Three Things I’ve Learned from a Year of Playing 7th Sea (and how they can make your game better too!)

This article began as something of a retrospective on our first year of playing 7th Sea.  I’ve made no bones about the fact that, when we started, the game was way out of my comfort zone.  It forced me to re-examine a lot of my GM techniques and stare down a few things that had become bad habits.  But I feel its made me a stronger GM along the way, and the lessons I’ve learned aren’t merely applicable to 7th Sea, or even more Narrative RPGs.

So let’s talk about them, shall we?

Action sequences are obstacles to keep the heroes from reaching an Objective (in time).

I put this into the category of “Third Edition DnD Ruined Me as a GM“.  For a long time, a lot of us have been conditioned to think about Encounters and Action Scenes in terms of THE FIGHT.  But that’s really faulty thinking.  If you look at action scenes, chases, and combat encounters in movies or books, more often than not the fights that occur are an obstacle, a complication preventing the heroes from achieving their goal.

That’s right.  Action scenes are an obstacle. If you look way back, OD&D had this figured out when it talked about the ENCOUNTER.  Combat was just one potential result of an Encounter.  But the Encounter has long since given way to extensive and crunchy COMBAT sections in the rulebook.  And so we GMs started framing out encounters in terms of Combat.  Can the PCs win?  Will it result in a TPK?  How big a challenge does this represent.  This mode of thinking permeates a lot of online discussion for RPGs when it comes to encounter design, including 7th Sea.  How do I make Brutes a threat in 7th Sea?  How do I balance encounters in Savage Worlds?  But what if we’re missing the point?  Maybe we should be asking, how does this encounter keep the players from getting what they want?  How can we establish stakes in the conflict to make multiple solutions viable?

But what about the “climactic battle”?  That’s a staple of the genre, right?  Well, this cuts both ways.  Usually, in the climactic battle, its the Heroes who are standing in the way of the Villain’s Goal.  The script is flipped.  But that too makes for a better more engaging scene.  Sometimes the villain shouldn’t engage the heroes head on.  Sometimes there is a better way of circumnavigating the obstacle they pose.  What do the player do when that happens?  Does the villain have Plan B?

So the next time you are planning out an encounter for your game, ask yourself these questions:

  • What do the characters want in this scene?  Is it the treasure?  Is it to rescue the hostages?  Is it to stop the evil ritual?  If your answer is only to fight the goblins and earn XP, stop and start again.
  • How do the adversaries keep the characters from getting what they want?  Are reinforcements on their way? Do some of them branch off to kill the hostages?  Do they complete the ritual? If your answer is they fight to the last man, stop and start again. Is there a time limit? A deadline? How long can the characters afford to duke it out with the villains before consequences (and not just resource drain) start setting in.
  • What happens if the Heroes fail?  Do hostages die?  Is a demon lord unleashed?  If your answer is they die or run away, stop and start again.  And really, they don’t get the treasure is a pretty low bar.  You might want to consider making the prize something more interesting and dynamic in the context of the encounter/scene.
  • What do the adversaries want in this scene?  Do they fear the wrath of the Goblin King?  Are they stalling for time while another faction executes an even bolder, more dangerous plot?  Is it to complete the ritual to bring their dark god into this world?  If your answer is to fight the heroes or to protect the treasure, stop and start again.  It’s GOT to be more complicated than that.  Or maybe it isn’t?  Consider questions 2 and 3 in the context of the adversaries.

Dramatic Sequences work best with a Deadline and a THREAT.

I touched on this in a previous blog post.  Basically, in 7th Sea, if the only thing the players have to spend raises towards is accomplishing their goal, your scene isn’t going to be very dramatic or engaging.  But introduce an adversary whose efforts (and raises) they have to counter at the expense of their own resources, and suddenly its a whole new ballgame!  Introduce a deadline and suddenly the stakes become even higher.  Dramatic Sequences should be about mounting tension.  There are two ways to accomplish this.  The first is through DM fiat, constantly moving the goal post.  “Oops, sorry!  The secret message is not in this room where you were sure it would be.  Try again.”  That may be a big kick for you, but it’s probably going to get old really quick for your players.  But having for force actively working against the players?  A villain or a lackey who also has a goal in the scene (preferably something better than stop the heroes from discovering my sinister plan) makes the whole thing more engaging and puts the players’ agenda at risk without making you, the GM, the bad guy. (And they say players can’t fail in 7th Sea. Pish!)

This is easy enough to do in 7th Sea, but what about other game systems? One of the more recent developments I’ve seen in the last decade is an effort to bring more parity between combat and other activities in RPGs: both social and dramatic: Extended Rolls in Ubiquity, Dramatic Tasks in Savage World, Skill Challenges in DnD 4e, etc.  But one area where these fall flat (to me) is that they often pit the player against himself, or rather the dice.  Generally, they work like this: you have to roll X successes before Y failures, or score X successes in Y rolls.  That’s really manufactured drama.  Because now the character’s success doesn’t hinge on a good plan or a smart course of action (challenging the player) but instead the dice and any bonuses the character brings into play (challenging the character).  Is there a real difference between this and just asking for a single dice roll?  Not really.

I’ve been wrestling with this a bit because I really like 7th Sea’s Dramatic Sequence model.  I want to find a way to model it in other games I play, without necessarily trying to shoe horn in 7th Sea’s Roll and Move mechanic.  Here’s what I’ve come up with.  Give it a shot the next time you roll out an extended test.  Before the players get started, make a roll for the villain.  The result gives them a number of “Interrupts” (for lack of a better word) – usually only 1 or 2, maybe 3 depending on the game system.  Put this many tokens out on the table for the players to see.  Now proceed with the extended test.  During the test, the villain can spend these Interrupts to make things happen in the scene.  It might increase the difficulty of subsequent rolls, introduce a new threat (like being discovered, having equipment damaged, etc.), or something else to threaten the player’s goal.  The player can make an additional roll (or spend a Hero Point/Style Point/Bennie) to counter it, but it counts against their time and/or rolls.  This forces the player to make a decision on how to adapt to the changing scene, which puts the challenge back on the player, creating a more engaging moment.

Try it, and leave us a comment on how it worked out.

Player agency, even limited, makes the game more exciting for the GM.

This is probably going to get me in trouble with the OSR crowd, so let me start with a story.

Years ago, while I was running the Savage World of Solomon Kane, I had this great concept of the PCs exploring the Himalayas and discovering a passage to Tibet.  The problem was, I wanted to be engaged in the exploration with them.  I didn’t want to make it a simple hexcrawl, or even a travelogue.  I wanted all of us to be surprised, to make discoveries, but I struggled on how to do that.  I looked at dozens of options.  (Un)fortunately, the campaign went on hold before the players really got to that point.

But the problem remains.  How can I, the GM, share in the surprise and discovery in the game.  Or, as Vince Baker puts it in Apocalypse World, how do I play to find out what happens?

Increased player agency has provided that for me.  In several instances now, in my 7th Sea game, my players have flipped the script on me: turning a patron into a villain and back again, creating villains where there weren’t before, embellishing details and filling in the blank parts of the canvas.  Not only has this forced me to improve as an improvisational GM, but in a few instances the results have honestly surprised me!  And that is exciting.

And it isn’t just me.  It has surprised my players, too.  Some have taken to it like a fish to water.  Others poke at it with a stick, suspecting a trap.  But in every case I’ve inquired, my players have responded positively and enthusiastically.

Now let me stress I am not suggesting you open up your game, Fiasco-style, to a table full of co-GMs.  That would be detrimental to a lot of games and genres (horror, for instance).  Nor am I suggesting you go full on FATE or Dungeon World, scraping world building for a handful of preliminary questions.  The fact is, player agency can be as controlled as you like.  The easiest, most conservative approach is to allow a player to spend a Hero/Style/Bennie Point to “establish an unestablished fact about the scene.”  So if you state up front that the room is 10×10 feet, a player can’t spend a bennie to change that to 30×30 feet.  But they could spend one to establish that there is a slick puddle of filth in the room that they can use to trip up the monster they are fighting.  You can make this subject to GM veto, or attach a cost (ie. you have to spend a GM Bennie to counter the player’s bennie) if you want to be generous.

In terms of control, one of the tools I’ve introduced in my game (and will probably carry on to others) is what I’m calling an Investigative Sequence.  (Totally not my idea, I got it from watching John Wick on the last season of Starter Kit – I just put a nice picket fence around it is all.)  This would pretty much apply to a Notice, Investigation, or Research roll.  The gist is the player can use her successes to either ask me a question about the subject or state a fact about it (and don’t think for a moment that I don’t know the answers – I’m just giving the player a chance to give me better, more interesting ones).  By establishing this as its own thing (like a “Dramatic Task” or “Extended Test”), I’m also putting an artificial limit to the player’s agency.  During an Investigative Sequence, they have “permission” to mess with the plot, but not outside of it.

Now some of you may dismiss this as some Johnny-Come-Lately G/N/S BS.  Fair enough!  I probably would have said the same thing a year ago.  And for the record, I’m not a big fan of Dungeon World’s collaborative world building approach.  I enjoy world building.  I like well constructed campaign settings.  I have no interest in reconciling my vision of the World of Greyhawk with those of 6 other people (certainly not without firm editorial control).  I’m not interested in recycling some big analysis of Say Yes or Roll the Dice.  But I can attest that opening my GMing approach to increased player agency has added to my enjoyment of the overall experience and, as such, other GMs – especially grognards like myself who have been doing this one way for years – might find the same.

That’s a Wrap!

So there you have it: three things that I’ve discovered over the course of the year that I think has made me a better GM and my game more fun, for myself and my players.  Some of these things may be old hat to you – I’m sure I haven’t stumbled across anything some GMs haven’t been doing for ages.  But hey, if anything I’ve posed above sounds cool and exciting to you too, great!  Test some of these approaches out on your group and see how they respond.  Share your experience in the comments.






Episode Recap: Distant Early Warning

Our Heroes are…

  • Edward Kenway, Son of Avalon and Captain of the Jackdaw
  • Carmena Elena de Ibarra de la Luz, disgraced Castillian Naval officer and bosun of the Jackdaw
  • Milaria Beaufort, Knight Arrant of Avalon and loyal servant of Queen Elaine
  • Sebastian Valmont, wayward Montaignese aristocrat and porté mage
  • Modestas Radvilas Kelrus (Mohai), Sarmatian Expatriate and former Dragoman to the court of the Empress of the Crescent Moon.

(Mohai and Milaria are absent tonight)

Tonight’s Spotlight Hero is…

Sebastian Valmont

Tonight’s Rum is…

Diplomatico Añejo

Last Season on 7th Sea…

  • Fabiano Villanova’s aid delivered a 200 year old bottle of Falsci wine along with a proposition for Captain Ed to hunt down his missing wife, Fiora.
  • Carmena discovered an error in the cipher used to incriminate Ambassador Zorita.  It appears his secretary is the Montaignoise spy!
  • …who also happens to be a Porté mage capable of eavesdropping on a conversation through a pinhole portal.
  • As night settles on the Jackdaw, the bottle of Falisci wine mysteriously uncorks itself.

Our Episode Begins…

Captain Kenway and the rest of the heroes stand aboard the deck of the Jackdaw.  All about them are the sad, bloodless remains of men and women – the skeleton crew the Captain left aboard on watch.  Inside the great cabin, the bottle of wine still sits on its shelf.  It is half empty.  A sniff of it is enough to tell anyone that the wine has turned.

The scene cuts to black.

One Week Later…

It is a hot, rainy day in La Bucca.  The sun is just beginning to peek through the parting gray crowds.  The Sunrise Haven Marina is crowded with dignitaries, including many from the Sarmatian Embassy awaiting the return of the Ambassador to the Commonwealth aboard a grand galleon.  Our heroes are finishing their business here and preparing to return to the south side of the island when a cry of alarm goes up!

A new ship, flying Montaigne colors, is plowing into the crowded marina at high speed.  It is flying half its sails, the rest are clearly ragged and tore.  There is no sign of crew on deck or in the rigging.  She is clearly on a collision coarse with the Sarmatian galley, and concern grows amongst the Embassy personnel that its powder stores might be vulnerable.

In a feat of heroism rarely witnessed, Carmena, Captain Ed and Sebastian, make their way to the Montaignoise carrack, racing across yard arms and swinging from the rigging to reach it before it rams into the side of the Sarmatian Ambassador’s galleon.  As they hurry across the bridge of moving ships, Carmena looks back and catches a meeting between a raven haired member of the Sarmatian party calmly discussing something with one of Magnus Skaar’s officers, despite the chaos surrounding them.

The heroes reach the Montaigne ship in the nick of time, and Carmena cuts the belt holding the wheel steady.  The ship groans violently as she turns the wheel, the two great ships shearing against one another’s sides.  The heroes drop anchor and, using the ship momentum, turn her about before cutting lose the remaining sails.  The anchor chain grows taut and the ship slows to a halt.

A few smaller ships approach but Captain Ed waves them off until the heroes have a chance to investigate.  Some sailors spread idle talk that it is a plague ship, bringing the White Plague to the shores of La Bucca.

The deck of the ship is littered with carnage.  Blood stains, dried gore, and wreckage litter it.  There are no signs of any crew.  Sebastian recognizes the ship, the Wandering Sun, as an exploratory vessel that sailed from Montaigne three years ago and was never heard from again.  Carmena goes to investigate the hold while Captain Ed and Sebastian seek out the grand cabin.

In the gloom of the hold, Carmena finds a lantern that still has oil.  She moves quietly about, the planks groaning underfoot.  Ahead of her, towards the bow of the ship, she hears a soft thump and a gasp, oddly muffled.  The lantern light reveals the seams of a hidden hatch.  She knocks on it and hears a cry of alarm.

“You are safe,” she tells the man hiding in the compartment.

“Is it secure?!?!”  There is desperation and madness in his voice.

Carmena eventually coaxes the man out.  He is Montaignoise, filthy and dressed in rags.  His hands are stained dark with blood.  Inside the hatch, Carmena sees strange symbols scrawled in blood.  Without touching him, she gently ushers the man up on deck.

Meanwhile, in the great cabin, Sebastian and Captain Ed survey more wreckage.  The navigation table is overturned and many of the scattered charts torn, ruined, and stained or smeared with blood.  Sebastian looks up at a large bloodstain on the ceiling.  A bit of maggoty bread and food remains as well.

Captain Ed finds a ledger once kept by the ship’s navigator.  In its last entries, it refers to a place called Montanus’ Mirror.  It briefly describes a ruined city, but ends abruptly after an entry about a party going ashore.  When the two men hear Carmena calling for them, Sebastian grabs an (mostly) intact chart and the two head out on deck.

The survivor continues to babble on about something trapped below.  He insists everyone needs to get off the ship and burn it to the waterline.  He believes he is in Castille.  When told that he is in La Bucca, he is confused.  “The prison island?” he asks.  “But.  But.  We sailed East!  I set the heading myself.”  He believes it is Autumn of 1665.  Carmena finds of bit of rum in an intact bottle and tries to settle the man’s nerves.  Sebastian, having heard about the symbols in the hatch, goes below to investigate.

Begin a good son of a noble family, and an accomplished Porté mage, Sebastian knows the signs of the art when he sees it.  The man’s hands are a dead giveaway.  He has heard rumors of mages so skilled in the art that they can seal places off from portals, but Sebastian has never met anyone capable of doing it.  But all indications are that is the purpose of the marks on the hatch.

As he returns to rejoin his friends, the planks give way beneath his feet, dumping him into the bilge below.  The heroes hear the crack and his cry and rush to help.  The survivor grows increasingly agitated.  Somewhere, in the bowels of the ship, Sebastian hears a muffled thumping.  As he climbs the rope lowered down to him, the mad thumping is joined by the sounds of scratching and muffled, beastial screeches.

“What is down there?!” he asks the survivor.

“I trapped it, see?  In a box.  Hehe.  It killed everyone.  There were so many.  Hehe.  But I trapped it.  We must leave now.  Burn the ship.”

Believing caution is the better part of valor, the Heroes put the Wandering Star to the torch and have a smaller craft come along side to take them and the survivor back to port.  As the ship quickens, the survivor begins to giggle and pick at the sunburned flesh on his face.  Sebastian is certain whatever he encountered broke his mind.

The heroes look over the charts Sebastian took from the ship.  They reveal a legendary chain of volcanic islands, Legion’s Teeth, somewhere between Théah and the New World.  Despite the smears of blood, they can make out coordinates.  And beyond those islands, a hastily marked island, simply labeled “M”.

There are many legends about the island known as Montanus’ Mirror, but almost all agree on one point: that it is the birthplace of Porté magic.

“Captain,” Sebastian says, “I am in need of your services.”

So ends this episode of 7th Sea.  The credits roll to ominous music.

GM Retrospective

If I have a complaint about this episode, it is the amount of narration that I’m providing vs what the players are offering.  I need to get better at asking, “what does that look like.”  It’s easy to excuse — we are all traditional gamers here, and parts of 7th Sea still don’t come naturally to us.  Not that it diminishes the game, but I think the players can provide more color than I do sometimes.

In many ways, this session felt like a more traditional game session.  I offered a lot Opportunities here though it occurs to me that if I did more of the above I might not have had to spell out as many.  The ledger, the chart, and the hatch – all of these were opportunities.  The group finished the Dramatic Sequence aboard the Wandering Star with a pair of raises to spare, but they were ready to leave and had what they needed.  I could probably have coaxed something more out of them, but the hour was drawing late.

So far, so good as far as the Hero Spotlight goes.  Next game session, Captain Ed gets the spotlight.  This should move the action across the waters to Castille where Captain Ed hopes to confront a nemesis head on, though I suspect it will not go quite as planned.

Two more things I’m trying:

  • At the end of each session, I ask each of the players what their favorite part was.  This is giving me a better picture of what I’m doing right and what the standout moments are.  Tonight’s are the creepy atmosphere and the “ghost ship”.  Plus, Captain Ed is excited to be getting back to some real piracy stuff – I guess the politics of La Bucca are growing stale.
  • I also ask each player if there is a scene they would like to see in the next session.  I don’t ask for a lot of specifics, unless they offer them!  This gives me a couple of points to build my session prep around.  Sebastian’s player is hoping for more information on the bottle, and Captain Ed has a very story specific scene in mind.

What will happen?  Tune in in two weeks for another Episode Recap


Episode Recap: The Hidden Lie

Since 7th Sea hasn’t required nearly the amount of fixing and houseruling Witch Hunter did, I’m going to try something new on the blog this year: posting actual plays of our game sessions.  I hope you enjoy the adventures of the crew of the Jackdaw.  What follows is an account of the Premier Episode for our “second season”.

Our Heroes are…

  • Edward Kenway, Son of Avalon and Captain of the Jackdaw
  • Carmena Elena de Ibarra de la Luz, disgraced Castillian Naval officer and bosun of the Jackdaw
  • Milaria Beaufort, Knight Arrant of Avalon and loyal servant of Queen Elaine
  • Sebastian Valmont, wayward Montaignese aristocrat and porté mage
  • Modestas Radvilas Kelrus (Mohai), Sarmatian Expatriate and former Dragoman to the court of the Empress of the Crescent Moon.

Tonight’s Rum is…

Diplomatico Añejo

Last Season on 7th Sea…

  • At the behest of the Caligari family in Vodacce, Captain Ed and Carmena smuggle a syrneth artifact out of a temple of Salacio in Numa; a mysterious conch shell that has mysterious effects on sea life.
  • Carmena meets with Roche in the church gardens and learns that the Inquisition may have played a roll in the death of her mentor, Maestro Zavala.
  • Captain Ed and Carmena rescue Miaria and Mohai from the hordes of a Maghrebi prince.
  • The crew of the Jackdaw is recruited by Ambassador Zorita and the Castillian military to smuggle arms to rebels fighting to free Altimira.
  • Our heroes discovered evidence that Ambassador Zorita, Castille’s representative on La Bucca, had been conspiring with Montaigne spies to disrupt relations between the pirate isle and the crown of Castille.  This revelation nearly cost them their ship and their lives!  Now they are racing back to La Bucca on a fair wind to confront the Ambassador.

Our Episode Begins…

The Jackdaw races across the Widows Sea pursued by a pair of “Black Spot” ships.  Captain Ed and Milaria survey them through the glass and find them to be in disrepair and sailing under inexperienced crew.  As the Jackdaw turns to fight, a new ship enters the fray — the Black Dragon, sailing Captain Magnus Skaar!  The Jackdaw captures one of the black spot ships while Skaar sends the other straight to the Devil Jonah!

Coming aboard the Jackdaw, Captain Skaar congratulates Kenway on his prize.  Having given aid twice now, he once again asks for reassurances of Kenway’s support in the upcoming elections on La Bucca.  Kenway suggests Skaar take the captive ship into port in a show of strength.  Besides, Kenway is more interested in what the captain of that ship, now cooling his heels in the Jackdaw’s brig, has to say about the black spot ships.

The Heroes return to port in La Bucca amidst the fanfare for Captain Skaar.  But waiting for them is a foreboding black carriage, no doubt sent by Fabiano Villanova to inquire about his missing wife.  Sure enough, Giorgio Catazara, a short, portly Vodacce man with a page boy haircut and a fine waxed mustache is quickly brought before the captain.  From his satchel, he presents the captain with a gift: a 200-year old bottle of red Falisci wine, meticulously stored.  Catazara does his best to ferret out what Kenway knows about Fabiano’s missing wife, Fiora, but is completely bedeviled by Milaria, Sebastian, and Mohai’s verbal gymnastics.  He eventually offers Captain Kenway the task of finding Fiora, with the wine a well-intended gift, and leaves frustrated in his efforts.

Fiora is, of course, safe with Sophia’s Daughters in San Teodoro.  Captain Ed and Carmena saw to that task themselves.

But all is not lost, for Catazara has let slip one of Fabiano’s most closely guarded secrets: he is NOT a Villanova.  That is Fiora’s family name.  Now the heroes have an inkling of just how much the Vodacce man stands to lose from his wife’s disappearance.

As the heroes make preparations to confront the Ambassador, Carmena realizes a mistake in the cypher Mohai used to crack the code of the secret correspondances taken from Castille.  The Ambassador is not the villain they seek, but rather his secretary, Juan Carlos!  Leveraging the Ambassador’s affections for Carmena, the team send a message for the Ambassador to meet her, alone, at the Yellow Fin.

When the Ambassador arrives, Carmena ushers him into a private room where Captain Ed and Milaria are waiting.  The quickly fill the Ambassador in on the details of the conspiracy against Castille.  Ambassador Zorita tempers his anger at this betrayal and promises to make good with the heroes and the Castillian military.  But as the group discusses what is to be done, Miliaria notices a small spot of blood on the Ambassador’s breast pocket.  Brought to attention, the ambassador withdraws his pocket watch to find it bloodied.

Milaria brings the watch to Sebastian, who is outside the Yellow Fin watching for spies.  A quick examination by the porté mage confirms that the item is marked, and most likely being used to eavesdrop on the meeting!

The heroes and the ambassador race back to the Castillian embassy to find Juan Carlos gone, along with a handful of important papers from the Zorita’s office.

The scene cuts away to Mohai departing the Jackdaw at nightfall, leaving it under a skeleton crew but doubled watch (in case of trouble).  The camera cuts to the interior of the great cabin and finds focus on the bottle of Falisci wine still resting on a shelf.  The bottle trembles slightly as the cork works its way out, falling to the floor below.


Suddenly, all goes quiet!

The scene opens on a man bound to a chair under a single brilliant light.  It is Petros, the proprietor of the Red Glory Gymnasium in Naucriparos.  He has beaten blooded, and his face is badly swollen.  He spits a wad of blood defiantly as two new figures step into view: an older man accompanied by a tall, broad shouldered woman in traditional Numaneri armor.
The older man asks one last time for Petros’ cooperation in finding the thieves who stole a national treasure from the temple of Salacio.  Petros gives him no such satisfaction, and the man gives a nod at his companion to continue her work.  There is a loud crack as the butt of her spear strikes Petros across the face and the screen goes black!
End of Episode!

Game Master Reflections

While this episode was planned as a single session, pacing and attendance issues stretched it out into three sessions long.  One of these played out as a flashback, where Captain Ed and Carmena delivered the Fate Witch, Fiora Villanova into the hands of Sophia’s Daughters.

This was also my first real experimentation with cut scenes and stingers where the players were viewers rather than participants.  I kept them short and sweet and left a lot of the details for the players to discover later (just as the audience of a TV show would).  It was surprisingly effective, though I think I will keep them to a minimum so they don’t lose their effectiveness.  Of the two, it was the stinger I was most worried about.  But Captain Ed’s player caught on right away.

So now the Heroes have two countdown clocks they are watching: the La Bucca elections (between Allende, Baron Maison, and the villainous Captain Skaar) and the Numenari hunters.  I plan on advancing these with Danger Points each episode until they are resolved.

Season Goals

On a final note, I’ve outlined a set of goals I’m going to try and live by for each episode of this season.  We’ll see how long I can keep them up.  For anyone interested, here they are:
  • Kick off each episode with an Action Sequence!
  • Introduce a new NPC (or kill an established NPC).
  • Spotlight a different Hero
    • that Hero’s story is front and center this session
    • the Spotlighted player gets to choose the next session’s Spotlight Hero

Scene Framing and THREATening the Heroes

So file this under I didn’t realize this was a thing.  Jared Rascher (of Gnome Stew and Google+ fame, along with his blog) did an…extensive video interview with Kevin Madison (Live from the Sword Coast) last week.

In addition to some very complimentary words about your’s truly’s Cut to the Chase: Dramatic Chase Sequences PDF, he also brought up an interesting point I had never considered before.  Jared believes that “scene framing” is poorly explained in the 7th Sea rulebook, which is one of the things difficult to grasp for new GMs.

No, I have no idea where in the interview they talked about this.  The damn thing is 2 and a half plus hours long.  But its good stuff, so listen to the whole thing.  They get to it eventually.

So I nodded along.  Right, scene framing.  Wait.  What the hell is “scene framing?”  Don’t I just describe the scene and run with it?  Why is that so difficult?  So I asked Jared, because he’s cool and he’s one of the few 7th Sea guys who is ONLY on Google+ (really Jared, we gotta get you over to the Explorer’s FB group – it’s jumpin’).  He gave me some places to start.  So I started looking.

Oh my poor virgin narrative GMing eyes.

If you’ve been playing FATE, FIASCO, In a Wicked Age, or any one of the dozens/scores/hundreds of indie narrative RPGs that have rolled out over the past decade, you may want to keep some Visine handy.  You’re going to be doing some serious eyerolling for a bit.

So…scene framing is a real thing.  It’s mostly limited to games with a serious amount of player agency, where the GM mainly exists to host the players, tell everyone when the game starts and stops, and keeps the Cheetos and Mountain Dews coming.  Because players need boundaries, these RPG bake in some procedures to scene framing.  Let’s use Primetime Adventures (where there is some agreement that “scene framing” was first really codified) as an example.  Where in OD&D you would determine surprise, distance, and reaction at the onset of an encounter, a scene in PTA begins by determining focus (the who or what), agenda (the why), and location (the where).  FATE does much the same thing without the fancy terminology.

7th Sea doesn’t really work like this – despite a fair share of narrative underpinnings, the GM still has a very prominent role in the game.  The GM is expected to drive the opposition and make things difficult for the Heroes, regardless of their own actions.  And while the game gives players resources they can use to exert different degrees of agency in play (stories, hero points, and raises), the GM is the ultimate gatekeeper to all of this.  I can allow as much or as little player agency as I’m comfortable with in play – the mechanics works just fine either way.

So what can we take from all this scene framing discussion?

In Never Unprepared: The Complete Game Master’s Guide to Session Prep, these scene framing components show up as part of the Scene Template, with particular focus on Purpose (the why) and the Closing (because knowing when the scene ends is important).

I’m a sucker for organization templates (even though I almost never use them), but this is an area that I really have never considered necessary.  While I’ve written adventures in terms of scenes for years, the idea of a codified scene framing seems somewhat redundant to me.  But then, I’m not especially familiar with games like this (obviously).  In my experience, scenes simply flow into one another, organically.  The only reason you would need to know when a scene begins or ends is if you are employing cinematic tricks (“The camera zooms in on Steve as he prepares to disarm the trap!”) or if you have resources that recharge between scenes.  Likewise, I’ve never run D&D in terms of turns – though it makes sense why someone would.

7th Sea does have resources that recharge between scenes (like wounds), but more importantly I’ve found that mechanics like Dramatic Sequences do benefit from a bit more structure than the freeform flow than I’m used to employing.  Not a great deal, mind you.  But it helps to keep the players a bit more focused on their goals (the agenda or why) than I would in other games.  So after more experience with Dramatic Sequences in play, I’ve started adding a new element to my notes: THREAT.

THREAT is sort of a catch-all reminder for me.  It could be the stakes of the scene, or what the heroes stand to lose.  But more often, its a reminder of the Villain or NPC’s GOAL in the scene, that may be counter productive to the heroes.  This is what the Villain is going to be spending his Raises to accomplish and, one would assume, the players spending Raises to counter.  This has been a helpful addition in play, when sometimes Dramatic Sequences can start to meander.  I’ve heard some complaints from GMs about Dramatic Sequences, how they simply run out of juice because the players either run out of raises or run out of ideas.  THREAT helps that immensely.  It helps me keep the players on their toes, gives my bad guys something to do, and one more thing to soak up the players’ raises.

But most importantly, this lets me relax and not worry about all the scene framing procedures and jargon.  With one sentence of notes, I can continue on with my go with the flow style while still keeping the scene engaging.  I was already starting to do this prior to reading up on scene framing, but now that I have a better grasp of the concept I’m more confident that adding this is a solid move.

Eventually, I’ll get back to TRIGGERS as well, but that’s going to be a discussion for another time.

For more information on scene framing in RPGs, here are a few links:

What about the rest of you?  How do you handle scene framing in 7th Sea (or other games for that matter)?  Are there any special procedures or GM short hand you’ve baked into the mix to make your scenes more effective and exciting?  Let us know in the comments!

Running 7th Sea on Roll20

File this under This Should Be Interesting…


On Sunday, February 11th @ 8:30 pm CST, I will be hosting an open tutorial for running 7th Sea over the Roll20 VTT system. Anyone who is interested in checking out Roll20 or specifically running 7th Sea on it are welcome to attend. If you are a seasoned 7th Sea GM with experience with Roll20, I would love to have you join the discussion. If you are interested in attending, you can leave a message here, or send me a private message on Roll20.

You will need at least a basic Roll20 profile to attend.

Voice chat will be handled on Discord using the Explorers of Théah FB Group’s servers. So yes, you’ll need to be running both Roll20 and Discord to get the most out of the workshop.

I’m planning to quickly cover the Basics of Roll20, but then move on to how to set up the VTT to really get the most (in my experience) out of it with the 7th Sea 2nd edition ruleset.  This will include discussion of character sheets, macro design, and other topics.  I know.  You’re thinking, sexy!  But even with all that technical voodoo, I’ll try my best to keep it light and fun.

So put the kids to bed early and spend Sunday night with us!

The (Actual) Play is the Thing

So today we are going to talk about 7th Sea Actual Plays, both video and podcast.  APs are suddenly big news, and no surprise why.  They let you get a taste of a new RPG without ever leaving the comfort of your home.  Critical Role alone is being credited with a surge in DnD’s popularity lately.  I can’t say I’ve watched more than a few minutes of it, but I can certainly understand the appeal and recognize the potential both as a gateway into the RPG hobby and as a teaching vehicle for fledgling GMs.

WARNING: This is going to be something of a rant.  If you just want some links, you can skip to the bottom and come back and read later.

The other day, after a friend and I had browsed Twitch’s catalog of Roll20 and DnD programming, I browsed youtube for new 7th Sea APs.  When I stumbled across Die Party: Dead Man’s Crest, I hoped I’d finally stumbled across something worth my time.  Alas, I discovered pretty quickly thereafter that that group had given up on 7th Sea in frustration and converted the whole storyline over to Savage Worlds.  More on that some other time, but suffice to say it left me feeling very irritated and frustrated.  Because despite quite a few 7th Sea APs out there, very few of them have given me much worth listening to.

When I ran my Teen Library program, I’d often get wallflowers who were hesitant to jump in and play.  I’d tell them that WATCHING people play a roleplaying game is probably among the most boring exercises I can imagine.  I’d always try to give them some role to play in the game, whether it was granting bennies or rolling for the monsters.  Now, part of that is because I wanted to motivate people to get some skin in the game, but I do truly believe that watching other people roleplay is damn tedious and dull.  Unless you have a stake in it (like watching people play an adventure you’ve written or playtest your game) its about as sleep inducing as NyQuil.  So personally, I really don’t get people who watch these things for recreation.  No biggie, I don’t get people who play MMOs solely to craft, either.  You be you!  But when I picked up 7th Sea, I did start seeking out APs.  This time I had a stake in it – the 7th Sea 2nd ed system is way outside my comfort zone as a GM, so I wanted to see what people were doing with it to wrap my brain around it.

But that’s the thing: I don’t give a rip about your story.  I don’t care about your witty banter or your Monty Python jokes.  I’m here for one thing: to see how your GM runs the game.  When I was a kid watching baseball with my dad, he would tell me to always watch the catcher, because he is the heart of the game.  (My dad was a catcher in the minor leagues and even auditioned for the majors before he settled on becoming a doctor, so you can understand his biases).  That’s sort of how I approach APs – it doesn’t matter what the players are doing, I’m here to watch/listen to the GM.  I’m here to learn and I’m taking notes.  It’s okay if you get it wrong – I’m still learning from you.

But more often than not, I come up against two big issues: either the show desperately needs an editor to cut the useless chatter and dead air (Happy Jacks AP, I’m looking at you here!) or the GM can’t really be bothered to learn the system and just phones it in, counting on the interplay between the players (and all those things I listed above that I just could care less about) to carry the show.

Man, listening to that Die Party episode epitomized the worst of all of these.  Not only was the GM guilty of some of the worst practices out there (the players begin marooned on a deserted, featureless island with an unreachable destination lingering in the background – tell me if you’ve heard that one before), but also other than recognizing aspects of the system, it didn’t even seem like they were using the game setting (at least, not that I could recognize).  So about 30 minutes into it, I turned it off in disgust and jumped to the episode where they announced the switch.

Yeah, not surprised about that.

In the least.

Maybe it was a bad turn.  I don’t know.  I’m not going to waste time sifting through the back catalog to find out.


So having bitched about a handful of APs that could just a haircut and a case of JOLT COLA, let’s talk about a couple of 7th Sea APs that deliver the goods from this GM’s perspective.  That is, they are not only enjoyable to listen to, but you actually learn something from them.

Essential NPCs (7th Sea Episodes) – this is a relatively new series (though not a new podcast), that is really delivers.  The GM, Addie Gia, proves she has chops and a good grasp of what makes the system work.  Each episode begins with GM reflections on the previous episode, which is just delicious gravy for someone like me.

Tabletop Potluck (7th Sea, episode 1) – a new AP podcast, interesting as much for the makeup of the cast (a majority of the players are women) as it is the gimmick.  Even inexperience with 7th Sea, they made a good faith effort to put it through its paces.

Tabletop Radio Hour (Flash, Bash, and Panache, Episode 1)  – honorable mention because they were the first to devote a long series of episodes to the game.  However, they are often guilty of just leaning on player interaction to carry the day and often use the game system as an occasional prop.  But there are some gems in the mix, so they get points for that.  Plus, very little dead air or prattling on.


Geek and Sundry Starter Kit Season 2 on Geek and Sundry’s Project Alpha deserves special mention here.  Despite the fact that it’s locked behind a paywall, it’s 6 episodes of 7th Sea 2nd edition.  Run by John Wick.  If you check the time, this amounts to watching John Wick, the guy who wrote the damn game, run a 4 hour demo session.  Great production value, great editing (again, no dead air or useless witty banter – it moves, FAST!), and know what? John Wick is a damn fine GM.  But in this case, he plays fast and loose with the rules.  A lot!  So while this show is required viewing for 7th Sea GMs of any experience level and worth navigating the paywall (thirty day free trial, baby!), from this GM’s perspective, it’s more a master class in GMing than a master class in running 7th Sea.  Should you watch?  Hell yeah!  And you’ll learn a lot, too.  But at some point, you’re gonna start to wonder why villains cause a Dramatic Wound each time they spend a Raise.  Word to the wise.


Because I’m a completist, and because I realize that not everyone has my sense of taste (for whatever that’s worth), here’s the part where I list a bunch of links to various 7th Sea APs that I’ve devoted time to listening or watching.

Play Better Podcast (7th Sea, Episode 1)

Tabletop Radio Hour (Glory and Fame, Episode 1)

Fumbling and Mumbling (7th Sea Quick Start, Episode 1)

The Drunk and the Ugly (The Ballad of the Fantoma Reine, Episode 1)

Talking Table Top (Interviews, not Actual Plays) These interviews were done around the time the 7th Sea 2nd edition kickstarter was going on and reveal a lot about the aspects of the system, though not a lot of how those mechanics really work in play.

7th Sea: Let’s Play (Episode #0: Prologue/Story Building) This one has a pretty long run, 25 episodes though most range from 15-20 minutes in length.  I haven’t listened to enough of it to really speak for how good it is.

7th Sea – Swashbuckling RPG with GM David Crennen (Episode 1?Crennen did an interview with John Wick that was released prior to this AP.  Based on that, I was disappointed with the scope of this AP.

7th Sea: The Search for La Liberteria (Episode 1: Blind-Shot)

Epilogue: Witch Hunter: The Invisible World

Yeah, I wish I could supply a list of WH actual plays.  But unless you speak Polish, you’re SOL.  Sorry.  But hey, if you have one, let me know!  I’ll shout it from the rooftops.

Pirates of the Levant: A Book Review

Pirates of the Levant is a novel by Arturo Pérez-Reverte, and one of the many tales of Captain Alatriste.  I feel the need to preface this review by saying of the Captain Alatriste novels, I’ve only read the first one before and didn’t care for it.  Pirates of the Levant is the sixth book in the series, so it’s possible I missed some background context skipping from book 1 to 6, but I don’t feel it affected my ability to follow the story.

Like Captain Alatriste, Pirates of the Levant is told (largely) from the perspective of the Captain’s ward and protégé, Ínigo who, aside from the fact that he is older, seems little different than he was in book 1: naive, hot-headed, and eager for adventure.  Older now, there are several scenes where he and the Captain are at odds.  Ínigo doesn’t simply differ to the captain on every occassion, so I guess that counts for character development.

I won’t mince words, this novel felt like as much of a slog as Captain Alatriste before it.  There is a lot of love for these novels, but I don’t share it.  Pérez-Reverte certainly has a unique voice: the narrative often breaks for poetry, short jumps of perspective, and frequent glimpses of the future.  The characters are fairly 2 dimensional and end pretty much the way they start – there’s not much in the way of character development.  In fact, like Captain Alatriste, Pirates of the Levant feels like a string of vinettes with scarcely a narrative thread to connect anything.  You could have made this an anthology of short stories and it wouldn’t have lost a step.

But what really struck me was the ugliness of the world Pérez-Reverte portrays.  He doesn’t sugar coat the deep seated racism that exists between the Europeans/Christians and the Ottomans/Muslims.  I don’t attribute this to the author but as a sign of the times the book is set in.

If you like your swashbuckling adventure light and fluffy, this is not the book for you.  If you like your swashbuckling adventure fun and dashed with humor, this is not the book for you.  If you like your swashbuckling adventure full of viceral Robert E Howard-esque action, this is not the book for you.  Oh, there’s plenty of blood and guts – bucket loads, in fact – but it’s hard earned.  The novel makes you work for every moment of light, humor, or excitement.  And frankly, I really could care less about any of the primary characters, which blunts from the climax for me considerably.  I lay the blame at the lack of any narrative line through the book.  You could read the first 2 chapters and skip to the last 2 chapters and, other than a handful of characters (who are little more than set dressing), you don’t really miss a beat.

Now all this said, I can’t say the book is terrible or not worth reading.  As I said previously, Pérez-Reverte has a unique voice that, from a writer’s perspective, showcases some interesting tricks.  Likewise, it gives the reader a good sense of conflicts in the 17th century Mediterranean and Spain.  But unfortunately, nothing to change my opinion of the Captain Alatriste books.  Were I not running a seagoing 7th Sea game and looking for source material, I probably wouldn’t have picked it up.  And I can’t imagine why I would read any of the other books in the series after this.  Two trips to the well is enough to convince me that these aren’t the books for me.