We had a bit of bad news in our gaming group. The GM for our 7th Sea game won't be able to join us around the table for the foreseeable future. Their life is just swimmingly busy. In an effort to keep the group together I volunteered to take over GMing responsibilities. We're not doing the same world or plots, but we are doing the same game and I invited the Players to keep their current PCs if they wanted. It feels a little awkward, and I'm hoping the normal GM will be able to return soon, but until then I at least get to try GMing 7th Sea.
That said, in doing my prep I found something fun about 7th Sea. As a game, 7th Sea is all about Heroes and Villains. Villains are the ones who put plots in motions (their schemes), and villains are the only thing capable of giving a Hero a worthy adversary when it comes right down to it. Therefore, it feels to me, that if you want to run a 7th Sea adventure, you should start with the villain. The experience I've had now has me wondering why I don't do this, or something similar to this, in every game I'm running.
Simple But Thorough
Villains in 7th Sea have 3 stats you need to worry about. They have Rank, Strength, and Influence. Strength is how capable the villain is in a direct confrontation with them. Influence is how much sway they have and the resources at their disposal. Rank is simply the sum of their Strength and Influence combined.
Beyond those three stats, Villains have access to the same advantages players have and even get an Arcana (a mechanic that gives some personality info and some quirks.) Honestly, you could build a villain in just a few minutes if you knew what you wanted simply by defining their rank, strength, and what advantages they needed. It's simple enough that for my second villain I did exactly that, barely even fussing over the mechanics so I could get down to what I really cared about: what the villain wanted.
With these basic stats though, you get to know quite a lot about the villain including where most of their strength lies (are they strong primarily because they control vast resources, or because they themselves are bad ass? or maybe, a bit of both?).
Story and Motivation
While not part of the mechanics, the 7th Sea book has a seciton on building memorable villains, and it includes touching on the motivation for the villain. A great villain will define a game, and a great villain has both a story and a motivation. Included in this section isa list of potential motivations and how they can take shape. These motivations are important. Why? Because they give your villain a goal, and in having a goal, it shapes what the villain is going for. Also, having a goal gives the character a purpose, and having a purpose makes them more alive.
The Influence Minigame
How do you knock down a really powerful villain? You do it one step at a time. 7th Sea embraces this. Villains have a mini-game with their Influence stat. They can increase their influence with schemes (more on this later) but they can also spend influence to buy boons. Need a henchmen villain to help out? Spend influence and hire one. Need some thugs for the grunt work? Hire some. Need to escape a scene? Spend influence. Need to bribe an official? Spend influence.
The point is, a villain's rank isn't static. It goes up and down as the villain spends and gains influence. This gives the GM a fun mini-game, sure, but it also tracks the success and failure of the villain, and makes losses at the hands of the hero more meaningful. If you take out the villains army, and his right hand man, most games still have the villain be scary in some way. They come back, having clawed their way back to power. In 7th Sea the villain needs to earn that growth. How?
Schemes Are Amazing
They pull of schemes. Now, it's important to note here that the book is limiting on what a scheme can be. A scheme has to be something that results in an action sequence, and it can't be something all villains are expected. "Don't get caught" isn't a scheme, because all villains try to not get caught. Gathering information isn't a scheme, because it's just kind of peaceful and boring. Find out who betrayed you is also not a scheme, but Kidnap the Baroness Colette Bernard de Chartouse and make her tell you who betrayed you could be. Why? One leads to action.
When making a scheme the villains invests influence. This is how much of their resources the villain is putting into making the plot work. If the plot works, the villain gets the influence back plus an equal amount on top. If the plot does not work, the villain loses the assets they don't recover, and gets nothing on top.
Why is this cool? Because it means that for your villain to grow in strength, they have to do something the PCs can stop. In other words, your villain - in tryin to accomplish their goal - is making the adventure for the PCs. This is true for anygame, but 7th Sea has mechanics and rules for helping do this.
In a normal game you try to wonder what would make a good story, then figure out the how and the why and go from there. In 7th Sea if you're ever stuck, you just pull out a villain and figure out what they are up to to further their goal (see motivation!) Then you figure out how important that is to them, and what resources they're going to allocate. You now have an adventure that was designed not so much as an adventure, but what the villain is doing to further their goals. Now all you need to do is drop the PCs into the story, give them a whiff about what is going on, and see if they can rise to the occasion or not.
It's an interesting way to look at things, and a fun way to build what is going on. that it can be scaled into more complex things as villain faces off against villain with the PCs in the mix is just even better.