New 7th Sea core book: lots to be thrilled about, but still comes up short [LONG]

A few weeks ago, Mark Diaz Truman of Magpie Games approached me about doing a review of the art in the new 2nd Edition 7th Sea core book, in advance of the book’s final release. (7th Sea isn’t a Magpie product, it’s by John Wick, but it’s being project-managed by Mark and Marissa Kelly, who are 2 of the 3 owners of Magpie.) I thought this was pretty exciting, given that I had previously been a huge fan of the fantastically inclusive art direction in Urban Shadows, so I said that I would be very interested in taking him up on the offer of early access so that I could have time to work on the review.

It turns out that the 7th Sea art was simultaneously exciting and frustrating, in the same way I find BioWare games exciting and frustrating. 80% of the art in this book is so so good, and there is exciting stuff I have never seen in a game book before, period. Which is why I find the areas where the book falls short all the more frustrating! Because it’s a fantastic book, but in terms of representation of women it still falls short.

Analysis numbers

Just as I would do with any large game book, I went through and did counts of the gender distribution of figures in 7th Sea core book art. I won’t clutter this review with lots of pie charts, but all of the results that I reference in this post can be found in this here, if you’re curious for specific figures.

While there were a lot of things to be excited about, the gender breakdown ended up being only slightly better than D&D 5E’s player’s handbook; of all the figures counted in the 7th Sea corebook, 35% were women, 55% were men, and 10% were unknown – which is only 5% better than the 5E PHB’s 30% representation of women.

When I mentioned these initial results, it was suggested that overall representation of figures isn’t necessarily the same as representation of focal figures – a point that I don’t necessarily agree with but thought worth investigating. However, when I re-did my counts focusing only on focal figures and eliminating background figures, there was only a 2% increase in female representation – which isn’t exactly a significant difference.

That’s not to say that the 7th Sea core book is as universally poor at equitable representation as the 5E PHB or the Pathfinder books that I examined, however. When it came to single-character illustration, 7th Sea fell just shy of parity with 19 women (47.5%) to 21 men (52.5%), which means that group illustrations are where the numbers fell apart and dragged down the averages for the rest of the book; out of 43 group illustrations, 8 had only one woman out of 3 or more figures, and 7 more had no women whatsoever.

So, not absolutely terrible – not by a long shot. But given the people involved and the high quality of art directions on other projects Magpie has managed, certainly disappointing.

Now of course, numbers don’t always tell the whole story – and there are a number of things worth looking at in a bit more detail. (It’s worth noting that I don’t want to end on a negative – since my overall feelings about this book are quite positive – so don’t let the fact that the first half of this post is pretty critical mislead you into thinking that I’m saying this is a terrible book, because that’s really not the case.)

My personal pet peeve: when men are men and women are sexy 

One of my absolute least favorite kinds of stupid game cheesecake artist is when you have depictions of a man and a woman shown as the same character type where then man is completely covered and the woman is dressed more revealingly. So I was rather annoyed when I spotted not one, but two instances of this irritating trope.

The first are these depictions of male and female highlanders: Highlander-m-f

I do appreciate the fact that the dress in both of these instances is historically accurate, but showing the female highlander with a sword and shield while her top hangs low enough to show off quite a lot of cleavage? Aggravating. And while the number of layers she’s wearing makes it a bit difficult to say for sure, I suspect that there’s some hip-thrusting happening for a more appealing pose – which is irritating in comparison to the male highlander who has his feet firmly planted with his weight distributed evenly between both feet. In other words, the male highlander is depicted as heroic, while the female highlander is depicted as pretty.

Still, mildly irritating is still a whole lot better than actually infuriating, as is the case with the male and female Jarls:


The female highlander is at least historically accurate, while all semblance of accuracy for the female Jarl is discarded in favor of sexy historical-ish flavor. A shield maiden should have armor that actually provides coverage of her arms and tors0, not some sexy leather tunic with a plunging v-neck that shows off her great rack. The male Jarl is heavily armed and armored, while the female Jarl is just a fashion icon.

And sure, only 2 pieces in a nearly 300 pages book is pretty impressive, given the overall art density. And while the Jarless earns a whole lot of side-eye, she is definitely a damn sight better than a lot of the bullshit art I lampoon on this blog.

Gender imbalance in group images: either you’re good enough to be a hero or villain, or you’re invisible

It’s not enough to simply say that the group illustrations are where things fall apart, because they’re the ones dragging down the overall average, because that would convey the notion that the group images are universally terrible – and they’re really not.

There are a large number of two-character images, and the great majority of two-character images depict men and women together in equally strong and interesting roles. There are far too many to pick out, but here are some of my favorite examples:


When it comes to the duo shots, women are depicted as strong, interesting, and in a variety of roles – from magic-wielding warrior, to powerful noble, to alchemist, to daring swashbuckler. And there’s a lot to love! I love how the upward perspective on the female warrior in the first image is purely for heroic emphasis and not to emphasize her [ahem] feminine attributes, which is a gratingly common trope in fantasy art. I also love how angry the female noble looks as she steps on the back of the dead man at her feet, or how it looks like the female alchemist is the one running the show and the man is just her lab assistant. And the dueling swashbuckler? Epic.

Which is why it’s so disappointing that when the focus widens to larger depictions of the world, society, or a larger group of individuals, that things fall apart in a pretty bad way. 16% of the group images in the book don’t have any women at all, such as this illustration here:


Admittedly, 5 of the 8 figures have no gender, but the three focal figures in this image are all gendered as male – which is disappointing given that the text says that women can do just about anything within the world of Theah.

Even so, that image isn’t nearly so egregious as this image, which comes from the section describing the Samartian parliament as being tremendously egalitarian, because Samartian citizen – regardless of background – may participate in the parliamentary process:


I see an awful lot of skin tones on display, but there are TWELVE MEN, and only one woman – who isn’t by any means focal. This lack of imagination on the part of the artist is as depressing as it is predictable. When told to depict a government, they drew mostly men with a token woman. Granted, that’s slightly better than the percent of female CEOs of Fortune 500 companies (4.4%), but not much! In a book that depicts tales of swashbuckling, heroism, magic, and adventure, I’d hope that it wouldn’t be too much to imagine that women might actually participate in public service.

Now that image has the most skewed gender ratio of any image in the book, but nearly every other image in the book that depicted 3 or more characters had more men than women – and usually by a large margin. (There were a few notable exceptions, like the image with five female witches, but those were more the exception that proved the rule.) 1 woman to 4 men seemed to be one of the most common gender ratios in group images, such as:


One villainess, four focal male figures. And sure they’re all cowering from her, and she’s center focus, but that doesn’t change the fact that there aren’t any other visibly female figures in what looks to be a pretty crowded public space.

It happens with images of heroes too:


Again, one woman – this time a hero – and 4 men. I do appreciate that in this instance, the woman looks heroic and capable, but the fact that in all of the 7th Sea core books henchpeople are depicted as nearly universally male is disappointing. In either good or evil, it seems that in Theah if you are spectacularly exceptional, you can aspire to be a true hero or a true villain – but if you are female and ordinary, well best keep you out of sight.

You even see this on the cover of the book:

And man that’s frustrating – because this cover is awesome. I absolutely love how fucking badass the female hero on the cover looks – the pose and cocky expression are just fantastic. Morever, she’s centrally placed, not just shoved off to one side – which is a thing that you see on an awful lot of fantasy RPG covers with similar ratios of gender representation. This is a great cover! It would just be nice if it had more than one woman.

Things that fucking rock

I’ve gone on at some length already about the things that frustrate me about this book – but there really is a lot in this book that I’m quite happy about! Like the copious quantities of completely awesome female characters:


You don’t even know how hard it was restricting myself to just a few favorites. There are so many examples of strong, active, and awesome women of all types – women that get to interact dynamically with their environment. Each of these women is a character that I would absolutely love to play – and in general the depiction of women as consistently appealing avatar characters in this book is fantastic. For all that I’ve devoted a lot of space to complaining about “where are the women??” – the standard of depiction for women who do appear in the book is one that a lot of other mainstream RPGs would have difficulty living up to.

However, how the 7th Sea core book really sets a new high-water mark is in its depiction of gay relationships between heroic characters:


It’s possible that I may have seen lesbians that weren’t outrageously pornified in a trad RPG text, although if I have I can’t remember it. But I know that I have never seen a gay kiss in a mainstream RPG – so even by that standard this art is groundbreaking. But better than that, these depictions are genuinely fantastic depictions of gay romance. Both sets of characters are appealing avatar characters and not Evil Gays! And in both images, the romance is shown as tender and genuine and real – which knocks my goddamn socks off.

In Conclusion

Obviously, 7th Sea is a game property with an enormous amount of reach and popularity. Given that it raised 1.3million on Kickstarter, an awful lot of publishers are going to be looking to learn lessons from the 7th Sea phenomenon. So despite my disappointment that I feel like the new core book didn’t live up to its potential with its representation of women, overall I feel pretty encouraged that this represents a large step in the right direction when it comes to overall inclusiveness of art direction in a mainstream RPG product – given the influence that this product will have over future mainstream RPG products. And it’s definitely my hope that Magpie can continue to improve upon what they’ve already done. There’s still an awful lot of 7th Sea content in production, and hopefully they’ll take all of this into consideration and work on finding ways to do even better.