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Self-help hell at the eldritch well

First Lincon video! With none other than James V. West's The Pool, which is a signature game for this whole website. It's also a deliberate comparison with James' other, related game, The Questing Beast, as I played and posted about at IndieCON.

Briefly: The Pool works from the logic, "What is happening, so that we must now roll the dice?" and The Questing Beast works from the logic, "Given that we are rolling the dice, where does the story go now?" If I were to put it uncharitably, TQB is built to assuage the fears of those who find TP alarming. I hope to assuage those fears in a different way, partly concerning the subset which concerns bugaboos that aren't even in the game, and partly concerning the subset which concerns things that really are there, but are good-scary.

This particular session rates very high in terms of playing a "first" session that begs for continuance but probably will never see it, as a convention try-it event. That's always a weird mix of triumph and sadness.

The embedded link is a two-part video, easy viewing & listening. The PDF with the character sheets is attached below.

Make sure to check out The Comics and Art of James V. West and scroll down just a teeny bit to get his RPG materials including the two games being discussed here.

Actual Play
The Pool
PDF icon Pool characters.pdf


Ross's picture

First, I'm not sure I'm understanding the distinction between the Pool and the Questing Beast that you are making. As in I can see the two descriptions and they are clearly different but I don't really get what they actually mean in terms of people playing, saying things, rolling dice and saying more things. I imagine the best way to understand would be to play them and compare, but if you want to expand a bit I'm listening.

On the subject of playing, and prep specifically, as a best practice / what's worked well for you, would you ideally start with just an image, do character creation and then create a starting situation using the characters as inspiration, or would you bring along a prepared situation, perhaps one that seems thematically to match, with the inspirational image and then tie the characters into it as you did here?

Finally I was thinking about theoretical further play from your Lincon game (the worst kind of thinking about roleplaying) and wondered about play that might well include one or both the powerful Sorcerous NPC's. In the Pool they wouldn't have any mechanical weight of their own to back that power / importance up, but my impression is that the various players' (including the GM's) narrations will tend to give these characters that heft - assuming that it is actually important to the players. Has that been your experience? 

Ron Edwards's picture

Reply #1 is about The Pool and The Questing Beast.

The Pool

You roll for conflicts, which is to say, crisis situations with possible negative consequences.

  • If you get no 1’s, it’s a failure. Failures are always GM-narrated and typically involve a real downside of actually not succeeding at that thing (i.e., not “beep, try again”).
  • If you get one or more 1’s, it's a success, which is either narrated by the GM, in which case it’s best done as sufficient and literal, no more; or by the player, in which case it’s usually spiced up with a bit more colorful description or carries a little more extended consequence.

Mechanically, you get a new die for your Pool when you succeed and elect to have the GM narrate. You lose dice if you added any from your Pool to your roll and failed the roll.

To summarize: the outcome is binary, no grey zone; and one’s Pool tends to fluctuate insofar as you use it. This means a character is very frequently in the state of a strong, consequential outcome for whatever just happened, and in a unique state of “luckiness” compared to wherever they were at previously, whether better or worse. Therefore what a player chooses to say that character does tends to be assertive and understandable in those exact terms: “since this happened” and “since I’m luckier/unluckier than I was.”

The plot in terms of notable events as well as where we go next is determined very directly from narrations of resolution and from those what-next statements, in practice often from the player regarding character actions as well as from the GM regarding situational changes or NPC actions.

The Questing Beast

You roll for conflicts but also for Ideas, which is to say, something that you (a player) would like to be the case or would like to happen. There is also a fairly detailed rubric for clarifying exactly what the roll’s about.

  • If you get no 1’s and no 6’s, it’s a Guided Event, narrated by the GM and recommended to “go somewhere else” with what’s happening, i.e., the immediate success or failure is less relevant to how things “really” turn out.
  • If you get any 6’s and no 1’s, it’s a failure, narrated by the player, and often downplayed a little except when the player feels masochistic (which does happen).
  • If you get one or more 1’s (regardless of 6’s), it’s a success, narrated by the player, and as with The Pool, usually played up a little for description and/or content.

Mechanically, you get a new die for your Pool when you get a Guided Event, and there’s no elective component about it. You lose dice as with The Pool mechanic.

To summarize: the outcome is trinary, with the most likely outcome being the Guided Event, i.e., the fiction shifts directionally and specifically away from the immediate conflict according to the GM’s interests of the moment, also typically downplaying how serious that conflict turned out to be. This also means that one’s Pool tends to steadily gain dice, and to lose them less often and (in practice) less drastically.

The plot (in the same sense as above) is determined much more directionally and “toward” things by the GM, much more of the time, in terms of what crops up and gets attention due to Guided Events. Getting into scrapes typically means finding that you’ve been embroiled in something else, or regardless of outcome, extended whatever you’re doing into some kind of directed next step. Your character’s sense of luckiness is far less immediate as well; I have noted that many players of TQB use their Pool dice much less often and in many cases apparently forget about them, or just use them to increase Motif (Trait) bonuses.

A final crucial difference

For The Pool, the essential act (the biggest, most enveloping arrow system in my diagram) concerns the additions and changes to the written material on the character sheet. It gets longer and stuff on it gets qualified or even changed. That is, if you will, what play is “for” – how my character changes, in current problems, in abilities, and in outlook.

For The Questing Beast, the essential act is the end-fate of the character, as a narrated event which does not even require a roll, and is absolutely embedded in whatever romantic or violent saga is occurring. There is no addition or changes to a written block of text; the sheet is much more standard and based on a list. In this case, what play is “for” concerns the increased commitment of the knight to the specifics of a situation, so that he or she is ready to die or to be transfigured or to find true love, et cetera, as a climactic moment and final/glorious portrait.

They’re really different games.

Ron Edwards's picture

Reply #2 is about preparation for playing The Pool.

The two things you describe are compatible, not dichotomous. It goes like this:

  • Look at the image
  • Make a suitable situation “from” the image (i.e., not literally) including a few NPCs.
  • Look at the player-characters and get any NPCs or details from their write-ups which seem fair to be mixed up in my situation.
  • Place player-characters accordingly, anywhere from “you are here” pointing to the map to “how do you get here and why.”
  • So basically, what the players and I are doing is pretty much the same. And insofar as they are affected by NPCs that I made up, I am affected by (i.e. using) NPCs that they made up.
Ron Edwards's picture

Reply #3 is about NPCs’ effectiveness in The Pool.

You may be missing an important part of resoluton: the GM’s Gift Dice. In any roll, the GM provides 0-3 dice for the player. So the rolled dice include the Gift Dice, any Trait Bonus Dice, and any Pool Dice.

As I mentioned in the video, I tend to be stingy, but I’ll be more specific here: I usually provide one or two Gift Dice. That way giving three is like an acknowledgment that this is really something that your character does, or “oh this is so you” moment, from my point of view.

Holding back on all Gift Dice is an easy, understandable, and fun way for everyone to see that this situation or NPC is not forgiving or prone to circumstantial luck. I’ve found that saving it for a given NPC is a very good idea and promotes a nice chill down the players’ spines.

Another related point is that conflicts are always tagged as either non-lethal or potentially lethal (or anything as bad as or worse than “lethal”). So that toggles into the same assessment of risks.

Therefore your point about the heft coming mainly from prior narrations is true, but it has mechanical backup too.

This concept is actually a subset of a larger and important concept for the game, which I mentioned in the first reply: the entirely non-fiction-caused sense of the character’s current luck, expressed by the size of their Pool at the moment.

At one end, if you have no dice in the Pool at all, then you depend on Gift Dice and on your Trait Bonuses. Therefore, insofar as you want to succeed, then you try to do stuff that doesn’t seem too hard or off-your-model, and for which your Trait Bonuses apply easily. Whereas at the other, with a nice big flush Pool, then you can afford to go out-of-bounds by gambling in a few Pool dice, doing things that are, well, basically lucky to get your way. (Nothing stops you from maximizing by staying inside-the-lines with big Pool input too, but that’s not my point.)

Anyway, the Gift Dice play into all kinds of things, and the meanness/scariness or effectiveness of a given obstacle or foe is one of them.

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