Back in December I managed to find a copy of 2000 AD’s Leviathan graphic novel, which I’ve been looking for for quite some time. It’s the short tale of a gigantic 1930s cruise liner, big as a small city, which vanished on its first voyage and has been trapped in infernal seas for more than 10 years. During this time the society that has evolved on the marooned ship divides its passenger-citizens into first class-holders, second class-holders and those unlucky enough to live in the hold of the ship (huge spoiler: there is also the arch demon and its servants living in the bowels of the ship’s huge engines). This particular social structure reminded me of a free game I read a couple of years ago.
Cloudship Atlantis by Rob Lang
Synopsis: Find fame and fortune in the skies of steampunk Victoriana. Climb the social ladder while masquerading your humble origins. And fight off the Sky Pirates hell-bent on raiding your home.
Cloudship Atlantis is a free 24-hour RPG. For those unfamiliar with that particular genre, it includes a wide variety of games that were written from scratch in 24 hours or under. Due to the time limitation, most of them tend to use simple mechanics and have a tight focus on a few themes. This is of course NOT a bad thing.
The 24-hour RPG in question focuses on Victorian Steampunk. It is entirely set on… wait for it… a cloudship called Atlantis! More than a simple ship, Atlantis is a whole city floating over the wastes of Terra Firma, a barren planet that serves little purpose apart from supplying Atlantis with a steady supply of coal for its engines. As a replica of Victorian society, Atlantis has a very rigid social order. People living in the lower half of the ship are called Humbles, and are the ones making sure Atlantis stays afloat. Meanwhile, the upper class, called the Gentry, live in the luxurious upper part of the ship.
The central idea behind Atlantis is that you were once a Humble but through luck/fraud/impersonation you managed to find your way into the world of the Gentry, where you must blend in to escape detection. The game contains an introductory adventure that takes the players through that first step and a campaign can then evolve around their efforts to adjust to the much different world above the bow and flourish. The world inhabited by the Gentry is one of intrigue, backstabbing and treachery, full of comforts but probably more dangerous and unforgiving than what the player characters are accustomed to. Sky Pirates, the game’s external threat, can also make an appearance now and then for an instant action fix, but truthfully even without them there will be enough challenges to keep the players occupied even.
Creating an Atlantean character is a simple enough task. Every player gets some points to distribute among 3 attributes (Alacrity, Cognition and Fortitude), then chooses a trade (his job when he used to be a Humble) and assigns a set of values on that trade’s skills. Every character also gets a Humblism, a sort of Tell (as in poker) that points to his true origins could put him apart from the rest of the Gentry. For example, a character may have a strong accent that is hard to conceal, or a chronic cough from mining coal all of his life.
Cloudship Atlantis uses a simple and time-honoured roll-over resolution mechanic: dice + attribute + skill must be equal or over the task’s target number. The d20s used by the game are part of an interesting mechanic. All of the dice are placed in a pool that is shared between the players. When someone wants to perform an action and his attribute + skill are not high enough to beat the target number on their own, he may take one or more dice from the shared pool. Used dice are of course gone forever, but new dice may be added by the Gamemaster as a reward for role-playing, coming up with a good idea, achieving a difficult task or simply making the game more entertaining for everybody. The limited number of dice in the shared pool means that the players will have to work together to figure out which courses of action are worth their dice. It also means that in some cases, players may choose to let an action fail to preserve dice for more important things – a change of pace from the usual success-in-every-menial-task mentality found in many games.
Combat rules take approximately half a page. This is usually an indication that a game does not revolve around a lot of heavy physical action. The simple rules presented here should be enough for the rare occasions when the players will have to resort to violence.
Physically (well, digitally really), Cloudship Atlantis is a 19-page book with a clear 2-column format and attractive clockworks borders. There is some art as well as maps of Atlantis, all done by the writer, who is either multi-talented, a show-off or possibly both. The choice of fonts, the typesetting, the whole presentation screams old-fashioned, which helps evoke that Victorian feeling the game is going for.
Conclusion: A light, well-designed, free (as in beer) game. Becomes more impressive if you consider it was written in a single day. Charming and adorable.