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Bent Pages

Making A Splash

by Tim Denee
Sep 30,2002

 

Bent Pages

Bent Pages is a series of columns on some of the indie innovators of the role-playing industry. Rather than a review, each column will be a documentary-style look at one of those games.

Column one: Making A Splash

The Pool, by James V. West, was described by Ron Edwards (creator of Sorcerer, Elfs, and Trollbabe) in the early summer of 2001 as "the single most powerful confirmation of the underground, grass-roots potential for role-playing innovation" (Fandomlife.net, Top 5 RPGs: Ron Edwards). No longer than a handful of pages, the Pool came out of nowhere and was part of a revolution in the way role-playing games were thought of. What is the Pool, and why is it so highly thought of? Let's take a closer look. The system, in brief, revolves around the players gambling their dice for success. Trying to get success now might mean less success later (success in terms of both narrative control, the ability to say what happens when, and character success) In effect, it lets the players decide what scenes are important to them in terms of their character and the story. Ron Edwards:
"This is wild. It's important, and it's crucial. What it means is that free-form' (ie Drama- mechanics) is not the default system for "story creation" role-playing. It means that Fortune can be used as a motor for getting a story made, rather than as a disruptor. It totally explodes the myth of "role vs. roll." "Some commercial games have hinted at this idea with their mechanics (Sorcerer, Hero Wars, Zero, Extreme Vengeance most especially), but none of them had ever traded around the authoritative narration out of the clenched hands of the GM."
The Pool was written around May of 2001 by James V. West. Born and bred in Kentucky, West has two major interests: drawing and role-playing. West:
"I used to dream of drawing Spider-Man comics for Marvel, then Tom Defalco told me I needed to draw "basic 6-panel progressions for 3 years then get in touch with him"--I cruise- missled that idea. ... "As far as game design goes, I actually started creating role-playing games *before* I ever played them. I saw these guys at lunch in 7th grade rolling weird dice and talking about swords, elves, and the gates of hell. I was so hooked. Once I figured out what they were doing I went home and designed a map-based rpg. I didn't own any weird dice so I wrote numbers on paper and cut them into pieces. You were supposed to draw a number to determine the outcome of an action. I've designed tons of game systems since then, but The Pool is the first system I ever publicly displayed. My artwork and my games have always gone hand-in-hand. It's one of my biggest dreams to create a comic book series and a game that are inseparable."
The Pool, then, is a creature born of imagination and creativity, designed for nothing more or less than allowing a group of people to give life to a story together. Interestingly, the Pool might not exist today if it weren't for RPG.net:
"I had been thinking of game design for a few months after several years of not thinking of it at all. I was brushing off the dust on some ideas and I decided to go online and see if I could find anyone else doing this kind of thing. BAM! I found rpg.net and realized that there were lots of people creating awesome games and sharing them online. It was like a revelation or a gust of cool wind. Very cool. "So late one night I sat down and wrote The Pool. All I remember thinking was that I wanted a system that avoided the things that bugged me in other games--like not having any real power to create a story. And I'm not a number-crunching kind of guy (hell's bells! I fell asleep in my college math placement test!), so I wanted something with no calculations. I knew I was notorious for totally ignoring rules that required on-the-spot math and chart- checking--so I wanted none of that in my game. "To the best of my memory, there were two games that probably had the most influence on what I was thinking that night: Legend, and Bayou Country. Legend was written by Mytholder and featured a "write a story" kind of character creation system, which I really liked. There are other games that do this, such as Hero Wars, but Legend was really the first time I had come into contact with it. Bayou Country is a game idea by Eric Alexander, a friend of mine from way back. It was a cowboy-come-back-from-hell game (pre-Deadlands). The thing that got me was the dice mechanic. You rolled a bunch of d6s and tried not to roll a 1. The fewer dice you rolled, the more of a bad-ass you were. I thought it was breathtakingly simple and I'm sure it influenced my thinking on The Pool's "roll a 1" mechanic."
The Pool really opened the lid on a whole new breed of game designs. It, (together with games like InSpectres, Elfs, and Soap), challenged many preconceptions; who does what when, the way dice are interpreted, and a whole lot more. Previously, narration was widely the domain of the GM (or equivalent). The Pool showed that a familiar, playable role-playing game can have narration shared amongst the participants. Whether or not the Pool was truly the first narration-through-fortune system is irrelevant; just like it's irrelevant who the first true Jazz musician was. "Honestly, I'm not sure which came first. I think InSpectres was first, but The Pool formalized the actual system mechanics of player-GM control" (Jared Sorenson). All we need to know is that there was a place, and there was a time, and The Pool was at the place at that time. Ron Edwards: "I think that Dust Devils (Matt Snyder), Trollbabe (Ron Edwards), Otherkind (Vincent Baker), Violence Future (Dav Harnish), The World the Flesh and the Devil (Paul Czege), Le Mon Mouri (Sean Demory), Paladin (Clinton R. Nixon), and Universalis (Ralph Mazza and Mike Holmes) are all children of [The Pool, InSpectres, Elfs, and Soap]." The Pool is clearly different to conventional role-playing games; the trait mechanics gives a vague nod toward role-playing tropes, but otherwise this is a wholly different game. It confronts you with something that can be hard to grasp at first. James V. West:
"The Pool has met with wide approval from the many indie game designers online. In play- testing I've been very pleased with the responses people give ("Y-you mean...I can tell *you* what happens here??"). But the game has some controversial elements and not all of the discussions have been about how good it plays. Some people had problems with losing dice too fast and too soon, for example. So there were many discussions about the mathematical probabilities involved with the system and how that if the dice pool was too low, it would crash hard and if it was too high it would never come down. There were many predictions about its behavior based on the math. But real play has led to so many different results that the numbers alone cannot tell you what will happen. This is a game about risk and reward and when you have groups of differing people playing it--you simply get different results. "Its not the same in many other games. If I'm a level x warrior, I have x percent chance of hitting this creature. Well, that's pretty much a given. With The Pool, nothing is a given. You often gamble in the heat of the moment (a moment that you might have actually invented with a nice Monologue). You don't always calculate the exact risk. The results can be very surprising."
That's a pretty good word to sum up the whole The Pool, actually. Surprising. It came out of nowhere, blind-siding a whole host of people with its simple elegance and functional control of narration. It was a never a creature of theory; it was born to be played, to do what West wanted to do in his games. It was other designers who picked up on its astounding potential, and delved into what made this engine hum. West: "I really can't express enough how much people online encouraged me and helped get this game into its present form. Ron Edwards got the ball rolling with his review. Paul Czege, Mike Holmes, Scott Knipe, and a veritable army of other geniuses helped identify potential problem areas and how to deal with them and generally explored the game's charms and foibles with scalpels and wit aplenty!" TQo0~^DҒt< ek&Ǿ$\۵ZFȃuwݝIŃU QYir2HR2.u3MFoعq]4#A`pP5(b& )b)ⰾp7(i<[-2gL#5[f g?*rVGf8*)s'+20ϟ̑F}KB<7wSL\gbvm9WiRބYŜvd y0'p2I_Fc2>#o A )VL[Qk?3`)<У[(*W.JH ?tXCt谙 X:@ \0w ~LqĤE-rFkYœj4q 5AQ6[AxG [>w|?( fХθY䝛$c=_qNĦoǸ>O_|&/_Mi7"宥CЧk0dӷLh;TmuCGU-!Ul{ h<\bQX.~"O2*yPcz!ŠGg

What do you think?

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