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Abney Park's Airship Pirates RPG (download)

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Abney Park’s Airship Pirates is a steampunk game written by Cakebread and Walton (Clockwork and Chivalry) with the help of Captain Robert (of the band Abney Park), and is released by Cubicle 7. It uses a variant of the Heresy Engine system, which allows it to be played with both Victoriana and Dark Harvest, also released by Cubicle 7.

Steampunk Revolution
Around the beginning of the 21st century, the band Abney Park has their tour interrupted when their aircraft is struck by the HMS Ophelia, an airship that travelled through time from 1906. With a number of the crew dead or injured, the band joins the crew. The airship had been created to go through time and ensure the supremacy of the British Empire, but with the band gaining control of the ship, they decide instead to alter the past to bring about a utopia.

The airship begins to appear throughout recent history, altering the course of events, ending the slave trade from Africa, shifting the tide of time against the British Empire. Each shift created a ripple effect through the course of human history, and under the influence of the Ophelia, humanity thrived and grew. But without the effect of war and mass atrocity, humanity began to grow and expand far too quickly.

Soon, cities became sprawls, and the world began to choke under humanity’s demands. Some fled the cities, wandering the countryside to get away from civilization, while others moved away from the heart of the city, leaving an urban wasteland. One charismatic man stepped forward, however, full of ideas on how to save the world. Uniting the people behind him, he ran for office – though it didn’t hurt that those who opposed him always suffered a tragedy. Eventually, in a world in which no bloodthirsty dictator had ever risen to power in living memory, with no “immune system” bred into the human psyche, he declared himself Emperor of the World.

Now, a century and a half later, the human race has been reduced to only a handful of city-prisons and nomadic tribes try to survive in a world that has gone wild. The Emperor’s descendants have continued his program to save the world... which means removing humanity from the equation. In this dark future, genetically engineered beasts are set free to roam the land, while the empire’s elite warriors try to destroy the neo-Bedouin tribes. Sky cities float overhead, drifting above the world, as they stand their ground against the empire and try to live free.

At the turn of the last century, society had fixated on Victorian fashion and culture, and due to the demands of the empire, technology has frozen at that point of time. New ideas and innovation are seen as a crime, and those who would try to move society forward are thrown into Change Cages, towers that rise up at the heart of each of these neo-Victorian cities. Most of the knowledge and the technology of the 20th and 21st century have been lost, replaced with steam-tech.

Abney Park’s Airship Pirates was inspired by the music of Abney Park and the novel Wrath of Fate, written by Captain Robert. While Abney Park’s name may be on the cover, the game doesn’t focus on the group. Instead, the actions of Abney Park are what created the chain of events which bring about this dark future – and the characters are the ones living in it. It is unlikely that the PCs will meet Abney Park – they have a time machine, and some 700 years to drift around in. Airship Pirates focusses on the players, and their actions to either make a name for themselves in the world they find themselves in, or act to change the world to make it a better (or worse) place.

Choices (An Aside)
I normally do not like post-apocalyptic settings. It seems that a number of writers dislike world building, and using a post-apocalyptic setting can allow them to ignore the need to create a deep culture and look at the impact technology will have on society. Instead, the writer can bring in the odd “futuristic” gadget, without the need to look at how it would impact humanity, then cast it aside when the story is done.

Cyberpunk was a popular roleplaying game in the 90s, but when 3rd edition was being prepared, the writers decided to destroy the setting, and made the game setting a post-apocalyptic future. This removed the game from the cyberpunk genre, and wiped the slate clean, meaning there was no way to look at how technology would be used by the masses – which had been one of the main thrusts of cyberpunk fiction. For the most part, technology went backwards.

Airship Pirates does not wipe the slate clean. The game master is given a chain of events that show how society evolved, and how technology evolved with it, and while the world seems to have slid backwards, it also seems to move sideways. The technology in Airship Pirates has evolved on a new path, and we can look at how the world changes as society and technology affect one another. And what is more important is that the characters are given the means to alter the world, creating a new chain of events which can make the world better or worse.

While this setting is post-apocalyptic, the goal was not to erase civilization and make a blank slate for the game. Instead, civilization has continued, but suffered, and the players are one of the engines of change in the world. The inventions they create, the influence they have on the time stream, and the path they choose for themselves will all play a role in the evolution of the game. Because of how the game is set up, I feel it fits very well as a game asking the same questions that most futuristic settings would – how does technology affect the culture of the day, and how does the demands of society alter the evolution of technology?

The Characters
The characters are normally airship pirates. The game master provides the players with a ship, and the characters are made while the ship is designed and customised to suit the type of game the group wants to play.

The common presumption is that the crew will be pirates – either raiding other airships between sky cities, or attacking ships from neovictorian cities. The characters can be heroes or scoundrels, and the game doesn’t make presumptions one way or the other. This is another strength of the setting: the setting does not force the characters to fit into some “role” for the game.

Character creation is a pick-and-choose system. You select your race and caste, your background, your skills, your merits and flaws, and then your gear. Taking flaws gives you a handful of points to tweak your character, but the flaws are flaws, and have a significant impact on the character.

The three races available to players are humans, misbegotten, and automatons. Humans are pretty standard, and can come from either a sky city, a neovictorian city, or from one of the neobedouin tribes that wander the land. It is presumed that a neovictorian character has escaped from the city, but if you want to run a city campaign, it can be quite simple to ensure everyone comes from the same city and run things “inside”. A neobedouin nomad may be the last survivor of her tribe, or the group could make up the main focus of a tribe. The neobedouins are survivors, and are constantly on the watch for the empire’s elite soldiers, who hunt them mercilessly. People from the sky cities are perhaps the most complex, because these cities are usually unique in flavour, and the player and game master may need to design the city to help give some context to the character and her culture.

Misbegotten are people who have suffered some form of mutation because of pollution and other poisons in the neovictorian cities. Worse than second class citizens, misbegotten are cut off from the rest of humanity, and either ignored or reviled by society. Even a noble-born misbegotten is cast out, and her very existence erased from the records. Those born with mutations suitable for combat are rounded up and trained to hunt down neobedouins, and act as the cannon fodder for the empire’s army.

Automatons are clockwork androids. In the city, they are slaves and servants with no rights, but that would be because of the greatest secret of this race: humanity does not know they have free will. The inventor of the automaton was a brilliant man, but he did not know that his servants were in fact “alive” and self-aware. If this was ever to come to light, the empire would most likely have each and every one destroyed. So the automatons serve silently within the city... and the ones who escape slowly make a place for themselves.

Backgrounds are restricted to certain races and castes. An automaton is not going to be a noble, and neither is a misbegotten. A neovictorian is not going to be a hunter, while a neobedouin is not going to be an inventor. The background you select gives a list of skills, which are effectively your “class skills”. A certain portion of your skill points must go into these skills, while the rest can go anywhere you wish.

Once you have chosen your skills, you must select a “schtick”. Openly being a pirate is a good way to get killed, and so the crew must decide on their schtick. Once it has been chosen, the group has the choice of a few skills appropriate to the schtick and picks one to add to each character. Are the pirates also merchants? Are they a roving band of musicians or entertainers? If they are good at what they do, their cover could serve to be the crew’s primary source of income.

Time Travel
I did mention time travel earlier on, right? Well, while the HMS Ophelia had the first time machine, there was a second one crafted. When the Ophelia did not return to 1906, the British mothballed the second machine as a failed experiment, and it was promptly forgotten.

At some point, the game master may give the crew the second time machine. It may be the journal of a member of the British military that clues the crew in on this treasure, or an imperial armada draws their attention, and they decide to steal the prize being carried, not knowing what they just claimed. It could be found in wreckage, or the crew might seize a ghost ship as salvage, only to find the strange device at the heart of the ship. Sooner or later, the crew get their hands on the time machine, and then the campaign takes a turn for the weird.

Of course, the game master doesn’t have to give the crew a time machine – the game can run just fine without it – but having the time machine is half the fun of the setting; there’s a chapter for time travel alone.

Once the crew have their time machine, and have figured out how to make it work, they can travel anywhere from 2150 to 1650 and back. This time machine, however, works differently than most. It does not allow you to travel “forwards and back”. Instead, it allows you to travel to specific points in time within a specific bracket of history. When the machine is activated, the ship is transported to the exact same date, but it must also be a year between 1650 and 2150. No earlier, and no later.

This makes the game interesting as the campaign moves forward. If the crew stay in their own time until, say, 2155, and then use the time machine, they cannot return to 2155. At best, they can make it back to 2150, and then have to live the same five years all over again – effectively having two “sets” of the characters alive at the same time.

Fortunately, the game makes a few presumptions. First, it is impossible for the characters to meet themselves. Something always prevents it from happening. Second, the crew themselves are not affected by alterations in the timestream. Their history can be changed by their own actions, but they won’t remember the changes, and may be quite unprepared for the outcome of their actions in the past. This effectively removes paradox from the game, making it much easier to keep track of what the characters do and the impact they have on the setting. The crew could travel back fifty years and accidentally destroy their parents, then come back to the present and discover they were never born – but they’d still exist.

Airship Pirates is a success-based system. You roll a number of six-sided dice equal to your attribute + skill, and count any dice which roll a 1 or a 6. If a die rolls a six, you roll it again, and count any further 1s or 6s – and continue until you no longer roll sixes. An action succeeds if you get even a single success, but having more successes will produce a greater result.

The average person has an attribute of 0, and a skill of 1 indicates knowledge in a particular field. This means your average person rolls one die if the task would be expected to be “reasonably difficult”. If the action taken would be considered “easy”, then you gain three bonus dice for your roll, which means an average person can be expected to have one success when it comes to doing easy things. Airship Pirates also promotes dramatic roleplay. If your action is flashy and entertaining, the game master can award up to three bonus dice to assist your roll.

If a task is not “easy” or “average”, the player is given black dice to roll. These dice act to counter the normal dice, meaning that 1's and 6's act to remove successes, rather than grant them. If the character gets more failures than successes, she is said to suffer a “foul failure” – a botch.

Combat in Airship Pirates is creative and quick. Rather than your usual round-robin, it is chaotic and dramatic. Initiative is rolled, but not to say who acts first – actions are more determined by what makes sense in the scene. Instead, it is used to determine who has the advantage in combat. In combat, each turn does not represent a single action, but rather is the highlight of a series of actions. Two pirates could be duelling, cutting and slashing at one another, deflecting blows and moving across the deck of a ship. The roll is made to give a sense of the outcome of all these actions, representing the culmination of the duel. Both sides roll against each other, and the person who has the initiative is given a bonus on his roll. The side that gathers the most successes hurts the opponent, and rolls damage.

Damage hurts. The players and the game master must keep in mind that Airship Pirates is not tidy. Combat is not simply broken down into rounds that allow people to whittle each other down. Each roll represents a significant event, and that means that every successful hit counts. A single hit could be considered the “end” of a duel, with one side having been seriously injured. Or, it may be the turning point in the fight, and the injured party must redouble her efforts to turn the battle around. Death can happen in one to three rolls, depending on the skill and weapons involved.

Drama is a significant part of Airship Pirates, and I feel the rules reflect this very well.

This game is a chaotic mix of genres and moods. It is post-apocalyptic, making it a very bleak world to play in, but it has steampunk roots, which gives a strong drive for innovation and hope. It shows the very worst of humanity, while allowing the characters to show the very best humanity has to offer. The game does not hit you over the head and demand you be heroes, but rather gives you the tools to be heroes in a very bleak world. You can just choose to accept that the world sucks, or you can instead choose to do something about it. I feel that’s the strength of AP:AP – it gives the characters choices. And once they have the time machine, they have so many choices. They might save the world – or just alter it beyond anything they ever imagined possible.

The book itself is a good read. While it is not laid out in the clearest fashion, it is fairly easy to get into the book and make a character. The art is a mix: there’s some line art, some coloured pictures, and a few photographs that have been modified for the game. I love the concepts and themes this game presents, and the freedom given to the players and the game master. I wish there had been some greater thought put into Science(!) and inventions, and a better description for the cities, but I feel this is a very solid book.

Abney Park’s Airship Pirates
Score: Style
Layout: 9 / 10
Art: 8 / 10
Coolness: 9 / 10
Readability: 8 / 10
Product: 8 / 10

Score: Substance
Content: 7 / 10
Text: 9 / 10
Fun: 9 / 10
Workmanship: 9 / 10
System: 8 / 10

Total: 84%
Date Added: 11/28/2013 by Christopher LaHaise