Ok, so yesterday I talked up all the good things that can come out of building a game with a strong tie to the setting from the ground up. Legend of the Five Rings managed to pull this off in a way that has lead to the game going into a fourth edition, which is a pretty good sign of how robust the idea of it is.
The temptation, then, is to try to do something similar – to create a game that has that tight a tie into the setting from the getgo. And it’s a good instinct – if you can pull it off, it would be pretty awesome. And Alderac clearly thought so too, since that’s exactly what they tried to do with their swashbuckling game, 7th Sea and it’s setting of Theah.
I have a pretty serious love/hate relationship with 7th Sea. The parts I like, I’m nuts for, but the parts that are bad are really and truly so bad that they make me angry and a little bit sad. I should also add that I think 7th Sea is past its expiration date on spoilers, so I’m not going to pull any punches there. If for some ungodly reason that’s an issue, I apologize.
Ok, so 7th Sea pretty much did to Europe what L5R did to Japan, and in some ways this was spectacular, as it was more or less “European History: the Good Parts Version”. England was Elizabethan + Arthurian. France was a mash up of the musketeers and Napoleon. The Dutch were also Vikings. You get the idea. It was shameless in its blatant coolhunting and that was a good thing. Yes, some history nerds might take offense at the abuse to history, but since there was no attempt to hide this, I’d call that kind of objection a party foul.
Yet despite this, 7th Sea has not had anywhere near the kind of robustness in the mind as L5R. So what went wrong?
First and foremost, there’s a good chance that a big part of it was that it had a very deep metaplot which was, to put it bluntly, pretty stupid. There were a lot of crazy details to it, but the big thing is that Europe was surrounded by a giant forcefield designed to make geography utterly nonsensical. The whole world was ALSO surrounded by a giant forcefield. That was keeping out Cthulhu. Some sorcery weakened the latter forcefield. Other magics came from other Cthulhu Lite Guys who hate big Cthulhu.
I realize that in summing it up in this fashion, it is merely preposterous sounding, so bear in mind that you need to read a great many books to get all of this revealed in what I can only describe as a thoroughly 90’s fashion.
So there’s the first really painful bit: a terrible metaplot, complicated, fiddly and not particularly contributing to the tone of the game. This is another area where L5R’s CCG roots ended up providing an unexpected benefit. It also had a metaplot, but there were a couple explicit limitations on it. They were using their tournaments to determine the direction events in the empire went, so they could not plan that too far ahead. Also, they needed to make sure that they could bring in new card sets, which meant new elements needed to follow some of the same rules that made the initial elements work (simple, understandable, but with potential depth). 7th Sea had a CCG but, like the RPG, it was never as big as L5R and it didn’t provide as much of a set of constraints (or at least so it appears from the outside).
The second problem was that Theah was much closer to a kitchen sink design than L5R. Some corner of Theah probably had whatever you wanted out of a game, but that meant the rest of it probably doesn’t work out so well. The obvious split was between pirates and musketeers, but there are dozens more thematic splits throughout the setting. Contrast that with the focus of L5R and you find yourself facing one of the hardest questions in RPGs “Ok. But what do we do now?”
Now, yes, obviously, any specific campaign can answer that question, but that’s not the same as having the setting answer it for you. It establishes a baseline which you can choose to deviate from, but which gives you what you need.
The third problem was one that you could also find in a lot of 90’s designs – It was the NPCs game. At first glance it did not seem like this was the case. There was a lot of talk about how pivotal the PCs were in the rulebook, and the setting took the novel step of freezing the timeline, so that all the supplements that came out were from a single snapshot moment in time. In theory, this meant that there would be no unexpected metaplot events that changed the game.
In practice, it did not quite shake out that way. Rather than advance the timeline, the various books started changing the underpinnings of the game, initially with mild reveals but eventually with information that flew in the face of earlier material. The metaplot unfolded in a fashion that introduced a lot of tonal clash and made it clear the things that were important in the game are not the things the players were aware of when they made their characters.
With all that in mind, I’m not looking to bust on 7th Sea so much as say that the lessons I would take from it are somewhat cautionary. As much as it might seem like reskinning history with extra awesome is an easy formula for success, there’s clearly more to it than that.
If I want to follow this particular model (and I might) the trick will be (as it seems it so often is) all about embracing the limitations. Narrowing in on a specific slice of a setting that creates strong context for players is much better than something broad which might give me, as a creator, more leeway to do stuff I think is cool. It’s a slightly brutal tradeoff, but probably a smart one.
1 – And especially the fact that this focus gave characters an implicit role. In L5R, you start with a duty of some stripe – it’s a necessity.
2 – Not that it mattered much because the NPCs were all statted out to make it clear that there was a tier of awesome that you could simply never aspire too