Sail, me hearties, and treasure what good luck you find.
We’re thrilled to announce the PDF release of Pirate Nations, the second sourcebook in the 7th Sea: Second Edition line.
Pirate Nations is packed full of new source material for 7th Sea: Second Edition including new Backgrounds, Advantages, Stories, Sorceries, and five new Pirate Nations:
Numa, the land where legends were born and never left
La Bucca, the once-prison island turned headquarters for international intrigue
The Atabean Islands, where the ghosts of Rahuri ancestors sail alongside native peoples
Aragosta, home of the Brotherhood of the Coast and a pirate paradise
Jaragua, self-liberated slave colony and home of a new Sorcery called Kap Sevi
Pirate Nations also includes new setting materials for 7th Sea featuring the Devil Jonah, the dreaded Reis and Theah’s first multinational, the Atabean Trading Company. There be adventure aplenty in these lands, more than any one crew can hope to see in a lifetime.
Click here to buy the Pirate Nations PDF on DriveThruRPG.
Equestrianism is a major feature in many 7th Sea games—from the dreaded hussar cavalry to the nomadic Khazari horse tribes. This month, we interviewed editor, writer, and lifelong equestrian enthusiast Jaym Gates about horses in 7th Sea.
Jaym had wonderful insights to share about horses throughout history, realistic horseback travel, and the powerful bond between horses and humans that has “shaped humanity in a way no other creature can claim.”
Q: Thanks for taking the time to share your equestrian expertise with us, Jaym! Can you tell me about your own history with horses? What drew you to equestrianism and how long have you been riding?
Jaym: Man, there’s no real ‘entry’ point for me. There was never a point where horses weren’t part of my life. My family has been involved with horses for centuries, literally—my ancestors were knights and jousting fanatics in England in the Medieval era. The first picture of me on horseback was when I was a few weeks old and my mom was holding me. I understand horses more than humans.
Q: Humans have domesticated horses to support our work in a variety of ways, from racing and long-distance riding to plowing and war horses. Can you talk about the different types of horses bred for different types of work and what those horses look like?
Jaym: So, first off is breaking out the main categories: you’ve got donkeys, mules, ponies, and horses, in order of hardiness. Donkeys aren’t pretty, and most are small (‘mammoth donkeys’ are the exception, but they’re still smaller than a lot of horses), but they don’t need much food, they’re incredibly smart, and they can do a hell of a lot. Mules are the next rung up. They can be lovely animals, but tend not to be very fast, and it requires a lot of intelligence from the human to make them respect you, but mules are smart, strong, and powerful.
Then you have ponies, which are not just a height classification, but a type. Ponies are built in a more sturdy shape, with shorter legs, heavier bodies, and more durability. They take less food, can work longer, and survive more. They jump extremely well for their size, are very sure-footed, and are typically highly intelligent. The horses I grew up with were half Welsh Pony, half Arab mares, and the matriarch of our little herd could open any gate or rope that a human could, and taught her daughter the same.
Ponies cover a pretty broad range though, from the stumpy little Shetland to the massive Cobs—which are basically draft ponies—to the slim little riding ponies that are as expensive as any horse.
Horses can be divided into roughly three categories: riding horses, carriage/cart horses, and draft horses. Draft horses are your big Budweiser Clydesdales, bred to help break inhospitable land to human use, haul huge loads of materials, and yet be gentle enough to take care of the kids. Draft horses are still used in a lot of Europe and the Americas for farm and logging work, and can often access places closed to vehicles.
Riding horses are the ones most of us are familiar with, and they cover hundreds of breeds. Some of the best-known are the Greyhound-like Thoroughbred, and the small, fiery Arabian. Other popular breeds include the Andalusian, which is a Spanish breed used for dressage and cattlework, and Quarter Horses/Paints/Appaloosas, which are also cattle horses.
When you combine the bloodlines of a riding horse and a draft horse, you get the intermediate carriage-type horse, which is usually called a Warmblood (riding horses are ‘hot’, drafts are ‘cold). They tend to be a little stockier than a riding horse, but much lighter than draft horses. They were made to be strong, but also often to be attractive enough to pull an expensive coach, so some of them are quite flashy. This is also the type that is often used in equestrian sports. These range from Hollywood’s favorite black Friesian to the athletic Oldenburgs and Trakehners. Most Warmbloods that are bred as independent breeds come from Europe, many of them from the areas around Germany and England, which had strong breeding programs for cavalry horses.
Q: The domestication of horses dates back long before the timeline of 7th Sea, which is set around the late 17th century. When (roughly) did humans first begin domesticating and riding horses? Are there any major landmarks in the history of equestrianism, like the invention of new techniques or technologies, that might enter into a 7th Sea game?
Jaym: Domestication of horses was waaay back before the Assyrians and Egyptians, before we really have good records. Horses were similar to cattle for a long time in that they were food that could be domesticated and moved. At some point, someone figured out they could move a whole lot more and started riding them.
Around the 17th century, you started seeing some real interest in getting the most out of a horse. The Spanish in particular were leading the way in taking the horse’s ability as a weapon and codifying it into an art form called ‘dressage’. Middle Eastern and Moorish bloodlines were moving north, and the Thoroughbred began its journey around this time, based on Arabian blood. So you could absolutely have noblemen who’re bringing expensive trainers in to teach them this new ‘dressage’ sport, or schemes around priceless breeding stock being imported from foreign lands. Look up the Godolphin Arabian if you want a good idea of some of the intrigue there!
Additionally, wealthy Englishwomen in particular were beginning to develop a fascination with the Middle Eastern horse, and many of them made incredible trips into the Middle East to find and bring back the amazing horses there. For a time when women were barely allowed outside, some of these adventures were pretty incredible. Look up Lady Anne Blunt if you want a good idea of the things they were getting up to.
Q: In a 7th Sea game you might encounter the Khazari, a large nomadic horse tribe from the northermost part of Ussura. As you can see in the maps below, the nation of Ussura is already pretty far north. Would you see many differences between warm and cold climate horses? How about differences in body shape or stature between more formally domesticated riding horses and horses ridden by nomadic tribes?
Jaym: One of the really fun facts of history is that the Mongolians conquered a vast amount of the known world on tiny horses that were little more than scrubby ponies. They certainly wouldn’t win any beauty awards—short-legged, pot-bellied, hammer-headed, scraggy-maned—but these little guys were exceptionally tough and able to survive on very little food.
However, you get a little farther north (the area that would correspond to the Khazari), and you start getting into an ecological niche that produced a really fascinating group of unique horses, known as “The Heavenly Horse” in China and Russia. The Akhal Teke is the best known of these, but the horses of the Eurasian steppes were pretty much alike—tall, thin, long-legged, with sparse manes and thin coats, roman noses, and an almost miraculous ability to survive and thrive on next to nothing, while having incredible endurance, intelligence, and loyalty. Additionally, their coats have a unique property that gives them a metallic sheen.
Similar to the Bedouin Arabians (and related to them), these horses were raised in such close proximity to humans that they were more giant dogs than horses. Stories abounded of their care of wounded riders, their ability to find their way home from great distances, and their prowess in war. The stallions were tethered near tents and blanketed in heavy felt blankets, while the mares and young horses foraged. Before war, the horses were put on sparse diets to prepare them for the minimal food and water of a long-distance raid. During the journey, they were fed solely on cakes of mutton fat, butter, and dried fruit.
Have you seen the movie Hidalgo? The closest real race to that is a 2600 mile endurance race through the steppes. Akhal-Tekes are the only horses who run it.
Steppe tribes needed their horses to be almost uncannily smart, loyal, and capable, and stories abound of the wonder Europeans felt when they met the Eastern breeds. Most European breeds owe their background to the Arabian and Barb horse, but those same bloodlines went north and east and became the horses that Chinese emperors would pay astronomical sums for.
Q: In 7th Sea, your character might choose a background that gives them special abilities when they’re using equestrian skills. One example of this is a cavalry background, which gives you a Hero Point when you apply your riding skills to an uncommon situation. There’s also a special Vodacce background, Ride, that lets you engage in high-speed carriage chases and ride through forests at a gallop.
What would happen if someone without any equestrian knowledge just tried to hop on a horse and gallop away? What should a person be aware of before even trying to mount a horse?
Jaym: To be fair, it’s easy enough to learn to ride very quickly…if you have a very well-mannered, careful horse. There’s a reason so many trail-riding and horseback adventure groups exist. But if you want to do anything more intense, it’s going to be a challenge.
First off, the muscles used. There’s nothing else that really hits the same muscles. Horses are often used as therapy for people who can’t walk because it stimulates muscles deep in your core and back. It requires strength in your joints, hands, wrists, elbows, and arms.
Secondly, balance. Horses ‘roll’ a little when they walk, so even the walk takes a few minutes to master. The trot, the animal’s favorite gait, is hell on earth if you don’t know how to ride it (think of trying to ride two pogo sticks). The canter and gallop are easier, but what may not look very fast on the ground feels awfully fast when you’re on 1000+ pounds of muscle.
It takes courage to approach an unknown animal and open a dialog, and a willingness to learn a new language.
Thirdly, and most importantly, mental. Horses are huge, intelligent, and they have their own way of processing the world. You can beat most of them into submission, but many of them will eventually snap, and some will kill you up front for trying that. It takes courage to approach an unknown animal and open a dialog, and a willingness to learn a new language.
Q: In fantasy movies I’m always struck by the presence of horses on a long journey. Some films address the needs of the horses, and others make it seem like horses can just ride on endlessly with no water, food, or breaks. If a Hero’s going to undertake a long journey on horseback, what special care should they be considering? What should they be bringing along for their horse and how can they make horse travel feel more realistic?
Jaym: As mentioned above, it depends. A normal horse is going to need time to graze, rest, and drink water. Neglecting any of those options leads to a horrible thing called ‘foundering’, which basically means their feet give out and they can’t walk, and to potentials for colic and other illnesses.
If you’re riding at a walk, a horse can go most of the day with just a break at night and a couple of breaks during the day for water and a snack—a handful of oats, a few minutes of grazing, whatever. This can be interspersed with trotting or short periods of galloping, but the faster and longer you go, the more breaks you need, and the more work is required at those breaks. A lathered horse can’t be taken immediately to water, they have to be cooled down (walked, usually) until their respiratory system recovers, and then they need lukewarm water until they are no longer sweating—and only a little water. Too much or too cold and you’ll kill the horse. It’s a fine balance…
However, it’s not unheard of for horses to do 30 miles in a day, with good care. The horse needs to be fit, and the breaks need to be thoughtful, but it’s possible. Exceptional horses can do quite a lot more. The Bedouin Arabians are a good example. A prime horse was put through a rigorous test: run 50 miles without rest, swim at least one river (if you could find one), and come back with enough of an appetite to not only eat a full bag of oats but to not get sick from eating. Tellingly, a horse like that literally could not be sold, blood feuds lasting generations were started, and wars were fought over the theft of such a horse. Fortunes were made from the foals of these horses, or from their prowess in war or on the race track. Their loss to old age or injury was cause for as much grief as the loss of a family member. They could be gifted, but only to the most worthy of people. So the chances of any but the highest-level character owning such a horse is unlikely.
A lathered horse can’t be taken immediately to water, they have to be cooled down (walked, usually) until their respiratory system recovers…
Q: Finally, as a person who hasn’t spent much time around horses, I’d like to know how much horses bond with their owners. Do horses tend to express loyalty to one person, or to a small group of people? What are some of the emotional aspects of horse ownership that might come into play in a 7th Sea game?
Jaym: It really depends on the horse. I’ve owned horses who loved everyone, whether you had a treat or not, and horses who bonded exclusively to one person. The typical horse will bond strongly to its herd, which includes the humans it sees most and the horses it lives with. Horses are extremely social animals, they need interaction, and humans work just fine for that.
I have two horses I’ve raised from the time they were a few months old, and one horse rescued after his racing days were over. They all follow me like overgrown dogs, getting into everything and bickering with each other for attention. They call when they see me after I’ve been gone, and very clearly consider me a herd member. I have another one who, until recently, just didn’t like humans. He had no reason to, they’d never been kind to him. Recently, he’s realized that he’s safe for life, and he’s blossomed. He’s not particularly bonded to a human, but he’s friendly with all of us. The racehorse and the younger ones, by contrast, are very particular about which humans may touch them.
The typical horse will bond strongly to its herd, which includes the humans it sees most and the horses it lives with.
Emotionally, it’s amazing, and awful, and ridiculously hard to describe. Think about it: this 1000+ pound animal, who can live up to (and sometimes more than) 40 years, an animal capable of amazing feats, but this creature regards you as part of its family. It trusts you to help keep it safe, it watches your back, it has a deep emotional bond with you, and it will remember you for years of separation. It’s like a weird cross between a kid, a dog, and a friend.
That sort of emotional bond takes a toll, though. When I was 15, I had to put down the horse who’d raised me from the time I was a baby. Seriously, there are pictures of me, just a few weeks old, being held on her back. She was my best friend, confidant, nanny, and trainer. She had no problem telling me what I was doing wrong and making my life hard, but she also would go to great lengths to ensure my safety. I still miss her, and I still remember every awful time I’ve lost a horse.
I also worked for a while with an equine therapy program. We had kids who had never walked before getting up on these massive animals, and even a normally skittish, belligerent horse would steady down and walk so delicately, so carefully, paying attention to every shift and uncertainty. We had teenagers who gained the confidence to walk simply from a few rides, non-verbal kids who couldn’t stop talking to the horses, and kids who experienced freedom and power for the first time in their lives. We had one kid from inner-city Baltimore who’d had pretty much the worst hand life could give him. He didn’t see the point of horses, and he threw the brush into the pony’s face. A few minutes and one (admittedly slightly overwrought) description from me of what the horse thought of that, and he had his arms around that pony’s neck, his face buried in its mane, and the pony loved on him in return. Horses have a sixth sense for the scared, wounded, and weak.
Think about it: this 1000+ pound animal, who can live up to (and sometimes more than) 40 years, an animal capable of amazing feats, but this creature regards you as part of its family.
And sure, you can just look at it as a beast of burden, but why would you? You’re missing out on a relationship that has shaped humanity in a way no other creature can claim. If you want to experience some wonderful storytelling from someone who knew and loved horses, check out the work of Will James, who wrote about cowponies and the people they knew.
Thanks again for your time, Jaym! If you have any social media links you’d like to add, please share them below. 🙂
I do a lot of game design seminars and I always meet “The Guy.” He always says the same thing, too. He raises his hand and says, “I’ve been designing a roleplaying game for twenty years now…”
I stop him. Right there. I know exactly where this is going and I need to stop it before it gets any further. I say, “In twenty years, I’ve designed almost thirty roleplaying games. You need to crap or get off the pot, pal.”
That’s usually when The Guy gets up and walks out. And in twenty years, he’ll still be designing the same game. He’ll never be finished.
That’s because he’s unwilling to do the hardest part of design or writing or painting or anything else: letting it go.
I told Mike Curry and Rob Justice this. “Every day, you wake up and know how to make your game better. Every day. Even the day after you sent it to the printer. Even the day after it shows up in bookstores. Even a year after that. Every day.”
The hardest part is letting it go.
I’m elbow deep in the second draft of Born Under the Black Flag, the second 7th Sea novel. The first one was damn hard. This one was easier. Not a lot easier, but I did a few things I did not do with the first novel. First, I made an outline. Black Flag jumps back and forth through the life of Thomas St. Claire, a pirate in the world of Théah, and I wanted to know where the past and present were going to be. I outlined the chapters on index cards and put them down on the floor with numbers. Then, I picked them up in the order I wanted the novel, giving them letters. I shuffled them around a bit, scratched out some numbers and letters, and when I was finished, I started writing.
I finished just as my deadline hit. I mean, on the same day. Daughter of Fate—the first novel—got pushed back 30 days because I wasn’t finished with it. But St. Claire had a goal, a simple goal, and he was able to reach it because he was willing to spill blood to do it.
First draft done, I sent it off to Amanda Valentine and take a year end vacation, not thinking about the novel for a while so I could approach it with new eyes. Also, I spent some time doing research and reading Patrick O’Brien.
I knew a novel about pirates would need some O’Brien in it. There was already a little—maybe 1 O’Brien’s worth—but I wanted more. Not a lot more, but enough to satisfy myself and the other fans of his work.
O’Brien was the author of the Master and Commander novels—among others—and his storytelling made my heart ache. I couldn’t capture the same authenticity he did—I simply did not have the level of knowledge he had—but I wanted to make sure the nautical elements felt authentic enough.
I told Amanda that when I sent it off to her and she said she would help me out. She had a couple of friends who were O’Brien fans, so when I finished the second draft, she would hand it over to them for feedback.
Last night, I was going through her edits, making changes both big and small, when it came time to introduce the first ship in the book. And this is where I needed to raise the O’Brien Factor. I spent an hour and a half writing a single paragraph. One hundred and thirty words. I wanted them to be the right words. To make St. Claire’s inspection of the ship feel authentic.
Ninety minutes on those words. It was some of the hardest writing I’ve ever done. But I went to bed happy. This morning, I sent them to Ben Woerner who gave me feedback and added a little bit about hammocks. And then, I read it back to myself—out loud. And I was happy. Damn happy.
The Galente was a fluyt out of Vestenmennavenjar. A merchant ship smaller than those from Montaigne or Castille, clearly influenced by recent Avalon designs. The ship was round like a pear when viewed from the fore or aft and the forefoot had greater rake. Despite its size, she could handle shallower waters than most and the aftcastle was tall, giving plenty of room to the officers and the captain. A sure sign of vanity. The masthead caps were wide and she had little room for cannons. All of it was for crew and cargo. Her rigging was designed to minimize the first of them. She was tall and proud, few guns. And she was fast. Damn fast. Just a few carpenters and the right directions, and she’d be a fighting ship in a month.
After I was done, I sent the words to Jessica. She’s my Jane Austen fan. I sent them along with the request, “Please tell me if you get lost in the jargon.” I wanted to make sure there was just enough she could understand what was going on. She sent me this reply:
This is the sort of paragraph I skip when reading. If a fluyt is a real ship, then I don’t want someone spelling it out for me in text. That’s what Wikipedia is for. Talk about the significance that whoever’s POV would be considering.
Things like “A sure sign of vanity” are hints of a good direction. I want to hear the captain (or whoever) size her up, like a sailor would. I know no one knows what a fluyt is anymore, but ignore that. hide the information in the captain’s evaluation of his dreams and plans for her.
A merchant ship means he can hide his nature. That should be emphasized rather than comparing it to other nations.
A sure sign of vanity, but he could afford that. or maybe it would extend to his men, proud to have such a vessel. They will work harder.
I don’t know. But make it personal. Make it real. This is a text book description. Jargon smargon. It’s missing the people and the reasons.
Needless to say, I was heartbroken. I loved those words. I worked hard on those words. Dammit. DAMMIT.
Okay, okay. Take a breath. You know why you’re upset. You know why.
So, after stomping around the room for a little while, I set myself back behind the keyboard and began editing. Looking at Jessica’s feedback and using it. And what I got, after another hour of work, was something better. Not just better, something that Ben Woerner said “gave me chills” after reading it.
Yeah. It was better.
I wasn’t The Guy. I wasn’t going to walk out of the room when someone challenged me. I was going to listen and think.
And let it go.
St. Claire walked along the Galente, his eyes and mind taking in all the details. She was a fluyt out of Vestenmennavenjar: a merchant ship smaller than those from Montaigne or Castille, clearly influenced by recent Avalon designs. She was round like a pear when viewed from the fore or aft and the forefoot had greater rake. That meant he could sail her in shallower waters, hiding behind islands from larger ships. He could sail her up rivers, giving him access to ports and escape routes larger fighting ships could not manage.
The aftcastle was tall, giving plenty of room to the officers and the captain. St. Claire snickered. A sure sign of vanity on the part of the captain. Made the officers’ cabins easy targets for other ships. That would have to go.
She had little room for cannons. Only six per side. Instead of cannon decks, the Galente had room for cargo. She was a merchant ship, after all. Claire didn’t need many more guns, what he needed was speed, and the Galente had plenty of that. Her rigging was designed for minimal crew and outracing pirates. She was fast. Damn fast.
He knew what he had to do. Lose some cargo space with double hammocks and she could carry plenty of fighting men along with a small working crew. Add chase guns to the fore and aft, keeping sharp shooters in the rigging. Hiding in shallow waters at night, waiting for larger ships to go by, sailing right up to their hulls, moving so fast, the enemy’s cannons would fire too long, splashing cannons behind them. Then, unleash the marines. If he got that close, most ATC ships would surrender without ever firing a shot.
Just a few carpenters and the right directions, and she’d be a fighting ship in a month.
A great power summoning forth the brightest souls, and the darkest. These are the Heroes and Villains of Théah. For every knife-twisting assassin, there is an ever-diligent bodyguard. For each great act of courage and hope, there is a dastardly deed performed in darkness. For every Hero there is a Villain.
We’re proud to announce that 7th Sea: Heroes & Villains has sailed into port. Presented in full-color and fully illustrated, the PDF includes:
• 40 Heroes to use as NPCs or pregen characters
• 40 Villains ready to drop into any campaign
• Plot points and storylines for all characters
• Tips and tricks for creating your character
• History and Goals for all Heroes
• History and Schemes for all Villains
• New Mechanics and Dueling Styles
It is 3:50 AM. I just woke from a dream with a sharp pain on my back. When I looked in the bathroom mirror, I saw it was a mole on my back that has grown dangerous large and swollen. But the dream showed me a secret. A secret I must share with the others…
It’s true. It is 3:50 (now, 3:53) and I did wake from a dream with a sharp pain on my back. And I do have a mole on my back that is dangerously large and has become painful. And the dream is something I feel the need to share. With you.
(I should note this is, in no way, an officially licensed vision. Just something I felt the need to write down. Also, I haven’t playtested this. It’s literally coming from my head to the page.)
Making the Town
There’s a small Town somewhere in America. Maybe it’s in the Mid-West, maybe it’s in the South, maybe it’s in the Southwest, maybe it’s in the Great Northeast. Players decide where the Town is.
Next, go around in a circle and every player add one, two or three Details to the Town. These could be Locations, Businesses or Secrets. Every player adds one at a time until the group feels they’ve added enough Details. Don’t add too many! You want enough Details that you have a feel for the Town, but you also want enough freedom to add more Details later.
Making a Character
You are portraying someone in the Town. The first thing to do is write down your role in the town. That may be Sheriff or Deputy, it may be High School Student, it may be Mechanic, it may be Tavern Owner. This is your Role. Write it down.
Next is your Secret. Everyone in the Town has a secret. It could be that you’re involved in the Town’s drug community. Your Secret should be dangerous. If anyone else discovers your Secret, they could blackmail you for it. It could be that were responsible for someone else’s death (accidentally or intentionally) and you helped cover it up. It could be that you’re married and having an affair. Or, it could be that you become possessed by a hungry spirit and you’ve murdered your daughter.
Finally write down the word Danger and write a “1” next to it. Everyone in the Town is in some kind of danger.
Explore the idea of having multiple characters.
Making the Mystery
Finally, make a Mystery that has fallen over the Town. This is a large, dramatic even that has changed the town in some way. It could be a fire that burned down the local high school, the disappearance of a prominent member of the Town, or the murder of the prom queen. The Mystery should be dangerous and affect everyone in the Town.
Telling the Story
First, let’s talk about the Director.
Each player takes a turn being the Director. Have a special token that indicates when a player is the Director. If you are the Director, you’re responsible for playing any characters who are not played by players and for running Scenes. If you are the Director, none of your characters appear in the Scene. If one of your characters appears in the Scene, you must surrender the Director Token to another player who does not have a character in the Scene. You choose who gets the Token. If you receive the Token and you have a character in the Scene, your character must find a reason to suddenly leave the Scene.
Second, let’s talk about Scenes.
The story is told in a series of Scenes. Typically, a Scene is limited to a physical location. Characters can walk in and out of Scenes, but when focus leaves the physical location, the Scene has changed. When you change a Scene, change Directors.
Characters can do anything in a Scene, but whenever they take an action the Director feels could a) put them in mental or physical danger, b) expose their Secret, or c) gets them closer to solving the Mystery, the character gains a point of Danger.
Whenever a character gains a point of Danger, roll a d6. If the d6 rolls lower than the character’s current Danger, the player must decide how the character is injured or changed in the current Scene. Their Secret may be revealed for the first time, they may find themselves tied up and left for dead in THE WOODS. This may include the character’s death. Remember, the player decides how their character changes. Use each point of Danger to say one thing that is now different about your character. This could be a physical difference, such as a scar. It could be a knowledge difference, such as something your character knew that she didn’t know before. Or, it could be a mental difference, such as a change in attitude toward another character or situation. For each change, reduce the amount of Danger by one.
Confronting the Mystery
Finally, characters may choose to confront the heart of the Mystery. If they do, they take all their Danger with them. They must choose a number of ways their character is changed by the Mystery. No rolling dice. Their character is permanently changed in a number of ways by confronting the Mystery equal to their current Danger.
* * *
Diane, it’s 4:55.
I’ve decided to see old Doc Whipple about this mole on my back. But the dream still lingers behind my eyes, affecting everything I see. I don’t think I’ll be the same after all of this, but often times, a place changes you more than you could have anticipated.
Welcome to spirit of the 7th Sea, an interview series with experts and enthusiasts who share a passion for early modern European history.
Our first interview is with Jacob Lefton, an artist blacksmith who divides his time between the Pioneer Valley of western Massachusetts and Germany. After graduating from Hampshire College in 2008, Jacob spent six months traveling Europe as a journeyman blacksmith. His work can be found in homes, businesses, and public spaces up and down the east coast of the Unites States and in Europe, and has been featured in galleries on both sides of the Atlantic.
Jacob shared wonderful insights with us about blacksmithing, both present and past. We hope these insights inspire your adventures!
Thanks for taking the time to share your expertise with us, Jacob! Blacksmithing is a frequent feature in 7th Sea—from the Blacksmith’s Guild to the elegantly forged hilt of a Montaigne Musketeer’s sword. I’m excited to learn which pieces of your smithing knowledge players can fold into their own 7th Sea games.
Q: First, what drew you to blacksmithing? How did you get your start and what was the apprenticeship process like?
Jacob: I’ve been surrounded by metalwork for my whole life—when I was really young, my father would go forging damascus (pattern welded) steel with friends, and he said it was too dangerous for me to come, so I think that embedded the idea in my mind. When I went to Hampshire College, I found out there was an intro to blacksmithing class, and I jumped at the chance to take it. I messed around with it a bit more in college, and thought I was heading in a different direction for a while. However, after working for several months after graduation, I was really unhappy and quit my job in order to go to an artistic blacksmithing festival in Ukraine.
From there, I hopped from workshop to workshop across Ukraine, Sweden, Finland, and England for six months, sucking up as much knowledge of metalworking as possible. Part of it was really hard, because the language and isolation from traveling alone was difficult, but part of it was great, because there’s a kind of universal language of craft—I found there’s a level of thinking and building with my hands that allows me to communicate with almost anyone. I came back to the States with the thought ‘use it or lose it,’ so I started selling forged work. In six short years, I went from struggling to feed myself to making some pretty big, nice pieces of functional work, as well as sculptural art.
This only thematically stacks up with a regular apprenticeship as one in the 17th century would look. Around 14, a kid would become an apprentice to a master. They would spend 3-4 years working in the shop, first doing menial tasks like cleaning and taking care of equipment, and slowly working up to more important tasks like making nails or tools or helping with the shop’s commissions. One guy I know had an apprenticeship back in the early 1960s, and spent his early years straightening metal, because they got one type of steel in large coils, another blacksmith who apprenticed in the early 1900’s spent some of his apprenticeship time forge-welding scraps back together, because the metal was expensive. Apprenticeships still happen in Germany for many trades, though they start at 16-17 now.
After an apprenticeship comes the journeymanship, which lasts for several years. During this time the journeyman works towards a master-piece, and may have the option to join a guild. Journeymanship is still a structure across Europe for some trades, but it’s far less pervasive than it was.
The journeyman leaves home with the clothes they’re wearing, a small bag of belongings (including personal tools like a hammer and tongs), and they’re not allowed to come within 50km of their hometown for the period of their journeymanship. They get a gold earring (the hole is punched with a small punch on the anvil), and the earring can be torn out by an angry master or used to pay for their coffin if they don’t make it back home. Photos on the wikipedia page show you the traditional clothes a Geselle (german for ‘companion’) would wear. I doubt these go back to the 1680’s, but definitely late 18th century/early 19th century. The bell-bottoms are so you don’t get scraps and shavings from the workshop in your shoes (woodworkers would have worn wooden clogs). I’ve met french compagnon and Danish journeymen carpenters, some women and some men. It was likely mostly men in our 17th century.
A note on women in the workshop: Many women practiced these crafts. Families often supported the workshops, and women were quite capable craftspeople. Especially in societies that would levy the able-bodied men for wartime, women would take over the craft-work on the homefront, and I’m sure they would help run the business side of the workshop during peacetime, which would require them having working knowledge of the craft… and there’s plenty of woodcuts and sketches of women working in these workshops.
Q: If I were to walk into a 17th century blacksmith’s shop, can you describe the scene I’d expect to see? I don’t have any specialized blacksmithing knowledge, so I’m picturing some coal, a fiery forge, an anvil, and…maybe an iron poker. Can you help me expand on that visual?
Jacob: If you walk into a 17th century blacksmith’s shop, you’re likely going to see something quite similar to what you imagine today. There’s a forge or fire of some kind in one part of the shop, anvils and metal bits, there will be benches for working on smaller stuff, as well as tools lining the walls. There will be all kinds of specialized tools depending on what kind of shop it is: devices for making tires for cartwheels, water and oil to quench material, a big fireplace to hang things over to put on a blackened linseed oil coating for weather protection, all kinds of specialized tongs and stakes… The anvil may or may not look like the horned shape you expect. Many anvils were trade-specific shapes, and might be a short squat square with a weird corner for specific applications, or a set of specific stakes. Depending on where you are in the world, you could have an anvil stone. And, there’s going to be a set of bellows to stoke the fire, that could be worked by the blacksmith, an apprentice, or a child.
Additionally, it’s probably really dim in there—a blacksmith often judges the temperature of the metal by the color of the glow, which is obscured by bright light. The floor might be made of small hardwood blocks on end, which take impact and wear pretty well and smoke when something hot falls on them, so one can find it easily. Plus, they’re softer than brick or stone, so it’s less punishing on one’s back.
Q: And what about a modern blacksmith’s shop? Have there been major technological advances in blacksmithing since the late 1600s, or have the materials and techniques remained more or less the same?
Jacob: When we think about pre-industrial revolution blacksmithing, we tend to think of people working with all hand tools and no power tools, which is right, in a sense. I’ve heard die-hard historical accuracy blacksmiths say that power tools make them feel sick, but it’s kind of a weird position to have. Workers have been trying to gain a mechanical advantage for as long as they’ve been working, and one generation’s primitive tool is a previous generation’s cutting-edge technological marvel. You won’t find electrical tools in a 17th century smithy, but you will find things that amount to power tools. (You can be sure that if you did let an angle-grinder or electric welder wander into one of those shops, it would be used in an instant).
Depending on the work they do and whether they’re near a river, a shop might have a waterwheel to power a water hammer (the one in the video below is much newer, probably 18th/19th century). There’s still a 13th/14th century water hammer running in Ukraine.
It takes two people to operate, one to control the hammer speed and one to move the steel. They make something like ten farm tools a day with the hammer. They don’t talk to each other when it runs —the master smith (the one holding the material) simply nods or shakes his head. One of the sites I came across while researching this has a roman-era waterwheel. Basically any source of energy people have been able to utilize, they have.
Don Dupuis from Hampshire told me about a knife-making town he visited in France that was organized around a river, and each shop specializing in a different part of the process was hooked up to a water wheel.
In other places, like forging anchors, you’ll find sledgehammer teams. Every group has their own way of keeping rhythm, but you can see how it is when they get going.
Because they don’t have power tools that can be pushed to the edge and used inappropriately to still attain decent results all their tools are going to be very specialized and valuable. For example, there will be files of all sizes—and I mean all sizes! You’ve probably seen and held little files for doing fine work, but some of these things are four feet long and have comparatively giant teeth. Because there’s no angle grinder or power sander, people would square things up by hand, using the weight of the tool to do the work.
In terms of being different from a modern shop, it’s hard to say. I think the details would be unfamiliar, but the structure would be familiar. There was a project from some US blacksmiths through a few decades between the 70’s and 90’s to collect photos of every blacksmith’s shop they visited in the States, to see how people worked. The thing was, after a while, they all start to look the same. There are patterns of craft work. Because the general techniques and workflow are similar, and people set their shops up in similar ways, you’ll find that blacksmith/fabricators today have similar shops across the world, and toolmakers and machinists are going to have some broad similarities across the decades and centuries. Certainly, some people are more or less clever or more or less organized, but overall, I think the craft space is going to be familiar.
Q: Before the industrial revolution, you were likely to find a smithy in every European town. What are some common household items that are now industrially produced, but would have required the work of a blacksmith back then?
Jacob: While it is true that you’re likely to find a smithy in every town, it’s not necessarily true that every town would have a blacksmith equipped to handle the necessary work, or that there’s enough work in a small town to support a full time smith. The village of Rixdorf is part of Neukölln in Berlin, and it has an old forge location. The Rixdorfer Schmiede has existed in one form or another since 1624, and back then, it wasn’t occupied all the time. A blacksmith would travel out from the city periodically to the various towns around Berlin, probably with some of his own equipment, and would stay for some time fixing and making things.
However, it’s important to keep in mind that there are so many different metal trades. Pre-industrial revolution, manufacturing was done by hand! Pretty much every single piece of metal good would have to pass through a blacksmith’s hands. Remember those specialists I keep mentioning—Das Ständebuch, a book of trades from 1568 lists and illustrates at least these: the Locksmith, the Spurrier (makes spurs), the Coppersmith, the Nailsmith, the Scythe-Smith, the Armorer, the Smith, the Basin-Maker, the (Mail) Armor-Maker, etc. There will be clockmakers, goldsmiths, silversmiths, casting specialists, anchor-makers… everything. So, pretty much every single piece of metal good is handmade! Cart tires and horseshoes are a big industry. Carriage bolts (really any bolts) are hand cut, and each nut is specific to the bolt it goes on—so don’t lose one!
Most blacksmiths were making these mundane everyday objects. Cowbells, hinges, nails, metal bowls, fittings of various kinds. Railings, gates, hooks, lots and lots of hardware, farm tools, workers tools, scissors…
Remember those files I mentioned earlier? There’s a specialist, a file-maker, whose job is to literally cut every one of those teeth by hand using specialized sets of punches that he likely makes himself. He’s probably going to have a bench by a window somewhere, and a fire where he can anneal, harden, and temper the steel.
The craft of ‘whitesmithing’ was equally important. This is the process of filing out all those ugly hammer and forge marks. Things for everyday use close to people, like candle holders, silverware, doorhandles, etc, would be sanded and filed and polished and waxed. For example, half of scissor making is taking the rough forged blanks and polishing them… The aesthetic we have today of liking the rough forged hammer texture definitely did not exist back then!
Q: How were blacksmiths regarded in early modern Europe? Did blacksmiths receive any special treatment or accolades?
Jacob: I think this is definitely a mixed bag! In some stories, the blacksmith is called the king of trades, because he can make his own tools, whereas any other trade that requires metal tools must go to the blacksmith. There’s a story about King Arthur deciding this after quizzing all the tradesmen.
However, blacksmiths were also linked to the devil, because of their association with fire. There’s a Russian or slavic story about the devil running through the blacksmith’s shop to get shined up again. I don’t really know the details of this one, only that someone made a sculpture of the story that I saw in the east Ukrainian city of Donetsk.
I do know that often blacksmith shops were positioned at the edge of town or near bodies of water. They had a tendency to burn down, and there was an effort to prevent them from taking the rest of the town with them.
Q: A blacksmith works with iron and steel. Would a 17th century blacksmith have worked with other metals as well, or would they have sought the help of a silver or goldsmith if a piece required precious metals?
Jacob: This isn’t something I can really speak to, but I think a blacksmith is going to do a little bit of copper work if he needs. However, most blacksmiths aren’t going to be collaborating too much. Unless it’s really high end or complicated work, I don’t think the average metalsmiths will be intermingling. More likely, the shop that’s producing the multiple-metal pieces (jewelry, specialized mechanisms, etc) will have the expertise to work the materials as necessary, or pieces of a larger operation will be subcontracted by an engineer/inventor, artist, or architect.
Q: And a followup question! Because so many pieces require mixed materials, what other artisans and craftspeople might a blacksmith work closely with? How often do you use mixed materials in your own work?
Jacob: I would expect blacksmiths to work with woodworkers and stonemasons. Much of their work is going to be making tools or fittings for others’ work. Coopers who make barrels need metal bands. Carts need cartwheels. Carpenters will have chisels. They can make handles for knives, though I assume a knifesmith is going to be equipped to make their own handles. Shipwrights will have dedicated blacksmiths. A boat at sea will have a blacksmith to make simple repairs in a safe place (what with the fire).
Q: Finally, can you share any blacksmithing terms or lingo that can be used to make smithing in 7th Sea feel more authentic?
Forging — make or shape by heating an object in a fire or furnace and hammering it. Cold forging is a real thing. Copper alloys are often cold forged until they work-harden and then they are annealed.
Annealing — the process of heating a metal object so the internal stresses relax.
Hardening — the process of heating and quickly quenching a metal object to build up internal crystal structure and internal tension.
Tempering — Heating hardened metal to relax it to a desired hardness. The simple description: tools and knives are annealed so they’re uniformly relaxed, then hardened all the way, and then tempered to reach the desired hardness of the cutting or working surface.
Dies — the upper and lower forging surfaces. A hammer is a top die and the anvil is a bottom die.
Swages — specially shaped forging dies for particular shapes.
Jig — a device that holds a piece of work and guides the tool operating on it. ** IMPORTANT NOTE ** most things that a blacksmith makes regularly are going to have a set of swages and jigs for working and bending the form in repeated ways. Most of production blacksmithing is about figuring out the most efficient and usable jigs possible to repeat the making of objects as fast as possible. Even nail-making has special plates for preserving the point and forging the head flat.
Blank — an unfinished/unpolished piece of work. A knife blank is the metal in the shape of the knife, no edge, unpolished. Hinge blanks might have no detail put in, and no holes for securing to the door.
Drawing out – making the bar longer.
Fullering – using something rounded to push the metal in controlled direction – think about the groove in the center of a sword, for example.
Pointing – making a point.
Upsetting – pushing the metal back into itself to thicken it up.
Punching – using a blunt object with sharp edges to remove a slug from the bar.
Slitting – cutting the metal using a sharp object.
Welding – Sticking the metal together using heat to melt it to itself.
Brazing – sticking the metal together with a lower heat to melt a binding material.
Soldering – even lower heat joining of metal.
Pattern welding – folding layers of different alloy steel together, which produces specific desired characteristics (strength, flexibility), and with an acid etch treatment the different metals show up as layers.
“Damascus Steel” – what we often call pattern welding today. True damascus steel was traded from Damascus which was the Western interface of the silk road. The actual material came from a specific geography in India and is called “Wootz steel”, a completely different alloy from the carbon steel.
This was fantastic, Jacob! Thank you again for sharing your time and enthusiasm. Smooth sailing to you!
Want to follow Jacob’s work and adventures? Find him on Twitter @watermosaic.
(from the forthcoming 7th Sea: Second Edition Game Master chapter)
People always ask me how I feel about hearing GMs change the rules of games I’ve published. I always say the same thing: “Great! I’d love to see what they came up with.” That answer tends to confuse people, so then I often have to explain that I see RPGs as a kind of oral tradition. You can go to different cities, sit down at different game tables and play different versions of 7th Sea. To me, that’s exciting. And it was hard for me to explain why… until recently.
A few months ago, I read an article online called “How I helped to pull the rope that tolled the bell for OD&D.” (You can read it here.)
The article stunned me. In summation, the author—a kindly gentleman named Tim Kask—talks about the earliest days of Dungeons & Dragons, and how the rulebook wasn’t a rulebook at all, but a list of example rulings. The difference, he argued, was that rulings gave the Dungeon Master freedom to improvise creatively while rules limited the DM’s ability to run the game. He lamented that later editions went to the side of rules vs rulings and the game has suffered ever since.
Like I said, the article stunned me. (I could talk about it for hours, really. And have.) And it also got me thinking about how I run my own table. Many times, if I can’t think of a specific rule, I make something up on the spot. A quick ruling that’s fair, but also fast. I make the promise, “After the game, I’ll look up the rule,” and I do and try to keep it in my head for the next time. But, generally, if I can’t think of a rule, I ask for a quick roll of the dice. If the player has an Advantage that would benefit him, I let him use it. Sometimes, I even ignore an existing rule and create a new one that better fits the circumstance.
That’s how I want you to look at these rules. These are the rulings we’ve come up with, that we’ve found fair and useful. Sometimes, they’ll get in the way and a quick roll of the dice may be a better solution. Sometimes, the rules we’ve given you will fit like a glove and add to the fun.
The end result of all this navel-gazing is a simple piece of advice. When it comes time to run the game, you don’t need to have all 300 pages memorized. Just stick to the basics:
You Create a Scene.
Players Create Raises.
Players use Raises to change the Scene.
That’s really all you need. Those are the only rules. All the rest is rulings. Suggestions we found useful. You may not find them useful. You may ditch one in a moment of forgetfulness or panic or dramatic necessity.
That’s okay. Nobody’s sending the 7th Sea Rules Enforcement Force to your door to make sure you get everything right.
Improvise. Have fun. And remember: it’s a storytelling game. And these are your friends. More importantly, this is your game. You bought it. You can change whatever you want in it, including the rules. Sometimes, especially the rules.