Game Review: Lady Blackbird by John Harper

Poor Lady Blackbird has been in my review queue for over a year now, so I think it’s high time I should get back to her. Designed, written, and illustrated by John Harper, Lady Blackbird is a scenario-based game that centers on Lady Blackbird attempting to escape an arranged marriage and return to her pirate lover in a magical Steampunk setting called The Wild Blue. Yeah, I think that about sums it up. And though I’m not a big romance guy, I have to say that the simple, elegant design of both the scenario and the rules deserves some serious kudos. Other than a bit of setup (really just 3 pages out of 16), everything you need to know is on your character sheet.

Five different characters are included for the scenario – Lady Blackbird herself, Naomi Bishop (the Lady’s bodyguard), Cyrus Vance (Captain of the Owl, the smuggler ship they’re on), Kale Arkham (first mate), and Snargle (a sky-sailor and pilot on board). (Plus you get a few mostly blank character sheets to add more.) Each character boils down to a collection of Traits and a list of Keys. For instance, the Lady has the “Imperial Noble” trait, which brings with it several tags such as Etiquette, Educated, Wealth, and Connections. And she has several keys such as the “Key of the Mission,” which states that she must escape to meet her lover the Pirate King to avoid her arranged marriage. Each key has a “buyoff” as well, which offers an “out” if you can’t complete the key.

As far as the system itself goes, it’s stripped down to an elegant die pool setup. Let’s say our Lady wants to fight off an attacker. She starts with a single d6 and a pool of seven dice. To figure out how many dice the player rolls, you’d do something like the following:

  1. Grab that initial d6.
  2. Look at the Traits to find any tags that apply. In this case, she has Athletic, which includes Fencing, Rapier, and Duels. That adds three more dice. So we’re up to four.
  3. And lastly add any dice from the personal pool you want. If Lady Blackbird really has to defeat this foe, perhaps the player throws four or more dice into the mix. So now we’re up to eight.

Now, the player would roll the dice and count the successes. Each die showing a 4 or higher is a success. Using the D&D Dice Roller, I rolled 5 successes out of the 8 (1, 5, 5, 1, 6, 6, 2, 6). Each action has a difficulty level from 2 (easy) to 5 (extreme), so the player in this case got really lucky with a solid handful of successes.

Since it was a successful action, I’d discard all the dice I rolled. This puts my pool at 3 dice remaining. And the next action I’d automatically get one die to kick things off again. If I had failed, the four dice I used from my pool would go back and I’d add another one for the attempt. Sometimes failing a roll means the character gains a condition, such as Injured or Dead or Angry. (Death is just “presumed” usually, so it’s not fatal to a session.) If you’re attempting an important task, another PC can choose to help by giving you a die from
their pool. If the roll succeeds, they lose the die. If not, it goes back to them.

But don’t worry, your character doesn’t stay static. If you achieve a key for your character, you get an experience point and add a die to your pool (max of 10 in the pool). When you get 5 XP, you get an “Advance,” which allows you to do cool things like adding a new Trait, adding a tag to an existing trait, adding a new Key, or learning a secret. If you use the Buyoff for a key, you can remove the key and get two advances that way as well. Secrets are cool because they do different things like allowing you to re-roll a failure or give you a special ability.

And if your pool gets low on dice, you can always have a “Refreshment” scene with another character. Think of it as an interlude where you can ask questions and hopefully get some answers or a character flashback that also recharges your die pool back to seven dice again.

The world is wide open with a bit of detail and involves skyships, pirates, and royalty. What more could you really want? The whole thing boils down to picking a character and trying to accomplish their goals. But don’t let the simplicity fool you. I’m sure that this scenario could develop into an entire campaign or series of adventures to explore its reaches.

So the next time you’re looking for something a little different, check out the Lady Blackbird website and download the game. It’s free, released under the Creative Commons Attribution Non-Commercial Share Like license, so you can come up with your own adventures and share them with the world too!

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