Star Trek: The Pool

So I read Ron’s work talking about and analyzing the Pool, and the game itself seemed to me to be elegantly and brilliantly designed, with a kind of simplicity I find really appealing. But I never had a chance to try it, so I was thrilled when some kind people were willing to play online. We decided to use the Anti-Pool, and added a variant rule where other players could help out on a roll.

I GMed, and prepped for it like I would for any other game. We settled on Star Trek, so I decided on a rescue mission. The Federation ship USS Cutlass was spiraling out of control, its engines not responding, and communications with it erratic due to some kind of interference. It’s structural integrity field was degrading as well. Within a few hours, unless the ship changed course, it would drift into the Romulan neutral zone, triggering a major incident with the Romulan empire.

In my prep, I settled on the cause of the ship’s problems, and took notes on several NPCs and their goals, some of which were conflicting. I also laid out several tripwires, such as “if anyone investigates area B on deck 10, Jones, the psychotic crewman, will attack”, “if any ship crosses the neutral zone, a hostile Romulan warbird will decloak and order them to leave, while locking weapons on target”, etc.

The players (on another ship, the Shantar) were ordered to take a shuttle over, fix the Cutlass’ engines and change course. The PCs consisted of Ensign Vindoom, Andorian and Chief Custodian, in charge of an army of unobtrusive cleaning robots; Ensign Raschke, a nimble and quiet space marine; and Lt. Moneaux, an insecure and inexperienced security officer.

One of the PCs asked why they were selected for the mission. The Captain said he needed brave, experienced people of keen intelligence and judgment for the mission – unfortunately, he couldn’t spare any of those people right now, so they’d have to do 🙂 He also mentioned that the Cutlass was on a classified mission, and that they were to keep things quiet.

I asked the players if they wanted to do anything on the way to the Cutlass, while in the shuttlecraft. Raschke did, trying to call a friend in starfleet intelligence who might know more about the Cutlass. So here’s where we had our first roll; the player got a success, and I asked if he wanted the Monologue of Victory or to add a die to his pool. This is also where we had our first issue: because he couldn’t add or change the backstory, and in addition didn’t know what a lot of it was because it was secret, he’d have to ask me what he found out instead of adding it himself. So why use an MOV? Better to just take a die and let the GM narrate. To my chagrin, I realized this was now going to be an ongoing problem, because of the investigatory nature of the scenario I had set up. Anyway, Raschke’s buddy told him the Cutlass was on a mission to discover a new source of dilithium crystals, and the mission had been retroactively classified after they visited a previously uncharted planet.

The PCs were welcomed aboard the ship, and were given the basic picture: the Cutlass had recently visited an unexplored planet. The Away team came back successfully, but two of its members came down with some sort of illness a few hours after returning. Engine troubles began shortly after that. The PCs headed down to engineering, where they found the crew madly scrambling to fix the engines. Moneaux made a roll to see if she could get the Chief Engineer to tell them why the mission was classified, but failed, so I gave them the minimum necessary information: they’d installed two new crystals from the planet into the warp core, and at first things worked wonderfully, but everything started going wrong a few hours later. When the Engineer suggested they remove the new crystals, the Captain had refused, in very strong terms.

Meanwhile, I thought that one of the NPCs would consider this a good opportunity to make a move, so I said that one of the computer workstations started sparking. When people ran over to fix it, another workstation started malfunctioning, followed by another. Vindoom made a roll to see if she could detect anything about the cause and succeeded, but just took a die (MOV didn’t seem like it’d be any fun). I mentioned that the workstations were malfunctioning in the order of the sequence of prime numbers. Then one of the engineering crew collapsed to the ground and started screaming, and everyone saw a flash of kaleidoscopic lights where he’d been standing.

The PCs accompanied the medics and the screaming engineer to sick bay, where the doctor sedated the patient. Moneaux made a roll to try to get the doctor to talk and succeeded, but once more just took a die instead of a MOV – as once again the main purpose of the roll was to get backstory information, and it didn’t seem like a MOV would get you much. They learn the new crew member showed one sign in common with the other two patients in sick bay: exposure to a high dose of a talaron radiation (something I’d made up in prep). The other two patients were on the Away mission, this new one was not.

The PCs split up, one going to interrogate the security chief, Vindoom went to find the Chief Custodian, and I forget what the other one did. They make rolls to find out what’s going on, learn that two of the Away team’s members are missing, and that (via a video record from a cleaning robot) that one of them (Ensign Jones) was approached by a swirl of kaleidoscopic lights before he vanished.

Also, the security chief reveals the Captain is set on making the new crystals work, regardless of risk, as because of their unique structure they’re much more powerful than regular dilithium; if he can pull it off, he’ll probably get promoted to Admiral. This is why the mission is now classified: a source of new, more powerful dilithium crystals is a major find with all kinds of security implications. The PCs regroup and head to the location where Jones was last seen, on deck 10.

Now I don’t think any of us liked the game that much at this point; I believe the players felt either somewhat bored, frustrated, or both (feel free to speak up guys!). For my part, I was stressed, because I was worried the players were going to spend too much time spinning their wheels on side issues, and alternately bored, because just giving out information was not that exciting. This was the exact opposite of what I’d expected, since a couple of weeks previously I’d run a game of Cthulhu Dark that went really well, and thought that the Pool with its MOV would add to the excitement. I’d failed to consider that an investigative scenario might not be the best setup for the Pool to show its stuff.

The game started to get interesting when the PCs reached deck 10. Lt. Moneaux tried to find any trace of where Jones went, and failed the roll. Thus, she was looking in the wrong direction when the psychotic Jones (who had been hiding in a Jeffries tube) attacked, tackling her to the ground. Raschke sets his phaser to stun and fires at Jones, but fails – so I say he hits Moneaux instead. Jones leaps up from the stunned Lt. and backhands Raschke. Vindoom grabs a small cleaning robot and tries to clock Jones on the side of the neck, and succeeds. They take a MOV, saying how they hit him just right and he collapses.

Meanwhile, behind the scenes, the alien NPC who’s been vainly trying to communicate with the crew detects all this activity, and because it’s near where she tried to communicate with Jones earlier, figures it’s a good time to say hi once again. So I mention that the corridor lights start flickering, and a swirl of kaleidoscopic lights starts heading towards them.

Raschke grabs the unconscious Jones and starts booking it down the hallway, with Vindoom sprinting away also. This left poor, phaser-stunned Lt. Moneaux alone to face the swirling lights. When the lights touch Moneaux, I have the player make a roll to see if they can stay sane, and it’s successful. I describe how they see swirling, colored geometric patterns, followed by a feeling that the borders of their consciousness, their sense of self, starts to dissolve. Moneaux feels herself stretch, connected to all the ship around her, feeling like the space surrounding her is alive and breathing.

There’s some laughter, and questions about how I know what a psychedelic experience feels like (no comment). Moneaux then has a telepathic discussion with this alien, who is actually a sentient crystal of dilithium that can move around via a kind of telekinesis. The crystal has been trying to talk to someone, but most of the crew can’t stand the experience and have psychotic breaks. The only exceptions are the Captain and now Moneaux. The alien is sorry for the trouble, but tells her that the crew of the Cutlass have put two of her kin into the warp engine. They don’t like being in the warp core, but can’t get out by themselves, and are angrily rerouting power so that the engines don’t work. The Captain refused to do anything and tried to run from her. Moneaux promises to help.

Now players start using MOVs left and right. The PCs tell the doctor what’s happening, and say he needs to declare the Captain unfit for duty. They succeed, and get the chief of Security on their side as well. There’s a final confrontation on the bridge: the Captain, blinded by ambition, is unwilling to release the living crystals, while Moneaux backed up by everyone else orders him relieved of command. There’s a roll using the new help rules, and Moneaux succeeds, taking a MOV to say the shouting and protesting Captain is led away to the brig.

The crystals are freed, the engines start working again, and they steer clear of the neutral zone. The crystals ask the Shantar for a ride back to their home world, it’s a lovely first contact situation, and the session is over.

The second half of the game was a lot more fun than the first half, I think we all agreed on that. Now, did the first half fail because of some mistake I made in applying the Pool? Or was it because investigation is just the wrong kind of situation to use the Pool for? Or some other reason?

Anyway, I look forward to your observations and comments! And of course players of the game feel free to chime in, I welcome your thoughts.


PS The video is what inspired the scenario 🙂

14 responses to “Star Trek: The Pool”

  1. Uncovering mysteries

    Hello, I was playing Lt. Moneaux in this session!

    I overall had quite a bit of fun, but it's absolutely true that the investigative half of the scenario felt like it was not interacting well with the The Pool rolling. Especially, I didn't feel that MOVs were that much usable or useful in the context of a roll "do you discover this from this person".

    The second thing is that in such a context the possible negative consequences of a roll feel a bit forced. I feel that the rolls should be kept for strict conflicts of interests, or for character vs. nature conflicts that are of a nature that is personally interesting to the character. Rolling for discovering something, even if the other character doesn't want to reveal the information, should happen sparingly, and the GM can just present the information as it is convenient or as the players look for it (very similarly to how you would play a Dogs in the Vineyard town, I would say).

    Once we moved on from the "discover what is happening" part, the game instantly flowed much better as I personally felt I had my character motivation figured out and ready to interact with the NPCs. I wished that there spent more time on this part of the scenario.

    Particularly the MOVs felt instantly natural to me. I have the feeling that I have already been using some form of temporary narration authority delegation like this in some of my play sessions with other systems, without explicitly stating it.

    • I waited until someone else

      I waited until someone else commented, and might do well not to comment at all, but here I go.

      I think Claudio's got it. Why were the "investigative" rolls made at all?

      However, focusing this question onto this particular game or for playing The Pool is, as I see it, too small. The real question is when, how, and why rolls of this kind are ever made? Let's pick something without any fancy narration-whatnot in it – plain old skill %, success/fail, probably narrated by the GM. Now ask: why, how, and why are rolls of this kind made?

      That's important because it's not rhetorical. The answer is not some admission or insight that there's no reason ever. I use such rolls pretty extensively in the current RuneQuest game, for example, usually Scan and Cult Lore.

      I think the answer, or a range of answers, can reveal a lot. Among the straightforward functions that such rolls can and do serve, we may also discover their functional boundaries.

      Addendeum: I have not played the Anti-Pool and I am a bit of a snob about the whole wide range of Poolishness, which people seem to dodge into as if the actual The Pool were too hot to handle or special or weirdly high-expectation, or something.

    • Hi Ron! So when to roll to

      Hi Ron! So when to roll to get information? My guess is that, just like in general, we roll when we want the possibility of an unexpected result (I think you called that “Bounce” recently). This makes me think of two games.

      In Trail of Cthulhu (Gumshoe system), IIRC, there’s no real investigation roll – the GM gives you all the required clues, and you can spend points to get more information or some extra benefit. So there’s no uncertainty there, or risk.

      In Cthulhu Dark, there is an investigation roll, but you always get at least the minimum required information; if you roll a 1 (on a d6) that’s all you get, a 5 gets you extra benefits, and a 6 means you also glimpse some kind of horror and will likely have to make a sanity check. So while there’s no doubt you’ll get the required information, there is some risk, and some suspense or anticipation about whether you get anything extra useful.

      As an example, in a recent Cthulhu Dark game the players were tracking down a missing person, the sister of a PC. As they searched her apartment, one player rolled a 6. This meant they’d find a clue that was useful, but also creepy enough to require a sanity roll, so I said she found a severed finger with a ring on it; the ring had some identifying features carved into it. This was easy for me to do since I knew the backstory. But suppose we house-ruled Cthulhu Dark so that the player said what they found instead. Could that work? My guess is for that to work, the backstory would already have to be known by all the players (though not necessarily the PCs).

      Anyway, in this Star Trek game I thought a roll was called for to get information in several instances because there was a clear conflict – the officer didn’t want to give out the information, since they’d been ordered to keep it secret by the Captain, and the player wanted it. But perhaps those criteria are not enough?

    • I think I can help, Manu!

      I think I can help, Manu! There are two things to talk about.

      First, let's just get rid of the entire issue of "how can the player say what happens if they don't know the backstory?" This is a silly distraction. For purposes of this whole post, the player does not know the backstory and has no authority to make any up. So we can stop chasing that ball, it's not important.

      To clarify: when and if the player does have or takes over some kind of narration of the outcome, then it's not about the backstory, it's about how the immediate action was resolved. It's a fun thing to do and stays very firmly right in the immediate fiction: "I kiss him and he totally spills the information," vs. "I slap him and he totally spills the information," for example. Then the GM says what the guy tells you.

      (I completely agree that you and other players have been doing this all the time without naming it. The genius of The Pool is not inventing this, it is recognizing it as an important and fun thing that we do, and tying it into the system's currency. Remember: none of this is difficult.)

      Second, for the rolls themselves as you describe them, in the first half of the session, let's examine those "clear conflict” criteria, because I don't see any. Yes, the officer doesn't want to tell you. If you fail, he doesn't … which is to say, nothing happens. It's not a negative consequence, it's a "stop," i.e., like trying to go left in Zork when there's a wall to the left.

      Obviously, as role-playing activities go, the roll in such a case is a big fat zero. So for such activities, here is how they work for The Pool (I am not bothering to look up the Anti-Pool, so translate as needed).

      Save rolls for confrontations and situations with imminent dangers of any kind. If they ask someone something, and that person either is happy to tell them or doesn’t want to but isn’t bonkers or hyper-reactive, then just play it. No rolling.

      However, for example, in your scenario, when they say "I ask the captain about it," then call for a roll and narrate a failure as the worst, most extreme response the other character could have – they don't just clam up and cover up, but react to the question as if threatened or triggered, and they do something.

      This works only for NPCs with issues, which does apply in this case due to the mind-effects experienced by the captain and others. So yes, such a response would be irrational, as well it should be.

      To repeat, I’m treating the relatively innocent and reasonable act of “asking the captain” as a dangerous situation – because it is. If asking someone else isn’t a dangerous situation, regardless of their answer (including “That’s classified, stop bothering me”), then there’s no roll.

      Does that help or make sense? I kind of feel like all this stuff is already in my writings and presentation about The Pool, so maybe saying it over and over isn’t helping. In which case, we should expand our attention to why that might be.

    • Ok Ron, let’s see if I’ve got

      Ok Ron, let’s see if I’ve got this right. My analysis was incorrect: it’s not that there’s anything wrong with using the Pool for an investigational game, it’s that the way I used it was not optimal. There were two problems, namely:

      1. We got a little too caught up in theory, which led us to focus too much on what we couldn’t do, vs. what we could do. Specifically, saying *how* you get the information is (or can be) fun for a player, and a perfectly good reason to use a MOV, even if you don’t get to say what the information you discover is. 
      2. The more serious problem was this: it’s important that the consequences of a roll be interesting, whether the result is a success or a failure. If a failure is boring, then just skip the roll. A roll should have some significance to the character and their goals. Too many of the information rolls had nothing interesting happen on failure, and I either should just have skipped the roll entirely, or added some more exciting consequences, such as getting attacked, thrown in the brig, and so on.

      When I contemplate this, I can’t help but think of some of the more boring combats I’ve experienced in D&D. When the PCs and their opponents all have over a hundred HP, and the damage done averages 10 when they hit, then rolls become boring because there’s little or no significance to either failure or success, until the last few rolls of the battle. This suggests one way to spice things up is to have a hit point cap, maybe between 30-50. I’ll try that for my next campaign.

      One thing I forgot to mention, is that I really enjoyed the international nature of this game: we had me on the west coast, one player on the east coast, one in Germany, and one in Turkey. I think that’s really cool.

      By the way the only change in the Anti-Pool is this: “When you win a roll, you lose gambled dice. When you lose a roll, you gain a die for your Pool.” Everything else is exactly the same as the Pool.

    • (We should in fact have that

      (We should in fact have that voice conversation. Let's schedule.)

      I think your phrasing about the “what to do with a roll” topic is backwards. The way it reads here is that you’re rolling dice more or less in a vacuum, then wondering what to do with it when the little pips are looking up at you, and then inventing “something interesting” in order to cope with them.

      Let’s go back to how I phrased it, which is not “what do I do with the results of the roll,” but instead, “when do we roll dice at all.” I contend that the criteria for the answer must be directive – you look at the fictional situation, and in certain ones, you have to roll the dice.

      Forgive me for asserting this so baldly, but given your accounts of play so far, you have zero trouble with this concept when it involves someone striking at someone else with a sword. “Ah! You are trying to hit him! Roll to hit.” Here, it’s the same fundamenal thing: being signaled to roll dice based on words that are coming out of someone’s mouth.

      This is why I do not recommend ever saying, “roll dice to make things interesting,” or more specific to this post, “narrate failures to make them interesting.” Those and similar concepts all involve spitballing “something happens! It’s interesting!” as a solution to a perceived problem of the scary pips looking up at you and demanding action in a vacuum.

      I said, instead, and specifically to this particular Star Trek/Anti-Pool session, “When the NPC is not a threat or danger or otherwise unstable, then interacting with them in any way is not a roll,” and this is important, “even if it doesn’t get you want you want.” Conversely, when the NPC is (as the GM knows) a clear and present danger, basically nothing more nor less than a pit trap to be triggered by the player saying “I step there” and requiring a known and relevant roll.

    • Interesting! So:

      Interesting! So:

      ““when do we roll dice at all.” I contend that the criteria for the answer must be directive – you look at the fictional situation, and in certain ones, you have to roll the dice…[you are] being signaled to roll dice based on words that are coming out of someone’s mouth.”

      I get that. Apocalypse World does a good job of pointing that out: when someone says X, they’re doing such-and-such a move, so you roll and you have these possibilities; when someone says Y, you roll, and you have these other options, and so on. Having said that, I’ve seen a lot of people play AW-type games by looking at what’s going on and saying, “ok in this situation what move should I use?” which seems to put the cart before the horse.

      Anyway, in the context of this game of the Anti-Pool, if I understand you right then I should only have asked for a roll when the stated PC’s actions put them in some significant danger; if their actions aren’t putting them in potential danger, no roll. Period.

      I suppose a corollary of this is that the scenario should have enough potentially dangerous conflicts in it to make things interesting.

      I do want to mention what The Pool says about rolling:

      “Anyone can call for a die roll whenever a conflict is apparent or when someone wants to introduce a new conflict. Just broadly state your intention and roll.”

      As written, this isn’t the best rule, right? Because if anyone can call for a roll when a conflict is apparent, and a player is the one calling for it, they may not know whether this is actually a dangerous situation or not. So how would you rewrite that first half of the first sentence? Maybe: “When a player character’s actions trigger a danger, the GM should call for a roll.”

      Now how to make sense of the second half of that first sentence: “when someone wants to introduce a new conflict”? That seems to open up a Pandora’s box of questions. Did you already write about this elsewhere? Or am I making too much of it, and it is just meant to apply to actions  where the player is creating danger on the spot, like "I attack him!" when the NPC being attacked wasn't supposed to be dangerous?

    • Ok, so Ron kindly and

      Ok, so Ron kindly and generously took the time to talk to me about this over Discord voice. I’m going to try to summarize what I gleaned from our conversation here, so that those interested can see it, and also to see if I’ve got the gist or am still missing something.

      (1) I was construing the criteria for when to roll much too narrowly; it’s much wider than simply physical danger or risk. For example, when a PC wants to win the affections of an NPC, and the outcome is important to them, that could be a good place for a roll.

      (2) This I thought was particularly of note: the criteria for when to roll are not that easy to explain in words. People have said it in different ways. First, there’s some uncertainty about what will happen, and: there’s a conflict (but this depends on what “conflict” means), what’s happening is engaging, or interesting, or a significant change may take place, and so on. These are all different ways of trying to get at telling people when it’s a good time to roll.

      (3) A player calling for a roll is just as legitimate as the GM calling for a roll. In fact, it’s quite desirable: if you’re really into playing your character, then as you actively pursue your goals you will naturally help generate moments of importance to you where a roll is needed.

      (4) The GM is not in charge of entertaining everyone; it’s not their sole responsibility to bring the fun, or show everyone what their character needs to do. Both the GM and the player “prep” – i.e., the GM creates a backstory, and the players create backgrounds for their characters (including goals and so on), and they both play these, creating the fun together (I put “prep” in quotes because it doesn’t have to actually occur before the game starts).

      As I look at these points now, they seem like very basic ideas. But I’m very glad I had the chance to discuss them and have them identified, because as a teacher of mine once said, “a mastery of anything is a mastery of the fundamentals”.

      Also, Ron mentioned that Trollbabe is a good resource for examining some of these ideas, so I got the new edition and just started checking it out. It's amazing! If y'all don't have the 2009 edition yet, it's well worth getting. 

    • I concluded, a while ago,

      I concluded, a while ago, that terminology alone will never solve the problem.

      "Conflict," "interesting," "engaging," "important" are all correct. But none of them teach the concept accurately or show how to do it. Hunting for the right word, or encountering a word and trying to dope out what to do, will never work.

      The good news is that the activity we are talking about is not some ineffable Zen state that only elevated individuals can do, but instead is something that a lot of people do, on and off, sometimes, during play, and for many of them, it's the best and most satisfying play, it's just that they aren't seeing what specific procedures are involved each time.

      Therefore the teaching task is to direct someone's attention to it because they are sometimes already doing it. This is obstructed by the person failing to realize that they already do it, and therefore seeking some other "weird" or un-encountered, alien action or way to play.

      This puts them in a counter-productive cognitive state, i.e., they will get farther and farther away from the thing they're looking for. In that situation, seeking out "the right word" is absolutely the worst possible topic.

  2. Playing against one’s character

    A part of the game that I found particularly interesting is what Manu mentions only in passing:

    This left poor, phaser-stunned Lt. Moneaux alone to face the swirling lights.

    I had to actively choose to declare that Moneaux wasn't fit to run away and had to stay there and face the lights. It felt a bit forced in the moment, and I don't know if I did it to crush the boredom or because I wanted to explore my character's helplessness, but in any case this was definitely for the best as the game improved a lot after that moment.

    Was it maybe the GM's job to inflict such a consequence on my character? Did I break Czege's Principle a bit, or is this something unrelated to that?

    We had a brief talk about this in the post-game debrief and I mentioned that I would have been OK and probably enjoyed it if Manu had declared my character temporarily paraplegic from the psychedelic experience, as it would've been interesting to see how she developed when her ability to do her job was seriously jeopardized, beyond her insecurities.

    But I also said "Well, we don't know each other, so obviously you're not going to paralyze my character on our first game, right?".

    I don't know exactly what to make of this but I thought some of the readers of this comment might ask some interesting questions that lead to interesting revelations.

    • Hi Claudio! From my

      Hi Claudio! From my perspective as GM, I thought it would have been too heavy-handed to paralyze your character because of one failed roll that someone else had made – it felt like it would be taking too much choice away from you. If you’d chosen to run instead, you’d have to make a roll to escape, like the others. If you failed, you would have met the alien, and if you succeeded, you could choose a MOV and either meet the alien or not, but it would be your choice. That was my thinking at the time 🙂

      I recall a long thread on the Forge about players wanting their characters to fail, have you read that? You might find it interesting!

    • I don’t remember reading it,

      I don't remember reading it, but if you could find a link to it it would be really useful, thanks!

    • I think that thread is useful

      I think that thread is useful for this post and discussion, as it brings up quite a bit about character advocacy as the foundation for succeeding and for failing.

      However, as a word of warning to anyone clicking on it for the first time, it is definitely not about "players wanting their characters to fail." Role-playing posts have a long history of deceptive or face-saving titles, and that's an excellent example.

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