“It's more important for us to be deeply loved than to be deeply successful”: How dark fantasy RPG Blackbirds took flight
Lead designer Ryan Verniere talks team building and trusting vision to others.
Blackbirds started in the mind of Ryan Verniere, creative director of franchise at Riot Games - developer of multiplayer video game League of Legends - but it would take the talent and passion of people from both ends of tabletop’s history to make it a reality - and something he was proud of.
Verniere sat down with Dicebreaker to talk about the upcoming dark fantasy RPG published by Andrews McMeel, which is still very secretive ahead of its release sometime next year. He sketched the rough edges of the world alongside a group of friends who switched to the Zweihänder RPG in search of something that fit the images in his mind.
Verniere found himself chatting with Zweihänder’s designer, Daniel D. Fox, which eventually led to both of them in a room with Andrews McMeel’s Kirsty Melville some months later as Verniere pitched the first draft of Blackbirds.
“I was very nervous, but I was incredibly excited. And I was just like, you know, I just have to take this plunge; I have to do this thing,” Verniere said. “And it worked. The next day the work began on gathering a real team.”
He wanted Blackbirds’ sourcebook to be a single, impressive edition produced with enough art and flash fiction that it would appeal to both players and those who read these books like illustrated fiction.
Verniere knew from the jump making he couldn’t realise Blackbirds alone. His first recruit was John Chambers, former game designer at Vampire: The Masquerade publisher White Wolf - now part of Paradox Interactive - a personal friend and someone he wanted to help steer them away from the ahistorical tropes of early tabletop’s “fandom for Jack Vance novels and Conan”.
I was very nervous, but I was incredibly excited. And I was just like, you know, I just have to take this plunge; I have to do this thing.
He also snagged one of Riot Games’ narrative leads, Jared Rosen. He was picked for his enthusiasm and expert hand at writing cosmic horror, along with being one of the original party members in the game that would become Blackbirds. Verniere assured Rosen many layers of this world would need to be filled with creeping, unspeakable terrors. When pushed during our interview, he shared a peek into those shadows.
“The reason that the world is in this state is the fault of a very small community of very powerful people who could not [...] share the fate of every peasant, which is to die. How could they with all their power, and all their resources and fame be left to this pathetic ending? So, this group of individuals who I won't name yet just fucked everything up for everyone else.”
Art director Hannah Hahn started her tenure on the team as an artist, but Verniere quickly found she conceptualised his world better than he could while also freeing him to focus on the ever expanding scope of the project. He wanted the book “to be beautiful, as well as dreadful”, which Hahn apparently nailed in the first weeks.
Instead of just hiring sensitivity readers, the team needs to be diverse in a way that hasn't really happened a lot with a team like ours.
She now leads a team of artists from around the world, including Nigeria, Russia and Italy and alongside editor Marguerite Dabaie, an accomplished Palestinian-American writer who Verniere spoke of with high regard. He was eminently proud of hiring non-white voices to shape and colour the world of Blackbirds whenever possible, letting them share a broken world that isn’t cruel to their players for all the wrong reasons.
“I did not want to do this exclusively coming from my cis, white, male voice,” Verniere said. “Instead of just hiring sensitivity readers, the team needs to be diverse in a way that hasn't really happened a lot with a team like ours.”
Verniere showered praise on as many team members as he could, from video game designer Zoë Quinn to Werewolf: The Apocalypse author Bill Bridges. He believes their “weird, bespoke nightmare machine” will find an audience that more mainstream fantasy offerings pass over in their outreach.
“It's more important for us to be deeply loved than it is to be deeply successful,” Verniere said. “And I feel like the team owns that vision.”
Verniere held tight on spilling too many details about how Blackbirds will play, but he did say those who like the way combat handles in Zweihänder will be comfortable stepping into the fate-bound shoes of a Blackbird. On the other hand, the designers have exploded the magic system from the foundations up and expanded the Fate Points system in a way that they hope resonates thematically.
For more teasers, the official Blackbirds RPG Twitter account has been posting artwork and excerpts from the sourcebook. Expect an official release sometime in 2021.
Edit: Marguerite Dabaie's ethnicity has been correctly attributed as Palestinian-American.