Abney Park’s Airship Pirates is a joint effort between Abney Park (a steampunk band), Cubicle 7 (maker of the Victoriana RPG and owner of the Heresy engine), and RPG writers Peter Cakebread and Ken Walton (writers of the Clockwork & Chivalry line). Airship Pirates is set in a post-apocalyptic 2150 where most people and technology have been pushed back to an alternate-history Victorian era level of culture and technology. Airship Pirates is a full-color, 300-page hardcover that retails for about $50.
This review will give a general impression of the book, break down the contents in more detail, and conclude with my personal opinions. Additionally, while this is a review of the book, not of the system, since this is a core book the system will get a discussion anyway. If you’re like me, you’ll probably end up buying and reading more RPG books than you’ll ever get to bring to the table, so this review will consider the perspective of the reader, in addition to that of a GM/player.
The setting for Airship Pirates is a bit convoluted. In 1906, the British invented a time travel device, which they put on an airship. This airship then met up with Abney Park (yes, the band are characters in the RPG), which resulted in Abney Park having a time-traveling airship. They then proceeded to travel back in time to improve history. They prevented the British from acquiring such a large empire, stopped the slave trade, and by 1850 there were unified democratic governments in North America (the United States, but covering the whole continent), Africa, and Europe. The world was, essentially, at peace. The late 1850s were then a traditional sort of steampunk setting, with Victorian fashion conquering the world, along with steam power and airships all over the place.
The setting then takes a darker turn, however, as the “Diesel Age” saw skyrocketing population (no war or disease to check growth), and technology continued to rapidly advance. The late 20th century massive pollution, and the increased prominence of the Neobeduoin movement, which believed in a transient lifestyle over being crammed into cities. This movement gave birth to Victor Hypocrates, who advocated a return to older technology as a way to cure environmental problems. He became President of the U.S., and then of the world. But our Victor turned out to be a little extreme, which is where the “apocalypse” comes in, as the world (not used to any sort of fighting) kinds of sits by while Victor rounds a lot of people up into mega-cities, then start massacring everyone else to turn the world into a giant wildlife preserve (including genetically engineered giant man-eating animals).
By 2150, this process was largely complete, leaving mostly three kinds of people in the world of Emperor Victor III. There are the Neovictorians, who constitute the overwhelming majority of people still alive, and who live in the mega-cities – where innovation is punished and technology and culture are forcibly kept at the alternate-history Victorian level, but without any of the social advances that steampunk usually entails. So there are airships and widespread steam power, but women are treated badly and most people slave all day in the factories.
There are also the Skyfolk, who escaped the ravages of the purges by floating entire cities (well, really small ones, anyway) into the air. The various cities have little in common, except that they hate the Neovictorians and they have a fondness for airship pirates. The third chunk are the Neobeduoin, who are the folks who managed to avoid getting killed off without getting crammed into a mega-city or escaping into the air. They continue to mostly lead nomadic existences.
Your characters are, of course, airship pirates. They have their own ship to fly around in and have a non-pirate schtick – so they’re pirates/a circus or pirates/a band. It isn’t exactly clear who the characters are raiding most of the time, because they’re supposed to be romantic nice sorts of pirates, but the bad guys of the setting (the Neovictorians) are the ones who are least vulnerable to pirates, since the primary targets they present are military vessels and massive cities with millions of people in them (and the Skyfolk, who would seem to be the easy pirate targets, are big pirate fans). If the characters are not Skyfolk then they have, effectively, abandoned their old way of life.
The first thing one is likely to notice when reading Airship Pirates is that the font is pretty big. On the bright side, this makes it a lot easier to read than some RPGs. On the downside, it means that there’s less actual content – especially when combined with a dozen pages of advertisements and blank “Notes” pages at the back of the book.
The editing seemed good. I recall a line missing due to a layout error, and one of those “p. XX” references that used to plague White Wolf books, but that was basically it – and in my experience that’s a very low “oops” count for an RPG book.
The overall layout works pretty well, with flavorful but unobtrusive graphics at the top and the bottom of each page. There were, however, several places where a good chunk of whitespace was left at the bottom of the page and/or end of the chapter.
The writing in Airship Pirates did not stand out. It was clear enough at conveying technical content, but didn’t wow me or draw me into the setting. The bits of short fiction were awkward. And, while I get that it is Abney Park’s Airship Pirates, seeing the same song lyrics repeated more than once as flavor quotes was not a joy.
The art pieces, individually, were fine, but they were stylistically all over the place, and (at least to me) did not succeed at presenting a cohesive view of what the game world is like.
The construction of the book seems very sound. The writing of this review kept getting interrupted, which resulted in the book getting opened and closed a lot, as well as getting left open flat on the desk for extended periods, and there hasn’t been any sign of issues with the spine or pages staying attached to the book.
The Trials of Admiral Villiers & Going Home (~10 pages) – An introductory short fiction, plus another fiction wedged later in the book.
Introduction (~8 pages) – A standard “what is roleplaying” and an example of play.
Character Creation (~60 pages) – Airship Pirates has a relatively group-based character creation. In addition to creating your own character, you have to work with the other players to build your ship, make sure you have the necessary skills to actually fly it, and select the non-pirate schtick for the group.
Characters have six Attributes – Strength, Dexterity, Fortitude, Presence, Wits, and Resolve. They all govern what you might expect them to. Each character starts with a +1 in each attribute, and gets to distribute another +3 between the six. Players then choose a Culture, Background, Skills, Talents, Complications, and some equipment.
– Culture: A character’s culture applies bonuses or penalties to Attributes, defines what Backgrounds can be chosen, and determines starting cash. Players can choose from Skyfolk, Neobedouins, and several varieties of Neovictorian. Neovictorians can be “normal” people of Upper, Servant, or Lower Class. Neovictorians also might be Misbegotten (mutants resulting from a buildup of toxic waste in the cities, since the Emperor wants to keep the wilderness pristine) or one of several varieties of Automaton (sentient humanoid clockwork constructs). Automatons come in varieties like Peelers (police), Gangers (thugs), Dolls (of the sexual sort), and Autocrats (bureaucrats). Note that there does not appear to be any effort to balance the different options. Normal Neovictorians, for example, just gets penalties from their culture, while Skyfolk and Neobeduoins get bonuses.
– Background: A character’s background’s only mechanical effect is to define his background skills. There are about 30 to choose from, although any particular culture choice will knock this down to around 10.
– Skills: Characters get 30 points to spend on Skills and Talents, with bonus points available from taking Complications. At least 20 of these points must be sunk into the Skills listed in the character’s Background (each rank is a skill costs 1).
– Talents: Talents provide some particular, generally unique, mechanical benefit to the character. Most cost 3 points, and there are about 50 to choose from.
– Complications: Complications give the character additional points – 5 for the first complication, another 3 for the second, and 2 for the third (regardless of what Complication is chosen). They are often non-mechanical in nature (some of them very non-mechanical – e.g., you’re older than a normal character), and it seems like a really good idea to take at least one (there are about 50 to choose from). I found the “Exalted Twin” Complication particularly amusing – you may not be the “Evil Twin,” but you’re definitely the loser of the pair.
– Equipment: Each character gets one weapon and five other pieces of equipment from later in the book, plus the starting cash determined by Culture.
– Airship Skills: In addition to the skill purchases above, a character gets another 3 skill ranks to put in about ten “airship skills” that are necessary for the operation of the party’s airship. Players are to coordinate with each other to ensure that necessary skills are covered so that group is capable of navigating, fixing the ship, flying the ship, fighting a little, noticing things, etc.
– Airship Schtick: Each player gets to put another three skill ranks into skills relating to the airship’s schtick – being a band, a brothel, merchants, mercenaries, and so forth. Each schtick has a list of what skills can be chosen.
The character creation chapter also spends 18 pages on a sample crew of six (character sheet, full-page illustration, sort-of-full-page description).
Skills (~10 pages) – The success or failure of actions in airship Airship Pirates is determined by skill rolls. The player rolls a number of d6 equal to their Attribute + Skill, and each 1 or 6 is a success. Rolls of 6 grant potentially indefinite additional rolls that can increase the number of successes. One success is all you need, although the number of successes can determine degree of success. If the task is inherently difficult, or there are external complications, then the dice pool rolled can also include some number of “black dice.” A player must subtract one success for each 1 or 6 rolled on the black dice (black dice do not re-roll 6s). Internal difficulties to the roll (such as being injured) apply penalties by reducing the number of normal dice rolled by the player. A player gets a Foul Failure (botch) if the black dice roll more successes than the normal dice. If the player decides that all of this adds up to too many dice to roll, then three normal dice can be traded in for 1 automatic success.
As for the skills themselves, there are about 25 common skills and about 40 specialty skills (and many of the specialty skills are skill groups). Common skills can be used untrained; specialties cannot (when using Common skills, a player can also add one each of normal and black dice to the dice pool, to give a chance of success and at a chance of a botch).
Combat (~10 pages) – Initiative (Dex + Wits + Perception skill) is quite important, and is re-rolled each round. Combatants will tend to pair off – if you are attacked by someone, and don’t engage them in some way, then there’s no static defense to help you. Melee attacks are always opposed skill rolls (higher Init gets a bonus). However, when someone shoots at you, your options are either to give up your action to dodge, or just get shot to pieces – it seems really, really rough to lose initiative a couple of times in a shootout. The base damage roll is a number of d6 determined by the weapon (plus Strength, if it’s melee). Extra successes are added in based on the number of extra successes on the attack roll. Since every single attack roll is Dex-based (as is dodging), this makes Dexterity essentially the god-stat in combat (for combat purposes, there doesn’t really seem to be a reason to increase Strength).
Actions can be split by dividing the dice pool, although this can be mitigated if the GM thinks an “Awesome!” bonus is appropriate – basically bonus dice on each action. There are also an array of complications – armor (reduces damage), fighting multiple opponents, mounted combat, dodging, cover, explosives, etc. A character has health “dice” (with two “pips” on each die) – four grey dice where damage penalties are in effect, then a number of penalty-free white dice equal to 2 + Fortitude modifier. Characters in the grey dice are at risk of falling unconscious, and characters who go past the grey dice will die if not healed within a few rounds. If a character takes damage equal to (or greater than) Fortitude in one shot, then permanent damage may occur. Healing is based on Medicine skills rolls, and is relatively quick (although not magical).
Dramatic Systems (~5 pages) – This seems to be a “we didn’t have anywhere else to put it chapter,” covering a generic system for environmental/falling/trap damage, alcohol, feats of strength, experience, Fate Points (which can be spent for minor in-game effects, such as reducing incoming damage) and Scripting Dice (basically blowing six Fate Points at once for a major effect, such as not dying).
Airships, Vehicles, and Beasts (~20 pages) – Mostly airships, really. This chapter has the rules for constructing the party’s airship (armor, cannons, living quarters, rehearsal space, etc.), including the size and quality of the crew. This also includes the rules for chases and combat, although the chase rules have some real break points that can overwhelm anything else going on in the combat. In particular, the Contact roll seems likely to determine the results of an entire chase and combat sequence – win it and you get to decide the starting position of the airships, which can completely negate the other side’s weaponry (e.g., after a long and grueling chase, the fast and small ship closes all the way in on a larger ship, and then the larger ship wins the Contact roll and places the smaller ship 150 yards away and just broadsides it to pieces). Regardless, combat between airships seems likely to be pretty quick, as they will run out of “health” after only a few hits. Even if they aren’t manning the guns or the helm, characters can participate by keeping crew alive or making ad hoc repairs during combat.
Equipment (~15 pages) – The equipment chapter contains a short list of the sort of things one might expect (including goggles, naturally). Some fun spots include the strangely effective armor of a leather great coat (for the guys) or an armored corset (for the ladies), and a bulky difference engine (mechanical computer). It also includes prices for lodgings, food, and alcohol – and airships and other vehicles (although it seems unlikely that PCs will be buying something like that anytime soon – except for the amusing wheel-skates). On the weaponry side of things, there’s the usual guns and swords, plus some steam-powered weapons and a lightning gun.
History (~6 pages) – A brief history of the setting, as described earlier. If you buy the book, you probably want to start reading back here first before reading through the rules section.
Geography (~4 pages) – A brief description of the climate, flora, and fauna to be found in different parts of this alternative future North America.
Cultures (~60 pages) – The second big chunk in the book takes on the present state of affairs and some brief history for the three major groups of people in the world (Skyloft, Neobeduoin, and Neovictorian). The Neovictorians get about half of the chapter. While the Neobeduoin’s only get about 10 pages, it is the Skyfolk that feel like they needed some more space, since (unlike the others) they don’t really have the same homogenous character that the other two cultures do, but are rather a loose affiliation of distinct city-states. Also, half of their page count is taken up with how to design your own city. There are also a few pages on Helium City, a neutral city that is the primary source of the helium needed to fly all those airships – and by extension, providing a place to have the players meet characters from the other cultures without a showdown breaking out.
Running the Game (~15 pages) – An abbreviated section of GM advice, touching on how to design an adventure, how to create NPCs, and themes of the game.
Time Travel (~10 pages) – How time travel works in the game. There are only two time-travel devices in the world, and Abney Park has one of them, so there’s only the one out there for the PCs to get their hands on. They can mess with the timeline even more, and there’s no going back to your old universe.
Bestiary (~15 pages) – Animal stats, including some of the massive, man-eating beasts unleashed by the Emperors.
The Tribulations of Scabby Jack (~10 pages) – An introductory adventure.
Airships Pirates has an index, but it doesn’t even take up a whole page and seems pretty light on content.
Personal Opinions/Final Verdict
Is This “The Steampunk RPG?” – It might seem unfair to ask whether an RPG lives up to some arbitrary thematic standard, but Cubicle 7 has promoted Airship Pirates as ‘The Steampunk RPG’ so I think it’s a good question to ask here. And, at least to me, the answer is that no, Airship Pirates is not “The Steampunk RPG.” The Neovictorians are the bad guys, and their culture is one of repression, discrimination, genocide, and a lack of innovation. The concept of Steampunk (at least to me) emphasizes innovation, exploration, and liberation. Steampunk-Victorian mores are looser than they were in real life – or, at least, the protagonists can flaunt/ignore social conventions without too much in the way of social repercussions. Yes, Airships Pirates has some people who might look vaguely steampunk – in that they were Victorian attire and have technology that is more advanced than actual Victorians had – but to me it does not convey the mood of steampunk.
Overall, I was disappointed by Airships Pirates. The book did not do a very good job conveying the setting, and the setting itself felt like it was trying to do too much. Some of this was ordering of chapters – they book needed to drop you into the setting before it started setting out rules. Some of it was the writing, which was not impressive (and the art, which was fine individually, but wasn’t cohesive). Some of it was just the setting being muddled. For example, the time travel aspect of the game doesn’t really mesh with the rest. It’s used to create the alternate history of the game world, but rules for or the possibility of the PCs time-travelling doesn’t really add anything to the game. And, thematically, the game felt like it was trying to do too much – it’s got pirates, it’s got steampunk, it’s got post-apocalypse, and it’s got time travel. And it’s all put together is a book that, for an RPG core book, has a pretty low word count. To me, an RPG core book usually comes across as either a massive tome or as something where the writers are trying to jam as much in as possible in the limited space they have. Airship pirates felt like it was stretching to fill its not-that-high page count – big font, whitespace, filler pages, etc.
On the upside, I liked how the game pushed the players to create a cohesive group and to help make sure that the group was able to handle a broad array of challenges. Also, the way that melee combat was always opposed rolls seemed like an interesting take on the situation.
In short, I wanted to like Airships Pirates (have I mentioned that I have attended more than one Abney Park concert?), but, ultimately, I can’t recommend it.