I was excited to play Lady Blackbird after the years and years of hearing people talk about it. Secrets! Airships! Magic! I was also curious how a game who’s core rules can fit on half a page would work given that the best rules section I’ve ever read was the very lengthy rules and commentary section in Apocalypse World. Anyway, let’s get to it.
What Went Well:
Most importantly, Lady Blackbird satisfied rule zero: we had fun. We didn’t spend four hours in combat with curiously well-armed skeletons. We didn’t have the game collapse into complete freeform, as we are prone to do when system just doesn’t work. We didn’t spend the whole game talking about how bad it was, like we’ve done with a playtest or two in the past. We sat down, had a few hours of fun, and stuff worked. And that is not an easy accomplishment, especially with a bunch of game devs who constantly ask themselves “of all possible funs, is this the optimal fun I could be having right now?” like every other second.
Lady Blackbird has an evocative setting. At every turn in the game we were making things up at the table that could plausibly be in that universe, the big one being Hull Leeches. We pictured them as the shrieking eels from The Princess Bride. And this is something you want in an indie game especially—a setting that gives players a solid starting point from which they can easily produce their own material. That creative action on the part of the players gives additional investment in the game so that even when it isn’t you in the spotlight, your creation may still be a large part of what’s going on.
And of course, Lady Blackbird has a wonderful starting situation. It immediately gives players a short and mid-term goal with a variety of solutions so that the early game is never bogged down by inertia. It’s not for every game, but it’s the strongest possible start for a game like Lady Blackbird because it inspires this high misadventure feel with a strong initial kick.
Keys are probably the strongest single mechanic element of the game. Keys tell you how your character should act and what they should be doing right now, and without them the game would suffer from a critical lack of direction from the players. There’s a bunch of information on your sheet about what kinds of things your character is good at, but nothing that speaks to their desires or behavior or motivation. Keys address some of that, though it was noted all around the table that Snargle had the best keys of anyone. More meta-play keys would be very welcome.
Bak to Keys. Keys were a little wonky for our group. Our Cyrus Vance, seeing that people generally didn’t like being ordered around, had to step around that Key in order to enjoy playing the game. Our Kale, resenting the idea of orders, also sidestepped his orders-related Key to have a good time. Ditto for everyone except Snargle. This could have been solved, I think, with a more modular keys system where you chose some off a list. I’m looking at you, Special Moves in Apocalypse World. Because as it stands, the game works best if you play relentlessly to the keys and everyone agrees to subdue their own desires to let you hit them. It’s an odd contract to have at the table because our group is especially democratic, but it’s also just an odd contract. It makes sense in shows like Firefly only a little bit—we accept that Mal is the captain and everyone takes his orders (for the most part), but why they do so is inadequately explained in the show itself. A Captain Vance at a table isn’t going to have the benefit of a script writer telling your group what to do—they will have their own plans and they will follow through on them. Perhaps our group is especially resentful of being told what to do, but I’d be interested in seeing if other groups encountered this issue.
Traits and Tags were our other big gripe, and they tie into this problem of dice quantity. Often a character could leverage way more dice than was necessary to hit a level five challenge, listed as the maximum. It’s not necessarily a problem, except that the way you get what you want isn’t very compelling, and that often there was an extreme lack of dice for other characters for tasks they felt they should be good at. Kale, for example, is just not a good mechanic. Her tags are too few and too spread out to make a good mechanic roll without a ton of pool dice. If she sneaks around, however, she has a ton of completely redundant tags that she can leverage to amazing effect. She had several level five sneak challenges in a row and passed them all easily because of how close together her tags were. The result was an odd disparity of competence across characters and their traits. And to get back to that “compelling” gripe I mentioned earlier, we felt that there wasn’t enough back-and-forth to make trait narration interesting. You list some stuff, dice roll, the GM tells you what things happen.
Lastly, we felt there was inadequate risk. Maybe it’s a staple of the genre, but we felt that bad situations had no way of really hurting your character. Sure, there are boxes that denote “injured” or whatever, but they don’t feel like real problems. They lack bite, and even if you put in house rules to give increased mechanical effect, the main issue is that nothing important about your character is ever at stake. Some people like that, and it might be right for the genre, but I will say that we as a group are not keen on invulnerable characters.
What occurred to us at the end of the session is Lady Blackbird‘s ideal environment: a group of trad players being introduced to indie concepts for the first time. And yes, this would be a galactic god-core supernova experience if this was my first indie game after playing World of Darkness and D&D. I would be totally floored, I would sing the hallowed cog-bedecked praises of Lady Blackbird forever. No system that gets in your way, plenty of space to explore, dynamic setting, strong character direction. But Lady Blackbird lacks a lot of its punch if you’ve already played Apocalypse World, which we all had, because it feels in many ways like a prototype for Apocalypse World. And unlike Apocalypse World, it doesn’t hit you in the gut and then spit on your face when you fail. Just kinds of nudges you to higher stakes, which has a different feel that is probably better suited to what it does. In the end I think I have to conclude that while Lady Blackbird is a strong game for the right audience, it just wasn’t the right fit for our group.