So you can consider this a follow-up to my earlier post describing nuances in and action gaming with the Pool. I had the chance to try out my ideas with a couple of excellent players. The backdrop to the game was a “Demon Hunter” idea, set in contemporary times in my home city of Seattle. I was going for a kind of Dresden Files/Monster of the Week feel, so urban fantasy.
As far as my GM prep went, I didn’t have the characters until shortly before the game, so my prep was more independent of the character stories than is usually typical for me. I knew I wanted to try out a kind of action game, so I figured the opening scene would have a way to get immediately involved in some fighting. So a standard way to do that is to have an innocent in trouble; I imagined a demon luring a teenager into the woods with the intention of devouring them. I quickly came up with the idea of a beautiful female demon, a high school kid, and a couple of other demons around for back up.
I asked questions to grow the situation from there. The beautiful demon works for Google – ahem, no not Google, I mean some other high-tech company that has a motto about not being evil – and she works for their charity services division. Why? Because this charity services division has established a “tiny homes for the homeless” village, as a public relations ploy. The demon manages this homeless village. Naturally, some of the homeless who show up there go missing. This teenager is one of the people living in this homeless village.
The other pair of demons work with her as security and so on, taking the opportunity to feed on people as it arises. The female demon – let’s call her Susan – works for the head of charity services division, Richard Drake, who is, of course, also a demon.
That’s pretty much what I had in my ready file, other than a few notes about the Fremont Troll and so on. The player characters included Valerie, a stylish wizard who lost loved ones to demons, and can burn demons with the power of her mystical left eye. She can also see demons by their aura, using this mystical eye vision, and fight with a special war fan.
In addition, there was Richard Gates, a sanitation worker who found a magic staff one day near the garbage. The staff gives him the power to recognize the scent of demons, to make himself undetectable, and to turn demons to ash on touch.
When the game began, I asked the character players what they typically do at night. Valerie walked around patrolling for demons, going where she sensed she might be needed; Richard was doing a late night/early morning garbage run. I threw them right into the opening scene, telling Valerie that as she was walking in the woods and trees around Green Lake, she could hear a woman talking seductively to someone, while out of the corner of her eye she could see the telltale reddish-black glow of a demons aura. She immediately approached the area, confronting the demon, who currently had her arms around the teenager’s neck. The demon told her to mind her own business, and when Valerie refused to back down, she unhinged her jaw and bent the boy’s head back, preparing to take a bite. Valerie rushed her, with the intent of getting the boy away from her grasp. She failed her roll, so I said the demon blocks and trips her; Valerie falls, hitting the ground, and her war fan fan skitters away from her grasp.
The demon hisses at her, but she gets up and lunges again, this time succeeding. She pushes the kid, telling him to get out of there, and confronts the demon again. The demon lunges for her, but Valerie unleashes her mystic eye, and succeeds in her roll; the demon starts burning, throwing herself to the ground in agony.
Now I decide to bring the other player into the same situation, mainly because I had nothing else prepared particularly for him. So I say that he is riding along in the garbage truck by Green Lake when he hears a scream, smells the scent of a demon, and sees a fiery glow coming from the trees. He runs towards the scene, and observes a woman burning on the ground, another woman standing over her making some kind of a mystical gesture, and a teenage boy cowering under a tree. He decides to sneak up to behind the standing woman and attack her, since she clearly must be the demon. He succeeds in his roll, and takes a monologue of victory, stating that he strikes her with the staff.
I did have a bit of a question on how I handled this part. If I remember correctly, the player first stated that he wanted to sneak up behind her, and when he succeeded, he used his monologue of victory to add in that he struck her with the staff. I was momentarily confused, wondering if this attack was really part of the initially stated intention, and if not, whether adding it in with a monologue was legit or going too far. At the time I simply went with it.
Upon reflection, I could have asked for another roll for the attack with the staff, using the GM’s prerogative that the scope of a roll was mine to decide. However, by the same token, it was also up to me if the scope of the role included the attack. So I suppose either decision was legitimate. During the game, I went with the players narration, erring on the side of more player power.
Another thought on this subject just occurred to me. A good rule when not to call for a roll is when failure would be meaningless or boring. In this particular case, if I had called for another roll to see if Richard succeeded in his attack, and he failed, would that matter? I think so; Valerie would become aware of his presence and have the chance to react, as would the demons, and the scene could change substantially. So asking for a roll would have been legitimate, I’m thinking. Would it have been better? That, I have no idea.
Ok, so Valerie gets hit, and loses her concentration on the demon, so it stops burning. Interestingly, the player supplied this consequence, not me. So the demon Susan gets up. When Valerie doesn’t turn to ash under the power of his staff, Richard realizes his error. Valerie takes him in at a glance, then tells him to take care of the kid. He runs over to the terrified teenager, when a hand reaches out from a tree branch to grab the kid. It’s Jerry, one of the back-up demons. It laughs hysterically as it tries to drag the boy away. Richard strikes out at it, succeeding in his roll. The demon screams in agony and pulls back.
Meanwhile, the enraged and horribly burned Susan lunges at Valerie. Valerie tries to burn her again, but fails, so I say Susan ducks and reaches in, her claws wrapping around the demon hunter’s neck. Valerie tries to escape from her grip, at which point I say this roll is potentially lethal.
I had no particular principle or criteria for making this declaration, it just seemed like it made the most sense in the context. Now I realize I could have simply opted to have more dire fictional consequences: broken bones, disfigurement, a destroyed limb. I have no idea whether that would have been better or not, and it might be impossible to answer that question.
Anyway, Richard sees Susan tangling with Valerie, and decides to flee with the kid back to the garbage truck. Valerie fails her roll, so I say she feels the demon’s claws tear into her neck, before she’s thrown through the air and slams against a tree trunk. Susan turns to pursue Richard and the fleeing boy. Looking backward in fear, Richard runs for the garbage truck, hoping to get there before Susan gets to them. He makes the roll. Susan stops when Richard is pushing the kid into the front cab of the truck, seeing the rest of the sanitation crew staring at her burned body. I figure she doesn’t want to draw too much attention to herself, so she quickly fades back into the trees, heading for a hideaway where she and Jerry can heal up. Richard drives away as fast as the garbage truck will go.
Valerie meanwhile tries to stop the flow of blood from her neck, and fails her roll. She collapses and dies. Now I was a bit taken aback at this development. We were probably less than half an hour into the game, and already a PC was dead. What to do? Just having the player observe for the rest of the session wasn’t acceptable, as she deserved to have the chance to play, and that shouldn’t be taken away because of a die roll.
We discussed it for a bit. We came up with the following options: (1) she could make a new character, which while not as time-consuming as in other systems is still not trivial; (2) taking inspiration from the Mountain Witch, she could play a ghost of her PC. The player opted for (2). I decided she could have the typical abilities you expect, like causing lights to flicker, appear in an ethereal form, and so on with no problem, and using poltergeist powers and her mystic eye were also available but would usually require a roll (there’s all kinds of interesting ways those could go wrong, after all). Reflecting on this, I would argue the only real change we made in the Pool was to bring the “between sessions” 15-word addition rule forward into the game play itself.
So, Valerie is disturbed to find herself a ghost, looking down at her dead physical body. After a few moments of disorientation, she looks around the area for clues, and comes across Susan’s partially-burned corporate ID. She decides to haunt Richard, to get him to go after this demon.
Richard meanwhile takes the freaked-out kid with him on his garbage run. Eventually they contact his mother, who is grateful for Richard’s help but asks him some sharp questions about why he didn’t contact the police. He hand-waves the question and notes that his fellow workers vouch for him.
Later, the police take him down to the local precinct for questioning (behind the scenes, Valerie’s body was found). As he’s waiting in the interrogation room, Valerie appears to him in ethereal form. Lights flicker, cameras stop working, etc. She tries to persuade Richard to investigate this demon, based on the name and corporate ID she saw, but he’s reluctant to do anything. She leaves when a detective comes in to interrogate Richard. The detective isn’t satisfied with some of his cagey answers (he doesn’t mention demons) but lets him go, telling him not to leave town.
Valerie haunts a computer, researching Susan and discovering where she works, at the tiny house village.
Richard goes home with a pack of beer, intending to relax and forget about his harrowing night, but Valerie shows up, haunting him and shorting out his TV. After another intense conversation, he agrees to help her take Susan down.
Richard dresses as a maintenance worker, and bluffs himself into the management office at the tiny homes village, with the help of Valerie who’s caused a drip from the ceiling of Susan’s office. He enters the office and Susan is there, all healed up from last night’s encounter. Richard unfolds his magical staff and attacks, but fails - so she grabs him and tosses him out the window, screaming for security. Jerry the demon, outfitted as a security guard, tears after him. Valerie appears in her ethereal form and tries to unleash her mystic eye on Susan, but fails. So Susan’s eyes glow red, as do her hands; she reaches for Valerie, saying she regretted not having the chance to drain her life yesterday, but she’ll rectify that now.
Outside, Richard lost hold of his staff as he crashed through the window and rolled a few yards over the ground. Jerry grins when he recognizes Richard, laughing hysterically as he morphs into a more demonic form, his legs and arms stretching out into an unnatural length before he starts scampering towards him like a spider. Richard gets up, dashes for his staff, and lashes out at Jerry.
Now at this point I wondered if I should have the player roll for being able to get his staff. Certainly, failure would be significant: Jerry would probably do something like punt him away from it, then scramble onto him and prepare to bite, putting Richard into a lethal situation. I think this was a legitimate choice, but so was simply letting him grab the staff. I opted for the latter for no particular reason, other than that it was getting late and I was tired.
Anyway Richard’s attack was successful, and he takes the MoV, describing how he jams the staff into Jerry repeatedly until he burns up into ash, leaving only his security guard uniform behind.
Meanwhile Valerie faces another potentially lethal attack from Susan. Now this is awkward, but for some reason I can’t completely remember what happened (maybe I was too tired), but I think Valerie made a last-ditch attempt to burn Susan with her eye and she succeeded, reducing the demon to ashes. Maybe one of the players can confirm?
Regardless, the demons were successfully but narrowly defeated, and Richard got out of there before anyone could ask him any questions.
I asked the players for epilogues for their characters, and I was surprised and delighted by what they came up with: they formed a demon-hunting duo, Valerie staying on as a ghost to help train this new hunter.
So how did the Pool work for an intense action game? We all had fun, so I think it worked fine, and I’d like to try it again a few more times. The issues I had were: (1) when exactly to call for a roll during an action scene; there seemed to be many viable choices, so I occasionally felt the uncertainty or paralysis that comes from having a lot of available options, and (2) it felt weird that the only options for a failed roll in a combat scene were either lethality or another fictional consequence. I’m used to there being more trackable game-mechanical consequences, like resources getting depleted (hit points, fatigue, wounds, etc.), but in the Pool you don’t really have that - except for the pool of dice itself, and if you run out of pool dice it has no direct fictional consequences. It would be easy to add a wound system to the Pool, something like a “bruised, wounded, seriously injured, dead” track. Before I try that, though, I want to see more of what it’s like to just work with the fictional consequences. My sneaking suspicion is that after a while I’ll settle on some standard ways of doing things, and that these can be codified into rules at that point.
Any thoughts or analysis on anything I wrote here is welcome!