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Author Topic: [The Pool] What went wrong? (long)  (Read 5276 times)
Frank T
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« on: August 02, 2004, 04:24:23 AM »

Last weekend we met with a bunch of people from my German fantasy forum. Some of us wanted to try out The Pool and had a little session. We didnít like it at all, and I promised to summarize our session here, to see if we made a mistake or if The Pool just ainít the game for us.

The setting was High Fantasy, the capital of a great empire with a god-emperor (who hadnít been seen for years). There was a new prophet in the city, there were riots within the walls and hungry peasants besieging the city. The influential noble houses of the city were plotting intrigues and trying to figure out how to deal with the situation.

The GM hadnít prepared anything about a plot, hoping that we would make it up as we went. Neither had he prepared any NPCs, for he wanted the players to create them on the fly. We then decided that all characters should be members of a noble house, but none should be head-of-house. We had the elder and younger son of the head-of-house and the master-serf of the household. Our GM set the first scene with a wounded noble of another house arriving in haste, accompanied by two guards, who had been attacked by fighters with a mysterious blue banner.

I decided my character would take care of the situation. He was the elder son, however not the favorite of his father, who considered him lazy and too good-hearted. I had a trait ďtries to meet his fatherís expectations +1Ē and rolled on that, got a success and narrated how I hurried to bring the man inside and fetched him a healer. That was a good scene, everybody laughed at me trying to swallow my croissant whole and fumbling with my noble clothes. Then I commanded my younger brother, who was more of a military man, to take the guards and pursue the attackers.

The player rolled but wasnít successful, so he narrated how he and the guards ran into a mob of commoners protesting against the god-emperor and the nobles, who threatened them and drove them back to the family holding, assembling before the walls. At that point the player of the master-serf (who was the one actually in charge of the family affairs) took over and commanded the guards to drive the commoners away by force. He rolled success and described how the guards executed a small blood-bath, causing the rest of the commoners to flee.

I then described how the sick head-of-house came out of the mansion, demanding to know what went on. My character, who had protested against the violent approach, explained the situation and accused the master-serf. I rolled, again on my ďtries to meet his fatherís expectationsĒ-trait, and got success. So I took over the father and acted out how he got angry at the master-serf and complimented my character for acting rightly.

To this point, it was okay, although we didnít really get into it all too well. We were especially unsure about when to roll and how to define the actual conflicts, and about what we were allowed to describe without rolling (e.g. was I allowed to just have my father come out of the house at that point?)

The next scene the family sat together with our wounded guest and we were talking about which steps to take. The GM didnít want to play the father and the guest, so I took over the father. However, we werenít quite sure about that. It felt strange because I didnít want to pre-decide too much, asserting the fatherís authority as head of the family. The GM acted as the guest, pointing out that some noble houses had joined the new prophet and that the extermination of that prophet and military action against the peasants would be necessary. I pointed out (as the father) that making the prophet a martyr would certainly make the mob go wild. We then agreed to meet the other noble houses at a ball in the emperors palace and try to see where the other houses stand.

So the characters went to the ball. The GM requested an inner monologue from everyone to explain their motives. My character wanted to find a peaceful solution, maybe make contact with the mysterious prophet and convince him to leave the capital or even withdraw his statements. My younger brother, who was by the way possessed by an evil artifact of Chaos, wanted death and destruction and was therefore in favor of military intervention. The master-serf just wanted our house on the winning side of the conflict, be that the god-emperorís or the new prophetís.

Everybody wanted to try to get some information to help his cause, so we all rolled. My younger brother didnít roll success, so he just didnít find out much because people were too suspicious of each other to give anything away. I rolled success (using my ďliked well +2Ē trait) and narrated myself having a dance with the countess of another house that was whispered to have joined with the new prophet. I wanted to act the dialogue out with the GM, but he was insecure about it because he thought it was for me to decide what the lady would tell me. So I had to narrate the scene in indirect speech, which I didnít like at all. I described how she agreed to meet me later, possibly giving me a chance to meet the prophet.

The whole ball was narrated like this, without playing out any individual scenes. We just didnít get the chance to actually act in-character. There was no atmosphere, no feeling for the setting and the other characters. We were constantly musing about the possible development of the plot and the possible backgrounds, and about how we could link our characters in a way that would have them all (or at least two of them) be part of the following scenes. At that point we quit play, frustrated.

So now, was it that we did it the "right" way and just didnít like it, or did we somehow get it wrong?

Thanks in advance

Frank
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Ron Edwards
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« Reply #1 on: August 02, 2004, 05:25:36 AM »

Hello,

Quote
The GM hadnít prepared anything about a plot, hoping that we would make it up as we went. Neither had he prepared any NPCs, for he wanted the players to create them on the fly.


That's the problem right there. The Pool is not Universalis or InSpectres. It isn't a free-form game, nor is it an improvise-as-you-go game (relative to back-story). It is highly explosive and unpredictable in terms of events' outcomes, but does not in any way support "make up what's happening in the first place" in play itself.

That's why you were all sitting around thinking about "the plot" because there wasn't anything to work with and riff off of, in or out of character. It's quite difficult to get across to people that The Pool is not some kind of revolutionary improvisational game - but instead is Same Old Role-Playing, with careful and clear rules about input. That means it requires a lot of preparation in terms of setting, NPCs, potential events, and any number of other things, by the GM. It only deconstructs the traditional GM role by preventing pre-determining the outcomes of scenes and conflicts.

Some of my comments about this and related issues can be found in:

MOVers and shakers
GMing The Pool (this is the main one; I've included the others for you to see the broad range of Cassidy's concerns)
Do MOVs need to be monologues?
Number of conflicts?
The Pool: first play session comments

At first glance, it may appear as if Cassidy (the initiator of all the above threads) has nothing in common with your situation, but I suggest that he does. In his case, he was more concerned about losing control over the outcomes of scenes, as he was used to setting up skits and scenes with outcomes he could rely on as a GM, for the players to perform in.

In your case, the GM exerted no meaningful input at all, most especially at the beginning stages and in terms of being prepared with NPCs who did, said, and moved stuff. It's the other and equally dysfunctional end of the same spectrum, relative to the sort of play The Pool supports brilliantly.

Does any of this make sense, or help?

Best,
Ron
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Frank T
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« Reply #2 on: August 02, 2004, 06:41:47 AM »

Thanks Ron, that helps a lot. So what you say is, just direct The Pool as you would direct any other RPG and see what happens, right? I must admit I suspected as much. Our GM was anxious about forcing his idea of setting and plot on us, but his idea of setting and plot would have been vital to the game.
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Ron Edwards
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« Reply #3 on: August 02, 2004, 06:46:27 AM »

Hiya,

I'd say yes, except that your term "direct" makes me a little wary.

I'd like to distinguish between prepping for maximum (or at least reliable) adversity and pre-determining outcomes of scenes.

The first might be to have an NPC who is very active, forceful, and whose actions will almost certainly conflict with the goals of one or more characters.

The second might be to plan an early scene during play in which this NPC will appear, but will not be seriously hampered in his or her own designs by anything the player-characters do.

My claim is that preparation of the first kind is absolutely crucial in The Pool, but that pre-determining of the second kind is nearly-absolutely impossible. My discussions with Cassidy were aimed at trying to make this distinction clear.

So when you say "direct as usual," it makes me nervous because it sounds a lot like #2 and not #1. I'm saying, #1 yes, #2 no.

How're we doing on that?

Best,
Ron
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aplath
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Posts: 63


« Reply #4 on: August 02, 2004, 07:15:49 AM »

Hey there,

As others have said above, the key for success in The Pool is preparation. In my experience, what is important is:

1) Setting: some of the crucial features of the setting must be very well defined and understood by all players. If you are creating it on-the-fly, it is a good idea to spend a session discussing the main features among the group. It is good for buy-in and to make sure everyone is on the same page.

Our current Time Travel campaign using The Pool had a preparation phase where the group decided how exactly time travel would work (eg: it is impossible to alter the past), what people in the story knew about it (eg: the scientists are not sure that it is impossible to alter the past), a few important NPCs and the PCs themselves (including relationship maps).

This preparation generated raw material not only for the GM to use but also for the players to fall back into when narrating.

Note that you don't have to discuss everything and every detail. Just the few key points so that everyone is heading the same direction.

2) Bangs! : A game of Pool should definetely be bang driven. It helps keep the pace, and it helps keep it interesting. In a game where it is fairly easy to score a success and then you can narrate almost anything, it is important to give choices with consequences to the players. This way they will feel chalenged (as in not bored).

3) Keep a few key NPCs at hand with well documented motivations and relationships. Even though the players can change these through narration, a solid cast of NPCs will help you improvise when all else fails.

4) Learn the right moments when to sit back and let the players drive the story and when to go back behind the wheel. A good rule of the thumb is that if the story is interesting and everyone is having fun, let it roll and enjoy the ride. If the players start to be lost without knowing what to do, BANG them! ;-)

Hope this helps.

Andreas

EDITED: Actually the scientists in our game are not sure that they can't alter the past. I missed the word "not" in the first post.
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Frank T
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« Reply #5 on: August 02, 2004, 07:31:16 AM »

Yeah, it's pretty reasonable that pre-determining outcomes will not work with The Pool. "Direct" was a bad choice of word, sorry about that. Sometimes it shows that this is not my mother tongue.

Could somebody give me a link or a short explanation on this "bang" thing? I've already read some about it but right now I fail to recall how exactly it works.

Anyhow I guess I'm gonna try again with a familiar setting and prepared NPCs as well as kickers and a story perspective. A task, so to speak. That should get things rolling.
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Paganini
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« Reply #6 on: August 02, 2004, 08:23:49 AM »

I would like to add a countering-perspective to Ron. I never *ever* prep for playing the Pool (or it's child, The Questing Beast) in a traditional way. I do, however, use a couple of sneaky techniques to make sure that everyone is juiced up to go.

Technique number one - Actual group discussion. The Pool is a content-free game, in terms of setting, genre conventions, and so on. The statement "we're gonna play the Pool tonight" gives zero information about what cool stuff we're actually going to imagine. So the first thing I do is ask "What are you guys in the mood for tonight?" People are generally not too communicative about this sort of thing; you usually get some vague answers along the lines of "whatever's cool," or "how about fantasy?" So, it's a kind of winnowing process. Players become much more vocal if they're faced with an entire evening of something that bores them. So, you kinda start throwing out suggestions, modifying them, getting input from the other players, until you end up with something like "OK, we're gonna play an Arthurian game set in the modern age, where the symptom of Arthur's decline is a plague of vampires on the land." At that point, if none of the players go "Ew," or "meh" you're good to go.

It's an important prerequisite for this step to make sure that your players really do understand that it's okay to vocalise their desires. It really is okay to say what they want, and, more importantly, to express their distaste. The Pool is primarily a game for the players. What *they* want is what's important.

Technique number two - Character creation. I don't typically play straight-up Pool. I usually play a slightly tweaked version of The Questing Beast, which uses a more developed (though slightly unclear in places) version of the Pool mechanics. In TQB, the restriction for the character's Story (or Saga) is not 50 words; it's a page. So, that's what I use.

Additionally, I have every player incorporate a Kicker into his story. This is kind of a sneaky way to get the players really thinking about what kind of game they want. The Kicker is a conflict situation that the character must deal with immediately, in the very first scene. It's something urgent, like: "My best friend is hanging on the edge of a cliff over a river of lava. I'm trying to pull her out, but we're slipping, if I don't let go, we'll probably BOTH die." Or: "I just got to my hotel from the airport, and realized that my lugage somehow got switched. Instead of my normal suitcase, I've now got a suitcase filled with a million dollars on my bed." The Kicker saves me a lot of work framing in the first scene, and it gives me valuable info about what kind of "stuff" the player wants to imagine tonight. Often, when coming up with a Kicker a player will also invent at least one NPC. (Like the "My Best Friend" in the first example above.)

TQB is an anthropomorphic game; you get a free +1 Trait (Motif) for your animal form. So, if you're playing Usagi Yojimbo, you'd get Rabbit Bodyguard +1 for free.

We don't usually play anthropomorphic games, so what I do instead is have everyone get a free relationship Trait. A relationship Trait is just a trait that describes another character (can be an NPC or PC) and how that character is related to the PC. This can be blood relation, emotional ties, can be positive, or negative, and so on. Simple example: "Hates his abusive father." This is another clever way to get the players to do work for you, in creating NPCs and potential conflicts.

It's important that the player have a lot of freedom here. You can give suggestions and stuff, but if the player really wants his character to have a relationship with a god, then his character has a relationship with a god.

I remember the first time I ran TQB for one of my indie-netgamers over in the #indierpgs room on irc.magicstar.net. Her character had all these crazy super powers, Molly Millions style scalpel fingernails, etc. etc., very carefully detailed in how they worked, what they could do, etc. She was just waiting for me to tell her she couldn't have them, and getting all set to back them up in the ensuing argument. I was all "Cool. Just remember you can only use one trait on any given roll, the others can provide color, but you only get dice from one at a time." :)

Technique number three - Scene framing. Sounds like in your game, the characters were all mostly all together in one location. That doesn't often happen in my Pool / TQB games. I don't care either way, but usually the players have their Kickers set up so they start out in separate locations. They may merge their threads later, or they may not. The important thing if you have multiple threads is to jump from one thread to another pretty rapidly. Do lots of movie style cutting from scene to scene, at cliffhanger points, and so on.

This has a couple of advantages. First, it helps keep players engaged. I play a lot of different games on IRC, and, because things are a bit slower there than in real life, people who aren't involved in the current scene tend to go off and do other stuff, and not really pay attention until their turn comes up again. I've observed that in my Pool / TQB games, there's a higher degree of OOC chatter than in any of our other games. People hang around for the other threads, in part because they know their scene will be coming up again soon. There's also a mechanical element that contributes to this, I'll talk about it in a sec.

The second advantage is that it gives your brain time to spit out some new ideas for the other threads. While you're running one thread, you can have the other threads simmering away on the back burner, looking for common elements, things to tie the plot, themes, and so on together.

So, that's a lot of words there that I just wrote about Pool prep. But it really doesn't take any time at all in practice. For the Wierd West Supers game - one of the best games I've ever done, according to the players - we went from "Hey dudes, let's play the Pool!" to the opening scene in something like 20 minutes. This was me running the game totally off the cuff, exactly as I described above. I did sketch out a few NPCs while the players were writing the Stories for their characters, but that's pretty much it.

Now, about the mechanics. I sense a little confusion in your post. In standard Pool, there is only one kind of roll: to determine the success / failure of your stated goal. The goal doesn't have to be an *action* (I hit him), although it can be. But it can be bigger stuff as well, like a whole sub-thread (I infiltrate the castle and poison the baron.)

If your roll succeeds, you have a choice: You can narrate the favorable result, using full GM power, or you can add a die to your pool, and let the GM narrate your favorable result. The fact that the GM narrates doesn't change that the result is favorable for your character.

If your roll fails, you have no choice. You lose any dice you gambled, and the GM narrates the unfavorable outcome for your character.

So, it's imporant to realize, when a player assigns dice to Traits during character creation, what that player is *really* doing is making a statement about what he wants to have be important in the game. Anything he gives dice to, the more dice, the more important that thing is. Can be abilities, relationships, posessions, and abstract ideas, anything about the character that the player wants to be important. Because that's what dice do, in the Pool: They increase the chance that the player will get to do *exactly* what he wants to the game.

In TQB, there's also the Idea roll, which is *not* tied to the specific conflict of your character. I run Idea rolls like straight Pool rolls (which is a little different from TQB standard). A player can call for an Idea roll in any scene, even if his character is not present. The player gets GM dice, can gamble dice, and can even use one of his Traits, if it applies (relationship traits are especially usefull here). If the player wins the roll, he gets to narrate his Idea. If the player doesn't win, he loses any gambled dice, and his Idea doesn't take effect. This is the other thing that I mentioned above - the mechanical element that keeps players involved during the threads of other characters.
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Frank T
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« Reply #7 on: August 02, 2004, 08:52:33 AM »

Phew, that was a lot of info, thanks for taking the time to write it all down. I can imagine that it makes improvising The Pool easier if you don't try to link the characters' stories to much. On the other hand, isn't interation between the characters a nice thing?

I certainly agree that players should have a say in what is going to be played. That's how I've always handled it (sort of indirect player empowerment, if you will). But to be clear: Even if you improvise as a GM, you still provide a lot of the setting and the story, right? You don't just leave it all up to the players? You introduce NPCs, obstacles or conflicts, you get the action going if the players don't, and so on?

That's the crucial part as far as I see it now. As Ron put it: The Pool is not Universalis.
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Bob McNamee
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« Reply #8 on: August 02, 2004, 03:48:46 PM »

The Pool as we have run it is absolutely run from a GM to Player/Character method. Pretty much like many RPGs.

Except that a Player taking an MOV has more power with what results occur in a conflict, including dictating NPC actions etc.

But, Play is still centered on the PCs from the player standpoint. Most of the time you are playing your character, not the rest of the world, although MOVs can impact the rest of the world.
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Bob McNamee
Indie-netgaming- Out of the ordinary on-line gaming!
Paganini
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« Reply #9 on: August 02, 2004, 07:20:06 PM »

Quote from: Frank T
Phew, that was a lot of info, thanks for taking the time to write it all down. I can imagine that it makes improvising The Pool easier if you don't try to link the characters' stories to much. On the other hand, isn't interation between the characters a nice thing?


To me, only in the sense that it allows *players* to interract with each other. As far as character interraction goes, I'm just has happy if a PC is interracting with an NPC as I am when two PCs are interracting. And, as I mentioned, TQB has some mechanics to get players interracting, since you can offer input to other scenes, even if your character isn't around. So, to put it in a nutshell, this isn't really an issue for me. But, it's no big deal if the players want to have their characters stick together. It works just as well. You gotta go with the flow. (And, in the Wierd West Supers game, they started out with separate threads, merged together, re-split in different combinations, and so on.)

Quote
I certainly agree that players should have a say in what is going to be played. That's how I've always handled it (sort of indirect player empowerment, if you will). But to be clear: Even if you improvise as a GM, you still provide a lot of the setting and the story, right? You don't just leave it all up to the players? You introduce NPCs, obstacles or conflicts, you get the action going if the players don't, and so on?


During play, you bet. I'm the GM, I do "typical GM stuff." I introduce NPCs, I drop Bangs on the characters, I frame and cut scenes (which involves a LOT of setting description), and so on. The big thing that's different about the Pool is that, sometimes, the players get to be the GM too, for a short time. When they're narrating MoVs, they can do anything I can do, within the framework of the conflict. They can kill characters, introduce new characters, define setting elements, etc. etc. There are some extended guidelines in TQB for conducting MoVs, to make sure that you don't step on anyone's toes. But for the most part, anything goes.
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CPXB
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« Reply #10 on: August 02, 2004, 07:50:09 PM »

To echo what some people have said here, it is reasonably important for the person running the game to have an idea of who the antagonist is, in particular.  In the Universalis game I'm in we were stalled for a session or so until we bothered to create, explicitly, a bad guy.  Then the game took right off.

In the current game of The Puddle I'm in, the bad guy was known beforehand (the Witch King of Angmar, and his orc hordes, and apparently some Black Numenoreans).  This has allowed the players, when in narrative control, to guide the game towards the presumed climax, and has worked well.

I think, based on my experience with Universalis, that it would be extremely easy for players who didn't know where the action was going to get bogged down and confused when they had narrative control.

My advice is for the GM to know where the game is going, and the players, too, at least in the short term if not overall plot.
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-- Chris!
Bob McNamee
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« Reply #11 on: August 02, 2004, 08:47:20 PM »

One thing we've done on the indie netgames, with Paganini and other.

In some of our games, the outcome of the conflict roll gets defined  strongly concerning the expectations of a success and failure.

The player say what failure will be, and the GM offers the failure result. or they both negotiate. When agreed these are okay results, then the roll is made.

Pool rules are followed for the actual narration, but the general sense is decided ahead of time.

This borrows a bit from our playing of Shadows. http://www.harlekin-maus.com/games/shadows/shadows.html Which requires an "I want" and "My shadow wants" determination before rolling

This speeds up the narration process, and helps 'pre-filter' MOVs and GM narration. Negotiation over narration getting out of control can happen here, before the dice hit the table.
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Bob McNamee
Indie-netgaming- Out of the ordinary on-line gaming!
Frank T
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« Reply #12 on: August 02, 2004, 11:50:25 PM »

Thanks everybody! I now have a much clearer vision of how a Pool session should actually be run, though I'm still looking forward to James finally writing some decent GM advise. I'll give it another try.

Yrs
Frank
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S'mon
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Posts: 126


« Reply #13 on: August 16, 2004, 12:53:32 AM »

It sounded to me like a rather lazy and perhaps insecure GM, unwilling to 'riff off of' the players' input - by eg playing the Countess character that a player had created.  The players wanted in-character roleplay, the GM was unwilling to provide it, hence a lack of fun.  The GM seemed insecure with the improvisational play-style that he had determined the game would feature.  In fact, he refused to 'step on up'.  >;)
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