Author: James V. West
Reviewed by: Ron Edwards, 2002-01-01
Here is a two-page freebie available on the internet that may be the beginning of a whole new wave in RPG design. It presents an amazing concept, astonishingly strong, and so pure. My players, hardened RPG veterans, cannot stop gushing about it.
All that praise aside, The Pool is still not wholly ready. It needs work, it needs context, and most of all it needs tons of playtesting. But I do think that we are looking at an "it" that will reward all such efforts.
Basically, The Pool ain't nothin' BUT system, at this point, and it will take about as long to explain it as to read the rules yourself. But here goes.
To make a character, write a 50-word paragraph, based on a couple of guidelines. Extract "traits" from this, and assign bonuses to traits. You have 12 dice in a beginning "Pool," and any assigned bonuses for traits reduce the Pool.
When a player-character does things, the GM decides if and how many dice must be rolled (1 to 3); getting a "1" on any die means success. Dice are added to the throw if you can bring a trait into the action. So far, so easy.
Now for the fun part: you may also add up to 9 dice to the throw from your Pool - if the action fails, you lose those dice from the Pool!
A successful action results in one of two things, player's choice: (1) add a die to the Pool, or (2) present a Monologue of Victory, which is basically a moment or two of rather powerful Director stance relative to the action in question and its results.
At the start of a session, you have your Pool as it stands from last time plus 1d6 more dice, and at that time one can give away dice to a fellow player.
So there you have it: a whole game based on the concept of the abstract Pool for Effectiveness, with the players having most of the control over the tension involved, and with the Metagame built in as possible (voluntary) consequence. Think of it as stripped-down Hero Wars, with the bidding process fully integrated into resolution rather than being parallel.
It works really well! Upon reading the text, I thought it was going to be a one-way, hose-the-loser experience - that is, that the initially lucky get better and better, and the initially unlucky just get worse and worse - but that wasn't the case at all.
Character creation resulted, in our group, in characters with 5-7 traits with 1-die bonuses each, and thus 5-7 starting dice in their Pools. (It turns out to be silly to buy traits any higher than +1.) The players gave those little grunts of satisfaction upon completing the characters that I look for when starting a new game.
Back to the dice. As we all know, probabilities have no memories, and so runs of victory or failure do occur. That of course leads to reversals, which in turn generate quite a bit of drama. And with a little attention to linking that player-psychology drama (i.e., craps) to game-event drama, you get GREAT moments of role-playing. For instance, in our session, two characters were each facing a conflict in separate scenes, which I was running simultaneously. Up until then, most rolls in the game had been successful. Each player decided to gamble all he had - and both lost, going instantly to ZERO dice in their Pools.
For the system to work, the GM has to be highly reactive, letting events like the above dice-outcomes dictate "climaxes" and "plot twists" rather than planning such plot events ahead of time.
Partial success is not part of the system as written, but oddly enough, we never missed it. Considering how much time and attention is paid to this issue in most Fortune-based games, I kind of wonder why we didn't miss it. But it just never mattered.
I really, really liked the consequences of going to zero dice in one's Pool. You still get the basic 1-3 dice to roll for actions, and you still get to apply your bonuses for any traits, but of course, you cannot gamble (you're broke). Your announced actions tend to be simple ones, in hopes of getting 3 dice to roll instead of 1 or 2; furthermore, you tend to work toward your traits rather than try things that are unusual for you. So your character is "taking it easy" in within-world terms. But more importantly, the player will of course tend to rebuild the Pool through successful rolls, which means he or she is NOT making Monologues of Victory - that is, going to 0 Pool usually means reducing one's use of Director stance for a while. Brilliant.
Fleshing it out
Here are the areas and issues that I hope West will consider in further developing The Pool.
About that character creation paragraph ... I recommend using the Hero Wars model, for two reasons. (1) It is very strict about prohibiting lists, so that you don't get a "My guy can do this, this, this, this, this, and then this, this, and this too" for 30 traits in a 50-word paragraph. (2) HW character creation openly requires embedding a character in a community or endeavor. Who he cares about, what he wants, and who he's affiliated with now are all part of the picture. The Pool makes a good start in requiring description as well as abilities, but both of my players made "lone wolf PCs," which is not desirable in Narrativist play.
I suggest permitting relationships be traits, just as in Hero Wars. So you might have +1 die for "member of Black Dog troll clan" or for "my pal Joe."
The rules should include guidelines for the scale of a single roll. effects? Action? Scene?. I strongly, strongly recommend that it be played as Fortune-in-the-middle, with the general intent ("Beat this guy") being initially announced, and the specifics ("Busted him in the jaw!" or "Ooh, he caught my arm and flipped me!") being retroactive.
When to roll at all is a big issue! The GM needs to remember that assigning a roll means that the PC really might win, because of the 16.67% on a single die. And a PC winning is a big deal, because (1) there's no counter-roll and (2) the potential Monologue of Victory can have a big impact. You can find your villain NPC dead in the first scene or converted to the hero's best friend. (In other words, The Pool is utterly unsuited for elaborately planned, pre-scripted storyline play.)
Therefore the game really needs standards for the role of Drama. When are rolls not necessary? Is that totally GM-driven, or can a player suggest as much?
The GM also needs to think hard about assigning the ease/difficulty of the base roll, from one to three dice. I discovered that when players have a nice Pool, one-die rolls are the GM's best friend, but when they went to zero Pool, it's really cruel not to give them two-dice and three-dicers. But I decided that one-die is pretty much the default; otherwise the players have HUGE amounts of Director power with their Monologues.
It's not too hard to think of the degree of loss in a Gamble being a good guide for the degree of consequence, but I'm not sure this should be set in stone. I like keeping the dice-losses in the atmospheric realm, like music or close-ups in cinematic conflict. However, I did treat any loss that reduced a Pool to zero dice to be worth a serious, serious hose-bag treatment for the character, as well as hefty plot consequences in general.
The game badly needs combat and magic guidelines in terms of breadth. How much magic does a single trait cover? How many modes of combat? (My little brain is thinking that magic or other funky shit, in some settings, might require gambling at least one die.)
And further, how much does one accomplish with such things? To take the most extreme example, guidelines for PC and NPC death need to be generated. As written, if you fail a roll in any death-potential situation, you die. I think this is way too open for in-play problems, and suggest instead that death be confined to zero-Pool situations (for PCs), that players may give one another dice during play to fend off death, and that the scope of a roll's effect on an NPCs be designated or managed in some open way.
And that brought up another thing: lending dice during play, which isn't in the rules at the moment. Obviously, such an act shouldn't be completely open, which would make all the players' dice into a common Pool, but it might be a good option to toss in there under some circumstances. It could even involve lending and payback.
One teeny fix: the text identifies die-rolls of one, two, or three dice as Best, Medium, or Worst respectively, which is backwards.
0-bonus traits: it's quite likely that one will finish a character to find several traits without dice bonuses assigned to them. At first I thought that I'd make the called-rolls easier for those actions, but realized that was functionally granting a dice bonus after all. So what to do with them? My current thought is to think of them as a wish-list for assigning bonuses later, and maybe even permit assigning bonuses during the session.
Character development: the text on this is a bit garbled, although clearly one may beef up existing bonuses at very high costs. As it stands, it's silly to buy any traits past two-die bonuses, so one assumes that over time, everyone's running around with +2 on everything. This is in itself neither good nor bad, but it might be monotonous. My players and I agree that a goals-based approach that permits some revision to the character-paragraph might work better, but how that interacts with the quantitative side of the character is still a question.
My biggest problem with The Pool is found in two instances of text that rely on very strong GM-player antagonism, with correspondingly harsh or, in my opinion, disruptive rules.
1) The discussion of character creation balance, in describing traits, threatens the player with dire in-game consequences for describing traits as universally excellent, and demands a few flaws. I suggest that this is based on old-school standards of advantage-disadvantage balance, and it is overlooking the fact that the competence of each ability is set by the dice bonuses anyway.
My solution works very well: don't permit any comparatives or quality assessment into the paragraph at all. You can say "skilled with a sword," but not "the best swordsman in the world," or even "a very good swordsman." Your quality - and you might be a VERY good swordsman - should arrive on the character sheet in the form of the assigned dice bonuses, and play no role in the paragraph.
2) The discussion of the Monologue of Victory seems driven by paranoia that the player will destroy any logic or content of a scenario. My call is that Director power is Director power, and if some standards in scope and extent of the Monologue are presented, that the GM basically has to shut up and like it. As written, the GM may not only Veto the Monologue (some player power, eh?), he may actually rescind the rolled victory! My players and I winced and drew a line through that sentence immediately.
My suggested solution works as follows: give the GM "the period power" over the Monologue, meaning that he can stop the player (one full phrase minimum, though). I suggest not permitting the GM to rescind the victory, as this is basically a bullying mechanism to keep the player fearful and thus disinclined to "ruin things." However, in practice, I'm certain the opposite effect would be achieved.
A bit more about our session
I know that "all about my game last night" text is really boring, but some details of my prep and play might help playtesters, considering how much fun we had.
I started with a two-paragraph setting, including a situation in which a scary wizard's daughter was getting married. I ripped off maps of a neat citadel from an obscure fantasy-game supplement, and quickly listed a few NPCs representing different political or emotional interests regarding the wedding.
The players easily zipped up fantasy PCs (who were way too ego-based, frankly, prompting my comments on the PC-paragraph above), and I said "why are you there" and hooked the answers to appropriate NPCs.
That was it. That was all we needed. I had to stay very loose in order to recognze plot events as they developed during play, and confined my GMing to dictating the logistic crossings of player-characters' paths and playing the NPCs very intensely. I let the dice-crises of spectacular success and spectacular loss govern moments of NPC decisions, as when Dav's character miserably failed at seducing the daughter, and I decided that she rather liked him after all, and marched him in a hammerlock to her daddy to see if she could marry him instead (to Dav's terror).
The Pool may represent the highest potential for a resolution system I've seen in years. I plan to play it again and again, and I would love, absolutely love to see it fleshed out a bit and honed through further playtesting. If the resulting system were presented with several light settings, this RPG would be among the strongest small-games available.