Come the year 2150 AD and the choice for humanity is simple. Live under the reactionary yoke of the Neovictorians under Emperor Victor III in the few walled Change Cage cities that scatter the Earth, or live free far from the walls, either as Neobedouins, travelling the American Wilderness in mammoth or steam drawn caravans, or as air pirates, sailing the open skies between the sky-cities. This is the setting for Abney Park’s Airship Pirates RPG Based on the Songs of “Captain” Robert Brown, the latest RPG from Cubicle Seven Entertainment. As the full title suggests, Airship Pirates is based on the songs of Abney Park, a Steampunk inspired band from Seattle, the result being a spicy melange of genres spliced and riveted together. These include Steampunk, Post-Apocalypse, Pirates, and Time Travel, the latter only apparent deeper within the game’s setting. This mixing of genres has an influence on the game’s airships as they are not dirigibles with gondolas attached underneath, but more akin to vessels from the Age of Sail slung from bags of gas rather than sails. Some airships do use sails, but most are driven by steam engines or rarely, old and reclaimed diesel engines.
In the default setting for Airship Pirates, the players take the roles of the leading crew and passengers aboard an airship, running between the sky-cities and before the vessels of the Imperial Air Navy, just like the members of Abney Park, who travel aboard the HMS Ophelia. In the world of 2150 AD, the members of Abney Park are more than just pirates; they are also a popular band that performs at various sky-cities. This is their shtick, and similarly, the player characters are more than mere pirates – they might be performers themselves, mercenaries or merchants, or even owners of an aerial brothel. The game allows the players to take their shtick and not just customise their airship around it, but also gain a few skills to support their shtick.
The players have plenty of character options. They can be Neobedouin drivers, hunters, outriders, shaman, or beast dancers (who turn dance into a deadly martial art) or Skyfolk mercenaries, musicians, pirates, privateers, or showmen. Neovictorian options are unsurprisingly more Class riven, from Agitator, Chuno Ggun member (feared killers who track down escapees from the Change Cage cities, usually radical threats that the Emperor has had imprisoned), and Ganger to Academic, Air Navy Officer, and Dilettante. The Neovictorians also use Automata, employed as servants, pleasure dolls, and peelers (members of the Imperial Constabulary which enforce the law in the Emperor’s name), all of which can be player characters, their having “gone rogue.” Lastly, the Misbegotten are mutants, their bodies twisted by the toxins beneath each city and either confined to the Change Cage or assigned to the Chuno Ggun if they can fight.
Character creation is a mix of player choice and spending points. A player chooses his character’s culture (Automaton, Misbegotten, Neovictorian, or Skyfolk) and a Background, which determines a character’s starting skills that he must spend two thirds of his Character Points on. It should be pointed out that the number of skills listed under each Background varies from one Background to the next, such that one character might have ten skills to choose from and another only five. In the case of the latter, it forces the character to have only a few high skills as opposed to the former who must either generalise or choose to specialise. Then he assigns a few points to his characteristics. These can be negative as well as positive, but player characters all start with a score of one in each characteristic. A character is free to spend the last third of his Character Points on more skills and Traits (or advantages), though the likelihood is that these will not be enough. In this case, whilst a few more points are available if a player decides to take some Complications.
Name: Algernon Aston-Muggeridge
Culture: Neovictorian Social Class: Upper
Age/Gender: 23/Male Vocation: Writer
Build: Slim Hair/Eyes: Blonde/Blue
Strength 0 Dexterity 1 Fortitude 0
Presence 2 Wits 3 Resolve 2
Initiative 8 Health 2
Bull 4, Charm 2, Dance 1, Empathy 4, Etiquette 1, General Knowledge 4, Perception 4, Seduction 2
Art (Writing) 4, Conversation 3, Gambling 2, Martial Arts (Boxing) 1, Medicine 3
Family Feud, Glass Jaw, Social Chameleon
Drink Like A Fish/1, Rock Your World/1
Our example characters are an Upper Class Neovictorian Writer and a Misbegotten ex-member of the Chuno Ggun. How exactly Algernon Aston-Muggeridge and Sidney Stinger came to be companions is not something that either discuss, but one is rarely seen without the other. Records indicate that he is a qualified doctor, whilst rumours suggest that he fled the city after getting a young lady in trouble. He only says that he wanted to see the world beyond the walls. Sidney Stinger was a Misbegotten member of the Chuno Ggun silently creating a fearsome reputation as a tracker and killer. Sidney has a long, prehensile tail that ends in a sheath containing a tooth like stinger that she can use to lash out at an opponent in a lunge-like attack. She was assigned to track down Algernon, but was injured during the task and abandoned by her the other members of her team. It was Algernon that nursed her back to health and befriended her. These days she keeps an eye on Algernon whose penchant for wine, women, and dice often lands him in trouble, whilst he has been teaching her to read. Algernon is a regular contributor to Tales of the Airship Pirates, whilst Sidney works as a scout and finder for hire.
Name: Sidney Stinger
Age/Gender: 17/Female Vocation: Chuno Ggun
Build: Lithe Hair/Eyes: Black/Green
Strength 3 Dexterity 2 Fortitude 2
Presence 0 Wits 1 Resolve 3
Initiative 5 Health 4
Athletics 2, Dodge 2, Firearms 2, Hide & Sneak 2, Improvised Weapon 1, Intimidate 2, Might 2, Perception 2, Streetwise 1, Swordplay 2
Business 1, Craft (Cookery) 2, Interrogation 2, Martial Arts (Baritsu) 3, Survival 2, Tactics 1, Tracking 2
Black Sheep, Distinctive Feature (Tail), Shy, Time-Sick
Assassin’s Law/1 (Baritsu), Lunge, Mutation (Claws)
Neither of these characters has been given the three skills associated with their airship and the three skills associated with their airship crew’s shtick. Character generation is easy and does not take all that long. Alternatively, Airship Pirates includes a sample airship and sample set of player characters, the HMS Cordelia and the musical band that crew her.
In addition to creating their characters, players also get to create their characters’ airship from a pool of fifty Resource Points which are spent to customise a standard design. These allow a party to design their airship around its shtick, so for example, if the HMS Good ‘Ol Days is home to the best aerial Music Hall in the known skies, she would have a Props Room and a Training Room, as well as space for the extra crew (or chorus), sails for longer voyages, a workshop for carrying repairs, and the luxurious cabin that the ship’s star, songstress Marlene Langtry-Philipps demands – otherwise she refuses to perform!
Airship Pirates is the third RPG from Cubicle Seven Entertainment to use the Heresy Game Engine mechanics previously seen in the Victoriana Second Edition and Dark Harvest RPGs. It is a dice-pool system that uses both black and white dice, the pools usually created from adding an attribute and a skill together. Any roll that comes up a one or a six counts as a success, while any roll of a six can be re-rolled to generate yet more successes. The primary method of setting difficulty is by adding black dice to the pool, three black dice for a difficult task, six for a very difficult task, and so on. Any roll that comes up a one or a six on a black die reduces the total number of successes rolled. Fortunately, rolls of six on a black die do not get rolled again. The other method of setting the difficulty of a task is by modifying the total number of dice in the pool. Anyway, a single success rolled counts as a partial success, two rolled successes as an adequate success, three rolled as a good success, and so on. For the most part, the rules used in Airship Pirates are a streamlined, simpler version of those used in Victoriana. This simplicity also aids the intention of the authors that Airship Pirates should be a cinematic game. The rules themselves are not inherently cinematic in style, but the GM’s section advises that Airship Pirates be played that way and the rules are no impediment to this.
Given the setting it no surprise that aerial combat is likely to be a regular feature of Airship Pirates. The danger is that it could have been hideously complex, but the rules given keep things simple with vehicles manoeuvring into range and unloading broadsides on each other. The rules allow for player participation, whether that is piloting the ship, manning a gun, or keeping the engines running. Once broadsides start being delivered, the player characters need to keep their heads down as it can get deadly very quickly. A ship’s crew does get abstracted though and usually bears the brunt of any incoming fire.
The included equipment list is not extensive, but it includes just about everything a game should need. It describes six types of aerial vehicles, as well as Neobedouin caravans, automaton cabs, and armoured barges and trains; ordinary rifles and revolvers and steam ones too; various services (including those provided by a lady) and tool kits; and useful items such as “Bloomers of Concealment,” Crinoline Frame – Collapsible (“Ladies, don’t perform martial arts without it!”), goggles, mechanical grog dispenser (“Let everyone get their share!”), and even a Difference Engine. If there is a downside to the equipment list it is that not everything is illustrated and certainly none of the weapons are. Another downside is that only the one airship in the game is given deck plans, that of the default vessel, the HMS Cordelia.
The setting material for Airship Pirates describes not only the setting, but how the Neovictorian Age of 2150 AD came about. Back in 2006, Abney Park was flying to gig when the aircraft the band were aboard collided with the airship, the HMS Ophelia. Not just an airship, HMS Cordelia happened to be a British time-travelling airship from 1906 on time patrol duty for the Empire. With people dead aboard both vessels, the surviving members of Abney Park took command of the Ophelia and set out on a mission of their own: to set time right and make a peaceful world. Which they did, but this new world was unprepared for the rise of Emperor Victor III’s grandfather and a new dictatorship at the dawn of the twenty-first century. In the decades since, humanity has been mostly confined to the Emperor’s Change Cage cities, leaving the rest of the North American continent to be returned to a state of primordial wilderness that it has been seen for millennia populated by bison, giant condor, giant sloths, mammoths and mastadons, and sabre-toothed cats.
The description of the setting is confined to the North American continent, describing its features in broad terms before examining the Sky-Cities, Neobedouin Tribes, and Neovictorian Change Cage cities along with their cultures in detail. Besides giving rules for the GM to create his own Sky-Cities, this background material also provides the GM with the physical room to create whatever he wants for his campaign as well as a decent amount of information to draw upon as ideas for his campaign.
At the heart of the GM’s section is a solid discussion of the various genres that make up Air Pirates and how to bring them into a game, drawing in each turn, from various lyrics by Abney Park. This is accompanied by an excellent example of how to use song lyrics as inspiration for adventure, using not one of Abney Park’s songs, but a very well-known pop song by the British rock band, the Electric Light Orchestra!
Particular attention is paid to time travel as this is what sets up the premise for the game. It is entirely possible for time to be altered by the player characters, this being the implied point of the game. Despite the fact that the guidelines for handling time travel and its effects are just about as straight forward and uncomplicated as they could be, time travel is not necessarily the focus of the game. This is primarily due to the fact that the player characters are not meant to start the game with access to a “Chrononautilus” and nor are they meant to be aware of the changes made to the timeline by Abney Park that got the world where it is in 2150 AD. In fact, apart from the “Chrononautilus” aboard the HMS Ophelia, there is only meant to be one other in a GM’s campaign and that is the one that will eventually fall into the hands of the player characters.
Physically, Airship Pirates is done in full colour throughout. This being a game whose primary genre is Steampunk, it is very brown, but there is enough to colour to keep it from getting monotonous. Some of the artwork is perhaps too cartoon like in style, jarring somewhat with the rest of the book. The book itself is well written, and despite needing an edit here or there, it is very readable.
The book is not perfect though. If in coming to Airship Pirates unaware of Abney Park and what they sing about, the reader might be left a bit ill-informed as what the game is about. The problem is essentially that the book does not give up enough information up front as what it is about and what there is tends to be a little too broad in nature. Similarly, some of the setting material is buried deep in the book and even finding it (or anything else) having read the book is problematic because the index is anaemic.
One problem with Airship Pirates is one that many a RPG suffers from in that although the Inventor is available as a Background for determining his core skills, his raison d'être is not actually addressed in the rules. Until they are, the GM is just going to have to rule on an inventor’s gadgeteering himself. Another issue might be the lack of campaign advice in terms of set up. As written, the idea is that the player characters will form a group, fly an airship, and either form a circus troupe, a mercenary group, or go trading, and have adventures along the way. The book lacks advice on these different concepts and the adventures that they might lend themselves too, and neither does it look at other campaign ideas. Without more support, the default campaign feels a little too much like that of Firefly with a genre twist and a shtick added on. True, the addition of Time Travel adds an interesting wrinkle to this set up, but again, it is not necessarily the focus of Airship Pirates.
Hopefully, some of the problems inherent to Airship Pirates will be addressed in a forthcoming supplement, but it should be made clear that they do not impede the play of the game in the short term – and Airship Pirates is very playable. Its core mix of the Steampunk and pirate genres will appeal to many gamers and allowing them to choose their crew’s shtick is an excellent means of directing the type of game that they want. Whether it is manners or buccaneering that the players want, Abney Park’s Airship Pirates RPG Based on the Songs of “Captain” Robert Brown does both in equal rip-roaring, swashbuckling measures.