A Game of the Pool, Lovecraft-style


A couple of friends wanted to play the Pool, and picked a Lovecraftian scenario. So I updated my Cthulhu version of the Pool (available here: https://drive.google.com/file/d/1xAJJUfMEksHb8TTC7pRdn_Hlh6fDyCbU/view?usp=drivesdk) and the players made one character each. They wanted a period piece, so we went with 1920s Seattle. 

The first thing I did in my prep was read about Seattle in the 20s. The population at the time was 315,000, wages were about $35 a week, $1750 a year on average. A full, fancy lunch at a restaurant cost 40-80 cents, and a slice of pie 5 cents. There was no TV. Commercial radio had just started. There are phonographs and telegraphs; there were phones, and you could call throughout most of the country by this point. The Great War had ended in 1918; and the deadly 1918 flu pandemic was mostly over by 1920. Prohibition was in full swing, and smuggling booze was big business. 

The famed Seattle General Strike of 1919 had just drawn global headlines. The strike was one of the first citywide work stoppages in a major U.S. city, and terrified the business community that a Bolshevik Revolution was about to sweep the country. The FBI swooped in to stop the strike, arrested the labor leaders, and shut down the labor newspapers. 

This led to the country experiencing its first Red Scare, a time of national hysteria that brought crackdowns on trade unionists, socialists, anti-war activists, and so on. Vigilante groups such as the Seattle “Minute Men” formed, with the goal of discovering German spies.

The Ku Klux Klan was a powerful component of the Democratic Party at this time, and led an anti-immigrant crusade. In the same vein, Woodrow Wilson’s government launched the “Palmer Raids,” where the federal government rounded up and jailed or deported more than 500 immigrants throughout the country.

There were several incidents of political violence. In what’s come to be known as the Centralia Massacre, a vigilante group marched on the local headquarters of the IWW. In the resulting shootout, 3 of the vigilantes were killed. The police stopped the confrontation and arrested a Wobbly member, Wesley Everest. Later that evening, a mob raided the jail and lynched him from a bridge. 

So, when I looked over this bit of history, quite dramatic and violent, I found myself drawn to the horror of the Centralia massacre incident. What if, I wondered, the slain man had a relative that wanted revenge – and was willing to go to extreme lengths to get it? In a Lovecraftian context, that would mean getting the power to identify Everest’s killers, and then bring to them a bloody justice. Suppose that was his son, who made a deal with a spawn of Nyarlathotep to gain dark powers. With that as a seed, I brainstormed from there. 

In order to get the spell needed to identify his father’s killers, Everest would need a particular spell. How? Perhaps from a dealer in stolen or exotic goods. Let’s call her Gwendolyn Love, who does business out of a speakeasy. Love has her own problems – a rival, let’s say; Dave Vance, of Vance Export-Import Co., Ltd. 

Vance will be a pretty bad guy. Looking over the history, I notice the KKK was quite active, holding large public rallies. Let’s make him their Grand Wizard, and have him be an actual sorcerer with a few spells in his pocket. He and Love have a gangland-type competition, not only in liquor but exotic goods such as scrolls. They’d each like to take the other out, and are looking to recruit others to help. 

In addition, the local KKK suspect Everest knows or has some book or scroll from which he gained sorcerous powers, and are harassing him to get their hands on it. 

Now, what about a starting scene to let the players know about and get into the thick of the situation? Well, suppose a couple of KKK thugs went a bit too far in harassing Everest, and he responded by letting the spawn of Nyarlathotep loose, killing them. The release of sorcerous energy would be felt by the PCs, who when they went to investigate would find the dead men, and a matchbook with the name “Jake Everest” circled. 

I made a few notes on a few locations – the speakeasy, the Vance Company warehouse, a farm used for a KKK rally, and so on. I fleshed out the NPCs more, and my prep was done.

The characters created by the players included:

Name: Joseph Harbinger

Studying as a Jesuit exorcist, Joseph Harbinger discovered a book of arcane formulae that could twist reality. One formula summoned the Whispering Void, which told him secrets that destroyed his faith. He left the order and seeks the Book of Thomas the Other, rumored to contain proof of a benevolent god. Pursuing the book, Joseph had an education in the seattle underworld and persuading people. 

Jesuit exorcist +1

Arcane formulae that could twist reality +2

Summoned the Whispering Void +1

Faith +1

Seeks the Book of Thomas the Other +1

Proof of a benevolent god +1

seattle  underworld +1

 persuading people. +1

And

Name: Silas Whigham

Accompanied by Jenkins (a rat) and plumbing tools, Silas leads the Subterranean Hygiene Intelligence Team. He knows the city’s underground, which is why politicians, detectives, and military officers call on him to deal with unspeakable messes. Silas inhales mind-altering fumes venting from underground: He’s convinced they inspire his prophetic visions. Silas uses his workman demeanor to persuade citizens that his activities are safe and authorized. Possessed by a demon, he has developed secret mental reserves to resist his dark master.

Jenkins (rat): +1 

Plumbing tools: +2

Subterranean Hygiene Intelligence Team: +1

Knowledge of the underground: +2

Vision-inducing fumes: +2

Mental resistance to parasitic demons: +2

I had the players introduce their characters and say what they were doing, and then described the initial scene. Unfortunately, I immediately ran into a problem: one of the players got angry with me, accusing me of railroading. The player of Harbinger refused to go to the scene I had prepped, instead wanting to go to the university in pursuit of the Thomas tome. At the time, I was taken aback; I was confused by the response. I went with it the best I could. My notes on the Thomas tome were minimal at best, so I quickly made up a few things – the tome is in Palestine, owned by a man named Mazran. Other people wanted the book as well, for different reasons. Both Love and Vance would have the contacts to broker a deal, but everyone involved was a backstabber. With this background in mind, I kept playing, alternating scenes between the two players. 

After the session, I asked this player what was going on. It turns out he and I had a basic misunderstanding: when I did my prep for the game, I did so with no regard for the PC backgrounds at all – similar to how I’d prep for running a dungeon crawl. The player, on the other hand, assumed the exact opposite, that I would base my preparation on his character background, as he wanted pursuing the tome to be his central focus of play. Ron has some terminology for these two approaches for GM prep, and also distinguishes a third option that’s in between the two, but unfortunately I can’t recall them or where to find them, so he’ll need to clarify if he wishes. But the point is, the problem arose because the player and I had different expectations of what the focus of play was going to be. Once I learned what the player wanted, I then prepped the next session accordingly. 

Anyway, Joseph Harbinger wound up at the Blue Royale, the speakeasy where Gwendolyn Love operated. For a price, she got him the contact information for Abdullah Mazran, the current owner of the tome.

Meanwhile, Silas Whigham pursued the clues he found on the dead klan members, and managed to sneak into Jake Everest’s apartment. Once inside, his luck ran out. After several failed rolls, he became possessed by another spawn of nyarlathotep, who Everest had been keeping in a box he’d hidden away. While the entity didn’t have total control, Whigham’s player would have to make rolls to resist when it did. 

Behind the scenes: between scenes, I made brief notes about what the NPCs were up to. Everest went to Love in pursuit of the pnakotic manuscript, from which he could learn the spell Azathoth’s shadow (this would give him the ability to look into the past and discover his father’s killers). Everest wouldn’t be able to afford to pay cash for the scroll, so what would Love accept in exchange? She agrees to give him the manuscript if he kills Vance. As this is happening, Vance is preparing to lead a KKK rally. He plans to use the energy of the rally to cast a spell at Love, to kill or enslave her. 

The session ended and the players advanced their characters according to the standard Pool rules.

It would take a bit of time to describe the rest of the game in detail, but here are some of the moments that stand out:

Since the KKK rally was widely advertised, Jake knew where Vance would be, and followed him there. Silas encounters Jake at the rally, and they have a conversation. They can see the spawns in each other, and Jake is slowly losing his humanity. He reveals he is going to kill Vance. Vance arrives, heading for the speaker stage, and Jake closes in for the kill. Silas has the chance to intervene, but chooses not to. Jake kills Vance, and loses control to his spawn, which proceeds to massacre a number of the rally attendees. 

Harbinger locates and makes a deal with another antiquarian, a Mr. Said, who wants the Thomas book for himself but is willing to let Harbinger study it. Their plan involves taking Mazran’s son hostage, and demanding the book in exchange for him. To get the son requires Harbinger to cast a kind of dimensional gate spell, which unfortunately goes disastrously wrong. Said is sucked, screaming, into the void. Harbinger is left with nothing. 

Silas is concerned that Jake will lose control and let something horrible into the world if his plan succeeds, so he follows him. 

Harbinger goes back to Love, but fails to get anything out of her. Angered, he destroys the entire building with dark magic. He then goes to a church and causes a priest to lose their faith. 

There is a final scene where Harbinger, Silas, and Jake are in a church. Jake is ready to cast his spell, and begin to take vengeance for his father. Silas repeatedly tries to do things but his player keeps failing his rolls. Finally, they both try to stop Jake, Silas grabbing him around the neck and holding him as Harbinger’s void spell consumes them both, then himself, leaving no trace of any of them. IIRC, both players succeeded in these final rolls, and both chose to do a monologue, so they collaborated on it. 

Although I enjoyed the game overall, I felt bad because the players kept failing rather spectacularly on critical rolls – and I saw my role as to make sure these rolls had serious consequences. My impression was these multiple failures frustrated them a bit, but I didn’t know what I could do about it. 

As always, I appreciate any comments, questions, or analysis. Players feel free to jump in, give your impressions, and fill in any gaps if you like!

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17 responses to “A Game of the Pool, Lovecraft-style”

  1. The high failure state seems like it caused a little stress. Has that been an issue in other versions of The Pool or maybe something you took note of?

    • Hi Sean! Thanks for the question. I’m not sure it’s something unique to the Pool, I meant to raise it as a general issue: players feeling stressed or crushed about failing important rolls repeatedly. Are there techniques or rules that mitigate that? Or is the entire question off-base?

      In the Frog Pool game, I noticed that I had an unconscious tendency to think I should not be enjoying myself when I failed rolls – this was a dysfunctional thing, as it meant my enjoyment depended on rolls, like I’d be rolling to see if I was having fun or not. Obviously, it’s going to make a much more enjoyable experience if I can have fun with any outcome – and in fact I often enjoy a failed roll and its consequences.

      But I can’t speak for the players of this game here; all I can say is that it seemed to me like they got frustrated with their phenomenally bad luck – and I didn’t know what to do with that.

    • I have come to ascribe anxiety about conflict failure to pre-narration/wanting to “lock-in” successful outcomes as “what I want to happen”, or tying fun to succeeding.

      So I agree with Manu’s assessment here, on a general level.

      Although, it can also be a question of properly setting roll scope—if it’s not resolving what we want to resolve, it can feel frustrating (wins as well, but losses especially). Was the situation significantly changed by the failures? Was a conflict neatly and finally resolved by the roll? What was narrated when the dice fell and no “1” showed up?

    • Hi Claudio! Are you asking about a specific incident? I described all the results of the rolls in the initial post. Yes, things changed drastically (and catastrophically) because of the failures, which were so common and so consequential I felt bad for the players.

    • Glad to hear it! I certainly enjoyed the ending myself.

      Did you also feel bad for the other player, though? He lost such critical rolls, over his own mind and so on…

    • My take is that sometimes failing over and over really does suck. You might be having a bad day, or whatever other factor.
      But if we are just happy and content all the time, and there is no chance of failing to be happy/have a good time while playing, there’s probably no chance of having a really good time, beyond just saying “nothing went wrong, it went fine” at the end. If the player was bummed out, maybe that could be a learning experience. They might wonder why they were so attached to a specific outcome. They might realize, as you did during the Frog Pool game, that they weren’t allowing failed rolls to feel fun. Or…it might be a perfectly legitimate feeling of not having fun! That doesn’t reflect on you or the game you’re playing necessarily.
      I’m interested in the failed rolls–were you satisfied with the result of them?

    • Hi Sam! Thanks for your question. I’m not entirely sure what you mean, though – do you mean, am I satisfied that the rolls gave clear results? Yes, certainly; there was no ambiguity or difficulty in interpreting the results.

      Here’s a way I can get more specific about my own question: in your experience, have you found any techniques or procedures that help mitigate the emotional sting of repeatedly failed rolls? For example, in one hack of Apocalypse World (Dungeon World maybe, or Monsterhearts) you marked experience when you failed a roll, so it helped you level up.

      Or is this simply something that is better left unaddressed, just a fact of life that we’re all likely to have a string of bad luck sometime?

    • Why mitigate the sting? Why build so much of the experience of play around dulling the emotions of the other people at the table? I could go into a whole rant about the idea of “good” emotions and “bad” emotions, and all the repercussions that has on a larger scale…but instead I’ll talk about this activity we do. I’ll lay out my thoughts below. I’ve given this a lot of thought; I’m not just pulling this stuff out of my ass or trying to seem wise.

      I think one of the best things about this activity is the huge range of emotions you can experience while playing. Even the negative ones! Looking back over a few sessions of play, I generally see an emotional tapestry–joy, frustration, excitement, etc. all existing together. So for me its usually easy. I feel the frustration and keep going. I’ve noticed that the frustration from a failed roll almost never pulls me out of play. I might be pissed off for a bit, but I can still say what I need to say. Murk is the thing that stops me in my tracks.

      I think what hurts the most is worrying about other people’s feelings too much as “good” or “bad”–e.g: frustration is bad, we need to make sure it doesn’t happen, and joy is good, so let’s get mechanics that give us more joy. My technique or procedure isn’t related to my own failed rolls, its related to other people failing.

      I sometimes get worried that someone is failing too much. Sometimes another person at the table is showing frustration at failing. I think showing this frustration is a good sign. If everyone is emotionally flat the whole time (overly cheerful and pleasant etc.) that could be a sign of basically dull play. I try to just let the person experience the frustration for real, rather than dulling it or explaining it away (“yes but you see you can regain your pool so…”). I assume that my friends will tell me if they aren’t enjoying what we’re doing. I *don’t* go in with the assumption that I need to be checking in on everyone, all the time, or else everyone else will just silently suffer. In fact, I’m in this together with the other players. I’m not above feelings. I share in the feelings of the other players. I am one of them.

      I’ve never had to stop playing because of repeated failed rolls. I’ve only ever had to stop playing because of frustration from murk.

      So I guess the “technique” is stopping the caregiver act, and taking on the mindset of being just another player. If a game doesn’t give you what you need to play without murk, play a different one. Otherwise, feel the sting, and let your friends feel it too!

    • One more note about techniques that supposedly mitigate failure. I’m not a dog to be trained. If we have real failure, and I’m pissed off or sad or bummed or frustrated about it, I’m not gonna get happy because someone gives me an experience point.

    • Hi Sam, thanks for your response. If I understand you correctly, you’re basically saying “yes” to my second question, i.e., if bad luck happens, that’s life, and you see no need for any mitigating mechanics. I appreciate your perspective.

      Regarding the AW mechanic, I don’t see that as any kind of “training” device – it’s simply a way of generating XP, that also is like a consolation prize when you fail a roll: “I failed and there’s a bad consequence, but at least I got some XP.” There is nothing disrespectful about that mechanism that I can see, neither does it train anyone to do anything. At least, I don’t see it. I don’t have any particular feelings about this particular approach either way, it was just an example.

      Regarding murk, there was no murk in this game session, I just want to make that clear.

    • Definitely a yes. And I’m really enjoying our thread here. It feels good to get my thoughts in order, and I appreciate seeing yours as well. Its been cool to follow your process of playing The Pool so much.

      Regarding the “reward” for failing…to clarify what I meant…because I think I worded it weirdly: if I failed a roll and the result (what happens in the fiction regardless of mechanical consequences) is genuinely pissing me off or making me upset or whatever else, I don’t think any mechanical boon is going to make me feel better. I don’t think the mechanic in itself is disrespectful at all–but I don’t like the idea of a designer thinking of it as a way to console me for failing. I can handle those feelings myself.

      That’s why I wouldn’t call it a consolation prize at all. So to choose for failed rolls to give a player XP or whatever else only because otherwise they will be more upset seems silly to me. Whereas I can think of a lot of other very good reasons for failed rolls to give a player XP…or successful rolls, or whatever else is appropriate for a given game.

      The danger here is…making failures actually hit less hard or nullifying them completely, which (I think) is probably the only way of making sure no one could possibly get upset at failure. Don’t like the result? Well…spend some fate points. And I know you aren’t into that, neither of us are considering that as a real option.

      I think we have to live with a certain amount of the sting you described.

    • Thanks for that, you clarified your point of view nicely.

      I also think you hit the nail on the head here:

      “The danger here is…making failures actually hit less hard or nullifying them completely, which (I think) is probably the only way of making sure no one could possibly get upset at failure. Don’t like the result? Well…spend some fate points.”

      I agree that’s a real danger, that some published games really do fall into. The rolls basically become pointless. Far better to err on the side of “sorry, law of averages and all, live with it” than pointlessness.

    • Sam, your two comments from the 23rd have me going “yes! yes! yes!” over here. We have the whole range of emotions to experience and frustration and triumph go hand in hand.

  2. Usually I’m allergic to Lovecraft (for no high-minded reasons), but the setup here kicks ass and I’d totally play it. I think it’s all the digging into history, the grounding of it.

    Just a note of enthusiasm and support.

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