Review – Ships of Skybourne
Okay, know how I smashed the player’s guide for the ship-rules feeling incomplete, obtuse and hard to grasp? Yeah, well, that’s mainly due to this book being the total guide to that subject matter. But is its presentation didactically better?
Well..yeah. It does. We begin with establishing a terminology pertaining the various iterations of the Craft skill before establishing the nomenclature for the roles on the vessel and the basics. Vehicles behave very much like creatures and have a Pilot, who has to spend a move action per turn steering the vessel; contested steering is covered here; Head engineers oversee the propulsion device of the vessel and makes engineering checks to do various things with the vessel in question – these can run a gamut of different skills, depending on propulsion. Crew is pretty much self-explanatory and was one of the few aspects the Player’s Guide got right. To recap, they’re pretty much treated as a kind of troop by another name. Vessels have 30 ft.-movement squares and a facing; hardpoints are 10-ft-cubes and constitute the building blocks of a vessel; 9 hardpoints can be organized in a deck and vessels with more than 5 decks also have locations; when one part is destroyed, the other is not necessarily wrecked – another aspect I liked. Vessel AC, CMB/CMD, etc. are easily depicted along the similar basics.
Then, the system pretty much becomes more concise than the PG’s mess ever was by going straight to propulsion devices; from muscle to engines and wind, the propulsion devices covered are concisely presented, with the latter featuring a handy table by wind strengths. And this is where the presentation becomes a bit opaque; at this point, we have learned the basics and instead of actually making the ship, we go on to first learn the basics of vehicle combat using this system. We covered the vehicular movement in the PG’s review, but to recap, vehicles move at the end of the round, in sequence of the pilot’s skill, during a so-called vehicle combat phase. While the pdf still champions group initiative, this is thankfully where the book starts deviating from what we got in the Player’s Guide. Ships of Skybourne must account for 3-dimensional combat and as such, it introduces altitude bands, each of which covers about 50 ft. – think of these as height zones and a GM determines which altitude band is 1, which is 20 to codify them numerically. Riding the shadow’s mentioned and while the pdf takes basically the information already featured in the PG here, the sequence makes more sense. Both pilot and engineer may perform a significant series of diverse maneuvers, with other crew members being relegated to emergency repairs as a relevant maneuver.
The presentations keeps this increased level of cohesion with the next section, where we establish siege weapon terminology, categories (direct vs. indirect fire), use, etc. and both fire-control methods and water pumping notes supplement this section. As before, we do get notes on vehicle conditions, though “sinking” as a term could have used an expansion, considering skybourne’s focus on air ships.
Next up, we…still don’t cover actual airship construction; nope, we dive into mediums of travel and the rules presented here are concise. Air travel requires a vessel featuring enough power to overcome its weight and the section notes an interesting twist, namely that altitude bands and the influence of gravity on weapon range, which makes for an elegant, fun modification. Subterranean and underwater travel are also covered here with interesting considerations, and we even touch upon space/planar travel – so yes, fellow Spacejammer-aficionados, the book does not forget you.
A total of 6 vehicle templates are provided next and their rules are generally concise…however, I really don’t get why they are introduced before we actually have a vehicle to apply them to; this just causes undue frustration and confusion….which is a pity, for the template rules generally are nice.
All right, we’re over 20 pages in and now we finally get to design our vehicle, and it is here, I can applaud the pdf; whereas the PG’s presentation of the process was horribly opaque, the section does a significantly better job of using the engine. Engine? Yep, for the pdf does something very, very smart – it uses the single best ship-combat rules-book for Pathfinder, Frog God Games’ excellent Fire as She Bears, and tweaks it. The tweaks, as such, will at the same time elicit cheers and frustration, but let me clarify: Fire as She Bears assumed nautical vessels and as such, had certain rules for governing the dispersal of hardpoints. Similarly, it featured a distinction between hardpoints employed for rigging and hull, for example. Ships of Skybourne does away with these, which allows for more flexibility and the creation of smaller vehicles, but at the same time, it loses some aspects that made FaSB so amazing; basically, you lose some distinction between ship sections in favor of a wider, more abstract construction option array. From living steel to bone, the system presents different materials and its default RAW modus operandi is to not infringe upon creativity regarding the precise alignment of hardpoints – you could make thin, serpentine vessels, flying cubes, the whole assortment. I am, ultimately, somewhat torn here.
That being said, skybourne’s focus on high fantasy as opposed to a simulaionalist take on vessels and its distinctly fantastic themes does necessitate to a certain degree this amount of abstraction. Yeah, didn’t figure I’d be saying that either after the PG…but the book takes a significant turn for the amazing with the engines and customization options presented: From vampiric ships powered by life-force to several engines with Spheres of Power-based drives, the amount of options included here is pretty amazing and evocative – while I personally still will retain zones in ships, depending on their design, the pdf delivers cool options in exchange for details lost in the construction-abstraction. Dirigibles, mechanical arms, automation, full-body cockpits, lights – there is a lot of amazing, fantastic modification material to be found here, and yes, we also get means for subterranean and aquatic environments like burrowers or pressure resistance.
The trade good system from the PG is reprinted here, and it retains its issues – when even I consider a system’s benefits not worth the work of generating x modifiers, it does say something about it.
We’re at page 53 right now…and there we get to the sample vehicles…and yes, they cover OVER 50 PAGES. From humble canoes to carts and carriages to dwarven TANKS (yes), there is a ton to see here – and many of the vehicles come with b/w-artworks that also show their hardpoints. And yep, the pdf goes all out: Dwarven digger tank-drills; a plethora of mechas and steam giants, steam-powered sleds, sandships, classic ships (and those clad in iron), merfolk underwater tradewagons, longships, steamboats, submersibles, ships of bone, the emperor, lava submarines, gyrocopters, arcane helicopter, war balloons (and their necromantic versions), dragon chariots, flying elder trees (!!!), Red baron-style propeller-machines, flying saucers, gigantic flying fortresses and warships and even air stations, flying landmasses like the elfwood or flying wizard’s towers…and yes, even a mountain…and the Tardis, by another name. Yep, extradimensional rooms are supported by the system. And yes, there are hyper-deadly, awe-inspiring gigantic vessels here. The whole section is absolutely amazing, creative and well-presented.
Editing and formatting are very good, I noticed no significant hiccups this time around. Layout adheres to a nice two-column full-color standard with the artworks featuring a blend of full color stock, amazing new full-color artworks and, as mentioned, a ton of small b/w-artworks for the vessels. The pdf comes fully bookmarked with detailed, nested bookmarks for your convenience.
So, Adam Meyers’ Ships of Skybourne’s abbreviation would be SOS…and there’s the one joke about “sink or swim” we all have heard in conjunction with that. I’ll be honest with you: After the Player’s Guide, I looked forward to this as to a root-canal. The good news first: This is not even close to the PG in terms of issues. Ships of Skybourne modifies the mightiest vessel-engine we have for Pathfinder, Frog God Games’ legendary Fire as She Bears, and tweaks it in an ingenious, interesting manner to account for much, much more. While FaSB remains the best option for age of sailing-type ship-building, ships of skybourne has managed to “unlock” it for a vast array of diverging ships and environments and provides a gazillion of amazing tweaks to the system, many of which you can translate back to FaSB. The sheer number of vessels, engines, etc. similarly makes this very much worth its asking price.
At the same time, Ships of Skybourne could have been legendary; a supplement for the ages, and falls short of attaining that honor due to one aspect: Its presentation and structuring of the rules. One aspect that made FaSB so amazing was that I could hand it to relative novices and watch them immediately go to town with it; the presentation of the system is incredibly concise and easy to grasp, whereas Ships of Skybourne’s sequence, in which it introduces everything is highly counter-intuitive.
We begin with details that reference aspects of a ship we have not yet constructed and frankly, I don’t know if I would have had as much fun here without prior knowledge of Fire as She Bears. From a didactic point of view, the system could be presented significantly more concisely.
The second aspect that deprives Ships of Skybourne of the throne that would otherwise be its unquestionable right is the fact that it loses one of the most amazing aspects of Fire as She Bears, the fact that every PC had meaningful options to pursue. The different roles PCs could fit, the ample skill-uses and obstacles were simply more holistic and provided more stuff to do for the PCs. It made them matter. Similarly, the whole gauge/wind mechanics have been taken away, which makes sense from an abstraction point of view, but also takes away some of the cool options available, making the combat more static. My main gripe here lies in Ships of Skybourne losing one of the best aspects of FaSB, namely that all PCs had something to do. I get why this was lost – to account for smaller vessels. I still maintain that this, ultimately, makes piloting larger vessels, in the long run less interesting for groups…unless you happen to be pilot or engineer, who still have ample stuff to do. The good news here is that you can design these yourself…the bad thing is that it takes work.
Rating “Ships of Skybourne” is exceedingly hard for me; without prior knowledge of FaSB, I probably would have been significantly more confused regarding its mechanics…but I also wouldn’t have expected as much from the book. Ultimately, it remains my firm belief that the book generally delivers for the abstractions to the system it provides, though it also loses some aspects that it simply shouldn’t have lost. Personally, I will take much of the content presented herein and use it…but I will do so in conjunction with FaSB, creating a personal Frankenstein-hybrid.
Can I recommend this? Yeah, I kinda can…but I strongly urge you to familiarize yourself with Fire as She Bears before getting it; while the systems differ in several key aspects, Ships of Skybourne’s presentation of its rules is significantly harder to grasp than FaSB’s. That being said, if you do know/grasp the system, SoS can deliver a campaign’s worth of awesomeness, a vast array of options of the most evocative manner…and you’ll be in the same privileged position as I am, with the options of blending FaSB’s involvement with the high-concept ideas and options presented herein.
For me as a person, this book delivers in spades for the asking price, even though I have to work to make use of it.
As a reviewer, though, I cannot ignore the fact that the structure is counter-intuitive; that the PC’s options to influence vehicular combat are reduced in direct comparison; that you have to get that damn, subpar PG to get the crew rules that should have been in here. Frankly, I’d usually smash this further for any of these components…but that would be highly unfair to the excellence, yes excellence, that can be found within this tome. Ships of Skybourne is an exercise in brilliant highlights and darkest shadows.
While I can’t unanimously recommend the book, I do suggest checking out both FaSB and this one – combined, they provide all you can ask for. But I can’t rate the combo-potential…and while the flaws are annoying, they are nowhere near grating enough to totally sink this book. Hence, my final verdict will clock in at 3.5 stars, rounded up due to the awesomeness exceeding the flaws.
Adventure Avenue: A Nightmare Awakening is available from DriveThruRPG.