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The Pool in Action (Or, How I Learned to love the Hose)

Started by hardcoremoose, August 31, 2001, 01:54:00 AM

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By popular demand, here's my account of The Pool, which I had the pleasure of playing this past Monday evening.

My intent with this post is to facilitate some interesting discussion and to raise some points that everyone can learn from. But first I'll do a little recap, just so you guys know that we actually did play this game.

Playing the role of GM was Paul Czege.  This was not my first time playing with Paul, but it was my first time as a "player" to Paul's GM.  This seemed a bit bass ackwards to me - I ran for Paul before playing under him - kind of like the student teaching the teacher.  I wish now that Paul had ran something for me months would have helped with some of my scene framing issues.

The rest of the group was rounded out by our gracious host Tom (GM of the now famous Theatrix game referenced elsewhere in this forum), Danielle, Matt (Eloran to Forge users), and myself.

The setting was yanked out of the game Sun & Storm.  Basically, it's a quasi-fantasy/ magi-tech world overrun by the undead hordes of the Storm Wyrm.  Humans are on the verge of extinction, and it's from that conflict that Paul drew the central Premise of our game.  I'll probably talk about that some other time...

We, the players, took on the roles of mercenaries and refugees, on the run from the undead hordes and hoping to join up with some other humans, whom we are intent upon marrying the refugee queen off to in exchange for political alliance (sheesh, did I really make that one sentence?).  Again, I'll talk more about that in future posts...

What's relevant to this post isn't so much the content of the actual session or how we (the players) went about establishing our own themes within Paul's premise, but rather a GMing technique that all of us are familiar with, but which I've never seen any actual conversation about.  That technique is The Hose.

What I'm talking about, of course, is that moment in the game where a player fails at whatever he was doing, and everyone knows it.  The GM can't fudge the dice.  There's no metagame mechanic to save him. No second chance.  The proverbially Pooch just got screwed and the GM has to hand down the judgement.

Normally, this wouldn't be an appropriate topic for the Actual Play forum, but in this case it turns out it is.  On this particular Monday night I would've hated to have been the Pooch.  I have never seen a worse series of die rolls in all my years of gaming.  On more than one occasion a player rolled seven or eight dice, and all they needed was to roll a single "1".  With The Pool, you only fail a roll of seven or eight dice once, as botched rolls literally rip the guts out of your character's resources.  

And poor Paul, time after time, was stuck with trying to find legitimate, story-enhancing ways of Hosing our characters.  Granted, with The Pool, a failed roll is almost enough of a Hose all by itself.  I think now that perhaps that's the only reason Tom survived the session (I myself failed three consecutive rolls in combat, losing all of my bonus dice, suffering various indignities, and inadvertently bringing trouble down upon my comrades, but at least I didn't end the session gutted, bleeding out on the floor of a whorehouse.  

Here's the thing: I loved it.  Oh sure, maybe it would have been cool if I had managed to trip the zombie with the carpet, but I never would have had the pleasure of "watching" the undead monster as it flew through the air, crashing through a wall-sized mirror, and revealing the secret hiding place of the Queen and her trusted advisor to the rest of the company.

It is often said that heroes are measured by the adversity they face.  That may be true in literature, but in the context of a (narrativist) game, there is a technique to Hosing that illuminates a character's protagonism, propels the story forward, and keeps the player engaged (as opposed to disempowering and disillusioning him).  I know how I've done it (not always successfully) in the past, and I've seen how Paul does it.  How do you bring the roof down on your players and keep them coming back for more?

Just some food for thought.

Take care,

Ron Edwards


For games like the Pool in particular, and as I've found for Hero Wars as well, the issue of dice-failure is crucial.

For one thing, the old-school notion of "oh well, ignore the dice if they don't work" is out the window. That is rightly considered - in the philosophy of design represented by the Pool - to be broken. The dice are there for a reason, and the reason is a good one HOWEVER the dice fall.

What reason could that be? In such games, the dice are not the statistical modeling of the physics or metaphysics of the game world. They are instead the presentation - "springboard," I'm calling it - for story construction.

So what really matters is the player realization of what a potential failure of a dice roll can offer. (And no, I'm not going to talk about how role-playing failure is a growing experience and all that crap.) Here's the school of thought that I recall all too well:
- if I succeed in my roll, I get what I want to have happen.
- if I fail in my roll, I have suffered a setback and now must wait for my next chance to get what I want to have happen.

This school of thought must be abandoned to play the Pool, Sorcerer, Hero Wars, The Dying Earth, and Extreme Vengeance, among others. Instead, it goes like this:
- I enter into a conflict situation because it is important in character/narrative terms - it MAKES SENSE to see what happens, in story terms.
- Success is the basis for further action - it
- Failing / being hosed / losing are also the basis for further action. They are not "stop" points, but "go" points. EV is most explicit about this mechanically, as getting your ass kicked actually increases your Guts score for the rest of the session.
- Stop/delay now becomes an OPTION within either success OR failure, depending on the circumstances.

The in-game effects of losing are now divided into (1) "in-character stop + player-go"; and (2) "in-character go + player-go."

Example of #1
- getting your ass kicked in Hero Wars. You're down to 0 or below Action Points, and none are forthcoming from friends or anything. You lose the fight. Even if you haven't been "damaged" in game terms, you lose; the PC is "stopped." However, in HW, fights are ABOUT something, and unless your PC is actually dead (hard to do), the lost fight has changed the scenario just as a victorious one would. The stage has changed - not because you won or lost, but because the fight occurred. So the PLAYER still has something to do.

This is not an interpretation - it is explicit in the rules. Don't run Extended Contests (using Action Points) unless it matters in culture, story, and symbolic terms. Period.

Examples of #2
- failing a social or interative roll in Sorcerer. Your PC is being suave, and you fail the roll. Does this mean he spilled his drink all over the babe's cleavage, and stuttered, and picked his nose? No. It means that the outcome of the flirtation (in which he WAS suave) is simply not what he wants - maybe she is totally impressed by him, but talks him up to the wrong person later. (Rules about this are much more explicit in the first supplement.)

In this case, the PC is not stopped at all, nor is the player. The "go" mode is never abandoned. However, those dice did fail and there are indeed consequences.

In old-school gaming, a session in which one rolls ALL successes and criticals, throughout, would be a personal triumph. In the method I'm describing, it would be, frankly, boring.

Now, a lot of things start to change. For instance, can you still "die by the dice" in such games? In many, yes. Or, must you sit and stare glumly at the fumble, knowing there's no recourse? No - for instance, in Hero Wars, you have mechanics that actually retrofit the events if you have the points (these are hardly metagame because they do represent in-world events).

It really is a very different way to play. If the GM is thinking in old-school terms, inadvertently, he feels the need to stop the PLAYER when the dice fail the player. This predilection, or habit, is precisely what needs to be lost, no matter how hard the CHARACTER may be stopped, at times.


James V. West

"but at least I didn't end the session gutted, bleeding out on the floor of a whorehouse"

Thanks, Moose. I really needed that laugh!

One of my small press comics friends said that The Pool needed stats. Stats and character classes. It was funny because I'm so used to thinking in different terms now. I don't understand this kind of auotomatic assumption anymore.

Basically, most gamers that I know feel like a die roll is simply a way to determine wether or not the sword hit the bone. If it did, you see how hard by rolling damage. If it didn't, the GM tells you how bad you missed and then the other guy gets to roll.


I love games that challenge that notion. When I wrote The Pool, I was having fun with the idea of "why" you roll dice. I like it when games play with concepts, turning them on their ears. A die roll, or card draw, or whatever, is a moment of tension or suspense and it has tremendous potential for stimulating the story in ways you can't possibly predict.

I remember the first time I started to realize how much I enjoy player empowerment. I was running a game using a simple system I designed and the player was having a blast with it. Throughout the session, I kept giving him more leadway when he would make a successful die roll. He started to emphasize his actions, waving his arms around, grinning, even contributing to the descriptions of his failures with enthusiasm. It was a wonderful experience for me and marked a turning point in how I viewed and played rpgs.

Any game that promotes that kind of excitement, wonder, and participation is a gem to me.

Rambling on

James V. West



The Pool is a gem to all the rest of us.  I can't get the damned thing out of my head; even before I played my first session I found my own game designs haunted by it.  It's beauty and elegance was apparent, providing for a very satisfying roleplaying experience (and this while our characters suffered and writhed in aguish).

I'll probably think of more to say later, but for now I want to thank you for designing such a cool game.

Take care,

James V. West

Moose, thanks for the kind words.

So, is it *too* easy to get hosed in The Pool?

Coming soon: the first official, full-blown rpg from me, based on the mechanics of The Pool. Yes, setting, premise, and all the little perks that go with it.


James V. West



I went in to that first session of the pool thinking it would be too easy to earn the MoV.  It didn't seem too terribly unlikely that I would be rolling as many as seven or eight dice during some conflicts, and getting a '1' should have been easy.

Of course the odds will catch up to you eventually, and therein lies much of the dramatic tension of The Pool (IMO).  Gamble and risk all of the dice you want, but eventually your luck is going to turn, and for the imprudent player, that means suffering for a while as you rebuild your character's effectiveness.  This is a classic example of reversal of fortune, one of the things Jim Henley and I have discussed in relation to WYRD, and it's a powerful storytelling tool.  The fact that The Pool supports this notion so elegantly is a tribute to its design.

It just so happens that the odds caught up with me right away.  And not only me, but two of the other players in the group.  That has to be one of the more flukish things I've ever seen, but I don't consider it a flaw in the game.  It was just bad luck.  

And I'm not even sure how "bad" it was.  Certainly we failed to achieve certain things, and right now we're looking at even more potential adversity for our characters.  But what a beautiful thing that is - to be able to look down at the one or two miserable dice left in my die pool and realize that the next few things I try to do stand a very good chance of failure.  As a player I can appreciate that, and maybe even prepare for it.  And should I get lucky and roll the ever elusive '1', well then the ball is back in my court (reversal, yet again!).

Okay, now I'm rambling.  I just love the way The Pool pushes the story forward by engineering not just momentary drama, but also the drama of the next scene, and possibly scenes far down the road.  Everyone should be playing this game.

Take care,

James V. West

That's great! When I designed the game, I was thinking about how much fun it would be to be able to *control* the level of difficulty of any situation instead of having it dictated, putting the ball into each player's court. The notion of losing that power, or the potential of losing it, seemed like a great way to make people appreciate it.

James V. West