Running Lady Blackbird at DunDraCon 40

Lady_Blackbird_DDC40My recent trip to DunDraCon was my second, but my first as a volunteer. I’d tried to schedule my session of Lady Blackbird for nighttime — mainly because that’s when I’m usually at my best as a GM. Unfortunately it ended up being slotted for 2 pm Sunday. This is just about the exact point at a convention when I feel like curling up in a ball on one of those comfy hotel lobby chairs. I remember sitting with my buddy Joe at about noon and telling him that getting pumped up to run a game was about the last thing I felt like doing. He reminded me that the players would provide a nice dose of energy, and I agreed, hoping that he’d be right.

My room for running Lady Blackbird was tucked away in an area behind the seating for the hotel restaurant. Not only that, but it was a room off of another room. There wasn’t another game scheduled for our 4 hour block, and I knew our set-up would be a perfect for a story-heavy game  — as long as the players could find it.

Michael, who was hoping to crash the game, was on hand a good hour before it started. We chatted for a while as I did my minimal set-up. Eventually a number of people trickled in… enough that I had to start a list to fill in for possible no-shows. We ended up having exactly five players, though only two were actually registered. (It always pays to try to crash a game at DunDraCon.)

As you may already know, John Harper’s lovely (and free) RPG, Lady Blackbird, comes out of the box with 5 pre-made characters, each with a clear story niche. (For more about Lady Blackbird generally check my post here.)

The roles and players were as follows:
Lady Blackbird (played by Michael) – “An Imperial noble, in disguise, escaping an arranged marriage so she can be with her lover”
Naomi Bishop (played by Adrian) – “Former pit-fighter and bodyguard to Lady Blackbird”
Cyrus Vance (played by Duane) – “An ex-Imperial soldier turned smuggler and soldier-of-fortune, Captain of The Owl”
Kale Arkam (played by Cindy) – “A burglar and petty sorcerer, first mate and mechanic of The Owl”
Snargle (played by Davi, if I’m spelling it right) – “A goblin sky-sailor and pilot of The Owl”

(This is probably already apparent to you, but The Owl is the sky-ship the characters travel around in.)

I passed out the character sheets, let each player have a few minutes to absorb the vibe of the game (and their character), and talked about the rules. One of the game’s GM principles is to “Listen & Ask Questions; Don’t Plan.” Last time I ran Lady Blackbird, I waited until the game was under way to ask questions. This time I changed things up by starting in right away. (I can’t recommend this approach enough. It helped me zero in on what the players wanted right away, and got us off to a flying start.)

Since Lady Blackbird is running away from her fiancé, it was natural to ask about him. Michael gave me a great name, Lord Benson Albrecht, and when prompted, some really unlikable qualities. We discovered that Lord Albrecht was condescending, considered himself a big game hunter, and was disgustingly rich.

In the setup for the game, Lady Blackbird isn’t just running away from her fiancé, though, she also running towards bad-boy pirate king Uriah Flint. When I asked Lady Blackbird if she’d stolen anything from her family home to offer up as a token dowry to Flint, she told me about the sword Heartpiercer. (I certainly liked the sound of that!) Heartpiercer was a family heirloom that was used in the duel where her grandfather won her grandmother’s heart.

We also found out during setup that Snargle had actually been kidnapped to become a part of Albrecht’s menagerie… and that Cyrus Vance had rescued him from that fate.

I’d been considering bringing Lord Albrecht in relatively late in the story, but now that I had two characters who already loathed him (along with the fact that I could play an annoyingly foppish NPC in my sleep) I decided to bring him in as quickly as possible.

The scenario for Lady Blackbird starts in medias res with the Owl having already been captured and brought on board the huge Imperial cruiser, Hand of Sorrow. It’s only a matter of time before the identity of Cyrus Vance is discovered, so the game begins with a healthily ticking clock. (In fact, we decided to up the stakes even more by having Vance be the former commander of the Hand of Sorrow.)

As the crew of the Owl discusses how to get out of the cell they find themselves in, Bishop knocks the door off its hinges with a flying kick. The guards are easily subdued. Soon the motley bunch are headed through the bowls of the ship. They hide when they hear a patrol coming, most of them under the deck plating, and Bishop up above the corridor in a tangle of conduit and pipe.

Lady Blackbird hears a familiar lisping voice say, “I certainly hope you’ve found my fiancé, Captain; there’ll be quite a reward for you if you have.” She instantly realizes that fate has brought Lord Albrecht right to her. The group overpower the patrol and grab a stunned Albrecht. They take him hostage and use him as leverage to get off the ship.

Once the Captain of the Hand of Sorrow recovers from a near-strangling at the hands of Bishop, he gives the order to fire on the Owl. Taking evasive action, Snargle dives down into the Lower Depths. He finds an encrudded cave on a floating island of garbage to park the ship in when the Hand of Sorrow switches to using “altitude charges.”

The Sorrow moves out of range, but not before rousing a nearby sky squid. Thanks to a blown piloting roll, the sky squid grabs the Owl, and instead of attempting to tear it apart, it decides to try to mate with it. After half an hour of passionate love-making, the Owl and her crew are a little worse for wear.

Some discussion with Kale Arkham reveals that his sometime lady-friend, Fiona Quinn, runs a combination fencing operation/brothel on Nightport. He thinks that if anyone would know how to get to Uriah Flint’s lair in the Remnants, it would be her.

During this voyage, Albrecht, who doesn’t seem to realize he’s not in charge anymore, suffers a number of degradations. Bishop pops him in the face for mouthing off to Lady Blackbird. He can’t really fathom how much Lady Blackbird loathes him until she tells him that she wants to make him watch as she consummates her marriage to Uriah Flint. (This started as just a nasty thing to say, but as you shall see, it ended up providing great fodder for the game.)

By this point in the session things were popping along wonderfully. People were tossing ideas in and loose threads were being followed with gusto. Here’s an emblematic example. We hit a point in the game where one of the characters wanted a drink, and I said, okay, but we need some sort of space liquor, something for this setting. Davi said, well there are these Sky Squids.. and I followed up by saying, so, like, a liquor made from fermented squid fat… and Duane countered, no squid ink. We all laughed. Oh yeah, I said, that would leave your tongue so black… and then somebody else added, Black Tongue, that’s what it’s called! (And if I play Blackbird again, Black Tongue will surely be in the liquor cabinet.)

If memory serves, the voyage to Nightport included our first Refreshment scene. These are small character-based scenes, sometimes flashbacks, where a couple of characters share some sort of moment. Mechanically these scenes serve to refresh the players’ dice pools, but they also create a nice rhythm in the story-telling. After a couple of action-heavy scenes the players need to get some dice back… just when it would be an appropriate time to make the story quieter and more personal.

In any case, we flashed back to the moment where Lady Blackbird hires Bishop to be her bodyguard. (A scene like this has happened both times I’ve played Blackbird, and I can only imagine it’s a common one with many groups.) It turns out that Lord Albrecht’s family has the license to run the fighting pits, so this turned into yet another moment to show his utter lack of common human decency.

Back in the present Snargle realizes that Nightport could be surrounded by Imperial patrols, so he opts to plow into the atmosphere at top speed so that he can perform the infamous maneuver known as Snargle’s Gambit. Since he blew his roll badly, I asked the table for some interesting fallout. (Having the Owl crash into the planet’s surface was just out of the question.) One of the players had the idea that everyone on the ground recognized Snargle’s special maneuver, and that as a consequence the ship would surrounded by bounty hunters by the time they got to the surface. That felt perfect to me, so we went with it.

Snargle gets back in control, just in time to discover the vessel is surrounded by ships big and small. Big Alice, Nightport’s most infamous bounty hunter, hails the ship and demands that they send over Albrecht. After some tense negotiations Capt. Vance convinces Big Alice to accept three of the buttons from Lord Albrecht’s coat, which are after all made from “Oraculum,” to let them go free.

The don’t escape completely unscathed, though. The Captain is roundly mocked for the rather visible evidence of the not-so-dry humping given the ship by the Sky Squid.

Fiona Quinn is happy to see Kale, but chastises him for his “childish running around.” She wants him to stay on Nightport and take on some of the responsibilities of running her criminal empire. They make nice, and she agrees to obtain the coordinates for Uriah Flint’s hideout. (For a fee, of course.) With time starting to run short in the session we moved off of Nightport, but not before Fiona tells Kale that “if he’s going to go gallivanting around on a ship, at least he could be the Captain…”

(This elicited some Oooohs from the table which I took to be a good sign.)

Story-wise things started to heat up on the way to the Remnants. I’d been prodding Capt. Vance a little about whether he thought Uriah Flint was the kind of man that Lady Blackbird ought to be with, and he did not disappoint. The good Captain called a Refreshment scene with Lady Blackbird and told her about his feelings for her and his misgivings about Uriah. Lady Blackbird balked at the idea of running away, telling him, “Uriah would kill all of you to recover me, I can’t let you take that risk.” Then Captain Vance revealed that he intended to kill Uriah and take over his criminal empire.

This caught me off guard in the best possible way. Suddenly there were plans to be made! I took a quick break while the players schemed. When I came back they laid out a cunning and cruel plan that had every chance off success…

The Owl touches down in Uriah Flint’s pirate cove to much fanfare. They are greeted by Uriah himself, who I cast as a bigger, buffer, Russel Brand. Brash and bigger than life, Flint greets the crew, and sweeps his bride-to-be off her feet. The crew drags Lord Albrecht out of the ship, much to Flint’s delight.

Lady Blackbird tells Flint that she wants to be married as soon as possible, and that she wants Lord Albrecht to watch them consummate their marriage. (This is a perfect appeal to Flint’s innate sadism.) Flint also seems genuinely moved when given Heartpiercer, Lady Blackbird’s heirloom sword.

The wedding goes off without a hitch, and the group sets their scheme into motion. This culminates with Lady Blackbird preparing to make love in Uriah’s lavish (and garish) bed chamber. Lord Albrecht has been chained to the wall to watch the festivities. As the couple approach the bed, Lord Albrecht starts whimpering to Blackbird. “You aren’t really going to do this, are you?”

Amused by Lord Albrecht’s discomfort, Uriah turns to Albrecht and says coolly, “Watch, and you might learn something.” He turns back just in time to see Lady Blackbird leveling a pistol at his face.

At this point I gave Lady Blackbird a moderate difficulty check to make, which despite a double-handful of dice, she almost blew. I suppose I could have hand-waved the check, but I wanted that little bit of “mechanical” drama to find out what happened. (I also thought a honeymoon battle between a character that could channel air and another that could channel fire would have been rather spectacular.)

In any case, Blackbird splatters the better part of Uriah’s head onto Lord Albrecht. Albrecht screams and then starts babbling, thanking Lady Blackbird and telling her that he had no idea she was an Imperial agent.

As the guards start to pound on the door, Blackbird tosses the gun at Albrecht’s feet, screams “Murderer!,” snatches Heartpiercer off of a bedside table, and runs him through with it.

We imagine everything going into slow motion as the guards rush in and Lady Blackbird pretends to slump to the floor in shock…

It’s been a long time since I’ve had a game come to such a clear, but organic, resolution. By the end, it was just writing itself.

¤ ¤ ¤

From the players’ comments as we were all packing up, it was evident that everyone had had a good time. I certainly had. It was almost a shame that the game had to end there. It looked like Blackbird and Vance were well on their way to securing Uriah Flint’s criminal empire. For their part Kale and Snargle were set to take ownership of the Owl. There was even the whiff of revolution in the air.

Still, our session was done, and it was time to let the next batch of folks play out their own particular dreams and fantasies.

The Mini White Board: My All-Purpose Game Aid


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