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Author Topic: RPGPundit Reviews: Swashbucklers of the Seven Skies  (Read 786 times)

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RPGPundit Reviews: Swashbucklers of the Seven Skies
« on: August 15, 2010, 03:36:47 am »
RPGPundit Reviews: Swashbucklers of the 7 Skies

This is a review of the print edition of Swashbucklers of the 7 Skies, written by Chad Underkoffler.

I wanted to like this game, I really really did. I love the swashbuckler genre, I have nothing against flying ships.  But alas, S7S is a game of "almosts".  Unfortunately, S7S is "almost" not too weird to play, but not quite. The system is "almost" not to convoluted to be usable, but not quite.  The layout and writing of the game is "almost" organized well enough to not be a hassle to read, but not quite.

First, let me start with some niceties about the book itself: the game book is a hardcover, with a beautifully designed and coloured cover that is very appealing. The book looks fairly well built. The inside is all black and white, the text is readable, and there are images (not as many as I expected, but enough) that seem to range from comic-book style illustration to little doodles and cartoons to old-style illustrations that may be public domain art.

The game itself is meant to be all about two things, really: Swashbuckling and capturing the Swashbuckling feel on the one hand, and delivering a unique and unusual setting (of sky-pirates in fantastical world) on the other.

The world of S7S is a strange dome of sky, with a bottom surface made not of earth or water but of strange blue gunk. In the center of the dome there is a pillar of fire, and the atmosphere is full of floating cloud-islands where people, plants and animals live. People are able to travel on flying ships from one cloud-island to another, engaging in trade, aerial warfare, and piracy.

So far, so not-too-bad. The problems begin when you start going into detail about the different sky-layers, their rates of rotation, and the "seven skies" or different seasonal atmospheres of the world. There are six layered winds (plus the bottom "blue gunk" surface), that rotate alternating clockwise and anti-clockwise. Meanwhile the 7 skies, which are basically seasons but also seem to describe terrain-types, rotate counter-clockwise. Meanwhile, the various larger cloud-island-kingdoms float around somewhere in this unholy mix.
I'm sorry if I've gotten any of this wrong, but unfortunately I found that the presentation of this information, which in and of itself might not have been too difficult as to be discouraging, was not very clearly expressed; the information was presented piecemeal, and not in a way that made it easy to integrate. But ultimately, its a little too complicated for a game that is mainly supposed to be about swashbuckling; important and interesting for sky-sailing yes, but it requires a lot of calculation to figure out even which way the wind should be blowing and what seasons you're going to be in when and where; and ultimately bloody distracting: you can end up having to sail, as I understand it, through reams of jungle or rains of stone or ice that cover huge areas of sky.  To make things worse, there didn't seem to be a way to easily reference or calculate how to figure out where a given island will be and when it will be in what season or what layer of the sky-dome you will be in or have to go to or... shit, whatever.

But wait, that's not all! After that we get into details about the seven kingdoms of the 7 skies (see a pattern there?). First, we have the six major cloud islands: Barathi, which is a land of "byzantine intrigue and revenge", Viridia, a harsh warrior nation, Colrona, an "immense" cloud-island so big it has two major kingdoms on it, Crail, a cosmopolitan island that used to be a pirate-island, Ilwuz, a secret skull-shaped pirate island that seems to randomly teleport around every 49 days, and Sha Ka Ruq, a brutish unexplored wilderness.
About 50 pages of the 320 page book are dedicated to detailing the seven kingdoms on these islands. Unfortunately, I was not very impressed; too many of these, without going into Tekumel-levels of bizzarity, are just slightly too weird (or "almost" normal enough, depending on how you look at it) to be really coherent to me as a complete setting. Each place is too different.
Even so, I'll give credit to the fact that good details are given for each territory: you get the overall gist of the place, the culture and a little history, common names, relations with other nations, little details that can add flavour, and a look at "what's happening now" in the kingdom. But again, the Kingdoms don't have what I would have expected from this kind of game: I would have expected a Swashbuckling game of sky-galleons and sky-pirates to have a kind of late-renaissance age-of-sail european feel and some coherency to that; or alternately maybe a kind of pulp feel to it, a John Carter kind of deal, or something sci-fi. S7S gives you none of the above, instead you get something that is no doubt very personal to the author, but that seeks to go too far away from the very archetypes and tropes that you want from Swashbuckling.  Barathi is a kind of renaissance italy, ok; but Viridia is sort of like Sparta, and what the hell is that doing in a Swashbuckling game?! Colrona's two countries are on the one hand a kind of Enlightenment-era Spain, and Meritocratic-Theocratic (wrap your head around that one!) Sultanate (spelled "Zultanate"... for kicks, I suppose). Crail is a small cosmopolitan mish-mash with little culture of its own, I guess a suitable default place to have PCs of many different backgrounds. Ilwuz is a pirate island, which is good, but as the "Pirate island" and a place that would be likely to figure largely in any campaign it should have been the most detailed setting, and instead you are left feeling like its slightly less detailed than any of the islands aside from Crail.  And Sha Ka Ruq is a tribal society of barbarians who ride around on giant birds that look (from the illustration) like weird cross between a hawk, a rooster, and a parrot.

S7S is a high-magic game; it didn't have to be, the authors could certainly have chosen to say that the only thing unusual was the world itself and the flying ships, but it also wasn't a bad thing itself that magic was incorporated into the game; it worked well enough for 7th Sea. Unfortunately, the magic system is also not to my liking. This is another section where the style of presenting information and the writing itself makes the reading un-necessarily complicated and ponderous; something that could likely have been aided by a good basic summary at the beginning of the chapter, and then detailed material. Instead, all the magic is presented piecemeal and in a lot of detail, and so the whole thing feels disjointed and like "too much information" to process easily. There's alchemy, which makes magic items from lists of weird setting-related ingredients, and then there's "the gifted" who are people who have one out of a list of special magic powers, each named after a specific creature. So, "gift of the basilisk" is (for some reason) the power to read thoughts, "gift of the merhorse" is supernatural perception (again, for some reason), "Gift of the Dragon" is pyromancy (at least that one sort of makes sense!), etc.
Then you have the Koldun, who are basically wizards (only the authors apparently felt it was absolutely necessary to invent some needless extra jargon-word to learn instead of just calling them "wizards"). Koldun know alchemy, and can learn and use more than one gift, plus they can use special "gifts" that no regular "gifted" person can learn.

There is also a single powerful monotheistic Church in the setting, that started out in the Sultanate (sorry, "Zultanate") and spread to the rest of the world. Its symbol is the solar disk, and it worships a single creator-god who seems pretty obsessed with Honor above all.
The one fucking place where adding needless Jargon would have made some sense, and inventing special names wouldn't have seemed like pointless indulgence, was with the question of religion. Instead, this is one of the only places where we DON'T see this happen. Instead you get feast days with such original and eccentric names as "Summer-revel" and "Winterfeast", and rituals like "Celebration of Birth", "Rite of Marriage", and, I kid you not, "First day of School".
Priests often learn alchemy, but look poorly on the Gifted or "Koldun".  There are a special rank of priests who are experts on diplomacy.

The section on Skyships is one of the better chapters of the gamebook, detailing the various different kinds of vessels that sail the seven skies. You have sky-galleons, sky-junks, sky-schooners, cloudships and gliders.  There are details on what sort of parts a skyship has, and information on skysailing and maneuvers, skysailors and officers on a ship, and "wingmen" (individual gliders that are used often as "marines" for boarding actions and such). You get some information on travel times between the cloud-islands, and rules about hazards of travel and the way that the seven skies affect travel. Plus stuff on trade, warfare, and piracy.
If the rest of the book had been written as clearly as this chapter, and a bit more attention and detail was given on the material in this chapter, the game would have been considerably better. Also, this chapter should probably have been earlier in the book, to provide a better framework for the reader. Hopefully, the author will keep this in mind if he ever does another edition.

You don't actually get into the system information until page 132. The system used in S7S is the PDQ system, which in very basic terms involves characters being made of "descriptive qualities" called "Fortes". You roll your fortes (2d6 for standard rolls or 3D6 in duels) against difficulty ranks.   Unfortunately, those are very basic terms, and the full system becomes about as "byzantine" as Barathi society.

Examples of "fortes" that characters can have are things like "Thoughtful", "roguishly handsome", "linguist", "Intimidating guy", "Bounty hunter", etc. In short, anything to do with personality, physical or mental abilities, social connections or talents, or professions. Players also choose any single forte to be their "Swashbuckling" forte (contrary to the name, this does not need to be a combat-oriented forte, it can be any single forte), which will have special benefits.
Every character will also have a "foible", basically a flaw or weakness, that is also expressed as a "forte" but with negative connotations.
Techniques are connected to Fortes, and provide a particular bonus in a given situation. Techniques can involve something connected to a particular character idiom ("Acrobatic"), situational bonuses (ie. "Bars & Taverns"), Maneuvers ("Dodging"), targets (ie. "Vs. Criminals"), or specific tools or weapons ("Rapier").

The game provides a list of common fortes, many of them with details particular to the setting, some with prerequisites (ie. to be a giant flying chicken rider, you have to come from giant-flying-chicken Land, a.k.a. Sha Ka Ruq).

Next, you have "Style dice", which are basically "hero points" in the form of bonus dice earnable through showing "style", and usable to modify rolls. The method of managing style dice is done in a Forge-esque gimmicky-fashion with a bowl and a box. In another nod to the Forge-Swine connections of this game, you can use style-dice to "Create the world"; to change details of the setting willy-nilly in order to benefit yourself.

That is the gist of the rules; unfortunately, this is another of those areas where the layout is judged by me to be found wanting. You get all the structural rules first, followed only afterwards by the rules on character creation, and then you get rules on resolving checks that include a great deal of extra wordiness and jargon (ie. you have "physical challenges", "mental challenges", "emotional challenges", "professional challenges", "social challenges" and "mystical challenges", when all are basically handled in exactly the same way).
You also have more deceptive jargon. One would think that the term "Duels" would refer to either combat, or specific swashbuckling glove-slapping duels; but instead the Duels in the game refer to "tasks that are fun to play out in detail", which are again divided into the same broad categories as the challenges. These are then resolved in a combat-system esque way, meaning that you end up with that awful canard of pretentious Swine-gaming, "social combat" and the likes. The duel system requires a whole different resolution system from regular task, divying up dice pools, and having all kinds of special rules. Damage is done to one's fortes, thus reducing abilities from "wounds" that can be as much emotional or social as physical. Even in plain old combat, the worst result that can happen to you in a duel is to end up "mostly dead" (zero in all your fortes), though afterwards you can be literally killed with a coup de grace. Wounds can also create "story hooks", which are basically plot-inconveniences for the character based on his fortes.

The GMing section has a range of Gming advice, ranging from the standard and slightly dull, to Story-gaming atrocities, like suggesting that the GM is not allowed to ever just say "NO" to his players. If you ignore the Forge-bullshit, it has some pretty basic but decent advice on character creation assistance and generating adventures; the main exception for this being another Forge-gimmicky idea of "generating scenes" in the form of ridiculously over-complex flowcharts. Rules are given on determining when to give "style dice" and deciding when to give "Bad Form" as punishment for un-swashbuckler-like behaviours. 15 pages are dedicated to NPC stats, with a decent range.

The final chapter lists types of Swashbuckler themes for adventures, and is ok.

On the whole, this game has some unfortunate Forge-related influences, but not so many that it couldn't be run as a standard RPG with a bit of cleaning-up.  That is, sadly enough, not the main problem of the book. As I said, the problems I see with the game are twofold: in the first place, the setting leaves something to be desired, it is just a little bit "too weird to live". In the second, the way the game is written and laid out is excessively poorly-organized. Maybe this, too, is a fault due to the Forge-influence on the game, and the Forge culture's lack of concern with little things like playability or succinctness.  The book's writing goes too far in un-necessarily complicating material that should be simple, its wording and choice of Jargon is off, and its structure is counter-intuitive.

If you're really, really desperate for a game about flying-ship swashbucklers, I guess you might want to check out this game, particularly if you weren't scared off by the details provided in this review. Otherwise, though, I'd suggest you give this game a pass, and pick up Space: 1889 with its Sky-Galleons of Mars, or the Princess Ark stuff for D&D basic, or even Spelljammer and its stupid giant hamsters first. Even Spelljammer is at least comprehensible and doesn't have freaking giant flying chicken-parrots.

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(August 20, 2009)
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dyrnwyn

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Re: RPGPundit Reviews: Swashbucklers of the Seven Skies
« Reply #1 on: December 02, 2020, 10:55:05 am »
I bought this game a couple of years after it came out because I liked the theme. I never found anyone to play it with. But it was always in the back of my mind as a new, exciting option with gameplay that appeared fairly simple and streamlined. I'm playing it now and I find that instead of simple and streamlined, the gameplay is bland and tedious. I would export the setting to another system for sure, though.

Warder

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Re: RPGPundit Reviews: Swashbucklers of the Seven Skies
« Reply #2 on: December 08, 2020, 05:13:47 pm »
In the past, when i was posting on another forum about finding a fitting system for another setting, the idea came to use Swashbucklers of the Seven Skies for as little setting called Meridian from the now defunct comic company Crossgen. The comic properties were swallowed after their death by Marvel comics and regurgitated as a somewhat less interesting product, which found its result in unsufficient sales and that was it.

Now Meridian is probably unknown to anybody who cares to read this, so ill bring the setting nearer to the casual viewer by quoting it from the wiki;

''Meridian, the series' namesake, is one of many island city-states upon the world of Demetria. At some point in the world's history, a great natural cataclysm threw massive chunks of earth into the sky, creating the current system of floating islands. The islands, as well as the airships crucial to trade and transport, defy gravity due to the mysterious properties of a certain 'ore' which is not named. Each island is headed by a Minister, who has more or less monarchic power over their respective island, and while many communities still survive on the surface, contact and trade between the surface and the islands is rare.''

The other parts of the setting are the myth arc of the whole universe and the conflict between the heroine and her uncle, fueled by tragedy and unexplained powers. This part can be glossed over however, the whole thing never found a resolution until the company went under, so its up to the readers consideration. One could use them as axies on which to form a metaplot or just background events(but i have the feeling thats what metaplot basicaly is thou), or just ignore them completly.

I cant say much about using the 7 Swashbuckers system for Meridian but its a setting that has the advantage of very nice art(althought its a question of in the eye of the beholder) and it seems more substantial imho.

Be that as it may, if one can get their hands on the comics swapping the setting should be easy. Just my 2 cents.
« Last Edit: December 08, 2020, 05:15:45 pm by Warder »