7th Sea Text Review, Part 2

Today I’m going to tackle things a little differently. Rather than go in order, I’m going to start with Chapter 4: Action & Drama, jump over to Chapter 9: Game Master, and then tomorrow circle back to do chapters 5 through 8.

Chapter 4: Action & Drama

The first page of this chapter, which comprises the bulk of the game rules, says that you only roll the dice when it matters. Is there a chance of failure? Is it interesting? If you answered ‘no’ to either of those things, just let it happen.

Actions where you roll the dice are called Risks in 7th Sea. That choice of phrase is deliberate and well made. Risks are risky, dangerous, and exciting.

The basics of making a Risk are simple: you declare your Approach (which Trait and Skill you are using), the GM tells you the Consequences and any Opportunities involved, then you roll the dice and create Raises, lastly your character spends Raises to accomplish goals (achieve your intent, prevent a Consequence, or seize an Opportunity).

Consequences are side complications that make life difficult for you. It could be taking some Wounds as you rush out of the burning room but it could also mean the MacGuffin falls overboard. It’s possible to achieve your intent but suffer consequences – essentially success at a cost in Fate Core, or a partial hit from Apocalypse World. It’s also possible to fail at your intent but avoid the consequences – failing forward, as it were. If you have lot of Raises, it’s possible to both achieve your intent and avoid the Consequences.

Opportunities are the opposite of Consequences – they are chances for you to do a little extra, be a little more heroic. If the GM didn’t list an Opportunity, don’t worry. You can spend a Raise to create one for another Hero – you could knock that pistol out of the Villain’s hand and have it slide over to your partner, for instance. Spending a Raise to create an opportunity is a lot like create an advantage in Fate Core. It’s a setup move, maneuvering pieces into place for more awesome stuff later.

When you spend a Raise, what you declared would happen happens. This is huge. As in this is the killer app of 7th Sea. Why? Because you never miss that clutch attack, never fail to swing on the chandelier, and never fall off your horse jumping the fallen tree. In short, when you spend a Raise, you are guaranteed to be heroic.

Now, that doesn’t mean you’re guaranteed to get a Raise. Dice are fickle. But the number of dice involved in the game stack the odds so that nearly every roll you will have at least one Raise. A Raise is a set of dice that add up to 10. On average, you should have one Raise for every 2 dice in your pool (or so). Remember in my first post of the review that I said every Hero starts with 2 Ranks in every Trait? That’s the baseline of your dice pool. You will always be rolling 2 or more dice, and two dice average out to one Raise. If you give dramatic flair to your description, you get another die. So, really, the fewest dice you should ever roll is 3. The examples in the book have the players rolling up to 10 dice. That should show you where the designers want you to go with dice pools.

It also doesn’t mean that the Villain you stabbed can’t use the Parry maneuver to cancel damage. But you hit the Villain. You always hit the Villain. No one can take that away from you. When you play 7th Sea you’ll never describe this amazing, dramatically appropriate moment as you engage with the Villain you’ve been hounding for months and then look sheepishly at the GM to announce, “I rolled a 1…”

I really love this idea and can’t wait to put it into action.

Action and Dramatic Sequences are a bit more structured than simple Risks. You can think of Action Sequences as the Battle of New York in The Avengers – all action and heroics. A Dramatic Sequence is much more like the CIA clean room hacking scene in Mission: Impossible – people do cool stuff but the tension isn’t released at the end of the scene.

Rolling Risks in Action and Dramatic Sequences is a bit different, too. At the start of the round, everyone announces their Approach (with flair for that bonus die) and rolls the dice. Then Raises get counted and the person with the most Raises goes first. If players are tied, they decide who goes first. If a player is tied with the Villain, the Villain goes first. You always act based on your current number of Raises – this goes down as you spend them and eventually everyone will sync up. When no one has Raises left, a new round begins. It’s an elegant bit of design that should make big, dramatic fights flow smoothly.

There are a couple of wrinkles to “spend a Raise to do a thing.” First is if you change up your action midway through. You can do it but it costs you an extra Raise – so if you’re looking to spend your last Raise to do something else… well, tough luck, I guess. (A quick house rule hack is to let the player do it but it knocks one Raise off the top in their next round.) The second is that if you don’t have at least one Rank in the Skill you use in your Approach, it costs and extra Raise to do the thing. And these stack, so if you change up your action in the middle of spending Raises to do something you don’t have the Skill for, it costs 3 Raises. Dabble accordingly, I suppose.

Keep in mind, I like these wrinkles. They’re not bugs in the system (except maybe the edge case of one Raise left and changing actions) but rather encourage a particular form of play.

A couple other things I want to point out real quick: 1) you can always choose to fail before you roll the dice and doing so gets you two Hero points that can be spent to do cool things like activate sorcery; 2) any dice you don’t use to make Raises can be ‘bought’ by the GM to add to the Danger Pool: you get 1 Hero Point while the GM gets as many Danger Points as dice you had left over. These both add really interesting tactical choices to play. I like that it’s not the dice you rolled that came up 1 that the GM can buy. This operates in a different space you can’t emulate in Cortex Plus games.

The rest of the rules in the chapter cover Brute Squads, which are dead simple to use, and Villain rules.

Villains are antagonists that operate on the plot level. They have two stats: Influence and Strength. Added together is their Villainy Rank. When a Villain rolls dice, they roll up to their Villainy Rank. This can put the Heroes in trouble when a Rank 20 Villain shows up. But! The game has a system in place where Heroes can undermine a Villain’s Influence, thus lowering the Villainy Rank and making them easier to tackle.

The writers of 7th Sea have found a way to mechanize the plot of The Count of Monte Cristo and make it the emphasis of play for long term campaigns. My hat is off to them. There’s also a system by which the Villains can gamble Influence to gain more through Schemes, which ought to intersect with the Hero stories to give them a chance to thwart the scheme.

The section on monsters is fine. I like it. It’s very utilitarian and aimed at letting you build your own monsters rather than handing out a bestiary. That’s good, that’s solid.

The last two sections of this chapter have me really excited. Game Master Stories is about building story arcs for your game. It uses the same system as the Hero Stories from Hero creation but turned around so the GM is at the helm. It’s very simple but it’s really a very elegant and useful way to prep the threads of the plot in your game. They break down some different classes of stories but really the juice here is in how to construct them as use them as a game master. It’s great, functional design and advice for GMs. I grok this more than Fronts in Apocalypse World.

The last page of this chapter, page 203, is about Corruption. Remember how I said “always capitalize Hero when talking about PCs in 7th Sea“? This is where that gets put into place. If your Hero commits acts of evil, they gain corruption. After just four acts of evil, they are guaranteed to become a Villain but they could fall and become evil after just the first. Dice are fickle. What’s an act of evil? Murder. Torture. Hurtful indifference. Ultimately it’s up to the GM but the guides in this section are clear: this is not a game about murder hobos.

Chapter 9: Game Master

Right from the beginning the emphasis here is that the GM’s job is to entertain the players. It goes on to outline three hats the GM will wear: author, storyteller, and referee.

The author hat is about constructing a plot and story. The chapter outlines modes of stories (conspiracies, adventure, espionage, etc.) and a dozen dramatic situations (abduction, disaster, revenge, etc.) before getting into the construction of a plot. This is where the chapter starts to get a little disjointed to me. There’s a half-page about nailing your opening and then an extended example of plot construction (in play with improvisation from a starting point) that ignores the opening.

Wearing the referee hat is to be the arbiter of the rules and to keep play moving forward. Here John Wick advises you to play hard and play fast. Don’t let the players sit back and think about what they want to do. Get them to act impulsively and heroically. Keep your action scenes running at a breakneck pace. Be fair but never dawdle and don’t brook dissent. This is a hard thing for me to get behind but I have problems asserting myself in social situations. This section does, however, provide the three-line summary of 7th Sea rules:

  1. You create a Scene.
  2. Players create Raises.
  3. Players use Raises to change the Scene.

That is the core of play. It’s a shame it takes 286 pages to get to that point.

One last thing in the referee section: death. Heroes don’t murder and Heroes don’t die from happenstance. They can only die from Villainous action. And the rest of the Heroes have the ability to save them, no questions asked. So how do you kill a Hero? With the player’s permission. Get them on board with the idea by asking how they’d like their Hero to die – what would make a satisfying, glorious end to their story? How can we bring that about together? Because stories are about endings.

Being a storyteller is a performance guide. How to get in the head of your NPCs and villains, engaging all five senses in descriptions, and different voices (action, description, dialogue, exposition, and thought) for different information and tone. It also advocates a very animated, stage-like performance aspect to game mastering where you embody your characters.

7th Sea is the first tabletop RPG I’ve read where I’ve seen instructions for debriefing after the game. This is common in LARP but hasn’t really entered the mainstream of tabletop RPGs as far as I’m aware. It’s framed mostly as a way for the GM to get useful feedback for improving but there are hints of making sure everyone is okay.

The last four pages of the book are dedicated to making Villains compelling. This seems like solid advice.


The core system of 7th Sea (the GM makes a Scene, players make Raises, and then spend Raises to change the Scene) is robust. It empowers players and largely avoids the fickleness of dice. The idea that spending a Raise always accomplishes something is powerful technology that you should be on the lookout for in future games.

It’s not perfect, no system is. There’s a lot of responsibility thrust upon the GM, which isn’t really my style. It seems a lot of the GM advice boils down to “Dance, monkey! Dance!” That doesn’t jive with me. There’s a certain truth to it but it’s only one perspective. The GM advice here is how to GM like John Wick. I’m sure I’ll learn a lot trying it but in the end I’ll need to figure out how to run 7th Sea in a way that works for me and doesn’t involve quite so much dancing monkey.

Throughout the text there are edge cases that pop up and I’m not sure if they’re intentionally vague – there’s a lot of ink spilled about making rulings, not rules – or just weren’t covered. Are players just SOL if they want to Improvise with only one Raise left? Can you buy Minor Glamours in your Knight Errant’s Major Trait?

Criticisms aside, I’m really excited about this game system and can’t wait to get it to the table. Soon! Alright tomorrow I’m gonna close out the last four chapters, which cover Sorcery, Dueling, Sailing, and Secret Societies.

About PK

PK Sullivan is a game designer and writer living in Chicago.
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