Unlike many books for GMs, this one is rules-light - it's mostly background on the world of Theah, as well as some advice on style and running games.
The first section is titled 'Theah' and starts by suggesting that people who intend to play rather than GM shouldn't read the book (why do game publishers assume that people only ever take one role... most of us play AND GM games!) and that GMs need to have read the Player's Guide first. That out of the way, it explains that the book deals with game design, and will look at some of the underlying reasoning for the way the game has been designed - so you can decide what, if anything, you want to change while understanding why it's started out the way it is.
And so it begins, with a detailed look at Theah itself. Starting with Avalon, and the revelation that Queen Elaine is in part based on the English Queen Elizabeth I and partly on Arthurian legends... and continuing with notes on the Avalonian people, social structures, fashion, food, arts, customs, language, religion, government, economics, geography, armed forces and diplomatic relations with the other nations of Theah. So it continues for each nation in turn. One useful piece is the section on major NPCs in each nation - your players may never meet them, but given the high adventure/cinematic feel, it's not impossible! If they do, you have all you need in neat thumbnail sketches to portray them, including motivations and role-playing notes (down to details of language and gesture that will help them come alive for both you and your players).
The same treatment is then given to the main organisations of Theah, including the Brotherhood of the Coast, pirates to be found off the coast of Castille who have formed what amounts to a nation-state of their own. There's a lot of detail on the Vaticine Church, inluding organisation, church ranks, rituals and even the major heresies that they preach against. These can always be fun if you can get players of opposing views to argue, or just to engage in debate with your NPCs. As for the secret societies, it's suggested that the notes on each - or at least some of them - should only be shared with players who decide to sign up with the society in question. There's also a new society, the Novus Ordum Mundi. They are a mysterious, behind-the-scenes group who manipulate events on a global scale to their own (unknown) ends... given that they employ (through numerous cut-outs) the best thieves and assassins around, they aren't to be messed with!
We're about halfway through the book now, and starting on the second section, 'Villain.' Hmmm. It's more about advice for the GM. Advice on how to use (and abuse) the traits, skills, knacks, advantages, backgrounds and arcana chosen by your players for their characters. There are hints for ways - rather artificial ones, and not ones I'd recommend - for making characters work together, and for giving out information that characters should (or might) know, although players won't. Next, the discussion moves on to designing Villain NPCs, with suggestions for more suitable Arcana than the regular character listing. Then back to looking at characters, and a list of Advantages that they might have taken along with hints on how to turn them into adventure hooks that will be very personal to at least one of your PCs! The Beastiary comes next, not all the opposition walks on 2 legs and waves a sword, after all!
The next section is 'Drama,' and deals with practical stuff: actually running events in the game. Chases, combat, using Drama Dice to good effect, even how to scare the britches off the characters with things like explosions. Combat features large, of course, including ways of keeping track of what's going on when a lot of folks are fighting. There's also true Mass Battle rules, and - of course - Naval Battles.
There are other ways of dealing harm - so we have the poisons of Theah (a bit milder than 'real world' ones, but characters still need to take care!), as well as drowning, getting knocked unconscious and other problems. There's a brief note on Reputation, a means of making the characters have to live with what the world thinks of the things they've done, and then we move on to Sorcery. Tricks to ensure that no sorcerer gets too powerful (and why it's not a good idea to open your eyes when using Porte magic). More interestingly, there are comments about how to make the magic seem real to your players, not just another skill on their character sheet. Good descriptions are the key, making it sound wierd, intriguing and even a bit scary! The section winds up with traps and weather, and how to use them and, for the less-mathematical GM, a probability chart to help you set appropriate Target Numbers for players to roll against.
The final section is 'Game Master' and it's full of advice to help you with the art and craft of running a game. While it's naturally aimed at 7th Sea GMs, much is applicable whatever game you'd like to run. A GM wears 3 hats: author, storyteller and referee. How to make sensible decisions during the course of play, how to prepare your game with the nature of the group in mind, how to be ready to incorporate different types of player. Then it settles down to look at some of the things that the GM as Author can do - the different types of story, from epic tale to deeply personal one; what's going on (adventure, espionage, intrigue, military action, horror, conspiracy or even a spot of hack and slash, and some practical advice on actually building the dramatic situations into which you intend to drop your players. Then the Storyteller GM: structure and pace, ways to reach a climax... and even how to end a story in a satisfactory manner. Finally, the GM as Referee, how to be firm, fair and friendly, but still keep control of what is going on in the game. Then there's a fascinating bit on 'consequences' - how to use everything that the characters do to build later parts of the story... and why killing off a character is not the worst thing you can do to him; and advice on how to make action scenes be both really exciting and actually work. Back to the GM as Storyteller, how to make the adventure really come alive, creating an 'alternate reality' that'll be inhabited by the characters (and everybody else on ThÃ©ah) for the course of the game. And how to wind everything up, hand out rewards, and find out what worked and what didn't in the players' eyes. With this armoury, you should become a better GM altogether, and particularly in any swashbuckling action game you choose to run. Worth it for this final chapter alone!
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