So I wanted to try a dungeon crawl with the Pool, for a couple of reasons. One is that in general, I want to see how simple a rules system you can get to “do the job”, in a satisfying way; another is I just wanted to play around with the Pool and see what I could get it to do.
You might say a dungeon crawl is a dungeon crawl, it’s the same painting regardless of what type of brush you use. But the type of brush you use can significantly affect your experience of the painting: to paint a landscape, one artist might like using painstakingly detailed micro-strokes with a small brush (like Pathfinder, ahem), while another might prefer large, quick sweeps with a large brush. Even if the landscape looks much the same in the end, the experience of how you get there is different. I wanted to see what the dungeon crawling experience would be like, painting with the brush that is the Pool.
To that end, I wanted to add a resource mechanic in. The Pool of course already has a resource mechanic, namely the pool of dice, so you could argue this addition is unnecessary. But the pool doesn’t represent anything fictional, and I wanted something representational that would have clear fictional consequences, such as running out of torches or rations. To that end, I added the resources of bandages, rations, and miscellaneous, tracked by die type a la the Black Hack. Players can replenish these resources by “discovering” more of them (like how a car thief discovers your car? Or Europeans discovered America? Like that), or by buying them with gold when in town.
Speaking of gold, I decided to tweak the Pool’s advancement rules. As written, fictional events do not affect whether, or to what extent, player characters improve or change between sessions; you get the same number of words to add to your story, and your pool replenishes by the same amount, regardless of what you did in the game or what happened. So instead, I made these things depend on how much gold you got, and how many items you found. I figured this might help increase motivation to explore deeper into the dungeon. The drive to get more treasure, balanced by concern over dwindling resources, seems to be the main feature of dungeon crawls.
Other than those two things, I added a rule about armor/shield saves - you can avoid being hurt by a failure by reducing the bonus of a shield or armor trait, destroying it if it has no bonus.
I didn’t change anything else. Now I did plan to make liberal use of the GM’s power over the scope of the roll, as I described in my previous posts on action gaming with the Pool.
For a fight against an average goblin, which I’d consider an easy encounter, one success from a player would be enough to decide the conflict; fighting the massive gelatinous cube, on the other hand, should be much more difficult. Rather than deciding it takes some number of N successes to defeat the cube, I thought I’d approach it by keeping the scope of rolls narrow - to the success or failure of just an attack or two - and declare the cube defeated when it just “made sense”: based on what happens, there should come a point when it’s simply implausible that the cube could still be in fighting shape.
Now in the back of my mind I was a little concerned whether this approach would give me too much power as GM, but I thought I’d try it and see how it went.
But what about failures in combat for the PCs? There’s no hit points in the Pool, or anything like a wound track. So what consequences could the PCs have other than death?
Suppose a PC is fighting a goblin, a much weaker creature in my fantasy world. Well, I figured that from a goblin’s point of view, fighting a PC is exactly analogous to a PC fighting the gelatinous cube: one successful attack is not enough to kill them. It may hurt the PC, but won’t kill them or take them out of action. A failed roll in combat from the player against a goblin, then, means their PC takes a wound or similar result, which will then have consequences in future actions. For example, a wounded shoulder can mean I’ll give them fewer gift dice if they’re trying to climb a wall.
So, analogous to fighting the gelatinous cube, once a PC has taken “enough” wounds, there will come a point where in my judgment as GM a failed roll is potentially deadly, and the player will have to make a death roll if they fail.
Is the fact that this “enough” is not quantified or formalized problematic? I don’t think so, but my intention was and is to play to find out. Am happy to hear other opinions and thoughts on this.
Now what about when the PCs are fighting the cube, as opposed to goblins? Because it’s a more powerful opponent, one failed roll from a PC should result in serious consequences, much more serious than when fighting a goblin. So a failed roll should be enough for them to get sucked up by the cube and start to get digested, and they’d have to make a death roll quite soon after.
So that was my thinking on how to adjudicate combat. I wondered about having a FUDGE-type wound track, for PCs, NPCs, or both, but thought I’d try this more “organic” way first.
Ok, next came time to design the dungeon. The only difference between designing a dungeon and any other GM prep for me, is that the dungeon is basically all in one location - or perhaps that the available locations are all closely connected. Also, the dungeon is usually not related to or influenced by any of the PC backgrounds. Anyway, I do what I usually do, which is start asking questions:
Where is the dungeon? In a cave in the mountains.
Why is it there? Because goblins want to hoard treasure there. But wait a minute, that’s too boring, let’s put a bit of a twist on it. Yes, the goblins want to store treasure there, but it’s not because they’re greedy. They’re doing it for a specific purpose, one that at least some people will find understandable. I note down what this purpose is.
Ok, given the answers above, how would the goblins design the place to discourage intruders and keep their treasure safe? Well, they’d put at least one trap in the entrance. And what about a grisly warning in the entrance? That sounds fun. Probably a bit of misdirection here and there, too, and maybe even a grudging “mini-treasure” that might satisfy any pesky adventurers, so they leave without finding the vault of goodies further in.
And so on. I’m not giving more details now, because as of last session the players weren’t done with the dungeon, and wanted another session to finish it.
Ok, so my prep was done. The players came up with some imaginative characters:
Esquella DeMar, a necromancer and blood-bender who wants vengeance on men;
Judore, alchemist and wind mage, who wants to complete his dissertation;
Vanya the tough dwarf, so tired of shoveling shit in the dwarven slums he’s ready to risk death to make his fortune.
As usual with this method of prepping situation, players added to the backstory during character creation. I didn’t know necromancy, blood magic, wind magic, or dwarven slums existed until the players created them. This was cool.
Ok, I started the game with the PCs at the entrance to the cave, each having arrived there individually. I mention that one of them heard a goblin saying something about getting the gold into the vault “in time”; another PC noticed tell-tale signs that the goblins had recently raided a village. After a brief discussion among them, they decide to go in together as allies, at least temporarily, and share treasure equally.
They enter the cave, Esquella proceeding quickly down the stone stairs. I have her roll to see if she successfully detects the trap in front of her, and she does, alerting the PCs behind her. They enter a large cavern, and find three humans tied to stalagmites and stalactites, a sign painted above them saying “Keep Out”. Two of the humans are dead, one is barely alive. They untie her, and she whispers about the nameless horror that burned her alive before the goblins got her. Esquella casts a healing spell using blood-bending, successfully healing the woman.
Somebody (Judore, I think) tried to do something stealthy and failed, alerting nearby goblins who proceed to rush into the cavern and attack. Vanya quickly beheads one. Esquella uses necromancy, trying to raise the dead humans as zombie soldiers for her. Unfortunately, she fails. Rather than having the spell fizzle out, I decide on having it go out of control. The dead do rise, but as ravenous zombies out to eat the PCs. The dead goblin also rises, the body fumbling around for its severed head.
Vanya slays a pair of goblins, Esquella manages to de-zombify the two ones attacking her, and Judore uses wind magic to smash the headless zombie goblin into the one remaining goblin, crushing them into the cave wall and pulping them both.
The PCs search the bodies for gold, and then search the guardroom they came from. They find a chest, which Esquella flicks open. I have the player roll to avoid the poison dart the chest shoots at her; the roll is a success, but he takes the MoV to say the dart does hit her - but by using her blood-bending magic, Esquella neutralizes it. I found this a really interesting moment, one that could not easily occur with many other systems.
They find a bunch of gold within the chest, and a potion, which Judore tries to identify. He fails his roll. Once again, I decide the appropriate consequence is to have the magic go out of control. So I say he tried to ID the potion by tasting a few drops, but accidentally drinks the whole thing and magnifies its effect. The potion was one of boosting strength, to enable a goblin to fight as strongly as a human (a “potion of human strength”, as it were). So when it went out of control, it caused Judore to grow several feet and bulk out, in other words to become a small giant/incredible hulk, his clothing reduced to rags. This would make it difficult for him to do things like be stealthy, and there might even be areas of the cave where he couldn’t go because of his size. I figured the potion would last about an hour.
Next, they proceed down a branch of the cave, hearing the sounds of moving water coming from it. They discover a pool of water with a small waterfall pouring into it. Shining the light of his torch into the water, Vanya sees a trail of gold coins in the pool. He decides to wade into the water. Judore steps forward, casting a spell with wind magic to part the water like Moses. His roll is successful, and the water parts.
Vanya heads in, collecting gold coins as he goes. Just beyond where Judore’s spell effect reaches, he notices a golden chest. As he steps forward to grab it, a tentacle shoots forward, grabbing him and pulling him into the water. A fight against the underwater monstrosity ensues; they roll well, and escape from the area with the golden chest.
In the chest they find more gold, and a couple of magic items: one ornate arrow covered with elven runes, and a silver scepter. They had just divided up the gold among themselves when they heard a rasping, slithering sound coming from one of the corridors. Stealthily observing the situation, they notice a figure in armor moving towards them. One of them notices something odd and disturbing about the way it moves.
Behind the scenes: I was checking in with what the other dungeon denizens were aware of, and no one was really close enough to hear the big goblin fight, and the fight in the pool of water didn’t make much noise. However, I figured based on the cube’s location it would have heard something when the group exited the watery corridor, so I decided it headed that way in search of fresh meat.
The group decides to hide. Vanya and Esquella hide behind some stalagmites, but I tell them Judore cannot because of his new size. At this point, his player came up with a cool idea. He cast wind magic on himself, to fly up to the ceiling so he could grab onto a stalactite and hide that way, flat against the roof of the cave. I thought this was really clever, and his roll was successful.
The group waits for the figure in armor to pass by. As it does, they notice the figure is not moving its arms or legs as it travels. The creature passes under Judore, not noticing him or anyone else. At that point, Judore casts wind magic on himself again, trying to gently float down to the ground so as not to alert the mysterious figure. He fails the roll! Keeping with the theme of failed magic rolls result in the magic going out of control, I say that the wind slams him forcefully into the roof of the cave, then abruptly cuts off so that he falls, smashing hard into the cave floor. Because he’s still in his giant form, I figure he doesn’t take as much damage as he would otherwise, and tell him he has a wounded leg.
The figure in armor turns towards the sound. Vanya jumps out from hiding and attacks it, his sword sinking into a jelly-like substance. Now, I had a bit of a hard time adjudicating this: the roll here was successful, but in my mind I had it that my gelatinous cube wouldn’t take damage from normal weapons. But that put me in the position of saying a successful roll did nothing, which seems anathema to the aesthetics of the Pool, and incompatible with rolling at all, really. So, on the fly I adjusted my conception of the cube, so that it would take partial damage from normal weapons.
In hindsight, maybe I just shouldn’t have asked for a roll - “your sword goes in and out, but the creature seems unhurt”. Would love to hear opinions on this.
Anyway, Esquella attacked next, if memory serves, using necromancy to try to animate the skeleton inside the cube - another cool idea. Unfortunately the roll fails. Why mess with a good thing? Once again, I say her necromancy goes out of control, causing the awakened and enraged skeleton to wade out of the cube and move to attack her.
Although hurt from his fall, Judore crawls forward and casts a spell, using wind magic to thrust the magic arrow through the skeleton, successfully crippling it. Esquella tries to attack the cube and fails, so it engulfs her. She screams silently, in terrible pain as its digestive juices begin eating away at her skin. Vanya desperately attacks the cube, trying to cut his way through it to free Esquella, and succeeds. Judore casts another spell, creating a kind of prismatic spray that tears through the cube. At that point, given how much damage the cube took, I declare it dead. And that’s where we quit for the night.
Overall, it seemed like most of the players had a good time, and wanted to continue the adventure. I didn’t bother mentioning it, but the players did make some resource rolls, a few of them ran low on some, and sacked torches from the goblin guard room. One session was too short to really test some of the things I wanted to see in action, like the “concern over resources vs. desire for more gold” dynamic, I think that just requires more time.
As always I look forward to any comments, insights, questions, or suggestions on anything I mentioned, especially prep or GMing. How would you have done it differently?
Also, those of you who played please feel free to share your perspective, and to fill in anything I forgot or got wrong.