I like this product; I'd like to like it more.
I'm an old-school fan of 7th Sea going back to the game's first edition; I was in my Friendly Local Game Store the day the two core rulebooks came out. I'm also a cultural anthropologist and folklorist by training, and a history and literature teacher of about two decades' vintage, just so you know where I'm coming from.
Overall I've found the second edition to be a very pleasant improvement over some of first edition's...quirks. One of the things I've been happiest about in second edition is the much more robust and culturally sensitive attention given to the parts of the game world that aren't Europe. For instance, The Crescent Empire is in many ways a masterpiece of evocative, gameable setting work; in graduate school Turkish folk epic (and folk narrative in Islam more generally) was my area of specialization, and the rules for poetry duels and the like delighted me. The fact that the opening fiction was a clear nod to Farid ud-Din Attar's Sufi poem The Conference of the Birds delighted me. And on and on.
There was something not quite right about Crescent Empire. Something that niggled at me, despite my abundant affection for the numerous things it did excellently. It took me a while to figure it out, and it was The New World that finally made me see it.
The Crescent Empire as presented in 7th Sea is so much like the actual Ottoman Empire...except in all the ways that it isn't. No, I'm not dumb; I get that the whole 7th Sea universe is a varyingly loose gloss on seventeenth (more or less) century reality, but not that reality itself. Nonetheless, I can't help feeling like the divergences are starting to go too far for me personally.
(I will get to The New World, I promise.)
In the second edition Crescent Empire, a new Empress has just instituted a series of reforms that are so sweeping, so liberalizing, and so wildly historically improbable, that I couldn't help but shake my head reading about them. The abolition of the class system? In seventeenth-century Ottoman Turkey? My brain couldn't cope. It was a change too far, one so radical that the setting no longer made sense, no longer felt enough like real history that I could accept it even while squinting hard.
The fact that Théah isn't our actual historical world is a great gift: the game's designers can create more space for female, queer, and racially diverse characters. That's wonderful, and I support it fully! But while Théah isn't our world exactly, it needs to be enough like our world that there's a value in adventuring there, and not somewhere far more divorced from Earth's history, like the Forgotten Realms or Middle-earth or Barsoom.
(I had an intimation of the problems that were on the way when I first read the second edition core rulebook. Apparently nations in Théah don't care about the race of their citizens; if you're an Avalon, you're an Avalon whether your ancestry stretches back centuries in the Glamour Isles or whether your parents immigrated from Ifri a decade ago. That's a lovely idea, and I understand the good intentions that underpin it: make it easier for gamers of color, or anyone else, to play characters of color from any of the mock-European nations. I am all for this!
It's not how seventeenth century Europe regarded questions of race and ancestry. At. All. And while I would much rather live in a world with Théah's racial politics than the ones real history has handed us, the historian in me goes a little crazy when I have to imagine a seventeenth-century Europe that is, frankly, more racially enlightened than twenty-first century America. [Admittedly, that doesn't seem hard, these days. sigh])
I could deal with the ahistoricity around race and nationality. I can sort of deal with the idea of a classless Ottoman Empire—I almost can't write the words—if only because there's so much nifty stuff in the other parts of the Crescent Empire book. But I think New World may have broken me.
You see, the Nahual Alliance, the Aztec analogues in New World don't practice ritual human sacrifice. I mean they used to, but they don't anymore. In fact, now they abhor the act.
I'm sorry? These Aztecs dont' practice sacrifice? What on earth, then, makes them Aztec? So much, so very, very, very much of Aztec society at the time period (give or take a century or two) 7th Sea is set revolved around human sacrifice. The religious imperative to sacrifice captive humans shaped military policy, weapon design, sociocultural organization, art and architecture and literature...I could go on. When you remove that aspect of the Aztecs, or Nahuals, or whoever, you make them something fundamentally other, something fantastic in the pejorative sense of the world. Not Aztec anymore. Something so disconnected from real world history that you may as well be roleplaying in Gary Gygax's Oerth, not John Wick and company's Théah. (No disrespect to Oerth meant.)
Again, I get it. On one level, I think the desire to present Latinx gamers with Aztecs who aren't as morally problematic as the real Aztecs were is laudable. But as much as I love Ottoman culture, I don't love a Crescent Empire flensed of the very real problems and contradictions that made it what it was, that made it so compelling, and yes, so ripe for heroic and swashbuckling adventure. Every culture has these kinds of problems, of course, including all the European ones. The 7th Sea corebook is totally willing to give us, for example, a Montaigne/France that groans beneath some stupefyingly awful situations stemming from the callousness of the aristocracy. We are all but told bloody revolution is inevitable, and why shouldn't it be? That's great! That's super-gameable! Now there's a horrible problem for heroes to get caught up in, and to try to solve!
New World could do that with the Nahual Alliance. Keep human sacrifice—believe me, as a Spanish speaker and lover of Mexico, I have no desire for Mexican or any other Latinx gamers to be offended, but the fact that the Aztecs ritually killed in such large numbers is a massive matter of historical record. Keep the sacrifices, but create a niche for the players to be part of a small insurgency working to bring it to an end. Or better still, have one of the secrets of the game world be that human sacrifice, while monstrous, is something the Nahual must do in order to forestall an even worse evil, like the return of the monstrous elder god beings The New World keeps alluding to. Suddenly we've got moral tension! Ambiguity! The need for tough choices!
You know, all the stuff people of conscience (a.k.a. heroes) face in real life. In real history.
I should point out that The New World, which gives us three civilizations, the faux-Aztecs, faux-Maya (who are sadly way more boring than the real Maya were), and faux-Inka does nail one of those three beautifully. The Inka analogue, Kuraq, is ruled by an awful person doing awful things with necromancy and the living mummies of ancestors, and there's a perfect opportunity for heroes to join, or foment, a rebellion against her. The writer or writers of this section had the courage to give us a culture that was problematic, that had made bad choices, that needed heroes. And those heroes hardly have to be white saviors from faux-Europe; let them be rogue faux-Inkans fighting to make their civilization better. Wouldn't that be awesome?
I guess what I'm saying, in a too-long and roundabout way, is that I wish the 7th Sea authors would recognize that honoring the dignity and worth of non-European cultures doesn't require us to make them nicer than they were in real history. You can respect and admire much of Ottoman, or Aztec, or Inka culture and still condemn many of their leaders' decisions and their religions' practices. As long as you are making a sincere, anthropologically deep effort to understand why these cultures do things that seem contemptible from outside, it's okay to give them warts. Not only are those warts the stuff of adventure—wrongs that need righting—they're historically honest.
I'm reminded of what Kiowa author N. Scott Momaday says in the first installment of Ken Burns's documentary series The West, the installment focused on Native Americans prior to contact with Europeans. He states that the first thing we needed to do was dismiss artificial and romanticized visions of Native peoples as living in perfect harmony with one another, or with the land. They fought each other, they were cruel and petty, and they radically transformed the American Midwest through pretty intensive terraforming (see Mann's 1491 for more detail). They were certainly noble and worthy of admiration, these cultures—but not in every respect, and not all the time. To make them less complicated, less problematic, than they were is ironically to erase a great deal of their authentic dignity.
This is the problem 7th Sea has been having, with the very best of intentions, and that problem comes to a head in The New World. Gone are human sacrifice and the environmental depredation of the Mayan city-states. Super-weirdly, gone too is the scope and brutality of armed conflict between Europeans and Natives; in 7th Sea's New World, this conflict is so curiously muted as to astonish anyone with even a rudimentary grasp of the history of contact between, say, Spain and the Aztec and Inka.
You may not care about these things, or you may disagree with me; I rated New World a four out of five stars precisely because I honor the authors' good intentions, so clearly my own mind is somewhat unsettled here. But what I want for the entire world of 7th Sea is not non-Europeans who are deracinated and sanitized in order to make them seem heroic in a generic sense. What I want for those peoples—the analogues of Native Americans, Eurasian Muslims, Africans, East Asians—is complexity, and honest reference to their cultures' flaws as well as their virtues. (Yes, cultural relativism makes discussion of subjective concepts like "flaws" and "virtues" tricky; fine, note the contradictions and foreground them.)
I want Aztecs who are politically complex, religiously sophisticated, architecturally and agriculturally brilliant—hell yes, I do! But I also want Aztecs who sacrifice captives from the states they've conquered, and whose society is in terrible danger of overthrow because of its addiction to a practice nearly all of us would condemn. That's historically honest, as I've noted, and it also makes a better and livelier and more conflict-rich world for gaming.
Your mileage may vary, and again, I want to salute the designers' efforts, which are themselves noble and admirable. But I think it's time to raise the bar a bit, and to have the courage to stare history—all our histories, no matter what our ancestry is—more squarely in the face.
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