A long, long time ago, I worked for a small game store during college. It was a golden time for RPGs, and the Internet-hype-machine didn’t quite exist, so sometimes product releases just snuck up on you. Because of this, I vividly remember the day the original 7th Sea RPG showed up at our shop, because I had no idea what this game was about and I was thoroughly impressed while flipping through it for the first time. By the time I had been skimming through it for about twenty minutes, and I started doing the mental gymnastics to see if I could afford to buy it right then (hey, when you’re a broke college student, you had to plan your budget in advance, and there wasn’t enough Internet back then so you knew what was coming out and set aside spending cash accordingly). So when John Wick, the original creator of the 7th Sea RPG, bought the game rights back, I was intrigued. When the Kickstarter hit, I pledged for it immediately, and when the PDF of the book dropped this month, I devoured it like a pirate chugging a bottle o’rum. The PDF is available now on Drive Thru RPG! Also we gave the game a try (and probably screwed quite a bit up as it was our first time playing it) on Episode 8 of the FMD Podcast!
What is 7th Sea
If D&D is an RPG of medieval fantasy (with a lot of historical anachronisms), then 7th Sea is an RPG of Age of Sail/Colonial fantasy (with a lot of historical anachronisms). For anyone who is familiar with the original game, this is not a sequel but more of a reboot. Several of the concepts from the original have been tweaked, changed entirely, and a new country has been added to the map, though the core of the game is still there. For the purposes of this review, I’m only going to focus on what the new 7th Sea is now, and not compare it to the original edition.
7th Sea is set in the year 1668, which roughly reflects the same year in our world. The base setting’s mainly set in the continent of Théah (which is a simplified Europe with the serial numbers filed off). While not all the countries of Europe are represented in Théah, most of the big ones are. Each country within of Théah is at the most interesting point in the corresponding country’s history. While that makes the setting anachronistic, but it also makes sure that every country is awesome enough for a campaign or a country of origin.
Avalon represents Elizabethan England with some Arthurian legends thrown in. Avalon is made up of three countries: Avalon, Inismore, and The Highland Marches (England, Ireland, and Scotland respectively). The magic native to Avalon are the Knights of Avalon, who have the powers of an ancient group of Knights (Think the Knights of the Round table). A player isn’t considered the reincarnation of a specific Knight, but he or she is the current holder of that Knight’s power. If they are killed, then a new Knight inherits the power, like Buffy the Vampire Slayer.
Castille is based on Spain during the height of the Inquisition, where a young king is fighting corruption within the government with the help of the masked vigilante El Vagabundo. A player can be associated with this vigilante with “interesting” results. Instead of a sorcerous tradition, they dabble in the secrets of alchemy.
Eisen is based on Germany just after the 30 Years War, with a very healthy dose of the Witcher video-game, or maybe the Supernatural TV show. In short, the War of the Cross has ravaged Eisen and all the death and horror of the war have given rise to various monsters. Eisen’s sorcerous tradition involves cutting open monsters and using their bits for magical effects, called Hexenwerk. Plus Eisen in the past made weapons and armor out of a super metal called Drachenstein, which is one of the few things that can harm the monsters plaguing the land.
Montaigne resembles France just before the French Revolution. The aristocracy is unaware of the growing discontent among the common folk. They seek ever more grand displays of opulence while the poor are dealing with an ever more harsh existence. Montaigne Sorcery is one of the more striking of the setting. They cut screaming bleeding holes into reality and use these holes to teleport across vast distances.
The Sarmatian Commonwealth is based on a hodgepodge of Polish historical events. In the game, the king has very little power while the House of Nobles is essentially in charge of running the country. However, the House was full corruption and ineptitude, and as a result no laws would get passed and the country was slowly dying. So on his deathbed, the previous king did the only thing he could and granted titles to everyone in the kingdom, essentially making everyone a noble and eligible to participate in the House, or Sejm. This new government basically became a form of democracy, and it’s the first its kind in Théah. This country is new to this edition of 7th Sea and did not exist previously. There magic is called Sanderis, and involves making deals with a demon.
Ussura is the height of Czarist Russia. They have the most interesting form of magic, where the 7th Sea version of Baba Yaga literally visits you and gives you magic… for a price.
Vestenmennavenjar is a mix of Vikings and more modern Denmark that is heavily involved in trade and commerce. There are some people who follow the old ways and live as vikings, while others now live in cities and have reforged their swords into coins. There’s a mix of old school magic and modern economics. Only those who live following the old ways practice magic, which involves using Runestones.
Vodacce is Italy, during the times of city-states, and a lot of wealth flows through the land. The magic here is held exclusively by women who can give people curses and predict the future. Yes, the evil eye is a very real thing in this country.
That is the setting in a nutshell, but the game goes much deeper, as there are multitudes of secret societies, and mentions of foreign nations beyond Théah. Each country provides plenty of plot hooks, not to mention pirates and everything associated with piracy. There’s also mention of “New World” across the sea, which was something lacking in the previous version. However the description of this continent will come in a future sourcebook.
The Rules system for 7th Sea is fairly simple once you can wrap your head around it. When an action occurs that requires a roll, that is called a risk. To overcome the risk, you come up with an approach, which is basically deciding what stat and skill you are going to use and how that will resolve the risk. You then roll a number of 10-sided dice equal to the stat plus the skill. The more points you have in a skill the more benefits you get (like getting to roll extra dice rolls or rerolls, etc). Once the dice have been rolled, you make sets that equal 10, and each set of 10 is called a raise. Whoever has the most number of raises goes first, and spends the raises accordingly. Then whoever has currently the highest number raises goes next, even if that ends up being the same player that just acted. So if you have 8 Raises, and you spend 3 during a scene, you’ve got 5 left. If nobody else has 5 or more raises, you take another turn. Players and Game Master characters spend raises until they have nothing left to spend, or whatever you are doing is resolved. If needed, you can roll again and continue resolving the risk.
You will need to roll every time you need to accomplish a “risk.” Some examples include: Sneaking into a fort to steal something unseen, crashing a party and seducing information out of a diplomat, or conducting an awesome fight on a sinking pirate ship during a storm. To mitigate the urge to just go through the motions and not role-play during these segments, the GM is encouraged to hand out extra dice and bonus raises when you role-play or describe something in detail.
One of the more innovative things in the system is the way you advance your character. Instead of merely getting XP, the system encourages you to come up with a dramatic arc for your character. Once you finish an arc, you get a benefit (in the form of a new ability) and you can either retire your character, or find a new story to give them. For example, at character creation your character is suffering from amnesia and the first arc is to figure out who you are and get your memories back. Once you do so, you gain a new ability. Then for the second arc, you find out you’re a long lost heir to a Avalon noble house, so at that point you set out on a quest to reclaim lost titles and lands, etc.
On top of this, they have a fairly long section on how to run a ship, focused around being a Pirate or a Privateer. The rules for piracy are very simple and straightforward, something I have been seeking for a long time. Plus, the rules to create your ship are very cinematic, and your ship becomes a character of its own, which is pretty awesome.
I’m very happy with the new version of 7th Sea as it did everything it needed to do. For fans of the original, it put just enough new spins on game aspects to make it interesting but kept a lot of the comfortable old fluff. Every new addition to the setting made it seem better from my point of view. I literally can’t think of any part of the new edition where I thought, “Aww I liked it better in the original.” The Sailing rules chapter I’m just going to flat steal at some point if I run a Pirate game in another rules engine. The system is very rules-light, but what rules they do have are superb, with just enough interesting bits to get you some real depth but simple enough to be easily understood and converted.
In short, if you have been playing D&D for a while and want a change of pace, give this game a look over. I’m sure it will be easy to persuade your players to try it (because PIRATES), but there is enough familiar bits of fantasy to make any D&D player comfortable. And any history nerds out there (including yours truly) will find the mishmash of historical fantasy fun to delve into.