Division of roles in Lady Blackbird

edited June 2013 in Play Advice
Hi, I'm new here. If this already exists somewhere on Story Games, then sorry for asking again.

I am thinking of running Lady Blackbird, and I am new to games that give narrative control to players. Previously I've run and played D&D, Savage Worlds and a number of other systems that generally assume the player is only responsible for what they do and how they do it.

I've been reading as much as I can about modern (indie) RPG design, which is what led me to Lady Blackbird. In a number of places I've found people expressing the idea that the person who introduces a conflict shouldn't be the one who resolves it. This makes sense to me. You want to have interesting obstacles in a story, but if the players are advocates for a single character (as they are in this game) then they will be torn between making an interesting challenge and doing what is best for their character.

Which leads me to this part of Lady Blackbird's text, which lists examples of questions for the GM to ask:

“Does anything break when you do this crazy maneuver?”
“The fire probably spreads out of control doesn’t it?”
“That sounds like a bold plan. What’s the first step?”
“Do the two of you end up somewhere quiet together? Does something
happen between you?”
“Do you know anything about the Crimson Sky rebels? What are they
like? Is it normal for them to be this far into the Empire?”

Now the 3rd, 4th and 5th questions seem like fine things to ask my players. They give control of the character's intentions, actions, and backstory to the player. Additionally, it makes sense for me for the players to freely improvise the setting of The Wild Blue Yonder. Even in ways that are intended to introduce the potential for future kinks in the story. For example, inventing the notion of zombie sky squid as a thing that they have heard rumours of. The players are kind of setting themselves up there for that to happen, but that's okay - it's still in the GM's hand to go for it or not.

What I'm not certain about is the first two questions. I would really appreciate it if someone could take the time to explaining how they see this working - perhaps with a longer example. Another example I have been pondering: I am totally happy for the players to describe the Owl, improvise what they have in it, even list the flaws with the ship. But should I start the game with asking them to describe the cell they are imprisoned in (beyond at a cosmetic level)?


  • Hi Martin!

    Great question. For my own taste, I prefer to keep player roles inside the characters' skins (so to speak) -- their thoughts, feelings, memories, and actions. So they wouldn't describe the cell they're imprisoned in, but you might ask Vance's player if he remembers anything about the security of Imperial brigs. Lady Blackbird plays well in this mode.

    I included those first two questions as an indication that there's a bit of gray area here. Some people like to slip just a bit outside the character sometimes -- they might describe the problems created when they roll a failure, say. It's a matter of taste, and the game will function across a pretty broad spectrum. Go with your gut, and the vibe at the table, and it'll work out fine.
  • edited June 2013
    Thanks @John_Harper, appreciate the quick and helpful response. That clarifies my understanding of what you were intending there. I too might stray across the line a little when I run it, but I think I'll be aiming mainly at the kind of mode you describe in the first paragraph.

    I'll post to say how it goes once I've run it, either here or in another discussion.
  • edited June 2013
    All these questions are leading questions. It's not really the players that make up all that, it's you - the GM. It's you that give them permission to describe about a given subject.

    I do agree with the difference in the first and second question and the rest. That's an interesting notion. The thing is that some leading questions are just GM descriptions. You could as easily have told them "The ladder breaks" or "A fire starts" but because you ask the players, you involve them by giving them permission to say no. If it's not specifically about their character, they will in 99.99 % of the time accept what you asked and build on that.

    The questions are a pedagogic way to teach offer and acceptance. I.e. when someone offers by describing an action or an environment, the others will hopefully accept that and build on it. A bad relation in a group will instead block by saying "no". You could later on take this one step further where you don't even have to ask questions because the whole group will play as if they were having a fruitful conversation. Person A says something, person B answers on that and person C build on what have been said. There are techniques to form this kind of playstyle within the group. I wouldn't however worry about that for now. Try running the game and then build from that experience.
  • If you want to stay closer to the line, you could ask questions like "What broke when you did that crazy maneuver?" and "Where has the fire spread out of control to?" This still gives the non-GM players some narrative control, but with constraints of "How did this happen?" rather than "Did this happen?"

    Personally I'm comfortable with both of these.
  • Another great way I like to rephrase this kind of question is to turn it around as being about a character's thoughts or feelings:

    "This is a pretty crazy maneuver. What's your biggest worry right now: what do you think is the most fragile part of the ship and how is it under stress?"

    "The fire is starting to rage out of control. What are you most afraid of -- what could catch on fire?"
  • If you want to stay closer to the line, you could ask questions like "What broke when you did that crazy maneuver?" and "Where has the fire spread out of control to?" This still gives the non-GM players some narrative control, but with constraints of "How did this happen?" rather than "Did this happen?"
    I quite like this approach. It means that you've already said to the player, "Look, the bad stuff is going to happen", so that they aren't spending their effort trying to avoid it. Which instead frees them to just enjoy the bad stuff that's part of the story and relish coming up with their own ideas for the form it takes.
  • I think that encouraging players to be just as narratively engaged and creative in their own failures has huge rewards: it'll both get them more excited about failure as something that causes satisfying dramatic escalation*, rather than a negative, it'll help keep the game unpredictable and feral, and create ways in which the characters need to help each other.

    * Part of the reason you want to make failure fun in LB is that, systematically, it's really easy to avoid. If you're aggressive in spending pool dice, and then pitch lots of neat refreshment scenes, you can succeed basically all the time. Which isn't a problem per se...
  • I'm a more hardass GM. We always have plenty of failures. :)
  • I have no doubt you're more hardass. :)

    It's weird, even despite what I just said, I still have plenty of failures too: people often stick pretty close to 2xdifficulty or 2xdifficulty + 1 dice...which gives you pretty close to 35%/25% failures, which is more than enough to keep things interesting.

    I think people get a little bit of the hoarder's instinct early.
  • As a data point, I've run LB a couple times by only asking questions. I occasionally mirrored player responses for clarity or as a reminder, but otherwise the players created all of the fiction (and obstacles). It's fun, challenging, and works just fine.**

    So, like Harper said, it works across a pretty broad spectrum. LB is my favorite go-to game when I need to set up and run a game quickly, especially with newer players.

    **...for one-shots, at least. I'm not sure if it would hold up over more sessions.
  • edited August 2013
    In case anyone is following this and is interested, here is the actual play. I'm afraid there's not much in the way of technique, it's just a record of what happened in terms of the fiction. Even writing that much was a lot of work. Next time I'll remember to record.
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