Cynthia: Everyone, I have a little secret that I want to share with you. Ok. Maybe it’s a decently-sized secret. Maybe it’s not that secret at all. MAYBE it will change your tabletop gaming life.
DON’T TELL ANYONE, but some of the best roleplaying games out there are not available at your local retailer. Thanks to the magic of the internet, they’re completely free.
These irresistible blossoms of RPGs can suddenly appear on Twitter or Reddit only to vanish within a few days. Sometimes they’ll quietly bloom on a designer’s Tumblr or publisher’s homepage. A few older ones thrive quietly in the dark places of the internet to be occasionally plucked by some intrepid RPG gatherer who brings them back into the light. There’s even a contest-fed bouquet of 200-word RPGs out there, as Quinns and Paul mentioned in a recent edition of Games News. The brightest flower of all these lovely free RPGs, however, is Lady Blackbird.
Lady Blackbird is an innocent-looking fifteen-page pdf created by John Harper, whose name you should learn and remember. It features five pre-generated characters, one ramshackle spaceship, several planets, simple rules, and one of the most charming opening crawls you’ll ever read aloud.
Take the blasters and camp of Star Wars: A New Hope. Then, add the romance and swashbuckling of The Princess Bride. Finish it off with a bit of steampunk style. Now you’ve got the world of Lady Blackbird: low-tech, light-hearted, full of sudden plot twists and star-crossed love.
…At least, that’s Lady Blackbird as I tend to run it. Your Lady Blackbird might be different. You might unfurl a tale of dark wizardry, or political upheaval. Your game could feel like a Disney film or an episode of Babylon 5.
This pamphlet of a game is remarkably flexible because it’s just insanely well written. The five characters, from the wry goblin Snargle and his lovesick captain to the lightning-wielding Lady Blackbird herself, are richer than caricatures or archetypes. They have flaws, vulnerabilities, desires and secrets aplenty to feed your imagination, while also offering enough room for interpretation that you’ll never see them develop the same way twice. Lady Blackbird could be a spoiled and deluded teenager or a principled and determined woman. Cyrus Vance could be the game’s Ser Jorah Mormont or its Mal Reynolds.
Once the GM and PCs are acquainted, the game starts you off right in medias res: your ship, the Owl, been captured by Imperial forces and you are being held on a massive warship called the Hand of Sorrow. Clearly your first goal is to escape. But then what? Lady Blackbird wants to find her long-lost lover, the Pirate King. Cyrus Vance doesn’t really want that to happen. Wait, a bounty hunter has found the Owl! Wait, a space squid is sucking on the ship! Wait, Lady Blackbird doesn’t even know where the Pirate King is? And so forth.
The game offers you a shimmering variety of places to go, but you don’t have to go to any of them. Once free from the Imperial cells, you can do pretty much wherever you want: make deals in smugglers’ dens, spy on nobles in lavish palaces, fight in gladiatorial arenas, launch a revolution in the Empire’s capitol, explore new worlds and leave the galaxy. The setting can’t handle everything: zombies, mass conflict, high tech, and psychological horror won’t really fly. There are a few mandatory, juicy specificities that you can’t circumnavigate: goblins, crime, spaceships, magic, broken hearts, class differences, and an oppressive Empire. But these are GOOD. They make the setting not watery, but productive, like a tree that bears top-quality fruit.
Lady Blackbird‘s openness is partially enabled by the fact that it wants no pre-game preparation. NONE. (That’s even less preparation than Ten Candles.) So, if you’re tempted to create people and places pre-session, don’t. Just let this narrative steam engine, or pack of wild mustangs, or whatever it is, go where it wants to. Your job isn’t to tame your PC’s creativity or force them into any situation. It’s to run alongside them and enjoy yourself.
However, this means that Lady Blackbird isn’t ideal for first-time GMs or players without improvisation experience. It doesn’t come with cushy bumpers like those children’s bowling lanes. It asks you to constantly make bold, in-character choices. It asks the GM to create non-player characters, plot twists, obstacles, and whole planets within the space of a few seconds. If that scares you more than it entices you, probably don’t make this your first RPG.
ANYWAY, before this unbridled horse of an article runs away from me, I need to tell you about Lady Blackbird’s mechanics, drawn from the purest essence of dice-based RPGs. Each character has a few traits (Imperial Noble, Burglar, Survivor, Master Sorcerer) and each trait contains tags: dance, sneak, wealth, living weapon, creepy stare, etc. When you attempt a task with any risk, you take one six-sided die and add another for a relevant trait, then add a die for every useful tag within that trait. For those moments when you’re attempting something really high stakes but lack the qualifications (which NEVER happens in real life), you have a personal pool of dice to draw from. Roll your handful of d6 and count successes (a roll of 4 on higher). That number has to beat the target difficulty level set by the GM.
For the most part, those dice mechanics are easy to learn, keep the action going, and avoid headachy math. They aren’t perfect: they don’t facilitate detailed combat sequences or keep track of injuries, among other things. But if you need to (and I’ve had to once or twice), you can add your own rules on top of them without breaking the system. And that, my friends, makes Lady Blackbird very much a game designer’s game.
The game’s cleverest mechanic (borrowed from Clinton R. Nixon) has little to do with dice. Alongside traits and tags, each character has some Keys: feats to perform, goals to reach for, desires to conceal. The Key of the Guardian drives you to defend someone. The Key of Greed drives you to steal. The Key of the Imposter rewards you for hiding your true self.
Whenever you hit a key, you get one XP. With five XP, you can unlock new traits and tags (among other things). By encouraging certain actions and choices, keys shape a loose path for you to follow. Each one also has a buyoff: for two XP, you can permanently cast aside that key and take on a new one. Keys provide constant incentive to follow your current path or drastically depart from it. They also make Lady Blackbird a great fit for gamers who are heavily driven by achievements and rewards. Without them, Lady Blackbird would be an excellent storytelling framework. With them, it’s an excellent game.
So, essentially, Shut Up and Sit Down is recommending an extremely well-crafted RPG that requires no prep and doesn’t cost a single dime. What you do with it is up to you. Play it as a one-shot or let it run for years. Take it outside into the summer sun and play it while sipping cold pints of beer on a restaurant patio, or while lounging at the beach with a pint of ice cream. Or just carry it around and, whenever the moment seems right, draw it from your bag and invite your friends to play an RPG.
But HOLD ON. Before you run off in search of pints of anything, you should know that the man responsible for all this, John Harper, (I told you to remember his name!) has written another free sci-fi RPG called Lasers and Feelings. It’s widely beloved and pretty accessible, but to me, it lacks the quirky, flavorful meat of Lady Blackbird. Mr. Harper also is the author of Blades in the Dark, a new book-length RPG full of crime and ghosts about which I will coyly say nothing else, except that anyone interested should keep one eye on this site. Finally, if you happen to have money, you can back Mr. Harper’s Patreon, thus gaining access to the two fabulous Lady Blackbird sequels, among other things. The Patreon has not been too recently updated, but that doesn’t mean it’s not full of wonderful things.
That’s all. Thank you for your time and attention. Now go get that pint, enjoy the summer weather and, most importantly, go download, print, and play Lady Blackbird.