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.