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Interview with John Wick

by James Maliszewski

May 11, 1999

Interview with John Wick
by James Maliszewski
Following the success of  Legend of the Five Rings, Alderac Entertainment Group is releasing a new roleplaying game in June. Entitled Seventh Sea, the game deals with sorcerous swashbucklers and deeds of derring-do in the world of Thah. I had a chance to ask its lead designer, John Wick, a few questions about the game and present his answers here as an introduction to this upcoming release.
What is Seventh Sea's underlying theme, if any? That is, what kinds of games can you run in this setting?
We designed Seventh Sea to be one big pot of gamer gumbo: there's a little bit of something for everyone.

The time we've focused on (the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries) is one of the most exciting periods of European history and it's amazing to me that so little literature has been written about it. You've got the works of Alexandre Dumas, Cyrano de Bergerac, the birth of modern espionage, the scientific revolution, and secret societies. Who could ask for more?

Well, in fact, there is more. There's pirates and kingdoms beginning to realize that they're nations and revolutions in political theory and humanism, the Thirty Years War, Ivan the Terrible, Elizabeth I, John Dee, the Rosicrucians, the Illuminati, and Sir Isaac Newton. With all of that to work with, Game Masters can run just about any kind of game they want to. They can run a straight adventure game, an intrigue game, a conspiracy game, an espionage game, an exploration game or all-of-the-above.

Seventh Sea takes place in the world of Thah, a place similar to our own world but subtly different in a number of ways. Would you care to point out some of the main differences between the two?
The first major difference is sorcery. In Thah, the power of sorcery travels in noble blood. In other words, you can't learn sorcery: you're born with it. This has a major impact on the humanist movement that rises up in contemporary Europe. In our world, we've got people talking about equality between human beings for the first time. In Thah, it's obvious that every man is definitely not created equal. I've got sorcery and you don't. That makes me better than you, bottom line.

The second difference is the lost civilization of Syrneth. All throughout Thah, ruins of a civilization that died out a long time ago are being plundered for their knowledge and treasures. One of our most prominent secret societies –– the Explorer's Society –– is trying to preserve all those sites, but "diggers" (entrepreneur archologists) are going through the ruins without concern for preservation, only profit.

The third difference is our Church. In a world where sorcery is real, our Church is the spearhead of science and reason. The Vaticine Church of the Prophets is responsible for almost every major discovery in Than history. All medical discoveries come out of the Church. The refracting telescope comes out of the Church. Advanced mathematics come out of the Church. A Church in a village is a welcome sight: it means the village has access to medically trained scholars who also know how to plant and rotate crops and will teach you to read and count.

I've always been a big fan of the swashbuckling era of musketeers and pirates. This setting has never gotten very good treatment in RPGs previously. What made you decide to set the game in this sort of setting?
My wife.

We were sitting at dinner a year and a half ago, and I was telling her that I was done with samurai. I loved Rokugan, but after the Clan War, there really wasn't anything left for me to say. I told my story, and now, it was time for Ree (Ree Soesbee is the current L5R story czar) to tell hers.

"Why don't you a role-playing world based on William Blake?" she asked. It was a joke, but the more we thought about it, the more sense it made. William Blake was a poet in the eighteenth century who wrote about passion and rapture in a religious context that challenged the puritan ethic that was so popular at the time. I took a look at the time-frame and realized that it was also the age Alexandre Dumas was writing in, it was the golden age of piracy and the time of Sir Isaac Newton. At first, we talked about doing a world that looked like the film Dangerous Beauty. Bringing a fantastic Venice to the role-playing world was very exciting. Jennifer's always loved the concept of sorcery in the noble blood and I was fascinated with a rational church. From there, "fantastic Venice" turned into "fantastic Europe." We brought in England, France, the Prussian states and a few other friends and Thah was born.

Are there any books or movies that had a strong influence on the development of the game?
Movies like The Princess Bride, Dangerous Beauty, Raiders of the Lost Ark, Dangerous Liaisons, The Three Musketeers, The Mask of Zorro, Captain Blood, The Sea Hawk and plenty others helped us build the game system, but literature really helped us define the world. I'm a philosophy student and Jenny got her degree in literature, so between the two of us, we've got more books than we know what to do with. There's not really a single book that influenced us, but a desire to create something that captured an attitude. The list is really diverse: A book called Elizabeth, Alan Moore's V for Vendetta, Ellen Kushner's Swordspoint, Dave Sim's Cerebus: Church & State, a wonderful book called Isaac Newton: The Last Sorcerer, The Illuminatus Trilogy, H.P. Lovecraft, Harlan Ellison, Restoration drama, and another great book called Restoration London really helped us define the world.
I'm not much of a rules-oriented gamer. Still, the question must asked: what are the rules like? I'd expect them to be pretty fast-paced and easy to use, given the large number of sword fights and deeds of daring-do that should occur in a typical game. Am I correct?
We spent a lot of time developing a game system that emulates the kind of action in swashbuckling films and literature. Kevin Wilson, an intern who quickly rose to the position of co-designer, helped me make my initial notes into a fast-paced combat system that really captures the feel.

Players who are familiar with the L5R "Roll and Keep" system will be right at home in Thah. In short, you roll a whole bunch of dice against a Target Number, but only keep a few of them. We've also imported the Raise system, which allows players to control their Target Numbers, which means they call their own critical hits.

From there, things get a little different. We've streamlined the system in some places, but expanded it in others. There's only 5 Traits –– Brawn, Finesse, Resolve, Wits and Panache –– and each Skill has a number of Knacks, representing specialized knowledges and abilities, allowing for more individuality in characters. For example, two characters who have the same teacher can come away with very different abilities. I think just about everyone who's familiar with L5R knows that it's a very lethal game. We designed it that way. A samurai has to live with the knowledge that he's always four feet (the length of a katana) away from sudden death. In a swashbuckling game, the combat system has to create a very different atmosphere. Our system encourages Heroes to leap from balconies, grab the chandelier, swing across the room, grab a kiss from the girl and smack the villain without spilling a single drop from his mug.

We've designed a game that lets a player know he can do that: it says so right on his character sheet. Heroes have a Leaping Knack (Leaping off the balcony) and a Swinging Knack (swinging across the room on the chandelier) Charm the girl (with the Repartee System) and a Fencing Attack Knack (to smack the villain). It's all right there on his character sheet. It's clean, clear and easy to use.

What about magic? You've already said that magic is one of the ways that Thah differs from our own. What is magic like in Seventh Sea and how important is it to the setting?
Sorcery defines Thah's social strata. If you don't have it, you're not one of the elite. Even among the nobility, there's a distinction between those "of the blood" and the mundanes.

There are 5 different kinds of sorcery. There's Glamour (tapping into raw mythological power), Shapeshifting (taking the forms of animals), Sorte (twisting the strands of Fate), Port (ripping and walking through portals in reality) and Runes (summoning the words that created reality).

Lost civilizations also play a role in Seventh Sea in the form of the Syrneth. Could you briefly explain the significance of this element of the setting?
There's not a whole lot I can say about the Syrneth. They left behind a whole bunch of ruins and treasures. The Thans have some theories, but . well, I'd just like to keep that secret for now. Let's just say "Once they were here, now they're not."
It's commonplace nowadays for game's to have a "metaplot" into which individual game masters can plug their own campaigns. Is this true of Seventh Sea as well? If so, what is the underlying plotline of the game?
You know, it wasn't so common when we started doing it with Legend of the Five Rings. In fact, we were doing it before Babylon 5 came along and made it "commonplace". Granted, we owe a tip of the hat to Torg, but I'm proud of what we did with L5R: a two-year story arc told almost entirely with flavor text.

Anyway, yeah, Seventh Sea has a story arc, but the fact of the matter is, each of the seven nations we have in Thah are their own Rokugan. I could tell seven Clan Wars in Thah. In fact, that's exactly what we're going to do.

We're also giving people a chance to help us tell that story. Like Rokugan, Thah is an interactive world. We'll have tournaments and contests like we do for L5R, but there's a ton of other stuff we're going to do as well. Weekly roleplaying sessions will influence Thah as well as "freelance adventures" we'll send out to the players according to which secret society they join. More than any other roleplaying game world - or any other fantasy world, come to think of it - Thah is the first fully interactive roleplaying environment.

Do you enjoy being a game designer? Is it a good way to make a living?
That's a funny pair of questions. A lot of folks ask me, "What do I have to do to be a game designer." My answer is always the same. It takes just as much thought, consideration, design and effort to write a novel. Learn how to do that first, then learn how to make a game. Game systems don't sell games anymore, worlds do. Besides, designing your own world and writing a novel based on that world pays much better. In my copious spare time (I spend about 60-70 hours a week at the AEG office, not to mention all the writing I do at home), I've been developing 2 other game worlds, a television script and a film script. Granted, my chances of publishing the last two are slim, but if they do pay off, they'll make ten times the money I'll ever get publishing a game.

Learn how to be a storyteller first, a game designer second. Then, get yourself someone how understands business. The role-playing industry is moving out of the closet and into the big time. Don't think you get can by with photocopied sheets and half-assed worlds anymore. The public demands excellence. They're shelling out a lot of money for a role-playing game these days.

And yet, I'll always - 'till my dying day - demand that they're not paying enough.

Think about it for a moment. How much did you pay for your blue box copy of Dungeons and Dragons? I paid ten bucks for Call of Cthulhu, my first role-playing game. I've been running that game forever, and I shelled out a week's allowance for it.

How much did I pay to see The Matrix? $7.50 (a very well spent $7.50, might I add). But that money only got me two hours of entertainment. My ten bucks got me Call of Cthulhu. So, how much is a role-playing game worth? I spent a year and a half making Seventh Sea. Is it worth thirty bucks? Hell yeah. How much entertainment will it give you? I hope as much as D&D or Cthulhu gave me.

I love being a game designer, but it's not an industry that you can retire on. You've got to make contacts, diversify and be ready to take some chances.


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