Review: Sea of Thieves RPG
If nothing else, the tabletop adaption of Sea of Thieves deserves credit for trying something truly unexpected, opting for a rules-lite storytelling game rather than a middle-of-the-road D&D-clone sprinkled with parrots and peg-legs. It’s a shame, then, that the finished package doesn’t quite hit the spot.
The original Sea of Thieves is an online RPG that gleefully draws from every swashbuckling trope going. Players sail a hidden sea infested with ruthless pirates, fearsome skeleton warriors, glittering golden chests and a dozen other ideas plundered from Treasure Island and Pirates of the Caribbean. You can’t expect anything particularly sophisticated from the setting, but what you do get is a shameless celebration of the silly, fun side of pirate culture.
In fact, this may well be the game’s greatest strength. If you grab a few props, stick a hornpipe on the speakers and get a table to fully lean into the clichés you’ll be arr-ing and avast-ing all day long without a care in the world. At that point, all the RPG itself needs to do to is keep the game running smoothly and you’re at least half-way to victory.
Unfortunately, this is kind of the problem.
The sticking points come from two separate sources. Firstly, there’s the rules themselves, which can be a little repetitive and weirdly fiddly despite their simplicity. Secondly, there’s the way that the setting tries to translate concepts from the videogame directly over to the tabletop, which usually takes a cannonball to your sense of immersion.
The Rules of the Sea
If you want an easy way to grasp how stripped-down Sea of Thieves’ ruleset is, you can take a quick glance over the player characters. As far as the mechanics are concerned, each pirate consists of a name, a couple of weapon cards (chosen from four options), a card with a personality trait and a pool of dice roughly equivalent to their level. There are no special skills or abilities, and if you want your pirate to be particularly fast, strong or cunning you need to show that through roleplaying rather than rules.
While this won’t be everyone’s cup of grog, this does make character creation lightning quick and allows you to play as whatever weird and wonderful pirate you can imagine. Want to be Jack Sparrow with the serial numbers filed off? Easy. Feel like playing a hyper-intelligent monkey with a flintlock pistol wedged in your hat? Go bananas.
The downside is that it makes every member of the party act pretty much the same way – mechanically, anyway – when it comes to tackling problems. Whether they’re fighting a duel atop the rigging or sweet-talking a shopkeeper, players overcome challenges by rolling their handful of D6’s and trying to hit a target number of successes (usually a roll of 4+) before time runs out. Particularly good rolls generate extra bonuses, while crappy ones can wipe out an existing success, cause new problems or injure one of your pirates.
Dealing with these (un)lucky rolls makes up the bulk of decision-making once challenges have started. You can add in some bonuses by invoking your personality cards, which flip from a calm side to a stressed side, and combat offers some quirks in the form of choosing ranges and weapons. However, once they get going plenty of checks are going to play out in a near-identical fashion.
If the atmosphere is buzzing and you’re having a great time cracking pirate jokes, these rolls can simply be fuel for the roleplaying fire. Every success is a swashbuckling triumph, ever failure a comic slip-up.
Should that pacing drop for a moment, though, it’s easy to feel very disconnected from the game. Rather than feeling like an RPG it suddenly feels like Snakes & Ladders, mindlessly rolling over and over until you get the right result.
Of course, sometimes you don’t get the right result. Sometimes you fail your checks, in which case you have to face the consequences set by the GM. Maybe you might need to face another, bigger problem. Perhaps the entire party gets injured, discarding once of their dice until they heal up.
Or you might just die.
For all its sunny beaches and swashbuckling simplicity, Sea of Thieves might be among the deadliest RPGs out there. Even in the box set’s starter adventure there are plenty of problems where the punishment for failure is instant death. No saves, no bargains, just a lead ball between the eyes.
What you must remember, however, is that it’s based on a videogame, and videogames tend to have a pretty casual attitude to death. So, when you meet your untimely end in Sea of Thieves you don’t start rolling up a new character, but rather spend one round waiting on an ethereal ghost ship before appearing back on your own vessel, minus one of your levels. It’s quite literally a respawn system.
On its own this would just be a weird feature of the setting that might offer an interesting bit of roleplay, but as you play through Sea of Thieves it’s impossible to ignore the many examples of videogame mechanics being directly worked into the setting, regardless of how much actual sense it makes.
Your ship respawns just as quickly as the player do, for example, thanks to friendly merfolk carpenters. If you find a treasure chest you can’t smash the lock or shoot it with a cannon, because you have to trade it in to one of the factions for gold tokens. Eating bananas heals wounds. Carrying a pirate skull takes two hands. The rarity of captured animals depends purely on the colour of their plumage.
These all combine to create the weird feeling that you aren’t playing characters who are living and breathing in the Sea of Thieves, the world, but rather characters who are playing Sea of Thieves, the videogame.
No Buried Treasure
If you’re an existing fan of the world and the game, this might be all you want. The world is fun, the rules are simple to pick up and putting on an outrageous Long John Silver accent is always good for an evening’s entertainment. However, even with all this in its favour it’s hard to imagine powering through multiple sessions without becoming tired of the system.
And if you aren’t already a sworn-up member of the Sea of Thieves fandom, it’s honestly hard to recommend the investment, especially as even the slim PDF starter set is selling for almost $40 on DrivethruRPG. It’s a shame, because the enthusiasm on display is genuinely infectious, but this is probably one to miss.
A fun atmosphere and solid presentation can’t hide this piratical storytelling game from repetitive rules and a setting that feels pulled directly from a videogame – and not in a good way.