Every game of Lady Blackbird starts in the same place: The cold iron brig of the Hand of Sorrow. Five rebellious heroes are trapped in the uncaring grip of the Empire, with aspirations of freedom alongside the far-off pirate king Uriah Flint. The premise is exciting, but the genius of this 2009 indie darling really begins to show when your players take control of the crew of The Owl. Will they talk their way out of imprisonment? Can they break out with force? Perhaps the predicament requires a more uncanny solution—teleportation, shapeshifting, or summoned lightning. No matter what the party does, their choices will send your story spinning off into The Wild Blue.
Lady Blackbird is the first entry in John Harper’s Tales from the Wild Blue Yonder series, a free three part collection of RPGs focused on light rules and minimal prep. You might recognize Harper from his more recent RPG hit, Blades in the Dark, a spectacularly atmospheric game of industrial-fantasy heists. Lady Blackbird on the other hand is a story of blue skies, ballrooms, and space pirates. The game is widely renowned as a paragon of game design, is perfect for short campaigns, and it comes prepackaged with a stellar story.
The Wild Blue
The setting of Lady Blackbird is terse: a single page of introduction to the quest, another with a map and a description of the solar system, and a final page with technical data on the player’s ship. Harper uses just a few words to launch what is essentially a Victorian Space Opera with all the requisite bourgeois melodrama, romantic tension, and high-flying action. In fact, the opening page to the game most closely resembles the famous scrolling exposition brick that opens every Star Wars movie. There is an indistinct but clearly malevolent empire, a desperate quest, and a group of heroes in danger. Just the right recipe for a swashbuckling space adventure.
Lady Blackbird drops players directly into action that, while largely recognizable, leaves room to tell many different stories. The bulk of the narrative tension is generated by the characters themselves. Each of the five player characters is made up of traits, skills, and objectives that pull the players into conflict with one another. The eponymous Lady Blackbird is a noble of the Empire, fleeing from an arranged marriage to find her long-lost lover, the pirate king Uriah Flint. The captain of the ship she chartered to smuggle her out of the Empire is Cyrus Vance, an ex-Imperial soldier who has developed romantic feelings for Blackbird. Kale Arkam, the thief-turned-mechanic of The Owl is as likely to steal from Lady Blackbird as he is to help her. Blackbird’s bodyguard, Naomi Bishop, is an emancipated pit fighter who still resents the nobility for her enslavement. There’s also Snargle, a shape-shifting goblin in the employ of Captain Vance. Each character is built on a stack of evocative powers and skills that give the players tools to influence the story, but also provide facets of weakness and strife that drive the narrative towards conflict.
Harper also hints at the larger society that exists in The Wild Blue, but leaves numerous blank spaces to be filled in by the GM and players. Haven is the largest free world outside the Empire, and likely the first destination for the party after escaping the Hand of Sorrow. In my recent playthrough the party’s time in Haven was focused on an elaborate masquerade ball put on by wealthy ex-Imperials, through which the crew of The Owl was hunted by costumed bounty hunters. The night ended in familial intrigue, the theft of a large golden candelabra, and a violent escape. The other primary location where the party will likely spend time is the city-planet of Nightport. Nightport is described as a den of criminals and con men tidally locked in constant darkness, but the setting left room for me to fill the planet with a faction of my own design. In my game the “Five-Hundred Families” of Nightport were a collection of mobs and mafias in a constant struggle for power and coin in the twinkling city streets. The party chose to work for one of the more benevolent crime families in order to earn the information they needed to reach Uriah Flint’s hideout. These are the kinds of stories that arise on the vibrant backdrop of The Wild Blue.
And guess what, if the low-tech spacefaring setting isn’t for you, the internet is replete with hacked versions of the game. Some really notable names in tabletop have contributed, such as Dungeon World’s Sage LaTorra with a Western hack called Old Mesilla, and Jason Morningstar, author of Fiasco, with his own action movie take on the game, Death School. Or perhaps you are looking for a more comical hack like John Ryan’s rednecks-in-space game, My Darn Ex Wife. Everyone should play the original Lady Blackbird at least once, but these are some great ways to keep the experience fresh.
Crunching the Numbers
Lady Blackbird is the sports car of RPGs: small, shiny, and immensely effective at what it does. The actual gameplay is still novel years after release—when faced with conflict, players roll a handful of d6’s based on how many traits and skills they have that are applicable to the task with additions from their dice pool. There is no traditional health meter, but failures may impose one of several conditions on the characters, ranging from “angry” to “dead”. Harper smartly sidesteps the heavy punishment that a lot of darker systems use; conditions don’t impose mechanical penalties, they just serve as narrative markers for the GM and players to use to enhance the story. Even the “dead” condition really only means “presumed dead”, giving the opportunity for heroic comebacks at the brink of disaster.
One of the best aspects of Lady Blackbird is how the game balances the divide between action and emotion. Conflicts in the game are largely tense, bombastic, and dramatic—the setting lends itself to fistfights, chase scenes, and space battles. Because these kinds of conflicts happen so often the players can quickly run out of bonus pool dice for their rolls; bonus dice which are primarily regained using loose, emotion-driven “recovery scenes”. This gives players a mechanical incentive to engage with others at the table, and explore the interpersonal conflicts which are so beautifully incorporated into the game. Playing Lady Blackbird was the first time I had players begging to have deep emotional interactions, even if it sometimes was just so they could be refreshed.
Another interesting mechanic in Lady Blackbird is the use of “Keys” as a system of character advancement. Fulfilling certain objectives and motivations allow players to “hit a key”, earning them an experience point. These keys are how the game rewards players for leaning into their hero’s characterization. For example, Lady Blackbird has the “Key of the Paragon”, which allows her to gain experience when displaying her superiority over the common man (which can come off as either condescending or triumphant, depending on the situation.) These traits say something about the character who has them, gives opportunity for interesting conflict, and incentivises making interesting choices over smart ones.
Another benefit of keys is that they give a mechanical measurement of character growth. Each key has a “buyoff condition”, a trigger that fires when a character abandons some core aspect. Captain Vance has the “Key of the Commander”, a trait which allows him to earn experience when giving commands to the crew of The Owl. That said, this key has a buyoff condition—if Vance abandons his role as captain and acknowledges someone else as the leader, he instantly gains two levels and loses this key. There is an interesting tension here: would Vance sacrifice The Owl if it meant getting Lady Blackbird to her destination safely? Could he grow to desire a peaceful life, away from his penchant for conflict and command? Losing or gaining a key is one of the most pivotal points in a character’s story, and really nicely tracks how they can change over time.
Role Play Best Practices
I could talk about the slick design of Lady Blackbird all day, but my real impression is a bit larger: Harper has quite possibly created the best beginner RPG around. Not only is the game easy to pick up and learn within a few minutes, but the structure that Harper has created encourages both players and GM’s to start learning skills which will make them better at playing and running nearly any other system.
On the player side, Lady Blackbird provides interesting characters and then gives every incentive to invest in both their virtues and their flaws. One thing that I really appreciate about the writing of the game is that so much of the characterization is baked into the rules. Naomi Bishop, the party’s bodyguard, has a history as a slave in service to the rich and powerful of the Empire. This terrible past is represented by one of her core traits, “Pit Fighter”, which gives her skills such as fast, brutal, and combat tested. Not only do these skills say something about who Bishop is, they give her player direct handles onto who she is becoming—is she cruel, or does she regret her past? The “brutal” tag may give Bishop an advantage when fighting, but is she willing to be brutal in every fight, and risk seriously harming her opponent? In my game one of my players decided to lean into the grim depiction of a hardened warrior, and not only used the brutal tag frequently, but also bought the “bone-breaking” tag, increasing the carnage. I could see another player focusing on the less lethal “Bodyguard” trait instead, playing the same Bishop with a very different feel. Not only is that kind of dynamic character depiction central to the rule set, but it manages to convey this tension without feeling fake or forced. This is the same kind of emotional dynamism which makes interesting characters in other games, and gives players who might not have a lot of confidence in character design and improv the chance to learn about role playing within an already well-developed story.
On the GM side, Lady Blackbird does a similar kind of aptitude training by giving you the framework of an interesting story and asking you to fill in the gaps. The loosely guided plot helps keep the party from getting bogged down in an overly complex story, but leaves exposed lots of area for innovation. Everything from factions to physics are spelled out with enough detail to get the ideas flowing, while leaving plenty of room for you to insert your own storylines, NPC’s, and side missions. Not only that, but the rules system as a whole is really easy to manage at the table—players are in charge of their own resources, there is no combat system to manage besides standard conflict resolution, and all the relevant rules fit on half a sheet of paper. It is really a smooth system to run.
Overall, Lady Blackbird is a stellar storytelling game with sleek mechanics and an engaging base story. It is the perfect pick up if you want to introduce RPGs to a friend, or just play a short campaign with your normal group. John Harper can be found on Twitter, and the game is available along with other works on his site, One Seven Design, for the low price of free. The follow up chapters to Lady Blackbird are also available there: Magister Lor & Lord Scurlock. Go check out all Harper’s games to see some high quality, exciting, and innovative design.
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5 thoughts on “The Independents: Lady Blackbird”
Thanks for this. I noticed that there’s a new website with updated versions of the “Tales from the Wild Blue Yonder” games (https://ladyblackbird.org). It looks official, but I’m not sure. I’m also not sure about the differences between those versions and the originals, apart from layout. Do you know anything about them?
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Oh wow! No, I hadn’t seen that site. It seems like the newer versions of the game have some layout/character sheet changes, and a few world-building questions added. I definitely like the new “Play Tracker” page, I had to make the same thing for myself when I was GMing. Thanks for linking that!
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Heh, no problem! I was just confused because I came across that site while searching for Lady Blackbird, but any discussion I’ve seen about the game always references the original version. It looks like some different people are behind the updates, so I wondered if they did it with John Harper’s blessing.