Every Week It's Wibbley-Wobbley Timey-Wimey Pookie-Reviewery...

Friday 25 November 2011

Tome Team

As the effects of Depression spread across England, the great families of the land, the aesthetes, and the bibliophiles have fallen on hard times. Turning to assets of least consequence, they ransack their libraries to pay the bills or death duties, resulting in a flood of horrid heirlooms and terrible tomes on the book trade. Ready to pick up the rarest and hopefully the most profitable of the titles are the Book Scouts, Book Sellers, and Catalogue Agents, working to get a cheap price and a high sale, no matter the book’s title, content, or provenance, let alone the nature of the purchaser. If it happens that this means that there is one more copy of William Pynchon’s 1539 “Monstres And Their Kynde” on the streets of London by their hand – the hand of an “artist” rather than a forger – what matter? And if the latest sale involves knowledge that no man should ever hunger for, what matter that either?

This is the set up for Bookhounds of London, Kenneth Hite’s new campaign setting for Pelgrane Press’ Trail of Cthulhu, the GUMSHOE System powered, clue orientated RPG of Lovecraftian investigative horror. As a setting, it brings to the fore one of the major elements of the genre, the Mythos Tome and all of the eldritch innards that lie between its covers. Not that books will be the only dangers faced by the bookhounds of the game’s title – there are rivals after the same books for sale; forgers are all too willing to “find” them the exact title that they are after; “occult” collectors equally as willing to do more (or even less) than pay to obtain certain titles; and of course, some of the all too dark secrets bound up in London’s history that might be revealed in the hunt for one book or another.

In Bookhounds of London, the player characters take the roles of the titular bookhounds, looking to make ends meet under the fog bound haze of smoking chimney stacks in the heart of an empire that has forgotten so many of its ancient secrets. This is a London that hides a rot behind a metropolitan façade and a bureaucratic indifference, a setting inspired by Alan Moore’s From Hell and the Roman Polanski film, Ninth Gate.

For its Occupations, Bookhounds of London suggests Antiquarian, Criminal, Dilettante, and Tramp (known as the Hobo in other campaign frames) as being suitable, whilst adding several new, altered, and particularly English Occupations suited to the setting: Book Scout, Book Seller, Catalogue Agent, Forger, and Occultist. Greed is added as a new Drive along with new abilities, including Auction, Bibliography, Document Analysis, and The Knowledge (of London).

So far, so English, but what is more interesting about the default Bookhounds of London campaign framework is that its set up provides the investigators with a base of operations – their shop. Best created collectively by the players, it becomes almost a character in itself, granting not just investigative points for the investigators to spend on clues, but also a means to create scenario hooks in the game. A really nice touch is that Hite acknowledges that the idea for the book shop did not come from him, but from a playtest group and was incorporated into the framework.

Naturally, the Book Trade is explored in detail, including ordinary titles and Mythos Tomes as well as the libraries of London and how to handle an auction in dramatic fashion. The latter, as with the running of the investigators’ bookshop, handled in such a way as to avoid their getting bogged down in the minutiae of half-crowns and ha’pennies. Libraries and in particular, the libraries of London are covered in some detail, including what they stock, how an investigator can gain access, and what bonuses such an access might grant.

Pride of place naturally goes to an exploration of the book, detailing in turn their format and condition, and both Occult and Mythos Tomes. Surprisingly, just seven Mythos Tomes are described in detail, but using the earlier detailing of the book formats and their conditions together with his knowledge of the genre, a Keeper should come up with more. Failing that, Trail of Cthulhu has more information on Mythos Tomes as does the Keeper’s Companion for Call of Cthulhu.

Beyond the shelves of the investigators’ bookshop, Bookhounds of London takes the reader on a flavoursome exploration of London in Thirties. This is broken down by area and supported by detailed contact types and rumours plus asides for various topics such as legendary London, law enforcement on the streets, the Underground and London underground, and London’s clubs. London’s physicality is delightfully captured with a stunning set of period maps, not just of her streets, but of her major buildings also. Many of them are done in full colour and like much of the material in Bookhounds of London, will find a use in Trail of Cthulhu in general as well as other RPGs set within the period.

As the heart and crossroads of the Empire, it is no surprise that London is home to numerous cults and secret societies. The presence of many of these, like the Ahnenerbe operating out of the German Embassy and the infamous Brotherhood of the Black, are no surprise, Bookhounds of London expanding upon their descriptions given in Trail of Cthulhu. Added to the expected cults and secret societies are the Hsieh-Tzu Fan, a network of terrorists, smugglers, slavers, and rebels headed by “The Scorpion,” which based out of a Limehouse opium den is most certainly a nod to the Si-Fan of Doctor Fu Manchu fame; and the Keirecheires, an insidious and highly placed cult devoted to Y’golonac. In each case, how the cults and organisations might be encountered in the book trade is discussed as well as how they might react to the investigators’ meddlings.

In addition to the London’s cults and monsters – the emphasis with the latter as is traditional in Trail of Cthulhu being upon their description more than their game stats -- the Keeper can further bring out the strangeness of London with “Megapolismancy,” a magic that uses the city itself as an engine to fuel its sorcery. Inspired by Fritz Leiber’s novel Our Lady of Darkness and developing from the rules given in Hite’s Rough Magicks, it is also a means by which the investigators can involve themselves in the ancient architecture of the city – if they possess the right Lore – or a means by which a Megapolismancer “madman” can turn the city against them.

Where Trail of Cthulhu offers two campaign styles – Pulp and Purist, Bookhounds of London, as part of its campaign advice, introduces three that they can be combined with. The “Arabesque” gives London a Dreamlands-like quality, described as “Baghdad on the Thames;” the “Sordid” offers a city of sin at its worst; whilst the “Technicolour” brings out London’s vibrancy, offering a hyperrealism that owes as much to Hammer Horror movies as it does the works of Dennis Wheatley and Sax Rohmer. Curiously, of the three, it is the Technicolour that is the most easily expanded upon within Trail of Cthulhu, its lurid colours easily bleaching away as the investigators journey into Shadows Over Filmland, a dream-like world merely a penny away. The Keeper is under no obligation to adhere to just the one of these new styles and can easily slip between the three depending on the nature of the dangers that the investigators face. Either way, these options enable the Keeper to flavour his game and serve to mark a Bookhounds of London campaign as being very different to a standard one.

The three campaign styles are supported with a hextet of ready-to-play NPCs. These include rivals and connections both, each including notes that enable the Keeper to configure them not only to the three campaign styles, but also to re-configure them so that they can be reused under different names and slightly different personalities. Each of their descriptions includes a singular element, that of how they might be tainted by through contact with the Cthulhu Mythos. It is a commendable method of presenting NPCs and the format begs, if not for the inclusion of more NPCs within this book, then for a sourcebook all of its very own.

Beyond the three new campaign styles, Bookhounds of London brings a new style of campaign to Trail of Cthulhu. In traditional Lovecraftian investigative horror, the Keeper presents the clues to the threat and the players react to it with their investigators. Here, with the placing of the campaign within a geographical location, it means that the investigators can literally go out and find the adventure. After all, the bookhounds do have to go out in search of a “Squiz,” and who knows what else they might turn up? Bookhounds of London explores this through its advice on running player driven campaigns in relatively short a fashion. Essentially it is a collaborative process, but if that fails, the advice comes down to aping Raymond Chandler’s suggestion of having “two men (or Things) with wavy daggers burst through the window.”

Rounding out Bookhounds of London is “Whitechapel Black-Letter,” a scenario that naturally has the investigators on the trail of a particular book. At the Keeper’s option, it can be tinged with the Ripper murders, but primarily it is a sandbox scenario in which the characters can explore an Occult London and uncover some of its dreadful secrets.

If there is an issue with Bookhounds of London, it is that in places it feels concise. For the most part, this leaves the reader wanting more rather than feeling that the author has not given him enough, except that is, for the somewhat mechanistic Megapolisomantic workings. The section feels as it does need more flesh, though the scenario does include a fully worked through example. Physically, the book is beautifully done, with Jérôme Huguenin’s artwork being excellent as ever.

Given the lack of a sourcebook detailing London within the genre of Lovecraftian investigative horror, Bookhounds of London is a much, much needed resource. Although its focus is primarily the book and the booktrade, the information on outré tomes is equally as relevant to Call of-, Realms of-, and Shadows of Cthulhu as they are Trail of Cthulhu. The background to London is equally as relevant and useful to all of these games.

To draw an analogy, Bookhounds of London is to Trail of Cthulhu as Star Trek: the Next Generation is to Star Trek: Deep Space Nine. It gives the campaign and its investigators a base of operations, in the form of their bookshop, so that adventures and characters can legitimately come to them as much as they can go to the adventures, whether those created by the Keeper or driven by the investigators in a Sandbox style campaign. The book itself brims with detail that supports the setting and brings it alive, though in places it feels perhaps a little too concise, as if it needs just a little more information. Otherwise, Bookhounds of London is another beautiful book for Trail of Cthulhu that brings the Old Smoke and its dissolution to life with the investigators on its intellectual coattails.

Sunday 13 November 2011

At the 19th Kobold

Regular as clockwork, along comes another issue of Kobold Quarterly from Open Design, the only games magazine to support Dungeons & Dragons – and its primary variants – or any more than the one RPG and make it to the shelves at your friendly, local gaming store. As with previous issues, Kobold Quarterly #19 provides support for Dungeons & Dragons style RPGs, particularly Paizo Publishing’s Pathfinder Roleplaying Game and Wizards of the Coast’s Dungeons & Dragons, Fourth Edition as well as of Dragon Age – Dark Fantasy Roleplaying from Green Ronin Publishing; and as with previous issues, Kobold Quarterly #19 comes with a theme or two. This time around, those themes are death, magic, and a trip to the East along with various other articles and regular columns.

It should be made clear upfront that the focus upon the games that the magazine normally covers shifts with Kobold Quarterly #19. There is just the one articles for Dungeons & Dragons, Fourth Edition in this issue, the rest primarily being for Pathfinder Roleplaying Game. This is not to say that the articles written for one system will not be of use for the other, but the DM or GM will have to provide the mechanics.

The issue’s death theme gets off to a decidedly clean start with Marc Radle’s “The White Necromancer: To Understand Life One Must Also Understand Death.” Written for Pathfinder Roleplaying Game, this explores characters that though fascinated with the dead, instead honour them and aid the living. The White Necromancer is an arcane spellcaster with a limited spellbook, but with the ability to heal and as his studies of the undead advance, knowledge of some of the abilities of the undead, including Ghost Walk. This is a nice twist upon the Necromancer concept, allowing a character to interact with the undead without turning to the dark side.

More deathly characters for Pathfinder Roleplaying Game are discussed in “Archetypes of Death: For a More Badass Barbarian, Druid, Monk, or Summoner” by Phillip Larwood. The three Archetypes are the Deathrager, a Barbarian whose link to the spirit world is so strong that he can stave off death and eventually, even fight on after death; the Grave Druid, a Druid that protects graveyards and wards against the undead; the Master of Worms, a Monk that uses the abilities of the undead to fight them; and the Zombie Master, a Summoner that summons a zombie or skeleton, and then is able to evolve it to his own design. Of the four, the last again feels the least interesting, but the first three feel well thought out and will make nice additions to campaigns with a darker tone to them.

With “Bottled Hubris: New Discoveries and Archetypes for Alchemists,” Jerall Toi gives new options for the Alchemist Class in Pathfinder Roleplaying Game. Using options available in the Advanced Player’s Guide and Ultimate Magic, this delves into the issue’s magic theme by giving deeper areas of study for the alchemist and new ways of playing the Class. The new Discoveries range from hardening the Alchemist’s mind to the influence of Outsiders and his skeleton with spikes against melee weapons to enhancing the intimidation effect of his intelligence and enhancing a familiar or other animal companion with another Discovery. The three new Archetypes are the Calligraphist, able to conjure creatures and weapons from his ink drawings; the Evolutionist specialises in the enhancement of his animal companion; and the Specialist, which takes up the study of singular areas of knowledge, such as the stars and planes beyond, plants, or the transmutation of metal. Of these Archetypes, the Calligraphist is likely to be the most attractive to play, whereas the Specialist as presented feels a little undeveloped.

The magic theme continues with what is potentially a divisive discussion of the magic shop in the Pathfinder Roleplaying Game. “Magic Shops, What's In Store: How to Turn a DM Nightmare into a Tool for Better Games” by Christina Stiles and Spike Y. Jones explores how and why the magic shop might exist in a Dungeons & Dragons style world, the divisive aspect being that some GMs feel that allowing players to purchase magic items for their characters detracts from the wondrous nature of magic and the sense of achievement in gaining such items during their adventures. The arguments are well realised and the article is supported by several sample magic shops, the most entertaining being “The Bargain Bin” and its accompanying list of items that are magical, but far from perfect (Scroll of Faecal Storm? Euw!).

The last entry following the issue’s magic theme is “The Gordian Knot” by Mario Podeschi. Again for the Pathfinder Roleplaying Game, this is winning entry in the magazine’s the Relics of Power competition. It is an artefact created from the very tapestry of the planes that protects the owner against detection and scrying. In either case, the owner has to work the threads of the Knot to activate its abilities. This is great artefact for any campaign that involves high level magical scrying and intrigue.

“Welcome to the Dragon Empires” is the first of two articles that take the reader out East to Tian Xia in the world of Golarion, the home setting for the Pathfinder Roleplaying Game. Written by James Jacobs, this is a quick introduction to the region of Golarion that will be detailed further in the forthcoming Dragon Empires Gazetteer and Dragon Empires Primer supplements as well as the current Pathfinder Roleplaying Game Adventure Path, Jade Regent.The piece is really a list of the setting’s key points, since it lacks the space to go into any detail. That said, it is a preview and the setting does look interesting.

More detail though, is to be found in the companion article, “Làu Kiritsu: Golarion’s Lord Of Absolute Obedience.” Written by Richard Pett – one of my favourite writers for the Pathfinder Roleplaying Game – it describes Tian Xia’s greatest archdevil as well as the strictures that his adherents must obey absolutely. There is plenty of flavour in this article, not just in how he is worshipped, but also in the magical objects particular to Làu Kiritsu’s worship that constrain and admonish those that they are used on. The author also provides some nice advice as to how Làu Kiritsu can be used in a game and a trio of good adventure seeds.

The issue comes with three generic articles. The first is Rick Hudson’s “Courting Adventure: Bringing the Royal Court to Life in Your Games,” an excellent description of the courtier and the offices that he could take at court along with some adventure hooks and the author’s inspirations. This would be useful for any game that takes place at court – not just one in a fantasy setting, whether that is a court that the player characters have to visit or hold themselves. The latter is a possibility for characters of higher levels, of course. The second is “10 Ways to Turn Dull Traps into High-Stakes Encounters” by Britian Oates, which discusses how to make traps in a GM’s game much more of a challenge. The last is Monte Cook’s “Balance-Free Bonuses (Or, Making the Elf More Elvish),” part of his regular Game Theories column. It explores how to give “little” benefits that expand racial abilities without resorting to the traditional “+1” effect. For example, whilst Elves never get dirty and can see half again as far as humans, they also possess mystical empathy/intuition that grants them occasional flashes of insight. Only though, when the DM wants impart some information, and not when a player wants it to work. It is a well thought out set of ideas and a referee should be inspired to add these to his game or create some of his own.

The two articles for Dragon Age – Dark Fantasy Roleplaying from Green Ronin Publishing are not actually for the Dragon Age setting, but rather for the age system. They are all about characters and backgrounds, both written to tie in with Open Design’s forthcoming Midgard Campaign Setting. The first of these is “Land of Horse and Bow: 6 Midgard Campaign Setting Backgrounds for AGE” by Simon English, which give Backgrounds suitable for characters originating from the Rothenian Plain, whether that is a Free Tribes Centaur, Windrunner Elf, Steppes Shaman, or Vidam Boyar. The sextet are pleasingly accompanied by a list of Arcane Lance variants such as Flame, Lightning, Wind, and Winter that are more likely to find their way in to Dragon Age before the Backgrounds, that is until the arrival of the Midgard Campaign Setting.

Just as the “Land of Horse and Bow” provides Backgrounds for one region, Josh Jarman’s “Scions of Terror: 4 New AGE Character Backgrounds for the Midgard Campaign Setting” gives Backgrounds for another, in this case, the Western Wastes. These Backgrounds have a harder edge to them, each necessary to survive the dangers of the Western Wastes, the grey desert created following a war of magic. What is interesting about both of these articles is seeing how they model elements particular to Dungeons & Dragons. In this case, races more commonly found in Dungeons & Dragons such as the Goblin with the Dust Goblin Dune Trader which scavenges the Western Wastes for artefacts and the Tiefling with the Tintagerian Hellborn.

The one article in Kobold Quarterly #19 for Dungeons & Dragons, Fourth Edition is Brian A Liberge’s “Bark at the Moon: Werewolf Themes for Your Character.” This explores the origins of lycanthropy and how to make the werewolf playable as a player character, moving it away from the ravenous beast into a more heroic role. As much as the author tries to add flavour to the various powers of this new character theme, it still feels all too mechanical and not up to the ideas presented in the main body of the article.

Similarly, this issue comes with a single adventure. As with recent issues, Matthew J. Hanson’s “Aneela, Human Cleric: Party of One” is a solo adventure. It is a quick affair, easy to play, and pits a young cleric against some undead, keeping it in theme with the issue’s deathly theme. Rounding out the issue is Kobold Quarterly’s usual book review column; Kobold Diplomacy column, this time interviewing the award-winning indie designer of Grey Ranks and Fiasco, Jason Morningstar; and Wolfgang Baur’s regular Free City of Zobeck end piece.

Physically, Kobold Quarterly #19 is disappointing. This is not to say that some of the artwork, including the cover, is excellent, but in places it feels ill suited. Further, the magazine needs editing in places, which was not the case with previous issues. Overall, the impression with Kobold Quarterly #19 is it has been rushed. It also feels as if there is less to this issue than previous ones, but that may be due to the fact that “Welcome to the Dragon Empires” is more of an enticement than something that can be added to a game.

There is much to like about this latest issue. Though some will decry its shift in emphasis away from Dungeons & Dragons, Fourth Edition to Pathfinder Roleplaying Game, this does mean that there is more room for the Dragon Age – Dark Fantasy Roleplaying articles, and the likelihood is that there will be more of them given the forthcoming publication of the Midgard Campaign Setting. Kobold Quarterly #19 contains an interesting selection of articles that each in their own way can be added to a game, with the plethora of strong options for the player outweighing the GM support.

Friday 4 November 2011

Swash My Buckle Aloft!

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

Derived Attributes
Initiative 8 Health 2

Common Skills
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
Culture: Misbegotten
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

Derived Attributes
Initiative 5 Health 4

Common Skills
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.