I playtested a comedy pirate game

So, a few weeks ago I was playing Cairn as a player character, and we were exploring the house of a witch that had misteriously disappeared. We would poke around and interact with the empty house, and this reminded me very much of playing old LucasArts point-and-click adventure videogames.

After a conversation with a friend, I was inspired to write down this extremely unusual roleplaying game to try to replicate that feeling more reliably, which I temporarily nicknamed “Pirates & Primates”. I drew from the cartoony-pirate feel of the Monkey Island games. You can find the current version attached as a PDF.

The game’s features, or rather the things you may find unusual, in brief:

  1. Failing at something has no permanent, but only temporary, consequences. These are meant to be potentially used as part of the solution to another problem, or to provide information on how the action may be performed. Until the objective is advanced in some way, the status quo will not significantly change. This also means characters cannot die as result of a failed check.
  2. When a check for an action is called upon, it permanently embeds the result of that action into the fabric of the game. The action will from then on either automatically suceed or fail every time it’s performed the same way in the same context.
  3. There is no violence or combat as such; pirates fight by insulting each other, and the best insults win the fight.

The point of the game would be to perform creative problem solving (with no predetermined solutions) colored by slapstick and self-deprecating humour. The reason for not having permanent consequences for failure would be to let players loose interacting with the scenario, gaining knowledge and potential consequences along the way. Each failure gives the opportunity for comedy at the expense of the player characters.

When I wrote the game, I had no idea if it might actually work or not, so I organized a playtest with some friendly people that were as excited as me about the idea. For this playtest, I decided not to provide rules for character or scenario creation, to focus on the core resolution system. I prepared four pregenerated player characters and a quite detailed scenario involving escaping from the isle of Scabb (only vaguely inspired by the Monkey Island 2 plot). The island was designed with tons of locations (some of them initially hidden or inaccessible), characters with relationships to each other, a set of island-wide rumours, an objective, and obstacles to prevent that objective from being reached.

The objective was: “escape the island”. The obstacles were: “the ships are in disrepair and there is no carpenter”, “the local pirate bully Largo has an embargo around the island”, “the powerful storms surrounding the island require an expert navigator to sail through safely”. The player characters began by exploring the city of Woodtick, built from the wrecks of ships that often crash on the rocky cliffs. Here they could find (a) a pirate barber and massage parlor, (b) a pirate bar and disco, acting as well as the local town hall, (c) a pirate blacksmith whose last name was Carpenter but who wasn’t a carpenter, and (d) whatever made sense to find in a cartoony pirate town.  

The session was quite fast-paced and immediately, to my immense satisfaction, the players got the hang of poking around in interesting places and seeing what happens. The players were investigating for a way to reach Largo’s hideout, and the investigation led them to the Eternal Keelhaul, the local pirate tavern/bar/disco, where a local pirate leader was hanging out in the VIP area. A lot of laughs were had when a player attempted to drop a breath mint into a pint of foul-smelling grog, which I ruled to cause an explosive reaction which got him kicked out of the bar. It’s not just for laughs, though, since now this breath mint + grog combination can be used for future mischief, although it unfortunately didn’t come up this session.

We also had a chance to playtest the insult swordfighting rules in an “insult darts contest”, which were not as clean as the core resolution rules, but worked well enough. The thing that immediately happened is that every player started suggesting insults to the dueling player, and I decided to allow it as it felt that encouraged insult creativity, which is the goal in the end. We generated some extremely funny insults and comebacks, some of which are maybe too vulgar to include here. I think I will restructure these rules so it’s more clear how players can participate in the insult contest together.

My biggest surprise, really, was that the players tended to play the game chorally instead of as independent characters. While they would use and play out their character traits, it was always together with other players as a way to solve the problems they were facing, and they would interject in conversations and follow up on each other’s actions. Which makes a lot of sense, being that the objective is shared and there is no individual permanent consequences for failing at things. I think the resolution system worked rather well here.

When I separated a player character due to the aforementioned breath mint experiment, the game felt really weird until he rejoined the group, as the drive to interact and suggest things was still there. I think I will write down that the gamemaster is not supposed to separate the group unless they themselves decide to do it.

The other rather satisfying occurrence was the players infiltrating the massage parlor essentially out of curiosity (this is good). Two players distracted the receptionist / masseur (which was an undead skeleton) while another entered the massage room. This promped some Insult and Thievery checks which resulted in successes. I had the chance to describe all sorts of exaggerated hydraulic massage equipment — inspired by some of those ludicrous chiropractor videos on youtube — which were too hard to move without making noise, at which point the player decided to steal one of those “brain scratcher” handheld devices from a corner. 

The thing to note here is that now the players established a way to enter the massage room and they could perform this trick as many times as they want to get into the massage room (unless I changed the status quo due to one of their successes).

The third scene that pops to mind was the players attempting to enter the pirate disco. A double-eypatched bouncer gave them a quick “look” — they got touched on their clothes by the blind pirate who deemed them to not be pirately enough. Otis showing his wanted poster (for jaywalking!) and that did the trick, since in response to a successful Insult check I deemed that the bouncer had no idea what ‘jaywalking’ meant, but assumed it was something dangerous. We had a lot of fun with the idea that despite the bouncer being unable to see, he was very much able to determine they were massive dorks from sound and touch alone, however being a pirate he was also rather illiterate and easy to deceive.

In short, I had an incredible amount of fun with this playtest session, and received incredibly positive feedback from the players. I definitely think I’m going to do more — and at some point, with other people as GM as well. Drop me a line if you’re interested.

3 responses to “I playtested a comedy pirate game”

  1. When to make a Check

    I think in the original rules I was not very clear on when a Check should be called, since they were meant mostly for my use and I think I have a good feel for the game. The wording I'm using refers somewhat to how verisimile the gamemaster finds the action to be, but that's obviously not the case, as there is really not meant to be verisimilitude to the game world whatsoever, but just internal consistency — and even that's malleable.

    In short, my current feeling on when asking for a Check is appropriate is when a player asks for an action which you haven't thought of before, and can't link back anything established in the scenario. Actions and combinations that have been already prepared as part of the scenario should generally have their results already be "cosmically" decided. The gamemaster should also use this when they dont want to outright say "no" (still, with consequence and hint, as the rules require) as it would be nice for players that use their high scores to just catch a break sometimes.

    I will need to figure out exactly how to describe this to other potential gamemasters in future versions of the rules. I also think actions that everyone finds rather funny should just succeed automatically; I would like there to be some sort of group mechanism to acknowledge this beyond gamemaster fiat.

    We didn't get to experience the case where a player succeeded at a roll while another failed (see the rules for how this works), but I think it would be interesting to see how players handle this and if it can give any insight as to the above issue.

  2. Talky play

    I was thinking about your first point about the high "chatter" in and around a given player-character's actions, in that everyone felt free to suggest or interject as one person was nominally playing their character. I have been paying attention to dynamics of this sort for a long time – e.g., who actually describes what happens or how it happened can jump all around a table even though everyone would swear that the GM always said it all.

    When it comes to player-characters, I started really considering the "chatter" as a meaningful part of play for the many superhero games we played starting in the mid-80s. In a lot of cases, such talk was unhelpful and, at many tables, discouraged – basically, "don't tell me how to play my guy." In retrospect, the less or non-functional versions may be correlated with character actions which themselves occur in isolation while everyone else was "frozen." But if play treated everyone as if they were in motion, and effects of a given action changed-up the circumstances of other player-characters, then a more multi-mind multi-voice process seemed more likely to work.

    I have also noticed that this kind of talk works best when the acting player does retain a gavel, and can ask for more or less (or to stop) chatter as needed. The alternative, which is to get more and more shut down as others talk more and more, and to expect the GM to manage all the talking, is very grim and often completely non-fun. So this has a lot to do with the acting player's authority, so they are managing the chatter insofar as their own actions are concerrned, and so everyone else also knows their talk is only talk.

    • In our case, what happened is

      In our case, what happened is that the player characters were acting collectively as a group, almost as if each character was a different limb and they were all acting essentially together. The multi-mind multi-voice process that you describe seems similar to what we experienced.

      I also am kind of aware that I'm giving way too many tasks to the GM in the current version of the text, including 'restraining overzealous players'. I'm looking to question if this is a good idea, if it's even a system-level problem and not just a social problem, and try out different solutions.

      I really want to observe this behaviour better next time I playtest this.

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