LOWER THE BOOM
But wow, I do not like the resolution system. It isn’t terrible or broken—lots of players love it. 7th Sea’s approach works for them. But I wrestle with it every time I run. Something in how it stages order and actions doesn’t mesh with my GMing style. It actively works against how I like games to flow at the table. Each time I’ve run, I’ve reread play examples and rewatched AP videos to make sure I’ve got it right. I do.
It’s weird because 7th Sea is relatively rules light. Most other resolution systems I don’t love have complexity-- from the mechanics (2d20, Scion) or the chrome (Pathfinder, D&D 4e). I won't deep dive into those issues. I think 7th Sea just doesn’t jive with my style. But much of its material appeals to me.
The Setting: I could whip up a European analogue to set a similar game in, but they’ve done the work. Plus they’ve expanded the material beyond the pseudo-European Heartland. The Crescent Empire, Lands of Fire & Gold, and The New World all offer novel and complete settings. The design team takes cultural touchstones seriously and adjusts mechanics to emulate a place’s ideas and tone.
As important, the game paints the nations and cultures of its setting broadly. It has key ideas and concepts but leaves plenty of imaginative space. You can pitch each culture’s concept easily. Even the Nations of Théah books, which richly describe individual countries, feel like a menu of ideas rather than a tight, interlocking analysis. Mark Richardson’s awesome maps for 7th Sea are specific and precise, but the setting remains open.
I always worry about how much the players need to know to get a feel for the place and play. The best settings, IMHO, set up just key ideas. In these worlds, playing a particular character doesn’t require deep knowledge. Instead we learn about the setting through play. Cultural ideas provide a map and we become interactive tourists. It’s a happy middle path that 7th Sea travels.
Almost Approaches: 7th Sea has a skill+stat system with a dice pool. Like The Veil or Fate Accelerated, you choose which stat you want to use based on circumstances and intent. It’s flexible and means two characters can attempt the same action, but color it differently.
Simplicity Throughout: Magic is present with each culture possessing at least one unique form. Yet they’re kept relatively light. A PC sorcerer will have a good number of choices throughout, but it’s not overwhelming. Magic is potent and varied. Likewise the mechanics for ships and nautical conflicts give plenty of color without requiring a massive sub-system.
Fighting Styles: I like the ideas of these. The mechanics of them, not so much. They’re cool but imbalance conflict scenes and eat up time. Still I love the idea that “fighters” can be quite different from one another.
And finally, Mechanical Flourishes: When players spend a Hero Point to aid themselves, they get 1d10. When they spend that to aid others that player gets 3d10. Mobs have an abstract value—they’re an obstacle the players have to deal with to avoid damage. Characters take “dramatic” wounds at certain points on their wounds track. Sometimes these give you a benefit, sometimes the Villain gains one. Guns always deal a dramatic wound. There’s more, but I want to steer this in another direction.
I want to consider ways to hack 7th Sea which are fun, reasonably faithful, and super lazy. I love swapping settings and systems, especially when the combination brings something new to the setting. We’ve played many hours of my PbtA Changeling the Lost. That mixed version focuses on emotional play and the characters’ intimate stories.
Porting a setting/premise over to another system means unpacking what the game is. Not only what it’s about, but what you do in play and how the system shapes that. You have to discard making a hack which covers the full breadth of the original and think about the version of the game you actually want to run/play. For example, many players love tracking details of the Contracts, Pacts, and Glamour in Changeling the Lost. That felt unimportant in my campaigns, so we pared that down.
I want a 7th Sea game that gets to what I dig from the setting. But I don’t want to do a ton of work. I want it simple; then I can actually get it done and to the table. There’s a joy to tooling around, but no closure if it doesn’t see play. I’ve seen Gauntleteers propose hacks, but turn away when they begin to see the work required to get it just right. My motto here is: Close Enough: Verisimilitude over Veracity. With that in mind, here are three approaches I’ve considered for 7th Sea hacks.
In our recent Gauntlet Podcast Roundup episode, Fraser mentioned running a quick adaptation of Coriolis to Blades in the Dark. Coriolis’ tight skill list mapped well to Blade’s action ratings. Character creation just ported those numbers over. Since they used the same range, character feats from Coriolis transferred easily as well.
I like the Forged in the Dark mechanics and I’ve run several versions. It has the advantage of simplicity in resolution. FitD also creates competent characters. They can act and take risks because the system has great fallback tools like Stress and Flashbacks. While we lose “approaches” from 7th Sea, we gain the ability to negotiate position and effect.
However moving 7th Sea over to FitD requires mechanical manipulation. Eliminating the 7th Sea’s stats takes out the bulk of their pool. Usually players lean into their better, 4 or 5 dot, stats. Special abilities and other bennies in 7th Sea drive that total up. On the other hand, FitD lives and breathes in the 1-3 dot range. What would a +1d vs. +3d bonus look like in FitD?
But there’s a larger conceptual challenge. 7th Sea offers a broad and sweeping world with characters of different origins, classes, and agendas working together. One of FitD games’ strengths lies in a having a connected character conceit: the crew, the ship, the army. To really make use of that for 7th Sea, you’d need to tightly circumscribe the campaign premise.
That’s a feature not a bug if you want to play 7th Sea as a pirate game. Luckily we’ve recently seen a cool FitD nautical hack: Tides of Gold. I picked this up a couple of weeks ago. It’s amazingly well conceived and present. A ton of work has gone into it. Bottom line if I wanted a 7th Sea/Black Sails style game, I’d reskin this and call it a day.
I could also go down the well-worn road of Powered by the Apocalypse. That’s become my go to for hacking in recent years. We have lots of great games out there with interesting models and ideas. That makes cobbling together a workable franken-game easier. Several sci-fi games have put together mechanics for handling ships, so that’s an easy steal for a seafaring 7th Sea campaign. But surprisingly there isn’t a major Swashbuckling or Pirate-themed PbtA out there. The closest thing I can find are Piratical supplements for Dungeon World. I have to think more broadly, which brings me to a question.
Can PbtA actually do “7th Sea” writ large? I think PbtA’s great for handling specific, well known genres (like D&D or post-apocalypse). That extends to reframings of existing genres, Dead Scare for example. I think PbtA games have a tougher time when they want to cover everything in a genre (Uncharted Worlds). Or cover a genre without a clear touchstone. For example, I think Pigsmoke, a game of sorcerous academia, works as a concept. But we don’t have that many solid genre examples for it. It has to build a ton of architecture to deepen the “Hogwarts Staff but a real university” concept. And I don’t think the most common literary touchstone for university life-- novels by writers about the tribulations of being a white, male academic writer going through a mid-life crisis-- has much resonance for rpg players.
And bottom line, 7th Sea is made up of too many genres for PbtA to handle it adequately. We have Musketeers, Elizabethan Swashbucklers, High Seas Pirates, Monster Hunters, Archaeologist-Explorers, Romantic Manipulators, and so on. Each could be done as a PbtA game, but they wouldn’t necessarily work together. A character created for one would have fewer interesting opportunities in another. Some crossings might work, but it wouldn’t capture what’s great about PbtA.
So if I had to do a 7th Sea PbtA game, I’d pick one narrow campaign concept and go with it. For that I’d do a fully Swashbuckling game about dueling, romance, and intrigue. It would range across Théah’s analogues for France, Spain, and Italy. It would be about heartache, lost loves, and melodrama. I’d start with my own Hearts of Wulin as a basis. Characters wouldn’t talk obliquely about their feelings, but instead express them too loudly and get themselves into trouble. I’d have to reconsider swashbuckling vs. wuxia combats and use that to retool the dueling moves. It could be great fun. But wouldn’t be a complete 7th Sea hack.
But an option which might allow for a “full” conversion is the Mutant System. That’s ironic given I earlier mentioned hacking away from Coriolis, which is powered by that. But having played Coriolis, I’d probably hack it the same way Fraser and Darren have. It contains a batch of odd game decisions which make that game a mess. But I like other iterations of Mutant—especially Mutant: Year Zero and Tales from the Loop. The simple tweaks they make to the core engine support the atmosphere.
Mutant has the advantage of being Stat+Skill driven like 7th Sea. It could easily map over since both games have 0-5 ratings. We’d only have to trim the skill list a little, but we’d have to make a big decision about resolution. Mutant takes the classic approach of linking skills with particular stats. This makes it easy to organize and to know exactly how many dice you need to roll. So do we link skills or keep some additional steps and choices in the resolution process? I’d probably go for the latter. If the game requires lots of rolls I wouldn’t. But tests in both 7th Sea and Mutant feel “big,” i.e. a result generates significant effects.
A different question comes from the difference in the success curve between 7th Sea and Mutant. The latter has a key mechanic involving rerolls. In Mutant, you roll a pool of d6s. Each 6 rolled counts as a success, and almost everything requires a single success. Extras can be spent for additional effects. That seems reasonable. If you have 6 dice, you’ve got a good shot at it, right?
That mechanic is super fickle. You might assemble a big batch of dice and not get anything. From experience, I can say you probably won’t. In contrast, 7th Sea’s mechanic feels bountiful. You roll d10’s equal to your stat + skill. You then assemble dice to make sets of 10+. Each of those is a success which you can spend as a currency. The question isn’t do you succeed, but how well do you succeed and did you roll enough successes to do everything you want. Even left over dice can get you benefits.
Mutant has solves this issue with a reroll mechanic. Each version of the game allows players to reroll, called Pushing, at a cost. In Tales from the Loop you mark a state. In Coriolis it generates Darkness Points the GM can spend for effects. In Mutant: Year Zero and Forbidden Lands, however, rerolls hurt. There you can’t reroll 1s—and any 1s showing up after the reroll on stat dice cause damage and on gear dice they break your items.
It’s concrete, harsh, and fits with the survival feel of Mutant: Year Zero and Forbidden Lands. Changing what rerolls cost has a significant effect on game feel. Coriolis’ abstract currency for rerolls feels less consequential. I can imagine a couple of ways to handle rerolling in 7th Sea. Usually Mutant games have small damage tracks—equal to your stat (1-5). But 7th Sea has a larger one (set at 20). Using this bigger wound track allows for damage on a reroll, but reduces the impact. Alternately if you want to skip damaging rerolls, you could just use 7th Sea’s Hero Points as a reroll currency.
Most of 7th Sea’s special abilities-- Stunts and Arcana-- should translate easily. These usually offer a special effect (alcohol doesn’t affect you) or gain you bonus dice in a particular situation. I see only a few which don’t work, like Dynamic Approach where you spend a Hero Point to change your Approach during an Action or Dramatic Sequence. I can cut those.
Actually it feels like sliding this over would be super easy. But those who know 7th Sea have probably spotted the elephant in the game by this point: 7th Sea’s Dueling Styles. They’re great color for the game, I love the idea of them. But in practice, duelists feel unbalanced in combat situations. They get many more meaningful actions in these scenes, as well as being able to dish out and take damage on a completely different scale. If non-duelists had parallel advantages outside of combat I might feel better. But I still don’t like games that make a particular archetype eat up all the choices in a scene. I suspect these will be one of those elements which end up on the cutting room floor.
Ripping a setting out into another system is a great way to figure out what you actually like about it. I used to spend days, weeks, doing these kinds of conversions, often getting frustrated by the end. Most were, in a word, garbage. But I rarely went back to rework or reconsider them. I didn’t want to get dragged but into the time sink of it.
But it doesn’t have to be that way. Hack light, hack fast, hack lazy—then iterate and go again. In the end I’m going to probably go with Mutant because I dig the basic system and I think it can probably handle most of what makes 7th Sea tick. But I also think I can easily hammer a version of that together in a day or less. That means I can get it on the calendar and have fun with it in short order. If you’ve got a setting you dig, but you’re daunted by the challenge of hacking it, start tearing it apart. Find the part you love, make a basic model from that and get playing.
For the full backlog of Age of Ravens posts on Blogger see here.