Category Archives: Game Master

An Unholy Union?

What’s that you say?  You’re intrigued by the world of 7th Sea, but balk at the game system?  It’s too handwavy?  Too diceless?  Too narrative?  Too Wick?  Besides, your players’ eyes glaze over anytime someone mentions a game that doesn’t have “Dungeons and Dragons” on the cover.  Let’s just cut to the quick: you want to run a D&D game, but you want to use the 7th Sea setting. 

Sacrilege?!?  Heresy?!?  Maybe, but it could also be a lot of fun.  Hell, I’d play!  I’ve even devoted some brainpower to it.  I’ve long been considering a blog post on this topic but a post on reddit forced my hand.

Dungeons & Dragons: 7th Sea

Let me say this upfront: if you are looking to run a 7th Sea game using the 5e rules, this post is not going to be very helpful.  In fact, I think you are just setting yourself up for a lot of work without much of a payoff.  But if you want to run a Dungeons and Dragons game set in the world of 7th Sea, well there I can help you.  There is a difference.  And it’s easy.  So easy, in fact, you could be playing tomorrow night!

The trick is in finding a compromise between the 7th Sea setting (a vast pastiche of 17th century earth) and the implied setting of D&D.  If you are okay with that, then here is my very simple (but untested) recipe for doing so:

  • Ditch the 7th Sea national sorceries. Instead, use the D&D magic system. Each nation specializes in one or two schools of magic. (ie, Montaigne, Conjuration (which includes Teleportation); Vodacce, Divination; etc.). Likewise, certain magical classes fit those styles of magic better (Montaigne and Vodacce magic users are Sorcerers, since their magic is inherent to bloodlines. Avalon, Ussura, and the Commonwealth would all be Warlocks. Castille, Eisen, and Vestenmanavenjar would all be wizards.).  Here is the list I sketched out some time ago in my handy GM Notebook:

Nationality Class School
Avalon, et al. Warlock Enchantment, Illusion
Montaigne Sorcerer Conjuration
Castille Wizard (Alchemist) Transmutation
Eisen Wizard (Alchemist) Necromancy
Sarmatia Warlock Conjuration, Evocation
Ussura Warlock Abjuration
Vestenmennavenjar Wizard Evocation, Transmutation
Vodacce Sorcerer Divination
  • You’ll need to make a decision about the priest class. The priest class doesn’t really make sense in 7th Sea, but has an important role in D&D. You can ditch the class by moving some of its “turn undead” capabilities to the wizard’s necromancy school for Hexenwerk. But it would be easier (and less abrasive to players) to just keep it as is.
  • No non-human races.  If you are feeling ambitious, you can use the National Trait bonuses from the 7th Sea rules to create similar National Attribute bonuses, or you can just ignore that and just use the standard human racial template easily enough.
  • Use the Firearms and Explosives rules from the DMG (pg. 267-268).

  • Use the Hero Point option from the DMG (pg. 264).
  • You’ll want to disassociate armor worn from Armor Class. While there isn’t an option in the DMG, I believe there are house ruled variants available.  Some easy options would be to allow classes to add their Proficiency bonus to AC, and/or perhaps double to Dex bonus as it applies to AC.

  • If you have the 4th edition, you could do worse than adapt the Minion rules (for brute squads). This is a nice option to keep in your toolbox, but easily ignored.
  • Magical weapons and armor are Dracheneisen, Zahmeireen, or even Nacht, (if you want to bring those back into play). Potions are alchemy or hexenwerk (Castille, Eisen).  Anything that doesn’t fit these concepts should be reskinned as syrneth artifacts or something else entirely (fey or devai crafted items?  Gifts from the Jok, Bonsam, or a living god?).

  • A copy of Ghosts of Saltmarsh will be a must for the naval combat rules!  Alternatively, you can grab a copy of the playtest rules or your favorite variant of the DM’s Guild.

And there you have it. Your conversion work is done. You’ll probably need to fine tune a few things (add Backgrounds, Feats, maybe adapt some subclasses), but you can start playing tomorrow!  And if you do—or if you see something obvious that I missed—be sure to drop a message in the comments!

Quick update: Reading some of the initial responses over on the Explorers of Théah facebook group, I feel the need to clarify the objective here.  This is not a blueprint for running 7th Sea with 5e rules.  It isn’t about shoehorning all the conventions of 7th Sea into 5e mechanical terms — the duelist academies, the sorceries, etc.  What I’m proposing is that you can use the themes in 7th Sea to alter the trappings of your 5e game. It’s going to feel like playing D&D. It’s going to look like playing D&D. You WILL be playing D&D. But that dungeon you are about to explore is in Montaigne, and the Fate Witch in your party is a creepy, veiled divination sorceress from Vodacce.

Got it?

Or maybe you just need more rum!

Or maybe I do.

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Roll the Bones

First, some music!

Sometimes you just wanna throw some dice.

That’s not a thing 7th Sea really excels at.  That’s a feature, not a bug.  Risks are supposed to be big deals.  When it comes to routine actions, even those other RPGs might call for more challenging tests, GMs are encouraged to let the players succeed and move on with the game.  As I’ve said here and elsewhere, if you can’t think of at least two Consequences to a course of action, it’s not a Risk.

But sometimes. Sometimes you just wanna throw some dice.

Some 7th Sea GMs do this.  But the game isn’t really built for it.  The dice mechanic has a very steep curve.  This has been well documented here, here, and here.  So if you are just pulling numbers out of the air for task difficulty, odds are you are just wasting your time.

Sometimes you just wanna throw some dice.

I include myself in this.  Sometimes, I just want to call for a roll for a binary chance.  It’s late, time is of the essence, and I just too damn tired don’t want to conjure up a bunch of consequences.  But I don’t want to just let the players succeed either.  I need something.  And my players?  They just wanna throw some dice.

(Ok, I’ll stop with that now.)

A while back I started playing around with mixing the mechanics from Modiphius’ 2d20 system and 7th Sea.  While I’ve long advocated the Ubiquity RPG (via All for One Regime Diabolique) as a rosetta stone between 1st and 2nd edition 7th Sea, I also believe that the new 2d20 Lite, used in John Carter of Mars, is a nearly perfect vehicle for folks who find 7th Sea 2nd edition TOO hand-wavy.  In fact, I’m convinced that you can run the games interchangeably just by dropping skills and changing a few names in 2d20 Lite.  But I digress.  This experiment has led me to what I think is a nearly perfect way to call for binary dice tests in 7th Sea.  You wanna throw some dice?  Lemme tell ya how.

So statistically, 7th Sea almost guarantees 1 Raise for every 3 dice rolled.  I believe I’ve seen the figure 0.75 Raises per 2 dice.  Not quite Ubiquities 50/50 split, but pretty darn close.  So let’s assume that’s correct. Let’s use the figures in one of the links above:

on 6 dice I saw the following results:

71% of the results were 3 successes

14% of the results were 4 successes

12.5% of the results were 2 successes

1% of the results were 5 successes

1% of the results were 1 success

.5% of the results were 0 successes

The reroll of one die improved a roll about 9% of the time.

Going by those figures, here is what I propose:

To make a binary (yes/no) roll in 7th Sea, roll your dice pool against a Target Number equal to HALF of your pool.  So if you are rolling 6 dice, your TN would be 3 Raises.  4 dice? 2 Raises.  Got it?  This is a ROUTINE test (71% +/- chance of success, 80% with a reroll—skill rank 3+).

Want to make it more difficult?  Increase the TN by 1 (14% +/- chance of success, 25% with a reroll).  This is a CHALLENGING test. (This is what MOST of your tests are going to be.)

More?  Increase the TN by 2 (1% +/- chance of success, 10% with a reroll).  This is a DAUNTING test.  Not quite a Hail Mary, but close.

You can twist this to a non-binary result very easily too.  Assume a TN of half your dice pool for base (partial) success.  By every Raise you miss the target by, you suffer one Consequence.  Likewise, for every Raise you score beyond the target, you can create an Opportunity for an ally in the scene.

And the best part?  It works with the Danger Point mechanic.

Need a table for that?  Here you go.

Task Difficulty Raises Req.
Routine +0
Challenging +1
Daunting +2
Impossible +3

Now, remember, this is a crutch.  It’s a little clunky, but it’ll get you there.  I wouldn’t ditch the core Risk mechanic for this.  But there are certain scenarios where I can see this being a useful tool to keep in your toolbox.  I think it can also be useful for players and GMs new to 7th Sea who are coming from more traditional backgrounds (like myself) — though we are perhaps the most susceptible to over exploiting this crutch.

Please do not complain the game is broken when you use this trick as your main mechanic and your game falls apart.  This is a crutch, remember?  When was the last time anyone ran a marathon with a crutch?  Never.  Right.

But hey.  You know what?  Sometimes…

Curses, Disease, and Poison: Lasting Afflictions in 7th Sea

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Consequences in 7th Sea are relatively straightforward.  Either something happens to you RIGHT NOW, or you take wounds.  But what about more lasting afflictions?  How can we reflect those in play? With very few exceptions, the rules are silent on these.  There’s the VENOMOUS Monstrous Quality (Core rulebook, pg 198).  But that isn’t a very satisfying way to replicate the effects of the vast myriad of Vodacce poisons, some strange disease your Avalonian explorer picks up in the jungles of Aztlan or while delving into the ancient tomb of a Khemetic Pharoah.

After this question was posed on the Explorer’s of Théah Discord server (yes, there is one—and if you are a fan of 7th Sea, you need to be on it), I gave the prospect some thought.  What sort of conditions and penalties work for lasting afflictions?  How long should they last?  Here is what I came up with.

CURSES

A curse is a supernatural affliction.  How you end up on the receiving end of one is a matter for your game.  Beating one could be a Story to itself.

There are three Grades of Curses.

  • Minor Curses last 1 scene (ie. the evil eye, a jinx)
  • Major Curses last 1 episode
  • Epic Curses last 1 season (or require a 3-5 Step story to Remove) (ex. the gypsy curse in Stephen King’s Thinner, Lycanthrope, etc)

Curse Effects

Choose one effect from the following list that best reflects the condition the curse imparts on the victim.  Some effects are more suited to certain ranks than others, but that is left to your discretion as the GM.

  1. Lose your highest raise
  2. the curse prevents you from acting a certain way. Certain actions require 2 raises to perform. (Threat like Pressure.)
  3. Reputation (people tend to avoid you if they know you are “cursed”)
  4. Gain an extra Hubris
  5. Gain the Foul Weather Jack Advantage (player gets an extra story that must be resolved or bad thing happens) (3-point advantage, core rulebook pg 151)
  6. Player cannot activate her Virtue while under the effects of the curse.
  7. Player cannot spend/earn Hero Points while under the effects of the curse. (Not recommended for Epic curses!)
  8. The cursed hero acts normally, its his companions that suffer the curse effect.
  9. The hero is pursued by a sending/phantom thing. Roll d10 at the beginning of any scene, on a 1 the thing shows up to complicate matters.  (Alternative: the GM may spend a DP to have the sending appear on the scene.)
  10. Gain the Dark Gift Advantage (Nations of Théah, vol 2, pg 206) AND a second 5-step story to remove it)
  11. Gain a point of Corruption.

Once a hero is under the effects of a curse, future applications of the same curse have no affect.  The hero can be cursed again for a different effect, or can be RE-cursed once the effect has been voided (even through a Story—because villains suck!).

POISONS

Like curses, there are three grades of poisons.

  • Minor Poison effects last 1 scene
  • Major Poison effects last 1 episode
  • Epic Poisons last 1 season (or require a 3-5 Step story to remove) (ex. the poison from the movie, D.O.A.)

Poison Effects

Choose one effect from the following list that best reflects the condition the poison imparts on the victim.  Some effects are more suited to certain ranks than others, but that is left to your discretion as the GM.

  1. Lose your highest raise (just like the Venomous Monstrous Quality; this condition may cost a Danger Point).
  2. The victim is immediately rendered helpless!
  3. The poison’s antidote must be administered before the end of the scene or the victim becomes helpless until applied (plus X number of hours, usually 24).
  4. While the victim is poisoned, she suffers 2 wounds for every 1 she would normally take (and yes, that means she must still spend 1 raise to counter each wound).
  5. The hero suffers an immediate dramatic wound, plus X additional wounds (just like being hit by a firearm)
  6. The victim rolls 2 fewer dice (1 from trait and 1 from skill) for all Approaches while under effects of the poison.
  7. Villains roll +2 dice against the victim (exactly as though the hero had 2 Dramatic Wounds—and yes, this penalty stacks with that one).
  8. The victim must spend a HP to act (make approach, gather dice pool, etc) in the scene (just as if rendered helpless).
  9. Treat as a Hubris—the victim gains a Hero Point when his poisoned condition causes him trouble.
  10. The player receive a (3-5) step story that MUST be resolved or your hero dies (usually involves finding a special healer/antidote/etc.).  At the GM’s discretion, this may be resolved at the same time as the hero’s current storyline, but it must be resolved FIRST.  If the hero’s primary storyline is solved before the poison storyline, the hero dies.

Once a hero is under the effects of a poison, future applications of the same poison may no affect, depending on the condition.  The hero can be poisoned again for a different effect, or once the effect has been voided.

Disease

Disease works just like curses and poisons.  They grade effects are identical.  Pick the effect from either list that best suits the effect you want and go with it.

Once a hero is under the effects of a disease, future applications of the same disease have no affect.  The hero can be afflicted with multiple diseases, and voiding an effect is not the same as gaining an immunity (unless the GM says so—in which case, get it in writing!).

Curses, Poison, and Disease as a Consequence

All three of these conditions are can be presented as consequences.  There are a few slight differences between them.

  • Curses attached to an item (say, a stolen Khemetic relic) can only be avoided by ridding oneself of the item.  It must be destroyed, given away (and freely accepted, lest Corruption!), or returned to its original resting place.  As long as the item is in the Hero’s possession, he is subject to the curse.
  • Curses laid by an individual (the stereotypical “gypsy curse”) are generally applied with Pressure, and as such should require two Raises to avoid in an Action or Dramatic sequence.
  • Poison can be attached to Dramatic Wounds.  Drinking a vial of poison should have a consequence of 10+ wounds.  If the hero does not spend raises to avoid all resulting dramatic wounds (so 6+ Raises), the affliction is applied.
  • Avoiding drinking a poison may have social consequences, and villains will often apply Pressure to this effect.
  • Poisoned weapons might work like firearms.
  • Disease can either be a group consequence, with Pressure from the environment (so 2 raises per hero to avoid or everyone gets it).
  • Weaponized diseases (like D&D’s Mummy Rot) can be attached to wounds.  Epic Diseases should require at least a dramatic wound to administer.
  • Diseases can also be the result of Hazards (The New World, pg 199-200).  This is a good alternative with the Treacherous Element (instead of a Dramatic Wound).

Dungeoncrawls in 7th Sea

This started out as a response to Matt Wandcow’s post on the 7th Sea Reddit where he was gracious enough to convey his experience with running a “dungeon adventure” in 7th Sea 2nd edition.  The most I wrote, the more I realized that this really belonged on the blog.  So hang on tight!  It’s going to be a bumpy, slightly disjointed ride.  I’m sure someone is going to disagree with me.  I may disagree with me in a couple of months.  But as of right now, this very moment, here are my (barely coherent) thoughts on how to run a satisfying dungeon adventure with the 7th Sea game system.

Let’s be clear—all of this is just theory.  I haven’t run a 7th Sea styled dungeon crawl, though I have outlined one.  So treat this like everything else you read on the internet: with extreme skepticism!  Be prepared to discard or modify things that don’t work.  And when you do, don’t hesitate to post about it in the comments section.

First, let’s make sure we define what a “dungeon” is.  A “dungeon” is a closed (or self-contained) adventure environment with limited entrance/exit points. 

Traditional D&D-style dungeons do not work well in 7th Sea.  7th Sea really shines as a “scene-driven” game, where the players jump from scene to scene as opposed to moving methodically through a pre-planned labyrinth.  In fact, much as was stated in that oft-derided passage from the Vatican City sourcebook, a 7th Sea dungeon may work better WITHOUT a map.  (::gasp::shock:: swoon::) 

Instead, a 7th Sea dungeon is built on the follow two foundations: zones and set pieces.

  • A zone is an area of a dungeon tied together by a theme of some sort.  In old school dungeon design terms, a zone is kind of like a dungeon “level”.  The theme could be a monster, a feature, or a hazard.  The haunted mines could be a zone, as could the lava vents, or the eldritch machines.  Likewise, the kobold warrens or the troll lair could also be a zone.
  • A set piece is a big ticket feature, room, encounter, risk, or challenge in the zone.  The Throne Room of Asmodeus could be a set piece. 

Set Pieces exist within zones, but not all zones need to have a set piece.  A zone without a set piece is a good candidate for a Dramatic Sequence or a Hazard, as it is likely meant as an obstacle that must be passed through to get from one Zone to another.

Note: if you have been using Fate-style zones in play already, the use of zones here may lead to confusion.  In that case, simply substitute a similar word (sector, region, node, etc) and run with it. 

The 5 Room Dungeon

A good resource for set pieces is to have a look at the 5-Room Dungeon model.  The five room dungeon is made up of combinations of the same five components:

  1. entrance (guardian)
  2. puzzle/roleplaying challenge
  3. trick or setback
  4. climax
  5. reward/revelation

Each of these components make ideal set piece models.  In fact, each zone could be considered a single 5-Room Dungeon, with each “room” being a standout scene that can occur within.  This shouldn’t be taken as a hard and fast rule, there are always exceptions.  But if you are desperate for a model to hang these concepts on, you can do a lot worse.

It it helps, it might be worth thinking in terms of the Encounters outlined in Green Ronin’s AGE books — there are three types of encounters: combat, roleplaying, and exploration (or combinations of the three).

Exploration

One of Matt’s initial concerns was which skills interact with dungeon exploration.  This is faulty thinking in my opinion.  The real question is not “how do the players use skills to navigate the dungeon,” but “how do the players use skills to circumvent the Risks they encounter while navigating the dungeon.”  After all, O/A/BXD&D had only a handful of inferred skills (open doors, find secret door, etc.) for exploring dungeons.  The characters were assumed to have a certain level of competency for such things, as are 7th Sea heroes.

Players get to decide how they want to apply their skills and traits (their Approach), so the GM really doesn’t have to concern himself with such things.

In D&D and similar FRPGs, the players would carefully explore the twisting labyrinth between set piece encounters.  In 7th Sea, I would suggest letting the players give shape to this connective tissue.  This is where Hazards come in.

Hazards

Hazards share a lot in common with Dungeon World’s dungeon moves, so let’s treat them that way.  A zone can be a Hazard and thus work to thwart the heroes.  It can spend raises to activate elements or to pressure the group to go astray.  If Dark Things lurk in the zone, you should set a clock to forecast their arrival.  And when they arrive, it should trigger a set piece encounter.  In many cases, it should be the players’ goal to reach the set piece before time runs out—if they don’t, the set piece becomes considerably more challenging.  This gives them an incentive to keep moving.

All of this could be handled as an action sequence (a running fight against those lurking things, or running a gauntlet of traps), a dramatic sequence (a countdown before something terrible happens), or even a chase sequence (if time is of paramount essence).  The Dramatic Sequence is probably most accurately replicates that “old school dungeon” feel, but each method has its advantages. 

The Mountains of Madness

This HP Lovecraft story involves the protagonists making their way through a vast, primordial “dungeon” beneath the frozen surface of Antarctica.  The ruins of Moria in Fellowship of the Ring also feels like this.  It’s really just a big travel montage when you break it down.  Nothing really happens beyond bucket loads of descriptive text thrown at the reader. This will probably be less satisfying for the players, but may feel appropriate to set the tone for particularly alien environments.  If you want to replicate this “mountains of madness” fee, there are three ways to do it:

  • establish the scene, then ask each of the players to describe one strange sight or occurrence.  This gives the players some agency and keeps the scene from becoming one massive scene of boxed text.
  • establish the scene and just let the players wander.  Embrace your inner boxed text writer.  Own it.  Throw in an occasional Risk to keep things interesting for the players.
  • Establish the scene and set a clock (at least 1 for each player—4 or 5 steps should do).  Let the players wander around.  Each time they ask a question or establish a detail, tick one step off the clock.  When the clock runs out, it triggers a set piece. 

Use this approach sparingly.  If you are using a dungeon with multiple zones, for instance, you might just use this method on the entrance zone.

Traps

As gamers, many of us have become conditioned to think of traps in terms of D&D.  A concealed pit trap here, a poisoned dart trap there, a falling portcullis, you get the idea.  In D&D, these isolated traps are meant to slowly drain the party’s resources (HP, spells, hirelings, equipment).  These sorts of traps do not work in 7th Sea.  So don’t even bother with it.

Traps in 7th Sea should come in three forms: obstacles (risks), grand death traps (hazards as villains), and complications (the room is on fire!).

  • Obstacles: obstacles are simply a risk that must be circumvented or navigated to get from one location to the next.  These should be treated as a simple Group Risk.  They should cause enough wounds to give them teeth (2-5 per hero) and a few related consequences and opportunities to keep the choices interesting.
  • Grand Death Traps: unleash your inner James Bond villain here.  A death trap should always be a hazard, but the encounter should be played out as an action sequence.  Think the opening scene of Raiders of the Lost Ark.  The Death Trap is triggered when the idol is stolen, followed by an action sequence where Indy has to run a gauntlet of smaller traps to avoid being crushed by a giant boulder.  Death traps are intricate, multi-part devices that fill entire rooms, halls, even zones.  A death trap is ALWAYS a set piece.
  • Complications: These traps work in tandem with another adversary in an action sequence.  A good example of this is the conveyor belt seen in Star Wars: Attack of the Clones, where the heroes are fighting flying adversaries while dealing with the pitfalls of traveling on a moving conveyor belt.  While these traps can be treated as hazards, they can also simply be a collection of consequences (or group consequences).

Disarming Traps

Another fallacy that has come from modern incarnations of D&D is that all traps may be disarmed somehow.  This is simply wrong.  In fact, there is evidence that in the earliest form of the D&D game, the only traps that were meant to be disarmed were treasure traps (there is a poison needle in the lock).  Other traps (pits, snares, etc.) could be avoided but not disarmed.  In 7th Sea, disarming a trap should ALWAYS be a group opportunity, and available only where it makes sense or if you are feeling particularly generous.  As the GM, you have the option of saying “no, but…”

But Aren’t Traps Hazards?

The answer is no. 7th Sea actually distinguishes between Hazards (The New World) and Traps (Vaticine City).  Of course, both of them work almost the same way.  But you can choose between them in terms of what is a better fit for the scene.  Traps make for better Obstacles and simple Risks while Hazards make better Death Traps.  Either one can be used to generate Complications in a scene.  It really depends on how much flexibility you want as a GM.

Monsters

Another complaint of Matt’s is that Théah is a 99% human world, which makes it difficult to set up a Keep on the Borderlands-style dungeon adventure.  I would argue this couldn’t be further from the truth.  Granted, D&D is full of tiered monsters designed to challenge PCs from level 1-14/20/36/??, which 7th Sea doesn’t need.  But monsters (and we’re talking weird Clarke Aston Smith-style monsters) have always been part of the setting.  And not just weird folklore monsters (faeries, djinn, oni) but weird science fantasy ones too (Thalusi, et al.).  Here’s the thing, don’t follow the eco-diversity model of D&D when making your weird dungeons.  Get weird, subvert tropes, add color and surprises.

In 7th Sea, the Caves of Chaos could potentially be found pretty much anywhere in Théah.  The themes of the region simply add color.  In Avalon, you have to deal with the politics of the sidhe, who might not take kindly to you wiping out an enclave of the unseelie host.  In Eisen, this ravaging horde takes on a more horrific quality.  In the Commonwealth, the cult of chaos could be a cabal of rogue Losejai and the monsters a sort of weird, sub-demonic host.  Truth is, almost every region of europe has its own folklore about goblins, kobolds, and dangerous fey.  A half hour of research online should net you plenty of redressing possibilities.

A word of warning: 7th Sea isn’t meant to be D&D.  So if you start littering the countryside with dungeon crawls, don’t come complaining to me when your game goes off the rails. 

Treasure

Monetary treasure can be helpful in 7th Sea, but it’s not a focus of play.  So the purpose of your dungeon adventure shouldn’t hinge on it (unless your heroes are all pirates!).  So here again, we need to unlearn what we have learned from generations of D&D play and go back to the pulps that inspired it.  In the pulps, these sorts of adventures usually culminate in a single, massive horde, or the search for a particular treasure (the crown jewels, or a chest of cursed aztec gold).  So think big.  Tie the players stories into these treasures.  Send them on recovery missions for patrons and secret societies, not as rogue freebooters who are out for themselves (unless, again, they are pirates!).

Here’s a thought: borrow a page from Barbarians of Lemuria.  In that RPG, treasure is simply a means to earn experience.  After an adventure, the players take turns explaining how they spent their share of the treasure, and that nets them experience for advancing their characters.  You could easily do the same thing with 7th Sea.  If treasure hunting IS the point of the adventure, require each player to describe how she spends her share as the final step in their Story.  OR offer up a handful of strange, exotic treasures as keystones for new, short stories (1-2 Steps only unless a player has something bigger in mind for a reward).  Earthdawn is another good source of inspiration here: where each treasure has new powers that need to be studied and explored to be unlocked

Stories Hooks

The real magic to running a successful dungeon in 7th Sea are stories.  Tie the factions, villains, and treasures into the players’ character stories.  Give them a reason to be there, to find someone or something, to prevent an event, or stop a villain for completing a scheme.  Don’t just drop a bunch of goblins in the middle of the forest and expect greatness.  Stories (and Story Steps) are the real currency of the real when it comes to 7th Sea, so give your players a reason to invest in the adventure.

For good examples of tying your dungeon environment into your players stories, look to the Vaticine City sourcebook.  The lists on page 3-5 are pure gold and easily repurposed to this effort.

In Closing

So there you have it, my recipe for running successful “dungeon” adventures with the 7th Sea rules.  Perfect for syrneth dig sites, Montaigne catacombs, extensive Sarmatian cave systems, and lost cities in Aztlan.  Be flexible, and be prepared to experiment and improvise—not everything I’ve recommended is going to work, and some of it is going to require fine tuning.  As of this writing, there are very few published models of what can be considered dungeon crawls in the 7th Sea sense.  Until we get a few of those, its really hard to say what works and what doesn’t.  But don’t let that stand in your way!

And be sure to report in the comments what works and what doesn’t.  I’m eager to hear about it.

Resources and Inspiration

6 Methods for Making Dungeons More Interesting (Roleplaying Tips)

The Nine Forms of the Five Room Dungeon (Gnome Stew)

How Making Up A Dungeon On The Fly Is As Simple As Counting To 5 (Nerds on Earth)

Crawling without Hexes (Hill Cantons)

Pointcrawl Series Index (Hill Cantons)

Encounters vs Scenes (What’s He On About Now?)

Dungeons in FATE: Scenes and Scenarios (RPG Stuff)

Node-based Dungeon Design (The Alexandrian)

Expertimentation

failure

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.

Run Riot!

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 what happened then?” she asks.

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.

Reflection

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, 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.

Reflections

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.

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.

 

 

 

 

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!