Airship Pirates, need i say more? If you are not already sold on the title alone then hold onto your poop deck, because we are going on a ride! In truth, I had only heard about Airship Pirates a few years back when a friend of mine purchased a copy of this game (he is also a fan of the band). If not for him, I’m certain that such a gem would have fallen by the wayside.
Airship Pirates is a TTRPG based off of the songs of Abney Park. For those of you unaware, Abney Park is the quintessential steampunk themed band. The entire setting of Airship Pirates is an alternate earth that was created due to part to time travel (with the best intentions). Namely, someone went back in time in the hopes of ending slavery, world wars, etc. They succeed in wiping away all of the big issues of our time, but new problems arose in it’s place. Mad science created new and unexpected things, and the very world was consumed by it.
The aforementioned mad science caused nature to reclaim the world at an alarming rate, while prehistoric beasts now roam the Earth once again. The largest populations all retreated into only a few giant structured called Cage Cities, while the rest either adapted to the land or took to the skies in floating settlements called Sky Cities. Time passed, and now it’s the year 2150. Technology and aesthetics are mirrored after the Victorian Era, so you can bet steampunk tech runs rampant.
As a player in airship pirates, there are several diverse choices for characters:
Automation – Some of the mad science that shaped this new world also created artificial life. Originally manufactured in the Cage Cities, automations are built with a specific function/role, and occasionally develop sentience (something that gets them targeted for immediate destruction). There are four models to chose from which give related bonuses. A model designed for labor is going to be strong, whereas one designed for bureaucracy is going to be smart, etc.
Misbegotten – If Change Cities were not bad enough, the industrialization has caused some people to be born with mutations. These people are either outcasts or get forcibly drafted into a secret military group. Either way, these poor souls are either shunned or feared. However, these mutations can bring with it great advantage, especially in combat.
Neo-Bedouin – These are the people who decided to stay on land and adapt to the new normal. They are nomadic people who operate giant steam powered caravans, and small vehicles (and animals) to get around. They are both decent engineers and survivalists.
Neo-Victorian – The unfortunate souls living in the Cage Cities are known as Neo-Victorians. Defined by a rigid class system, no one is truly safe from the authority that rules over them. Many seek escape to the outside world.
Skyfolk – Simply put, this group took to the skies, and have stayed up there ever since. They live in the clouds either within Sky Cities or on Airships, and are most adept to the life of a privateer.
With a background in hand, players must choose a job class from a pre determined list. Background will determine what job(s) you can choose from. For instance, only a upper-class Neo-victorian can be a Naval Officer. The rest of character creation allows for a little point buy flexibility. Once the party is created, they are all assigned as part of the crew of a particular airship serving as either support or command.
Airship Pirates runs on the Heresy System, made popular by the RPG Victoriana. In a sense, Airship Pirates is like a spinoff of Victoriana, however there is much left to be desired. Personally, I’m not a fan of the mechanics of Heresy, as it focuses on a heavy, and sometimes overwhelming pool of D6s. Equally, it would not surprise me to find out that this book was rushed to production, as there is some content (spread amongst certain sections) either undeveloped or missing all together. Said content isn’t enough to break the game, but certainly noticeable.
There may have also been a glaring oversight in regard to stat bonuses in the core book, as nearly every background receives a bonus to a particular attribute, while the Neo-Victorians only receive a negative modifier to one stat. Unless your players love the idea of playing as a Neo-Victorian, there is no mechanical benefit to do so.
There is also the funny issue of the airships themselves. Running ship to ship combat can be cumbersome at times with the aforementioned pool of D6’s. During the small campaign that I played in, it felt like we were all bogged down by the dice at times. I’m not going to go into much more detail, suffice to say that Heresy is the only thing hampering the game at times.
SIDEBAR – One of the other members of my group brought up an interesting point about the airships. Namely that many of the ships have 30+ broadside cannons on them. To paraphrase, he said “I would not want to be on a ship suspended by a balloon when 30+ cannons fire at once.”
Despite the setback, there is a solution that will resolve the mechanical issues of Heresy while keeping the setting and feel of the game in tact:
Simply put, move the mechanics from Heresy to the Ubiquity System. Since both games rely on a point buy mechanic, and have a setting in the victorian era (Leagues of Adventure), this came as a natural solution. Ubiquity is much easier to understand and play through. The mechanics are also D6 based, but without being overbearing or cumbersome. Additionally, my friend and I came up with a quick set of Ubiquity conversions for both character creation and ship to ship combat. I hope to post the conversions as soon as I can get them play tested.
On that same note, we changed airships so that each one had only up to four cannons on at any time. This is more in line with victorian era warships, and allow for more versatility in combat. Again, these conversions will be made available after our play testing in a few weeks.
Truly, this setting is rich, vibrant, and fun! You can tell that the creators had a blast making this game, and it shows in every page of lore. I never thought that a setting based off of a band would ever do it for me, but i’m glad to be wrong! Makes me wonder if GWAR created a post-apocalyptic TTRPG.
If you made this far, you must know that I have no love for the Heresy System. It makes me sad knowing that such a great setting was marred by it’s own mechanics. Mind you that this isn’t unplayable, but there are certainly better systems that could fit the bill.
Pick this game up! It’s a fun alternative from other mainstream TTRPGs, with a lore all it’s own. Conversions to Ubiquity or Savage Worlds are very easy, so don’t deny yourself the chance to play.