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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.

Department: 
Actual Play
Games: 
The Pool
Attachments: 
PDF icon Pool characters.pdf

Comments

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.

Beruthiel kitty's picture

Ron,

Continuing an email conversation we were having about backstory authority-versus-make story go authority, suppose the character in your example in Understanding the Pool had made the following MOV:

"He tells me...[information provided, presumably by GM]...and Princess Pickle sees us on the dance floor.  Her heart breaks when she sees the warmth with which he looks at me and she faints. `The Princess!' someone cries and chaos breaks out with everyone, including the Lord, rushing about to make sure the Princess is OK.  Once the jostling is over I look down and realize that the amulet is gone!  Our only weapon against the monster in the cellar!  What will we do?"

This is assuming that the amulet and monster in the cellar were already established in the story.

The player invented Princess Pickle, but only to move the story forward.  The player introduced a plot twist.  This would be an example of a player not having authority over the backstory, but having substantial control in the moment.  Yes?

David

Ron Edwards's picture

Hi David, I'll answer as soon as I can, but for reference, here's our prior conversation over email (to others: this is posted with David's permission):

DAVID

I was completely unaware that there are now twenty years of narrative-oriented options.  I only discovered HeroQuest this year but have found that the more I'm told about Glorantha, the less I like the place, that I started feeling bogged down the minute extended contests were mentioned, and that the problem of "character development = fight and earn experience" still existed to at least some extent.

The Pool looks like it could address all of those concerns while adding the monologue of victory.  I am needing to rewire my brain about its full implications (a delightful process).

To clarify your and James' opinion on this, I could be GMing a contemporary mystery and tell a player that his character sees scratch marks on a car at a crime scene.  The character uses her Amazing Deduction trait to win a MOV and announces that one of the scratches was from a key while the other was from a cougar and that the cougar-scratch was made six months before the crime.  Now I have to adjust my thinking about the meaning of the scratches.  But if the player failed his roll, I could have told him his character arrived at the same conclusions (cougar scratch, old).  Maybe that's the wrong deduction, but maybe it's right.  The players don't know.  In other words, player failure does not have to mean character failure.  It just means the GM narrates the results.

Would that be your take on it?

 

RON

I really want to address your question. Despite all the rhetoric, The Pool is not a "story game" in the sense that everyone improvises a story's entire content at the table. The arrangement of who prepares what's going on, who plays NPCs, and who holds certain things secret until they are discovered, is just like all the role-playing you're familiar with: one person.The Monologue of Victory does not give you sudden "GM power" to say who the murderer is or that you just found the super golden artifact.

However, the Monologue of Victory is not trivial either. It turns out that simply being able to describe what happens, including certain details that facilitate or give some consequence to the success, is a HUGE part of role-playing, all by itself. It wasn't even obvious until people started playing The Pool, that narration/description authority was its own thing independent of backstory authority. So choosing that mechanic and using it is super fun and often adds very helpful detail and important things to riff from going forward. Sometimes it even adds depth and more interesting features to the NPCs.

So, yes, the GM must be flexible in terms of the details of the moment. If the player takes the Monologue of Victory and narrates exactly how the hero kills that monster, then the GM must put aside whatever special narration he or she would have preferred to use. But the GM does not have to change the backstory or alter hard-and-fast prepared aspects of the castle layout. The player cannot use the Monologue of Victory to say that "there's no terrible creature in the cellar" or "suddenly I become a god.." It concerns the conflict of the moment and how it was overcome, that's all.

Learning the difference between these two kinds of authority is pretty hard for people because they have always thought of them as one thing throughout their experience of play. I'd be happy to talk more with you about that if you'd like, especially how many groups have applied the differences very well at their table without ever realizing it. For these groups, playing The Pool is like suddenly being handed the right tool for the tasks you've been doing all along.

 

DAVID

Is this what you have found is necessary for a good session to happen?  Is it your interpretation of the rules?  Is it something James clarified somewhere?  I ask because if I was a player and I read the rules, which state that I "can do just about anything" in my Monologue of Victory with the "only real limitations" being I can't kill other player characters, insert Looney Tune sound effects into a noir game, or go on too long, I'd read that as a mandate that I could say there was no monster in the cellar (the GM could make a "doesn't fit the tone" argument for suddenly becoming a god).  I wouldn't remove the monster because everyone else would be pumped to see it, but the rules as written don't say I can't.  I'm not trying to quibble over wording, by the way.  I'm just trying to anticipate player arguments for doing this.  I feel like I'd have to announce your clarification as a House Rule to the players who had read the rules.

An example you used in Understanding the Pool was the player who declared that her character feel in love with the creepy guy that she was getting information from.  I assume that she could have said that he fell in love with her, instead since that concerned the moment?  And that, using the example I gave before, when the detective succeeds in her Amazing Deduction Trait, I would whisper in her player's ear what is seen and then the player would announce how it was seen, adding embellishments?

Yes, I would appreciate any examples of how groups have implemented the game and thank you for taking the time to reply at length as you have.  I assume that a "story game" is something much more unstructured (bear in mind, I'm coming back to role-playing from a RuneQuest background, so anything with a more narrative focus feels like a story game to me).

Very cool stuff.  I liked how HeroQuest had a 100-word description but was unhappy that I couldn't add to it after two sessions.  Well.  Here it is.

 

RON

This is one of the issues with The Pool as a text, which went through several changes very rapidly. Unfortunately I think James was trying to please people or at least was too open just to change things because someone said something, as opposed to making his own decisions based on play experiences. I don't think he's played the game very much or even hardly at all.

So, as someone who was playing the hell out of it, I talked with James a lot during this phase, by telephone. It immediately become clear that he had not written it with the "everyone improvs the content" in mind, but more from a "GM preps the situation but cannot control the story in terms of plot," which I think is not only his comfort zone, but also much more functional than the group-groovy-improv thing (which is romantically attractive but requires better design than it usually receives). There were three or four versions of The Pool text in a brief period, and this is the one that seemed to be most encountered, probably because it's the most complete. That doesn't mean it's the best in terms of this particular variable. Therefore yes, this is my interpretation, but it is a very informed interpretation.

Regarding the monster in the cellar, there is a very real line between "change backstory" and "make the story go" that has no grey zone - but unfortunately, the vocabulary of role-playing does not handle it well, especially back then. We all struggled for ways to say it, in order to maximize the latter without screwing up the former. James' phrasing about "tone" is his attempt. Saying there's no monster would, in this case, ruin the backstory. But in some other case it might be a matter of just "the monster isn't here right now," which only adds to the fun because God Knows Where It Is (!!), in which case it's not screwing up the backstory but making the story go. I hope the line there is clear. I've never found it to be ambiguous once people wrap their minds around the fact that the line is always there - then, the anticipated arguments never happen.

Regarding the character who fell in love, first, yes, it is OK because if it's the player-character who falls in love, then saying this doesn't violate the backstory at all. Also, if saying "he falls in love with me" doesn't violate the backstory, then it would be OK - in that case, the GM has no relevant prep for that NPC so, why not, it makes the story go, after all, and adds some powerful allure for the player-character as a personality. But in many cases, that would have to be a stated conflict and roll of its own, rather than a Monologue add-on.

For the Amazing Deduction, my answer is yes, but you don't really have to go through the table rigmarole of whispering to the player. You could just say the most basic factual thing out loud and let the player enjoy describing it. The embellishments, too, don't have to be trivial - again, "make things go" content can be added here.

We should discuss the term "story game" in some detail later. Can I ask that you consider visiting my site, Adept Play, and posting about playing any game you like there? I am a huge RuneQuest fanatic and enjoy playing the earliest versions, which I've posted about in detail. It would be great to see someone else writing about experiences with the game there. And then we could address the terminology and concepts of types of games better in that context.

Ron Edwards's picture

Done it! I I hope it's fun & makes sense: Authorities and The Pool.

Beruthiel kitty's picture

Ah.  I was looking for your follow-up at the bottom of the comments.  Found it.

The video response completely cleared things up: I didn't have situational authority in my catalog and was dumping some of it in the background bucket and some of it in the narrative bucket.  That was what was tripping me up.

A Monday Lab, possibly with West?  That would be magic!

Thank you for taking the time to make that video and for keeping the focus on wrapping up my concerns.

David

Ron Edwards's picture

Great! For my part, I was afraid we'd lost you in the thickets. I'm glad to know my pained blitherings are at least beginning to make sense at first encounter.

Minor points:

  • The way the threads here work is, you reply to the top comment post to stay in its thread (e.g., for this post, there are currently five top comments of this kind). A little unusual, but you'll see that the result is nicely organized for readers. And if you mess up, I can fix it.
  • Aarrgh! Narration authority, not "narrative."
Beruthiel kitty's picture

Right.  Narration authority.  I was just testing you.

I suppose moments like these are why your head explodes in your image.

LorenzoC's picture

The described playstyle for The Pool (GM retaining backstory authority while all others are determined by mechanics) is quite likely my favourite, but would it be wrong to claim that it's a rather demanding model in terms of raw GMing skills?

I feel like the traditional, GM-retains-all-authority-unless-he-decides-not-to format is the easiest to run (which is not the same as saying it produces the best results) and this probably explains its popularity. But the other end of the spectrum (let's say, the GM-ful games) are also quite accessible in my experience.

Running The Pool the way Ron described requires great balance between detail and adaptability, and more importantly the capability to work on creating expectations and then immediately let go of them as soon as it's needed. And on top of that a great understanding of not just the game mechanics but the purpose of the mechanics, because when it comes to situational and decisional authority resting in the player's hands, too many times I've seen GMs basically taking the "Ok you've decided what happened now, and the next 20 minutes will be about me bringing you back where we were meant to go".

Is picking up this kind of GMing style harder for people due to pre-learned methods, or is it possibly harder per se?

Ron Edwards's picture

It's harder due to pre-learned methods and to resistance against changing them. In terms of actual effort and stress, it is easier.

What you describe here:

when it comes to situational and decisional authority resting in the player's hands, too many times I've seen GMs basically taking the "Ok you've decided what happened now, and the next 20 minutes will be about me bringing you back where we were meant to go".

... is flatly the single most toxic and aggravating feature of the self-designated indie sector of the hobby. It has been accurately described as "well, one person isn't steering us any more, so I suppose we can all now fight constantly for the steering wheel."

As often happens in our conversations, the topic has returned to the difference between readiness and control.

LorenzoC's picture

My only resistance to the idea that it is indeed easier is that while it is easier for me to run games that way, I have no way to know if it would have been so 25 years ago. I remember the sheer terror of being unprepared, of not having every single foot of land mapped. For a brief period I was writing dialogue for NPCs. I picked that up from the collective tribal practices of the hobby, but can I safely assume I would do a good job at playing light-prep, player-input based game without all the skills I picked up along the way?

I surmise that an important aspect of this process (and this could probably be somewhat interesting in the light of the other topic I was reading about yesterday, which is designing introductory games) is the technologies we put in the games and how they interact with the issue of readiness vs control.

I'll make the blandest, most banal example possible using the most commonly played games in the market. 
Let's say that I'm running a situation where I created an abandoned fortress surrounded by a dilapidated village. Players have a deed of rights to the fortress, but of course it can't be that simple. We played a few sessions and what I had prepared was orc raiders sneaking in but the players moved the story in another direction, it's the middle of the game night, and I have to improvise a scene with ghouls.

Now, let's look at how the games help me do this. I'm playing D&D3 and I absolutely need to pause the game to look up CRs and what they mean to try and estabilish a fair encounter. Pathfinder 2 is particularly ridicolous about this because it has you go through THREE different tables with several conversions. Whereas D&D4 tells me I need 1 standard monster per player, or 1 elite per 2 players, or 4 minions per player and so on, no calculations needed. The ease of use translates into teaching in this case, in my opinion: if I teach players that putting together an encounter is very easy, then they won't fear doing so. If I teach them you need to sit down and go through tables and calculate budgets, I'm severely implying that this has to be done before the game, and thus that you need to know what happens before it happens. Hence the bad habits.

Zooming in into the creatures themselves (and sorry, but monster design is a pet peeve of mine)... if I didn't read the Pathfinder or D&D3 stat block ahead of time, I'll be lost. These monsters have spell lists, and often beautiful activated abilities that develop across 2 paragraphs of text. Looking at D&D4, I have a very succint summary of abilities that just do what they're meant to do, in play. I don't need to read up goblins and learn they are skirmishers and use the basic ruleset to reproduce that - their abilites trigger those effects and create that narrative in play. 13th Age is often particularly brilliant about this, with inbuilt triggers that produce events that color and inform the narrative. In my opinion this is an aspect of design that, on a very small scale level, helps the GM to perceive the rules and mechanics as allies and not obstacles. 

Now zooming out from this very specific aspect of combat-oriented games, is there a set of idenfiable mechanics that can help us convey the idea that the rules are there to support and help the DM run the game? What are good examples of mechanics that encourage us to think "let go of control because the rules will take care of keeping the game running"?

Ron Edwards's picture

Lorenzo, I have to stop you. You've brought up a completely different topic: how to learn to do what we're talking about, which then sets up the issue of how teach it, with the added subset of presuming a pretty conflicted audience coping with a variety of texts. This is like running back into the worst part of the swamp when I just took the trouble of getting up onto dry land and into clean air so we can have the opportunity to think.

Beruthiel kitty's picture

It was easy-peasy to play that way thirty years ago.  You just had to cheat.  By which I mean buy high-quality supplements.

I refereed RuneQuest in the Days of Yore and made sure to buy Griffin Mountain, which had tons of stats, maps, NPC personalities, cultural background, etc., etc.  So when the over-the-top psychopathic berserker character unexpectedly killed King Gyptus the Good over an imagined slight, it was no problem to act on the fly and the result was months of fun with the characters in exile with bounties on their heads.  Not the way I expected things to go but a hoot.

In terms of today's mechanics, I think you've already nailed the key feature: less is more.  The question I ask is, how much less is too much less?  In The Pool would you just say "Look out guys!  Ghouls!" since the only people rolling are the players and there are no stats to roll against?  If so, that's great.  Have we lost what I'm seeing people refer to as Color?  Quite possibly.

I'm interested in what people think about the tension between those two things.  If the tension isn't really there, then I would think Lorenzo would be helped by the simplest and most straightforward mechanics he likes.

David

LorenzoC's picture

I would say that in the case of The Pool the "color" rests in situation and conflicts. The sense of urgency of fighting with ghouls is expressed through the prospected consequences (Am I going to be dragged into a dark corner and eaten alive? Will I get one of them to bite me on the shoulder and slowly turn into a monster? Am I really willing to let that happen?) and then the gamble of the dice. I don't perceive the dangerousness of the situation because of the ghoul's stat block, but because the DM didn't give me any bonus dice and I'm willing to gamble a whole lot of them because I can't afford to fail here. At all stages of play I'm invested in the fiction and in how much I want to risk to be able to push it forward, without having to stop and micromanage any subsystem. I've played less of The Pool than I would have liked but I can hardly remember a dull moment. 

The question about whether or not less is more is interesting, however. It's kind of what I was going at above (before Ron rightfully stopped my tangent, I had been reading another Consulting post and I metaphorically crossed the beams) - and mind you, I'm not really arguing for simplification, but ease of use.
D&D4 monsters are remarkably more complicated than D&D5 monsters, in terms of abilities and triggers and mechanical bits. But that combined with the way they are presented makes them easier to use (or at least to use well) because when using D&D5 monsters you pretty much need to inject all the colour yourself. An hill giant and a stone giant are fundamentally the exact same creature (with slightly different numbers) in D&D5, which means that the game assumes that it will be you who will inject whatever is needed to make each encounter remarkable. That means that either I know the creatures' lore in full detail or I need to school myself about them on the spot, or else there will be nothing telling me how this is different from an incredibly large goblin. 

Going back to The Pool, the level of detail there is so low, if you want, that I'll never introduce something I don't know how to use. If I'm running the game well and I understood the characters' traits and descriptions, I will create situations that are pertinent to them but also so firmly rooted in my imagination that I don't risk having to align myself with some unexpected mechanic. Ghouls will behave how I will want them to behave, and they won't clash with printed numbers that contradict my interpretation.

So if you want my thesis is that the level of detail has to be symmethric between core mechanics and content. You get the tension you speak of when players have to use a fairly elaborate set of rules with myriad options that are mechanical in nature, and then are confronted with incredibly streamlined challenges that don't capitalize on that or evoke colour unless the GM goes out of his way to provide for it. But if the game is run by players simply describing what they do and gambling dice on it, why would the GM need to play differently? 

And I say that as the kind of player (and designer, I guess) who generally likes detail and probably goes overboard with details. I love big stat blocks with lots of moving parts. I'm writing a game that's full of stats and dices and dots and special abilities and whatnot. But if someone told me "I can replicate the feeling and excitement of what you're describing with The Pool" I wouldn't flinch, while if someone told me "I can do that with Dungeon World" I'd have perplexities. Because the latter doesn't have (in my humble opinion) a good balance between the core mechanics and the content (or colour, if you want). The level of detail it adds, compared to something like The Pool, is distracting rather beneficial. If the mechanics make the monster fearsome, it's good. If the game tells me to make the monster fearsome, good. If the game tells me to make the monster fearsome, but then they undo that by adding contradictory detail, then we have a problem.

Ron Edwards's picture

My view is that the tension you're talking about (hypothetically, if I'm reading you right) isn't there.

Let's hold a couple of things constant.

1. Solid preparation of situation but not of plot (nor of improvised but still controlled plot). It doesn't matter whether this preparation came from published material or is original to one's own prep, although, if we're talking about the former, I share your liking for Stafford's RuneQuest work because it was distinctively free of railroading or railroading-like assumptions about player goals (my fave is The Haunted Ruins).

2. Spoken presentation and description of people, places, monsters, things, and whatnot throughout play.

The only thing that's different is that the resolution mechanics are much simpler. I even maintain that the occasional player contribution to situations going-forward, i.e., the more content-rich Monologues of Victory, is already in pratice at many, many tables no matter what system (they think) they're using.

I don't see why you think the ghouls would be prepared or described any less vividly or somehow with less content while playing The Pool than for another game. One thing I mentioned in the video is that we shouldn't be referencing made-up or what-if play groups and how they might or would or could be dealing with a given role-playing game. So until or unless we see some kind of superficiality take over just because we're using a different resolution system, I'd like to table the topic.

LorenzoC's picture

 I even maintain that the occasional player contribution to situations going-forward, i.e., the more content-rich Monologues of Victory, is already in pratice at many, many tables no matter what system (they think) they're using.

I agree; would you say it's correct to say that situations where, for example, someone suggests that the GM's statement on how vapor would behave in that particular sewer pipe is incorrect and this leads to a change in the way the story unfolds, or when people suggest something that should probably happen (under the guise of probability or likeness or simply entertainment value) and the rest of the table picks that up fall under this? 
Is a certain level of feedback necessary to acknowledge when a certain's player agency has manifested and steered the story in a new direction? I've played many, many games that every now and then very clearly stated it was someone's turn to decide what happened next (even using formulas or having people hold tokens and whatnot) and I wonder if such a strong mechanical representation of roles and authorities is beneficial. 

I don't see why you think the ghouls would be prepared or described any less vividly or somehow with less content while playing The Pool than for another game.

My experience (among fellow designers, expecially) is that there's a prevalent opinion that in order to have emergent play nothing can be prepared beforehand, and I can't make any sense of it. There's this pervasive idea that any form of preparation is railroading, to the point that "No GM, no preparation" has become some sort of badge of honor for their games.

Ron Edwards's picture

Lorenzo, I’m getting a little tired but will try my best. You’re producing an ever-branching tree of exploratory argument, and the “would you say” construction is especially exhausting. I also want to focus on the line of inquiry David is pursuing, and that line is becoming increasingly difficult to trace through the new forest.

OK, I don’t want to shut you down. I will try to address these.

[in] situations where, for example, someone suggests that the GM's statement on how vapor would behave in that particular sewer pipe is incorrect and this leads to a change in the way the story unfolds, or when people suggest something that should probably happen (under the guise of probability or likeness or simply entertainment value) and the rest of the table picks that up fall under this? 

... Whew. That is just too much in one bag. It’s not answerable.

I think your own what-iffing is running away with you. You may be imagining a much more extreme case of “changing things” than I am. I’m not talking about contributions that are so extreme that they force reboots of prepped material. Further, the fact that I can imagine both highly functional and highly dysfunctional versions of what you describe tells again that we should absolutely abandon abstract or generalized or imagined decriptions of play.

I am also a little fearful that you will respond to this by trying to re-state and explain everything in exquisite detail. Please – let’s not do that. I spent all day making that video and I’d like this discussion to settle down a little while people view it and David can choose how to lead where the conversation goes.

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