Skycrawl Review – Serendipitous Adventures in Strange Skies

In a weird, whimsical, endless sky, villages cling to small rocky spheres lit by sentient suns, brave souls voyage far beyond the reach of gravity toward rootless mountains in far-flung orbits, and strange skybeasts swim wild through vast and distant twilights.

Welcome to the Azure Etern.

Pick your fantasy tabletop roleplaying game of choice, consult your charts, and get ready to explore a universe of infinite skies with Skycrawl from Aaron A. Reed!

It’s been quite some time since Reed landed on our desk with Archives of the Sky, but he’s had quite a bit of success – Archives went on to have a full color print-on-demand version and netted a Judges Spotlight in the 2019 ENnies – and has continued to create since. Skycrawl is in a way the second of its kind – if what follows sounds fun but you prefer your endless adventures to be underground, set your eyes on Downcrawl instead.

Skycrawl is billed as a ‘supplement for any fantasy roleplaying system’ that ‘gives you the rules and inspiration to run your own hexcrawl-style adventure in an infinite sky.’ To accomplish this, the book is a hybrid of setting supplement and mechanical system. On the setting side, the first thing that came to my mind was Do: Fate of the Flying Temple. Taking a look at the recommended media that Reed points you to for inspiration, there’s The Aeronaut’s Windlass and The Odyssey, Treasure Planet and Laputa: Castles in the Sky, Spelljammer and Lady Blackbird, Skies of Arcadia-

Skies of Arcadia: The Tabletop Roleplaying Game. Aha, very precisely my jam. All of these sources have similar threads as those that will be woven into a Skycrawl game – exploration, new sights and lands and peoples and experiences, with a tendency to the wondrous or the downright strange.

The book provides several ideas on how characters might find themselves in the Azure Etern, from it being the native setting of the campaign to various ways of discovering it while exploring the multiverse (“You knew that gnomish catapult was a bad idea”). Even if you are the victim of a horrible teleportation spell accident in Waterdeep, the Azure has a few unique properties that kick in. It’s infinite, with no inherent gravity of its own, filled with air (more or less) where everything floats. Scattered throughout this endless expanse the Sols provide light and heat, and probably even the air. Everything from rock to weather to skybeasts to cities moves through the skies, following Orbits that can range from well-documented to completely chaotic. The Heavy Elements create gravity (and are often incorporated into ships so explorers don’t just float off), and are also the measure of wealth and a source of a kind of magic. Speaking of ships, you could find everything from sailing-ship-in-the-sky to Winged Folk traveling under their own power.

Now, mechanically speaking, you’re going to need . . . a game. Several of the mechanics in Skycrawl are more or less standalone, in that they deal with a very specific thing and don’t interact with other mechanics, but you’re going to need to have a system to handle what player characters are doing day-to-day, and even with Skycrawl’s mechanics you’re going to need a method of dice rolling.

When it comes to interacting with Skycrawl’s systems, there are generally five possible results: Critical Success, Strong Success, Success, Complication, and Critical Failure. The book provides guidance on how different dice systems map to those results, including d20, 2d6, Percentile dice, and the Fate system. A Strong Success would be getting the DC+5 in d20 and getting under your target by 20% of more with Percentile, while a Crit Fail would be a result of 2 in 2d6 and three or four minuses on the dice in Fate. Outside of dealing with the specifics of travel through the Azure Etern, play will continue as normal; your wizard will be a wizard, your character with a High Aspect of Captain of the Blue Rogues will be a Captain of the Blue Rogues, and so on.

If you’re not using one of these four systems, you’ll have a bit of work to do mapping dice results to these five categories, so keep that in mind.

So what do we actually have in the engine room of the airship, here?

Systems

Lands

‘Hexcrawl-style’ it may be, but there aren’t any hexes – the infinite skies are rarely so linear. Points of interest are called Lands (which could be anything from literal floating islands of rock to a maze of trees to the body of a long dead creature to a fleet of ships that always travels together), and these Lands are placed on a Chart. The Chart is basically a space on the table with a number of zones; for each Land you have an index card placed in one of said zones to show its current position relative to your party. ‘Nearby’ Lands are relatively easy to get to, ‘Approaching’ and ‘Receding’ Lands are doing just that and are slightly harder to get to, and ‘Distant’ lands are somewhere out there in the blue and much harder to reach.

Lands are (generally) where characters can take a breather; depending on the type of game you want to run they could just be rest stops before you hit the skies again, or they could be locations where many of your adventures happen, but it’s the ‘rest, recover, and plan the next trip’ bit that Skycrawl’s own mechanics engage with. Once per Land the players can Update the Chart – each of them gains 1 of a resource called Tack, and then can choose from a variety of options including gathering information about the Land you’re currently on, recovering, hearing Rumors, finding a ride, or just gathering more Tack. Chart Your Destiny is where Tack starts to get used as the characters are more deliberately searching out their next plan of action – getting extra Update the Chart options, tracking down persons/items/resources of interest, making a Distant journey easier, and getting to the negotiation table with a captain. You can roll as per usual for all of these, but you can also spend a point of Tack to get an automatic success.

Finally, after a Journey or a few weeks of being land-bound, The Heavens Turn as each Land moves through its Orbit.. The destination for the journey (or the Land you’ve been spending time on) get removed from the Chart so it doesn’t get mixed up. If said destination was non-Distant, you gather up all the Distant cards and shuffle them before moving Receding to Distant, Nearby to Receding, and Approaching to Nearby. You then add one of the shuffled cards to Approaching, before the rest wind back up as Distant. If the Destination was Distant, though, then everything that wasn’t Distant now is. Either way, your destination (or current abode), are placed back into Nearby.

Journeys

Once you leave a Land behind, you’re on a Journey. There are a few things to keep in mind for every Journey. 1) Journeys are measured in abstract Journey Steps (2 if the destination was Nearby, 3 if Approaching/Receding, 6 if Distant). You finish a Journey when you have taken all of your steps. 2) Travel through the cold, thin air between Sols is rough; healing doesn’t work as well, and Exhaustion persists without a deliberate effort to rest. 3) Journeys are handled mechanically through a series of Moves. 4) “No pit-stops.” If you want to visit a Land on the way to another one, that’s a Journey in and of itself. For a bonus 5) if it makes sense, you might be able to skip a Journey if you’ve already been to a Land. Depends on the story.

When you start out you Plan Your Journey, determining the number of steps involved. If a Land’s Oribt is particularly Eccentric or Wild, then you add steps to those listed above. You can subtract steps (to a minimum of one) if you’ve got the right ship, have someone on board who’s been there before, and if you’ve gathered enough Rumors about the place in Update the Chart/Chart Your Destiny.

At the start of A Day on the Wing, the GM will describe what kind of skies you are flying through (cloud canyons, blizzards, friendly migrating skybeasts, immense mushrooms, rivers of lava), then choose an appropriate move. Moves will often call for a Travel Roll, which is where whichever system you’re using comes into play. If you don’t spend any Tack on the Travel Roll, a single character rolls with a penalty. If you spend one Tack, a single player rolls; if you spend 2 Tack, 2-4 players roll. This is important because most Moves will focus on the single best roll, although some Moves will also take all Complications and Crit Fails into account. If you’ve Found the Current (more on that shortly) everyone rolls with a Bonus, if not then with a Penalty. If a character has any points of Exhaustion, they apply a Penalty for each.

If you’ve taken all of your journey steps, you Arrive. Aside from getting to spend Tack to get more people rolling, you may also spend Tack to get a bonus to the single best roll for every point spent. This Move could see you arriving at your destination in an advantageous position, perhaps even getting back the Tack you spent to make the roll, but on the other end you may find yourself Tack-less on a Land you didn’t even know existed getting pursued by ravenous windpigs.

When you’ve got at least one person actually sailing the ship that day you may Sail On, this is the roll for taking journey steps, Finding the Currentand maybe even skipping the day’s encounter. However, you can always Lose said current, gain Exhaustion or take damage, or burn through your Tack even faster. This is one of the Moves that counts Complications and Crit Fails, so it’s quite possible to take a journey step and still have bad things happen.

Anyone who is not rolling to Sail On may take a Drift Day, which allows a character to choose from a number of actions. You might try to rest or recover health (although it’s not as effective as on a Land), work on the ship, practice Orcery, find a safer route, or even (with a Strong Success or a Crit) find some extra Tack. If the ship is too banged up or, for whatever reason, nobody is working to Sail On then you are At the Mercy of the Winds: everyone gets a Drift Day, which might actually be useful, but you Lose the Current.

If you have no Tack, you are Lost. First of all you’ve Lost the Current, second of all you can’t spend any Tack to get extra rollers, gaining Exhaustion instead. So, it’s either struggle through Penalties and fatigue or be At The Mercy of the Winds. Complications and Crit Fails get really nasty, with Successes and Strong Successes seeing you stagger on your way; only a Crit gets you back in Tack and un-Lost. However, you also become un-Lost the second you have at least 1 Tack; getting lucky on a Drift Day might do the trick, but it also makes Tack a good reward to be used as bait for an encounter.

Finally, you can try and Retreat if the Journey becomes too rough, playing out the Arrive move with the Land you started from as your new destination. Do note that you can’t retreat while Lost unless a Move tells you that you can.

Ship Combat

Skycrawl basically says ‘feel free’ if you’ve already got the rules you want in place to enable skyship battles, but does provide an abstract framework for them. First, you can use the zones of your Chart to simulate the field of battle, putting your own ship in Nearby with the other usually starting in Approaching/Receding. Second, you’re basically making resource wagers.

Each ship has WeaponsDefense, and Speed, and every turn each ship by default has seven ‘order’ points to spend. If the combatants aren’t evenly matched, give the weaker side one less point. Obviously this is immediately a problem for the weaker side, so if there’s a really big difference the weaker side is probably going to want to avoid a fight in the first place. Anyway, every round a ship assigns its points to each priority, with characters who want to take personal-scale actions needing to receive a point to do so – the GM should assign an enemy’s point in secret before the players start figuring out what they’re doing for the round.

First, if any characters are taking individual actions, resolve them. These could involve using items, super-charging the engine, dropping a fireball on the enemy’s hull, whatever – the purpose of these actions isn’t to roll damage dice or anything but to provide an advantage, either in the form of a bonus to your own ship’s priorities or a penalty to the enemy. Super-charging the engine might add a point to Speed, fireballing the hull might take a point off of Weapons as cannons melt, that sort of thing.

After individual actions are resolved, both sides reveal how they spent their order points, modifying as needed for said actions. Speed gets resolved first, with the faster ship gaining Momentum (a status used to break ties) and getting to move zones if they wish. If a combatants Weapons beat their target’s Defense, they deal Hits (at least 1 if it was a tie and you have Momentum). If you’ve got Momentum, are Nearby, and haven’t moved zones this turn, you can instead perform a Boarding action, at which point we leave this mechanic behind with either a white flag or a lot of stabbing.

Then you resolve Defense – if your Defense beat the enemy’s Weapons, you can remove Hits from your ship. Usually. If a priority has taken one or two hits, not too bad, you can repair those. Three, and putting any point into that priority costs an extra order point from the start. Four hits, though, and that priority is effectively wrecked, and can no longer be assigned order points. That kind of damage can only be fixed on a Drift Day.

Pretty straightforward, although you want to keep in mind the Azure Etern’s nature: ships have gravity, but the Azure itself does not, so you could have flying boulders to weave through, characters being hurled overboard to float away until rescued, and a ship firing a ‘broadside’ straight down while it flies over its target. It’s also pretty narrative, so have some fun with it: Defense could be slick flying, armor plating, dropping smoke bombs, or magical point defense, whatever you want it to be.

Orcery

The last of the player-facing systems in Skyfall is the ‘art and science of manipulating the ten Heavy Elements’, Orcery. Orcery can only be practiced during journeys – reasons for this range from the practical (the Heavy Elements in a Land might interfere with orchemical processes) to the superstitious (it angers the Sols), but either way it’s while you’re in between Lands that you can gather measures of the elements. Once a day a trained orcerer may roll a d100 (this doesn’t require a Drift Day or anything, it’s a completely standalone Move called Distillation), and the result determines which element you can distill and how much.

Simple Orcery is when you’re working with measures of a single Element, and as the name suggests is pretty straightforward. You can convert a measure into ten coins of that metal (sylve, lode, and lazul coins are the most common and can serve as the local silver/gold/platinum equivalents). You can combine two measures to get one of the next heaviest/valuable metal (two measures of iridine for one of lazul, for example). If orcery is particularly mysterious in your game, you can also figure out unknown admixtures, which are made using…

Advanced Orcery, which involves using measures of two different Heavy Elements (and actually requires a roll to do, don’t mess it up or something might explode). Mixing elements can produce all sorts of effects. Some are largely narrative, and it will be up to you to determine the precise effects: citriline sylve produces colorful smoke, while iridic lustral is a rare perfume. Others are more concrete, sometimes even interacting with Journey or Ship mechanics: citriline vitra is an admixture known as fogweave that can give a Ship the Stealthy tag, while lazul lode creates a lodestone that is attracted to Lands and can add a boost to all Travel Rolls for a day.

Oh, just . . . don’t combine two measures of phire, the Element that produces the most gravity and is consequently the most valuable. That doesn’t get you a measure of an Element or an admixture, that gets you a black-hole-like Obscenity that swallows everything nearby. Remember how Elements are used as money? ‘Collapsing economy’ has never been more literal. For some dark amusement, not just orcerers need to worry about this; it can also happen to greedy merchants who stack too many phire coins. That’ll show ’em.

Running a Skycrawl

That’s all for the players, but what about the GM? There’s advice for setting up a campaign, how to adjust abilities (no ‘perfect navigation’ abilities or spells), what kind of prep to do, how to kick off the first session, and what sort of work and bookkeeping to do between sessions. There’s guidance for the Chart and the Guidebook (a record of the party’s travels), the use and awarding of Tack, and adjudicating Travel Rolls. Then the GM has a few Travel Moves of their own.

A GM has a 1d100 table of Atmospheres to work with for A Change in the Air, which is the description given at the start of every journey day. The GM can Raise the Danger if the players aren’t being challenged, take risks, or if a move says to, and Lower the Danger in opposite cases; both of these moves serve to modify the rolls for Encounters.

Every day of a journey, after the players have resolved their Travel Rolls, the GM makes the Travel Encounters Move by rolling 3d6. The ‘top’ die (which, according to the text, means the die’s physical position relative to the player) dictates what kind of encounter it’s going to be: 1-2 for an Opportunity, 3 for no encounter, 4-5 for a Challenge, and 6+ for a Threat. It’s this top die that is modified by the Danger moves. The other two dice are used to dig deeper into the type of encounter to determine what’s going on. Generally speaking the ‘upper’ dice will determine a subtype and the ‘lower’ dice will determine the detail.

Opportunities are something good that the player can ‘get without too much trouble, either for free or with an easy skill check.’  A 4-2 would net the character Information, specifically some interesting or useful foreshadowing for the next encounter, while a 3-6 would net you 3 Tack! Threats, on the other hand, are problems that characters might be able to avoid with a saving throw or a hard check, but that  otherwise hit them right away. A 2-6 would see the ship’s Speed damaged (sabotage, accident, wandering skybeast), while 1-1 would threaten their treasure, specifically their currency (a toll, a bribe, an element eater).

Challenges are much more like proper encounters, in that the upper and lower dice land you in a Table of Situations, which then offers you further choices; unlike Opportunities and Threats which are resolved with a single roll, you play these out in full. The GM also then rolls another 3d6 to determine what that encounter provides in terms of Opportunity and Threat. So, a  5-4 might find you coming across a ship caught in the gravity well of a rogue Obscenity or a small Land covered in ice or crystal, with an Opportunity for Gentler Skies but offering a Threat for Crew or Companions. A 3-3 offers situations such as a hospital ship that has a problem (and you really shouldn’t come aboard) and “‘Cloud’s haunted.’ ‘What?’ ‘Cloud’s haunted.'”, with Treasure as an Opportunity and HP under Threat. And so on.

Generators

Finally, Skycrawl offers a series of generators for coming up with the Lands, Ships, and Folk the crew will encounter on their journeys. In short, you’re rolling dice for most details and some broad strokes with a few choices sprinkled throughout; you’ll still have to fill things out to a greater degree, but these generators provide you with framework and starting point.

When it comes to the various Folk that live across the Azure Etern, you have tables that provide some ideas, details on appearance, and the Folk’s reputation (which may or may not be accurate of course). One Folk might be an egg-laying species with legends of great gods, made distinct by their shells/spines and eyes (cat-eyed, strange, many, one), with a reputation for being kindly and ingenious. The next Folk you meet evolved to live in drenching rain, and want to improve their Wealth. They are memorable for being mercurial (shapeshifters, illusionists, planeswalkers, masked), but also for their noses (beak, trunk, sensitive, none), while having built a reputation for being decadent and cheerful.

How about all those Lands you’re going to visit? There are tables for concepts, size, gravity, atmosphere, Sols, resources, and inhabitants. For one example, you might have a Land that carries the concepts of Haunted and an Exotic Resource. It could be relatively small Class II Land with normal gravity, a Nautilus that is the skeleton or corpse of some kind of skybeast (perhaps the source of said Exotic Resource). With its Sol a dying and distant dappled green, the Atmosphere is largely dim and dusky, something of a dead zone with no sign of native life, and its Orbit is Wild. Still, it is inhabited by one type of Folk that the players have met before, and while Air and Safety might be scarce it’s a good Land to find Laughter and Privacy.

Another land is a Labyrinth with a culture influenced by water. A Class III River Land (wow the dice really work together sometimes), this place also has normal gravity, but the Atmosphere around it is full of drifting spores and poisonous gas. Its Sol is actually a swarm of young Sols that give off a gentle yellow-green light and fill the air with a distinctive odor. Its Orbit is somewhat Eccentric. Water and Trade are in abundance, but architecture and skilled labor are rare. This Land is home to two different kinds of Folk, only one of which the players have encountered before – exactly how these Folk get along is up to you.

Building ships is relatively straightforward. The Yonder is an archaic-looking gasbag-style airship propelled by magic on a mission of adventure, while the Trumbo is built out of the carcass of some kind of creature that’s been converted into a rotorcraft, a surprisingly fleet vessel that focuses on racing.

As mentioned, these are mostly starting points. There’s advice on how to flesh these details out with names, touchstones, and adventure seeds, and there are also example Folk and Lands provided that include such things.

Conclusions

The mechanics are simple and straightforward, and really do link up very well with different dice systems. Orcery is fantastically creative and a really cool new thing for players to fiddle around with. The various tables, from Atmospheres to Situations to Lands to Folk, provide a ton of variety that you’re going to have to work pretty hard to exhaust. The overview at the start of the book says that the Azure Etern should be vast, wild, whimsical, and fun, and if you think of them as goals I absolutely think Skycrawl has managed to attain them.

Now, I will say this: there’s the potential for a fair bit of flipping about/scrolling when you’re using Skycrawl, since a lot of the moves/tables interact with one another to some degree. Fortunately there are page references everywhere, which provide links in the PDF version, and there’s a hearty table of contents and index to make navigation easier. On the PDF side there are also handouts of things like the Moves and the various Orcery admixtures, which I would highly recommend if you want to keep things going smoothly. While in black and white aside from the cover, the book is also easy on the eyes – good layout, and with woodcut-style art that Reed put together sprinkled throughout.

You can find Skycrawl at DriveThruRPG, $8.00 for the PDF and $15.00 for the softcover book/PDF combo, and you can check out its own site for a preview and those handouts as well.

Whether you’re looking for a grand voyage for its own sake, trying to find the source of all elements, or just trying to find your way home, if soaring through the skies is your kind of thing then get ready to go on a Skycrawl!

Thanks to Aaron A. Reed for sending us a copy of the book to review!

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