Disclaimer: I received a complimentary copy of the PDF version of this game from the author and publisher, though I liked it enough to buy a print copy out of pocket.
Malcontent Games’ Seven Leagues is a charming, streamlined role-playing game intended to emulate fairy tales.
This 126-page book is laid out in horizontal 9″ x 7″ (225 mm x 175 mm) format. It’s lavishly illustrated with classic (and happily, public-domain) art, including illustrations by Gustave Doré, Edmond Dulac, Edward Abbey, Arthur Rackham, Piranesi, etc.. The two-column layout with comfortable margins is pleasing to the eye, and the fonts are well chosen. The PDF and the colour print version are lovely; the black-and-white print version is a bit disappointing because many of the images don’t look good in greyscale.
The writing style is clear and straightforward, and manages to be evocative without getting overblown. The editing is very good, which is always a nice surprise in a role-playing game. The overview of the tone, themes, and key elements of fairy tales is very interesting and provides good advice on giving an adventure the right feel.
There is a short table of content and no index, but the game is short enough that it’s not difficult to find what you’re looking for. In a few instances, I would probably have organized the material slightly differently, particularly in the case of a few entries that might be shuffled between Part 1 and Part 2, but nothing egregious.
Once Upon a Time: The System
Character Creation. Character creation is quick and simple. As well it should in a fairy-tale setting, it consists of seven elements — since as the author points out, the three most significant and symbolic numbers in fairy tales are three, seven, and thirteen.
- Choose a Name, of course.
- Pick a player-created descriptive Aspect, such as “a fairy princess” or “a mighty warrior”.
- Distribute 13 points among three Virtues, each rated 1 to 7: Head (mental), Heart (social/emotional), and Hand (physical). The Virtues are reminescent of the division used in many games, from White Wolf’s mental, social and physical attributes to BESM/Tri-Stat’s Body, Mind and Soul stats.
- Pick a number of Charms (magical abilities) equal to the character’s lowest attribute. Charms are always expressed as active phrases countaining at least a noun and a verb; for example, “Casts illusions with magic sand,” “Lies shamelessly,” or “Animates forest plants to carry out his will.” Charms generally simply work, although under certain circumstances (e.g., when two characters are using Charms against one another), they may require a roll to determine final effects.
- Characters may also have optional Taboos, limitations or hindrances which provide interest and can be used to increase their number of Charms; for example, “Hideously ugly” or “Charms don’t work by day.” Taking two taboos allows the character to have one more Charm, up to a maximum of four Taboos for two extra Charms.
- Each character also has a Legend, a short text describing the character that helps explain what his or her Virtues represent. The player can underline a number of keywords equal to the character’s lowest Virtue. (More on keywords later.) For example:
Morko, the Bogeyman, exists primarily to punish the wicked, and to “scare straight” children and adults who are on the verge of becoming wicked. He likes to do this by creating nightmares that show possible futures of pain and torment if the wicked person doesn’t adopt better ways.
- A character’s Fortune is expressed by two polar facets: Luck and Curses, which can be used to modify rolls. Starting player characters (“Protagonists”) have no Fortune but can accumulate it in play.
Roll 13. The engine on which Seven Leagues runs, called “Roll Thirteen”, is a simple system using a d12 plus a Virtue (score of 1 to 7) plus circumstancial modifiers (+3 to -6) and narration bonuses (0 to +3) versus a standard target of 13. Guidelines are provided for the circumstancial modifiers, by task difficulty. For example:
Jill wants to climb a magic beanstalk. The GM decides that this is not too hard because the stalk is large and steady, and assigns a modifier of +2.
The narrative modifiers depend on how well and interestingly the player narrates the character’s actions. A well-delivered description gets a +1, an exceptional use of a character trait or exploitation of an opponent’s weakness merits a +2, and a stunning effect or fantastically clever description gets a +3.
Rolling a 1 on the die is always a failure, and rolling a 12 always indicates a success.
Keywords. The keywords are used in a very similar way to that found in HeroQuest. In each Tale (generally an episode), players may add – not remove – a feature corresponding to a character Keyword to the story. It must consist of a place, a person, or a thing. For example:
Annie, who plays Marissa (a waif), declares that the next village will be home to a kindly old woman who will take her in. The GM has control of the new character.
Conflict. Challenges and conflicts involving dice are handled in three stage. First, the Ouverture: the opponents make a Courage roll (based on Heart), establish victory conditions (stakes), and identify applicable circumstance modifiers.
Next, Crescendo: the two sides (either two players or a player and a GM) take turns narrating Embellishments, i.e., descriptions of actions and story elements very similar to the descriptions in Wushu, for which the GM gives Narrative Bonuses. This exchange begins with the winner of the Courage Roll and the two sides take turns until both are satisfied, usually getting two to four Embellishments per side.
Third comes the Finale: each side rolls a 12-sided die, adds the appropriate Virtue, circumstance modifiers and narrative bonuses, and compare results. The highest roll wins, but a total under 13 is always a failure, so it’s possible for both sides to fail to achieve their victory conditions, just like it’s possible for both sides to succeed if the one with the lower total (who would otherwise be defeated) rolled a 12 on the die.
The consequences of defeat are largely up to the GM; in addition to failing to achieve victory conditions, the GM may declare that a defeated character suffers a consequence such as maiming, loss of Luck, acquisition of a new Curse, loss of a Keyword, acquisition a new Taboo, loss of a Virtue point, or loss of a Charm.
The Opposition. Antagonists are created pretty much like player characters (Protagonists), although they are not limited in their Virtue scores or number of Charms and Taboos. The other category of dangers and challenges that can be encountered consists of Disasters. These are forces of nature, impersonal events, and inanimate challenges such as A House Fire, A Poisoned Apple, or A Terrible Storm. They receive very simple descriptors that include an Aspect, a Calamity rating ranging from 1 to 13, and Penalties (consequences ranging from mildest to most severe.)
Character Growth. The players need to keep track (on the dedicated space on the character sheet) of every successive narrative bonus they receive. These cumulative bonuses are the currency used as “experience” in the game. In addition, characters whose story is resolved or have been transformed through the story may be allowed to change their Charms or Taboos as appropriate.
The Hut on Chicken Legs: Setting
Although I will not dwell long on this chapter, I greatly enjoyed reading it. It discusses the nature of Faerie, its seven Provinces, and some examples of its many Domains.
The seven Provinces delineated are a creation of the author but solidly rooted in mythology; he provides a coherent structure on which to drape the stories. The Provinces are the Caverns of the Dead; Gloomwand, the quintessential dark forest (think Myrkwood and you’re not too far); Gothga, the city of crossroads, where all paths lead; Underhome, a dark underground fairyland that reminds me of the home of the Mountain King in Peer Gynt; The Clockworks, a mechanical city of wonders; the Oasis of the Burning Sands, an Arabian Tales fantasy land; and the Ice Range, the land of frost and eternal winter.
The descriptions are interesting and evocative, and many story seeds and intriguing characters are sprinkled throughout. Each province has an Aspect and three Influences that may provide circumstantial modifiers to certain actions that either are particularly appropriate or go against the nature of the Province.
Domains are smaller regions that do not have an independant existence like the Provinces, but form around a Dominant to which they are linked. An example would be a glade that formed around a powerful forest fairy. Domains and Dominants reflect one another’s character.
This chapter also discusses portals to the Mortal Lands (Kissing Points), Sorcery, Antagonists, and player Troupes (the latter being an example of element I would have preferred to see discussed in the previous chapter instead.)
Tales: Three Sample Adventures
The sample adventures are The Emperor’s Painting, You Only Live (Happily Ever After) Twice, and The Ass’ Skin. I have not tried to run any of them, though I used them as inspiration. The first and the last contain enough material that they should probably be run as multi-episode series; the other was written for a convention and can probably fit in a one- or two-episode format. They provide useful examples of story structure, Antagonists, Domains, and Disasters.
I have used Seven Leagues to run a mini-series (“One if by Land, Two if by Sidhe”) based on the Fables comic book from the DC Vertigo line; the player characters were all Fabletown inhabitants in New York, dealing with the commotion of the incipient rebellion of the Thirteen Colonies in early 1776. I have also run a single-episode convention game (“Atlantis Under the Sea”), where the player characters were inhabitants of the sunken city of Atlantis defending their home from Leviathan. The actual play report of the convention game is posted here on RPG.net, including my approach in planning the scenario.
The game is very unconstraining for a GM; rather than worrying about system issues, you can concentrate on story elements. Indeed, it is these story elements that will support what crunch there is. The rules are dependant on what has been created through narration; if a Domain has been introduced where treachery and despair are strong, then actions taken in this direction will gain a mechanical advantage. If the Domain is one of heroism and fealty, then these themes instead will provide the mechanical bonus.
Because it’s so easy to create Antagonists and Disasters on the fly, Seven Leagues lends itself well to improvisation and to sharing control of the story with the players. On the other hand, I think it works best if this improvisation rests on a clear structure, even if it’s a very simple one or if you have to rearrange that structure mid-story. By all means, let the players run off in an unforeseen direction, but make sure you have in mind the elements of the tales that need to reappear. This will give a more unified feel to the story and will help guide the players’ invention.
While the convention game was great fun, it did not allow the players an opportunity to make their own characters. In our Fables mini-series, people clearly enjoyed making their own characters. The process is very simple in itself; the main challenge for a lot of players is to come up with a coherent character concept since, unlike “traditional” games, there isn’t a list of pregenerated skills or archetypes to guide choices.
I highly recommend group character creation, or at least group discussion, to help people create Protagonists that work well together and with the genre. Unlike some other RPGs, this is not a game that works well with the “A rock troll, a pixie, and a tengu walk into a bar…” approach. Guidelines should be established regarding what will work and what won’t, either by the GM or through group discussion.
For example, in “One if by Land, Two if by Sidhe” we obviously used the Fables premise and setting, but in 1776. Therefore any legend that wasn’t circulating in some form at the time was not usable. The roster we eventually ended up with included the Headless Horseman (but no Ichabod Crane, since Washington Irving had not written about him yet), the Bogeyman, Molly Whuppie, a down-on-his-luck Thor reduced to a has-been drunk, and John the Conqueror.
Both in this game and in my mini-series, I find I have trouble giving different narrative modifiers for players’ contributions. I tend to give +2 all around because I hate having to say “Player A, that was really good, have a +3; Player B, that was OK, have a +1.” Moreover, a speech which for a tongue-tied player is an awesome bit of narration worth a +3 may be completely banal and worth a +1 for a more glib player. So I just even things out, although that may not be the best option.
Another challenge related to narrative bonuses is that players need to track the bonuses received since their accumulation is what takes the place of character experience. I always have a hard time doing the bookkeeping for this sort of thing in the middle of the action when I’m playing, and apparently my players have the same problem. As a result, they frequently forget to make note of assigned modifiers and therefore miss out on advancement. I sometimes round things a bit at the end of an episode to make up for this problem.
These mechanic challenges aside, both the series and the convention game produced excellent narration from the players. People were full of ideas and, as soon as they saw they could freely add to the story, took off with it. They enjoyed adding challenges for their own characters, which was entertaining and made for richer stories.
And whether from the themes and motifs, the players’ cleverness or pure luck, things seem to work out right. For example, in the actual play report I link to above, the characters’ Charms, which I had written without a pre-conceived idea of how the story would evolve, seemed to be used at the dramatically appropriate moments. I had no idea whether the Charm “Can undo any knot” or “Cannot be moved from a spot when clinging with both feet” would ever be useful, but they both turned out to be key to defeat the villain of the play in a dramatic pile-up.
Like many other games similarly based on shared narration, this game requires a good deal of trust and respect among players and GM. The effects of narration can be sweeping and unforeseen, and a lot is left to the participants’ judgement. This means it’s great fun with the right group, and hell in a group where expectations and tastes are not compatible.
It’s important to select players carefully when planning a series, to discuss the group’s expectations at the time of character creation, and to handle disagreements with courtesy and respect. This is the kind of game where everyone should be thinking about how to make others look good.
While Seven Leagues revolves around fairy tales, this is should be construed in the widest possible sense. Several of the examples in the book are based on Greek, Celtic, or Norse mythology; others inspirations include literature such as the works of Shakespeare and Spencer. Don’t feel like this system is dedicated to Disney-esque stories; it’s excellent to play urban fantasy in the style of Neil Gaiman, Emma Bull, or Charles de Lint. Movies like Labyrinth, Ladyhawk, Pan’s Labyrinth, or The Dark Crystal would also make good inspiration.
Any magical, fantastic setting that is bound by rules different from those of our world, but bound nonetheless would probably make a good candidate for a Seven Leagues game. It’s a great choice for non-gamers who want to play something in the style of their favourite urban fantasy book for the first time.
This book will please people who enjoy role-playing fairy tales: fans of The Zorcerer of Zo, Faerie’s Tale, and Mythic Russia, for example. It will also likely appeal to those who enjoy do-it-yourself abilities and systems where narration provides a mechanical advantage, such as Wushu, HeroQuest, or Dogs in the Vineyard.
People who prefer well-defined effects, deterministic target numbers, and fixed skill lists, or who are not attracted to fairy tales, will likely not enjoy the game.
Overall, I greatly enjoyed the game and so did my players; I recommend it as a good introduction to RPGs for newcomers and children.