Some weeks ago I’d mentioned I’d run One Seven Design’s one shot, Lady Blackbird: Adventures in the Wild Blue Yonder. I forget where I initially heard about it, but I was immediately struck by the quality of the publications, and moreso the price. Free! Thinking to indulge my players’ known love for steampunk, I sent the project to Staples to be printed and called my friends over. But not before picking up some lemon-raspberry coffeecake and mini muffins, and brewing a pot of black tea with orange and sweet spice notes. As opposed to starting off in prison, as the adventure suggested, I thought a little role-play over tea would help the players settle into character, allowing the teacups and saucers to be used as a prop in game.
Presentation is Key
Prepping was simple. I just had to read the document, print it, and go. I “splurged” and got the map and size pages printed in color and laminated. This was useful not only for updating the status on the vessel but for tracking their progress on the map with good old-fashioned dry erase markers. Otherwise, I asked for the character sheets to be double sided so the explanation was on one side and the spots to record extra traits and tags on the other. The PDF is not ordered this way, making duplex printing a little but of a pain, but it was a quick fix with some special instructions to the printer. I asked for extra blank character sheets but ended up with only five players at my table, something I decided I was glad for.
Player IncentivesAs a fun little experiment, I texted my friends ahead of time which character they would be playing and offered up five full bonus experience points (equivalent to one extra trait or tag at start) if they brought a relevant prop along. This not only got them in character, but allowed a touch of personalization from this get-go. For instance, Drew wanted to play a pyromaniac, but I didn’t have time enough to make a new character from scratch for him, so at least we were able to add the Pyro trait to “unlock” his fire and bomb-making abilities at the beginning of session.
Eric, the Captain, brought a toy pirate pistol, Alex the Mechanic and First Mate a ushanka and gas mask (hey, whoever said the first mate couldn’t be a Bolshevik?), Drew the Goblin Pilot a green flying cap and goggles, Elise the Lady some sexy lace-up boots, and Luke the Tramp a smart-looking bowler hat. XP for you, you, you, you, and you.
Dolin’ out XP like Halloween Candy
One aspect I loved about the game was its easy advancement system, designed for seat-of-your-pants adaptation and character twists and turns. For every character quirk you bring out in role-play or action in keeping with your character that advances the plot, you can get an experience point. If that action or quirk gets you in trouble, make the XP double. Each point can be traded in for an extra d6 in your pool (7 to start, 10 max, to be added to any risk you want), or accumulated to trade in for traits, tags, or keys costing five points each. The best part is that you can “level up” any time you want. So your character really needs to know how to tumble right the fuck now? Hope you’ve been playing him well, because actually, you can.The ability to “buy off” Keys was a design innovation on the part of the author, such that you could take a character and make him do a 180 if the situation called for it, or you just wanted to raise the stakes. Simply, you could trade in a defining aspect of the character and get XP for it. Desperate times call for desperate measures, or so the system’s philosophy goes. The downside, of course, is you can no longer reap that Key for additional experience down the line, but you could always buy one of the extra Keys off the list later on, or collaborate with your Storyteller to create one of your own.
For Simplicity’s Sake
The system taught itself within the first ten minutes of play. My players got one d6 for taking a risk, one extra for every trait or tag associated, as many from their pool as they wanted to add, and one extra if another character wanted to assist them. Depending on the difficulty of the task, they would need three or four (or less or more) successes (rolling 4 or higher on the d6). If they took a “refresher scene” to role-play their characters, they could replenish their pool back up to 7, or add to it by means of experience points.
The real beauty of Lady Blackbird was no rolling on the part of the DM. A success on the player’s part meant a success, period, and I could just narrate the failure or allow them to narrate their success (within reason), a little tip I picked up from John Wick’s games. The only prep I needed was to read the PDF two or three times to really get a feel for the characters
(all the better to take advantage of them, my dear), as well as ideas for obstacles to throw in their path and the setting more generally.
By getting rules out of the way and combining skills with feats with stats in simple adjectives on their sheet, we could focus on the story and playing up all the shenans we could think of. We were laughing pretty much the entire time, and my players liked the flexibility of the setting to improvise and add their own little touches (like determining what their smuggled cargo was, or adding Bolsheviks to the mix). I could see myself taking the system and applying it to any character-driven but fast-paced adventure, specifically one-shots when time is of the essence.
Holy Pacing, Batman; or, How to Keep the Action Ball RollingHaving only a few hours to burn, I wanted to make sure we kept up a spirited pace, and I was relentless with the hurdles I threw at my players. First they had to figure out why they were being hailed by the Imperial Deadnaught, The Hand of Sorrow, pointing fingers synonymously at the noblewoman passenger, the seedy crew, and the ton of priceless vodka stashed on board…
Diplomacy failing, the Captain made the executive decision to get the fuck outta there, only to remember he’d skimped on getting fuel for The Owl and would be trying to boost the engine on fumes. Seeking a shortcut, they dove beneath the clouds into the perilous Lower Depths, dodging a suspiciously sorcerous lightning storm and interceptors from the Dreadnaught looking to reign them in. Some fancy shooting on the part of the Captain sent the Imperials sky-diving into oblivion, only for Snargle to pick up something new on the radar: a sky-squid, close to starboard! The goblin took matters into his own hands, and aced a shot with their harpoon gun (added in the heat of the moment for dramatic effect). Jury-rigging the engine a bit (and I mean, a bit), the mechanic/first mate used up what was left of of their fuel reserves to make an daring escape, only to run out of gas in the middle of the Wild Blue Yonder.From there they hailed the merchant marine vessel for assistance, coincidentally (but unfortunately) piloted by Natasya’s black-sheep cousin, Evelyn Moreau. Up until the crew had dominated the action, so I needed to tease out Elise’s character a little bit more. What better way than to blow her cover as runaway aristo and stir her male bodyguard into action with a pointed gun?
The Captain tried to smooth over the “misunderstanding” while the mechanic and pilot snuck on board to steal the vessel’s fuel supplies, landing themselves in a mixup of their own with Evelyn’s own crew (not least of all including the hand crossbow-toting cat-girl). Some quick thinking on their part and good rolls gave them the upper hand, and seizing the ship they took what they needed and some prisoner’s behind. You’re not just going to leave the people you stole from to tell the next authorities that pass by. With that, they continued on to Nighthaven where they hoped to pick up some tips about the whereabouts of the pirate king Uriah Flint. All in a solid three hours of play.
The Obligatory Soundtrack Commentary
What’s a Triple Crit adventure summary without music recommendations? I had a much harder time with this one, knowing less about the genre than anybody else at the table, but I threw together a makeshift playlist with tracks from the Fable games, Steamboy, and Howl’s Moving Castle. For completion’s sake I added the Gilneas City theme and the background track from the ICC Gunship Battle from World of Warcraft, and the Orchestral Red Wings Theme from Final Fantasy IV.
Highly recommended, a full three out of three crits. A true quality product, Lady Blackbird is material that could have been sold, though you can get it for free. If your group enjoys a good romp of a game with the potential for true character development thrown in, or you just love steampunk, you need to schedule one of your game nights to play–maybe even a couple, if you find yourselves enjoying this as much as we did.