Welcome back, dice fondlers! I have a special treat for you today. As you know, I fully embrace the philosophy of the random. Random is, or at least can be, GREAT. Adding a bit of randomness can spice up games you’ve grown far too accustomed to otherwise. Sometimes, though, sometimes the only random elements are the diverse choices you and your fellow players make. This game is THAT kind of game. This game is Lady Blackbird. Let’s take to the skies.
Lady Blackbird is a compact role-playing game created by John Harper. If the name sounds familiar, that’s because John has been around awhile developing amazing games like Blades in the Dark and Lasers and Feelings. Don’t worry, we’ll get to Blades in the Dark eventually. This week though, we’re looking at just how much a game can evoke setting and character through a minimal amount of world-building and smart mechanics.
To be clear, Lady Blackbird is technically the first of three chapters in the Tales from the Wild Blue Yonder series. At 16 pages, Lady Blackbird also has the largest PDF of the three. Why, you ask? Does it contain some crucial, crunchy, hard to manage game mechanics that the others don’t? Does it involve oodles and oodles of setting detail that the others didn’t want to sacrifice page count for? Nah, it has fewer player characters and sheets for tracking their progress.
Lady Blackbird is a steampunk fantasy taking place in a universe where planetoids orbit a blue star, all while suspended in breathable gases. Airships are the principal mode of transportation, though they must be on the lookout for sky squid. Fantasy elements like magic and goblins definitely exist here, but they receive no over-the-top billing as extravagant occurrences. In fact, how characters react to them is entirely in the player’s court.
You see, in Lady Blackbird, the primary random element is YOU, and how you choose to play the characters. Five playable characters are statted up for Lady Blackbird, each with specific motivations and goals. The scenario as presented: A noblewoman is fleeing an arranged marriage on a smuggler’s sky ship in order to escape and elope with the pirate king. However, at the halfway point of their journey, they are stopped and captured by a much larger Imperial vessel. Time is ticking for the smuggler and his crew before their criminal history is uncovered, just as it is running out for our runaway bride and her bodyguard.
Unlike other roleplaying games, where you generate a character and the game master orchestrates a scenario for you all to play, Lady Blackbird comes out of the gate with all engines go and base character relationships firing on all cylinders, daring the players to take the adventure in whatever direction they see fit. The game master has a variety of suggested encounters they can sling in the player’s direction should they ever be at a loss and start fumbling for how to keep the story moving. The dice system for conflict resolution is a based on a pool of d6s. You start with a single die and gain a d6 for relevant traits and character tags. Finally, each player has a pool of dice that they can use as extra effort. The extra pool starts with seven dice that can grow up to ten, and when spent can be refreshed through special character-building scenes.
Think of Lady Blackbird as a choose-your-own-adventure book with three pages to hook you into the story, a few index pages of world-building, and the rest of the pages completely blank. But hey, at least they were kind enough to provide pens for you and your friends to write what happens next. Even if only running the game with two players, consider the differences in perspective if one of you is Lady Blackbird and the other is Cyrus Vance, the smuggler captain secretly enthralled with her, versus playing as intimidating bodyguard Naomi Bishop and greedy first mate and petty sorcerer Kale Arram. Or what sort of story would be told with just a GM and a single player taking the reins of Snargle, daredevil goblin pilot.
Many times in gaming, we become too obsessed over our tables and our fancy piles of dice as we consider the hand of fate in our games, without considering how the brilliant madness of our own decision-making splinters our story into directions we never saw coming. I recommend you give Lady Blackbird a chance. If it doesn’t sound QUITE like your cup of tea, read Parts 2 and 3 of the Tales from the Wild Blue Yonder series (Magister Lor and Lord Scurlock). I have a feeling you’ll find just enough of a hook there to reel you in and get you experimenting.
That’s all for this week, my fine friends. Next week, we’ll be moving in other directions again, I assure you. That’s the way the dice roll. However, until then, remember to…