So I read Ron’s work talking about and analyzing the Pool, and the game itself seemed to me to be elegantly and brilliantly designed, with a kind of simplicity I find really appealing. But I never had a chance to try it, so I was thrilled when some kind people were willing to play online. We decided to use the Anti-Pool, and added a variant rule where other players could help out on a roll.
I GMed, and prepped for it like I would for any other game. We settled on Star Trek, so I decided on a rescue mission. The Federation ship USS Cutlass was spiraling out of control, its engines not responding, and communications with it erratic due to some kind of interference. It’s structural integrity field was degrading as well. Within a few hours, unless the ship changed course, it would drift into the Romulan neutral zone, triggering a major incident with the Romulan empire.
In my prep, I settled on the cause of the ship’s problems, and took notes on several NPCs and their goals, some of which were conflicting. I also laid out several tripwires, such as “if anyone investigates area B on deck 10, Jones, the psychotic crewman, will attack”, “if any ship crosses the neutral zone, a hostile Romulan warbird will decloak and order them to leave, while locking weapons on target”, etc.
The players (on another ship, the Shantar) were ordered to take a shuttle over, fix the Cutlass’ engines and change course. The PCs consisted of Ensign Vindoom, Andorian and Chief Custodian, in charge of an army of unobtrusive cleaning robots; Ensign Raschke, a nimble and quiet space marine; and Lt. Moneaux, an insecure and inexperienced security officer.
One of the PCs asked why they were selected for the mission. The Captain said he needed brave, experienced people of keen intelligence and judgment for the mission - unfortunately, he couldn’t spare any of those people right now, so they’d have to do :) He also mentioned that the Cutlass was on a classified mission, and that they were to keep things quiet.
I asked the players if they wanted to do anything on the way to the Cutlass, while in the shuttlecraft. Raschke did, trying to call a friend in starfleet intelligence who might know more about the Cutlass. So here’s where we had our first roll; the player got a success, and I asked if he wanted the Monologue of Victory or to add a die to his pool. This is also where we had our first issue: because he couldn’t add or change the backstory, and in addition didn’t know what a lot of it was because it was secret, he’d have to ask me what he found out instead of adding it himself. So why use an MOV? Better to just take a die and let the GM narrate. To my chagrin, I realized this was now going to be an ongoing problem, because of the investigatory nature of the scenario I had set up. Anyway, Raschke’s buddy told him the Cutlass was on a mission to discover a new source of dilithium crystals, and the mission had been retroactively classified after they visited a previously uncharted planet.
The PCs were welcomed aboard the ship, and were given the basic picture: the Cutlass had recently visited an unexplored planet. The Away team came back successfully, but two of its members came down with some sort of illness a few hours after returning. Engine troubles began shortly after that. The PCs headed down to engineering, where they found the crew madly scrambling to fix the engines. Moneaux made a roll to see if she could get the Chief Engineer to tell them why the mission was classified, but failed, so I gave them the minimum necessary information: they’d installed two new crystals from the planet into the warp core, and at first things worked wonderfully, but everything started going wrong a few hours later. When the Engineer suggested they remove the new crystals, the Captain had refused, in very strong terms.
Meanwhile, I thought that one of the NPCs would consider this a good opportunity to make a move, so I said that one of the computer workstations started sparking. When people ran over to fix it, another workstation started malfunctioning, followed by another. Vindoom made a roll to see if she could detect anything about the cause and succeeded, but just took a die (MOV didn’t seem like it’d be any fun). I mentioned that the workstations were malfunctioning in the order of the sequence of prime numbers. Then one of the engineering crew collapsed to the ground and started screaming, and everyone saw a flash of kaleidoscopic lights where he’d been standing.
The PCs accompanied the medics and the screaming engineer to sick bay, where the doctor sedated the patient. Moneaux made a roll to try to get the doctor to talk and succeeded, but once more just took a die instead of a MOV - as once again the main purpose of the roll was to get backstory information, and it didn’t seem like a MOV would get you much. They learn the new crew member showed one sign in common with the other two patients in sick bay: exposure to a high dose of a talaron radiation (something I’d made up in prep). The other two patients were on the Away mission, this new one was not.
The PCs split up, one going to interrogate the security chief, Vindoom went to find the Chief Custodian, and I forget what the other one did. They make rolls to find out what’s going on, learn that two of the Away team’s members are missing, and that (via a video record from a cleaning robot) that one of them (Ensign Jones) was approached by a swirl of kaleidoscopic lights before he vanished.
Also, the security chief reveals the Captain is set on making the new crystals work, regardless of risk, as because of their unique structure they’re much more powerful than regular dilithium; if he can pull it off, he’ll probably get promoted to Admiral. This is why the mission is now classified: a source of new, more powerful dilithium crystals is a major find with all kinds of security implications. The PCs regroup and head to the location where Jones was last seen, on deck 10.
Now I don’t think any of us liked the game that much at this point; I believe the players felt either somewhat bored, frustrated, or both (feel free to speak up guys!). For my part, I was stressed, because I was worried the players were going to spend too much time spinning their wheels on side issues, and alternately bored, because just giving out information was not that exciting. This was the exact opposite of what I’d expected, since a couple of weeks previously I’d run a game of Cthulhu Dark that went really well, and thought that the Pool with its MOV would add to the excitement. I’d failed to consider that an investigative scenario might not be the best setup for the Pool to show its stuff.
The game started to get interesting when the PCs reached deck 10. Lt. Moneaux tried to find any trace of where Jones went, and failed the roll. Thus, she was looking in the wrong direction when the psychotic Jones (who had been hiding in a Jeffries tube) attacked, tackling her to the ground. Raschke sets his phaser to stun and fires at Jones, but fails - so I say he hits Moneaux instead. Jones leaps up from the stunned Lt. and backhands Raschke. Vindoom grabs a small cleaning robot and tries to clock Jones on the side of the neck, and succeeds. They take a MOV, saying how they hit him just right and he collapses.
Meanwhile, behind the scenes, the alien NPC who’s been vainly trying to communicate with the crew detects all this activity, and because it’s near where she tried to communicate with Jones earlier, figures it’s a good time to say hi once again. So I mention that the corridor lights start flickering, and a swirl of kaleidoscopic lights starts heading towards them.
Raschke grabs the unconscious Jones and starts booking it down the hallway, with Vindoom sprinting away also. This left poor, phaser-stunned Lt. Moneaux alone to face the swirling lights. When the lights touch Moneaux, I have the player make a roll to see if they can stay sane, and it’s successful. I describe how they see swirling, colored geometric patterns, followed by a feeling that the borders of their consciousness, their sense of self, starts to dissolve. Moneaux feels herself stretch, connected to all the ship around her, feeling like the space surrounding her is alive and breathing.
There’s some laughter, and questions about how I know what a psychedelic experience feels like (no comment). Moneaux then has a telepathic discussion with this alien, who is actually a sentient crystal of dilithium that can move around via a kind of telekinesis. The crystal has been trying to talk to someone, but most of the crew can’t stand the experience and have psychotic breaks. The only exceptions are the Captain and now Moneaux. The alien is sorry for the trouble, but tells her that the crew of the Cutlass have put two of her kin into the warp engine. They don’t like being in the warp core, but can’t get out by themselves, and are angrily rerouting power so that the engines don’t work. The Captain refused to do anything and tried to run from her. Moneaux promises to help.
Now players start using MOVs left and right. The PCs tell the doctor what’s happening, and say he needs to declare the Captain unfit for duty. They succeed, and get the chief of Security on their side as well. There’s a final confrontation on the bridge: the Captain, blinded by ambition, is unwilling to release the living crystals, while Moneaux backed up by everyone else orders him relieved of command. There’s a roll using the new help rules, and Moneaux succeeds, taking a MOV to say the shouting and protesting Captain is led away to the brig.
The crystals are freed, the engines start working again, and they steer clear of the neutral zone. The crystals ask the Shantar for a ride back to their home world, it’s a lovely first contact situation, and the session is over.
The second half of the game was a lot more fun than the first half, I think we all agreed on that. Now, did the first half fail because of some mistake I made in applying the Pool? Or was it because investigation is just the wrong kind of situation to use the Pool for? Or some other reason?
Anyway, I look forward to your observations and comments! And of course players of the game feel free to chime in, I welcome your thoughts.
PS The video is what inspired the scenario :)