Warbirds: A New Adventure

A friend of mine decided some months back to make his first attempt at running a tabletop game and asked me if I’d like to join. Knowing the friend in question, I said “yes” without hesitation before even finding out what game we were playing.

And that game turned out to be Warbirds.

Warbirds is a relatively fringe game. Made by Outrider Studios, Warbirds was crowdfunded into existence for a mere $6000 dollars in 2013. The focus of the game is on fighter pilots in an alternate history world, with the rules fast and easy to play with an eye towards pulpy, over-the-top heroics by the player characters.

Set in the fantastical world of Azure, a small subset of humanity was ripped from Earth in an otherworldly storm and found themselves on floating islands in the sky of Azure – islands that were themselves ripped from the Caribbean on Earth around 1805. Several hundred years have passed, and technology has progressed to a roughly WW2-era equivalent. “Floatstone” is the key to much of the world, with small amounts falling slower than it should and large amounts outright defying gravity. Airships have been built around floatstone, allowing people to transit between islands safely above the ugly Murk covering the face of Azure, which is itself certain death for anyone who ventures down into it.

The players are rookie pilots in the Guild – a relatively high-tech mercenary group for sale to the highest bidders. Well-managed publicity around Guild members’ exploits have made them all celebrities of sorts, with corporate sponsorships providing plenty of cash inflow to individual pilots and to the guild as a whole.

Our game master setup the game for us on Roll20.net, an online platform for playing tabletop games remotely. Given that the players are widely spaced geographically, actually getting together in-person on a regular basis isn’t possible – but the Internet finds a way.

The game, as mentioned before, is played fast and simple with just a single six-sided die and addition/subtraction based on a set of rules called “Rapidfire”. Players can take and level various skills to improve their character’s abilities, acquire equipment of varying effects, and have both Advantages and Disadvantages (which, as a whole, must balance out to zero – if a player has a minor advantage, they need a minor disadvantage). The limiting factor is really the creativity of the gamemaster and the player.

The player group – four of us in total – decided to start our game as members of the Green Dragons squadron. Each of the Guild’s squadrons have varying reputations and are run differently; the Green Dragons are notorious hedonists who were originally military washouts too undisciplined for regular service. They’re very talented and unpredictable, which can make them deadlier than expected in a fight, but they’re difficult to work with and cost less than other Guild squadrons to hire.

Felix Jaager has unofficially become the leader of the group. The most balanced of the group, he’s been doing the job of herding the pilots of the new flight into something resembling order before hot lead starts flying. He flies a P-38-inspired fighter and is the most comfortable swapping between dogfighting and ground attack roles to ensure the job gets done.

Sylvain Bernard is the prettyboy of the flight, definitely seeking the limelight. He’s most comfortable in the thrill of a dogfight or posing for publicity photos…when he’s not stripping some poor fool of his coin in a game of chance. He flies a classic aircraft in the stylings of a real-world Spitfire.

Esther Hewlett didn’t get what she signed up for. She came on board with the intention of joining the disciplined, deadly-efficient Grey Falcons squad…but she ended up shuffled into the Green Dragons by accident. A British native of Nassau, she was a nurse before she became a fighter pilot, and learned to loathe pirates as she tended to the victims of their raids. She flies a push-pull design akin to a Do-335.

Miles O’Dolan rounds out the flight, an Irish man who fancies himself a sniper but has found himself incapable of the discipline required of military life. He seldom goes anywhere without carrying his rifle, “Joanna”, with him, even when it leads to awkward social situations. In the cockpit he prefers dogfighting to ground attack, and is the only pilot in the squad to lean on heavy cannons instead of machine guns. He flies a fighter inspired by the Japanese J7 Shinden design from WW2 and is played by yours truly.

Did I mention that there’s a second character sheet?

Not only do players fill out a sheet on their character’s quirks and skills, but there’s also a second sheet for the players’ aircraft. Each Guild fighter can be tweaked and tuned to the player’s liking, starting with guns and ordinance types, but also including traits which impact a plane’s performance in a fight. Traits may be things like “extra ammunition” to give a plane more rounds of ammunition – yes, it’s tracked, and yes, you can run out mid-fight – or drop tanks to extend a plane’s range or a reduced turn radius to give the pilot a +1 to dogfighting rolls. Players customize their fighters to play to their liking.

Actual combat is played very abstractly. Rather than a map with maneuvers and dials and measurement, the Rapidfire system determines everything based on dice rolls and modifiers. In a dogfight with an enemy pilot? Make opposed Dogfighting rolls – the winner gets the opportunity to shoot at the other with a follow-up Gunnery roll. The loser of the Dogfighting roll then has to choose how he wants to try to evade, with varying levels of risk involved – executing a Stunt as a defense may put him in a better position for the following round, or it may put him squarely inside the attacker’s gunsights this round and end in him falling to the island below – or even worse, into the Murk.

Next up: Session 1, our introduction into the world of Azure with a Guild assignment to patrol for air pirates.

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