The Writers’ Room: 7th Sea

For me, one of the coolest features of the new edition of 7th Sea is the story step mechanic.  I’m so in love with it, I want to rip it out wholecloth and put it in my Witch Hunter game.  I’m not, because it would take too much work right now, but I want to.  But as cool as the mechanic is, I see it being one of the big learning curves in the game and the cause of a lot of growing pains if we aren’t careful.  But you’re lucky, because I have an idea that’s going to solve 90% of those problems for you!

If you’re already familiar with how Stories work in the game, feel free to skip ahead.  For the rest of you, 7th Sea 2nd edition jettisons the whole idea of “experience points” and replaces them with Stories.  Each character has a personal story he or she is pursuing.  The story has a start, a goal, and an ending, all devised by the player.  That’s right, the player knows how she wants her story to end.

Example Story: I will win the heart of Nicolette du Montaigne, the Sun King’s daughter!

Goal: Sebastian DuPont marries Nicolette du Montaigne in a secret ceremony.

Here’s where things get technical and cool.  So each story is comprised of a series of steps. These are things that half to happen to move the story forward.  The player assigns a number of steps to her story, and details the first step.  So they define the first thing they need to do to advance their story.

Step 1: Travel to Iskandar to escape the Sun King’s reach and find a suitable token of affection for my love.

So what does any of this have to do with character experience?  The number of steps a story requires to reach its goal determines the reward.  The player chooses the reward they want for the story, as well as the number of steps it will take.  The reward should “fit” the theme of the story, but that’s not always necessary.

Reward: This is a Five-Step Story that will increase Sebastian’s Panache to Rank 4.

Confused?  It takes a minute to wrap your brain around the concept.  By then if you are screaming, “that’s freakin’ cool!” at the top of your lungs, you have no soul.  “But wait!”, you say.  “Does that mean the players have agency over your game?”  Not at all.  Story steps are personal goals.  They are something the player is driving towards and want to have happen in play.  In other words, the player just did half your work for you.

Plus, GMs get stories too.  So a 7th Sea campaign is a dance between the GM’s stories and the players’ personal stories.  Plus, the player only defines the end point of the step.  The GM is expected to throw obstacles in the way and make her work for the reward.  Just because it’s on the character sheet doesn’t mean it happens the way a player expects.

GM’s Notes: Angered by Sebastian’s pursuit of his daughter, the Sun King has dispatched one of his best assassins to track the man down and deliver L’Empereur’s judgement upon him.  Meanwhile, in Iskandar, an ancestral jewel that once belonged the the Montaigne royal family has resurfaced in the possession of a vile bureaucrat in service of the Governor.

Yes, I think Story Steps are one of the best things I’ve seen since Dragonlance 5th Age, where experience was measured in Adventures.

But what happens when players have conflicting stories pulling them in different directions and away from the GM’s planned story?  I’m glad you asked.

The Writers’ Room

In television, when working on a scripted series, the writers all get together and hash out storyline ideas and work with the head writer of the series to complete a 24 (or 10, or 12, or 20…) episode season.  Everyone shares ideas and wants to get their own stories into the mix, all the while working to create a tight, cohesive narrative.

7th Sea Players and GMs should do the same thing.

First thing, do not let your players create stories in a vacuum.  Doing this can drive your game into a ditch really quickly and leave you scrambling to get out of the weeds.  No, encourage them to brainstorm and bring their best ideas with them to the first game session.  Your first 7th Sea game session shouldn’t jump right into the adventure.  No, first you convene the Writers’ Room.

writers_a_0

The GM assumes the role of the “lead writer” and should start things off by telling the players a couple of things she wants to do in the game.

  • The game will be based in Vaticine City.
  • There will be a conspiracy involving the…
  • [This villain] will have a featured role.
  • A theme I want to spotlight is…

You don’t have to give all the secrets away.  Just set some parameters.  If you want to run a game set in Vaticine City, it’s not going to do anyone any good if 2/3rds of the Heroes are on their way out of that place to pursue personal stories.

Now, go around the room, pendulum style, allowing each player to contribute a story idea or suggest a story idea for another player’s character.  The objective is simple: create stories grounded in the framework the GM sets forth, that intertwine and mix with the other heroes.  Think of it as a guided brainstorming session.  Be sure to provide plenty of scratch paper and post-it notes.

It’s a dance.  No hero should be an island to himself.  Mix it up.  If this is sounding a bit like a group framework, I suppose it does.  But this is about more than setting the tone of what the game is going to be like, and it isn’t even really about creative a cohesive narrative.  It’s about the group working together to make sure all of their stories play nicely off one another.  The GM is the lead writer in a sense in that she guides the discussion, but she can be as firm or flexible on any given story element as she choses to be.

Ideally, this should only take about an hour, but it could take the whole session if it really gets going.  No good idea should go to waste.  If a good story idea doesn’t fit, the player can file it away for later consideration.

You should probably reconvene the Writers Room every 10 or 20 game sessions, just to keep everyone on track and make sure everyone is as invested in current events as you hope.  If everyone starts suggesting stories that move away from your epic plot arc, chances are you might need to reconsider some things in play.

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8 thoughts on “The Writers’ Room: 7th Sea

  1. Gaston's Hat

    Interesting. The writers’ room is a good analogy to explain a very different style of play. Back in the 1990s, my co-GM and I did something like that for a few of the main characters in our Star Wars campaign. Though with only two of us it was less freewheeling than a typical brainstorming session.

    Thanks for sharing.

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  2. Tom H.

    I need to find a group that plays some of these new games, I suppose, since I have no idea how the structure described above has any relationship to my concept of a role-playing game.

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  3. Rob Justice

    (FYI: I’m the guy who wrote Stories. John and Mike helped workshop it but the core was my idea.)

    Thank you so much for your compliments! I’m really happy with all the positive feedback I’ve got on Stories and your idea for a “Writer’s Room” is exactly how I run games.

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    1. blusponge Post author

      Glad you liked the article, Rob. I’ve been intrigued by the story mechanic since John teased it on the RPGnet chat interview months ago. I think it’s a great concept. Still trying to work out exactly how to adopt it elsewhere…like Witch Hunter. Thanks for stopping by and leaving a comment.

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  4. Anon Adderlan

    This advice needed to be in the book, and you’re still left with herding cats.

    Each participant will be advocating for their character’s story, and unifying them in a way they can be pursued together can become challenging. Most swashbukley media only explores one character arch per story unless the group shares goals at the moment, so knowing how to weave stories in a way which furthers each fairly is important.

    It’s not a matter of intent but a matter of method, and the book largely seems to think the latter is obvious or ‘whatever works’. But people new to this don’t so much need to know what’s intended as how it’s accomplished, which the book doesn’t really say.

    P.S. If you liked this mechanic, you should check out Chuubo’s Marvelous Wish-Granting Engine, as its core mechanic is essentially nothing but this.

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    1. blusponge Post author

      A couple of things. First, I think when worked on as a group, you’ll be surprised at how supportive players can be. Maybe if you sit a group of complete strangers in a room you may have some trouble, but by the third time you do this, I think everyone will be on the same page.
      Second, your right that most stories will focus on a single character story. I think the game supports that well. It’s why even with the most synchronized story steps, the GM is the ultimate arbiter of pacing.
      As to why this sort of advice wasn’t in the book, we’ll all groups are different. This approach seems obvious to me, but it may not work for every group. Plus, I think a lot of these mechanics and applications are still in their infancy. There is a lot of maturing yet to happen. See my “Mirror, Mirror” post.

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  5. Pingback: Ch-ch-ch-changes | …and a Brace of Pistols

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