May 29, 2009

Swashbucklers of the Seven Skies Review

This is a review of the new Chad Underkoffler RPG, Swashbucklers of the Seven Skies.

My companions, Dulce, Torren, Tubal and I stepped into the dive in Port Gulliver. Months of research and chasing down leads had led us to this island, this city, this tavern. Within the semidarkness of the place, the glint of the idol, six feet tall, standing behind the bar, was an irresistible and unmistakable beacon.
“Is that…” Dulce, on my left, breathed. I could sense that she was ready to draw her sword and just take it then and there. Few people ever made the mistake twice of getting in her way when she had her sword drawn. Although I couldn’t sense it, I was sure that Tubal had his strange abilities ready to be unleashed, too, and Torren had all of our backs, if it came down to a fight.
“No, its not the real one.” The voice of the bartender, turning from serving a greybearded patron and facing us. A balding, slightly overweight man, he looked at us with beady eyes. “No, its not the real golden idol of Osric, its only brass. Before I could let out a disappointed sigh, he continued. “ However, I found it on an island called Eregnor, where I am sure the real one lies.”
My heart leapt. I didn’t quite know why Dulce, Torren and Tubal had signed up with me to find it, but as for my part, if I could find the real Idol, nothing would be in my way of marrying the fair Grace.
“Tell us more…” I urged the bartender.


Swashbucklers of the Seven Skies is an RPG that aims to do for Swashbuckling adventure that Spirit of the Century does for pulp. The raison d' etre of Swashbucklers of the Seven Skies (referred to after this as S7s) is explained by Chad in the introduction, as follows:
 
"Swashbucklers of the 7 Skies (S7S) is my love-letter to every single book, film, or
game that has given me that swashbuckling vibe. It’s a cinematic, storytelling game
rather than a historical/reality-simulating game. It’s about the stories—the films and
books. It is fat-packed with magical and exotic stuff. It is weird and wondrous and
idiosyncratic."
 
Physically, the hardcover of S7s is a gorgeous 320 page book. The interior illustrations, all fine and useful (ranging from ships to characters) are all black and white, but the cover gleams and stands out. Fred Hicks of Evil Hat, who did the cover, did an excellent, appealing job here. Even if a book is not judged by its cover, this book, sitting in an FLGS screams "pick me up and check *me* out", even if the cover doesn't tell you what the game is in the same way that, say, the cover of Spirit of the Century with its pulp action scene conveys.
 
So let's dig inside.
 
"Above the Blue, skyships ply the 7 Skies, soaring from
cloud-island to cloud-island for adventure: conquest, espionage,
trade, and piracy. Kingdoms clash, cultures collide,
and secrets abound. Heroes and villains roam, both on
and between islands, seeking wealth, power, revenge, and
romance.
Will you be one of them?"

That certainly sounds promising, doesn't it? 
 
Chapter one of the book discusses the world of S7s in brief.  The audaciously designed world is like something of a Black Zone shadow near the Courts of Chaos in Amber.The world is a snowglobe, with a mysterious bottom that no one returns from that goes into it, but things come out of. "Cloud islands", upon which the human and non human populations live on,  hang in various layers of the sky, six of the eponymous Seven skies passing across them. (The seventh, the sky of fire, remains constant in the center).  These skies bring various seasons as they sweep around the sky islands.  They also bring other things as well in their wake.  One of these skies brings wheeltrees, made of the magical material bluewood.  Unlike everything else, bluewood *floats*.
 
You can see where this is going.  One can build a vessel out of bluewood. Add sails, a crew, and supplies, and now you can sail on the Skies from cloud island to cloud island. Aside from a minimum buy in, Chad has played with the assumptions and consequences of his constructed universe to make it ideal for the purposes of the stories he wants players and GMs to be able to tell here. 
 
The book then continues with a brief overview of the major cloud islands and the nations that they bear. While he goes into much further detail in the next chapter, the broadly sketched paragraphs give the reader a taste of what is to come.
 
In that second chapter, Chad tackles those cloud islands and their nations in more detail.  From the intrigue and vendetta rich Empire of Barathi, to the squabbling city states of Viridia, to the Kingdom of Colorna and the Zultanate, unique in that they uneasily share an island, to Crail, crossroads of the world, to the mysterious pirates of Ilwuz, and finally the savage wildness of Sha Ka Ruq. Every island and nation gets an overview: the geography of the island, the history, how its ruled, and what the people are like.  From a GM point of view (and given my default position of running games rather than being a player) the best of this for each nation is a section called "What is happening now". While the system encourages plots derived from the PCs, I as a GM have been accused of overplotting, since I like to have a rich and full world of things going on.  These sections help give a sense of that so that I have plenty of threads the players can latch onto.
 
Chapter Three is some more setting material, as we get a brief introduction to magic and the church.  It introduces alchemical reagents, and the role of the church and its various heresies in Seven Skies life. More importantly, I think, for the point of view of players, the chapter introduces the arcane edges called "Gifts". Gifts, tied to mythological animals and possessed of 1% of the population, give a unique mystical ability to the bearer.  It also influences a character in other ways as well.
 
For example, the Unicorn:
 
Those with the Gift of the Unicorn can repair damage to
body and mind, eliminate pain, and accelerate the healing
process tremendously. This almost always requires the laying on
of hands. They can also cause grievous injuries, inflict agony, and
steal vitality away from a target. It is said that powerful unicorns
can raise the dead, or kill with a touch. A person with the
Unicorn’s Gift can use it upon himself.
Those with the Unicorn’s Gift are unnaturally sensitive to the
pain of others. Some shrink from this sensation, others revel in
it. Furthermore, plants around the unicorn seem to react to his
or her moods—if the unicorn is happy, they grow luxuriantly; if
the unicorn is sad, they wither and die. People with the Unicorn’s Gift are almost
always respected and loved by others. Only if they use their powers to cause harm
does public opinion turn against an individual unicorn.
 
The text hints (another boon for a GM) that there are rarer gifts than these, leaving it for the GM to fill in the details. This chapter also introduces the Koldun, the very rare souls who can develop multiple gifts and are given occult training in order to harness these special powers. 
 
Chapter Four gives us more setting meat in a comprehensive treatment of skyships! From the skyships that traverse between islands, to the slow
gasbag laden cloudships which are restricted to the vicinity of cloud islands, to gliders. The treatment is comprehensive, from the structure of ships, to crews, to travel times, and trading opportunities.  And of course, sky combat and piracy!  This chapter gives GMs and players a good sense of running a skyship for any number of activities and plots.  Skyship activity is integral to this game, and whether the PCs are free traders, pirates, or working for the crown against pirates, everything players and the GM need to know about running the skyship portion of an adventure is here.
 
Chapter Five gets us to crunchy bits!
 
S7s runs on a version of PDQ#.  PDQ# is Prose Descriptive Qualities Sharp, a variation of the system used in games such as Dead Inside, Truth & Justice,
and The Zorcerer of Zo. 
 
From the PDQ# PDF (which is available free and separately on the Atomic Sock Monkey press website): 
 
PDQ#’s core design concept pits a character’s Fortes
(called Qualities in other PDQ games) against Difficulty
Ranks. Fortes are a measure of story-effectiveness
rather than reality simulation and summarize a range of
attributes, advantages, merits, skills, special equipment or
relationships.
The PDQ# Master Chart is the foundation of PDQ#. When attempting a task, players roll dice plus the
Modifier (MOD) from the Rank of the relevant Forte. To succeed, they must beat the Target Number (TN), provided
by either the Difficulty Rank of a task or the result of an opposing roll by another character.
 
So, to take on a task, a player rolls 2d6 against the target number or opposing roll.  This can be modified by an appropriate Forte's Rank, and also
a concept called Techniques,a bit of nature, training, or background that provides a bonus or
benefit in specific, relevant situations.  The results are compared. 
 
For example, Roger Thornhill is running across the roofs of villas in Colorna, after his indiscretion with Francie, daughter of Baron Stevens was discovered. The guards
sent by the Baron are hot on his heels and Roger wants to make his escape.  A large gap between the villas presents a barrier to his egress and he decides to jump it. He has a Forte in Athletics and so will get +2 to the roll.  The GM sets the TN at 9, since its a pretty wide gap.  Roger's player rolls a 4 and a 3, a 7.  Fortunately, with his Forte, this is brought up to 9.  Roger just makes it to the next roof.  That Forte made all the distance!
 
Now, take John Robie in the same position.  Fortunately for John, he has a Technique "on roofs and walls", since he is a former cat-burglar.  John would get to make the same roll, and employ his technique to either get a +1 to the roll, or he could roll an additional die and keep the best two.  John's player elects the latter option and rolls 6,5, and 3. With the Good bonus from his Forte, he gets a 13, and easily jumps to the next roof.
 
In addition to a couple of Fortes given to a character, every character has a swashbuckling Forte:
 
Every S7S character has a particular swashbuckling specialty: some characters
swashbuckle with swords, others with mystic powers, still others with repartee, skullduggery,
skysailing, or a host of other talents. A character’s Swashbuckling Forte is the
thing that they are most astounding at and that they have deep knowledge of, and
this grants them a wider range of abilities with regard to that talent.
 
I'm not very narrativist as a GM, although I play Narrativist games with a small group of "Indiegamers" and am familiar with the theory. But even I can see the obvious conclusion.  Swashbuckling Fortes are a way for a player to tell a GM--this what my character is awesome at, and what I want her to be doing! 
 
This chapter gives lots of advice and examples of Fortes and Techniques that a character can have, especially ones which are specific to various nations and cloud islands in the setting.
 
As important, narrative wise, as Fortes in the PDQ system are Foibles.  
 
A Foible is a failing or feature that makes a character interesting: it presents opportunities for interesting failure. It is an inherent negative or problematic aspect of the character, a weak point, stemming from ignorance, flawed understanding, physical or mental incapability, a recurring duty, a particular penchant or method of getting into trouble, or some other vulnerability.
 
Foibles act as constant story hooks for the GM to hook the player into plots. And, like tagging Aspects in FATE, when the GM uses them, the player gets a bennie--style dice (which can, at its most basic, be spent at any time and used like employing a Technique)
 
In the Three Musketeers (1973 or the 1993 film), for example, D'Artagnan has a Foible: Hot headed.  It gets him three duels in one day! In the sequel to the 1973 film, The Four Musketeers, I would say that he has a new Foible, since he has matured: True Love: Constance. The director certainly pulls him along the narrative at several points with it.
 
There are other ways to get Style dice as well. The game encourages players to act and play in a manner not only to get style dice--but to use them as well. There are far more uses than given above, especially but not limited to magic powers.  Also, players can help create the world in a permanent way by the use of style dice. I suspect less narrativist players will be less interested in these options, but given the right set of players and GM, the game can collaborate between the players and GM in a real and visceral way.  
 
The game goes from Style dice in this chapter to a discussion of putting it together to create a character, giving three players and three different approaches and resulting characters. I got a good idea on how to bring a character to life in this system, and I've noodled with doing so.
 
Chapter Six goes into more detail on how PDQ works, in the forms of challenges and duels. Challenges are minor, one-roll encounters.I described an example of challenges above and how Fortes might tie into them. Besides such physical challenges, other types of challenges include Mental (puzzles), Emotional, Professional (business dealings!), Social and Mystical. The GM sets a difficulty, the PCs bring any Fortes, Techniques and Style Dice into play.
 
S7s encourages the players to narrate the results of both successes and failures but recognizes that some players are uncomfortable doing that sort of thing.  I play with a couple of different groups, and I am sure that the group that likes to experiment with small press games would be far more comfortable with narrating successes and failures than my group whom I run Exalted for.
 
 Duels are what I like to think of in my own games as "set piece" battles. Instead of a single roll to resolve the outcome, the two antagonists use a pool of three dice to divide between attack and defense.  The higher style dice combatant attacks first and the dice are rolled and modifiers are applied. His attack pool result is compared to the other combatant's defense pool.  The attacker and defender then switch roles and rolled again.  Thus its possible to take out an opponent, but suffer a grievous wound in return!  
 
Wounds in S7s, come to mention it, have a decidedly narrativst hook.  Instead of hit points or such tracks to track damage, damage is done to the character's Fortes.  While this does mean that a character's strengths can be weakened by combat, an additional consequence in the system says that the first Forte that a character uses to absorb damage, and a Forte that is zeroed out by damage generate Story Hooks revolving around that Forte.  I heard it irreverently described as "getting punched in the girlfriend".  This suggests to me that the choice of where to take the damage in a challenge or a duel is a player-driven way to flag the GM "hey, please give this some plot/story hook love". 

Chapter Seven is my favorite chapter, because that's the Gamemastering chapter. I've been called a "GM for all occasions" and I buy games and supplements with an eye toward "How can I run this?" So, how does Chad approach GMing S7s?

Chad doesn't assume that you are a good GM or would be a good GM of S7s without guidance.  And guidance he provides. Much of his advice can be exported out of S7s and into GMing in general.  Much like the advice on how to run games in Spirit of the Century, Chad's advice is portable and applicable across a wide variety of systems. I admit that the advice does not work for all systems and all games, but any GM can find words to ponder and reflect upon in this chapter.

For example, his advice on rolling dice:

Only Roll When You Have To
Seriously: if something’s not important, don’t roll dice...

The answer is two part: 1) don’t roll much; and 2) when you roll, the result should be
interesting, whether the character succeeds or fails.


And his advice on the role of a GM:

You’re More the Cruise Director than the Captain
As a GM, you have two responsibilities: 1) making sure everyone—including
you—is having fun; and 2) making sure the story as you and your group are
creating through play has some sort of cohesiveness. But the order these two
things are listed in is exactly the order of importance. Remember it.
While it’s best if fun and the artistry of the tale the players are writing walk
hand in hand, if push comes to shove, fun is more important than art.

Chad goes on to talk about GMing S7s in more specific detail, and how to make the game yours and your players.  Here, its revealed
that some of the settings of the game can and should be tweaked for the preference of you and your gaming group.  The strength of magic.  The strength of firearms. What sort of aesthetic will your game have?  What sort of structure? Et cetera.  Think of it like a digital camera. While you can get good pictures on the automatic settings, it is when you venture out from those settings, and choose more specific settings that the pictures you take can really sing.

Chad does dig down to even more specific details, including a method on generating a scenario based on player characters motivations and foibles. Even from game start, with no prior story hooks, this method makes it possible for a GM to begin the game with scenarios based on the characters.  Chad firmly believes that "its the characters, stupid" and this advice in GMing formalizes that.

Then there is this bit about the Perception roll. I use them often in my Exalted game, and they have a place here.  With the default assumption that players narrate success and failure, though, in S7s, it might work like this:

“ Everyone make Ye Olde Perception Roll at TN 9 to see if you hear the
assassin sneaking in through the kitchen window. If you succeed, tell me
how and why you succeeded. If you fail, tell me how and why you failed .”

This chapter ends with a selection of NPCs, ranging from low level to some of the strongest NPCs in the setting.

Chapter Eight talks about Swashbuckling as a genre.  It's conventions and tropes, and what should shine through in your S7s to reflect that genre.

This chapter works as well as a distillation of the genre in book and film form as well as its use in a role playing game.  Action. Adventure. True Love. Revenge. Heroism. Courage. Honor. Humor. Passion. Intrigue. Romance. Style.

There are plenty of quotes from The Princess Bride in this chapter. It's clear that the movie is not only a favorite of Chad's, but its themes, style, panache and structure are a major influence and inspiration for S7s.  But in addition to those quotes, and quotes from other films and books to illustrate these themes, there is an extensive bibliography, filmography and a ludography (game list). My Netflix queue has been enriched by reading this list, as well as to-read and to-play pile.

So what do I think?

Its a big book, and my only concern and hesitation in trying to run this is that it is a large amount to digest.  Its hard to see how the book could or should be trimmed down for the purposes of running it, though. Chad does a comprehensive job.

I want to run this. I could have wished for, perhaps, a players version of the book like Trail of Cthulhu does, so that I can more easily infect the enthusiasm I have for the game on potential players.

Possibly, this game could do for the swashbuckling genre what Spirit of the Century did for the pulp genre.


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Posted by Jvstin at May 29, 2009 7:32 PM
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