Skycrawl is a hexcrawl RPG that’s a cut above many others that I’ve looked at.
Whereas many hexcrawls are about exploring a map, Skycrawl is about exploring an infinite sky called the Azure Etern.
At times, the Azure Etern is a whimsical place with sentient suns known as Sol that provide heat, air, and light and otherwise make life possible. You might sail through a cloud of laughing flying fish one day. At other times, the Azure Etern can be cruel. You might be stranded as the winds die and the air vanishes. Your money might transform into a hungry black hole. A Sol might grow board and float off, leaving the civilization that grew on the floating rock beneath it to die.
For players, it means Skycrawl can be both weird and deadly. The infinite skies are not to be taken lightly.
Skycrawl is, I think, a wrapper of a system. There are no rules here to determine whether you hit the bartender or seduce the orc. There aren’t even rules for sky ship combat. However, there are frameworks to enable a hexcrawl through the sky, which includes an economic system that can encompass many worlds.
Exploration in Skycrawl
Designer Aaron A. Reed begins the $8 download by introducing the universe. We’ve already talked about the Sols, but Heavy Elements are a weighty subject too.
Where does gravity come from in a world like the Azure Etern without ups and downs? Gravity comes from these Elements, and so flying ships sometimes have decks made from them, so sailors do not float off.
There are several different types of Heavy Elements known in Skycrawl, each rarer and more expensive than another. It’s an economic system in its own right. It’s also a way to take two widely different settings and let you hexcrawl between them with this currency exchange in place.
Rather than exploring a landscape divided into hexes, in Skycrawl your map will be divided into Nearby, Approaching, Receding, and Distant zones. “Lands”, which are anything of interest, are represented by cards on these zones. Lands can shift around between the zones. Nearby, after all, is contextual to wherever you are right now. Also, in Skycrawl, even the lands are floating in the Azure and may drift off.
One of the pitches for Skycrawl is that it can transform your current game. Your players might discover that their world is just one floating rock in the Azure. That’s why Skycrawl has no up close system of its own; stick with whatever you like. The bet is you don’t have hexcrawl through the infinite sky rules, and so that’s what Skycrawl provides.
Rumours are an essential currency. Track what characters might have heard about new lands and how to get to them as a Rumour count. That count will be spent safely getting to places.
The other travel resource is “Tack”. Tack is gained by completing moves and handed out as rewards. It’s spent similarly, traded in to take roles in search of an advantage.
Example: After a cursed voyage trying to reach Ghostwind Blight, the crew of the Lodestar has managed to take their last journey step, but are down to their final point of Tack. They’d been hoping to have a surplus with which to buy a successful Arrival, but instead can only afford to have one party member make a Travel Roll. The best navigator takes his favorite d20 and rolls… but oh no, it’s a 4! A Complication means the GM determines where Lodestar arrives. After thinking for a minute, she says they’ve arrived not at the Blight but at Caliban’s Wheel, a decrepit outpost of shady characters that was in the same zone as their intended target.
While there’s no RPG engine in Skycrawl, there are plenty of systems.
In addition to the land chart, where places of interest might be nearby or distant, there’s a system for planning and executing journeys.
The journey system sets up some points of principle:
We’re dealing with abstracted movement in the infinite sky, measured by journey steps rather than distance.
There’s no proper rest in a sky with cold and thin air. There are no “long rests” between lands.
Travel between lands happens by the party collectively making moves.
There’s the framework to ship combat as well. As you might expect, this is abstracted down to some meaningful steps. A reason to own Skycrawl is to get these rules and drop them in all those sci-fi and contemporary RPGs you have that either ignore sky combat or have complex and unwieldy systems.
Then, there’s Orcery. This is the science and alchemy of using the ten Heavy Elements in the game.
Most of the time Orcery is only possible away from Lands and in the infinite sky. It deals with changing Heavy Metals into others or something else.
There’s a twist at the very end of the scale. The rarest and most valuable Heavy Metal is phire, and if it merges with more phire, which it will do if left alone, it can create a pitch-black point of gravity powerful enough to suck everything nearby into its well. Sols, those giant suns, especially dislike it when this happens and may come over to swallow the Oscenity whole. Sorry if you were nearby.
Random Skycrawl generators
Once Skycrawl equips you, as the GM, with all that you need to run a campaign in the Azure Etern, it then makes life a bit easier for you. The book has several generators.
As there is an infinite possibility of encounters in the endless sky, Aaron A. Reed provides a generator to create folk, people or cultures that the players might meet. As with the sometimes whimsical nature of Skycrawl, some of these folk can be mercurial indeed.
There is also a generator system for quickly creating other skyships. After all, a “land” might well be a huddled armada of vessels that make their tightly packed way along a particular route. You may need to quickly describe several new ships at once.
Player characters will undoubtedly want to land as well. The Journey system makes this desirable; you can’t easily rest while crewing a ship. Stepping up to the challenge, Skycrawl also provides a land generator.
Skycrawl layout and visuals
Aaron A. Reed takes a somewhat minimalist approach to the look and feel of Skycrawl.
The art is black and white. I’m reminded of the turn of the century books that might well be sketching notes on the exploration of far corners of Earth. That seems fitting, though.
While the art is concise and infrequent, it is effective. There’s no point in which Skycrawl becomes a sea of text.
It’s easy to scan the book, with a suitably large and clear font and appropriate use of boxes and shading to highlight key sections or paragraphs. It’s not ground-breaking or award-winning, but it works.
Skycrawl is 75-pages long, but I suspect its replayability is ten times that. It is absolutely possible to run Skycrawl as a Skycrawl game or use it to extend your current or planned game.
It’s hard to imagine Skycrawl without Heavy Elements and their risk of merging to become a hungry black hole, without the Sols or the chance of whimsical encounters. For me, at least, that limits it to settings and groups where such things won’t be disruptive.
Overall, though, I’m greatly impressed with Skycrawl. I don’t usually find much time for traditional hexcrawls, preferring to slow-mode roleplay character travels, but this sky-bound system is entirely different. The abstraction of travelling from one point of interest to another combines wonderfully with the rather strict tactics of making sure the crew is suitably prepared for such a trip.
If you’re building a helpful folio of GM resources, I’d recommend adding Skycrawl to it.
What do you think? Sound off in the comment section below.