So I had the chance to play the Pool with a couple of excellent roleplayers this past weekend, and it helped spark some thoughts for me. Let me describe a particular moment from the game, and then how I applied a lesson from it to a wider context.
At one point, an NPC was trying to convince the other PC to go to the hospital, as he was concerned about her. She didn’t want to go, and so her player made a roll to see if she could persuade him to go away and leave her alone; the roll was a failure.
At that point, there was a momentary bit of confusion. The player assumed we would switch the location to the hospital immediately, while the GM said, no, we’re still in the apartment: the NPC has not been convinced to leave, so they’re still there, but no one has gone to the hospital yet. The player stated that, since they failed the roll, they should now be in the hospital, and he was fine with that, while the GM responded all he’d rolled for was whether his PC convinced the NPC to leave. So we proceeded from that point.
Now none of this turned out to be significant in practice – it had no effect on later play, and the session was a very enjoyable one. The reason I’m mentioning it is because it’s an illustration for me of an important nuance in the Pool: namely, that the scope of a roll is the GM’s responsibility to determine. The phrasing of this is, at best, indirect in the text of the Pool itself, but I’m currently taking Ron’s thought-provoking class Playing with the Pool, which is where he mentioned it.
For me this is an important concept, as simple or obvious as it probably is for most people. One reason is because I’ve been thinking of how best to run action-packed games, and I figured the Pool would be a bad choice, for a couple of reasons (both mistaken).
The first reason has to do precisely with the scope of the roll in the Pool. The text is a bit vague on it, but most of the times I’ve played the game or seen it played, a single roll will cover an entire fight. Now, if I’m running a game that’s heavy on the action, sometimes that’s ok, if a fight isn’t that important or particularly dramatic – maybe, a fight vs. some mooks or underlings for example. In other games like D&D or Savage Worlds, such fights can sometimes be tedious slogs: “I swing. 12 total. Miss. The orc swings. 8 total, miss. Next.” A bunch of rolls can be made, but nothing actually happens.
So on the one hand, I appreciate the fact that in the Pool, that kind of tedium won’t occur. On the other hand, what if the conflict is really dramatic and significant for the players? For example:
When their PC spots a demon who killed one of their teachers, the player says, ‘“Akaza! I’ve
found you at last. Now you’ll pay for what you did to Rengoku Sensei, all those years ago.
Makanaizo!” I draw my sword.’
For a situation like this, I personally find it anti-climactic for the entire fight to be decided by one roll. I want there to at least be the potential for some back-and-forth action. So I didn’t think the Pool would suit my play style for action games. But if the scope of a roll is up to the GM, then there’s nothing to prevent the GM from varying the scope of the roll, as they see fit, to match the dramatic needs of the moment. So if it’s a fight with an underling or two, one roll could work for the entire conflict; if it’s a dramatic fight against a Big Boss, then we can narrow the scope to a series of blows, or even just one blow at a time.
The second reason I thought the Pool wouldn’t work – and where another “light bulb” lit up for me in the course – was about lethality in the Pool. In the Pool, the GM is supposed to tell the player when a roll is potentially lethal, and if the roll fails, the next roll is a death roll to see if the character dies. Now in real life, of course, anytime you strike someone with force, the blow is potentially lethal. So I naively interpreted the lethality rule to imply that for any fight or physical conflict, the GM has to inform the players the consequences could be lethal – which means the game would automatically be very deadly, and not suited for cinematic action.
Ron pointed out that rather than the GM being a slave to some real-world notion of what’s lethal, the GM *controls* what’s lethal, in a game-mechanical sense. That means it’s up to the GM how deadly a game they want to run, and cinematic action is certainly an option. If a character wants to run through a hail of bullets and dive through a window, no problem – the GM is free to not label the roll as lethal. Fight off a bunch of armed ronin single-handedly? That doesn’t have to be labeled lethal either. This seems like a simple and obvious point, but to me it was a revelation.
So, if I choose to run, say, my Demon Hunter game using the Pool, it seems to me that as GM I can use my power over the scope of the roll, and over whether to label a roll as lethal, as dials or levers to adjust the level of deadliness and amount of cinematic action the game has. There’s nothing inherent in the Pool that prevents one from using it to run an over-the-top, cinematic action-style game. I haven’t done it yet, but now I’m not afraid to at least try.
Does that sound right? I appreciate any comments and analysis.