7th Sea Players' Guide

Reviewed by Nicholas HM Caldwell

The 7th Sea Players' Guide, written by Jennifer Wick, John Wick, and Kevin Wilson, and published by Alderac Entertainment Group, is a 256-page hardback volume with stunning cover art. The 7th Sea RPG combines swashbuckling with sorcery, piracy with exploration, and espionage with intrigue in a new fantasy world. The Player's Guide is the essential introduction to this new game and its world. It is required reading for the gamemaster as well. Although I have already read the 7th Sea Game Masters' Guide, I will review the Player's Guide from the viewpoint of a potential player - after all, without players, there are no games - and only occasionally consider the product from a gamemaster's perspective.

Inside the front cover is a colour map of Théah, the world of 7th Sea, showing the political boundaries and capitols of most of the nations. A brief glance at the map reveals that Théah is a cousin of the Eurasian continent, with countries such as Avalon, Castille, Eisen, Vodacce, Montaigne, Vendel, Ussura, Cathay, and Empire of the Crescent Moon. It requires very little stretch of the imagination to match Théah states to Earthly analogues. As a player, this map is fine, as is the colour map on the inside back cover depicting trade routes. From the perspective of a gamemaster, the map looks empty without the presence of lesser cities, and the lack of any cities in Cathay or the Empire raises a warning flag concerning the coverage of the core rulebooks.

I don't know about you, but for me the phrase "the New World" evokes associations of the discovery of the Americas. It takes an effort of will to stop being misled by phrases such as "Discover the New World". The world of Théah is very much the Old World.

The 7th Sea Players' Guide is divided into Primer, Théah, Hero, Drama, and Player sections plus a number of appendices.

Primer is an introduction to the game system and world. It begins with a short fiction piece to give a feel for the stories that groups might craft in Théah. Further excerpts from this imaginary epic appear at the opening of the other sections. The Primer then enlarges upon some of the possible swashbuckling themes, such as musketeers, piracy, sorcery, intrigue, and exploration, which will enthuse potential players. There are a lot of possibilities in 7th Sea, and the world appears to have been deliberately enriched with multiple options. There's the obligatory one page "What is a RPG?" discussion, of course, but the text then moves on to a whistle-stop discussion of differences between Théah and Europe, and the key points of 7th Sea characters and game mechanics.

Focusing in on the core mechanics briefly, 7th Sea uses ten-sided dice exclusively, but you will need a lot of them. Resolving actions in 7th Sea is a matter of rolling a number of dice, keeping the results from some of the dice (normally the highest values), and adding those kept results together. If the final sum is equal or greater than a target number set by the gamemaster, the action is successful, otherwise it fails. Players can voluntarily Raise the target number to perform the action in a more impressive fashion. If a player is trying to perform an action against another character, then a "Contested Roll" must be made, which really just means that both the acting and the opposing character have to roll against each other. To add extra spice, dice "explode" when they roll a "10", allowing the player the option of re-rolling the exploded die and adding the next result to the previous "10". If the next result is also a "10", keep rolling! So long as you have lots of ten-sided dice and are willing to do some addition, 7th Sea mechanics are a snap.

Player-characters in 7th Sea are Heroes, and the damage component of the combat system is tuned to reflect their heroic status. Wounds in 7th Sea are divided into Flesh Wounds and Dramatic Wounds. Flesh Wounds last until the end of the battle or until the character takes a Dramatic Wound. A Dramatic Wound lasts until it is healed. Take enough Dramatic Wounds and actions are at a penalty. Take too many Dramatic Wounds and your Hero is Knocked Out. Not dead. Of course, if a foe decides to kill your Hero when Knocked Out, your Hero is dead. Don't get knocked out. Non-player-characters (or at least the ones that Heroes will confront) are divided into Villains, Henchmen, and Brutes. Villains are just as tough as Heroes, and equally hard to kill. Henchmen are the lieutenants of the Villains, and are not in the same league as Heroes. A single Dramatic Wound suffices to Knock Out a Henchman. Brutes are the riff-raff - relatively unskilled thugs. Any Wound suffices to Knock Out a Brute. In swashbuckling novels and movies, the heroes can usually dispatch hordes of thugs with ease. In 7th Sea, a Hero can take out a "Brute Squad" in a single action (by Raising the target number in proportion to the number of Brutes faced). These mechanics work well to convey the high adventure and cinematic style of the best swashbuckling stories.

Also in the Primer are six completed characters, a two-page list of equipment, and short introductions to the countries of Théah. Seven of the Théah nations are very briefly described in terms of people, recent history and rulers, with each nation presented in a two-page spread, comprising half a page of text, a heraldic symbol, a political map and a full-page stunning color picture of some important personages of the nation.

The Théah section of the 7th Sea Players' Guide provides player-level information on the world. It begins with a potted human history of Théah, starting with the Old Republic, the Empire, the coming of the Prophets, its Dark Ages, the Objectionist Movement, and ending with the War of the Cross. Again, it's fairly easy to match the key events with analogues in Earth history, although there are some important differences. More recent events prior to the opening year of 1668 ("the present day" in Théah) are also described.

Next, follows a discussion of the powers of Théah - the nations, the guilds, the church, and the secret societies. Each Nation entry gives some details on the geography of the country, the current political situation, and insights into how people from that nation think. In a very helpful move, there's a list of common male and female forenames for each nation, easing the burden of creating appropriate names for potential Heroes. The principal religion of Théah - the Vaticine Church of the Prophets - is made concrete by describing its dogmas and its answers to the big questions of life and death, in addition to its history and current health amongst the nations. The depth of detail here helps to strengthen the reader's willingness to believe that Théah is a three-dimensional world. A number of secret societies with hidden objectives will delight those with a liking for conspiracy theories.

A short potpourri of source material on court life, honour, scientific knowledge and recent discoveries helps to flesh out the current state of the world and the world-view of Heroes. A longer subsection on piracy considers such matters as sailors' superstitions, ship's crews, and well-known pirates and buccaneers of Théah. "Legends" concerning some of the monsters of Théah are provided, so gamemasters won't have to worry about how much monster lore the average Hero will have garnered should a confrontation with the unearthly occur. The Théah section concludes with a few details on the Syrne ruins, remnants of a civilization older than Theahan humanity and repositories of potent artifacts.

The Hero section delves into the full process of character creation, hinted at in the Primer. Emphasis is placed firmly on having a concept for the Hero through a series of twenty probing questions. Once answers to some, if not all, of these have been found, it's sensible to proceed to the mechanics of character creation.

Each Hero has 100 Hero Points to spend during the six steps of creation. The first two steps are to decide whether the Hero has access to sorcery and whether s/he has attended a school of swordsmanship. There are five distinct types of sorcery (each tied to a Théah nation) and six schools of swordsmanship (again specific schools are tied to specific nations). These options cost a lot of Hero Points, twenty to forty points depending on the choice.

The third step is to buy Traits (equivalent to RM stats) of which there are five, namely Brawn (strength and stamina), Finesse (agility and coordination), Resolve (willpower), Wits (intelligence and charm), and Panache (style and initiative). Traits are on a scale of zero to five normally, but Heroes must begin with all Traits between 1 and 3 (inclusive). Each nationality provides a +1 bonus to one Trait. All Traits are equally important, so spend the points wisely.

The fourth step is to provide the budding Hero with appropriate training. In 7th Sea, this takes the form of Skills and Knacks. A Skill represents a body of knowledge that a character might receive from an apprenticeship, a career, or a spell in a university. Each Skill (or area of training) encompasses a number of sub-skills, known as Basic and Advanced Knacks. For example, the Doctor Skill has Basic Knacks of Diagnosis, First Aid, and Quack, plus Advanced Knacks including Dentist and Surgery. Buying the Skill usually provides one Rank in each of the Basic Knacks as well as permitting access to the Advanced Knacks. Increasing proficiencies and Advanced Knacks must be bought in addition. The Martial Skills demonstrate 7th Sea's commitment to swashbuckling with Knacks for Footwork, Parry, Uppercut appearing - the swordsmanship schools provide more stylish Knacks and hence greater potential for classy combat.

Assuming you have any points left, you can proceed to the fifth stage and consider buying Advantages, Backgrounds or an Arcana. Advantages provide the opportunity to customize a Hero in terms of a physical, social, mental, or educational benefit. Backgrounds, on the other hand, are unresolved back stories which will turn up to haunt the Hero in play, e.g. a Nemesis, a Lost Love, and so on. It may seem odd to have to pay points for these woes, but they do give the player extra story share in the game and the opportunity to garner additional experience points through dealing with the consequences of the background. Arcana are divided into Virtues, representing great abilities, and Hubrises, representing heroic flaws. Only one Virtue or Hubris can ever be purchased, preventing the min-maxing common in other systems from clever combinations. In addition, activating a Virtue in the game costs future experience points. A Hubris is activated by the gamemaster at his/her discretion, and this also prevents the syndrome of players buying flaws for their points value and not role-playing them. The final step is simply to calculate Wounds, Wealth and Reputation.

In general, the character creation process is very smooth, providing the opportunity to create three dimensional characters that will mesh completely with the world and its style.

The Drama section dives into the rules of 7th Sea. Actually, it only goes into the rules that players need to know and understand. The interesting aspects are combat, repartee, and sorcery.

Combat follows the core mechanics of the system. Each combat round consists of ten phases. You roll one die for each rank of Panache, and the results indicate in which phases you may act. Attacking an enemy costs an action and requires an attack roll (with the number of dice based on Finesse and attack Knack) which must exceed the opponent's passive defense (based on opponent's abilities in the Footwork, Parry or other Knacks). The opponent may be able to use up an action to actively defend against your attack but this requires him/her to match the result of your attack roll (using Wits and a defensive Knack). If the blow succeeds, damage is rolled for according to the weapon type. This generates a number of Flesh Wounds. Heroes must make a Wound Check to prevent a Dramatic Wound from occurring. Lots of dice to be rolled, players need to use their Knacks, and remember to use their actions in a timely fashion, but fundamentally combat is a simple process.

The Repartee System provides a set of game mechanics to simulate the banter and biting witticisms that enliven the flurries of sword-play in the swashbuckling genre. The purists would claim that we should role-play this sort of thing, but frankly I'm glad to have this backup set of rules for sessions when the players or the gamemaster are feeling particularly uninspired. Repartee can be used to charm, intimidate or taunt opponents with real game mechanic effects.

There are five types of sorcery in 7th Sea, each very different, each tied to a nationality, and each with a price to be paid for its use. The sorceries are Glamour, Porté, Pyeryem, Lærdom, and Sorte. Glamour allows Avalon Mages to manifest the abilities of protagonists in that nation's legends. Porté is the teleportation magic of Montaigne which enables its wielders to move objects and people by ripping holes in the universe. Pyeryem is the shapechanging magic of Ussura. Lærdom is the rune magic of old Vendel, which can be invoked, temporarily inscribed on objects, or manifested in the sorcerer Sorté is the magic of the Fate Witches of Vodacce who can sense the strands of destiny between people and manipulate them. In 7th Sea, magic runs in the blood of the nobles, and is potent, enthralling, and very dangerous.

The final Player section of the 7th Sea Players' Guide is player advice, both for novice and experienced players. For novice players, the advice begins with the need to create characters that can belong in a group rather than lone wolfs, and is then followed with helpful hints and tips on getting the most out of character creation. The advice for experienced players discusses such matters as giving characters a distinctive "voice" and habits, co-operating with the gamemaster and the other players, and improvising the details. The last is asking the gamemaster leading questions in order to generate the props for stylish actions. Need a chandelier but the GM has failed to mention one in the description of the ballroom? Ask if there are any. When s/he says yes, then you can try swinging from the chandeliers.

The appendices include a glossary of terms, a pronunciation guide, an index, and blank character sheets.

Looking at the 7th Sea Players' Guide as a whole, it is an excellent product with high production values throughout in terms of layout, artwork and editing. >From a player's perspective, it provides everything that a player should legitimately know concerning Théah, as well as all the necessary game mechanics. The mechanics are simple and well illustrated with examples. From a gamemaster's perspective, the book is essential, but it only whets the appetite rather than sating it. Gamemasters will find themselves moving immediately to the Game Masters' Guide to learn more about Théah as soon as they've finished reading the Players' Guide. (See next month for the review of the 7th Sea Game Masters' Guide.)

I could really enjoy playing in 7th Sea ... I wonder if I can convince anyone to GM a game for me!

Editor's Note: 7th Sea Players' 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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