7th Sea 2nd Edition – Review & Criticism

Welcome to my first RPG review! As such, I’d like to go over some stuff before we begin to explain my process in making a review. First of all, my review is set into 4 categories: Book, which includes set up of chapters, writing, and editing; Setting, which covers the default setting (if any), or the possibilities of alternative settings, of the book; Art, which is the visual, non-wordy bit of the book, but also layout art; and finally System, which is how the mechanics function and what I think about them.

In some cases, such as this one, I have yet to actually play the game and see how the mechanics work under pressure. Sometimes though, I might review a game that I have previously played. This is partly why I include a bonus category, which includes all sorts of things that I really like about the book or system or the author or whatever, and give extra points accordingly.

Each category has the possibility of earning up to 2 points, which I will (naturally) call emeralds. Any category that I think is unremarkable gets 1 emerald (except for the bonus category), so even the super average game will get a rating of 4 emeralds (nothing from the bonus category). Only games that absolutely suck at a given category get the emerald removed, while games that excell at a given category earn a bonus emerald.

10 emeralds is the best rating I can give, but the worst rating is 0 (which is absolutely terrible). So let’s see how the first game goes through the gauntlet.


7th Sea
2nd edition

by John Wick Presents

7th Sea is a game set in the 1600s inspired world of Théah. The world has many similarities, but it has even more differences. Sorcery exists in this world, and Monsters, and Musketeers, and Pirates! As Nathan Rice so aptly put it in The Gamers: Dorkness Rising: “Everything’s better with pirates.”

It is created by John Wick, who has contributed to the creation of games such as 7th Sea and Legend of the Five Rings from Alderac (AEG), and created games such as Houses of the Bloodied. He has won the Origin Award for best RPG and CCG twice, and overall been doing this for a good while. We can safely assume that he knows what he’s doing. John Wick is also a former expert killer for the Russian Mob. Don’t believe me, check out the documentary. It even has a sequal.*

*Just in case, this is a joke, referring to the John Wick films starring Keanu Reeves.

John Wick is joined by such talents as Mark Diaz Truman (project manager and writer), Michael Curry and Rob Justice (system design and writers), Marissa Kelly (art direction), and Jesse Heinig (writer), as well as some excellent artists (Giorgio Baroni, Manuel Castanon Guerrero, El Tio Drake, Shen Fei, Young Yi Lee, Diego Rodriguez, Beth Sobel, and Meagan Trott). There are many more names in the credits.

7th Sea is a game about swashbuckling, action, and romance, with added options of exploration, horror, espionage, politics, and more. When reading, you get a sense that it was not inspired by books as much as it was inspired by films. It refers to episodes (sessions) and seasons (campaigns), giving the sense of television and cinemography.

The game uses a set of d10s, or 10-sided dice. You roll a number of dice determined by your traits, and then physically assign them into groups. Each group must show a result of at least 10, called Raises. Each Raise increases your degree of success, but one Raise is usually enough for most tasks.

After playing Legend of the Five Rings 4th edition, I’ve been eyeing 7th Sea from a far. I never got into 1st edition but when John Wick started the Kickstarter campaign for 2nd edition I was filled with excitement… and a grudge that I couldn’t afford partaking in the campaign because I had just backed another project that had sapped my funding for that month. While visiting friends over at the UK, I jumped at the opportunity to buy the book at Leisure Games in London. Never mind the price, this was the game I had been waiting for an opportunity to get. So here is what I got:

Book

The book is just over 300 pages long, with the last numbered page being page 303. It has 9 chapters, and an introductory short story called A Day’s Work by Jennifer Mahr. The first official chapter is a short introduction to the 7th Sea, Théah, and role-playing. The second chapter is about Théah, its nations, religion, and the sea; it’s the chapter about the setting. The third chapter is about player characters (referred to as heroes in the game) and how to create them, and the fourth chapter focuses on the core mechanics. We then have extra mechanics in the following chapters; sorcery, dueling, and sailing. Chapter 8 includes more setting stuff in the form of secret societies and the final chapter is all about helping the Game Master (or GM) tell a great story.

So let’s talk a little bit about how the book is set up. First, I’d like to say how I like that it has a chapter dedicated to all the different nations (that almost covers one third of the book!) but you can also find quick, one-page overviews of the different nations in the chapter about characters. So the overviews are useful when you are quickly looking for a nation from where your hero hails from, but the chapter on nations is useful when you want to immerse yourself deeper into that nation’s culture and history.

Another great plus is the chapter on sailing, because 7th Sea, much as the name suggest, is highly influenced by naval stories. It is, in fact, such a big part of the game, that a whole chapter is dedicated to how to build your ship and how to use the mechanics to represent naval combat and adventure. But it goes beyond that, and that is what I really like about that chapter. It explains the various superstitions and positions among the crew of a ship. What does the captain do? Who is his (or her) second and third in command? What do you call the boy who runs errands for the ship’s doctor? I didn’t even know there was a boy who runs errands for the ship’s doctor, let alone that he has a specific title.

Another chapter that deserves a special mention is the chapter on Game Mastering. It is an excellent collection of advice for both new and experienced Game Masters, and this is where I think John Wick really shines. Some advice are personal, some of them are specific to how to handle the mechanics of 7th Sea, but most of them feel thoroughly researched, thought through, and general enough so that they can apply to any and every game. Mind you, I do not agree with everything in that chapter, but overall it is a wellspring of good advice.

But now onto the things that really bothered me about the book. First of all, and this was my first impression of the book after initial skimming through the pages, the inconsistency of example plays using the Action rules and the Drama rules. I will go into the actual mechanics later, but for now, you can apply the rules to either an Action scene or a Drama scene. The book provides examples of both. These two examples appear in the same chapter but are so vastly different it appears as though two different people wrote them. You’ve propably seen  these kind of examples in other RPG books:

Jim: I want to do this
GM: Roll your dice
Jim: I roll 13
GM: This is what happens

The Action example is written as the heroes telling the GM what they are doing and the GM tells them what the NPCs do. However, two pages later, the Drama examples is written as the players telling Nick, the GM, what they, as their heroes, want to do, and Nick telling them what to roll. This inconsistency kinda bothers me for two reasons: First, because it could have been easily fixed during editing. You sit down, and you replace some names, either from players to heroes or vice versa. Second, because there are literally only two pages between the two examples. How could you not notice this? Thirdly, and this is by looking way too deeply into this, it shows the Action scene as the immersed part of the game, where the players turn into their heroes, while the Drama scene is the less immersed part, where the players are still the players. It shows the Action as the more fun part and the Drama as an afterthought.

Second thing that annoyes me greatly is splitting the Game Master’s stuff between chapters. Surely enough, and I just mentioned this, the book has a great chapter dedicated to Game Mastering and telling stories. Mechanics for building Villains, Brute squads and Monsters are not in that chapter though. All game specific mechanics for the Game Master is put into the Action & Drama chapter. It is even put at the end, as to separate it from the rest of the mechanics which the players need to know about. After all, they don’t need to know how the Game Master creates Villains or what the GM can use Danger Points for. So why not put it into the chapter where all the Game Master’s stuff is at? It also makes more sense to me to keep all the GM stuff – ALL of it – at the same place.

Thirdly, and I hate when games don’t do this in general so I count it as minor, there is no quick explaination of how the mechanics work. I like when I can read through the introduction of the game and see something like “this is how you roll and read the dice in this game”. Why do I like it? Because it’s at the start of the book and later, such as in 7th Sea, the mechanics are referenced before they are explained. This is a minor thing though. If I wanted to learn more about the mechanics before reading, I could simply go to the chapter where it explained and read that bit first. But it is there.

7th Sea actually does tell you in the introduction that the game uses 10-sided dice, and that most of the time you’ll roll more than one. It doesn’t tell you what you do with the dice after rolling.

Overall, the book is fine except for those annoyances, but those annoyances bother me. Rest of the book does not make up the things that I feel have dragged it down, so I’m not going to reward any emeralds for the book itself.

Setting

Oh. My. Gods! The setting is absolutely amazing and so great I don’t know where to start! Let’s start with nations, shall we? Comparing this to other fantasy games, your nation is sort of like picking your race, except that what makes you different is cultural and not physical. That’s all nice and such, but there are 10 different nations, each with their own culture and society. And even though there are nations, diversity in those nations is such that nobody cares if your ancestors came from somewhere else.

Because the nations are so different from each other, and detailed, it is easy to set almost any kind of story in Théah. If you want chivalry, you’re propably going to set it in the Avalon Isles, but if you want intrigue, you have options of Montaigne, Castille and Vodacce, and Eisen is practically made for horror games.

With diverse nations also come diverse styles of sorcery. Many nations have their own sorcery, which means that if you want to play a spellcaster you have some options. Eisen offers some repulsive Hexenwerk and Vodacce has its Sorte and Fate Witches (Sorte Strega). Avalon has its Knights, who learn to weild Glamour, and Montaigne has its famous Porté.

Moving on from nations though, let’s talk a little bit about religion. There is one major religion in Théah and it is governed by the Vaticine Church. Despite it obviously having some inspirations from the real life Catholic Church and the Vatican, the Vaticine Church focuses on the idea of a single Creator, who encourages humanity to learn about His creation. Essentially, the Church encourages science.

Of course, there are other religions as well, namely paganism, which worships spirits and stuff, but the Vaticine Church, or the Church of Prophets, as it is sometimes called, or Creationism, is the most widespread. Objectionism is considered a heredical limb from the Vaticine Church, that promotes that the Church is not necessary for the people to have faith.

Within the Vaticine Church is the Inquisition, which is as evil as you’d think it is. Inquisitors hunt down anything that could remotely be considered heresy, targeting magic in particular. If you want a villainous plot involving religion, 7th Sea has these guys lined up for you.

And there is even more! A whole chapter on secret societies, and not so secret societies. Some are heroic in their own way, others absolutely villainous and evil to the core.

The only beef I have with the setting, as it is presented in the core book, is the War of the Cross and how it is presented. It is a major war that spanned 30 years and affected all of Théah, especially Eisen since the war ravaged their land and left it desolated. After the war, the grim and ruined land of Eisen awakened dark creatures, monsters who’d stalk the dark forest.

The problem I have with it is that it is only said to have ended “recently”. How long since is that though? Five years? A decade? Two decades? “Recently” can be very relative. I feel like last century only ended recently, but it’s almost 20 years since then. It’s important to know how long since the War of the Cross ended because it affects the heroes differently. Two decades ago, the heroes might have been too young to remember it much. Five years ago, and they propably fought in it.

Or it could be a feature and not a flaw. Perhaps it is intentional, and the war ended as many years ago as the GM needs it to for the story they want to tell. Did the heroes fight in the war or were they too young? It changes much about the heroes.

Or perhaps the answer is hidden within the pages. Maybe? I have no idea. If finding out when the War of the Cross ended is hidden in a puzzle, or if it’s not where I can find it easily and quickly if asked, it’s either a flaw (bad) or a feature (good).

7th Sea has so many options for how to run a game set in Théah, that almost any kind of game can be set somewhere in the setting. That is one of the things that I look for in a setting, if the game can offer me many different options of how I play in it. But that has to do with location and sometimes the mechanics do not follow. But when it comes to the setting, 7th Sea gets two emeralds.

Art

And if the setting is not your favorite part of the game, the artwork is. It is absolutely stunning! Not only is the artwork exceptionally detailed and beautiful to look at, it is also descriptive and fitting for the game. It has action scenes, images of beautiful landscapes, and offers view into the downtime of adventurers and heroes. The only thing missing is an image of a swordsman swinging on a chandelier.

You might ask “is art really all that important?” and I’m going to tell you right now that YES, it very much is. Not only does it offer a view at each nation’s style and fashion, it gives insight into the setting’s culture that you don’t really see in the text. The writers can say “oh, our setting is very diverse” but the art shows it. In 7th Sea, you’ll see a swordsman of color and homoromantic relationships. You can see the tension between two duelists crossing blades, and the rising tension in what would become the final swordfight of an epic adventure film. This is all in the art that you don’t really get in text.

For the artwork, I’m giving 7th Sea two more emeralds.

System

For this section, we’ll look at two things: Character creation and actual mechanics. I like the character creation in 7th Sea. You go through 20 questions to finalize your backstory and concept, very much like you’d do in Legend of the Five Rings, only more directed for the setting of Théah. Truth be told, I never liked that step of the process, but it’s optional (although recommended) so I won’t go too much into it. I have found that asking a few questions can help in making a great character, but I have a slight difficulty in imagining a group that is willing to anwer 20 of them instead of just diving straight into the mechanics.

7th Sea has 5 traits and 16 Skills. These are pretty low numbers compared to what I’m used to (L5R 4th edition has 8-9 traits and 43 Skills, in comparison). Your nation adds a bonus to one trait, and you pick two Backgrounds (what you were before you the story begins) that determines some of your starting Skills and Advantages. You then get extra points in both traits and Skills, and some more Advantages, to personalize your character. You also pick a Virtue and a Hubris, which affect how frequently you get Hero Points.

I like the idea of Backgrounds. They don’t do much, except provide a starting point for your Skills and Advantages, but you get to pick two to make a good starting character. Since there are 32 basic Backgrounds, and more nation-specific Backgrounds, there are hundreds of possible combinations. It doesn’t affect your character much after creating them, but it means you can make pretty much hundreds of different starting heroes, instead of making the same Barbarian yet again.

Furthermore, if you want to play a spellcaster, you have some options right away since almost every nation has their own version of magic tradition. The character creation process offers you a great deal of options, without giving you so much material that you cannot work through it, and that is what I particularly like about it: options.

Another thing I’d like to mention and I think is one of the game’s strong points is the advancement system. Upon creating a hero, you choose your hero’s Story. You decide how the story begins, what the goal is, what you get as a reward, and what the next step is. You decide how many steps are in the story, essentially how many sub-goals it has before you get to the end, and that determines how pricey your reward is. Do you want to increase your Skill to rank 3? You need to finish a 3-step story. Do you want that 5-point Advantage? Finish a 5-step story. Fairly easy but the best part is that the players decide their own personal stories, while the GM makes another story for the heroes as a group.

The system itself is less so exciting, I think. Like I said at the start, it uses a set of d10s. You do not declare your action as much as you declare your approach to the current scene. Based on your approach, the GM asks you to roll a number of dice based on the most appropriate trait and Skill. From those dice, you physically put into groups dice that form 10s or more. If you roll 7-4-8-2-3, you could assign 7 and 3 into a group and 8 and 2 into a group, or 7 and 4 but not 7 and 2 because it won’t be enough for a 10 (you could set 7, 2 and 4 into a groups, technically, but the GM can give you a Hero Point for every die that is not grouped).

Each group equalling 10 or more is called a Raise. For this scene or against this hindrance, you can use part or all your Raises to complete bits and pieces of the challenge. For example, escaping a burning room requires 1 Raise to actually escape, 1 Raise to negate each Wound from the smoke and fire, and 1 Raise to complete each opportunity that the GM might add (like grabbing important documents you notice in the fire).

Sometimes, you don’t have enough Raises to complete all the challenges, in which case you need to pick and choose what succeeds and what fails.

The game then adds more complications, such as adding 1 more Raise if you want to change your approach, in addition to the action you plan on doing (sneaking passed the guards after having used your manipulation to get this far).

Action and Drama scenes use this mechanic. In a fight, each Wound you plan on making requires 1 Raise, and can be negated with 1 Raise each. Duelists can learn tricks to cause more damage or reduce more damage with less effort, so a good fighter is usually a Duelist. Drama works like Action, only it takes a lot longer, and covers pretty much everything other than fast-paced action.

Sorcery works pretty much very similarly to each other, despite being of different traditions. It usually requires a Hero Point to be spent, and some other requirements, but the effect is usually automatic. If used in a fight, it usually requires 1 Raise as well.

Dueling gets a chapter devoted to it, although the mechanics are so simple that you might wonder if it was really necessary.

What I do like is that Raises also count as your Initiative for the turn. As you use your Raises to do stuff, you also lower your Initiative in the fight until you are out of Raises. If you run out of Raises, you need to wait until everyone finish their Raises before rolling again, if another roll is required. I like this mechanic because it recudes the unnecessary rolls for the round, or for the whole fight. It also makes the fight more fluid, allowing the two adversaries to exchange blows with only a single roll.

I also like is how Wounds are applied to the Death Spiral. Every 5th wound is a Dramatic Wound, and after 4 Dramatic Wounds you are out and helpless. It is not a groundbreaking mechanic, but Dramatic Wounds cause the hero both hindrance and bonuses. First and third Dramatic Wound actually make the hero more awesome, while the second and fourth Dramatic Wound make them less so. That is the part that I find interesting, that wounds can improve your character.

The mechanics can be a bit difficult to follow. I honestly am not sure still if I understand them correctly. In this case, it helps to read the examples of how the Action sequence is played out, which is something I usually skip. The wording makes it a bit difficult to understand how rolling dice works, but like I said, reading through the examples certainly helps.

The Game Master also gets some rules. Most of it involve how to build the stats for Villains and their Brutes and Monsters, but it also includes rules for Danger Points. I don’t know what I should feel about Danger Points. The heroes have Hero Points, which allow them to make dramatic changes to their stories and activate latent powers and abilities. The GM has Danger Points that pretty much do the same thing, but for Villains. How does the GM get these Danger Points? By giving the players Hero Points for unused dice during their rolls.

Here’s why I don’t like Danger Points: What if I want my Villain to do something dastardly but I lack the Villain Point I need for them to do it? Does it mean that I just can’t do that dastardly thing? From how I understand the book, yes. 7th Sea puts many hindrances on the Game Master, I think, if you don’t read outside what the book says.

You can think of Danger Points as limitations to your Villain, or you could use it as a tool to signal the players exactly how dangerous the session is getting. If you keep the Danger Points out in the open, as Wick suggests with most things for the GM, you’re players can see that something bad is getting way worse.

All in all, I think the mechanics of 7th Sea 2nd edition is not at all extraordinary. It offers some new things, and some of it is pretty meh. I think the game puts some limits on the GM and that is not what I want to see in a game.

I give the mechanics one emerald.

Bonus Round

7th Sea offers some excellent stuff that I would like to mention. First of all, a major plus for 7th Sea is the Game Mastering chapter. It has extensive uses outside this particular game and can be used by any GM running almost anything. It helps you create Villains with personality and motivation, which I think is often lacking.

Another major bonus is that 7th Sea is open for community published material, through a community project called the Explorer’s Society. What this means is that if you have any fanmade material you want to publish for 7th Sea, you can do so. There are some guidelines and rules to follow, as to not count as plagarism and getting sanctioned by John Wick Presents, but it is a fairly simple thing.

I like games that are open to community published material, because it opens up the possibility of young RPG developers getting their start, and I think it gives 7th Sea an advantage.

I’m giving 7th Sea two bonus emeralds, because what it does is it makes me want to run a game of 7th Sea, and that is what an RPG should do.

Summary

The book is great to look at, the setting is awesome, but it is a bit difficult to read through and understand the mechanics. It does have some cool stuff though, and the book I think is almost worth buying for the art alone.

Once I’ve run the game I may have to revise my review, but for now I’m giving 7th Sea 2nd edition 7/10 emeralds.


Interestingly enough, the first set of character sheets I made were for Legend of the Five Rings 4th edition, so I naturally felt compelled to make a character sheet for 7th Sea 2nd edition. You can find the fanmade character sheet by following this link.

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