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Abney Park’s Airship Pirates: A Music-inspired Steampunk Extravaganza

Monday, September 10th, 2012 | Posted by Ken Walton

airship-pirates-smallLast month, Peter Cakebread of Cakebread & Walton told you about our alternate English Civil War fantasy RPG, Clockwork & Chivalry. This month, it’s Ken Walton here, and I’ll be taking a look at our music-inspired steampunk extravaganza, Abney Park’s Airship Pirates RPG.

“Abney Park?” I hear some of you say. “Isn’t that a cemetery in London?” While the rest of you are saying, “No, Abney Park is a really cool steampunk band from Seattle who play music like this.”

Most of their songs, written by lead singer “Captain” Robert Brown, tell of the fictional exploits of the band in their time-travelling steampunk airship Cordelia. On discovering their music, we quickly realised there was a really cool background here that would make a kick-ass role-playing game.

We contacted the band, thinking, “This is mad, they’ll never go for it, no-one’s ever written a RPG based on a band’s songs!” But Captain Robert thought the idea was awesome.

When we emailed our publisher, Cubicle 7, Angus Abranson (who worked at Cubicle 7 at the time) was on the phone in five minutes. “Why didn’t I think of that?” Turned out he was an Abney Park fan too. Who knew? And so, a new game was born!

Of course, then we had to sit down and design it. Cubicle 7 offered us use of the game mechanics from their Victoriana RPG, which we tweaked and simplified for a more swashbuckling feel.

Captain Robert, it turned out, was a graphic artist as well as a rock star, and he designed the look of the game, as well as recruiting a host of amazing artists to contribute the full-colour artwork for the rulebook. And we took the song lyrics and Robert’s (then unfinished) novel, The Wrath of Fate, and set about expanding them into a game world with a particular feel.

[Click on any of the images for larger versions.]

the-wrath-of-fate-smallOur touchstone was Abney Park’s song “Airship Pirate”:

With a crew of drunken pilots
We’re the only airship pirates
We’re full of hot air and we’re starting to rise
We’re the terror of the skies but a danger to ourselves

The game is set in an alternate 2150, caused by Abney Park’s attempts to make the world a better place by tinkering with time.

They’ve made a mess of it. The future is a wilderness populated by genetically engineered megabeasts such as sabre-toothed tigers, hyaenadons and mammoths. The majority of the population are huddled in overcrowded Neovictorian dystopian cities (think Dickens meets Orwell), where advanced technology and imagination are banned. Automaton police patrol the streets, while mutant “misbegotten” struggle to survive in the slums and the gentry live on their luxurious estates.

Out in the wilderness, tribes of Neobedouin travel about in caravans of ancient vehicles, fighting the megabeasts and avoiding the airships of the Emperor’s Imperial Air Navy. Above them float the flying cities of the Skyloft, freedom-loving people who have escaped the rule of the Emperor and his overcrowded cities.

And into this mix come the airship pirates – the players who, in their jury-rigged airship, struggle to make a living by hook or by crook, one step ahead of the Imperial Air Navy (and often their criminal creditors too).

Three things we like about the game (apart from the obvious one that you get to play pirates! in airships!):
underneath-the-lamplight-cover2

  1. The cultures: The PCs are all members of an airship crew, but can play members of any of the three main cultures of the Airship Pirates world – the Neovictorians, the Neobeoduin or the Skyfolk. Within those cultures there are lots of options, so an adventuring crew might, for instance, consist of an upper class Neovictorian dilettante, an upper class renegade Imperial Air Navy officer, a Skyfolk gadgeteer, a lower class Neovictorian criminal, a Neobeduin “beast dancer” martial artist, and a beautiful clockwork automaton courtesan.
  2. Airship Schticks: since Abney Park are a bunch of airship pirates who are also a band, characters in Airship Pirates also have a specialty, which helps them earn a living when pirating times are tough, or as a disguise in hostile ports. So the members of the crew might be musicians, a circus, mercenaries, a theatre, traders, etc. (I’ve heard of more than one role-playing group who are running a flying bordello!)
  3. The Awesome! Bonus: The Airship Pirates system is designed to promote swashbuckling action. If a player comes up with a ludicrously spectacular stunt, rather than the games master penalising the action because it’s difficult, he gives it an Awesome! Bonus, adding dice to the player’s dice pool to make the stunt easier.

The Abney Park’s Airship Pirates core rulebook is a 300 page full-colour hardback. Much to our delight, it’s won several awards, including the UK Games Expo Award for best RPG of 2012 and the Steampunk Chronicle Readers’ Award, and was nominated for an Origins Award. Also available is a short adventure, Ruined Empires, and Underneath the Lamplight: A Neovictorian Sourcebook is currently in production.

We intended that the game be accessible both to seasoned role-players and Abney Park fans who had never role-played before – from the feedback we’ve received, we appear to have achieved both ends.


Ken Walton is a partner in Cakebread & Walton. He’s been writing and editing for years. His favourite job ever was writing 1,800 wrong answers for a multiple choice computer version of Trivial Pursuit. He now writes role-playing games full time, which keeps him poor but happy.

8 Comments »

  1. Hurray for Abney Park! My favorite tune of theirs is “The Wrong Side,” from the album THE DEATH OF TRAGEDY:

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=j6YwyZvFqms

    I was unaware AIRSHIP PIRATES had an Abney Park connection… very cool! Their music grounds the whole enterprise in a richer aesthetic, I think.

    Comment by John ONeill - September 10, 2012 6:14 pm

  2. I’ll have to put this in the geekery hope chest for my five-year-old. Once he saw Miyazaki’s Castle in the Sky, he started running up to kids on the playground and inviting them to play sky pirates with him. He named the climbing equipment after the two fighting dirigibles, and now most of the kids in the neighborhood can say whether they want to climb on the Goliath or the Tiger Moth. Keep Cakebread and Walton running long enough, and all those children will grow up to play your game.

    Comment by Sarah Avery - September 10, 2012 10:37 pm

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