Skycrawl’s Evocative Worldbuilding Tools are an Excellent Companion for TTRPG Gamemasters

Towards the end of 2020, a designer reached out to me through the Business Inquiries portal on my blog to offer me an opportunity. They were promoting their new TTRPG supplement Skycrawl, a resource for creating and running fantasy adventures across an endless sky peppered with strange and diverse worlds. I was excited to check out the book and immediately organized a game with some friends so we could check it out. About halfway through our campaign disaster struck – I got COVID. This was pre-vaccine so my ass laid on the couch for 9-10 days drifting in and out of a drug-induced sleep while my kid watched Inspector Gadget in the background. When I came to, I failed to get my TTRPG group organized, and Skycrawl began to collect metaphorical dust in my TTRPG folder.

Every now and again I would remember the game and feel guilty. This was the first time I ever didn’t get a review out quickly when provided with a free copy. It was a vicious cycle where I felt like it was too late to post something but the more late it got, the worse I felt. If I could just get myself motivated to run maybe one more session, I would probably have enough that I could feel comfortable writing a review of the game. Time continued to go by and I continued not to run things until finally, a buddy invited me to a new Discord she was making to get folks interested in TTRPGs together. It gave me the opportunity I needed to pick the book back up and use its tools again. And now, I stand (metaphorically) before you finally ready to share my thoughts on Skycrawl.

Let’s start with the basics. Skycrawl is a set of tools for running a fantasy RPG about sailing an endless expanse of sky called the Azure Etern. As your skyship soars through the clouds, you stumble upon curious Lands covered with Folk of all kinds and rife with opportunities for adventure. The book provides the gamemaster with tools for generating Lands and Folk as well as game mechanics for making skyships, fighting in sky battles, traveling between distant Lands, and performing alchemy (called orcery) with magical elements collected in the skies of the Azure Etern. The book is a supplement and needs to be paired with another TTRPG for the mechanics of exploration, combat, and socialization when on the surface of a Land. I played Skycrawl with Dungeon World, but you could easily adapt it to a wide variety of fantasy RPGs from as mainstream as D&D or Pathfinder to something more off the wall like Troika or Ryuutama.

A Powered by the Apocalypse RPG by Sage Latorra. While Dungeon World works fine with Skycrawl’s worldbuilding tools, I think there are probably better fits for the game mechanics than this one.

In the world of Skycrawl, skyships are the primary method of traveling between distant Lands. Skyships can take quite a few shapes and sizes but are generally more like boats than planes or spaceships, giving them a fantasy sheen as opposed to a more science fiction vehicle for flight. While flying on the skyship there is a schedule of moves to be made and a number of roles to be fulfilled during travel. One hero might be navigating while another gathers passing heavy elements and a third works on a personal project. The distance between Lands is usefully abstracted into “journey steps” based on their current position in the Azure Etern as well as the orbit and atmosphere of the individual Land. Each time you make a journey, you resolve a move which determines new locations of nearby Lands, moving them through various zones which represent how easy they are to reach from your current position. It’s a neat system that encourages exploration of new places by slowly shifting them into more accessible positions in the sky while the places you’ve already been move farther away.

Naturally one cannot have skyships in their game without also having the opportunity to have skyship battles. Two skyships coming against one another is a match of wits and luck as the competing players invest action points across their cannons, their shields, and their sails. Attack and defense are compared directly to see who takes damage and how much, while speed influences which ship gets to relocate for the round, potentially moving into a zone that gives a bigger offensive or defensive advantage. Damage is represented as damage to a specific system, meaning a ship with damaged cannons has penalties when trying to attack or will need to invest more points for the same effect. My group didn’t end up having a bunch of sky battles, but that was partly because we weren’t particularly impressed with them. Discussions about how to invest points were not particularly interesting to the players nor did they fit the vibe of the game we were playing; Dungeon World is fiction-first and roleplaying usually drives the experience, whereas Skycrawl’s ship battles are almost exclusively mechanical with roleplaying as an afterthought. They were also relatively easy for the players to exploit and ultimately they had a lot more fun just turning each ship encounter into a boarding assault and then using the Dungeon World mechanics to resolve the conflict.

The aspect of Skycrawl that my players and I used the least was the orcery, a toolset for the players that allows them to combine heavy elements collected during flight in order to perform alchemy. It’s a rich system with a large variety of effects based on the nature of the elements you are combining as well as the volumes you are using. It is not limited by character type and could be used in a game for a non-magical character to have access to some magic-adjacent effects, which is a nice touch, but I think for most of my players the depth of the system was a bit intimidating. I might recommend introducing orcery later into your Skycrawl game unless you have a particularly experienced group you are working with.

From a mechanical standpoint, I think Troika would be a very nice fit for Skycrawl as a base game. Both describe fantastical worlds with fantasy entities and locations very different from what you would see in many other RPGs.

In defense of Skycrawl’s mechanics, I think the battles and traversal would fit better into games that already have pretty rigid mechanical structures rather than the freeform style of a Powered by the Apocalypse game. The turn-based ship battles would feel less out of place in something like D&D or Troika, which also have turn-based encounters. Travel rules which are carefully segmented into a series of well-defined mechanical steps fit well into a travel-focused game like Ryuutama, but less into a game that normally abstracts the process of journeying in favor of telling stories about the destination. In this sense, the game probably performs best from a gameplay standpoint when combined with a system that already has a lot in common with what Skycrawl is trying to accomplish.

All that being said, the truly impressive part of Skycrawl isn’t really the traveling or the battles. The real selling point for the supplement – at least in the opinion of this particular gamemaster – is the robust toolset for the creation of varied and compelling fantasy worlds populated by unique creatures. Compared to other setting supplements or worldbuilding companions I’ve used for my games, Skycrawl has planted the seeds that have grown some of the most evocative fantasy worlds I’ve ever run. So let’s talk about how the game supports the building of interesting Lands and Folks. (Note: I’ve capitalized Lands and Folks here as these are game mechanics for Skycrawl – we’ll be discussing specifics related to them moving forward!)

Random tables weren’t invented by Skycrawl – plenty of games use them to help you use your interestingly-shaped RPG dice to get ideas from a list of prompts. What Skycrawl does well is having prompts that are particularly engaging as well as having an obscene amount of them. One game I mentioned as a potential companion to Skycrawl is Ryuutama. When you build a world in Ryuutama you have a handful of options for how that world is shaped. Maybe it’s a giant tree, or a series of sky islands, or on the back of a giant turtle. These are all neat choices that establish a different vibe for your world, and that’s also just three examples that exist on the list of 30 different world-shapes that the Lands in Skycrawl can have. But you’re not just establishing the shape of the land itself. You’re also defining the atmosphere around it, the nature of the sun (called the Sol) which watches over it, plus the plentiful resources that populate the Land – and the ones that are notably missing.

Ryuutama is a game that already focuses on land-based travel – Skycrawl feels like a very natural companion to help move the game into the sky, expanding your adventures beyond footpaths and introducing lots of new creature possibilities.

In the first game I ran using the Skycrawl worldbuilding tools, the players started in an asteroid belt. The resources I rolled for this world included a surplus of shipwrights, but the atmosphere I rolled for the Land was a ship graveyard. This led to the idea of a series of mechanics who set up shop in a particular dangerous asteroid field. Ships would crash into the floating space rock and then the shipwrights would repair them using scavenged parts from other wrecks, running a shady and questionable business for the adventurers to investigate. For the game I am currently running, I rolled an island-based world with low gravity. I came up with the idea that the locals traversed from island to island simply by jumping, since the light gravity meant they could cross a larger distance simply by leaping. These environments feel very unique for a fantasy game and are just two possible combinations with the vast number of customization options available across the tables offered by Skycrawl.

Sheer number of choices isn’t the only measure of a good set of tables, though. The quality of the options in terms of how evocative they are or how much potential they create for story hooks is important too. One thing I really appreciate about Skycrawl is the potential interplay between different elements you are creating and how the results you get for your Land may influence the Folk you create or vice versa. In a recent worldbuilding session on Twitch, I rolled a land whose Sol was capricious and color-changing, shifting colors on a whim at any time. For one of the Folk I generated for this land, I rolled a physical quality called “elemental” where some part of them is made of one of the game’s magical elements used in alchemy. While reviewing the heavy element table I noticed one element was the element of change. This gave me the idea to have the hair color of this particular Folk change in compliment with the ever-shifting light of the Sol. Because the various elements of the game reference one another and tie together in meaningful ways, it creates potential for fun combinations that feel unique to Skycrawl.

While it took me a long time to finally get my thoughts on Skycrawl onto paper, I’m really pleased with what I have experienced. I think the mechanical aspects of the game have been a poor fit for the particular RPG I chose to run, but most of them would feel better in a mechanics-first game and I want to try them again with something like Troika or Ryuutama sometime in the future. I’m not a huge fan of the ship combat, but that’s an easy piece to cut out. And the real meat of what Skycrawl brings to the table – the tables and worldbuilding prompts for both people and places – performs excellently in practice. My Skycrawl games have had noticeably more compelling locations and creature types compared to games where I’ve only used the base game’s worldbuilding tools or used a different supplement. I’m excited to continue to use Skycrawl as inspiration for upcoming games, and I fully recommend it to gamemasters looking for something to spice up their worldbuilding. You can check out Skycrawl and other works by designer Aaron Reed on DriveThruRPG.

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