As an adult with a full-time job and a family, the amount of time I have available to prepare for my RPG nights is fairly limited. In addition, the busy schedules of my fellow players also means that attendance at our weekly games is somewhat erratic – one Sunday night we might have six players and the following week we might be down to three. As a result I am constantly on the search for low-prep, short-duration (1-3 sessions), simple-to-learn RPGs to try out. Luckily there are quite a few choices available nowadays thanks to the explosion of independent RPG designers and publishers. One of the very best of these types of focused, simple, story-driven RPGs I’ve discovered to date is Lady Blackbird.
Lady Blackbird is an award-winning, free RPG written and illustrated by John Harper. The 15-page PDF is an all-in-one game which consists of the rules, setting, characters and situation for a complete gaming experience typically lasting for one to two sessions. The scenario is set in a very evocative steampunk/sci-fi/fantasy setting that is clearly influenced by the likes of Firefly and Star Wars (Episode IV) without being too derivative.
The set-up for the game is probably best explained by quoting the text the game itself uses:
Lady Blackbird is on the run from an arranged marriage to Count Carlowe. She hired a smuggler skyship, The Owl, to take her from her palace on the Imperial world of Ilysium to the far reaches of the Remnants, so she could be with her once secret lover, the pirate king Uriah Flint.
However—just before reaching the halfway point of Haven, The Owl was pursued and captured by the Imperial cruiser Hand of Sorrow, under charges of flying a false flag. Even now Lady Blackbird, her bodyguard, and the crew of The Owl are detained in the brig, while the commander of the cruiser, Captain Hollas, runs the smuggler ship’s registry over the wireless. It’s only a matter of time before they discover the outstanding warrants and learn that The Owl is owned by none other than the infamous outcast Cyrus Vance.
How will Lady Blackbird and the others escape the hand of sorrow? What dangers lie in their path? Will they be able to find the secret lair of the pirate king? If they do, will Uriah Flint accept Lady Blackbird as his bride? By the time they get there, will she want him to?
See what I mean about the clear Firefly and Star Wars elements? In my opinion, this is the perfect set-up for a self-contained game since it’s more than enough to understand the premise and starting situation of the scenario but open-ended enough to allow for play to go in whatever direction the group decides upon during the course of the session. In particular, the questions at the end provide both the players and the GM with a wealth of ideas on what might happen without predefining any sort of plot or narrative.
The Physical Details
Lady Blackbird (LB) is a 15-page, full-color PDF that is beautifully illustrated. Don’t let the size of the PDF fool you though: Those fifteen pages are packed with everything you need to run the game, including character sheets. The PDF is a model of efficiency and elegance of layout, which manages to be both attractive and functional at the same time. There is no wasted space or unnecessary filler.
Here’s a look at what is inside:
- Page 1: The set up of the game and credits.
- Page 2: An overview of the entire LB “universe” including a color map of The Wild Blue. It’s set up in a gazetteer format.
- Pages 3-7: The character sheets. Five characters are included: Natasha Syri (Lady Blackbird); Naomi Bishop (Pit Fighter & bodyguard to LB); Cyrus Vance (Smuggler & Captain of the Owl); Kale Arkam (Burglar, petty sorcerer, & 1st mate of the Owl); Snargle (Goblin sky sailor, pilot of the Owl). Each character sheet is divided in half with the top half detailing the stats of the character (more on this later) and the bottom half a rules summary of everything you need to know to play the game.
- Page 8: The Owl. Includes information about the skyship as well as an ultra-cool illustration of the ship along with a smaller diagram showing the relative size comparison of the Owl, the Hand of Sorrow, and Sky Squid. Yes, there are sky squid… how can you not love a game with sky squid?
- Page 9: How to Run the Game. One page of GM tips, tricks, and advice. It covers everything a new GM needs to run a successful session.
- Page 10: Character advancement info. This includes a list of new Traits & Tags, as well as new Keys & Secrets. Although the game is designed for 1-2 sessions of play, character advancement (which is more akin to personal growth or change than your typical “leveling up”) is an important part of the game.
- Page 11-15: Summaries of the PCs for the GM. These provide a list of each character’s keys, traits, and conditions so the GM has easy access to them during the game in order to know what “buttons they need to push” for each character. The rules are summarized at the bottom half of each of these sheets too so that the GM has access to the rules no matter what sheet he or she is using at the moment.
The game uses a dice pool system in which a character starts with a single die (d6) and then adds additional dice depending on what traits and tags that apply. They then can add in bonus dice from a personal pool of bonus dice (which start at 7 for the session and can be refreshed (back to 7 dice) by having a meaningful refreshment scene with another character. The importance of these refreshment scenes, aside from replenishing dice pools, is that they help create the dramatic exchanges between the various characters that helps bring a richness to the overall story.
Once a die pool is assembled, the dice are rolled and 4s or higher are counted as successes – which means you could technically play the game with any die type or even just flip coins if you don’t have dice on you. You need a number of successes equal to a difficulty target number set by the GM. These range from 2 to 5. Success means you succeed at what you were attempting (obviously) and the dice from the pool are discarded. Failure to meet the target number means you didn’t yet achieve your goal, or that you achieved your goal but that there are consequences or complications in doing so. The dice in your pool are retained and you actually add a bonus die to the pool. What happens next is that the GM escalates the situation in some way (i.e., adds a complication or twist) and then play continues. In other words, you don’t truly fail but rather things get more complicated and thus the tension is ramped up. Character can also have conditions imposed upon them – these include Injured, Dead, Tired, Angry, Lost, Haunted, or Trapped – when events call for them. These add some narrative color to the story but won’t necessarily cripple a character – even “dead” really means “presumed dead” and I’ve used this to create dramatic tension during scenes.
Characters are described with four types of attributes: Traits, Tags, Keys, and Secrets. In brief, Traits are your character’s specialties. They can be called upon at any time they apply to add a bonus die to a pool. For example, Snargle has the trait “Pilot” and so he can add in a die anywhere his piloting skills may be applicable. Tags are specific instances of Traits and are combination of character specific details and another way to get additional bonus dice. Returning to Snargle, he has the Tricky Flying tag under his Pilot trait so he adds yet another die anytime he’s piloting a ship and difficult maneuvers are required. As characters advance they can add additional tags to their traits by spending experience points.
Keys are borrowed from Clinton R. Nixon’s The Shadow of Yesterday and represent the fundamental motivations of each character. They are what the character wants and it’s how they earn experience points (to advance). When they “hit a Key” a player can either gain an XP or add a bonus die to their personal pool. If the Key drives them into danger they get bonus XP as well. The characters’ beginning keys are also specifically set up to create certain points of tension or development when they’re actively pursued. For example, Cyrus Vance (the Owl’s captain) has the Key of Hidden Longing which means he’s secretly in love with the Lady Blackbird and is rewarded when he makes decisions based on this secret affection. The result of these keys is that all kinds of interesting character interactions and hidden motivations are built in to the crew of the Owl leading to some great situations.
Secrets are the equivalent to feats or special moves seen in other systems. They each offer a specific bonus either in a narrow set of circumstances or once per session.
Both Keys and Secrets are also incorporated into advancement: A character can spend XP to learn new Secrets or add Keys. Characters can also “buyoff” a key, eliminating it from their sheet and gaining bonus advancements in return. Thus, Keys are a central part of the character’s personal growth as their motivations change over the course of the game.
One last feature of the system needs to be pointed out: the system puts most of the narrative and mechanical control of things in the hands of the players. The GM’s main purpose is to ask questions and create complications for the players, as well as push the characters in to situations in which they need to make tough decisions. All the rolls are in the hands of the players (the GM needs no dice) with their success or failure determining what happens in a scene. The result is that the effort and experience it takes to GM the game is very minimal – you do not need to have mastered the rules (what few there are) nor do you need to have planned and prepared for the session. Instead, you simply ask or answer questions, set target numbers based on what players want to accomplish, and create interesting consequences and twists to the story if and when characters fail. This is ideal for anyone who doesn’t have time to prep for a session, and also makes an ideal game for someone with little to no GMing experience to try their hand at it.
I really love Lady Blackbird and, based on the number of awards it’s won, so do a lot of other people. It delivers a fully-realized, story-driven session with absolutely zero prep time. Reading the rules takes less than 30 minutes from start to finish and you can start playing with completely unfamiliar players with almost no time spent explaining the rules. As such it’s perfect for convention and one-shot, impromptu games (although in my experience it usually takes a good 4-6 hours of play time to wrap up the story) and it is one of the reasons a copy of the game is in my “GM kit” at all times. The game also is a nice blend of narrative-focused play and mechanical crunch that works for most groups.
Don’t be fooled by the simplicity of the set-up: you can play the game a half dozen times and get very different stories depending on the players’ input, the results of the rolls, and the Keys the players focus in on. Hence you get an amazing amount of replayability out of a game that consists of two pages of setting and background material. The fact that the game includes a very robust advancement system also means that play can continue on for multiple sessions and even take the form of a mini-campaign if the group wants to keep exploring the world of the Wild Blue Yonder.
About the only downside to the game is that it’s designed for 5 players plus a GM and more or less players don’t work nearly as well. With fewer players the ensemble cast doesn’t quite shine and while the GM can always pick up the slack with NPCs, it doesn’t feel quite the same. With more players you’re short on PCs and thus need to make up some additional ones – that’s something that’s relatively easy to do (you can even find them on the net) but it’s not terribly feasible in the case of an impromptu game. That problem is something which is inherent in many RPGs though, almost all of which have a “sweet spot” so it’s hardly a reason to criticize Lady Blackbird.
The best part? It’s free! So go out there and give it a try, you won’t be sorry.