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Advanced Zeppelin Leader
By Mike Bennighof, Ph.D.
March 2017

Our Zeppelins book for Great War at Sea has its roots in our line of role-playing games, long ago sold off to another publisher. I've always been fascinated by airships, and we had good success with our historical supplements for the d20 role-playing system. The Zeppelins book would capitalize on the then-new d20 Modern role-playing rules; though Wizards of the Coast had set a few additional restrictions on “urban fantasy” to fend off one of their competitors, we thought it would fit in nicely and knew we could make a good product.

The book would follow the same pattern as our other books: historical background, new rules, then an adventure. But it had not progressed very far — I'd written maybe 5,000 words of background — when word came from an allied publisher that d20 Modern pre-sales were tanking. Badly. We scotched the book, and also a World War II set of books.

I remained fascinated by the subject; I have been since I was very small. So moving it over to the board game line was a natural progression. I ended up using practically none of the background from the role-playing book even though about one-quarter of the new book was written by John Phythyon who headed our role-playing division.

What it does have that's similar to a role-playing supplement is a relatively large section of Advanced Airship Rules that we took to calling Advanced Zeppelin Leader, playing on the standard internal insult we apply to any overly complex rules. They are glorious in their complexity, as crunchy as any gamer could possibly want.

It's a lot harder to design a game with simple rules than one with complex ones. You always want to let units, ships or aircraft do special things and rather than fight through the hard work of fitting those special things into the context of the standard game rules, you just write a special rule. The Advanced Airship Rules are, by themselves, longer than the rules for many of our stand-alone games.

Players don't need to use them — the huge new pieces provided with the book work just fine without them — but we know the hard core of players will want to. And because weather is even more limiting on airship operations than in the standard rules, many of these new abilities will rarely come into play. But the possibility is there.

Airship Missions

The new airship pieces are rated for both range and endurance, similar to aircraft in the Second World War at Sea series. Instead of standard values for all airships, each airship is individually rated for how many zones it may move in a turn, and how many turns it may remain in the air. Range can be lowered by bad weather, and by bomb load. Damaged airships also find their range and endurance reduced (and may not be able to get home).

Just like fleets, airships now have missions. Scout missions let them seek out enemy forces, and Shadow missions let them follow the enemy once they're found. Ground Attack missions allow them to bomb enemy targets (not all airships have bomb factors). Naval Strikes let them attack enemy ships, though an airship's capacity to do damage is not very great. Escort is a very useful mission, allowing the airship to assist the fleet in contacting enemy fleets and helping to look for enemy submarines and mines. A handful of very large airships can undertake Transport missions. And finally, there's Airship Strike — you can send out airships to attack enemy airships.

The first edition of Mediterranean, the original Great War at Sea game, was designed without a tactical combat system — the basic combat rules were all that was there. We added more detail, though still far less extensive than miniatures rules, because we knew players would want to see the beautiful ship pieces spread out on the map instead of stacked up on the edge of the table.

So it is with the Zeppelins. The new pieces are even more impressive than the ships. For one thing, the artwork is outstanding, with original new drawings of the actual airships. For another, they're huge: 1 and 1/3 inch long and 2/3 of an inch wide. They do just fit on the Great War at Sea tactical map, and so we felt they needed to be used there.

During naval combat, airships can now fly around and try to help their side by spotting enemy ships and can drop bombs on them. Ships can fire at them with their nominal anti-aircraft values. Only once did an airship actually take part in a naval battle (the German L.5 in the last stages of the Battle of Dogger Bank in 1915) so a lot of the rules had to be extrapolated. And we extrapolated toward maximum airship utility.

If both sides have airships, the airships can shoot at each other. They can also try to ram one another, or they may just run into one another accidentally. On a more mundane level, they help the side that has one gain the initiative.

Mines and More

Some airships are tougher than others; early airships do not have a "damaged" side and are destroyed by a single hit. Some are able to climb quickly to greater heights and thus are harder to hit. These airships also have the option to bomb or spot from high altitude, where they are harder to damage but also much less effective in carrying out their missions. American airships, filled with helium, are less capable than identical German machines (as helium provides less lift) but are much, much harder to bring down — they will not explode, no matter how many bullets are pumped into them.

The largest airships can also carry troops — a rule that only has an impact in U.S. Navy Plan Gold. They can't carry very many, and only the very largest can do so, but Great War at Sea fan Jay Steiger begged for them, for many years, so now it's in there. It's a rule way up there on the gonzo scale.

Much less strange and deeply rooted in reality are new abilities for airships to hunt for mines (assisting minesweepers in finding them, though they have no ability to destroy minefields themselves) and in anti-submarine warfare. Airships can not only protect surface ships from submarine attack, they can also hunt for enemy submarines — the only means in the Great War at Sea series by which submarines can be found without revealing themselves in an attack. And once found, airships with bomb factors can attack the submarines — just like the Royal Navy's rigid airship R.29 did in 1918, sinking UB.115.

But airships have some enemies. Chiefly, the weather. The game with the most scenarios involving airships, Jutland, is also the one with the worst weather. Airships only operate at full capacity in Clear weather. Their capacity steadily erodes as the weather worsens, until in Gale weather (the game's worst) all airships out on missions crash, and there's a one-in-six chance that even those safely in their hangars might suffer damage, too. Even the mighty American airships with their helium-based invulnerability in battle crash like all the others before the storm gods.

Click here to buy Zeppelins now!

Mike Bennighof is president of Avalanche Press and holds a doctorate in history from Emory University. A Fulbright Scholar and award-winning journalist, he has published over 100 books, games and articles on historical subjects. He lives in Birmingham, Alabama with his wife, three children and his dog, Leopold.