Calling Rolls and “Unresolving” statements

So, while getting feedback for my “Poolpendium”, I have recently discovered that a specific way I play “The Pool” is not that common among other people as I had originally thought.

When I’m GMing, I’ll sometimes give bad or undesirable outcomes to see if the player is willing to roll for it, sometimes reminding them of the option. When I’m not GMing, I’ll call for rolls sometimes to (attempt to) modify resolving statements made by the GM.

—You get to the keep with the rest of the fleeing soldiers, however in the rush to escape, Lady Lafrenia’s wounds get the best of her and she is left behind. She’s probably dead. Unless you roll for it.”

—No she’s not, I wanna roll for that.

Or similarly:

—General Meyer takes the idol and leaves with his soldiers.

—The hell he does! I’ll roll for it.

The statement is “unapplied” and turned into a statement of intent as soon as we decide to roll for it.

This is similar to how turning a statement into a conflict works in Polaris, or to my drifted application of the Resistance rules in Scum&Villainy/BitD.

In the end, this turns out to be incredibly functional and fun. In a “What do you think about that, huh? Wanna roll?” kind of way.

At least, I like it.


16 responses to “Calling Rolls and “Unresolving” statements”

  1. Oh man, this is powerful.

    I’m comparing this in my head to how I would state those moments. Like:
    —You are almost to the keep when you notice Lady Lafrenia’s retinue falling behind. The Lady has collapsed. Their pursuers are catching up. What do you do?

    By choosing the moment of decision for them, I am perhaps hinting at what I think they should be doing (i.e. obviously I think they should run back and defend the Lady).

    Your way seems more dramatic — you are definitely signaling what’s at stake here! And I think your way is less suggestive of what the player-characters _should_ do — which is a good thing. You just state an imminent outcome and let them react. It’s cleaner.

    • Yes, I think this might be one of the reasons that I like this. There’s no suggestion that the player -should- do something.

      Obviously, if sometimes I want to suggest that they should do something, I also do it the other way around.

      “As you walk through the tunnel with the other refugees, you see Esphére the quartermarter slip away in a side tunnel. Do you do anything about that?”

  2. And well, obviously it only works if the players *know* they can invoke a roll. But player-invoked rolls happen quite a bit in my games, so they usually do.

  3. It’s interesting that you relate this to Resistance rolls in Blades in the Dark because I was just explaining to some friends that I don’t like Resistance rolls precisely because of this phenomenon. I said that I don’t like being forced to roll-back things I’ve already stated. It feels like wasted words.

    Partially, this is because I don’t like putting in the cognitive effort of imagining and stating an outcome only to have it erased. I find that exhausting. I prefer to identify that a situation is tense and then only worry about “what goes wrong” after I know it has gone wrong.

    In your example of fleeing pursuers on the way to the keep. I would call for a roll to see if they make it safely. If they fail then I will think about what not making it safely means. “Ah, The Lady falls behind and is captured.”

    Sometimes, I might get a little more concrete, “The lady stumbles and falls behind what do you do?” But then I don’t want to think about what leaving her behind means (Is she dead, captured, lost?) until I know for sure she is left behind either through inaction or a bad outcome. And succeeding doesn’t mean she didn’t stumble and fall behind, it just means you successfully went back and got her. So there’s no unwinding of my words.

    There’s a bit of subtlety around this because of course there are times I assert things and a player might say, “Wait, can I intervene in that?” Most of the time, I say yes unless there’s an obvious reason why they can’t intervene. But I consider this case to be more like an overplay on my part. I accidentally skipped over a bit of tension that should have have called for a roll. Which, to me, is different than asserting something and allowing a roll to revert it as a matter of base procedure.

    • I get your point, on the other hand I think this works *if and only if* the call for a roll is made shortly after the statement.

      If you think about it, you do the same thing when you say “I hit the goblin with my sword!”. You’re not hitting the goblin, you’re declaring your character’s intent. If this is common procedure, it’s understood by anyone at the table.

      When analyzing “The Pool” we talked about how I+IEE feels different than IIE+E and how the first feels like “rolling back” if you’re used to the second, and how it’s mostly a question of habit.

      I think this is a similar thing. Essentially, the statement about Lady Lafrenia was a statement of *risk* until everyone had the chance to, implicitly or explicitly, decide if they wanna roll for it or not.

    • Hi! I can imagine this being a functional technique if the group first enjoys functional play without the technique, in terms of clearly understood and implemented authorities, proactive play, etc. And I agree that in that context, it probably can be compared to when a player shouts “I decapitate the goblin!” and everyone knows that a roll is about to decide initiative or the basic outcome of that player’s attack.

      However, it’s probable that my experiences of dysfunctional play, especially in Blades in the dark, make it too easy for me to see the various ways the technique can be put to problematic or un-fun use.

      From one angle (in the dysfunctional context), it looks like outcome-controlling “stakes setting” before the roll, from another angle it looks like a good way to keep players/PCs reacting (rather than proactively acting), and from a third, similar to what Jesse said about resistance rolls: a rather brutal undoing or unwinding of what has been established in the fiction.

      (I do agree that it looks similar to the Resistance rolls in Blades in the dark, which is a game and mechanic I have had bad experiences with in part for the same reason that Jesse mentioned.)

      But the above is in a context of dysfunctional play. I want to know more about how it looked in fun play!

      FroggyC, are your examples from an actual game? I think it would be helpful to read some more about it, to be able to understand how you implement the technique in The pool. How the technique can be fun when played in good faith etc. Specifically, I would like to know how one or two of these situations (or any other you remember) played out after the roll in terms of narration. What happened on a failure, and what happened on a success?

      I think I have a question or two for later about what you wrote in your reply to Jesse, regarding the habits of describing I+IEE vs IIE+E (*). But that can wait.

      * (IIEE: the intent, initiation, execution and effect of a character’s action in the fiction)

    • Yes, the examples are from actual games.

      I am actually in agreement with you as to all of the ways this can go wrong if authorities aren’t clear.

    • So, regarding how this looks in failure, which is really the interesting part. In both examples above, the rolls were a success, so I don’t have examples from those.

      I think it’s fair to ask whether this ends up in practice being sort of pre-narration or “stakes”-setting as you called it.

      I think it’s obvious — if the roll would have failed, Lafrenia was likely going to die. She’s dying, we were rolling to save her. This is just the outcome scope of the roll, not prenarration. I don’t feel this was dysfunctional.

      On the other end, it was clear to me that the narration on failure would have had to be new narration, integrating the results of the conflict — at least the various characters involved trying to do things that weren’t stated before. It’s not a repeat of the “unrolled” statement — we are making new things, right now.

      Does this answer your question?

    • “Does this answer your question?”

      Yes, or a big part of it! Thanks!

      So, saying it for myself: on a failure, the narration will change the previously stated or threatened risk by incorporating characters’ actions and effects, but it will probably not change its basic outcome. Yes. The important thing for me, after the scene, would be that we (the group) should know what the relevant characters and entities did and didn’t do, and where that has landed us now, i.e. in a changed situation.

      I’m interested in successes too. Even if the stated risk or event is converted to the barest of intent in the moment the dice come out, I can imagine that the monologue of victory, if a player takes it, carry over properties from it, as “creative fodder” if nothing else.

      I don’t know if what I wrote there made sense or was clear: I mean that if I know what would have transpired if my character didn’t intervene, I can work with that in my narration. Or it will probably affect my narration (in a good or bad way, I don’t know, maybe just different).

      —No she’s not, I wanna roll for that.

      —The hell he does! I’ll roll for it.

      If you remember, what did the players decide to do exactly? Or rather, if they didn’t describe much of the actions before the roll, what traits did they decide to use, and how did they succeed?

  4. Going back to this post after a few months, I’ve been reflecting how hyper-functional play such as:

    — The player knows the GM is not the “narrative authority” or whatever and they can interrupt and call for a roll, and turn the GM’s statement into one of intent—something that can happen *only* if authorities, listening, reincorporation are 100% clear and working.

    Can look remarkably similar on the surface to hyper-dysfunctional play such as the common interpretation of the Blades in the Dark resistance rules:

    — The GM narrates an entire outcome and the player interrupts, saying no! I roll for resistance, let’s rewind and rewrite it.

    (For the record, when I used to play BitD I wasn’t playing this way.)

    Someone really traumatized by the second type of play might say something like “no rewrites!” and refuse to participate in the functional example. Or worse, games could be written in a way to explicitly prevent that from happening.

    I remember Ron said something many years ago about “crutches” and what roleplaying will look like when people stop playing with them. Is it possible that this is a little bit of the answer?

  5. I was wondering if someone could elaborate a little bit on what counts as “pre-narration” and why it is considered an example of dysfunctional play.

    • The responses you received at Discord were good, so I’ll include them here.

      JON H
      I don’t think people here are using “dysfunctional” in any sort of jargon-y way: just meaning “not fun”, “not functional” for potentially any number of reasons, which are likely specific to the instance(s) of play under discussion.


      Hi Jeff, “dysfunctional play” has a specific meaning around here only in that functional play (a.k.a. “play”) is pretty specifically defined. I’m at work and can’t search for a relevant AP thread right now, unfortunately, but I’ll take a stab: Functional play involves letting the procedures of the game determine what happens, when that is what they should do; not subverting them through pre-narration or railroading* or dice-fudging or any such mal-adaptive responses to the fear of losing control. (Linear adventures exist and are not necessarily problematic; GMing techniques of restricting player agency to control the narrative are railroading and are problematic.) Also core to functional play is listening to the other players and incorporating their statements into your mental picture of the fictional situation. And playing in consideration of that updated situation. In other words, everyone’s contribution counts and affects everyone else. There are probably other criteria for functional play, but these are the two big ones that come to mind right now. (P.S. This stuff is best learned in Ron’s online classes, starting with People and Play!)

      Now for me. First, pre-narration. There is no soundbite answer for you. I have to focus on a specific play-procedure for some specific game and group, because rules and groups differ. Anything which involves resolution will do, when the people playing shift to using some procedure assigned to exactly whatever uncertainty happens to be in the fictional content right now.

      If we’re playing Mörk Borg and someone says their guy uses a Scroll, then by definition, we are now all in a state of uncertainty regarding possible damage to that guy, possible variations in the scroll’s effects, and the basic effect it may have in our crisis at this point. We go through some procedures that return us to certainty, or in plain talk, resolve the spell so we (now) know what happens.

      All of this is embedded in ways to talk throughout the procedure. Certain things were available to say before knowing the procedure would be necessary; certain things were necessary to say while working out the circumstances of using it; certain things must be said upon using the procedures (in this case, beginning with a d20 roll); and finally certain things may be said just afterwards about the details and nuances of the effects.

      Here’s the thing: the “finally” content relies greatly on the details and developments of the steps before that, taken in sequence. Each step has to be reactive to the bits-and-pieces of the previous step. For example (and a good one), in the second step, it’s important to review where all the characters are, physically, just prior to the moment of the scroll’s casting, including which ones have the capacity to move or do something just before or during the casting, and which ones do not.

      If we hold some kind of story-conference or editorial decision-making about final effects before, for example, entering into the dice procedure, then basically we cancel all the play itself except for the naked roll. There’d be nothing to say except to gesture back at whatever had been settled already, and to say, “OK, that.” Furthermore, there is no way that whatever we’d chat up beforehand can be experienced as outcome.

      Second, dysfunction. It’s not site jargon, it’s ordinary language – whatever activity is being done, and especially in the sense of it being positive in any way, is not working. Also, the problem is systemic, it’s baked into what they think is the way to do it. Therefore “dysfunctional play” is an oxymoron; it’s like saying “abusive love.”

      Think of a band being dysfunctional; it means the music is not being made, or not being made to the participants’ enjoyment, or not producing results they want, or ruining relationships among them, or anything like that. The way they do it, or how they interact, for whatever reason, is so broken that the harder someone tries, the worse it gets.

      Two nuances which shouldn’t be necessary to say, but unfortunately I have to.

        Obviously, one cannot point to something that someone is in fact doing successfully and positively to say “that’s dysfunctional” just because it’s not what the accusing person likes. If there’s anything to talk about, it’s merely what the activity may in fact be.
        Also obviously, people trapped in dysfunctional activity are often defensive and self-destructive about it that one cannot talk with them; they will insist that everything is so happy and (also) that everything is about to get so much better.

      Your question is a good one: “when is pre-narration dysfunctional.” The answer is, when the procedures we’re using, and which are socially understood to be what we want to use, are canceled by establishing things ahead of the point when they were to be established, and in such a way that the properties of doing it in sequence are lost. Or in ordinary language, someone (or a committee) drains the fun of doing it because they locked down what it would be and rendered the process of making it irrelevant.

      I’ve got some links with pictures about the dice-and-talking steps if you’re interested.

    • Here’s the link to my main comment about this in a thread about playing The Pool. I don’t know if it works as an isolated reading-item, so feel free to expand to the whole post and discussion. I hope you’ll see that IIEE is not the same thing as the arrows diagram, but another variable that intersects with it.

      I teach a whole course about The Pool, including the history feeding into its creation (primary influence is D&D B/X by Moldvay, 1981) and its impact on play and design since. A lot of the activities work through this diagram and examine various ways to organize the tasks at the arrow parts, as well as the various ways to distribute IIEE through them. So the course isn’t actually just about this one game, but uses it as a lens to examine many aspects of play in general.

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