The Captain’s Wheel

First and foremost, I want to make something clear: this is an idea from John Harper’s Blades in the Dark, the clock mechanic, which I am adapting to 7th Sea. I take zero credit for any of this, and all blame for it’s awkwardness. I absolutely encourage looking to the source material for further insight.

With that in mind, here we go.

The Captain’s Wheel

When the GM encounters a situation which requires a little bit more range than a simple yes or no, then she can do the following:

  1. Grab a post it or index card

    Making it a wheel lets me draw it with stubs!

  2. Draw a circle on it (the eponymous wheel)
  3. Divide that circle into any number of wedges. 4 is the default, but really, 2, 4, 6 or 8 are all fine (or even odd numbers if that suits you).
  4. Write down a word or two describe what’s being tracked.
  5. Whenever something happens in play to move towards the outcome being tracked, fill in a wedge on the wheel. Sometimes, things will fill in more than one wedge.
  6. When the wheel is completely filled in, something happens!

Sounds simple, because it is. Consider this example:

We’ve done two suspicious things, but so far he hasn’t caught on

Players are guests in the court of Elaine, but are also secretly spying for Montaigne. Elaine’s spymaster is on the alert, but not yet suspicious.

The GM draws a 6 wedge wheel to represent the awareness of the spymaster. When the heroes do things that might raise suspicion (even if it does not point directly at them), the GM fills in a wedge. On individual rolls, the GM may offer the prospect of filling in wedges as potential consequences that need to be offset. If the wheel ever fills in, the Spymaster realizes that there are spies around and the whole palace goes into lockdown.)

This offers a few interesting tools to the table1:

  • As a GM, it gives me an extra handle for consequences on a given roll. That is super valuable to me.
  • This scales up and down easily. I can have a wheel in a scene for whether the room catches fire just as easily as I can have a wheel on my campaign for when Posen finishes preparing for war. Wedges can be filled by a raise, by an action, by a scene or by and entire session.
  • It lets me address those situations where my gut feels like allowing something for one raise is too much, but I don’t want to just say no.
  • Because there’s a physical reminder of the wheel on the table, it remains something easy to engage. A quick glance can reveal what’s in play, and serve as its own sort of bookkeeping.

Anyway, I offer this as a convenience for anyone looking to solve the same problems I intend to use it for.

  1. I admit, I may also use this notation for advancement, but that’s just a personal thing.) ↩︎

16 thoughts on “The Captain’s Wheel

  1. Robtimus

    This seems like it would be meant for just you as the GM, but would you ever consider leaving it visible to the players as well, to increase dramatic tension in a given situation?

    1. Rob Donoghue Post author

      Oh, 9 times out of 10 I’d do it right out on the table in front of the players. If I wanted to be secretive, I might put one out without a label and just cackle when I fill things in. The only ones I wouldn’t share are ones I’m keeping for pure bookkeeping purposes (like stuff going on with offscreen NPCs), and that would purely be to reduce clutter. .

  2. Tom

    Nice! I’ve been thinking progress clocks needed to be part of 7th Sea for a while now. Kudos for attaching an appropriate metaphor to it. I’d been thinking of using them mostly for villain schemes but I can certainly see how you could use them for more than that.

  3. Jay Loucks

    This is a great mechanic to add to 7th Sea. I’m going to find a way to use it!

    I would like your thoughts on a game-play question.
    In playing almost non-stop 7th Sea 2nd Ed. at Kublacon (a SF Bay Area gaming convention), my con buddies found that it was easy and natural for other players to stomp all over the cool thing you are about to do, since:
    A) they see a cool thing to do themselves, and
    B) they don’t know what you are planning.

    Now part of the joy of doing the cool thing is surprising the whole table with your dramatic and effective maneuver, but it does kind of set you up for other people to pre-empt your action. And this most affects the mature and stable players, who are willing to share the spotlight by letting others go first.

    The first idea that popped into my head is to have players call dibs on a target (which may be a scene element).
    But I would love to hear your thoughts, and those of your astute readers.


    1. Rob Donoghue Post author

      Man, tricky.

      Weirdly, I feel like maybe this is the *real* solution to spending more than one raise at a time during action scenes. If you want to do a cool setup and follow through, then it kind of feels like it might be entirely appropriate to spend 2 raises to make it one “action”. There might be a bit of instinctive resistance that it’s somehow “abusive” but, honestly, given how much can narratively be done with a single raise, I think it’s probably mechanically less potent, in return for being more awesome.

      I’m a little bit leery of dibs, because while you don’t want to have scene stealing, you also don’t want to discourage teamwork. The antipattern we want to avoid is the one player who calls dibs on the cool thing while everyone else sits around (or worse, feels like *their* cool thing is being stomped on). That makes the “spend multiple raises” approach appeal a bit more, since the player is really paying for the spotlight grab.

      Beyond that, I worry other solutions I would offer might hack the game a bit too far from the standard build, but I’ll chew on it for a bit.

  4. Blue

    Do you ever see the wheel decreasing? Like in the spymaster example, if they PCs feed a 3rd party spy to the spymaster so he thinks he’s cleaned house?

  5. Sandra

    So, what I’ve found with this in Blades (which I’ve never played, but I’m trying to catch up on one of the web series (RollPlay Blades, I’m halfway through Week 16 now)) is that it is sorta like hitpoints. Hitpoints for a situation rather than for a person.

    Since Blades’ mechanic is as detailed as a conflict-level resolution mechanic (with multiple inputs [SIS position, SIS effect, special abilities, pushed help, pushed self, Devil’s Bargain], and several Fortune in the Middle factors such as Resist rolls), every roll, hmm, takes a good while. Every roll in Blades is like a whole fight in our D&D 5e game.

    But, it’s not used as a conflict-level resolution mechanic. Because of the many clocks, in practice it becomes a task level mechanic. You Skirmish and Resist on the individual Harm level, not on the Scene level. And what happens is that fights sometimes takes one and a half hours or more.

    By contrast, in our 5e game this last Thursday (we do a mashup of 5e and Dramasystem, everyone has a 5e character sheet and a Dramasystem character sheet, and 90% of our play is in the Drama layer, but when action happens, the D&D dice come out), one character was sneaking on an NPC and tried to subdue her. She startled her with her short sword (represented as HP loss w/ sneak bonus), they both jumped out of the window where the character kept threatening her with the sword (more HP loss, w/o sneak this time) and then hid. The NPC (also a rogue) used her main action + cunning action to double dash 90 feet, so the player character shot her dead with a shortbow w/ sneak bonus. The whole thing was over in mere minutes… and that was a level 5 rogue (the PC) vs a level 8 rogue (the NPC).

    The HP (which represent… threat, upper hand, position, footing, momentum, wounds, scratches, fatigue, hope, fate, destiny… not all of these at once but a sum of these factors) is what’s pacing the scene while we can have plenty of fine-grained SIS interaction since the system is task-level based. In one fight we had sneaking, climbing, trying to subdue/capture w/ sword, jumping out the window, booking it, taking a lethal shot. All paced out by HP. (But every roll fast and simple. You sneak? You just roll. You Go Aggro with your sword? You just roll. You hide again? You just roll. You shoot? You just roll.)

    While 7S is simpler than Blades, there’s still a bit of fiddliness of pairing up raises, spending them etc. The raises are already a pacing mechanism. It becomes a bit tautological. Now, I can definitely see the appeal of having the clocks on a more zoomed out time level, sort of like fronts in DW, and I’m going to use them as well, for that. I’m just saying:

    Be mindful before using them within a single scene.

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