RPG Conversation: The Pool

Over the last few weeks, Jon, Sean and I have been playing a game of the Pool in a fantasy setting initially slapped together using a single picture as inspiration (I think this is one of Ron's techniques, and I played in a game that Ross started this way years ago). This week's intended game session turned into kind of an RPG chat session, and I decided to go ahead and turn on the recorder and get some thoughts on video. I interrupted too much and occassionally missed some cool things that Jon was talking about because I was trying to futz around with the audio settings, but apart from those deficiencies I think it was a really good talk.

I started it off with some thoughts I had about the Pool and agency, and I’m not 100% sure I used the term correctly as Ron’s defined it here, so I’m open to correction on that. When I talk about “getting to be a person” or something similar, it’s inspired by Ron’s final line in a comment here: https://adeptplay.com/comment/4654#comment-4654

In the middle bit, we talk about good practices for initiating rolls, springboarding off two instances of play from our game, which I think would make a pretty good textbook case study. And finally we talk a little about “doing fantasy” with The Pool, with Sean’s concluding comments about the joys of sharing your fantasy with someone else being one of my favorite moments.


18 responses to “RPG Conversation: The Pool”

  1. Great viewing and listening

    It's practically a sister class to our just-concluded "Playing with The Pool," as if there were two distinctive instructors (or moderators, whatever) for a single course, in different sections. By difference, I mean something extremely valuable; I've never favored identical content across presentations of the same thing. I'm looking forward to comments that cross over either way.

    A couple of scribbles from my viewing:

    • The term agency is employed exactly as I'd like to see it – not even the tiniest objection or qualification.
    • The flexibility of narrating an outcome, in terms of run-up to the conclusive actions and also of immediate fallout from them, was a big point in the course:

    • There are so many odd little things which creep into any mention of "playing dungeon crawls." Sometimes I think 1970s Tunnels & Trolls and Dungeons & Dragons would fail the modern-day dungeon crawl smell test, in terms of the expected system features.
  2. Great Conversation

    Great Conversation guys! I dealt with many of the same issues in my recent pool game that I just described in my latest post, I'm curious what reactions and insights you might have to that. 

    In your conversation, I found the part interesting where Rod mentioned that things went more smoothly when the intention wasn't clearly stated. I admit to being confused by this. Can you elaborate?

    • Hi Manu, I don’t remember

      Hi Manu, I don't remember exactly what I said (I should watch the video again) but the point wasn't so much about smoothness as about the opportunity for divergent and personal interpretations of "success" to take the fiction in interesting directions. In the case of the roll I described, Sean simply gave the speech that his character was giving, more or less, and I called for the roll. Upon his succeeding and taking the die (giving me the narration), I decided that the crowd didn't understand the substance of his speech (confession time: *I* didn't understand the substance of his speech) but was ready to act enthusiastically on behalf of a persecuted/suppressed religious figure, and went and trashed some statues of the persecutor. This was at the very end of the session, so the real impact of the roll is likely to be felt the next time we play, when the Lotus Seer has this mob at her disposal for future action (and the Emperor finds out about all this unrest). I don't know what Sean would have said if he had taken the narration, but I think it would have been meaningfully different — maybe he can weigh in if he gets a chance.

    • Interesting, so in IIEE terms

      Interesting, so in IIEE terms, you rolled even before the first "I" was clear?

      Did you find yourself doing this in general, or did this vary?

    • Also, was there any

      Also, was there any discussion about the scope of what the roll covered before Sean rolled, or were you pretty clear from the context what it should be? I'm interested in this because in my recent game I adjusted the scope all the time. 

    • If I’m understanding

      If I'm understanding correctly, Manu, you've read Rod's description exactly in reverse. Sean delivered the speech before the roll, so the sequence was IIE [roll] E.

      It may be also be helpful to review the comments in The Pool San Diego.

    • Ok the Pool San Diego

      Ok the Pool San Diego comments were very helpful, in a general sense.

      I'm totally confused by this specific case, though – I thought Rod didn't know what the character's intent was when the roll came. 

    • confession time: *I* didn’t

      confession time: *I* didn't understand the substance of his speech

      I think its okay to say "WTF is Sean talking about." The speech was meant to be vague and open ended though it might have come out a little too Life of Brian. Despite that not being the intent of the message. But in the fiction the character was attempting to open up people to the idea that change can be a good or neutral affair, not just bad. And that change is inevitable.

      but I think it would have been meaningfully different

      I think so too. My main intention was for the nobility and the people to ease their tension about the upcoming changes to their city in an attempt to limit anxiety and bloodshed. But also setting up my character's, well character to either take the blame or continue to act as a salve against what's coming depending on how the situation plays out. My own MOV would have been more subtle, but I loved what Rod did.

      And I think this is the strength of The Pool for me. In any given situation there are three possible avenues of next. And often you really do not know what is coming out of your mouth until it does. Its exciting! I do not know if I was able to bring this up in the video, but there is never a moment where I as a player feel I have to protect my turf. And I feel, for me, that the limits of what I can do or say come naturally as an outgrowth of one-part buikding up trust with the players over several games and one-part The Pool itself. 

      Hope this makes sense. 

    • Manu, realize I did not

      Manu, realize I did not answer this part. There was to my recollection little or no discussion of scope. In fact I am sure we did not discuss scope before I rolled.

    • Thanks so much, Sean! Now I

      Thanks so much, Sean! Now I get it, apologies for being slow on the uptake. 

      So, based on the experiences y'all have had, what would your advice for a GM running the Pool be, specifically with regard to when to call for a roll?

  3. Some thoughts based on some notes I made while listening to this

    starting with thanks to Rod for recording the discussion.
    I may have missunderstood things, feel free to correct me in that case.

    • Gambling Pool dice
      right in the beginning you talk about how a persons gambling “preferences” can influence the way they use their dice pool. I found it rather interesting how you seemed to frame it as a possibility as I so far have tried to determine the number of pool dice I'd use to the “perceived probability” a roll should have under the fictional circumstances I look at. So not how much I like to go all out or to “guaranty” my characters success. I agree that this decision (whatever it may look like) is part of our agency, I simply never stopped to think about it.
    • Not going to far when describing intent so it will make a difference who is narrating a success.
      That is really important but I feel can be rather difficult in certain circumstances (at least for me). The game definitely helps to be aware of the trap the “to much talking before” is although I completely agree with Jon here, sometimes it isn't before afterwards that you realize you went to far.

    • Defining the character during play, by “adding” information that is not in the (initial) character text
      another thing I never thought explicitely about, but I do it. I have to admit I don't even have to take a MOV for that, it often just happens during play for me. A recent example would be my character from this (link to Manu's post) game where I followed the instructions to include my characters powers in the text but did not detail them in any way – I did think them through, so I knew how I would describe them in use. Also for me, how the type of powers/magic/abilities will cristalize out during play (including succeeded or failed rolls) to the point where everybody instinctivly knows what is possible and what isn't possible for a character after a while (I think Jon described this) is part of this.

    • Sean's “famous last words”– take the die and letting the gm narrate “victory” to get surprised by what your own character does – just want to say how much I agree with that.

    Somewhat outside of this, question(s) about preparation. I have figured most people use a “three step approach” but are a little curious about what and how much you put into your initial information for the players and what and how much you take from the players character texts they provide you with.

    Going by what I've seen “in class” (I attended Ron's course about playing with the Pool) and in recent posts the initial information often includes pictures – sometimes of possible protagonists, sometimes of places – and a very short textual description (a couple of lines, at maximum I'd say between 100 to 200 words0) and in one case a sound-track. Pictures and sound-tracks always make me think – but what if I missinterpret them, so I'm thankfull for the little text bits.
    Anyway, my question is: how and how much do you prepare before the first session and – apart from Jon's anecdote, have you ever had “uncomfortable” surprises when getting the character texts or during the first session?

    • Hi Helma — In the case of

      Hi Helma — In the case of the game I'm running that's discussed here, the preparation in advance of the first session was extremely brief. I showed Sean and Jon the picture

      and they made character stories based solely on responding to it, coming up with a persecuted prophet and a failed monk. I took about fifteen or twenty minutes to throw together some backstory and a starting sitation in response to the details we provided, and we started playing. After the first session, I did more fleshing out of the backstory and preparing new locations based on what happened and where they said they were headed. So in the case of this approach at least, misinterpreting the prompt isn't a danger, because nothing exists to misinterpret before the players create their characters.

    • Hi Helma –

      Hi Helma –

      Regarding preparation: for the two games that I have been playing, I did a similar amount of prep, taking similar steps. I provided the group with a one page document with a list of inspirational media, a paragraph about the setting, with a little bit of detail about the general situation going on there. I provided a few examples of questions that could be addressed when writing their characters' 50 word story. I provided a few examples of possible character types (keeping things very broad). I then provided a few inspirational images.

      Once I received the characters back from the players, I then drew up a list of NPCs, either taken from the stories, implied by the stories, or implied by the general situation suggested in my initial document. I tried to figure out what all of those NPCs would be up to.

      At that point, I had a list of NPCs with motivations, plans, secrets, etc. as well as stories for the player characters. If the player character story stated or implied that they were in motion or referenced them being in the middle of some kind of active situation of their own, I built directly off that to frame their first scene. If the player character story didn't have that kind of active element I looked at the list of NPCs and tried to figure out if any of their actions made sense to be directed against the player character to provide for some kind of adversity in the opening scene.

      Regarding surprises: out of the 9 total characters created for recent Pool games where I am the GM, I haven't had any uncomfortable surprises. I've been surprised in a good way most of the time. 2 of the 9 characters I did have concerns that the player hadn't connected with my inspirational material in the way I had hoped for (or intended), and, in one of those cases, the misalignment with the idiom has continued in play to a certain extent. But I haven't had the experience of seeing a story that made me uncomfortable going forward with seeing that character in play.

  4. well but if, then

    In the video, one of you (sorry, I listened to it and didn't watch, and I'm not familiar with you guys so I don't know who it was) talked about someone he once played Sorcerer with, who was adept at sort of setting up any conflict as un-losable, i.e., talking and pre-narrating in an effort to minimize the impact of the dice roll on the outcome as much as possible. Basically, to try to cram as much of the latter half of IIEE into the established fiction before the roll. I too have played with folks like this, and it is exhausting. It's a constant struggle to point to the rules and say, "no, you can't say C and D because that's what we're rolling to find out. At most you can go as far as B." Often, when I have laid it out clear for this type of person that conflict is at hand and we are rolling for the outcome of it, and they can't pre-load the outcome, they will back down and say that if that's how this is going to go, then that isn't really what they want their character to do, after all, and they back out entirely from the conflict at hand, and from really playing the game.

    All that to say that I have also found my play of The Pool to be informative in terms of how little is actually needed in those moments of conflict to be able to go to the dice so that we have enough constraints for those dice to give us a sensible outcome. And thinking about it and reading posts like this and listening to conversations like this has given me more tools in how to express that at the table. So, thanks. Good discussion.

  5. Conversation number two

    I recorded a second conversation about this game with Sean and Jon, following its conclusion. Here, the plan was to review the history of the entire game, both fictionally and in terms of our own actions and preparation. The result is long and sprawling, but I think there are some interesting case studies in Pool application along the way. Near the end, we're discussing the final session, where a lot of story material is coming to a head — a trial for heresy, a mystic revelation, sky raiders attacking in broad daylight — and I find myself worrying about whether I forcibly pushed some elements aside to rush the game to a conclusion. We talked a bit about that and I mostly settled my conscience. Later I had some time to process and it occurred to me that I had a tool that could have helped me in the moment — my little notebook, where I'd been taking prep notes and drawing little maps throughout the course of play. Using it during play to take some notes about the complex situation and make sure I understood what demanded to be addressed would have been a load off my mind. Something I'll keep in mind next time I run the Pool.

    Creating Fantasy with The Pool

    • Oh, one more thing — the

      Oh, one more thing — the character sheets:

      After second session:

      Gyakran renounced his noble lineage, and journeyed to a secret monastery to learn the secrets of the Suntop monks, defying physics with their movements. He sought transcendence out of the material realm, but found that he was anchored to Earth by his anger. Exiled from the monastery, he now wanders the realm, looking for a purpose. He feels ashamed that Varga escaped: they will meet again.
      Noble lineage +1
      The secrets of the Suntop Monks +2
      Anger +2
      Looking for a purpose +1
      Pool: 3

      I am my family’s flower and jewel. They can no longer protect me. I am the Lotus Seer and last daughter. I studied magic at the feet of Choricus and learned battle by the side of Rivkan. I must find a way to pass on my fire before I die. Crossways was touched by the fates and I have a new ally in the fight.
      I am the Lotus Seer +2
      Studied magic with Choricus +1
      Learned battle from Rivkan +1
      I must find a way to pass on my fire before I die: +1
      Pool: 5

      Before final session:

      Gyakran renounced his noble lineage, and journeyed to a secret monastery to learn the secrets of the Suntop monks, defying physics with their movements and overcoming matter with the force of their minds. He sought transcendence out of the material realm, but found that he was anchored to Earth by his anger. Exiled from the monastery, he now wanders the realm, looking for a purpose: he isn't sure if protecting the Lotus Seer is it, but it'll do for now. He’s unsure of bigger political issues, but values the freedom of individual souls. He feels ashamed that Varga escaped him twice: he has vowed that their next meeting will be decisive. He journeys now to defend the family he once was determined to leave behind: he no longer feels he can leave his father to his fate without doing something to save him. He’s now questioning the relevance of the Suntop philosophy he once was devoted to.
      Noble lineage +1
      The secrets of the Suntop Monks +2
      Anger +2
      Looking for a purpose +1
      Varga Family +1
      Questioning the relevance of the Suntop philosophy
      Pool 1

      I am my family’s flower and jewel. They can no longer protect me. I am the Lotus Seer and last daughter. I studied magic at the feet of Choricus and learned battle by the side of Rivkan. I must find a way to pass on my fire before I die. Crossways was touched by the fates and I have a new ally in the fight. My books have failed me and I now must rely on faith. One cannot stand before the wave and expect to be unmoved. I do not know how many players should be added to this game. Many shadows seek our flesh, but the avatar of night seeks to dominate us. Family politics are both boon and bane, but are the only politics that matter. Am I the prisoner or am I the jailor? I may soon have to relinquish the gift of sight and life, to save two empires.
      I am the Lotus Seer +2
      Studied magic with Choricus +1
      Learned battle from Rivkan +1
      I must find a way to pass on my fire before I die: +1
      My Books have failed me.
      Am I the prisoner or am I the jailor? +1

    • I’ll be reviewing both

      I’ll be reviewing both conversations again as I put together the next offering of Playing with The Pool, probably in the term after the upcoming one.

      Right now I’m halfway through this conversation and here are some scribbles.

      Breadth of traits. For a vague and potentially wide-open trait, what I do is go with however the player uses it the first and maybe the next couple of times, and that sets “what it is” for me. Typically it’s still pretty wide but now I have a sense of the end-boundaries on either side. If they go beyond those later, or in some offbeat direction compared to the original spectrum, then I say no, look, we know what it’s like and what it does now, you said it yourself. Claudio’s frog’s Yuk-Ways were a good example – I think the video includes me expressing some boundary for it in one of the later sessions, in these terms.

      What a given roll can do. In a lot of ways the rules for Polaris aren’t anything but the implied judgments and statements that go into a Pool roll, merely slowed down a little for back-and-forth and stated more completely. Meaning, in playing The Pool, there is in fact a perfectly reasonable organization of the outcome authorities, including required content that the authoritative person at this moment has to receive from the other.

      Whether to roll. It sounds like a general topic, but the case in question is pretty specialized. The character has succeeded in something which is clearly contextual for the next thing, to the extent that the next thing is arguably pre-succeeded. Instead of, for instance, providing three Gift dice for the next roll, which I guess is the go-to most of the time, in this case, the GM decides to treat this action as if it had been included before that successful roll, because as it’s turned out, it might as well have been.

      Lotus Seer’s big roll. Am I remembering correctly, Sean, that a similar if not exactly the same topic showed up in another Pool discussion or something similar, for a character you played? Influencing a crowd or something, and the GM wasn’t sure what it would do, or what you were even saying? Anyway, to include the topic of my roll for Willy in the Bulwark game, I think the core concept in both cases is that the trait itself is built to cause trouble in a wider or more flexible scope than the character realizes is happening. It might even have ripple effects outside the scope of the immediate circumstances, or it might invoke information that the speaker doesn’t have. So whoever’s narrating can’t consult the character intentions to say what it does successfully or unsuccessfully. They have to shape the outcome in the conflict of the moment to whatever extent they’re allowed (in fact, required), but also require whoever does have authority over the parts they don’t know to do something with it.  GM to pull in or create backstory. I think we should give some attention to that initial narration, as it’s very important and allows the second speaker a lot to work with, enough to decide what to ripple out or what to invoke. But that first speaker really does have an important job. It would be really bad just to hold up a hula hoop, i.e, an empty thing, and tell Jon to jump through it.

      On to the second half.

    • Hey Ron, I think the example

      Hey Ron, I think the example you're thinking of for "The Lotus Seer's Big Roll" is actually in the original video for this post, starting at the 15:30 mark. I hadn't even thought about comparing the similarities between the two situations before you brought it up.

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