Abney Park’s Airship Pirates

I can never decide if I actually like steam punk or not. I like the idea of a simpler time with modern comforts, but I’m not a fan of the Victorian era. I like the idea of flying ships and air pirates but don’t find the usage of steam very plausible. After all it requires a lot of water to generate steam and water is really heavy which seems counterproductive on lighter than air vessels. I like corsets (when women wear them, not wearing them myself,) but I’m not a fan of goggles, especially goggles that someone never uses to actually cover his or her eyes. In the end, steampunk is generally a wash for me, I don’t love it but I don’t despise it. The same is true of Abney Park’s Airship Pirates, by Cubicle 7 Entertainment, a very steam punk game. While it has many good ideas and themes that I find interesting, there are a few things which push me away from it.
To better understand the idea behind Airship Pirates it might be best to explain who Abney Park is. Abney Park is not a “who” but a “what,” as the game is quick to explain. Abney Park is a steam punk band. If you’re like me, you don’t know what a steam punk band is, but after finding some of their songs on their website, http://www.abneypark.com/ and youtube, I realized it is pretty much what might be expected from the term. It is a strange, but entertaining and highly atmospheric mix of techno, classical and pop. The band features a keyboard, electric guitar, bass and a violin and seems to have chosen the only genre where all those instruments fit well together. Their music is entertaining but can get a little repetitious if you listen to it for too long.
Listening to their songs is a good idea if you’re interested in Airship Pirates, though. It has the right atmosphere for the game and, more importantly, the entire game is based on the world described in the lyrics of their songs. In fact, the band itself is incorporated in the setting and plays a large role in the history of the world in the game having inadvertently caused the apocalypse that transformed our world into the bleak land it is in 2150 through meddling with time travel.
It is a very complex world with a lot of themes. A whole lot of themes. Steam punk, post apocalypse survival, time travel and piracy are all themes that will have varying levels of influence on any Airship Pirates campaign. Entire game systems have been written revolving around any one of these themes. Throwing two together completely changes them both. Cramming all four together can be dizzying. While the post apocalypse can just be the setting behind the steam punk portion and piracy is a theme that can be slotted into almost any setting without rocking the boat too much, the time travel portion seems tacked on. It feels like the writers tried a little too hard to stay faithful to the music that inspired them as time travel does, indeed exist in at least some of Abney Park’s songs.
Still, each facet of the setting by itself is robust and interesting. Take the apocalypse portion, for example. It all began when Abney Park accidentally got their hands on a time machine and went back in time to “fix” things. Each of their alterations was good in and of itself, but their cumulative effect left the world’s population weak and easy to manipulate. It was a simple matter for a charismatic individual to come forward in this altered timeline with a clear message (environmentalism) and slowly but systematically gain domination over the world. Unfortunately, his method of saving the environment was to seriously curtail and eventually even eliminate humanity. Most people did not know this, of course and gladly went along with the message of saving the world, voluntarily moving into “Change Cage Cities,” places where innovation was outlawed and the technology was slowly rolled back to the 19th century and civil liberties were also slowly removed. Willfully ignorant, they eventually came to believe that the world outside the cities was nothing but a wasteland where no one could survive despite evidence to the contrary. Everything not in these cities was allowed to return to nature aided by the efforts of the new Emperor who had a number of prehistoric animals genetically engineered and released into the wilds. These uber-predators were created with a hardwired taste for human flesh, forcing anyone not willing to move into a Change Cage City to quickly adapt or die. Some became nomads while others moved to the sky, creating floating cities. While the Emperor’s descendants were still keen to eliminate anyone not in a Change Cage City and eventually all of humanity, a certain balance was achieved where it became impossible to wipe out the nomads and sky citizens but they did not have the power (or desire) to liberate the imperial cities. This is the détente as it exists in 2150, the year Airship Pirates is set in.
While technology was forced to go back to 19th century levels, the history of this world is different from our own so the technology of the 19th century is different. By “different” I mean “steam punk.” Automata, which are essentially androids and are available as player characters are common. There are no computers as we know them but there are difference engines, which depend on punch cards to function. Autophrenometers, guard secure locations and identify people by the shapes of their heads. In many ways it is a sci-fi setting, simply with a different science in place. And, of course, there is the Victorian element to it all. Pseudo-Victorian fashion is a must for any Steampunk setting but the darker parts of the era, such as classism and the oppression of people by the advent and progress of industry are also themes explored in the game. All people are simply cogs in the machine in the Change Cage Cities. Whether they are valued cogs or disposable cogs is purely a matter of class. And in very Victorian style, poor people are considered to literally be lesser to their richer counterparts. The free people of the sky cities are influenced by this society, even if it is only to contrast and rebel against it.
It is one of the ironies of the game that perhaps the core theme, namely the steampunk element is also the most evil and oppressive element. Steampunk does not exist without a longing for the simplicity and manners of the Victorian era and the Victorian culture in the game is clearly the villain of the piece. Without their influence, none of the rest of the game would exist.
The time travel portion of the game seems tacked on and, indeed, only the characters and Abney Park themselves are allowed to time travel. There are only two time travelling devices and Abney Park has one so chances are, the player characters are likely to find the other one. Time travel within the confines of the game is difficult and sets up any number of problems for the characters and even more problems for the game master outside the game. Some steps are taken to minimize these troubles, but it is still entirely possible that a GM could have to re-write the entire game world because of a party’s time travelling jaunt. The whole concept could just as easily be included in the game by simply restricting time travel to the Abney Park NPC’s and having the PC’s only know about it without having access to it.
Though there is a lot of setting to take in, the information is scattered throughout both the player section and the game master section, keeping the potential for overload at a minimum and keeping players interested in the setting throughout.
Given the dark nature of some of the themes in the game, it would be quite possible for a campaign to become truly grim and gritty. Fortunately, the nature of the game mechanics is such that things are driven more toward high adventure and swashbuckling.
The basic dice mechanics revolve around a pool not unlike that in the first World of Darkness games. Characters add their relevant stat to their relevant skill and roll that many 6 sided die. Unlike other games with a dice pool, rather than beating a certain score the player counts each 1 or 6 as a success and gets to re-roll each 6. Each 1 or 6 on these re-rolls also counts as a success and each 6 rolled gets another re-roll meaning that every roll is potentially open ended.
Rather than the target number adjusting the difficulty of a roll it is adjusted by the number and type of dice rolled. For very easy tasks, a player rolls 5 extra dice and counts any successes from them as well. A moderately difficult task is just a straight roll. Any tasks more difficult than this bring in black dice. Not necessarily black, these dice are simply a different color and must be rolled in addition to the player’s regular die pool. Each 1 or 6 rolled on these dice eliminates a success from the die pool, though they are not re-rolled if they come up with a 6. If there are more successes on the black dice than the regular dice then the character is said to suffer a foul failure, essentially a botch. Not only does the character fail whatever action he or she is trying, but he or she also suffers some catastrophe. Depending on just how challenging the action is, these black dice pools can get truly large, as many as 12 dice, making the possibility of a foul failure quite likely.
To ramp up the action even more, players are allowed to take advantage of the Awesome! bonus. Any time a player describes a very cinematic or exciting action for his or her character, the game master is encouraged to give out an Awesome! bonus. This translates to 3 or 4 bonus dice to each of the player’s rolls for the action.
As with any dice pool system, characters can end up rolling a large number of dice on any particular check. To help alleviate the fistful of dice problem, players can consolidate their die pools. They can trade three of the dice they would roll for a single guaranteed success. This is equal to the statistical chance that they would get a success on that many dice but negates the bonus rolls and thus potential successes they might get from rolling 6’s.
Character creation is relatively simple with the player choosing a race, a culture and a background and then adjusting their stats and skills accordingly and adding in Talents and Complications to further modify them. There are only 3 races in the game and 4 cultures but there are numerous backgrounds, which feel a bit like starting classes. These backgrounds are limited by a character’s race and culture and this is the most complex portion of character creation, in some ways.
The races and cultures are not in the least bit balanced. It doesn’t seem like the game designers even tried to balance them. Skyloft characters, those from the sky cities, are clearly the favorites with automata and neobeduins (the nomads) coming in close second and third. They gain much better bonuses than the individuals who live in the Victorian cities. It is hard to decide if this is a purposeful bias to shape players toward these cultures or if the creators are trying to give players the option to play oppressed characters, namely the Victorians, who are trying to find freedom in the larger world.
Characters end up with skills come from numerous sources. The character’s background provides skills but so does the needs of the ship and the crew’s schtick, which is the method the character’s use to hide the fact that they’re pirates assuming their pirates and the way they make money when pirating is not being particularly lucrative. A roving band, circus act or group of traders are all schticks that are suggested.
These schticks are just one part of the highly collaborative nature of character creation in the game. Players do not make only their characters they also create their ship and this has an influence on the characters. A portion of this ship creation includes the schtick. A cohesive crew is an important part of an Airship Pirates campaign and the game goes to great lengths to ensure this happens.
To help make characters unique, players can also buy Complications and Talents for their characters. As the names suggest, Complications make life harder for a character while Talents make them better at something. This process is relatively simple, however as all complications have the same value and Talents vary only slightly in price. Points gained from Complications can be used to increase attributes, skills and buy Talents.
For people who don’t want to bother with the details of creating their own characters, a full complement of sample characters is presented. They come with names and biographical data but any of this could be jettisoned if a player wanted to play a similar but not identical character and it would be easy enough to change a few things up to make a relatively unique character.
It is assumed that each group of characters starts with an airship. Designing the airship is done by the players as a group. There are a number of set airship hulls and each comes with a number of “Resource Points.” These coincide fairly closely with the size of a ship and represent the amount of space on the ship. Weapons, quarters, enhancements and all manner of other items might be bought and used to design a unique vessel that suits the players’ and characters’ needs.
If a crew finds that they don’t have quite enough resource points for what they want, they can take complications for their ship as well. These complications are much the same as complications for characters and simply buy more resource points for their ship.
Understandably in a game so focused on airships and in a steampunk/post-apocalypse setting, there are extensive vehicle combat rules. The game is not map based so all these rules are abstract but coherently and effectively abstract. In fact, these abstract systems for chases and vehicle combats generally work better than map based combat.
Also, understandably, in a game called Airship Pirates, airships have special rules for everything. These rules are adaptations of the rules for other vehicles but are definitely unique to this particular method of transportation.
At times the presentation in the game feels counterintuitive. Bits of the world and rules are presented before the overarching story or rules that they belong to. This can be confusing, though at times it is, perhaps the best way to present information that is complex.
The layout and design of the game are both well suited to the feel. It feels a bit like a travelogue from an airship pirate with pictures “taped” to the page. The art varies wildly both in style and tone. Some of it is cartoonish while some of the other art is dark and even other pieces of art in the book are realistic. While a single artist cannot be expected to illustrate a game of this size, such varied art styles get a bit distracting.
Abney Park’s Airship Pirates is a strong game for anyone who is interested in steampunk adventures. The extra themes in the game can add a new flavor to the genre without overwhelming it. For anyone else, the game is likely to get a bit too cluttered. The post apocalypse theme and the potential for time travel, especially are likely to distract players from the central idea of airship pirates.

Fauxbots

One of the cool things about a setting with magic is that magic can seriously up the cool factor. So long as you don’t seriously abuse a person’s suspension of disbelief, you can get away with pretty much anything. You don’t have to explain how it works, you just have to say “it’s magic.”

And one of the coolest things to do with magic is put things from modern life or even possibilities from the future into a fantasy setting. Sure in true medieval times no one bathed or brushed their teeth or survived childbirth but with magic, fresh, hot water is just as, if not more easily available as it is in the 21st century.

And you can have machines, even ones we haven’t invented in modern times that are powered by magic. A sort of arcane punk idea.

Robots are a perfect example. To that end, here are a few artificial life forms powered not by an internal fusion reactor but by magic:

Mechanids are the results of numerous experiments over the years to create cheap, loyal soldiers and servants. Some are fairly unique, the singular results of a genius’ experiment, while others come from massive forge shops that churn out the same model again and again. It is impossible (so far) to produce a Mechanid with all the information necessary to make them useful at creation. Instead, they are bestowed with a modicum of intellect and the ability to learn. This capacity to learn means that, assuming they are not destroyed first, a Mechanid invariably achieves sentience at some point or another. This means that at some point, all Mechanids end up at the center of a legal quandary. All Mechanids are owned by someone when they start their lives but it is illegal to keep a sentient being a slave unless they have broken some law. When this first happened, there was a great deal of debate about whether or not a Mechanid could even become sentient and even more debate about what should be done once it was proven that they could. In the end, a compromise was made. When a Mechanid becomes sentient, he remains a contract slave to his owner, laboring until he has worked off the price that was paid for him. After this time, he is treated as any other sentient being. Mechanids have a wide variety of appearances. They can be made of iron, brass, wood, cloth or any of a number of other materials and any number of combinations of materials. Sometimes, the machinery that makes them move can be seen, but other times they show only smooth shells. They all have eyes, though other facial features vary and shape, size and style of all these features can vary wildly. Mechanids never appear organic. They are always obviously machines.

Durable: Due to their construction, Mechanids gain a +2 when attempting to recover from being Shaken and called shots do no additional damage to them.

No Metabolism: Since they have no blood, Diseases and Poison do not affect Mechanids.

Outsider: Mechanids are obviously not living creatures in the traditional sense. It is not uncommon for people to treat them like machines and it is fairly common for people to treat them as second class citizens even when they recognize they are not automatons.

Cultures: Mechanids have been created in every land for every purpose. They can choose any culture.

Iron Dragon
These living weapons are growing more common as the popularity of black powder grows and as the need to reduce the amount of breathable used on a ship continues to be an issue. Intricately sculpted to look like a living dragon, these cannons are animated through complex arcane rituals. They are relatively unintelligent, often not as bright as a common dog, though they are quite loyal to the captains of their ships and follow orders diligently. Like all mechanids, they grow more clever the longer they live and the more they experience. The process of creating them is relatively new, however, and none of them have shown more than animal intelligence. Their legs enable them both to be mobile on deck and to reload themselves and their innate magic keeps them from requiring black powder. So long as they are given a continuous supply of cannonballs, they are capable of firing.

Agility: d8, Smarts: d4(A), Spirit: d6, Strength: d12, Vigor: d8
Skills: Fighting d4, Notice d6, Shooting d8
Pace: 5 Parry: 4 Toughness: 13(8)
Special Abilities:
Armor: +5 Made from almost solid metal, Iron Dragons are hard to damage
Cannon: The bulk of an Iron Dragon’s body is a cannon. Assuming it has a ball loaded it can fire itself with the following profile: Range: 50/100/200 Dam: 3d6 ROF 1 AP 4 HW
Claws: Their metallic talons allow them to do Str+d6 damage in combat
Construct: +2 to recover from shaken, no additional damage from called shots, immune to disease and poison
Hardy: Additional Shaken results do not cause a wound.
Ponderous: Iron Dragons roll a d4 when running instead of a d6.
Size: +2 Iron Dragons are the size of horses.

Iron Horse
The name of these automata is something of a misnomer as only the earliest versions were made of iron. As the process was refined they were constructed of stronger alloys such as brass, bronze and even steel. The most elegant are often inlaid with silver or gold or decorated with gold leaf. No matter what the material they are made of, they are designed for one purpose: hauling great quantities of material over vast distances quickly. These enormous mechanical creatures have boundless stamina and exceptional strength. They are harnessed to massive wagons filled with huge cargoes. Due to the great deal of weight both of the horses themselves and of the wagons they tow, only the best of roads can support their weight. In fact, it is not uncommon for governments or merchant houses to build reinforced roads meant only for Iron Horses and their wagon trains. It is not uncommon for 2, 4 or even 8 Iron Horses to be harnessed together to tow 2 dozen or more wagons. Iron Horses are only nominally intelligent. They are little more than machines. They are not designed to fight and must rely on others to protect them.

Agility: d6, Smarts: d4(A), Spirit: d4, Strength: d12+8, Vigor: d10
Skills:
Pace: 10 Parry: 2 Toughness: 13(8)
Special Abilities:
Armor: +5 Made from almost solid metal, Iron Horses are hard to damage
Construct: +2 to recover from shaken, no additional damage from called shots, immune to disease and poison
Fleet-Footed: Iron Horses roll a d10 when running instead of a d6.
Hardy: Additional Shaken results do not cause a wound.
Kick: Str
Large: Attackers add +2 to any attacks against Iron Horses due to their large size.
Size: +5 Iron Horses are the size of small elephants.

Ironhead’s War Goats
Dwarves are not known for liking horses or living creatures at all, for that matter. Given how difficult it is to raise enough food to feed the average riding animal in the darkness of a cavern, it is no surprise that dwarven cavalry is hard to find. Given their love of crafting, however, it is also no surprise that they found a acanomechanical method of getting around this dislike. Ulfgar Ironhead created the first war goat, an animated, durable automaton. He has refined the design over the years, increasing their speed, durability and fighting capacities. Most of the War Goats he’s created are used by members of his own military unit though he has sold a handful for exorbitant prices to others who are interested in possessing a mount that does not require food or air. Made of brass, bronze and mithral, they are quite tough and though they are of only animal intelligence, they are both quite aggressive and quite loyal to their owners.

Agility: d8, Smarts: d6(A), Spirit: d8, Strength: d12+2, Vigor: d10
Skills: Fighting d8, Notice d6
Pace: 8 Parry: 6 Toughness: 14(9)
Special Abilities:
Armor: +5 Made from almost solid metal, War Goats ses are hard to damage
Construct: +2 to recover from shaken, no additional damage from called shots, immune to disease and poison
Fleet-Footed: War Goats roll a d8 when running instead of a d6.
Hardy: Additional Shaken results do not cause a wound.
Horns: Str + d6
Gore: If they can move 6” before attacking they add +4 to their damage total
Size: +2 War Goats weigh 1000 pounds.
War Saddle: War Goats have a saddle built into their backs that give riders a +2 to any skill checks to remain in the saddle.
Space Saver: When they are not in use, War Goats can be folded into a compact form that is only the size of a dwarf. They cannot move or fight while in this form but get an additional +2 to their armor.

D&D Next

By this time, most everyone who has even the slightest interest in the topic has chosen their side in the great D&D Civil War that goes on between proponents of 3rd and 4th edition. Of course there are some hangers on from 2nd edition and before, but for the most part, the people who are going to shout about which edition is the greatest are likely going to shout one of those two answers. Not ones to let things lie, Wizards of the Coast has decided to throw another side into the fight. 4th edition is ready to go the way of Spelljammer into the annals of D&D history and work on an even newer edition has just begun. Unlike previous editions, this one is going to have the help of the general public in creating its final design.

I’m proud to say that I have played every version of D&D in existence. I started with Advanced and dabbled in the Basic rules set with the Red Box. 2nd edition got me through high school and college and 3rd brought me fully back into gaming a few years after the loss of the free time available in college made me cut back on the hobby. My group was still greatly enjoying 3.5 when 4E came out so while we sampled it, we never really got too deep. Nonetheless, we tried two different campaigns, giving us a good feel for the system. Now that my glasses with the thick plastic rims are adjusted and my rat-tail is properly braided, let’s continue.

Every edition of D&D felt like a natural progression, a steady refinement and betterment of the system. Until 4E. 4E felt like a big jump sideways. It felt like a game that borrowed a lot of concepts from D&D but wasn’t quite D&D. That may sound like a criticism but, I like 4E. Not better than 3.5 but probably as much in its own way. I will be a gaming heretic and say that neither of those editions is better than the other, they simply scratch different itches for different people.

Of course, I would also like to mention that this whole discussion about editions would be moot were it not for the open gaming license. Perhaps there would still be an edition war with what I consider the dramatic shift from 3rd to 4th edition, but it’s awfully hard to fight such a war with no support and if the only place to get rules for 3rd edition was from books that Wizards of the Coast stopped producing, I suspect most 3rd edition proponents might grumble about it but would eventually adopt (and come to enjoy) 4E. It is only because Pathfinder exists and the dozens of publishers and hundreds of supplements that took advantage of the OGL that allows proponents of 3rd edition to remain relevant. Thanks to that revolutionary change in business practices, the d20 system is likely to survive indefinitely.

A few months ago, I finished running a 3.5 campaign that lasted for 7 years. Playing only 3 hours a week, with regular breaks for other games as well as myriad other calls on the players’ time meant that it took that long for the characters to reach 20th level and achieve the capacity to face the ultimate challenge on their world, the Tarrasque. Perhaps it was burnout or perhaps it was the fact that there are so many other great game systems in the world, but I planned to never run another D&D game. Playing was an option, of course. I still enjoy at least 2 versions of D&D and jumping into a campaign or adventure for either system appeals to me.

I wasn’t at all sure about D&D Next when I heard about it, though. While I realize that Wizards of the Coast is no charity and that they make their money by printing books, the time between the release of 4E and the announcement of the development of a new edition just seemed far too short, especially given the rapid pace at which the 4E books came out.

Now that I’ve sampled the beginnings of the playtest, I’m glad that I gave it a try. Obviously, D&D next is very early in its development cycle and it is a long, long way from being a full game, but what has been presented so far gives me hope that the Next D&D will be the best D&D.

What has been given samples from both 3rd and 4th edition. While this could easily be a disaster, it seems that Wizards of the Coast has done an excellent job of pulling what worked best from each edition out and mixing them together. Unlike 4th edition, there are not an overwhelming number of options to choose from or statuses to keep track of every turn. On the other hand, unlike 3rd edition every class seems to have plenty of options to keep their actions interesting and to allow plenty of tactical options for every character.

One of the stranger choices that has been made is that they’ve brought back saving throws rather than a variety of defenses, obviously avoiding the urge to reduce the number of rolls at every turn. However, skills are assigned much more the way they were in 4th edition rather than the myriad of skill points a character got in 3rd edition, making those decisions much easier.

The biggest change from both editions, however is advantage and disadvantage. Rather than have a laundry list of bonuses and penalties that can be applied in any given situation, D&D Next uses advantage and disadvantage. When a character does something that will benefit a later action, or if he has an ability that benefits from a certain type of situation, he has advantage and gets to roll two d20s rather than one. He then takes the better of the two rolls. If things are going against the character, he has disadvantage. He still rolls two d20s but in this case, he takes the lower of the two rolls. This radically changes the probability of success without completely destroying the possibility of a failure or success on any given roll.

The only disappointing thing about the rules as presented so far is healing. The healing rules in 4E were rather fun. Regaining hit points was relatively easy and characters had ample opportunity to stay in the fight and continuing adventuring without having a limitless pool of health. D&D Next is much more limiting. Healing takes much longer and there is far less healing to be had. In this regard D&D Next does not seem to be taking inspiration from either 4th or 3rd edition but jumping back to Advanced or 2nd edition when it was not uncommon for a party to adventure for 10 minutes in game time then set up camp and rest for 8 hours.

All that’s been presented so far for D&D Next are some pregenerated characters, the most basic rules set and a few adventures, so it’s hard to determine what the end result is going to be. And anyone who works in the corporate world knows that decision by committee often ends with the worst results, so crowd sourcing their design might be a big mistake on the part of Wizards of the Coast. But assuming they don’t completely change directions, D&D Next has the potential to be D&D Best.