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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.

Lucas Falk's picture

Thanks for sharing your experience! 


As a player in the session, I found it really nice to get a recap and hear your thoughts as the GM, as well as your general thoughts on the session and the game itself.


I in turn have a couple of thoughts to share.


Firstly, I think that the game rules were quite effective—being really scaled back, but still generating interesting situations and affording creative interactions with the game. Everything from character creation and character development, to resolution mechanics had something quite interesting to offer.


Secondly, it seemed that all three players were expecting sort of a different game to what it actually was. We seemed to assume that since the rules were scaled back and encouraged collaborative storytelling in some ways, it was in essense a more classic collaborative story game. 


I felt we were initially caught off guard with the authority that the GM has, just based on similar seeming games. To me, The Pool is an interesting mix of traditional roleplaying games and collaborative story games—which makes sense, considering when it was created.


Thirdly, the Carwin/Karr situation sort of arose because I was “pressured” into defining my nemesis. I just ran with the first name that came to mind. 


During play, I realized that the names I came up with were similar enough to possibly become confusing. And I wasn’t very happy with that fact. 


So during the post game opportunity to add to the character sheet, I decided off the cuff to try to turn it into a positive by making my nemesis some sort of alternate or future version of my character.


Thanks again for a nice gaming experience!

Ron Edwards's picture

It was really fun.

I have often watched people struggle a little, or take some time at least, to get oriented with The Pool. The absolute openness of what might happen, in terms of success, failure, survival, death (or worse), and most especially long-term development, is hard to understand for people who are used to the term "game master" and the associated authorities exerting complete control over those exact things.

To use the jargon: the backstory and situational authorities are not the same as outcome and narration authorities. I have noticed many times that if you open up (decentralize), for example, narration authority, that many role-players automatically think that backstory authority is decentralized as well. Or that if outcome authority is removed from central control, that this must mean the whole game is about competing to grab it from one another.

Our game didn't run into many difficulties with this concept. If anything, the three of you were too vague in your initial concepts, perhaps thinking that you could tie backstory content together through improvisation later, but when I pushed you for more content, everyone provided it. With only a few resolution rolls, everyone realized the value of the +1d6/monologue choice and began to enjoy using the option they wanted in each instance of a roll.

Furthermore, the system is built to develop backstories and to add new developments through the addition of sentences, which is the single least appreciated, most brilliant feature of the game. Given the additions to each character, I was excited at the idea of continuing and sad that we probably won't.

One of your comments seems open to a much bigger conversation: the idea that The Pool, written in 2001, represents a transition from one version of role-playing to another. I see this differently: that The Pool and a variety of games (which differ in complexity but are similar in the principle I described above) were the real revolution - but they have generally been unrecognized, misused, misinterpreted, and forgotten.

Some of the collaborative story-making games that have come along are quite good, and Simon has a great touch with them, for example. I did my best with a few, including Mutual Decision, Spione, and Shahida. But I will bluntly say that the majority of self-designated "story games" are very, very bad and even the good ones are often betrayed and diminished by their standard method of presentation. Insofar as they are are advertised as a revolutionary step in role-playing, I regard them as a failed subset of the culture  Even worse, the well-known titles like InSpectres, Primetime Adventures,  and Apocalypse World are interpreted and taught grossly off-text, so people experience and perceive some weird bullshit instead of those actual games.

Simon Pettersson's picture

On the GM authority side of things, I tend to do games without a GM, I think partly because of my complete inability to achieve character immersion and play in actor stance. I also have a deep need to be able to be creative in my gaming, so I can only do a game where I am limited to the actions of my character in select playstyles. I can do it in a game that's heavily Story Now, since I have creative authority in how I'm presenting and addressing my character's premise. In a certain kind of challenge-based play, where I am very free to build and create, I can also have fun. Like in a game of Mutant (Swedish post-apocalyptic game) where the group collected all these artifacts of the old world and found ingenious ways of using and combining them, building armor of road signs and a catapult of surgical tubing, that kind of thing.

But in a more Right to Dream-type game, I need to be doing some creative work with the setting, genre and situation to be able to really enjoy it. Give me a mystery-solving game where I have to find out whodunnit and I will fall asleep at the table. Give me a mystery-solving game where I get a hand in determining whodunnit and I'm very much engaged!

Tangentially related, I guess, but now I've written it, so I'll post it!

Ron Edwards's picture

Hi Simon! Authorities are remarkably clear and functional in The Pool, because the GM's strong hold on backstory and situations does not translate into a strong hold on the characters' fates, goals, and ultimately identities. Therefore the original character "story" (merely a description) becomes a great premise simply through using it and changing it, and that's completely the player's own work, or interest, or enjoyment, or immersion, whatever one wants to call it. I\m articulating all of this because I think you'd find it very rewarding in exactly those terms of playing a character as you describe.

As for games without GMs, or as Emily accurately called them, "GM-ful," rather than GM-less, I really hope we get to play Spione soon. I am almost tempted to organize a game that begins with all of us researching Swedish spy history and playing with a strong Swedish focus. It would be very interesting to discover what NATO/Warsaw Pact "neutrality" actually meant during a decade of the Cold War, and it is a game which allows protagonism or even "player-character" to develop through play instead of being mandated at the start.

Simon Pettersson's picture

That sounds like a really interesting game! The neutrality of Sweden during the cold war was certainly an elaborate dance which veered both east- and westward during those decades. And though I don't know much about Swedish spying (I think we did some in the Baltics), there are many famous cases of Swedes selling information to the Soviets. As I've told you before, I'm very interested in Spione and would love to get to try it with you sometime.

Lucas Falk's picture

I absolutely agree: partial decentralization of authority can easily cause a bit of confusion among players that are unfamiliar with that specific allocation of authority. But I find that the more experience you have of different authority allocations, the better you get at adapting to "new" versions. So I'm thankful for that experience.


I'm not well versed in RPG history at all. But from The Pool's place on the timeline, I'm also of the impression that it's quite revolutionary. What I mean is that it seems a "missing link" between traditional roleplaying games—with very centralized authority—to story games with a more free-for-all approach to authority.

Maybe I'm way off in my analysis. In either case, I don't mean to say that The Pool is "lesser" or more "unpolished" that the later games.


Yeah, a lot of games have suffered from "the whisper game". I guess it's unavoidable in many cases. And maybe not entirely a bad thing—it could lead to innovation, without the innovator even knowing about it.

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