7th Sea Game Masters' Guide

Reviewed by Nicholas HM Caldwell

The 7th Sea Game Masters' Guide, written by Jennifer Wick, John Wick, and Kevin Wilson, and published by Alderac Entertainment Group, is a 256-page hardback volume, and is the second of two core rulebooks for the 7th Sea RPG.

This product is strictly for gamemasters as stated in the introduction. Readers who are only likely to be players should leave this review now. I need to talk about some of the world secrets in order to make this a useful review.

The 7th Sea Game Masters' Guide is divided into Théah, Villain, Drama, and Game Master sections plus a number of appendices.

The Théah section is more than just additional world material. It also provides explanations as to why certain aspects of Théah have been set up just so. Théah is mostly modeled on Restoration-era Europe (1650-1750) with a few forays into nearby periods. Some additional advances in medicine have been thoughtfully incorporated in order to improve the world for adventurer types. In addition, there's a warning that Théah is not a static world, and that future products will build upon events foreshadowed in the here and now of the Game Masters' Guide. It is a very good thing that those themes and events are discussed up-front in the Nation entries, so that gamemasters are prepared for what will and what might happen.

The seven Théah nations (Avalon, Castille, Eisen, Montaigne, Ussura, Vendel, and Vodacce) are described in turn, starting with the story themes, and then progressing into fairly detailed descriptions of the people and the land. Topics such as clothing, diet, music, religion, government, and relations with other nations are all covered. In addition, important NPCs for each country are sketched in terms of their physical appearance, their goals, and how the gamemaster might effectively role-play them in the event of an encounter with the Heroes. No game statistics are provided so your Heroes had better behave themselves.

I've hinted in my previous review that Théah is a veritable potpourri of motifs and possibilities. This is much more explicit in the Game Masters' Guide. Avalon, the foremost of the three islands forming the United Kingdoms, has a Queen who is based both on Elizabeth I of England, complete with associated buccaneers, and on King Arthur, with a Merlin-figure already in place. Avalon mixes England and Wales to form a suitably Théahan hybrid. The other nations have equivalent twists to ensure that the entire known world is pregnant with imminent epic stories.

Although each Nation entry provides an order of magnitude more information than is available to the players, you still want and will probably need more, unless you have the time to flesh out your own details. AEG promises a line of Nation sourcebooks which will remedy this deficit. An additional problem is that the national maps for each kingdom, whilst revealing the existence of lesser cities and towns, are small, taking up a quarter of a page at most and that includes the key. The Empire of the Crescent Moon and Cathay remain unknown. Instead there are additional details on the Church, the pirate brotherhoods, and the various secret societies, including the revelation of a global conspiracy not mentioned in the Players' Guide.

The Villain section is perhaps misnamed as it combines a number of diverse topics in a single chapter. It covers optional methods for creating Heroes, such as beginning as Brutes or Henchmen, or the more controversial ensemble method where the players must share Hero Points. Less controversially and more usefully, there's a suggestion on how to let the players indicate their preferences for the type of campaigns they'd like to game in. In the Players' Guide, reference is made to specialised guidelines for resolving some of the Knacks, and the relevant rules are detailed in this section. This split help keeps the players from getting over-confident and playing the system as a consequence of being au fait with all the rules.

However the Villain section does contain the Villain Arcana. Just as Heroes have the opportunity to have a Virtue or a Hubris, so the Villains have access to Wiles and Flaws. Wiles are special abilities enabling the creation of opponents who will really give the Heroes a run for their money. Flaws provide weaknesses in even the toughest foe that Heroes can exploit to their own advantage, and not just the cliched talkative villain who always explains his diabolical plans in exhaustive detail before tossing them into a deathtrap.

The Villain section is completed with a solid set of adventure seeds and the bestiary. 7th Sea is not a dungeon-bashing game so the set of mundane and supernatural creatures is relatively small compared with other fantasy role-playing games. Each entry has game statistics in terms of Traits, Attack Roll, Damage, Target Number (to hit), and applicable Knacks, a physical description, and a list of special abilities. The creatures are also classified as Brutes, Henchmen, or Villains for combat purposes.

The Drama section is all about rules, most of which are optional and all of which are modular. This chapter considers Aging, Brute Squads, Chases, Falling, Mass Combat, Naval Battles, Poisons, Sorcery and Traps amongst others. The aim throughout is to provide guidelines that support the swashbuckling style of 7th Sea without adding complexity. This is achieved in nearly all cases, although realism is sacrificed to a greater or lesser extent. The Mass Combat system is not a mini-wargame system, rather it is a simple system for determining the outcome of battles and allowing Heroes to participate in the general fray with opportunities for gaining reputation through personal deeds. The rules for Naval Battles, both ship-to-ship engagements and boarding actions, are a concise three pages with ships having Trait equivalents and combats being run more or less according to the normal combat rules. For a game placing so much emphasis on piracy as a key swashbuckling theme, these rules are too simplistic. I'm a bit biased here owing to my immersion in naval historical fiction, so your mileage may vary. The Sorcery subsection is much better, providing suggestions to keep magic in check, and hints on how to describe spell effects in a dramatic fashion. The Traps section is also excellent, providing explanations on how to run and how to build plausible traps to endanger the Heroes. The Drama chapter is rounded off with a probability chart, showing in percentage terms how likely a character will succeed in equaling or exceeding a given Target Number for specific combinations of Trait and Knack ranks. This is very useful in helping the potential gamemaster in selecting appropriate target numbers.

The Game Master section has the objective of helping potential 7th Sea gamemasters in creating better stories and running better games. The gamemaster is analysed as having three roles in and around the game - the author, the referee, and the storyteller. For the authorial role, story scope (epic or personal) and the possible modes (e.g. adventure, conspiracy, horror, intrigue, military, etc) that are supported in Théah are discussed. Borrowings are openly made from Georges Polti's The Thirty-Six Dramatic Situations to provide a sampler of story archetypes instantiated in 7th Sea terms. All good stuff. For the referee role, the emphasis is placed on being firm, fair and friendly. Then it gets nasty and talks about death and fates worse than death. As you have may noticed, 7th Sea adheres to the conventions of the swashbuckling genre by making it almost impossible for mere chance to kill a Hero. The death of a Hero always has meaning. It is suggested that gamemasters discuss with their players how they would prefer their Hero to die, if the Heroes have to die, so that extra spice can be brought to the gaming session when such situations (appear to) arise. The remainder of the refereeing advice concentrates on how to maintain the excitement and adrenaline in action scenes so that they don't become an exercise in number crunching. For the storyteller role, the discussion focuses on literary techniques for fleshing out details, showing not telling, and narrative voices, as well as how to evaluate the success or otherwise of a game. This chapter of the book ends with some "advanced storyteller" techniques and a small arsenal of dirty tricks to enhance the game, some of which are probably more trouble than they are worth. Very experienced or very well read gamemasters will already be using or know about most of the material in this chapter. Less experienced gamemasters will find it extremely instructive. Everyone should read it.

Summing up, the 7th Sea Game Masters' Guide is, like its counterpart the Players' Guide, an excellent product with high production values throughout the volume in terms of layout, artwork and editing. My reservations are with the 7th Sea RPG line as a whole. There isn't enough detail given in either of the two core rulebooks concerning Théah for me personally to feel comfortable about running a campaign in Théah just yet. It may be that the frequent references to future sourcebooks that expand the breadth and depth of coverage are having an unintended side effect on this reviewer. My second reservation is with the intention to give Théah an ongoing storyline which will be reflected in changes to the world in future 7th Sea products. The obvious danger is the opportunity for homegrown games to become so out of synch with the official future history, that future products can be rendered useless to the gamemaster if they are predicated on certain events happening or not happening. No plot ever survives contact with the players.

Nevertheless, I'm happy to have purchased both rulebooks and I hope that the future growth of the 7th Sea line will conquer my reservations.

Editor's Note: 7th Sea Game Masters' Guide is published by Alderac Entertainment Group. Their contact details are as follows:
Alderac Entertainment Group
4045 Guasti Road, Suite #212,
California 91761
Web: http://www.7thsea.com/

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