Few games have had such a profound impact on my game mastering and play-to-find-out adventure design methods as Lady Blackbird by John Harper. It’s a game I come back to again and again to analyse and dissect; to figure out why it always works so well for me to run.
One of those things is the dynamics between the characters. John has balanced them well against each other, inviting compromises and character development.
The game has five characters, and it’s really all about them. They get half a page each of the game document, which is as much as the rest of the entire rest of the setting gets.
All the times I’ve run Lady Blackbird it’s always been the back-and-forth between the players and characters that has driven the game. And the beauty of it is that the more your players power game, the more of this fluffy goodness you get.
Let’s have a look at how it’s achieved.
A diagram of relations.
In this diagram I chose arrows to show loyalties, and ball-pointed lines to show opposing goals or values. As you can see these go hand in hand, but how and what does that mean for gameplay?
Natasha Syri (aka Lady Blackbird) has no binding loyalties to anyone in the group. She wants to find her lover, and is struggling with her noble heritage.
Naomi Bishop is her loyal bodyguard. She is loyal to no-one but Natasha, but at the same time she hates nobility. And Natasha is after all nobility.
Cyrus Vance is loyal to Natasha in two ways: she’s both his employer and his secret crush. But here’s the catch: because he’s in love with her he doesn’t actually want to see the mission through and find her lover.
Kale Arkam has sworn an oath of loyalty to Cyrus. It’s a strong oath. But Kale also takes pride in delivering on promises and completing missions (which indirectly makes him loyal to Natasha as his employer). This goes against Cyrus’ wishes of keeping Natasha away from her lover.
Poor Snargle has no bonds to any of the others. If you only have four players for the session this is the character most easily left out. Instead of loyalties Snargle has values that inserts them into situations: a strong conscience and a daredevil nature.
These opposing views cause friction in the game, magnified by the fact that the players get bonuses for acting in accordance with, or discarding, their values. The oppositions within each character and between them in the group makes for interesting drama and character development.
As you can see in the diagram loyalties and goals really all point one way: towards Natasha Syri. She’s the main character of the adventure, and her quest to find her lover drives her to travel across the Blue Yonder.
With loyalties and goals set up the way they are within the group this means that everyone else follows, in one way or another. At the same time the frictions will build up and their paths may change or diverge during play. It’s a joy to follow it each and every time.
Find the game here.
-- CC0 Björn Wärmedal