Tuesday, August 16, 2016

7th Sea - Thoughts on a Review

Kit Here,  I don't post often on this blog, it isn't really mine to use, but we're discussing a game that a few of us enjoy, and this is going to be lengthy.  Here we go:

There's a rather detailed review of 7th Sea that I think is worth reading.  The review, however, touches on a number of things I think we just don't see eye to eye about - and that's fine.  There's nothing saying we have to agree on everything.  However, 7th Sea is a personal favourite of mine, and I felt the need to address this review while giving my own thoughts on the new edition.

To Open
We came into 7th Sea from Legend of the Five Rings.  L5R is a game we've enjoyed from the start - and originally we hoped that 7S would be an expansion from the original L5R setting.  I was always curious about what lay beyond Rokugan, and I hoped that this game would answer the questions I had.  It didn't, but what it did provide was a fascinating world which was very familiar to me, while adding a unique twist to the setting.  7th Sea was an inspiring game, and I had a lot of fun with it.
Coming into 2nd Edition, there were a lot of things we hoped would be kept from 1st Edition, and there were some things we had very little interest in - we would take it or leave it.  Some things we enjoyed were the secret societies, the swordsman's schools, and the styles of sorcery.  Some of the things we did not enjoy as much were the Riliasciare (secret society) and the Syrneth (there just wasn't enough information on them to work with).

I've been in a handful of campaigns - on both sides of the GM shield.  Sophia's Daughters played a big role in two of the campaigns, and by far they're my favourite of the secret orders, though the Knights of the Rose and Cross are a close second.

Six Points
So, our author has six points that he brings into the review, and I'll touch on those before I move forward.  In fact, it's these six points which made me feel the urge to write my response.

  • Setting changes that makes pirates make sense / archaeology should make sense, too.

I've mixed feelings about this. First and foremost, the pirates felt like a part of the setting, but didn't dominate the setting - and I was fine with that. If you wanted to play a pirate, there was a lot you could do with it. If you didn't want to play a pirate, there was a lot available.

As for pirates "making sense".  Well, how did pirates make sense during the 1600s to 1700s?  They sailed the seas, robbed people, sank ships, and did this for a number of reasons - whether they were working for a nation and attacking a rival nation, had personal rivalries, foiling trading organizations, or out of sheer desperation for food and money.  Any of these could fit into 7th Sea with ease.  The idea of the "pirate nations" was an interesting idea, where a group of pirates worked together towards a common cause, making something akin to a semi-anarchic nation, and I thought that was kid of cool.

The archaeology angle was a bit more problematic.  See, there was just enough information on 'who was around before' to give the GM some fodder, but there wasn't enough to help lay out what would be reasonable or unreasonable.  Little trinkets which do weird things?  Sure.  Ruins that could have any number of traps and tricks?  Sure.  But beyond that?  Err, can't help you there, really.  And I think that's just it - there was enough dangling of threads that it could interest people to go out and do this kind of stuff, but there wasn't enough to make it feel worthwhile.  Lost civilizations exist, but we didn't know enough as game masters to draw upon it without the worry of there being some severe contradictions later.

See, I kind of liked the lost civilization angle.  I had visions of the PCs exploring ruins, and running the risk of awakening a dire threat - or perhaps some evil NPCs think they've found a way to awaken the Bargainers to get some nifty stuff which will allow them to rule the world, and the PCs could try to stop this from coming about.  But... there wasn't enough information to really run with this, I feel.  As a GM, I like running my own stuff, but I kind of prefer having the information presented for me to use as I see fit.  Not enough information, and I'll just ignore it and run some other plot which doesn't involve it - and that's what I wound up doing.

  • PCs being awesome, not just the shadow of badass NPCs.

And this is where I veer off from the author.  I made some seriously badass PCs in 7th Sea.  Were there people even more badass?  Of course.  When I make a new character, I expect them to be at the beginning of their game, not the top of it.  These are people who need to build on their reputation, to carve their way forward, and pick and choose their fights along the way.  And there need to be people they can look up to and admire, or look at as a foe they will one day defeat.

 As I've said in Shadowrun, "No matter how good you are, there is always someone better."

 My personal albatross was Giovanni Villanova.  I made a nephew of his, and my goal was to one day kill him, take over the family, then systematically take down the other leaders and establish a unified Vodacce under my rule.  That's a pretty ambitious goal, and Giovanni is one hell of a bad guy.  This wasn't going to be a plot that would come to fruition any time soon - this was something I saw as a possibility years down the line.  I needed to get my skills up, get allies, come up with a plan, and then see to it that I could take him down - hopefully in a duel to the death.  Giovanni was an inspiration.

As for being badass.  Well, you see, in one game, our characters encountered bete noir - evil dogs who could teleport.  One survived our encounter and escaped, and then began to plague us in the home of an ally.  So, I set up a trap, waited for it to show up, and had a fight to the death with it.  It was a harrowing, exciting experience, because my character was 'good', but I wasn't sure how good he was.  Coming out of that, I walked away clinging to life, and it was one of the most thrilling of encounters I have ever had.  My character was awesome.

But here's the thing.  A character doesn't have to be awesome because they have awesome attributes and awesome skills.  A character is awesome by how you play the character.  You can make someone who is a bit clumsy, who doesn't know much, who makes mistakes, and who is nowhere near as skilled or talented as the people around you.  But the character can still be an awesome PC.  He may come up with ideas which inspire the more clever PCs.  He may stumble into the wrong place at the right time to foil a plot.  NPCs may adore the character and see him as 'charming, but insignificant' and provide the group information they'd not get otherwise.  Over time, the character may develop, but it doesn't have to be a mechanical 'awesomeness'.
  • Less Dumb Metaplot

Ah.  See, I'm of mixed feelings when it comes to metaplot.  On the one hand, I want to see a living, breathing setting - something that is evolving over time, and provides me with inspiration.  A good metaplot tells a story, and alters the setting over time, and I can use it as a backdrop of 'here's what's going on' while I run the game I want to run.  I might use some, none, or all of a metaplot, depending on how I feel about it, or I may veer drastically from it if the actions of the PCs alter things, and then just use what I want from what can be salvaged.  Regardless, I'm fine with this.

For example, in Legend of the Five Rings, the PCs broke the coup.  They sided with the Scorpion Clan, they got the Emperor-to-be killed, and Shoju the First took the throne.  The Clans all gathered around the city, preparing to take the Scorpion Clan down, the PCs went out and played peacemaker, and even got the Crab to sit out the war by offering them to 'observe'.  The Scorpion didn't ask for help, they simply wanted the Crab to see how the Scorpion fight - and everything was wrapped up by the idea of re-doing a Tournament to see who should take the throne.

Of course, this means that pretty much anything in the official metaplot after the coup needed to be looked over critically, and that's what we did.  The Clan Wars were very different, and some of the things in the books had to be adjusted or ignored.  Which is fine.

Meanwhile, you have something like Shadowrun, which also has a metaplot of sorts and moves forward, with technology adjusting over time, new things coming in, old things leaving.  We've clung fairly close to the metaplot in Shadowrun, and everything there's been usable to date.  When there's a new edition, the technology and setting suffers a sudden shift, but we've always rolled with it.

For me, "dumb" is subjective.  The metaplot in 7th Sea?  I don't find it dumb.  The revolution in Montaigne makes perfect sense, and I was looking forward to my character going in and trying to save as many people as possible.  The faerie war in Avalon?  Also made sense, and I wanted to see how that played out.  There were threads all over the sourcebooks, and I was looking forward to seeing how some resolved, and others didn't, and they would make for some interesting things happening in the background (or not background, depending on where the PCs were).

Some of these plots were game-changers.  The Montaigne Revolution was a huge one, and I wanted to see how that broke the setting.  With 2nd Edition, there's a sort of 'reboot' of sorts, and things are at their start.  A nation just did something revolutionary, and there's going to be ripples (I hope) from it, and I want to see these carry forward.  Sure, some people don't like that - but I'm always of the view that if you're making a game, taking things away is perhaps more harmful than leaving things in, and letting the GM decide whether or not to take it away.
  • Things that make secret societies cool out of the box rather than leaving them to be surprises, whether good (Die Kreutzritter) or terrible (Daughters of Sophia)

An interesting thing.  I love the Daughters of Sophia, and I think Die Kreutzritter are cool.  Here's where we differ, obviously.  I do agree however, the secret societies need to be cool out of the box, but I don't mind the surprises from the sourcebooks.  The thing is, unless you want an incredibly thick Book of Doom, things need to be left out, and they can only get expanded in source books.  In L5R, you have the Way of the Clans and then the Secrets of the Clans, which deal with a lot of stuff about the different Clans which couldn't be in the main rulebook.  What's up with the Tattooed Monks?  Well, they're not going to put all that stuff in the main rulebook - but in a book about the Dragon Clan?  Sure.  Do the Scorpions have ninja?  Not going into the main rulebook.  How about the awesome power of the Phoenix Clan?  Sourcebook.

I'm fine with this.  I'm fine with some bare bones information in the main rulebook, and then adding on the extra cool in the sourcebook.  The one quibble I had when it came to 7th Sea was with the Knights of the Rose and Cross book.  You can't be a member of the order if you have Sorcery.  I'm fine with the rule - it makes sense in context - but it would have been lovely if they had mentioned that in the main rulebook.  That's the kind of information I feel needs to be in the rulebook.

Now, there's one secret society that I think was actually weakened by their sourcebook, and that was the Rilasciare.  See, I can handle 'anarchists' as a concept.  However, I can't handle 'kill anyone you think is a threat to your goals' and 'kill anyone in charge' as something heroes do.  These guys were not heroes - they were villains.  I think that was perhaps a problem with Die Kreutzritter as well.  Both of these groups had, as part of the order, this thing about killing people, and if you're playing a hero, simply killing people is Not Okay.
  • No character build options predicated on “Suck now to be ok in 25 sessions or so!” (that is to say, the way swordsman schools were handled)

Again, I think this is a matter of perspective.  I made a very decent swordsman out-of-the-box, and I got a bunch of Advantages that would come into play as my character progressed.  He didn't rock all the socks, but he was pretty good.  The second character I made, I took three swordsman schools and a sorcery at character creation.  He didn't "suck" in the slightest, and in fact stood even with the other PCs.  I don't really get this idea of a PC "sucking".  The PCs are cool if you make them cool - and cool comes from a combination of mechanics and roleplaying.
  • No forcing players to spend XP

I don't know about "forcing".  For me, the XP system made sense.  You want to unlock greater power, then you need to improve your game.  Want to progress as a swordsman, then you need to prove you've got what it takes for your teacher to be bothered helping you progress.

 This was where I think 7th Sea did better than L5R.  In L5R, you could progress in all your courtly skills, and your sensei would suddenly decide you should learn the next step in your school of bushido.  (Say what?)  In 7th Sea, you want your teacher to give you the next 'secret technique', you prove you're ready for it.

 This makes perfect sense.

Now That That's Out of the Way

When I walked into 2nd Edition, I admit to a degree of nervousness.  As you can see, I adored the first edition, and there were going to be a number of changes with 2nd Edition.  To some extent, I think most of my worries were unfounded, and this is very much going to be a lot of 'we'll need to see when the sourcebooks come out'.

That happens with a lot of new editions, so that's okay.

So, if you want to know the layout of the book and some of the finer details, the review I linked to is the place to go.  The detail he goes through is exhaustive, and I think that's good.  I'm more looking at this from the perspective of 'what do I see that's different, and how do I feel about it?'

Well let's look at character creation first.
The original system gave 100 points, with the option of maybe getting a few more.  My group offered an extra 25 if you filled out the questionnaire, which helped you get a feel for your character, and also gave the GM a boatload of hooks as well.

Anything you wanted to do came out of those points.  A swordsman school?  That's a bunch.  Sorcery?  A bunch more, including buying the bloodline to be able to pick it up.  Attributes, backgrounds, advantages, these all came out of your starting points.  Making a character involved coming up with a solid, tight concept, and then building around it.  Don't expect to rock socks at everything - pick where you want to excel, and where you're willing to start weak and build up.

My first character was a Vodacce swordsman.  So, I took Noble, I took Swordsman, and I picked a bunch of backgrounds and advantages to round that out.  My second character was a Son of Lugh, trained in the woods by mythic figures, and 'adopted' by the Lady in Red - a sidhe.  He had the claymore school, the brawling school, and the archery school, as well as the Son of Lugh sorcerous bloodline.  That character was weak in a lot of areas, but considering his background, it kind of made sense, and the XP he did get rapidly put him on stable ground, simply because raising everything from 1 to 2 is so cheap.  Once he got that footing, he started getting.... scary.

In 2nd Edition, you don't have points to spend all over the place.
Instead, you have your basic attributes, you pick your nation, and then you pick two backgrounds.  These backgrounds give you your starting skills (instead of buying skills), and your advantages (instead of buying advantages).  Consider them something akin to templates.

It's different.  The thing is, however, it works.  I was able to easily make my first character in 2nd Edition, and while he was missing a few specific quirks, it held to the core of who he was.  (Aristocrat / Duellist).  Can I make my second character?  Oh hell no.  Looking at what's available, there's nothing to go with the Son of Lugh style of sorcery.  I figured if I remade him, I'd simply remove 'archery' from his background - punching and swording would be his thing.  Without the school of magic, I'd be looking at "Pugilist" and "Duellist", perhaps.  He'd take a bit more work, I think.  Which is why I'm willing to wait until Sophia's Daughters comes out as a sourcebook.

The thing is, there's a lot of choice that comes with this new edition.  The templates are pretty to the point, and there's nothing saying you can't have the game master make a template to fit an ideal you have.  Really, it's "pick two advantages and five skills and a quirk", and put them together to fit what you have in mind.  There's a lot of excellent examples here, and there's a lot you can build on.

So, let's see.
I can take the Quirk from Orphan (put yourself in danger so someone else doesn't have to be alone), which kind of suits the character.  Boxer from Pugilist fits.  Duelling Academy from Duellist doesn't, because he never formally signed up (being a kid in the woods learning how to use a big sword from a mythical figure).  So, perhaps Hard to Kill would fit.  Then for Skills:  Athletics and Brawl from Pugilist, Intimidate and Weaponry from Duellist, and let's go Empathy from Orphan.

That suits him well.  Actually, looking at Knight Errant from the Glamour Isles background, I could see Sorcery and Boxer perhaps.  But we'll see what happens when the books come out in the future.

In the original 7th Sea, you would pick a 'Knack' and get a bunch of skills associated with it at 1.  In the new edition, you take your background and get 5 skills at 1, and they go up if they overlap.  It's not bad, really, it speeds up character creation and I think it's a big plush, since you don't need to fiddle with a bunch of math to figure out what you can do.

The dice system is pretty good too.  The original Roll and Keep could be a bit problematic if you had bad attributes, but the new system makes every die work for you, and that works well.  The rules about being a Big Damn Hero are also firmly in place, and I like that too.

This game is not 7th Sea 1E with a new cover.  This is a bunch of adjustments, world building, and a new way of looking at the game.  So far, I like what I see.  I'm a little tense, because I want to see what they've done with Avalon, Vodacce, and the Knights of the Rose and Cross, and Sophia's Daughters, which are the areas I loved the most in 1e.  However, John Wick's done a good job so far, and I really am looking forward to seeing where this goes.

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