Sunday, September 1, 2013

Warbirds RPG

Our game group has been through some changes lately. Our long-time game master is no longer part of the group, so that left an odd power vacuum. I stepped into the role, and I'm going to miss sitting on the other side of the screen, but the game must go on.

We decided it would be best to change games. A clean break, a fresh start, you know what I mean.

While at Gen Con, I found an interesting game called Warbirds RPG by Outrider Studios. This was an accidental find; I'd never heard of it or the company before. The designers of the game, Steve and Cait Bergeron, gave me the elevator pitch which went something like this:

(from the Warbirds web site)
It is a diesel-punk air combat adventure game that focuses on fighter pilots as they chase after fame and fortune. It combines the action and excitement of early adventure serials with chaos and heroism of World War 2 dogfights.
 Okay. I've never played anything like that, tell me more...
The game is set amongst the sky islands of Azure. It is an alternate reality version of the Caribbean islands (and the Florida and Yucatan peninsulas), floating in the sky above an endless murk. The islands are populated by fascinating characters and rich cultures which are both familiar and slightly alien.
Uh... I thought to myself, "okay this is strange, and I'm not sure if that would be for our group. I don't know anything about the Caribbean in the WWII period, and I don't see the point of sky islands." My expression must have shown that they were losing me here. Cait stepped up and told me about the part she had the biggest part in creating:
In Azure, fighter pilots are celebrities. Your character’s achievements dictate their fame, and you’ll get to decide how to interact with fans, gain publicity, and deal with scandals. Will you star in movies? Start your own clothing line? Hide yourself away in a mountain top mansion? Or trash your hotel room?
The fame mechanic tracks a character’s progression from up-and-comer to superstar. Characters can increase their fame by completing missions, but they can also compete in air shows and air races, and even obtain sponsors and turn their plane into a flying billboard.
Being famous means risking scandals. The paparazzi are everywhere in Azure, and they will be there taking photos when characters slip up. Dealing with the blowback from scandalous behaviour can be even more harrowing than facing enemies in the air.
Wow! That sounded like something our group could get into. Steve and Cait went on to explain about the Guild, which is an elite mercenary company the characters are members of, and a little about the system, which I wasn't exactly sold on, but it wasn't a turn off either. I decided to purchase it and figured I could rework the setting.

I nearly forgot one of the most important aspects of Warbirds that makes it work for our group. The characters are mercenary pilots in a pseudo-WWII setting, and this would ordinarily lead to concerns about rank. Does an NPC just give orders to the pilots, sending them off on missions, or does a senior player character call those shots? The Warbirds solution is that the pilots choose the missions they will accept from several alternatives presented by their Guild Agent. The pilots choose their own command structure, if any, and there aren't any NPC pilots assigned to the character's small carrier. The skipper in charge of the carrier is only interested in the safety of his ship, but stays out of the hot-shot pilots way regarding mission choices. In other words the skipper is a glorified bus driver.

Then I got to read it. The setting grew on me even though I was reluctant to accept it. It's not set during WWII, it's set in what is effectively an alternate reality that split from the Earth we all know at the start of the nineteenth century when the Caribbean was transported to a new reality as the result of a huge storm. The creators of the game are purposefully vague on the whys because the phenomenon has never been repeated and it's up to each GM to interpret as they see fit.

I don't know much about authentic Caribbean culture, and Warbirds includes some useful information, but I don't worry too much about getting the details right in areas my players wouldn't notice anyway. The demographics of my NPCs are probably wrong, and fake French, Spanish, and Mayan words and names work for me. I'm not going to worry if I end up with a non-representative number of English names. If you are a stickler for that sort of detail, there's nothing wrong with that, but it's not how I'm going to spend my time. I don't feel like the material presented is enough to fully educate someone like me who is fairly ignorant about Caribbean society, but there's enough to get a feel.

Technology evolved slower in this new world known as Azure. Radios don't work well because of background static, and radar doesn't function at all, but otherwise it is roughly WWII tech except for a few unique things thrown in. The flying islands stuff is weird, but it works if one suspends the same amount of disbelief as is required for dragons, fireballs, warp drives, and vampires. Not that any of those things exist in Azure.

The rules system is called Rapidfire, and it's fun and simple. There are three characteristics: Body, Mind, and Spirit, and the average character has a 0 in each. A score as high as 2 is highly developed, and a -2 is a huge penalty. As you can see, this is a game that takes broad strokes.

Characters have skills, advantages, disadvantages, and wealth is handled abstractly. Actually, wealth is tied to fame. Rolls generally come down to Attribute + Skill + Modifiers + 1d6.

Something I like about Warbirds is it starts with the assumption that every player character is an elite pilot. The character creation rules are written in such a way that all the stuff that makes one a great pilot is kept separate from the rest of character creation, but it still relates.

The characteristic flying skills are based on is called Situational Awareness, and it's equal to the sum of a character's other characteristics. For starting player characters, this is usually going to be +1, though if a player intentionally goes out of their way to cripple their character it could be lower. One of the last steps of character creation is to assign a character their flight skills, which aren't exchangeable with the points used for other skills earlier. This means that no player is forced to choose between being good at "ground" skills, and "air" skills, and since the focus of the game is on air combat, we all know which way temptation would break if they were forced to make that choice.

The players get a lot of control during play. They are the ones who get to choose when a bad failure is a critical failure, which complicates their situation but nets them some experience in the failed skill. They have reserve, which functions much like "hero points" or "bennies" in other games, and get to spend them one-by-one even after the roll is made, which also nets them a little experience in the skill being used. In addition, they can Put Their Lives on the Line, which grants them a good bonus for the entire scene, but increases the risks of failure dramatically.

The air combat is abstract. There is no moving figures around a map, though tokens or figures are helpful to use with the dogfight tracker, which is sort of like an initiative tracker in other games, but also keeps track of who can shoot on who. Rounds are abstract, and limitations come into play regarding ammo and altitude.

So far my group has only got to play twice, but it's been a big hit both times.

Score Card:
Setting: 4/5 (Hated the concept at first but it grew on me. I'm not concerned about authentic anything.)
System: 5/5 (Concepts are flexible and painted in broad strokes.)
Presentation: 4/5 (Great layout and art, printing is a bit faded as is typical with print-on-demand books.)

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