More guidelines than actual rules…

Available now from your friendly local games store or directly from Mongoose Publishing

I’ve become pretty addicted to Rare’s wonderfully emergent, open-world pirate video game Sea of Thieves. It’s deliberately light on campaign style progression and devoid of the usual levelling up or equipment improvements that you’d normally see in an online multiplayer game of its nature; it ensures that everyone who plays is on a level playing field at all times, aside from their actual skill and experience with playing the game. The mechanics and beautiful world sell the freedom of the pirate concept so successfully, allowing players to simply create their own adventures and stories every time they play. It’s superb – and seems to be a very underrated game, often dismissed by those who haven’t been won over by its easygoing charm. That said, it can be a brutal experience if you keep running into other players – who are all too quick to assume the role of dastardly, deadly sea dogs.

With a bit of backup in the form of friends you can trust, however, it can be a thrilling, almost peerless experience.

So when I found out that there was a Sea of Thieves roleplaying game, I simply had to give it a go. Already sold on the video game’s wonderfully colourful and cartoony pirating, I couldn’t turn down the opportunity to experience the same world on the tabletop.

What’ll immediately strike you about the Sea of Thieves Roleplaying Game is that it’s presented beautifully. It’s a lavish box set, comprising three gorgeous books – containing lovely art that’ll be familiar to players of the video game – a great selection of sturdy, colourful tokens, decks of equipment, personality and quest cards, along with player boards and an absolutely enormous map of the game’s world (I’m not kidding – the map is huge). Additionally, there’s a DLC code for Lord Guardian Sails to be used in the video game; these are a rare cosmetic unlock that can’t be found elsewhere. Finally, there’s eighteen custom dice for use with the game’s ‘Avast’ rule system.

So it’s a beautiful package, that much is clear; brilliantly produced with clearly high production values and a keen eye for detail in matching the look, feel and general atmosphere of the video game. But how does it play?

Thankfully, for more casual players or those fans of the video game who aren’t particularly familiar, if at all, with TTRPGs (tabletop roleplaying games, for the uninitiated), it’s an incredibly simple game to get to grips with. One of the three books included in the set – The Book of Pirates – contains a straightforward adventure which can be used to teach players both how to run and take part in the game as you play, as Game Master (GM) and pirates respectively. My advice, however, would be for the player intending to run the adventure as the GM to read through each chapter at least briefly before playing, as well as reading the few pages explaining the rules at the back of the book, in order to familiarise themselves with the Avast sytem’s mechanics and the general events that’ll be occurring through the introductory adventure (Dead Man’s Debt). It’ll just ensure less page flipping and more confidence to deal with events as they unfold during play.

Creating characters, though often a really fun way of personalising a roleplaying experience, can sometimes be a dauntingly involved process in TTRPGs. However, in Sea of Thieves, it’s probably more quick and simple than I’ve ever experienced – you take a player board, pick a personality trait card (which is double sided – one side showing a more positive, calm side and a stressed side – for example, Cheerful/Angry), choose two weapons from the selection of four, take some supply tokens and two dice, then you’re good to go. Though this means that characters aren’t as well-defined as they may be in other TTRPGs, it mirrors the blank slate nature of the video game’s characters and is very welcoming for novices. It also places the onus on players to get more involved in roleplaying – which the double sided trait card encourages, as an extra die is awarded for incorporating your trait into your current roll.

Speaking of rolling, most of the game will see players using their dice to overcome Problems set by the GM; simple actions outside of combat or with no opposing forces (such as storms, skeletons or sharks) won’t need a roll, but when a roll is required, the GM tells the players the Problem and then informs them how many victories they need to overcome it, along with how many rolls they have before they fail. The custom dice show Treasure Chests, Pieces of Eight, Bones and an Anchor – Pieces of Eight count as one victory apiece, Bones are essentially a blank, Anchors are a failure (and will need for the player to choose a negative effect) and Treasure Chests are a victory as well as a bonus benefit (which again, the player will need to decide upon from a few choices of outcome). Depending on the outcome of the dice roll, the player generally tells the group what happens – unless their choice when rolling an Anchor is for the GM to create another Problem, in which case the GM weaves a new Problem into the story for the players to deal with.

Death can be surprisingly frequent, as one of the negatives that can occur when failing a problem or rolling an Anchor is injury, which removes one player die. If a player loses their last die, it’s off to the Ferry of the Damned for two turns. Thankfully, though frequent, death is merely a minor inconvenience on the Sea of Thieves – much as it is in the video game. You’ll simply respawn back on board your ship (or in the nearest tavern) and continue your adventure. Likewise for ships, which respawn as in the video game.

There’s a few other notable quirks that may seem odd to seasoned TTRPG players, but which make sense in the context of the video game that the tabletop game is so closely aping. For example, treasure chests can’t be opened – they need to be cashed in to Gold Hoarders, located on outposts. Treasure earns gold, which can be cashed in to increase player levels; in Sea of Thieves, this simply amounts to adding an extra die to the player’s pool – up to a maximum of seven dice, which bestows the rank of Legendary Pirate upon the player.

Once the basic rules have been grasped and the short tutorial adventure completed, the GM and players will want to move onto the other books in the box. The second book in the three included is the Lore of the Sea, which contains an awful lot of helpful information for GMs on how to run games, as well as providing detailed lore and information on the world, treasures and inhabitants of the Sea of Thieves. Lastly, the Book of Voyages contains a complete campaign – a longer series of adventures which will see players undertaking a quest for the Ashen Jewels.

The Sea of Thieves Roleplaying Game is perhaps a bit too basic and minimalist for veteran roleplayers, but it’s absolutely perfect for those new to TTRPGs – and is a reasonably family friendly game too (death and grog-drinking aside, perhaps). Fans of the video game will find a lot to like here too. One thing that strikes me about many TTRPGs is that, as simple as they claim to be, they can still often be quite daunting to get to grips with. Sea of Thieves is perhaps the most accessible TTRPG I’ve ever come across, easy to grasp with very straightforward and somewhat minimal mechanics – in which even death is a temporary setback, ensuring that no player is left behind.

Many thanks to Mongoose Publishing for providing me with the Sea of Thieves Roleplaying Game core set for review purposes.

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