This last session of 7th Sea was marked by two experiments I wanted to try out. I had no idea how well either of them would work. Turns out neither of them worked out nearly as well as I’d hoped, but both provided a learning opportunity for me. Post-game/post-morning shower reflections revealed a lot (as they are want to do). So rather than share the usual episode recap with you this week, I thought I’d share the results of these experiments instead.
The opening scene involved the Heroes at the heart of a massive riot in La Bucca. But how do you create that sort of epic narrative in a way that doesn’t turn into just a big melee encounter?
I ran a few of the ideas past one of my co-conspirators, Kevin Krupp, how provided some excellent feedback – only some of which I could really grasp. You see, Kevin is very well versed in narrative RPGs. So when I told him what I was trying to do, he immediately took it to 11 where I was really only comfortable taking it to..seven, maybe. In the end, it was only kinda successful.
Here’s how it played out:
The scene opened in the Yellow Fin Tavern with Captain Kenway sitting in Allende’s office. Among the stacks of papers, scrolls, and charts on her desk was a local broadsheet, the Albatross, with a headline about grift and corruption in the Scale (one of the city’s government chapters).
I asked Chris, Kenway’s player, who was in the office with him. Naturally, he named both of the two other players at the table. Good. We don’t have to split the party.
Behind the closed office door, they hear a door slam. Heavy footsteps, followed by shouting in another room. Two women. The voices grow louder as they approach the office door. Allende throws open the door, her fury evident even with her mask. She throws a fresh copy of the Albatross at Captain Ed and demands, “Can you explain this?” The headline reads: Presidential reelection festivities spark riot!.
The scene then jumps back hours earlier, to mid morning, with Kenway and the other Heroes among a small crowd in front of the Betting Barnacle. The new owner, an old rival of Kenway’s named Matthew Hague, is preparing a pre-election victory party for Allende and rechristening the place the Fancy Lad (much to the chagrin of its old patrons who no longer feel welcome). Hague sees Kenway in the crowd and makes some mocking overtures to his “friend,” which immediately puts the Captain in a bad light among the other old patrons. Couple that with a gang of bravos from a local duelist academy sizing up Carmena and Sebastian (both duelists) and a bunch of Allende supporters who know Kenway to be supporting the other team, and you have a powder keg primed and lit.
The scene snaps back to Allende’s office.
So here’s where things get experimental. I had each of the players state and roll an Approach for what they would be doing in the riot. Beyond that, I gave them carte blanche with the only instruction being: make things awesome. In my mind, my goal was to reach the heights of the riot scene in Police Academy. We never quite hit that mark.
I had each of them go one at a time and allowed them to spend all their raises, which in hindsight was a mistake. Each player did better than the one before, but the whole thing lacked any real cohesive skeleton. At the end of each turn, I asked them to “stage a challenge” for the next Hero, but that never really happened. And so, despite feeling cool and different, it didn’t quite reach the heights I was hoping it would.
In hindsight, I should have treated the Riot as a Hazard (see 7th Sea: The New World sourcebook), along with a threat rating and raises to spend. Then play it out more as a traditional action sequence.
Instead of asking each player to “stage a challenge” for the next Hero at the end of their turn, I believe I should have led with that, asking each to “stage a challenge” right off the bat with the reward being a Hero Point. The challenged player could have turned down the challenge, at the risk of adding a Danger Point to the pool.
Meanwhile, the Hazard would have been able to push its own agenda with its own raises, allowing me a more participatory roll in the melee. This would have allowed me to help create a more cohesive structure for the Heroes stunts, making the whole thing hang together better.
Schemes, schemes, villainous schemes! So simple and yet, when you start overthinking them they can cause problems.
At the beginning of the game session, I laid out three “schemes” that the players could discover and disrupt this game session. I used the Captain Wheel method outlined by Rob Donoghue on his Walking Mind blog. So the players could see the number of steps involved, but not the nature of the scheme.
And that, dear readers, is where I failed.
The biggest problem is I set up a “Door 1, Door 2, or Door 3” scenario where none of the choices had any real weight. They were simply these detached curiosities the players could pick up and examine before putting them back down. So while the schemes themselves were the active operations of villains the group knows about, there was no real urgency in the choice or any real tension even once the scheme was revealed.
In our chase, Kenway’s player choice to examine scheme #3 (or the Embassy Row Riots as I was calling it behind the scene). I set it up as a Dramatic Sequence, but since he was acting alone, it played out more like a Risk (which it should have just been dammit!). A gang of thugs discussing plans to stage a riot on Embassy Row within a few days – paid under the table by the Magnus Skaar for President campaign – led to a quick scene where Kenway appealed to their better angels. Decent, but not great. And that still left 2 schemes on the table untouched and untended.
Again, I feel the problem here is that none of these choices were ever properly grounded or created any real sense of urgency. It occurs to me in hindsight that I may well have approached them entirely backwards.
The next time I do this, I’m going to instead lead with single detail: either the target or the tool. This sort of follows the philosophy that Robin Law’s espouses in Gumshoe RPG: the first clue is free. The first clue in this case is THE HOOK. Who cares about the number of steps at this stage anyway.
So in the case of the Embassy Row Riots, a card reading Embassy Row (the target), Embassy Row Riots (target+tool), or simply Riots (tool) should have been presented. At least that creates a sense of curiosity and urgency that “Scheme 3” decidedly does not. Once the players have investigated the scheme and decided to do something about it, THEN reveal the clock to them.
As for whether it is a Risk or a Dramatic Sequence, that’s a numbers game. For one player, a Risk seems to be the way to go. It keeps the pacing fast and lets you play things out without worrying about structure. If the investigation involves 3 or more players though, the scene will probably benefit from structure (kinda like the riots earlier) and so a Dramatic Sequence should be used.
And there you have it!
I hope you’ll forgive this article of naval gazing, experimentation, and failing forward. I polled my players afterwards, and they all enjoyed the session. So maybe it was just me who felt it was lacking. But I try to learn from these things and put those new ideas into practice and make the next game closer to that special experience every GM chases.
Have you failed at some grand experiment as a GM only to realize on reflection why things didn’t work and what you should have done differently? If so, please share your experience in the comments so we can all learn from your mistakes.