Are you looking for a TTRPG with some cinematic flair? Well, you are in luck! The 7th Sea (second edition) swings into action like a swashbuckler on a chandelier! Now grab your rapier and a book of classy insults, because we are going on an adventure!
The second edition of 7th Sea is a setting that takes heavy inspiration from the Princess Bride, and nearly every Errol Flynn movie ever made (like Captain Blood). This blending of fiction acts as the frosting on the cake of a very romanticized version of Europe during the Age of Sail. Great, now I want some cake!
SIDEBAR – Full disclosure, I have neither played nor read the first incarnation of 7th Sea, so this review will not be comparing to the original. Also, it should be pointed out that I’m reviewing the core rulebook, and not any supplementary material. There have been a multitude of setting books released since the original, however, this review will focus on the core experience.
With that being said, the core of 7th Sea takes place on the continent of
Europe Thea. This is a heavily romanticized, and exaggerated amalgamation of certain European countries. Each nation has a unique history, magic system, and flavor that adds to the overall experience. The world of Thea sits on the crossroads of what is historically and mythical familiar, while simultaneously creating a unique narrative specifically for the game. For new players the familiar aspects will draw them in, while the unique lore will keep them hooked.
It should also be noted that despite being loosely based off of history, there is a pleasant omission of sexism and homophobia within the world of Thea. This includes the religious aspects, too. Overall, Thea is a land of equal footing for whatever type of character you wish to play.
Here is a breakdown of each nation within Thea:
Avalon = England – This is a nation steeped in a mythos most comparable to Arthurian Legend. Brave knights and old world magic are just a few aspects that dot the landscape.
Castille = Spain – A wealthy and vibrant nation with a strong emphasis on family and religion.
Eisen = Germany – This is a land scarred by war and nearly overrun with horrors (as in literally beasts and monsters). The people are resilient, stoic, and brave.
The Highland Marches = Scotland – Think Braveheart and you got it!
Inismore = Ireland – A proud pagan culture with an emphasis on magic.
Montaigne = France – This is a nation at the height of the aristocracy. A revolution may not be far on the horizon.
The Sarmatian Commonwealth = Polish/Lithuanian Commonwealth – This a nation that has adopted a sort of predecessor to democracy, and is trying to find it’s identity while creating something new.
Ussura = Russia – A tough and cold land with a proud tradition.
Vesten = Netherlands – Former viking raiders turned equally bloody merchant nation
Vodacce = Italy – Great ambition and greed guides the nation of Vodacce. Power, wealth and style are held in equal importance.
Magic – As stated above, each nation has a very unique magic system incorporated in the game. This isn’t just the arcane version of palette swapping. If you want to play as one of these arcane types, you have to be from that specific nation. For instance, if you want to play as a Strega (someone who bends fortune/fates) you must not only be from Vodacce, but also a female character. Every arcane type has a restriction in some way or another.
Secret Societies – This is one of my favorite sections in all of 7th Sea. Much like the nations of Thea, there exist many secret societies within. Each one has a varied theme such as knights to spies to monster hunters to explorers and beyond. Additionally, each society has a a specific focus, goal and more importantly… favor. Favor is a great mechanic that breathes life into the society, allowing the player access to specific benefits. Doing something for the society gains favor (like retrieving something they value) with additional favor added if it’s truly hard to obtain. Player can then spend that favor to get something they may need from that society.
Character Creation – Every character has traits, skills, advantages, along with a single virtue and hubris. When creating a character your nation and background (you get two) will determine the lion’s share of where points are allocated, along with advantages (think feats/perks, etc). There are some other points to free spend, but character creation is rather quick. The only thing that can hamper the process is the addition of dueling (for combat maneuvers) or sorcery related powers (if you chose that background).
Virtue is a cool little ability that may benefit once per session, like the ability to negate a single ability of someone else. (nicknamed the NOPE ability). A Hubris is like a drawback that you don’t have to follow, but it earns you Hero Points if you do.
The core gameplay of 7th Sea is entirely unique to anything I have tried before, or since for that matter. To put it simply, you roll a pool of dice (determined by your combined traits, skills, advantages, etc.) and look for any successes (called Raises). Now this is where the mechanics deviate from the traditional direction. Instead of rolling directly to face a single outcome, your pool of Raises become what I describe as “plot currency” to overcome an obstacle (called taking a Risk). Here is how the describes it:
“First, the GM frames a situation or Scene. Second, the players roll dice and use those dice to make Raises. Third, the players use their Raises to take Actions that change elements of the situation or Scene.” This framework is then combined with Approaches, Consequences and Opportunities.
I’ll do my best to set up a scene not covered in the book, as an example: Two players are on a runaway cart heading towards a cliff, while being pursued by a highwayman on horseback. The players would not consider their approach, before rolling dice. Player 1 is going to see if they can take the reigns of the cart and forcibly redirect the horses before it goes over the cliff. Player 2 is going to try and unhorse their pursuer and take it for themselves.
With the Approaches in hand, the GM can consider any Opportunities that may arise. For the sake of argument, we can say that there is an official looking scroll case on the hip of the highwayman. So now the two players roll their combined dice pool: Player 1 would roll Brawn & Ride (Gets 2 Raises), while Player 2 would roll Finesse and Athletics (Gets 3 Raises). Now the GM says that to redirect the horses will cost 2 Raises, to jump on the pursuing horse will cost one, but to avoid damage will cost two Raises. Additionally, the opportunity of grabbing the scroll case will cost 1 Raise.
With everything laid out on the table, Player 1 spends the Raises and forcibly redirects the horses just in time. Player 2, not having enough raises for everything decides to spend one Raise on jumping over and one to grab the scroll case. This means player 2 takes two damage as they were not able to overcome the Consequence.
Combat works a bit more directly, causing Wounds (temporary damage) or Dramatic Wounds (the character ending kind), but overall players should be trying to think of a way to accomplish goals cinematically. This is called Flair and it adds to the dice pool should the player come up with a great idea. There is also an entire section for Dueling and special maneuvers, but overall these abilities are truly used to give an edge in melee combat.
One of the mechanics I like is the Brute Squad. It’s essentially the roll versus fighting mooks. The GM should only create an NPC character if they are relevant. Most times the players will be fighting against Brute Squads and perhaps a single bigger threat (like the antagonists bodyguard). Brute Squads are quantity based, and can be a great threat if implemented correctly.
Additionally, players are rewarded with Hero points, which allow the use of special abilities, add extra dice, etc. On the flip side of that, the GM receives Danger Points which can be used against the players. It will allow them to activate the Big Bad‘s powers or increase the difficulty of certain tasks.
SIDEBAR – I ran this game twice and the players (four of them) really loved it, but did get confused by the rules from time to time (myself included). All of us are veteran players.
This is the longest section of my review because I wanted to explain the mechanics without bogging down everything in great detail. This mechanics are somewhat counterintuitive in comparison to a traditional RPG. As a player, you are not thinking about a direct reaction to something, but a cinematic approach to a set piece. As a GM you are thinking about everything cinematically. Don’t be afraid to slow things down the first time around. Pacing may allow for better ideas amongst the player base.
Despite the simplicity and careful thought that went into the design of the mechanics, there may be a steep learning curve. The book does not do a great job of explaining the mechanics, as it feels like there is something missing from time to time. It’s not unplayable by any means, but more detailed examples of play would not go amiss.
To quote the Princess Bride, it has “fencing, fighting, torture, revenge, giants, monsters, chases, escapes, true love, miracles…” What more could you want? Dear readers, definitely give this one a try!