Wildsea is a roleplaying game written by Felix Isaacs about a crew of (wild)sailors cutting through the branches of impossibly tall trees on a chainsaw ship or something just as bizarre, in a world taken over by verdant greenery. Among the games that inspired it, it lists Belly of the Beast, Blades in the Dark, Heart: The City Beneath, and 13th Age, though I see a lot of Fate there too. Fiction-wise, Bastion, Bas-Lag trilogy and Sunless Sea are listed. The fact that I wrote about most of the inspirations for Wildsea would imply it is a game for me. And it is!
The world of Wildsea has experienced an unusual apocalypse 300 years ago, the Verdancy. Its civilizations were crushed by the roots of trees rapidly growing to truly titanic sizes. Living within the tangle of the trees wasn’t really an option: not only is everything ever-growing, not only are many animals and insects also of immense size now, but the trees themselves are full of highly mutagenic and acidic sap likely to blame for all the growth. All that survived found themselves sheltering on broken bits of the old world carried upwards by the massive branches, or trapped atop of mountains or otherwise isolated from one another.
With trees as the sea and survivor settlements as islands, ships capable of traversing between them were inevitable. That’s what your characters will be: wildsailors with their own ship, sailing the wildsea in search of glory, adventure, or maybe new culinary experiences. Each character is defined by three major elements: their bloodline, origin, and post. And what character elements they are.
While humans (“ardents”) are present, the rest of the bloodlines get weird – the promised influence of Bas-Lag books. Cactus people, mushroom people, swarms of spiders in human-shaped hives (my favourite), animated detritus, mutated jellyfish people with replaceable bones, and moth people that pupate and get reborn every twenty years.
Most of the origins are simply kinds of settlements your character might come from, but they start off, in alphabetical order, with amberclad and anchored. The former were trapped in amber during the Verdancy, only now waking up to a world irrevocably changed. The latter are ghosts anchored to some object. This really sets the mood: you can get wild with character concepts.
Posts feature various crew positions one might expect to find, such as corsair, navigator, or hunter; several not-magic users (arconauts, who’ve learned to wield the weirdness of the world in some way); as well as many variaitons of crafters (oh yes, there’s crafting), and stranger professions still. Would you like to be a postman? I’ve never had to describe or imagine so many different ways food is cooked in different communites as I had to in this game due to having a char (cook) on board. Now the entire party gets excited about trying local food every time they visit a new place.
The rampant weirdness of the world doesn’t stop with characters. The things you encounter vary greatly, from amusing, like tinker-monkeys that just want to disassemble your engine out of curiosity, to terrifying, like the bone disease that makes its sufferers “skeletal golems still clothed in the unwilling flesh of their erstwhile owners” or a plant that blooms on people and induces religious fervor in its hosts. As can be expected of a game with gigantic flora and fauna, there are leviathans as well. While these include “merely” titanic creatures, there are also a bewildering variety of living storms and a mobile reality distortion vibe of the Spirit of Industry.
While I appreciate the many kinds of beasties found in the Hazards chapter, large and small animals, insects, plants, constructs, I love the single paragraph descriptions of stuff that didn’t warrant a full write-up. It’s a cacophony of ideas: hydreese (hydra-geese!), hermit-hull crabs, skyward roots reaching the clouds, punchcard thinking engines.
Although there is no canonical map of the Wildsea, and majority of the book is dedicated to the general Wildsea experience, the Reaches chapter describes several geographic regions with distinct personalities. You are free to include or ignore them in your game, arranging these reaches as you see fit – a great approach to worldbuildng. You could easily base the entire campaign in one reach, or visit it for a few sessions just to see the sights.
When I originally backed the game on Kickstarter, it was the art that caught my eye. Just look at it! The setting sounded interesting and unique as well. I didn’t expect too much from the rules, to be honest. New designer, custom system to go along with the world? Hopefully it’s functional, I thought. Oh boy was I wrong to underestimate them. Mostly.
I really like the rules. They’re evocative and flexible. I think the second edition of the game can be truly special, and this isn’t meant to be a backhanded compliment. But for the one we got, you may have to do a little bit of trimming and a little bit of bending. It seems that the rules grew even as they were being written down, more ideas appeared up until the very appendix. While this may have resulted in a disaster for other systems, it’s barely a problem here. The core rules are solid, and everything else is flexible and up for interpretation by design, so you’ll naturally settle on your own version of the mechanics that makes sense to your group. As I explain the rules here, I’ll also mention some of the house rules and interpretations we’ve ended up with – which may not be for you.
Mechanically, each character element, bloodline, post, and origin, offers a pool of aspects to choose from, and it’s up to you to spread out your choices or focus on one element. It’s also perfectly acceptable to “steal” an aspect or two from a different bloodline/origin/post, or make up your own.
Aspects are a mix of Fate’s aspects and stunts. These represent character traits, gear, and companions. Each has a descriptive name, a “health” track 2 to 5 long, and often a special ability they grant. The shorter the track, the better the ability: a purely descriptive aspect like Towering is 5 long, while a Strong Stomach that reduces the impact of poisons, diseases, and sickness is 3 long. Some abilities granted by aspects are active: you mark the track to use them.
Characters don’t have health as a separate parameter. Instead, whenever they take damage they mark one of their aspects’ tracks, provided it makes sense. A fully marked aspect ceases to function. That’s where being Towering comes in handy: you’re large and tall, so you can endure more. Instead of marking an aspect, you can take an injury – add a temporary track that will take some effort to heal. The rules don’t actually define how long this track should be, but it made sense to us to set it equal to the damage you were about to take. We’ll revisit healing in a bit, take note.
In addition to aspects, characters get edges, skills, drives, and mires. Edges are binary, you either have them or you don’t, and each character gets 3 out of 6. They describe possible approaches to doing things, e.g. Iron is the edge of force, determination, and willpower, whereas Tides is the edge of exploration, learning, and lore. Edges encourage you to describe your character’s actions in a way that fits the edges you have.
Skills are straightforward: you have 0 to 3 points in all of them. In addition to regular skills, there also are languages, which cover not just the ability to speak and understand a given language, but also familiarity with the culture in which it is used. While there is a “common” language, Low Sour, this latter application makes language skills very handy in a game likely centered on travel between various communities.
Drives are used for character advancement: by working towards one of your drives, you can claim a milestone once per session. If you’ve completely satisfied a drive, you can replace it and claim a major milestone as a reward. You also get one “free” milestone once per session, and one “free” major milestone once per story arc. Each milestone is a brief phrase you write down at the end of each session to note the personally significant events that happened during it.
Later on, you can spend milestones during a montage/downtime action (hello Blades in the Dark) to gain a new skill point or an aspect, provided they somewhat fit. Maybe you’ve Survived a Pin-Wolf Ambush, Drank Pirates Under the Table, and Held Her Steady during a storm, and now you can use those experiences to gain another rank of the Brace skill. There’s also a whole system for modifying and combining aspects, as you only get 7 slots for them, but we won’t get into it here.
I love the way milestones work in this game. You create an ongoing record of important character moments, then find ways to channel them into character advancement. It feels like the next step in the evolution of the “mark xp if you’ve done something appropriate for your playbook” approach. I will seriously consider using it for any future games I run.
In addition to milestones, satisfying a drive can give you a whisper (a kind of a resource) or clear a mark of mire. Mires are your character’s insecurities, weird habits, phobias, all the things that drag them down. You get 3, each with a 2-long track. These are marked when you experience something terrible, with first mark resulting in only minor changes to a character’s behavior, and second causing the mire to dominate their scenes. They can be compared to ongoing negative compels in Fate, only without a reward for indulging in them, which I think is a missed opportunity. And given how sparse clearing marks can be, you run the risk of drowning in your mires for lengthy periods of time. So the house rule we’ve implemented was to treat twice marked mires as drives: once you act out based on them, you get a reward that will probably be clearing a mark of mire.
The core mechanic of Wildsea is very simple. Whenever you do something risky, assemble your die pool: 1 die if your action matches one of your edges, 0-3 dice from an appropriate skill, and up to 2 dice for advantage. Advantage comes from fictional positioning, having relevant aspects (the name and description of the aspect matter here, rather than the ability it provides), or risking resources – if the roll fails, the resource is likely to be lost or otherwise negatively affected. The highest die in the roll determines its outcome: 6 is a success, 4-5 is mixed, and 1-3 is a disaster.
Doubles add a Twist to the by now familiar formula: something unexpected happens during the action, not necessarily directly connected to it and often suggested by another player. Some kinds of action have default twists, like dealing extra damage in combat. While it sounds simple, it doesn’t quite work, as there are two competing mechanics hiding within the Twist: chaos and critical success. As characters’ dice pools grow with their experience, more twists suddenly occur around them. Which is fine if they signify a critical success, but gets exhausting quick when every other roll brings something unexpected. We’ve introduced the following house rule: for “regular” action rolls which don’t have critical successes, use one die of a different colour, with a twist occuring on a roll of 1 on this special die.
Another core mechanic are tracks – a lot of things get a track, not just aspects and mires. These are basically progress clocks of BitD, with a slight modificaiton: you can have multi-part tracks, with each completed part signifying some shift in circumstance. Working on a personal project during a downtime montage? That’s a track. Journeying across the waves? That’s a track for the trip, another if you’re making a map on the way, and perhaps a third if there’s some ongoing danger. With a proper setup, a few tracks can take care of an entire adventure for you.
Tracks are how the game handles combat, too. While it features a full-on bestiary in the Hazards chapter, none of the creatures there have stats in the usual sense. As Wildsea is a player-facing game where only players roll dice, all of its enemies simply get aspects and optional quirks, many of them purely descriptive. They also get a detailed description of their sensory presence, which often includes taste.
When setting up a dangerous encounter, the GM decides on the total length of its hazard tracks based on how deadly it’s supposed to be, and possibly on how good the crew’s strategy is. These tracks can be spread among the aspects the creatures have (in which case fully marking an aspect deprives the creature of it), represent the situation as a whole, or be a mixture of the two.
While this works well overall, I would have preferred to have some suggested track length for each creature to signify its danger level at a glance. Likewise, I’m a bit unsatisfied with the way monster damage is handled: the game simply suggests you deal low amounts of 1-2 with occasional larger hits of 3-4 and a rare 5+ in case of bad tacics and rolls. And, again, that works, but is a bit too loose for my tastes. Mostly because this approach lacks symmetry with player capabilities – they deal 1 damage by default, plus 1 in case of a twist, and can voluntarily cut (increasing the difficulty of the roll by removing the best die) for more.
Speaking of damage, there are simply too many types in this game: 12! Various elemental types make sense, but the fine distinction between keen, hewing, and serrated damage doesn’t seem that interesting to me. Many aspects grant resistance to several damage types, meaning you reduce damage taken by 2. A player being resistant means they can ignore random bad roll outcomes, but enemies will occasionally get through. A monster being resistant means you’d better bring a different weapon – you’d have to not only succeed at an attack (1 damage) but also roll a twist (+1) and cut for impact (+1) to leave a dent. That’s a bit much as it makes such attacks extremely unlikely to do anything while exposing the character to increased damage due to the cut. Leviathans are resistant to everything individual-scale by default.
A lot of action revolves around resources. Unlike Heart, another game featuring gaining and spending resources on the way from A to B, Wildsea’s resources don’t have a rating measuring their value, they simply are. Each resource has a name and possibly a tag giving it simple extra properties. A larger volume of a resource is called cargo, and is used for ship-scale operations, like trade and ship upgrades. Resources come in 4 types, and while Salvage and Specimen are what you’d expect them to be, Whispers and Charts deserve further explanation.
Whispers are words of power, lodging themselves in people’s minds. They can be traded, passed from one to another. They can also be said quietly, introducing a Twist-level change that fits the whisper and is under the character’s control, or shouted, changing the surroundings in a signficant but uncontrollable way. If you’re familiar with Fate, you’ll see some similiarities to boosts – if boosts had tangible in-universe presence.
Charts are conceptually complex – they are maps, but maps of something not yet found. When setting out from a port, you can utilise local knowledge (gained from, well, locals) and a chart you have to plot the course, matching the chart to the local area and making the journey significantly safer. A chart can also be used in conjunction with a whisper to make a discovery along the way, finding some landmark that thematically matches them by possibly conjuring it out of conjecture into reality. In theory I really like this, as it allows players to opt into creative agency during the game, but I’ve struggled to come up with interesting landmarks along the way, and doubly so have my players, so we have barely engaged with this chart mechanic. Both uses consume the chart – it goes from abstract to concrete, and no longer has value to you afterwards. It kinda makes sense, so long as you keep moving forward, but it’s probably best not to overthink this mechanic.
Journeys themselves are handled in a procedural way: everyone gets to do something, whether that’s being on watch and rolling to see if something happens on the way, deciding how fast you travel, or manning the engine just in case that becomes relevant. These decisions are typically made by the group, but it’s nice to have everyone engaged. The most important part of a journey are the random encounter rolls. The character on watch rolls a die to determine the type of the encounter: 1-3 is nature; 4-5 is order, that is, something to do with people – another ship passing by, an outpost, a wreck, etc.; and 6 is peace, that is, nothing significant happening, just some slice of life aboard the ship.
The rules are slightly self-contradictory here, as the GM also rolls a die in secret to determine how dangerous this encounter is, with 1-3 being an immediate danger, 4-5 a risky opportunity, and 6 a freebie. So you easily could get a “peace” result that’s also an immediate danger. To reconcile these, I’ve been interpreting “peace” as “on board the ship” and “order” as “outside the ship” – an internal danger could be a crew conflict or a sickness, for instance.
Speaking of ships, the party builds their ship together by spending “stakes” – you get 6 to share, and 3 per sailor. These individual stakes can be pooled together, but ultimately it’s up to each player how to spend theirs. There are many inventive options to choose from, not just chainsaws & sails. In addition to parts that each ship needs to have, such as a hull and an engine, you can add various fittings and undercrew. Fittings encompass all sorts of things: specialized rooms, armaments, devices, while undercrew include officers as well as gangs of less skilled sailros and even packs of trained animals. Our crew decided their ship had to be infested by scorpions in a collective fit of madness, and keep insisting it was a wise choice because they’re “used to the stings, and any invaders wouldn’t be”.
After the initial creation, ships can be upgraded at a dock at a rate of 1 cargo per 1 stake (this is quite hard to find in the rules). Ship creation rules specifically say they place no limit on how much cargo can fit into a ship, or how many fittings can fit onto a ship, leaving it up for the group. And while that’s fine, it would probably have been easy to have these rules mirror the aspect limit characters get – something I may do next time we create a ship. It’s fun to deal within limitations sometimes!
The weakest area of the rules, I find, is healing. Damage is easy to dish out: marking an aspect on a mixed success doesn’t take too much brain power. Healing, however, requires a montage (downtime) action and a resource. Where do you get resources? Other just stumbling on one along the way, you can go hunting/foraging/salvaging/introspecting for one – another montage action. Both require a roll. So now you have 2 PCs spending their montage actions for a chance to clear 1 or 2 segments of a track.
It gets better with higher skills, not only because you’re much more likely to succeed, but also because a twist on the healing roll means the resource is not expended – an extremely important rule only present in the rule summary appendix! Some aspects also let the healer treat more characters at once or make their healing more powerful, but most of them come from the Surgeon’s post, and not everyone’s going to have one aboard the ship.
One the one hand, you’re not typically limited by the number of montages you take. On the other, you don’t actually want to just sit there and do personal stuff the entire session either. And there are so many more interesting things you could do during montages, like spend milestones for character advancement or work on a project. What ended up happening at my table was players adding more aspects to their characters in part to get more tracks instead of spending time on healing old wounds, as it was a more efficient and more fun way to keep the character going. Funnily enough, aspect marks are meant to be transient damage, bruises and the like, while the more serious injuries get their own temporary tracks that (explicity by the rules) can be marked as time passes. Not so regular damage! Which had made me wary to actually dish it out once I realised what was happening.
Conceptually similar stress in Fate gets cleared every session, but that would seriously impact the resource economy of the game and make some aspects worthless, so I don’t have a good solution here. Healing a track at the end of each journey would be a good start. When I’ve tried asking about other GMs’ experience on the game’s discord, I found out with some surprise this wasn’t a problem those present there at the time had encountered, but mostly because they’ve been running shorter adventures where damage just doesn’t have the time to accumulate. Which makes me think our group is one of the few in the world to have a lengthy Wildsea campaign, currently 28 sessions and going.
At its core, Wildsea is a travelogue game, which is probably my favourite style of campaign. The party moves from place to place, seeing how the people there live and getting into all kinds of trouble along the way. I love localised worldbuilding of figuring out how people would adjust to live in various fantastic circumstances. While the overall premise of Wildsea, that of overwhelming vegetation, has a very strong influence, the book offers plenty of variations on it. Couple that with really different people that inhabit the world, and you’ll have a vast space to exercise your imagination as you explore it together with your players.
Our Wildsea campaign follows on the heels of Mothership, which followed Trail of Cthulhu. After 2 horror campaigns, everyone wanted something a bit more lighthearted, so that’s how we’ve been playing it. Very few people are outright villainous (I think the party has killed 2 so far), we focus on adventure, sight-seeing, non-hostile encounters with nature & rampant weirdness, and leave plenty of space for slice of life scenes aboard the ship. Which isn’t to say you can’t run a more action-oriented, or even horror-tinged version of Wildsea. But after (uhhhhh) a couple of decades of running games, I’ve come to really value the different experiences they can offer, and Wildsea has been a breath of fresh air.
Wildly imaginative, evocative, with flexible mechanics (which, to be fair, may require some adjustment for your table), Wildsea has been a joy. Whether you’re looking to move away from dungeons and dragons, or simply long to dive into a new world, I heartily recommend it. Embark on a voyage over the endless treetops, who knows what wonders you may discover.
P.S.: I’d like to give an honourary mention to “unsetting questions”. There are many games nowadays where players are invited to participate in creatings parts of the world, and Wildsea is no exception. Unsetting questions are a slightly different technique introduced in the book, where the GM asks players for rumours and tall tales they’ve heard on a particular topic at the start of each session to set the mood. There is no obligation for them to be factual, which removes all pressure from players and frees the GM to modify or ignore their answers as fits the game. While it may be tricky to do so all the time, it’s a fun way to start a session in any game.