[Lady Blackbird Hack] Alien Survivor

edited March 2010 in Story Games
This weekend, I gave myself 20 hours to hack together my riff on Lady Blackbird, a one-shot survival-horror play experience inspired by the likes of Alien and Pitch Black. It's called, regrettably, Alien Survivor, and you can download v0.9 right now: Alien Survivor v0.9

All feedback welcome.


  • Wow, just read both of the guides. 20 hours you say? Very nice. Would need to play it to have more meaty feedback, but the one thing that I really loved was the narrator's guide. Lady Blackbird mechanics are one of current interests and that really brought a lot of it into focus.
  • This is pretty dern cool, Will. I dig your layout, as well.

    It's kinda funny that you hacked Lady Blackbird to run survival horror one-shots because Blackbird was partially John's response to Geiger Counter, my game for running survival horror one-shots. I'm putting the third (gamma) draft together right now, coincidentally :)

    You've completed the Circle. Or we've formed the Axis of Evil. One of the two.
  • Thank you both for taking the time to download it. I've just happily downloaded Geiger Counter, too. I don't know how I missed it before now.

    Weaverchilde, that 20 hours doesn't include the initial character write-ups, but it does include pretty much everything else. Thus, if there are typos and other such things, they're the side effect of the speed at which I was working.
  • Very cool, Will.

    I like how you've expanded on the core rules text to make it more accessible. The addition of simple battle rules is nice, too.

    And the layout is good! Always nice to see Futura.
  • Thanks, John.

    Fretting the layout was keeping me from actually publishing the thing, so I went with something super simple, as I don't have a lot of futuristic graphic design resources on hand (it turns out). I had a version with splatters everywhere, but I figure why vex somebody's printer just for splatters. I used them too much back on the early Vampire SAS products, anyway.

    And I'm a damn sucker for Futura, so I had to use it again.
  • edited March 2010
    I just read through Alien Survivor, and I like what you've done with it.

    [edited out inane comment about missing Keys - they are not missing at all, just not called Keys]

    Good Job!
  • edited March 2010
    Hey Will,

    I'm curious about why you chose to make advancement a thing the Narrator has to approve. One of the main features of Keys (in LB) is that the players judge whether they hit a key or not and take the XP themselves. I can guess why you made this change, but I'm interested to hear your thinking around this topic.
  • Will, in your playtests, about how long were you taking (and with how many players) to play through a game?
  • This is awesome...thanks for putting it up. Looking forward to testing it.
  • I like your traits and tags a lot - they seem note-perfect for the genre. I can easily imagine each of the characters from their traits.

    I wanted the characters to be more strongly interrelated. It's a one-shot; why not establish A loving B and C hating A?

    I'm not sure how giving the Narrator authority over advancement makes the game more fun. The game Keys were pulled from - The Shadow of Yesterday - absolutely sings without the Narrator being involved. More broadly, advancement might not even have a place in a tightly focused, kill-centric survival horror one-shot.

    I was going to say the same thing about adding hit points, but as a sort of countdown timer I can see the value there. I think you could do the same thing with conditions, though - maybe with a "two and out" rule. It's a one shot; the second (or third, or whatever) condition applied is always "Dead". So you can get Trapped once, but if you then get Tired ... the monsters get you.
  • edited March 2010
    (So, I lost a big long post I was going to put in here and retyped some of it, just now. Forgive this for being rushed, please.)

    Right. Keys. Ordinarily, I'm a big believer in naming every mechanism, nub, and sprue in a game system — if only just to make the game easy to talk about — but in this case I filed off the name for the sake of one night's simplicity. I wanted the bullet points to feel dry, like they came out of an employment record or dossier, too, though I'd do that differently if I'd known that I was going to show these characters to people two months later.

    As to why I called for Narrator approval, it's simply this: I wanted the player to tug on my sleeve before they initiated the description or dialogue that was going to call on their bullet point. I wanted to be able to point my spotlight at them then. Also, I wanted to use my authority for approval to coax more out of their performance — it creates a moment where we pause and talk about the character or the advancement choice that follows.

    "Nice," I say, "Are you saying this to everyone or just to him?" Or: "It sounds like maybe you've got tears in your eyes about this…" And then, "And what advancement are you going to take as a result of that?" And then, maybe, "Why is that?"

    I like breaking the fourth wall with my players and talking to them about their decisions. It's a chance to talk shop like writers and actors, and it puts focus on the fact that the players are insinuating and implying things with their performances, though sometimes that stuff gets overlooked because everyone's looking inward at their next play, their next characterization. We stop and we talk shop for a minute, as if play was a rich rehearsal rather than a live performance, and then we remember to watch each other as peers appreciating a performance, not just an audience trying to suss out meaning or keep up with the action.

    Also, remember that hitting a bullet point gets an immediate advancement, here. This is, in part, because I think the play choice of picking your next tag is a great decision point and I wanted to see it happen a few times before characters died. Everything needed to be faster.

    So Narrator approval gave me time to work the throttle a bit and, one time, say, "Hold on, you just got an advancement — can you include somebody else in this bit?" There's a reason that so many of the characters have their marital or familial status and employment history on there — they connect like puzzle pieces. You start talking about how your contract is almost up, and it creates an opening for someone else to hit their bullet point, too.

    That said, if I had more room and time to spend on this subject, I'd include this note: I approved of every potential advancement. I was ready to say, "Hold on, give someone else a turn to advance," but I didn't have to. I might change the rule to something else, like "No player can advance again until another player has advanced," just to keep individual players from rocketing ahead, if that's better.

    In practice, that's why I put approval in there — to regulate.

    It's one thing when five lines of dialogue about your employment contract being up in a few weeks gets you an eventual advancement. It's something else when a single line of dialogue does it. I wanted to have some regulatory power, just in case.
  • Hey Will,

    I totally get where you're coming from. For what it's worth, that's how we play Keys, too -- we talk about it as players and ask each other questions ("Can she tell you're doing this because of Cassie?"). It's just that the responsibility for asking the questions and being curious about the Keys isn't concentrated in the GM; it's a thing every player does. I'd wager this is just a matter of play style and comfort level with different techniques. Many roads to Rome, and all that.

    Also, I think faster advancement (1 advance when you hit a bullet point rather than 1 xp) is totally the right way to go for a tight one-shot like this.
  • edited March 2010
    Hey, y'all, thanks for taking the time to read this and write in about it.

    First, play time: With four players, our play time was about four hours. I used the Drive! encounter a few times, though, to get us through the map a little faster.

    Honestly, I'm not entirely thrilled with the pre-gen characters. I think they're individually strong, but I didn't tie them together too much because I didn't want to prescribe who each character thought should live, and because I didn't want them to be inward-facing as a group. Frankly, I think I went too far in the other direction. So it goes.

    The secrets help with this a little bit, but my players barely used their secrets. I've dialed up their usefulness in this document a bit to encourage their use even in death.

    About advancement: Broadly speaking, you might be right, Jason. I've run these one-shot winnowing-character stories a whole lot over the years, and typically I don't worry about advancement at all. But I thought the pick-a-new-tag advancement was so elegant, so quick, and so satisfying as a gameplay choice that I wanted to include it. Plus, with the dwindling player pools, anything that got a new tag into play was useful.

    Simply put, I thought the advancement mechanism was too much fun to leave out in this case.

    As for why I replaced the Tired, Injured, and Dead conditions with Health, I had a couple of reasons. First, I was designing for a particular bunch of players, and I thought the gradual decline of Health better suited the way they eyeballed survival and peril. Second, it afforded a more granular mechanism for determining who would attempt to face off again alien beasts and what the consequence for that would be. It meant that not all failures were created equal.

    I was concerned that conditions alone meant that I would just be deciding who died — I didn't want to apply a condition for every failed obstacle, and once I'm doing it for some and not others, I'm playing kingmaker more than I wanted to be. The fun is for the players to do it, I thought, and they do it by choosing who will engage the aliens and who will run. Plus, it provided some variety by having two types obstacles — standard and battle — which created the vibe that there was running and fighting and that they felt different. It worked for us.

    For sure, though, a condition-only method could work, too. If it helps the Narrator make the death spiral colorful, even better. I'm pretty good at making hit points colorful, though, so I chose to use them.

    Remember, Alien Survivor isn't some implicit declaration of how I think these things must be done, or what the Right Way is to do it. It's a report on one way to do it that worked for us. I'm releasing it, in part, to see if it works for others, too.

    I'd love to hear of other spins on the material and how they work out. I'm hoping I'll be smarter for having released this thing, and having you all look at it, I can already feel that happening. So thanks, again!
  • edited March 2010
    Right on, John. The group I playtested this with aren't indie-experienced players (yet?), but ordinarily I use player-facing XP awards (even in D&D — I like to let the players award XP to each other). I was just a little concerned about characters advancing while other characters are dying.

    John, I wanted to ask you, too: What's the pedigree on the Traits-and-Tags mechanism in Lady Blackbird? I like its grammar a whole lot. Where does it come from? (I'm debating using it for a stealth-action game, too, but I'm not sure I can justify time for that design for free.)

  • edited March 2010
    As far as I know, the Traits-and-Tags thing is from my own brain.

    However, said brain is populated with the stripped parts from a hundred stolen vehicles. There's probably some influence from FUDGE, Over the Edge, and HeroQuest in there.
  • Well, I think it's brilliant. I love the way it channels traits to provoke decision-making plays, while heightening their descriptive power, and I'm eager to use it in something that plays longer than Alien Survivor.
  • edited March 2010
    LB's traits-and-tags feel like a simplified version of Burning Wheel's Lifepaths. Here are some example Lifepaths:

    * Orc Lifepaths
    * Goblin Lifepaths
    * Other Lifepaths
  • Thanks, Will!

    @Chris: Yep, I've played a fair bit of BW. I'm sure that was an influence.
  • Thanks for those links, Chris. I need to be better versed in BW — I've got the books, but I've never actually gotten a game of it going.

    John, I think I'm going to use something rather like your traits-and-tags mechanics for the stealth-based RPG adventure I'm percolating now. It's a nice way to point characters at a particular mode of play.

    The more feedback I get on Alien Survivor, hopefully in the coming weeks, the better equipped I'll be for this next outing.

  • Looking forward to the stealth game, Will. I've tried to tackle that one a few times, myself.
  • A question for you, John, and for anyone whose run Lady Blackbird: What do you take "escalation" to mean, and how do you handle actual escalation in actual play? If an attempt to overcome a handful of Imperial troopers fails, how do things escalate and what does that do to the Difficulty level, if anything?

    I'm trying to compare my own assumptions and actual-play experiences to more actual-play experience and design theory, here.

  • edited March 2010
    Here's escalation:

    Han Solo is trying to break Princess Leia out of the detention block. He goes over to the buzzing intercom and tries to bluff their way out. "We're all fine here now. How are you?" He fails.

    The GM escalates: Stormtroopers come pouring in. Han and Chewie try to blast them down and escape. They fail. The GM escalates. More stormtoopers pour in and completely block the exit. Leia decides to shoot her way through the bulkhead so they can escape. She fails.

    The GM escalates: They find themselves even deeper in the battle station, inside a trash-compactor. It turns on!

    That's the general idea. The failed roll means the thing you tried doesn't work, but you can try again (in a different way). Escalation means when you try again, the stakes are raised -- the situation has become more dire, or more grim, or more desperate than it was before.

    I can probably say more about why the game has Escalation like this, too.
  • Hey John,

    What does that mean mechanically? Are you raising difficulties with each escalation? Are you handing out more Conditions (or more drastic Conditions, e.g. Dead)?

    Also, is a failure ever just a failure? 'I try to climb the wall. 3 successes.' 'You fail'.

    I wonder if the answers you give will explain why the game has escalation like this, too :D.
  • edited March 2010
    What it means mechanically:

    You fail and the GM escalates. A bunch of stormtroopers rush in, firing. What do you do? You say what, then the GM says the obstacle rating, as usual. It's independent of the previous test, mechanically -- that is, The GM doesn't automatically add 1 or anything. She judges the new circumstance and gives it an obstacle rating that's appropriate.

    Failure is never just a failure, no. You can fail at a particular task (picking the lock) but you can always try other tasks to overcome the obstacle (bash down the door, squeeze through the air vent, etc). As you fail, things escalate, so you might abandon the series of tasks along the way if it gets too crazy. "Fine, I don't really want the princess that bad! The stormtroopers can keep her!"

    The reason the game has escalation like this, is because the genre fiction that inspires it does. The heroes risk ever more to win the day, but winning is never off the table completely -- unless the heroes give up on it (which says something about what they value enough to take risks over, and what they don't).
  • Sounds like I've been handling escalation as you imagined it, John. I'd just become curious, since there's so little language about it, if I should have been reading more into it than I did. Also, I'm tinkering with my stealth rules, and they interact with notions of escalation in curious ways sometimes. (At least, they did during the last playtest.) But it sounds like we escalate the same way — by pushing forward and up at the same time.
  • Whoah, seven years later and I still really like this game. If anyone happens to read this, how did you handle "refresh" scenes between players? I am really looking for some more information on how these scenes work, what they contain, and how long they can be. I ask because I am thinking of adapting this mechanic into a D&D 5E game through the long and short rest system. I want to get my players some exposure to "indie" type mechanics.
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