Froggy's The Pool---A Learner's Version

James V. West’s version of the Pool has undergone many changes during its development, influenced by many different people whose contributions and suggestions were implemented, sometimes pushing the game in wildly different directions year by year, most of which are in my opinion missing the application of the game as an instrument, including the many variants. The final 2006 edition hosted on JVW’s site has a couple of rules I disagree with, and wording that can be improved.

I’m compiling a project called The Poolpendium, which will be a more extensive foray into The Pool and its many uses. But in the meantime, I’d like to give a version of The Pool which is inspired by the use Ron Edwards makes of the game as a didactic instrument on Adept Play and in the course Playing with The Pool—which I recommend.

The main differences from JVW’s version are the absence of Pool reset between sessions, and no special rules for death rolls—especially, the one where other players can gift dice.

I know the rules are underspecified, but remember: the pedagogical utility of this game is to highlight how you naturally implement what is not specified by the rules. It is not the goal of this text to provide the most complete and example-rich version of The Pool—that will be Poolpendium.

Above all, this game is an instrument and it’s not gonna play itself. The Pool is quite accessible if you’re inexperienced, but you will probably not read these rules and immediately be a proficient player. You will have to engage playfully with the system to discover how it reacts and how to make it work the best for you, and you may settle on play practices that may differ from mine – that’s fine, and that’ll be your version of the Pool.

Why Play This Game

It’s probably best that I at least make an argument for playing this game, to explain why I value it. It starts with three characteristics.

  • The rules are simple and only contain what’s truly necessary to play, but they’re also surprisingly nuanced in application. You’ll learn the basics quickly and develop your understanding of the dynamics over time.
  • What is there is very effective at what it does. In particular, the gambling dice mechanic is excellent at producing results that are truly chaotic, such that no-one at the table is able to guide the game into a desired outcome.
  • It’s plain old fun. The amount of fun I have with this game has become my benchmark for all other role-playing games – every time I play a different game, I ask myself “am I having the same amount of fun as The Pool, and if so with how much extra effort?”. There’s fewer and fewer games that pass this test.

The consequence of all three is that this game is exceptional for practicing what I call core role-playing skills, or rather our understanding of the role-playing medium – just like sound for music, role-playing is made of a certain stuff, if you allow the term. This game is so naked while remaining functional that whatever else there is, you have to have brought it to the table, and you can easily observe how you can do things differently to make it work better. You get better at making it run. And you take these skills back to other role-playing games.

Apart from this, I make no claim to innovation. Certain mechanics, like Monologues of Victory, may look weird to you if you’re used to playing differently, but overall these are things that you can already find in plenty of role-playing groups not involved with The Pool.

Froggy’s The Pool—A Learner’s Version

This work is distributed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.

The Pool is a simple role-playing game originally written by James V. West. This version is made by Claudio “Froggy” and contains modifications inspired by usage by Ron Edwards in his course “Playing with The Pool” and his essay “Understanding The Pool”.

To play The Pool you will need many six-sided dice (d6). The more the better. Some of the dice should look different from the others: you don’t need that many of these.

One of the players is called the Game Master (GM), and they have a supporting role in the game, different from that of the other players. Typically the person who proposes the game to the others will tend to be the GM, but this doesn’t have to happen.

Start Document

Before you start playing The Pool and making up your characters you will need something to get everyone on the same page regarding colour and setting, and to serve as inspiration for making up characters. Let’s call this the start document. If you are planning to play as the GM, you’ll probably be the one to put it together and propose it to the others, but this is not strictly necessary.

The start document should provide a touch of colour to inspire making up characters, and little else. Usually it will be a paragraph of text with an associated image board (search engines are your friends), but you can also include things like a song or music video, or other inspirational material.

At this point you have not yet prepared any situation. This start document is all you’re going to have before character creation.

This is also the time to determine, if you wish, any constraints on character creation, for example, “All characters will be members of the U.S. Navy.” You can further narrow it down by writing more information in the beginning document; this can be useful for one-shots. For an example of the latter, see my one-shot “The Siege of Enrilise”, which has a more elaborate start document.

Example: Start Document for Fyodor 11

At the edges of the known galaxy, where the long arm of the UMWF (United Milky Way Federation) barely reaches, over unexplored ruins of forgotten civilizations, lives a variety of outlaws, mystics, heretics, political dissidents, and native species. The planet of Fyodor 11, for its proximity to the centrewards interstellar routes, is the beating heart of this frontier.

Make Up Your Character

If you are not playing as the GM, your job is to make up a character you like and play them as a real person, as earnestly as you can. You don’t need to be friends or allies with the other characters, or work in a team, and you can even make up a villainous character if you like. You don’t need to make up your character in collaboration with the other players.

Use one of the images in the start document as inspiration, as a representation of the character or someone similar or related. Alternatively, provide an image of your own on the same theme and use that.

Character Story: Write 50 words or less to describe at your leisure their appearance, status, origin or heritage, what they are capable of doing, their equipment, resources, relationships, companions, or what they desire.

  • Use first or third person at will.
  • Don’t use purple prose, superlatives, or generalized terms.
  • Invent and include other characters or past events if you like.
  • Give the character a name. This doesn’t count toward the 50-word word count.
  • You may freely repeat the character’s name—it doesn’t count towards the 50 words either.
  • Keep track of the number of words you didn’t use.

Traits: After writing the story, highlight whatever words or phrases seem important to you and give them a bonus of +0. These will be your Traits. A Trait can be anything: a skill, a desire, a relationship, a flaw, a belief. Traits can also have negative descriptions, but they always have a null or positive bonus.

Bonuses: You have 15 starting dice. You can spend up to 14 of them on Trait bonuses by paying the square of the desired bonus: +1 costs 1 die; +2 costs 4 dice; +3 costs 9 dice.

Pool: The remaining dice become your starting Pool.

You can also buy traits at any time during play, even right before a roll, or improve them by paying the difference in cost—for example, improving from +1 to +2 costs 3 dice—from your Pool.

The GM’s Preparation

If you are playing as the GM, you will receive the characters’ stories and will have to make up a situation that can involve all of them. The contents of the start document and the characters’ stories act as constraints, but you can feel free to interpret the characters’ stories as told from a limited perspective, rather than objective fact.

Any secondary characters mentioned in the characters’ stories become your GM characters, and you can make up others as you wish. GM characters are the primary elements of your situation, and it is good to have their personalities and goals in mind before bringing them into play.

This version of The Pool explicitly gives little instruction about how to prepare, and what notes to take—experiment and learn what works best for you. Your goal would be to jot down things that will allow you to respond readily as the situation develops, while treating the GM characters as if they’re real people, rather than cardboard cut-outs.

Rules of Play

The GM interprets the backstories and physical characteristics of situations in play. Other players’ input on their characters’ backstories and knowledge is restricted to the content of their characters’ stories. Unless a player intercedes by declaring an action, the GM introduces new situations, including cuts and framings in space and time. The GM plays all of the GM characters, including those listed in the characters’ stories.

Conflicts (die rolls) can be identified by anyone based on what is happening or what is about to happen. Except for the GM, all players whose characters are involved in the conflict must roll.

The scope of a roll and whether it has potential harmful or lethal effects are identified by the GM before rolling. Each person states and clarifies the intent and goals of the characters he or she controls and what they want to gain from the conflict. It is a good idea to clarify the situation until you have as different and orthogonal goals as possible for each player rolling—rarely people do the same things for the same reasons.

The roll is carried out as follows.

  • The GM hands out 1 to 3 gift dice to each person, following whatever metric they like.
  • Each player may invoke a Trait, bringing it into play and explaining how it relates to the current conflict (even negatively). He adds a number of dice equal to the trait’s bonus.
  • Each player may wager any number of dice from his Pool.

Everyone rolls dice at once. If at least one die shows a “1” the conflict is a success for that player.

  • If the conflict fails, the GM narrates the result and all wagered Pool dice are lost.
  • If the conflict succeeds, the wagered dice go back into the player’s Pool and they choose whether:
    • the GM does minimal narration and the player adds a die to their Pool, or
    • the player narrates (does a Monologue of Victory) with greater latitude to determine effects and consequences.

Whoever narrates must describe the success or failure of each of the characters involved, including the order and causality of events, actions, effects, and characterizations of the characters.

Whoever narrates must keep in mind that the effects of the roll must be as conclusive as possible within the scope and purpose of the conflict, meaning that a clear change in the situation must occur. As long as this doesn’t happen the narration doesn’t end.

Non-GM players should keep in mind that they cannot add new information or make up new elements of the backstory; they can only use elements that have already been established, or ask the GM as part of their narration to provide the necessary details. The GM speaking does not end outcome narration, as they’re simply helping the narrating player.

When narrating, The GM should keep it as basic and minimal as possible, while others can afford to be more extravagant in their descriptions.

Two monologues: In case two players want to do a Monologue of Victory, they will have to collaborate narrating and share the monologue.

Death: There are no special rules for death. It is up to the GM to determine before rolling whether a roll can cause a character to die. Except in obviously deadly situations, it is normal to declarea roll as lethal only after a previous damaging roll has been missed.


During the game or between sessions, assign or increase Trait bonuses using your Pool dice using the method explained during character creation.

Between sessions, you get 15 words to add to your character’s story, either as new sentences or as revisions of what you have already written—1 word can count as an addition, deletion, or substitution. Slight revisions of grammar don’t count toward word expenditure. Words may be spent immediately or left for the next session. Underline any new Trait.

Optional Rule 1: Instead of 15 words per session, get 5 words for each hour played in your last session.

Optional Rule 2: Between sessions, add 1 die to your Pool for each hour played in the your last lession.

Optional Rule 3: If deleting words completely erases a Trait, add a number of dice to your Pool equal to that Trait’s bonus. Warning: it is generally better to rewrite Traits in the past tense than to delete them. Use this option with caution.

5 Appreciations

The start document is not something I’ve seen before. Is it your invention?
One of the challenges of The Pool, and any game that allocates narration to players, is how do you get and keep players on the same page about the genre and tone you’re playing. It was a problem with The World, the Flesh, and the Devil when I playtested it years ago. Players would add off genre or off tone elements with their narrations. Ron later tried to address the problem by restricting the kinds of things a player could narrate with their Monologue of Victory. He’d say “you can’t add things that aren’t derived from established details” or stuff like that. The start document feels like an interesting alternative to Ron’s way of addressing it.

1 Appreciation

It’s Ron’s invention, from the course. But the expression of it here is mine.

1 Appreciation

Now that there is daylight in Europe, I want to address your comment, @PaulCzege, a bit more thoroughly. I think it’s actually a great topic and gives me a chance to get into a few Pool-related issues that are close to my heart at the moment.

I’m not speaking for Ron here—he’s aware this forum exists and he’s free to give his comment on it if he wants. However I’m using a few of Ron’s words, because I’ve been influenced by him, I have a similar analytical mindset, and I think they’re useful here. Please let me know if everything makes sense to you—plural, including other readers in this. I’m also willing to provide copious practical examples of what I’m talking about.

You’ll notice that I have a phrasing of the Monologue of Victory “restrictions”[1] you mentioned, as part of the quote below. This is really an orthogonal problem to the one solved by the start document.

So, apart from that paragraph, my understanding is that you’re mixing up three issues that are independent, although related.

  1. The idea that roleplaying itself as a medium is made of active listening and reincorporation of what other participants have said. What that means is that, if anyone has said something, and that’s become shared fictional content, you shouldn’t do anything to undermine or subvert their contribution—rather, you should reorient yourself and allow yourself to discover a new perspective every time someone says something new, and integrate its effects into your own contribution. This is valid even if you’re speaking as part of an MoV—In absence of this, I’d argue there’s no playing together, so it’s not really a rule of The Pool or a fix to problems with The Pool[2], more of a problem with the people involved being unable to do it. I think Ron developed this concept more with S/Lay W/Me and currently he’s using it as a tool to teach it[3], together with Cold Soldier.
  1. The intersection between the different authorities/responsibilities in play[4] during a Monologue of Victory—in particular the idea that a MoV doesn’t give a right to introduce anything you want, but a specific responsibility to narrate the here and now outcome of the conflict, as part of the developing situation. This doesn’t override the GM’s authority over the backstory of the situation (e.g. the layout of the secret base, or whether Darth Vader is secretly Luke’s father). This is what the paragraph above is trying to explain—the intersection of the two authorities, and that player and GM might have to collaborate to finish the narration of the conflict, especially if the reveal of hidden information is involved. In play, I’ve seen this intersection to be lovely, functional, and fun.
  1. Since play begins with and revolves around the character stories, the problem of ensuring that the stories—and therefore all in-play contributions that are constrained by them—are coherent in genre and setting. When workshopping this openly with a group, creativity tends to flounder as people compromise and accept lowest-common-denominator solutions. Ron’s practice is called Color-first—you can read his explanation in the excerpt below from his essay Understanding The Pool, where he recommends starting from a single picture. The start document is an evolution of this concept, and the way I’ve explained it in Froggy’s The Pool is my personal take on it.
Excerpt from "Understanding The Pool" by Ron Edwards

Best practices: Color-first

Because play begins, functions, and ends at the service of the Character Stories, genre and setting must remain means to this end. A given genre-and-setting, whether familiar or newly-created, is not merely a backdrop of details and requirements, but rather its own special Pandora’s box of engaging and recognizable crisis situations for the characters.

It’s hard to articulate this necessary context while relying on character creation as the central creative input. Open group discussion tends to flounder, because you’re spinning the “what character” and “what setting” dials at the same time. This effect is also illustrated by Pitch Sessions leading to lowest-common- denominator show concepts in Primetime Adventures or by groups getting bogged down in the Tenets Phase in Universalis, and both of these games at least have designated procedures, whereas The Pool does not.

The most effective option I’ve found, when organizing a game, is to use a single picture as an orienter for everyone playing, and then let them come up with character concepts that are inspired by or consistent with it.

Does that all make sense to you?

P.S. I’m not familiar with how The World, the Flesh, and the Devil actually plays, but I might be familiar with regards to its role in the history of Pool-derived games, as it’s been told to me by others. My understanding is that it was one of the first big experiments with the explicit redistribution of authorities in play, and that by working through many of its problems a better understanding of them was achieved. Let me know if this resonates with you, and in that case, then the three points above should also resonate.

  1. I see it less as a restriction and more as making the distribution of authorities in play explicit, see below. ↩︎

  2. I’m a firm believer that the validity of an instrument should be valued by what it allows you to do that’s great, rather than what it doesn’t allow you to do that’s bad. That said, the development of better pedagogy related to these very practical issues as part of game texts is an ongoing process. ↩︎

  3. He’s recently added an ashcan version of S/Lay W/Me on his Patreon that includes some new language regarding mutual listening that seems to me is approaching this very issue. ↩︎

  4. If you find the term authorities icky, you can call these responsibilities, or the Zombie Cinema term making the call. In any case, If we’re talking about listening and reincorporation, authorities delineate what each person says that becomes eligible for reincorporation for others—and by extension, what doesn’t, because it’s someone else’s responsibility. I’m referring not to who invents it, but to the moment someone says something and it becomes shared fictional content, actionable for everyone else. ↩︎

3 Appreciations

I think all those things are true of a group that’s having a great experience playing The Pool.

I’m glad they’re not part of your rules text though. Designers often go down a path with a rules text of being as precise and instructive as they can, in hopes of keeping a group from getting it wrong. In my experience it becomes a barrier to play. Groups read the precise instructions and feel they won’t get it right and lose their desire to try. When I write a game text I try to be encouraging, and try to say things with examples that I think are compelling more than with particularly detailed instructions. To follow Ron’s band analogy, I don’t think you can write instructions that teach someone how to jam successfully with a band, but you can show them the fun and maybe inspire them to try and they’ll learn.

3 Appreciations

Yes! I really agree with that.

That’s also why the Poolpendium is taking so long… I’m struggling to find the right balance between pedagogy and being fun and encouraging. And there’s different pedagogy for new players than there is for veterans with pre-formed habits.

I see games as musical instruments, and the game-maker as an artisan—there’s no point attempting to make a guitar play itself, or make it produce something, anything decent, regardless of the human there. I think what’s exciting about games is that the humans playing matter, a lot, and what excites me is to enhance this property, rather than attempt to constrain it and funnel it so the results are packaged and repeatable.

It’s not exactly what you were saying, but I think it’s related—both issues are linked to the anxiety that if players are free to interpret, something may go wrong.

You can read my ramblings as I was developing this idea in this post on Adept Play.

3 Appreciations

This is so great! I’ve read Ron’s document as well as the Pool itself a number of times, and this post will be my go-to when it comes to the rules text from here on out.

the anxiety that if players are free to interpret, something may go wrong.

This hits hard. I have a Pool starting doc in development, and have been collecting images for it. I have probably 50+ across character and setting/situation imagery. I have this impulse to just kind of throw it all at my fellow players as a sea to wade through, but that desire is probably anxiety-based. You’re helping me confront my own flaws, here. I’m really excited to run The Pool!

2 Appreciations