Tuesday, April 3, 2018

Review: 7th Sea, Part I--Mechanics

7th Sea by John Wick Presents is comfortably within my top 5 RPGs right now.  I am in the middle of running a campaign that is currently on hiatus that I can't wait to get back to.  I think it is a great game, one that I am glad I stumbled upon by accident (via watching one of Kurt Weigel's Youtube reviews--shout out to Kurt).  In thinking about how I wanted to talk about the game, it became clear that there were two distinct elements that stood out for me about 7th Sea--the world that the game is set in, and the mechanics.  In this post, I'm going to talk about the mechanics, and save the setting for the next post.  Before going on, I should note that there was a 1st edition of 7th Sea that came out in 1999 and was beloved by many, but I have no experience with that game (it came out during a period when I was not really involved in the tabletop RPG hobby) and can't really comment on it--these reviews deal with the new version on its own merits.

Image result for 7th sea, image7th Sea, in keeping with John Wick's more recent work, is a narratively-focused game.  That means different things to different people, but on a baseline level it means that the game prioritizes the collaborative crafting of stories by the players and the GM over some of the more tactical elements of other tabletop RPGs.  There is no battlemat, no moving miniatures around a grid or other tactical space, or anything along those lines.  Instead, the focus is placed on having the play experience create a story--if somehow the game group could observe play from the outside, it would look like the acting out of a prestige television show or something similar.

Now, many games try to create or foster that style of play, and you can play most tabletop RPGs in that way (Critical Role is a good example of how you can do narrative-style play with a game that is not explicitly narrative).  But 7th Sea both pushes the play toward and helps create those sorts of experiences, in a couple of different ways.  One of the biggest ways is the way it addresses what I call "the Problem of Failure" in tabletop RPGs.

There is a concept from improv comedy or theater, usually expressed as "Yes, and. . . ."  In the improv context, if your scene partner says something, the best option is usually to say, "yes, and . . ." and build off the statement.  For example, if your scene partner says "are you the king of Denmark?," the correct response is "yes, I am, and I am searching for my crown.  Can you help me?"  By embracing whatever prompt is coming in, you use it as a platform to keep the scene going.  Whereas if you say, "no, I am not the King of Denmark," you don't give anything for your partner to work with in return, and the scene dies.

In most tabletop RPGs, the core bit of mechanics is a binary task resolution.  The player says, "I want to pick the lock to open the door," the GM determines the difficulty, and the player rolls dice to see if he or she succeeds.  The problem is if the player fails the roll, there's a way in which that is like saying "no" in an improv context, because it provides no platform to move the story forward.  Often after a failed roll, the player will look at the GM with an unspoken "now what?"  This is the Problem of Failure--when you have binary task resolution, a failure is often bad for the narrative flow of the story and causes things to grind to a halt.  On the other hand, if the players arbitrarily succeed at everything, then there is no meaningful tension in the story.  So, what generally happens is that the GM vamps to keep the story going through the failure.

Narrative-oriented games try to address this problem in various ways.  One of the most popular families of narrative games, the Powered by Apocalypse family, address it in a way that takes a little bit of unpacking.  Each of the game mechanical pieces of the PbtA games, the "moves," basically boil down to three possible outcomes.  On a high roll, the player basically gets what he or she wants; on a middling roll, he or she gets basically what was desired but with conditions or limitations imposed by the GM or the structure of the move.  But, on a bad roll, the GM gets to make a "hard move" against the player.  By design, "hard moves" are open-ended, with the game providing representative examples but not a definite list.  What this means, if we step away and look at it from a meta-game perspective, is that PbtA games are not really about success or failure but about narrative control.  On a "failure," the player has to turn control of the character's narrative circumstances over the the GM, and the GM gets to decide what happens to that character.   The result of that surrender of narrative control might be failure of the discrete task, but it doesn't have to be; the GM could "yes, and. . ." the player and add some new challenge or complication to keep the story going.  Whereas if the player gets a middling roll, the player retains narrative control but the GM is allowed to constrain that control, forcing tough choices for the player.  And then, on the good roll, the player has full control of what happens to that character, at least in that moment.

I'm pretty sure it was John Wick himself who pointed out that 7th Sea, in a sense, exists entirely in the "middling roll" space of PbtA.  Rather than focus on discrete events, the primary action unit of 7th Sea is a scene.  The GM sets the scene and places in it a set of Opportunities and Consequences for the players.  The dice rolls determine how many Raises a player gets in the scene, and the player spends those Raises to either seize Opportunities or buy off Consequences.  In a well designed scene, the player has to make trade-offs and tough decisions about how to use their Raises.  But, unlike in PbtA games, the player never looses narrative control nor has total control over a scene--the operative question in 7th Sea is how much narrative control the player has in any given scene.

This mechanical structure has a couple of effects.  For one, it basically removes the Problem of Failure, because 7th Sea characters don't fail in the way characters in other games fail.  They might fail in a macro story sense, but they don't fail in a discrete moment-to-moment sense.  Unless of course the player chooses to have their character fail in a dramatically appropriate moment, in which case they receive a game mechanical reward (but not too much of a reward that you will choose to fail for silly or story-breaking reasons).  Some folks on the internet have suggested that this "no failure" model drains tension out of stories, but all I can say is that this has not been our experience playing 7th Sea--in a well designed scene, the tension exists in whether or not you will be able to get what you want in the context of the scene as a whole, not in an action-to-action sense.  Nevertheless, it is a pretty big change of paradigm to go to a game where success/failure is not the primary driver of gameplay, especially where (unlike to some extent in PbtA games) 7th Sea places its marker right from the beginning instead of hiding the ball.

The other thing about this approach, and this only came into focus when I started running the game, is that it pushes the GM toward what is for many GMs is a different style of running a game.  If you want to think about the job of the GM in terms of movies/TV shows, it often is (or seen as) similar to being a screenwriter.  The GM designs a story and basically writes a script (subject to dice rolls) for all NPCs.  The story is open to allow for the choices of the players, but the GM has the majority of control for the narrative.  By contrast, I find 7th Sea works best when I think of myself as a director as opposed to a screenwriter.  As a GM, I block the scene and put the extras in place, and then I step back and yell "action" and the players then play out their roles in the context of the thing I have set up ahead of time.  This is enhanced by the fact that low level enemies function in game mechanical terms in essentially the same way as environmental obstacles--a Brute squad of guards is basically the same as a storm at sea or a burning room, and is equally something that "runs itself."

Image result for 7th sea, imageIn an action scene, the only element that the GM has to really "run" are named Villains.  I'm not sure if it is a result of taking off the screenwriter hat, a result of not having to micromanage other antagonists, or some combo of the two, but I find that I get into the skin of the Villains in 7th Sea than I do in other systems.  I am more conscious of having them act according to their own logic as characters (as well as "yes, and" logic) than I do in other systems, where I am often more conscious of keeping the game afloat.  One part of this may be that, because players going to succeed where and when they choose, I feel less inhibited in having Villains really stick it to them.  Because the players have so much agency, I don't feel like I as the GM am being unfair or exploiting my role by "fighting back" with my big bad guys.

Two other quick notes on 7th Sea's scene structure.  The first is that it can handle non combat or non action-oriented situations just as well as it can handle fight sequences.  Even better, I have found that it is easy to blend and splice together action and non-action components.  You will forgive me for telling stories from my campaign, but we had a sequence that started out as a quasi-courtroom drama, where my PCs decided to hire actors to stand in for themselves in giving testimony about the shenanigans the PCs had gotten into in the previous session.  That went south with the arrival of the forces of the Inquisition, but the beautiful thing was that the non-combat scene flowed smoothly into the combat scene without the weird break that happens in many games every time combat starts.  Along similar lines, 7th Sea is able to handle scenarios were the PCs are in different physical locations and/or doing very different things at the same time far easier that any other game I have found.  You can have two players fighting some bad guys in one room and two other players having a diplomatic negotiation in another room without too much difficulty--a scenario that would be a nightmare for the GM and tedious for the players in most systems.

All of this takes some getting used to.  My players picked it up pretty fast, but it took me a few sessions of running the game to get my sea legs (I was too easy on the players at first, and didn't challenge them enough).  The PCs as over-the-top heroes is a good fit for a swashbuckling adventure game, and would be less suited for grittier settings where you want the players to feel that the characters are in constant danger--something like Call of Cthulhu.  But the system is very easy to run mechanically, and if you dive in and let the system do what the system does, it is can be a very rewarding experience.  In every single session that we have played, my players have come up with something totally unexpected (the aforementioned "let's hire actors to impersonate us" being on a single example), and I think that is in part a product of the way 7th Sea empowers players.

The other component of player empowerment in 7th Sea is that it puts some measure of overall narrative control in the hands of the players.  At character creation, each player creates a story for their character--basically a personal subplot.  The player decides how many steps are in the story, and what the first step of the story is.  So, one of my player's character has a subplot about the fate of her mother that disappeared, and step one was "find out some clue about her whereabouts."  When she found out a fact about her mom (obliquely--what she really found out was that her dad was not who he said he was), she then selected step two of that story.  When a story is completed, the player gets the equivalent of XP which is used to buy a character advancement, and then he or she creates a new story for the character.

While the players are coming up with their stories, there is also the overall GM story (the "main plot"), which also proceeds in steps and results in the opportunity for character advancement when completed.  I have found it to be a bit of a struggle to juggle the main plot and the individual character subplots, making sure you give everyone a fair amount of "screen time" so they can advance their individual stories.  But the notion of the player being able to direct individual subplots related to their character is brilliant, and it really gets the player invested in their character.  And these stories matter, because completing stories is the way your character improves mechanically.  This system also avoids some of the criticism of awarding advancement based on completely "story goals," which is that you are rewarding players just for showing up and playing the game as opposed to rewards based on something they are doing in the game.  Since at least some of the stories are player generated, the player is exercising agency in return for game mechanical rewards.

Some GMs are going to resist giving up the narrative reins to the players.  Giving up the reins means not only losing some measure of control, but also losing the ability to prep story and plot elements fully in advance.  Moreso than any game I have run, 7th Sea lends itself to an improvisational style of GMing.  I found myself prepping for sessions by coming up with one or two big set pieces that I wanted to show off in a session (such as, going back to the example, the courtroom scene), having a general sense of how I wanted to get the players to the set pieces, and then mostly just winging the rest.  I found also that I was doing a great deal of what might seem like unstructured prep, in the form of just thinking about the characters and the overall arc of the story as opposed to outlines more structured elements.  That works for me and I think improv-oriented games play to my strengths as a GM, but not everyone is wired that way.  If you are a GM who likes having an organized binder full of detailed notes, you might find 7th Sea to be a difficult adjustment, or you might find yourself fighting the system.

There are a small handful of things I don't love about the 7th Sea mechanics--the Corruption rules, which end with the GM taking away a PC and making him or her and NPC, rub me the wrong way, and the requirement that players pick a specific advancement to tie it to their story completion ahead of time strikes me as too restrictive.  But they are small and easy to cut out of the broader structure of the rules.  7th Sea is my favorite narratively-focused game system, and I think it does the best job of highlighting the potential of those sorts of games.  It is worth diving on its own terms, even before you get to the setting.  But the setting may be the real reason to look at 7th Sea, and that is coming in Part two.

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