A swashbuckling game of sky pirates in the Blue Yonder, for 3-5 players and a narrator.
By John Harper.
The setup for Lady Blackbird is simple. This is from the first page of the book:
LADY BLACKBIRD is on the run from an arranged marriage to Count Carlowe.
She hired a smuggler skyship, The Owl, to take her from her palace on the Imperial world of Ilysium to the far reaches of the Remnants, so she could be with her once secret lover, the pirate king Uriah Flint.
HOWEVER —Just before reaching the halfway point of Haven, The Owl was pursued and captured by the Imperial cruiser Hand of Sorrow, under charges of flying a false flag.
EVEN NOW Lady Blackbird, her bodyguard, and the crew of The Owl are detained in the brig, while the commander of the cruiser, Captain Hollas, runs the smuggler ship’s registry over the wireless. It’s only a matter of time before they discover the outstanding warrants and learn that The Owl is owned by none other than the infamous outcast Cyrus Vance.
How will Lady Blackbird and the others escape the Hand of Sorrow?
What dangers lie in their path?
Will they be able to find the secret lair of the pirate king?
If they do, will Uriah Flint accept Lady Blackbird as his bride?
By the time they get there, will she want him to?
Amazingly simple, yet it says so much. Game designer Ryan Macklin wrote a whole article about how this game is a treatise on ‘implied setting’, meaning that it tells you tons about the world you’re playing in both from that tight pitch for the adventure and the content hinted at in the character sheets. The world feels dense and lived in, even though the entire book is 16 pages long. You can read his article here but eyes on me for now, I’m telling you about the game, not about how to build a fictional world.
So you’ve read the flavour text at the start. You’re all in the brig of The Hand of Sorrow, you all pick a premade character each. Here’s how it went in my group:
Steve picked secretly magical ne’er do well and mechanic of The Owl, Kale Arkam.
Lee took Snargle, the shapeshifting goblin pilot of The Own.
Newcomer to the group, Ash, took Captain Cyrus Vance, formerly an Imperial soldier and now in love with Lady Blackbird.
Jacob took Natasha Syri, the eponymous Lady Blackbird. In disguise and in the brig, desperate to get out because every moment where she’s in a cell is one where the guards might recognise who she really is.
Players take their characters and the first thing to notice is that the lower half of each character sheet is all the rules of the game. It’s that simple and character sheets are that small. This way we can get going right away and you need to, because Lady Blackbird is a chase. You’re fleeing from The Hand of Sorrow and its’ inhabitants, crossing the bright blue expanse of the solar system and hunting for the pirate king Uriah Flint. This is a game which supports multi-session play, but we had one night to get it all done.
Locked in the brig together with laser bars keeping them inside, the group schemed. Lady Blackbird demanded water from the guard, rolling a handful of d6’s for her trait and any tags within it. Here is how a trait roll is made:
Lady B rolled all those dice and any 4, 5 or 6 was a success.
The guard ran off to get water and by my notepad, I set my phone’s timer with a few minutes for them to come up with a plan. Snargle used his shapeshifting powers to reach out of the cell and to a control tile in the floor. As he pried it open, the guard returned. Kale enveloped the area in darkness and the master sorceress Lady Blackbird tried to electrocute him. The roll failed and when that happens, you add a dice to a pool of finite d6’s you start the game with. Any pool dice you add to a trait roll go away if you succeed but if you fail they come back and you add another one to them. The other way of bringing your private dice pool back is a Refreshment Scene, we’ll get to that later.
Back in the cell, there was a startled guard whirling around, firing his gun all over the place. Cyrus stopped brooding in the corner and used his Imperial knowledge to impersonate the guard’s commander, yelling that he immediately stop what he’s doing and follow his voice. The guard ran into the laser bars and knocked himself out. Kale was immediately rummaging through the guard’s pockets and found the device which switched the bars off. They fled.
Cyrus’ knowledge of the ship got them down a ton of corridors, only to stop when an armoured man standing about ten feet tall was stomping down the hallway with his lickspittle to one side and the Hand of Sorrow’s captain following behind, sucking up to them. This was Lord Silence (cue Imperial March music), whose servant, ‘Voice’, explained that they had tracked Lady Blackbird here and needed her married to Count Carlowe as soon as possible. Cyrus was dressed as a guard and fine with walking past them to the hangar, the others jumped down a waste chute. They dropped into a basin of filth, the whole ship’s waste, which was about to be dropped down into the gaseous under-layer to the solar system. Kale identified which chute led to the hangar and Lady Blackbird made a tornado to whisk them up and through the pipes. Cyrus heard banging in the walls as the others were thrown through the inner workings of the ship. He had no time to waste though, making his way to his ship in the hangar. It hadn’t been searched yet. In the distance he heard the noise of three people being launched at great speed out of the garbage chute, through the air and into boxes of soft toys. The little pink pigs they landed on all started squealing, “I wub you!” whenever the characters moved. The noise, understandably, alerted the guards.
I set a timer for five minutes, basically to show the eventual finding of the unconscious guard in the cell. The group dealt with the first lot of guards in the hangar, but when the alarm went off, Lord Silence and his men were storming towards it. Cyrus got in a neighbouring pirate ship which had a grappling hook gun (because Steampunk) and used it to punch a hole through the closed hangar doors. Snargle started the engines while Kale and Lady Blackbird dangled an escape raft out back to Cyrus to get onto. Snargle failed his roll to escape quickly which meant Cyrus would only need to walk over to the ship, but also that Lord Silence’s forces broke in and started to set up a rocket launcher.
Lady Blackbird was still in the open door of The Owl as it was slowly pulling out of the hangar and decided to levitate some crates at the enemy force. When she started channelling her magic, Lord Silence waved his hands and crushed all of the crates. Kale used his minor magical abilities to disintegrate the strut of the rocket launcher just as they cleared the hangar and flew out into the Wild Blue.
Act Two: The Wild Blue
Snargle’s piloting not only launched The Owl out of the Hand of Sorrow’s hangar, but blasted them beyond the range of the small imperial fighters which were giving chase. They were free, so Snargle dived then into the murky wastes of the Lower Depths which would provide cover for them. The Lower Depths were an ocean of acidic gases which settled in the lower half of the solar system, with a surface of debris at the top acting as a divider. Only the sky squids survived down there, ships wouldn’t last long. Even with the darkness of the Lower Depths and the sonar as their only company, they knew which way to go. Just follow the migratory pattern of the sky squids and they’ll reach Nightport.
Normally The Owl could last for four hours in the Lower Depths, but as it was banged up and leaking, it could probably do two. They would need to innovate to get all the way to Nightport in cover. Snargle started to plan a trajectory which could slingshot them around the star and speeding all the way to the desperate hive of scum and villainy. I tried quashing the comparison, but it was impossible.
Captain Cyrus decided these two hours were a time for some brief refreshment with Kale. The pair retreated to the captain’s quarters for some rum and reflection on how they met each other. This ‘refreshment’ wasn’t just characters chilling out with some downtime, but a mechanic in the game. By having a refreshment scene, the characters involved should find a little more out about each other and regain their entire pool of seven dice. This creates a great economy where you spend pool dice to have action and run around, then rest up and regain them. It makes the kind of sequences of scenes you get in action movies where after things get tense the drama hits the release valve and focuses down on the people. Then they’re ready to go again.
The ship banged into a few wrecks of ships which tried to navigate close to the star in order to unlock magical powers, but ended up burnt husks. They were hollow enough for Snargle to ignore as he built up speed and slingshotted around the star, bursting up and out of the rocky skin of The Lower Depths, past the sky squid and towards Nightport.
Ahh, Nightport. A horrible place on the eternally-dark side of a ruined planet. Made up of gantries a hundred feet above an icy abyss, buildings bolted onto them and shoddy atmosphere, gravity & heat generators plugged in at every possible place. Also there were pirates. Because there’s always pirates.
Cyrus decided that while Snargle and Kale went to get spare parts from the ship (No! No! Not from Watto!) he would go to an inn with Lady Blackbird. A couple of pirates asked for the purchase of Lady Blackbird who managed to steal the pistol and sword from one of them, making the pair back down. When they arrived at Rosie’s, the classiest filth pit in the entire station, Cyrus ordered a room for the night. He saw Lady B’s glare and asked for two.
At the same time, Snargle and Kale got themselves ripped off from the trader they were trying to swindle and ran their boss’s account dry purchasing new parts. Just as the bartender at Rosie’s was trying to process the payment. He could only afford one room.
“Well I don’t know where you’re staying,” Lady B said.
They enjoyed the one drink each they could afford, right up until they saw a handful of pirates walk in and loom around the upper floor of the inn, looking down at them. Then more arrived. Then the pair from earlier. A barfight ensued, all while the other half of the group were enjoying a refreshment scene and robbing Cyrus of his hidden booze. Their defence was that he said not to touch the rum but hadn’t mentioned the moonshine or vodka. They were hammered by the time Lady Blackbird and Cyrus fought their way back to the ship. The crowd dispersed and Cyrus realised he had to outsource for the repairs. He traded all the booze (less a little rum for himself) to their hangar-mates so that they would be able to carry out the repairs. By the time he was done, Lady Blackbird had wandered off.
She found a suspicious pirate, Orlence, and was grilling him for information about where they could find the pirate king. After an example of her magical powers, he cowered in fear and gave up the information. Lady Blackbird decided that she would take him on as a guide to Uriah Flint’s home. The others went back to Rosie’s to see whether Lady Blackbird was there and immediately got in a fight with the pair of pirates again. Ori and Oshi, the pirate duo, had a little air magic to them and a ton of mooks at their command. Snargle turned into a horrid squig-looking thing, all teeth and claws. He started bouncing around the inn, biting anything in his way. It didn’t go well and he was stabbed in the side, marking ‘Injured’ in his conditions boxes. There were several, but we’d not needed the others yet. They are entirely narrative and even include ‘dead’ which really means ‘presumed dead for now’. Again, they fought their way back to the ship and fled Nightport.
The Remnant was the largest cluster of broken planets in this broken solar system. Most had gravity drives on them, there were small farms, pirate towns and a massive town which was of course, just a decoy. Orlence nervously pointed them to the point in the town’s shadow where an asteroid was just about visible. The throne world. That was where they could find the pirate king, Uriah Flint. The characters thought they would be safe, but the players knew better…
Act Three: King of the Pirates
Cyrus was letting his crush on Lady Blackbird get a bit obvious, talking about how Uriah Flint wasn’t all he was cracked up to be. Cyrus had something called The Key of Longing. Keys are the way characters gain experience points. If you hit your key (in later games in this series ‘turn’ your key) then you gain one experience point. If you put yourself in danger (like Snargle attacking a whole mob to hit his Key of the Daredevil) then you get an extra one. Every five experience points buys you a new tag for one of your traits, like Lady Blackbird gaining ‘Fly’ for her Master Sorceress trait. You could also buy more Keys, Secrets or Traits, but this was a one shot so we didn’t focus on those. We kept it all quick. Cyrus’ pining had bought him a few experience points this game, but with the pirate king more and more of a reality, his crush was becoming unbearable.
The asteroid which acted as throne world to Uriah Flint was well-disguised and only getting closer to it did they see the hangar. All the doors to the docking bays were closed save one and when the group landed, they were greeted by King Flint’s second-in-command, Serafina. She greeted them and said that the king was in a meeting. The crew of The Owl were to be escorted to private quarters where they would be given fresh clothes and be able to attend the wedding of Lady Blackbird and King Flint. The lady herself would be allowed into Uriah’s quarters to change and prepare for the event. After a lot of arguing in Act Two about whether or not The Owl needed wings, Lady Blackbird demanded that the throne world’s mechanics attach wings to The Owl while they were busy with the king.
There was nothing suspicious about this. Nothing at all. Of course the moment the crew were away from the guards they started scheming about what to do. They caught and interrogated one of the guards on their floor, finding out that there were imperial forces on the station. Count Carlowe was here and to be the person who would actually wed Lady Blackbird. They split up, looking to stage a daring rescue. Kale took the guard’s disguise (and valuables), Snargle shifted his body through the air vents and Cyrus used his Secret of Warpblood to teleport to the king’s bedchambers. Secrets are the last mechanical part of these characters, little once-per-session abilities which I allowed two uses of in this game as we were going to be telling the whole story in one evening.
Snargle tumbled through the burning hot vents and into the canteen… only to see tons of pirate and imperial guards. He attempted to escape but everything went white from all the laser fire. I had Lee cross the ‘dead’ status box.
Cyrus teleported into the room where Lady Blackbird was changing, talking about the betrayal of Uriah Flint. She didn’t believe him, but the pair joined up with Kale and went to the throne room, just to clear things up. They opened the huge doors and saw a giant hall filled with imperial soldiers, Snargle in a small cage, a gigantic throne and atop it was King Uriah Flint, flanked by both Count Carlowe and Lord Silence. Behind them was space, actual space. This was as far as the breathable blue atmosphere of their fading star would provide. Beyond that window was black and vacuum. It was the edge of their space.
Things were awkward, to say the least.
Kale broke Snargle out while Cyrus and Lady Blackbird started to fight Uriah. Cyrus had always had some cool fighting moves but unlike the previous encounters he actually had his twin pistols here so he was able to look like a super action movie badass while opening fire. Lady Blackbird’s anger was reflected in her magic, the storm being summoned up in her. Lord Silence used his magic to fling Cyrus against a wall and start crushing him against it, until Snargle leapt at him, flattened and expanded into a kind of goblin blanket, covering Lord Silence’s helmet. Lady Blackbird smashed open the window which led out into open space and hurled Flint out.
“Sorry, Uriah. I needed some space,” she said, watching him drift into the void. The soldiers all started to flee, alarms started to go off. Count Carlowe clung onto the throne for dear life. Snargle dismounted from Lord Silence and the group blasted him from where he was grounded. Lord Silence followed Uriah Flint into the depths of space.
The crew fled the room to the hangar, where The Owl had recently had a pair of wings attached. They could see imperial soldiers being taken down by pirates who were nicking their ships and fleeing. Serafina stopped the gang and asked whether they had room for one more. She was just King Flint’s PA and really didn’t care for the Empire at all. They let her aboard and as they fled the exploding throne world, she pointed out that this part of space was missing a pirate king… maybe it could do with a pirate queen.
Lady Blackbird said she would consider the offer. Cyrus suggested that a pirate queen should have a pirate king. They kissed as The Owl flew over the pirate territories, surrounded by Queen Blackbird’s new subjects and their lands.
The End. Roll credits. Then we realised that it was five past midnight. Normally our games start at seven and go on until 10:30 or 11. Wow. There was a point in Nightport where Steve told us that it was 10:20 and I was like, “That’s fine, we’re about to enter the final act,” but that was as far as our acknowledgement of time went.
This is a game which is meant to be a couple of sessions long, however we beasted it in one go, which is totally doable in one long session. The system is really easy to understand and all the setup is right there on the front page of the document. People might be put off by playing a premade character in a premade setting with a premade setup but it’s actually a really good way to play an RPG and still allows a lot of world-building on the part of both the GM and the players. There’s enough to get going and then the game lets you do whatever you want with it. All you need are some friends and a handful of six-sided dice or a die-rolling app to get going. I seriously recommend Lady Blackbird.
Lady Blackbird is a free game which you can download here.
The author, John Harper, runs a Patreon here.