The Independents: Blackwind

Worlds and plot hooks come together, tension rises, heroes struggle against their foes, and as the dust settles we see the end of the tale. So go movies, books, shows, and no small number of roleplaying games – but there’s a new one coming onto the market that puts that plot progression front and center, and even makes its creation and development the main mechanic of the game. Blackwind by Elisa Mignemi and Allan Kelley is currently running through its Kickstarter project, and they were kind enough to give us a look at the finished product and answer some questions about the game!

Blackwind is very up front about what it wants to do: the game wants everyone at the table to be playing through an interesting, engaging story, and they want everyone to be contributing to the story and its plot. As a result a read through of the book leaves one with the impression that they’re reading a guide on how to create such stories as much as a roleplaying game (definitely not a bad thing).

Each Story is broken up into five phases that the GM and players will go through: Setup, Ascent, Middle, Fall, and Resolution. If this sounds like those ‘five stages of storytelling’ that were brought up in a literature class, you’ve got the right idea. The bedrock of the story, and of Blackwind as a game, is the Setup phase. Consisting of an ‘adventure project’, the Setup phase might be analogous to the Session Zero concept, but the adventure project is a must-have part of Blackwind. Over the course of this phase the GM and players (once of whom acts as a ‘Secretary’ to make sure things are kept straight) will decide the genre, themes, and starting plot state and hooks of the story, along with many other little details. Players receive points for being the ones to contribute aspects of the story, for amusing their fellows players, for creating physical props for others to use, and more (more on these later). Once the Setup phase is done, it’s off to the plot, and it plays out much the same as any story; much of the page space for other phases is devoted to helping everyone tell the best story they can.

Blackwind has been in the works in one form or another since 2007, so what gave Elisa and Allan the drive to create it in the first place?

Elisa: “Our main inspiration was a lifelong experience with classic tabletop games, and all the common issues that every roleplayer has encountered across their gaming life. Having played and thousands of sessions (both as players and game masters), we started noticing problems that cropped up more often than others, and decided to improve on them. We also hold a keen interest for all kinds of literary and cinematic works, and this definitely had a hand in making the plot such an important feature. We believe that no roleplay session is really complete without a compelling story.

The primary design goal is simple. Giving roleplayers who enjoy this particular playstyle an outlet for their creative drive, a set of tools to give it direction, and to make the gap between idea and execution as quick and smooth as possible. From this came many other perks, such as achieving a correct balance between player freedom and game master direction, improvisation and structure, character agency and story.

There are several features that make this system unique, but the most relevant is the importance of the plot. In the Blackwind System, the plot is the fruit of the combined efforts of players and game masters (called Directors) rather than something imposed on the players. In this optic, players and their characters both shape the story and are shaped by it: statistics and better dice tiers do not reflect a knack for crunching numbers, but who is putting the most into making the session memorable or enjoyable (for everyone- Director included).”

Although Blackwind uses the usual d20 etc. dice, you can probably tell by now that this is a game pretty much built from scratch, especially with having turned plot creation, table interaction, and the like into the core mechanic. Intrigued about the process that got the game to where it is, I asked Elisa and Allen about the challenges they faced along the way.

Allan: “The bulk of the challenge lay in translating all the dynamics and all the typical structures of plays and movies into rules: the archetypes of adventures and fairy tales, the path of the mythical hero, and how they relate to other characters (including the special connection with the antagonist), plus all the structures that frame specific events. The biggest challenge was to create templates and rules that could represent how stories have been told for centuries on end. It was a long work of tuning, changes and tests that led us to this result.”

Elisa: “For me, the biggest challenge was to balance matters player side. Allan has been playing as a Game Master since D&D 1st edition, while I am more experienced in pushing plots as a player character. Making sure that player characters were the active protagonists of a story rather than taking a backseat and just rolling over predetermined “plot rails”. The answer was playtesting and adjusting, playtesting and adjusting.”

All of the talk within the book is about a single Setup->Ascent->Middle->Fall->Resolution playthrough. Now a single story certainly might take more than play session (and, given the detail of the Setup phase, probably will) but I was curious: would Blackwind be more suitable for one-shot/short game play, campaign play, or both?

Elisa: “Both. As a matter of fact, Blackwind features two kinds of Plot Structure: Bead-String and Cable Plot. The Bead-String Plot is similar to television series, a virtually endless collection of short adventures that have the same universe or group of characters in common. You may play a “pilot” episode, then decide whether to continue the story, fleshing out custom settings “as you go” and even introducing overarching series plots. Our free starter module, “Arena”, is an example of a Bead-String plot. Each episode usually lasts one or two sessions (4 to 8 hours).

The Cable Plot resembles a movie or a novel. These are usually heftier plots that span across several sessions, with a clear beginning and end. It is obviously possible to follow up with sequels, prequels, trilogies, tetralogies, pentalogies, and so on. It is also possible to see a Cable Plot spawn a line of Bead String Plots (such as spin offs) or vice-versa (such as television series being made into movies), or mix and match the two styles. The upcoming modules “The Treasure of Maracaibo” (pirate themed) and “Euromorph” (cyberpunk) are examples of Cable Plots. Cable Plots usually last between three and seven sessions (12 to 28 hours).”

Allan: “In fact, the term “campaign” does not make sense in Blackwind. Each adventure carries its load of new situations and circumstances, which are developed on a case by case basis, even after the first. If you play a trilogy of Cable Plots, you will not be able to decide the plot of the second instance before playing the first from beginning to end. This leaves a lot of room for unexpected ideas, and keeps the story structure fluid.”

Alright. Points. Essentially scoring a player’s contribution to the game. How exactly is something like that going to work?

Elisa: “More than actively using points, players earn points from a wide range of contributions, relative to immersion, the founding “elements” of the story, casting character roles that best fit the adventure, characterization, key plot points, helpful suggestions, noteworthy, memorable or amusing roleplay, handling subplots, opening and closing character arcs, beating in-built challenges and riddles, defeating antagonists, and more.

Points are translated into a rough equivalent of statistics through the Score. The Score simply measures whether there is a sizable gap of points between players, and if so, creates a ladder. The character played by the highest scoring player will be the strongest, and points are not lost if that character dies. The player may re-enter the game with a new character, which will already have the best set of dice.

Since points are earned (or more rarely lost) throughout the game, each session is a constant yet friendly race to the spotlight. This may not happen without the approval of both other players and the game master, in-character resourcefulness and/or having a big impact in strengthening immersion and story.”

Allan: “Our intention was to create characters that could behave in the same ways as those seen on screen or as the protagonist of an adventure story: Jim Hawkins (Treasure Island) has the same chances of success against a crew of seasoned pirates as a legendary warrior trying to avenge his father in a mythical saga. What really matters is whether or not these characters are protagonists, and while a fifteen years old boy will not be very strong or an expert duelist, the “hero’s luck” will shine as much on him as on the troubled brow of a barbaric Cimmerian.”

Despite the emphasis on story, though, Blackwind isn’t a ‘story game’ per se, and doesn’t strip away the standard dice to the degree that, say, Fiasco does. At the basic level it uses a target number to roll under vs. a single die, but that die is determined by a tier system, and the points players are gathering can affect that. I asked Elisa to give me the ‘showed up for a pick-up game’ explanation.

Elisa: “First, player characters need to state their Role: their defining purpose or area of expertise, such as “gunslinger” “spaceship pilot”, “cop”, “hacker”. This is used to decide whether any of the actions the character will attempt is something they are proficient in. Second, players need to pick a Career: whether their character is a specialist (King career) in their Role or a generalist (Queen career). A specialist will be better in role activities and worse in off-role ones, while a generalist will be a more well-rounded jack of all trades. Last, points earned are translated into score positions (from highest to lowest: main protagonist, co-protagonist, other protagonist, walk-on part) that change during play.

Career (does not change) + Score position (dynamic) = Role die + Off role die, used to roll for role or off role activities.

For instance, a King (career) Co-protagonist (score position) Gunslinger (Role) will roll a D8 for every action tied to being a gunslinger (Role rolls: for instance using firearms) and a D20 for every action not tied to being a gunslinger (Off-role rolls: for instance singing, fishing, forging documents etc). If his score position will change, the set of dice will scale up or down.

Dice is rolled against difficulties set by the Director, who will try to take into account every detail of the situation at hand before deciding on a value, ranging from 1 (miraculous) to 5-6 (easy). Effortless actions will not require a check, impossible ones (plot breaking or that have no chance of succeeding) will be denied.

For instance, our King, Co-Protagonist Gunslinger may ask to shoot the rope of a noose to free a relevant non player character. The Director will take into account whether this is an expert or novice Gunslinger, whether this is a realistic or swashbuckling adventure, the distance from his target, how much time he has to aim. The Director will decide that the difficulty is 3 or less (difficult). The Gunslinger will then roll a D8 against a difficulty of 3 or less.”

Now, about how you get those points. As mentioned above points are given to players for making contributions to the story, providing material, doing ‘paperwork’ for the game, and even for just entertaining their fellow players. On the face of things this seems like a very talkative game . . . and we’ve all known or been that one player who prefers to keep quiet and save their contributions for really key moments. I was a little concerned that ‘the quiet one’ might have some trouble thriving in Blackwind, so I asked what advice the team had for them, and for the Directors trying to draw them out.

Elisa: “The advice for quiet players would be to not worry and to just enjoy the game. It is possible to climb the score through many different playstyles, some of which do not require being outspoken or veterans. Additionally, every score position is designed to have a shot at attempting all kinds of stunts: not only you will always have a chance to succeed, but if you do it will likely become a memorable moment and propel you up the score.

The advice for Directors is to use their pool of points to balance the party, especially if someone is new to the game. Blackwind grants the opportunity to build on player initiative, such as by opening sub-plots and detours, or integrating player-created NPCs. Particularly quiet players might even choose to become a “second” Director, something between a player character and an important NPC, helping in keeping the plot on track, fleshing out the world, and even speaking for entire organizations.”

With Blackwind by all reports making a strong opening, what can we expect from the game itself and the team in the future?

Elisa: “From now on our attention will be fully focused on expanding Blackwind. There are many parts of the Project you have yet to see, first and foremost The Treasure of Maracaibo and Euromorph, followed by six other large modules that have already been playtested but need some tweaking. The genres will be noir, steampunk horror, fantasy (sword and sorcery), post atomic, spy thriller and western.

It is very likely you will see other supplements, such as how to build adventures belonging to specific genres: archetypes, tropes, underlying structure, general tone and themes, symbolism, twists and so on. Other avenues of expansion will probably concern add ons, with personalized dice at the top of the list.”

Allan: “Well, we are also thinking about making a card game that can be played separately or in combination with our system, but it is still too early to talk about it.”

Oh, and out of curiosity, why the name Blackwind?

Elisa: “This is an interesting story: it comes from one of our adventures. The “black wind” was a powerful curse player characters could unleash to free a city from sieging army. But first they would need to perform a complex ritual, described in a grimoire they recovered from the depths of a necromancer’s tomb. The name carries fond memories, and while simple it speaks of darkness, adventure, and magic.”

Any parting words for our readers/prospective backers?

Elisa: “We hope you will like Blackwind, that it will bring you many hours of exotic adventures, and all the dragon slaying, rescue missions into alien hives and cybernetic duels your heart desires.”

You can find more information (and even a free starter adventure) on the Blackwind site, and can chat with the team on Twitter. The Blackwind Kickstarter itself has already funded, has started digging into stretch goals that will mostly add starter adventures for various genres, and runs to July 10th. Upon fulfillment the game will be sold through DriveThruRPG (we’ll post a link here when it does).

Give Blackwind a look, and put the plot back in the spotlight!

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