Lady Blackbird: A perfect starter game

Mini-reviews from pandemic gaming

Yesterday I mentioned the silver lining of pandemic gaming, being able to play a lot of games (since no one had any social activities anymore!) and being able to play them in more depth. I have had a chance to give a thorough look at several titles and I want to share my thoughts on them. Some of these thoughts are going to be less than complimentary, but I wanted to start with a game I have nothing but praise for, Lady Blackbird.

Lady Blackbird by John Harper (One Seven Design Studio) is the first in his Tales from the Wild Blue Yonder series. It’s a name-your-price (including $0) download that has been around for over a decade but updated periodically, providing five ready-made player characters, a scenario, a mini-setting, and light-weight rules spun off from The Shadow of Yesterday (Clinton Nixon).

The pitch:

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 Imperial commander 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?

Within its 14 pages, the PDF contains all the play aids to run a one-shot adventure or even a little campaign: five ready-to-play character sheets and one blank one, with all the rules and choices for future character advancements; a ship for the player characters to fly around in; GM prompts and advice; and scenes for the GM to run at the drop of a hat based on players’ decisions.

It’s completely open-ended, meaning there is no end scene you need to struggle towards, only a starting situation and characters with their own motivations; but it’s full of hand-holds to help the game-master improvise with confidence. The GM advice is excellent and much of it is applicable to any RPG, not just this one. In short, it may be the best role-playing game ever published to learn how to GM without railroading.

Blank character sheet for Lady Blackbird on Roll20

As if this wasn’t enough, there is a great character sheet made by Jakob Oesinghaus on Roll20 that allows you not only to create your own characters from scratch, but also to load one of the ready-made characters by entering their name:

So in order to set up for an online one-shot, all I had to do do was:

  • Read the scenario and become familiar with it;
  • Set up the five pre-gen characters in Roll20 by typing in their names;
  • Create a page background showing the PCs’ ship, The Owl, using one of the beautiful ready-made wallpapers;
  • Create a couple of handouts by pasting the stats for The Owl and a few paragraphs of setting information from the PDF into Roll20.

In all, less than an hour to get a nice-looking game in place and be ready to run. And we had a blast! It was easy for players to learn the system, they had plenty of cues to role-play their characters, the system supported fun action and interaction, and the GM support made it easy for me to improvise in the face of player choices. This is a model of how I want ready-made scenarios to be structured: an exciting situation to start the adventure with, clear agendas for both player and non-player characters to act upon, and lots of support for the GM to respond to the unfolding story.

For details on how the game works, see this extensive review by MJ Harnish on Wired.

Agon: Death of a Prince

On Friday we held the fifth session of our beta playtest of AGON 2nd edition and visited our third island.

The lying in state of a body, terracotta pinax by the Gela Painter, latter 6th century BC.

Our heroines landed on the island of Nimos, where they were surprised to learn of the untimely death of the crown prince, one of their companions during the War. The royal family and the whole island were in mourning.

Continue reading “Agon: Death of a Prince”

Agon: Seeds of Democracy

Tonight was the fourth session of our beta playtest of AGON 2nd edition and our second island. Dolia’s player was unavailable so our heroes were Antiochis and Phaedra.

Our heroes landed on the islands of Ion and Soros, linked by a land bridge. Usually there was a gate on the island but it had been destroyed and masses of people were fleeing from Ion into Soros. Orta, the giant who controlled Ion, was raging; his cries of rage and stomping could be heard from afar and every stomp was accompanied by a ground tremor.

Seeing something big going on at the royal palace on Soros, the heroes went to check it out. King Vlakas was preparing to pronounce judgment on his daughter and leader of the Soros army, Commander Tyla, for failing to stop the Ionian refugees by force. The King assumes that the heroes were sent by the gods to restore order on Soros. Tyla recognized the heroes and called them by names and deeds, asking them for support.

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Agon: Boarding Action!

And now for a recap of our third episode of the AGON 2nd edition beta playtest (see the first and second episodes.) Thank you to Kim for taking notes during our games!

In the final thrilling episode for this island, an epic naval battle took place between the heroes and Thesekyra the pirate queen!

Attic pottery, 6th c. B.C. (Musée du Louvre, Paris)

Battle!

When last we saw our heroes, it was just before dawn; the storm was rising again and Thesekyra’s ship was coming fast for them. The masses of dark clouds coalesced on the horizon, evoking the shape of a gigantic but stately woman which the heroes recognized as Hera. The storm cloud woman extended a staff in the direction of the pirate ship and the heroes heard, reverberating in their minds: “Retrieve my gift!”

On the opposite side of the horizon, the clouds were even darker but crackling with lightning. They moved to evoke the shape of Zeus, pointing to the pirate ship, and the heroes heard: “Sink the abomination!” For a moment, the silhouettes of the deities looked like two combattants about to throw themselves at each other, then dissolved into cloud masses. [I felt I had not made the gods present enough and wanted to give a little mythic boost.]

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Agon: Stormriders

Quick recap for our second episode of the AGON 2nd edition beta playtest (see also first episode.)

When last we left our heroes, they were about to give chase to Thesekyra the pirate queen, who had sailed away with the stolen Pillar of Storms. Before leaving the panicked inhabitants of Kryos, Dolia convinced the villagers to hide in the mines from the harpy attacks.

Our heroes set sail after the pirate queen, with a captured harpy attached to the mast with a length of yarn as a guide. The closer they got, the stormier the sea was, thanks to the stolen artifact. Unfortunately, the attempt to outmaneuver the pirate queen was met with abject failure and the heroes’ ship was driven into the magical storm.

Odysseus, Norman Lindsay 1925.

Dolia attempts to call upon Hekate for assistance, pouring a sacrifice of sacred oil onto the waves, but the sacrifice did not go so well and the ship capsized in the towering waves. Phaedra rescued the bound harpy rather than let her drown. Antiochis rallied the boon companions and Phaedra shamed the harpy into not abandoning everyone. With her help, they were able to find a nearby island and tow the capsized ship there.

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Agon: Amazons and Pirate Queens

On Friday night I ran the first episode of an AGON mini-series for a beta playtest of the second edition. I had three wonderful players: Misha Bushyager, Sandy Jacobs-Tolle, and Kimberley Lam.

The Heroes

Heroes are created by giving them an Epithet, which translates to particular ability in a Domain (Arts & Oration, Blood & Valor, Craft & Reason, or Resolve & Spirit) and a specific Strength (e.g, Authority, Ferocity, etc.); a deity, which lends them another specific Strength (or increases their Strength if it’s the same they get from their Epithet); and picking their lineage, description, and weapons. 

We had discussed characters online and they had created the following characters:

Open-Hearted Antiochis (Kim), daughter of Helene and devotee of Aphrodite. She is large as a bear, with short, wild white hair and a playful quirk to her lips. She wears piecemeal armor and she prefers to wrestle rather than use weaponry. (d8 Resolve & Spirit, d8 Daring, d8 Beauty.)

Phaedra the Clever Eyed (Misha), daughter of Sophia, devotee of Athena, known at a glance by her panther-like stride, piercing amber eyes, dyed braids, shining dark armor, and paired khopesh. (d8 Craft & Reason, d8 Cunning, d8 Judgment.)

Dolia the Wayfinder (Sandy), daughter of Polytropos, devotee of Hera, never at a loss to man or spirit. Lean, rangy woman, tanned and tough from the hillside ranges and simply dressed, with an oak staff at the ready. (d8 Resolve & Spirit, d10 Cunning.)

Continue reading “Agon: Amazons and Pirate Queens”

Next playtest: AGON 2nd edition

AGON is a game inspired by the Iliad and the Odyssey where you play heroes of antiquity having adventures and tossed by the whims of capricious gods. John Harper (One Seven Design) published the original game in 2006, but a new edition has been in the works for a year and a half, this time written in collaboration with Sean Nittner (Evil Hat Productions), as well as the design chops of Jason Morningstar (Bully Pulpit Games)..

The intensive alpha playtest resulted in a streamlined but also more structured system to create episodes with minimal preparation. The game has now been released outside the development team for some beta playtesting, and I was invited to participate.

According to the playtest document, the game plays best with one Strife player (game-master) and two to four Hero players. The default setting is Ancient Greece, but it’s easy enough to re-skin for another pantheon of Antiquity or fiction, such as the Egyptian, Tagalog, Norse. or Marvel’s polynesian pantheon.

We chose to stick with the default. We’re merely in character creation for the moment, but I look forward to our first episode. I have three players right now, three great ladies who I only ever get to play with at conventions or online because we’re scattered across great distances. It looks like this will be a Themysciran Odyssey—and maybe for the characters too. 😁

Since Google is closing G+, stripping down Google Groups further, and tinkering with Hangouts, we decided to go for a Discord server for both chat and voice; and I started a great big Pinterest board of visual inspirations.

RPG a Day: Wish I was playing…

Note: Yesterday (July 31), S. John Ross came up with a great hack for #RPGaDay2017, which I will be using. That’s really pretty much how I treated the prompts in previous years, but I like that it’s made explicit. 

1. What published RPG item do you wish you were playing right now?

Ugh, ask me again in five minutes! We’re starting directly with the kind of question that is difficult for me: narrowing things down to one title.

This very minute, I would be really pleased if a good gamemaster offered to run Blades in the Dark for my husband and I and a few more brave rogues. I have the glorious Special Edition, I’m itching to play. I love stories of clever heroes, ensemble casts, moral dilemmas, and daring plans.

Scrivener Lesson: Setting Up

This weekend I spent some time jotting down some ideas for the easiest writing prompts, drafting a few answers (Screenshot #1). I also made sure to set up properly, for example, choosing a cloud backup location, Dropbox, for safety (Screenshot #2).

And yeah, yesterday I saw this great idea from S. John Ross for reframing the writing prompts and I decided to add it to my project Research section. There were a couple of ways to do this. First, I could just add it to the list of links (Screenshots #3 and 4).

But I decided I wanted to be able to access it from within my Scrivener project, so I created a new file in my Research folder, and pasted John’s text with a source reference (Screenshots #5 and 6). That way, I can have it open in the bottom window area as I write (Screenshot #7).

Then I decided I need to write a Scrivener lesson for all this, but I want to be able to locate it separately from my prompt. So I converted the first entry from file format to folder, and added a new file in it to contain the Scrivener lesson (Screenshot #8). You can easily switch between Scrivener file and folder formats and back again (Screenshot #9), the difference is pretty much just conceptual for our purposes.

It’s a useful thing to do if I want to be able to create collections of related text. In this case, I want to be able to group only the Scrivener tutorials at some point, so I will create separate sections for each. I will also change the icon (Screenshots #10 and 11) for easy reference. In a subsequent lesson I’ll show you how that serves my purpose.