Design Masterclass: 7th Sea

Anyone who knows me will wonder why it took me so long to get round to what is probably my favorite game of all time. However, I'm sad to say that in this example I'm not going to talk about the numbers. First Edition 7th Sea had some rather basic rules problems (mainly the importance of traits). While Second Edition actually fixes many of those issues, that isn't as useful as you might think given it changed the entire system and brought some new issues into play.

7thsea.jpg

So if I'm not here to talk about rules, what am I doing? In this case I'm talking about what has kept me playing 7th Sea in all its incarnations (and a few new ones of my own) - the setting - a vital part of any good game design.

What makes people fall in love with 7th Sea is the world it is set in. There are plenty of amazing settings out there, but few are as immersive and inspiring as 7th Sea where adventure lurks around every corner. You will probably have your own favorite setting, but it will probably be for the same reasons I have for loving 7th Sea. Its contagious too, as I've not known a group I've introduced to 7th Sea not fall in love with it. So what I want to take a look at here is what makes the setting of 7th Sea so good and how you can use that in your own designs.

Before we start I should have a minor rant related to the importance of setting. I really loathe the terms 'crunch' and 'fluff' to describe rules and setting. It implies more rules are something to get your teeth into and setting is just an extra candy layer you can do without. I cringe every time I hear the terms. I truly believe setting is key in any role playing game. A good system is a requirement, but without a good setting few people are going to come back to play the game. The only exception to this is FATE and possibly D&D although that's always the exception that proves the rule.

So, what makes 7th Sea so engaging and why does that work? I've boiled it down to a few simple points:

Stereotypes are easy to understand...

One of the best ways for players to get into a game is for them to love their characters, but to do that they have to understand them. If you know a setting well this isn't too much of a problem. But even then the complexities of a real person can make it hard to figure out a character you understand. In 7th Sea, one of the basic parts of your character is your nation. Each nation produces a very distinct type of person, giving you an instant cookie cutter for your character. Want a sneaky assassin? Vodacce. Want a witty Duelist? Montaigne. Want a pragmatic diplomat? Ussura. It is easy to pick a nation and have half your character done for you. Tell any 7th Sea fan what nationality your character is and they will instantly have a picture in their mind that won't be far from the truth. This means you have a hook on not only your character, but all the other player characters and most of the NPCs as well from the first session.

...but they only go so far.

While a stereotype is a good place to start, it isn't the place to end. So the other vital thing 7th Sea does is make sure there are plenty of different options for every type of character. You can even mix and match a little. While your nationality is a hook, it isn't a straightjacket that also limits your choices. So two Montaigne duelists might be very different characters, as will two duelists from different nations. It is up to players to develop their characters as they play and none of the variety of options are off the table due to your choice of nationality.

Sweat the Details

A great background is all very well, but it is vital to know how it affects the player characters. I'm reminded of the gorgeous 'Eoris' RPG where the background is full of grand plots - like the Goddess of the universe coming to Eoris so she can be killed and a great war happening between the people of Eoris to stop this. But there is nothing in the game for what this really means for the player characters, who seem happy to adventure around the place with all this going on. The reverse is true for Lord of the Rings, where in a setting full of ancient spirits, immortal elf lords and mighty wizards, it is the tale of two hobbits trying to get up a mountain.

In 7th Sea we know what people eat and drink, what the local pubs and like and where to find a 'Jenny' when you want one. There are plenty of important NPCs, but we know the details of the world, and what we don't know we can figure out pretty easily. It is the detail that make the setting really live because that is what makes it more real. Never ignore the mundane details your characters will encounter so you can work on a cool narrative they will only hear about in the pub.

Mystery and Agency

Finally, this is the big one for me, and something that few games get right, the balance between mystery and agency. In most games the setting offers two levels of play. Initially, when you are new to the game everything is a mystery. You don't know what you might meet and what you will find. Learning a new setting is to explore a new setting and in one as detailed as 7th Sea it's a fascinating experience, a mystery to uncover. However, when you don't know a setting, you don't have much agency. How can you right wrongs if you don't know what the laws are or who makes them? How can you fight for your nation if you don't know what its enemies are?

Unfortunately, when you learn how a setting works to the point where you can really start affecting it, the mystery is gone. You know what is around every corner and while they are new adventures to be had righting the wrongs, that initial leap into the unknown has lost its excitement.

7th Sea is the only game I know that has managed to offer both mystery and agency to player characters, and I think this is the secret of its appeal. Using stereotypes and broad strokes the places and details are easy to fathom, as are the villains and heroes. Player characters can dive right into the middle of the setting and start righting wrongs (or righting the wrong wrongs quite often) from the first adventure. However, the setting never loses its mystery, at least not for my group even after running games for over 20 years. 7th Sea is full of secrets, but they are all hidden under the surface. Mysterious societies stalk the corridors of power and while the player characters might topple kings, they will have to dig deep to find the real villains behind the curtain. there is always another layer of the onion to peel back and explore. Even when the player characters have figured things out, they won't know they have, maintaining the thrill of the unknown no matter how long the campaign has been going on.
 
Andrew Peregrine

Comments

PabloM

Explorer
Good review, although I feel it suddenly ends, it could have continued to inquire more about the importance of a setting in a game, in addition to delving deeper into 7th Sea.

On the other hand, I feel that the 2nd edition of 7th Sea was not as successful as we thought it would be, right?
 
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Atomoctba

Villager
Good review, although I feel it suddenly ends, I could have continued to inquire more about the importance of a setting in a game, in addition to delving deeper into 7th Sea.

On the other hand, I feel that the 2nd edition of 7th Sea was not as successful as we thought it would be, right?
I love 1st edition with all its strange rules. As Mr. Peregrine, I "fixed" some of them of my own (use the Traits + Knacks with d10s, but on mechanics very similar to Chronicles of Darkness instead of R&K worked very well).

While I hipped for 2nd edition, in my personal experience, the system was not so appealing and killed most of fun our 1st Ed party had. Also, the reboot of the setting went a bit far away for our group's tastes. While we expected some retcon (and some of them were really good), other changes were big enough to the game does not seem more our "familiar" setting. So, if we eventually back to 7th Sea, probably we will use the 1st Ed setting (with that changes we liked from 2nd) and still use Trait +Knack with tweaks.
 
I find that archetypal characters work best for oneoffs, but I'm not in favour of using (thinly disguised real world) national stereotypes.
 

Paragon Lost

Explorer
Hmm, I'm not a fan of systems like that. Sounds too one dimensional honestly. You're limited to basing your profession (what you do) on your nationality? So I couldn't be a Vodacce duelist? Sounds artificially limiting. All those from Montaigne are witty and duelist? Just sounds immersion breaking for me.

I'm having to go on the writers limited information and don't have any real and solid information on 7th's Sea. The only copy I saw in a local game shop was shrink wrapped so I couldn't browse through it to get a feel of the mechanics, game world etc. Though the cover artwork and general statements on the back did intrigue me, but not enough to toss cash on the table on a book I couldn't glance through first.
 

Atomoctba

Villager
Hmm, I'm not a fan of systems like that. Sounds too one dimensional honestly. You're limited to basing your profession (what you do) on your nationality? So I couldn't be a Vodacce duelist? Sounds artificially limiting. All those from Montaigne are witty and duelist? Just sounds immersion breaking for me.

I'm having to go on the writers limited information and don't have any real and solid information on 7th's Sea. The only copy I saw in a local game shop was shrink wrapped so I couldn't browse through it to get a feel of the mechanics, game world etc. Though the cover artwork and general statements on the back did intrigue me, but not enough to toss cash on the table on a book I couldn't glance through first.
In truth, there are no professions, class, whatever in 1st Ed. "Crunshly", Nationality just gave a boost on one of the Attributes, a discount to buy some Advantages that would be more expensive for other nations, and some combat styles (not exclusive to that nation, but cheaper to buy due the easier "availability" on that nation). The only real restriction is the type of sorcery you could have, because almost all sorcery in 7th Sea is genetic and not learned.
 

SavageCole

Punk Rock Warlord
I adore swashbuckler gaming, but 7th Sea’s Theah setting always turned me off. The lazy pseudo-Europe was the Land of False Cognates— similar enough to real world model but with occasional differences between Europe and Theah equivalent to frustrate me. Even among game worlds borrowing heavily from Europe as a model, there are far better examples to highlight. The Old World (Warhammer) is infinitely more interesting and creative as a Europe-based setting. But I appreciate people have very different tastes in settings.
 
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reemul

Explorer
As much as I love the setting for 7th Sea, my group had to house rule the 2nd edition massively in order to play it, because it doesn't actually by default have any way for you to fail at any task, unless you straight up say "I fail" (and get a hero point in return.) Ugh. The only way the GM had to create any tension at all was to flood the scene with so many potential bad things - violent thugs, the building is on fire, the orphans are drowning, the secret documents are on fire and floating in the water next to the orphans - that the characters ran out of actions to fix them all before negative consequences applied. Which is a massive imposition on the GM to come up with it all, and eventually just silly for the PCs because either every scene was a massive show piece or it was a walk over. Because the dice never said "nope, you fail."

Unless the opponent was a trained duelist and you weren't. Because that one single ability was entirely unbalancing, so amazingly good that you had to really love your image of your non-dueling character to avoid taking it at character creation, because you were going to be forever crippled until you surrendered to fate and dragged the entire party along for a 5 part story just so you could learn it. Not OK.
 

EthanSental

Explorer
I backed the Kickstarter, loved the art and the feel the book portrayed BUT I never read the book. Seems many gamers from various forums were looking forward to the new edition and posts seem to be 50/50 on their enjoyment. They all enjoyed the setting but the mechanics were what caused the division.
 

eyeheartawk

Explorer
Personally not a fan of the narrative turn. Combat without being in a swordsman school is really uninteresting (spend one raise deal a wound ad infinitum)as one example. Lore wise I'm also not really a fan of the changes here. Did we really need to neuter Dracheneisen and turn Eisen into Ravenloft?
 

Laurefindel

Explorer
Hmm, I'm not a fan of systems like that. Sounds too one dimensional honestly. You're limited to basing your profession (what you do) on your nationality? So I couldn't be a Vodacce duelist? Sounds artificially limiting. All those from Montaigne are witty and duelist? Just sounds immersion breaking for me.
Not quite. As the article says, stereotypes are the starting point. There are indeed Vodacce duelists (and rather good ones at that*), but the settings describes them as vicious and Machiavellian. It is thus your choice as a player to decide whether you embrace that stereotype or go against it, knowing that NPCs of the world will expect you to be.

*All nations have their "wizards" and duelists, but each have their own magical traditions and fighting style (fencing school).
 

Paragon Lost

Explorer
Not quite. As the article says, stereotypes are the starting point. There are indeed Vodacce duelists (and rather good ones at that*), but the settings describes them as vicious and Machiavellian. It is thus your choice as a player to decide whether you embrace that stereotype or go against it, knowing that NPCs of the world will expect you to be.

*All nations have their "wizards" and duelists, but each have their own magical traditions and fighting style (fencing school).
Thanks for the clarification. The article info made it sound like that it basically makes for "min/maxing" style of mechanics. Basically if you want to play a diplomat, why would you play any other nationality than a Ussara? I'm never a fan where min/maxing mechanics are important or a focus. Other players will tend to give anyone who doesn't choose the maximum benefits a hard time.
 

Laurefindel

Explorer
Thanks for the clarification. The article info made it sound like that it basically makes for "min/maxing" style of mechanics. Basically if you want to play a diplomat, why would you play any other nationality than a Ussara? I'm never a fan where min/maxing mechanics are important or a focus. Other players will tend to give anyone who doesn't choose the maximum benefits a hard time.
That would indeed be pretty narrow design. The system may not be perfect for everyone but the character creation is actually pretty good and flexible for this genre and type of RPG; meaning a narrative system where players feel like in a movie of Pirates of the Caribbean or a novel or Alexandre Dumas.

The stereotypes are already established in pop and literary culture - and so are immediatly recognisable - with a bunch of "special abilities" to support the concept. It's not the type of RPG where you can "game the system" much, and as with most narrative RPGs, the most inventive and expressive players tend to dominate if they play selfishly. But I'll even go against the OP and state my opinion that the second edition fits the genre even better than the first, and I personally prefer it. DMing 2e 7th sea takes more getting used-to however, as the DM is asked to state the concequences of a scene first, and let players decide which one their hero will avoid, and which one they will face.
 

Derren

Adventurer
The setting is actually what kept me away from 7th Sea.
I can't actually articulate why, but this weird "Earth but not earth" thing 7th Sea uses is very off putting to me. Its more or less the uncanny valley for settings.
Although I don't have a problem with Warhammer Fantasy, so it must be something 7th Sea does. Maybe its how they use garbled German words for Eisen which colors my opinion.
 

Atomoctba

Villager
Maybe its how they use garbled German words for Eisen which colors my opinion.
At least, this little bit was handled successfully in the 2nd edition. Bakers of all nationalities received pre-print versions of the book to comment any strange words or translations they could find in whatever "Thean" language they occurred. So, no more Fauner Pösen as a female name or the terrible "El fuego adentro" for "fire within" or yet a man whose surname was "kings-and-queens" (Rois-et-Reines).

Also, apparently they stick with ninorsk for Vendel instead of a pastiche of norse languages plus dutch.
 

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