Author Archives: Rob Donoghue

7th Sea: From Kirkwall to Carleon

whalingPlay started in Kirkwall (aka “Kurkle”) with the players having a few points of wealth from their dealings, but a ship whose damage would take twice as much money to fix. So, before things got started, we took a moment to flash back on Captain Quinn.

Quinn is a Glamour practitioner, and we hadn’t really talked through what that means in the game. For the unfamiliar, there are a limited number of Glamour users, each one corresponding to a legendary knight. I am always a big fan of magic that is limited to a number of named practitioners because it suggests fun social dynamics and knowing people by name, so we’re going to lean on that a little bit.

But we also had a bit of a snag. Glamour powers are tied to 2 stats, and which two stats they are depend upon the historical knight the character has picked. Now, Quinn had specifically wanted some of the Resolve tricks, so his range of choices was fairly limited, and he picked Theofric, the Beloved. The problem is that it’s a choice the player absolutely did not give a crap about – it didn’t resonate with his character at all, so much so that he didn’t even remember which knight he was tied to. So we discussed at a little before play and we switched his knight to The Sailor, which made much more sense, but I let him keep his resolve powers, because the thematic match seemed much more important than the mechanics (especially since he’s still limited to 2 stats). I admit, from this point, I’m going to treat the Glamour stat pairs as suggestions more than rules, and I think it will be a lot more satisfying overall.

That also let us talk a little bit about when the Graal revealed itself to Quinn – at a point when he died – and that he answered the call and bent knee to Elaine, and is for all intents and purposes a secret spy for her. This also marked his transition from Pirate to Smuggler, since the knight’s code makes pillage a little difficult.

Now, for me, the key takeaway here is that Quinn is an Elaine loyalist, which I needed to know before entangling the characters in any politics in the Highland Marches1. I actually have something up my sleeve on that front, but I had no good way to pull it in gracefully. So instead, we went with whaling.

Whaling in 7th Sea has been on my mind as I’ve been playing Dishonored, so between Quinn’s contacts at the castle and the Professor Valdis’s Invisible College contacts2 they found their way to a Vodacce professor of Biology and his Marcher partner, Angus MacBride, who had built an immense whaling ship, but as it was highly experimental, they needed as captain and some crew for her maiden voyage. In return for this, MacBride would repair their ship, and (after some haggling) actually improve it (removing it’s “Hangar Queen” drawback).

While waiting to depart, Professor Valdis discovered that she had a bit of a following at the local university, and after late night drinking and fund raising (with some magical help) she ended up setting up a futures market in cod, which raised some eyebrows, but will probably pay off, as it was a step in her buying the Wealthy advantage.

The whaling voyage itself was more colorful than anything else. There were some interesting NPCs among the crew (the Irish whaling master and the Eisen engineer) and a few challenges to keep the ship (which steers like a pregnant elephant) in shape, but mostly it was a lot of middle of nowhere in the ocean. They did eventually find a Leviathan, and between depth charges and strangely hi-tech harpoon cannons managed to kill the beast and winch it up.

That, of course, is where things went wrong. That night a fog rolled in while the whalers were mostly passed out drunk, and a Viking longship pulled up alongside and attacked.

Short version: The good guys won.

Longer version: I’m still working on balancing combat. I explicitly amped up the challenge on this one because things have been a bit too easy so far. I went for two brute squads of strength 8 each, and two villains with 12 dice each. I worried a little bit about the villains, but our Swordsman got his weaponry up to 4 dots last session, so he’s now building raises with 15s, so I figured he could handle it. One of the villains was a swordsman, the other had runic magic, which I sketched out loosely. She had a potent fear effect and the ability to chuck around lightning. The fear effect would have been a real problem, but our Swordsman’s virtue cancels it out, so he had a nice dramatic moment as fear paralyzed the crew, but he called out a rally, and lead the counterattack.

First round of combat started rough. The enemy swordsman had 2 more raises than the next hero, so he pretty solidly waled on our swordsman with some free shots, but after that, things shifted directions quickly. Our Acrobat provided enough distraction to the swordsman out allow our Swordsman to regain the upper hand. Professor Valids’s reckless takedown obliterated one of the brute squads, and between her and Captain Quinn, the brutes were pretty well wiped out. Second round went much less well for the bad guys – our Swordsman’s dice turned, and he managed to finish off the opponent with a Ruse and a Lunge, allowing everyone else to dogpile the runecaster, culminating in her being impaled by a harpoon (which also kind of sank the longboat).

It was an ok fight, but I’m still wrestling with the challenges of the system, some of which crystallized a bit more:

  • I really want to try a fight sometime with no duelists, because it really feels like the system would flow a little bit more smoothly in group scenes. When you have one duelist in the group, he’s operating at a different cadence than everyone else, and that keeps things from feeling as fluid as they might.
  • I have been feeling obliged to use dueling rules for villains to keep them dangerous, but I think that’s been a bad idea. Partly, it’s keeping me from using their raises more creatively, but partly it’s just a pain in the ass. I’ll use them when he villain is an actual honest to god member of the guild, in an actual duel, but I need to come up with some shorthand rules for making villains dangerous with less fiddliness.
  • We have had several fights now where the crew has been part of the fight, and Captain Quinn really wants to be leading and directing them in battle, which falls flat if I use straight brute rules for them. I’ve made some on-the-fly calls to support it, but I need something a little more toothy.
  • Stakes on that fight were a little flat. That was on me, but it’s a reminder of how much I like have discrete elements in play (a la Fate or Cortex Plus) on the table in front of me, to threaten and engage.
  • That actually speaks to something I need to do with the system at large – the amount that a villain can do with a raise is huge and potentially somewhat overwhelming. Perhaps more problematic, it’s also complete. I need to more consciously take the diceless tempo of Threaten-Act-Threaten-Act. That makes for much more satisfying exchanges.
  • I end up really cheating on the villain rules for the sake of play, and I think that may be part of the problem.  Named villains capable of taking on a group of heros have more abilities than I can casually track, but at the same time, I really need a handle on opposition that holds up better than a brute squad.  I’ve been using lower strength villains with amped up die pools in lie of advantages (because I am not going to do the math) but it’s a total duck tape solution.

The trip back to dock was slow, but mostly uneventful, save for the Leviathan following the ship deep beneath he waves, which could not possibly be a harbinger of things to come.

Back in Kirkwall, Quinn picked up some letters from MacDuff’s cousin, to deliver to him in Carleon. Professor Valdis had to subdue an angry Marcher who was trying to find where all the fish were, and also made off with a vial of leviathan oil, since it turns out to have some very peculiar attributes (notably that it generates electric current when burnt). Angus McBride also had a proposition for them, in that he had a passenger he needed pick up in Montaigne and returned to Kirkwall, so they bought a load of felt (for hats, in Montaigne) and set off to Carleon, with Montaigne their next destination.

In Carleon, Quinn stopped by the palace to deliver the courier pouch to MacDuff. This took an interesting turn when, after some time in a waiting room, MacDuff himself showed up and handed Quinn a box, explaining that he needs to give it to Elaine, and report that he got it from the viking pirates he fought. Quinn was rather caught off guard, but agreed because you don’t say no the the MacDuff. However, he enlisted his companions to investigate the box, and discovered it to contain some coin, but also a ring and brooch containing the heraldry of one Ser Mandrake, a man that Quinn knew as another Glamour Knight in the service of Elaine.

He ended up going along with MacDuff’s plan, and during his audience with Elaine (which MacDuff was also attending) he went along with MacDuff’s plan, though he has no idea what the goal was. Because politics. Elaine returned the coins to him, but kept the brooch and ring, looking concerned.

And that’s about where we wrapped. It was a good session, but I really feel like I failed to bring enough spotlight for our Acrobat. She had a little bit of Daughters of Sophia action, but I don’t quite have the same level of purchase with her that I do with the other characters. However, she has the potential of having far reaching enemies, so I think I may need to lean on that for the future.

I’m also slightly disappointed that I had printed up a GM cheatsheet for the game but forgot to bring it. We’ll have to see how that plays out next time.

  1. My least favorite thing about the Marches is the lack of a good adjectives and terms. Describing things as “Marchish” and people as “Marchers” sounds awful, enough so that I will sometimes just say “Scottish” or “Scots” and we roll with it. The best match I’ve been able to find is “Highlands” and “Highlanders” but it’s does not exactly flow off the tongue. ↩︎
  2. As an aside, I am really growing to like the Secret Society rules. They are a lot more robust than they seem at first glance, and provide wonderful motivations an opportunities for actions. I begin to suspect that the true secret heart of the game is Stories and Secret Societies, and I’m very much OK with that. ↩︎

 

7th Sea: Session 2

screenshot-2016-11-16-20-30-55We had our second session of 7th Sea this past weekend, and it continued to be fun. I’m still wrestling the manatee a little bit, but I think I’m getting it under control.

We tried an experimental rule, and it partly worked. During action sequences, rather than having me “buy” dice from them (Giving me Danger Points and them Hero Points) they had the option to spend unused dice as soft failures.  That is, they were treated as raises in terms of when the character could act, but the player was obliged to describe their character failing in some way (ideally an awesome or funny way).  When they did so, I got a DP and they got an HP.

It mostly worked. It meant more actions (including failures) which slowed things down a little, but it also introduced a little bit of interesting decision making regarding when to take a failure.  The main concern we had was that it’s technically abusable by allowing a player to opt to take a BUNCH of failures, but that is reasonably easily mitigated by demanding players optimize their success building. If it’s still a problem after that, then I’ll consider switching to allowing only a single incident. But with those considerations, I’ll probably keep it around.

We started with a little background material, as I asked each player what they do and where they stay while in port. We got some nice background details out of that (unsurprisingly including the names of a few drinking establishments), but the most interesting bit came out of The Swordsman attempting to go to church.  This was complicated the fact that he was a devout Castillean in the middle of very Objectionist Vendel.  So we went to the dice and he ended up with the options Castillean, Honest or Safe: Pick one.  He picked honest.

If he’d gone safe, I probably would have had him find the church where the local Vodacce mobsters go to church (which may not seem safe, but the mobsters take the church very seriously), so instead I improvised a bit and decided it was the improvised church of a group of Montaignians who had fled their country to what seemed the least bad option to them – the Vesten may be godless, but they don’t bother you so much about it. So they joined in that community’s church, and all seemed well, but at the end, an old man seemed to recognize The Swordsman, and said many things in Montaignian which neither he nor The Acrobat could understand before saying, in Old Thean, “We Remember” and pressing a coin into The Swordsman’s hand. (EDIT: The Acrobat’s player has reminded me she has the Linguist advantage and could understand JUST FINE, but heard Montaigne and wandered off, bored. My players are wonderful).

And here, I note, is why I love my players.  They are genre-sensitive enough that The Swordsman’s player knew perfectly well the coin was hooked into his Tragic Backstory, so he did not ask for any details about it.  We understood what it signified, and details would not be important until they were important.

Anyway, having looked over the character’s stories, it was pretty clear we had another sailing voyage ahead of us.   I dipped into the hooks from last session and laid out two things: Red had some cargo she wanted moved surreptitiously, and Lyonetta, the fate witch they’d smuggled into Vesten had encountered problems on the last leg of her journey (to Carleon) and needed help.  Red’s mission was to Kirkwall (which, as a table, we agreed the Scot’s pronounce as “Kurkle”) but that would also bring them close enough to Carleone for help Lyonetta.

Planning the journey proved fun – because we were using a light patina of travel rules, the players could look at the map and figure out a few possible routes, I could talk about what they knew about each one, and they could make an informed decision.  Realizing they lacked the loose cash for a very profitable trip to Kirkwall, they opted instead to load up on beer and stop over in “The Gut” (Gotkirschen, a wretched hive of scum and villainy atop a Syrneth ruin) because The Captain’s pirate ties meant he could come and go in relative safety.  The thinking was the beer would sell well in the Gut and goods of dubious origin could often be acquired there at good prices.

And it mostly went according to plan, until a group of raiders decided that stealing the beer from the docked ship would be easier, and violence ensued.

It was OK Violence. One medium villain and a bunch of brutes – I didn’t flesh the villain out to much, but I did decide he did 2 wounds when he hit (because the dude was huge) which was a bit handwavey on my part, but seriously, this guy did not need a full sheet, or even a name.  Also, the acrobat had some time to do damage before the fighting properly started, so there weren’t a huge number of Mooks either.

The most interesting thing about the fight is that it happened while The Professor was negotiating the sale of the beer, so I opted to take advantage of the raise structure to thread those scenes together, as if a TV camera was cutting between them.  Thus, when other folks rolled their attack skills, she rolled for her negotiation, and every time turn order came around to her, the haggling proceeded, with her counterpart making a slightly better offer.  As a result, the fight culminated with with villains fleeing and the Professor being offered two crates of Syrneth artifacts, and who says no to that?

They took the Artifacts, and spent the last of their pennies on a shipment of linen of dubious value, but had some “legitimate” cargo to take to Kirkwall.  And so they did, and that also went well, until the sea monster attacked.

It was a Kraken style thing, so they were mostly fighting tentacles.  The Professor had a lovely moment where she severed one and got covered in black ink.  The captain went below decks and removed the chains on the port side cannons, causing the whole ship to list to starboard far enough that the cannons were angled down towards the creature.  And then, of course, the Earth Shattering Kaboom.

Naturally, as it slipped beneath the waves, it had several crewmen in its tentacles, something that was an invitation to the Swordsman whose story’s 4th step was to sacrifice himself for the crew.  He cut one guy free, pinned another in place with a belaying pin, and jumped over the side after the last, emerging with him after a suitably dramatic pause, and pretty well loaded up with injuries.

So it was that a very badly wounded ship limped into Kirkwall. The secret sale of Red’s goods went seamlessly, but they had to take some precautions to not get ambushed selling off their Linen.  They could probably have sold the Syrneth artifacts here, but they would go for much more in Montaigne or Vodacce, so that would have to wait.  As the session ended, they had enough money to get the ship afloat, but not enough to repair her fully (or buy any new cargo, though they did pay the crew, because responsibilities) so next session we get to find out what goes wrong next.

It was a good session, though not as strong as the first.  I hadn’t planned on them going to The Gut, so it had a little bit less of a sense of place than I would have liked, but I did fair service to the character’s stories, so I’m happy with that.

Picking a Backpack

The Tom Bihn Synapse 25, AKA the backpack I am currently balancing my laptop on.

The Tom Bihn Synapse 25, AKA the backpack I am currently balancing my laptop on.

Ok, you’ve decided you want a backpack. I’m not going to worry about how you came to this conclusion (though I have opinions) , but  whatever your reasons, your back thanks you.

I’m going to broadly assume that this is a backpack for day to day use. Maybe you need to tote your computer and papers too and from work. Maybe you need to haul your gear to the coffee shop. Whatever the case, we’re not talking about hiking or other specialized uses here. Even if you need it for a specific case (like a bag for a trip of convention) you’re mostly talking about something the cool kids would call and EDC (“Everyday Carry”) bag.

IF YOU REALLY DON”T CARE then let’s cut to the chase:

  • Got to ebags and search around til you find something cool. Their filtering tools are awesome.
  • Check if it’s cheaper on Amazon.
  • Order

If you do care, then please continue.

When you pick a bag, there are five things you want to think about: Cost, Utility, Durability, Comfort and Fashion.

We’ll talk more about cost in a little bit, but this is probably the easiest one to judge: Is the backpack within your budget? If yes, then the cost is fine. Easy peasy.

Utility is all the factors that make the backpack useful to you, which in turns depends upon what you want to carry in it. If you just need to carry your laptop, some cables and maybe a notebook and pencil, you need a much smaller backpack than the one you’re going to haul all of your D&D books around in. Stop and look about what you actually carry now. Take the opportunity to decide if there’s any dead weight you could trim, but also make sure to capture things you might regret the absence of (like power cables). When you look at a bag, think about where those things are going to go. A few items to consider for the utility of your bag:

  • When in doubt, be wary of too many pouches and pockets. Some amount of organization in a backpack can be useful, but too much and you end up wasting a lot of space, both for the pockets and for all the things that don’t fit them exactly. Better to get a bag with large compartments, then divide it yourself with sub-bags. There are reams of bags available for this use, but for my money there are few things as useful as a 6 dollar zipper bag, the kind banks used to use – You can get them on Amazon, no problem. Toss your pens or cables into one or two of those, and any bag becomes organized.
  • Pay attention to how the bag closes and opens. There is a tendency among fancier bags to use buckles or funky hooks because they look great, but they are usually a pain, Often they require two hands to operate, or require you to hold the pack just so. That may seem like a minor thing, but the hundredth time you fish something out of your bag, you’ll notice.
  • Also pay attention to how you’ll carry it. Obviously, you’ll use the shoulder straps a lot of the time, but when you set it down and pick it up, it’s very useful to have some other strap or handle on top of the bag that you can easily grab to haul it around.
  • Most bags will have a laptop sleeve, and that’s great, but they’re not necessarily created equal. First, make sure you can get to it reasonably easily. Some backpacks (especially TSA compliant ones) require unzipping a LOT to just get at your laptop. Be careful of that. Second, check the bottom of the laptop sleeve: if it is flush with the bottom of the pack, you’re more likely to damage the laptop when you drop it. If the bottom is separate, that space buys you a little bit more protection.
  • Regarding TSA compliance – it is not worth having a crappy bag to make your trip through the X-ray fractionally easier.  If that is an issue, consider investing in a laptop sleeve and just pulling your computer out fo the bag.
  • Very few bags are truly waterproof, though they may offer varying degrees of water resistance. Look at the zippers, closures and materials to get a sense of how comfortable you’d be out in the rain with it. If you’re worried, but you like your pack, consider a backpack cover. It’s effectively a poncho for your backpack – inexpensive and easy to pack.

Durability is a hard one to judge if you’re buying online (and you probably are). Some brands, like GoRuck or Redoxx build their reputation on their durability, but that is baked into the price tag. Rather than worry about this too much, pay attention to how the brand of the bag handles returns. Many bag makers will stand behind their product 100%, no questions asked, and you want that confidence. Not only is is an indicator in their faith in their product, it is a safety net for you.

But that said, don’t just read the blurb. Go do their website and start doing a return – you’ll quickly see which bag makers really want to help you and which ones make it a pain in the ass.1

Comfort is also tricky online. The best backpack in the world is still going to suck if it pinches your neck. A good return policy can help with that, but there’s no substitute for actually going into a store and walking around. If you go to an outdoor store, like REI or EMS, they will have weights (usually over by the climbing or hiking gear) that you can stuff into the backpack to simulate a full load. Otherwise, just bring your own load (books are great for this), fill it up and walk around for a while. Places that know their business are either used to this or don’t care. If they do care, that’s not a place to spend your money.

Fashion probably made a few few folks sneer or shrug, especially the guys, but this is a thing. The backpack is a very visible thing that you’ll be carrying a lot, and like it or not, it conveys a message about you. What more, you probably have an image of yourself – a writer in a cafe, a business professional, Indiana Jones – that you may want the bag to align with. The two mains axes for fashion are material and ornamentation.

For materials, most bags will be nylon, canvas, cloth or leather. Nylon is the most utilitarian (it’s durable can be used in many ways) but since it’s the default, it’s easy to dismiss as uninteresting. That’s unfair in some cases, but I must concede Nylon is the choice you make when you don’t care.

Canvas usually looks much nicer than nylon, but it’s much less reliable as a material. There is very good canvas, but also very cheap canvas, and it can be very hard to tell the difference just by looking. Waterproofing is an especially pernicious question for canvas. Be explicitly warned – there are a lot of really nice looking, really cheap canvas bags coming out of China these days, and their durability is in line with their price.

Cloth is something of an oddball – often it’s just a shell wrapped around a nylon core, so it’s entirely a function of appearance. But sometimes the whole bag is really made out of wool (or “smartwool”) or something, and that can be a little weird. If you like it, awesome, but just make sure to look closely and be confident it will hold up to wear and tear.

Leather is, of course, the deluxe option. It can look nice, feel nice, and hold up very well. But it’s expensive, and it often offers less modern design than other material (because you can shape and pad nylon shoulder straps, not so much with leather). If you want leather, nothing else will do, but be skeptical and demanding. Cheap (or fake) leather will take your money and leave you weeping as your beautiful backpack falls apart.

Ornamentation is simpler, and can be summed up with these two images:

backpack3

backpack1

Both are nylon business backpacks, but they have very different external styles. Both are fine, but be cognizant of what you want.

Such tactical. Very straps.

Such tactical. Very straps.

One particular style you’ll see a lot are molle straps. These have many practical benefits because they are designed to let you attach things to your pack. It’s a module design with military roots that is super popular with people who like to use the word “tactical” in their fashion discussions. I won’t say to avoid these – they make great pen loops – but be aware that they read as “military enthusiast” for good or ill.

 

 

 


 

Ok, with all those details out of the way, let’s talk about actually buying the bag. The earlier advice about just going to ebags and poking around still stands. It’s an amazing site, and you can probably find what you need there.

That said, let’s talk about cost.

Budget ($50 and under)

If you are one a tight budget, less than $50, your choices are limited, but there are more than you might think. In this space, the Jansport (yes, that Jansport) brand and the ebags house brand offer a number of very nice, very practical packs. High Sierra and Swiss Gear also make some packs in this space, and they’re good, but I don’t trust them quite enough.

If you really want quirky style on a limited budget, then Herschel Supplyhas a number of nice options. They’re very bare bones, but they’re solid canvas bags without the risk of Chinese knockoffs. Look for them on ebags or amazon – they’re cheaper than the main site. Also, keep an eye on the bags sales – sometimes they can be amazing.

The last option is to shop secondhand. This can be a roll of the dice, but if you familiarize yourself with the better brands, you can often find them very cheap secondhand. Be very leery of packs whose brands you don’t recognize, but attentive for the brands that you know stand behind their product. They will frequently fix or replace them no matter the source.

Intermediate (up to around $100-120)

This is the sweet spot for most people, and absolutely the space I’d recommend for the best balance of price and quality. It’s also the space where you’re going to find more options than you can possibly get your head around, so I’m just going to suggest a few brands with comments.

  • Timbuk2 – You probably know them for their distinctive messenger bags, but their backpacks are also worth a look. They are well constructed and rugged, and the company stands very strongly behind their product. They also come in a wide enough array of colors and designs that you can often find something to your taste. They’re hard to go wrong with, and for a lot of people, Timbuk2 is the first “serious” bag brand they buy.
  • L.L. Bean, REI, and EMS – I mention these three together because they’re very similar. All three are primarily outdoor stores, but all three carry a wide variety of EDC packs, including their own (excellent) house brands. All three stand behind their products admirably.
  • Jansport – I mentioned them in the budget section, but they also have a wide array of very well designed intermediate bags. These guys know their stuff, and I have been consistently impressed with how smart their designs are. Herschel and Bags brands also have some strong contenders in this space.
  • Chrome Industries – These guys are on the pricey side of this mark, but worth it. Curiously, I’ve never owned a Chrome bag, but every time I get in these discussions with friends, the people with Chrome bags are guaranteed to chime in with how happy they are. It’s happened enough that I’m willing to accept it at true.
  • North Face – They’re primarily an outdoor outfitter, and their packs largely look it, but they’ve been branching out into the daypack space, and have a few interesting designs. They’re reliable.
  • High Sierra, Swiss Gear and Ogio deserve mention because you will see a lot of their packs around. They are almost always good looking, well designed and reasonably priced, but I cannot recommend them as strongly as other brands because their durability is only ok. This can be heartbreaking – finding a bag that is perfect but which breaks is worse than never finding it at all.
  • Carryology (A lovely blog) had a recent roundup review of the best backpacks under $100. I don’t 100% agree with the list, but it’s a good read all the same.

Fancy Pants (Up to the $300s)

Ok, fess up – if you’re buying a bag in this price range, you’re a bag nerd. This is a really interesting range because it’s the very bottom of the fashion price range (Tumi has some lovely packs that start at around $400) but it’s the sweet spot for utility packs. These tend towards the extremes of design or durability (or both) and tend to be produced by smaller, somewhat fanatic, companies in America. Again, a few brands worth looking at:

  • Goruck – Goruck bags are designed to go on multi-mile runs through obstacle courses while carrying 10 or 20 pound metal plates. This may seem oddly specific, but it’s actually a thing, and it makes for a bag that is well designed and very nearly indestructible. The Goruck GR1 is a gold standard for backpacks.
  • Redoxx – Founded by paratroopers in Montana, Redoxx delights in pictures of their bags taken all over the world and put in impossibly tough situations. I particularly love them for their bags, but their backpacks are also indestructible. In particular, they use amazing hardware – the hoops and zippers on my Redoxx gear seem very nearly bombproof.
  • Tom Bihn – Compared to the first two, Bihn bags might be described as merely indestructible. They’re not quite as manically rugged, but they’re incredibly well made and incredibly well designed. Of particular note are the Synapse 19 and 25 – they’re great packs of different sizes, and suited to greater and lesser heights. Under 6 foot? the 19 is probably right. Otherwise, the 25 is likely the way to go.
  • Waterfield Designs – We start dipping into fashion here because these are achingly lovely bags, combining wonderfully well done leather and canvas while still being incredibly practical.
  • Briggs and Riley – When you need a backpack that screams “BUSINESS”, these are the guys to go with. They’re so professional looking it hurts, but are very well made and very well organized.
  • Bonus North Face – North Face has a new backpack called the Access. It is new enough that I still have not seen one, as they seem to sell out instantly. As such, I cannot recommend or criticize it, but I do share that it has a really awesome video.

Super Fancy Pants (Everything Else)

Ok, at this point we are outside of my area of expertise. Not even going to try. Suggestions welcome.


So, hopefully that’s a useful starting point.  I suspect that folks might have opinions, so feell fee to add em in the comments!

  1. You can also mitigate this risk by buying from a retailer like REI who will stand behind the product even if the manufacturer drops the ball. ↩︎

7th Sea: Session 1

routeSo, first Full session of 7th Sea was Saturday night.  It went pretty well, though I’m still juggling some system mastery concern.  

The characters are:

  • The Captain: A large Avalonian man possessed of superhuman luck
  • The Swordsman: Once a bodyguard of the Hierophant, then a failed seeker of revenge, now he is a very dangerous drunk.
  • The Professor: A Vesten woman serving as axe-wielding accountant and quartermaster working on a theory of economics.
  • The Acrobat: A Vodacce fate witch who hid her talents in the circus, but has been forced to flee her home.

The plot was simple and classic – they were in port at Vesten, but near broke. They approached The Professor’s Patron (Guildmaster of Usury) for a loan to take advantage of a tip she had on wood prices in Rurik.  They met in a coffeehouse (of course) and the Guildmaster took the opportunity to play chess with The Captain (who lost well), and the Guildmaster made an offer: She would cut them a loan at no interest in return for them delivering unspecified cargo from Rurik back to Vendel.  They, of course, agreed, took the loan, bought two shipments of Wood and set sail.

They managed to avoid trouble on the trip over, though the winds were unfavorable – what should have been a 3 or 4 day trip took 6, but that was still in bounds.  They sould off their cargo, turning a very solid profit – between the tip and the Professor’s skills, they doubled their money.

Their contact for the Guildmaster’s delivery was a veiled lady, accompanied by an obvious duellist and half a ton of war dogs. They had a very civilized afternoon tea while she got a read on them (and to a lesser extent, they got a read on her)  before they took possession of a mysterious chest. The Acrobat saw to it that the transportation back to the ship was well-concealed, as no one noticed one more wagon of produce going through Rurik.  

All was going well, except the Acrobat had also been contacted by The Daughters of Sophia, who needed someone smuggled to Vendel. She met up with them, and arranged for the young lady to meet the crew at a bar near the docks.

Things went a little wrong there.  The Acrobat paid a drunk to make some ruckus when the lady arrived, but left the details unspecified (which pinged her Hubris).  When she arrived and lowered her hood, The Captain was utterly smitten (his Hubris), the Professor was distracted by a discussion of currency policy (not technically her Hubris, but close enough) and the drunk grabbed the lady and started dancing with her, forcing The Swordsman to step up to her defense.

Which meant no one was watching when a couple of guys knocked The Acrobat over the head, threw her in a sack and dragged her away.  When they realized she was missing, they rushed the lady back to the ship and prepared to go looking for her. Well, everyone except THe Captain.  He had to make sure she was ok. Possibly over wine.

Meanwhile, The Acrobat came too as she was tossed into a carriage. She used a hidden knife to cut free, but discovered she was under close scrutiny by two thugs and a Vodacce gentleman who was very clearly their boss. The boss seemed upset at the thugs for grabbing the wrong woman, but they protested that they had grabbed a small Vodacce woman.  Dripping with false remorse, he pressed The Acrobat for information about “his wife”, but seemed to accept her denials and released her back near the bar.

And so it was that she was returning to the ship as the search party came out, and when they met, the Vodacce gentleman and his band of thugs emerged from the shadows, intent to board the ship and reclaim the woman.  Naturally, this lead to violence.

The Swordsman and The Vodacce Gentleman flashed their swordsman pins and opted to fight as gentlemen while he ordered his thugs to deal with the rest of the rabble. They fought for a time, with both taking fairly severe wounds. Meanwhile, there was a reminder that while the professor may be an economist, she is a VIKING economist. One of the Brute squads was reduced to a pulpy mass in short order, and another terrified into retreating.  Meanwhile The Acrobat split her attention between the brutes and manipulating the strands of fate surrounding the fight.  The captain also emerged and pitched in with violence and luck.

Matters ended somewhat inconclusively, as the newly-cowardly (thanks to Sorte) Vodacce Gentleman retreated with the remainder of his men, and The Captain deemed that the number of the bodies suggested that a hasty retreat was in order.  There was some resistance from the crew to a late-night departure (leading to a conflict between a crewman and The Swordsman), but The Captain made it clear this was not subject to debate, and they made a night departure.

Yet despite that, when dawn rose, there was a ship on their tail.  Inconceivable!  Unless they had been trailing debris, which explained the absences in the stores The Professor had noted.   Rather than test a tail chase, the captain ordered the ship turn towards the dangerous and foggy shore, taking a highly risky route in hopes the pursuer would not follow.

This forced the betrayer (the same who had argued with The Swordmaster) to attempt to flee in a launch with the cargo. The Acrobat spotted him,  The swordsman pursued (and resolved the matter decisively), but was now in a launch that was not attached to the ship. Thankfully,  The professor lept with a rope and managed to secure the launch before they had gone to far.   The pursuer, meanwhile, was not as nimble as The Gates, and fell behind.  The rest of the trip to Vendel was uneventful, save for the interrogation and execution of the mutineer.

Upon returning to Vendel, they delivered their cargo and tried to sell the furs they’d bought in Rurik, but they did not get a very good price for them, and after paying back the loan, paying the crew and performing maintenance on the ship, they ended up having exactly broken even.

Notes:

  • We have 2 Sorcerers, 1 Duelist and one non-of-the-above. This is proving a really interesting spread to test out the length and breadth of the game.  
  • Notably, the sorcerer’s are much more Hero Point hungry than the non-sorcerers.  Curiously, Our Duelist probably generates the most Hero Points, but also needs them least, so he helps a lot.
  • That point when The Acrobat got kidnapped may have had all the earmarks of a GM force, because it did, but it’s a little more interesting than that because I had the player’s permission going into it. She had a two point story queued up, the stages were “Get captured” and “Free myself”, so I was responding to her invitation.  It made for a much nicer dynamic this way.
  • When she got away, I presented the risks as follows: There’s an opportunity to distract him and dive out the door of the moving carriage, but that will come with 2 wounds that you’d also need to mitigate. Alternately, 1 raise and he’s not sure if you’re lying.  2 raises and he seems to believe you. 3 raises and he *actually* believes you.  She got 2 raises.
  • I am going to need to generate a *lot* of reference sheets for this.  The core rules are super simple, but things like keeping track of what each sorcery does (because they all behave differently), the various dueling maneuvers, the Arcana (because we have a fate witch), plus the Hubris, Virtue, Story and Quirks of every character. Oh, and maps.  Flipping through the book for all this was SUPER awkward, so I’m going to need to figure out how to condense things into a tight match.
  • Holy *crap* the GM’s ability to spend a Danger Point to make raises cost 15 rather than 10? That is, SUPER nasty, and really needs to come with a warning label.  Outside of a scene, it’s a good way to convey “This is hard”, and I’m ok with that, but in a fight scene? Can really hurt.
  • Two duelists with similar weapon skills going at it involves a *lot* of negation.  It was not hard for them to fall into an alternating slash/bash cadence, which makes the fight very nickel and dime. It only sped up when I opted for the bad guy to risk a lunge (to which the appropriate response is also a lunge).
  • I frequently found myself thinking “I really want this to be a difficulty 3, and I’ll shape the response based on how close they get” but that’s on the way it should be done. I am working on ways to think about difficulty:
    • One approach is very much “Success, but…”.  1 Raise gets you success with one or more consequences, and successive raises mitigate those consequences. Using the same kind of thinking that helps come up with good moves can help here.
    • When the players are looking for information, my instinct is to say “One fact per raise”, and there are situations where that works ok (albeit as a little bit of a boring risk), but I’ve found it works fairly well if you use an elimination approach. That is, when The Acrobat was trying to spot the traitor, I said “Ok, there are 5 people who might look suspicious. Each raise will let you eliminate one”.  That felt a lot better.
  • I am not satisfied with how I offer opportunities yet, partly because they serve two sometimes conflicting rolls.  On one hand, they’re bonuses, things you can pick up with an awesome roll. On the other hand, they’re temptations – reasons you might mitigate your own success to grab a cookie. A lot of time, an Opportunity that is really good in one role may not fit for the other. Not sure if that’s a structural problem or just a drawback in how I think about them, but I definitely need to chew on this a little more.
    • The roll by The Acrobat in the carriage was a weird one because I explicitly offered a branching choice in that via Opportunities.  I’m not sure that’s strictly legal, but I’ll probably toy with it more.
    • I am tempted to prime the pump with opportunities. Figure out things that might appeal to players or take things in cool directions and just have them in my pocket, waiting for a chance to offer them as opportunities. It’s an area where light prep may save some headaches.
  • We used my house rules for trading and travel and they worked pretty well.  I made a very small tweak to allow for more chances to roll the dice, and I’ll probably add that in, but otherwise it held up very well.
  • I spent a fair amount of time before the game trying to figure out how fast ships traveled in Theah. The real answer is: it’s complicated – wind and currents and seasons and complicated cull-to-sail math all play into this.  At some point, I’m going to map the winds of Theah so I can get super nerdy, but in the meantime, I settled on a rule of thumb – 9 knots is a pretty good clip for a sailing ship, and it’s about 10mph, so it makes for easy math.  So the VERY simple navigation rules are:
    • Assume your ship will go 10mph under optimal conditions (and remember, it moves 24 hours a day, so ~240 miles).
    • Every Journey has 3-5 risks (maybe more), which might be things like:
      • Unkind Winds (-2mph, can be taken many time)
      • Rough Seas (ship takes 2 hits)
      • Spoilage/pilferage (lose a point of cargo)
      • Sickness (lose a point of crew)
      • Danger! (Catch the attention of pirates or similar)
      • Interdiction (Get stopped by a patrol boat. Lose a day, possibly other consequences)
      • Misdirection (End up off course by some amount)
    • Each raise on the Sailing risk can mitigate one of these
    • If you support the idea that different ships have different speeds, you can use these rules, just start from a different baseline than 10mph
  • The Captain has invested heavily in Mad Luck, and I think that’s going to be *terrifying*.
  • I need to figure out what to do with Lashes that are still in effect at the end of a session. The player can dump them relatively safely when all is done, and it seems untoward if the GM could just hold onto all those Danger Points between sessions, but seems cheap if they don’t.  But the alternative seems to take some to the tooth away from Sorte.  I think I need to read the chapter again, build my cheatsheet, then see if anything springs to mind.
  • My players are conspiring to try to convince me to buy more dice from them, which suggests I need to spend my Danger Points more liberally.  I can only remind them to be careful of what you wish for.
  • I am regretting the absence of a “wildcard” skill, and may end up adding one in my game.  For the unfamiliar, this is an idea stolen from Eden’s Cinematic Unisystem – the skill list included one skill that was just a blank line, with the expectation that if there was some skill that *really* mattered to a particular character but wasn’t really relevant to the game as a whole, it could just get added there.  “Merchant” might be a good example in 7th Sea – not really relevant for most games, but for a character like the professor, it’s pretty relevant.
  • I still need to come up with a name for this campaign.

New 7th Sea Campaign

sailingWe ran chargen for 7th Sea last night. I don’t have a name for the campaign yet, but we laid a fair amount of groundwork. This is going to be an interesting game, since my tastes usually run to the Musketeer end of things, but the players were explicitly interested in the seafaring route. And I cannot fault them – the rules make it VERY easy to start with a a ship (as it should be).

The characters are pretty fun: We have

  • An Avalonian captain, who has bought a fair amount of Luck sorcery and ties to the Brotherhood of the Coast
  • A Once-great now mostly drunk Castilian swordmaster who will eventually be on the path to redemption.
  • A Vodacce Circus performer, assassin and secret Fate witch
  • A Vesten Scholar/Accountant/Quartermaster who is developing early theories of the so-called science of “Economics”

We’d all talked a little bit before chargen, but we’d explicitly held off on decisions until we were all at the table, and we walked through the process together. A few observations and notes:

  • All in all it went very quickly, and the only real slowdown came in picking advantages, since they are slow to process. I’m not sure there’s a solution to that.
  • There was a certain amount of angst that not being a duelist would be a real problem in combat. I am hoping that’s not the case, but honestly, we’re all going to find out together. Of all things, it made me wish there were a few more flavors of badass available that didn’t just stack with the dueling schools.
  • When Hubris and Virtue came up, I gave the players a choice for each – choose, or generate it randomly. If generated randomly, they got either 2 points of skill or 1 point of advantages for each. Yes, it was a bribe. Most of the players took it, except the swordsman who felt it as worth picking The Wheel (Unfortunate) for hubris, and I cannot fault him because IT IS THE BEST HUBRIS IN THE GAME (It’s the “gain two HP when you choose to fail” one).
  • The players were glad to get a ship, but it was immediately apparent that while the ship rules were suitable for a game that happened to have a ship, they were a little sparse for a ship centric game (though we all love the achievements). I’ve written some house rules for that and I’ll be doing something with them.
  • Picking languages ended up being a fun dance, mostly for what it suggested about relationships between characters, but it made me glad that Linguist is only one point.

We actually got chargen itself done quickly enough that we had time for a brief tutorial scene. I had a moment of inspiration and realized I could kill to birds with one stone, and also illustrate how the story system worked. I asked everyone to find a skill they wanted one point in (in retrospect, I would have suggested a skill or a 1 point advantage) and have them write up the one-step story necessary to get it. I took those stories and used them to craft a fairly simple scene (a barfight, followed by quickly fleeing town) that incorporated them all, allowing them to try out the rules and see Stories in action. it worked pretty well, and I’d absolutely recommend it for anyone kicking off a game. A few thoughts from running the game:

  • It is going to be very tricky for me to get a sense of how to throttle opposition. I threw fairly weak opposition at the players (intentionally) but I hadn’t really gauged how weak. Going to be a while before I figure out how to strike that balance.
  • We had a weird situation where things were almost resolved when we ran out of raises. The next round ended up getting cut off short because otherwise it was an exercise in overkills.
  • I had intended to use these awesome pirate coins I’d brought to track raises, but honestly, the physical dice are more useful for that. I will instead use the coins for Hero and Danger points.
  • I ended up answering my own question of how I’d handle social combat (answer, just like anything else) as my players went heavy on the intimidation in the bar fight, and I was entirely happy to treat it as damage.
  • The rules for acting without a skill are REALLY harsh. Maybe a little too harsh. I’m ok taxing one raise, but taxing half the characters raises (on top of what is going to be a not-great roll) feels onerous.
  • The scene was not complicated enough for context-switching to raise its head, so I’m still waiting to see how that plays out.
  • Opportunities can be tricky to come up with on the fly. I kind of want to attach them to characters. Skullduggery had a fun mechanic where the player was primed with a number of one liners that the GM knew about, so the GM could set up the moments that would be perfect for delivery. I wonder if I could do something similar with these characters – come up with a handful of opportunities (in general terms) that match that particular character, so I can queue them up as moments of awesomeness.
  • I need to do a better job of communicating what can be done with raises. Cheat sheet incoming.

All in all, we had a good time. First session glitches aplenty, sure, but I think we’re all ready to start up the adventure next session, and I am going home with 4 stories that I can use to build that, which is a nice place to be.

Two Idle 7th Sea Thoughts

Shame

If you hate social combat, then keep moving.

7218_ridicule-01If you like social combat, then there is no reason it could not be trivially mapped to 7th Sea, where wounds are also “shame” and there is a shame spiral. Social “attacks” can inflict shame (and may even have duelist style maneuvers) and the equivalent of a serious wound is an “Embarrassment”.

Probably easiest to make the shame spiral a separate track from the death spiral, but I’d probably be inclined to mix them. 🙂

Action Heroes

This is less of a hack fro 7th Sea and more of a hack for people wanting to use 7th Sea elsewhere.

There is a particular category of films and fiction, largely within the action genre, where a character is ultra-badass at something, and merely badass at everything else (excepting possible things they may be actively bad at for dramatic or comedic reasons). 7th’s seas Raise pool can model this pretty simply with a tweak to the rules for changing skills. It works kind of like this:

  1. Generate your pool based on your ultra-badassness, whatever that is.
  2. So long as you act within your ultra badassness, all is as normal.
  3. If you take an action outside of your ultra-badassness, pay a tax of one raise. This is a one time charge. All subsequent merely badass actions are now accounted for,
  4. Optional Rule: If you take an action you stink at, pay a tax of 3 (or an additional 2, if you already paid the 1 for being merely badass).

What this does is map turn the usual problem of raise use drifting from the source roll into a feature when playing with heroes (superspies and action heroes) who are good at (almost) everything.

As an option, you can make the badass tax 2 raises, which reinforces niche protection, but also makes everyone a little less badass. Better to make the niches cooler through means like the duelists styles.

If you do chargen for this, then it is a simple as:

JOANNA ROCKFIST (10d)
Badass: Driver!
Useless: Stealth!

and voila, you’re done.

As a general rule, I would say that fighting is never allowed to be the ultra-badass thing. First, because too many people would take it. Second, because if the genre is all about super badass fighting – like martial arts – then everyone has it (and if you must, assume that everyone’s ultra-badass is “thing + fighting”. Third, because it’s kind of dull.

Nickels and Raises

nickelsOne of the best, most intuitive RPG systems I ever played largely revolved around us throwing nickels on the the floor.

This was back at an AmberCon Northwest many, many years ago. Ameer Tavakoli was running a game about the guardsmen of Amber. I was playing the stoic, brutish head-knocker and Fred was playing the well-connected manipulator. I could not tell you a lot about the bulk of the game (though I remember my character pretty well) but the endgame really stuck with me. Over the course of the game, as we’d done things to accrue resources and influence, we had earned nickels, and when endgame came (and the city exploded in violence), we switched to a different mode of play.

The GM also grabbed a handful of nickels and started tossing them down, declaring something that was going wrong with each nickel thrown. We, in turn, could throw our own nickels to declare counters and responses. As suited my character, I stepped in to take the brunt to things, and I burned through my entire reserve of nickels against the initial result. Fred then stepped in in a very Fred-like fashion, bled he GM dry with his own GM spend, then when he had things completely under control, closed with “And, remember – I have a lot of friends in this town” and dumped his double-handful of remaining nickels.

I’m sure it does not sound as cool in the retelling as it was in the moment (the curse of a fun game) but it’s a memory I value, partly for the fun, but partly for its educational value.

See, while the actual experience of the game was very fluid and engaging, but if I had articulated it purely as mechanics, it would have run the risk of being stilted and boring. After all, it’s just a spend-counterspend system, with the ultimate success or failure being determined by which side has the most nickels. That doesn’t seem much fun. And, in fact, if we had approached it mechanics-first, then it probably would have been a number-crunching slog.

Instead, we were approaching it from a game-first perspective, with this currency serving as an interesting sidebar on what was going on. Through a combination of strong GMing (Ameer is amazing), player buy-in and a hard-to-track-but-easy-to-judge information set, we were enthusiastically willing to approximate things rather than sit down and crunch the numbers. That is, our behavior in the moment was much more engaged than it might be at a distance.

This is important to me because it’s a reminder that a lot of things that might seem like problems on paper depend a lot on how they’re pursued in play. This is most strongly on my mind in regards to the new 7th Sea raise system because it is, on some level, also a nickels system. It has some other mechanics, yes (and they’re important, but secondary for the moment), but really you could just start off each scene with rolling dice to generate nickels for everyone, then have them throw them on the table declaring awesome things.

This is pretty cool, but clearly can be awesome or a drag depending upon buy in.

Now, 7th Sea does have some mechanics to try to fight off the drag, and I’ll drill into them at some point, but they’re no magic bullet. It is entirely possible for the raise system to change from a game to an exercise if the enthusiasm is not present. That is: If you do not want it to work, it won’t. That doesn’t guarantee that it will work if you want it to, but it does call out the first hurdle to overcome.

When I talk about wanting to see 7th Sea in action, this is what I want to see. I want to know if I can get enthusiastic enough to throw nickels with reckless abandon, or if I will find myself forced to count pennies. I want it to be the former, but it is exactly the sort of thing that is revealed only in play.

Taking a Swing at Swords

More things I want to see in 7th Sea:

  • Stick FIghting
  • Puzzle Swords (one of the fun things from the 1e Montaigne sourcebook)

So with that in mind, I tried my hand at drafting up  a couple of Duelist Styles for the new 7th Sea.

Lacanne

diagram of stick-fighting stylesThe sword is the weapon of a gentle, but it is not always the right tool for the job. The roots of the Lacanne school can be found on docks across Theah, where dozens of different stick and club-fighting traditions evolved among sailors and dockworkers. It was treated as a set of tricks and techniques a gentle might use when fighting with cane, stick or staff, passed around and taught informally, but never recognized as a duelist style. This changed in late 1659 when Camilla Nieves, a minor daughter of Castillean nobility who had learned the style to circumvent her Father’s insistence she not learn the sword, beat eight different members of the Duelist’s Guild over the course of one summer, and it was deemed the least embarrassing course for the Guild to recognize the style. Until recently, it had been something of a footnote on the books of the Guild, but it has recently seen an upswing in popularity among Vesten who do not wish to look like warriors, but still wish to be capable of defending themselves.

Lacanne applies fencing maneuvers to fighting with canes and clubs. The signature weapon of the style is a weighted cane in the style a gentle might use, but it works equally well with any light club as long as a staff or as short as a baton.

Style Bonus: Spinning strike

When you wield a cane or baton in one or both hands, you can spin it with speed and force, sufficient to baffle and harm your enemies. You may perform a special Maneuver called Spinning Strike. Spinning Strike functions identically to either the Bash or Feint Maneuver. The Duelist chooses the effect of Spinning Strike when she performs it.

Rebus

A retractable wrist blade. The Rebus school predates the Duelist’s Guild, albeit in slightly different form. Originally, it was a society of collectors and enthusiasts for “Puzzle Swords” – swords designed with clever extra mechanical trickery, like hidden blades, secret compartments full of flash powder, poison reservoirs and so on. The Rebus School focused on training duelists to take advantage of these tricks and surprises, and when the Duelist’s Guild was formed, it was quickly recognized.

Historically, this school has largely been constrained to Montaigne, where most Puzzle Swords come from and where there is the most interest in such things. However, a new branch of practitioners has recently emerged among Scholars, most notably those members of the Invisible College who have found an urgent need to defend themselves. This “new school” does not use Puzzle Swords, but instead relies on other technological tricks, ranging from blade hidden in boots to spring loaded daggers up the sleeve. The split between the old and new school has inspired new tensions, but the new school has enough problems with the inquisition that it has not yet evolved into a full fledged schism.

Style Bonus: The Surprise

If armed with a hidden weapon or device (either in a Puzzle Sword or as a concealed Gadget), the duelist may perform a special maneuver called The Surprise as they reveal this hold out. The surprise may function as Slash, Parry, Feint, Lunge or Bash, depending on what form it takes. You may only perform The Surprise once per round.

Optional Rule: Preparation

By default, The Surprise assumes that the player will not be worrying about the details of the surprise until it’s revealed. That is, the player does not bother making note of what kind of gadget he has, and just describes it as it’s revealed. This may not suit every player well, especially those who like preparing these things, and for those players, this option exists.

If armed with a hidden weapon or device (either in a Puzzle Sword or as a concealed Gadget), the duelist declares what manner of device it is at the beginning of the round. When she performs the Surprise maneuver, it follows the rules of that particular type of gadget, as follows:

Danger: As Slash (Holdout weapons or hidden blades)
Defense: As Parry (Cunning crossguard, hidden armor)
Misdirect: Feint (Unexpected angles, hinges or chains)
Risky: Lunge (Launching blades or spikes)
Bafflement: Bash (Smoke cloud, flash-bang)

Once a particular gadget has been used, a new one may be declared at the start of the next round, and the duelist gains one extra die to build the new pool.


PS: If you haven’t, you should totally check out Rob Wieland’s thoughts on stories in 7th Sea!

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 another 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.