Story games Tabletop RPGs

The Pool looks like a simple, versatile gem

Just four pages long, The Pool is a free RPG designed by James V. West. It comes at “short and sweet” from a different place than, say, Risus (which I love), but occupies a similar space.

The Pool features clever character creation, suitable for any setting or genre:

Making a character is simple: just write a 50 word Story. Pretend you’re writing a book and this is the introduction of your main character

Once you’ve got a Story, you extract Traits from it and assign bonuses to them. (This feels a lot like Risus to me.) The core mechanic is brilliant in its simplicity:

Anyone can call for a die roll whenever a conflict is apparent or when someone wants to introduce a new conflict. Just broadly state your intention and roll.

To win a die roll, roll a 1 on any of the dice you cast. Ignore any other results. If you don’t roll a 1, you fail the roll.

Want better odds? Gamble dice from your Pool; they go away after you’ve used them, and don’t automatically refresh until next session.

If you succeed, you can either add a die to your Pool, in which case the GM narrates how you succeeded and you may not get exactly what you want (“Yes, but”), or make a Monologue of Victory. The MOV is where The Pool kicks into high gear for me:

Giving an MOV is like taking control of the game for a few moments. You can describe your character’s actions, the actions of those around him, and the outcome of those actions. You can even focus on less direct elements of the conflict such as what’s happening in the next room or who’s entering the scene.

This is a deeply collaborative, improvisational game, with narrative control passing back and forth through MOVs, and a great deal of control and agency in the hands of the players. I love all of those things.

James also designed a second game based on The Pool, The Questing Beast, about talking animals during the time of King Arthur.

The Pool isn’t new — it came out in 2001 — but it crossed my G+ stream the other day, and that got me thinking about it again. I haven’t played it, but it’s been recommended to me more than once, and it looks like it would be right up my alley.

Tabletop RPGs

Risus gives me the warm fuzzies

I’ve had long rulebooks on the brain lately[1], which has been making me think about S. John RossRisus RPG. Risus makes me happy.

It’s also really short. How short? Here’s the first half:

…and here’s the second half:

Yep, Risus fits on the front and back of a single piece of 8 1/2×11 paper. It’s also free.

The version in those photos is designed to fold into a booklet, but I was tickled by the idea of making a free, one-page RPG super-durable, so I laminated it (with thick, stiff laminate — not the floppy stuff). It’s like a plastic tank now, suitable for bathtub use.

How’s it work?

Risus hums along on the core mechanic of clichés: free-form character traits which express many things about a character in just a few words. Aspects in Fate are similar, as are skills in Unknown Armies (and probably lots of other games I can’t think of at the moment), but Risus builds the whole game around clichés.

Spread 10 dice across clichés you make up on the spot, add a sentence or two of description, and you’ve got a complete Risus character. Maybe you pick:

  • Space smuggler (4), my primary cliché — the one that best defines the character
  • Hotshot pilot (3)
  • Fast talker (2)
  • Reluctant good guy (1)

If you can tell who that’s supposed to be, I’ll chalk it up as a personal success. But the important thing is that it’s a clever, robust, flexible, and above all simple engine for powering a full-fledged RPG.

Not a one-trick pony

Risus is a multi-genre RPG, and it’s got an undercurrent of humor that I love. “Undercurrent of humor” might make you think it’s not suitable for non-funny games, but there’s a ton of versatility baked into its minimal rules. “Fits on a single page” might suggest it can’t hold up to long-term play, but two decades of Risus players would likely disagree.

Enter The Risus Companion, which isn’t free, but is worth every penny of its $10 asking price. I bound it with a copy of the core rules, just to have it all in one handy package.

When I think about rulebooks, or new-to-me RPGs in general, one question I like to ask is, “Can Risus do this?” If Risus can do it, and do it as well as RPG X, do I really need RPG X?[2]

It might seem odd to have a 64-page companion to a four-page RPG; it certainly seemed odd to me at first. But it’s a fantastic book. (The Companion also taught me that Risus is pronounced “REE-suss” (as in Latin for “laughter”), not “RYE-suss,” which, years later, still hasn’t corrected my internal pronunciation — I always think it as “RYE-suss.”[3])

The Companion unpacks the Risus rules, delving into each of its components and highlighting all the different ways you can use them. One of my favorite examples is defining a character by the absence of relevant clichés, like Mrs. Butterbread, world-famous detective:

  • Kindly grandmother-to-everyone (4)
  • Bothersome fussbudget (3)
  • Small-breed dog enthusiast (3)

Risus encourages creative use of inappropriate clichés: If it doesn’t fit the situation, but you can creatively justify it in play, you get better results. Mrs. Butterbread is herself a creative example of taking that notion to its logical conclusion, as she can only solve crimes through peculiar means.

The book is full of stuff like that. Couple excellent content with the fact that S. John Ross is one of the most concise, clear, and entertaining writers in the RPG industry, and both Risus and The Risus Companion are a joy.

It’s a put-it-in-your-Go-Bag game, sure — but it can be a lot more than that. It stands on its two tiny, free, stick-figure feet, and the Companion unpacks the everloving shit out of how much potential is contained in its four short pages.

[1] Call of Cthulhu 7th Edition is really fucking long, no, it’s REALLY fucking long, and DCC RPG in 18 pages.

[2] I also like to substitute Fate and ask the same question again.

[3] See also drow rhyming with “cow,” which sounds way cooler than drow rhyming with “throw” . . . but “throw” is how my brain internalized it, and “throw” it shall ever be.