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An Intense Action Game of the Pool

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!

Department: 
Actual Play

Comments

Sean_RDP's picture

So I do have a question here:

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.

When Valerie's player succeeded did they take the MOV or a die? And if the MOV, what was it? And f not, what did you describe? It seems to me that one character's decision undid the first player's decision but since I was not there, I obviously do not know. I am curious how that all played out, because I assumed Valerie's player got rid of the demon-Susan.

Dreamofpeace's picture

I can't remember if she took the MoV or not, I think she did - if she's reading this, hopefully she can clarify :) And I decided it was going to take 2 successful rolls to defeat Susan, so nothing was undone IMHO. 

Sean_RDP's picture

Ah okay, that makes sense then. Cool. 

Dreamofpeace's picture

You could also look at it this way: the player decided herself that her burning of the demon was interrupted. Suppose I hadn't settled on the criterion that it would take two successes to defeat the demon; in that case, would you say that the other player's decision undid hers? If so, would it have been a bad thing?

A related question: suppose two player characters are actively opposed to each other, whether in a contest or actively fighting. How to handle that with the pool in a non-frustrating way?

Sean_RDP's picture

Let's tackle these one at a time.

You could also look at it this way: the player decided herself that her burning of the demon was interrupted. Suppose I hadn't settled on the criterion that it would take two successes to defeat the demon; in that case, would you say that the other player's decision undid hers? If so, would it have been a bad thing?

I think if the demon is dead, based on the MOV, then it changes everything. And good or bad is subjective. But a cool outcome does not mean it was a good outcome. My impression of how the game works is that the conflict is resolved before another conflict comes into play. In this case it looks like Richard's conflict happens in the middle of Valerie's conflict. With the idea that it takes 2 successes to bring down Susan-Demon then that seems to create space for Richard's conflict to happen. 

And I am not saying it was a bad outcome. I just want to be clear when Richard's action happens vis-a-vis Valerie's action because on the face of it, it appears that it happens in the middle of Valerie's actions. For me that is salient point.

Minor point: 2 success is a change to the formula, not good or bad but it changes things. Or appears to on the surface. It feels like an extended contest. But again, I was not there to see how things transpired or hear the conversation about scope and such.

A related question: suppose two player characters are actively opposed to each other, whether in a contest or actively fighting. How to handle that with the pool in a non-frustrating way?

My first question here is: did everyone know that players could oppose one another in this way? I have no issue with it either way but I think it should be explicitly discussed. If it is an option, then I think its tricky. It becomes a race to see who "strikes first", which I think is counter to the game's flow. I have too little experience with the game itself to offer an answer.

Dreamofpeace's picture

Sean, I think you're right to point out that requiring two successes to resolve some conflicts is actually a significant change in the Pool; I didn't realize it at the time. Whether it's good or bad I'm not sure, but I can't see any other way to handle what I wanted in the setting. For the record, in case it might be of interest to somebody, here's what I had in mind, though most of this I hadn't written down:

Parasite demons: they take over humans and use them to do bad things. The human host body can be killed with mundane weapons, the parasite insect/worm demon itself cannot, but can be killed with one successful hit from a mystic weapon.

Worker demons: true demons that aren't human in any way, although they can look like them. They can't be killed with mundane weapons, but can be slowed down: it takes minutes to recover from serious bullet weapons, fire, being run over by a car, etc. One successful hit from a mystic weapon kills them.

Manager demons: true demons; it takes them just seconds to recover from mundane attacks. 2 successful hits from mystic weapons in a 24-hour period will destroy them.

Executive demons: unaffected by mundane attacks; drive a truck into an executive demon and the truck gets smashed. 3 successful hits by mystic weapons in a 24-hour period will destroy them.

I don't know how to make some opponents more difficult to overcome than others except by increasing the number of successful rolls required to defeat them. But I'm open to suggestions!

Helma's picture

Sean: I did take the MOV (pretty sure, could still be wrong, I've a lively fantasy and a bad memory). The MOV did not contain the death of the demon. For two reasons. The first is that I like to keep things somewhat open, that results into surprises, which I like. The second is that I'm bad at MOV's, I have difficulties to describe what others than my own character will do, feel or say.

the following relates to the last two replies/comments related to "a question of timing"
Sean: Your “first” question (or rather the last one): the way I remembered it we talked about it before playing it that way – not before starting play, but before we got that part of the scene going. As you say, that is neither about good or bad and you are right, it is tricky. We developed what could happen together which I think is the best way to go in those situations. I have had similar experiences with different games, most games do not seem to take into account that you may decide to play a character that isn't going to be bff or teammate with every other player character at all times. Conflicts and missunderstandings between characters are normally easy to arrive at in play, especially if they don't know each other from the beginning. In this case it was rather easy to see how the actions of Richard and Valerie would be “sorted” on a timeline (Susan at that time definitely was out of the picture) and the situation developed rather naturally from my first "failed" roll onward, so in some way we were lucky. If it is possible to make rules for situations like that or if you should avoid them, if there should be rolls or you should talk your way through, that is a whole different thing that would need a lot of testing and trying and in the end probably result in another “nearly the Pool but differnt” design that has lost the simple elegance of the original.

Manu/Sean: I do like the intention behind Manu's concept of demons with different “strength” but I do not know how it can work as the MOV is going to get into it's way. We just were “lucky” that I wasn't “smart” enough to “kill” Susan (the demon) immediately in my first MOV. I do think Manu's ideas may work within the concepts of the Pool. How much a single roll covers is nowhere stated, if I remember right it is described as being a part of what you arrive at during play leading up to the roll, including but not limited by what you express as your intent going into it. But I agree that an explanation of “this demon is to strong to be killed in one blow” which basically translates to “nice you succeded but this happens to only be a partial success” after the roll would be really counterproductive. So we would have to somehow “make sure” we arrive att the roll in a way that makes clear an instant death is not possible but does not give away to much. That should be possible. I mean, action does not mean the players at the table have to get carried away and can't stop to think, we did it frequently during play anyway. I'd for once would like to explore these things further through play.

Dreamofpeace's picture

My Mt. Everest analogy might be relevant here. Suppose a player wants their PC to go to the top of Mt. Everest for some reason, and they tell me that. Depending on what I as the GM want to focus on, what the players want and expect, and other details of the context, I could ask for a roll with the scope being the entire question of whether the character makes it to the top; a success and they do, a failure and they could die or be grievously injured. One roll, and we know whether they summit Everest. As far as I can see, that's a perfectly acceptable way of handling it in the Pool. 

But suppose I want - and others expect - more detail. I could ask, "ok, how do you go about getting to the Himalayas? You're in New York right now." Just getting to the Himalayas could be an adventure in itself, requiring multiple rolls. Rather than a single roll determining the outcome of whether the character summits Everest, we could spend an entire session, or even a campaign, on this intent. This is also a completely legitimate way of playing the Pool, it seems to me. 

Now if the player in the example above protests, and says, “wait, I rolled a success, so I should be on top of Everest now!” and I respond, “no, that roll was just to see if you successfully piloted your airplane through the storm on the way to Nepal,” well, clearly communication broke down somewhere; but the player would be in the wrong if they continued to insist their success got them more than the scope of the roll warranted. That’s true even if they take a MoV - they can narrate flying their plane to safety, but continuing the monologue to include climbing Everest would be illegitimate. Obviously, good communication is key here to avoid misunderstandings. 

So when a player says they want to kill a Manager demon, I'm choosing to take more of the second approach rather than the first, and I think this is within the GM's authority to do, to set the scope of a roll. In the context of a dramatic, one-on-one fight against a manager or executive demon, I’ll usually limit the scope of a single roll to “do you hit them?” or the like (as opposed to “do you kill them”), knowing that one successful hit does not equal one kill. A player can take a MoV, but it would be as inappropriate for them to narrate killing the demon as it would be for the player in the example above to narrate summitting Everest. After the demon has been hit, is clearly hurting and maybe backed into a corner, I’d be making it clear from my description that it’s on its last legs, and a another successful hit would be the coup de grâce. 

So, I guess I take back what I wrote to Sean earlier: I don’t think this is a big change to the Pool after all. But again I’m open to other opinions and other ways of handling it.

I have a few thoughts on some of the issues raised thus far in the thread.

I understand the general point of your Mt Everest example, Manu, though I think it points to a possible confusion that is more likely to come up in a hypothetical situation as opposed to actual play. Which is to say that in play we can only call for a roll in the context of an ongoing scene. Furthermore, we're only going to call for a roll when the specific actions taken by the character are coming up against some kind of adversity that makes the outcome uncertain. In actual play, we will know what the characters are specifically doing and saying, and we will also have a sense of what is providing adversity and how it's providing it. Given all of that, the scope covered by the resolution narration (whether success or failure) will usually be fairly apparent. "Usually" and "fairly" aren't meant as filler here: I've found that sometimes not everyone is on exactly the same page, but we're almost always in the same ballpark.

The important thing is that regardless of success or failure, every roll needs to lead to a genuine change in relevant circumstances. Whatever happens next must be meaningfully different from what would have happened next had the outcome of the roll been reversed. 

For the GM, then, I've definitely considered pre-assigning a certain number of "required successes" to given adversaries. I have held off on going through with it because I think it is a trap (albeit a tempting one) to think too much ahead of time about how many successes a given action will need to "really succeed": there are just too many possible ways that the circumstances could be changed, given a specific set of actions taken against a specific kind of adversity with multiple possible outcomes (both success and fialure, and also the possibility of "success plus" from an MOV). It is entirely possible (if not extremely likely) that an initial "required success" in a series could end up changing the circumstances to such an extent that it would make requiring a further success to deal with the adversity no longer make sense.

However, I've also found that if we are mindful of making sure that the outcomes of rolls are meaningful, you get a similar effect of having adversaries that aren't fully conquered after a single roll.

An example from a recent game: an ex-cop character was at the door of an apartment belonging to a possible suspect. The scene started with him talking to someone behind the door -- the suspect's roommate, who didn't want to let the ex-cop in for reasons of his own. The ex-cop first tried to talk his way in: for this, I gave the player 2 dice -- the roommate was not a very capable adversary (so, in my thinking would normally provide 3 dice), but he REALLY didn't want to talk to anyone even remotely connected to the police. The player failed, which led to the roommate not opening the door and also, now spooked, trying to get away out the fire escape. The player had his character kick down the door -- which we decided didn't really call for a roll -- and then try to chase after and detain the roommate before he escaped. I gave him 3 dice for this (again, the roommate not being a particularly capable adversary): this was a success and lead to him having grabbed onto the roommate and gotten him in a hold. He then tried to interrogate the roommate again: the situation was definitely different from the prior attempt -- at that time the roommate was safely behind the door, this time he was physically at the mercy of the player character: so this time when the player asked his questions again, the interrogation attempt got 3 dice to reflect that the roommate was no longer as confident. However, the player failed this roll, leading to the roommate shutting up, and leaving the player in a position where he would have to give up on this interrogation or escalate in his attempts to get information. To me, this is more straightforward, more satisfying, more elegant, more organic than if I had ahead of time decided he would need 2 successes to get all the information out of the NPC, and yet it has the same benefit of giving us an exchange where there's a real back-and-forth between the opponents.

This method seems less susceptible to the potential problem of having meaningless successes that pre-requiring multiple successes opens up: having to deal with potentially meaningless successes puts us back in the position of having to thread the needle of narrating something that seems meaningful without actually changing the situation enough to circumvent still needing one or more successes to deal with the adversity.

 

Dreamofpeace's picture

Hi Jon, the example you gave was great, everything worked well and the results were satisfying to all concerned. It shows how entertaining failing rolls can be. Certainly I'm not suggesting that one should always require more than one success to resolve a conflict. But I'm not seeing a persuasive argument that doing so is always undesirable, that all conflicts need to be decided by one success only.

You mentioned that rolls should always result in a significant change to the situation, and requiring more successes can result in meaningless rolls. A meaningless roll is no more likely to occur if two successes are required than one, though. Take D&D - if I hit a monster for 8 damage, is that meaningless, even if I didn't kill it with that one blow? No - the situation has changed, game-mechanically and fictionally. It hasn't changed as *much* as if the monster were defeated outright, but its still a meaningful change. 

The same is true if you're fighting one of my executive demons, and you try to hit it with your magical staff and get a success. Let's say it's clear that the scope of the roll is the specific attack. You can take a die, in which case I narrate that the demon grunts from the blow and staggers back, his face twisting with rage. Or, you can take a MoV, describing how you sweep the demon's leg out from under him, then reverse the staff, slamming it into his stomach as he's on his back. In both cases, the situation has undergone an irreversible, meaningful change, both fictionally and mechanically, as a result of the roll.

There's nothing about limiting the scope of the roll to a single attack or an exchange of blows that means the results will be more likely to be meaningless. Certainly it's not as impactful as if you killed the demon outright, but that doesn't mean it's not significant. I still see no reason to insist that the scope of a roll should always cover an entire conflict. Sometimes, fighting a particular opponent can feel like climbing Everest - and sometimes we want that to be the case. 

Dreamofpeace's picture

A thought just occurred to me, that the Pool already requires more than one for roll for certain events to occur - namely, for your character to die. For your character to die in the Pool, you must first fail a lethal roll, and then fail a death roll.

So I'm simply extending that same idea to include some NPCs. The only difference is, for your character to die the death roll must immediately come after the lethal roll, whereas for demons it can come up to 24 hours later. 

Helma's picture

First, I so love when games take me to places I (used to) know, I do feel sorry not to have had the possibility to talk to or fight the Troll, but I'm happy he/she(?) is still around. Thanks for situating the game in Seattle and specifically starting it in the Green Lake area.

Given the initial information for the game I actually did think of any encounter as potentially lethal and I even may have been so forward as to mention it before the game as I did not want to get into a situation where the gm would have to remember to tell me before “every” roll and unable to kill my character if they missed that.
In case you have not guessed by now, I played one of the characters, Valerie.

Play and Manu's musings (I'll try to quote what I refer to for readability)
“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” Actually this was the moment where I realized that this would be a great game. Not that I normally like to get missunderstood and whacked over the head, but in this situation it seemed so natural and logical. Manu did “soften” the effect of the blow by picking up narration and saying the staff would “know better” than it's master and not kill Valerie outright. I don't deem the situation needed a second roll, but that is partially because I knew that her power needed her to focus and that the focus would be broken independently of the result of that second roll.
“Interestingly, the player supplied this consequence, not me.” Well, the player did not find the need to detail the power in the character text, but very much in her mind – resulting in it being a “cold fire” meaning it would only engulf demons, not the surroundings (kind of important in woods or modern buildings) and that she would have to focus to get it going (to prevent unintended accidents). That Valerie's first roll was trying to seperate the boy from the demon was also part of my “head canon” about her power. Being touched by Susan he would have been impacted by the fire. (I do hope this also works as an “answer” to the exchange between Sean and Manu, otherwise feel free to ask me about missing information).
The letal conflict. “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.” I can say that would you have called that conflict non-lethal you would have had a conflict with your player. I do not want conflict and/or “failure” without consequence – and I did fail the roll. For me Valerie was dead at precisely this moment. The second roll that (fortunately) failed too was just some little extra icing. It was a wonderful sequence of decisions and rolls and only now I realized that I had messed up. As Manu stated we were only about 20 minutes into play – normally not a problem, I would have sat back and enjoyed the rest of the show, making up a new character for the next session. In this case there wouldn't be a next session, still not a problem. The problem: I needed the play experience for my homework for the “Playing with the Pool” class Ron was giving (highly recommended btw.) so I could not sit back and enjoy. Time was passing and my brain just froze, under different circumstances I have come up with a Pool character within 10 minutes, now I drew a blank. This ended with me basically forcing us into inventing “ghost” rules on the fly. Still sorry for that and furious at myself, but learned my lesson, next time I will have two characters from the start.
Anyway, the solution we came up did work astonishingly well. I'd have liked the consequences of being dead a little bit more severe, less possibilities, more rolls required. Example: “Susan’s partially-burned corporate ID” I expected to have to roll to see if Val would have been able to read it (as in which side would be up in addition to readability). I did adjust the bonuses to some of her traits (abilities) and used the 15 words to basically incorporate her demise into the text.
It was a lot of fun to see how Valerie tried to impose her values and principles onto poor Richard at the precinct – he probably found her worse than the detective.
“Valerie haunts a computer, researching Susan and discovering where she works” this is another one of the situations where I expected a roll – and frankly, I started to wonder whether the gm was avoiding rolls because of my lack of pool dice or time running out. Anyway, I had decided by now Val would know Richard good enough to be able to get to him wherever he would hide, so when he came home “Valerie shows up, haunting him and shorting out his TV” - which was a) fun, b) somewhat extrem but finally successful in terms of getting him to agree to take Susan down, c) not a roll, but should have been one? To me it seems to be a little bit difficult, as in a lot of games, to really get a grip on how to handle “player versus player” conflicts in a consistent and good way.
“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.” The final confrontation between Val and Susan – fuelt and guided by the rolls even gave me room to describe how it took Valerie some time to figure out how to use her power in her corporeal form. I think 2 rolls were involved, the first one failed, the second one, dodging Susans counterattack and a new attempt at burning her, succeded.

“So how did the Pool work for an intense action game?” Great, or at least it seemed like it to somebody who has never played an action game before. I had a ton of fun, both with the action and my fellow players. “It would be easy to add a wound system to the Pool, something like a 'bruised, wounded, seriously injured, dead' track.” Not for me, thank you. I really like the absence of that in the Pool games. The possibility to “scale” is there, how much, like a single exchange of blows (final scene), a whole conflict, or at least a greater part of a conflict (in the beginning), both options are perfectly ok and I'd say a hint about how much a roll decides often is given by the play leading up to the roll.

Dreamofpeace's picture

Hi Helma! I’m so glad you played in this game, and thank you so much for sharing your observations, they’re very valuable.

“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”...Manu did “soften” the effect of the blow by picking up narration and saying the staff would “know better” than it's master and not kill Valerie outright. I don't deem the situation needed a second roll, but that is partially because I knew that her power needed her to focus and that the focus would be broken independently of the result of that second roll.

No I didn’t do that! It was the other player. I just asked questions to clarify the effects of his staff. I think he didn’t want to hurt Valerie too badly :)

“Interestingly, the player supplied this consequence, not me.” Well, the player did not find the need to detail the power in the character text, but very much in her mind – resulting in it being a “cold fire” meaning it would only engulf demons, not the surroundings (kind of important in woods or modern buildings) and that she would have to focus to get it going (to prevent unintended accidents).

I find this interesting because it shows how much we get from our short 50-word character story. None of that was explicitly written down, but you nonetheless used it to guide your play, without any enforcement from the system or the GM required. Cool beans!

The lethal conflict. “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.” I can say that would you have called that conflict non-lethal you would have had a conflict with your player. I do not want conflict and/or “failure” without consequence – and I did fail the roll.

I hear you. And I certainly agree, failure should have significant consequences. But is death the only viable consequence, even for a serious combat scene? A broken bone or permanently scarred face would have cascading repercussions throughout future play, it seems to me...

For me Valerie was dead at precisely this moment. The second roll that (fortunately) failed too was just some little extra icing. It was a wonderful sequence of decisions and rolls and only now I realized that I had messed up...Time was passing and my brain just froze, under different circumstances I have come up with a Pool character within 10 minutes, now I drew a blank. This ended with me basically forcing us into inventing “ghost” rules on the fly. Still sorry for that and furious at myself, but learned my lesson, next time I will have two characters from the start.

No no no, you did nothing wrong whatsoever! If anything, I was at fault, since I knew this was going to be a combat-heavy game, and should have anticipated deaths and asked for a slate of characters. Come to think of it, a zombie survival horror game might be fun to play like that, everyone comes with four or five back-up characters ready... But anyway, I should have known death was likely and prepared for it. Also this is a general issue with most games, so we shouldn't be hard on ourselves. Other than the Mountain Witch and maybe a handful of others, most rpgs don’t have any good guidance for how to deal with PC death during play.

Anyway, the solution we came up did work astonishingly well. I'd have liked the consequences of being dead a little bit more severe, less possibilities, more rolls required. Example: “Susan’s partially-burned corporate ID” I expected to have to roll to see if Val would have been able to read it (as in which side would be up in addition to readability).

Good to know. I did struggle a bit about when to call for a roll.

It was a lot of fun to see how Valerie tried to impose her values and principles onto poor Richard at the precinct – he probably found her worse than the detective.

I loved that part, lol

“Valerie haunts a computer, researching Susan and discovering where she works” this is another one of the situations where I expected a roll – and frankly, I started to wonder whether the gm was avoiding rolls because of my lack of pool the dice or time running out.

So here was my reasoning: if a roll fails, the failure needs to be significant enough to produce a "new Now", a clear change in the situation; if the failure won't have such a consequence, then don't ask for a roll. I couldn't see how a failed roll for Valerie trying to do a search on Susan would be interesting at all: things would just seem stuck. In hindsight, I can imagine Valerie's ghost powers going berserk and causing poltergeist-like havoc as she tried to type, but I didn't think of it at the time.

Also, it's perfectly acceptable in the Pool for a player to call for a roll; I apologize for forgetting to emphasize that.

“Valerie shows up, haunting him and shorting out his TV” - which was a) fun, b) somewhat extreme but finally successful in terms of getting him to agree to take Susan down, c) not a roll, but should have been one? To me it seems to be a little bit difficult, as in a lot of games, to really get a grip on how to handle “player versus player” conflicts in a consistent and good way.

I admit I don't know how best to handle that either. I suppose you could have something like an opposed check, where if both succeed whoever gets more ones wins, and if both fail you just interpret it as best you can depending on context.

Dreamofpeace's picture

As I was reviewing these comments, it seems to me that many people think fictional consequences are somehow not meaningful or not significant enough - and that to really "count", they need to be tied directly to game mechanics. So for example if a PC is wounded in the shoulder, this doesn't mean anything unless there's a concomitant effect on a game mechanic: they get a penalty on subsequent rolls and so on. 

Now it seems to me that the Pool allows for that: "you're trying to lift that fallen beam off your comrade? Ok, you're wounded in the shoulder, so you only get one gift die." But regardless, isn't the critical issue whether the fictional consequence is referred to and used by the players and GM in continued play? For example, if I include the fact that my PC is wounded in my decision-making and roleplay: "I'm not sure I can climb up the rope ladder because of my shoulder; I'll head for the stairs instead." As long as that happens, doesn't that make a fictional consequence meaningful, even if there's no direct correlation to a game mechanic?

Ron Edwards's picture

Maybe "yes" and definitely "but."

You're right that we should not fetishize numerical or probabilistic constraints, especially not in the sense that every single bit of content is not "real in play" without them. That is indeed bogus. Play is composed of what is heard, reincorporated, and heard again.

But you're not right in thinking that saying "I probably can't climb up the ladder" is equivalent. It's not a constraint. For one thing, in The Pool, it's not up to you. The GM will tell you whether it's subject to a roll or not, and if it is, how many Gift dice are involved. But more importantly, you are looking too closely at that single isolated statement. The question is not whether this exact little thing is represented by a number. The question is what elements of play at this time are constrained (perhaps you prefer "shaped") in any way, and which are not and thus available for in-the-moment additions.

Please consider my boxes diagram about little black arrows inside scenes, and scenes inside situations, with blue arrows and yellow ones. At a critical point in the Playing with The Pool course, I showed that diagram and stated how any particular subset of the arrows, i.e., some of them, whichever, could be highly constrained by the procedures of play. When that's the case, then the others are easily freed up to be accounted for by less constrained, even freewheeling description, or better, introduction and reincorporation.

The Pool - insofar as it's a game at all as constructed from its messy set of texts - is relentlessly based on the black arrows inside scenes. This pemits the blue arrows (scene transition) and yellow arrows (impact of situation on scenes) and gold arrows (potential impact of scenes on situations) to be played as reincorporations of whatever the black arrows did and did not do.

I named several games at this point as very different, e.g., games in which the blue arrows were the most highly procedural and set up the constraints for what would now be said to happen in the scene - and those things which happen in the scene (who gets shot, who grabs the gem, et cetera), which in The Pool are highly procedural, don't have any procedural constraints at all. These games work fine, for exactly the same reason. Whichever arrows are procedurally honored as constraints opens the "just say it" door wide for whichever arrows aren't.

Do you see my point? The Pool features very solid in-scene black-arrow constraint for "can or can't." You can't climb the ladder because your shoulder is established to be injured by a narrated outcome (by whoever, maybe you, maybe not) or because the GM rules whether a roll to do something is even possible. Those are the only ways to know "can't." Your from-left-field description that you "can't" or "probably can't" isn't innocent or harmless - it genuinely bypasses the procedures which are in place to know this sort of thing.

 

Dreamofpeace's picture

I admit I’m having trouble following, specifically with connecting the situation diagram to the specific “hurt shoulder” issue. 

“You're right that we should not fetishize numerical or probabilistic constraints, especially not in the sense that every single bit of content is not "real in play" without them. That is indeed bogus. Play is composed of what is heard, reincorporated, and heard again.”

Ok great, that’s really what I wanted my point to be. I gather my specific example (of the wounded shoulder) distracted from this in some way? Or was just wrong?

“But you're not right in thinking that saying "I probably can't climb up the ladder" is equivalent. It's not a constraint. For one thing, in The Pool, it's not up to you. The GM will tell you whether it's subject to a roll or not, and if it is, how many Gift dice are involved.”

That makes sense, I think. Suppose I just stuck to the fact that “I have a wounded shoulder” has been established in the fiction, as a consequence of a failed roll; would that have been more appropriate? Or am I still missing the point?

“But more importantly, you are looking too closely at that single isolated statement. The question is not whether this exact little thing is represented by a number. The question is what elements of play at this time are constrained (perhaps you prefer "shaped") in any way, and which are not and thus available for in-the-moment additions.”

I think this concept of constraint or shape is important, and I don’t have a clear understanding of it, or not as clear as I thought.  

“Please consider my boxes diagram about little black arrows inside scenes, and scenes inside situations, with blue arrows and yellow ones. At a critical point in the Playing with The Pool course, I showed that diagram and stated how any particular subset of the arrows, i.e., some of them, whichever, could be highly constrained by the procedures of play. When that's the case, then the others are easily freed up to be accounted for by less constrained, even freewheeling description, or better, introduction and reincorporation.”

I want to understand more clearly what it means that a subset of arrows is highly constrained by procedures. What it sounds like is that when certain things happen, that triggers particular mechanics, which can have rules for who is allowed to say what, when, and about what; in many games that could be combat, or chases, or particular social dynamics, and so on. Or I guess it can be as simple as when to roll, which includes constraints on who can say something, and about what. Is that what you have in mind here?

“The Pool - insofar as it's a game at all as constructed from its messy set of texts - is relentlessly based on the black arrows inside scenes. This pemits the blue arrows (scene transition) and yellow arrows (impact of situation on scenes) and gold arrows (potential impact of scenes on situations) to be played as reincorporations of whatever the black arrows did and did not do.”

I think I got that. The situation diagram is a very helpful visualization. 

“I named several games at this point as very different, e.g., games in which the blue arrows were the most highly procedural and set up the constraints for what would now be said to happen in the scene - and those things which happen in the scene (who gets shot, who grabs the gem, et cetera), which in The Pool are highly procedural, don't have any procedural constraints at all.”

I admit I don’t follow this sentence… I gather you’re contrasting the Pool’s procedures with those of other games, but that’s it. 

“These games work fine, for exactly the same reason. Whichever arrows are procedurally honored as constraints opens the "just say it" door wide for whichever arrows aren't.”

I might have a vague idea what you mean here, but it’s a level of abstraction above what I’m presently able to understand. 

“Do you see my point? The Pool features very solid in-scene black-arrow constraint for "can or can't." You can't climb the ladder because your shoulder is established to be injured by a narrated outcome (by whoever, maybe you, maybe not) or because the GM rules whether a roll to do something is even possible. Those are the only ways to know "can't." Your from-left-field description that you "can't" or "probably can't" isn't innocent or harmless - it genuinely bypasses the procedures which are in place to know this sort of thing.”

So is the problem the use of “I probably can’t”? If so, I think I get it. This gets back to one of the problems you had with play during the frog Pool game, where players would inappropriately nerf themselves by assuming they couldn’t do certain things, when nothing to that effect had been established in the fiction whether by rolls, GM fiat, character traits, or other mechanism. 

Suppose the fact that my PC has a wounded shoulder is established. This is meaningful if: it is listened to and heard by others, incorporated by others in play, and has a role in constraining or shaping the fiction through one or more of the game’s procedures. So if my PC tries to climb the ladder and the GM says, “wait a sec, isn’t your shoulder hurt? Better make a roll to see if you can climb it, those zombies are on your tail” that would be an example of a fictional consequence being meaningful. Is that on the right track?

Ron Edwards's picture

That’s what I get for not sticking to the immediate point.

Suppose I just stuck to the fact that “I have a wounded shoulder” has been established in the fiction, as a consequence of a failed roll; would that have been more appropriate? Or am I still missing the point?

Yes, that would bring the whole thing into a different light, and far more so than just “appropriate.” But it also changes your whole initial comment and even rebuts it. Let’s see if I can express that – and I hope that even though I’m being abstract, you’ll see that I am not being vague, non-concrete, or wooey.

In looking at the diagram (the situation box), let’s be clear that we’re talking about the starting part of a little black arrow. There’s another diagram that breaks this one little black arrow into four, and we’re even looking at that starting point of that one. So, really, we’re at the very, very beginning of “let’s resolve this one thing.”

How do we collectively understand (know) that your character’s shoulder is wounded? Because the person whose job it is to say so, embracing certain constraints on their capacity to say so, has said it. In this game, for this moment, those are quite clear, as I listed them above.

... your shoulder is established to be injured by a narrated outcome (by whoever, maybe you, maybe not) or because the GM rules whether a roll to do something is even possible.

Please note that the latter constraint is quite real, and not “fiat” as you described it. The GM cannot make up a wounded shoulder out of nothing any more than you can. However, it is the GM’s job to say, given a wounded shoulder as established at some point, whether it’s going to affect the possibility of climbing the rope at all, or, if it is, how that affects the Gift Dice for it.

That’s the constraint: we know whose job it is to say this, and on the basis of what kind of information.

I think this concept of constraint or shape is important, and I don’t have a clear understanding of it, or not as clear as I thought.  

...

I want to understand more clearly what it means that a subset of arrows is highly constrained by procedures. ...

It means that content of this kind, and at this point, has to be established in a particular way and not in any other way. It might include numbers or it might not, it might include randomization or it might not, or any other detail we might name – but it is someone or several someones’ job, and it is conducted in a fashion that we know and rely upon. Even if it feels like it’s wide-open because someone “just says,” we still know who and what they can use. It’s not wide-open at all; there is no such thing as free-form play.

By “shape,” I’m referring to the observation that at any such moment, the potential for what can happen is not an open set. The set boundaries are established by certain things that apply only at this moment, and by certain operations that things “go through” to be established as a new set. Therefore every instance of using this procedure at every moment of this kind is distinct not only from any other moment of this kind, but especially distinct from any moment of a different kind (e.g., a different sort of arrow).

So is the problem the use of “I probably can’t”? If so, I think I get it. This gets back to one of the problems you had with play during the frog Pool game, where players would inappropriately nerf themselves by assuming they couldn’t do certain things, when nothing to that effect had been established in the fiction whether by rolls, GM fiat, character traits, or other mechanism. 

I think you get it too, but I want to stress again that “fiat” is very much the wrong word, term, and concept. It isn’t fiat for the GM to do their job any more than it’s fiat for you to decide whether you attack a goblin or not. We won’t know X unless the person whose job to say X says it. When this is the case, if the procedure happens to lack (for example) numerical factors, that doesn’t indicate arbitrariness or overriding known procedure.

I sent you a message on Discord with a pinpoint moment in one of the games we’ve played together, to illustrate.

Suppose the fact that my PC has a wounded shoulder is established. This is meaningful if: it is listened to and heard by others, incorporated by others in play, and has a role in constraining or shaping the fiction through one or more of the game’s procedures. So if my PC tries to climb the ladder and the GM says, “wait a sec, isn’t your shoulder hurt? Better make a roll to see if you can climb it, those zombies are on your tail” that would be an example of a fictional consequence being meaningful. Is that on the right track?

Yes, but. First, I'm not very interested in "meaningful." That seems like a red herring to me. I'm all about the "established" as the relevant topic. Therefore, I think you're on track here only if by “established,” you mean according to procedure. Otherwise we enter the murk.

Regarding the comparison with other games and the situation box diagram, let’s shift that to a voice conversation some other time. It was a big point in the Playing with The Pool class, but I might have focused on another person at that part and missed a chance to connect with you about it. For this conversation, its only point is to say that I’m talking about The Pool, and games with a similar focus on the in-scene black arrows, and not about play in general.

Dreamofpeace's picture

Yes, by "established" I meant that it happened as a result of a procedure, such as a roll. Ok, thanks very much for clearing that up, I think I get where you're coming from. 

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