The Sinking of 7th Sea

I’m a sucker for all things pirate. The hats, the shanties, the scurvy; the only piratical meme I’m leery of is parrots, on account of the sharp beaks and uncertain tempers. Stick a pirate on it and my interest is drawn, which is how I got involved in the 7th Sea collectable card game (CCG).

I wanted to get cards that recounted the part of the tale I was interested in.

It was one of the many collectables that came out in the late 1990s hoping to capitalize on the market Magic had created almost single-handedly. I was managing a game store then, and we held mini-tournaments, sold a lot of booster boxes and generally had a good time sailing the seven seas and buckling swashes. I joined the community just after Scarlet Seas, when the undead Black Sails set, led by the villainous Captain Necros, was the newest and shiniest thing out there. I put together a Necros boarding deck and waded into the fray.

The second most interesting thing about the game (after, y’know, pirates!) was its evolving continuity, which followed a convoluted storyline. Each faction, whether villainous (like Reis and his Crimson cutthroats) or heroic (dashing Berek of the Sea Dogs) had their own plot, which changed over time as in-game events progressed. So when Reis met Berek on the high seas and whipped his butt, the new set included cards that told that story. Cards like No Banter, No Barter, No Quarter, a trio that in combination showed Berek’s duel with Reis and, to work properly, had to be played one after the other in order. Crew cards were often unique to each faction, but crew could change factions over time as their stories progressed, like Mike Fitzpatrick who starts as a captive working for the Corsairs and later escapes, joining the Montaigne as a free man. When Black Sails came out it was revealed that one of Berek’s crew, William Toss, had come back from his watery grave and joined the undead pirate team. Nor were the Sea Dogs the only ones affected; every faction who’d lost a crewman discovered that someone they thought was gone for good had returned, including Captain Gosse’s nephew, Thomas.

This was just catnip to someone like me, who loves a good story told well. Not only did I want to get cards that helped my deck, I also wanted to get cards that recounted the part of the tale I was interested in. I’m sure someone out there was deeply invested in the Explorers’ little side quest but that someone wasn’t me. I wanted tragedy and Gothic horror, so anything to do with Captain Necros and his Black Freighter was aces in my book, even if I never used the cards in a deck.

Then Necros killed off Gosse and his Gentlemen, and everything went to hell in a handbasket.

Here’s how it happened. The publishers of 7th Sea, Alderac Entertainment Group, held regular tournaments; huge, continuity-changing events that decided what would be the next big thing in the storyline. At these tourneys a faction was “marked for death” and dropped from the next expansion, depending on the result of the tournament. That was how Berek ended up on the wrong end of Reis’ hook. It wasn’t as permanent as it sounds; the Sea Dogs had to wait a while before they got new cards, but they did get some eventually. This time out, Gosse had faced off against Necros in the revenge fight of the century and died, as did many of his crew.

That lit a fire under the fan base the like of which I’ve rarely seen. Gosse fans were just like me; they wanted more swashbuckling shenanigans from their hero, but without any love in the next expansion, they weren’t going to see new faction cards. They walked out en masse, feeling betrayed. The game they’d sunk a lot of time and money into had turned on them, and it didn’t matter that eventually things would get better. Things right then were shit. It was small consolation that AEG had written the narrative such that Captain Necros had also “died,” to be replaced by Comte Robert Méchant. Philip Gosse was gone. They weren’t invested any more.

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It didn’t help that the tournament process was opaque and poorly understood. It was actually split into two different sealed deck events at two big US game conventions, where the winner of the first tournament got to choose who went on the list of doom and the winner of the second chose who actually went down. So an event that had tremendous narrative impact for the series was ultimately decided, not by the company, but by one player whose luck (or deck) happened to break his way at Gencon. Not many people in the States understood the process well; those of us on the other side of the ocean, for whom Gencon and Origins were far out of reach, found it unintelligible. From AEG’s standpoint, it was a PR nightmare that cost them fans who were buying, not just 7th Sea, but other AEG CCGs such as Warlord. Warlord is nothing much these days, but at the time it was a major product for the company, and suddenly an unanticipated problem in a completely different CCG was impacting sales. Plus the fan base, which up to that point had been organizing 7th Sea tournaments all over the country and overseas, lost interest in doing so, which meant that an important means of introducing new players to the hobby had been damaged.

In a sense it was the classic problem faced by game masters everywhere, when a critical success or failure is rolled at the worst possible moment.

In a sense it was the classic problem faced by game masters everywhere, when a critical success or failure is rolled at the worst possible moment. Those of the “let the dice fall where they may” philosophy will let the result stand, even if it ruins the game. They do so knowing that there’s a risk everyone will go home mad, but they still do it, because they believe the game’s mechanics have priority over narrative. They won’t fudge a dice roll to get a more favorable story result. AEG had done the same thing with an entire product line. When faced with the question whether they should let the rules or the story prevail, they chose the rules, because they too believed that mechanics have priority over narrative.

If the Gosse versus Necros grudge match proved anything, it’s that narrative has priority over mechanics. Players will trust mechanics up to a point, even when they don’t really understand them all that well, on the assumption that fair play is built into the system. However when mechanics throw up a result that players don’t like because it has negative story consequences they may assume that the system is broken, and walk away. Whether or not the system actually is broken is beside the point; it’s the story consequences that the players are taking issue with. Then follows the boycotts and the petitions, flame wars and news posts, until whatever the real point may have been is drowned out by the outrage. No wonder so many game designers go the safe route, playing up to genre conventions and providing Vanilla Endings for all. The alternative is bad PR, not just for the current project but also for future product lines. Why even consider letting the mechanics decide what ending a story has, when it’s much safer to script an ending that everyone gets regardless of achievement?

The Gosse disaster didn’t quite sink the 7th Sea CCG, but it was dealt a body blow from which it never recovered. Fans didn’t show it nearly as much love as they had before Philip died, and Warlord was shaping up to be a much better earner for the company. The game, an Origins Award winner, sank shortly after the release of its last card set in 2001.

As for me, I still have my cards. I hardly remember how to play, but I dug them out of the box they were hiding in and put a deck together. Comte Méchant is the captain, of course, in command of the new Freighter, with a band of skeletal scallywags at his beck and call. Gosse fans can think what they like. The undead were always my favorites, and although I hardly ever go to a convention these days, when next I do I’ll be taking them along with me.
After all, there’s always a chance someone else will have brought their deck, and I wouldn’t mind a match for old time’s sake.

Adam Gauntlett is a fan of all things pirate, except parrots. Life’s too short to spend it cleaning up bird poop!

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