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.

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