Playing Lady Blackbird by John Harper

I ran Lady Blackbird by John Harper four times on GothCon XXXIV. After a while I developed a feel for the game, and the form described in the game meshed with my own playstyle and experience from running other indie games. I wrote a short post on the Nordnordost blog about actual play of the game, and in the comments we had a discussion with advice for running it. I thought I’d share those advice here as well.

I don’t think that reading this post will spoil the fun of playing the game later. Since all there is in the PDF is a situation (and not a full adventure as such) that is also known by all players by the start of the game, anything that was part of my games will not necessarily figure in the games of others. For reasons that will become apparent.

‘… ask questions, don’t plan’
As I already mentioned in my Reading Lady Blackbird post the short section on how to run the game contains the suggestion to run the game by asking questions, and not planning ahead. This may seem a bit thin, but once the game actually starts it all comes together.

As you may know, the game starts with all the PCs being held in the brig of the frigate The Hand of Sorrow. After the players introduced their PCs (meta level introductions, as all the PCs already know eachother), I just turned to a random player and asked him or her to describe the cell that they were held in. After the description, if they did not start playing by themselves, I asked what they were going to do about the situation. And it turned into a flurry of activity as the PCs were finding a way to get out of the cell.

Usually breaking out of the cell involved someone picking the lock, or even some magic, but whatever means they took it was an appropriate time to describe the dice mechanism/rules, and how abilities, tags and the pool work. After all, we had a very real and practical example to work with.

Once outside the cell, if the players had not already taken command of the game, I asked the player that had been the least active one what they were hearing, or if I wanted to get things going with some minor combat what the patrool that just came through the door looked like. The event usually caused another episode of frantic activity of some kind or the other, and when the game began to settle I followed up with another question to whatever other player that had been quiet.

Whenever they forced themselves to roll dice to do something, gamers like to roll dice to do stuff, I assigned difficulty. The difficulty 3 is good, I went through entire sessions using only that.

Sometimes in the last parts of the sessions all I had to do was to reply ‘Three!’ when prompted about the difficulty of doing this or that. After playing for a while and finding that whatever they said was established as true in the game the players started GM’ing themselves. Sometimes I did short sections of traditional GM narrative, but usually with some form of question to the players at the end, to put the ball back in their hands.

A word of warning about planning ahead
After running the game a few times I wanted to share cool episodes with the following game groups, that is planning the game. That did not work out very well. Since I was suddenly aiming for a goal further off than the next minute of gaming I started saying ‘no’ when the players did stuff, since I wanted to save my own plan. Such ‘blocking’, as the impro crowd calls it, made the game slow down. It is hard to give up on a plan once you have it, so my suggestion is not to plan at all, just like John says in the GM’ing section of the game.

When to say no, anyway
I just advised against saying no in the previous section, but as a GM you should be prepared to do it anyway. The game is very free and open, since you are mostly running it by asking the players what comes next. But for the game to work, the stuff that the players come up with must fit with the other pieces already in the puzzle. When the impro crowd talk about ‘being obvious’, they talk about this.

Every player will have an own agenda, and an own view of what the world looks like, and what the game is going to be about and contain. As a GM you should focus on keeping a finger on the pulse of the game so you notice when someone says something that breaks the beat. Some minor things you can just let slide, but if someone says something that clearly puts the other players off, then is the time to act. Say no, or find another way to reach the objective that the player has, but that does not upset the game for all the other players. This is tricky, if you get it exactly right everyone is happy. Don’t be surprised if you don’t get it exactly right. The game goes on anyway, move on, cut to the next scene and forget it ever happened.

Running a game by asking questions is easy, keeping everyone on the same track can be more difficult.

About the keys
The PCs have keys, in The Shadow of Yesterday and Solar System the keys tells you what the player finds cool and fun about the PC (‘flags’ in gamer theory speak). As a GM you should keep an eye on those keys and incorporate them in the game. Player: ‘I think X is cool!’ GM: ‘Great, let’s do X!’

That is, in TSOY and SS you should keep an eye on those keys.

In Lady Blackbird the keys tells the player who the PC is. Same name, different thing. My advice to a GM is, don’t worry about the keys, let the players do with them what they please. – Lady Blackbird – Lady Blackbird discussion on Nordnordost, in Swedish… – My first post about Lady Blackbird


  1. Wilhelm said,

    May 26, 2010 at 10:28

    I ran Lady Blackbird again yesterday. Good session as always but in the final scene everything did not click. The agendas of the different players were mutually exclusive, someone would have to leave the table unsatisfied.

    In a regular game I would not flich at that, comes with the territory. But this was a one off. The players all my friends but from different circles, I wanted the game to end on a high note for everyone involved.

    The lady married her pirate captain, the bodyguard found herself being the fifth wheel in the lady’s life. The captain and mechanic wealty from stealing pirate treasure, but nowhere important to go.

    The solution was an epilogue for each character:

    Each player got to do a very short narrative describing what their character could be seen doing after a time chosen by themselves.

    The bodyguard took her scene right after the wedding, leaving the service of the lady and joining the crew of the Owl.

    The captain took his as they left the pirate base, steering towards the horizon and new adventures.

    And the mechanic took his a few years later, the captain now in charge of a huge destroyer, the bridge decorated with stolen treasure, and himself as sensors officer. “Captain, an Imperial cruiser on the port bow, permission to open fire?”


  2. November 1, 2014 at 00:57

    […] 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 […]

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