Husband-and-wife team Tracy Hickman and Laura Hickman have brought some of Dungeons & Dragons’ most beloved worlds to life. That includes Barovia and its iconic ruler, Strahd von Zarovich, and the world of Krynn, the setting for Dragonlance. Now the Hickmans have a new project called Skyraiders of Abarax, a unique setting with a ruleset based on 5th edition D&D. The project comes to Kickstarter on Oct. 12, and Polygon can exclusively reveal some of the first details.
At the core of the setting is a single massive island called Abarax (pronounced AH-buh-rox). More than 200 years ago, Abarax was a penal colony, but mysterious circumstances freed its prisoners. The Hickmans compare it to a kind of post-post-apocalyptic Australia, but geographically, it’s a lot smaller.
When the colony broke down, its captives were freed, and they either killed off or made alliances with their keepers. But everyone living there today is descended from that original colony. No one is a native, and all of them were brought to Abarax from distant lands — for many different reasons.
“This island was used [as a penal colony] not just by one nation, but several,” said Laura Hickman.
“All of [the current residents] have stories about their homelands in far distant places,” Tracy Hickman added, “which may or may not have been true. But it is the dream that sustains them, in terms of leaving this place and finding their way back home.”
Barring their path is a treacherous sea. Their only hope: magical flying ships, called aeroships, which have only recently been reverse-engineered, likely from derelicts left behind by another, as-yet-unnamed power. Laura Hickman calls them Abarax’s “10 times cool factor.”
Early images shown on social media portray the aeroships with huge metal pans on the back, sort of like magical braziers with gouts of flame rising from the surface. The ships are powered by something called dragon sylph, but Laura Hickman and Tracy Hickman are still being cagey on what exactly that magical stuff is.
It’s the timeline that’s so interesting, however. Two centuries of freedom may seem like a long time, but in the realm of high fantasy, it’s the blink of an eye. Expect the setting’s political systems to be varied, fractious, and raw.
I pressed Laura Hickman and Tracy Hickman for more details. Why is the sea so treacherous? What is dragon sylph, and how will players get more of it? Who are the ruling parties on Abarax, and how will they impact players at the table? Expect answers to some of those questions to arrive in the lead-up to their crowdfunding campaign ... but not all of them.
There is mystery at the center of this new setting, and its designers’ lack of clarity is a feature, not a bug. That’s where Skyraiders’ techies comes in.
Working alongside Laura Hickman and Tracy Hickman is another married couple. Joe Bourrie is a veteran game designer with experience at Electronic Arts and The Void, where he worked on Star Wars- and Ghostbusters-themed virtual reality experiences alongside Tracy Hickman. Kim Bourrie also worked at Electronic Arts, and on Fortnite. Both have experience on Kickstarter — Joe with his Syncoplay-branded retro game display stands, and Kim with 3D-printed dice towers and other tabletop gaming accessories. Together, the pair has already brought in more than $340,000 from backers across four projects.
“Joe and I are also huge Kickstarter fans,” said Tracy Hickman, who ran his own successful campaign for a board game in 2016.
Joe Bourrie is working at this moment on the game’s mysterious “Living Tome System.” To hear him tell it, it should look and feel a little bit like a companion app — something similar to what you’d use to play XCOM: The Board Game or Descent: Legends of the Dark. But the more he described it, the less those comparisons made any sense at all.
“I actually don’t like to think of this as a companion app,” Joe Bourrie said. “It is an integral part of the experience, not only for the players but for the GM as well. There are many things that are pretty difficult to do in tabletop. We can’t give away all of our secrets right now, but imagine things like hidden information. That is quite challenging to pull off when everybody is sitting around a table talking to each other.”
The Living Tome System will make passing hidden information easier, Joe Bourrie promised. He said the goal is not to have players sitting there with their noses buried in their phones all night long. Kim Bourrie said the app will be an “extension” of the gameplay experience. Game masters “will get to play as well,” she added.
“They may be discovering some things on their own,” Joe Bourrie said. “They may be playing a little bit of a game by having access to an app that knows just a little bit more than they do.” Game masters who don’t want to use the app won’t have to. However, he said that doing so will leave out some of the magic.
Expect to hear more about Skyraiders of Abarax in the lead-up to the Oct. 12 launch of its Kickstarter campaign, which will feature multiple books as well as 3D printable files for custom accessories. You can also sign up for a newsletter at the setting’s official website.