution, and there is not a lot that takes the air out of a cliffhanger like needing to re-explain it.

In the absence of cliffhangers, the goal becomes to wrap up a complete arc within one session, which requires a lot of attention to pacing. Thankfully there are a few tricks to simplify things, both in prep and in play.

In prep, take a little bit of extra time to think about the exit ramps from your scenario, sort of like inverted hooks. The iconic example of this is the dungeon – a 5 room dungeon might make for a night’s entertainment, but a 50 room labyrinth is going to leave you ending mid-dungeon. That may sound anemic, but look around online – there are a lot of very good small dungeon scenarios out there, and they’re worth a look. Owen K.C. Stephens in particular has a knack for them.

In play, be more aggressive in your use of the “camera” as GM. When it comes time to frame a scene, do it aggressively and generously. By aggressively, I mean start the action close to the action, and by generously I mean do it in a way that assumes the characters have been smart and competent. Using scene framing to screw players is a great way to destroy trust, but doing it generously is a great way to get their buy in.

By the same token, know when to tie things off and move onto the next scene. You don’t always need to do this – sometimes players want to sit around and chew the fat. But if they’re doing that 2 hours into a 4 hour session, then keep things moving. But if you can get this sense of timing down, then short scenes become a viable option. That may seem a small thing, but if your table is comfortable resolving some things quickly, then a lot more can be happening in your world without it needing to be all epic all the time.

Short scenes also mean that if your game comes to a conclusion at the 3 hour mark in a 4 hour session, you have things to do with that last hour. That relieves a lot of the stress to time things out just so.

I’ve mentioned time twice so far, but it bears mention a third time. Once you start looking to get in a full session in the window you have available, it helps to watch the clock. This one is hard for me – it feels counterintuitive. I want to get into the flow of the moment and time will take care of itself. But that’s a selfish instinct. I don’t need to be a slave to the map, but I should be aware of it.

We’re just skimming the surface here, but this is one of those areas where it’s worth studying what makes for good television. You don’t need to go full Prime Time Adventures, but it’s worth seeing what makes the episodic TV you like exciting to you and seeing how to translate that to the table.

The Ensemble Cast is another idea easily traced to television where the idea is that the entire cast is larger than you’ll see in any given episode. Star Trek provides numerous examples of this – the crew of any given ship is usually larger than the number of people with actual lines in an episode. There are not a lot of techniques associated with this idea, but it’s an important concept to bear in mind. Not only does it make the shifting cast (based on attendance) seem more appropriate, it impacts prep and gives the GM explicitly permission to narrow the scope of what to prepare.

What this means may depend on the GM. On the practical side, it may mean not throwing a stealth mission in when all the thieves are out on spring break. On the narrative side, it may mean you have a little bit more leeway bringing in characters personal issues because you know the scope is narrower.

***

There is one more option that I explicitly have not mentioned here: Friendly Mechanics.

Many games have rules that make flexible scheduling easier. Often, these loosen the 1:1 relationship between character and player. This may be as lightweight was a system that allows or encourages players to play NPCs in scenes that their main character is not involved in, or it could be as structured as Ars Magica’s system of creating several different characters and then choosing who to play situationally.

There’s a lot of good stuff in this space, but I do not consider it essential for one simple reason – it’s not to everyone’s taste. I can do fixed locations, episodic play and an ensemble cast with almost any game out there, shaped to the tastes of the players of that game. But once I start changing the rules, that’s a whole other ball of wax.

It’s a ball of wax I’m happy to tackle, but it’s a topic for another time.

Tarnished Iron and Debt

Women with a glowing metal gauntlet raised and ready to kick some ass.Conversation on twitter with @robweiland and @hippywizard lead to me spending my lunch writing the house rules I would use to address that grumpiness about dracheneisen in 7th Sea.  And thus, I share. 

In first edition 7th Sea, one of the most delightful things about the Eisen was that their signature was punching evil in the face with a dracheneisen gauntlet. In 2nd edition, this has been replaced with creepy magic, and it feels like an unfair tradeoff. Dracheneisen still exists in the setting, but it’s explicitly put out of the reach of starting characters.

I don’t like this much. The easy solution is to just say it’s purchaseable as a more expensive signature item. Technically, the rules suggest that a dracheneisen item would be worth 10 points, but considering what 5 points gets you, that seems extreme. So if you want the quick fix, add the following:

NEW ADVANTAGE: Heir to Iron (5 points, Eisen Only)

You own a dracheneisen artifact, either a heavy melee weapon, a piece of armor or a panzerhand. Describe it in detail, bearing in mind that it should have a storied history.

  • It is indestructible by any normal means
  • It has all the benefits of a signature item (see the advantage of that name).
  • It glows when within 30′ of a monster
  • If brandished before a monster, monstrous abilities which cost 1 danger point cost 2. If the item leaves the scene, the benefit is lost
  • If it is a weapon, it causes one extra wound when striking a character with a Sorcery Advantage or Monster Quality.
  • If it is a piece of armor, once per scene you may spend a hero point to avoid the automatic dramatic wound from a firearm
  • If it is a Panzerhand, and you are fighting in the Eisenfaust style, it acts as both armor and weapon.

NEW BACKGROUND: Iron Heir (Eisen Only)

You are the heir to a proud tradition, embodied by the dracheneisen weapon handed down to you. You must live up to it, or die trying.

Quirk: Earn a hero Point when you opt not use your Dracheneisen artifact in a situation where it would be helpful because the foe or task is unworthy.

Advantages: Heir to Iron

Skills: Athletics, Intimidate, Scholarship, Warfare, Weaponry


However, if you want to buy into the idea that dracheneisen should be rare and is really worth 10 steps of a story, then consider the following:

NEW ADVANTAGE: Tarnished Dracheneisen (4 points, Eisen only)

Dracheneisen cannot be destroyed, but it can become tarnished. No one is entirely sure how this happens – the Eisen say that it can happen when the weapon is shamed by its wielder, but alchemists are skeptical, expecting that the process is more mundane. Whatever the explanation, it can be cleaned, but not easily. The Eisen say that only the blood of monsters can clean Dracheneisen, and that is not terribly far from he truth.

You own a dracheneisen artifact, either a heavy melee weapon, a piece of armor or a panzerhand. Describe it in detail, bearing in mind that it should have a storied history.

  • It is indestructible by any normal means
  • It has all the benefits of a signature item (see the advantage of that name).

It is possible to “unlock” the other attributes of the item through stories. There are three levels of purification, each of which requires a 2 step story (usually 1. Find a rare monster, 2. Kill the hell out of it).

  • After the first story, It glows when within 30′ of a monster
  • After the second story, If brandished before a monster, monstrous abilities which cost 1 danger point cost 2. If the item leaves the scene, the benefit is lost
  • After the third and final story, it gains a benefit based on its form:
    • If it is a weapon, it causes one extra wound when striking a character with a Sorcery Advantage or Monster Quality.
    • If it is a piece of armor, once per scene you may spend a hero point to avoid the automatic dramatic wound from a firearm
    • If it is a Panzerhand, and you are fighting in the Eisenfaust style, it acts as both armor and weapon.

NEW BACKGROUND: Trubeneisen

Your name is a storied one, but it has been shamed. You carry an artifact that is marked by that shame. It will be made clean again. So you swear.

Quirk: Gain a hero point when you take a risk to protect your good name.

Advantages: Survivalist, Tarnished Dracheneisen

Skills: Athletics, Intimidate, Scholarship, Warfare, Weaponry


OPTIONAL RULE: Debt

Sometimes circumstances result in a character getting an advantage that they haven’t paid for. If this is just a momentary circumstance, then all is well – fate giveth and fate taketh away. However, sometimes it’s a real change to the character that has not been “paid for” in points to story.

In those circumstances, the player has accrued a debt equal to the number of story steps they would have needed to gain the advantage in question. Debt can be “paid off” with a story equal to the size of the debt. If a character somehow accrues more than one debt, track them separately, and remove them separately (that is, if Gaston has a debt of 3 and a debt of 2, they can be removed with a 3 step story and a 2 step story. it need not be a 5 step story, though that would work too).

At the beginning of a session, when the GM collects danger points, she gains one extra danger point for every point of debt among the characters present. a

Reading 7th Sea, Second Edition

Image of a woman in swashbuckling garb with her sword at the ready. The building around her is on fire, but she seems focused on her unseen adversary. Her hat is magnificent. (Image clipped from Chapter 3 of the 7th Sea corebook)

Yeah, It’s kind of like that.

When I started this, I was going to do a point by point readthrough of the new edition of 7th Sea in excruciating detail, and I got about 120 pages in before I realized that there were so many little things that raised my eyebrow that the whole tone was feeling more negative than I would have liked. It’s not that those concerns weren’t valid, but a lot of them were different reflections of the same underlying issues, and it was harsh for it to keep getting dinged for those. As a result, I’m zooming out a bit. This still won’t be short, but it won’t all be bullet points either.

I come into this game with a lot of baggage. I loved the first edition of 7th Sea, warts and all, and I’ve been watching development, even going out of my way to avoid spoilers. I am going into this with some hopes which I took a moment to write down before I started reading:

  • Setting changes that makes pirates make sense. I’d also be happy if the archaeology angle made more sense too, but I’m equally ok with that falling down a hole.
  • PCs being awesome, not just in the shadow of badass NPCs
  • Less dumb metaplot
  • Things that make secret societies cool out of the box rather than leaving them to be surprises, whether good (Die Kreutzritter) or terrible (Daughters of Sophia)
  • No character build options predicated on “Suck now to be ok in 25 sessions or so!” (that is to say, the way swordsman schools were handled)
  • No forcing players to spend XP

Of those 6 things, we have 3 solid hits, and 3 TBDs based on the splat strategy, so that could be worse.

The main thing I discovered is that familiarity is the most dangerous thing in this book. For me, it made it hard to read the setting without my knowledge of the previous edition. In many games that would not be a problem, but first edition 7th Sea was rife with secrets whose explanations were deferred until the splatbooks came out. In some cases those splatbooks upended previous understandings of things (this is not a great practice in my mind, but it sells books). As a result, when faced with a high level information, I tend not to trust it, wondering if it’s just a facade waiting for the reveal.

But I do not know if that’s fair or not. The splats haven’t come yet. It’s entirely possible that they’ve discarded the deep and abiding metaplot, and I am worrying about nothing. I hope that’s the case. This new edition gives players some wonderful new tools for shaping the world, and big metaplot would be all the worse for it.

So I am trying to set aside my wariness, but even with the most generous read, it is hard not not notice what was done differently, and ponder what priorities that represents (not necessarily in a bad way). Such changes are a flag of creator’s intent, so I cannot help but be curious about it.

Ok, enough meta-analysis: How about the book itself?

The Book

It’s nice! Solid, full color glossy paged hardcover. Cover image is striking. I’m not sure it’s my imagination that the dude (in secondary position behind the lady swashbuckler, a lovely touch) looks a little like the cinematic version of John Wick and I’m good with that. Page design is functional – very straightforward colophon, minimal page decoration. Layout mostly gets out of the way – a little bland, but that’s better than the alternative. Lots of browns, though, which makes it feel a little d20ish.

The art is quite good throughout. I won’t call out favorite pieces, but I want to give especial notice for the chapter separators. Each chapter opens with a full color two page spread, and they’re lovely and striking. It’s also diverse and interesting – there’s a nice analysis of the art available if you’re interested.

That said, the index is terrible. It’s maybe a page and a quarter long, which is dreadfully short for a book of this size. This problem is exacerbated by the fact that a lot of terms and ideas are used before they’re explained, so if the reader decided to check the index to figure out what’s being talked about, they will probably come up dry. As I was reading, this was kind of maddening (and lead to a lot of “Nope, not in the index” bullet points.)

What’s Changed

There is no equivalent of the nation pages from the original edition. This would not normally merit mention, but they were so striking and so essential to the sense of the original game that their absence is noteworthy. However,the art throughout the book is in color and of good quality, so the absence is not a problem if you aren’t looking for it.

The Map

It’s lovely. Looks like an actual map, with actual stuff on it. It’s in the frontspiece but not the back, which seems odd, but not a big deal. There’s also a less accurate map in the main body of the book, so there’s a more handout-suitable version. However, one downside of such remarkable mapwork is that it makes the absences stand out. There are numerous references to more distant nations (ones which are getting their own books) but they’re outside of the scope of the map presented, so I’m left quite confused as to where they’re supposed to be, which becomes an issue when they talk about how they interact with the nation of Theah.

What’s Changed

At first glance, the map seems vaguely similar to 1e, but that’s mostly because the 1e map was a lot of blobs squished together. There have actually been some substantial changes to geography since 1e, most notably with Montaigne & Castille put in less proximity to one another, and Eisen placed in such a way that it makes a lot of sense that all the armies of Theah have battled across it. Vesten is no longer islands, but rather a scandanavian-style peninsula. The addition of the Sarmatian Commonwealth east of Vodacce pushes the Crescent Empire a little further west and does a better job of isolating it from Theah than CRPG style impassable mountains. Cathay now appears to be the steppes rather than magic China, but there’s some inference in that conclusion.

Introduction

The opening fiction is about twice as long as it needs to be, and suffers from a flash-forward opening without payoff. It’s not bad, certainly, but the bar for the very first story is high.

The game text opens with a list of the things the Game is about: “Swashbuckling and Sorcery”, “Piracy and Adventure”, “Diplomacy and Intrigue”, “Archaeology and Exploration” and “Romance and Revenge”. I could probably quibble with the various descriptions of these things, but I can’t fault the game for laying them out there.

The “What is an RPG” stuff which is pretty boilerplate. Interestingly, the “Rulings vs. Rules” sidebar (which I agree with) reads like “This is where we would mention rule zero, but we cannot actually say rule zero”1. There’s also some advance notice that the GM section is full of tips and tricks, which is no surprise to anyone who digs John Wick’s stuff. I’m certainly enthused to get to it.

It rounds out with the super-high-level review of the setting – list of nations, and the single paragraph on key concepts like the church, secret societies. This is where some places outside of Theah get mentioned, but they use colorful terms rather than the actual names used elsewhere in the book, which introduces some undue confusion.

What’s Changed

The addition of a new nation (The Sarmatian Commonwealth) was fairly loudly previewed, so it’s inclusion on the nation list is no great shock. What is surprising is that rather than one Avalon entry, we have 3, one for each of the isles (Avalon, Inismore and the Highland Marches). They remain similarly privileged for the whole of the game. When I mention trying to suss out intent from changes? This one here is a big one.

Setting

Very first point in the chapter is about diversity – men and women as explicitly on much more equal footing. More vaguely, race is kind of less of a thing, with nationality being more important than skin tone. It’s a little awkward, but it’s faux-europe, so it’d kind of have to be. Full props for putting it front and center.

What follows is an entry for each nation: Avalon, Castille, Eisen, The Highland Marches, Inismore, Montaigne, Sarmatian Commonwealth, Ussura, Vestenmennavenjar and Vodacce. The entries span from 5 to 10 pages in length, and follow a general pattern of loose history, current events and culture (covering topics from Names to religion to etiquette to Food). Some entries also cover politics and geography, some do not. It ends with a page of their opinion of other nations. Notably, the Pirate Nations get referenced here, though the game is officially treating them as a secret society.

These are, frankly, a little uneven. There is a trick to writing setting material in such a way that it conveys information but also gives you immediate hooks to play. Miss that mark too much to one side and you get an almanac entry. Miss too much to the other, and you have style without substance. Threading that needle is tricky, and the various entries do it to varying degrees.

7th Sea has an extra challenge in this regard, because it is modeled on a simplified version of history that largely works because it resonates with stereotypical images in our minds. That is a great trick, but it needs to be taken into account. Re-explaining the stereotype is a good way to waste words.

Ok, with that said, let’s dive in.

Avalon is faux-England, with an Elizabeth analog (Elaine) having taken the throne by virtue of holding the Holy Grail equivalent, something that also brought Glamour Magic back to the isles. Elaine rules Avalon, Inismore (Ireland) and The Highland Marches (Scotland) and it’s largely all going pretty well with only a few tensions beneath the surface. She also runs the Church of Avalon, but that doesn’t seem to be too much of a big deal when contrasted with the Objectionists (protestants) on the continent. In splitting Avalon into 3 nations, they ended up removing some of what would have made the Avalon entry interesting, and it reveals that by itself, Avalon is a little dull, though they do fund a lot of pirates.

Castille (Faux spain) is nicely set up. It should be an awesome place. They have great infrastructure, big friendly families, plenty of resources and all the other things that could make for a pretty good life. Except it’s taken a triple blow – it just fought off an invasion from Montaigne, so that took a toll. The Vaticine Church, which has its seat in Castille, is currently leaderless, and the Inquisition runs amok. And the young king is weak, and is being (metaphorically) shackled by the Cardinals who are supposed to advise him. As a result of these problems, decay has set in at every level.

It’s a good setup. Lots of wrongs to right, all of which are firmly grounded in very human experience. Castille is the kind of place where heroes can make a difference, and also illustrates that you don’t need Deep Cosmic Mysteries to drive play.

That said, my one niggle is that the whole nation reads as very rural. I am enough of a Captain Alatriste fan to really want to get a bit of Madrid into my play, and there’s not much there.

Eisen (Faux Germany) is Ravenloft, or as close as you’re going to get on Theah. A 30 year religious civil war has utterly wrecked the place (population was 24 million at the start of the war. By the end, 6 million had emigrated, and the new population was 10 million. That’s some wicked arithmetic.) Now it’s something of a blasted shell of itself. There are still places that are largely intact – cities and strongholds especially – but outside of those, there is a lot of monster haunted wasteland.

One curious thing about the death rate: The fighting was largely done by mercenaries. As such, it’s worth explicitly noting that battle can only account for a fraction of that kind of death rate. Disease and starvation are likelier candidates, but this is the kind of place where “Monsters” may also be a big contender.

On a personal note, I recently finished playing The Witcher 3 (awesome game) and tonally, if would fit in Eisen very well.

The Highland Marches (Faux Scotland) is exactly what you’d expect. I read this section 3 times and it just slid off my brain each time. They’re temperamental but honorable clans with kilts, claymores and boiled food. Everything kind of expands that. And lest I sound unkind, I went in eyes open – it struck me that this was a great avenue for Outlander fans, so I was hopeful.

Innismore (Faux Ireland) is supremely romanticized. I knew this would be tricky, and it was. My family is Irish, so this is the part I theoretically identify with, but it is so romanticized that I very nearly injure myself rolling my eyes. Which is unfair. It bugs me, but this one is totally my bias, so it gets a pass.

Montaigne (Faux France) gets bigger page count than anything else, which reflects its importance in the setting pretty well. Technically, this is a good write up – we actually get some geography and a solid sense of how the nation works, as well as its driving conflict (nobility vs Peasants). There are some oddities (the rigid, simple class structure ends up sounding like “robust middle class), but it’s all there.

Yet for all that, it’s a disappointing section for tonal reasons. it feels like it was written by someone who really doesn’t like Montaigne. The nobility are cartoonishly bad, and the subtext of “La Revolution is coming” is such a loud drumbeat as to overwhelm all other things. And I totally get it if that’s the story someone wants to tell, but I’m in this for Dumas, not Hugo.

Setting aside tone, it means that almost nothing worth swashing a buckle over gets any real emphasis in this section. The section on Musketeers is shorter than than the section on clothing. I would really want each of these sections to be “reasons I’d be excited to play someone from here” and this one is more “Well, I guess, if you want.” T

Sarmatian Commonwealth – So, this one’s interesting because I have no clear analog for it. The Commonwealth pulls from many sources including Poland, Austria-Hungary and a bit of “European” Russia. Someone with more of a grasp of Eastern European history may see something as much clearer, but I’m viewing it as something of a goulash.

The Commonwealth is really nicely set up. It has a geographic and cultural divide between the two nations that compose it, and it’s just had a flashpoint moment that has converted the country to a sort of democracy by fiat, and there is a lot of questions regarding whether or not it’s sustainable. Oh, also there are devils in the woods who offer deals to the unwary. Plus Cossacks. These are good things.

All in all, a fun section. Also, notably, it’s entirely unhindered by past knowledge (since this is a new addition to the setting), I could enjoy it without hesitation.

Ussura (faux Russia) is backwards and magical. It’s a little weird. The land is alive and protects her people. Historically, it has driven off all attackers. They don’t even need to keep up an army, I am not sure how I feel about that – it is kind of hard to spin a narrative of how hardy the people are when it’s magic that lets them thrive. It ends up feeling less like a nation and more like a fairytale land. That’s fine – just as Eisen is the place for one type of story, Ussura is the place for another. As presented, the political conflict (over succession of the Czar) feels badly matched to the nation, but thankfully it’s also not given a lot of spotlight.

Vestenmennavenjar (faux Skyrim) – used to be vikings but then realized there was more money in trade, so they’ve gone after that, but there’s still some viking-ness afoot.

The Vesten are nicely set up as an influence in the world, but unless you’re interested in the viking stuff, they seem best set up to exist somewhere else. That’s not a bad thing. It improves the world, but it kind fo does so at tis own expense.

Vodacce (Faux Italy) – this section is a profound contrast to the Montaigne section. Both of them begin with the premise that their nobility are a bunch of jerks, but where Montaigne just sighs and looks sad about it, Vodacce is all “Isn’t it AWESOME?”. I fully admit, the latter is more of what I’m looking for in a setting.

And in this case, it’s italianate city states with constantly infighting nobility and profound, deeply rooted sexism. Given the material, the content is a little dry, but it is more than carried by the clear enthusiasm for it. It’s fairly obvious that this is a big dollop of fun being added to the stew of Thea

What’s Changed

Aside from the addition of the Commonwealth, a few interesting things popped out:

  • Generally, everything feels more magical. We’ve now got 4 nations (Avalon, Vesten, Usurra & the Commonwealth) where it is expected that there are magical being walking around doing stuff. “Magic is bad” is still present, but it seems greatly downplayed.
  • No mention of the White Plague. Curious.
  • Giving the Inish and Highlanders places of prominence but otherwise ignoring the idea of smaller nationalities seems weird.
  • Only passing mention of Los Vagos (Now Los Vagabundos) in the Castille section. Seemed odd, but apparently they’ve gone global.
  • Eisen was always grim, but it seems like it’s really made the full jump to horror. Which is kind of cool.
  • Ussura seems explicitly more magical in terms of the land protecting her people. This had been nodded to previously, but it now seems pretty much front and center.
  • Ussura also seems a lot smaller. It also seems like the setting for a handful of Disney movies.
  • The Vesten feel a lot less dutch, for good and ill. They seem to be wearing less black, which makes me sad.

 

More Setting

After the nations, we get into other elements of the world. We get an overview of what the Seven Seas are, what the courts of Theah are like, and what the Duelist’s Guild is (and implicitly, how duels work). There is also discussion of honor and “gentles”, which is effectively gentlemanly conduct for a world where the “man” part is not required for the “gentle” part (I love the concept, but it’s a weird word).

We get a breakdown of the Vaticine Church (Faux Catholics) and some tenets of faith, very loosely sketched. We also get a sense of the Church’s power structure, how it’s broken, and why that means the Inquisition is running amok. We also get a brief overview of the Objectionists (Faux Protestants)

The next section is on Knowledge and it’s a 2 page summary of where science and technology are in Theah. Nice compact, and useful stuff.

After that, we finally get to hear about the frequently mentioned Pirates (and Privateers). We get a run down of the major pirate groups and where they do their business. After that, Secret Societies get a single page list and summary, then we’re onto Syrneth Ruins and Monsters.

The monsters are…well, they’re monsters. Not a lot to unpack there.

The Ruins section explains that the world is full of hidden ruins of a mysterious lost race with potentially magically steampunky artifacts. We get a writeup of some big ruins (under Vodacce and the capitol of Montaigne) but there’s a lot of handwavium here.

What’s Changed

  • Reis is still around, though no sign of Kheired-Din
  • One new secret society – Močiutės Skara – lots of good works and disaster recovery. In the big mapping of things, maybe hospitallar-ish
  • I honestly do not know if the Syrneth have changed or if the metaplot is the same. They still seem to have a place of prominence in the game, but the level of detail is sketchy at best.

Chargen

Step -1: Read More About Nations – We get another summary of the nations. No contradictions, but some different emphasis. More emphasis on playability, since this is nominally the “heroes from this nation are…” section, but it also feels a bit duplicative.

Step 0: Pick a Concept – Pretty much guidance on thinking about your character. Practically, it includes 20 questions to help you think. They have no mechanical impact, and you’re not obliged to answer all of them, but the exercise of thinking through answers to a few of them seems like it could be quite valuable.

Step 1: Traits – 5 Stats (Brawn, Wits, Resolve, Finesse, Panache). Start with a 2 in each of them, spend 2 more points as you see fit.

Step 2: Pick a Nation – Each nation has two favored stats. You may take an additional +1 to one of those stats (so you can get one stat to 5 if you want, but that’s about it). Your nationality also has some impact on the cost of certain advantages.

Sidebar: That puts your total ranks of traits at 13. The highest it can ever be is 15. There’s going to be a lot of advancement in other places, but traits are ultimately pretty strongly capped.

Step 3: Backgrounds – Backgrounds are packages like “Cavalryman” or “Assassin”. Mechanically, they’re composed of 3 things:

  1. A Quirk that allows the player to gain Hero Points (in game currency). For the Aristocrat, for example, “Earn a Hero Point when you prove there is more to nobility than expensive clothes and attending court.”
  2. 5 skills which you get +1 apiece to (For the Aristocrat: Aim, Convince, Empathy, Ride & Scholarship).
  3. 5 points of Advantages pre-selected for you. (For the Aristocrat: Rich and Disarming Smile)

You get to pick 2 backgrounds. If a skill shows up twice, you have it at a 2. Nothing is explicitly said of what happens if you have a duplicate advantage, but personally I’d offer a same-value trade in (edit: apparently that is the correct rule, I just failed to read it. thanks Longstrider!) . Notably, there are a number of nation-specific backgrounds, which work the same way, but take the nationality discounts into account. More on that when we get to advantages.

The backgrounds are interesting because they are mostly critical for the Quirks. The skill & advantage component of them is trivial enough to hardly need a template. Even the nationality-specific backgrounds are a bit of sleight of hand to help privilege national gimmicks. But despite the fact that they could be disposed of, they seem like friendly guideposts, and provide copious opportunities for people to hack up their own. Always valuable to make sure that such hooks exist.

Also, cynically, it’s the only way some advantages are ever going to be bought.

Step 4: Skills – So at this point, you have 10 points of skillsfrom backgrounds, and now you have another 10 points to spend. The catch is that at this point, no skill can get higher than 3. That feels kind of like a screwjob, but it’s balanced by the fact that skill ranks are not a straight progression. Yes, you roll a die for each rank, but you also get special tricks (which are cumulative) at 3, 4 and 5 ranks. At 3, you can reroll one die. At 4, you build sets more efficiently (more later), and at 5 your 10s explode.

The skill list itself is super straightforward. Aim, Athletics, Brawl, Convince, Empathy, Hide, Intimidate, Notice, Perform, Ride, Sailing, Scholarship, Tempt, Theft, Warfare and Weaponry. With 20 points to spend, it’s possible to cover all of them, and with a 3 point cap, you’ll probably have a decent spread. It’s worth noting that the penalty for acting unskilled is quite harsh, so there’s some value in skills at 1, but at the same time, it is more time consuming to pick up higher skill ranks in play, so decide where you want to trade off.

Step 5: Advantages – Advantages cost from 1 to 5 points, with their effect scaling appropriately. In addition to the 10 points of advantages you got from your backgrounds, you have 5 more points to spend as you see fit. This is an interesting arrangement because it means that you can afford any one thing, no matter what your backgrounds. It also introduces some rough math around the 3 point mark, because it’s hard to say that a 3 pointer and a 2 pointer are really worth a 5 pointer. But such are the dangers of point buy.

The advantages themselves are pretty straightforward, ranging from “Able Drinker” for one point to “Duellist Academy” for five points. There are a handful of advantages which require a particular nationality, or offer a discount for a particular nationality.

Of note, each nationality has what appears to be a signature Advantage. Most of the 5 point advantages can be bought for 3 points if you are the correct nationality. “I Won’t Die Here” is normally 5 points, but is only 3 if you’re an Eisen. (This is also why in the Eisen-Only background “ Monster Hunter”, you get I Won’t Die Here and Indomitable Will, a combination which would cost 7 points for anyone else.) It’s a colorful list, but by its nature, it can only grow with time.

One curiosity: There’s a “Foreign Born” background for one point, which lets you buy advantages as if you’re from the second nation. For a lot of mid-tier stuff, this is breakeven – the 1 point discount is offset by this one point cost – but it does allow for a character to have 2 signature advantages if they want or open up “locked” advantages, like Alchemist (4 points, Castillian only).

What’s Changed

The whole mechanical system is new enough that I’m not going to call out much, but I figured I’d answer a few questions that might be in people’s minds.

  • Swordsman School costs 5 points. That is very expensive, but the payoff is huge. Swordsmen profoundly outclass non-swordsmen in any fight. You can buy it again for multiple schools, but the returns are drastically diminishing, and don’t stack. It tends to give just one more option.
  • Sorcery costs 2 points, and it’s expected it will be bought multiple times. What that means depends on the specific Sorcery.
  • No amount of points will let you start with Dracheneisen. It is now insanely rare and jealously guarded.
  • Castillian education is no longer really a thing. Their national advantage is Spark of Genius, but it doesn’t come close. Castillians do get unique access to Alchemy, though, presumably to offset their lack of sorcery.

Step 6: Arcana – The Sorte Deck is a tarot-like deck of cards with a number of Major Arcana (The Fool, The Magician and so on). Each card has a Virtue and a Hubris, and each character will also have a Virtue and a Hubris. The Virtue is some unique ability you can trigger once per session (often with a cost). The Hubris is some circumstance under which you gain Hero Points (not unlike a quirk) which you can only trigger once per session, but which the GM can offer you the opportunity to trigger as much as you both like.

Curiously, you do not pick a card, but can instead cherry pick a Virtue and a Hubris. So I can choose my virtue from, say, The Fool (Wily: Activate your Virtue to escape danger from the current Scene. You cannot rescue anyone but yourself. – John Rogers and my Wife understand why) and my hubris from the Wheel (Unfortunate: You receive 2 Hero Points when you choose to fail an important Risk before rolling.).

It surprised me when I realized I could cherry pick rather than be bound to a card, and that seems to complicate some Sorte (fate magic) stuff a little, but all in all I kind of like it for promoting more combinations.

Step 7: Stories – The first time you make up a character, just to test out the system, there is going to be a HUGE temptation to skip this section. At first glance, it seems similar to the 20 questions early on – helpful, but not essential. Don’t Do That. Skipping this is skipping over one of the most interesting pieces of game technology in 7th Sea.

Stories work like this: The player starts with a concept for their story, then writes down some goal they want their character to accomplish. The player is acting very much as the author of their story in this way, so they write down this ending as they would if they were drafting the novel.

Then, from there, they reverse-engineer an outline of story beats that get to that point. It might be as short as one or two steps, or it might be a grand, epic arc, but at the end, it’s effectively a checklist of things to do.

This is pretty potent stuff. The player is effectively writing the sketch of the adventure she wants and handing it to the GM. That’s pretty huge, and it’s worth noting that there’s some sweet bribery attached to this. Stories are the currency of advancement. Want a 4 points advantage? Then you need a 4 step story that culminates in a way that would make sense for you to get that advantage.

To steal an example from the book:

John Doe has amnesia, but is actually a prince, so his story ends with him rediscovering his identify. The steps of the story are:

  1. Return to the town where he was found, amnesiatic and lost, and investigate.
  2. Meet princess Mary and see if she recognizes me.
  3. Return to court and plead my case before the Queen

Once all three steps are done, the story completes, and the character now has picked up a 3 point advantage (in this case, Rich).

Now, there are qualifiers and tricks and ways to deal with things going off the rails, but its important to note that there’s a HUGE amount of player authority in this. Princess Mary may well be an NPC the player created, and the player is more or less saying all these things are true.

I love this. It won’t be everyone’s bag, and that’s cool, but I LOVE it. However, there are two things that kind of go unsaid in the text that I want to call out.

First, this only works well when the GM respects it. The GM has her own stories to tell too (literally – the GM has a similar tool) and there’s a lot of trust extended here.

Second, this is an amazing collaborative opportunity. I cannot imagine the players creating their stories in isolation when they could create them together, borrowing elements and inspiration from each other. Honestly, I look at the folks I would play 7th Sea with, and were I to let them sit down and sketch out their own stories together, they’d build a campaign that would put anything I can think of to shame.

I am SOOOOOOO excited by that prospect. More than any other thing in this game, that makes me want to sit down and play as soon as possible.

Step 8: Details – At first glance this looks like it’s just bookkeeping stuff – your reputation starts at 0 unless there’s some reason it doesn’t, you speak a number of languages equal to your wits and OH BY THE WAY, this is how you join a secret society, spend money, and don’t die. Which is to say, this is a bit of a catchall bucket.

They made a wonderful choice with Secret Societies that can be boiled down to this: joining a secret society is free. There is literally no reason not to be a member of some group, and the individual benefits are pretty worthwhile. The only downside is there’s no particular guidance for doing secret society-centric games (where everyone is a member of the same society). That is an obvious mode of play, but the benefits of membership scale somewhat sloppily.

Wealth is handled in an abstract fashion – heroes always have enough money for the basics2 but spend “Wealth Points” for extras. Notably, there are skills for earning money (and later on, buying and selling cargo) so if that’s your itch, it can be scratched.

We wrap up with the handling of wounds, which work the same way for anyone who has not bought specific advantages that change it. You have a wound track that’s 20 boxes long. Each wound fills in a box. Every 5th box (#5, 10, 15 & 20) represents a “dramatic wound”. Wounds clear quickly, but dramatic wounds take a little bit of extra effort, but they’re not a huge deal.

As you accrue dramatic wounds, there is a curious see-saw effect. If you have 1 dramatic wound, you get a bonus die on all actions. if you have 2 dramatic wounds, villains get 2 bonus dice against you. If you have 3 dramatic wounds, your 10s explode. If you have 4 Dramatic Wounds, you’re helpless.

Importantly, helpless is not dead. To make you dead requires very specific action on the GMs part that requires spending currency and acting through the hands of a Villain. Which is to say, death is not much of a threat in the game – and that’s a good thing, because that allows so many better threats.

The Actual Freaking Rules

Ok, the core mechanic is super simple. First, only roll when it matters. This is a rule in all games, but really they mean it here. When the dice his the table, shit happens. Be prepared.

For most actions (called “risks” in the 7S lexicon), you roll a pool of d10s based on your Trait plus Skill. Simple enough. After you’ve rolled, you build sets that total up to 10 or more. Each set constitutes a “raise”, which are the currency of action. Any action you want to take requires spending a raise.

For Example: I need to chase a guy through a market square. That’s probably Finesse + Athletics. I have a 2 finesse and a 3 Athletics, so I start off with 5 dice. I roll and get 8, 6, 5, 3, 1. Because I have a 3 Athletics, I can reroll one die, and I reroll that 1 and get a 5. I build my sets (8,3 and 6,5) and the other 5 is wasted. I have 2 raises to spend.

Now, interestingly, there’s no “difficulty” to speak of. If I want to do a thing, and I have a raise to spend, then I do the thing. Which seems potent,because it is. But the GM also has some too use instead of difficulty: Consequences and Opportunities.

Consequences are bad things that are going to happen if the hero doesn’t stop them. The simplest consequence is damage done to the character, but really they could be almost anything. It’s a bit of sleight of hand, since practically, this ends up serving as a stand in for difficulty, especially if the consequences are particularly severe. You generally need to spend raises to cancel out consequences.

Opportunities are bonuses available in the scene that can be grabbed during action if there are raises available to do them. They are not required, but they offer a way for GM’s to tease the player with temptation. Sort of “You can afford to succeed free and clear, or you can take some consequences and also get the shiny thing!”.

The player can also get extra dice from Flair. These rules are akin to Exalted’s stunting rules, and are bonuses you get for being cool. The first time you use a skill in a scene, you get a bonus die. If you describe your action colorfully, that’s also worth a bonus die. The bar for getting both of these is pretty low, so it should use pretty hard.

For Example: Gaston has sworn to drink a bottle of wine at the top of the church in the middle of the battlefield. This is dangerous and foolish, but absolutely appropriate. Opposing enemies are shooting back and forth across the battlefield. Plus, it’s a VERY nice bottle of wine, so it would be a shame if anything were to happen to it. This sounds like Athletics plus Panache, (3 + 3), plus two for Flair. Gaston’s player rolls 10, 8,7, 5, 5, 3, 2, 2, rerolls a 2 and gets a 4. That’s 4 raises (10, 8+2, 7+3, 5+5).

The potential consequences of this action are injury (4 wounds) and the loss of the wine bottle. However, there is also an opportunity – another musketeer is willing to bet on the outcome, so there’s some cash payout as well as bragging rights. So Gaston’s player can spend raises as follows:

1 raise gets Gaston to the spire of the church
1 raise keeps the bottle from being broken
1 raise prevents 1 wound. This can be spent 4 times.
1 raise allows there to be a bet on this effort, and upon return, Gaston will gain a point of wealth.

Gaston opts to spend one raise to succeed, one to prevent the bottle form breaking, one to make the bet, and has only one to spend to avoid getting hurt. He’s cut by concrete shards from a near miss, but successfully drinks a toast to L’Empereur from the heart of the battlefield.

This could be complicated further by Hero Points, metacurrency (like Fate Points) that players can use for all kinds of fun things like activating abilities or granting myself a d10. My favorite element about them is that if I spend one to help someone else, it grants 3d10, so there’s always big benefits in teamwork. But be warned, the GM also has a pool of Danger Points, which can be used for all kinds of dastardly things. The GM tends to start with a fixed pool of DPs, and the only way to gain them is to buy off unused raises from players, giving them hero points to gain the same number of Danger Points. It’s a clever mechanic because it theoretically lets players throttle it, but I’m not sure how it actually shakes out.

Ok, so that was a simple action (or “Risk”, in the vernacular) involving one person rolling one die. There can also be group scenes where everyone throws their raises at the problem at hand, and they work roughly the same way.

Where it gets interesting is when there is actual opposition, in the form of Villains and Brutes, or other complications (like monsters) that actively work against the players.

Brutes are interesting because they’re ultimately a passive threat with a given rating. By default, they don’t do anything, but at the end of a round, they inflict damage on heroes equal to their rating, so there is strong incentive for heroes to whittle them down while doing other things. Villains, on the other hand, generate raises and use them to do things like damage the players or complicate the situation.

Practically, this means everyone declares the kind of action they’re taking and rolls their dice at the start of the round, then starting with the person with the most raises (villains win ties, players decide amongst themselves) spend one or more raises to take an action. Once the action is taken, the new person with the most raises goes first.

This is an interesting system, but one with some gotchas. The first and most critical is to notice a small rule: If you take an action that it outside the auspices of what you originally rolled, then you need to spend an extra raise. That is, suppose you started the scene by saying you are using Wits + Convince to distract the bad guy, but then when the ceiling starts to collapse, you need to dodge out of the way. Normally that would take only one raise, but since Convince is not super helpful for dodging, it will cost one extra, or two raises.

There is a very well articulated example scene in the book that goes for three and a half pages and highlights both the highs and lows of the system. It’s very dynamic, but it also illustrates how far afield a scene can go to go over the course of things, especially because the fiat ability implicit in a raise spent on changing details is very broad (in fact, the GM uses it in the example to kind of crappily negate a player’s success, then drastically change the situation).

Ultimately, the strength of this kind of system is that it’s very freeform and dynamic, but the downside is that it can end up feeling like an accounting exercise. There are some decent checks to keep play moving (most specifically that there is no hold action or equivalent, which would KILL THIS GAME DEAD) but it also is very clearly a situation where a particularly crappy roll could ruin a scene for a player. Ultimately, I really want to see it at the table.

These concerns double down for Dramatic Sequences, which contrast action sequences because they’re spread out over time rather than beat by beat. These make sense intellectually, but I worry about sequencing all the more in that sort of environment.

Game Master Rules

The next section lays out the tools for the GM.

First, it gives the rules for creating Brute Squads. These are super simple, mechanically, with the option of giving them one gimmick (like “assassins”, who strike first, or “Thieves” who may run off with stuff.)

The Villain building system is pretty interesting. Villains have 2 stats: Strength and Influence. When they roll dice, they use a pool equal to the total of those two, and that pool can be as big as 20 for HUGE, WORLD CLASS VILLAINS. Strength is pretty constant, since it’s just a measure of badassery, but influence gets fun. It can be invested (in schemes, or in minions) in hopes of a big return, unless it is quashed by Heroes. Of especial note, villains can invest in smaller villains who can invest in smaller villains, which is to say it’s pretty much a minigame designed to create a progression of villains, which is pretty cool.

Monsters might be built as Brutes or Villains, but they have an additional pool of monstrous abilities to draw upon.

This section also outlines how to create GM stories, which are structurally very similar to character stories, but with rather more guidance in how they’re created. I admit, I’m less excited about these than the player ones, and I kind of wish these tools were in the earlier section, but so be it.

Lastly, we have Corruption, which effectively serve as Dark Side points. Gain them by acting in a villainous fashion, and every time you gain one, there’s a risk of your character becoming an NPC. It’s kind of brute force for genre enforcement, but it seems like a solid threat.

Sorcery

There are several types of Sorcery, one for each nation (except Castille). You are limited to buying the sorcery of your nation.

Hexenwerk is the ability to create potions and concoctions out of gross things. It pretty much confirms that I was not the only person thinking that Theah is a good match for the Witcher, since this sorcery works perfectly for monster hunters using secret knowledge to kill beasts. However, it also works well for twisted madmen looking to do terrible things, so it’s a bit double edged. One rank of sorcery teaches one major potion and two minor ones. This is the Eisen sorcery, though there doesn’t seem to be anything that mandates that it would be so.

Knights of Avalon adopt (or more aptly, embody) the virtues of semi-arthurian knights, who given them access to magical tricks called Glamours based on the nature of the knight. Mechanically, Glamours are tied to traits or to Luck, and a given knight has access to 2 traits and Luck. One rank of sorcery gets one major glamour and 2 minor ones.

Mother’s Touch (Dar Matushki) is Ussuran folk magic, gifts from Matushki, the personification of the land. For each rank you get one gift and one restriction. Gifts include turning into animals, commanding animals, purification, regeneration (for you would-be Rasputins) and so on, while restrictions are things like Honesty or Moderation. Fun and straighforward.

Porte is the ability to rip bloody holes in the universe to pull things through, or travel. It’s gross, but stylish. One very nice touch is that heroes hurt themselves (inflict Dramatic wounds) to do powerful effects, but villains just damage the world a lot more. Very nice and playable.

Sanderis is something akin to having a Nuclear Djinn in your pocket. You have made a deal with a powerful and wicked but honest being called a dievai. By the terms of the arrangement, it grants you minor powers (“favors”) at small costs which might be annoying, but are no big deal. However, it can also grant major favors, and those are serious. Like, destroy a city kind of serious. You can ask for this any time, but it will always have a cost, and the cost will be pretty terrible (and cost a point of corruption).

But even more fun – the relationship between sorcerer and Dievai is a quiet war. The Sorcerer’s goal is to learn enough of the creature’s name to destroy it (each rank brings you one step closer and also grants more power), while the Dievai is working to corrupt the caster. Super fun. If anything, I’m a little sad that I’ll have to wait for the inevitable splat for support on how to run it.

Sorte always seems cooler on paper than it is in practice. In theory, it’s studying the threads of fate and manipulating them to particular ends. As presented, they can mess with people’s arcana, bless and curse, and pull things. Seems a little blah.

What Has Changed

  • Hexenwerk and Sanderis are totally new (and are pretty cool).
  • No sign or mention of the bargainers or other bargainer forms of magic
  • Ussuran Magic has expanded too include a lot of general folk magic in addition to shapeshifting into animals. It also is now explicitly sources from Matushki.

Dueling

Oh, yeah, swordsman schools! This is the stuff.

Most swordsmen school offer roughly the same set of benefits – the swordsman learns 6 maneuvers which he can spend a raise to use in a fight. The most basic one is Slash – normally, if you want to hurt someone, you spend one raise and inflict one wound. If you slash, you spend one raise, and inflict damage equal to your ranks in the weapon skill. All the maneuvers are similarly overwhelming, and a swordsman is going to eradicate a similarly skilled non-swordsman, simple as that. The only real limiter on the maneuvers is that you can’t use the same maneuver twice in a row, so you can’t just slash everyone to death all the time – you need to mix it up a little.

Each school then offers one special move which can be used when fighting in the correct way (which is to say, using the right weapons) which either supplements the list, or upgrades one of the existing moves. For example, in the Aldana style, if fighting with a fencing blade in one hand, and the other hand empty, you can perform an additional maneuver, the Aldana Ruse, which adds you panache to the next amount of damage the target takes.

The school-specific moves are fun, but not so overwhelming that you MUST pick a school based on efficacy – it is still perfectly badass if you just go with the cool one.

What Has Changed

  • As noted previously, the bulk of the value of the advantage comes from the base package. If you learn a new school (which requires a 5 step story or another 5 points) then all you get is a new special move. You can only use one school’s move per action, so even that is not a huge advantage.
  • Because they’re shorter, there are many more schools, most of which will be a familiar from the splats.

Sailing

Sailing ends up feeling like a small collection of fun mini games. There’s the crew minigame, the trading minigame, the ship-battle minigame (which works like any other sequence, with just a few special options) and the ship-making minigame. For a non-pirate game, it’s largely overkill, but for a buccaneer, game, it actually seems kind of awesome. I think my favorite bit is that your ship can accrue CRPG style achievements for doing things like being captured by pirates or visiting a port in every major nation. These achievements become part of your ship’s “story” and grant concrete benefits. Silly, but fun!

Secret Societies

So, as noted earlier, you can join a secret society for free. This is pretty cool, and this section is where you’re going to find out a little bit more about the various societies.

The general mechanic for secret societies uses a rating called “favor”. You gain favor by do things for the society, and can spend it to get resources or information from the society. There’s a default list of things that any society wants (Useful information, Helping an agent, useful secret) and things they can provide (useful information, aid, useful secrets) and the amount of favor it earns of costs. In each societies description, they add additional things this society wants or can do. Very elegant.

In another clever move, you tend to earn more favor for a given thing than it would cost to get it, which encourages players to use these societies because they’re getting a bargain.

As to the societies themselves:

  • The Brotherhood of the Coast – well, they’re pirates. they’ve got a charter and some democracy, and they can do piratey things.
  • Die Kreutzritter – An order of knights betrayed by the church, sent on crusades to die, and know hiding in the shadows using arcane knowledge to battle monsters. Did I mention that some of them have special Dracheneisen (Dragon Iron) swords that kill the hell out of monsters? Seriously, someone besides me is trying to squeeze The Witcher into this game.
  • Explorer’s Society – Are archaeologists in the Indiana Jones style, looking for ruins (Syrneth & otherwise).
  • The Invisible College – The church used to be a huge booster of science until the inquisition took over and declared it the end of history. As such, science has largely gone underground.
  • Knights of the Rose & Cross – not secret at all, they’re a very public order of heroic do-gooders. Because this is swashbuckling, I am actually saying this with no irony whatsoever.
  • Las Vagabundos – The Original El Vagabundo was a masked hero who saved the king of Castille from assassins and did the Zorro thing across Castille. Over time, the masked hero has shown up to save many heroic leaders across Theah, shading some Scarlet Pimpernel into the Zorro mix. There is more than one El Vagabundo, but how many and who they are (and who helps them) remains a well kept secret. Notably, there are 5 “real” Vagabundo masks, which are artifacts of badassery, and for 10 favor, you may don the mask.
  • Močiutės Skara – Which I will just call Skara because I’m a dumb American, is for all intents and purposes The Red Cross. They are, in fact, so good and reasonable they I assume their splat will reveal that they’re actually plague spreading supervillains.
  • Rilliscaire are Anarchists crossbred with hipster Malkavians. If Neal Stephenson wrote a 7th Sea book, his protagonist would fall in with these guys so they could explain “mimeme warfare” to him.
  • Sophia’s Daughters are a Rilliscare branch with the much more practical goal of “teach women to read, and smuggle fate witches out of Vodacce, where they’re effectively property.” They’re pretty awesome.

What Has Changed

  • Die Kreutzritter and The Daughters of Sophia both look like their original form, not their super-secret-everything-is-a-lie form, so I am hopeful. DK in particular seem cool without needing any extras now.
  • Los Vagos, now Los Vagabundos, have gone international with an agenda of protecting heroic rulers. I must add that I am very pleased that mask is in play from the outset.

Game Master

So, this is the advice section. I’m feeling cautious about how to approach this because the last thing I want to do it get into a point-counterpoint with some very sincere GM advice.

If you’re familiar with Wick’s other work (especially Play Dirty), then this will, if anything, feel kind of toned down. But it’s a useful read. There’s a little rule Zero/rulings not rules stuff and a brief explanation of spotlight, but the real meat starts when it offers GMs advice under the auspices of their three different roles – Author, Referee and Storyteller.

The Author need to have agendas and voice, to have a sense of genres (with a nice genre breakdown that is curiously missing Romance). It also provides a dozen “dramatic situations” as plot seeds and talks about act structure, building a story and the importance of improvisation. Were I to summarize, I would say it encourages doing all the work necessary to support an entire railway network, but then remove the tracks – prepare, but do not expect.

The Referee hat is where we get the big ruling, not rules rant, so there’s that. It boils the rules down to:

  1. You create a Scene.
  2. Players create Raises.
  3. Players use Raises to change the Scene.

Which is accurate, for good and ill.

There is then a discussion of consequences which is well worth the read. In essence, because death is not much of a threat in this game, players should feel more liberated to take risks, but GMs need to learn to create consequences without the threat of Zero HP, and it talks about how to do it. Super good stuff, and useful in any game.

Similarly, a discussion of pacing is very welcome. It’s a critical topic that tends to not get enough coverage.

The Storyeteller role is about techniques. The 5 questions (who, what etc,), 5 senses and the 5 voices (action, description, dialogue, exposition, thought) offers a nice trifecta of practical advice. There’s also some guidance on playing memorable NPCs

After that is a nicely structured section for what to do after the game, with guidance for how to do a solid retrospective, including the familiar “What did you like most? What would you have changed?”. This is good practice, and it’s nice to see it explicitly laid out.

Last is four pages on creating compelling villains, and it’s a delight.

And with that, we get to the end, and the terrible, terrible index. Really, it hurts my heart. Also, there’s a chart with all the advantages and their costs, followed by a character sheet which is pretty bland, except for having a very lovely death spiral.

Thoughts that did not fit anywhere else

  • It is jarring when the book calls out something as “nope, this is explicitly not allowed”, especially when that something is awesome-but-in-conflict-with-the-setting-as-written. For example, the only way to get a Dracheneisen weapon is through Die Kreutzritter, and my response to that is a rude, wet noise.
  • The basic math here is that two dice roughly equal one raise. One hero point, by itself, is worth one die, so most abilities that let you spend HP to generate extra raises are pretty sweet.
  • Guns have a gimmick – if someone shoots you, in addition to whatever it does, it also inflicts a dramatic wound. That’s fairly nasty, though mostly only useful against heroes and villains.
  • This is a John Wick joint, and it shows. A huge amount of the game could be summed up as “This will be awesome. Yes, your GM could totally screw you over, but just trust her, she won’t” and you are either comfortable with that or you’re not.
  • Super trivial thing, but one piece of advice in the game is that if players get a cash reward, give it to them at the beginning of the next session, not the end of this one. Very good idea.
  • Zero mention of the Bargainers, or even any vague references to them. Genuinely wondering if that element has just been removed or transformed.
  • I was SO HAPPY there was no pistol school among the swordsman schools. That damn near destroyed 1e for me.
  • I am a little worried about the efficacy of swordsmen over everyone else. I’m willing to see some other builds in action, but at first glance, swordsmen seem nearly overwhelmingly badass. Of course, if that does turn out to be the case, then I will shrug, and make the first one free for everyone.
  • It utterly kills me that there is no timeline anywhere in the book. A lot of stuff has happened that gets referenced, but I have zero context for when it was or how long it lasted.
  • There’s a weird mechanic of using the current number of raises as a countdown. It feels a little awkward and I am already thinking of situations where it’s going to be a problem. Similarly, there are a few abilities that tweak initiative order (letting you act as if you had more or fewer raises) and they make me nervous – if I was going to break the system, that looks like an excellent point to exploit.
  • There are a number of advantages that are effectively “Spend a hero point to make something happen”. They’re VERY powerful, so it’s important to note they only work on other heroes if the other hero agrees (and also receives the hero point). There are still things to be careful about, but that removes the most obvious abuse.
  • As a table, it will be important to decide what it means for somethign to be a story.  I might say, for example, that if it could be handled offscreen, or with a single roll, that probably doesn’t qualify, but there’s an implicit statement of taste in there. Another table might allow coffee shop stories (character-centric stories with no real conflict, just conversation that explores and highlights the character).  Worth making sure everyone is on the same page.
  • So, the pacing difference between a task and a sequence really boils down to this: in a Task, you distribute your raises and move to an outcome; in a Sequence, you spend your raises one at a time because the situation may change each “round”.  This makes sequences more dynamic, but it’s reliant on there being a source of competing raises (a villain).  I need to test this as the table, but I feel like I want some tool to find a middle ground, so there can be dynamic scenes without a villain present.
  • This is a very generic system at its heart (albeit a strongly opinionated one).  It is tied to Theah primarily by sorcery and the specific advantages.  It’s tied to swashbuckling mostly by strong authorial intent and a few rules synergies. It would not be hard to tweak this to a wide variety of games.  Whether that’s a bug or a feature is probably a matter of taste.  I lean towards feature – 7th Sea embraces a very broad view of swashbuckling, so it’s necessary to have a system with a lot of stretch.
  • edit: I forgot to explain how rank 4 in a skill helps you build better sets.  In a nutshell, you get the option of building 2 raises out of a 15 (in addition to 1 raise from a 10), which is pretty cool.

And in Conclusion

I am leery. I am leery of a new generation of splatbooks with crappy twists. I am leery of the too-open system of raises turning into a mechanical exercise. I am leery of Metaplot.

But I am also excited. I am excited about character stories. I am excited to take the risks system for a spin. I am excited by the new map and the slightly more logical world. I am excited to kill monsters with a goddamned dracheneisen sword.

Even if it all crashes and burns, I’m glad I got this game and backed the kickstarter. Like its predecessor, it’s full of great parts which I will steal liberally (the original 7th Sea provided the major inspiration for Aspects). But hopefully it won’t crash and burn. I intend to play, hopefully soon, and see what this puppy can do.

  1. Rule Zero is the idea that the if the rules don’t work, the GM can change them. It is either common sense or highly contentious, depending who you ask. ↩︎
  2. THIS IS A LIE. I have too much Three Musketeers love to accept this. Heroes are frequently broke, and saying otherwise steals opportunity. ↩︎

The Expected Outcome

This is one of those ideas that is simple in any context other than gaming: In most situations, when you describe something happening (“Diana Thunderstone punched the bruiser in the jaw…”), there are clear consequences that you can also describe (“…and he went down like a sack of bricks.”)

In gaming, we introduce uncertainty into this equation, so that if Diana’s player rolls higher than a 10, the guy goes down like a sack of bricks, but if she rolls less than 10, he doesn’t. We introduce different layers of complication to this (Maybe she only makes a little progress towards knocking him out, or maybe she takes some damage or whatever).

But if you peel back all that machinery, it comes back to the simple idea of an expected outcome. It’s the way things are supposed to go.

For all that this is a very simple idea, it has roots spread throughout gaming, many of which come back to the question of how we decide what is a reasonable expected outcome (and by extension, who gets to decide it). This is complicated further by the fact that we deal in realms of the imagination, which means finding any kind of shared agreement on what is reasonable can be tricky. How tall is a giant? How much weight can a pegasus carry? Can painting a vampire protect them from the sun? The potential array of questions is endless, and while it is possible to answer some of them, we end up having to turn to other tricks to deal with them.

The most common trick is, of course, to fold these things into a system, so the system provides the answer. Often the system (usually including some amount of randomization) fills the gap of all the things we don’t know to allow us to come to an agreed upon answer. Analyzing every single detail of skill and position makes it very cumbersome to determine if Khadgar hits the orc, so we take that uncertainty and throw it in a box labeled “To hit roll”, and now we have an answer. Or, rather, we have reduced it to a narrow range of expected outcomes, and given ourselves the tools to select between them.

But even an example that simple still depends on a broader idea of an expected outcome. There are the “obvious” assumptions – Khadgar needs to be within reach of the Troll, he has to have his sword, he needs to not be incapacitated and so on. System addresses many of these, but they are sufficiently obvious that there is rarely much need to look anything up or otherwise step out of the action. More tenuous are things situational events – what if the orc is distracted? What if it’s knocked on its ass?

System can address these, and a well constructed system (like 5e) offers tools (like advantage & disadvantage) to quickly systematize edge cases. However, this is one of those areas where GM skill and experience plays a strong role in making the right ruling and continuing to move on. The most obvious example in almost any system is the question of when to roll the dice. I mention this casually, but the decision of when to roll and when not to roll is incredibly powerful and usually falls explicitly into the GM’s hands.

Now, this idea of an expected outcome tends to hover over any situation in play. If there are greatly divergent expectations at the table, that creates a problem. If there’s great divergence between the expectations of the players/GM and the system, that can be a deal breaker (in fact, many game designs begin from this disconnect, looking to deliver an outcome closer to their expectations).

It is super interesting to look at PBTA in this regard – it has a weird relationship with expected outcomes (as it does with difficulty), and there’s a case that you might be better off going in without expected outcomes. At the other end of the spectrum, diceless games lean very heavily on expected outcomes, usually largely dependent on the GM’s sensibilities.

To my mind, this reveals something kind of critical about GM power. When you talk about giving GM power, I think people imagine very different things, often involving dropping elephants from the sky. It gets confused all the further when you have SUPER STRICT limitation on the GM except they’re still the owner of the entire fictional world – not sure what problem that solves.

But for me, when I say I want the GM to have a lot of power – more than the designer – I am speaking directly to expected outcomes. I think that system is a poor substitute for good judgement in deciding what outcomes(or range of outcomes) would most satisfy that table at that moment, and it seems silly to not acknowledge that authority. It’s not about purple beams from the sky, it’s about responsiveness. It’s about the moment of play.

Or at least that’s the expected outcome.

2d6 and 3 out of 5

On a very primal level, one of my favorite things about the various Powered by the Apocalypse games is that they use 2d6 for resolution. It’s just about the simplest possible way to generate a curve, using the most ubiquitously available dice. The math is easy and fast. It uses an even number of dice, which may seem like a small thing, but is important when you want to buy cool dice (you don’t want to know how much I paid for the metal set I picked up at Gencon).

But PBTA was far from the first 2d6 system, and and I can’t think of another such system that has been so sticky. A big part of that is, I think, that PBTA has driven forth a very concrete means of reading the dice that only generates 3 outcomes1 with very little player training. Once the player has internalized that 7-9 is the middle result, they can easily infer whether they’be done better or worse.

There’s some interesting knock-on effects to this. First, it rewards the simplicity of the dice. It would be easy to produce a more nuanced curve with more or different dice, but that could impede the ease of learning that core number. It would also introduce a temptation to get fiddle, which would also detract from the simplicity.

It also allows for the designer to play GM in a very concrete way. The design of a move is a decision bout how an activity should look – that’s one of its big strengths. It’s apparently simple design actually conceals something a little more complicated. I’ve talked about this before, but the most direct way this is expressed is the range of outcomes. Consider:

10+ Success with Benefit
7-9 Success
6- Complication

Vs.

10+ Success
7-9 Success with Complication
6- Problem

Vs.

10+ Success with Complication
7-9 Not Quite Failure
6- Ha ha ha ha ha

As you look through PBTA material, you can find all three of these patterns (and others) reflecting the designer’s take on that particular sort of action in the context of the genre. Sometimes this is applied with grace and nuance, sometimes it’s shotgunned across things as an expression of the designer’s taste. Which is fine – PBTA is an opinionated game system, so this is a feature.

But, of course, it makes me go hmm.

If one wanted to start from the core idea (a simply expressed narrow range of outcomes) it would probably be possible to create an ur-list of maybe 5 outcomes. You could theoretically produce three sets of moves out of it (high, medium, low) out of that set. So, suppose the list is:

  • movespectrumSuccess with Added benefit
  • Success
  • Success at a cost
  • Mitigated Failure/Complications
  • Disaster

So a “nice” move would be

10+ Success with Added benefit
7-9 Success
6- Success at a cost

 

And an average move would be

10+ Success
7-9 Success at a cost
6- Mitigated Failure/Complications

while an “unkind” move would be

10+ Success at a cost
7-9 Mitigated Failure/Complications
6- Disaster

 

Such an approach would not need to replace any existing moves so much as simply provide a set of guidelines for whipping up moves on the fly. And that works on paper, but it has one big drawback – it is effectively a back donor for inserting difficulty into PBTA and that is probably a very bad thing indeed.

So I’m not so sure there’s much use for this idea in the context of PBTA as anything but a shiny bauble. However, as an indicator for how to maybe steal a chunk of PBTA tech and use it elsewhere, this may prove a very interesting starting point.

  1. Yes, there are ultra-positive results in some builds, but they are something of a sidebar. ↩︎

Signifier Stats

A lot of games have a category of stats (often called something else) which may have some mechanical effect, but are most critical as signifiers of player intent. I’m calling them signifier stats because I need to call them something, because I’ve found myself thinking about them a bit.

The most famous and obvious example of a signifier stat is alignment in D&D. It’s not a perfect communicator, of course, but it does a decent job of conveying the kind of play that the player is looking forward to. Choosing Lawful Good is not (usually) an indicator of an interesting a shady political play or bloodthirsty mayhem. It’s incomplete – sometimes an alignment is chosen for contrast (the one honest man among thieves, or the secret betrayer) or because the player has seized upon a particular nuance (The paladin who is super lawful, but who does not recognize the current ruling power as legitimate, or any number of doomed heroes). But in any case, alignment is n obvious part of the communication, and when your whole playgroup chooses Chaotic Good, they’re telling you something.

A less famous but even more clear cut example is Good and Bad Stuff from the Amber Diceless RPG (and its successor, Lords of Gossamer and Shadow). Amber characters are bought with 100 points. Unspent points translate into “good stuff”, and you can overspend a little an pay it off by taking a few points of “bad stuff” . Effectively, if you spend 105 points on stats and powers, you have 5 points of bad stuff. If you spend 95 points, you have 5 good stuff.

Because Amber is a diceless system, “stuff” is where a lot of things dictated by luck come into play. Lots of good stuff? Things go your way. Bad stuff? It can feel like the universe has painted a target on your back. This was not entirely reliable – for many GM’s good stuff merely meant terrible things only happened frequently rather than constantly – but it established a spread of expectations at the table.

When the game first came out, I thought of this as a balance mechanic. It was tied into points, wasn’t it? Clearly, the point was to penalize players who overspend and reward those who didn’t. But in time I cam to realize it was and of the reverse – players taking bad stuff were agreeing to make the GM’s life easier and were getting rewarded for it. Players buying Good Stuff were buying a degree of protection, and paying for that1.

Now, collecting player intent before play starts is one of those things that it’s just worth doing. There’s no substitute for talking with your players about expectations before starting play. But unless you are playing a very thematically constrained game, that conversation will probably reveal a spectrum of possibilities that do not necessarily indicate where each player wants to go. Even if everyone agrees they want swashbuckling high adventure, having an explicit indicator of the kind of play each player is going for within that space can be a super useful idea.

Obviously, this purpose can also be served by direct hooks on the sheet – things like backgrounds or aspects – but those may not necessarily answer the same questions. Signifier stats occupy a space between the tone of the game as a whole and the specific character hooks, and used properly, they offer a bridge between the two.

To illustrate using an amber example, let’s say we have agreed on a nasty, political-and-fisticuffs game of Amber. I’ve made my character and bought a connection to my parent, one of the princes or princesses of Amber.

If I am playing a Good Stuff character, my relationship with my parent is probably pretty healthy. They’re quite possibly still a jerk, and they may yank me around of army own good, but I know they have my back. If I buy more allies over time, they’ll be reasonably solid – betrayal is a risk, but it’s the exception.

If I’m playing a Bad Stuff character, my parent may very well consider me one more playing piece. I benefit some because I’m a useful pawn, but we both know this is a relationship of expedience. If I gain allies, I must constantly watch my back, since I am in a nest of vipers. The occasional person I feel I can trust is a treasure (and a liability)

I could explicitly articulate these things with each connection and with each relationship, but with a signifier stat, I don’t need to. That saves hassle, yes, but it also means that players who are uncomfortable explicitly seizing the narrative can still express a preference. That’s some pretty useful mojo.

  1. But, critically, the game never said this was the case. Many players picked their Good and Bad stuff rating for entirely non-mechanical reasons because of the type of character the played ↩︎

The Size of Aspects

I’ve remarked on a few occasions that an essential decision in Fate is how big aspects are. That is, should aspects be the big, important signifiers of what really matters, or should they be more of a language to express the moment in mechanical terms.

As Fate has evolved, it has gone more down the second path, and there are a lot of benefits to that. It is fairly easy to turn any scene into a handful of aspects, and by extension have the baseline mechanical attributes you need to run the scene. That’s a useful tool.

But it’s important to note that plenty of other system can do it. If I’m doing a Risus or WaRP variant, I can assign d6 pools to any arbitrary thing you can think of (On Fire 3d, Deep Shadows 2d). In Cortex Plus I can do similar things with a die value (on Fire d8, Deep Shadows d6). If the game has reasonably flexible descriptive mechanics, it’s pretty doable.

In this context, the main feature of Fate is that it’s simple. In each of the examples above, a little bit of thought needs to be given to assigning a rating. Is this a 3d6 fire, or a 4d fire? What’s the difference? Sometimes that can be easy to intuit (especially if you know the system very well) but it’s still an extra step. In Fate, it is simple On Fire or it’s not.

Obviously that’s double edged. There are times when you might want granularity, but that is the nature of tradeoffs. The right answer is the one you need right this minute.

TinyFate 0.4

My continued experiment in designing in the open, TinyFate 0.4, is now up online.

It is a mess.  I got some fantastic feedback on 0.3 (THANK YOU ALL) and the result has been ripping into the structure of the doc with meathooks, and as a result,t he current flow is just wrong.  I skip over sections, have sections out of order or repeating, and generally need to reflow the whole thing.

But I’m posting 0.4 largely to keep myself honest.  It’s alive, and I’m slowly moving it forward, and the current version is bad enough to provide me incentive to get to 0.5 as soon as possible. 🙂

TinyFate continues to be a wonderful test of my assumptions.  The reality is, I could absolutely run the original version as written, in all of its index card glory.  The act of writing a full version of it has been an exercise in manually unpacking decades of assumptions and seeing if they hold up.  And some of them don’t.

It has also been an opportunity for me to test the publishing options available for free or cheap today. This version is produced using Sphinx, a free bit of software that lets me write everything in slightly styled text files (in the RST format, which is like but not identical to Markdown) and it autogenerates the website and epub. It’s fun.  I haven’t pushed it particularly far yet, but it offers particular promise.  Because it lets me stitch together multiple files in the same doc, it is easy to re-use and re-organize content.  That means that – in theory – the same RPG could be formatted in one version for reading and another version for reference.  Don’t know if it will actually work yet, but it’s a very compelling prospect.

 

Delving into Exalted 3rd

exaltedmapI have a long-running love of Exalted. It provided one of my favorite games I’ve run, and one of my favorite I’ve played in. It is a big, beautiful mess, and I say that with all the love in the world. Exalted is easy to love, but also easy to find problems with, often passionately. It may seem odd, but I think that it’s one of its real strengths. There are settings that are comparably big, and settings that are comparably wild, but I don’t think there’s another game that is as big and wild. It is so big and wild that every group I know that has played in it has taken strong, personal ownership of it.

This is awesome. It is anti-canon. And it’s an invitation to bend, spindle and mutilate the game with vigor, whether that means carving out your own space in the setting hacking the mechanics (I have at various points played it with Fate, Weapons of the Gods and Risus) while still feeling right. It also means that it is a game that allows for STRONG OPINIONS in a non-negating fashion. The fact that I think Dragon Blooded are far and away the most fun of the exalts does not yuck anyone else’s yum. And when someone tells me how awesome Abyssals are, that does not intrude on my enjoyment. Obviously, there are always jerks, but largely, Exalted is a game that is easy to love, and fun to love.

And if you hate it? Cool. But the rest of this probably won’t interest you much. And if you have no idea what Exalted is, this is going to be a piss-poor place to start. This isn’t really a review in any real sense, just a conversation about a familiar product. If you’re curious about Exalted, I’d recommend checking the used books section for old hardcovers on the cheap. Third edition is interesting, but I have difficulty imagining it as something for a new player.

When Exalted 3rd edition was announced, I was leery. I had enjoyed some of the mechanical cleanup in 2nd edition, but I also felt like they had smoothed over too many rough edges that I had loved in first (and yes, the edition differences are one of those things people have STRONG OPINIONS about). What’s more, I’d had a very tenuous relationship with the various White Wolf reprints – they were invariably produced by people with a lot of talent and a lot of love for the material, but they often felt (to me) more targeted at the nostalgia market than anything else. Their pricing reflected that too, so I ultimately skipped the kickstarter for Exalted third.

However, it’s available for sale now, and after much wailing and gnashing of teeth, I broke down and bought the PDF for $30, which I consider steep, but I get the idea that it’s luxury pricing. And I can only complain so much – DFRPG is only $5 less.

Part of the reason I waffled on the purchase is that this is absolutely the kind of book I’d prefer to read a physical copy of. Beyond a certain size, physical books are a bit more manageable for me, and this is a 650 page behemoth. That’s monstrous. And the hardcover is either $65 or or $115 – that is definitely steep for something unseen. Weirdly, I would have been much less hesitant to buy two books for a greater total, but that is a whole rabbit hole on the nature of pricing. Bottom line, I picked it up, and started reading.

The first thing to be super clear about, in case you’re wondering. When I heard how big it was, I thought maybe they had packed the whole Exalted line in there. They did not. This is a third edition of the core book, which is to say, with an overview on everything, but a focus on the Solars.

It’s genuinely a lovely looking PDF. The best of the art is amazing, and the worst of it is merely ok. If there are any real stinkers, I haven’t noticed them yet, but I’m still working through this beast. The page decorations are varied and lovely. The cover is striking.

I’d probably quibble about the font choice for the fiction. It’s a pretty drab sans serif that I’m sure Fred could name at a glance. I think it looks too boring for the material, but that’s just taste.

Two real disappointments though:

  • First – the new map of creation looks FANTASTIC, so much so that I am incredibly frustrated to have gotten only a teeny tiny version of it. I understand i maybe they want to upcharge for a super high quality version, but they could have at least included an ok copy of it, rather than sending me off to google.
  • Second – the index is not hyperlinked. I ranted about this a bit on twitter, but I should unpack this in a reasonable fashion. This is a 650 page book – it’s massive. That means the index is critical, and the prospect of scrolling 500 pages to go through the index manually, then scrolling 300 pages back is a giant pain in the ass, especially when trying to, say, look up mechanics. The file doesn’t appear to be bookmarked either, so navigation is…not great.
    Now, that said, I do not want to suggest that hyperlinking this index would be a trivial exercise. Even with software to automate the effort (which might be dicey) this is a grind, and somebody needs to get paid to do it. But as noted, this is explicitly a luxury product – not only is the flat index inconvenient, it’s a rattling plastic cup holder on a BMW.1

Ok, so the book itself. Before I go much further, I want to give a big caveat – I am pretty sure I am not the audience for this book. There’s a strong element of nostalgia to a book like this, and the things that define the nostalgia for some are not the things that define it for everyone. The things that I would want out of Exalted are not necessarily the things they set out to make. So I’m walking a line here – I think they succeeded at what they set out to do, even if it’s not necessarily my bag. I will kvetch about all manner of things, but take all complaints with the important qualifier that it’s probably not for me.

And nothing illustrates that like how blithely I skipped the introductory fiction. Look, ever since the demon towel monkey experience, I give White Wolf fiction three sentences to grab me, and it usually doesn’t.2 I might come back to it later, but honestly, I’m a tourist in my home town here – I want to get into the meat and see what’s familiar and what has changed, especially mechanically.

So, ok, what follows all feels pretty familiar. High level overview of the setting, sure, great, then two page spreads on each of the Exalt types. These are lovely pages – the two page spreads make me wish for the book or a larger monitor than I’m using. They also contain the first real surprise – two new Exalted groups.

First, The Liminal have a strong Promethean: The Created vibe to them. Created beings born of death whose power use reveals them as monstrous, and who are tied to a creator. I admit, I don’t quite get them. I suspect someone has a really good idea got how they fit into things (as a foil to the Abyssals seems the most obvious) but it doesn’t really come through in the description.

I’m much more excited by The Exigents, who are effectively the Exalted of the lesser gods. Their powers and power level is wildy varied, and their relationship with their patron is super individual, and I love them. God blooded were always one of my favorite things in Exalted, and this idea builds on it in a wonderful way. It opens the door to a wide range of really neat, but still strongly in theme characters. It also gives the more powerful gods champions, which makes the potential interactions with them much more interesting.

Other than that they hit on the core 5 – Solar, Lunar, Sidereal, Abyssal and Dragon blooded. There is also a two page spread teasing other future Exalts.3 This is a little annoying – it’s a 650 page book, and they couldn’t spare another 10 pages? But, ok, whatever.

Next we have about 60 pages of setting information which I absolutely skimmed. Unlike the fiction, I actually look forward to returning to this, but it’s enough of a mix of familiar and novel that it’s going to take some brainpower to sift through. It’s fun to skim – the high level view of the exalted world, where descriptions are limited to a paragraph or two is a wonderful thing. It’s easy to open to a page and find a random thing you could absolutelyhang a game off of.

But then I got to character creation, and I slowed down. I admit, I had heard a lot of interesting promises about 3e really streamlining the Exalted system. That idea is really compelling to me for a lot of reasons, but the jury is still out on whether or not that succeeded. They absolutely did a lot of interesting things, but I’m not entirely sure how streamlined it is.

Chargen itself looks largely familiar – Attributes, abilities, dots, essence, willpower, freebie points and so on. Not much call to dwell on those, but the changes were interesting.

  • In a nice touch, you can pick one of your skills as your “Supernal Ability” – for charms under that ability, you can buy charms as if you had an essence of 5. That is wonderfully liberating and (hopefully) reduces the pressure to just spend all your freebie points on Essence.
  • Merits & Flaws are right there, but handled smartly. The merits are flagged so it’s clear what can be bought after chargen versus earned with play. They’re also priced very inexpensively, and they just come out and say that if you’ve got a weird situation like leading two armies, then just buy the merit twice, no biggee.
  • Flaws delight me. You get no points for them, rather, they create well-articulated opportunities to generate extra XP. Obviously, I’m a big fan of this sort of approach.
  • Yet for all that, the “no skills over 3 without spending Freebie points” limit feels absolutely vestigial. Yes, it’s twinky to be able to buy a bunch of 5s, but, well, Exalted.
  • The virtues are gone, replaced by “Intimacies”. They reflect the things the character values,is driven by, or otherwise considers important. There is no limit to the number of them, and they seem quite freeform. I am intrigued to find out more.
  • Limit breaks have been tweaked a bit, but the idea seems largely intact.
  • There’s a large example of character creation, which is great to include. Viva examples!
  • The Anima effects of the various castes are referenced but not described in their entries, which seemed weird, but skipping ahead, that seems to be because they have longer explanations, so it makes sense.
  • The Attribute & Ability ladders remain somewhat spurious. It is rare that the number of dots actually feels like it’s description. But this is a very old problem.
  • The ability descriptions do a very nice job of adding a single line, bolded note about what makes each ability important, such as “This Ability is important for combat” or “This Ability is necessary to create artifacts”. Not every ability has such a note, but this seems a nice, friendly reference for someone looking to fill in a concept.
  • At first glance, none of the merits seem particularly overwhelming or mandatory, though Artifact and Manse are still hard to argue against. There’s a Selective Contraception merit, but we’re just going to gently set that down and keep moving.
  • Ok, so the Intimacies. They are generally categorized as ties or principals. The categories don’t matter much intrinsically, but some charms apparently depend on the category. Intimacies are minor, major or defining, and those tiers have descriptive and mechanical impact. It seems that they’re pretty easy to shift one step at a time, but there’s a lot of GM and player input on the process for PCs (for NPCs it sounds like this is a big part of social rules, but I haven’t gotten there yet). They also are tied to recovering Willpower. I am even more intrigued now – this seems nicely meaty.

At page 182, we finally start on the actual system. If you want a clear indication that this is a product for an established audience, look not further than this: the core mechanic (rolling dice, counting successes) is finally explained on page 185. It’s pretty clearly assumed the target audience knows this stuff.

It’s familiar enough – roll some D10s, 7, 8 or 9 is usually a success, 10 is usually two successes. Go forth and roll. The one interesting bit comes in the difficulties – they run from 1-5, and the descriptions really lay out a 5 as super damn heroic. Now, why does this matter? Tonally, it sets up very heroic play. It does not take a very big die pool to consistently get results that are narratively very impressive. In that sense, it’s a promise for the rest of the game about what the dice mean.

But this promise is fraught. It really depends on the rest of the mechanics to hold it up as true, and Storywhatever systems have consistently fallen down on this promise. So with that in mind, I accept the promise in good faith, but I am absolutely keeping an eye on it.

Nothing interesting about failure, which is not a criticism so much as a lost opportunity. Stunting is still baked right into things and looks comfortably familiar, though I very much welcome the sidebar that says “if a player stunts and fails, do not use their awesomeness to screw them over”.

But really, I was just digging through this stuff to get to combat. Exalted is fighty, so how fighty was this version?

Answer: Pretty fighty! One very substantial change has been made to the combat system, so give me a minute to unpack it. Of all things, initiative has moved to the center of combat in a very curious way. So, just to make some future things clear, your initiative value is A roll + 3, and action goes from highest to lowest. Simple enough.

Now, there are rules for moving and attacking and multiattack and they’re all well and good, but the really interesting stuff lies in the two types of attacks.

When you attack, you either make a withering attack or a decisive attack. Withering attacks4 are used to wear down enemies and take control of the tempo of the fight. They look a lot like normal WoD Attacks – Attribute + Ability + Specialization + Weapon vs defense, margin of success + some more dice vs Soak all to produce a damage number. But where it gets interesting is that the damage is applied to your enemies initiative value, and you increase your own initiative by 1 + the “damage” dealt.

If you make a Decisive attack, you are trying to actually do some damage in an attempt to end the fight. The attack does not use your weapon’s stats (so it’s just Attribute + Ability + any situational mods) and is a straight up success/failure. If it’s a failure, you lose a few points of initiative. If it’s a success you effectively cash out your initiative and roll a number of damage dice equal to your initiative rating. There’s no soak, though “hardness” can reduce damage. After you’re done, reduce your initiative to three.

Now, obviously the cadence of this is to exchange withering attacks to try to accrue enough of an initiative to land a telling blow. That seems pretty fun and interesting, but there’s more too it.

If you manage to knock someone’s initiative below zero, they’re on the ropes, in a state of “Initiative Crash”, which has some drawbacks, most notably that they cannot make decisive attacks. There’s also a lot of fiddly stuff about putting someone in initiative crash and coming out of it, and at least some of it seems to be there to prevent certain obvious abuses. You can be driven deeper into negatives, though if you hold out for 3 rounds, you get reset back to an initiative of 3. In fighting game terms, this feels like a juggle, a situation where the combination of attacks you are landing let you get off free hits without a counterattack. As with many Exalted mechanics, it feels like it might be a weird fit elsewhere, but having some video game tone in Exalted is kind of on point.

It seems pretty obvious that there’s a large benefit to building up a pile of initiative early up in a fight, which mechanically encourages engaging the mooks5 before you go after the boss, but given that this is Exalted, that seems more feature than bug. I definitely worry about the “initiative piñata” risk, where someone lays withering attacks on weaker targets to be abel to land more powerful decisive attacks on harder targets. It also feels like a fight that goes lopsided is going to stay lopsided.

But the thing it, I might be wrong. This is definitely super interesting, and it’s different enough from other systems that I am confident that certain properties will emerge in play.6I definitely want to try this out, even without introducing charms (which I’m sure really mess with things).

So while I quibble about some things, but this in unquestionably a very clever and in place elegant mechanic, one that I cheerfully look forward to borrowing in the future.

One other bit with a lot of potential are Gambits. Conceptually, they’re straightforward enough – want to make an attack that is really neither withering nor decisive, but rather trying to change the situation, such as with a disarm or knocking someone off their horse? No problem – it’s handled like a decisive attack, but the damage roll is instead roles against a difficulty. Easy peasy. By itself I kind of shrug – disarm rules don’t move my needle much. However, a throwaway comment reveals something very potent – these gambits can be situational. That is, I can frame a fight in such a way that there are special activities you can take that are expressed as gambits. This offers a nice mechanical hook for fighting a mountain, or having an MMO style boss fight where you need to, say, hit the crystals before you can attack the boss7. It’s very explicitly gamey, but so is the whole system, which is fine because it’s Exalted.

There is also the clash, when two characters attack each other on the same initiative number. It’s a contested roll with higher consequences than a normal attack, and that’s cool. It would have been easy for it to have been really overwrought and dramatic, but I think this will happen often enough8 that it was good they went with something quick rather than have it devolve into a mini game every time.

I also want to call out one wonderfully subtle mechanics that provides a pile of genre enforcement. Ranges are nice and abstract – Close, Short, Medium and long. If you want to make any sort of ranged attack from Medium or Long range, you must take an aim action first. I’ll be curious if charms mess with it, but the upshot of it is this – if you want your ranged character to be at parity with the melee characters, you need to be in the mix. Staying at short range leaves you exposed to people rushing you, but it gets you into the ebb and flow of the fight. That’s a clear genre declaration of what archers should look like, and I love that kind of subtle, yet potently opinionated mechanic.

I also like an addition to the injury rules, that you can clear big injuries by taking a permanent injury instead (though it’s still pretty harsh, mechanically). However, I’m not 100% sure how that ends up working with Exalted, since they are supposed to be super awesome at healing.

There are grappling rules, and about them, I will say this: there are definitely grappling rules.

There’s an interesting bit in stealth – in addition to sneak attacking (which works largely as you’d expect) you can “Hold at Bay” – roll to attack, but instead of attacking, you effectively hold the target at knifepoint for a number of rounds equal to the damage you had done. If the target opts not to play along, they will end up on the receiving end of a very unpleasant attack. Definitely a fun addition.

Anyway, that gets us to about page 200. I will be shocked if I have this much to say about the next 450 pages besides “Oh God, so many charms”, but to find out, I’m going to have to actually go look at those pages, so until then, g’night all.

  1. That said, I should add, that the Table of Contents and cross references all seem well linked. That’s awesome, but it made the index thing even more noticeable. ↩︎
  2. Usually because those first few sentences are usually some kind of evocative prose rather than the start of a story. It’s a style thing, and I get that some people dig it, but I’m super impatient that way. I think the last time I was really grabbed by the opening fiction was….Changeling: the Lost maybe? So I’m a curmudgeon. I own it. ↩︎
  3. Looking at them, I inferred Alchemical, Fae, Infernal and God blooded. Not sure about the last one – might be new, but more likely I have forgotten something. ↩︎
  4. I do not love this name, but I am sympathetic. It has the feel of a name picked because it was the least objectionable option out of many, many tries. ↩︎
  5. Curiously, if there are extras rules, I haven’t gotten to them yet. Very curious. ↩︎
  6. Consider, for example, the thee rounds of Initiative Break recovery. If I push you into initiative break with a Withering attack, my best course is to make a decisive attack, another withering attack, then a decisive attack. Assuming I don’t drop you, on the round that you come out, we are both at Initiative 3, and have been set up for a Clash. Elegant. ↩︎
  7. On some level, they are a compelling answer to the problems with Skill Challenges in 4e. ↩︎
  8. There’s even a mechanical trick that makes it more likely – if you choose to delay your action, it costs you two initiative, no matter how much you delay. So it is not expensive to hold until your opponent’s turn to try to force a clash. My only concern is that it introduces a bit of a race condition. ↩︎