So I played Poison'd...

edited September 2009 in Actual Play
I did get to play Poison'd tonight. I'd feared we wouldn't have enough people, but everyone did show up. I made it the centerpiece of my Talk Like a Pirate Day festivities. We had three players: a really brutal guy, a really ambitious guy, and basically a voodoo witch cum surgeon. I had them make characters before I mentioned the setup scenario (except that they sailed under Capt. Brimstone Jack). The brutal guy killed Tom Reed straightaway; he already had two X's from things Brimstone Jack had done to him, and he got a third one easily for his Brutality vs. Soul, so he killed Reed outright. Ambitious guy ascended to the captaincy unanimously, and they set about looking for a prize so they could take care of their Wear & Breakage and Want. I put the Mariette Grace in their way. They took her with relative ease, and then brutal guy killed the captain. I introduced the curse his grandmother had placed on the ship. The storm tore them up pretty awful, leaving them stranded with almost no crew. They'd just repaired the damage by giving up most of the plunder they'd gotten when the Resolute showed up. The Resolute pounded them, and would soon close in to finish them off. So, the captain headed down to blow up the ship; he'd sworn to Brimstone Jack that he'd sink the Dagger before he'd allow someone to capture her; brutal guy had sworn to deliver the Dagger to Capt. Rutherford. Both players used flashbacks, the captain endured duress, and in the ensuing fight, the captain managed to beat brutal guy and kill him outright. He lit a fuse, and succeeded at slipping away with what remained of the crew undetected. The Dagger blew up as the Resolute's crew began to board, sinking her and doing a good bit of damage to His Majesty's warship along the way, as the captain slipped off to find himself a new crew and a new ship.

All in all, a pretty nice story. But not very satisfying in play. I felt the same kind of awkwardness as we did playing Bliss Stage, which my group will refer to as a joke unto itself. I know none of us had a very comfortable grasp of the rules, myself included, and a few times I forgot key things (like, I escalated NPC's, completely forgetting I had to roll to see if I could do that). But it seemed like we had a bigger problem in that no one really wanted to describe things. I asked for descriptions, and I got things like, "Uhh, I stab him. What do I roll?" Always, we go straight to the rolling. In Bliss Stage, I had players asking why they would want to take over narrative in the dream, what benefit does it give you? Why not just always cut straight to the fight? It felt very similar, and it made me wonder about the "IIEE with teeth" discussion lately, and how different groups might relate to that. You can apparently play Poison'd with only some very bare bones descriptions; we did tonight, and nobody seemed to walk away feeling particularly good about the game. Nobody liked our Bliss Stage game, and much the same thing seemed to happen there.

Do you think mechanics can really prompt you to fill in description, if you have a group disinclined to do so, who don't see the point and just want to get to "the real game," where they roll dice? And how do I get my group to try playing differently? I don't think you can even call it a preference in play style, since I don't know if they've ever played any other way.


  • This was my biggest problem too, for a while. Dogs in the Vineyard was the game that cracked it for me, but I've had other folk run that game and still have the same problem, so... Yeah.

    Mechanics alone can't make folks engage with the fiction. Even if the mechanics try to do this (by allocating descriptions to certain players or whatever) it just becomes another procedure that the players must hurdle to get to what they think they want. Dice rolls, conflict outcomes, plot progress, XP, whatever.

    So, get people to engage with the here-and-now fiction first through mechanic-free RP for a bit. Maybe use an DitV-style intitiation scene, ya know, a scene that focuses entirely on a player actually saying something about their character through live RP, not some dusty retrospective description. Or, ya know, just take the time to RP as your characters before you touch dice. In my last game of Lady Blackbird, it was half an hour before the PCs even started to attempt to get out of the brig; they were enjoying the in-character banter, power plays and scheming. In Poison'd, killing of Tom straight away is cool and then quickly deciding a new captain is okey... But, RP-wise, a bit too quick and flat.

    Ask lots of questions, not in like "I'm the GM, and I test your worthiness" kinda way, but in a supportive "Yeah, that's awesome, but tell me about this" kinda way. I like deliberately and obviously leading questions too, devil's advocate style. Like, "Hey, this guy just totally did this lame thing, do you really want him to be your captain?". Most of the time, the players don't take the obvious bait, but it adds some tension there because that other guy might not know that.

    Talk in first person. Act. My Life with Master was cracked for me when we made it mandatory for PCs to have a distinct (and usually stupid) voice, because then we wanted to use it. I'm sure most folks can engage with fiction in other stances, but, for us in that game it only really worked as an improv play, where the GM/Master physically stood up and actually touched the other players and got close and loomed over intimidating, etc. Some scenes were still "I go here and do this", but the all the important ones weren't.
  • edited September 2009
    Poison'd is one of my favourite games, but it's difficult, and the rules don't really tell you how to play. Especially not how to GM. It took me many sessions before I was solid on the rules.

    It's a character-based game. Here's how it should work (in my opinion): each player plays their character, fighting for their interests. So it's actor stance, not director stance. None of this indie-game "Describe that for me" bollocks. It's fairly traditional: GM describes the world, player describes their character.

    (OK, maybe there's a bit of "So I throw Tom into the sea and he struggles against his bonds as he drowns". Very, very slight director stance, but mostly, you play your character).

    Then the characters conflict with each other and with NPCs. The GM encourages this.

    The mechanics are subservient to that fiction. They work like this:

    If you describe fighting, then you roll the dice.
    If you describe being brutal, then you roll the dice.

    So it's that way round. You can't say "I'm rolling dice to be brutal". You say "I'm throwing his body into the sea and letting him drown". Then you roll the dice to find whether that actually happens.

    From the rules, Poison'd looks like an automated game, almost like a board game, totally mechanics-driven. It's really not. It's completely fiction-driven, with the rules watching over your shoulder and kicking in at certain points.

    Richard's advice is good, too.

  • I did try that—recreating the discussion as best I can here:

    Me: "What do you do?"
    Player: "Well, something brutal; that's what I'm best at."
    Me: "But what do you do?"
    Player: "Umm, I stab him."
    Me: "OK, describe that."
    Player: "I go up to him with a knife, and start stabbing him. Stab, stab."

    I didn't think continuing to press him would get me any further, so at that point, I just let him roll Brutality vs. Soul.
  • edited September 2009
    Fair enough. It's perfectly reasonable to just say "I stab him" when you're stabbing someone. I'm explaining this badly.

    What I'm saying isn't "You need to narrate more when you use a mechanic". It's that the focus needs to be on the narration, not the mechanics. Act out your character, say what he says. Pursue your ambitions. Ambitions drive the game.

    When particular things happen in the fiction, the mechanics kick in. They kick in very quickly, too: you don't need to narrate each stage of a fight. When something is narrated, the mechanics kick in and tell you the result, spitting you straight back out into the fiction. This isn't like Dogs or In A Wicked Age, where you narrate as you're rolling dice, adding to the fiction bit by bit. In Poison'd, you're playing your character, you narrate something covered by the mechanics, you roll dice, they tell you what happens, you carry on. Get past the mechanics, as quickly as you can, without narrating anything, and get straight back into the fiction.

    As for how you get your players to do that, I don't really know, but it helps if they know that's what the game's about. It's about character play, not about the mechanics.

    Does this make sense? I love Poison'd, so I really want people to have a good time playing it.

  • Sure, though practically, I still don't know how I might have gone about it differently. I get that, at least in theory, but when you've got Tom Reed on deck and the whole crew gathered about, and your characters stare back at you and ask what they need to roll ...? I tell them to narrate, they're not sure what to narrate; eventually they come up with something quick, like, "I stab him," and you get the exchange above. We moved through most of the game kind of like that, and in the end, I don't think anybody walked away from the table having had a really good time with it.
  • Perhaps it's as simple as you need very proactive players to get a gripping game of Poison'd. My group took to it very proactively and we had a great time. It's certainly not a game where the players can sit back and let the GM have things prod them into action. Perhaps the issue isn't about what you should be doing differently Jason, but rather that Poison'd simply won't work with these players.
  • edited September 2009
    I tend to throw things back at the players a lot. Specifically, I summarise what's happening and ask them what they do. With quick things like "I stab him", I tend to just instantly agree, and ask them what they do next. It's obvious but dull, so speed through it and get to the next thing.

    GM: So he's there on the deck in front of you. What do you do?
    Player: I stab him. [Rolls dice]
    GM: OK, you stab him. Do you kill him?
    Player: Yeah.
    GM: He's dead. So you've got Tom Reed's dead body and no captain. What do you do?
    Player 2: I want to be captain.
    Player 3: Fine with me.
    GM: Great. Vote on it.

    And so on. It's no crime to speed quickly through that first scene.

    Now, having said that, you do want some inter-party conflict, and your characters don't look very conflicty. Actually, they look like a party, all with different skills. That's not what you want. You want them at each other's throats.

    The Ambitions should do this for you. Ideally, one will want to fuck another; two will want to be Captain; two of them will want the same girl. With three players, it's harder, so perhaps you should engineer the Ambitions to send them into conflict.

    Most importantly, though, make them pursue their ambitions and get them off the boat. Ship combats can get dull: it sounds as though you had three, right? The Mariette Grace, the storm, the Resolute? And then a fight? That does sound dull.

    Do one ship combat, get them some treasure, tell them to pursue their ambitions, get them ashore. The two are connected: ambitions usually involve going ashore. Don't take no for an answer. Pursue their ambitions, go ashore. All the best bits happen on land.

  • I haven't played this game, but this:
    Posted By: jasonDo you think mechanics can really prompt you to fill in description, if you have a group disinclined to do so, who don't see the point and just want to get to "the real game," where they roll dice?
    plus this:
    Posted By: GrahamWhen something is narrated, the mechanics kick in and tell you the result, spitting you straight back out into the fiction.
    can't be good.
  • Charles: I fear that, but I still hold out some hope that the right combination of techniques might "trick' them into trying something else. I usually GM for this group, and it's often fallen flat, I felt, because I had a hard time getting the rest to buy in to the idea of them having some control over the story. And when someone else has GM'ed, I've usually felt like every time I tried to do that, I got shot down. So I have no doubt that most of them expect the GM to pull up with the fun truck and start shoveling out some fun for them. Some of them have basically told me they expect that. I'd once hoped that some of the more indie games might lure them into trying a different style of play, and that might have had some success, but more often, they don't really dive into it, so the game falls flat, so they walk away with their initial prejudices about indie games confirmed.

    Graham: Good point. They did definitely fall into that "party" motif. Ambitious character had an ambition of, "I want to be captain," and gave brutal guy a bargain, "He swore he'd back me for captain." Which helped with his unanimous rise to power. The very last conflict, where the bargains I'd assigned to those two players came into conflict, did definitely shine as the highlight of the game. I think you're right, with more mutually exclusive ambitions and more PvP, essentially, we'd probably have had a more interesting game.
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