Good Intentions in Design

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[1] 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.[2]

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

24 thoughts on “Good Intentions in Design

  1. Marshall Smith

    I am a HUGE fan of 7th Sea. Not least because it gave me my first writing credit. But, I do see where you are coming from.

    First, have you read the L5R splatbooks in as much detail? Especially the more recent stuff? If you’re just comparing sourcebook to sourcebook, the two settings are very comparable. If you’re comparing the whole enchilada of both, they’re also comparable (though with different kinds of wacky). But comparing just the main stuff from L5R with all the wacky from 7th Sea, 7th Sea is always going to lose. So would Vampire, or any of the similar super-splatted settings.

    I can lay out several of my issues with 7th Sea very quickly. Most of them are fixed almost as quickly.

    1) Ussura was done wrong. It should have been Peter the Great, not Ivan the Terrible. If you want to insert barbarians, that’s what Vestenmannavnjar is for. Easily fixed by simply changing the attitudes of the Ussurans, as no mechanical changes are needed.

    2) There needed to be other continents. Darkest Africa and the New World both needed to be present, even if in attenuated form. It’s hard to have an age of exploration and high seas adventure with no place to explore. Easily fixed with a quick sketch and a couple “Don’t Go Here” signs.

    3) The Cthulhu metaplot got WAY out of hand. I recommend simply ignoring all secret society splatbooks. Then, it all neatly goes away again. I really love and respect Rob Vaux as a writer, but he pretty much phoned it in as line developer. Especially as most of those groups had a lot of potential without resorting to the wacky.

    4) The timing of the CCG/RPG interaction was done very poorly. IMHO, the CCG should have waited two years. This would have both served as a new impetus for interest in the property, and provided a nice kickoff point for getting the timeline moving. It collapsed because events in a CCG are forced to unfold much more quickly than events in an RPG. Trying to roll out both simultaneously was never going to work. Easily fixed by pretending the CCG never existed.

    5) The system is a little wonky. This is mostly due to trying some really innovative things, most of which did not quite work as intended. This is not so easily fixed within the system itself, unfortunately. But, it can be worked around. There’s nothing that’s truly broken.

  2. Johnoghue

    I wonder if it is less the metaplot and more the World that drives you mad? Not because of the history hodge podge, but because Thea utterly fails to be a “real” place. There is probably a Blog post on world design (or 12) bouncing around in your head, but this stirs the pot for me.

    I mean I am willing to except a lot of “Something Weird Happened” but I feel like you need to at least have a vague sense of continuity and logic. You want Pirates, Giant Treasure Galleons, Kings and queens, and a Mysterious East hidden behind a fire wall? that’s cool but you need a world that supports them. Even if that support is Vague and Nebulous. Actually I like it better when it is vague and nebulous… But I digress.

    Ask me to suspend my disbelief, and I say AoK. Ask me to believe that a man will walk past 20 Dollar Bill on the street and not pick it up and that’s not the same thing. that’s whats Thea feels like.

    The metaplot is just Poo icing on a poo cake.

    Its funny though, Kill the metaplot, add Africa or America and BAM Thea could come magically to life.

  3. Johnoghue

    Also: Love the system with a minor Tweak or two
    – Drama dice are not transferable to XP.
    – Let players hand out drama die to each other for cool stuff.

  4. Marshall Smith

    And with all that, I don’t think I actually addressed your points.

    I don’t really see Theah as a kitchen sink setting. At least, not at its core. You do have some wacky bits tacked on around the edges, but the core game is about derring-do, schemes, and looking good while doing it. Each of the nations presents a slightly different flavor of the genre. But, aside from the Usurran mistake, they don’t rove too far afield.

    Oddly enough, your point about the setting telling you what your character does is exactly what I *don’t* like about L5R. The world is all tightly regimented around you, and you have to find a way to claw your way to the top within that structure. Bleh. I much prefer the 7th Sea structure of a story around every corner. Your characters can take off and explore, and don’t have to worry about getting ordered to go someplace else. I just feel like L5R is set up to only work as a railroad, and 7th Sea is primarily set up to be a sandbox.

    I also find it fascinating that you see 7th Sea as an “NPCs game” but not L5R. I couldn’t disagree more. Especially given the huge number of named NPCs provided by the CCG. I constantly had trouble coming up with any concept that wasn’t “this guy, but not as experienced.” And the Champions were completely unassailable. In 7th Sea, I felt like there were thousands of ways for a hero to make a name that didn’t tread on an NPCs story. There were only about a dozen NPCs that were actually important to the metaplot. Even with those, I never felt like the campaign would go off the rails if one of them was defeated by a PC. (I’ll give you the stat problem, but IME that was pretty consistent across a lot of 90’s RPGS.)

    I do know that I give 7th Sea a lot of slack because I am familiar enough with it that I already know all the hand-waving I need to do. But I have to say, even from the beginning, the setting inspired and excited me in a way that nothing else at the time had.

    (Incidentally, I’d also love to see a comparison between 7th Sea and S7S with regards to capturing the swashbuckling genre in setting and system.)

  5. Rob Donoghue

    So, the first thing I’ll concede is that while I read the L5R Splats (and, in fact, was sold on the setting because I enjoyed the Scorpion Splat) I did not go as deeply into those splats as I did 7S, so if there was an L5R equivalent of Die Kreutzritter or Daughters of Sophia, I never encountered it but that doesn’t mean it didn’t exist.

    That said, I think the ease with which 7th Sea can be fixed only serves to underscore the point that the *idea* of doing that kind of ahistory is a powerful and useful one, but it’s not a panacea. There are things, sometimes even obvious things, which can easily take it off the rails.

    Now, that said I think that Thea is definitely more kitchen sink than L5R (though less than, say, Forgotten Realms). While there were certainly traveling campaigns that saw more of the world, I feel a lot of the excitement (and tone of a game) came out of its choice of base nation. A Montaigne campaign was different from a Vodacce campaign. In terms of focus, L5R is more like a single nation from Theah was used as the basis for a game.

    This is, btw, not a criticism of the setting, at least not in the usual sense. Once you “bought in” to 7S, the breadth of options was pretty fantastic and colorful. But if you did buy in, you probably did because “ooh, swashbuckling game” rather than “ooh, faux-europe”

    (which, btw, is why another mistake on par with the handling of Ussura was the order of the splats. Pirates were TERRIBLY supported in the setting (what with the lack of reason for sea routes) so having the first two splats be Pirates and Avalon? Seriously? Making people wait for Montaigne or Vodacce was just wacky.)

    The NPC problem is, yes, something that was pretty endemic to games of the time and was absolutely a problem in L5R as well, but I specifically call it out in 7th Sea for a specific reason. In L5R, over-important NPCs are annoying, but they’re part of the package you buy into. You may be playing heroes, but you’re still fairly down the chain. 7S made a thematic promise that PCs were a big deal, and that promise got broken. On one hand, the Metaplot took the game away from where it started, an don the other, the NPCs illustrated that all those promises were squat.

    Now, that said, I concede that’s only partly a setting issue. But, man, it just bugged me. I mean, when a Villain was scary badass, I was ok with that to a point, but when an NPC _hero_ was more badass than my guys could ever be? To hell with that.

    So, bottom line, I still have a lot of love for 7th Sea (and rage, don’t forget rage) but I think there are reasons it’s not into a 2nd or 3rd printing. The reasons don’t reflect on the quality of the game so much as how it sells itself to a new gamer.

    I admit, that’s kind of a shame. It sounds like 4e L5R was a bit of a cleanup of the sort the 7th sea could totally benefit from. But it likely won’t.

  6. Reverance Pavane

    @Marshall: I think S7S wins out over 7 Seas because the principal islands of the dome are familiar enough to be playable, but strange enough to be different. There is no metaplot to the events in the dome, just numerous story hooks to get you started.

    Then again there is a serious discrepancy in word count between the two which makes any direct comparison practically impossible.

    It’s probably easier to get players doing stuff in 7 Seas than S7S, but that’s an aspect of character generation philosophy more than anything else. Knowing the world is really important before generating characters (as opposed to relatively simple choices which place a character in a context). It also means there is no such thing as a canonical skydome, whereas Thea is much more rigidly defined.

    I find them similar in geographic bounds, although S7S has a slightly greater freedom by introducing Sha-Ka Ruq (combination Caribbean/Pacific Islander/Africa culture), the Jungle Sky, and the Stone Sky. Again, as set out in the rules there is little example given of exploration, discovery, and colonisation (and the dome is much too large in comparison). But this is sorted by rearranging the location of the islands.

    [Incidentally I live the “Here Be Dragons” markers on maps. Especially when the cartographers aren’t lying. But I agree that exploration should be an important part of both games).]

    There is also a consistency in the S7S which allows people to discover stuff that’s not even in the rulebooks.

    I think S7S is better at encouraging a swashbuckling mentality than 7 Seas.

    In summary, I think 7 Seas is easier to get in to, but there is more potential in S7S.

    [I am biased in this matter though. And actually I have an incredible fondness for Flashing Blades and Privateers & Gentlemen over both, mainly because the historical background was more palatable to me. Much the same reason I disliked L5R.]

  7. Chad Underkoffler

    The thing that keeps my rage overpower my enjoyment of 7S was John Wick’s insistence (back on Gaming Outpost) that while L5R was a “good parts” mash-up, &s’s Theah was *scientifically/logically evolved*.

    Which is so, so much crap. IMAO.

  8. Marshall Smith

    @Chad – If you ever want to hear a really good rant, talk to Patrick Kapera about Wick and 7th Sea.

    I am of the firm belief that 7th Sea wins the competition of “most desperately needs a new edition.” There was a hell of a fan effort a few years back to make it happen. AEG refused to license it or publish it. So, clearly, it’s never going to happen.

    I’m thinking about your division between “ooh, swashbuckling game” and “ooh, faux-Europe.” I’m trying to think of how you could set up a faux-European setting that was hyper-focused. One of the things Rokugan has going for it is that it can ride on the back of Japan’s legendary isolationism and xenophobia. It’s trivial to draw a line around the setting and say nothing else matters. I’m not sure it would be possible to do the same thing with, say, a fake Germany.

    A few European settings that might work: Roman Empire (one nearly monolithic culture covering a larger area than the PCs are likely to travel). Ancient Ireland (even contact with Scotland and England was sporadic). Vikings (strong us vs. them mentality discourages culture mixing, though I’m not sure what your stories would be). Russia (nicely isolated, but too few players would be familiar with the cultural and mythical touchstones).

    One of the issues I found in my setting was trying to set up geographic boundaries. If you want a focused setting, you are going to need to make it isolated. Cultural isolation is possible, but most modern players are going to have problems with it. Finding a way to hedge the “known world” in on all sides is easiest. But, it’s tricky to do so in a way that doesn’t snap the suspenders of disbelief (as 7th Sea did).

  9. Rob Donoghue

    So, imagine that 7th Sea had the same content (less the dumb stuff) but rather than beginning as a game set in Theah, it was a game set in Vodacce. You’d get short blurbs about the other nation and elements, with more on the ones that matter to Vodacce and little on those that don’t. It then really drills into Vodacce, the houses, the politics, and all the things that make for an exciting and badass Vodacce game. The boundaries are implicit – there’s more Thea out there, but it’s not the focus.

    Subsequent supplements add on other nations, spreading out from Vodacce, each focused on how to make a similarly awesome and free-standing game. It would be a trivial change in content, but a massive change in presentation, but I think the difference would be _huge_. So much so that if I decide to mimic this model, it’s probably closer to what I’d do.

  10. Codrus

    Our group liked the setting, mostly. The initial test campaign was very focused on Castillo (“Everyone is in Castillo. Make sure you speak the language, and you aren’t a native, give me a reason why you are there”). Focusing on a single area made it easier to delve into a specific culture and play style.

    I agree with you completely on the splatbooks and how they both changed things around and spent too much time trying for the “big reveal” — and ultimately, not really providing a metaplot that matched the setting. Turning a swashbuckling game into Call of Cthulhu didn’t seem appropriate.

    Hitting on your NPC point, I think our largest complaints were around the rules. Sorcery and Sword Schools should have been the coolest things ever, but the amount of time between starting a new character and getting to the interesting journeyman abilities was pretty excessive, particularly for full-blooded mages. The fact that many of the published NPCs were already at that level of power just emphasized it. Some of the magic schools were quite uninteresting at apprentice level.

    Fate points as experience points was a terrible design choice. While backgrounds inspired players to let the villains live, treating fate points as xp strongly encouraged hoarding.

    Overall, our group’s take on a year or so of campaigning was that it was the fun they’d had playing in a very flawed rules/campaign setting. I would argue that the reason it worked so well was the richness of the player characters and the enjoyment of playing to the swashbuckling tropes.

  11. Chaos Clockwork

    I’ve been pondering writing about 7th Sea lately, since it’s been in my thoughts. Of course, mine would have been a bloated, sprawling affair, casually missing the point several times as it meandered around, blissfully unburdened by any actual experience with setting design, so it’s probably best that you beat me to it, as I agree on almost every point.

    The few times I’ve set out to come up with a ‘heartbreaker’ game, my starting point is never DnD, it’s 7th Sea (and, to a lesser extent, Mage: the Sorcerer’s Crusade). Despite all of the horrid flaws, it remains one of my favorite games, almost completely on the strength of its premise (and a fighting system that was, for its time, pretty rockin-cool).

    Some of the ‘buy-in’ differences between L5R and 7S probably come down to player mindset and expectations. It took my group a very long time to figure out what to DO with the structure of Rokugan, whereas campaigns in Theah would always be off and running from the word ‘go’. (This, it suddenly occurs to me, might be why I always felt Vodacce was underwhelming as a setting.)

    The worst part about the metaplot, to me, WAS the slow reveal, which became more and more like watching a train wreck over the course of years…

    1)Rose and Cross – Act virtuous, but protect secrets to the point of death. Also? The Third Prophet is a lie. (which, as far as secrets go, is fine)

    2)Free Thinkers – Make the world a better place, and in VERY EXTREME circumstances, get the permission of everyone to assassinate. Also? Sorcery really is from demons. (Again, since the setting already has a lot of people that assume sorcery has an infernal origin, it’s fine)

    3) Die Kreuzritter – Be ready to kill orphans at a moment’s notice!!! Also? OMFG CTHULUZ!!1! (*facepalm*)

    And it just got worse from there…

    Really, though, despite the appeal of the premise, and the knowledge that there were certain areas in the game that could be improved (THE CARIBBEAN!! YOU CAN’T HAVE PIRATES WITHOUT A CARIBBEAN!!), I don’t know if I trust myself to do better. I know, for example, that I don’t have the discipline needed to look at all of central and eastern Europe and trim it down to six principalities and a single Free City – and if you’re not able to do that, the whole experiment falls apart.

    So, in the end, I’m continuously trying to come up with a world that’s basically an alternate history of Enlightenment/Renaissance Earth, that allows for some magic, some mad science, some secret societies, and a whole mess of swashbuckling action. (Yeah, I’ve heard of Falkenstein, but stayed away, due to it seeming to have an entirely different kind of 90s sillyness going on.)

    1. Sasuga

      The Midnight Archipelago was/is the Caribbean. If you follow the first major adventure, Scoundrel’s Folly etc. a barrier is dropped and opens up for exploration of a new world. I think the game died before they were able to continue with building the larger world. I don’t think the developers ever meant for the world to remain just what it started with, I think they expected things to grow. A new world to be discovered, etc.

  12. Marshall Smith

    *sigh* All of this discussion has me really wanting to get back to work on two of my own heartbreakers. A swashbuckling supers setting, in which an evil magocracy unwittingly gives the rebels superpowers through a ritual gone wrong, then hunts them down mercilessly (necessitating costumes and secret identities). And Theah 2020, bringing 7th Sea forward to the modern day and switching the system to Spycraft (so much awesome potential for paranormal espionage).

    Will I ever do either? I dunno. Theah 2020, probably not. The swashbuckling supers, though, I’ve been working on reasonably steadily. Hmm, come to think of it, FATE 3.0 could neatly solve some of my system issues with it…

  13. Marshall Smith

    @Rob OK, I think I see your point about starting in Vodacce. I’m not sure it’s a viable model for a game line. Me, I’d want to start in Montaigne. I don’t think I’d buy a Vodacce game. But, adding each nation onto the game changes the tone of the setting as a whole. You also run the risk of a lax line developer screwing the pooch and allowing contradictory (or just stupid) stuff in. I guess the example would be WoD and nWoD, if you assume that Vampire, Werwolf, etc. are all in the same setting. Mixing and matching those gets ugly fast.

    @Rev Some nice thoughts on S7S vs. 7th Sea. Thanks! I’ll disagree about S7S being better at swashing your bucklers, though. I see them as being pretty even.

    @Codrus I totally agree with you about the crazy wait for Journeyman and Master status. It always stuck in my craw that a beginning porte sorcerer can’t actually telport. The hell? Definitely high on my list of things to fix in a hypothetical second edition.

    @Chaos I agree that Die Kreuzritter is really where the setting fell apart. Which is a real shame, because “Secret police of the Hierophant” has *SO* much potential without having to add any weirdness. That was also the point where I got really tired of the setting constantly working against sorcery. Sorcery was already expensive and difficult enough without so many people trying to kill you for using it.

  14. Dave Bozarth

    Well I will not be one of the majority voters on the 7th Sea tour… I liked the darker “Cthulhu’ themed aspects of the setting. The DK and Rose and Cross particularly were constant elements in my games, which felt less Swashy than what most people were going with in the core book.

    As to its Kitchen Sink design, I would prefer to think of that as being pretty ‘real world’ as any person may feel like they are caught up in an action movie or a thriller at different times in their lives. It is a matter of expressing that fact to the players that is important, that these elements can/will change through out the game. One of the things I dislike about many Indie games has been there laser focus, I mean if I like a character and want to use him in more than one type of story it would be nice to use the same rules. Thats not everyone’s cup of tea, but it should be noted that some people DO like it.

    The fate point for XP thing is amazing that so many people disliked this. First, I think that the issue is that many people did not hand out a lot of Fate and so created a hoarder’s mentality in the hopes to scratch up a little extra advancement. Second, I think that the idea of this was intended to help get people up to those highest level of schools and cross school abilities. I know in my games Fate flowed like water and people were pretty decent about not trying to hoard them for advancement till they were very close to getting something.

    Also, never had an issue with the Metaplot, but I never had an issue with the Metaplot of WW either. I like metaplot for the most part, it tends to make the books more like novels and enjoyable to read for their own sake and I have no problem saying “hell no, I am not using that” Metaplot does not have to be a railroad if you don’t want it to be and provides a direction that everyone can use as a basis of the world.

    Anyway, just my two cents.

    Anyway, just my two cents

  15. Dave Bozarth

    Sorry for the double post, but as far as a pure Vodacce setting, that was pretty much the aim of Houses of the Blooded as far as John Wick was concerned. He wanted to create that kind of feeling without tapping back into the 7th Sea… not sure if really worked, but I thought it worth mentioning

  16. Codrus

    Yeah, in our game, it was also a porte sorcerer. Playing half your starting points to be able to hide objects seemed excessive to our eyes.

  17. Codrus

    @Dave Bozarth : It has been about 7 years since we ran 7th Sea, so my memory is fuzzy, but for us it worked backwards from the order you suggested. Specifically:

    Players Hoarded Fate Points -> GMs gave out less Fate points -> Players Hoarded Fate Points.

    That’s across four different GMs that ran for the group. From what I’ve seen in the community, that was not intended, and not how Wick runs his games.

    At the time, I also made the argument that the typical 7th Sea TNs (and also our GMs, including myself) were not taxing the PC’s capabilities enough. 5k3 or 6k3 had no problems making a TN 20 check, and the 7k4 monsters usually crushed TNs of 35 without spending Fate points — well above the defensive level of most opponents. In fact, the place where fate points were most used were probably to help deal with 5k2 rolls that the players felt could not be failed.

    I’ve always felt that 7th Sea, and many many other games, get the roles of attributes and skills reversed. Roll stat+skill, keep skill always seemed more interesting to me. High Stats made even moderate TNs trivial even when the character only had one pip of skill. Swapping roles barely affects the rolls where a player wants high values in both, but it has a nice effect when they want to roll outside their specialties. It definitely depends on where you typically set TNs, though.

    ANYWAY, my original point was: Backgrounds brilliantly rewarded players when they came into play (and rewarded players for not trying to ‘win’ in the first session that their background appears). Fate points as XP was the exact opposite — it rewarded players for a play style that I’m sure was not intended. FATE doesn’t reward players for hoarding, and that plays much better in the games I’ve been in. (The problem then becomes convincing players that they might need to save some for the big battle, but that’s a problem with all resource-management games).

  18. Rob Donoghue

    The crazy thing is that I actually LOVE the Die Kreutzritter book. In terms of tone and style, it’s the sort of thing i really enjoy. Tainted heroes making a desperate last stand against against the darkness, with no hop of redemption or reward? Yes please!

    But there were two problems. First, it was a poor fit with the rest of the game, and second, it wasn’t really a one-off, it was the tip of an iceberg.

    If it had just been a mismatch, I’d be fine with it (as I was initially) because it’s basically just saying “In this corner of the game here, you get the dark, doomy stuff”. Yes, there would be some problems integrating it with the rest of the setting, but they wouldn’t be insurmountable.

    But the fact that it also was an indicator of what the setting now thought was important was what made it a problem which, by the time Daughters of Sophia came out, has descended into a complete lack of clear tone.

    On a totally different topic, I mostly used Vodacce as an arbitrary choice of illustration. I think the model could work equally well starting with any nation, as long as the writer can really see how to make that nation awesome and fun.

    On a similar note, I think the drama dice handling was a fantastic first draft (and backgrounds were a clear influence on the development of Aspects in FATE) but the combination of the fact that players (sorcerers especially) were DESPERATE for XP with the mechanic of rewarding for not rolling definitely made for some friction. The change I tried which I was decently happy was to change it so _spent_ drama dice turned into XP.

  19. Marshall Smith

    This conversation inspired a brief post on adapting FATE to run 7th Sea:

    I agree with the concept to roll stat+skill keep skill. If I ever run 7th Sea again, I’ll use that. The designers have said that they went with “keep stat” in order to promote the kind of omnicompetence you see in swashbuckling fiction. I’m not sure it works as intended.

    The “kept DD turn into XP” problem is pretty common. I shift it to “earned DD earn XP”, the shift Kevin Wilson and Patrick Kapera went with when they re-used the concept in Spycraft. The problem that some groups run into, though, is what to do with DD leftover at the end of the session. It’s not uncommon to have each of four players save up three or four DD for the final fight, but for the villain to go down before they are all spent. I’ve never come up with a good solution for that.

    And, incidentally, some groups do still manage to get the right flow going, to earn and spend DD the way they are supposed to. But, the system doesn’t really encourage it.

    @Codrus The probabilities in 7th Sea have always been funky. Mostly because TNs are set along such a simple flat curve, but R+K with exploding dice creates such a weird spiky curve.

  20. Codrus

    @Marshal Smith

    Yeah, the 7th Sea dice mechanics made me rewrite my dice probability testing harness to support recursion. I used a succeeds/doesn’t succeed result to end the recursion rather than placing an upper bound on the number of times a die could explode, but eIther way, it made me grow to hate exploding dice. 🙂

    (These days I hate them for different reasons — they always slow down play).

    I’d agree with the rolling spikes in 7th Sea. Each kept die really jumped up the average total someone could get. The difference between 3 and 4 kept dice was consistently huge at the table. (And it cut the other way — the difference between a 1 and a 2 for a stat was that a 1 was crippling).

    Managing player resources is a hard problem. I’ve been bouncing it around in my head recently for a future blog post, because managing the fate point economy is such a hard problem to get right as a GM. The flaw of compels is that the mental overhead of juggling compels on 3-5 players and dealing with all the other GMing overhead almost always leaves compels forgotten. Even in some incredible games, compels sometimes come in only when the GM realizes that the players have been starving for fate points for quite a while.

    This is probably the closest I’ve come recently to an epiphany on using compels.

    There’s also some interesting player psychology to work against: Players hate failing, and when they have lots of resources, they’ll spend their way out of any failure. The other one I’ve seen from D&D 4e is the “pile on”: Once a couple of PCs spend daily powers, players start thinking an extended rest is going to come up, so everyone jumps in head first with powers.

    But whether it be fate points, stress tracks, or daily/encounter powers/healing surges, there’s some interesting player psychology and storytelling problems, along with having to understand how the math works in the game you are running. It is very easy to get wrong, and either have fights be pushovers or TPKs. Get it right and the PCs finish the final boss fight with everyone battered and bloodied. It makes it a fun topic to brainstorm on. 🙂

  21. Lisa Padol

    The NPCs’ Game was a big problem in a lot of games, yes. I think it was bigger in 7th Sea than L5R, because, even in the most railroady of the material I have — caveat: we’re talking first edition here; I’ve no idea what state of the art 3rd and 4th editions are like — Otosan Uichi, there’s always “What the PCs are doing here and what they can accomplish”. And, there were some lovely scenarios where the PCs had choices to make based on considerations of honor that mattered on a big scale.

    In 7th Sea, fairly early on, I looked up and said, “No, they’re not getting it! I want to BE the famous general or his wife the princess. I don’t want to be their flunkies!”

    Systemwise, things seemed more forced than L5R. That is, in 7th Sea, most of the points had to be spent maxing out pretty much the same things everyone else was maxing out, as otherwise, your PC would be too ineffective. This could be me looking at 1st edition L5R with rosier glasses than I have for 7th Sea, though.


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