After all of my talking of 7th Sea, between the hype from the initial announcement, my initial reactions to the Kickstarter and Quickstart Rules, and my talks and comparisons for the setting and the mechanics, it was only a matter of time until I got around to writing a review.
Now that my physical copy of the book has finally arrived (granted, it’s the Pirate Edition; waiting until after the move to order a standard edition) and I’ve run a few sessions, I think it is fitting to finally give a proper review.
Note: This review will primarily focus on the second edition of the game. I make a few nods to the first edition for historical references or marketing approaches, and did my best to not allow it to influence my overall rating.
7th Sea is a tabletop roleplaying game that takes place in a world that is a distant cousin to our own, on the continent of Theah (a distance cousin of Europe) in the 17th century. It is advertised as a “game of intrigue and romance.”
You play a hero that challenges villains to duels, defeat pirates on the high seas, overthrow corrupt governments, and fight the darkest monsters that have come from history.
To quote the back of the book: “In other words—you are d’Artagnan, Milady de Winter, the Dread Pirate Roberts, Jack Sparrow, Julie d’Aubigney, and the Scarlet Pimpernel all rolled up in one!”
Talk about a sales pitch!
7th Sea was originally released in 1999, eventually migrated to a d20 game branded as “Swashbuckling Adventures” in the early 2000s, and vanished sometime after Rapier’s Edge was published in 2003. After 13 years of silence, we see it come back from the depths of conversation and into the fore as a new edition.
==What You Get==
7th Sea: Second Edition delivers the above yet again after all this time, but this time in a format that is fitting to the genre. Inside of this 350~ish page book, you have a setting rich with details (especially when armed with the books from the first edition for extra info on specific NPCs…which may or may not be canon) and ready to be explored. There’s a roll mechanic that is easy to grasp and flexible enough to allow stories to progress without getting caught up on rules, the artwork is gorgeous, and the potential of the game is limited by your imagination (and I mean that literally).
Right out of the gate, the best part of 7th Sea: Second Edition rests within its flexibility. Do you want to play a former assassin turned whaler before becoming a bodyguard? Done! Want a sorcerer that hunts monsters on his recently inherited ship? Here you go! Do you want to play Inigo Montoya, Don Quixote, and Zorro blended together? Entirely possible! Want to play the Sailor turned Noble? Make it so! Unlike so many other games, the game is flexible enough to give you open options at character creation, and as the rules are simple, it is easy to modify character creation to allow even more flexibility.
The flexibility does continue from there, thankfully. The roll mechanic, for those who have not read my previous posts on the topic, is simply roll Trait+Skill+Bonus in d10s, and combine totals into sets of 10. Each 10 is a “Raise,” which is used to perform an action, gambled on contested rolls, deal damage, or set something up for an ally (like claiming there’s a gun on the guard you’ve just knocked out). From here, it’s pretty easy to create your own permutations.
The game rules are marketed as “Rulings, not rules,” meaning there are loose rules to keep the story going that shouldn’t get in the way of the story. After so many years of having to check and see how a specific odd thing would work and having rules lawyers argue with me about what sort of bonus they’d get for running along the wall to perform a charge on a flanked opponent, I was grateful to see this. This has sped things up a great deal for my group and I, and I’m honestly looking forward to running more sessions in the future.
Speaking of, the game is easy to run. You don’t have to worry about things like monster manuals or the like; you basically set a “Strength” rating for the enemies you want your group to face and roll that many dice. Do you need the hired thug to be strong enough to take on the swordsman of the group long enough to let the big bad escape? Give them a Strength rating equal to the number of dice that player rolls. Need a squad of goons to fight the party to show them they really are on the right path? Each goon is a die for your pool, and they travel in groups. Done! Need a squad of annoying kobolds to pester the party at an inopportune moment, with the sole purpose of stealing their bag of supplies? There’s a special ability to allow that.
Villains also have a form of progression in this game, and are not set at their baseline the entire time. Unlike other games, Villains don’t have normal stats (they can if you really want to), but instead get Strength (physical/magical competence) and Influence (wealth and power), as well as whatever other powers you want to give them (ranging from in-setting magic to special monstrous powers). When you confront a Villain, they can combine these two numbers together into their dice pool, which can get pretty massive (looking at 20+ dice for major big bads), and then factor in whatever other powers they have. Granted, some Villains can have a high Strength and low Influence (like the Sheriff of Nottingham), or have a low Strength and high Influence (think Prince Humperdinck), but some can have both (looking at Moriarty, Dracula, or any other competent fighter that is in a position of political power).
Cool thing about this? Villains can gamble their Influence to gain more Influence. Did they set up an assassination and the party failed to stop it? They gained more Influence. The party can take out Villains by going after their Influence, such as removing money launderers or corrupt politicians that serve them.
I mention this as it means that defeating a Villain isn’t just a matter of storming their tower. Sure, you can do that, but if a powerful Villain has high Strength and high Influence, they can be rolling a massive number of dice, which could be the end of your party if they don’t plan ahead and whittle down their resources first.
Basically, it gives the GM flexibility with the story to keep people in track; there are villains to stop, after all, and the less you do about them, the tougher they will get.
One topic I must touch on: the artwork is top notch. While I loved the black and white images from First Edition, there’s something to be said for having full-color images everywhere instead of just a select few pages. It’s also nice to see that there are more women in this book than most other RPGs, and said women aren’t overly sexualized. In fact, there are two images of same-sex couples sharing a kiss, and they aren’t overly sexualized or potrayed as “evil” or anything. +1 in my book. Huzzah for being inclusive!
On the topic of artwork: I’m grateful that every page is the same type of paper. In the First Edition of 7th Sea, there was a small part in the middle of the core book that was in color, on glossy paper, while the rest of the book was printed on plain (but sturdy) paper. These glossy sheets often came out after moderate use, and the rest of the book would usually fall apart soon after. I’m not seeing that happen here, but I’m also looking at the Pirate Edition leatherbound book, after all.
I don’t care how good of a product you have, how well it was received, or how much money you made: there will always be a flaw somewhere. As an RPG, this will always happen as people have different tastes, and 7th Sea: Second Edition is not immune to this.
Outside of the comment about different tastes (I have a few people in my life that hate the narrative elements or claim the rules are too loose), there are some legitimate flaws and concerns with the game. Many of these can be easily fixed with some hand-waived house-rules, but they feel like something that should have been addressed at the beginning.
For starters, it feels like the book is missing something. Specifically, I feel like the setting hasn’t been fully fleshed out. Seriously, hear me out here.
In the First Edition, we were given about 500 pages of material to work with from the start in the form of a Player’s Guide and Game Master’s Guide. Between these two books, you knew everything you needed to know of the setting, goals of secret societies (if not their members), big named NPCs that are running various countries, information on ancient races that left ruins behind to be discovered, specific tales of monsters and the stories of their homes, and even trade routes. You were given maps of individual countries (small ones, mind you), diagrams of ships, and a snippet of a story at the beginning of each chapter to really bring you into the setting.
7th Sea: Second Edition is missing most of this. The idea of exploring ruins is made almost in passing compared to everything else, and there’s no real talk about the races that left them behind. There are countries mentioned (like Numa) that are only mentioned with no real information about them (even though the name appears multiple times in the book). Each country has a few pages dedicated to basic history and current politics, but there’s little information given about the actual people who rule these countries beyond minor snippets (and no, I’m not asking for stats, I’m talking about goals, ideals, beliefs; things that make these people PEOPLE), nor are we given much information regarding where the country is headed. The supernatural elements of the setting, which play a major role (they are the source of magic at times) are also given a side note, making it tough to really know how to utilize this as a resource without the next book to be released, which could blow up your ideas if your goal is to focus on canon (or if you are going by 1st Edition information that collapses in the 2nd Edition).
Granted, this is just the core rulebook (and we are supposed to see a two-part nation/secret society book in the future, as well as other continents and cities to flesh out the rest of the world, something ignored in First Edition), but it is a bit irksome to feel as though the world is missing some important information that players may want to know and GMs would find useful. A number of GMs are scouring the First Edition materials (and experiences; many of us are old hands) for additional information to use to finish fleshing out the setting. Again, a bit frustrating to need to grab materials that aren’t accepted in the setting for the most part (and technically, buying materials from another game) just to get things rolling.
Mechanically, there’s only one thing that really grabs my goat: the progression. After the sessions I’ve run, we technically haven’t had anyone raise anything. You see, progression is handled directly by “stories.” Every character has one Story, usually a goal of some sort, and the GM provides a Story. Each Story has a number of Steps; the more Steps, the better the upgrade. For example, if you want a 5-point Advantage, you’ll need a 5 Step Story. Simple, right?
Well, not so much.
Some players struggle with making a story for their characters (it happens), while others have a story that takes some time to get into. For example, my group has a character that wants to be a Legend (his end goal, not a current story as it doesn’t have an ending), a recently elevated ship captain (inherited the ship from her assassinated father), a Lord’s Hand (explores the world and does the dirty deeds for his Prince), and a runaway noble (who also has magic). Each of them have Stories that will involve being in different countries (specially, Montaigne, Vodacce, and the Commonwealth), and a great deal of travel. This means that progression will slow down a bit as the group needs to move around, and progression for most of the party will be linked to GM stories (if the party actually completes them).
Sure, you can change your story with GM permission, but when a player feels like they are forced to make a new story just to improve themselves, it gets a bit frustrating, doubly so if that player is one of the quiet “support”-type players (i.e. enters group, fills a necessary role, tends to go with the flow and only snags the spotlight when needed; think healers and non-charisma rogues).
Added kicker: every GM knows that players can have a solid session and not progress the story as written or planned, but still still impact the story in various ways such as gaining a new ally, doing the legwork to break into a place, or even “shopping” (and selling illegal goods in the process). These sessions can be fun, and many GMs still award XP for good or amusing roleplaying, but as written, 7th Sea Second Edition doesn’t allow this.
It also doesn’t help that progression only occurs at the end of the Story. Say you wanted to raise a skill with a 5 Step Story (and said story didn’t involve finding a teacher for that skill, but rather just some story progression), but as you are halfway through, you realize that a 3 Step Advantage would be useful and fitting for the character (like learning how to break into a building through the second story window by working with the thieve’s guild in order to reduce a villain’s influence). As written, you have to hope the GM story is short enough to allow a 3 Step Advantage, and that you don’t feel cheated by not taking the 5 Step reward that the GM originally planned for. It also means you need to finish a story to get an upgrade, and that story can take quite a lot of time depending on how the party does things (and there’s no advice if the party “skips” steps and finds a way to foil the villains plans without taking all of the planned steps).
Thankfully, this is easy to houserule (I’m doing a more “XP” approach based on general progression), but it has been an annoyance for some of my players.
One thing that is an issue for some, especially convention GMs: the mechanics fall apart with larger groups. Sure, classic 7th Sea had this issue (it really ran best with 2-4 players, and began to drag with 5), and other RPGs fall apart when you are getting close to double digits (it takes a skilled GM to run a table that large; I was able to get double digits for one 7th Sea campaign, and that was quite the challenge), but 7th Sea: Second Edition really caps out at five players. The playtest materials were set for five, Wick and Co. admitted that they didn’t plan for more than five when they built it, and some GMs have commented they don’t think it’ll function well once you go above five.
This isn’t necessarily a killer, but it is a concern for convention GMs. As someone who usually pays for my ticket by running games, knowing that I have to have a hard limit of 5 is a bit of a concern, as my average gaming table at a convention floats around 6 (my biggest being 8 for a Dresden Files Fate game). Again, not a major problem for most, but if a convention requires table sizes to be higher than five and still have a stable game, you might want to look at a different game.
The rest of the rule problems are nitpicky, such as how the Vesten don’t have a proper magic (and are limited to a Yes/No divination instead of the fleshed out rune magic they once had), or how some of the rules don’t feel complete (a few areas that Wick has admitted to “not thinking of,” such as dealing with the “pressure” mechanic and Brute Squads) or feeling a bit lacking (ship combat is narrative; which is good and bad). Some of these won’t really influence an individual table, but there’s always that ONE guy that will go after that weakness.
==How Does It Play?==
Thankfully, I was able to find a group to play this for a few sessions, mostly pooled from my old gaming groups over the years. Everyone except one of my four players has played the First Edition at least once (and one of them, like me, has about a decade of time in Theah as a player and/or GM), so everyone was curious how this would pan out.
The first thing we realized was character creation was a snap. What would take us an hour or more per character, we shot down in about fifteen minutes. One player took a bit longer, but that was because we had to tweak a few rules to better suit his character (nothing major, just narrative for the most part).
The next thing we realized: the roll mechanic was a breeze. It is suggested to only roll when dramatically appropriate or if there’s the chance for failure, meaning combat and long-term social interactions.
Combat was fast paced, as we realized; I pit a Strength 5 Villain (meaning 5 dice) against one of my players (normal die roll before bonuses: 6 dice). Due to a special ability and good planning, the player defeated the Villain in one round, before said villain could act. Even looking at it later on and running test scenarios, combat was still fast paced and didn’t resort to “I attack!”, mostly because the game was flexible enough between multiple maneuvers and bonuses for narration.
Non-Combat also proved to be interesting. As I mentioned before, players make a roll based on their “approach,” which is the sort of actions they are taking. When at a ball, my players were doing everything from dancing among the crowds to convincing servants that the host was a bit too old and corrupt to be a worthy employer. The group made their initial rolls, and used their Raises to take actions relating to the tasks at hand, whether it was moving through the crowds elegantly to get attention or convince a young noble to back a different venture. One player also proved the rules for different actions worked brilliantly; he went from eavesdropping for his approach to sneaking through the noble’s house looking for an artifact they needed.
So far, the game has proven flexible and fast paced, but progression leaves something to be desired as written (which is both vague and strict, thus why I’m working on houseruling it to better suit my group).
In the grand scheme of things, I will have to give 7th Sea: Second Edition a solid 4 Buns.
The game mechanics are, overall, an improvement, offering a blend of narrative storytelling with a flexible dice mechanic to allow for such a thing. If anything, I’d love it if we could get this into the OGL or something similar to allow players to make their own homebrew tweaks/settings using these rules (hint: I started a Dishonored hack with this game mechanic for a reason). Some backers and recent purchasers have commented that 7th Sea is probably one of the better “sandbox” game mechanics out there due to it’s flexibility; even if you don’t want to go with Theah, it’s easy to do some small-scale superhero/anime work
There are a few imperfections, such as the random typos (thankfully a much smaller list than before), but it feels like something is missing. Outside of a few concerns regarding the mechanic, I felt there just wasn’t enough information on the setting, as I mentioned above. There’s some solid information in the new vision of Theah here, but so much of it is vague in comparison; we don’t know what goals various NPCs have, what is really happening with politics, or even what’s the case with elements of the supernatural or the various ruins.
Granted, we had a Player and Game Master book for the First Edition (therefore, about 500 pages to cover both rules and setting), so having under 400 pages feels a bit light in comparison. I cannot emphasize that enough here, honestly.
Is the game worth it? Absolutely. The mechanic is easy to grasp, easy to teach, and fun to work with. GMs have an easy way to work with things, players can actually play what they want out of the gate (I have two players who are Sorcerers/Swordsmen, which was something nigh-impossible to play in the first edition), and the setting has amazing potential (and if you don’t want a gorgeous setting, the artwork alone is worth gawking at).
If you enjoy swashbuckling films and the Renaissance, 7th Sea is right up your alley. If you like narrative games with some number crunch to support it, rolling a bunch of dice, and doing heroic things without batting an eye, you should jump to the bottom of this review and look at the ordering options.
You should avoid 7th Sea: Second Edition if you are a purist for the First Edition, hate non-d20 systems, hate narration, and hate being an awesome hero doing things that Big Damned Heroes do. Honestly, I’d suggest this game to just about anyone, but there ARE people that hate The Princess Bride, so they’d probably hate this game.
7th Sea: Second Edition is out now, both in PDF and Print. PDFs can be acquired through DriveThruRPG for $24.99 as of this writing. Physical copies were made available at GenCon (lucky devils) and via Kickstarter, and are now available from Indie Press Revolution (with bundled PDF) for $59.99.
Edit/Post Script: I have reviews for just about every 7th Sea product that was officially released as part of the Kickstarter. Hit the 7th Sea tag below to find more!