originally posted at: http://diehardgamefan.com/2011/12/23/tabletop-review-ruined-empires/
I raved about Abney Park’s Airship Pirates when I reviewed it a couple months ago, and with good reason. Airship Pirates is a fantastic game and the setting is easily my favorite amongst the myriad steampunk games I have tried out. While they could not be more different in genre, I was strongly reminded of the first time I read Shadowrun, way back in 1991. The setting and the rules suit each other perfectly and there is a pervasive energy, which I always expect from genres with the punk root. Some of the ideas are too crazy to be useful, which is exactly why they must be used.
One particular aspect of the Airship Pirates book I was impressed be was the introductory scenario. Whenever I am getting into a new RPG, I am much relieved to have a place to start my own adventures. With a setting as specific and particular as Airship Pirates, I knew that I would want a more in-depth example of how an adventure should be structured. Because of this, I was quite excited to read Ruined Empires, the first module for Airship Pirates.
For those considering using Ruined Empires in their own campaigns, particularly players, here is a spoiler-free review. If you are a GM who wants to start an Airship Pirates campaign but don’t know exactly where to start, pick up Ruined Empires. If you are a player, do not buy Ruined Empires, since there is no non-GM information within. I found Ruined Empires to be a very worthy addition to the Airship Pirates line and a solid place to start. There, a spoiler-free review. From here on out, there is a chance of spoilage. You have been warned.
Ruined Empires was written by Cakebread and Walton, the same purveyors of steampunk RPG goodness who wrote the main rulebook. This is good news for two reasons. First of all, the content is very consistent with the rulebook, so there are no worries about out of place shenanigans or the dreaded canon creep. Secondly, Cakebread and Walton are very good writers and I can honestly say that I have not been disappointed by them yet.
The structure of the adventure follows the three act structure of a play. The first act is a play on the traditional RPG tropes of hanging out in a bar and being offered a job by a mysterious envoy. The second act feels like an old school treasure hunt, but it has the potential to go much, much worse or surprisingly well. The finale is a startling, high drama trial and execution tableau that is deeply reminiscent of an old swashbuckling film. Speaking of swashbuckling, the plot quite resembles the latest Three Musketeers film in a few small ways, a bit of parallel development I suspect.
There are a few things I really like about Ruined Empires is the way it flows. There are few plot bottlenecks, meaning that the GM has to do very little railroading. The characters that are introduced are a bit quirky, but don’t slide into the special snowflake trope I hate so much. You know, the only good dark elf or the first dwarf fire mage. The NPCs make solid sense within the Airship Pirates setting. There are no NPCs or plot twists that made me groan, which is rare for a published adventure. Most of all, there is plenty of wiggle room for dealing with players who are too smart or lucky by half. I really don’t think a rogue player could break this adventure without reading it ahead of time.
One real nicety of Ruined Empires is that it could very easily be the root of an entire campaign, if the GM so desires. Isla Aether is easy to flesh out and can either be a base of operations or a dreaded enemy, depending on how the adventure resolves. There are several of the aforementioned NPCs that would be easy to use for later cameos, as well. Who doesn’t need a lesbian pirate captain, a foppish governor, or an aggressive social climber who hates pirates in their campaign? The friendships and feuds triggered by the PCs are definitely interesting enough to use again.
The book itself is a thin 42 page paperback with a glossy cover. The cover image of a Neo-Bedouin and his clockwork horse is of a character in the adventure and is not a major spoiler, something too many adventures get wrong. The interior art is nice, though a bit scant. Since this is a book that will likely only be used once, I can excuse the lack of extraneous illustrations. While not as gorgeous a volume as the main rulebook, Ruined Empire is a lovely bit of paper.
As with the spoiler free review above, I recommend Ruined Empires with a few reservations. If you are a GM starting an Airship Pirates campaign, this is a solid place to start and I recommend it highly. For those who are looking for substantial Airship Pirates content, this is probably not the book for you. Ruined Empires is a fun, madcap, swashbuckling adventure.