Slice and Dice: Making the Sea of Thieves Roleplaying Game
We explore the process of translating a shared pirate world into a compelling tabletop experience...
2019's festive season bore down upon us at a frankly alarming speed, that time of year when a twinkly-eyed stranger would give a cheerful wink and pass along a neatly wrapped package guaranteed to keep us merry all through the holidays.
We're referring, of course, to the couriers who were delivering copies of the long-awaited Sea of Thieves Roleplaying Game, because we enjoy an obvious comedy bait-and-switch as much as anyone. Yes, the time has come to unbox a set of Legendary Dice, grab a mulled grog and some friends and bring the Sea of Thieves experience to your dining table, kitchen counter or any other suitable surface.
Before you get too distracted by the three sizeable books at the heart of the game, we'd like to share the story of how Sea of Thieves crossed the divide from desktop to tabletop. It's a journey that begins in the notorious pirate haven (or so we'd like to think) of Swindon, Wiltshire, in the offices of Mongoose Publishing – a company already well-known for roleplaying mainstays like Paranoia and Traveller.
Matthew Sprange, the veteran game designer who helmed the Sea of Thieves RPG, was involved from the get-go:
"We had been wanting to do a pirate RPG for a few years, and having a strong Xbox following in the office, when Sea of Thieves came out it seemed perfect. Sea battles, buried treasure, monsters of the deep, skeleton pirates... it had everything we were looking for!"
As with all aspects of the Sea of Thieves expanded universe, Mongoose's proposal swiftly found itself before Rare's Head of Brand and Licensing Adam Park, alongside Brand and Licensing Art Director Peter Hentze. Having sampled more than their fair share of tabletop gaming sets at conventions and expos around the world, Peter and Adam were already big fans of Mongoose, and could immediately see the appeal of combining Sea of Thieves' shared-world experience with a roleplaying game centred on a crew adventuring together. Needless to say, it wasn't long before the project was underway.
As anyone who's already ordered the game and rifled through it will know, the Sea of Thieves Roleplaying Game takes the concept of grand pirate stories to heart. Players don't rely on stat sheets or character classes to overcome obstacles – instead, they must spin a convincing story explaining how they deal with whatever challenges they're facing. That was just one of the ways the Mongoose team looked to create an authentic translation, as Matthew explains:
"We wanted to do more than a pirate game with Sea of Thieves branding. We wanted to capture the 'essence' of the video game and transpose it, taking advantage of the strengths of tabletop gaming – such as no game-based limits on what players could attempt to do and, of course, using the best 'graphics' in the world!
"The videogame was exceedingly easy to get into, removed death as a real obstacle, and had no 'level progression', so we took these as facets that needed to be carried over into the RPG. From there, we were able to draw upon the lore behind the game and create a faithful adaptation."
Once the fundamentals were in place, it was time for Mongoose to crew up on a voyage of their own, making the journey to Rare's Midlands HQ with a prototype of the game in hand. Several members of the Sea of Thieves team are roleplaying enthusiasts, so a selection of veterans were hand-picked by Peter and Adam for playtesting duties, along with a few less-experienced players to ensure a good balance. Adam remembers the first session:
"Mongoose brought a GM to host the session along with the design team, and we played on a big map of the world that we'd printed out for them. We did two sessions, and we were sure to include people who had no idea of what they were going to be doing. They were just asked to come to Rare's boardroom at a specific time so they had no time to prep or build preconceptions. It was fascinating to see how quickly people got into character – it was very clearly Sea of Thieves once we'd started playing."
With reams of feedback from the participants and notes taken while observing play, Team Mongoose returned home and began to adapt the rules of the game based on what they'd seen and heard.
"The game went through quite a few changes," recalls Matthew, "but the core system of dice was more or less there from the start, though it went through a few tweaks as to how the dice were interpreted. We also had card ships for a while, with stand-up pirate figures, but we found they were really not adding much to the game. So they were replaced with the ledgers and counters that allow players to track the progress of their pirates without the need for character sheets."
These first sessions ultimately gave rise to the Book of Voyages, one of three tomes included in the RPG that allows the GM to ease players into the game without worrying too much about crafting a story from scratch on their maiden voyage. Its pages contain plenty of tips for GMs who are ready and willing to pen campaigns of their own, and this is where the Book of Lore comes into play – it's a handy manual that reminds GMs what makes the Sea of Thieves world unique and acts as a toolkit for creating narratives that feel like they've been lifted straight from the Pirate Lord's diary.
As with the books and comics within the expanded universe of Sea of Thieves, the next step was to ensure that Mongoose's story could fold neatly into the game's official timeline. While the rules of play were being finalised, the aspirations of Silas, self-proclaimed 'Lord Guardian' and the Big Bad of the RPG's included campaign, were also undergoing revisions. With the Sea of Thieves Anniversary Update set to launch shortly before the RPG's ebooks became available for download, Rare and Mongoose were able to work side by side to create a story that matched the scope and ambition of the first in-game Tall Tales, spinning a yarn that even Pirate Legends would be proud to take part in.
This close co-operation had other benefits, too. The distinctive sails that adorn the Lord Guardian's Galleon in the RPG's campaign can be glimpsed all the way back in 2015 during the first reveal of Sea of Thieves, and any pirates who pre-ordered the RPG would receive a code and be able to outfit their own vessels with the same design in-game. (Further down the line, as monthly updates continue to introduce new gameplay features and characters into the Sea of Thieves world, there's potential for the Roleplaying Game to take advantage of those same ideas even after the sets have arrived in players' hands. We'll say no more on that for now...)
With the nights drawing in and friends and family having recently come together to usher in 2020, the arrival of the Roleplaying Game marks the perfect opportunity to gather around as a group and experience Sea of Thieves in a way that might just convert a few tabletop gaming sceptics to the pirate life. You can check out Mongoose's unboxing video if you're curious to see just what's in the box, and anyone who orders gets immediate access to the ebooks to start planning their piracy right away – not to mention the Lord Guardian sails. The first expansion ebook also arrived in January in the form of Hunting the White Lady, pitting players against a Megalodon straight out of legend!
Be sure to tell us all about your tabletop escapades on our Forums once you're finished playing. We can't wait to hear how you and your crew fare against the Lord Guardian and the curse of Roach's Fortune...