In the second slot of the Kessel Run, I was set to run Lady Blackbird. I didn’t really feel up to it. I was high and tired from the previous Monster of the Week game, and I hadn’t prepared this second game as much. Fortunately, Lady Blackbird is exactly as easy to run as people say it is. I hadn’t believed it, as the no-prep nature of the game still looked pretty intimidating.
The player’s response was very positive. People loved how smoothly the game ran. Even though the players normally don’t play together, plans were made to get together and finish the scenario this summer. In the afterchat with other groups, I even heard them recommend the game to people who wanted to try GM’ing. The circle is complete!
One thing I worried about is that the game is supposed to be a fast moving swashbuckling romp, but the dice mechanic requires a pause whenever you assemble your dice for that roll. I worried that it might give a strange fast-fast-slow tempo to the game. Can you tell I tend to worry about games before I run them?
I wanted to try Brian Cooksey‘s trick (as told on the Play on Target podcast) of putting a special die on on the table to serve as a count down timer. “It’s only a matter of time before Captain Hollas finds out who exactly he has in his clutches…” and then move the die down one number at a time until you get to 1. It seemed like a good idea, and it helped me pace, but it didn’t rush the group very much: our space was simply too big for everyone to keep track of the die. I didn’t need to worry about the pacing, though. At the start, people assembled their pools a bit hesitantly, naming every skill. But later on the the game they just up and went without justifying all their dice acquisitions out loud. As it should be!
Swash those buckles!
Anyhow, we were off by that time! The group escaped their cells, took down the five guards outside of the prison block without alerting anyone. By that time, Captain Hollas had been notified about Cyrus Vance’s presence and had sent two squads to arrest them.
A tense scene broke out when the lieutenant of the first squad turned out to be Mikey, who had served under Cyrus Vance in the last battle of the Imperial War. Cyrus tried to work on that slight hesitation, but it only bought them a little bit of time and a chase scene through the maze-like corridors followed.
They managed to lose the sky troopers, but by this time the hanger of the ship was heavily defended. They turned back and went on a sabotage mission throughout the ship, taking out the fuel tanks and the weapon loaders. After a while the ship starts to turn downward from lack of fuel, and engineers become as numerous in the halls as sky troopers. There are less people in the hanger now, and Cyrus takes a precision shot at a nearby jerrycan that explodes and takes out a lot of troopers *and* Captain Hollas.
Here we find out that Captain Hollas *is* Lady Blackbird’s fiancé. He confronts her (“Emma…”) but is already dying. Snargle doesn’t want the ship to sink into the depths, and releases the clamps on all the other docked ships to ease her load. By this time the ship is tilting quite a bit and the last crew members have to dodge the sliding ships to jump into the Owl.
They will have to refuel the Owl on the go while Lady Blackbird tries to keep it afloat with her storm blood (which is out in the open by now). Snargle, Naomi and Kale combine their efforts and get the ship in temporary working condition – a process that includes a lot of heated discussions about what valuable cargo to dump.
Just as they are flying upward, they feel an unnatural pull on the ship. A Sky Squid! Snargle uses the weight of the squid to accelerate the ship downward and Naomi uses the cannons to ensure the squid looses it’s hold at the right time. Snargle turns the ship upward and off they go, up into the blue sky!
They head for Haven to find (among other things) the fabled secret of the True Course! To be continued…
Refreshment scenes & narrative control deepen the story
People made good use of their refresh scenes. I had told them that they could think of a scene themselves, or I could ask them a question they could answer or play out. Most of them opted to the question and I was happy to use the scenes to fill in the relationships.
How did Kale and Cyrus get so close? How did Lady Blackbird hire Naomi? Why is Snargle so compassionate? (that story got him an ‘make everyone at the table laugh’ exp fast). Narration usually became shared as the two players involved would fill in the scene together, a few were played out.
– Kale bought off his ‘loyal to the captain’ tag right away when it turned out Cyrus wasn’t going to charge Natasha more when they found out she was a noble. Now he really is Jayne. We later find out his greed is fueled by the crippling debts to a loneshark his parents left them with, and his hope that his sister isn’t out there, paying for them in various horrible ways. Kale also has a phobia for female pit fighters. He was saved from the debter’s gallows by Cyrus Vance.
– Cyrus did confront Natasha about her ruse but with Naomi steaming down his neck, it didn’t get very romantic! He lost all of his Sky Captain “Joe Daring” comic books in the escape.
– Naomi killed a LOT of imperials. In fact, the group’s sabotage would have seen the entire Hand of Sorrow sink into the depths if not for Snargle! Naomi was bought and freed by Lady Blackbird
– Captain Hollas *was* Lady Blackbird’s fiancé, but he perished in their escape. Poor captain Hollas, he couldn’t help being slightly old and boring
– Sky Squid love potatoes.
In addition to the refreshment scenes, there were a fair bit of questions. Players asked me a lot of questions to make things interesting (Did they restrain us if we were violent upon arrest?) and I asked for questions during scenes a lot (Is Natasha hotter now that you know she’s a noble?). People also quickly noticed they were free to fill in narrative details (“Don’t worry, Naomi, the medical bay is on the way to the hangar.”)
As people contributed cool story elements or world building tidbits in their scenes, I would quickly summarize them on index cards. I put those in the middle for everyone to keep in mind. It has a two-fold purpose: those story elements are there for people to reincorporate at a point where they would have to think of something new – to make the story tighter. And they were there as an implicit promise that the stuff they thought up will come up in the game again. (The public index carding was a nice tip from John Stavropoulos on a This Imaginary Life episode dedicated to Making One shots rock!)
Everyone loved it (but me, kind of!)
Lady Blackbird is very popular here, a lot of people have asked me to run it. Mostly based on the theme and the sense of swashbuckly adventure it promised. I loved the system and the character sheets, and was curious how it would run. As it turns out, it runs like a dream, and you really have to do and provide very little as a GM. Just need to keep the momentum going.
But thematically and in terms of content, I quickly found out Lady Blackbird doesn’t do it for me. I know Steampunk fantasy gets a lot of people excited (they’ve been piling up asking to play this game with me, for one!). In fact, it’s one of the more popular LARP Campaigns running in Belgium at the moment. There’s something very appealing about swashbuckling, dashing, antiheroics with airs of Firefly and Star Wars in the background.
But for me? Not so much. My favorite period by far is current day. Come to think of it, this is the first game that I’ve run that isn’t set in modern day! Additionally, the action-drama ratio is perfect for a stunning fantasy adventure movie (like Star Wars or Firefly), but I find it hard to get as excited about action bits as, say, the drama or investigation bits.
It is every bit the most elegant scenario ever designed, the perfect introduction to the hobby or to story games, with a wonderfully rich world. I will recommend it vigorously to everyone because I know they will enjoy it. But I prefer a little less swash in my buckle.