and this whole bloody ship could go up like a pyre.
We've got smiles on our faces, but we've seen this before
No telling just now what we have in store."
-- Abney Park, "Aether Shanties"
So, I've never reviewed an RPG before. Which is amusing considering how many I've played - and even more amusing considering how many I've read (I'll drop you a hint: way too many).
So, I'm starting with the recent release by Cubicle 7, written by Peter Cakebread and Ken Walton, and based upon the works by that infamous time-traveling, steam-punk mad-man, Captain Robert Brown: Abney Park's Airship Pirates.
Appearance: The first thing you can't help but notice is that the book is beautiful. Well-bound, with a nice parchment-look for the pages, crisp layout, and loads of inspiring artwork, Airship Pirates is among one of the nicest looking non-collector RPG books in my collection. If you've seen the beautiful Warhammer 40K RPG tomes (Rogue Trader, Dark Heresy, and Deathwatch), Airship Pirates comes fairly close to those extremely high-production-value examples.
Setting: Those that are familiar with Abney Park's music and the tales of Captain Robert may already know what to expect. But for the rest of you benighted souls, it is basically (at the risk of under-selling it) post-apocalyptic steampunk.
An evil empire rules the large Change Cage Cities full of Neo-Victorians, Automatons, and Mutants, while the remainder of the world is overgrown and inhabited by prehistoric megafauna. Living in the wilds are the nomadic Neobedouin, wandering caravans that travel from place to place on mammoths and indricotheres (imagine if the inhabitants of your local Maker's Faire were also gypsies, rangers, and gatherers - that's the Neobedouin). And in floating cities, tied to mountain-tops or wandering the tradewinds, dwell the Skyfolk. Gadgeteers and adventurers, the Skyfolk cities are bound in a loose alliance that ties them together against the Neo-Victorian empire - but otherwise has little influence on their habits of piratical raiding.
Ultimately, your PCs are drawn from all of these cultures (aye, even Neo-Victorian outcasts), to form the core officers of a crew of cunning pirates out for adventure, booty, and maybe even a bit of revolution. But the crew are mutinous cretins hungry for plunder... so you best watch your back.
Sections: Airship Pirates is broken down into three "books": 1) Rules and Systems; 2) Encyclopaedia; and 3) Game Master.
1) Rules and Systems - explains character creation, skills, combat, dramatic systems, vehicles (including Airships) and beasts, and equipment. This is where you create your Neobedouin Beast-Dancer or Automaton Love-doll or Skyfolk Air Captain. It's also where you decide your crew's "schtick" - their professional cover to hide their piratical activities in other venues (whether they're a band - like Abney Park themselves - or an acting troupe, a circus, or a number of other options).
2) Encyclopaedia - contains almost all the straight "setting fluff", laying out the setting's history, the geography of North America, and a section on each of the cultures of the North American portion of the setting (supposedly, further cultures will be covered in future supplements). Some of the setting seems a little goofy if you think about it too hard; but, recognizing that it's intended to be fueled mostly by "awesome" in order to hang further "awesome" from it, I think it works well enough.
3) Game Master - this final section contains chapters on running the game, playing around with time travel (which, if you're familiar with Abney Park, you'll understand how central this aspect is to the game), a bestiary, and a sample adventure.
While later supplements may come forth with interesting additions in the way of character options, toys, monsters, and, most importantly, more ships, the core book does an excellent job of being self-contained - covering all the core conceits of the setting with rules and stats.
Systems: The core system of Airship Pirates is something known as the Heresy Engine, which also powers games like Victoriana, 2nd Edition, and Dark Harvest.
The basics are as follows -
A) When you need to roll to resolve some action, you add a relevant attribute to the relevant skill and roll that many 6-sided dice. Each 1 and 6 that come up are successes, and 6's can be rolled again to try for further extra successes.
B) If the Game Master thinks that the task is difficult, he inflicts "Black Dice" (they can be any color, really, so long as you can tell the difference) on you. Every 1 or 6 rolled on a Black Die subtracts one from the total successes from your other dice. Unlike regular dice, Black Dice don't get a re-roll on a 6. If you end up with more successes on your Black Dice than on your regular dice? Then you end up with a critical failure/botch.
C) If you end up with even a single net success, you succeed... though maybe only barely. More net successes mean better, more complete, faster, or just plain more stylish-looking success on the action.
There's a stunt mechanic called Awesome Dice that add more dice to your roll and wounds will subtract dice from your dice pool (instead of adding Black Dice).
Other than that, that's pretty much it. Every other aspect of the game pretty much runs off of this base system - whether you're trying to out-drink your friends, command an airship-to-airship battle, or cross swords and fists with a rival captain.
Simple. Elegant. And, it seems from my reading (I haven't managed to play it quite yet), that it is very conducive to creating the action and the fast pace necessary to keep the game flowing.
As far as I'm concerned, Abney Park's Airship Pirates scores high on both style and substance. So if steampunk, post-apocalyptic derring-do, airships, pirates, or Abney Park (or any combination of them) inspire you with excitement - this is likely to be a perfect choice.
-- Mr. M.