When sitting around the table with an RPG, I am the game master probably 95% of the time. I don’t have any qualms about it; it feeds into my sense of self worth and importance (kidding). In the 20 years or so that I’ve been running games for people, I’ve become pretty good at reading them at the table, reacting to what they’re going to do, and doing my utmost to maximize fun.
Sometimes, though, you need a challenge.
The good folks at Gamerati and John Wick Presents were gracious enough to provide me with a review copy of 7th Sea, a role playing game set in a Europe-like land of swashbuckling and backstabbing. Here’s where the challenge comes in for me: the holidays are coming, and that means that for the next two months, it’s going to be difficult to get a group together to play. I had a play session coming up, though, and a player had to drop out of our regular D&D game, so I invited the others to play 7th Sea. The challenge: I only had 36 hours to learn the new system, be able to teach it to others, come up with a story, and run the game… Oh. And I needed everyone to have fun.
36 hours for a married guy with two kids and a job, actually becomes about five hours. Luckily, the presentation in 7th Sea is beautiful. The art is very easy for your eyes to fall upon, and the text is uncluttered and uncomplicated. I also love learning gaming rules, so flipping through the rule book was a pleasure.
That said, I’d often completely forget about learning how to actually play 7th Sea when I’d get caught up in reading about the ins and outs of the setting. I love alternate Europe scenarios, and this one combines the Renaissance with mythology in an easy-to-grasp package. This is a very fluffy game, and that’s fine by me. I’m much more of a storyteller than a dice roller; I revel in lots of world-building information.
If I’m to be honest, I’m still not entirely sure how the dice mechanic works in the this game. I know, I’m a bad reviewer, but again, I had five hours. It doesn’t look complicated, but it definitely takes a backseat to building solid, believable characters and a setting that feels fresh and real.
Character creation in this game is so deep. Characters are heroes and can’t really die without good reason, and that’s okay because this game forces players to really think about their hero. There’s even a section of 20 questions to more deeply consider the role you’ll be playing at the table. Yes, there are skills and talents and attributes, but while playing the game, it didn’t really feel like they mattered very much. What matters in 7th Sea is creating a character with a soul. The attributes might say that your character is strong, but these 20 questions will tell me if your character is meek, or bombastic, or prone to boasting. Your hero will end up having defining character traits and virtues This, to me, is so much more important than what the numbers say how many dice a player gets to roll. These characters get to drive the story in a meaningful way, and the players get to create heroes who are more than just a math problem.
I spent five hours frantically reading and learning 7th Sea, and game time finally arrived. My confidence in my ability to learn the system may have been misplaced, but I understand storytelling and had enough of the setting information under my hat that I could fake what I needed to.
I had two players that evening: people who were experienced role players ready to try out the brave new world of a brand new system. We started with character creation. We didn’t get super deep since this would be a one-off game (for now), but they created two characters: one was a soldier from a terrible war that destroyed his homeland. The other played a sailor who had made a Faustian deal to bring retribution upon his enemies.
We played the game on November 5th, and with the Gunpowder Treason fresh in my mind, our intrepid team was drafted into saving the queen of Avalon from a mysterious plot by Church loyalists who were unhappy with her stance on religion. Both the characters were imprisoned for piracy, but the Crown’s agents knew of the heroes’ competence, so they were willing to cut a deal.
This plot quickly went off the rails. The characters, as created, were pirates, so they chose messy freedom over having to work for someone else. They picked locks, they let out terrible criminals…
And then I had the idea that maybe their tower prison wasn’t exactly what it seemed, so they began to descend an endless stairway, dotted with rooms that would confront the “heroes” with their sins. I got to play with English mythology, introducing a character based on Merlin, a giant talking baby, swamp witches, and other barely sane characters as they moved deeper into the rabbit hole.
The game basically ended up as a way to just let our imaginations run wild. There were a lot of laughs, a lot of careful moves and counter moves, and we all had a ton of fun.
I know I’m not the perfect reviewer here, but I want to say this: 7th Sea is really, really good at facilitating fun storytelling for mature role players. As my two friends and I started getting lost in the story we were telling, the dice and mechanics took a back seat to pure role playing. I actually found myself exhausted by the end of the session, but I was also exceedingly happy from having such a good time. There are very few games where I found that to be the case.
In a world where throwing dice seems to be the main point of RPGs, 7th Sea gave me a breath of that fresh ocean air of storytelling. I cannot wait to visit it again and dig a little deeper into the rules.