I really like the 7th Sea family of games and I’m really loving the new edition by John Wick Presents. It’s a fun, topsy-turvy version of medieval Europe with familiar themes and a fun cinematic system for combat. If you are intrigued by this game as well or you want to try your hand at a campaign but need to get players up to speed, then this list’s for you!
1. The Basic Mechanic is Rolling for Raises
Before we get into the setting material for 7th Sea, let’s talk about the mechanics of the system. It involves dice pools of the sort that folks might be familiar with from Star Trek Adventures or Shadowrun or Burning Wheel. When you want to do something you gather together a pool of ten-sided dice based on the Trait (these are Brawn, Finesse, Resolve, Wits, and Panache) and Skill that your GM says apply, and any bonus dice you get from your abilities. For example, you might use Brawn + Weaponry to hit someone with a broadsword or Finesse + Hide to spy on someone.
Something that throws people with this system, though, is the results of the roll. Say you roll eight dice for your action and you get 7, 3, 1, 4, 8, 5, 1, and 7. The next step is to group these to make as many sets of at least 10 as you can manage. Using the results above you can make 7+3, 1+4+5, and 8+7. This last one is more than 10 but that’s just how it goes. Each of these sets of at least 10 is a “Raise” and these you use to accomplish things in the action. You might spend one of the three Raises rolled above to sprint across the room, another to leap up the stairs, and the last to lash out with your blade against the evil count. Unused dice (like that last “1” above) can be used by the GM to increase their pool of Danger Point but he has to give you a Hero Point in exchange. These are spent to boost dice pools, activate special abilities, and generally keep things exciting.
That’s the bare bones of the system. The dramatic storytelling part of this is that every situation is based on what the people at the table are narrating. Your dice pool depends on what you want to do and the Raises can be used for whatever you imagine and the GM agrees is fair. The specific case of physical combat, you spend Raises to inflict Wounds and your opponent spends Raises to avoid them. Every fifth Wound you take is a Dramatic Wound that degrades your ability to do things and every hero has the same number of Wound spaces on their sheet. Your ability to not get beaten up depends on how strong your physical Skills are and the Raises they provide rather than your ability to tank damage.
2. Théah Is Pretty Much Europe
The central premise of 7th Sea is that it’s familiar. Anyone who’s seen or read stories set during the European Age of Enlightenment will see familiar scenes here: rapiers and muskets, church Inquisitors, sailing ships, New Worlds, exotic spices from the east, and so on. Specifically, there are strong analogs between all the nations of Théah that can help you get quickly up to speed.
The island nation of Avalon in the north rules over two other nearby lands in the United Kingdom of Avalon. Obviously this is reminiscent of England and the ruling monarch, Queen Elaine, has a strong Queen Elizabeth vibe. The other two islands are Inismore, a stand-in for Ireland complete with standing stones and wild chieftains, and the Highland Marches, a rugged analog for Scotland despite being its own separate island.
On the mainland is the powerful nation of Montaigne, which is very French-like complete with a Sun King. Its nobles dress in elaborate costumes and enjoy the vast riches that their highly divided feudal system affords them. South of there is the nation of Castille with passionate music, hidalgos and siestas, and a question of succession… obviously Spain. East of there is the mercantile nation of Vodacce which has a lot of Italian flair including widespread trade networks dating back centuries.
In the north there is the wartorn nation of Eisen which, like its counterpart Germany, is searching for identity and has a plethora of mercenaries working throughout the land. North of that is mouthful nation of Vestenmennavenjar which is a stand-in for both Scandinavia and the Low Countries with a somewhat complicated history. In eastern Théah are Ussura, a version of Russia complete with a Baba Yaga figure, and the Sarmatian Commonwealth, drawing inspiration from the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth.
More than that, there’s a church schism between the traditional Vaticines and the reformationist Objectionists. This caused a thirty-year war which devastated Eisen and is still on everyone’s mind, while others are focused across the ocean to the newly-founded colonies of the Théan nations.
3. Théah Isn’t Really Europe, Though
While the parallels to 18th century Europe can make 7th Sea very accessible, don’t assume that everything that was true in the real world is true here. The presence of magic and the conflicted feelings about it are one obvious departure, similar to witch hunts in Europe but not entirely the same, and the character of the nations themselves is subtly different.
Take Montaigne, for example. Sure King Léon Alexandre de Montaigne is called the Sun King and his court is a glittering collection of nobles pursuing political games and frivolous parties. He’s also a violent, warmongering man who has led his kingdom to invade its neighbors in an attempt to bring all of Théah under his rule. His family is one of the strongest groups of the traditional blood sorcerers of Montaigne and he is actively pushing his people away from the church. These are very different characteristics from the pious, diplomatic schemer that was King Louis XIV and the nation follows suit.
The Vaticine Church is another facet of the setting that might surprise you. On the surface it’s fairly similar to the Catholic Church, including priests, diocese, political entanglements, and a scripture based on a religious figure from the east. However, the holy word of the church in Théah is based on three holy figures, none of them claiming to be divine. The First Prophet lived sixteen-hundred years ago in a continent-spanning empire which killed him. The Numanari Empire eventually came to reject its polytheistic traditions to make the Prophet’s teachings the state religion. A Second Prophet was born three hundred years later and called for a Great Pilgrimage back to the eastern deserts. He preached the word of the same god but was also martyred on his return east with a flock of followers. Eventually the eastern Crescent Empire came to believe the teachings of the Second Prophet, but about seven centuries after that a Third Prophet was born who reformed the teachings of the Vaticine Church but whose teachings are ignored by the Church of the Second Prophet in the east.
Again, this is all familiar but also a very different history from the Christian church in real-world Europe. For one, the First Prophet follows the trajectory of Jesus but is followed up by a Second Prophet right away. Unlike the teachings of Jesus, whose ministry built on the teachings the Moses established centuries earlier, the Second Prophet’s appearance doesn’t seem to have caused a divide at all. Every community following the First Prophet’s teachings signed on with the Second Prophet so there is an equivalent to Christians but not to Jews. Then, there is a third figure who comes to shake things up much like Mohammed did in the 7th century, but in this case it’s the eastern faith that rejects his teachings and the western one that accepts it. So the Vaticine Church is Islam and the Crescent Empire is Catholicism? Better to think about this as a totally different story with familiar aspects instead of a direct parallel.
4. There are Monsters Out There but Only Human Characters
The world of Théah is a magical one and that means there are all sorts of fantastic creatures out there. Spectral ghosts, captivating sirens, undead wights, and greedy kobolds are all denizens of this world that your characters could encounter. In the United Kingdoms of Avalon, the people have a strong relationship with magical creatures from another world that grant them magic and protection from ancient agreements. These Sidhe were neglected for centuries when Montaigne occupied the islands but Queen Elaine has recently reestablished the old ways.
On top of all that, there are divine figures in the wider world (more on those later) and mysterious creatures who lived in the distant past called the Syrne. The Syrne were most assuredly not human and they had a powerful empire of amazing magic before humans ever set foot on Théah. Although rare, Syrneth ruins and artifacts are highly prized in Théah and the advantages that scientists have created by reverse-engineering Syrneth magic has led to incredible changes in Théan society. Rest assured that this is not an analogy for the Roman Empire; the setting has another one of those. The Syrneth are much more like the ancient societies of Lovecraft, with all the wonder and threat that should lead to.
All you’re going to be playing, though, are humans. Maybe you’re a human who’s grown up around the Sidhe, or a human who has a tie to ancient gods or strong magics. Maybe you inherited strange and frightening magic. That might be true, but you’re still just human.
5. Your Character Has a Nation but Not a Class
Characters in 7th Sea don’t have classes like in D&D or playbooks like in Apocalypse World. They do, however, have nations that they hail from which shape a lot of the character choices. In most settings, your national heritage is a minor part of your character mechanically and only a factor in the character’s persona if you want it to be: an elf wizard from Waterdeep in the Forgotten Realms can have any spells or features as any other elf wizard and they might never mention where they were born after the first session.
In 7th Sea, there’s no escaping your national heritage. First and foremost, you gain skill bonuses just based on your nation. Characters in 7th Sea also pick a background mostly resembles a background in D&D: a few skill bonuses, some free Advantages (equivalent to feats), and roleplay suggestions. Your national heritage, however, provides some unique backgrounds that other players just don’t get access to. It also determines what type of magic you would have access to if you select that Advantage, and has a strong push towards particular dueling styles if you’re going in that direction. Lastly, various Advantages have costs associated with them but being from a particular nation can reduce those costs so that its easier to have those abilities.
Think hard about your nation as it determines the most when you make a character. The lore and the rules are so varied, though, that you can easily have a party of five people all from the same nation and they will likely be dramatically different. And I mean “dramatically” in every sense.
6. Your Character Also has an Arcana
Another potentially unfamiliar aspect of your character is their Arcana. These twenty archetypes are similar to the Major Arcana in a Tarot deck and they are both a mechanical effect and an in-game aspect of the character. If your character ever has their fortune read they will see this card come up when the witch’s magic touches their aura. For the player, though, the Arcana is more likely to come up with the mechanical advantages of Virtue (a bonus to a particular sort of action) and a Hubris (gaining a Hero Point when you do something disadvantageous).
Take, for example, the Arcana called Reunion. A character with this Arcana has a Virtue called Exemplary which allows you to pool your Raises for a scene with another character, something other characters just can’t do. Characters with the Reunion Arcana also have a Hubris called Bitterness which gives you a Hero Point when you bring up old grudges or insults at a time when it will cause you a problem. Will the character with the Reunion Arcana be someone constantly collaborating with other PCs and then mouthing off to NPCs he has beef with? No, not necessarily. He will, however, be much more likely to do these things because they have a mechanical benefit for him.
7. There are Many Types of Magic
So the Vaticine Church in 7th Sea is opposed to the use of sorcery which it considers dangerous. What is sorcery and who uses it? Well, that’s a complicated question because there is no specific mechanical or in-game power that equates to sorcery, and all of it is only as dangerous as the person who uses it. Possessing amazing magic certainly leads to a feeling of importance so it might be that sorcerers are more prone to cruelty than others but it’s not from the actual magic itself (mostly).
- Hexenwerk is the witchcraft of Eisen, real Grimm’s Fairy Tale stuff that involves the use of dark materials such as the tongues of corpses, the moss from a tombstone, or a potion made from boiling holy water with various items.
- The Knights of Avalon are an order who carry blessings granted in ages past by the Sidhe. There are twenty knights of old similar to the Knights of the Round Table and with Queen Elaine bringing back a relationship with the Sidhe twenty new heroes need to take on these mantles.
- Dar Matushki, or “Mother’s Touch,” are gifts granted by the crone-like Matushki (the Ussuran version of Baba Yaga) and they can be anything really. There are some gifts provided in the book (including advanced healing, repairing things with a touch, or changing into animal form) but you can also make up anything that you and your GM like.
- Porté is the flashiest and often grossest type of magic which creates magic doorways. It has to be inherited and is solely in the hands of Montaigne nobility. Imagine someone taking a knife, slicing a hole in the air that bleeds and screams, then stepping through to a far-off destination. It sounds pretty horrifying.
- Sanderis is the magic of Sarmatia and it literally involves making a bargain with a demon. Like all magic, this doesn’t make you evil per se but try to stay altruistic when you are borrowing power from a malicious demon that is trying to eat your soul.
- Sorte is only found in Vodacce women who inherit it and it involves reading fates in auras, bestowing blessings or curses, and draw people toward you. It’s classic witch stuff.
8. Get Ready to Duel
As an example of how important dueling is in this game, gaining access to magic is a 2-point Advantage while gaining access to a Dueling Style is a 5-point Advantage. Of course you can keep buying more and more magical ability but Dueling Style is on or off. Even for those who don’t know a particular style there are Maneuvers that let you do specific things. This mini-system is easy enough to use but you should expect to do lots of swinging on chandeliers and crossing blades with your enemies. Style schools vary from the two-bladed Ambrogia school to the broadsword-and-iron-gauntlet school of Eisenfaust.
If you really want to get into dueling with your character, invest in some Dueling Style Advantages. Again, these are determined by nation but you can always be born in one part of Théah and studied swordplay in another part. Just include it in your character’s background.
9. There Are Plenty of Secret Societies
Another part of the setting that gets a lot of attention is secret societies. All of them have different agendas but in terms of player character benefits they are networks of allies throughout Théah (and beyond) who can help you out. Mechanically, you earn Favor that you can spend on getting assistance from fellow members.
One of the biggest groups is the Brotherhood of the Coast, an alliance of pirates and scoundrels trying to forge something new. Die Kreuzritter is the opposite, a centuries-old religious order hunting down shadowy monsters in the wilds of Eisen. The Explorer’s Society is just what it sounds like, and it’s also the name of the community content group for 7th Sea. The Invisible College and the Knights of Rose & Cross are altruistic groups trying to halt the worst aspects of Théan society while Los Vagabundos do the same as Zorro-like vigilantes. The Rilasciare and Novus Ordo Mundi are the sort of group you’d picture as a secret society, with plots and mysterious designs in line with the Rosicrucians or Freemasons. In this shadow war the Rilasciare are the good ones and the Novus Ordo are the villains. Sophia’s Daughters grew out of the Rilasciare and together with Močiutės Skara they are two prominent groups that are all-female and trying to change society.
10. There’s More Lands Out There
One big difference between the last edition of 7th Sea and the latest one published by John Wick Presents is the global focus. There has always been mention of exotic lands to the east in the lore of Théah but in the second edition of the game there are at least four other continents that the game has either published a sourcebook on or has one on the way.
One of the easiest to fit into a Théan 7th Sea campaign is the Atabean Sea, a version of the Caribbean Sea which is fully fleshed out in Pirate Nations. It’s a great and dynamic setting with plenty of pirate ports and a version of the East India Company that will drive you crazy. Forming the western shore of that body of water is Aztlán, a land inspired by Central and South America and detailed in The New World sourcebook (reviewed here).
Closer to Théah, the southern continent of Ifri is a stand in for Africa described in Lands of Gold and Fire (and reviewed here) which is my favorite of the world sourcebooks so far. Just east of Théah is the Crescent Empire, covered in its own sourcebook, which is the closest source for exoticism for hauty Théans. Future sourcebooks promise information on Khitai, the world’s version of Asia, and the Colonies set up by Théah across the ocean.
All of these lands (presumably including the colonies) have dueling styles, secret societies, and sorceries of their own. This means that, despite the cultural and historical divides, there are mechanics shared by characters in every part of the world so that you can easily mix them together. The easiest way to do this is through a ship’s crew but you could also have travelers, mercenaries, or any other type of story your GM thinks up. There’s also the option of having a campaign set entirely in these other lands and the sourcebooks are certainly set up to make those happen.