Climbing out of the Pool after 18 sessions

We finished our game of the Pool set in an alternate magical/fantasy Napoleonic era India/Afghanistan. We played 18 sessions.

The final confrontation saw Brigadier General Jean-Jacqyes d’Espoir defy his superior (Lord Lumley, Albion’s Governor General of their Mountain Kingdom colony; also the husband of Espoir’s unrequited love interest) and attack Shah Durani, a diabolist and tyrant whom Lumley wanted to prop up as the new King. Espoir used his innate, naive but by this point extremely powerful magic to mind wipe (and learn for himself) Durani’s ability to control his demon army: no longer able to control them, they turned on Durani, though Espoir managed to banish them before they could cause too much harm.

Meanwhile, Nikolay Sidorov, a Russian prince exiled for his populist politics, had managed to help foment an uprising in the Mountain Kingdom and install a former servant as the new leader of the Kingdom.

We ended there, with a number of questions that we can come back to answer if we want to pick up these characters again.

Regarding character development, the pdf we were using says that you add 15 words and also refresh each characters’ Pool to 9 dice in between sessions. This seemed overly generous, given that we were playing 2 hour sessions, so we changed it up to have this advancement occur every other session (approximately every 4 hours of play, usually enough for 6-8 scenes and 10-12 rolls; we didn’t always remember to do this though and so Espoir only had 7 advancements over 18 sessions). This still turned out to be overly generous, I think. Because of this, the characters not only had quite a lot in their Pool at any given time but also bulked up some huge traits (we didn’t cap the traits, either). The effect was that once we were 6-7 sessions in, the player characters would tend to have a string of successes, building up momentum, and imposing their will on the world around them… and then finally they’d get a failure, which would act as a huge reversal (and because they were still rolling 9-10 dice at a time usually felt like a huge betrayal). This was a much different feel than I am seeing in the two hard boiled crime Pool games I am currently running, where we are adding only one die to the characters’ Pools after each session, and where we’re rolling 4-5 dice at a time usually. In those games, there’s much more back and forth between success and failure.

Here’s Jean-Jacques at the beginning:

Born to a Gallic father and Albion mother, he fights for the glory of Albion. His skills as a swordsman are bolstered by an unknown latent magical ability. He fights for glory and to win the hand of his lost love, now married for 22 years. Trusting to a fault.

Swordsman +1 Latent Magic +2 Hopeful +1 Honor +2

Here he is 18 sessions later (7 advancements):

Born to a Gallic father and Albion mother, he fights for the glory of Albion. His skills as a swordsman are bolstered by an unknown latent magical ability. He fights for glory and to win the hand of his lost love, now married for 22 years. Hopeful to a fault. He accidentally enchanted his horse, which never ages or tires. He is a fluent linguist. He now has a dragon and a protégée, Lumley, and a trusted crew, Hero Squad. Slowly he is becoming more political about his decision making and his attempts at espionage. He’s learning to use all the magical and military knowledge and resources at his command. In a show of magical prowess he defeated a giant and temporarily dispersed an uprising. Amid the shifting political landscape, he is using all his powers to solidify Albion control. He has the spirits of the Mountain Kingdom with him amid the changing political landscape.

Hope +1 Honour +3 Swordsmanship +2 Magic +5 Patient +1 Romantic +1 Dragon +3 Languages +1 Protégée +2 Horse +1 Giant killer +3 Spirits +3

And here’s how Nikolay started in Session 6:

Nikolay Sidorov is a prince of the Rus empire, exiled by his uncle due to his populist sympathies. Suffering from a rot of the lungs, he has taken up residence at a posh sanatorium in the Inner City. He sells black market ancient artifacts to fund his increasingly decadent lifestyle.

Decadent +2 Lung rot +1 Prince +2 Black market +1

And here he is at the end:

Nikolay Sidorov is a prince of the Rus empire, exiled by his uncle due to his populist sympathies. Formerly suffering from a rot of the lungs, he has taken up residence at a posh sanatorium in the Inner City. He hunts and sells black market ancient artifacts to fund his political ambitions. His man, Sarbon, who accompanied him on social calls and performed odd jobs for him, relies on Nikolay for policy advice as the head of an uprising. Nikolay is becoming entrenched in Mountain Kingdom culture and wears a traditional turban and robe and is learning mountain kingdom dialects to blend in with the local people. He has a sardula mount that he rides into battle.

Decadent +2 Sarbon +2 Lung rot +1 Prince +3 Black market +1 Advisor + 2 Posh residence + 1 Populist +3 Uprising +3 Artifact hunter +2 Mountain Kingdom culture +2 Sardula +2 Blend in +1

Playing the game was fun and I also learned a lot.

The first six sessions made up a chapter that ended up being very action packed: this ended with the death of one of the original player characters and Espoir’s victory and promotion. Chapter 2 had Espoir as a General and introduced Nikolay and his political schemes: it became less about individual action and more about the characters using their influence over others (Espoir over his soldiers, Nikolay over the people involved in the uprising) to achieve their goals. And so we saw a wide range in the scope of the outcomes of various rolls, with lots of complicated interactions between the successes (and failures) of the two characters (even though they were rarely in the same scene).

2 responses to “Climbing out of the Pool after 18 sessions”

  1. Another observation about the rate of refreshing the Pool

    As I mentioned, the textual rule that we were adapting regarding refreshing your pool between sessions was that if you have fewer than nine dice in your pool at the end of a session you increase it to nine in between. This seemed too fast, so we did this after every other session. In the subsequent games of the Pool I've been playing, we've changed it to adding one die to the pool after each session.

    In this game, there were two player characters and we played for two hour sessions (on average). This comes down to a refresh rate of 2.25 dice added back to their pools for every hour of play. In the Bulwark game, we're playing one hour sessions and are getting back a die each time. But this difference in rates does not seem to be as meaningful or impactful as the difference between getting that single die dribbled in hour after hour versus getting a bunch of dice at once. With the players knowing that at the end of every other session they'd be getting a relatively huge refresh back to nine dice, there was more incentive to go all in, especially in conflicts that would be happening leading up to the refresh point.

    I bring this up because it seems like how much, how often, and in what manner (or if you do it all) you are refreshing characters' pool is an important design choice: my experience so far pushes me to want to avoid things like getting a lump sum at once, as it sets up incentives that distort the cycle of play.

    • I’ll take that further: I

      I'll take that further: I have observed closed-economy strategy generally to ruin the game. The pool, a number of dice, is best understood as accumulated experience points, which may be used either to increase the character's standing effectiveness or for a one-time bonus at a cheaper rate. This is very common feature among role-playing systems and shouldn't be regarded as special or magic.

      If you regard these dice instead as an investment in a future all-in-rolled Monologue of Victory, as their purpose or point, everything goes awry, not least because there is in fact no pay-off GM-for-a-day in a bottle. The list of innumerate fallacies that fold into this outlook is pretty long, so it's more important to point to the primary error of high-risk hedge-fund play. It's an error because it simply doesn't apply; the flow of dice into play is linear and entropic – you get them, you use them one way or another, and in use, they are gone. Acquisition is easy: the more you roll, the more you'll get, not every time, but very steadily. Loss is entirely voluntary; if you don't want to lose any dice from the pool, you don't have to.

      The +1 per session technique supports this understanding by "steadying" the ongoing acquisition a little, such that everyone gets something. It reinforces the existing function of the pool dice as a standard XP process,

      The refill method is based on the hedge-fund thinking, including its constant sense of helplessness that one's effectiveness and one's "power" will at any moment be taken away, so one starts whining for the bail-out.


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