Airships are large, generally boxy with sleek edges added. I’m thinking along the lines of Panzer Dragoon, without getting stupid massive- instead, probably about the sizes of real world boats.
It’s said that airships were given to humanity by the Goddess Avandra and that the first 12, the Zodiac ships, were crafted by her hands directly.
At the heart of each airship is a piece of a fallen star, which gives it the power of flight. The wind is channelled through a series of pipes to the fragment (the “core”) which produces tones and songs which remind it of the sky it once called home. Longing for home, it rises and sings in return.
Once awakened thus, a fallen star piece cannot ever rest again, and airships are incapable of dropping below 50 feet height, unless the core is breached – the star piece bursts forth, a bright light shooting to the sky… while the airship comes crashing to the ground. Never a good thing!
Airships are the heart of human civilization. They allow the various settlements to trade specialized exports, without taking the dangerous journeys of traveling by land. Around the world, one can find several sky temples to Avandra- tall temples with sky docks built in for the airships to land, and deliver or receive cargo.
Each temple becomes a lifeline for the area around it. Well placed junctures along air routes and towns with rare or valuable exports do well and are visited often, while some areas might have a ramshackle sky dock of rotting lumber that receives a ship once or twice a year.
Most trade is locked in by the various nobles and their clans. They often have long standing and complex treaties and agreements which span generations giving them sole rights to trade at certain places or with certain cargos. The clans typically have a clan house at each major trade port and also have built long standing reputations for their methods and styles of shipping- (“The Mandar use special cellar ships – some even swear the wine tastes better after shipping!”)
The secondary trade of smaller cargos, less valuable, or for new businesses is taken up by the Guilds. Lacking the old money or the advantage of monopolizing the best trade deals, the Guilds are unable to match the Clans in ships or speed. Just the same, they make good business on smaller deals and charge less. Smaller businesses and people who can afford to travel utilize the Guilds to do so.
At the bottom of the air trade is the sole proprietorships of individuals or families who have but a single ship to their name. Their ships are small, often run down, and they usually specialize in flying along a single route or small area. They take catch-as-can jobs and hope to scrape up enough money to get a second airship.
Airships require a bare minimum of 4 crew members.
The Navigator charts the route and also keeps her eyes out for immediate concerns- including other airships. The Navigator often will call out small adjustments or corrections to the Propulsionist or the Wing Engineer to assure a safe flight. The Navigator is second only to the Captain.
The Propulsionist controls the windpipes which controls the core. This often appears as a classic organ style instrument, though older airships sport sets of levers and similarly crude instrumentation. The Propulsionist causes the airship to rise, sink, speed up or slow down. The core can “get tired”, and expert players are able to get more out of it through a combination of good music and careful husbandry.
The Wing Engineer controls the actual turning of the ship by controlling the various wings and rudders that direct the ship. The Wing Engineer may also assist the ascent or descent of the ship, as well as braking through these means. The Wing Engineer’s controls are a series of levers and chains which must be pulled and locked into position constantly, leading to some rather burly crewmembers.
And finally, the Captain. The Captain’s role is the same as that of a naval vessel- to make decisions for the ship as a whole and supervise the crew. The Captain often is also the person making strategic decisions about which routes to take, how much cargo to buy/sell, when and where rest is needed, and whether to brave a storm or lay low amongst the trees and wait it out.
Though, obviously, even the smallest ship usually has a dozen crew at least. The biggest need is for extra hands to load/unload cargo, do small maintainence or as relief to the primary bridge crew.
Getting a ship of your own
Buying an airship is tough. New ships are rare as few folks are able to find fallen stars and brave the wild to get there and back. Such finds are worth a lot of money, and mostly get sold to Clans who can afford to pay the highest for new fallen stars. Old ships are rarely sold- even beatup ones represent income which could span generations. Typically an old ship is only sold when some family decides to settle down for some extremely profitable business or someone is in deep, deep debts.
More commonly, old ships are sold when they’re stolen.
Piracy and air warfare
Piracy isn’t as common as one might think. It’s a high risk affair, and often you can make more money just grinding out trade.
But there’s always folks who either are that desperate or that daring. Guilds which have been driven out of business, or a couple of smaller dispossessed clans might choose instead to turn to piracy. The problem is you really need an airship to attack others to begin with.
The towns that see the most trade are often the best protected. Some pirates raid only the outlying areas, which almost always is a threadbare existence to begin with. More pirates, instead, aim to take the cargo and ships of other airships, which pays much better. Such pirates often thrive near borders between nations, as they do best pirating in one and selling in the other. When they capture a ship, they sell it quickly and often cheaply, usually to some family that desperately wants to get into the airtrade. Ironically, it is these same small, unexperienced families in rinky-dink ships that make the best targets for pirates.
Such piracy continues to exist if only because the smallest Guilds and sole proprietors are targeted- those with enough power to wipe it out aren’t effected enough to care, and actually, it works in their favor as it keeps the bottom competition from climbing up.
Airships are not equipped with proper weapons for air to air combat. Generally speaking, any ranged fighting is a matter of crossbows, though it is ultimately a matter of boarding. Pirates will use grapples and ropes, though better equipped ones will use bamboo hang gliders to move from one ship to another. The only “weapon” most ships are equipped with is a battering ram, though that is usually a foolhardy choice- it’s dangerous, and only the most desperate want to take the chance of destroying something as valuable as an airship.
Instead, what most people do is attempt to sideswipe another ship or force it into trees, tall obstacles or other wise damage the wings and rudders- which limit manueverability as well as slow the ship down. So crippled, you can either fly away to safety or after subduing the crew, tow it back as spoils of war.
There are 4 new skills: Navigation (INT), Propulsionist (CHA), Wing Engineer (CON), and Captain (WIS). Each PC starts with 2 of these as trained, on top of whatever their normal skill selection is. (This is assuming that the party will generally be flying around in an airship).
Airships fly no faster than dragons, for the simple reason that airships vs. dragon fights are awesome.
Falling… to your DOOM!
As per normal rules, folks get save to avoid going over.
Player characters who fail? They fall off and either catch on to some protrusion half way down the ship or fall into something which does not kill them (choose depending on what works for your scene and situation). Unrealistic? Sure, but I want players to have fun on airships at the Heroic Tier. Fearing -insta-death is not fun.
NPCs who fail can get one more save to catch on something on the side or bottom of the airship. Give this save only to NPCs who you think would make fun recurring characters. Otherwise, they fall to their doom.
Players can opt to use Acrobatics or Athletics (their choice) to operate Hang Gliders. Acrobatics is mostly used for fancy manuevers, dodging things, or skirting between obstacles. Athletics is mostly used for fighting strong winds or bad weather, flying in straight lines, or endurance flights. Using the “wrong skill” is a -2 penalty.
Attempting to bull rush someone while landing receives a +5 bonus. Attempting to drop kick as part of a landing, or let go of the glider and let it crash into someone should be treated as a stunt combat action, probably with light limited damage.