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.)

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Lady Blackbird: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Wild Blue

wild_blueI’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 games 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 feel 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…

Up Next… Playing Blackbird at DunDraCon 40.