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The Evolving Rules

Page history last edited by PBworks 16 years, 5 months ago

Murder Ballad Blackjack

Julia Bond Ellingboe





  • Something to write on and something to write with, for each player.
  • Poker chips, play money, real money (may be best if you have four players or more, or two players playing the same character)
  • 2-3 decks of cards.
  • The Child Ballads (The English and Scottish Popular Ballads, compiled by Francis James Child), a similar compilation of ballads from somewhere else, a similar compilation of English/Scottish/American ballads, or just a bunch of your favorite murder ballads, ancient, old, or contemporary. Gillian Welsh's "Caleb Meyer" is a perfect example of a contemporary murder ballad, as is "One Morning". Lefty Frizzell's "Long Black Veil", isn't so much a murder ballad, but it's a perfect ballad to play in this game.
  • It has been suggested that this game would be fun to play using pop power ballads, and cheesy ballads from the 80's.
  • A guitar (optional), autoharp (optional), or other instrument, and someone who is willing to sing (singing talent optional).


Objective and Preparation


Tell the true story behind a folk/murder ballad (or other song or poem!). Each character has a stake in how the true story is told. This game doesn't take more than an hour per song, and is fast and easy enough to play with people not familliar with role playing games, murder ballads, or blackjack. In the finished piece, I will include 25 ballads with chords should anyone want to sing and play on the guitar.



Choose a song. Decide who will be the Bard/Dealer, and which characters will be the PC's (Player Characters). All other characters, including ones you make up throughout the game, will be played by the Bard/Dealer. Before choosing a character to play, each player writes a few questions about the story. (Example: Why did Willie try to get away? Why did he return to town and turn himself in?)


Now pick your character, and write a couple of comments from her point of view. (Example: Pretty Polly: "Willie had a violent streak.") More than one person can play the same character. In fact, more than one player should play the same character, and these players should have conflicting points of view. (The other Pretty Polly might say, "Willie may have a temper, but I never saw it.")




For our example, we're going to use Julia's favorite murder ballad, "Pretty Polly" as sung by Ralph and Carter Stanley, as our example.


We start at the end.


Grab your guitar, autoharp, banjo, washboard, and mouth bow and sing the song as a group. Then the Bard gives a quick, incendiary conclusion of the story like: "Pretty Polly was a whore and Sweet Willie was right to stab her."


So naturally at least one of the Pretty Polly's will beg to differ, and declares what is wrong about the Bard's assumption. ("My gossiping cousin was jealous of me, and lied about my reputation to Sweet Willie".) The player can only refute one aspect of the statement, and should refute it by including notions about other characters in the song (like Sweet Willie), and possibly characters not in the song (The gossiping cousin, an NPC who will be played by the Bard). If other players agree, they raise their hands and say "Amen". Those players who agree with the Bard speak up. The Bard deals two cards to each player, including himself (as the dealer), and you play blackjack.


Say the Pretty Polly who refuted the Bard's statement with "My gossiping cousin was jealous of me and lied about my reputation to Sweet Willie" won. Sweet Willie and the gossiping cousin show us the fateful scene.


Now someone other than that first Pretty Polly can refute or attest to the fact that Sweet Willie was right in killing Polly.


Say one of the Sweet Willies says, "Yessiree, whore or not, she deserved it because she was pregnant, and the baby wasn't mine." (Legend has it, the reason Willie killed Pretty Polly was that she was pregnant.) The first Pretty Polly cannot refute or endorse Sweet Willie's assertion, it's the second Pretty Polly's turn (of course, if there's only one Pretty Polly she can speak up again.)


The bard deals the cards around again. If the Bard wins, he gives one more sentence to elaborate, and the scene is acted out by any Polly or Willie who agreed with the Bard.


To recap: In the Prologue, the Bard gives a quick, inciteful conclusion to the song, including two or three statements that are certain to rile up a character. The first statement can only be refuted. Subsequent statements can be refuted or attested.


The Song Begins

Sweet Willie is the first voice in the song, so he sings the first verse. If you have more than one Sweet Willie, the players choose a speaker, and subsequently take turns simply reciting their lines of the song. If the verse or line is in the third person, the Bard sings it.

If anyone has any questions about this verse or wishes to refute it, she speaks up.



If it's a question (i.e., "how long have they been courting?", or "is Polly the only woman he's courting?), the Bard gives an answer (again, it should be one with which any character will vehemently disagree), and so continues playing blackjack to win conflicts, and characters take turns acting out what really happened.


If a character refutes a fact ("We were in bed together and he simply turned to me and asked her for a cigarette.") Same thing.


Don't Read the Song Line by Line

The actual song is a guideline for the story you're about to tell as a group. The main actions and ideas (i.e. Pretty Polly is murdered, and Sweet William did it) are irrefuteable. However new NPCs not mentioned in the story may appear and help tell the story. (i.e. "Mitch" in the Barbara Allen playtest.) After that first line or verse, treat the song as a loose telling of the story. The Bard may ask about details of the song, and characters should use their list of questions to propel the story. No need to stop action just to recite or sing the song (you can do that afterwards!).



In the first playtest, we found there wasn't much to do for the end of the game. If any questions haven't been answered, the Bard/Dealer answers, and the players decide to agree or refute the answer.


The Blackjack Part of Murder Ballad Blackjack

The simple parts:

  • You play against the Bard/Dealer. You want the value of your to be closer to 21 than the dealer's, without going over.
  • Cards 2 through 10 are face value.
  • Jack, Queen, King are all valued at 10.
  • Aces are 1 or 11 as it benefits the hand.
  • Each player starts with 20 chips.


Dealing and Placing Bets

At the start of play, the Bard/Dealer confirms each player's angle in the conflict. If playing with chips (for 4 or more players, where pairs of players portray the same character with different points of view), the Bard/Dealer also declares the price for play (between 2 and 6 chips, depending on the weight that the conflict carries in the story), and all players put the set amount into the pot.


If a player cannot afford the price, she may play on the Bard/Dealer's side of the conflict, even if she disagrees with the Bard/Dealer. This is called Selling Your Soul. The benefit of this is if she wins, she takes 1/3 of the pot. The downside, is that if she wins, the dealer determines the outcome of the conflict, even if it doesn't benefit her character. If the Bard/Dealer wins with a player who Sold Her Soul in play, she gives that player 1/5 of the pot.


If the dealer wins, she collects the whole pot. If a player wins without Selling Her Soul she collects 2/3 of the pot.


Once the bets are made, and the angles of the conflict confirmed, the Bard/Dealer deals two cards, face up, starting with the player on the left (called first base). If two players are playing the same character, these two players may trade cards or bargain with each other, for the sake of their shared character. (Example will be here) If a player has Sold Her Soul, she cannot bargain or trade with any other players.


The player at first base then declares how she will play her hand, and each player follows. The Bard/Dealer finishes her hand, and collects or pays the winnings.


How the Dealer/Bard Plays her Hand

  • The Dealer/Bard is limited in her choices of play:
  • The Dealer/Bard must stand at 17. She must continue to hit her hand until she reaches 17 or more
  • Aces are always valued at 11.
  • No splitting pairs.


A Blackjack vs. Other Forms of 21

Blackjack or a natural 21 is when a player gets 21 with just his first two cards. In an event of a tie, a natural wins over a hand of 21 with more than two cards and a split hand. If a player gets blackjack that is an Ace and a Jack of Spades or Clubs, she wins the whole pot.


In the event of a true blue tie between players, the Dealer/Bard can suggest an alternative outcome to the conflict. If the players agree, they each get 1/3 of the pot. Otherwise, players throw in another 4 chips and play a tie-breaking round of blackjack against each other. The winner takes 2/3 of the pot. If a player doesn't have enough chips to play a tie-breaking round, both players must agree to the Bard/Dealer's terms. If the tie is between player(s) and the Dealer/Bard, the Dealer/Bard offers a narrative bargain and an amount of the pot.


The Player's Options (some of these are untested, and not part of real blackjack)

  • Hitting: Drawing another card.
  • Standing: Not drawing any (more) cards.
  • Splitting Pairs: If a player receives a matching pair of cards, regardless of suit, she may split her hand and play two separate hands. The Bard/Dealer then gives the player one card for each hand. The player may bribe the Dealer/Bard with 6-10 chips to allow her to pass the less desirable hand to another player. The player may keep both hands. If split hands are hit with matching pairs, those hands may be split, and the player may bribe and pass.
  • Sharing and Trading: Two players playing the same character may share and trade cards if they have a common angle in the conflict. If either wins they decide how to split the winnings, and may bargain with the Bard/Dealer as to how much they will collect.



These are the hopefully playable rules. Updated 11/10/07. Not edited for typos. My apologies in advance.


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