My hand will develop a repetitive stress injury if I have to continue to type Swashbucklers of the 7 Skies for the remainder of this review. To prevent that unfortunate situation, I will refer to the game as S7S. This game was written by Chad Underkoffler and published by Atomic Sock Monkey Press (ASM) and Evil Hat Productions. A joint production, similar to those really expensive movies that require two film companies to join together in order to afford so much awesomeness. It comes in at a whopping 322 pages with a unique form factor that I have never seen before. The dimensions are halfway between the size of a digest form and typical full size RPG. Personally, I would like a digest form or a full book, but it's a minor issue.
I got interested in the game after the preview of the system was released on ASM website, PDQ#. Looking different enough from the other PDQ games, I was intrigued. Some time later, it was announced there was going to be a limited edition hardback copy. I wanted to make sure I got it in hardback. Granted, I was still a bit skeptical about the setting, but I had enjoyed the author's previous works in Zorcerer of Zo and Truth & Justice, so I took a leap of faith. I fired up my Pay-pal account and sent IPR some money and a few months later my copy arrived. It did come with the PDF for free, but I am not so keen on reading from the computer screen for long periods of time.
But before any reader freaks out about missing the hardback, the game is still available, but in paperback only. The nice thing about the softcover is most of the errata found it's way into it; this might be some conciliation for you. If it isn't, well, realize that your copy would be less heavy that mine; after a long gaming session, you might not want to strain yourself on a hardback. And if that still doesn't satisfy you, well, tough.. life ain't fair. The errata is available for download if you manage to find the hardcover. Most of the corrections appear to be small mistakes that I wouldn't have caught.
The book arrived on a Thursday and I started reading. I took the book with me everywhere so if I found a spare moment, I would read it. As I said earlier, I still wasn't sold on the setting when I started, but when I was reading, I couldn't stop. Mr. Underkoffler's writing style is fairly concise and easy to read, the book just flows. I managed to finish the book by 7am the following Monday.
Let's get into the meat of this review. The book is broken down into eight chapters. The first four are setting information, the next two are character creation and the rules, followed by a Game-mastering section and concluding with one of Chad's signature treatise, this one on the swashbuckling genre.
The first chapter is The World of the 7 Skies which has a preview available for free here on the S7S official website. It gives an overview of the world. The shape of the world of S7S is a giant snow globe that has many floating Cloud Islands in it. This was the part that made me concerned when I first heard about the game. Really? A giant snow globe? I thought this game would be too out there for me. Well, I best continue. The globe is made up of a number of layers. Each layer determines which direction the wind generally blows. The bottom layer is the Mysterious Blue, like a tar pit of sorts. Things sometimes just rise out of it. Looking at it from the top of the globe it subdivides the world like a an old fashion apple cutter, each one of the pieces is a sky. The core in the center is sun, effectively called the Sky of Fire. Can you guess how many skies there are? These skies determine the seasons but also have other special traits to them. For example, Sky of Thunder is full of summer storms making it difficult to traverse. FYI, Cloud Islands have a protective fog around them that prevents the majority of the sky's effects from destroying them, but the skyships that are used to go from one Cloud Island to another, do not. Hence getting there is part of the fun. This chapter also has the basics of the major Cloud Islands which dot S7S.
The second chapter is Island Nations of the 7 Skies. Each kingdom has a six to eight page write up detailing what it's like, how it's ruled and a brief history. Each nation also has "What's Happening Now on .." section, this details some adventure hooks you are free to use for your game. I really like how each nation is described, with enough information to give you an good sense of what it's about, but not enough that it overwhelms you. That is something I am always concerned about. Damn players get a hold of the book and start dictating world facts back to the GM from the book, like that is some way to win you brownie points with a GM. Anyways, I digress, back to the review. One of my favorite nations is Sha Ka Ruq, as it is populated by savages who ride giant parrots. The interesting thing is that their whole economic system is based on "Face". Your wealth is tied to how awesome you are. I know it sounds nuts, but the author makes it work in ways I never would have thought of.
Next up is The Mystical & The Faithful chapter. It details the magic system and the faith of the world. Since you cannot have sky ships without alchemy or some sort of magic, this chapter tells you how it all generally works. It leaves enough up for the GM to put his own touches on it.
Chapter 4 is on Skyships, Trade & Warfare. This explains the basics of skyships and various things that can and more than likely will happen on them. It also describes the basics of pirating and warfare. If you ever dreamt you were the Dread Pirate Roberts, read this chapter as a guide. Granted, you won't have a skyship, so some of the things about jumping from skyship to skyship may be problematic. Not that I would try to stop you, if you thought you could do it. That finishes up the setting chapters, which makes up 128 pages of the book.
The next two chapters is the system information. This is a revision of the PDQ system and was released earlier in the year as linked above. If you are unfamiliar with PDQ, it is a rules light system and has been used for everything from the fairy tale genre with Zorcerer of Zo to zany mayhem thanks to Ninja Burger. A character is described by a series of qualities, called Fortes in S7S, that can range from an occupation (Pirate) to a motivation (Keep Flying). These fortes are given a modifier, which is used when characters have an action that would fall under that forte penumbra. The basic system uses 2d6 + modifiers for simple tasks. S7S adds a specific dueling system which changes the basic rolling scheme for important interactions between characters. Now you roll three dice and can assign each dice to offense or defense as you see fit. Honestly, if you are looking for a light system that doesn't feel like one, this would be worth checking it out. Remember there is a free version online, so you can try it before you buy it.
Chapter 7 is all about Gamemastering S7S. It has the basics such as assigning difficulties as well as how to create scenes and adventures that scream S7S at the top of their lungs. I always want to bring the awesome and this chapter tells me how to do that. This chapter also talks about setting the dials of the setting with your players before anyone makes a character, which I think more games should do. Nice stuff.
Other Cool Stuff
Chapter 8 is special. It is all about the Swashbuckling Genre. Mr. Underkoffler has become somewhat legendary for talking about a genre's tropes, he did it for superheroes in Truth & Justice and again for fairy tales in Zorcerer of Zo. He hasn't missed his mark yet when he dissects a genre and he pulled out the spleen of swashbuckling without so much as a winch. If you like the swashbuckling genre at all, this book is worth it for this section alone. If you never understood this whole swinging from the chandeliers thing, this section will make you an expert overnight. It includes a Bibliography, Filmography and Ludography with it, so you can find more anything on the subject.
If you managed it this far, you know I throughly enjoyed this book, much to the chagrin of my wife who missed me the whole weekend while I read it. I bought this book with the full intent of using the system for my own pirate game, but fell in love with the setting. It is a wonderful RPG that is full of ideas to pillage to make a game that will be memorable for your group. If you don't want to take my word for it, it has been nominated for an Ennie for Best Setting and Product of the Year.