5E Airship Racing with a Dragon

In an upcoming portion of one of my 5th edition campaigns, the party are going to come across an airship. Shortly after this, basically just long enough for the characters to have figured out how to operate the ship, it will become apparent to the party that their enemies have succeeded at releasing an ancient and dangerous foe (an adult blue dragon mummy) that seems to be flying on a direct course toward the party's home city.

I've got my own ideas of how to wing this scenario, but thought it might inspire some cool conversation to ask: How would you set up this scenario as a DM?

Some relevant details for the scenario, and I'll fill in more if they are needed for anyone's input:
  • The airship is currently in poor condition, having been abandoned in a secret hangar for a few centuries.
  • It's engines are fueled by lightning, including that there are collection apparatus in place to turn lightning attacks against the ship into more power for the engines.
  • The engines are damaged - this is what makes the scenario a race requiring resolution, as the ship in good condition would be faster than the dragon - and the dragon's breath weapon can overload the engines, damaging them further, if it inflicts enough damage.
  • The dragon is not aware to begin with that the party is racing him to their home town - he's not aware of the party at all to begin with.
  • The airship has some weaponry; numerous ballista, and a front "rail gun" that packs a punch like a trebuchet, but requires a large amount of power that could drain the ship's batteries if used too many times.

There are 3 basic outcomes that I've thought of for the scenario: the party getting to their home city in advance of the dragon, reducing casualties from the dragon's attack on the city; the party getting to their home city after the dragon has already done serious damage to it; or the party managing to defeat the dragon using the airship as an equalizer (they are level 6, and this particular dragon is CR 18) - which delays the dragon's attack until the next day when it has rejuvenated near it's heart (as a mummy tends to do), unless the party realizes they are dealing with a mummy and hunt down the cultists transporting the heart as secretly as they can.


Magic Wordsmith
Repairing the airship is a montage of fictional complications dealt with by individual characters, perhaps one per PC, resolved as you play an 80s keyboard-heavy song on your smart phone. Their solutions to the complication may or may not require an ability check. If all the complications are overcome, the airship is in Good Order (300 hp). If most, but not all, complications are overcome, the ship is Airworthy but Listing (150 hp). If most of the complications are not overcome, the airship is a Wreck or is Airworthy but Listing after the PCs expend a great deal more time than expected. The latter progress combined with a setback makes dealing with the complications in the thunderstorm more difficult.

As the repair montage is playing out, describe an approaching thunderstorm, a regional effect of the blue dragon mummy's presence. Cue Back to the Future music as the PCs try to get 1.21 gigawatts into the ship's power cells somehow. As above, one complication per PC happens as they try with similar outcomes: Fully Powered, Partially Powered, Low Power. These results grant advantage, no modifier, or disadvantage to checks related to flying the ship in the next scene.

In the third scene, the characters are flying the ship to the city. More complications as they weather the storm and push the ship further than its design specs with similar outcomes for success, partial success, and failure: Intercept the Dragon, Beat the Dragon to the City, or Too Late.

The air battle is fairly straightforward. The blue dragon targets the ship more often than its crew. At particular hit point milestones, the ship suffers from a complication of some kind. (I would just make a list of potential complications to roll out as appropriate.) Dealing with it successfully restores some hit points. At 0 hit points, the ship has taken all the punishment it can and crashes. The smart play is to land it safely before that time. I wouldn't, by the way, get into granular ship maneuvering or the like.

That's roughly how I'd do it.
Thanks for the input [MENTION=97077]iserith[/MENTION], I'll definitely be borrowing some of that.

Somehow, I had not thought to have the exact state of the ship be contingent upon the characters' efforts in getting it airborne.

I'd also not decided on weather conditions during these scenes, and really like the idea of a storm accompanying (or more foretelling) the presence of the dragon mummy. It makes an extra kind of sense because it can be the visible side-effect of the dragon's cultists undoing the enchantments that kept him imprisoned in an ancient tomb (well, the imprisonment spell to keep him chained inside, and numerous enchantments on the tomb itself to try and keep everyone else out).


stupid HTML tags

Since it's a mummy dragon, maybe a thunderous duststorm would be more thematic?

Ever play Space Team? The gist of the game is, each player's mobile device has a unique set of control panels with bizarre labels, and at random intervals, a player will receive an instruction like "reverse Flanger Seven!" meaning that whoever has Flanger Seven needs to reverse it or bad things happen. It's a clever way to put an emphasis on player communication and teamwork since the person receiving the order rarely is the one capable of carrying it out. Over time, the orders become more rapid and complex, and the game turns into this crazy panicky chaos with everyone frantically shouting out orders and scanning their devices for the things they can do.

You could do a similar mechanic on your ramshackle airship. Create a random "encounter" table with a bunch of simple potential emergencies, like "fix leak on left side of envelope" or "rebalance engine 3" and have players roll on it at the starts of their turns. Leave the last half of the table blank so the surprise challenges aren't happening all the time, BUT, depending on whether they did a particularly good or poor job fixing the thing up, roll on the table with advantage or disadvantage, respectively! For example:

D20Airship Snafu
1Rudder jam. The airship cannot steer. Un-jam the rudder with a DC 15 Strength check.
2Tear on envelope. There's a leak on section 1d4 of the balloon. For every unpatched leak, the airship will descend 10 feet per round and lose 10 hit points. A DC 12 Dexterity check can stitch it shut.
3Dust mephits. 1d4 dust mephits, drawn out by the powerful undead dragon, appear on the ship.
4Arcane malfunction. A random engine or magic weapon on the ship has gone offline due to a problem with the sigil network in the core. A successful DC 12 Intelligence (Arcana) check can mend the broken connection.
5Targeting system misaligned. A random ship weapon now makes short-range attacks with disadvantage and automatically misses with long-range ones. Recalibrate it with a DC 15 Dexterity check (add proficiency bonus if using tinker's tools or thieves' tools).
6Magic weapon overheating. One of the ship's magic weapons begins to smoke. 2d4 rounds later, an explosion of energy deals 3d6 lightning damage to all creatures and structures within 15 feet. Stop it by cooling it down or disconnecting it from the sigil network (a DC 15 Intelligence (Arcana) check) for a round.
7Turbulence. Everyone standing on the ship must make a DC 15 Dexterity save or be knocked prone.
8Engine overheating. A random engine begins to smoke. If left alone, it catches fire 1d4 rounds later. Stop it by cooling it down or disconnecting it from the sigil network (a DC 15 Intelligence (Arcana) check) for a round.
9Engine power imbalance. Swap the energy crystals powering two random engines to correct the imbalance. If left alone, one of them overheats next round.
10Loose rigging. A line is loose somewhere and interfering with the ship's stability. If three or more lines come loose, the ship moves at half speed. Pull one back into position with a DC 15 Strength check.
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That is an interesting idea, [MENTION=6785902]Fralex[/MENTION]. Thanks for sharing it.

I could definitely whip up a sort of table... not sure having such a potential for random problems would be conducive to the players feeling like they have the choice between racing or fighting because race + complications seems like it might appear obviously "smarter" to choose over fighting + complications.

I think I might make up the table, then just ask my players once we are at the point of this scenario beginning if they'd rather include it or not.


Dusty Dragon
Quick question: Is the airship held aloft by a giant gas balloon? Or is it just sheer magic?

If so, it adds all sorts of possibilities, but it also makes it well, quite vulnerable...

Oh, the lightning engines: could the dragon's breath be partially deflected, or even used, by them?
Quick question: Is the airship held aloft by a giant gas balloon? Or is it just sheer magic?
The ship has rigid balloon sections that run along either side of the hull that provide some lift (enough that they make the engines' job easier, but not enough to hold the ship aloft without the engines). The engines are actually non-magical in operation (the ship being built so that it is the first in the campaign world that can fly through an antimagic field at greater than wind speeds). They are powered by lightning, magic or otherwise, rather than just magic lightning powered.

Oh, the lightning engines: could the dragon's breath be partially deflected, or even used, by them?
In perfect repair, that's exactly what the ship is designed to do (well, the collection apparatus is more for attracting natural lightning strikes and uses them to power the engines - but they work on breath weapons and lighting bolts too). With the ship in its decayed state, I was planning on having some of the battery banks be expired such that a lightning attack against the ship might do damage by over-loading the still functioning batteries (I was thinking of having the ship roll a save, and take half damage on a failed save or no damage on a successful one - or just have the ship be damaged normally by the lightning if the party hasn't done well in making spot repairs before getting the ship in the air).
I think this is going to be an awesome scenario, however you end up handling it!!
Thanks. I agree - especially because it is both the "turn" at which the depth of power the party's enemies have is revealed (them having ancient undead dragon allies), and the moment that connects a prior campaign's story to the current campaign (since this airship was one of the primary concerns of a prior campaign most of the current players also took part in).

Plus, it finally addresses one of my players' questions of "hey, wait... if this is the same world as that last campaign, but set 500 years later, how come there aren't airships everywhere? We successfully built 2, and the empire was working at building an entire fleet, what happened to those?" in a way other than "Let's just say for now that your current character only knows what history has told him; one time long ago the empire attempted to create flying war machines, and must have abandoned the efforts in failure. Because your characters back then gave them bad info on purpose, remember?"


I tried osmething like this with a pair of young blue Dragons who just flew off at range and under the airship to wait for breath weapons to recharge. Are you familiar with the Princess Ark? IIRC part of the ship could turn into a Blue Dragons head. TH ship weapon could be radiant damage AKA a "laser".