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Nuances in and Action Gaming with the Pool

So I had the chance to play the Pool with a couple of excellent roleplayers this past weekend, and it helped spark some thoughts for me. Let me describe a particular moment from the game, and then how I applied a lesson from it to a wider context.

At one point, an NPC was trying to convince the other PC to go to the hospital, as he was concerned about her. She didn’t want to go, and so her player made a roll to see if she could persuade him to go away and leave her alone; the roll was a failure.

At that point, there was a momentary bit of confusion. The player assumed we would switch the location to the hospital immediately, while the GM said, no, we’re still in the apartment: the NPC has not been convinced to leave, so they’re still there, but no one has gone to the hospital yet. The player stated that, since they failed the roll, they should now be in the hospital, and he was fine with that, while the GM responded all he’d rolled for was whether his PC convinced the NPC to leave. So we proceeded from that point.

Now none of this turned out to be significant in practice - it had no effect on later play, and the session was a very enjoyable one. The reason I’m mentioning it is because it’s an illustration for me of an important nuance in the Pool: namely, that the scope of a roll is the GM’s responsibility to determine. The phrasing of this is, at best, indirect in the text of the Pool itself, but I’m currently taking Ron’s thought-provoking class Playing with the Pool, which is where he mentioned it.

For me this is an important concept, as simple or obvious as it probably is for most people. One reason is because I’ve been thinking of how best to run action-packed games, and I figured the Pool would be a bad choice, for a couple of reasons (both mistaken).

The first reason has to do precisely with the scope of the roll in the Pool. The text is a bit vague on it, but most of the times I’ve played the game or seen it played, a single roll will cover an entire fight. Now, if I’m running a game that’s heavy on the action, sometimes that’s ok, if a fight isn’t that important or particularly dramatic - maybe, a fight vs. some mooks or underlings for example. In other games like D&D or Savage Worlds, such fights can sometimes be tedious slogs: “I swing. 12 total. Miss. The orc swings. 8 total, miss. Next.” A bunch of rolls can be made, but nothing actually happens.

So on the one hand, I appreciate the fact that in the Pool, that kind of tedium won’t occur. On the other hand, what if the conflict is really dramatic and significant for the players? For example:

   When their PC spots a demon who killed one of their teachers, the player says, ‘“Akaza! I’ve    
    found you at last. Now you’ll pay for what you did to Rengoku Sensei, all those years ago.  
   Makanaizo!” I draw my sword.’

For a situation like this, I personally find it anti-climactic for the entire fight to be decided by one roll. I want there to at least be the potential for some back-and-forth action. So I didn’t think the Pool would suit my play style for action games. But if the scope of a roll is up to the GM, then there’s nothing to prevent the GM from varying the scope of the roll, as they see fit, to match the dramatic needs of the moment. So if it’s a fight with an underling or two, one roll could work for the entire conflict; if it’s a dramatic fight against a Big Boss, then we can narrow the scope to a series of blows, or even just one blow at a time.

The second reason I thought the Pool wouldn’t work - and where another “light bulb” lit up for me in the course - was about lethality in the Pool. In the Pool, the GM is supposed to tell the player when a roll is potentially lethal, and if the roll fails, the next roll is a death roll to see if the character dies. Now in real life, of course, anytime you strike someone with force, the blow is potentially lethal. So I naively interpreted the lethality rule to imply that for any fight or physical conflict, the GM has to inform the players the consequences could be lethal - which means the game would automatically be very deadly, and not suited for cinematic action.

Ron pointed out that rather than the GM being a slave to some real-world notion of what’s lethal, the GM *controls* what’s lethal, in a game-mechanical sense. That means it’s up to the GM how deadly a game they want to run, and cinematic action is certainly an option. If a character wants to run through a hail of bullets and dive through a window, no problem - the GM is free to not label the roll as lethal. Fight off a bunch of armed ronin single-handedly? That doesn’t have to be labeled lethal either. This seems like a simple and obvious point, but to me it was a revelation.

So, if I choose to run, say, my Demon Hunter game using the Pool, it seems to me that as GM I can use my power over the scope of the roll, and over whether to label a roll as lethal, as dials or levers to adjust the level of deadliness and amount of cinematic action the game has. There’s nothing inherent in the Pool that prevents one from using it to run an over-the-top, cinematic action-style game. I haven’t done it yet, but now I’m not afraid to at least try.

Does that sound right? I appreciate any comments and analysis.

Department: 
Actual Play

Comments

Sam's picture

I have been playing a good amount of the pool recently, and I've been thinking about the thing you bring up here a good amount. I don't really grasp what you mean when you talk about the GM having power over the scope of the roll so I'm just going to have to set out my thoughts on this to see if they make sense to you.

When you roll in The Pool, it is usually clear what the roll is for. Often, what the roll is about doesn't really need to be stated, especially when trait discussion and selection comes into play. But I think that it is important that rolls are generally about "bigger" things, and that the GM and the players both shy away from downsizing the effects at all. 

Let me give you an example from a recent game of The Pool I am playing, which is set in Amherst MA and concerns the horrific effects of a new drug called wretch on the local diy music community. The drug is being produced by a cult that worships the Wretched God, a strange alien being who lives on an asteroid somewhere in the solar system. 

One of the players is playing a character called Astelle Astelle, a super famous musician who kind of sold out and left their punk lifestyle for a more glamorous one, and is now in hiding. Well...she disrupted the power of the local cult leader, so he sent one of his cop friends to her house to take her in for questioning and beat her up etc. Well, the player decided that upon being confronted with the officer's threats (he was also threatening their sick and dying mother, possibly about to shove her out of the way), Astelle Astelle would draw their weapon and try to make the cop surrender. 

So, the roll was successful, and the player took a monologue of victory. Not only did he make sure that the fight was clearly over, he kind of set the next scene that would happen and moved a few things in the situation forward so that we weren't mired in tying up loose ends with the scene with the cop.

The point that I'm trying to make is that I think it is very important that every roll in The Pool gets a similar treatment, whether from the player or the GM. You don't need to do away with all uncertainty all together, but I do think it is very important to really show how the situation has changed through the roll. So basically, I don't agree with you when you say that the GM can control the scope of the roll just because they feel like this specific fight should last longer. If a roll leaves you stranded in the same situation you were in, or one so barely changed that it mind as well be the same situation, that roll shouldn't have happened. 

I will point you to the rules for how to talk before rolling in The Clay that Woke--you only roll once for any given fight/whatever else...but you (meaning the GM and the player(s) involved) talk up until you basically can't talk anymore about what is happening without rolling. So rather than rolling when the swords come out, you might roll when one person has pushed the other to the ground and is about to run their sword through them. I think this technique is quite powerful, and I think it could apply to the thing you are talking about. It also might be a helpful way of further narrowing down what this roll is about, without any/too much discussion beforehand. 

I hope this was useful.

Greg's picture

Hi Sam! I was the player who was involved in the roll. I think you are right. I don't think it was about the scale of the roll, but about what was the conflict about. When the GM described me the outcomes, I was wondering if he was too kind with me, giving me a failure on my task but not on the whole conflict - allowing me to continue my intent through RPG.

I think when I rolled, I was confused about the stake of the conflict. I thought I was rolling to know I was convinced to go to the hospital - in this case, why not shifting there at the next scene (arrow 4 in Ron's Diagram). But I realized I rolled for something else, but only realized it through the outcome narration of the GM. I think it looks like it's about the scale of the roll, when there was a misunderstanding in what the roll was about.

Dreamofpeace's picture

Hi Greg! I could certainly be wrong about exactly where the confusion lay; thanks for sharing your perspective. 
 

This doesn't change my larger point though, that the GM has the power to determine the scope of what the roll covers. Let me focus only on action/combat for now. Suppose we take the example in my OP, of the player wanting to wreak vengeance on Akaza. He draws his sword and attacks, with the intention to kill. Now, in D&D you'd make a roll, and its scope is just this first attack. In other games, the roll might cover the entire fight; in others it varies, for example in Trollbabe, you and the GM together decide the pace of the conflict, which could result in it taking between 1 and 6 rolls to resolve, if memory serves. In the Pool, there's no rule stating the scope of any single roll has to cover the entire conflict, so the GM has the power to widen or narrow that scope as they see fit. 
 

So to return to my example, if I were GM in that situation I'd have the first roll cover the first few exchanges of the fight, not the entire fight itself. Depending on how the roll goes, the PC might be making good progress, wounding Akaza and having him on the ropes (in which case, it would make sense to give the PC more gift dice for the next roll), or perhaps the PC gets wounded instead, or drops their weapon, or Akaza gets his hands on an innocent, and so on. After another roll, suppose the situation winds up with the PC having his sword at Akaza's neck, while the demon has his claws around the PC's throat: everything now hinges on one roll, and the scope of the roll is narrow to the point of being about this one attack only. If this is the level of detail the players want, the Pool provides the opportunity to play that way. 
 

Sam, you gave a nice example of a conflict you enjoyed, but I'm not sure of the relevance, unless you're saying that all conflicts must have the same scope to be enjoyable, in which case I strongly disagree. 

Dreamofpeace's picture

Hi Sam, as I re-read your comment I noticed I’m confused about this part:

“I do think it is very important to really show how the situation has changed through the roll. So basically, I don't agree with you when you say that the GM can control the scope of the roll just because they feel like this specific fight should last longer. If a roll leaves you stranded in the same situation you were in, or one so barely changed that it mind as well be the same situation, that roll shouldn't have happened.”

Certainly, I agree that a roll needs to result in a substantial change, hence my contrast of the Pool with D&D (at least how it’s often played). But this is logically independent from what the scope of the roll is. Regardless of the scope, we can mess up by not allowing a roll to result in a robust change. By the same token, whatever the scope is, we can ensure that the outcome of the roll results in a new Now. 

Suppose a player says, “my intention is to get to the top of Mt. Everest and get the magic thingamajig my uncle buried before my rivals do.” You could have one roll that decides the entire issue, that roll would have a very wide scope. Or, that can be just the start of a game session - or even a campaign. As GM, I could say, “Ok. How do you get to Nepal?” 

Player: I take the next flight. 

GM: On the way to the airport, you notice a car tailing you. It starts to accelerate. What do you do?

Player: I try to lose them!

GM: ok, make a roll.

This roll is much narrower in scope than the last one I mentioned, but there’s no reason it won’t result in a significant change to a new Now. If this challenge is successfully negotiated, there will no doubt be a number of subsequent rolls before we finally determine whether the PC gets the magic thingamajig from the mountaintop. 

Similarly, when the PC draws his blade and says, “I kill Akaza!”, this statement of intent seems to me no different than a PC saying they want to climb Mt. Everest. We can handle it with just one roll or many, depending on our inclination. I could be wrong, but I don’t yet see why…

Sam's picture

Hey Manu. Here is one place where we are diverging that is making this hard for me.  You are giving examples that are not based in actual play, so it is very hard to engage with them. If we are going to continue with this discussion, I need you to leave hypotheticals completely out of it.

All I can say is that I have never had a hard time figuring out what a player's intention is, and I have never experienced someone just announcing their intentions like you are describing, out of the blue. 

Here is my qualm with your points--in The Pool, we never have to discuss "intention" or "stakes"...it should be clear based on what has already happened why we are rolling. And the most "stakes setting" we ever do is when the GM announces whether this roll could result in a lethal/injurious failure, which is not a discussion at all. Other than that, we work with the known, and players never just announce random goals without context. 

In my opinion, rolling shouldn't feel like a choice at the point we are rolling.

Player's don't announce intentions out of the blue and start throwing dice in my experience playing The Pool. Now, this is how I have always played, but of course I can't speak for your experiences. 

Finally, and this might just be that we are really playing two different games both called The Pool...the GM has no final say or authority as to what the scope of a roll can be. It is an organic occurence at the table based on our understanding of the situation. There is no need at all for the GM to be in control of this when everyone is playing in good faith. I think the roll in The Pool is a remarkably fuzzy zone when it comes to who is really "in charge", especially because of the trading off of authorities all over the place that it entails. 

In the end, I don't have a big problem with what you are doing--the real point of my original post was to point you to the technique in The Clay that Woke. I just wanted to expand my point because you seemed interested, so I hope I'm not coming off as upset or whatever else. 

Dreamofpeace's picture

 

Hi Sam, woah we’re having a bit of a communication issue! Let’s go one step at a time.

“All I can say is that I have never had a hard time figuring out what a player's intention is, and I have never experienced someone just announcing their intentions like you are describing, out of the blue.”

I’m not sure where you got the idea that I was talking about either of those issues. I never said people describe intentions out of the blue.

“Here is my qualm with your points--in The Pool, we never have to discuss "intention" or "stakes"...it should be clear based on what has already happened why we are rolling.”

I never mentioned stakes or discussing stakes at all, and think in general it’s a bad idea to discuss stakes. I didn’t mention “discussing intention” either. For the record, occasionally during play some clarification might be needed about what exactly a player is trying to do, but this is usually quick and not a problem. I didn’t mention this issue at all, and am confused why you’re bringing it up.

“And the most "stakes setting" we ever do is when the GM announces whether this roll could result in a lethal/injurious failure, which is not a discussion at all.”

I never mentioned anything about setting stakes, and am genuinely puzzled why you’re talking about it.

“Other than that, we work with the known, and players never just announce random goals without context.”

At no point did I say players announce random goals without context.

“In my opinion, rolling shouldn't feel like a choice at the point we are rolling.”

An interesting point.

“Player's don't announce intentions out of the blue and start throwing dice in my experience playing The Pool.”

Not in mine either, nor did I say anyone should play like that.

“Finally, and this might just be that we are really playing two different games both called The Pool...the GM has no final say or authority as to what the scope of a roll can be.”

Why do you say that?

“It is an organic occurrence at the table based on our understanding of the situation.”

Ok, sure, I don’t disagree, but someone has final authority to say what the scope is. Suppose there’s a dispute, who decides? The GM - they say you can do this, you can’t do that.

“I think the roll in The Pool is a remarkably fuzzy zone when it comes to who is really "in charge", especially because of the trading off of authorities all over the place that it entails.”

I can’t agree there, the Pool doesn’t “trade off authorities all over the place”, it’s a very “traditional” rpg for the most part. Even the Monologue of Victory is something that’s already often done in games like D&D, just not made explicit like in the Pool.

“In the end, I don't have a big problem with what you are doing--the real point of my original post was to point you to the technique in The Clay that Woke. I just wanted to expand my point because you seemed interested, so I hope I'm not coming off as upset or whatever else.”

No problem. We’re having a bit of trouble communicating in this format I think, though.

 

Ron Edwards's picture

As it happens, this very topic is central to the fourth session (out of five) of the course "Playing with The Pool," so through no fault of Manu's I gnashed my teeth upon seeing it. As of the posting we had just finished the second session. Imagine me gesticulating mysteriously and uttering "it's in - session - four!" in a non-helpful way. On a bad hair day.

After we get there, or perhaps after the conclusion of the course, I'll be here in better form.

Sam's picture

Ugh, I kind of regret these comments, which happens pretty often to me when I post about rpgs in general. I'm not trying to give you the cold shoulder or anything Manu, but I feel like I got a little off track of what I wanted to say, and I don't think I can come back to this for a little bit. Hopefully we can play The Pool together soon, I think that would be a better way to "discuss" this. 

Dreamofpeace's picture

I look forward to this week's class, Ron, and to playing the Pool with you sometime, Sam :)

Hans's picture

But if the scope of a roll is up to the GM, then there’s nothing to prevent the GM from varying the scope of the roll, as they see fit, to match the dramatic needs of the moment. So if it’s a fight with an underling or two, one roll could work for the entire conflict; if it’s a dramatic fight against a Big Boss, then we can narrow the scope to a series of blows, or even just one blow at a time.

I don't disagree with this, but I will say that I think the dramatic "needs" of any given moment are dictated by and flow from the established fiction. So if my character's a master swordslinger and a bunch of scraggly mooks stand up from their tables at the teahouse, it's clear to us that a single successful roll might mean I take half the room out. But when I come upon the rival who has been terrorizing my village since I was a child, we also know that a single successful roll cannot take him out, and not because it would be undramatic, but because we have established this person as a genuine physical/psychological threat that will be difficult to take down. And since I'm a master myself, it us unlikely that I'll be cut down in one roll, either.

The established fiction creates the parameters for drama, we don't constrain the established fiction to adhere to dramatic parameters (I'm not lecturing, just following my thoughts to their conclusion). An exciting twist to this, of course, is that dependent on the exact fictional moment of the roll, what else is going on in the background, and the trait that applies to the roll, perhaps we DO have such a showdown end with one roll: surprise! The uber-villain was a paper tiger all along, and the hero just realized that. But that will flow out of the fiction and traits as well, so the anticlimax won't simply be "well, the dice made for a lame outcome", but genuine anticlimax. That's a bit abstract and theoretical but it seems perfectly possible to me.

Of course it's also true that we can throw genre constraints on the game as a whole, such as your example regarding running through a hail of bullets. "We're playing Matrix-style, yeah? Your character's not gonna get gut-shot from a stray bullet and bleed out."

Sean_RDP's picture

But when I come upon the rival who has been terrorizing my village since I was a child, we also know that a single successful roll cannot take him out, and not because it would be undramatic, but because we have established this person as a genuine physical/psychological threat that will be difficult to take down. And since I'm a master myself, it us unlikely that I'll be cut down in one roll, either.

My question is: why not? A single conflict roll in The Pool does not have represent a single action. Any particular scene might include any number of rolls based on play, but there is no reason a single roll cannot decide the fate of the universe. If that lacks drama and excitement, its not a system issue. Or its not a failing of The Pool. If it does not seem to represent all that a conflict might be, I still do not think that is a system issue. In the above examples, I would suggest that conflict was asked for too early in the scene. 

Hans's picture

My question is: why not? A single conflict roll in The Pool does not have represent a single action. Any particular scene might include any number of rolls based on play, but there is no reason a single roll cannot decide the fate of the universe. If that lacks drama and excitement, its not a system issue. Or its not a failing of The Pool. If it does not seem to represent all that a conflict might be, I still do not think that is a system issue. In the above examples, I would suggest that conflict was asked for too early in the scene. 

 

Well, there's no abstract answer to your "why not?" because of course it's possible, as I went on to say a little bit further down. The only reason "why not" would be because the fiction constrains the logical outcomes. That's what I was trying to say. I wasn't meaning to talk about system issues or frame anything as a failure of The Pool at all.

Dreamofpeace's picture

Hi Sean, as to "why not", because it's not as fun, most of the time, for at least many people. YMMV; if, after many sessions, your character finally encounters their six-fingered nemesis who killed their father and left scars on his cheeks, and the entire fight between them gets decided by one roll, and that's what you'd best enjoy, go for it. Your fun is not wrong.

However, for myself and at least some other people, this would not be dramatic enough or fun at all; it would be profoundly anti-climactic. I would want several rolls as our sword-fight ranged over different terrain, we made use of the environment to our advantage, we attempted to taunt and demoralize the opponent with fancy moves and witty quips, and made different decisions on how to gamble pool dice and what trait to use.

This does not mean there's a problem with the system: the Pool includes the possibility to make this happen, simply by varying the scope of rolls.

Also, as Ron has said, the Pool isn't really a fully-developed game in any sense. My hope is that by playing around with it a more full-fleshed game that works for the kind of gaming I enjoy will emerge, at least for a particular genre. 

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