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The Search for Blackbird

For the past year and a half, I’ve been running a meetup group in my town for roleplaying games. Every few weeks, we run one-shot events intended to be accessible for new players. I’ve introduced a few people to roleplaying games, and many people to indie games. My favorite experiences have been seeing people become comfortable with their ability and to see them engage creatively, especially with mechanics.

One advantage is I can play the same one-shot game with different groups of people, and I took this opportunity to run Lady Blackbird twice, as well as Jedi Blackbird twice. In this post, I’m going to focus on my fourth and most successful session using Jedi Blackbird and my difficulties getting there. Each time, I was GM.

Lady Blackbird is a 12 page RPG by John Harper. I think it’s fair to say the game is a stripped down version of The Shadow of Yesterday. Players play pre-established characters in an established scenario. The setting is broadly space-opera with familiar tropes from Star Wars and Firefly. The game’s graphic design is excellent, balancing accessibility and depth admirably.

Importantly, Lady Blackbird uses the idea of “Keys” and “Pools” from The Shadow of Yesterday. Players can acquire XP by performing certain actions and can spend this XP to acquire new abilities freely. Players have access to a pool of dice they can use to improve their rolls and can refresh their pool by having a “Refreshment Scene,” which is basically just using scene framing.

Jedi Blackbird is almost identical to Lady Blackbird in terms of design, but using characters and a situation from Star Wars. I switched to Jedi Blackbird for a number of reasons. The main one was simply that I was never able to finish the scenario- not even close in either game.

In Jedi Blackbird, there are four player characters-

CHANI ZOSAR, old Jedi Master searching for his fallen apprentice ORDO VALLUS. It’s his mission and he even owns the ship.

COLONEL VAUD HURKOON, Chani’s bodyguard and strong Jedi Knight.

CADE CRITO, Vaud’s Roguish Jedi Apprentice.

FRANTER NORD, Alien Guide to Kondu where Ordo Vallus lives, where the action of the game takes place.

In short, the relationship map is about a powerful Jedi Master and his servant searching for his apprentice. The game tries to make this work for all the characters- Vaud and Cade are given keys of Dark Side seduction and Franter is given a rivalry with an NPC named Bokka the Hutt.

The Setup

At the meetup, people who have brought games will pitch them trying to get players. It can be rough if your game doesn’t have an ampersand in it, but I got two players, a man I’ll call Z and a woman I’ll call L. I’ve played with Z before- he likes to stir up some trouble but in good fun. I like his attitude but sometimes he can march over other players. L, I hadn’t met before.  We’re all the generic “post college” age you see in TV shows like Friends.

My style is to play games pretty straight and follow the rules as written. I let the players pick their characters; L picked Vaud, and Z picked Cade. I assumed someone would pick Chani but I didn’t mandate it. Now this could have easily led to Vaud and Cade getting pulled around through “the plot” by Chani. So I made Chani a straight bad-guy. This is compatible with the setup of the game which merely says Chani has “a dirty secret known to his student.” Well, in my game his dirty secret was “Uses the force to absorb other people’s essence to stay alive.” In other words, he was a secret Jedi Vampire. Not exactly subtle, but we’re talking about android space wizards. Chani wants to kill Ordo because Ordo knows his secret.

Act 1

At the beginning of the game, the two PCs (Vaud and Cade), and two NPCs (Chani and Franter) are in a spaceship above the planet Kondu facing Bokka the Hutt’s fleet of garbage ships. Here, I straight up take a suggestion from the material and had Chani straight up sell Franter to Bokka. This helps to establish Chani’s character, and gets rid of a pointless NPC companion.

The players are given the task of apprehending Franter, which they complied with without a second thought. I give both of them XP for hitting their Dark Side keys. From the beginning of the game, I put a heavy emphasis keeping the action going, hitting their keys, and refreshing their pools, letting them know I would support whatever direction they took the game.

With Bokka relenting, they reach the planet and hatch a plan to pose as junk traders before reaching out to Ordo Vallus. In order to finance this, they agree to do a job for Bokka, going out to a farm to collect a debt for Bokka (he’s basically loan-sharked half the planet).

Act 2

Kondu is a junk world (I picture the planet in Captain Eo) with a few scattered farms that receive sunlight from satellites. Kondu is a great setting for the one-shot and the players get a sense for how the different systems (the spaceport, government, Bokka, junkyards, and farms) fit together. Props to Aegard for doing that in one page.

They arrive at the farm and it’s staffed by some alien workers and an alien old grandma with a Star Wars version of a shotgun aided by the police. L has the idea to use her character’s animal handling ability to call upon a giant Rustworm, Kondu’s version of sandworm, which I had described as scene dressing earlier. I really loved this, but stood by the game’s suggestion to make this maximally difficult (DC of 5, meaning you need something like 10 dice to hit it). She makes her roll and they overpower the officers.

The grandma explains she’s behind on Bokka’s payment because some junk traders took her transport ship. Instead of taking the payment back to Bokka, the players decide here to actually go track down her transport ship. They go through the vast junkyards and use the force to track down the raider and overpower him (they’re Jedi). Once they do, they realize that they don’t need Bokka’s help. They can simply use the junkyard raider’s operation and the cooperation of the grandma to get access to Ordo’s operation.

They greet one of Bokka’s envoys who tell them about Ordo’s operation- a movement to heal the planet’s ecology and foster a movement of peace. This is all in the setting materials. Z’s character Cade grows close with the envoy asking about her relationship with Ordo who she sees as a father figure. In fact, Z takes “Key of Forbidden Love” with her. This is a great move, exactly the kind of thing I want to see. She agrees to take them along with a convoy to see Ordo in a week.

Act 3

Here, I put the question to them: Do you tell Chani about this new plan? They decided not to, with L even buying off her “Follow Chani’s orders key.” This tension between lead to a legitimate climax in the third act at Ordo’s colony.

The PCs arrived at Ordo’s colony with a caravan of machines, and goods, as well as the forces of the space-grandma (Z took “Secret of the General”). They offer to help Ordo fix his terraforming machines, and Ordo lets them stay the night. However, the envoy-girl lets Cade know that Ordo has been using the force to drain the dark-side impulses from his followers.

They confront Ordo and defeat him. However, when Ordo tells them that Chani is a Jedi Vampire and his vision of a green Kondu, they decide to protect the colony. Chani comes in with Bokka’s fleet and a huge battle begins. Vaud unleashed her rustworm on Bokka’s fleet.

I had to have the players make an opposed roll with Chani which is technically a rules change (the game assumes no conflict between PCs). Afterwards, Cade wanted to stay with his new love and protect the colony and Vaud wanted him to return to the Jedi Order, so they had a conflict which Cade won. In the end, the colony survived with Cade protecting it, and Vaud returned to the Jedi Order with Chani as her prisoner. 

Takeaways

The three things made this one-shot a three act story with character development instead of just a fun romp. First, the players felt confident using the mechanics and driving the story- I would constantly remind them to collect XP, refresh their pools, and buy off keys. They trusted me to support their decisions and I did. Second, the game had a unity in the setting. The players felt comfortable with the setting’s logic. Third, the relationship map for the players was simple and compelling- A master and an apprentice serving under an ambiguously evil master.

Unfortunately, the game required a lot of work from me. Players feel bad milking their keys- possibly conditioned to not “abuse” metagame mechanics from other games. Furthermore, even the impressive 15 XP the players were able to earn barely moves the needle on character effectiveness. If I hadn’t hammered them on using the mechanics it wouldn’t have worked. Blackbird’s resolution mechanic is also really frustrating. Here’s how it works:

Players declare their action using as many “verbs” listed on their character sheet as possible. I tell them what the difficulty is from the setting materials (The logic the materials use is obscure). Then I tell them how many “verbs” they hit and the difficulty and ask them how many dice from their pool they want to use. This process takes forever, requires the GM to be both objective and helpful at the same time; it’s bad.

Anyway, the players and I had a pretty good time. I’d like to find more mechanically-driven games that work for one-shots. It would also be great if someone better integrated keys into a one-shot.

Department: 
Actual Play

Comments

Ron Edwards's picture

With an account like this, I sometimes feel like organizing a seminar discussion around it. There are so many avenues and angles.

For example, something that I lean toward but probably isn't anything anyone else wants to do, is actually to critique the two Blackbird games. We know they have light-up star status as go-to wonder indie, but I have consistently observed the accounts of play to be contrary to the rep, often using vague and uncomfortable phrasing. ... Even here, the session described as the best time of all the tries you've done, only rates a "pretty good."

Well, maybe I'm reading too much into that phrasing. But it's a valid avenue for discussion to ask you what pretty good absolutely and fully means to you, regarding both success in any role-playing at all, and relative to your hopes or expectations or beliefs about this game.

A better avenue would be to look at your success with the Keys. I have always liked these but have also painfully, slowly admitted that they don't work well a lot of the time. The obvious concern is people just punching through the "big" option, to deny or betray or contradict the Key, for 10 XP, then taking another one and immediately doing the same. It's crappy play, yes, but it seems to attract people even when they don't want to. But in this game, what you're describing is much better and more fun - yes, a lot of using the Keys, perhaps even some turnover (I'm not sure), but significantly, it was all about actually playing the characters and enjoying what they did. If you don't mind me saying, it seems like you were absolutely stellar in showing and encouraging it to be done well, and the people were similarly stellar in getting turned on by it.

I have a long-ago design that I dug up and shared with my patrons a year or two ago, mainly as an abandoned project. It's a straightforward Shadow of Yesterday lift, for a very strange fantasy/SF setting, and I really, really like my constellation of Keys for it. So I am very interested in the success you're describing - I bet I can learn from it, and maybe that would help to optimize fun for this project.

Even here, the session described as the best time of all the tries you've done, only rates a "pretty good."

Well, maybe I'm reading too much into that phrasing. But it's a valid avenue for discussion to ask you what pretty good absolutely and fully means to you, regarding both success in any role-playing at all, and relative to your hopes or expectations or beliefs about this game.

I enjoyed the game quite a bit but wanted to frame my feelings in context with my objectives at the beginning of my post. When I'm running these one-shots for new players, I'm not going to enjoy the games the same was as I might playing with long-time friends. With new players  what I suggest can be taken really strongly- if mention I don't like the direction they're taking the story, it can be interpreted as a condemnation on their agency or play habits instead of just my opinion. So my goals are primarily to meet new people, show people new avenues for play, and to learn about a variety of systems. In the one-shot here I think I succeeded in each of these.

A better avenue would be to look at your success with the Keys. I have always liked these but have also painfully, slowly admitted that they don't work well a lot of the time. The obvious concern is people just punching through the "big" option, to deny or betray or contradict the Key, for 10 XP, then taking another one and immediately doing the same. It's crappy play, yes, but it seems to attract people even when they don't want to. But in this game, what you're describing is much better and more fun - yes, a lot of using the Keys, perhaps even some turnover (I'm not sure), but significantly, it was all about actually playing the characters and enjoying what they did.

Yeah, I agree with you on all of the above, although I've never had a player abuse the buyoff option in any of the tSoY/Blackbird games I've run. My experience has been much the opposite- players afraid to abuse the key system. In the Shadow of Yesterday's text, the book points out lots of key "tricks" and I think it's clear that using keys is supposed to be fun and absolutely not a system for the GM to advance their goals. In practice, in the one-shots I've found myself burdoned with the role of telling players when it's okay/not okay to grab XP- having them take XP when their actions are "character defining" or "advancing the story" in some sense. 

In this game, the players kind of 'got it' by the middle of the session (like two hours in). It might be worth noting that I use physical tokens for XP and I use physical dice of a particular color for the player's pools. I can grant XP or players can just grab XP non-verbally but with implicit consent. My memory was there was just one buy-off which was when L's character Vaud bought off "Key of the Jedi Order" for rebelling against Chani's leadership at some point. Z could probably have bought off "Key of Ambition" at the end of the session for joining the colony and "learning the value of teamwork."

If you don't mind me saying, it seems like you were absolutely stellar in showing and encouraging it to be done well, and the people were similarly stellar in getting turned on by it.

Oh, I don't mind =). Thanks.

I have a long-ago design that I dug up and shared with my patrons a year or two ago, mainly as an abandoned project. It's a straightforward Shadow of Yesterday lift, for a very strange fantasy/SF setting, and I really, really like my constellation of Keys for it. So I am very interested in the success you're describing - I bet I can learn from it, and maybe that would help to optimize fun for this project.

I'd love to see it. I personally like keys and think they offer an intersting approach to the dichotomy of "creating a character" and "playing a character." They can represent commitments the characters have made, or archetypes they personify, but from the perspective of developing characters through play especially through choices.

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