In the Shadow of the Shining Lords

Checking in to share some notes about an ongoing game of The Pool which I started with a few local friends (though we play it over Discord) after taking Ron’s “Playing the Pool” course.

I started out by offering the players a few evocative images from the covers of the Planet Stories pulp magazine, and letting them vote on whatever they wanted. They chose this image of a high tech woman gleefully gassing (poisoning?) a horde of low-tech people. I came up with a world which had once been part of an interstellar community but had been cut off, and fallen into a state where parts of the world were controlled by high-tech overlords (the Shining Lords) who ruled with the aid of their Technologists (technological geniuses who are more or less court wizards) and their enforcers (the Chosen Warriors) and the rest was barbarians with little technology and no chance of surviving an attack by a Chosen Warrior, who did their best to stay out of the way of the higher-tech gated-community lords. I asked the players to make characters in isolation, and then made up some backstory based on what they gave me and my existing ideas about the setting.

I ended up with four characters, two of which (Zaphod and Zankar) were technologists, two of which (Shyla and Blue) were women who were raised among the barbarians and who defended their respective tribes with the enhanced powers and abilities their secret technologist fathers had given them. Seriously, two players both made characters with that description, independently of each other. The details were different, but that much was the same.

The backstories seemed to imply at least three different tribes and two different Shining Lords, all of which I wrote up and made notes about. This gave me a lot to think about before the first game, since I didn’t see an obvious way they’d be in each other’s business right away.

I came up with a way that Zaphod’s escape from his shining lord master could be aided by Blue’s technologist father, in exchange for a promise to bring her a message. I came up with an idea what Zankar might meet when he came back to his old barbarian tribe, the Dogs of Dros, which he’d left as a child when a Technologist had offered to take him as an apprentice. I decided a Chosen Warrior might become a threat to Shyla’s distant relationship with her secret Technologist father. I imagined that people from both Shyla and Blue’s tribes might want to pressure them to use their powers in ways they might or might not agree with.

So! First game! Zaphod’s backstory implied he had escaped from his Shining Lord master, but I wanted to play it out, so I suggested to the player that we could play it through with the understanding that he would, of necessity, escape, since it was on his character sheet. I’m… realizing that typing out what happened even in summary form would be rather long. I’ll just say he had an interesting conversation, accepted a deal, and with the help of some creative inventing, escaped, with a successful conflict roll ensuring that his escape was undetected.

Shyla spoke a bit to one of the aforementioned tribespeople-with-their-own-agendas, and then went off to pick up a present from her secret technologist father at a drop point on a high cliff… an attack by some wandering alien catamounts resulted in a conflict, in which she prevailed; she discovered that a Chosen Warrior had found her drop point, which potentially threw everything into chaos. Those guys are too tough and bristling with high tech to fight! She managed to incapacitate him with the help of the aforementioned alien beasts, retrieved her gift, and went back home, leaving him behind.

Zankar came back to his old home, and the potentially conflict-inducing situation I had ready for him…. he chose not to make into a conflict at all. His old tribe (who were kind of dicks – think of your unkindest stereotype about “barbarians” — that’s them) wanted to have their own technologist, just like a shining lord, so they could have awesome weaponry and dominate all the other tribes! He was like “OK I can work with that” and took the job. Sometimes the response to a potentially conflict-laden scenario is to go “OK, I’m cool with that” and there’s no conflict, at least not at the moment! I was a little surprised by that but ran with it.

Blue’s player couldn’t make the first game.

And that was it — game 1, all players were separate, there were connections between two of them (but one of those two didn’t show up) and no immediate connections between the others, though people around the different characters had some mutual awareness of each other; all barbarians know that Zankar’s tribe, the Dogs of Dros, are assholes. Everybody knows who various Shining Lords are.

So, thoughts on prep and the first game: this turned out to be a *lot* of prep, because the characters’ backstories, the way I understood them, couldn’t overlap that much. I mean, maybe I could have made Zankar and Zaphod have worked for the same Shining Lord? But the timelines didn’t quite work, and I’d already come up with some backstory for Zaphod when I got Zankar’s character sheet and I liked it too much to rework it. I maybe could have made Blue and Shyla part of the same tribe, or make one of them part of Zankar’s tribe, but it all didn’t quite fit together. So I just took on the burden of making up a *ton* of backstory…. and I’m OK with that. It was a lot to make up, and a lot to keep track of, but it all fits together in its own way and the different stories knit together at the edges. This is what I signed up for when I gave four different creative people free reign to come up with independent backstories.

Game note: the players seemed pretty jazzed about Monologues of Victory and went for them often, foregoing the opportunity for precious pool dice. In the next game they would become somewhat more circumspect and used MOVs more strategically, usually when they wanted something very specific out of a victory.

I started thinking about what could happen next. I was consciously trying to think in terms of “playing the NPCs” – that is, I tried to imagine what I’d be doing next if I were them. To some degree I succeeded. “A bunch of alien animals attacked ME, a Chosen Warrior? I’m going to murder this whole species.” “I, the leader of the Dogs of Dros, now have a pet technologist of my very own? I’ve got to start using this to dominate neighboring tribes…. I’ve got a plan, involving our best warrior Tella…” “One of our technologists dared RUN AWAY? And we can’t TRACE HIM??? My finest Chosen Warrior is going to start canvassing the surrounding area trying to get whatever barbarian tribes he’s hidden in to give him up.”

I spent a lot of time thinking about this, and I came up with one incredibly juicy dramatic event that would involve Blue and Zaphod, specifically. Oh it was going to be so great!

But then the day before we played again, it hit me that maybe I was doing too much “set up some drama and throw it at them” and not enough “let the world be the world”? I kept thinking about Zankar’s thoroughly non-dramatic but entirely real choices in the first game, and thought that maybe I was thinking too much like a puppet master and worrying too much about making dramatic things happen.

I decided that if Zankar was going to be chill and make deliberate choices, let him be chill and make deliberate choices. The next thing that was going to happen with him, is a conversation, with the warrior Tella. It’s going to be about some dramatic stuff going on in the background, but it’s just going to be a conversation, at least to start with.

I still had my big dramatic event involving Blue and Zaphod that was going to happen though! Oh wow it was gonna be great!

And then Blue’s player couldn’t make it at the last minute, and so that was off the table.

I was like, OK, let’s see what happens here. Instead of meeting Blue, I just let him meet whoever he would have met otherwise: some random, low-key barbarian tribe I made up in the moment. They talked and made a deal in a way that was of benefit to both of them.

Zankar’s conversation with Tella was informative, and segue’ed into some ruin exploration, another random fight with the local wildlife that turned consequential when it revealed some things about Zankar to Tella.

Meanwhile events were playing out with Shyla pretty directly from last game – she went back to see what the Chosen Warrior was up to, and ended up incapaciating him temporarily *again* but preparing for the possibility that her tribe might need to up and flee because an angry Chosen Warrior is not an event you can possibly survive.

In the end, the events around Zankar and around Zaphod intermixed in a way I could never possibly have planned but was kind of perfect: the Dogs of Dros were challenging other tribes to single-warrior combats between Tella and their own champions, to determine whether they submitted to the Dogs or were guaranteed their freedom. Tella was taking them down one by one, partly because of Zankar’s arming her but mostly because she’s fucking unstoppable. Then they challenged the barbarian tribe that Zaphod was with…. and Zaphod armed THEIR champion with brand new weapon tech that he made for the occasion…. and that warrior defeated Tella and ruined the Dogs of Dros’s day.

And Zankar clocked Zaphod in the crowd as a fellow Technologist, and arranged to go talk to him later. Bam, two PCs are now in touch, and they’re in touch because they each independently armed a warrior on either side of a ceremonial combat. Ho-lee-shit.

Someday we’re still going to see some stuff happen with Blue damn it! But in the meantime events have certainly progressed.

Thoughts from this game: i really, really enjoyed playing Tella in her conversation with Zankar and the ensuing events. I feel like if I could get into some of the other NPCs to the extent I got into playing Tella that would be awesome, and by contrast it pointed out to me how little I had put into some of them, especially ones I’d thought of more in terms of puppet-mastering some drama together for the players.

BTW, Zankar’s player, Jim, has been DMing a 5E campaign I’ve been in for a few years (and before that a V&V campaign, and before that a Traveller Deluxe game…) and he and I got to chat after the games. The way he runs D&D (and other games) is actually really similar to how I intend to be running The Pool. More so than I originally understood. So it was great to reflect on things afterward with him.

I’m afraid I’ve written a novel and a half, and I’ve left an awful lot out. Coming up with situation involving these four characters created a *lot* of content, and the setting is hard to sum up – though when I mentioned that to Jim he said “elevator pitch: It’s kind of like Thundarr the Barbarian. There you go.” And that’s pretty accurate.

Happy to respond to any questions or comments, but to be honest, I mostly just wanted to share what I was up to. And thanks, Ron, for the class that helped me get going in this direction.

Right now plain old “the pool” is really good for me because it lets me focus on these issues of prep and play without adding in a lot of other details like “statting out the NPCs” and “knowing how a bunch of rules work.” I wouldn’t mind moving on to something with more involved rules in the future, but this is just right for right now, and it’s working out great.

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7 responses to “In the Shadow of the Shining Lords”

  1. I ran The Pool last weekend and my experience matches yours regarding MOVs: The players went for them early and then became more strategic about them, trying to talk longer and get more out of them. However, I had no problem reigning in this behaviour and explaining myself.

    I ran a little one-shot adventure I’ve been running intermittently for 20+ years. So far, I always ran it freeform, i.e. I’d just assign probabilities on a d10. No other mechanics (hit points etc.). The adventure has strongly defined pregenerated characters and this has always worked fine, but The Pool made the game even better: Risking pool dice enabled players to emphasize what they wanted and MOVs are great fun (unpredictable / more agency).

    And yeah, plain old The Pool is good for me more or less for the same reasons. No mechanical overhead, just focusing on the fiction, whether in prep or at the table.

  2. Thanks for this awesome post! Just curious, did you use any special rules or procedures for combats? In particular, how did you decide on the seriousness of the consequences of a failed roll in combat? Also, what scale did you use – one roll for the whole combat, one roll over blow or maneuver, or something else?

    • Thanks!

      I went more or less with one roll per combat. I didn’t exactly designate things into “combats” though? Thinking of “violent” things that happened.

      Throwing an attacking alien catamount off of a cliff… conflict roll, success = it goes off a cliff. Directing a pack of said aliens to attack a Chosen Warrior and take it down: roll a conflict to achieve that goal. Success and it was done. Knocking said warrior, later on, out of the sky with a thrown boulder (by a character with super strength)… success and they’re down and I said they were incapacitated.

      Another fight with different alien beasts (Ruin Dogs) and…. the player and an NPC were both attacked. The player made a conflict roll to overcome his attacker, and I just said what happened to the NPC unless the PC interfered…

      Finally an arena combat in which a player was *indirectly* supporting one side by giving them secret armaments… I had the player make a conflict roll for the outcome of the combat they were trying to indirectly affect.

      I think when I look back on it, it was mostly one roll per violent encounter, and violent encounters tended to be things that could plausibly be ended fairly quickly and decisively.

      I did, btw, state when I thought there was zero chance for a PC to win in a fight. There were encounters where I was like “if you get in this fight you will lose, they could kill a hundred of you.” That was just a fact of the matter. In those situations the PC found indirect ways to act and get what they wanted.

      Does that answer what you’re asking?

    • Hi, Dreamofpeace! sorry I missed this question before.

      I didn’t plan what happened before each conflict but whatever they tried would have gone as badly for them as was logical to happen in those circumstances.

      “Throwing an attacking alien catamount off of a cliff”

      fail = it falls but pulls her off the cliff with it, or else it just chomps on and wounds her

      “irecting a pack of said aliens to attack a Chosen Warrior and take it down”

      fail: Chosen warrior manages to kill them and is still a (huge) danger to the PC. (PC would probably have to run or die, these guys are terribly overpowered and the PC wanted to avoid being noticed or followed)

      ” Knocking said warrior, later on, out of the sky with a thrown boulder”

      fail: They dodge and/or blast the boulder out of the air, and again are now aware of and a huge menace to the PC (see above)

      “Another fight with different alien beasts (Ruin Dogs) and…. the player and an NPC were both attacked. The player made a conflict roll to overcome his attacker”

      Not sure, the NPC might have been killed, and the PC might have been in bad shape (but he was wearing an armored suit and so probably wouldn’t logically be easily killed).

      “Finally an arena combat in which a player was *indirectly* supporting one side by giving them secret armaments… ”

      The other side would have won the fight, despite the extra secret armaments. (The arena combat determined the relationship and relative status of two barbarian tribes, going forward, so there would definitely have been consequences from this.)

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