Airships, what fun!

I’ve got a Kickstarter coming up for this very thing (and of course I do), so in combination with the fact I’ve now used this mechanic in 3 campaigns, as well as my general obsession with them (and what could I possibly love more than talking about myself), it’s time to talk about Airships.

Airships are floating boats of any variety, whether they’re zeppelins, wooden ships with magic sails, floating fortresses, you get the idea. The specific form of the airships will have some relevance later, but we have to go over some basics first.

If you’re including Airships in your campaign, you should probably think of a specific reason why.

How are they made? Magic, tinkering, both? Do they need to be maintained?
Do the Airships provide transportation for people? How about cargo?
Are they common? How long do they take to build?
Are they used for military support? How about direct combat?

Any DM who drops airships into their campaign needs understand that if the players have access to them (including by means of theft), your world will suddenly expands in scope. these ships provide your players with a certain degree of freedom, particularly if they need no additional and PCs to maintain or operate the airship. I prepared for this with a map on the scale of North America. It’s not necessary by any means to do that, there’s plenty to do in any given region or country. I do find it useful, however, to have on hand when players say “we want to take a vacation somewhere else”, in addition to other benefits. Just know in advance; an airship that doesn’t need to be maintained or operated by other NPCs, or are otherwise guaranteed to operate at the parties command, will unhitch your players from locations they’d normally have to struggle to leave.

It also reduces the relative threat posed by any given entity or event whose primary danger is its proximity to the players. That’s a fancy way of saying “if it’s not a hurricane or Dragon, it’s not going to light a fire under your players by necessity.” If you, like me, enjoy watching your players freak out about whatever’s on their plate, you may need to adjust the challenges you throw at them.

Don’t turn their airship into a punishment, though. Don’t get me wrong, giving the players an airship with hit points gives the players a fail state that doesn’t involve players dying or being captured. Absolutely use that to challenge them (or, should mischief take you, a new adventure hook; your ship is gone)! Understand however, the more any given possession or ability of the players needs to be micromanaged, and the longer it takes to resolve the effects of that position or ability (particularly in combat), the more likely they are to push it to the side whenever they can. Your players want to wear tri-cornered hats and call themselves pirates, not become a spreadsheet manager. I made this mistake in my first campaign. My players had the Celestial Wyvern, the bane of the first Host War, stolen from the nation of its creation, their pride and joy. Despite its obvious benefit in combat, the amount of time it took to resolve the firing of various cannons, howitzers, swivel guns, you name it wore the party down. It still wouldn’t be too much if not for the tracking and management of ammunition, their various weights, ranges, etc. afterwards. It brought down the experience as a whole, even though certain parts were fun. I was ruining a night at a five-star restaurant with an obligatory post-meal survey. The dread of resolving the aftermath of a combat started bleeding into the combat itself, and that dread certainly didn’t make resolving the battle any easier.

I also made a custom system for sailors to gain experience and abilities as time went on, giving the players an additional sense of progression and success. When I told them their crew had leveled, they got excited! When I handed them a well written six page document on how to generate the stats for 50 crewmembers, this excitement quickly faded. The fact it made them more effective in combat only made the problem worse; they couldn’t think of an excuse not to make use of the system!

I’ve since Capt. adapted many of the features of that document into simpler, abstracted, easily resolved mass combat systems. This is Matt Colville’s mass warfare system, by the way. Any warfare system that includes a simple way to resolve upkeep will do, but Colville’s system is both sufficiently fun to manage and play and adapt for my own purposes (I’ve already created three new kinds of units within) that’s at the top of my recommendations list. I inflate the cost of “crew” units, which allows me to roll the cost of ammunition into upkeep. I’ve also incorporated the various armaments into the stats of the crew unit itself, determining its power score specifically.

Since in Colville’s system the stats of any given unit, along with certain modifiers, determine the cost of purchasing and maintaining the unit, all I had to do was apply certain modifiers to roughly incorporate the cost of ammunition. The only things the players need to purchase individually are the armaments of the ships themselves. Remember when I asked whether airships in your campaign serve to function in combat? Remember when I asked whether they participated directly? If you want to handle that in a way that’s engaging, simple, and sensible all at the same time, you need to do something similar to the formation process. Or, of course, adapt someone else’s system (or even better, you someone else’s comprehensive adaptation).

There is a reason “The Airships of Brackas” is behind a pay wall, that’s because products like it solves problems like these for the GM and allow them to jump straight into the fun.

So these are the primary lessons I’ve taken from running with airships in my campaign. If I had to boil them down, they’d be:

  • Don’t let them take too much time to adjudicate in combat. Familiarize yourself with someone else’s system (like mine), make setting adjustments, and enjoy.

  • Players like having ships because they like the freedom and expanded opportunities they bring. Not for inventory management simulator.

  • Prepare for the scope of your campaign to expand if the players gain access to one. Start making monsters that threaten characters on or with airships (like the bestiary attached to Airships of Brackas).