As I’ve worked to wrap my brain around the finer points of the new edition of 7th Sea, squaring the circle of the traditional RPG encounter with this more pseudo-narrative style has been a bit challenging. And 7th Sea isn’t the only RPG with this issue. A lot of them, Witch Hunter and Savage Worlds included (IMNSHO) miss the bar on this one. After all, when surprise is left to an opposed roll…what surprise is left? No, this is one of the places where D&D excels: these GM procedural rolls. Fast and easy; roll 2d6 and done.
In a game where players only “fail” when they choose too, “surprise” in the sense of a traditional RPG requires something of GM fiat. Thankfully, 7th Sea has a mechanic for that: Danger Points.
Since 7th Sea GMs never have too many things to throw Danger Points at, I give you: the Surprise Round:
Where appropriate, at the beginning of an Action Sequence, the GM may spend a Danger Point to initiate a “surprise round.” During this round, all players must spend a hero point or dedicate enough raises to negate all potential Wounds before they may spend any to cause Wounds of their own.
This applies to Duelists and those with the Student of Combat Advantage, though they may use their Parry maneuver.
Example: a group of heroes are engaged by Strength 5 brute squads, one for each player. The GM spends a Danger Point to initiate a Surprise Round as the Action Sequence begins, putting the heroes at an immediate disadvantage. Normally, each hero could act normally, attacking, defending or performing stunts as they choose. But during the surprise round, each player must dedicate 5 raises (Strength 5 brutes = 5 potential wounds) to defense (negating wounds) before they can attack and cause wounds of their own. The group duelist may perform a Parry maneuver to negate a number of wounds equal to her weaponry (3, in this case), but the remaining 2 wounds must be negated on a 1:1 basis. They may perform defensive stunts normally. If the player chooses, he or she may spend a Hero Point to act normally.
The language probably needs some tightening up, but I think the idea is sound. Sure, you could accomplish some of this by spending a Danger Point to increase the difficulty to 15, or applying Pressure when Villains are involved, but neither of those really feels satisfactory to me. And the cost seems appropriate and in-line with the rest of the game.
Give it a try the next time you want to throw a curve ball at your players. Let me know how it works out.