This is the single most brutal post I have presented or perhaps ever will present at Adept Play. So I’ll start with all the good things.
The fictional adventure as atmosphere and topic was delightful. I offered a starting point which instantly became, from and for everyone, absolutely our own mostly-anthropomorphic frog fantasy. Lorenzo rightly pointed out that it has some affinity with The Wind in the Willows, if you can imagine that with a sprightly, audacious, sword-and-sorcery spin. I’ve included the initial handout, the map for the village of Wambaroum (the same as used for a very different community in the Whimsical Ways game), scans of my very messy inter-session notes, the characters’ initial sheets, and the final story/sheets for two of them.
At about this point, you should probably embark on the videos. They include my summary of the first session and discussions or reflections that we happened to get into as a starting point for each session, and the whole thing finishes with a discussion as well.
I don’t even want to go into how absurdly fraught all discourse about and reference to The Pool began and has remained. It is twenty years of stinking, fetid mass. Instead, I want you to work with me de novo, regarding this diagram.
I designed it very carefully. Here are some details to spot right away.
- The vertical arrows do not point at the junctures among the big arrows. They point at the big arrowheads, meaning, the activities inside the main body of each big arrow have resulted in the events described in the italics. Therefore the big arrowheads are the locations/positions of the procedures of those events. That’s why the vertical arrows are colored-coded to the big arrows, too.
- The procedures in the italics are specific to The Pool. The conditions or status of play represented by the big horizontal arrows are not specific to The Pool.
With me, still? The first point for this post is that the problems in playing The Pool are not located in its procedures and the vertical arrows. They are located in the big arrows. The virtue and curse of The Pool is that playing it reveals – with surgical and terrifying precision – exactly what the people playing are bad at in those big arrows, in their general role-playing.
There is no way to engage with this issue without triggering a round of excuses and defenses. Therefore, I’ll start with my own examples which you can see nicely in the videos, and which I’m summarizing here in the form of “You suck at this, Ron, this is ‘notes to self,’ so pay attention.”
- Not being absolutely hard-ass about establishing that once we are in the blue arrow, there is to be no take-backs and re-framing of the preceding grey arrow, which includes the established reason and purpose of the conflict-and-hand.
- Not explicitly transitioning into the fourth big arrow, i.e., making sure that we all (and especially the concerned player) get out of the narrated outcome and into a New Now. This arrow is grey like the first arrow because it has the same internal arrangement of authorities and procedures, e.g., no dice are involved ... but it cannot merely be stuck in the same fiction of the first big arrow. In fact, this applies especially when this new arrow is entirely continuous with the old one in terms of time and space, i.e., when its initiation, post-narration, is not a scene transition.
Now for the harder part to post about: that GMing this game with Manu, Claudio, and Lorenzo was frustrating and absolutely exhausting for me. I had to re-orient play at each big arrowhead again and again, and at least half the time, I simply threw up my hands in despair and applied the procedure with a sledgehammer just to get through it. By the end of each session, I forgot or even forgot to look up procedures out of sheer fatigue. In each session, I can point to one moment in which I almost simply closed out the entirety of play and said, “I cannot keep doing this, go home, we are done.”>
Keeping in mind that some of what I’m describing next is codependent with my own failings described above, what do I mean?
- They clarify and explore what their character thinks or knows or wants, without stating actions that do something; this is often stated to prompt me to decide what happens instead of doing a thing.
- Closing off options or narrations with “I can’t,” including but not limited to claiming Traits don’t apply when they often obviously do or could. “This is a situation I can’t escape from, and I understand that you mean it that way ...” “I can’t kill the snake ...” “I could do it if I weren’t looking for Urrop ...”
- Jumping ahead of the roll based on anything I say to clarify what others are doing, as if it had been an outcome, especially assuming that it blocks or nullifies what they said they were doing, and then responding with a new action.
- Asking for clarifications or making statements in a weird way, to frame/influence the situation outside of their authority, including but not limited to what NPCs want or know, including posing hypotheticals.
- Stopping short of closing the conflict completely when taking the monologue of victory, i.e., not getting the conflict decisively done and described, forcing me to finish these narrations for them.
All right, calm down. I’m not blindsiding my fellow players or calling them out. We talked about all these things in the recorded discussions, so you can see everyone’s perspectives and clarifications. I anticipate that people reading this will leap to their defense – few things are as reflexive as gamers making excuses for one another – so please don’t do it. They’re fine; I am not hurting anyone.
Please consider, too, that each person is distinctively almost-always the GM when they play; in fact, I’m pretty sure that they haven’t played as non-GMs for years, except with me here in events via Adept Play. What that means to me is that their player-habits are far less self-monitored or easily-recognized or reconsidered in the moment than their skills and habits as GMs. I’ve caught them outside their comfort zones. I bring this up not as blame but as caution to every other person reading this: who are you, when you are not GMing? Are you sure you know?
Here’s my big goal for posting. There is too much blither and anxiety about the specific procedures of The Pool, and not enough attention to and reflection about the basics of play. E.g., how are authorities distributed within each big arrow, how do we know when we are starting a new big arrow and what do we do at that point, and how to be/play within each big arrow, for itself, without being stuck in the old one, without going backwards inside this one, and without trying to massage or set up for the next one. And very, very specifically: without trying to be a “good player” who is facilitating the GM’s presumed control of the current arrow and presumed setup for the next one.
These are questions for any and every role-playing game, or more accurately, for how you personally play any given role-playing game. Until you really dig into this topic of the big horizontal arrows, about yourself, then every single bit of attention you pay and analysis or debate you enter into (including design) regarding any given game’s small vertical arrows is deflection. You’re hiding behind them.
With me, still? Probably not ... The Pool’s virtue and curse, as I say, is not that it’s problematic or difficult – it’s that the basics are completely ordinary and its specific procedures actually work. Therefore playing it does not need, nor even permits, the constant adjustments, elisions, and fakery which almost always pervade people’s habits of play. I go so far as to say that people actively distort and problematize The Pool as such, especially procedures like the Monologue of Victory, in order to avoid confronting this fact.
This is why I’d actually rather not, at this point, see comments about our thoughts and conversation for The Pool itself, such as the question of whether to provide new Pool dice at the start of each session, or whether and how to add your new words for every session, or whether there’s a death spiral, et cetera. All of those are important – but I perceive that discussion as another comfort zone, a way to yip and yap and deflect. I’m only going to talk about them with people who have been through the harder work first.