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Breakthroughs in The Pool--Brooklyn + Mumblegore

I am playing one of the best games in my life right now. It is a game of the Pool, with influences from the mumblegore genre (Pop Skull, Creep, Baghead, House of the Devil). The characters are communists and drug addicts who are all vaguely connected through friends and a local epidemic of demonically multiplied Xanax, with some frightening new properties and a low pricepoint. Here, I'm going to focus on a character made by my beloved friend Adam--Plemstoy, a construction worker who has had a tough life. This is his 3rd time playing a role playing game, all of which were run by me, but this is the only game that has really clicked. 

So, some demonic shit happened--Plemstoy's partner took some demon pills and some of Plemstoy's coworkers took some and there was a fight when Plemstoy tried to flush them...needless to say, Adam, if not Plemstoy, was wondering "what the fuck is in these pills?". He said to me "Plemstoy is looking up the serial number on the pill online, what do they find?". I said, you find a description of the normal effects of Xanax. I started listing some of the effects of Xanax. And he said "Sam, you are really leading me into some dead ends here." And I just smiled at him and asked him what Plemstoy does next. And he told me Plemstoy is going to get some answers from this dealer tomorrow, and they're bringing their gun. And I think that moment was one of the best moments for me in recent play history. Because play kept going fine, and even though he got his little sarcastic comment in, I think he realized in that moment that I really wasn't going to just feed him plot and keep him safe...and suddenly his character is grabbing a pistol and going out to use it on someone (maybe). 

I would also really like to have a discussion about GMing the Pool, so if someone wants to talk about that I would appreciate it. I know there might be advice online but I am having fun trying to come up with a strategy on my own and not worrying about making some mistakes. Anyways, I would also love to hear about people's own breakthroughs or breakthroughs they have experienced.

Department: 
Actual Play

Comments

Ron Edwards's picture

I have to restrain myself!

Just before starting Adept Play, I attended a conference in Italy about making or experiencing fiction via gaming (in the broad sense; my RPG corner was quite small). I used The Pool as my case study, and one of the early posts in Seminar is about that talk.

What's not captured is a conversation over the next couple of days with some of the students concerning derivations, influences, or less directly, "lessons" from The Pool. From there, I wrote my initial plan for a course centered on the game. Recently, when I agreed to teach via the Giano Academy, this was one of the five courses I designed. It is very intensive and practice/lab based, and as you might expect, one of the topics concerns the wild range of "what is the GM" for both the core game and the dozens if not hundreds of derivations and influenced games.

So, with with my head full of ten hours of contact teaching + materials + readings + homework + in-class exercises + everything else in a decent class experience ... it's hard for me to focus on the direct question of "me and GMing this game" because now, to me, it's all contextual within my thoughts and hopes for this course.

Looking across other Pool posts here, I think my biggest problem with talking about it is that people expect The Pool to be some crazy-new improv chit-chat consensus thing, whereas I think it's about the bare bones of absolutely well-known long-established methods of play instead.

In other words, yes, GMing and indeed anything about play is tough to grapple with in The Pool, not because it's new or different, but because it exposes the prior, already-existing toughness or confusions in these things. Basically, there's no excuse not to do it functionally, and people fall on their faces because they have no idea what any sort of real function even is. Hiding the methods of control behind all the crust and bullshit had become its own skill, and The Pool says, "no hiding."

I think my best bet is to stick to the points from Self-help hell at the eldritch well, especially in the comments. Let me know if you'd like to follow up here on anything in there.

Oh! There is one thing. I see the story, meaning the opening paragraph written by the player, in The Pool to be a lot like the similar option in Hero Wars (which may have been the direct inspiration). In these games, it is perfectly OK for the stories to show the full range, or any subset, from "full of Kicker" to "OK, I'm ready, what do we do." You could conceivably be inundated with tons of backstory, cast of active NPCs, motives, crisis situations, and characterizations; or you could conversely be handed a bunch of static portraits of "my guys" with very little shape as puzzle pieces, willing to be given those shapes by the puzzle-maker, waiting for their hooks.

You can probably see that I think the necessary GM role before play is similar to those I developed long ago for Champions, and formalized throughout the history of Sorcerer and Champions Now (but not Trollbabe or Circle of Hands).

  1. The organizing person, let's say the GM for simplicity, provides a brief context for inspiration, with whatever hard constraints they really feel they want. For The Pool, I often merely provide a single image and a single sentence.
  2. The players provide their paragraphs and the associated minor numerical mechanics. These typically show a wide range as I described above - some are full of what we might call "GM materials" including what the characters might be doing or driving at, and some are almost empty of them.
  3. The GM composes a backstory and opening situation(s) which use whichever pieces in those stories are unmistakably urgent, whichever pieces in those stories strike the GM as what they want to beef up and use too, and whichever pieces the GM has themself decided are called for from the initial inspiration (as if the GM were a player too, with their own paragraph).

The critical point is that the opening situational Authority is the GM's - therefore it doesn't matter, procedurally, whether this or that component of the situation was introduced by the player or by the GM.

Does that help or make sense?

robowist's picture

As a GM, I keep looking at the Traits and Bonuses for the characters. Since these are created by the players, I see them as signals: The players are telling me what they want to have in play, and so I try to come up with situations where they will have opportunities to draw on them. This is basically the same advice that Ron is giving since the Traits and Bonuses come from the story that the player comes up with in character creation. They are like a shorthand version of that story, with the added kick that the player has specifically identified those elements of their story as having a mechanical advantage.

I find the Monologue of Victory (MOV) option to be a compelling aspect of the game. Many players are tempted to take add a new die to their pool in the case of a victory, but if players are doing that in a knee-jerk way, you might revisit the MOV option. The example James V. West provides in the original rules should give players an idea of just how interesting the MOV option can be.

I love playing The Pool out across multiple sessions. "The Continuing Story" rules ensure that the characters evolving and developing new abilities that you can then bring into the game. And I've had series where I will try out different variations during some sessions to see what happens. For example, you can try one of the "Reverse Pool" options: If a player succeeds in a roll, the GM narrates and the player loses gambled dice, but if they fail they get the gabled dice back and they also get the option of either adding a die to the pool or taking a Monolgue of Defeat. Or you can try out some version of The Snowball. A couple years ago, I wrote about one game where I explored that variant which has you playing in a reversed chronology.

Sam's picture

In reply to Ron's comment, and clarifying my original post a bit:

First I'll talk about how I am GMing, which I really should have done in my post. I took the stories and forged a uniting situation that took the most immediately important (the word important is not quite right here, maybe the most pressing?) ideas from each of the stories--the players requested a common situation all of them would be facing from different angles. Each character's story started with a Bang, which helped to send the story off in an unpredictable direction. After each session, I think about the actions of all of my npcs and remind myself that npcs are people and not tools for corralling the story, so two uncoordinated npcs should not magically coordinate to shift the direction of the story. It is a really simple method for getting story that everyone has a hand in and no single person is in control of, and it is working really well. So, my strategy relies on things other games have taught me and is not improvy or new at all. I am interested here in learning the things that other people have learned from other games or from GMing as a practice in general that they are bringing to the Pool, because, as you said, it is a game that doesn't let you hide your GMing practices. 

Your third point is helpful to me, probably because it is exactly what I already did in play instinctually. I think that this obsession with depowering the GM (instead of developing good practices for GMing) in some other online places has got me paranoid about doing the tasks that GMing almost always requires even when they clearly make play function well. For some reason, backstory authority stuck out to me as something that should be more in the hands of the players in The Pool, up to the stage where the backstory is fleshed out more and a situation is developed by the GM, and I see now that the game never actually says that and it will work either way. 

I think my worry here speaks to how much the broken play of other people poisons and controls the conversations about play in so many online role playing discussions. 

Because play is going well and is doing the desirable things, I am not asking for help because I am failing. I am looking for people to point to specific games and specific experiences they have had, or even specific rules from games, that they have used consciously while GMing The Pool. Because The Pool makes it impossible to hide the strategies you are using when you are GMing I have found that it makes you think a lot more about where the strategies come from and why they are useful. 

I think I should have talked a bit about how I am GMing in my post to make it clear that I'm not reinventing the wheel, I am taking a bunch of ideas that specific games I have recently played (playing Sword & Sorcerer as a non GM and reading Annotated Sorcerer's discussion of Bangs, GMing Circle of Hands) have taught me and collaging them, which I suppose is what people do every time they play anything anyways. When I talked about "coming up with a method for GMing", I really meant this process. 

Sam's picture

In reply to the second comment,

This brings up an interesting divergence between my GMing and the way you have GMed in the past. You say that you look at the Traits and Bonuses that are created by the characters and try to put them in situations where those are relevant, and I am wondering, what past play experiences have made you think about situation creation and ongoing play in this way?

The initial situation was certainly informed by the Traits in some way in my case because, as you said, they are connected to the stories. One player took his character's partner as a Trait with a large Bonus, this made me instantly put that person in danger in the opening situation. But after that, I have not thought for a second about Traits when preparing or playing. 

When I am GMing I really do not take into account Traits as a hint from the players, I let them be interested in their own Traits and make them relevant. I am not saying either of us are right, I want to be really clear about that, because I really think either method will work. I do think, though, that both methods will change the way play turns out in the long run, and I am again wondering about the roots of our different choices. 

robowist's picture

I reviewed some character sheets from past games, and here's one example:

  • Friends with Bertha and Prudence 1
  • Rivals to Claire Bruster: 2
  • Brave in the face of scary and spooky stuff: 2
  • Call and summon a demon (like Beetlejuice) to travel to the Netherworld: 2

This was for a game based at a school named Palmer Eldritch, whose mascot was the Luna Moth and whose colors were reddish green and yellowish blue (impossible colors), so I was signalling a level of weirdness would be in the air. I wasn't necessarily thinking scary and spooky weird. Claire was defined in the character's story as the leader of a rival garage band.

Looking at this character, I think the traits fall into three rough categories, and as a GM I have different reactions to them.

1. Internal traits / abilities (like the demon summoning ability) These attributes are flexible and/or largely independent of setting, context, or situation. They are also almost entirely at the command of the character. While a GM could think of framing scenes where the trait would be likely to come into play, that isn't generally necessary. It is easier and more fun with this type to leave it up to the player to realize that they have the ability/trait and to figure out how to use it. A character would also naturally be inclined to pursue situations that would be favorable for use of the trait.

2.. Traits reliant on externals outside the character's control or which are opposed to a character (the rival Claire and the spooky situations). Here, I was more active in considering the traits in my planning. I gave extra thought to Claire--her motives, her mode of operation, and her resources. I was planning on fun and devilish ways to bring her into the frame. The issue of spookiness was also a factor in my planning, since the character's bravery was dependent on that external and that was something dependent largely on aspects of setting and situation.

3. Externals owned by or kindly disposed to the character (like the friends). This would include objects, clothes, accessories, places, or NPCs which are more or less at hand for a character. These externals vary in terms of GM work and planning. A trait like a nifty outfit with the ability to make a great first impression is something that the character needs to remember to wear and to use. But NPCs were a different matter--I needed to give some thought to the friends' movements and reactions. I didn't work them out as fully as Claire, but they had some independence . . . so some GM forethought went into them.

Interestingly, the example in the rules for The Pool seem to fall into these categories:

  • Elemental sorcerer of the Lost Land Order (Internal Trait / category 1)
  • Outcast of the Lost Land Order (Reliant on group opposed to character / category 2)
  • Driven by love (External kindly disposed to character / category 3)
  • Searching for the means to raise love from the dead (internal trait or external? / category 1 or 2?)

This is the first time I've reflected on the traits of The Pool in this way, so it's a very rough draft. I'm interested in reactions.

Sam's picture

I think that this framework makes sense and describes all of the Traits my friends have written accurately, and it is pretty intuitive. I am more interested, though, in the difference between a character derived from a story or directly named in a Trait and any other NPC in the way you are treating them/thinking about them in play. I think that one of the characters having a Trait relationship certainly influenced my starting situation, and I am wondering what I would do if it was clear based on the events in the fiction or a roll that that character should be killed or something else that would remove them from play. This hasn't happened yet, and my gut feeling is "fuck it, if they die they die, the rules say nothing about Traits being eternal, fixed things." And yet I know that some players would react like "Hey! You touched my stuff!"

What would you do in this scenario? Have you encountered major shifts in the meaning of a Trait in play that wasn't caused by the writer of the Trait's actions? I think this will reflect a lot on how you and I are thinking about Traits, because I think the only potentially contentious thing about relationships as Traits is the point at which the character attached to them dies or something for a reason not determined by the player who came up with them. Is the Trait a player's thing?  I don't think the text of The Pool actually suggests that this is the case. If a relationship in your 3rd category was strained in play and the person became the character's enemy (meanwhile, the sheet says something like "My lover, Antonio +10) what would that mean for certain players? 

My instinct is that its actually not a big deal, things change, we should all celebrate that.

I really want to think about this more because I do not really like NPCs as currency or tools. I like NPCs that are really being played as characters, with their own unique desires.

Sam's picture

I don't know why I feel like I have to make this clear, but I'm not trying to get at "the right way to do it" or say that I'm right here, either. Maybe its years of seeing inflammatory discussion online. But ya, genuinely I am interested in the small but perhaps significant differences in the way we are/have GMed The Pool in the past. :)

Ron Edwards's picture

I really do not expect anyone to dig back through all the links I’m providing here, all from late 2010. None of them provide answers or summaries in some way that I’d use to say “just go read this.” Instead, they may be of interest to people who want to see the past explosions and agreements over the issues, and they are, if I say so myself, pretty good examples of people making sense to one another at the Forge.

The biggie is Can someone explain the true reason behind "traits" (PtA style) to me? The discussion doesn’t conclude with much agreement or even direction, but it does bring people’s confusions and concerns into the light. One thing I realized from it is that certain contexts or assumptions from “a thing on my character sheet” which were ordinary play to many of us, were completely opaque to others. A good example might be the simple class designation of “Fighter” on my Advanced D&D player-character sheet, which in lots of my early experiences showed up in play as content for what the guy might or might not know, or be able to do, or have available to them. No one called this “having the Fighter trait” but that’s what we did with it or the name of any character class, again, a lot.

This point seems to me to be related, a lot, to how Robbie is breaking down Traits in The Pool into various forms of inclusion in the situations of play.

The formal versions go at least as far back to The Fantasy Trip: In the Labyrinth (1980) for which point-buy gets you Talents, which range very widely in concept and mechanics. The range inclues the ability to fight with Axe/Mace, i.e., a “skill” permitting you to use the combat rules in a particular way, or Charisma, i.e., a “quality” which permits special outcomes to be folded into the reaction mechanics, or many things like Climbing and Recognize Value, which are “skills” but do not require dice rolls. Some scholar of role-playing texts may know of antecedents in earlier games, but this is the earliest formal version that I know (the earlier TFT titles did not quite have it). It established concepts and organizations for rules that went directly into Champions (1981) and GURPS (1986), and from there were folded into many, many games to the point where this construction was effectively the 1990s industry standard.

Anyway, that discussion was on my mind when I posted soon afterwards about [Space Rat] Femme babe action at GenCon, [The Pool] Ghosts & guns & bodies, and the related posts [The Exchange / Justifiers] The right game with the right setting + The Exchange / Justifiers] Great the second time around too.

My intended major point for this post, or I hope it’s helpful anyway, is that play -functions don’t always have the same rules/text names (e.g. “traits”), and the same names don’t always have the same play-functions. One cannot look at, for example, “characteristics” across all the games that use that or an equivalent term, to see how these games do the same thing in different ways – instead, you will find that many of them do entirely different things with whatever they are designating with that term. Furthermore, that you might find other games which use no such term or anything like it, but arrive at one or another of those play-functions anyway.

Therefore it’s really good to stay with one title and to identify the play-function(s) involved, then look for those across other games and concepts for play, rather than examining anything called “Traits” as if they were automatically categorized just by using the word.

To bring this to Sam’s point about ownership, that’s part of what I mean by the term “play-function” – for example, whether the function of Thing X is to be mentioned opportunistically by a player as part of their Backstory Authority, or if it’s instead part of their designated bonus for effectiveness as part of the dice constraints on Outcome Authority. There are big differences among the possible answers of “the first but not the second,” “the second but not the first,” “either,” or “both.”

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