13 November 2019
A pirate’s life for meh
When most video games get adapted to the tabletop they bring acres of fiddly rules with them, so it’s refreshing to see this take on Xbox One and PC game Sea of Thieves ditch the complexity in favour of a light and breezy storytelling game. Once you get playing, however, it’s hard to imagine its appeal extending too far beyond existing fans who are happy to accept some of the setting’s quirkier mechanics.
Both the video game and RPG drop their players into the titular Sea of Thieves, a magical realm studied with every piratical trope imaginable. The desert islands are packed full of buried treasure, the seas are teeming with scurvy knaves and you can’t swing a cutlass without having it bonk off the bones of a cursed skeleton or two.
It’s delightfully silly stuff, but when you begin exploring it some of the ideas that we simply accept when they’re in a video game become a little awkward when it comes to a tabletop RPG. If you find a buried treasure chest, for example, you can’t actually open it yourself – instead, you need to take it to a specialised in-game faction who will trade it for a reward.
Want to fire a cannon at it? Drop it off a cliff and retrieve the gold from its smashed remains? Nope, not going to work. The game says only Gold
Hoarders can open treasure chests. This is far from the only example of having game logic clash with the do anything nature of tabletop roleplaying, but it can be a shade disconcerting if you’ve not already bought into the setting.
Perhaps these blips in common sense only stand out because the core of the game is so committed to rules-lite storytelling. Every single problem in the game, whether finding a missing chicken or duelling with a skeleton lord, is solved by having piratical party members roll a handful of dice against the clock.
If the party accrue enough successes they solve the problem at hand and move on, but if they don’t manage to the goal within a certain number of rounds they fail and have to deal with the consequences. On top of this, particularly bad rolls can either injure players – taking dice away from their pool – eat through resources or cause further spiralling problems that need to be dealt with.
It’s a workable enough system that can be made incredibly flexible with a bit of thought, though it does come with a couple of quirks. As players start rolling more dice things can get very swingy, generating either oodles of success or a tide of horrible failures in a single go, and failing to make much distinction between different characters.
The reason for this second factor is that, rather than a long list of stats, players’ pirates are made up of a pair of weapon cards, a personality card that can be dipped from a calm side to a stressed side and a pool of dice. That’s it.
This has the advantage of making character creation near-instantaneous and allows you to play to your personalities rather than your stats, but the chance for making one pirate mechanically distinct from another is pretty much nil. When you finish an adventure you get to add another dice to your pool, but that can easily be taken away the next time you die.
There’s a pretty solid chance that death won’t be too far away as, while most storytelling games have a fairly light touch when it comes to killing off
characters, Sea of Thieves is positively lethal. Character death can be a consequence for failed tasks and even standard enemies have abilities that can kill multiple party members off outright.
However, this doesn’t mean that the game is particularly punishing, as it takes its cues for dealing with dead heroes straight from the video game, allowing them to respawn somewhere nearby after a brief wait. Even sunken ships will appear in the nearest bay after a few minutes on the bottom of the ocean. The biggest impact by far is that dying takes away one of your precious dice – effectively stripping away levels away each time you fall.
This is a fascinating game, but maybe not a great one. The tone and style are charming, some of the ideas are clever, but overall there are a lot of holes, annoyances and logical gaps to contend with, If you’re already a big fan of the Sea of Thieves video game you’re likely to get a kick from all the references, but if you aren’t invested this is unlikely to sway you over.
RICHARD JANSEN PARKES
PLAY IT? Maybe
Designer: W.J. McGuffin
This review originally appeared in the August 2019 issue of Tabletop Gaming. Pick up the latest issue of the UK's fastest-growing gaming magazine in print or digital here or subscribe to make sure you never miss another issue.