The airship is an iconic element of Eberron. I’ve recently wrapped up a series on Arcane Industry and I’ve discussed Flight in Eberron in a previous article, but I’ve received a lot of questions about airships that aren’t covered in current material and I want to share my thoughts on them. A few disclaimers: this is not a deep mechanical breakdown of all aspects of airships and airship travel, and notably doesn’t delve into airship combat in any way. Likewise, this is quite different that what’s suggested in the 3.5 Explorer’s Handbook, which I didn’t work on. This how I use airships in MY campaign; it’s up to you to decide if you want to use this approach in yours.
First and foremost, it’s important to understand that airships are a recent development. Lyrandar’s first airships went into service in 990 YK, just eight years before the default starting date. All of this ties to the idea that the science of air travel is very recent and that there’s a lot of room for improvement. From a narrative perspective, we don’t WANT airships to be perfect. We want it to be easy for airships to crash, because adventurers having to escape from crashing airships is an excellent drama. We want them to have limited range so that there are still places you can’t get to easily—that you can’t just fly your airship to Ashtakala. We want them to be largely limited to House Lyrandar because that gives Lyrandar power and adds another source of dramatic tension. So always keep in mind that airships aren’t perfect and that this is intentional. This is the DAWN of air travel; again, Eberron is closer overall to mid-nineteenth century Earth than to twentieth century Earth.
An airship is made using a soarwood hull. Soarwood is effectively weightless, though it’s not lighter than air. So a piece of soarwood will naturally float in the air, but it won’t rise. The crucial point here is that the soarwood hull is weightless… But an airship is more than its hull. Cargo, crew, and the elemental engine all do have weight, and these are sufficient to pull an airship to the ground. It is the elemental engine that provides lift and keeps an airship in the air; if the ring is shut down, an airship will crash.
So what IS the elemental engine? The heart of it is the elemental core, an engraved sphere of brass and mithral with a khyber dragonshard at the center. A raw elemental is bound to this dragonshard—”raw” in the sense of “general elemental, not an anthropomorphic entity like an efreeti or azer. The elemental is absolutely anchored to the core and can’t be easily released; what the engine does is to pull it out from the core, stretching it out across the ship’s systems and the ring. This doesn’t release the elemental; it’s still anchored to the khyber shard, and if the engine is fully shut down, the elemental snaps back into the core.
The elemental engine provides both lift and motive power. As long as the engine is active, an airship can hover or move forward. But there’s a lot more going on with an airship than just the ring. Here’s a few of the secondary systems that are vital to airship operations.
- Elemental Veins. The elemental engine uses engraved strips of metal to channel the power of the elemental through the vessel and out to the ring. You can think of these as the veins of the ship, channeling power through its body. In addition to directly connecting the core to the elemental ring, these channel the secondary enchantments of the focusing nodes and the wind wards. There is a great deal of redundancy to the patterns of the veins, so severing a single line will have minimal impact on the ship; it could cause a particular section to lose heat or create a gap in the wards, but it would taken massive damage to cause the ring to break down. The metals used in the veins vary based on the type of elemental involved.
- Focusing Nodes. These are metal polyhedrons, typically 8 inches in diameter, engraved with engraved with sigils and inlaid with Eberron dragonshards. They’re superficially similar to the conductor stones used in the lightning rail and serve a similar role; they are placed at critical vein junctures and help to draw out and stabilize the power of the core. Focusing nodes also maintain an enchantment that maintains a consistent temperature within the vessel, even at high altitudes that would typically be bitterly cold. As with the veins, the loss of a single node generally isn’t disastrous, but the crew needs to monitor and maintain them.
- Wind Wards. An airship is an open-deck vessel that moves swiftly through the upper atmosphere. What keeps people from being blown off the deck? How can people breathe at high altitudes? How does an airship handle turbulence? The wind wards are the answer to these questions. An airship is enveloped in a ward that shunts both wind and small objects (such as birds) around the vessel, as well as maintaining air pressure within the wards. The wind wards are also play a role in maneuvering the ship; the ring provides forward thrust, but the envelope of winds helps the vessel turn. While the wards are controlled by the Wheel of Wind and Water, they draw power from the focusing nodes and have their own system of “ward wings” that must be maintained and adjusted by the crew. In the current design, the wind wards suffice only to ensure the safe operations of the vessel and don’t provide any special protection in combat; projectiles can penetrate the wards. However, it’s possible that a future design could strengthen the wind wards to serve as a form of defensive shield.
- The Wheel of Wind and Water. This is the dragonmark focus item that controls the ship. It has two purposes: it allows the captain to interface with the elemental, helping to calm it and to direct speed and thrust; and it also allows the captain to maintain the wind wards, and use them to direct fine maneuvering.
THIS IS NOT INTENDED TO BE A COMPLETE LIST OF SYSTEMS. Airships are complicated, and a DM can certainly add greater complexity to fit the needs of the system. But this provides a general overview of major systems and things that can go wrong.
The classic airship uses a fire elemental in its ring… so why is the Mark of STORM useful for controlling it? What is it that gives Lyrandar the monopoly on air travel?
The Mark of Storms gives its bearer a general affinity for elemental forces that is enhanced by the wheel of wind and water. However, that’s a secondary aspect. It’s the wind wards that are specifically tied to the Mark of Storm, and every airship relies on these WIND wards, regardless of the form of elemental that provides thrust. As noted above, the wards both protect the ship and its crew and play an important role in maneuvering. An airship without the wind wards would have to operate at lower altitudes and slower speeds, and couldn’t maneuver as effectively as a Lyrandar vessel. The wheel of wind and water serves both purposes: controlling the elemental and drawing on the pilot’s mark to maintain the wind wards.
While a wheel of wind and water typically LOOKS like a classic ship’s wheel, the pilot doesn’t actually steer by turning it; instead, the pilot enters into a trancelike state where they commune with the elemental and wards. It’s not that they issue specific orders to the elemental, it’s that they experience the ship as an extension of their body.
So what happens when a ship loses its Lyrandar pilots? Most people simply can’t interface with a wheel of wind and water, but player characters aren’t most people. Someone with a strong personality and understanding of arcane science could essentially try to hack the system, using their sheer force of will to direct the elemental. Personally, I’d allow a player character who’s proficient with Arcana to bond to the wheel; while it doesn’t follow the normal rules of attunement, this connection does require the pilot to devote one of their attunement slots throughout the process. An unmarked pilot must make make regular control checks; this is performed when they first bond to the wheel, whenever they make a significant change to speed or course, and every hour they remain connected. A control check is a Charisma check with a base difficulty of 12, though the DM can adjust this based on current conditions (it’s more difficult to maintain control in a storm, for example); they could also choose to increase the difficulty each hour, if the goal is to model an emergency situation that can’t be sustained indefinitely. Every time the pilot fails a check, both the pilot and the elemental suffer a level of exhaustion (the effects of elemental exhaustion are described below). An unmarked pilot can’t maintain the wind wards; this forces the vessel to operate at lower altitudes, typically cuts its maximum speed in half, and makes storms and other weather effects considerably more dangerous. A pilot can choose to use Intimidation when making a control check—forcing their will upon the elemental—but if the check fails, the elemental suffers two levels of exhaustion.
A pilot with the Mark of Storm has a far easier time controlling an airship; all of the systems are designed to interface with the marked heir. They only need to make a control check once every four hours. Complex maneuvers or adverse conditions could require a Charisma (Air Vehicles) check, but failure doesn’t impose exhaustion on the pilot, though depending on the conditions calling for the check it could impose elemental exhaustion.
ELEMENTAL EXHAUSTION AND ONGOING COSTS
Elementals bound to airships aren’t entirely aware of their condition. While technically sentient — possessing Intelligence and even language— “raw” elementals are extremely alien beings that don’t perceive reality or the passage of time in the same ways that creatures of the material plane do. More than anything, a raw elemental wants to express its nature. A fire elemental wants to BURN. When an airship is operating at peak efficiency, that’s what the elemental experiences; the fire elemental in the ring doesn’t even realize it IS bound, it just knows that it’s BURNING. The challenge to the pilot is essentially to keep the elemental calm. The more excited it gets, the more energy flows into the systems… and while this might seem like a good thing, it actually runs a risk of overloading the focusing nodes and burning out the elemental engine—initially causing the loss of secondary systems, and eventually causing the elemental ring to collapse and the ship to crash.
The brings us to the ongoing costs of maintaining an airship. Eberron: Rising From The Last War notes that “many powerful tools—such as the lightning rail and elemental airships—require an ongoing expenditure of Eberron dragonshards to maintain their enchantments.” The key phrase there is to maintain their enchantments. Dragonshards don’t function as FUEL for an airship; again, the motive power is provided by the elemental, and that movement doesn’t directly require any expenditure of dragonshards. However, dragonshards must be expended to maintain the elemental engine—both periodic infusions of residuum to the main engine node and replacing focusing nodes that burn out (new shards can be implanted in a burnt-out node, so it’s not that the entire node is disposable). So dragonshards aren’t analagous to gasoline in a car; instead, it’s about adding oil to keep the engine running and replacing fuel. But, the more restless an elemental becomes, the more of a strain it places on these systems. This is measured by the concept of Elemental Exhaustion. With no levels of exhaustion, the ship runs at peak capacity. At six levels of exhaustion, the elemental must be confined to the core, which means the elemental engine (and ring) has to be shut down. The levels in between don’t have the standard effects of exhaustion, but they require an increasing expenditure of residuum to maintain the engine and focusing nodes will burn out; at high levels of exhaustion, it’s likely that sections of the ship will be without heat and it might become impossible to maintain the wind wards. This is a simple system, and if I was planning to make extensive use of it I’d add more concrete details to the consequences of each level—but this is the basic idea.
This brings up two important questions I’ve been asked, Can airships hover? and Why are docking towers so important? Yes, airships can hover. The elemental doesn’t particularly care if it’s moving or standing still as long as it’s generating the ring. Which means hovering places the same strains on the elemental engine as moving—and that a hovering airship is still going to generate elemental exhaustion and consume shards. The most important function of a docking tower is to calm the elemental. Every eight hours spent at a docking tower removes a level of elemental exhaustion, and it’s also possible for an airship to hover indefinitely while connected to a docking tower.
This in turn explains the current limitations of air travel: It’s dangerous to go too far from a docking tower… And currently there AREN’T THAT MANY DOCKING TOWERS; they’re primarily in the big cities. This isn’t something that I particularly want to put strict ranges on, because it’s not entirely reliable (a skilled pilot can keep the ship in the air for a longer period of time) and because it might well vary based on the design of the ship itself; certain ships may be designed to endure longer journeys and higher rates of exhaustion, while a small “commuter” ship might fail with just two levels of exhaustion. Ultimately, the point is that this is a tool that allows the DM to place limits on what a vessel can do. If a group of adventurers hijack an airship and want to fly to Ashtakala the DM can say “This ship won’t make it that far“—perhaps adding “… But that bigger ship over there could!” Though as a second note, I’d think that just being in the Demon Wastes might be something that upsets the elemental and significantly raises the difficulty of control checks. This is something the pilot would definitely notice—the elemental doesn’t want to be here.
The standard Lyrandar airship designs are the work of collaboration between Zilargo and the Twelve, specifically House Lyrandar and House Cannith. Zil shipwrights create the hulls (using soarwood from Aerenal) and Zil binders produce the elemental cores, while Cannith artisans install the elemental engine and the veins. It was Cannith and Lyrandar working together who produced the first working wind wards, it is this that currently provides Lyrandar with dominance over the industry. Cannith doesn’t know the secrets of Zil binding, because they aren’t actually involved in the development of the elemental core; and meanwhile, the Zil don’t have the expertise to create the elemental engine or to produce wind wards.
With that said, these airships have been operating for less than a decade and the science is still evolving. Lyrandar and Cannith are continuing to evolve their design, improving speed, maneuverability, and range; they’ve certainly been experimenting on aerial warships as well. On the other side of things, the Arcane Congress and the Zil themselves are exploring other approaches to air travel, building on the principles of the skystaff (broom of flying) or carpet of flying. Currently these are largely limited to small, low-altitude vehicles—like the skystaff—but the work is ongoing. As a DM, if you WANT to introduce an airship that breaks some of the rules described here—notably, an airship that doesn’t require a Lyrandar pilot or that has an indefinite range—go ahead! The main things to think about are HOW it manages to be more efficient than the Lyrnadar vessels and where it came from. Is it a single prototype that can’t be efficiently reproduced? Or are there more of them? In general, House Lyrandar doesn’t care about one-offs; the fact that one group of adventures has a superior airship doesn’t threaten their business. On the other hand, if the adventurers or their patron actually seek to create a fleet of airships that will challenge Lyrandar’s economic monopoly they could have to deal with saboteurs or other troubles. But again, a single group of adventurers with their own unique airship isn’t a problem for Lyrandar.
What do the of crew an airship do to assist their respective pilot? More specifically, what are the most interesting things you have the crews do in your games?
In my opinion, an airship is just as complicated to run as a sailing vessel. You have to make adjustments to maintain the wind wards. You have to monitor the focusing nodes and adjust less crystals that maintain the ring. The engineer monitors the elemental engine, which includes adding residuum but also just performing minor rituals that keep the systems running. In my games I largely have the crew stay out to the way and do their jobs, because they’re too busy to chat with adventurers. I’ve run a one-shot set on an airship a number of times over the past year, and the main NPC the adventurers encounter is the steward, because it’s his job to deal with them. When there’s a dramatic combat scene, I may call out a number of NPC crew members in the scene who are doing their jobs and note that if these innocents die bad things could happen; if a fireball takes out the guy maintaining the local wind wards, things could get very unstable!
How volatile is an elemental core?
In my opinion, the elemental core itself is quite stable. The elemental CAN’T easily be removed from the core; it’s stretched out of it, but if the engine breaks down, it snaps back into the core; when not engaged, it lies in a dormant state. So more often than not, an elemental core can actually be recovered from a crashed airship. On the other hand, there can be effects that target the core itself. In one adventure I ran, when an airship passed through an airborne Lamannian manifest zone it broke the containment and caused the elemental to burst free (noted as a risk of zones with the Elemental Power trait in Exploring Eberron). In my novella Principles of Fire, terrorists specifically break the containment of one of an airship’s elemental cores (it was a double-ringed ship and the other survived the crash). So GENERALLY the cores are stable, but nothing’s stopping a DM from creating a specific threat that can break one.
What’s the difference between different kinds of elemental rings? Why do some ships have more than one?
In my opinion, different types of elementals should provide different benefits and drawbacks. I don’t have time right now to get into a full breakdown of different airship designs and the specific effects of rings, but my most basic thought is that fire is faster (more FORCE) and air is more maneuverable. Multiple rings can be added for speed, but what we’ve suggested in the past is that they are used by especially large ships—that essentially, one ring is devoted to LIFT and the other to THRUST.
Is there anything you do use from the airship section in Explorer’s Handbook?
I think most of the material in Explorer’s Handbook can overlap with the ideas I present here. The maps are good, the basic concept of the “arcane matrix” is similar to what I do with the elemental veins, and all the rules about shiphandling, manueverability, and such are things I don’t address here that work fine. I use life rings and like the sidebar on “How To Survive A Crashing Airship.” We mainly differ in the idea of elemental consciousness, the process of controlling the elemental, and the ongoing costs of maintaining an airship—along with the idea of the wind wards.
Soarwood isn’t lighter than air? What about the soarwood skiffs from Five Nations?
This is a reference to the following quote…
Karrnathi soldiers stormed the city of Shadukar in 959 YK. The city’s defenders were not expecting a Karrn attack from Cyre, especially one accomplished using soarwood skiffs that could glide across the Brey River.Five Nations, Page 149
These soarwood skiffs weren’t FLYING vehicles; they were simply so exceptionally light and buoyant that they allowed the invading force to glide across the surface of the river, both more quickly and quietly than traditional boats. But Karrnath does not have a fleet of flying skiffs.
How does this work with the Wind Whisperers, who have stolen airships? If they don’t have docking towers, how can they maintain them?
The Wind Whisperers are a force in the Lhazaar Principalities that include half-elves with the Mark of Shadows. I think they have managed to create a single functional equivalent of a docking tower in their home harbor. But beyond that, I’d assert that they’ve found a way to calm elementals that is different from what the house uses; the most logical answer is that they have a few allies from Lorghalen that worked with them on this. As someone noted on Discord, “one gnome with a flute vs precision Cannith engineering.”
Can a pilot develop a bond or connection with the elemental of their ship?
I think they can, yes. The piloting process I’ve described is essentially a trance where they do connect to the elemental. It’s a little like working with any kind of mount; you can ride a horse without feeling any empathy for it, but you’ll have a better experience if you’re able to establish a connection. I think the best pilots are those who do feel a tie to their elemental companion. Note that this would not satisfy the Power of Purity — as noted in the next question — who would point out that the elemental is still BOUND and has no choice; the fact that the pilot may empathize the elemental with it doesn’t mean they are treating it as an euqal.
What are the moral issues with binding elementals into Khyber dragonshards? How sentient are they?
(Reposted from a previous Dragonmark) There’s no easy answers in Eberron. The elemental binders of Zilargo claim that bound elementals are perfectly content; that elementals don’t experience the passage of time the way humans do. All they wish is to express their elemental nature, and that’s what they do through the binding. The Zil argue that elementals don’t even understand that they ARE bound, and that binding elementals is in fact MORE humane than using beasts of burden. An elemental doesn’t feel hunger, exhaustion, or pain; all a fire elemental wants to do is BURN, and it’s just as content to do that in a ring of fire as it is in Fernia.
On the other hand, an Ashbound druid will tell you that this is a fundamental disruption of the natural order. And any random person might say “When a bound elemental is released, it usually goes on a rampage. That means it was unhappy, right?”
Maybe… or maybe not. In my opinion, the “raw” elementals — the “fire elemental” as opposed to the more anthropomorphic salamander, efreeti, or azer — are extremely alien. They don’t experience existence in the same way as creatures of the material plane. They are immortals who exist almost entirely in the moment, making no plans for the future or worrying about the past. My views are pretty close to the description from the 5E Monster Manual: “A wild spirit of elemental force has no desire except to course through the element of its native plane… these elemental spirits have no society or culture, and little sense of being.”
When the fire elemental is released, it usually WILL go on a rampage. Because what it wants more than anything is to burn and to be surrounded by fire… so it will attempt to CREATE as much fire as possible. If it burns your house down, there’s no malice involved; it literally doesn’t understand the concept of a house, or for that matter the concept of YOU. In my short story “Principles of Fire” one of the characters interrogates a bound air elemental; he advises a colleague that the elemental doesn’t really understand its surroundings, and sees humans as, essentially, blobs of water.
So: there’s no absolute answer. Some people are certain that the elementals are entirely happy, and others are certain that it’s a barbaric and inhumane practice. What I can say is that MOST of the people in the Five Nations don’t think about it at all; to them, it’s no different from yoking an ox or using a bonfire to cook dinner. If you want to create a story based on a radical group that has proof that bound elementals are suffering, create that story. But the default is that there are extreme views on both sides, but that the majority of people just ride the airship without giving a thought to whether the ring has been unjustly imprisoned.
Follow-Up: A question was posed about how this relates to the Power of Purity, a group of Zil binders that seek to understand elementals and to work more closely with them. This still works with what I’ve described here. Elementals ARE sentient. It is possible to communicate with them. They simply are sentient in a very alien way. They have language, but that doesn’t mean they think like we do. In my vision, “raw” elementals generally don’t speak with one another; the elemental languages represent the ability to interface with the elemental and to draw its attention in a way that usually doesn’t happen. An airship pilot needs to interface with and guide an elemental, and a Purity binder does this as well. Most binders DISMISS the need to understand the elemental consciousness; Purity binders feel that truly understanding elementals is the secret to vastly better results. And if you want someone to suddenly reveal that elementals are being tortured and to upset the industry, the Power of Purity would be a good place to start.
That’s all for now! Thanks again to my Patreon supporters for making articles like this possible!