Okay, so. This is the first proper-type review I’ve done of a roleplaying system, and what better system to do than one near and dear to my heart, 7th Sea? Specifically the second edition, recently Kickstartered with rip-roaring success, much to the glee of many a swashbuckling fan.
I’ve been a fan of the first iteration of 7th Sea for a long time, but it’s no secret that the mechanics had their flaws (it’s impossible to be both a sorcerer and good at swordfighting, for example, and sometimes you want to play someone who can riposte with the best of them and also tear holes in the world, don’t you?) so I was eager to see what the updated version looked like.
The short answer is that there is a lot of improvement, and in my opinion it’s well worth buying.
The long answer is complicated.
First up, the mechanics. Now, I’m not a great lover of mechanics, so any update to a system that simplifies mechanics is going to get a great big bonus from me. 7th Sea 2.0 delivers on this; instead of a minimum of two sheets for your character, there is now one, with a possible second if you want to keep track of every bit of your inventory like one of my players (knowing exactly how much kitsch you have from each port you stop in is vital information). Instead of buying a skill and then having to buy the attendant Knacks (so buying the Hunter skill, and needing to buy ranks in Stealth, Survival, and Tracking), there is a total of sixteen skills, and everything you might want to do can be filed under one of those skills, in the hands of a creative GM and player. Sorcery and Swordsman schools no longer cost half of your starting Hero Points, and Swordsman schools are made much less complicated.
On the other side of the mechanics change, Advantages have been expanded and Backgrounds are a given rather than a possibility. They can add to your skills, they can give you bonuses to certain rolls (such as the Courtier background, which earns you a Hero Point when you turn the tide of violence with charm and flair), and they have a nice touch of flavour to them. I’m a fan.
I’m not such a big fan of the restriction on how many total dots you can have in Traits. I get what the point is; it’s to avoid characters eventually having four or five dots in everything. But I feel that if you’ve played a character long enough and that’s what you want to spend your points on, you should be allowed to. 7th Sea is a game of heroes and villains, after all, and what are heroes and villains if not exceptional? But I can understand the reasoning, and that’s what house rules are for.
The mechanics of dice-rolling have also become simpler (at least, I can handle them better, and that usually means simpler) and more story-driven. You roll your total dice pool and group the result into lots of 10; those are your Raises, and each Raise you have is a Thing You Can Do. It means combat is simpler too, since damage depends on Raises now, rather than your weapon, which is a touch I like; it prevents something I see a lot in D&D, which is “whoever has the best weapon wins”. Sure, you might have a dracheneisen weapon than gives you an extra die to roll when you’re using Weaponry, but it levels the playing field regarding equipment and makes combat more about skill.
Virtues and Hubrises (Hubrii?) are also more important, which I like. You get Hero Points from them! Hero Points are fun!
This edition is very focused on story, and on players having control of their story, which I approve of. I don’t like games where players don’t feel like they have any say in what’s going on, so having a clear “this is what I’d like for my character’s personal growth” mechanic is a nice touch. I’m not making it compulsory in my game, but it’s there for people who want it.
As far as Swordsman schools go, I’m much more in favour of how they work now. Joe Standard 7th Sea Guy can use Weaponry, and he has to use his Raises to do damage. Characters who have bought a Swordsman school (which is an Advantage now, rather than costing some 70 Hero Points) gain access to a range of Manoeuvre that do fun things like “When you perform Slash, deal a number of Wounds equal to your Ranks in Weaponry” and “When you perform Bash, deal one Wound; the next time your target deals Wounds this Round she deals one less Wound for each Rank you have in Weaponry”. Each school also has its own unique Style that gives you a special benefit when you adopt it – for example, Aldana’s Ruse, which causes your target to take additional Wounds equal to your Ranks in Panache the next time they take Wounds this round. No more having to buy multiple ranks in Feint and Riposte and Parry; having duelling training gives you all of those automatically, and they’re not a ranked skill.
Wounds have also been simplified. You have a Death Spiral. You take wounds if your opponent spends a Raise to give them to you and you either can’t or don’t spend a Raise to negate them somehow. There’s more stuff involved in the Death Spiral (there are Dramatic Wounds; at one, good things happen for you, because that’s how drama works! At two, bad things happen for you. At three, good things. So on) and if you’ve taken particular Advantages you get more Spiral than most, but in general it’s much simpler than the “roll dice and add numbers and did you remember to add this too?” rules of first edition.
Now, story-wise. Touching on sorcery first: I’m disappointed that the Vestenmennavenjar appear to not have any magic in this update, but I approve of the way the Vendel/Vesten split has been dealt with (to wit: there is no split; the Vendel League is a part of the larger Vesten people and is quite literally a merchant league rather than We Are The Dutch). I’m also disappointed that El Fuego Adentro appears to have been removed (although we’ll see if that remains the case when the Castille book comes out), because Secret Castillean Fire Magic is my favourite thing.
I’m not the biggest fan of Hexenwerk; while I can appreciate the whole “each nation has a theme and Eisen’s theme is THIS IS A HORROR GAME EVERYTHING IS MADE OUT OF BLOOD”, I really like the “monster as a metaphor for war” thing that was going on in first edition more than the “actual monsters, did we mention actual monsters” thing that’s happening in second edition. On the one hand, actual monsters are kind of cool, and I’m all about them ordinarily. On the other hand, Eisen has just gone through a massive civil war and I liked the idea that the spirit of the country had been as damaged as much as the people, embodied by the waisen, and I feel that adding actual monsters (more than just the ones who live in the Schwartzwalden, that is) is a bit of overkill.
I digress, though. Hexenwerk is interesting, and if I run a proper second edition 7th Sea game (as opposed to the mix-and-match 1.5 that I’m running at the moment, since we’d already started by the time I got the second edition book) I’d probably use it. As it is, I like Eisen’s themes from first edition better, so for my house rules game I’m keeping them, but there’s nothing objectively wrong with the way Eisen is done in second edition. I’m just a snowflake.
Avalon’s magic has been massively improved, in my opinion. It ties much closer into the Knights and the totally-not-Arthurian legend that Elaine is a part of, and I feel like it fits the theme of Avalon better now. It brings Gesa into the mix, which is fitting for magic given to a people by the Sidhe.
Pyeryem has been turned into “Mother’s Touch”, which is easier but less fun to say, and is more versatile now, which I like. There’s the usual animal forms, but there’s a bunch of other Gifts too – and a Thing you’re not allowed to do in return for the magic. If you do the thing, you lose your magic until you make it right. It’s a nice touch that I like, and I’m probably going to incorporate it into my game because whilst my party have met Matushka (and hugged her; it’s a long story), they’ve only met one Ussuran sorcerer, and he didn’t tell them that’s what he was, so I have no idea what they think was going on there.
Porte appears to remain Porte, with a cpiple of changes. You can be a halfway decent Porte mage who is aware that Porte hecks up the world and tries to ameliorate that damage, or you can be a jerkass Porte mage who doesn’t care. Guess which one is literally incapable of being a Hero?
There’s a new country in second edition, which I very much approve of; I will deal with their magic when I talk about them. Onwards!
Sorte also appears to remain Sorte, although there’s more explanation about how you can Curse or Bless other PCs or NPCs now, which is nice, since I’ll freely admit that first edition Sorte confused the heck out of me.
The countries! Honestly, the big things I have to say here are about Eisen, Vestenmennavenjar, and the Sarmatian Commonwealth, which is the new addition. The others have some minor alterations, but remain mostly the same.
You’ve heard my thoughts about Eisen. Regarding Vestenmennavenjar, I approve of the fact that the Vesten are no longer a relic clinging to ways that are dying; the Vendel aren’t their enemy anymore, an offshoot that are forgetting their ways and history and destroying their heritage while they’re at it. They’re a merchant league within the Vesten, and the Vesten and the Vendel are two sides of the same coin. I like that, because I’m a sucker for a happier existence.
Which brings me to the Sarmatian Commonwealth, which appears to have been brought in because somebody went “wait, we have no Eastern Europe here, how did that happen”. Composed of two kingdoms (Rzeczpospolita, because Vestenmennavenjar was getting lonely being the only long, difficult-to-pronounce country, and Curonia), the Sarmatian Commonwealth appears to be Theah’s token effort at democracy. Every citizen can vote in the parliament! It’s whacky.
The Sarmation Commonwealth’s magic is an interesting one; they have demons. Dievai, specifically, because “demons” is a Vaticine word and rude. Sarmation magic involves making deals with the Dievais, because what could possibly go wrong?
I love it.
One thing I don’t like about the new edition is that it doesn’t have those little snapshots of NPCs that the first edition had. I loved those, and they were so useful. Here, there’s no real notion of who’s important where, outside of a very few names. Sure, Queen Elaine rules Avalon, but there’s little about who else is in Avalon with her, unlike the first edition where you’d get a little bit about a bunch of important NPCs. It was a nice touch of colour, and I miss it. I’m hoping that it gets remedied when the country books come out.
So, in summary, there’s a lot more to like than there isn’t, and a lot of what I don’t like is down to personal taste rather than anything objectively wrong with the new system or setting. It’s well worth taking a look at if you enjoyed first edition, or if you’re a fan of things like the Three Musketeers or Errol Flynn or other ridiculous swashbuckling things. Everyone likes to buckle a swash now and then.
Now, if you’ll excuse me, I need to go and write some game notes. My party have just kidnapped (with her consent) a Duke of Montaigne’s wife, and I need to work out exactly how badly that’s going to go for them.