Failbetter Games’ Skyfarer: The RPG, a Review

In September 2018, Failbetter Games unleashed Skyfarer, a pen-and-paper RPG tie-in to Sunless Skies, their steampunk literary RPG for Mac, PC, and Linux. Free exclusively through, this promotional tool hypes their video game franchise by bringing it to the world of tabletop. This is their first attempt to translate their universe into a new style of game, so let’s review the results of this micro RPG simulation of their gaming world.

Let’s start with what Skyfarer is mechanically. The setting and core ideas for this tabletop RPG are the same as Failbetter Games’ narrative video games, Sunless Skies, Sunless Sea, and Fallen London, games that are steeped in steampunk and cosmic horror. In keeping with that setting, designers Grant Howitt and Chris Taylor of Rowan, Rook and Decard developed a narrative tabletop RPG in which players crew an armed, steam-powered, flying locomotive (sorry, this is just the engine, no line of flying train cars) through a world of Victorian horror. It’s that, the nature of the setting being centered around the ship, which makes this less of a full-fledged RPG and more of a micro RPG.

Everything about the game and your characters relates back to the ship--like a 1980s vehicle-action TV series like Airwolf or Knight Rider. But within its confines there’s a lot this game accomplishes. The GM is the captain; however, don’t worry about that destroying player agency in the game because the captain gets dead, or otherwise incapacitated, before the first die roll. That leaves the crew to muddle their way through the narrative, their decisions unencumbered by a proper command structure.

Skyfarer is quick to setup with rules that make finding your character’s place in the game easy to identify and latch onto. The game’s secret sauce is the structure: You’re a crew member of the locomotive and you have a specific job within that vessel’s hierarchy. You pick a Profession and the game carries you forward from there. Everyone pulls their weight on the train. Finding your character’s motivation in that setup is intuitive.

After you pick your Profession, the rest of the character creation takes just a few minutes. The down and dirty is you have four stats that get two positive modifiers, one neutral, and one negative modifier to represent the range of what your character excels, or fails, at. Add to that two Traits, one is your personality, and the other is how you carry yourself. Finally, there are four Integrities that cover character definitions that better envision the depths of their personality. There’s four leading statements with a number of answers. Of the four leading statements, you select two and work with them.

The Integrities statements are something in the vein of:

  • I WILL NEVER... Leave a job unfinished.
  • I WILL NEVER... Hide from danger.
  • I LOVE... The thrill of battle.
  • I LOVE... Experiencing art and culture.
There are two point pools, a Tenacity pool and a Peril pool. These are related ideas. Starting with Peril, it represents how much danger your character is in. If your roll plus modifiers is less than your Peril pool, there are consequences to your actions (even if it succeeds). However, you can mitigate your Peril by spending Tenacity points earned by acting according to your Integrities. After your characters are created, the last step is creating your flying locomotive. Not a complex process, pick a class of flying armed locomotive and two Traits that describe it (think Imposing, Up-gunned, Haunted, etc) and you’re off. You can be done with character creation in minutes.

With your character and engine done, the last bit is learning how to use these details. For task resolutions, you pick one stat, add any circumstantial modifiers, roll a d10 (or 2d10 and take the higher if it’s a task within your Profession) then compare the result to a target number. If this reminds you of a stripped-down Fate Accelerated, it did to me as well. Even though it has the feel of a trimmer version of that system, the setting and Professions really make it work.

The setting and Professions bring us to what’s best about Skyfarer, life in the locomotive. Where this system excels is locomotive action, every round has the potential for each character to perform tasks keeping you engaged in the running of the ship. Ship actions and ship-to-ship battles are not dull affairs for the “passengers”, they’re active events with rolls and opportunities to participate in the outcome of the scene/story. You are an engineer, a signaler, a gunner, a stoker, a navigator, or another position on the ship that gives you a chance to impact the minute-to-minute operation of your flying train. Every task worked independently as well as collectively giving round-to-round actions for every player.

One of the members of my group pointed out that this was, more or less, Firefly sans Mal: We’re old Western (steampunk Victorian) spacers on the final frontier in our own spaceship (flying locomotive). Once that was floated and combined with the available professions, the game coalesced for the table.

With that in mind, Skyfarer may start life as something more of a micro RPG but there is the potential for it to become a true game onto itself with multiple books and supplements. Alternately, it may stay in the realm of novelty, a fun freebie focused on facilitating the video game. Only time will tell for sure, but for now it’s a solid, fast, and free option for your gaming table.

If you'd like to read an actual play of the game, click here.

This article was contributed by Egg Embry as part of EN World's Columnist (ENWC) program. We are always on the lookout for freelance columnists! Please note that Egg is a participant in the OneBookShelf Affiliate Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for sites to earn advertising fees by advertising and linking to DriveThruRPG. If you have a pitch, please contact us!

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Egg Embry

Egg Embry


First Post
Sunless Sea/Sky and Fallen London have such an incredible world with so much lore hidden inside it, an RPG was practically begging to be made out of it. Great news!

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