I’ll admit it, I was a little late to the story game party.
I stumbled across Dogs in the Vineyard and Apocalypse World around the same time a few years ago and my mind was blown. At that point I’d played Hero System on and off for about 25 years, not even realizing that it had become a game many people consider at best “crunchy” and at worst impossibly baroque. Me and my groups had always emphasized story-telling when we played Hero. Sure there were times when we got out the minis and battlemaps, but we tried to make those fights a real part of the story.
When I got into conventions in a big way I discovered that this certainly wasn’t the case for everyone. Most (though not all) of the Hero sessions I ended up in were just long bashes, not really what I was looking for from my favorite “legacy” RPG. Don’t get me wrong, I didn’t give up playing Hero, but I began to sense that I was missing out on a newer, more story-intensive form of gaming.
So a couple of years ago I set out to widen my RPG repertoire. If nothing else I thought it could enhance my ability to GM more traditional games. I’ve played and run a number of Apocalypse World Engine titles, as well as other “meta-story” games like Microscope and The Quiet Year over the last couple of years.
Somewhere along the way I discovered John Harper’s excellent little game. It’s a lovingly put together free RPG that includes a setting, rules, pre-generated characters, and even an opening adventure, all tucked into 16 crisply designed and illustrated pages.
I play-tested Blackbird once with my Indie Game Night group and was intrigued enough to run it at DunDraCon 40. (The game-play I discuss here for the most part refers to my DunDraCon run.)
Lady Blackbird is very much a “swords and ether ships” sort of setting. It’s Firefly shaded even more towards science-fantasy. One of my players at DunDraCon showed me a web comic called Lady Sabre & the Pirates of the Ineffable Aether as a reference point; I took a look at a couple of panels and said, “Oh, yeah, that’s it.”
The action of Lady Blackbird takes place in the Wild Blue…
“The worlds of the Wild Blue float in a sky of breathable gases circling a small, cold star. Scholars believe that the star is made from pure Essence—the strange energy that sorcerers channel for their magic. This ‘solar system’ is much smaller than you might think—it takes about six weeks to cross from one side to the other on a standard sky ship.”
There’s also an area of the Wild Blue called the Lower Depths with a corrosive miasma that’s unbreathable and dangerous for ship hulls.
The first time I played, I got really hung up on the Lower Depths. I didn’t need it to make scientific sense, but I couldn’t seem to find a rationale for it being there beyond “it’s cool!” It bothered me and distracted me, and even though I enjoyed my first run, I had that itchy feeling that I wasn’t quite getting it… and by extension (somehow) the rest of the game. I think my hangup was just a symptom of not being able to rise to the proper level of romantic pulpiness to get into the true spirit of the thing.
Happily, things fell snugly into place during my DunDraCon run. When the player’s ship, The Owl, descended into the Lower Depths to flee pursuit, it suddenly occurred to me that all the pollution of the worlds that float in the Wild Blue must sink down into the Depths. No wonder it’s so toxic!
This revelation unlocked a whole flurry of thoughts. Is this where wrecked sky ships end up? Sure. Do they eventually corrode into floating islands of garbage? Definitely. Are those islands populated by semi-sentient Things? Absolutely! Suddenly I had the option of invoking a sub-plot involving hideous (but enlightened?) creatures from the Lower Depths, even though there’s all of three sentences about the Lower Depths in the actual rules.
And this, I think, is exactly what designer John Harper intended. He gives you a little box of parts, a few rules, and he wants you to go off and build something exciting for yourself and for your players. It’s a Cornell Box for the mind.
I knew all of that when I played Lady Blackbird with my game night gang back in the Fall, but this time all the techniques I’ve been learning about for the last couple of years… asking players questions about their characters, listening to the answers and building (and complicating) them… all of that finally came together for me. It just worked.
Last Sunday I sailed off into the Wild Blue, and it was fun…