Review: Abney Park’s Airship Pirates

Airship Pirates coverOver the last few weeks you probably noticed a common theme to a lot of my posts on Stargazer’s World. Since I have heard about Airship Pirates, a roleplaying game based on the songs of Abney Park, I had mostly steampunk on my mind. I gave the music of Abney Park a second chance and it obviously grew on me. And listening to their music even increased my excitement and anticipation for the game.

A couple of days ago Cubicle 7 sent me a review copy of this fine game. And trust me when I tell you that this game is well worth the wait. The 304-paged hardcover book not only looks great but also contains a steampunk setting which pretty much contains all the tropes of the genre without feeling derivative. It’s full of original ideas and if you love the songs of Abney Park you’ll feel right at home.

The world of Airship Pirates is based on concepts by Abney Park’s Robert Brown himself, who also did the layout, some interior art and the cover design. The bulk of the game has been written by Peter Cakebread and Ken Walton, who have been responsible for the acclaimed RPG Clockwork & Chivalry as well.

The game is divided into three “books”: Book I: Rules and Systems, Book II: Encyclopedia and Book III: Game Master. Book I contains all the rules the players need to play the game, Book II contains the world’s history, the geography and details on the cultures. Book III focuses on the Game Master and provides tips on how to run the game, the rules of time travel, the bestiary and last but not least an introductory adventure titled “The Tribulations of Scabby Jack”.

The book opens with a short story titled “The Trials of Admiral Villiers” which gives you the first glimpse of what the world of the year 2150 is like. Yes, you read right. The campaign setting is set into the future and not the Victorian age, as you might have expected. The next surprise is that not only the post-apocalyptic future in Airship Pirates has been created by time travel, but that they player characters themselves can travel to time and screw up the timelines even more.

The aforementioned short story is followed by a short introduction that gives us an overview of the world, how roleplaying games work and what you need to play Airship Pirates. The chapter is concluded by an example of play.

Book I: Rules and Systems
Directly after that you are thrust into character creation. Airship Pirates allows you to play characters from three cultures (Neobedouin, Neovictorian or Skyfolk) in addition to the more exotic choices of Automaton or Misbegotten.

The Neobedouin are a nomadic tribal people that travel the North American wastes. Each Neobedouin tribe has its own tradition and rules but all share their hatred for the Emperor Victor III and a love for fire, music, dance and story-telling.

The Neovictorians are the subjects of the Emperor Victor III. They live in the great North American Change Cage cities. For the common Neovictorian citizen the world outside the Change Cage cities is a hostile wilderness, nonconformity is essential and new ideas are something that can get you thrown into the so-called Change Cages. From all Neovictorians only the members of the Imperial Air Navy are allowed to leave the cities and they are not allowed to talk about what they experience outside.

The Skyfolk are like the Neobedouin people who fled the oppressive rule of the Emperor. Back in the day when the Change Cages were built, they built their Skyloft cities and fled to the skies. Today the Skyloft cities are often landed on mountain peaks but still able to lift off if needed to flee from the Imperial Air Navy. While the Neovictorians abhor technological progress the Skyfolk has embraced it.

Automatons are basically the robots of the steampunk genre. In Airship Pirates the first automaton has been built by one Herr Doktor Drosselmeyer. But unbeknownst to him he not only was able to give his creations life but also a consciousness.

Last but not least Misbegotten are the unfortunate people born with mutations in the Change Cage cities. All of the misbegotten are at least disfigured, but some have additional mutations that give them special abilities beyond those of common men.

After choosing your character’s culture you have to pick from the available Backgrounds which grants the character a set of skills suitable for that background. A Neovictorian of the Servant Class can choose between the following backgrounds for example: Agitator, Air Marine, Air Sailor, Chuno Ggun, Criminal, Gadgeteer, Inventor, Prostitute and Servant.

Don’t think of the Backgrounds as classes though. The Heresy Engine used in Airship Pirates is still a classless system and if you wish you could pick your skills directly or create your own backgrounds with GM approval. The system used in Airship Pirates is pretty close to the one in Dark Harvest – Legacy of Frankenstein, which I reviewed a while ago. If you want to learn more about the Heresy Engine, please refer to that review.

Since every character is supposed to be an airship pirate regardless of what he or she has done in his or her earlier life, you then get to pick a couple of airship skills like Ad Hoc Repair or Sky Lore. In addition to that each pirate crew has a Schtick. Some pirates disguise themselves as a travelling circus or as a band. And again each player gets to pick a few skills suitable for that Schtick. This was – in my opinion – a great idea. Last but not least the party gets to pick its airship. You can either use the Cordelia from the book, customize it using an extensive list of airship resources or basically create it from scratch.

The game is called Airship Pirates and so it’s no surprise that airships play a major role in the chapter on airships, vehicles and beast. There are extensive (but not overly complex) rules on how to customize airships, how to add complications and how vehicle and airship combat works using the Heresy Engine. As I mentioned before the list of options for your party’s airship is quite long and one of my favorite things in the game. If your players love to tweak the hell out of their airship, they can easily do so.

The chapter on equipment contains pretty much anything you might expect from a steampunk game and a few things you probably won’t expect. Especially the clothing section reads like the shopping list of any respectable Steampunk cosplayer. The prices are given in Helios (the currency of the neutral Helium City). The list also contains some more exotic items like a Difference Engine, a speaking pocket watch and even clockwork prosthetics. The available vehicles range from wheel-skates and rocket vans to airships and steam-trains. Last but not least there’s a small section on weapons and armor. Again all the iconic weapons of the genre are included from a plain revolver to a Steam Gatling.

Book II: Encyclopedia
The highlight of the game is definitely Book II: Encyclopedia since it contains the majority of the setting information. As I said before Robert Brown, Ken Walton and Peter Cakebread managed to create a setting that is original and fun but still pays homage to the genre.

It all started with Abney Park. The band was on a way to a gig when their plane crashed into an airship, the HMS Ophelia. This airship was actually a time-travelling British dirigible from the 1900s that was supposed to patrol time and further the interests of the Empire. But after the crash Abney Park took over and used it to “fix” certain things. Resulting from this meddling with the timelines the history of the Airship Pirates world diverges from our history in 1751. At first it seemed as if Abney Park managed to get it right. By 1850 the world was largely at peace and at the beginning at a golden age.

But the growing population and industry had caused extreme pollution and the scientists tried to warn the world of the possible consequences. But these warnings fell of deaf ears for a while. But then one man changed everything: Victor Hypocrates. The charismatic man spoke of a return to simpler times and the need to fight overpopulation and pollution. Soon after winning the US presidential elections in a landslide he managed to be made World President. This had been made possible by the massive support of his followers, the so-called “Neovictorians”.

Unbeknownst to the peoples of the world Hypocrates plan was to save the planet by purging what he saw as a blight on the face of Earth: humanity. Only a few overcrowded settlements the mega cities know as Change Cage cities were meant to remain while the rest of the world was returned to wild beasts like sabre-tooth cats, mammoths and other prehistoric creatures recreated in secret labs in remote areas.

Eventually Victor Hypocrates declared himself Emperor. The people who haven’t flocked to the new Change Cage cities were slowly slaughtered by the beasts now roaming the world. Over the years only two groups opposed the rule of the Emperor: the Neobedouins and people from the cities who wanted to stick to their technological lifestyle. The latter eventually built flying cities to escape both the Emperor’s grasp and the beasts of the wilderness.

There you have it. The world of Airship Pirates features not only time-travelling airships, pirates, steam technology, but also prehistoric creatures, a largely oppressed humanity ruled by the grandson of a mad dictator and Neobedouin tribes roaming the North American wilderness. What’s not to love?

Book III: The Games Master
Book III of Airship Pirates is the inevitable game mastering section. If you are already a veteran GM you might be tempted to skip most of this part of the book, but I advise you not to. The authors of the game didn’t just rehash all the basic tips for the GM but actually provide you with some very helpful advice on how to run plotted or sandbox adventures and whole campaigns in the world of Airship Pirates. There’s also an extensive list of reeady-to-use NPCs from a Neovictorian Administrator to an Urchin.

Book III also deals with the various themes of the game like Steampunk, Time Travel, Responsibility and Consequences and Exploration. Especially the chapter of time travel is a must-read if you plan to run time travel adventures. The advice given there is priceless. I have to admit that I was not sure if adding time travel to the game was such a brilliant idea in the first place, but reading that chapter has convinced me otherwise. The way “screwing up the timeslines” works in this game, even major screwups in the timeline can still be playable.

The Bestiary contains all the beasts roaming the wilderness, from pretty normal animals to the uber-beasts created in Hypocrates’ gene labs. The book then concludes with a 11-paged introductory adventure, an index and an appendix containing the record sheets, a deck plan of the airship Cordelia and maps of North America.

Abney Park’s Airship Pirates is not your regular Steampunk game. The setting is original and full of fun ideas. And even if you don’t want to use the post-apocalyptic world of 2150 you will still get your money’s worth out of that game. Especially the time travel rules set the game apart from the majority of its competition. The Heresy Engine – especially in the streamlined version – used in Airship Pirates is easy to learn and the compatibility with Victoriana 2nd Edition and Dark Harvest opens up a lot of additional possibilities. You can easily use material from those games in Airship Pirates or vice versa.
If you are even remotely interested in the genre and if you want to pick up just one steampunk game, make sure it’s Abney Park’s Airship Pirates. The hardcover book sets you back $49.99 and it’s available from your FLGS or directly from Cubicle 7 or Abney Park.

Recommended listening
I wholeheartedly recommend listening to the songs of Abney Park while reading the book or planning your adventures. Especially the three most recent albums Lost Horizon, Aether Shanties and The End of Days have been used as inspiration for the post-apocalyptic world of 2150 presented in the game.

Abney Park–Wanderlust