Friday, October 7, 2011

“We’re the only Airship Pirates…”

Goth is sooo over.

Has been for decades; if you listen to my old buddy Matt, it was toast before it ever started reaching resurgence in the mid-90s. I don’t know; I was never a “Goth.” I went through my dark and angsty period quietly listening to metal music and writing tortured poetry and then I went to college and had a very happy life. So there.

By the time I started hitting some of the “dark and gothic” industrial dance clubs (private clubs only, please), I was old enough to be there legally and mainly Matt and I were there to dance and get our drunk on. And that was long AFTER I’d stopped running Vampire sagas (circa late 1996; about two to three years after my final VTM saga).

And hitting those places was a short run anyway. Matt went back to Austin, I carried my carousing to other venues, and eventually I cleaned up and grew up. Now, I’m no longer "just happy" but also "fairly well adjusted."

So, yeah…Abney Park.

A week ago I picked up a copy of a new RPG called Airship Pirates. Or rather, Abney Park’s Airship Pirates. This was last Friday, right after I’d written the bulk of my rant series on lazy RPG design and lack of objectives. Seeing this big, beautiful, high-concept book I had a pretty good idea this was exactly the kind of objective-less game that I had recently vilified…but I bought in anyway.

I have an airship fetish.

“Pirates” of course, are also gravy. I grew up in this little waterfront town called Seattle and we tend to like our nautical and pirate-themed stuff. Heck, that’s one of the draws of the Baranof for me. But just having “pirates” in an RPG isn’t enough for me to buy it; I’ve never purchased 7th Sea or Furry Pirates, for example.

But airships? I break for zeppelins. I nearly threw down a handful of hundreds for a 40 minute zeppelin tour when Airship Ventures brought their bird up to Sea-Town (I followed it on the ground with my car though)…and in Germany I was extremely close to booking a trip on one of their neuvo-zeps. I know I’ve written before that being an NFL coach would be my “dream job” (not that I have any ability to coach; I said “dream”), but actually it’s #3 on my list of fantasy careers:

#3 NFL Coach (assistant okay, but please be the Seahawks)
#2 Tony Stark, Iron Man
#1 Independent Airship Owner/Captain

I’m being perfectly serious. Have you seen the film Life Aquatic with Bill Murray? I want to be Steve Zissou in a zeppelin. If I ever win a lottery jackpot, I will pay off my house, my mom’s house, and set aside money for my kid’s college. If I ever win a multi-state mega-Lotto, I will invest in zeppelin flying lessons and try to purchase a small blimp.

So I dropped $50 on the RPG.

Airship Pirates is one of the most…well, shit, I don’t know what word to describe it. “Interesting” or “weird” or even “thought-provoking” are some of the phrases that come to mind…but NOT because of the setting, premise, or game system. The BOOK itself…the fact that it was even published…is tres bizarre.

Here’s why: the game…a neo-Victorian, post-apocalyptic, steampunk fantasy RPG with prehistoric animals…is based on the music and lyrics of the band Abney Park.

Who the hell is Abney Park? Well, apparently they are a local (Seattle) band that started up in 1997, around the same time that I was getting out of the music biz myself. Not that I was ever “in the biz;” singing a few one-offs with random bands can hardly even be called “dabbling,” though I had a moment or two. But I was never a huge supporter of the local live music scene (sorry) and anyway, and I stopped going to shows right around the time Abney appears to have been getting going. And even had I been a big show-goer (like my buddy, Steve-O) I’m not sure I would have ever seen Abney Park play, since they were originally a Goth band.

And one with a fairly strong endurance: I mean, they’re still going, almost 15 years later, and have put out nearly a dozen albums. And I’m sure that “marching technology progress” thing only makes it easier to stay in the music game, so long as you have some chops and a bit of a following. Hell, I’VE got a following and I’m just a hack blogger!

However (here’s the interesting part), a couple-few years back, Abney Park reinvented itself as a “steampunk concept band;” apparently, THE premier steampunk band if you buy the hype on the interweb stuff (I’m not really in a position to judge that kind of thing). What do I mean by that? Well, their songs have taken a turn to singing of their adventures as a band of airship pirates, time-travelling and screwing up historical continuity and creating a neo-Victorian, post-apocalyptic, fantasy world filled with prehistoric animals.

And then the band, fronted by Captain Robert Brown, worked in conjunction with the Cubicle 7 brits to put out a beautiful, slickly produced RPG book, giving folks the stuff to adventure in the imagination of this reinvented, premier steampunk, airship flying band called Abney Park.

Bizarre. I don’t know if Mark Rein-Hagen ever fronted a vampire-themed band (in the early days of White Wolf, the vampire musical group was a major suggestion for why PCs of different clans would hang together as a coterie), but I wouldn’t be too surprised based on the early themes and concepts in VTM. On the other hand, Rein-Hagen isn’t the first person to suggest the vampire music group…what about The Vampire Lestat? Or The Drac Pack for that matter?

However, if the band had come FIRST and then created an RPG based on the intellectual property of their own lyrics and stage show…well, then you’d have something similar to Abney Park’s Airship Pirates. And because the band is still going, it creates a new form of self-promotion: the band promotes the RPG, the RPG promotes the band…all at the same time!

That’s wild! I have never seen something like that before. Yes, I’ve seen D&D-inspired bands (Three Inches of Blood comes to mind)…but none that have a direct tie-in between their own unique music and their own unique RPG/setting. Is it genius? Or just crazy?

No doubt these folks are a little nuts…it takes a little crazy to do what they’re doing. But I believe, in a world where both independent RPG publishers and small-niche music acts have little potential to make a decent living, these folks have found a way to increase the income coming into the coffers without working as coffee baristas during the day. And that’s both unique (in my experience) and pretty cool.

[not totally unique, of course: Kiss promoted themselves through THEIR own fantasies by making movies, selling toys and comic books, etc. Abney Park has taken a page from that book]

As for the GAME itself: well, it’s not all that great in design terms. It bears a lot of similarities to White Wolf (as one might guess), using a Stat+Skill resolution, though rather than roll D10s and try to hit 7s, you’re rolling D6s and trying to hit 1s and 6s (and 6s “explode”). Most of the book is setting material…way, waaaay too much for my purposes. The thing reminds me of a Television Bible for the setting material. If I was tasking a group of authors with writing short stories based on the setting, I would give them each a copy of the RPG for reference and inspiration. As an RPG? It lacks focus and, yes, objectives.

On the other hand, it has a great premise for party creation: all characters are a crew aboard an airship. In all honesty, I was trying to brainstorm a very similar concept about 5 years ago, but couldn’t figure out how to make a dramatic enough RPG. Airship Pirates succeeds because it blows up the world and re-writes an alternative history in which airship pirates actually makes sense in the setting (a tyrannical government on the ground, heroic free cities in the air, neobedouins and dinosaurs wandering the wastelands). It’s neat and psychedelic and reads a bit like the backstory for certain editions of Magic the Gathering (without the magic)…but the game would require some serious editing on the part of the GM to make it work effectively, and a LOT of reading to get sufficiently steeped in the specifics of the setting.

AND…that’s all I want to say about the game for right now. Though I was initially tempted to return it to the game shop as “mostly unplayable” (due to my non-desire to put in the effort needed to make it work), I’ve decided to hang onto the thing and part with the cash. It is definitely one of the nicest looking RPGs I own, and it has a lot of interesting ideas setting-wise (as well as a totally kick-ass version of time travel). Plus, I feel that by buying it I’m doing my part to help support the local music scene. More bands should have kooky concepts.

: )


  1. I almost entirely agree with you. I love the very fact that the book exists with the history that it has. & for me 'airship piracy' and 'battling an evil empire' offer a sufficient framework for PC objectives. Just hold up any of the band's promo material and say "It's basically Star Wars except you look like these guys".

    Plus I snagged a signed copy :)

    So I'm golden.

  2. Sounds a bit like Dragonmech, the Goodman Games post-apoc setting for d20.

    I'm afraid I got the whole airship pirate thing out of my system back when we did an Oswald Bastable Steel Tsar (cossacks, Russian Imperial aeronauts, steambots and ultra-Orthodox Stalin) homebrew game.

  3. These guys might have one up on Kiss.

    Did Kiss every license a tabletop RPG? It might the one product in the world, besides (maybe?) nuclear weapons, that Kiss doesn't have a logo on.

  4. The Darkest of the Hillside Thickets, which started as a Lovecraftian geek band, did an album called Spaceship Zero. They also released a roleplaying game based on the concepts in the album. So, much as I love Abney Park (well, I like them anyway, and have since they were a goth band), they weren't the first to do it.

  5. On the subject of Pirates and Bands, I am sure Seattle has it's share of Pirate bands. But in any case I thought I would turn you on to some of the midwestern pirate bands: The Jolly Rogers, The Musical Blades, The Bawdy Boys and Captain Black's Sea Dogs.