The opening fiction sets the scene for the sort of epic swashbuckling action this game inspires... indeed the cover layout, looking like a film poster, suggests the cinematic exploits the party can perform. Wit, swordplay, acrobatics, poise and sheer adventurous fun is what this game is all about!
Chapter 1: Welcome to 7th Sea sets the scene. Swashbuckling, sorcery, piracy, adventure, diplomacy, intrigue, romance, revenge, archæology and exploration all have their place in this almost-17th-century-Europe where new ideas challenge accepted dogma, lost secrets are coming to light, and dramatic swordplay carries the day and often wins fair lady too (unless she's the one waving a sword around...). There's a brief explanation of what role-playing is all about, and how the party are designed to be Heroes with a capital H - they may be rogues or rascals, they may dice with the law, but they are not evil people. We'll leave that to the Villains, thank you very much. There's a very brief overview, a summary, of major powers in Théah, the world in which this game is set, then it is on to more solid material.
Chapter 2: Théah is a glittering sweep of the world, introducing the various nations, an essay for each seeking to encapsulate the national 'spirit' - even if the concept of a nation is quite a new-fangled thing, Théah's only had them for the last hundred years or so. Culture and clothing, currency and customs, art and music and religious belief are all covered. We also learn how each nation is governed and defended, and how they get on with the other countries. It's an overview, whole books can be written about each one, but it serves well to give an idea of what each nation is about. If you are familiar with the first edition of 7th Sea, much will be familiar... but read it through anyway, this is fresh and well-written (and beautifully illustrated), and there are of course changes, some subtle others more blatant, to make this a wholly-new game in a similar setting. There's also a wholly-new nation, the Sarmatian Commonwealth, which sounds a fascinating place to visit. Here you can also read about the Church in all her various forms, pirates and privateers, secret societies and even monsters...
Next, down to business with Chapter 3: Making a Hero. You've already read about the nations, here are one-page summaries explaining what Heroes that come from each are likely to be like. You don't have to stick to them, of course, but may find yourself a stranger even in your own land if you stray too far from the expected (unless you have an exceptionally good backstory, and even then that relies on people knowing it!). Then there's the nine-step process for creating your Hero. (It's billed as eight-step, but with a Step 0 that involves coming up with a concept before you start in on the game mechanics stuff!) To devise your concept there are twenty questions to answer which should help you understand who your Hero is and what makes him tick. You may not want to answer them all, you may not choose to share the answers with anyone else, you may even change them as you get to know him better: but it provides a starting point.
Once you have a handle on your Hero, you move on to getting some numbers onto that character sheet. We start with five Traits (Brawn, Finesse, Resolve, Wits and Panache), and use a point-buy system to discern strengths and weaknesses. Next, stir in the appropriate bonus for the nation that you call your own before deciding on your background - the stuff you did before you became an adventurer. These are your past, the things you were and did. They'll give you knowledge and skills, contribute to your backstory, but they are not likely what you are now, as the game begins. Note that Sorcery occurs more than once in some of the lists you can choose from under various backgrounds. It looks odd but it's there for a purpose: if you want to be a powerful sorceror you can choose it as many times as it appears. You then pick skills, again via point-buy. There are also advantages to be purchased, they help round out the character as well as providing, well, an advantage under certain defined circumstances. All straightforward so far... then comes arcana. Consider a Tarot deck, or at least the Théan equivalent, a Sorté deck. You choose (or may draw... John Wick Presents sell Sorté decks if you want one) a Virtue and a Hubris based on the twenty character cards in the deck.
Step 7: Stories is quite unusual and rather neat. This is where you work out, with the GM, the story you want to tell with your Hero. What aspect do you want to explore? What do you want him to accomplish? You can tell multiple stories, but only one at a time. For each, you need to decide on appropriate endings (there may be more than one), and decide on the first steps that you'll take to resolve the situation. From then on in, it becomes part of the ongoing plot. There are loads of ideas and sample stories here, but the best ones are probably those that you come up with for yourself. Finally, in Step 8: Details you put the finishing touches to your character. There's also an outline of a very abstract system for determining wealth (agonising over every last penny is inappropriate for a swashbuckler, after all), and a slightly flippant section on how character wounds are handled.
Character done, we move on to Chapter 4: Action and Drama to find out how everything works in the game. Task resolution uses the character's Traits and Skills to overcome a Risk - the action taken in response to a threat, or one which has a consequence for good or bad depending on the outcome. It all starts with a situation... and like all game mechanics, sounds more complex on paper than it is once you get the dice out and try it for yourself. There are plenty of examples to help you get your head around it. The complex bit is that you roll handfulls of d10s (based on the points you have in appropriate Traits and Skills for the task in hand) and then seek to get the most Raises, or 10s... but it's not just rolling a 10, if you roll a couple of 5s, you can add then to give yourself another Raise. Raises can be used to accomplish the task, ameliorate the consequences (e.g. if you'd get a wound you can cancel it out with a Raise) or take advantage of an opportunity that presents itself. There's a discussion of how rounds work, for when more than one character is involved in whatever the Risk is (a swordfight say), and all manner of additional bits and bobs... but no 'dodges' - viewed as a bit unheroic, if you want to avoid being hit take action to get out of the way and describe that rather than saying thay you are dodging! You can fail on purpose, too, getting a Hero Point and not rolling any dice at all.
All this has the potential to make what should be a thrilling action scene horrendously mechanical. Just remember that the key is in the descriptions you give of what your character is doing, and once the group is used to the game mechanics and you don't have to think about what you are rolling when it all becomes much more fluid. When engaged in a scene other than one that produces a flurry of action, you can use a Dramatic Sequence instead - similar mechanics, but played out over a longer period, such as character actions during a party, attempting to charm or impress people. Or you may prefer to role-play this, but it does give a chance to those who maybe find it hard to come up with good lines to still have their character be impressive and witty! The chapter ends with some Game Master rules for things like handling Brute Squads - those hordes of minions villains always seem to have around - and Villains themselves as well as monsters.
Next up is Chapter 5: Sorcery. Denounced by the Vaticine Church, feared or hated by many... yet beguiling to those who seek power other than that of the sword arm. Many Théans have some kind of magic in their bloodlines, and although it is lumped together as 'sorcery' each type has its own specific rules and methods of operation. Most of it is associated with particular nations, woven deep into their culture and psyche, and most is extremely powerful. Handle with care, or you'll find yourself a Villain before you know it. There is a wealth of material here, some familiar to players of 7th Sea 1e but there is a lot of new stuff: it's more elegant and organised, more diverse, balances a blessing and a curse: that awesome power comes at a price.
Swordfighting is the lifeblood of 7th Sea so it's no surprise that Chapter 6: Dueling is devoted to every aspect of sword play. This covers the Duelist's Guild, the trade body for sword-waving folk, and the myriad of Academies where they learn their art. There are many different styles of sword-fighting, and keen fighters can learn several, mixing and matching styles to fit the occasion. Each confers a specific advantage when it comes to combat.
Next up, the other staple of swashbuckling adventure with Chapter 7: Sailing. This chapter provides information on everything from the skills needed to man a ship to the organisation of a crew and the difference between a pirate and a privateer. To get into true sea-dog mood there are nautical superstitions, then details of different types of vessel and notes on the different seafaring nations. Ships have histories too, mostly for flavour but they can confer game mechanical advantages as well. Information on carrying cargo and engaging in sea battles, as well as the monsters of the deep round out this section.
Then comes Chapter 8: Secret Societies. Most other things tend to be centred around the various nations of Théah, but the secret societies spread their tentacles across the known lands, embracing individuals of all nationalities and backgrounds who agree with their cause. Joining one confers benefits and obligations upon a character, and should never be embarked upon lightly. Characters may join a society during character creation or in the course of play if the opportunity arises. It adds loads of flavour and many ready-made opportunities for adventure.
Finally, Chapter 9: Gamemaster which opens by talking about that magical moment when a player stops talking about his character and says 'me'... and continues with ideas about how to make that moment occur in the games that you run. There are standard tropes here, the golden rule of having fun (with its rider that if someone isn't having fun, find out why and sort it out), prior preparation and planning, and the GM wearing three hats (author, storyteller and referee). These are all explained and used to provide ideas about how to run games of 7th Sea to best effect (and often will work whatever game you are running, so make for a good read anyway). There are loads of ideas for themes and plots, a look at how to take that plot idea and turn it into a well-crafted adventure and much, much more. It also touches on improvisation, character death, enforcing rules and other thorny matters. There are even suggestions for how to be mean to the characters, making the players feel that there are real risks to be taken even in a game where it's quite hard to kill player-characters off. There are ideas for handling players too, rewarding the good ones and coping with uncooperative or otherwise disruptive ones. All in all, it provides an excellent textbook for being a good GM.
Overall, this is a masterful retooling of an already enjoyable game. All the good bits of the original are here, but it's been refined into an elegant coherent package. If you want to swash your buckle in a mix of Musketeers and Captain Jack Swallow style adventuring, this is the game with which to do so.
[5 of 5 Stars!]