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Author Topic: [Poison'd] About action and choice  (Read 4354 times)
Eero Tuovinen
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« on: October 29, 2008, 12:02:15 PM »

We had bit of an impromptu house convention last week here in Sonkajärvi, as all the university students got a period break at the same time and swarmed here. Among other things we got to play a session of Poison'd in the latter end of the week with Sami, Saara and Satu. (Yes, those are real names, they are similar by coincidence.) Sami's an old hand with rpgs, while Saara and Satu - a couple of local teenagers - have mostly played boardgames, some sessions of my zombie game and a bit of the primitive D&D I've been running this fall. I did the gamemastering for the group, having read the rules in advance. Didn't have time to actually refresh myself on the text before the session, though, as we grabbed the game from among multiple options in the heat of the moment.

The character generation system of Poison'd is really smart and well-designed, the game is worth the cost of admission for that, alone. The rest of the game hangs together with some difficulty, however, making it a bit harder to use than it should be. That's what I want to discuss here, actually. We did have plenty of interesting content in the session, but there were also many places where the rules-set was being unnecessarily difficult. Perhaps writing this out helps me sort out how the game is supposed to work, or maybe somebody will just tell me what's wrong with the picture.

The purpose of the fight system

The fighting rules system in Poison'd is quite heavy in comparison with the rest of the rules. So much so, in fact, that while the rest of the game was easy and fun for us, the fighting rules proved in practice to be too much for the teenagers (and myself, occasionally) in procedural terms. A lot of this has to do with the rules interface: there are something like eight different ways of using Xs in a fight, but they're only listed in the rules booklet, which necessitated referring to the paragraphs about it constantly. Probably a lot of this could be ameliorated by simply designing the character sheet to include this stuff in the form of a list (as opposed to the dense prose of the rules). In practice Xs were only used to roll more dice, simply because that was a simple and constant option that could be internalized by the players.

Another issue contributing to the heaviness of the fighting rules is the escalation procedure, especially pertaining to ship-to-ship battle. You see, while escalation is something that happens at most three times per conflict, there are actually 3-4 potential conflicts in a ship-to-ship battle: first one ship tries to catch the other up, then they fight with cannons, then one is boarded by the other. This is all well and good in theory, but in practice we experienced this as a pretty tedious procedure, a bit like how extended conflicts go in Agon. What these games have in common is that they force relatively small stakes in a relatively lengthy conflict procedure, potentially leading to boredom.

As the game is set up, the pirates seem to have little interest in swerving aside from the three-conflict ship-ravaging procedure, which becomes a bit of a problem when the group starts losing interest in describing the events in the fiction - it's just about rolling dice at that point. Sure, there are some consequences in the procedure, like how much the pirate ship and crew suffer in the fighting, but I don't see how the ship would benefit from actually turning aside and giving up in these situations. A direct consequence of not having any choices is that inventing fictional detail is not very rewarding for anybody concerned in the situation.

This being the set-up, I kinda have a question for anybody in the know: what sort of fictional interest should there be in the practice of pirating in this game? Should the GM invent colorful and entertaining personages for the pirates to rob? Should he push the moral consequences of piracy at the players, perhaps making it difficult to not sin? Should there be some sort of tactical maneuvering in how the ships hunt each other, how they position to fire and how they prepare for boardings? If none of the above holds water, is there some other reason for the players to engage with the procedure of seeking, finding and conquering a prize at all in the fictional level, instead of just rolling the dice and jotting down any wear and tear or casualties to the crew?

Unless I've misunderstood something in how the fight system is set up, it seems to me that reducing the complexity of the prize-winning procedure would be beneficial to not getting bored with that part of the game. Some sort of single-roll thing that allows players to burn Xs and determines whether the ship gets hurt in the action. Alternatively, there'd need to be some sort of tension in the action around the prize-taking, but as things currently stand, it's all orthogonal to the ambitions of the characters and only concerns the minor detail of how much of the loot goes into repairing the ship afterwards.

Difficulties with the cruel fortunes

The idea of the cruel fortunes seems nice out of the gate: separate actually significant game status elements from the fictional texture by writing the stuff down on index cards. It's just that this thing falls down in practice badly if the GM hasn't researched the list of cruel fortunes carefully and, essentially, learned them by heart. Each cruel fortune is, in truth, a special-case rule of its own, so you need to know them just as much as you need to know the falling and drowning rules of D&D: you need to know that they're there to use them, that is. This is pretty annoying in practice, as it's easy to mix up Accursed and the one about God making a deal with the captain (Damnation? something like that), for example, or forget altogether that there is a separate cruel fortune for the crew getting rebellious. Lots of opportunity for missing a cruel fortune that should apply or applying the wrong ones, just like happens with those secondary rules in D&D at times.

So the idea of handling this stuff on cards is nice, but it's not flowing easily in practice. I'm uncertain how I'd make it work - perhaps the GM should just write his own cruel fortunes as needed and improvise some rules for what they mean for the game, for example. That would at least make full use of the index card idea. Or maybe I should just learn the list by heart, so I could name the pertinent ones off the top of my head in whatever the situation is.

Role of iniquity in developing drama

Most of the discussion around Poison'd has been about how it's all rapery and full of mature (in the American sense of the word) content. We had a bit of that for the sake of titillation, but what I was left wondering is whether that sort of thing has an integral function in the game. Specifically, is it a sort of self-fulfilling prophecy that happens because the players expect it to happen, or could it be that the awful sinning happens because the game otherwise lacks for content? I'm wondering about this because the most interesting interactions in our game really happened only when I as the GM got a bit heavy-handed and had the ship's surgeon require sexual favours from another pirate in exchange for saving his life from a mortal wound. That set off a rather enjoyable series of scenes that fired on the therefore untouched issues of women on the pirate ship, the relationships of the player characters towards each other and other such key material. So at least superficially it seems that the game gets at least some of its drive from questioning PC sexuality and value of human life - perhaps one might even say that the picture Poison'd paints is interesting because it depicts such a different value system to what we're used to?

The game text itself is pretty silent on the issue of how and what the GM should be pushing, except that he should be pushing fights. Does this work, and if it does, why? In our case the best game results were gained by my wholesale inventing a NPC with lecherous motivations, the sort of guy you'd expect to be a player character, and pitching him into the character relationship alchemy. Fights, in comparison, did little but cause a lot of dice rolling. I could see the logic in pushing the fights if the game had the sort of resource drain mechanics Dust Devils has, but the results of engaging in some ship-to-ship shooting, for example, seem pretty minor in comparison.

Conclusion

I'll need to play the game more. I love the color and the way characters are created and inserted into an existing situation, but the game is written in a manner that makes it less than trivial to grab and run with it. The players wanted to play the game more, but it definitely fell behind some of the old stand-bys in ease of use. It seems that handling the cruel fortunes, making fights fluid and knowing how to up the pressure on the player characters all require some significant GMing skill that doesn't really come up in reading the game. This thought is particularly for Vincent, in relation to both Poison'd and IaWA: both of these games shoot for a certain sort of light, cheap aesthetic that I personally love, but I also think that they might be written in ways that do not facilitate play as well as they could - the rules are all there, but they're often written in a difficult-to-access manner, and the soft techniques needed for play are addressed nearly not at all. I'm not that motivated to consider this any sort of grand failure, but it's good to know that despite its seeming simpleness Poison'd is not something one can just stumble into and expect to run without a hitch. If we're going to play a full campaign at some point, I'll definitely work up some streamlined cheat sheets for the cruel fortunes and fighting mechanics if nothing else.

A single rules question: While I usually have no problems understanding game rules, this time I was actually concretely dumbfounded by the vague text in one point: when the pirates decide to beach somewhere to get supplies, how is this handled? The rules on prize-taking say that a 2-point prize represents just this, but then the list of prize protections is full of things that are unsuitable (or at least awkward) for protecting a "beach". The text doesn't really address how this works in the fiction, either, so it was a bit difficult to handle in practice - either one needs to think up a whole range of land-based interactions, have all beaches guarded by ships (bit unlikely, that) or just give that 2-point prize out without a fight. Which is the intent? I think I ended up ruling that there really isn't enough food for a pirate crew on just any beach - it'd have to be a coastal town they'd need to sack, which could then be handled as some sort of potential fight, at least, instead of just free loot.
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lumpley
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« Reply #1 on: October 30, 2008, 06:10:44 AM »

Thanks, Eero!

I can answer the rule question, at least. When the pirates find a beach to careen their ship and take on fresh food and supplies, you do have to protect the beach. Like you say, most of the options don't make sense, but some of them do, and you only have to choose 2. Marines would be any fighting force, including natives or settlers, so there's that, but my favorite is to link a cruel fortune or two. Put a disease on the island, have a storm descend, have the crew fall to squabbling and malcontent.

The rest of your observations -

Well first, yes, to play the game well you need to be pretty familiar with the cruel fortunes, and you need to have in some way internalized them, or the logic underlying them. You're right that it's not a good game for pick-up-and-stumble-through one-shots.

- But most of the rest of your observations make me think that there was something else going on. I have two thoughts, let me know how they feel to you:

1. I wouldn't play the game with teenagers. It says "for adults" not just because of its content, but because I think that the people best suited to play it are people who've had, for instance, long-term adult relationships, maybe with children, and who have adult takes on loyalty and friendship. Played with teenagers, I'd fully expect the game to go poorly.

2. My ongoing working theory is that groups who get and use ambitions and bargains, get the game. Groups for whom their characters' ambitions don't become forward momentum, and their characters' bargains don't become points of contention, there's nothing in the game for them. Again, I wouldn't expect teenagers to do either of these well, but they don't always work for adults either.

When the ambitions and bargains are working, they charge the whole rest of the mechanics, including the fighting rules. Since you didn't mention them at all, I bet they weren't working for your group.

That's my diagnosis from way over here, anyway.

-Vincent
« Last Edit: October 30, 2008, 06:12:50 AM by lumpley » Logged
Eero Tuovinen
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« Reply #2 on: October 30, 2008, 06:41:16 AM »

Thanks, that answers the question about beaches.

That's an interesting notion about adulthood. I'll have to mull on that, because from where I'm sitting that didn't particularly seem to be making a lot of difference. The again, I thought that we did pretty well with the ambitions and bargains - I didn't mention that part mostly because I thought they worked the way they should, and were non-problematic. If anything, I'd hazard that our slight problems in appreciating the game's heavier mechanics sprang from the fact that Saara and Satu are both a bit of drama oriented princess players who simply don't like concentrating on game mechanics very much - they're far from noncommitted to playing a given game, but they don't exhibit the sort of excitement over clever mechanics that many boys their age do. They're simply much more interested in situating characters into scenes and describing dramatic encounters than their odds of succeeding with dice. I'm sure you've encountered this sort of slight bias against game mechanics before yourself.

As an example of the sort of ambition-based play we had, the session's content mostly circled around how Sami's character wanted to kill off Satu's for killing his father - this directly led into Satu's character getting knifed and making the uncomfortable bargain with the surgeon that I referenced before. Saara's character was the only public female on the ship, but she also was a powerful leader figure who'd bargained to protect both Sami's young rascal and Satu's traumatized, bitter boatswain. We got a rather powerful scene out of Saara's and Satu's interaction as Satu's character demanded that the captain help her renege on her deal with the surgeon. At the end of the session we had all sorts of entanglement going on between the characters; what we lacked was loot to spend on Leisure and motivation to play through yet another prize-capturing procedure without really understanding why it's made so intricate.

So the bargains and ambitions worked well for us, it were the pretty dense fighting mechanics that really inspired me to write about our experience. I can sort of appreciate how the right group might be interested in going through the complex hunt-shoot-board procedure of pirating just for the color, but even then I'd sort of imagine that it would become dull after a while without some sort of varying content to it. What are the stakes set against each other in these scenes, why do they matter? Are the pirates supposed to be risking death when they capture ships? Is wear and tear cumulative, should they care about avoiding it? Are there other potential negative repercussions to screwing up a capture, apart from wear and tear and lots of crew getting killed? Is each individual ship capture a potential peril for their souls when the GM pushes for attrocities in the interaction of pirates and their victims? Should the NPCs they rob try to negotiate, threaten them, refer to backstory events or be otherwise interesting personalities? If you don't mind, Vincent, I'd like to hear about how you run these prize-captures: how many there are in a session, are they back-to-back until the characters have gained enough loot for now, what sort of important content they feature in hindsight... that sort of thing. I think it'd really help me run this game better.
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Graham W
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« Reply #3 on: November 02, 2008, 05:13:56 AM »

Eero, I've run Poison'd a great deal, mainly as one-shots, so here are some quick thoughts.

On the complexity of the rules: During the first fight, I'd never mention all the uses for Xs. I'd just explain the basics: roll your Brinkmanship; then whoever is behind may lose, escalate or spend extra dice. At the end of the fight, I'd mention that Xs could be used to reduce harm. Later, I'd mention the remaining uses for Xs (which are mainly narrative rather than mechanical).

Played like that, I don't find it complex, but I understand there are many intricacies.

[Sidenote: Vincent, the rules say that you can spend an X to put a "pirate (and his player's dice!) out of the rest of the fight". This is an artifact from an earlier version of the rules, right? Only the GM would spend Xs to put a player and his dice out of the fight, but the GM no longer has Xs].

On ship-to-ship combat: I rarely go through all the stages of ship-to-ship combat, precisely because it can get dull. Usually, I begin with cannons, then go straight to company-to-company.

Note that the rules allow you to do this: there's no requirement to start with pursuit. If you narrate that the pirate ship catches the prize immediately after it comes out of dock, then they're at cannon range, and you start with the "cannon" rules.

Later in the game, I've run a full pursuit-cannon-boarding fight. It's fine then, because everyone is familiar with the fighting. I wouldn't ever do it for the first ship combat.

On whether hunting a prize has any impact on the fiction: Once caught, the ship is a narrative goldmine. My favourite trick is to put a link to "Debauchery" on the ship. Even without that, there's the question of how the captured crew are treated, what the pirates do with the ship and what happens to the treasure. I find it useful to describe the treasure in specific terms ("There's ornate silk tapestries in the captain's cabin"), which means they can be stolen by specific crew members.

One very specific thing that can impact on the fiction is: who fights alongside the captain, in the company-to-company fight, and who refuses?

On some specific questions:

What sort of fictional interest should there be in the practice of pirating in this game?

Lots! I don't quite understand what you mean by this, but I think the question of how the enemy crew are treated is paramount.

Should the GM invent colorful and entertaining personages for the pirates to rob?

Yes! And interesting ships, too. I regularly have a ship called "The Golden Pig", captained by an aristocrat's son playing at being a merchant, which is worth robbing for its gold trimming alone. There's also "The Pink Flamingo", which is painted pink, with pink sails.

Should he push the moral consequences of piracy at the players, perhaps making it difficult to not sin?

On the contrary, I make it easy for the pirates to sin, to the extent of putting temptations in their way.

Should there be some sort of tactical maneuvering in how the ships hunt each other, how they position to fire and how they prepare for boardings?

Not really. There's some room, I think, for captains to say "I catch them as they come out of harbour" and the GM to say "OK, let's start at Broadside to Broadside". Beyond that, it's not tactical.

Is each individual ship capture a potential peril for their souls when the GM pushes for attrocities in the interaction of pirates and their victims? Should the NPCs they rob try to negotiate, threaten them, refer to backstory events or be otherwise interesting personalities?

Yes to both, I'd say.

On cruel fortunes: You needn't memorise them all. I don't. You could just memorise the three you start the game with (Wear and Breakage, Want and Urgency) and a couple of others (say, Debauchery) and go from there.

On the GM's role: Generally, I find that the PCs drive the game, trying to do nasty things to each other. All I need do is facilitate.

I rarely push back. That is, I rarely provide adversity unless the PCs go seeking it. So, obviously, if they rob a ship, it's guarded; and if they rob a house, that's guarded too. Beyond that, I'm pretty much facilitating, and inciting, player-vs-player conflicts. Specifically, NPC crew members generally follow orders without questioning.

There is, perhaps, a role for the GM in tempting the PCs into sin.

On "mature content": I often find that rape (male or female) happens in Poison'd. My theory is that the system encourages this by:

a. Letting you choose "To fuck..." as one of your ambitions.
b. Giving you a Brutality vs Ambition roll to do it with.

There are other ways you can fuck someone, but there's only one that requires a single roll.

On the point of the game: For me, Poison'd acts as a "sin spiral". You can do what you want, be as nasty as you want, with few consequences (think Kill Puppies For Satan rather than Dogs In The Vineyard). The horrifying thing, to me, is how easy it is to do very nasty things. Standardly, my group will be laughing uproariously while describing horrific acts. This makes Poison'd an absolutely horrifying game. I know nothing else like it.

I do agree that the text doesn't explain how to play the game, particularly how to GM it. I also agree that the rules aren't explained well. That said, I think the game itself is very simple.

I hope that's of some use.

Graham
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Eero Tuovinen
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« Reply #4 on: November 02, 2008, 02:16:33 PM »

Yes, Graham, that's very useful. Especially the examples of what to do with captured prizes. My problem with this part in actual play was primarily in that temptation (or pressure; really little difference there) to sin seemed so obvious and heavy-handed here. Pretty much the only reasonable courses of action I saw were to frankly let the players decide for themselves, or put pressure on them by having the NPC crew misconduct in treatment of prisoners or whatnot, or having the captured NPCs get cheeky at failed intimidation checks by the pirates. Perhaps only the first choice is valid, but that also seems to lead to a lot of very pat and easy answers - we take all their valuables, leave them just enough food to get them to harbor, don't mistreat the prisoners in any way, and let them continue on their way, poor but alive. Makes piracy pretty palatable and easily justifiable in context. But perhaps that is supposed to be the default answer? But if it is, then what point in going through the extensive framing and detailing of individual prizes?

Obviously some sort of happy medium can be struck in this with GM skill. More play will, no doubt, reveal a lot. There are interesting parallels here to how GMs choose to treat feeding in Vampire, I realize...

The point about players being the primary instigators of action seems important, too. I can get behind that, although I would expect the game to have some sort of in-built pressure for them to shit or get off the pot, so to speak. Should the GM use some heretofore unseen levers to get the players to start acting on their ambitions, or should there be overt group understanding on the point of play, such that the players take overt responsibility for driving play with their antics? I can certainly do the latter; Mountain Witch similarly requires overt, social-contract level commitment from the players to taking responsibility in pacing the dramatic arc.
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Graham W
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« Reply #5 on: November 05, 2008, 12:51:17 PM »

Quote
Pretty much the only reasonable courses of action I saw were to frankly let the players decide for themselves, or put pressure on them by having the NPC crew misconduct in treatment of prisoners or whatnot, or having the captured NPCs get cheeky at failed intimidation checks by the pirates.

I'd put pressure on them. Actually, I think what I do is alternate: the first NPC will be an uptight aristocrat, who spits on the pirates, who is almost certain to be killed; the second is a frightened boy, who cries.

Either way, make a scene of it.

Oh! I tend not to have the NPC crew misconduct. I like ship politics to be between the player characters (after all, they're the only ones who can become captain). So, pretty much, the NPC crew will be pliant and obedient. The exception is when a card like Debauchery comes into play, when the rules mandate that the crew are out of control.

Quote
Perhaps only the first choice is valid, but that also seems to lead to a lot of very pat and easy answers - we take all their valuables, leave them just enough food to get them to harbor, don't mistreat the prisoners in any way, and let them continue on their way, poor but alive.

Really? God, your players are different from mine. Mine all want to be monsters.

Seriously, I've never had that problem. If I did, I'd ensure the prisoners raised the alarm when they got into port.

Quote
Should the GM use some heretofore unseen levers to get the players to start acting on their ambitions, or should there be overt group understanding on the point of play, such that the players take overt responsibility for driving play with their antics?

Mostly the latter, I think. I often prompt the group to follow their ambitions ("Right, you're in port, and you can do anything you want to do."). In fact, I use the phrase "You can do anything you want, now" a lot, particularly at the end of the opening scene.

So, as a GM, I'm very facilitative: I make sure everyone gets a turn, I remind them to do stuff, but I don't throw much stuff at them except in response to things they do.

Graham
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