With a crew of drunken pilots,
We’re the only airship pirates,
We’re full of hot air and we’re starting to rise,
We’re the terror of the skies but a danger to ourselves.
-Abney Park “Airship Pirate”
I used to start all of my ‘A Thumb to the Eye’ columns and some of my video game reviews with song lyrics. Music is a great way to set a mood and the best lyrics read almost as musically as they sound when sung. This is a habit I picked up from the White Wolf World of Darkness books, particularly Mage: the Ascension. Looking back at my old writings, this habit seems a bit silly, a folly my youth and inexperience allowed me to make. In the case of Abney Park’s Airship Pirates, I can think of no better way for the proceeding to be commenced. Using song lyrics to open chapters and even specific entries does a paramount job of getting across the feel of Abney Park’s Airship Pirates, a mischievous, puckish soul wrapped in a steampunk aesthetic.
For the uninitiated, as I was before my preview of this very game, Abney Park is a steampunk influenced rock band. I am not a music critic, but I find their sea chantey meets early 80s Goth musical aesthetic to be quite endearing. Thanks to the wonders of the internet, you can check them out on iTunes or Spotify to see if you like their brand of steampunk tomfoolery. That said, I feel like Airship Pirates stands up even when divorced from its source of inspiration.
The concept is simple: Abney Park’s airplane crashed into a zeppelin, some wibbley wobbley timey wimey stuff happened, and now the future is a steampunk dystopia. Upon hearing this high concept, I imagined a mash-up of Kidd Video and Final Fantasy VI. If you are going to make me fall in love with a role playing game, there are worse places to start.
When the book arrived, the first thing that struck me was the size of the thing. Next to my Ambush Alley Games hardcovers, which I thought were fairly huge, Abney Park’s Airship Pirates is simply gigantic. Like Necronomicon big. The cover is thick and weighty, and the whole book has a heft to it. Cracked open, the pages lie flat, a sure sign of quality construction. The cover is glossy and the dark brown with gold lettering makes it look classic. The paper is thick and matte, with a tasteful border. While this is not the first Cubicle 7 product I have reviewed, it is the first physical copy I have held in hand and I must say it is an impressive thing to behold.
Opening a book with flavor text is a gambit. When done poorly, there is nothing more likely to make readers lose interest in a game. Done correctly, and Airship Pirates does it correctly, flavor text is the best way to draw a reader into the game world. The Trials of Admiral Villiers does a capitol job of introducing the world and giving an example of what sort of trouble the players will likely be causing. That Airship Pirates wants to put the “punk” back into “steampunk” is very apparent from this first chapter.
With one potential bomb diffused, Airship Pirates merrily juggles a second with the Introduction chapter. These sorts of things are, by definition, a bore for anyone who is not playing an RPG for the first time. I was prepared to give Airship Pirates a pass on having a pedantic Introduction chapter, since the connection to Abney Park could conceivably bring in new readers who are completely new to the concept of RPGs. Then I read it. What Cakebread and Walton, who have the perfect names for mad scientists, have done with the Introduction, is quite an accomplishment. The sidebar introducing the concept of a role playing game to non-believers is the best I have yet encountered and does a great job spelling out the design philosophy behind the game. Another sidebar introduces the band, to those who have wandered in from the other direction, and points them in the right direction. A third sidebar answers a couple of questions I had about the compatibility of Airship Pirates with Victoriana and Dark Harvest. Short answer: they are completely compatible, which adds extra value to all three.
Character Creation is where the majority of players will spend their time with a book. Airship Pirates, being a very modern RPG, starts at the top of the character sheet and works its way down. Instead of starting with die rolls, the players are encouraged to come up with a concept for their character and, in a twist, the concept for the crew as a whole. This is the second time, the first being in the introduction, that the idea of Airship Pirates being run like a weekly TV show is floated. Giving the party a reason to be, well, a party from the very beginning is both a novel and completely obvious idea. For the sake of honesty, I have to admit that I will be stealing this from now on.
As Matt detailed some of this in his Victoriana review, which was a big help as I tried to get a grasp on the Heresy Engine rules these games share. Character creation is a delight. Airship Pirates has fewer character races, err Cultures, than Victoriana, though compatibility means you can always move things from one game to the other. The Cultures in Airship Pirates are more evocative than most RPGs. The Neobedouins are, as you would imagine, nomads and vagabonds who wander the wilderness. Neovictorians inhabit the land cities of a mad emperor. Automatons are humanoid robots built by the Neovictorians. The Misbegotten are the unfortunates who are mutated by the spill-off from Neovictorian factories. The Skyfolk live in massive floating cities that drift across America.
Culture in hand, the next step is determining character statistics. The six attributes, Strength, Dexterity, Fortitude, Presence, Wits, and Resolve are largely self-explanatory. The range is -3 to 9, with 0 being average. Characters start with 1 in each, modified by their Culture. The player gets 3 points to distribute as they will, with the limitation being that they cannot add all 3 to one attribute. As well, up to two points may be subtracted from attributes, either 1 point from 2 attributes or 2 points from 1 attribute, and added to others. This is a pretty elegant way to generate attributes and it makes balancing a party fairly easy.
Picking a Background comes next. Backgrounds are as close as Airship Pirates comes to character classes, though they are much less restrictive. A Background represents what a character did before being a Pirate. These past lives range from decidedly violent and adventurous careers like being a Mercenary to intriguingly non-martial vocations like Musician to the hilariously inept Dilettante. When coupled with the character’s culture, Background spells out where a character comes from. When you say your character was an Automaton Factory Worker or a Misbegotten Prostitute, I am instantly transported to the world of Airship Pirates and I can picture your character vividly. Beyond adding character to the player characters, Backgrounds provide the Skills for each character. This leads to Character Points.
Character Points are the currency of Skill and Talent acquisition. The recommendation is that each character start with 30 and spend 20 of those on Skills, though it is explicitly stated that these numbers are at the Game Master’s discretion. Additional Character Points can be acquired by taking Complications, which are a boon for GMs since Complications make great story hooks. Since characters are expected to be functional members of an airship crew, being Airship Pirates and all, it is suggested that they take three Airship Skills. Once again, fun character quirks are easily added from this little suggestion. A character who is useless when aboard the ship makes for great comic relief. A character who is otherwise a putz but has deadeye aim with the deck guns can become a hero in a boarding attempt.
Just as much personality is present in the Shticks. Each pirate crew is encouraged to have a shtick, a cover persona for when they come to port or encounter the authorities. This ties into the Crew Concept and is a pretty fun way to create esprit de corps amongst the crew. A ship full of pirates is one thing, a ship full of pirates who pretend to be traveling mummers is another. Between Background, Airship, and Shtick Skills, characters should be pretty much fully formed by this point.
The remaining Character Points can be spent on Talents. Skills are like basic football plays and Talents are more like gadget plays. Less useful in general, Talents are valuable in very specific circumstances. The last major element of character creation is selecting Complications, which are largely optional. Complications are one of my favorite parts of character creation, as it makes characters much more interesting. I do appreciate the dedication to the game’s piratical theme, as many Complications are of a decidedly pirate bent.
There is a full crew of pre-generated Airship Pirates, which is fantastic. This kills a couple of birds with one big stone. Pre-created characters provide players with a solid template to work from, and these characters are good enough to inspire new characters. Additionally, they make it easier for the GM to tweak the power levels of early adventures, since this crew is a good example of what a starting party might look like. I guess you could even use them as player characters if you are in a rush to get right to it.
Combat is the first of three chapters which spell out the rules that Airship Pirates runs on. Battles are intended to play in a very wild, swashbuckling manner and the rules provide for it. I am a big fan of dice pool systems, being raised on a steady diet of Shadowrun and World of Darkness games. The basic mechanic is an opposed die roll. The player and GM both roll a number of d6s equal to the characters’ Dexterity combined with their weapon skill. 1s and 6s are successes, and 6s can be rerolled for additional successes. The winning side lands their blow. The margin of successes over the losing character determines the damage dealt. It is as easy as that.
The second chapter in the trilogy covers Dramatic Systems, aka the stuff besides swinging a sword and shooting a gun. Rules covering things as diverse as Drinking and Feats of Strength cover all the bases and leave the GM with a go to chapter. That these rules are as logical as they are, while still being thrilling and fun in practice, is a small feat. Not as much of a feat as not wrecking your liver in Tortuga, but a notable one nonetheless.
The final chapter of the core rules section is the Airships, Vehicles, and Beasts chapter. The rules for customizing airships are quite spectacular. Creating custom airships means that parties never have to run into the same dirigible twice. I was so taken with it that I took it for a test drive and made a Final Fantasy IV style airship. It took about five minutes and the ship was exactly what I wanted. Ship to ship combat works enough like person to person combat that it is easy to pick up and run with.
The Equipment chapter is pretty self-explanatory, but thoroughly enjoyable. Any equipment list that includes Heliotropes and Difference Engines is a winner in my book. There is a certain verve to the items included that I find quite charming. Just make sure you don’t use the Heat Ray and Wheel-Skates at the same time.
The setting is laid out in the next three chapters. Chapters on the History, Geography, and Cultures of Airship Pirates are a real boon. Rare is the licensed game that doesn’t have any other book sources for the setting, so it was essential that this book included enough of the world to enable play with a minimum of GM work. While the scope is limited to North America, the breadth and depth of the content here is enormous. While it is not labeled as GM only, I am of the mind that the players should know as little as possible. I can count on one hand the settings that are as evocative as this.
Then there is the GM section. The same thoughtfulness and care that has gone into the rest of the book carries on here. Twenty or so pre-generated NPCs, stats only, are the sort of thing a GM wants but is seldom given by RPG authors. The GM material here is top-notch. Even better, it feels like the designers are taking you aside and telling how to recreate their vision on the tabletop. This sort of material being as good as it is does the setting of Airship Pirates quite a service. For a setting pieced together from songs and bits and pieces of lore, Airship Pirates feels quite rich.
Time Travel is the next chapter and it is a doozy. I have covered games with Time Travel before (I’m looking at you Doctor Who), but this is the best system for traversing time and space I have ever seen. With six Golden Rules (Time Travel is Uncommon, Time Travel is Difficult, Time Travel is Infrequent, Screwing Up the Timeline is Difficult, There’s Only One Timeline So Look After It, and a Time Traveller’s Personal Past Cannot Be Changed), Time Travel in Airship Pirates is equal parts mysterious and exhilarating, which suits the setting quite well. I love the idea of taking Pirates in a blimp and sending them to some random point in time. I might be strange, though.
A Bestiary follows. At first glance, there is not much to look at. I mean, there is an entry for Alligators and an entry for Giant Alligators. A little scrutiny reveals that mammoths and sabre-toothed cats have returned and there are strange giant condors called teratorns. While it might not be the Monster Manual, I suspect that was never the intention. Airship Pirates, being a bit grittier than most steampunk, doesn’t have room for goofy beasts, though there are some solid critters here.
The Tribulations of Scabby Jack is the included adventure for beginning parties and I think it serves its purpose quite well. The hardest part of a first adventure is getting a party together without the stereotypical, “Everyone meets at a bar” scene. Since the character creation system eschews that, things can kick off with a bang. It is nice to see so much care given to an introductory adventure.
The two page Artists of Airship Pirates spread is a nice touch, one I would love to see other RPG books adapt. Under each artist’s name is a list of pages on which their art appears and an email address at which to contact them. Giving the artists who make this book so gorgeous to flip through in such a manner is quite nice. The remainder of the appendixes are equally keen, providing character sheets, though those are better printed from the Internet than scanned from here, maps, and a one page discography for Abney Park. Once again, the authors have gone out of their way to make Airship Pirates a complete experience.
Abney Park’s Airship Pirates is a couple of things. It is a big, impressive, beautiful book. It is a vivid, fun, solid role playing game. It is also a challenge. If you are a fan of the band Abney Park, you have likely already purchased this. For those on the fence, I can only say that, as an outsider to their milieu, I cannot imagine this book being a more perfect representation of their world. If you are a steampunk fan looking for an RPG to run, this is a pretty good one. If you are a fan of Victoriana or Dark Harvest, this is a fantastic alternative setting and sourcebook. More than anything, though, Airship Pirates is a labor of love. “Captain” Robert Brown, lead singer of Abney Park, provided art for the book, including the cover, and is credited with the layout, design, and typography of the book. Such passion is evident throughout Abney Park’s Airship Pirates. Yes, $50 is a lot of money, but I honestly feel like Abney Park’s Airship Pirates is worth it.