Warbirds: Prologue

A fluffy, fictional re-telling of the first session of our Warbirds game. Warbirds is set in a dieselpunk world of WW2-era technology, where islands of the Caribbean were forcefully spirited away to an unknown world now called Azure in the early 1800s. A new order has arisen from the descendants of those taken, a world of floating islands far above the Murk, of airships and fighter aircraft, of celebrity and scandal, of heroics and pulp and all the adventure a pilot could want.

A flight of fighter aircraft was hardly an uncommon sight in the skies of Azure. The mismatch of fighters would, at first glance, likely look like pirate craft; pirates often used whatever was available, while Azure’s nation-states would field patrols of matching fighters. A closer examination would reveal these were no regular airplanes.

These were Guild aircraft.

A twin-boom, twin-engine SG-21 “Ibis” lead the very loose formation of fighters. An unusual fighter, barely recognizable as a YN-18 “Nighthawk” trailed off the leader’s port wing, heavy laden with bombs but seemingly able to keep up just fine due to its unusual push-pull design with props both at the front and the back of the craft. Further aft and to starboard, a GC-112 “Viscount” cruised the air with both grace and power, seemingly eager to be off the leash. Its design was classic in form and the most “traditional” of the fighters, with a single puller prop, graceful main wing and tail in a typical configuration and skinned in aluminum. Finally, at the back of the formation but with extra altitude, was a pusher canard design identifiable as a rebuilt SF-22 “Thrush”.

Its pilot, Miles O’Dolan, was bored.

“Weeks of patrol and not a pirate to be found,” he grumbled under his breath, leaving his radio off. “Hawk needs to find us a better job.”

His radio wasn’t as off as he thought. “We get paid regardless,” Felix Jaager, the unofficial leader of the flight, called back. “And they wouldn’t be paying Guild rates if there wasn’t a problem.”

Miles started to reply, but a static-filled voice interrupted the conversation. “May…ay…are un…ack…pirates,” a voice called.

Miles scanned the sky, and he knew the rest of the Guild pilots would be doing the same. One of the many technical problems caused by either the Eye or the Murk – he didn’t know which – was electromagnetic interference that ensured radio ranges were limited to ten kilometers at the most. Jaager tried to reply, but the pilot on the other end of the radio clearly didn’t hear him.

A faint glint of light reflecting off metal caught his eye – the extra thousand feet of altitude Miles had insisted on gave him a bit of a different vantage point. “Aircraft off to the north, 10 o’clock low,” he announced as he opened his throttle.

“How are we doing this?” Esther Hewlett, the push-pull Nighthawk pilot, asked tightly. There was tension in her voice – tension and eagerness, Miles thought.

“Sylvain and Miles stay high to watch for any surprises. We go in and hit these pirates,” Felix decided out loud.

Sylvain Bernard, in his spotless Viscount, hung off Miles’ wing as they clawed for an extra thousand feet of altitude. “You’ve got my wing,” Sylvain said.

“Not likely,” Miles muttered.

The Guild aircraft, at full emergency throttle, could make more than five hundred kilometers per hour in level flight – and more than six hundred kph in a dive. Covering ten kilometers, even starting from their relatively slow idle speed, took two minutes, during which the static on the radio cleared as they closed.

“This is the La Conquistadora, and we are under attack by pirates,” the heavily accented voice said. “Is anyone out there? We are under attack by pirates!”

From altitude, Miles evaluated the situation as they closed. The extra climb he and Sylvain and put on left them behind and well above as Felix and Esther closed on the fight below. The victim aircraft was a four-engine, large aircraft suitable as either a bomber or long-distance courier. Six small black and red biplanes, aircraft that were out of date by at least fifteen years, were harrying the larger aircraft, lacing it with light machine gun fire.

A wordless growl flooded the radio – an animalistic sound filled with venom. At the same time, Esther’s push-pull Nighthawk opened throttle to full emergency power, bypassing Felix in the lead. Felix slid back into the wingman position and also opened full emergency power just to keep up.

The biplanes didn’t see the Guild pilots coming.

Felix and Esther both fired as they streaked through the fight at a speed the old biplanes couldn’t hope to match. Machines guns fired, the flicker of tracers visible even from altitude. Two of the biplanes shredded, spiraling out of control toward the Murk far, far below.

“Let’s bounce them!” Miles ordered, a grin on his face. This was always the best part.

Sylvain protested – Miles thought it was probably about taking orders from him, but he wasn’t really paying attention – but followed into the dive on the biplanes.

The biplanes were breaking off from their pursuit of the courier plane, turning toward the two Guild pilots that had just ripped through their formation – completely oblivious to the threat of the two fighters diving from above.

Sylvain and Miles both fired, Sylvain with a stream of tracers from his light machine guns…while Miles’ Thrush sported a 20 mm cannon with a lot more firepower. Sylvain’s target fell away in flames, the tracers having ignited the fuel tank.

Miles missed altogether, his heavier rounds falling behind and below his target.

Damn! I need more practice with this cannon!

As Sylvain and Miles crossed below the surviving biplanes’ altitude, Miles saw their formation begin to fall apart as their numbers were reduced by half in less than a minute. And then Felix and Esther roared through again, and two more of the pirate biplanes fell smoking into the Murk.

“The last one is breaking off,” Felix called. “Looks like he decided to live.”

“There’s an airship out on his outbound vector,” Sylvain announced excitedly. “Coal black. I bet that’s the pirates’ drop carrier.”

Miles muscled his Thrush through a tight turn, seeing the surviving biplane flee east. The words drop carrier echoed in his ears but didn’t penetrate the red haze descending on his vision. I don’t miss.

“Do we want to engage the carrier?” Felix asked the rest of the flight hesitantly, and with good reason – the pirate airship was likely a flying fortress of floatstone and guns, and was far from the fragile and relatively easy targets the biplanes had been.

“Looks like Miles has already decided,” Esther said dryly. The three pilots began to form up for a strafing run on the airship.

Miles registered the airship in his vision and dismissed it as irrelevant. This biplane will die, he told himself.

The pirate was no fool and lined himself up to land on one of the two landing decks, convinced he would be safe if he made it to the deck of the airship.

The airship was exactly the sort of floating fortress Felix had expected. Built around a core of floatstone – the unexplainable rock which defied gravity, allowing both the islands ripped from Earth-That-Was two centuries prior and man-made airships to stay safely out of the crushing storms of the Murk – it featured two landing decks and would launch aircraft by dropping them vertically into the sky. It also sported multiple anti-aircraft turrets, designed to keep fighter patrols at bay.

Miles ignored all of it to pursue the biplane as it tried to land. The airship’s gunners held their fire as the two fighters approached, apparently unwilling to risk their comrade’s life to shoot at the Guild pilot. The Thrush’s cannons roared again.

The pirate almost made it.

The biplane hit the deck hard, fire erupting from its engine. It skidded down the runway, then slid over the edge, out of control, and began its long tumble to the crushing Murk below.

With the kill secured, Miles realized just how much danger he was in.

As it turned out, it wasn’t much.

The other three Guild pilots hit the airship together, with Esther’s heavy bomb load at the front of the attack. An explosion rocked the airship as the airship’s bridge filled with fire and concussion, and though the pirates didn’t know it, the battle was lost in that first strike.

Felix strafed over the antiaircraft guns, knocking defenses out. Sylvain’s burst of guns and cannons penetrated the airship’s core, and something broke loose, as the airship began to list to starboard.

Past the airship, Miles circled back into the fight, letting loose with guns and rockets as he flew past, hitting the engines. The airship’s listing threw off the aim of the other Guild pilots, though, and Esther’s second bomb missed entirely with much of Felix’s next strafing run wasted on empty deck instead of defenses. Sylvain continued to pour fire into the hole he’d already opened in the airship.

Then a rumble, more felt than heard, reached all of the guild pilots. “Break off, break off,” Felix called, and they scattered away from the airship as it began to descend uncontrolled into the depth of Azure below.

“Back to the Seraph,” came the call. “We’re almost out of fuel.”

Miles allowed himself a small smile. This is just the beginning of a long and glorious career.

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.