Monday, August 06, 2012

Storytelling game thoughts - Fiasco, Lady Blackbird

I mentioned recently that I had played Fiasco, and since then I've given it a bit more thought - and I watched the two-part Table Top episode featuring the game (and the Setup clip as well, which is useful if you want to play the game).

After the conversations started by my last foray into storytelling (in the blog comments, on Twitter, and in person) I think I gained a bit more insight into how these games are intended to work. Of course, like with any type of game I always think that some variant version would better suit my personal liking - and so in my last post on the subject I outlined some thoughts on a game similar to Fiasco that I might like to try. Well, I haven't done that yet (I still intend to sometime), but I have observed another indie STG which I think has the potential to work really well. It's called Lady Blackbird.

Lady Blackbird isn't so much a system as a single "adventure" or "module" (I don't know the terminology, if any exists) intended to be played over 1-3 sessions. It has pre-made characters (though you could make your own), and a very specific starting scenario, but I suspect it has at least some replay value, as the story could play out differently each time along the lines of Groundhog Day or episodes of Daybreak.

The system it uses appears to me to be a good one for promoting storytelling on the part of the players. Each character has a set of traits, and each trait has a set of tags. When you are faced with an obstacle or challenge, you apply 1 trait and roll dice based on the number of tags that apply. You may add some dice from your personal supply if you wish. The difficulty of the challenge indicates how many successes are required (4+ on a d6). In general, the action described will succeed, but the situation may escalate due to a failed die roll. Or else the action will fail, the situation will escalate in some way, and then you may try again. Mechanically, if you succeed, you lose any personal dice spent on the roll, but if you fail, then you keep your dice and in fact earn 1 more from the supply. If you wish to recharge your personal supply (which is only 7 dice), then you are supposed to do a "refresh scene" - which sounds like it's supposed to be a sort of dialogue with other characters which gets some character development going without advancing the plot. In other words, if a player is telling a portion of story, they are encouraged to play "in character" - because if they do things that are out of character then they will not have as many dice to roll when they are called upon to roll dice. I like that the system seems to reward that, rather than a Game Master having to assign rewards or penalties for playing in character.

I got the impression from reading the 'rules' stuff that it was intended to go something like this: a player (or players) gives a detailed narrative of what they want to do, then the GM tells them if and how many dice to roll and what the outcome is. By way of example...

Blackbird: "I'll make a raucous to lure the guards into the room, and once they are beyond the 1st cell we'll cut off their escape and overpower them!"
GM: "OK, you start to make a raucous. That's a Cunning plan, using Deception and Misdirection, so roll 4 dice. It'll be easy to get the guards into the room, but to lure them to your cell is more tricky - they may see through your ruse. Difficulty 4."

Kale: "I'll chime in to, to help sell that there's a hull breach. Here's one of my pool dice."
Snargle: "Me too - here's one of my pool dice"
Cyrus: "I'll stand at the cell door (which has been unlocked by Kale already), waiting to spring on the guards.
Blackbird: "Ok, I'll add 3 of my own pool dice as well, so we have better than even odds of this working. [Rolls 9 dice, looking for 4 successes, gets 3]
GM: "The ruse works like a charm! Well, almost. The door opens and 2 Guards file into the cell room. A 3rd guard scurries off down the hall, probably to get help of some kind." (the situation escalates)

Cyrus: "Concerned there may be a hole in the hull, the guards approach the far cell to take a look. As soon as the 2nd one is even with my door, I fling it open - knocking him into the opposite wall - and leap out of the cell to cut off the 1st guard's escape!
Naomi: "...and I swing open the door to our cell and jump out to surround him! The guard raises his nightstick, but as the two of us close in he thinks better of it. Dropping the stick to the floor the guard gives up!"
GM: "Ok, sounds like a good plan. And pretty easy, since they've already fallen for the ruse... difficulty 2. Vance's Warrior trait applies, but none of the tags really do - that's just 2 dice, and Naomi can give one of her personal dice for helping."

Cyrus: "I'll add 2 dice from my pool [rolls 5 dice]..."

Etc. That's how it sounds to me like it's supposed to go, but while watching a session the other day, what I observed was that players mostly looked at their stats and tried to roll dice to allow them to do various things. Players constantly asked the GM about details such as how exactly the door opened, in an effort to try to formulate some plan based on the details of the environment. I'd kinda like to see that game played by various groups and see how it pans out. I think it would be cooler if the players asked fewer questions and took the responsibility of inventing the details themselves - I think that's the way it's supposed to go.

My guess is that more typical GM'ed RPGs (such as Dungeons and Dragons) have conditioned players into a pattern where the GM invents the world, and the players simply interact with it. These Storytelling games, Lady Blackbird anyway, seem to be the opposite. I think that's neat for a collaborative storytelling exercise (I'm not so sure they should be called "games")!


Thomas D said...

"...players mostly looked at their stats and tried to roll dice to allow them to do various things. Players constantly asked the GM about details such as how exactly the door opened, in an effort to try to formulate some plan based on the details of the environment."

Like you say in the last paragraph, that's the problem with conditioning especially in D&D from about 3rd edition on. In those games, the character is defined by what's on the character sheet. Earlier versions of D&D, the players would try various things to accomplish a task rather than relying on the character sheet to tell them what to do. Say the players are wary about a stretch of corridor up ahead and want to check for traps. The oD&D character would take out his 10' pole to tap on the floor, listening for any hollow sounds underneath or looking for any signs that any of the flagstones have a give, indicating a pressure plate that triggers a trap (this is why everyone carried the requisite 50' rope and ten-foot pole); current version, you'd just do a search roll.

Games like Lady Blackbird should have the players author some of the story. The correct response from the GM when asked how the door opens is "you tell me".

Unknown said...

Yeah, sounds like the players you saw were min-max-ers. I'm lucky to have a bunch of great story game designers in the area, so they showed me how you can really play these games to tell an amazing story.

I wish you lived closer! Maybe I can bring something to BGG.CON?

Seth Jaffee said...

@Thomas: I agree, and indeed the GM did respond with "you tell me" at times. With that particular group I fear it would have been a constant mantra :) Though maybe then they'd get the picture :)

@Unknown: Where do you live? And who are you that I might look for you at BGG.con?

Gil said...

It's Gil! I decided to authenticate via Google, and Google decided to name me "Unknown."

It's probably a Google Profiles thing. I'm in the process of merging two Google profiles together, so my Google identity is a little weird at the moment.

Seth Jaffee said...

My guess was Gil :)

Seth Jaffee said...

I like how my posts about Storytelling games elicit comments. I wish my other posts did too...