I ran this 3-session game of The Pool with some friends while taking the Adept Play course Playing with The Pool. It was everybody’s first time with this system. I’m going to talk about our experiences with The Pool, particularly the perceived death spiral, and how players used Monologues of Victory (MOVs).
My start file and a copy of our character keeper (final state) are attached. The induction process which Ron proposes worked brilliantly. The setting that I suggested inspired the other players to make characters that they were excited about, and their characters in turn gave me enough to build a situation that I was excited to play.
Briefly: the setting/genre was space opera + necromancy; yes, strongly influenced byTamsin Muir’s Gideon The Ninth and its sequels which I had just read, but also The Expanse (and of course the ur space opera, Dune). The player characters were knights or necromancers (interestingly, the players of both knights decided their characters were partially undead). The solar system’s noble houses were vying for control of the megascale space station built around the moon (see image). Bribes, sabre duels and backstabbing featured prominently, even between members of the same House. It was a poorly-kept secret that the station’s previous custodians, House Morningstar, had been developing forbidden tech somewhere below the Moon’s surface.
It’s easy to look at the mechanics of The Pool and convince yourself that there’s an inherent death spiral, i.e. once you lose a roll, you’ll tend to keep losing them. And failure’s irresistible gravity was certainly felt during our first session. One player lost every roll, from the start of the session until he was out of Pool points. The others didn’t fare well either. After the session, a conversation broke out over how to “fix” The Pool. We ended up re-inventing The Anti-Pool variant.
But I went over all our rolls after the game, and found that we had just been victims of bad luck. Even among rolls with a better than 50% chance of success (5 dice or more), less than half of rolls had succeeded. Nonetheless, the impression of a death spiral had been created.
Unsurprisingly, none of the players had chosen to take an MOV, feeling that they couldn’t afford to give up the +1 Pool die for a successful roll. But I really wanted to see some MOVs in play. So before the second session, I bribed the players with a generous top-up of Pool points in exchange for promises to take some MOVs. To my surprise, everyone immediately spent their new Pool points to upgrade some Traits!
In that and subsequent sessions (we continued using the same rules), dice outcomes returned to the mean. We even saw some desperate 3- and 4-die rolls turn out in the player’s favour. And we saw Pool-poor characters build their Pools back up from 1.
I actually came to really appreciate the unpredictability of rolls in The Pool. Even with 3 dice, the fewest you’re likely to roll with, the chance of success is nearly even at 42%. And even with 9 dice, the 20% chance of failure will regularly bite overconfident players. The effect of this unpredictability was many plot twists and reversals of fortune. The resultant story was far better than anyone could have planned.
To Monologue, Or Not To Monologue
We saw some MOVs in the second and third sessions; at first because I had bribed players to try them, but thereafter just for the pure joy of it. I had purposely kept my own outcome narrations brief, while reminding players that their monologues could be more colourful and specific about the results of their actions. I’ll mention a couple of MOVs that stood out for me.
Rancine was a supposedly mindless undead knight with the traits “Resisting” and “Awakening”. Someone whom she met on station, Dr. Chaster, triggered a memory that had been suppressed by her House necrotechs. Through play, she managed to recover the memory, and recalled Chaster standing by while her own House forced her to betray her own brother (the player came up with this specific memory). Later, she had the opportunity to either protect or help to assassinate Chaster. The player won a roll against him and took the MOV: She held her sword tip against his chest and said “Don’t worry Dr. Chaster, I won’t hurt you. I think of you as a brother.” And as realization dawned on his face, she pushed the blade in.
The player had taken the MOV just so that she could deliver that line, and it was a wonderful moment.
Another use of the MOV was more about character effectiveness. Tanser, a character with cybernetic brain implants, was trying to flee security bots, but they were everywhere. The player had lost every hacking roll against the station security AI up to that point, and the AI had emerged as a significant antagonist. On the run, he accessed the WiFi and sent conflicting information about his movements to the AI, trying to throw the security bots into disarray. The roll was a success and the player took the MOV. He narrated that he had so disordered the station security AI that it went completely offline, all across the station, for a 20-minute reboot. After so many losses to the AI, this felt like a significant victory for him.
The conclusion of the story, completely emergent, was intensely satisfying. After the players had discovered the secret lab and the abominable new necrotech that House Morningstar had developed, the player of Rancine the Death Knight added to her story: “I suspect I was part of this necromantic experimentation. I plan to destroy it.” She had also, by chance, come into possession of a backpack full of explosives…
In the final session, Rancine made her way down to the not-so-secret lab. Her House handler saw what she was about to do, and tried to put the necromantic whammy on her, but by this time Rancine’s “Awakening” trait was up to +3, and she handily won that roll (character development!).
She knew everyone else was vying for control of the station mainly to gain ownership of this tech. Rancine set the bomb timer to 5 seconds and walked into the lab, interrupting a tense stand-off. A House colleague of hers (another PC) said “At last, the cavalry are here!”, then recognized the backpack, his face fell, and…
(Image credits: Necromanceress: Grigory Lebidko. Space station: Denis Melnychenko.)