Friday, July 22, 2011

Lady Blackbird, or, How I learned to stop worrying and love my players

There are a lot of things I could say about my current group’s inaugural game, Lady Blackbird. The way the mechanics organically created tight bonds between the characters in play, the way the players could talk among themselves for a half hour at a time without needing my input, I could go on and on. But I want to zoom way in on a major moment for me as the GM,  a moment that that created the plot of the game without my prior thought or input.
The Owl, by John Harper

Lady Blackbird is a game by John Harper, with a simple concept. There are five pre-generated characters. The action begins in media res: the eponymous Lady Blackbird has run away from her stately home in the Empire and hired a crew of smugglers and their skyship, the Owl, to take her to her great love, the pirate Uriah Flint. The Owl has been captured by an imperial cruiser, and all the players are in the brig. It’s only a matter of time before the imperials realize who they’ve captured, send Lady Blackbird home, and send the smugglers to trial. From there, with no further knowledge of the setting or the figures involved (like Uriah Flint, for instance), you just go. The players make up details about their characters as they come up, you make up details about the people they meet and the situations they get into, and everyone has fun. It’s a great play experience, suitable for a quick one-shot or a longer campaign, and it requires practically no preparation on anybody’s part whatsoever. You should check it out now, seriously.

Anyway, we were way past the brig of the imperial cruiser and had created, together, a complicated political thriller of a plot with a dash of romance on the side. The private army of the imperial House Twilight had infiltrated the lawless region of the Sky known as the Remnant in order to eliminate Uriah Flint. "Why" was a little mysterious until the characters discovered that Uriah had partnered with a rogue member of the Imperial house, Princess Sophie.

Princess Sophie was an idea I had after the characters started to make some real progress towards finding Flint. Obviously they couldn’t just meet Uriah, shake hands, drop off Lady Blackbird for a happy ending, and fly away into the sunset, so I introduced the idea that Uriah had another woman with him. Actually, it developed over time that he had an Imperial princess with him and was holding off an Imperial fleet to keep her. The imperials seemed to regard her as a prisoner, but all signs pointed to her being a willing guest… leading our Lady Blackbird to suspect the worst. But when the party finally met Sophie, she wasn’t a passionate lover or a heroic figure . She was actually a bit unimpressive, a bit of a milksop.  

It turned out that she was an idealist: she wanted the end of imperial expansion and war and piracy. Uriah Flint wanted to unite all the disparate factions opposed to the Empire (and each other) into one power bloc, and he’d approached her as a partner to lend him legitimacy when he made the transition from “pirate” to “civic official,” and to try to make a lasting peace with the Empire possible. She was playing out of her league and she knew it - she didn't really have a good answer to 'But how do you know Uriah's not just using you?' - but she was committed to making the Sky a better place and this was the path she’d chosen to do it.

If you can’t tell, I was very fond of Sophie. I put a lot of me into her; I loved that she lacked the heroic skill and killer instincts of most figures in our game, PC and NPC, but was still trying her best to change the world. I was proud of the dilemma she posed for our Lady Blackbird, who now had to deal with a sort-of rival rival with good intentions and no way of defending herself. Then, one of the characters snuck out of her room, snuck and fast-talked through Uriah’s base, and shot Sophie through the heart.

Yeesh. That caught me off-guard. I didn’t know what to do. Sophie was like, my favorite character in the game, whom I had assumed would be critical in the endgame. I didn’t have any firm plans about her fate, but I figured her presence would shape all of the conflicts from here on out. She was an important figure in the world – a war was literally being fought because her. My mind started racing about how I could save her. Uriah rushes in at the last minute? Unexpected imperial attack? Bullet proof vest?

But I decided in the moment that that would be disrespecting the spirit of the game, and Sophie fell down dead and that was it. Best call I could have made, because it was that murder that shaped every conflict for the rest of the game. The character had made some effort to cover her tracks, but she’d made slips, and the other characters figured out what had happened, as did Uriah Flint. The imperials figured it out too, and when the characters realized that the imperials had figured it out, that opened the door for a desperate Trojan Horse operation on the imperial flagship and a confrontation with Sophie’s sister…

So the point of this story, and the biggest lesson I learned from Lady Blackbird, is not to plan. Have a starting point ready, and from there ride the wave as your players start bouncing around and making choices. This is not some grand new discovery that I expect to set the world on fire. It's actually a very common RPG style, and whole games have been built around it - Lady Blackbird itself, for one, or Apocalypse World. It's very new to me, though. I grew up on White Wolf products from the old World of Darkness that advocated tightly scripted plots. I used to make those, when I first started gaming in high school, and I always found them frustrating, and I think they were frustrating for my players too, because there was always this feeling we were struggling to get through something and it wasn't going very well. Most games fizzled out before their time just because I couldn't plan them out up until the end.
I think that this new style - "riding the wave," making things up, reacting to player input, whatever you want to call it - is the right fit for me. Now I'm trying to practice it as much as possible - starting with my current Vampire game.

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