Today, I’ll talk about something that I bring up frequently in conversation: John Harper‘s ENnie Award-winning Lady Blackbird, a beautiful, free 16-page role-playing game. It’s a treatise on implied setting. This post is going to assume that you’ve read one of the best things you can download on the Internet. So, you know, do that. :) It’s worth a look.
Let’s start with what it contains that’s in my view relevant to setting:
- A simple introduction page, with 200 words on the game’s initial setup & situation. Timing myself reading it with a medium-paced, dramatic flair, it takes just under a minute.
- A page that’s about the physical landscape of the setting. The top half is a pretty starmap of places of note. The bottom is a description of each place. 388 words on those places.
There’s also a section for names to use, which is one of the many killer apps of LB. If you need an NPC, you have a handy place where you can grab a name and cross it off. 23 male names, 24 female names, 22 surnames, 8 noble houses. Very handy resource.
- Five pages, each with a character on it. The first half of the sheet is character specific stuff, the second half the rules for play.
- A very beautiful page about the airship, The Owl, where action will center around to start.
- A page on advancement — new traits, tags, keys & secrets.
John’s given himself 10 pages to convey enough of an evocative setting to jazz players. And he knocks it out of the park.
In the first two hundred words, something short enough to be read to the table to get people pumped, much like the scrolling opener in Star Wars, he tells you these important touchstones:
- There’s someone named Lady Blackbird
- On the run! There’s action here
- Smuggler skyship
- There’s an Empire
- There are worlds beyond the reach of said Empire
- HAND OF SORROW — Tell me that doesn’t convey a sense of awesome dread
- Characters: Blackbird, her bodyguard, crew of The Owl
- Situation: They’re locked up
- Situation: Impending discovery of The Owl’s history
- Three open-ended questions that hang off just like strong cliffhangers did back when voice-over narration was a big deal in television (that a holdover from radio).
There’s a lot going on there in just 200 words.
Now, I’m going to skip the second page. I don’t think it’s a good page to start the first session with, aside from giving the GM some names. But I’ll get back to it later, when I talk about how Lady Blackbird is using sharp console RPG tricks in information pacing. So, moving on, we have the characters. I’ll take just one of them. You can view them all on the PDF. I happen to like Naomi Bishop (and really want to play her).
Former pit-fighter and bodyguard to Lady Blackbird
Combat Tested, Brutal, Living Weapon, Fast, Hard, [Strong], [Bone-breaking], [Scary Look]
Awareness, Threats, Defend, Disarm, Restrain, Carry, Delay, [Security], [First Aid]
Sneak, Hide, Run, Tough, Endure, Scrounge, Nobles, [Hatred], [Iron Will]
Insightful, Aware, Coiled, Liars, Traps, [Danger], [Sense Motives]
Given that all we know about the setting is the bulleted list above, this character also tells us:
- There are pit-fighters.
- Yeah, pit-fighters are pretty badass. (“Living Weapon”)
- There are slaves.
- Interesting, she serves a noble, Lady Blackbird, but she’s an “ex-slave.” So then, who are the slavers? (Knowing what questions exist is, by the way, as much setting as having a question answered.)
Noami’s actually not the greatest example here, even if she’s who I want to play. Let’s look briefly at a couple others:
- Snargle, a goblin sky-sailor and pilot of The Owl
That means there are goblins. What’s everyone else? What else is out there?
- Kale Arkam, with the Trait “Petty Magic” and the Tags “Light spell, Dark spell, Jump spell, Shatter Spell, [Channeling],[Spellcaster]”
Which means this is a world of magic, something that wasn’t mentioned at all in the trailer text.
- Cyrus Vance has the “Secret of Warpblood”: Once per session, you can teleport yourself or someone you’re touching.
And now that makes me curious about “Warpblood.” Is that a half-race thing? A ritual done to him? A euphemism for something else? There’s rich setting here.
- One of the Secrets you can buy: “Secret of Sky Song”: You know how to call sky squid and can attempt to communicate with them when they appear.
Sky squid is mentioned a couple times, in the second page, a size reference on The Owl, on the GM page. But this added bit? Suddenly you have more setting — people who know the song as allies or foes. What mysteries the song entails, etc.
The characters are full of pieces of the world that aren’t stated in the trailer text. Some of that is in the description at the top, like in Naomi Bishop’s case or Snargle’s. Some of it is in what they can do, like with Kale Arkam & Lady Blackbird’s sorcery. Some of it holds questions that begged to be answered in play, like Cyrus’ Warpblood.
Lady Blackbird and Information Pacing
The more and more I look at Lady Blackbird, the more I see it as taking some of the brilliance of strong setting design & presentation in computer RPGs, combining that with the power of slow reveals of setting, and then knowing what doesn’t need to be included in a short-form project because a group will fill in those holes during play.
John tells you what you need to know to start play. He gives you plenty of questions. With that second page I skipped, he gives you a few more stages to visit (in either the screenplay or video game sense of the word) until you have developed some of your own. He gives questions about the setting that tie directly to characters — questions that can be pursued or dropped at the will of the group. You don’t need that bit of information to know “we need to bust out of the brig and escape from the Hand of Sorrow.” But once you’re free, once that session is done, you have that second page to see where to go next. (Of course, since it’s an RPG, there are options well beyond that sheet, but that sheet still has a lot of mojo.)
It’s also worth noting that it’s completely fine if people don’t pick up on some of the subtle questions, or care about the ones they do see. There’s enough here to propel in a direction, and we all know that in play new questions about the world around the characters will arise. (It’s also space for hooks. If the guy playing Cyrus doesn’t care about what it means to be Warpblooded right away, he might in session three when the GM throws an NPC teleporting around in the mix.)
I could go on, but this post is starting to rival the size of the game. :)
How I’m Applying This Right Now
To be fair, I’m applying it all the time. Mythender’s Character Creation was formed partly because of this influence. And I’m always thinking about how much setting I can put into character creation rather than making explicit. But for the right and now, I’m writing up a Transmission for Jeremy Keller’s TechNoir. He talks a bit about how to make a Transmission on his blog.
I overwrote the three Expostion paragraphs by around 75%. At first, it was hard to know what to remove, because I have this whole “man, I have these cool ideas about corporate military vs government military and a fully-enclosed giant ring arcology and an undercity with thugs and benevolent street docs and…” etc. But then I remember the lessons in Lady Blackbird. I remember the power of implication, and TechNoir gives me places to hang those implications. That’s helped me let go of needing to tell all these ideas in my head, and instead write something that fits in the space of the game properly.
(If you’re curious, the Transmission I’m writing is about Mount Kilimanjaro’s ongoing Beanstalk Project — a space elevator in mid-construction and the little world around that massive project.)
How It Could Be Applied Elsewhere
If you want to get someone interested in an established setting, I can’t think of a better method than this. Giving someone an infodump of the Forgotten Realms doesn’t jazz play. Giving someone a taste of it, enough of a situation to excite them and having something to jive into, that does jazz play. Again, looking at the computer/console RPG world and how it treats doling out setting information & questions. You don’t learn everything about the Chantry and Templars and Circle of Magi and all that in Dragon Age right away, you do over time. Same with Mass Effect and other console RPGs.
The 4/e Forgotten Realms campaign guide did this a bit (though I’m having to recall from memory), where the material was segmented into an initial encounter, and then a town, and then the broader world. (I wouldn’t be surprised if this was more or less how FR started, and years of canon turned intermediate editions into setting behemoths.)
In other words, dA setting isn’t just the facts you’ve made up about it. It’s presentation. It’s knowing what not to say. If you can master those two elements, you’ll excite people into wanting to know more.
Dish out your setting like you’re a drug dealer. Give a free, easy taste. And then keep giving as they hunger for more.
Lady Blackbird is, to me, proof that you don’t need 100 or 50 or even 20 pages dedicated to your setting. I’m not saying that having a lot of setting is bad; far from it. But since John has shown us how to do without, it means there’s a conscious choice to be made. And such choices come with it further questions about what we’re trying to achieve — and that will help us make the best thing we can. (Which I’m reminded I should blog about, as the other two exemplars of setting design & presentation, in different ways, are Day After Ragnarok and Swashbucklers of the Skies — both of which i’ve interviewed the creators about on my old Master Plan podcast.)
A setting isn’t just the facts you’ve made up about something. It’s presentation. It’s knowing what not to say. If you can master those two elements, you’ll excite people into wanting to know more.
Go forth and build exciting worlds.
 John is in my mind, without a doubt, one of the top ten RPG designers around.
 Yes, people. That includes porn.
 One of my guiding principles is “If you don’t think something is a design decision, it means you understand it poorly.” This is, however, separate from marketing decisions!