7th Sea Villains from Movies

I really like the way villains are created in the second edition of the 7th Sea roleplaying game. The addition of villainous schemes in the Heroes & Villains book adds a great way to present the villain as a dynamic force instead of a passive obstacle waiting for the heroes to arrive.

There are some interesting villains in the aforementioned Heroes & Villains book, but I was thinking about how one might create villains by using other media as inspirations. And the villains don’t even have to be from a swashbuckling genre!

Here are three villains that I’ve created using famous movie villains as inspiration.

Peter Baelish (aka Littlefinger)

Played by Aiden Gillen, Littlefinger is a great villain who manipulates his way through the Game of Thrones show on HBO. As much as he is a terrible person, he’s also compelling, and I’ve looked forward to every scene in which he appears. And his “chaos is a ladder” speech (Warning! Spoilers at that link!) is masterful.

If we were to transplant Littlefinger into Theah, he could probably cause the most trouble in Montaigne. Imagine if Littlefinger were to decide that he wanted the throne of the Sun King for himself! At the beginning of a campaign, Littlefinger would be a member of the petite noblesse due to his wealth and connections. And his first step would be to elevate himself to a Marquis as quickly as possible (though such a thing would be difficult to do in the rigid caste system of Montaigne).

Littlefinger would make an excellent villain in a campaign where the player characters were musketeers, courtiers, or members of the nobility. His scheming and ability to manipulate others would present a threat to those whose lives depended on the stability of the Montaigne throne.

Schemes

(1) Gather three favors from three Dukes.
Littlefinger knows it is nearly impossible to be elevated to the true nobility of Montaigne without the backing of multiple Dukes. And while l’Empereur could do so with a simple declaration, such a thing is nearly impossible to arrange from a distance. So Littlefinger is gathering every bit of information he can find on three Dukes—their passions, their dark secrets, their friends, their enemies, and their goals. Once he has done that, he can gain a favor from each, by bribe, blackmail, or gratitude. He will turn those favors into a petition to l’Empereur to elevate him to a Marquis.

(3) Become an advisor to the throne.
Littlefinger is a master at insinuating himself into the inner circles of those in power by making himself indispensable at some task or area of knowledge. Money is Littlefinger’s area of expertise, and so he will attempt to parlay his Marquis status into an opportunity to “help” l’Empereur with some issue or another regarding the treasury of Montaigne.

(5) Set the Dukes against each other.
Once he is advising l’Empereur directly as part of his inner circle, Littlefinger will begin manipulating the nobility to set his enemies against each other while helping out those who prove to be his allies. He will also attempt to restart the invasion of Castille, as he recognizes that in the chaos of war, anything becomes possible. After all, “chaos is a ladder.”

Strength 3; Influence 10; Rank 13

Advantages: Connection (Montaigne underworld (149), Disarming Smile (149), Indomitable Will (149), Streetwise (150), Rich (152)

Virtue: The Moonless Night
Subtle. Activate your Virtue when you act behind the scenes, from the shadows, or through a proxy. For the next Risk, when you determine Raises, every die counts as a Raise.

Hubris: The Magician
Ambitious. You receive a Danger Point when you chase after power and the deal you’re after is dangerous or causes trouble.

Servants and Underlings
Littlefinger has many servants as well as a host of underlings from the criminal underworld of Montaigne (jennys, beggars, corrupt city watch members, smugglers, etc.). Once he joins the nobility, he will have bannermen and soldiers under his command.

Redemption
Littlefinger could not have the woman he loved, and she would have been his only redemption. But since she never loved him (and may not even be alive anymore in your campaign), there is nothing to redeem him. He will trade lives, manipulate others, and betray anyone to gain power, and will not stop as long as he can draw breath.

Anton Chigurh

Javier Bardem was unbelievably creepy in his portrayal of the cartel hitman Anton Chigurh in the Coen Brothers’ film No Country for Old Men. His unrelenting pursuit, his choice of weapons, and his palpable menace brought a power to that movie that elevated it beyond the fairly simple story.

Adding Anton to your 7th Sea campaign can bring a sense of dread to the player characters as they realize that this man is hunting them, and like the original Terminator, he will not stop until they are dead. And he’s not afraid to leave a trail of bodies in his wake while he chases them. Nor will he hesitate to murder their loved ones just to make a point, even after he has what he wants.

In most campaigns, Anton is going to be working for some criminal element as a hitman, and something the PCs do gets him on their trail. In No Country for Old Men, he is trying to recover a bag full of money. In Theah, it would more likely be something special, like papers that identify a bunch of conspirators against the Sun King, or a ring that identifies the wearer as the heir to some family legacy, or even a Syrnrth artifact (though in my opinion, this tends to get overused as a macguffin in 7th Sea adventures).

Schemes

(1) Identify the holder of the [item]
When the item (or money) goes missing from its “proper” possessor (and it falls into the PCs hands), the main villain(s) send Anton to recover it. His first step is to track it back to the PCs. He won’t have something as convenient as a transponder to track the item, so he’ll do it the old-fashioned way—by questioning people who have come into the item’s orbit, and then likely killing them. Once he identifies the PCs as the current possessors, he’ll have this target.

(3) Put the PCs in an untenable situation
Anton will simply attempt to murder the PCs and retrieve the item. This is an opportunity for the GM to inflict collateral damage on nearby NPCs to give the PCs some time to escape their first encounter with Anton. But the hitman won’t just follow them. He’ll cut them off from their allies and isolate them, perhaps by planting evidence that they’ve betrayed their friends, or simply by driving them outside of the places where they can call upon aid.

(5) Execute the PCs one by one
Even if the PCs hand over the item, Anton will need to see them die. He will bring all his skills to bear to take them down, one by one. This should be a dramatic fight, with the PCs very worried about this man who will not stop hunting them, and whether they have a chance to beat him.

Strength 12; Influence 2; Power 14

Advantages: Got It! (149), Handy (149), Indomitable Will (149), Staredown (150), Deadeye (151), Sniper (152), Duelist Academy: Boucher (154), I’m Taking You With Me (154)

Virtue: The Fool
Wily. Activate your Virtue to escape danger from the current Scene. You cannot rescue anyone but yourself.

Hubris: Coins
Relentless. You receive a Danger Point when you refuse to leave well enough alone or quit while you’re ahead, and it gets you into trouble.

Servants and Underlings
Anton does not play well with others, and is just as likely to murder another of the main villains’ “helpers” as he is to kill a witness. He works alone, and nothing will change that.

Redemption
Anton is insane and follows his own code. He is incapable of seeing how what he does is wrong, and cannot be redeemed.

Hannibal Lector

Anthony Hopkins is the iconic actor to play the murderous psychopath Hannibal Lector (starting with the amazing movie The Silence of the Lambs). A brilliant and charismatic doctor, Hannibal lusts for murder, and not only eats choice parts of his victims, but feeds human flesh to his “friends” without their knowledge by disguising it in meals during his dinner parties.

Hannibal Lector is a villain with a narrow focus, and will not be usable in all campaigns. He works best if the PCs are members of some kind of law enforcement or military occupation (such as musketeers), so that they can ask for his help in solving unusual murders that are taking place in the a local area or city.

It is important for the GM to present him as a helpful resource early on, so that the PCs come to trust him and consider him a friend. This will make the revelation of his monstrous deeds have more impact when the PCs eventually figure out he is behind the killings.

If set in Avalon, the depredations of Hannibal Lector might at first resemble those of Jack the Ripper. This can be a red herring for the players, who might use out of character knowledge to try to hunt the killer. Only later, when the victims start becoming more affluent and important, will the tenor of the investigation change.

Schemes

(1) Satiate his cannibalistic urges
Hannibal will kidnap and murder people, and then eat them (or at least the choice parts of them). Then he will dump their remains somewhere in the city to be found by the authorities. He will continue to murder one person per week (or thereabouts) in order to keep himself fed.

(3) Get others to consume human flesh
Once Hannibal has his routine down, he will start feeding human flesh to those guests he hosts at his dinner parties. As a brilliant physician, he will get to know some moderately wealthy and influential people, and he finds it wonderful to watch them engage in cannibalism, even if unknowingly.

(5) Convince those hunting him to willingly join him
Even after he is discovered, he will likely use his incredible intellect to escape and run rings around those hunting him. But once he has established a relationship with the PCs, he will continue to consider them his friends—even if they are hunting him—and will leave them letters or even speak to them directly in situations where they cannot act against him in order to try to convince them to join him in his deranged activities.

Strength 3; Influence 8; Power 11

Advantages: Cast Iron Stomach (148), Linguist (148), Disarming Smile (149), Fascinate (149), Psst, Over Here (150), Lyceum (153), University (154), Spark of Genius (154)

Virtue: The Devil
Astute. Activate your Virtue after a Hero spends Raises for an Action. That Action fails. The Hero still loses the Raises she spent.

Hubris: The Tower
Arrogant. You receive a Danger Point when your Villain shows disdain, contempt, or otherwise looks down on a Hero, or someone who could cause harm to friends.

Servants and Underlings
Hannibal does employ a few servants to help run his manor home, but he keeps the staff small so as to reduce the number of potential witnesses to his dark deeds. He treats his staff kindly and with respect, and they are loyal to him and see him as a very nice man for whom they are lucky to work.

Redemption
Hannibal is beyond redemption, as he is a complete psychopath who does not really understand the difference between right and wrong.

Conclusion

There are countless great villains that one could take from movies and books and adapt them for 7th Sea, and these are just three examples. Changing a few elements here and there will keep them fresh and prevent players from immediately realizing where you found the inspiration.

What other movie or book villains would make good additions to a 7th Sea campaign? Have you adapted any inspirations like the above and used them in your campaign? Tell us about it in the comments.

The 7th Sea 2E Risk System

A couple of weeks ago, I talked about how the use of dice in an RPG don’t always cooperate. In some games, this is a feature, not a bug—a D&D campaign where the story emerges through play is one example where each roll of the dice may send the adventure (or the entire) campaign off in a new direction. The dice rolls determine success or failure, and it’s up to the players to determine how they react to those outcomes.

In other games, straight success or failure may not be an appropriate way to determine what happens. If a group is trying to emulate a high-action setting (like Star Wars, for example), then it’s not generally about success or failure. It’s about choices, and position, and advantage.

That’s not to say that characters in Star Wars never fail. Much of Han Solo’s activities in The Empire Strikes Back are his reactions to one failure after another. But those failures are not generally the result of his own attempts at actions. Rather, the failures are baked into the situations, and the story is about how he deals with those failures.

Some Examples

Okay, I know some people will disagree with me on this, so I’m going to unpack it a bit. I’m going to use The Empire Strikes Back—the best Star Wars movie of them all—to demonstrate what I mean.

In an RPG, dice rolls are always decision points of some sort. At its simplest, a decision point could just be “do I hit the goblin with my sword or not?” It’s a straight success/failure determination.

Let’s assume there is a party of D&D characters and they’ve encountered a roving patrol of goblins in a dungeon, and the goblins ambush the characters. During the first surprise round, the goblins have an advantage (they have an opportunity to hurt—or kill—one or more characters, while the characters don’t get to hit back yet). If the dice rolls determine that some goblins do succeed with their attacks, then the advantage swings even more toward their side.

But then, in the next round, dice are rolled to determine Initiative—what someone on RPG.net cleverly called “rolling the dice to see in what order we roll the dice.” Let’s say that the goblins manage to beat the initiative rolls of all the characters. This swings that advantage even further in the goblins’ favor.

However, the goblins don’t have good odds to hit the armored characters at the front of the party, and this time they fail at their attack rolls. The advantage swings a bit back toward the characters.

And as the characters start taking their actions, the fighter succeeds on his attack roll, and inflicts some damage with his damage roll. The wizard makes her ranged attack roll and takes out a goblin entirely with one flaming bolt. The cleric successfully bashes a third goblin over the head, inflicting further damage.

By the end of the round, the advantage has swung right back into the characters’ favor. So the players decide to continue the fight, and soon they are wiping goblin blood off their weapons and ransacking the bodies for copper pieces.

But what if the dice buck the odds and send the battle off in a different direction?

Let’s say that the goblin attacks are all successful, and the character attacks are failures. After the first round, all the characters have taken some real damage, and the players now see that if they continue the fight, they might actually all be killed. With the advantage currently so heavily in the goblins’ court, the players decide to run away, or parlay, or something else.

The success and failure of the dice rolls moves the situation toward one result or another, and the players then make their decisions based on those successes or failures.

As I said, this is a simple example, but it’s a common one and illustrates how such die rolls impact future decisions and thus, the direction of the campaign. Ultimately, the players may decide to have their characters retreat from the dungeon entirely. Perhaps that results in them exploring in a different direction, or grabbing different adventure hook. And that might mean that none of the characters end up with a certain magic item that was sitting in the goblin chief’s treasure hoard.

All of this is how the D&D game is supposed to work. It’s a game about interaction, exploration, and combat (the “three pillars of adventure” as described in the 5E Player’s Handbook). In many campaigns, it’s about “playing to find out what happens” (to use a phrase from many Powered by the Apocalypse games) rather than about authoring a story.

But other games are often about other things. Sometimes, a game is about situations that require more than just a simple pass/fail determination. It might be just adding gradations of success or failure (e.g. partial success or partial failure), or including some kind of metacurrency (e.g. Hero Points) to allow the player to have some influence over the dice to encourage success or failure when it is more dramatically appropriate.

The Fate Core rules, for example, are still concerned mostly with pass/fail. You make a roll to overcome a resistance, to establish an advantage, to inflict harm (stress), or to defend yourself from harm. But the player can also spend fate points to turn a failed roll into a success. On the other hand, to earn fate points, the player must either take penalties on some rolls (thus making failure more likely) or put herself into situations that are not in her favor.

Some games combine pass/fail with additional elements that tell the players what happens. For example, the system used in Fantasy Flight Games’ Star Wars RPGs use custom dice that include three types of symbols: success/failure, advantage/disadvantage, and triumph/doom. So a roll to shoot a stormtrooper with a blaster could result in a miss (failure), but an advantage (the blaster bolt hits a control panel, locking a door to prevent more Stormtroopers from joining the fight). Some players love this system, as it provides prompts for the group to come up with interesting elements to add to any conflict. Others find it artificial and difficult to always make up new elements on the spot.

And then there are other games that are not really concerned with pass/fail at all. The best example of this is the second edition of the 7th Sea RPG, by John Wick Presents.

The Risk System

The 7th Sea setting assumes that characters are highly competent right from the beginning. They are the types of characters one sees in movies such as Pirates of the Caribbean and Star Wars. In these movies, things are always happening, often too fast for the characters to fully process them, and so they must act and react, but always take some kind of action to change the situation.

In 7th Sea, a character faced with a situation that presents risks and opportunities assembles a die pool based on their Traits and Skills. This pool of d10s is rolled and the player makes sets of 10 (called Raises). The player then spends these Raises to accomplish things in the scene.

The example used in the rulebook posits the character trapped in a burning building. The GM tells the player that it will take 1 Raise to escape the room though the window. However, avoiding taking any wounds from the flames will cost 3 Raises. Furthermore, the character has spotted what looks like it might be an important paper on a table, and grabbing that paper before the flames consume it will cost 1 additional Raise.

If the player manages to accumulate 5 Raises on his roll, then he can accomplish everything—grab the paper (1), avoid the flames (3), and escape the room (1).

But what if the player only rolled 3 Raises? Grabbing the paper and getting out of the room will take 2 of those Raises, meaning that he only has 1 Raise left to avoid the flames, therefore receiving 2 wounds. Or perhaps he really feels he needs to avoid taking damage. He could spend all 3 Raises avoiding the flames, in the hopes of rolling more Raises on his next turn so that he can escape. Maybe he ignores the paper and gets out of the room, only taking a single wound in the process.

This approach majorly mitigates the success/fail question. If the player spends a single Raise on getting out of the room, then he gets out successfully. He doesn’t need to check if he “succeeds” on crossing the room—it’s assumed that if he spends his attention (Raises) on doing so, he’ll manage to do it.

The same goes for combat. It’s not about whether he hits his opponent with his sword or not. If he’s a swashbuckling hero, then of course he hits his opponent with his sword when he makes the effort (spends a Raise) to do so. However, his opponent will also spend Raises to parry with his own sword, or leap backward up onto a table, or knock a standing candelabra into the sword’s way. But doing so requires effort (Raises), and eventually one of them is going to run out of Raises first.

So What about Han Solo?

To bring this back to The Empire Strikes Back…Han Solo doesn’t generally fail directly. Rather, events happen around him at a breakneck pace, and there are only so many things he can do at once.

Let’s look at a specific example to illustrate what I mean…

The Asteroid Scene

Han is piloting the Millennium Falcon away from Hoth, with a Star Destroyer (and TIE fighters) in hot pursuit. The GM has determined that the hyperdrive is not working, but the player doesn’t know that yet. The failure of the hyperdrive is part of the scene, and is not the result of a failed roll by the player/character. For now, the GM tells the player that it will take 5 Raises to plot the hyperspace course, and that he has to spend 3 Raises each turn to avoid the TIE fighters and Star Destroyer batteries. Assuming the player is managing to roll 4-5 Raises each turn (based on a dice pool of 8-10 dice), it’s going to take at least 3 turns to get ready for the jump to hyperspace.

During this time, two more Star Destroyers arrive, and the GM spends Raises to put them into a position to trap the Falcon. But Han’s player ignores the hyperdrive for a moment and spends enough Raises to get out of the trap. And then he gets that 5th Raise and has his hyperspace route.

“Oh yeah, watch this,” he says.

But the hyperdrive engine doesn’t work. C-3PO (NPC) chimes in with “If I may say so sir, I noticed earlier the hyperdrive motivator has been damaged. It’s impossible to go to lightspeed!”

So now the GM determines how many Raises it will take to determine that the hyperdrive cannot be repaired, as the Falcon doesn’t have the necessary parts. But the end result isn’t known by the player—just that something is wrong with the hyperdrive and that spending Raises will determine what they can do about it.

It’s important to note, though, that the damaged hyperdrive motivator was not an explanation for a failed Pilot roll. Han is a hotshot pilot, and the vagaries of the dice shouldn’t make him look incompetent when he’s at the helm of his ship. Rather, an external event has caused the problem, and now he’s got to deal with it.

(This is, I believe, the core of a great deal of what happens to characters other than Luke in the original Star Wars trilogy.)

The reason I say this is because if the damaged hyperdrive was a result of their attempt to escape, then one must also imagine what would happen if the roll was a success. Boom—they get away cleanly. But we’ve already seen this scene play out in the first movie. It adds nothing for them do it again, and repeating such a scene becomes anticlimactic. If they need to get away again later on, there won’t be much tension—because they always get away once they activate the hyperdrive.

So this situation isn’t just the result of a Pilot check or something similar. It doesn’t just come out of a simple pass/fail roll. This is a set piece that the GM set up—a challenge that forces the players not just to react, but act if they want to get out of this.

(I know some people will say that the GM is being a jerk here by simply declaring the hyperdrive doesn’t work. I would expect that, if this were a real game, the ongoing maintenance issues with the Falcon is a key part of the game and doesn’t come as a terrible surprise. While the characters would hate this situation, I think the players would find it fun to play though, and that’s pretty much my take on quality GMing. You want to set up situations that the character hate, but the players love. It’s a balancing act, but if you can do it, you’ll never lack for people wanting to play in your games.)

But back to the characters. Those TIE fighters and Star Destroyers are still chasing them, and Han goes to take a look at the hyperdrive. The GM has determined that it will take 10 Raises to figure out the problem with the hyperdrive, and they still have to spend 3 Raises each round to avoid damage. Leia’s character takes over the piloting for now, and she’s able to get those 3 Raises while Han and Chewie try to diagnose the hyperdrive.

And then the GM tosses in the final complication…asteroids!

Once the characters are all gathered in the cockpit again, GM says that the players no longer need to spend 3 Raises a round to avoid the TIE fighters, as they are too busy avoiding the asteroids themselves to shoot at the Falcon. But the players do have to spend 3 Raises per round to avoid taking damage from the spinning rocks. And any extra Raises can be spent on inflicting damage on the chasing TIE fighters (represented by putting them in situations where they get hit by asteroids themselves).

After a couple of rounds, Han’s player comes up with the idea of getting closer one of the big asteroids, which move much more slowly. The GM likes this idea, but once they are out of the general mess above, the last two TIE fighters start shooting again. Han’s player manages to roll more than enough Raises, however, to destroy the last two TIEs (by having them follow him into a trench and then crash into the narrow walls).

Deciding that it’s time to let the characters regroup a bit, the GM tells them they spot a cave in the big asteroid, and they fly into it to hide from the Empire’s forces. They no longer have to roll to accumulate enough Raises to figure out exactly what’s wrong with the Falcon’s hyperdrive (and that they don’t have the parts to repair it). Instead, they just spend a bit of time while the Empire searches for them, and then they receive the bad news.

After a bit of downtime, in which a couple of players do some roleplaying of the budding romance between their characters, the GM decides it’s time to turn the heat up again, and introduces the mynocks…

Conclusion

Failure can certainly be interesting, and 7th Sea doesn’t shy away from it by any means. But not all games are the same, and not all settings are appropriate for the random success and failure that one finds in D&D. Personally, I love D&D and it provides one kind of game I really enjoy. The dice determinations in D&D are absolutely appropriate for that game.

However, sometimes I’m looking for a different experience. Just because I love pizza, I don’t want to eat it for dinner every single day. Systems like the one used in 7th See 2E provide a very different take on success and failure, and can be used to play games in which situations are resolved not by straight success or failure, but by seeing how the characters spend their limited resources to choose their course toward success.

It’s a different method, but it’s still about the journey more than the destination. The characters (and players) still make decisions, but those decisions come from a different place than in a traditional pass/fail system like D&D.

I hope looking at The Empire Strikes Back helped to explain what I mean by this. Competent characters can still be challenged, and still look competent, while putting them in situations that take them to their limits. And that’s where the fun truly begins in roleplaying games.

An Acceptable Level of Risk

This week’s post came out of some pondering I was doing after I wrote about introducing a couple of new people to the hobby last week. Specifically, about how one of the players ended up bouncing off the system a few times as the dice didn’t want to cooperate with his idea of how he wanted the game to go.

It got me thinking about systems, and about how I like different systems to provide different experiences, depending on who my players are and the game setting and assumptions that we’ve chosen for a particular campaign.

I’m not going to get into heavy theory here, and I’m not going to bother with the whole GNS categorization that was a major topic of the Forge back when it was a thing. Instead, I’m going to talk about a few specific games, what they do, and how they do it. Hopefully, this will be of some use to those who are searching for the “right” system for them.

Past Examples

One good example that I’ve already written about on this blog involved my search for the right system to use for an action-espionage campaign. There are many different systems that have been used for various espionage RPGs:

And more, not to mention all the generic systems such as GURPS and Hero System that have published espionage supplements or that are often referenced by players of those systems.

But in my search, I eventually settled on the Feng Shui RPG, because I knew it would provide the kind of play experience I wanted.

Media Settings

It can get more muddied when you want to run a game that takes place in the same setting as a known media property. For example, one might want to attempt to run a game that is essentially the RPG version of the Mission: Impossible movies.

But even that requires further definition. The most common confusion that I tend to see that crops up when people discuss playing in a popular setting is whether or not the game is going for emulation of the property itself.

For example, when people talk about running a game in the setting of Conan the Barbarian (using Robert E. Howard’s original stories), there is usually one group that wants to use the setting as it was in the stories, as if it was a real place. Let’s face it, the Conan setting is dangerous, and people die easily and often. So if you’re focused on the setting itself, you’d probably want a game system that is fairly gritty and where combat can easily be lethal to the characters and NPCs. A player might lose multiple player characters over the course of the game, and it’s only when a PC survives does he or she become the “hero” of the campaign.

The other group wants to play the game like Robert E. Howard’s stories. The fundamental difference here is that, while NPCs are fragile and often die easily, the protagonist of Howard’s stories (i.e. Conan) is fated to survive at least until he becomes the King of Aquilonia. A game taking this focus isn’t about whether or not the characters will survive—of course they’ll survive, because they are the protagonists. The question is what adventures will they have and what interesting things will they experience over the course of the game.

Both of the approaches are totally valid, but they really are at odds with each other. And a game system that is perfect for one approach will almost certainly be wholly unsuitable for the other approach.

Just as an example, the excellent Mythras RPG is great for the first approach. The game system can be very deadly for PCs and NPCs alike, combat is fairly involved and provides opportunities to do interesting things during a fight, and it’s grounded in a certain sense of realism.

On the other hand, HeroQuest 2E, Fate Core or the second edition of 7th Sea is more appropriate for the second type of game. These system assume a good level of competence from the PCs, and it’s easy to frame challenges in a way that highlights the PCs’ role as the protagonists.

When the Dice Don’t Cooperate

John Wick (the RPG designer, not the movie assassin), wrote an interesting blog post back in 2015 about dice and how they are used in RPGs. While I don’t agree with everything he says in that post, I do agree that sometimes I have no interest “in exploring the idea of random failure as a dramatic element in an RPG.”

Now, I do run D&D games, and random failure due to dice is a key element of the rule system for that game. And when I decide to run D&D, I’m accepting those rules and what they bring to the table. For one of the games that I’m running with some of my friends (playing Out of the Abyss), that feel of D&D, where I roll out in the open and let the dice fall where they may is a thing that we enjoy. We know that any of the characters might die at any time through a series of bad dice rolls (though there are ways to mitigate that somewhat). We accept it, because that’s the experience we’re looking for.

But that doesn’t work for every game I run. And that’s why I like the Fate Core rules (as an example). In Fate, it’s not generally about whether you succeed or fail. It’s about what success will cost you. Generally, between skill levels, Aspects, and fate points, a player can usually pull of a success when it really matters to them. But when the player spends those fate points, it means that the character’s negative Aspects are going to have to triggered at some point to get those points back into the player’s pool. You can succeed now, but what will it cost you (and when)?

This is not just a thing in a narrative system like Fate Core. The current Conan RPG by Modiphius has a mechanic by which the player can “buy” additional dice for a roll, but those bought dice provide the GM with “Doom”, a resource the GM can spend to make things more difficult for the characters during a scene.

These kinds of mechanics smooth out the random nature of the dice, and allow the players to direct improved odds when they really need a success.

And going back to John Wick, his second edition of the 7th Sea RPG is great for this. The player rolls a handful of dice (based on ability scores and skill ratings), and then “spends” those dice for actions. In 7th Sea, it’s not about success or failure on any given task. Rather, it’s about how much the character can accomplish in a round. Roll well, and you can achieve your objectives, avoid harm, and potentially take advantage of special opportunities provided by the GM. Roll poorly, and you’ll still succeed at what you’re trying to do—but it will mean you’ll miss out on some opportunities, or take some damage while you accomplish your objectives.

Tying It All Together

And this goes back to the introductory D&D game that I ran for the new players. This was a one-shot adventure, with no expectation that the characters were going to continue in a campaign afterward. The adventure itself—Mad God’s Key—is a bit of a mystery, with a dungeon crawl at the end. And the players played well and reached the final encounter in the dungeon with only one character having been injured.

And then the dice decided not to cooperate.

For the new players, who were coming from books and movies that follow a pretty identifiable narrative arc, it was time for them to succeed and overcome the evil at the end of the story. But D&D’s rules are not set up to support that kind of game. The rules are designed around random failure creating difficulties for the characters (including possible death) because those become branching points in a campaign.

So we ended up with a mismatch between the rules and players’ expectations. Because when the player tried to attack the evil high priest, of course his character shouldn’t start whiffing at that point. That would be entirely anticlimactic. Again, not in an ongoing campaign, but definitely in a one-shot adventure.

As I said, I like D&D and I’m perfectly willing to run it as written and let the dice fall where they may. But after the game, I realized that it’s not a great system for a one-shot with new players. As an introductory game, for people who may or may not end up in a campaign later on, the rules can result in a real disconnect between expectations and reality.

Conclusion

Over the last year or so, I’ve introduced a few new people to roleplaying games, some kids and some adults. D&D worked well for the kids, because we launched right into a campaign, and D&D is designed to support that kind of game.

But the more recent experience was a good reminder to me that another approach is probably better for brand new players who aren’t jumping into a full campaign right at the start. A system like the one in 7th Sea would have provided a more appropriate experience.

And so it’s resulted in me reviewing my various campaigns and taking a hard look at the system used in each one, to make sure the rules are appropriate for what we’re trying to accomplish in each of the games I run.

How do you choose the “right” system for a campaign? Do you just go with the default system attached to a particular setting, or do you tinker and modify, or do you replace the system wholesale with one that you feel is a better fit? Tell us about it in the comments.

 

7th Sea Second Edition

As mentioned before, I’m an avid player of pen-and-paper roleplaying games. I’ve been playing for 35 years, and have at least tried well over a hundred different games at this point.

Because I’m a natural storyteller, I’ve always been interested in games that really work to emulate the feel of the fiction that I read or watch. Games that focus on the minutia of exact distances, specific pieces of gear, or perfect physics don’t tend to interest me that much.

Which leads me to the new edition of the 7th Sea roleplaying game. You may have already heard about the Kickstarter that launched this game, being that it is the most successful Kickstarter for a roleplaying game project ever.

(As an aside, those who claim that RPGs are dead need to take a look at this Kickstarter. More than eleven thousand people raised more than $1.3 million dollars for a single RPG. Yeah, sounds dead to me.)

I’ve had the digital version of the core rules for some time now, and I’ve read it from end-to-end, and then reread parts that I wanted to understand/absorb better. I haven’t had a chance to actually run the game yet—but I’m hoping that this will happen fairly soon.

But my initial reaction is that this is a game written by people who know and understand the source material, and the rules support providing such an experience for the players.

Let’s be honest, the swashbuckling genre isn’t constrained by physics. Someone jumping from a balcony to grab a chandelier and swing across a room to a window ledge doesn’t want to deal with exact distances. If you’re playing such a game, do you really want to have to make a Jump check, figure out if you managed to jump the correct distance to grab the chandelier, then make another jump check at the other end of the swing to reach the window ledge, and then perhaps make a balance check to spin around and drop a witty one-liner before your exit?

Well, maybe you do. If so, there are plenty of games that will give you that experience. This one definitely won’t.

Characters in 7th Sea are competent from the beginning. The rolls don’t determine pass/fail. Rather, the rolls determine how much you can accomplish in a particular amount of time. Sometimes you’ll be under threat of attack, trying to escape, and also want to grab the papers detailing the secret alliance between two nefarious villains. And you’ll only roll well enough to accomplish two of those three goals.

Which two do you choose to accomplish? Do you escape with the papers but take an injury on your way out? Do you escape unharmed but leave the papers behind? Or do you grab the papers and avoid the wounds, but find yourself surrounded and captured?

This is the kind of thing that happens regularly in stories of that genre, and the new game captures it beautifully.

Now, the game isn’t perfect by any means. There are little things here and there that I might have done differently. But that’s fine—there is no perfect game. And John Wick himself encourages that approach in the actual book.

I’m hoping to get a chance to run this over the next couple of months and see how it plays in real life. But so far, I’m pretty happy with the game I bought.

If you’re interested, there are many reviews that go into a lot more detail than I’m including here. And the PDF of the core rules is only $25 at Drivethrurpg.

Once I get a game in, I’ll write up my thoughts (and perhaps a bit of an Actual Play) and post it here.

What about you? What do you think of the new 7th Sea game? Let me know in the comments.