Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Game Findings: 7th Sea

This post might seem a little unusual. After all, 7th Sea is hardly some small indie game that no one's heard of, and it's been around long enough to generate tons of reviews. I'm willing to bet that any gamer who is both old and ecclectic enough has at least given this a short go.

So why the hell am I talking about it here? Because in the course of finishing up my campaign I encountered a few things that I'd not read about, nor ever experienced in all the 7th Sea games we'd played previously, and those things caught all of us by surprise. That sounded worth talking about here.

In a nutshell, high-level 7th Sea is a very different game from low-level 7th Sea (if you'll forgive the rough nomenclature). Now sure, there's an excellent argument to be made that if the game doesn't change at all as your chracter advances, then there's no point in advancing at all. If you're prepared to say that, I'm prepared to agree with you. Statistical analysis of the 4th edition of Dungeons & Dragons showed that the average hit percentage stayed the same and even dipped a little bit as you progessed from level 1 to level 30. You opposition ramped up in pace with you, meaning that while you were doing math with larger numbers, your actual performance wasn't changing much at all. What's the point then?

Well, in D&D, you get access to more and better powers. These things open up avenues of action that you didn't have previously, making you a little broader in addition to numerically taller. But we're not talking about D&D, we're talking about 7th Sea. The thing is, 7th Sea does that exact thing as well, assuming you're either a swordsman or a sorcerer. In all the time I've played and run this game, eery character has always been one or the other (usually a swordsman), so that shouldn't be much of an issue. But you can in fact make a character who is neither, which happened this last campaign.

I'm rambling, so let's break this down a bit, and start with the basics. The roll and keep system is a good one. No, it's a great one. It's simple, it's flexible, and raising is still the single most awesome game mechanic that I've encountered in a decade. 7th Sea takes roll and keep and makes heavy use of it to great effect. However, at the end of a long campaign where most people are rolling pools approaching 10k5 or more, things begin to slow down. With rasing and well placed bonuses, those pools can shoot close to the 10k10 range, especially when dealing damage. Add in exploding dice, and suddenly you're dealing with a whole lot more math than you were at the beginning of the campaign where people were tossing 6k3. Actions began to slow down, and while the size of the pools finally convinced most people to throw everything away once they reached their target number, anytime we had opposed rolls there was no choice but to add everything up. This would have been muchworse had we done raising by the book, which drove target numbers ever higher instead of reducing the pool size. We could still move the game along, but there was a noticeable lag. In short, the roll and keep system didn't scale well to the high end of the game. It worked, but it didn't work as well as it once did.

High scores impacted combat in another way: panache. For those few out there unfamiliar with the system, combat has 10 phases, and you get one action per point in your panache score. Roll those dice, and each one tells you which phase you get an action on. If you've got a panache of 3, you're going to have 3 actions, the phase of each determined by the results of the dice. It's a cool system and one I found got things moving quickly and cleanly. There's an easy sub-system for dealing with ties, and certain options to let you act out of phase. It's good, and well designed.

When most the combattants have 3+ actions though, the nature of combat changes. Obviously, there's going to be more ties that need to be resolved, but more than that there are a lot of abilities in the game that build up over rounds or require rounds to recharge. Swordsman schools are big on this, and they're what I was getting at when drawing a comparison to D&D, but I'll deal with them more specifically in a moment. For now, suffice to say that when you've got an ability that takes a few rounds of combat to really develop power, there's a big diference in its effectiveness if your opponent is going twice this round or if he's going five times. And Theus help you if you're ganged up on by two panache 5 opponents. You've got no chance.

Therein lays the big scaling problem with this game. The way your character grows mechanically in ways more intesting than larger numbers is his accrual of special abilities, granted by either his school or sorcerous heritage. However, when you factor in the average die pool size getting chucked around by the time you can lay hands on many of these abilities, they lose a lot of luster. The best example of this is an ability one of my players wanted from the very first session of play. It was the ability to begin administering last rights to your opponent in the middle of a fight, and the process was so unnerving that it gave you a mounting fear factor in the combat. In terms of imagery, it's phenominal, and I wanted to see it in play as badly as he wanted to use it.

As the game grew to a close, he amassed enough experience to earn that power. Each round he was in a fight, his fear rating would increase by 1. Unfortunately, by the time he got it, each round was so chocked full of actions that the fights would be over in a single pass, or two in extreme cases. Everyone was doing so much that the party could lay waste to the opposition, who also had a ton of actions, before his fear factorcould grow to anything meaningful. He hung his head after several fights like this and proclaimed he'd dedicated his character to gaining a useess ability.

Normally I don't pan things so quickly, but he really did seem to be right in this case. His ability still looked phenominal on paper, but because to much action could be packed into each round now, it was useless, especially since fear is a resisted thing in thi game, and high level opponents had appropriately high scores, which meant you'd need a high fear rating to shake them. This proved true of many swordsman abilities (though certainly not all of them). The bredth promised in that style of advancement wasn't keeping pace with the power level of the game, which drove several people to begin concentrating strictly on numbers, and within that stats. The power of stats over skills is a widely known quirk of the system, but that stats outshine everything else, including schools and sorcery, was something none of us were ready for.

In short, 7th Sea remains a fantastic game with a rich world anda great system filled with simple innovative rules, but the game tops out long before anyone maxes out their scores. Just because the character sheet goes to 11 (or, really, 5) doesn't mean you can play that same game all the way through.


  1. Heck, even in the low levels of the game, stats and skills can beat schools and sorcery. I had a Castillian who abused his university training and was not only a better swordsman, but he had a wealth of skills that served him much better than the tricks of the others.

  2. I am master of overreaching character design and stacking crap with univerisity, but y'know what... all that crap isn't nearly as fun as tagging, and I don't care.

    As for Mortis, honestly, in hindsight its complete and utter suck. I worked long and hard, harangued him for XP and eventually stopped putting points anywhere so I could get my master on before this shit ended.

    Joke. Had I known in practice it'd suck, I could've been slinging pimp sticks, pistols, or earning up whatever the meatclever madhouse shit the other guy ended up with instead.

    Lame. Lame. Lame!

  3. post script: still third most awesome game ever written.

  4. To clarify the "meatcleaver madhouse" comment, another player achieved mastery in the Boucher school, which allowed him to make free attacks with mounting numbers of raises. When combined with knockdown techniques such as corps-a-corps or the Zapeda whip trip, he was starting with a TN of 5, which meant he was routinely getting more than 5 attacks in with every single action. This meant he could hit someone 20 or more times in a single round. It was brutal, and far more effective than gfen's fear factor of 0 +1 per round.

  5. Indeed, part of that is a quality riff on 7th Sea's inherent team play design, as well. The game is meant to to have a coherent group operating as one.

    You know, it also shows that even at the top end, the max 10 die pool can become unwieldly as you have to figure out free raises, changes in target numbers, rollover to keep dice, etc. Its proof that even 7th Sea's pretty sweet mechanic gets chunky up top.