Saturday, December 12, 2009

Thoughts on Game Design: 7th Sea

As I mentioned earlier, I've gotten involved in a 7th Sea game. So far, due to things like finals and the general vicissitudes of life, we've only just built our characters. Still, that's given me some insights into how the game's mechanics work, and there's some interesting stuff to see there.

First, 7th Sea is very modern in its design. It's a point-buy, skill-based system which uses a lot of dice-tricks in its mechanics. It only uses 10-sided dice. The basic mechanic is fairly simple: the GM gives you a target number, you roll your 10-siders and try to come up with a sum that's equal-to or higher than the target number. Simple enough, but 7th Sea throws in an interesting quirk: some of the 10-siders you rolled you get to keep, and some you don't count.

When you try to do something, the number of dice you roll is based on a Trait (just like the stats in D&D, only there are five of them) and a Knack (which is basically an ability or bit of knowledge your character has). For instance, if you're trying to parry an attack, you add your Wit score to your Parry Knack, and that would tell you how many dice you roll.

However, when you're counting up those dice, you only count a number of dice equal to your Trait, in this case your Wit score. So, for instance, if your Wit is 3 and your Parry is 1, you roll four dice, but only count the score on three of them. Since you're trying to get a high score, obviously, you count the highest three. So if you rolled a 7, 4, 3, and 2, you'd drop the 2 and your score would be 7+4+3=14.

So that's the basic mechanic: roll as many 10-sided dice as your Trait + your Knack, but only keep a number of dice equal to your trait. Obviously, this makes your Traits very important.

(When explaining how many dice to roll, 7th Sea uses the following nomenclature: xky, where x = the full number of dice you roll and y = the number of dice you keep. So in the above example, it would be described as 4k3, and you'd describe the roll as “four-keep-three.” So when the game says the damage your musket does is 5k3, that means you roll five 10-siders and add up the highest three to see how much damage your shot did.)

Here's another interesting bit: like in most modern games, the folks in 7th Sea worked very hard to make certain that all the Traits are useful. In combat, for instance, you use Finesse when trying to hit your opponent and Brawn when calculating how badly you hurt them. When you're on defense, you use Wit to avoid the attack, and if they do hit you, Resolve to limit the damage from the attack. That means the skilled warrior is going to need good scores all across the board in all four of those stats. Since the average target number is 15, you want 3s in all your important Traits. And 3 is the max starting score characters can have.

As you might guess, most characters are only going to have a few 3s and a lot of 2s. Which means you need more dice. Luckily, 7th Sea dice “explode,” meaning if you roll a 10, you count that as a ten, then roll again and add the next number to that 10. If that roll again is a 10, you add it and roll again. So if you roll a 10 on a die, then roll a second 10 on it, and then roll a 7, the total score of that one die is 27.

However, you can't always count on rolling a 10. If you fail to meet the target number, you can choose to roll extra bonus dice called Drama Dice. The really cool thing about Drama Dice is they count as kept dice. Here's the other cool thing: while you only start with as many Drama Dice as your lowest Trait, you can earn more by being dramatic or cool or doing something very much in the spirit and theme of the game.

Obviously, starting characters are going to need those Drama Dice to survive and overcome, especially in combat situations. Good players are going to be looking for every opportunity they can find to earn some Drama Dice.

This puts a heavy burden on the GM, however. The GM can make or break a game based on how they hand out Drama Dice. Too few, and the players will get eaten alive. But the Drama Dice are the GM's best way to reward excellent play that fits into the themes and style of the game, so it best for the GM not to give them out too often and certainly not for actions she doesn't want to see repeatedly frequently in the game. By rewarding Drama Dice, the GM has a powerful influence on the tone and shape of the game.

Art by Howard Pyle.


squidman said...

I alwyas liked the 7th sea mechanics! I thin they are well in tune with the spirit of the game as a whole.

Erin Palette said...

What I like most about the Roll-and-Keep system (RNK) is the way it handles width vs depth.

With a big fat stat, you keep more dice, but increasing it is expensive. That's depth.

Increasing your skill gives you non-kept dice, but since that's cheaper you can roll more of them, and therefore you have a better pool of potential results. That's width.

It really delineates the difference between "talented and unskilled" vs "average but has done this for years".

Rusty said...

Thanks for the post. I've been thinking about this game for a while and it sounds intriguing.

AndreasDavour said...

I really need to read my copy of 7th Sea, and not just browse it once in a while.

I love how the drama dice mechanic work like the Saving Roll mechanic in Tunnels & Trolls. It reinforces the idea that you should act, and try things. Being innovative, active and fun gets rewarded on the spot. That's good design.

Havard: said...

I really like the 7th Sea System and the rulebooks had a lot of interesting advice for the GM.

Matthew James Stanham said...

Definitely enjoyed playing 7th Sea; interesting review!