As you may have guessed from reading last week’s post about 7th Sea’s Nations of Théah: Volume 1, I’ve been getting a bit jaded and having a number of concerns about the game line. While some of it may be due to my adoration of the first edition, I think the bigger problem is a combination of the hype and within the quality of the work.
Namely, I feel that it’s falling short of what it could be and instead becoming an imitation by relying on what “sells.”
Let’s go over things, shall we?
==Elements of Bad Young Adult Novels==
When I got my hands on the core rulebook, I was stoked. Sure, the metaplot was a bit thin, but there was enough to go on with this setting, especially for an old hand like myself and members of my crew. I was also happy to see inclusion within the artwork; we had a number of female characters that were more than just window dressing (many of whom were armed and being badass), characters of various ethnicities, and two of the “romance” pieces were non-traditional relationships; huzzah inclusion! My expectations were set pretty high at this point, and I was waiting with bated breath for the next book.
Then we got to the splatbooks, and my hopes were dashed.
==Repetition Is A Great Teacher, Poor Storyteller==
The first thought I had while reviewing everything: “oh dears gods the repetition.” In Pirate Nations, we had two pirate-run “Nations” that were individual islands run their own way…by pirates. In Nations of Théah: Volume 1, we are given more “pirate islands” with their own “Pirate <Royal Title Here>” scattered throughout. Some of these islands are a stone’s throw from each other and everyone hates each other while running things the way pirates do.
The first time seeing it, I was thinking “Cool!” Then we got it again. And again. And again…The idea lost it’s appeal after a while, and now I’m really afraid of what’ll happen with Five Sails, as it’s a town on the border of five nations that is mostly piratical.
I think if we had more differences in the similar ideas, or even something to really change the feel of the things that are similar, I think we’d be in better shape. As it stands, it’s almost as if the writers were running out of ideas to make things interesting and different, so they kept using the same one they had because they know it’ll sell; after all, who doesn’t love pirates?
If repetition alone isn’t bad enough, then the one theme that is frequently shown and is too often used in YA literature may be the match in the powder room: Civil War.
=A War For Every Nation?=
Eisen is recovering from the War of the Cross, which was a civil war as well as a religious war that other nations took part of (and Eisen took the brunt of it). I believe it was 20-30 years ago (hard to tell with lack of a timeline), but that war left scars that the country is still working on healing.
This is a throwback to the first edition and a historic event: the Thirty Years War in our world was a historic event with similar results to the game’s War of the Cross, making this a doubly interesting event. In both editions, there’s the possibility that one of the more militant Eisenfursten will conquer the rest of the nation and rule it as the new Imperator, but no one is bold (or foolish) enough to make that move due to the state of the Nation and their own respective armies.
Ussura has recently lost it’s Czar, and now two people are attempting to claim the throne: the former Czar’s wife and his disowned son. Each have different goals and have their own capitals, and the writing is on the wall for a bloody battle that will decide if Ussura remains stuck in the “dark ages” or if it will move forward with the rest of Théah.
Vodacce is ruled by a group of Merchant Princes that plot against each other in a way that Niccolo Machiavelli would blush at. While a war is not exactly on the docket (political maneuverings and assassinations are more their thing), it is something that many fear could happen if the situation aligns the right way.
The Sarmatian Commonwealth’s king is on his deathbed, but he instated Golden Liberty to give all of his people the right to vote. Not every noble is enjoying this, and strive to stop it, even to the point of quietly building their own armies to perform a coup (which was part of the plot of the early release packet). The king’s son is not assured the throne, as he must be voted to the role, so he and his Vodacce wife are accruing the necessary support to counter any coup that would come to them. In short, the country is preparing for a civil war once the king dies.
Avalon is recovering from its own civil war which ended with the rise of Queen Elaine ten years ago. Even though the land now seems blessed, there are rumblings of another civil war on the horizon (according to Nations of Théah Volume 1, anyway): some are religious-based, some are politics based, and some are due to the re-introduction of the Sidhe taking back their lands.
Castille is reeling from a recently ended war with Montaigne. Provinces along the Montaigne border are rife with marauding soldiers, displaced people, and bloodshed. There’s also the Odisean province that has been oppressed to the point of having a ruler instated by the Church instead of the rightful ruler of that area. With the civil unrest from the war, unpaid soldiers, and the persecution of “Ellipses” (non-Vaticines and those of specific ethnicities), there’s the makings of a civil war.
Castille also gets a bit murkier with the potential war as the young King is actually two people: twin siblings, one male, one female, and they’ve taken turns being “king” while the other explores for years. Of course, now the Inquisition holds the male sibling and rules from a stronghold in Vaticine City, while the female sibling is doing her thing to determine how to fix the problem. We also have the vigilante El Vagabundo running around fighting the government (in this case, the Inquisition), which makes an uprising even more likely.
Montaigne not only participated in the War of the Cross, but recently went to war with Castille (partly due to the Church), and is now moving troops lead by the Emperor’s son-in-law to attack Ussura. The people are poor while the nobles live in excess beyond their means, the church is weak, and the tension continues to build in this powder keg of a nation. A civil war is bound to happen if someone, or something, were to light the match. This is all inspired by the French Revolution, so it’s actually pretty cool.
Then we have Numa (introduced in Pirate Nations), the seat of the old empire/republic that conquered the known world at one point. After constant invasions, the people have fought back and hold the land for themselves. Of course, this is only while the country has a shared enemy; there are many who still wish to rule, so infighting is common, and there’s the potential for another war.
All of that said, we have eight Nations out of the thirteen introduced so far (Avalon, Castille, Eisen, Montaigne, Sarmation Commonwealth, Ussura, Vesten, Vodacce, Aragosta, Jaragua, La Bucca, Numa, and Rahuri) that have the makings of a civil war playing a part in the story, and that doesn’t include the war the ATC started in Ifri nor the slave uprisings against the ATC in Jaragua. This means that over FIFTY PERCENT of the countries have a civil war and/or revolution plot going on, and it’s a rather heavy-handed approach to it as well. While we had hints of civil wars (with one outright war in Vesten, rumbling for revolution in Montaigne, and potential militant unification in Eisen), they didn’t feel as forced in, and many of the war stories we were given felt as though there was more to it.
Another element that sells in YA (and other fiction) is the general concept of inclusion, especially with non-standard relationships. While I believe that we need more of these in fiction and better a understanding of them in our society, I think we need to do it WELL and not force characters in. Nothing bothers me more than having a “token minority” in a work (or in the workplace!) just to meet some quota or being able to say “See, we have one!” to get attention.
The new metaplot is doing exactly this.
Let’s take Queen Elaine, for example. She was to be married to the father of her unborn child before being taken by the Sidhe to acquire the Graal, lost the child along the way, and returned in order to rise to power and become Queen. The character is an analog of Queen Elizabeth and King Arthur, especially with her twelve knights that are inspired by the legends of the Arthur analog of the setting.
According to the most recent bits of metaplot, Queen Elaine has two lovers: her most trusted knight, Lawrence Lugh, and an ambassador from the Highland Marches, Colleen MacLeod. While she also has a number of suitors that are pursuing her, namely Jeremiah Berek, one of the most famous, powerful, and luckiest pirates, these are the only two lovers confirmed in the new canon, making Elaine a polyamorous bisexual. Sadly, it’s almost as an aside for her section as well as for Colleen MacLeod’s background (literally just a line or two in an entire page or more), and we have no information on Lawrence Lugh (outside of the references as Elaine’s knight and lover).
Then we meet Count Verdugo of Castille. Verdugo is the head of the Inquisition and, as such, he is the de facto ruler of both the Vaticine Church (analog of the Catholic church) and Castille. He rules the former due to the death of the Hierophant and being the highest ranking member, while ruling the latter due to physically holding the crowned king of Castille captive. Verdugo’s background has a small note that he has a “secret husband” that he has not married but wishes to “retire” and live with.
In both cases, we have a non-traditional and non-hetero relationship, but they don’t feel as though they flow as well, and isn’t nearly as fitting as what we were given with the character of Elena in Daughter of Fate, a character that is presumably bisexual (shows some attraction to men, but her romantic interest is a woman). We see an entire internal struggle about that relationship, and it felt more natural than what we’ve been given here in the rulebooks with the backgrounds on these characters. This is doubly true when a character that looks important gets just a mere reference and then is ignored.
Personally, I just feel as though it is exploiting an entire group of people for attention and profit, and that bothers me.
==Power of Recycling==
While this is a second edition of a game, I expected to see some recycling of older ideas. I knew that we’d see a return of names, weapon styles, magic, and more.
I did NOT expect to see something from a different game line make an appearance, namely the magical tattoos introduced in Pirate Nations that seem rather similar in both theme and function to the tattoos used in Legend of the Five Rings. These tattoos are also given by one person, a woman who’s name is Wenshen (Chinese for “tattoo”), further cementing this connection to that game.
Additionally, with the current metaplot, not only are we getting YA-novel level of trashiness, but it feels that certain elements from the first edition are only there to pass the torch or to add a degree of authenticity for old fans. It might not bug new fans as much, but as someone who really enjoyed the old meta (enough to use large portions of it in my old games), having a character thrown in just to be a name-drop and nothing else bothers me (like my commentary with the novel). Even if I were a new fan, having a name-drop and nothing else is an annoyance and leaves more to be desired, as that character that is name dropped looks really cool and there’s nothing about them.
There’s another point of recycling that is almost on the edge of stealing: some things are clearly from other sources. As previously mentioned, the world between for Porte sounds very much like the NeverNever and the Umbra, which bugged me a bit, but the biggest “steal” is within the Atabean Trading Company.
The ATC looks (and sounds) WAY too much like the East India Trading Company in Pirates of the Carribean. Even their LOGOS are almost identical, and that just grates on my nerves a bit and feels sloppy.
==Bolt-Ons For Something Unfinished==
There’s a usual comment with regards to any form of writing: you’ll realize you have your best ideas after it has already been sent in. I’ve done it with reports and manuscripts and game designers have it with their mechanics.
Now, most games tend to have these sorts of things discussed in forums by players making tweaks and devs offering input (and sometimes offering playtest opportunities), or they are in FAQs/Errata that are readily available. Some companies even provide free resources of alternative ways to use the game (such as optional rules to try that most feel should have been there in the first place).
Not so here.
Our primary method for communicating with anyone on the 7th Sea team or other fans so far has been via Reddit, the “Contact Us” section of the 7th Sea website (which is out of date), or the Kickstarter page (and sometimes Twitter), as we lack an official forum. This means that all notices which are claiming to be official and various rulings (some legit rulings, some suggestions) are lost in the flood of a Reddit page instead of being a sticky thread on a forum or being delivered to someone’s inbox/Twitter feed. I find this rather frustrating as a player, a GM, and a librarian (storing and sharing of information is part of the job).
Now that the online issue is voiced, we get to the books. Every sourcebook so far has tweaked the rules in some way, but not in a clear and positive way, but rather bolting things on sporadically and sometimes not offering the rules that were expected.
For example, Heroes and Villains was mostly sample PCs and NPCs, but we were given a few new elements, such as a new ability to help redeem villains. . .but only a small blurb on the actual process of it. We were also given an expanded and clearer section on villain progression, which is something that should have been in the core book as the whole worthwhile section was maybe a page long with chart. One of the biggest perks of this book was seeing a solution to something people have been ranting about with regards to fixing combat, and it was admitted that it was one of those “I thought of it after it was sent.”
Instead of adding in-depth mechanics to naval combat, trade, and overall piracy, Pirate Nations added some new magical items that just don’t fit cost wise (especially after conversations of using Signature Item for that purpose), new powers that are overpriced compared to similarly priced effects (and could have easily been an expansions to a known magic), and the introduction of a “nation discount” to duelist academies with the purchase of a specific background. I felt a bit cheated by this, as I would have loved to have more details on nautical games outside of generic tips for running a game.
Nations of Théah adds a bit more overall, and I’m not sure how I feel about it. We see new Advantages that change the face of combat, but have some beefy requirements to get there and in some ways step on the toes of other advantages (one reduces all Brute Squads in half while another defeats as Squad, while the core book gives one that defeats a Squad in exchange for a Dramatic Wound without prerequisites). We are given some vague notions as to why a specific magic works and a generic otherworld to explore, but little in the ways of how things actually work there, plenty of reasons to NOT go (both story and mechanical), and how it should properly fit in to the adventures or even the setting. If anything, this book feels like it was just bolting on ideas and rules just to see what’d work, almost as if each Nation were a stand-alone without influence from the others.
Even the GM Screen has some pretty heavy revamps in the form of expanding Opportunities, including one for combat purposes (dealing additional damage) as well as a number for non-combat purposes (in addition to the examples in the core rulebook). A chunk of the screen feels more like a psuedo-expansion to the rules instead of a ready resource with rules and page numbers.
All of this makes me a bit worried about what I’ll see in Nations of Théah: Volume 2 later this month.
So far, we are into the game with a core rulebook, two splatbooks, an NPC/sample PC book, a novel, and sneak peeks of the GM screen and other GM rools. At this time, my faith in the franchise is failing. The metaplot is becoming rubbish between bad storytelling, exploitation, and clearly ripping from other franchises. The mechanics are becoming a game of bolting things on and hoping it fixes a problem, with no solid (or official) venue to talk about finding solutions or even if it’s a problem in the first place.
I’ll be getting the PDFs of all of the books as we go along, but unless I see some changes, my faith in the game will continue to plummet. If anything, taking my current 7th Sea group and running a plot with more nods to the first edition than the second (as well as my own storytelling, of course). Sadly, I’d have to consider if I want to take the hassle of rebuilding entire portions of the mechanic (namely Glamour and Galdr)…or just dropping it and running Fate instead.
All that said, I’ll still give you sneak peeks into the books and give reviews (and be as unbiased as possible), and I’ll more than likely bring and run this at conventions due to my love of the idea behind the setting (and the simplified mechanics).
If I seem harsh in the future, just remember this post and my habit of tearing things apart with the hopes that someone will take note and work to make a better product in the future.