By Steve and Cait Bergeron. 188pp. Outrider Studios.
I stumbled upon this game almost completely by accident while researching my own WW2 game. Google led me to RPGnet and one of those announcement type threads, which I very nearly disregarded, until I spotted a reference to Crimson Skies. That was a game published by FASA a few years back that was all about hotshot pilots, dogfighting among floating islands in a pulp world. It remains to this day one of the very few videogames I’ve ever played all the way though. I never picked up the RPG for it, and have always kind of regretted that decision.
Outrider Studios funded Warbirds via a successful Indiegogo campaign where they asked for a mere $1000. The production values on display here make the game look like it cost ten times that. The company site includes handy YouTube clips to show off some of the unique rules.
Turns out Warbirds is cut from similar cloth, but very much its own game. The setting is an alternate history with the point of divergence being 1803 in the Caribbean. A violent storm changes the world utterly leaving the islands broken up and floating in the skies above a roiling storm called The Murk. Over the next 200 years nations rise, religions form and change, and technology moves up to 1940s levels. With all that comes air piracy, and naturally, the good guys who shoot them out of the azure skies. That’s where the players come in. There’s also an entirely optional chapter of gonzo that can be draped over the setting that includes magic, voodoo and weird science. Or, with a supplemental pdf available from DriveThru, you can go real and gritty with proper WW2 planes.
System wise, its simple traditional fare with the central resolution mechanic being D6+stat+skill+misc against a target number. It’s called Rapidfire. There’s advantages and disadvantages too. It’s not hard. Where it all gets interesting is with the extras that have been put in to support the setting tropes. The pilots have Fame ratings, which can be turned into Scandal. This works with the idea that pilots are celebrities, like sports stars in our world. Another example, the Life on the Line rule. Simply stated, you can’t die in this game unless you invoke that rule, which gives you positive modifiers for the rest of the scene, but the risk is that you lose everything. In a situation that will usually be thousands of feet in the air and at half the speed of sound that’s a brave move.
The pilot is only half the equation though, there is also the plane. Aircraft have their own character sheet, with stats and skills, weapons and armour. The two parts of the game combine in dogfighting and there are thorough rules for aerial battles supplied. These rules are brilliant. I’ve never seen an RPG provide really good vehicle rules before, they’ve always been either too hand wavey or ultra detailed needing minis and grids. Given that dog fighting exists in three dimensions, this could have made the game impossible to hold in the mind, or so simplistic that it becomes just another conflict roll with none of the edge of the seat thrills you want from aerobatics. Warbirds gets it just right.
The authors have a real passion for aerial warfare and it shines through the book at every turn, but it’s never heavy handed. Real world example are scattered through sidebars, and I certainly earned some history from them. There’s scope for gun emplacements, carrier actions, bombing airstrips and everything else you can imagine. Out of the cockpit there’s air races, bar brawls, sponsorships and loads more too. It’s one of those rare books where you find yourself jotting down adventure ideas every page, whether in the setting or the rules. Perhaps inevitable, I couldn’t help but think of hacks too: Star Wars being almost laughably obvious, but 40K is a viable candidate too, with Orks v Imperial Guard.
This game is utterly charming. From the entirely appropriate line art and layout, to the adventure hook laden world, to the sheer passion for flight that comes through on every page. It’s a wonderful little package that deserves a place on the shelf/hard drive of anyone who ever built an Airfix spitfire and ran around the garden making zooming and dakka dakka noises.