[Poison'd] best practices

Ok. So the gang has been watching Black Sails and is up for some SERIOUS piratey role-play. I pitched Poison'd to them and after the success of our AW campaign, folks are shiny on Vincent's stuff.

I've GMed a one shot back in 2007 with the Ashcan, and it was fine, but not in the way I know this game can play. So after trawling through many threads here and on the forge I've found some pearls of wisdom (mainly from Vincent and Graham), but I wanted to gather some more, especially current views, particularly on HOW best to GM this gem of a game.

Thanks in advance :)


  • It's a great game! I've run it a few times, and here are a handful of things I noticed.

    Those flashbacks? Think Reservoir Dogs. Those flashbacks are part of the narrative. The story in Poison'd takes place on several time levels.

    Revenge, remorse, and redemption are, or at least they can be, a big part of it. There's cruelty aplenty, but what will you do about it when you get the chance?

    The most important thing you need to ask is "Do you fight back or endure duress?"
  • Poison'd is my personal all-time favourite among Vincent's games. This is, however, something of a specialized taste (my reasons are very esoteric, having to do with game design philosophy - that game is like crack/poetry for designers). As a consideration for play Poison'd is somewhat challenging, largely because it's written in a somewhat obfuscated manner compared to more polished game texts.

    In my experience the biggest challenge in the game is getting the reward cycle to run through in a single session; the moment when a player buys their first scene with leisure is important, as the realization involved in what that means (specifically, that the only time the pirates actually are in control of their own fate is when at leisure, able to frame their own agenda) recasts the entire rest of the game in a new light. My experience is that players can have difficulty appreciating what the other parts of the rules are doing until they see this in practice. Needless to say that the GM shouldn't phone in those first leisure scenes - make sure that they're cool, rewarding, end in a dramatic cliffhanger, and leave the pirates yearning for more. None of that restrained existentialist art movie stuff here with implied depths and slow brewing towards payoff, the leisure needs to shake up the pirate's world.

    The second-biggest challenge for me has been the combat rules cycle in its entirety, that shit's just obscure until you play a bit and can see it from the inside. I wouldn't swear that I wouldn't flub it right now even if I refreshed myself with the text, due to not having played the game for a couple of years - it's just that convoluted. My advice is to start as simple as you can, and work up from short and simple mechanical interactions.
  • Great advice halski. Yup, I plan on encouraging flashbacks and enduring duress to best narrative effect.

    What about Graham's advice to get pirates ashore pursuing ambitions as soon as you can? Or even practical considerations like emphemera (maps, ship plans, campaign coins etc)...

    Oh Eero, that's exactly what I was after, thank you!

    One thing I'm less confident in is engaging with the cruel fortunes. At first blush they seem like 'hard moves' from AW, but they are far more transparent - being placed on cards for all to see and engage with as called for by the fiction.

  • Ok, I'm just using this thread as a suppository of sorts, but please chime In If you have thoughts on making the game awesome!
  • Vx: If the players want to choose which range to fight at, they need to do things to get into that range. Enduring duress and going into danger as in the example, or using stealth and treachery (disguising themselves as a wounded merchant ship, maybe) and then attacking someone unsuspecting, or making a bargain with the Resolute's captain (if they can figure out a way to do that).
  • Vx:
    When a player loses a success roll, that means that their pirate's action fails, or else succeeds to no advantage. Killing the captain, but to no advantage, is a perfectly legit outcome; so is backing down at the last second. Choose whichever you want, at whim, except that you should take care never to violate the internal logic of the characters or the circumstances. If you're like, "at the last minute, you back down" and the player's like "no FUCKING WAY I back down at the last minute," then go with the player's take on her character's internal logic. Since killing the guy to no advantage is a legit outcome, no harm in taking her word for it.

    Bring the fight whenever you can, on a failed success roll, but if there's not a fight at hand, there's not, that's fine.
  • edited December 2014
    Vx: If it's the disconnect I think you mean, it's on purpose - essential to the design, in fact. It's quite possible that committing more sins, suffering more violence, fulfilling or abandoning your ambitions, will have absolutely no effect on the game's fiction. It's also quite possible that those will be the only thing that really matters. The disconnect allows the rules to leave it up to the game in play, a product of both randomness and the group's human creativity, to determine which.

    Withholding Soul from a roll: I don't think there's any need to justify it in-character. It's just this moment of terrible bad luck, or maybe this moment of hesitation, that we all know you fully deserved.
  • edited December 2014
    Vx: Even sword and gun fights - standing over someone with your sword at their throat or your gun to their head STILL doesn't reliably mean you get what you want. Fighting for something is overall a bad way to get it. If you want something from someone, but you get into a fight with them, you'll usually find that at the end you've beaten them up instead of getting what you want.

    The solution is bargains. Use fighting as a threat and a punishment, and use bargains to get what you want.

    I don't care how casual it seems to them when they make it, if it's a bargain, it goes on someone's character sheet. As GM you need to oversee that.

    The sword-at-their-throat or gun-to-their-head is really just a strong bargaining position anyway.

    Oh and a little bit more I wanted to say, actually. When a player says "I trick him into telling me [whatever]," that's again a statement of goal, not of action. It's too soon to roll. Your answer isn't "cool, roll for it," it's "cool, what do you do? What do you say to him?" It's only when the character actually does act with cunning that you go to the dice.

    This means, coincidentally, that very rarely will a social conflict go to dice at all, or never. In Poison'd, bargaining, not rolling dice, is how you resolve social conflicts.
  • edited December 2014
    ML: I think you should generally have to work pretty hard for an ambition. Maybe not really hard, with all of them, but none in the book really strike me as easy to achieve, exactly.

    For instance, the most straight-forward ambitions, like you mention, are targeting other PCs ... they're right there, easy access. However, PCs are also the most dangerous animals in the game, and crossing them is altogether bad news. I think it's telling that you can't have an ambition like "Kill Tom Reed, the ship's cook". You can want to kill anyone, but it's only ambitious if he's a PC or 'beyond your station'.

    Vx: 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.
  • Vx: You should adjust Profile as actively and responsively as you adjust any other stats. So unless there's something else going on somehow, losing a fight company to company should absolutely mean losing 1 or 2 Profile from the ship's crew.
  • edited December 2014
    Graham W:
    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).

    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.
    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 their actions.
    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?
  • Great thread!

    One of the cool things about this game is that you can pretty much pick it up and play, with no explanation up-front. "This is a game about R-rated* pirates" covers most of it.

    *: Get it? Yeah. Sorry.

    Things that are important to let the players know:

    1. Sometimes you'll be working together, sometimes you'll be at each others' throats (or trying to kill each other). Don't shy away from either!

    2. If someone who is not you becomes captain, they can make your life a living hell. Keep that in mind before you step down or cast your votes in a certain direction...

    3. This game doesn't have "magic" or typical supernatural elements, but the pirates take religion and superstition seriously: the Devil is very real to them, as might be the curse of a dying witch. You'll find out in play.

    4. A pirate's word is important. Spit on your hand and shake on it; that's your honour on the line! Sure, you might break your word, maybe even left and right, but it's important, and don't expect to get off easy.
  • The thing I'm least clear on/most curious about is how to handle flashbacks. Any smart advice there from experience Poison'd people?
  • Another issue is distributing Leisure:

    There are suggestions made in the "Possibly True Things About Pirates" section which are good, but one thing is never spelled out in the book...

    "Distribute the Leisure among the pirates": does this mean the crew of the ship, or just the player character pirates (like voting)?

    I'm assuming the latter, but I'd like to hear how other people do it.
  • I love this game. But! Nearly every time it 'fell apart' before spending Leisure. So we hacked the game and started at Prize without the poisoning situation. It also fell apart :)
  • edited February 2016
    How did it fall apart? That could mean a lot of different things.

    How about this for a hack:

    When the game starts, the Captain's got a stash of gold in his cabin, maybe worth 2 dice of Leisure (or maybe 1d+2, so there's enough to split up but not too much).

    EDIT: 5 Leisure would probably be perfect, since it's not enough to eliminate two different Cruel Fortunes, and can't be split evenly. However, why is eliminating Cruel Fortunes so cheap, anyway? Fixing the ship costs the same amount of booty as a single pirate going ashore for a drink at the pub? Making it more expensive could be a better solution...

    Yet another thing to fight over, and makes the new captain/crew deal with distributing the Leisure right away.

    Interacts nicely with the "someone owes me 3 Leisure" bargain, as well.

    However, it also gives the crew the option to go ashore soon after the game starts, if they wish (for instance, in a case where many pirates have "shorebound" Ambitions).

    If the number is small enough, they may be forced to all go together (for savings, as described in the rules).

    Would that address the issues brought up by @hamnacb and @Eero_Tuovinen (namely, not being able to get to the shore-bound portion of play quickly enough)?

    There's a potential problem with being able to resolve one of the ship's Wants too easily, but I think that if we make it clear that you need to take action in the fiction to do so, it shouldn't hurt the game too much. They still have to get away from the Resolute and all that kind of thing in order to get some help.
  • edited February 2016
    On NPCs and Fights:

    It seems like an easier way to handle NPC dice would be to remove a step from the math operation. Instead of keeping track of dice and Profile for each NPC, ship, or company:

    Every NPC has a rating equal to 6+Profile. (So, ranging from 6-11, in exceptional cases, but usually 9 or 10.)

    In a fight, the NPC rolls their score, minus the pirate's Profile. For instance, if Tom Reed has a score of 10, he rolls 6 dice against a pirate with Profile 4. (As in the regular rules.)

    Any reasons this would cause problems? I don't see that NPC Profiles get used for anything other than fight rolls, so it should be fine, but maybe I'm missing something.

    So, the proposed change would be (watch out, I'm renaming stuff too, as well as using Graham Walmsley's technique from an old Poison'd Forge thread):

    Each NPC gets a Brinksmanship score, equal to 6+their (old) Profile calculation.

    An NPC no longer has a Profile - just Brinksmanship.

    Just like a PC, the NPC rolls Brinksmanship in any fight. However, discard dice equal to the opposing PC's Profile before rolling.

    Here's a way to write it:

    Start with 6 dice for an unarmed civilian.
    Start with 7 dice for a pirate, soldier, or sailor.
    +1 if they are armed
    +1 per item from the NPC creation list (e.g. "The NPC's a merciless killer")
    (from 0-3, usually 1 or 2, but 3 for truly exceptional NPCs)
    -1 for a disability, old age, or infirmity

    Each NPC also gets a Devil score. Roll 2 dice when you create the NPC, and choose the higher one (or the most appropriate one, if the NPC is a private person).

    In Fights, when it's the NPC's choice whether to escalate, roll one die. If it rolls the NPC's Devil score or lower, they escalate.

    An NPC with a score of 6 could still step down:

    If they roll a 6, reroll the die. On a failure (1-3), they give.
    It's almost exactly equivalent to Poison'd rules as written (except for a +/-5% difference in odds for NPCs' odds of escalating, depending on the level). Seems a hell of a lot easier and faster, though.

    If "Devil" isn't quite the right word (because it implies other things, after all), you could call it Balls. (or Morale, if you're old school.)
  • Here's an idea I might try:

    When a player calls for a flashback, the group asks him a question. "How did you suffer mutilation under Brimstone Jack?", perhaps, or "When did first set your eye on the commander's daughter?"

    This frames the flashback.
  • edited February 2016
    Played some Poison'd last night. One issue came up: almost all of the Ambitions chosen were long-term things. (You can't meaningfully act on "I want to be respected by higher society" in the first hour or two of play.) This seems like a good thing to keep an eye on in the future. That can really stall your game, leaving nothing to play but the Cruel Fortunes.

    Recommended Best Practice:

    Tell each player to choose at least one immediate, short-term ambition, whatever the others may be.

    Tell each player it should be something they can imagine how they could pursue almost immediately, just by being on the ship.

    It's good for any game, but for a one-shot or convention play it's probably a MUST.
  • Why does the game stall? If everybody has ambitions off the ship, doesn't that just mean that they really want to a) get pirating to get some loot, and b) get as much of that loot themselves as they can, so as to have the Leisure to work on their actual project on the shore. Not that ambitions directly related to the ship are a problem, either, but to me it seems ideal if all the pirates really want to be somewhere else, but they're forced to piracy by the necessity of funding - Leisure, that is. Leisure is what connects an outside ambition to the life at the ship: without Leisure you'll never have the chance, and you can't have Leisure if there's none to be had on the ship, and the way for the ship to get some is by piracy. And that's why you're actually pirates and not just a yacht club.

    The game does admittedly make a big deal of PvP action (like fighting about who gets to be the captain or whatever), but my impression's always been that if the players don't bite on that, there's other things to do in the game.
  • edited February 2016

    I don't disagree with that at all; and yet, vague ambitions like "to spit in the eye of God" give the players very little concrete to act on when the game starts.

    If the players are not willing to be movers-and-shakers aboard the Dagger from the get-go (and especially if no one wishes to be captain!), it makes the beginning of the game much more challenging.

    It seems to me that the game works best with motivated and driven characters. Sure, it can work the other way, but you're going to have a more challenging time of it! Hence, "best practices".

    How do you generally handle the start of the session if none of the pirates are chomping at the bit, as it were? For instance, handling a fight with the Resolute is potentially very awkward (or requires other tools/procedures) if one of the PCs is not captain.

    (Perhaps insisting that a PC *must* be chosen as captain, or at least that each PC should have a reason why they *could* be chosen as captain, would be a good rule or best practice? I'm not entirely sure.)

    In our game, one player did end up being captain, and yet it still felt like the game would have been better if there was something similarly immediate for the other pirates (who did not wish to be captain) to do. They had no stake in the player's machinations and ended up sitting awkwardly on the sidelines.
  • (Hmmmm. Although, now that I look at the list, almost all are long-term, except for "being captain", "being revenged", and fucking another PC. That's unfortunate.)
  • I haven't really played the game enough to talk about "usually", but I've seen the thing where none of the PCs are envisioned as leader types, the players content to shirk. I agree with you that there is room for improvement in what to do in these cases; some sort of procedure where a NPC steps up, and this is a problem for all PCs as play progresses, so that the second time around they will want to be the captain, except now there's a pretender on the throne already and everything is thus even harder for them.

    Or alternatively, just add a step in chargen where every player tells the group why their pirate would like to be captain. Doesn't need mechanics, doesn't need to be a big commitment; it probably already helps a lot if the players have internalized the idea that their character could be the captain, so that when the question becomes immediate, they're more likely to step up. The rules already reach this way, I think, as they encourage you to decide why your character hated that last captain or something like that.

    As for PCs being sidelined at the ship at the start, I think that's just the nature of the game; a ship is an organization and some of you losers are there just to fill in the ranks, unless you man up and decide to be more than just a tool for somebody else. I don't think that the characters necessarily have any big drama going at the ship, particularly if the player is something of a shrinking violet anyway. I know that the big famous APs of this game are all about shipboard drama, but that's more to do with who's been playing than about the game itself. System-wise, Poison'd clearly supports the idea that it might take a few sessions of general pirate life for the crew to gel, for some NPC personalities to emerge, and for the knives to come out as the players realize how very, very dead end of a life their characters are leading.

    And yes, as I think I've said before: Poison'd is not at all good for oneshots, I don't think. Or rather, it's about as mediocre for oneshots as its direct progeny, Apocalypse World, except in practice you won't figure out the rules for Poison'd with just one session of play, so eh :D
  • You need Leisure on shore to pursue most "long term" ambitions, and lots of it.
    To get Leisure you need to go prize-hunting, which requires having a captain in the first place.
    You also need to sail the Dagger to shore, which also requires a captain to give the order.
    And both are pretty much impossible if the Resolute gets in the way. As you noted, fighting the Resolute also requires the Dagger to have a captain.

    Therefore, soon enough an election is going to take place on board. If, for some reason or some other, no PC proposes as captain, no big deal: have some NPCs suggest two PCs as prospective captain (just make up a reason: a honor debt, possibly misplaced trust, genuine friendship, whatever).
    Since it's less interesting (though not unfeasible) to have an NPC captain, as you mention, don't propose one. If your players propose and vote for an NPC, though, no biggie.
    Make it clear that the Dagger's literally going nowhere without a captain.
    Even if being captain is nobody's ambition, it's still a very advantageous position for manipulating in-game resources, which helps toward most other possible goals: tell your players outright if they don't already know and haven't figured it out yet.

    If truly nobody cares who's captain, great: you'll be hunting a prize in no time. If they do care too much, though, that's great as well: they'll keep themselves busy in-fighting while the Resolute closes up with them.
  • Eero,

    Agreed in full! The "problem" I'm referring to is not a large-scale design issue, but more a question of "how to run the first session as smoothly as possible".

    I think that (as you suggest), having an NPC step up at the smallest sign of hesitation and then make the PCs' lives a living hell is a pretty solid guideline (and I can see few alternatives). I wrote about that earlier, above, as it happens.


    That's basically correct... although it would rather clunky mechanically (since it's basically the GM rolling dice against himself), it would be pretty interesting to see a ship fight sequence with an NPC captain. I went into this thinking it was basically impossible, but I suppose that it *could* be diced out.

    Perhaps watching the GM roll dice against himself would be enough incentive for the PCs to take over the seat of command? :P

    In any case, the rules text doesn't make any provisions for an NPC captain, which seems like a bit of an oversight without another procedure, rule, or piece of advice which puts a PC in that position in the first place.

    Did you two have any thoughts on my other modifications, above? Putting gold in the captain's cabin *seemed* to help in my game, although I now wish I had delivered it as public information instead of just telling the Quartermaster.

  • That's basically correct... although it would rather clunky mechanically (since it's basically the GM rolling dice against himself), it would be pretty interesting to see a ship fight sequence with an NPC captain. I went into this thinking it was basically impossible, but I suppose that it *could* be diced out.

    Perhaps watching the GM roll dice against himself would be enough incentive for the PCs to take over the seat of command? :P
    I'm not sure I'd actually dice it out, as opposed to just framing it as, you know, a situation, and then see what the PCs do about it. They probably care about not being killed or taken as prisoners by the navy, do they?
    Did you two have any thoughts on my other modifications, above? Putting gold in the captain's cabin *seemed* to help in my game, although I now wish I had delivered it as public information instead of just telling the Quartermaster.
    Looks fine to me: good for kickstarting the game even faster. I'd probably tell the Quartermaster (or the young Boatswain's Mate who once was Captain Brimstone Jack's one-night-stand) out loud, in front of every other player: You believe you're the only one to know Brimstone Jack kept a hidden stash of gold in his quarters. Or possibly tell both the Quartermaster and the Boatswain's Mate.

    I also generally make a point of telling one PC, out loud and in front of everybody, they've promised Brimstone Jack to sink the Dagger rather than have it captured, and another PC they sold the crew out to the Resolute's commander. By the rules, they don't have to keep their word at all, but what will other players trust them to do?
    Of course, if nobody has an ambition to become captain, but one of them promised to sink 'em and another one sold 'em all out, I'll make sure these two PCs are exactly the ones the old, wise-ish NPC boatswain and the widely liked NPC quartermaster trust better than themselves as ideal replacements for Brimstone Jack, triggering an immediate vote. Any other PCs may well suggest themselves as captain just to mitigate damage, don't you think?
    I mean, by the rules it's the players who actually vote, which is awesome, but that doesn't mean you can't use your NPCs to push for an election or otherwise put them in a spot.
  • Agreed, Rafu! Good points.
  • Another best practice:

    I liked Ralph Mazza's suggestion that having a Want trigger at the end of a session doesn't always serve the group's needs (for instance, if the Want is outstanding and seems like it should be happening pretty soon, or if it was just introduced and you happened to stop playing). Therefore, the suggestion is to treat it like an Urgency: roll a d6 at appropriate points during the session until you get a repeated number; that's when the Want resolves into another Cruel Fortune.
  • What about making a bargain with the Devil or with God? Any good advice on the best ways to handle that? It's left wide open to the GM's interpretation at the moment, but I'd imagine there are some *great* ways to handle it as well as some terrible ways...
  • *bump* Any advice on infernal (or divine) bargains?
  • I never got to make infernal/divine bargains as cool as I hoped… But whenever I happen to play Poison'd again, I'm set on playing God & the Devil exactly as I play the World's Psychic Maelstrom. Dunno if that helps.
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