Alien parasites vs. prom night

I recently ran The Pool on short notice for three players, using a ‘start file’ I created as part of Ron’s course, Playing with The Pool.

The players

Carl and Kevin are old friends of mine and in their 50s like me; Russel is Carl’s 19-year old son, who joined our regular (much larger) roleplaying group six months ago.

The “start file”

The players created upper-class teenagers (18 years old) unknowingly being consumed by alien parasites from within. Their characters were tasked with getting through their elite private school’s Christmas prom in style — and which also happens to be attended by the president-elect and his entourage.

The characters

Kevin sent me his character ahead of time, but Carl and Russel wrote down their characters at the table (though having thought about them for a day):

Carl played Steven, the son of two top lawyers and the school’s bad boy, recently hit by a DUI, procuring drugs for fellow students by being streetwise (+2) and racing & tuning his Harley in his free time. Various +1s, I forget.

Kevin played Hilario Mendez de Santos y Habanna, the son of Cuban exiles (+1) owning vast orchards in Florida, a history buff (+1), lithe dancer (+1) and secret admirer of Castro (+1). He is used to wielding wealth (+1) and excels at deceiving others (+2), e.g. his father who does not suspect his communist leanings.

Russel played Jason, an All-American boy: blonde, blue-eyed, athletic, strong-willed and well-liked on account of his exemplary team spirit (+2). Various +1s, I forget.


Obersvations on the characters:

Russel’s character seemed a bit vague to me (and bland, to be honest), so I asked Russel to sharpen his profile a bit more. For instance, I asked him about Jason’s atheltic abilities (Which sports or skills?). He didn’t quite commit, insisting Jason was good at all sports, was a runner, and good at football, and all team sports, so we mostly left the character as conceived.

Getting two characters just minutes before the game made adusting prep more difficult (though I calmly took my time to go over my notes), as did the fact that the characters seemed a bit sparse on relations and beliefs. I hooked into Jason’s team spirit with one bang (bringing up a teammate in need), played towards Hilario’s history knowledge with another (requiring him to act as a speaker at the event because he forgot about it due to the parasite’s interference) and created connections between the PCs via NPCs as I went along (see below).


Starting with a bang

Play starts one day before the prom and I hit Carl with my first bang straight away: his date has been hospitalized after a car accident and he needs a new one. Due to the president-elect’s visit, there’s no way the guest list will be changed.

Carl immediately thinks out lout about several ideas: asking the younger sisters of classmates (as close family attends as well), persuading a girl to switch partners, and going after single mothers, though he says his character cringes at the thought as it wouldn’t play well with his parents.

I suppress the reflex to roll a d6 to see if any eligible younger sisters exist and instead say the oldest option would be a 14-year old, hoping this is on the edge of the acceptable and thus interesting. Carl rules this out, as his character Jason is cooler than babysitting a 14-year old.

He settles on his next best option and asks around if there are any girls who might be persuaded to switch partners and I have an NPC prospect ready: Beth, a sweet girl who is in an off/on-relationship and not sure she won’t call off the prom anyway. Steven tries to convince her to be his date by pointing out this will make her boyfriend jealous. Carl does not invest any Pool dice because he’s not out of options yet. He fails his roll and is turned down politely.

We realize Steven hasn’t called the hospitalized Susan, his original date, so he duly visits her. She has stronger feelings for him than he expected, is very miserable and actually asks him to stay at her bedside during prom night — I am deliberately putting pressure on him. Steven tries to evade this, promising a future prom date, but Carl fails his roll (again with no Pool dice), excusing himself and leaving just as she begins to sob. Carl was visibly torn on whether to risk extra dice, but then embraced both his character’s bad boy callousness and saving his pool for serious stakes.

There are no single mothers available, but there’s Steven’s attractive biology/health ed teacher (another prepped NPC), who is in her late twenties. He goes for it. Some delightful banter ensues, with Steven actually bringing up that she used to be his sex education teacher in their conversation, and me having her respond in kind, effectively reminding him to bring condoms. They are both obviously kidding (and crossing various lines), but then, who knows? I do not require any roll — originally I thought the teacher would see his dire need to have a partner and would have pity on him, but given the banter, I have her say yes because she is enjoying herself.


A few observations:

  • I’m aware that spotlight has been solely on Jason so far, but Kevin later points out he didn’t mind because listening to our interactions was great fun. Also, I hit the other PCs with bangs next.
  • Play is delightful but taking longer than anticipated. Coming from dungeoncrawling with eight players, I had figured that three players and The Pool‘s quick conflict resolution would run faster. However, we never get near a resolution of the alien parasite situation.
  • That said, I’m not worried about this, even as I see it’s happening. Play is fun and I picked up on this relaxing attitude of not trying to force a climax and resolution at Adept Play. This is a new attitude to me, and I’m very happy with it!
  • I slowly begin to create connections between the PCs via NPCs. For instance, Steven is pointed towards Beth by Jennifer, the school’s resident It-girl and queen of gossip–who happens to be Jason’s date.


A few more observations:

  • On account of Playing with The Pool, I felt and continue to feel confident about the rules.
  • There was quite a bit of pre-narration of outcomes, which I did see and address, but which also showed me that it’s no clear-cut matter: At one point, Hilario tried to get past a security checkpoint (with a particular agent) inside the school by dancing past it with his partner, playing the part of the utterly absorbed dancer, building momentum and leaving security no choice but to either tackle him, or let him get away with it for the time being (checking the other guests). I feel that some or even most of this description is necessary to even understand how he wanted to go about getting past the checkpoint and use his “lithe dancer” trait to achieve this. Still, when he had succeeded, there wasn’t much for me to describe. I did add, though, that one security guard gave Hilario a hard look, likely pegging him for a more thorough look later. Kevin remarked: Wow, that was a high price to pay (for taking an extra pool die and letting me narrate).

6 responses to “Alien parasites vs. prom night”

  1. I have a question about The Pool, based on reading it but never playing it. Why doesn’t everybody always bet their whole pool on each action? (Or not bet any.) I haven’t run the numbers, but just eyeballing them I think it’s a losing move to ever wager just one or two dice.

    • I suggest that you not “eyeball” game texts.

      That claim appeared early in discussions when The Pool first appeared at the Forge. It’s grossly wrong, but since it’s mutually reinforced by several incorrect points, there’s no soundbyte I can give you so that you’ll say “Oh!” When I try to have that conversation, typically a person becomes argumentative and Gish gallops around the incorrect points. That’s why I teach a whole class about the game.

      I’ll state one of them: dice rolls in sequence are not independent from one another, as each roll may alter the number of pool dice. Therefore the probability of failing this single roll cannot be isolated; it is factored into one’s knowledge that more rolls are coming. One is risking not only failure at this moment but a higher chance of failure at the next roll (at least). This knowledge is coupled with one’s assessment – which is necessarily speculative and non-specific – of what those later rolls may be about; in other words, rolls’ results are not only not independent, their contents are also not all of equal weight.

      As I mentioned, this is only one of several problems that factor into the false claim. Each one is easily punctured, but not without holding the patient down as they struggle and argue. Or to put it more positively, a person does not learn by simply receiving “the point” as a quick statement. That is the bright kid trick which works until perhaps age 19, after which they are on the fast track to becoming a blowhard.

    • I have a few different complicated reactions to this, but I’m not sure if my mental state or motivations are really relevant.

      What you say about the game makes sense. It’s easy for me to believe others noticed the same apparent problem, and just as easy for me to believe that it isn’t a real problem.

    • Hi there! Here’s how I think of it: it’s a mathematical certainty that eventually I’ll lose a roll, even if I gamble all my dice. If my pool is gone, then my chance of success will be quite low for awhile, and something very important to me may come up, like for example having to make a death save. So in most cases it’s best not to gamble everything. Does that make sense?

  2. I smiled when I read that you had to suppress your instinct to get an oracle to decide if any eligible younger sisters exist. I have the same disease.

    I wonder how many other people use some sort of “modeling” as a replacement for play, instead of as a feature of play, and in what contexts. It sounds like it doesn’t matter for you that this game is not a challenge-focused dungeoncrawl with simulationist resolution, you still had the instinct. I on the other hand might only have it when I play those games.

    I hope you don’t mind a few personal questions; obviously, participation is voluntary!

    When did you start doing this? I think I’ve read other posts by you where you talk about it as an overreaction to your earlier railroading. When did you stop railroading, and why? When did you start aggressively using oracles? When did you start to dislike that practice?

    Anyway, the premise of the game sounds like good, goofy fun, and I’m excited to read how things turn out.

    • Regarding dicing strategy, I’ll note as a data point that in this session, players either risked no dice or 2 or 3. For instance, Kevin risked 3 out of a pool of 6 or 7 dice when having to improvise a speech for the illustrious audience at the prom.

      I think the players anticipated lethal and/or save-the-world stakes later on (on account of the alien parasites etc.) and thus conserved dice. As Ron said, not all stakes are created equal.


      My conversion from illusionist to killer DM to budding narrativist is a topic for its own post one day–I look forward to it! Two points, though:

      1) Going to the dice to decide matters has served me well as a ‘neutral referee’ when dungeoncrawling. When the survival of the entire party suddenly rests on whether a door opens inwards or outwards, I very much don’t want to decide that (in the absence of prep or an intuitive understanding of the architecture). I wouldn’t group this with oracular use of dice (but with ‘simulation’ or ‘modelling’, as you mention), which also has its places, but which I do find irritating in many instances; in fact, Russel at one point rolled a die to decide whether his character Jason would follow Steven’s advice on how to handle a friend with a drug problem. Ouch!

      2) I was very pleased with setting the age of available sisters at 14. If I had said either 12 or 16, I would have *guided the story*: A 12-year old two heads shorter than Steven would have been an obvious no-go, and a 16-year old would have been a no-brainer.

      Instead, I decided to actively make things interesting for Carl (and all of us watching!)–successfully, as he discovered/revealed something about his character in making his decision.

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