A Report of My Experiences Running Swashbucklers of the 7 Skies

edited July 2010 in Actual Play
This note is an attempt at a distillation of my experiences running a six-session game of Chad Underkoffler's Swashbucklers of the 7 Skies for the every other Thursday night "mostly indie games" group to which I belong. The group includes Paul B and Eric J. Boyd (it also usually includes lxndr, but he was taking a Thursday night class during most of this run). After the first or second session, I commented to the group that while I had considered posting an actual play of some sort, but I wasn't sure it would be of any use or interest to anyone. Paul B commented that he thought that useful actual plays were very hard to write. So, I decided that I wouldn't bother with an actual play (although I did record the events of each session the day after, which I could have turned into fiction or whatever), but instead I'd do some sort of postmortem of my experience afterwards. This is that.

General statement: we all had a great time with this game!

So why run Swashbucklers of the 7 Skies? Partly it was because the group wanted to try a PDQ game, and we had already played Barbarians of Lemuria. But wait, you say, BoL isn't a PDQ game! And it isn't, but it influenced our choice of games. BoL had a particular feature that was relevant to our choice of S7S: combat was resolved by rolling 2d6, with relatively few modifiers available. The 2d6 combat had been insufficiently tactically interesting for our group, so S7S's combat with 3d6 split between attack and defense with various fiddly options available appealed more than the 2d6 combat systems in classic PDQ and PDQ2. (As it turns out, classic PDQ combat is probably more interesting than BoL combat, even without the extra features in PDQ#, since how you take damage is a tactical and story-affecting decision, and coming up with ways to narrate in your less likely qualities into your combat roll can be a lot of fun).

Things I particularly liked about S7S:
  • The PDQ# system was simple enough to not get in the way, but complete enough to handle all the events that came up. It also did an excellent job of reinforcing genre. (It is a bit more complicated than it looked at first, once you add all the various elements in.)
  • The style dice economy worked very well once everyone got used to it. Players really got into using their foibles to get extra style dice.
  • The Vehicle rules actually made ship-to-ship actions a heck of a lot of fun. Everyone had stuff to do. This is great! The ship dice mechanism is sheer genius! (Although I'm not sure the numbers are exactly right.)
  • The setting had (to my taste) just the right amount of detail. Basically, each of the major cultures consisted of a bunch of weird, interesting bits that did not add up to actual, working cultures -- it was up to the GM and the players (via a mechanism where they spent style dice to be able to declare facts about the setting) to make it "real". For me, this was perfect. Other people might find it sort of a problem, for instance, that there's no clue to how children are taken care of on Sha Ka Ruq, given the lack of marriage (I just figured that the were raised by their mother's blood relatives, and, like with many real-world cultures, the most important men in their lives would be their mother's brothers, not their fathers), and that's a major element in a culture.
  • Story hooks from damage and zeroing out worked really well for me. I basically got a six-episode picaresque story arc from not much more than "A Mad Alchemist and his Beautiful Daughter hire the PCs to help them recover a dangerous, valuable artifact". Just about everything after that was driven off of story hooks and elements players bought with style dice.
  • Having players being able to spend style dice to declare facts about the world worked really well, both on the large scale (who knew that the Barathi had so many secret bases scattered around the skies?) and on the tactical scale (those Alchemical Zombies have a hose coming out of their backs connected to a large pump at the back of the room, and now I'm cutting their hoses!). Mind you, most or all of the players in this game also GM, so it may have made them more willing to use this feature than the average player.
  • Name lists are a beautiful thing!
  • While you could easily play longer sessions, S7S worked well for 2-3 hour sessions, which was a very good thing some nights.
  • Character creation was fairly intuitive, and was helped by an excellent character sheet that contained the page number of the applicable rules for each section.
  • Best list of sources (books, movies, games) ever! ("And I shall be Queen!" Snort.)
Things in S7S that made me go "huh", just a bit:
  • Designing opponents was a bit . . . tricky. Combat could be deadly. And it was really easy to flip-flop from having a cannon-fodder NPC to having a one-shot takeout NPC. Particularly when one of the characters was a combat monster, and one was a social monster, it was really easy to take the social monster down quickly in combat.
  • The whole box and bowl thing seemed unnecessary -- we never got near emptying the bowl, as the players had their characters play to their foibles for style dice (which come out of the box) and did a lot of flashy challenges (which also come out of the box), and burned through their style dice like there was no tomorrow.
  • I'm not at all sure it's a bad thing, but sometimes characters in need to of a style die would play to their foibles in a really outrageous way. So, if when the Koldun with a Foible of lecherous needed a style die to power a bit of magic, he made an obvious pass at another character's girlfriend, leading him to be threatened at knife point (by the girlfriend) and then threatened again by the other PC. On the other hand, heh, Koldun.
  • I'm rather glad no one created any alchemical or kolduncraft gear. I'm not sure I was entirely happy with how those rules worked. Yes, Isee the need for using learning points to pay for things that basically turn into Fortes, but I couldn't help thinking that in the long term it could act as a transfer of learning points from the crafters to the other characters.
  • I think the rules for temporary fortes could use some work. Temporary fortes last until the end of a session. This keeps them limited, but doesn't always work in story terms. It seems more likely for instance, that temporary wealth should last until you have a chance to spend or lose it. The players hired temporary extra marines -- having them evaporate at the end of the session in the middle of empty sky would've been kind of weird. The only solution I could find in the rules was to make things like these ephemera. But ephemera have to be bought at the end of each session with left-over style dice, and they can absorb damage. What temporary fortes need is to have a scope each: session, until spent, voyage, season, or whatever.
Assorted other thoughts and comments:
  • Some people apparently have trouble with the abstract PDQ damage system, where your qualities/fortes take damage, so a sword thrust could damage your alchemy skill or your connection to your nation. Our crew was fine with it.
  • I kept having ideas for other settings you could do nicely with PDQ#, such as Maelstrom Storytelling (The Thousand Realms) or H. P. Lovecraft's Dream Cycle, or, of course, Dumas.
  • Most of the players chose all of their fortes from the standard list. This might be because the list was so good, or it might be because we play on Thursday nights, and we're always tired and rushed or because I'm the only one who had actually read the rules before we played. On the other hand, they showed considerably more inventiveness when coming up with their techniques (little modifiers for the fortes).
  • We played all sessions with either four or five players (including me). I don't know how well this game would have worked with more than that.
  • I was deliberately very generous with style dice -- this worked out well, I think.
  • I was also very generous with allowing players to narrate in all sorts of fortes into contest and duel rolls. I'm not sure if this was good or bad. I think it was just a "thing". I allowed the bad guys to do likewise. It helped that the players showed a decent sense of shame over what they tried.
  • Printing out the Master chart on page 133, and having it in front of me at all times when GMing made my life a lot easier. A pity I didn't figure this out until the fourth session.
  • The setting is actually a fair bit odder than it looks at first. None of the major cultures, with the possible exception of the Colronan Kingdom, on close examination is really all that much like any historical, earthly culture. This can be a minor issue when the players are absorbing the setting in play, since they'll usually start by assuming more similarities than there really are.
  • The number of training points required to raise or add fortes, techniques and foibles worked pretty well for a six-session arc. If, however, you were to run an action-intensive longer campaign (and why are you playing S7S if it's not action intensive?), the characters could fairly quickly get out of hand. If you were planning to play every week for a year, for example, you'd probably want to increase the costs by a factor of 10 or so.

Comments

  • Thanks for posting this great info. I was a one-session playtester at Dreamation a few years back and I bought and enjoyed reading S7S, but I've not played it again since.

    You've increased the chances of this beautiful book someday making off my shelf and onto a gaming table by a good 64%. :)
  • It was a fun game, Peter. Some observations as a player:

    * I think the system is super-successful in enforcing and reinforcing genre expectations. It's pretty sim-tastic, really. We were all pretty subdued with our "add a fact" die spends, which I think is the right place to be to make that sort of mechanic work.

    * We were pretty loose with self-policing what fortes applied and which did not. I am still not satisfied with the -2 and Z results, because the moment that happens, the onus of enforcement falls quickly on the GM's shoulders. That's a weird shift in responsibility in the middle of the game. OTOH it also seems nearly impossible for the GM to be the sole source of all decisions w/r/t what fortes can be invoked for any given roll.

    * While I appreciate the basic structure of the foibles & motivation, the only hooks I really sensed on the sheet (if I were GMing this) had to do with leveraging foibles against your motivation. Everything else seemed like it was just a source of fat rolling bonuses, purely mechanical, rather than useful narrative handles to grab onto. I don't know about the other players but the net result of that experience was that gameplay felt far more reactive than proactive.

    * I wish it were clearer early on what Foibles and Motivations are heroic and which are villainous. Eric mentioned feeling more like a bad guy than a Big Damn Hero due to having stuff like "ruthless" on his character sheet.

    * The "create a story hook based on where you take damage" thing was interesting. Did it actually create much content, Peter? Did you feel beholden to that, or empowered?

    I think that's about it. The setting is fun and the genre-reinforcement economy is a keeper.
  • edited July 2010
    Posted By: Paul BWe were pretty loose with self-policing what fortes applied and which did not. I am still not satisfied with the -2 and Z results, because the moment that happens, the onus of enforcement falls quickly on the GM's shoulders. That's a weird shift in responsibility in the middle of the game. OTOH it also seems nearly impossible for the GM to be the sole source of all decisions w/r/t what fortes can be invoked for any given roll.
    Yeah, those are a bit of a problem. I suspect I missed calling some of those in when I should have. Maybe it'd work better if fortes went +2/0/Z? Or, if one was worried about running out of "hits", +2/0/Z/ZZ? It'd certainly be simpler.
    Posted By: Paul BWhile I appreciate the basic structure of the foibles & motivation, the only hooks I really sensed on the sheet (if I were GMing this) had to do with leveraging foibles against your motivation. Everything else seemed like it was just a source of fat rolling bonuses, purely mechanical, rather than useful narrative handles to grab onto. I don't know about the other players but the net result of that experience was that gameplay felt far more reactive than proactive.
    I'm not entirely sure what you are getting at here -- could you expand on it a bit?
    Posted By: Paul BThe "create a story hook based on where you take damage" thing was interesting. Did it actually create much content, Peter? Did you feel beholden to that, or empowered?
    I found them inspiring. I'd look at the list of story hooks from the last session, and cluster them together in related groups, then I'd write something short to match the cluster. Sometimes, when they seemed to call for it, I'd expand them a bit. Almost all of the various events that occurred while you guys were in Sha Ka Ruq were inspired by one or another group of story hooks.
  • Second bit re hooks: So basically when I look at the Fortes, they all feel like "this is where you get a bonus from if you can fit it to the current fiction." Like...I'm attacked by a giant ape! I look down my list of Fortes and just kind of mentally confirm or reject as I go...ex-Musketeer, yup; Romantic...meh, no; Griffin, yup; ex-Aristocrat...meh, no.

    So that's all happening at that moment. But I wonder if, as you were GMing, you were looking toward those Fortes as things to prompt my character to action? Because as a player, the only Forte on the list that felt motivational was, well... Motivation! The Foibles also motivated me to play a certain way.

    At the end of the game, after I'd zeroed out my Romantic motivation, I decided to drift the rules on my own and invert it, turn it into an anti-motivation. Purely an experiment but it was fun.

    Does that make sense? What I'm saying is that being an ex-Musketeer didn't prompt me to play a certain way (for example). It was just a conditional bonus opportunity for me.
  • I see. I did try take these things into account when generating story hooks, which is why you found yourself fighting a duel with another ex-Muskateer (and the means he used to get you to fight). But while PDQ qualities/fortes could be used to prompt a player that way, the rules are fairly silent on that issue. Mostly they're semi-freeform attributes and skills.

    I did occasionally try to play on your Nationality: Colronan Royalist forte (about how it would probably be nice for the Kingdom to have the results of Alexei Alexeison's research), but you never bit. Maybe I was being too subtle.
  • I wonder if that's just a matter of expectation? Like when I see my Nationality is Colronan, well cool, I tend to think like a Colronan, my prejudices are Colronan. I guess my nationality did often drive my play decision, thinking back on it. But national pride wasn't in the package! Funny.
  • I also had a good time playing this, and I appreciated the incentive to finally read all the way through the book. My main impressions:

    -Picking heroic Foibles for your character is key to getting good use out of the Style economy. I realized more as we went on that my guy's Foibles made him sort of a villain were he to consistently act on them. So I didn't as much, and got fewer Style dice than other players as a result.

    -General Fortes are more useful, especially with our loose acceptance of adding Fortes to rolls. As Peter mentioned, we played sort of loose and fast in adjudicating which Fortes could be added to rolls. In such an environment, having broad or general Fortes (with the resulting broader penumbra of uses) seems much more useful. For example, my "Gunner" Forte got used during ship-to-ship combat (and was added onto my "Warmaster" Forte for this), but if I had taken a "Tactical Genius" Forte instead, I could have used it to add to "Warmaster" in ship-to-ship combat, fencing, etc. Furthermore, taking "Fencing" seems suboptimal when you can take "Musketeer," "Warmaster," or "Falcon" instead - getting fighting ability and all the associated other stuff, too.

    -Techniques seem to be part of the hot sauce of the game, and I don't think we used them to their full potential. Part of that is because we didn't have as many (due to increasing Fortes during character creation, making our few Techniques broadly applicable, etc.). It's also because much of our advancement was increasing Fortes instead of getting more techniques. Some of the technique types seem like another way to hook the GM or player in the way Paul is suggesting - by picking particular enemies, locations, etc. I think if everyone was forced to take 5 Techniques at creation instead of using them for other things, and if Techniques were made extremely cheap (and therefore tempting) as part of character advancement, we may have seen them really drive and color play in a stronger way.

    Overall, I'm glad we gave this game some longer play both from a player and designer perspective. It'll definitely be my go-to swashbuckling game going forward.
  • edited August 2010
    I tried to make sure everyone did have at least one broad forte -- in your case it was ex-Warmaster Trainee. However, in hindsight, if instead of taking Black Marketeer as your swashbuckling forte, you had taken Smuggler, it might have worked out a bit better. It would have been slightly more on-genre for a shipboard campaign, and would have been reasonable to apply to informal combat situations.
  • I'm curious how you felt about Training Points, and the mechanic for earning them. Initially, the fact that you only got Training Points when you failed a roll seemed like a big, cool lure for me. I greatly enjoyed the idea that players might try to do things they weren't good at, and fail, in order to get Training Points. But upon thinking about it more, I grew less and less confident that that's how it'd work, at least with my players. Training Points ultimately don't seem to be an incentive to try to do things you might not be great at, so much as they seem to be a consolation prize for having failed. This is especially because Training Points work only to make you less likely to fail in the future. So really, your "incentive" or "reward" for failure is a decreased chance for failure, meaning that either it will equalize out after a long time, and you'll very rarely fail, or the obstacles and threats will have to increase in severity along with you, meaning you will still fail at the same rate, and you won't feel particularly improved.

    I could be painting a rather hyperbolic image here, which may not do justice to the game, so I'd be interested in hearing your thoughts on Training Points and how they worked over your six sessions. I've only played two sessions, and my players failed only a couple of times total over the course of our sessions, which meant that they didn't particularly matter in any significant way. How did they factor in over a longer set of sessions? Did players earn many Training Points? How often were the characters failing? Did anybody feel an incentive to try things that they weren't particularly great at, for the sake of the Training Points? Did the Training Points help ameliorate the pain of failing a roll? Inquiring minds (my own in particular) want to know!
  • I thought training points worked pretty well, but I think it took a least a couple of sessions for us to get used to how they worked. They did work more as a consolation prize for failing, but that was OK -- the players often did seem to as happy to get a training point as succeeded. And they did occasionally tempt players into having their characters fail.

    The amount of training points earned per session increased as time. In fact, the first session, no one earned any training points. Then I started making the opposition tougher. By the third session, the characters were generally earning 1-4 training points per session, which led to a fair amount of improvement.

    The characters seemed to get their training points primarily in the following situations:
    1. In combat, for being hit;
    2. In combat, for missing (particularly true for the characters not optimized for combat);
    3. Sometime the characters would lose a flashy challenge against a tough opponent;
    4. For the occasional hard check to notice or sense something obscure (everyone roll vs TN 15 to see if you spot something -- apply any fortes that give you keen or mystical senses);
    5. Occasionally, a player (mostly Paul B) would say "the heck with it, I'm only using this forte giving me +2" and let himself fail, either because it was interesting or for the training point (Paul is a big BW fan, which probably predisposed him to thinking like this);
    6. Sometimes I'd put a real hard check in to challenge the players, and sometimes (particularly when they had exhausted their style dice) they'd miss it.
  • edited August 2010
    Posted By: Eric J. Boyd-General Fortes are more useful, especially with our loose acceptance of adding Fortes to rolls. As Peter mentioned, we played sort of loose and fast in adjudicating which Fortes could be added to rolls. In such an environment, having broad or general Fortes (with the resulting broader penumbra of uses) seems much more useful. For example, my "Gunner" Forte got used during ship-to-ship combat (and was added onto my "Warmaster" Forte for this), but if I had taken a "Tactical Genius" Forte instead, I could have used it to add to "Warmaster" in ship-to-ship combat, fencing, etc. Furthermore, taking "Fencing" seems suboptimal when you can take "Musketeer," "Warmaster," or "Falcon" instead - getting fighting ability and all the associated other stuff, too.
    One thing you might want to do is take a leaf from Mortal Coil's book (and HeroQuest 2, I think) and give narrower Fortes an advantage over broader ones. So, when two characters are fencing, one using Fencing forte, the other Musketeer, the Fencer would get a bonus (+2, say).

    Would something like that have changed the Fortes you'd have taken?
  • edited August 2010
    Posted By: NeilOne thing you might want to do is take a leaf from Mortal Coil's book (and HeroQuest 2, I think) and give narrower Fortes an advantage over broader ones. So, when two characters are fencing, one using Fencing forte, the other Musketeer, the Fencer would get a bonus (+2, say).
    This is definitely an interesting idea (and yes, HQ2 does this, too). Our group tries a lot of games, and we generally try to play them as written the first time to see how they are supposed to work. However, if I were to run PDQ# again I think I'd do this, and also do damage as ..+2/0/Z instead of ..+2/0/-2/Z.
  • I agree with Peter. A tweak like that is a great idea to address the narrow vs. broad Forte problem.

    For the training points issue, there were instances where they were a nice reward with little cost (e.g., everyone made a test to notice something and you failed while someone else succeeded). Usually, though, mine seemed to come from getting hit or missing in combat - so they were merely a consolation prize.

    There were some instances where I set out to try something with an eye toward failing, but it did not happen often. I'd estimate that I earned about 14 training points throughout the game - with none coming in the first session.

    Our group mostly used training points to increase our Fortes (since this was inexpensive). And as we went, the opposition did become more formidable. So my failure rate in combat stayed relatively the same over the course of the game, although the damage suffered for failures (based on the attack results generated by our foes) increased a little over the course of the game.
  • edited August 2010
    In our play, we never did quite grok the purpose of the whole bowl/box thing.

    The rest of the game ran quite well, though, and the style dice flowed OK, so it never made a difference if we were doing it wrong.
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