[Core Game] Polaris
Ben Lehman (Tao Games)
There is a way some rpg-players have used to describe the way an rpg can interact with a human mind. It posits that any rpg has a game component (composed of abstract rules and mechanics and the way they interact with eachother), a simulation component (the way in which those rules mimic reality or are at the very least internally consistent) and a story component (arguably not a function of the game but of a campaign, though it may be explained as the way in which the mechanics of the game steer players and the GM to create games focused around the exploration of themes or concepts or whatever, it sounds really gay if I explain it). This explanation makes a sort of superficial sense. Now imagine someone told you your game can only do one of these things. It cannot be a good game while trying to trick you into believing it is real (i.e simulation via attention to detail and internal consistency) and you cannot have a good story while doing so. It is from this line of odd, segregationist dogma that in the past would have belonged in the blood-soaked religious debates of the early modern period. Yet it exists. And it is from this that story-games were formed.
It is odd to read story games. They make you sick. Many are gross and disgusting, have dysfunctional, impossible mechanics and explore “themes” that make you feel miserable and hopeless. They seem pointless, or at best baroque and nonsensical. They have no mechanics worthy of the note, and allow for no cleverness by the player. None may excell in a storygame, all are the same. One cannot get into a role by identifying with a character, storygames are unplayable without careful metagaming. Even the GM, that ancient tyrant, that dreadful nemesis of powergamer and dramafag alike, has been rendered an impotent wretch, a clownish courtesan meant to dance for a bored glance of the god-like wretches that are his players. A shackled god waiting on his malformed worshippers. They feel like the substitute for RPGs a totalitarian dictatorship would come up with because it deems RPGs too threatening and disruptive.
Grey Ranks is about getting raped by nazis, Courtesans is about playing hookers, Kingdom of Nothing is about processing trauma by being a magical homeless man.
You shudder to think what type of gross basement dwelling clique of co-dependent narcissists would even attempt to play one. The best storygames make you feel sad they are storygames. And then there is that one. That one you get. That one that makes you stand in front of the glass. Peering. Pressing a single hand against the glass, mouth twisted into a rictus of despair, knowing that you can never be together. Today I shall review Polaris.
Once, there would have been no need for Knights, when the sky was dark and perfect, the starlight pure and cold, and the people without fear or flaw. But that time is over now, and the call for Knights has never been greater, for there is only one order, your order, the Knights Stellar, that stand opposed between the remnants of the people and the demons that would devour them.
Polaris is a game of doomed chivalry on the north pole. It is about fighting a hopeless battle to preserve a civilisation that is, at its heart, poisoned and no longer worth defending. It is about watching your peers die meaningless, though heroic deaths, and either joining them in an honourable end, or joining the thing that killed them. It is King Arthur meets Charge of the Light Brigade and Do Not Go Gentle into That Cold Night. Of course I love it you idiots.
Polaris takes place in a mythical city on a North Pole that never was, just before the Sun arose. A beautiful people and their great king Polaris spent eternal night in song, dance, bliss and an eternity of frollicking and dancing to the tune of stars. Until the dawn came. A strange and malignant thing, but also eerily beautiful and hypnotically fascinating. When it came, some ceased all their efforts, lost in contemplation of its hideous beauty. Artists could produce no more then a hideous screeching. The Queen and her bodyguard of knights, among them proud Algol, seeing the madness that is spreading through the city, swear a pact to do something about it. Everything turns to shit, the king and queen are gone (or worse), and a great hole rests in place where Polaris once stood. The Sun has been born, its hideous demon servants (The Mistaken) issuing forth from the hole to prey on what remnants of mankind still remain in the four remnant fortresses.
But this is not Attack on Titan. The entire society of this mythic people has not been re-shaped to withstand this threat. Rather, the people are mad and corrupt, strangely fascinated by the alien sun, courting in summer and intriguing in winter, decadent, prone to spiritual corruption and ashamed of virtue. The only defence are the remaining knights of the Star Order, perpetually under-equipped, to fight the relentless demonic tide that grows stronger each year. They will die heroic deaths or succumb to bitterness and corruption.
LONG AGO, THE PEOPLE WERE DYING AT THE END OF THE WORLD.
– mandatory opening line to be chanted before one begins a session of polaris
This theme of valiant, yet hopeless defiance is nowhere as apparent as it is when describing the two major antagonists (there are demons without number and even without form, as one can readily expect): The Frost Maiden and the Solaris knight. One a representation of love betrayed, the other nominally Algol, but in reality an amalgamation of all knights that have ever succumbed to corruption. The Solaris knight looks upon you with eyes that still remember he meant well, once.
So how do you actually play Polaris? Hoooo boy. You need exactly 4 people to play Polaris (there are variant roles for 3 and 5 players). Gameplay takes place with rotating roles. There is no narrator, or central authority. One player takes the role of the protagonist (the Heart), the player facing him takes on the roles of any antagonists (The Mistaken, but also more mundane rivals and threats) and is tasked with fomenting chaos and conflict. Furthermore, the player (The Full Moon) on the right side of the protagonist take s on the roles of all the characters in the protagonists’s societal and political life (i.e fellow knights, senators, artists etc.) while the other takes on the roles of the protagonist’s friends and lovers (the new moon). The Protagonist and the Mistaken are in charge of coming up with a scene. After a scene is over, you rotate, with each player then taking on the role of his own protagonist. You need not go clockwise, you can switch or alternate as you please. That sounds weird but that is only because it is.
On to character generation itself. Each character is a Knight Stellar, sworn to vanquish the evil sun, with a starlight blade and even going so far as to take the name of a Star (i.e Von’s Knight is called Cygnus whilst Prince’s knight is called Aries). Also this is a story-gme so expect lots of pretentious names for everything. Your character sheet is called a Cosmos for example. To be fair, a Cosmos consists of all the important characters in a protagonist’s life (not unimportant when you are going to do collaborative storytelling), as well as his statts. As one can expect with a storygame, stats are not terribly important and really only used to randomly resolve conflicts when the players cannot agree upon them (more on this below).
Your knight has only 3 attributes ranging from 1-5. Ice (representing your knight’s devotion to society, people and the world around him), Light (representing your knight’s devotion to his own ideals and used to determine his strength when fighting alone) and Zeal. Zeal is measure of your knight’s belief in his cause, sense of purpose and commitment. Zeal starts at 4 and decreases throughout the game, until it reaches 0, at which it becomes weariness, at which point it goes up and the game is in its end stage. Ice and Light are increased whenever the knight gets XP (and loses Zeal).
These stats, while vague, are nowhere near as vague as your character’s Themes. Each knight has Office themes (i.e WHAT IS YOUR PROFESSION), Fate themes (i.e vague things like relationships with important characters, prophesied events and even ideas like THE GREATEST KNIGHT, by far the vagues of the Themes), Blessings (Equipment) and Abilities (skills). Each knight starts with a fixed number of themes (like Demon Lore, A Starlight Sword and the Office of Knight of the Starry Order) and 2 open ones. As a Fate theme, all characters must pick a Mistaken or character that all protagonists must have in common. So far so good. Then everyone picks secondary characters for the other players to play while they play the protagonist (loved ones, friends, superiors, colleagues and daemons). Once you character is done you must anounce him each session with the following words BUT HOPE WAS NOT YET LOST, FOR [CHARACTER NAME] STILL HEARD THIS SONG OF THE STARS.
So the game is divied up in scenes, with one protagonist each. If someone else’s character happens to be present that person always plays his character but only the protagonist gets to iniate cool things and do cool shit. The ritual cadences actually come in handy because they help structure the game properly (and set the tone). The game also recommends that you do all your lollygagging in between scenes and that you shut the fuck up during scenes, a practice that I imagine is a good way to perserve the atmosphere. You initiate each scene with a AND SO IT WAS…and then either the protagonist or the mistaken begins the scene in sort of medias res, skipping over the unimportant bullshit like how your character got there or where he bought items or whatever the fuck. Go straight for the drama says the game. Internal and external struggle, horror & beauty and difficult choices. No tedium. Since the progression of each character arc is essentially an eternal battleground between protagonist and Mistaken ending in heroic death or tragic fall with the Moons tugging and steering and filling up space in between, in theory no one knows how a scene ends once you start one, which fulfills the basic conditions for a human to be entertained by the game. Tips are provided should you pull an 8 Mile when it is your turn to describe a scene, which is probably superfluous since probability says anyone actually ever playing a session of Polaris is likely going to be a sock-sniffing granola-eating turd in love with the sound of his own voice (and very aware of his biases and privelege).
Actions are always described in terms of something happening, not something having a chance of happening. I kiss her. I kill him. I break the demon’s back. Thoughts and reactions of NPCs are largely determined by the protagonist. Each statement drives the scene forward to its natural conclusion. So what happens if players disagree? Now it becomes interesting.
Since each character’s story is essentially a tug of war, with your counterpart’s task being the specific creation of conflict, misery and woe for your character, it is going to become inevitable that there will be disagreement. Rather then pretending, like many storygames, that human beings can co-operate for the mutual benefit of all, the game actually ritualises and incorporates this inevitable conflict between Mistaken and Protagonist in the rules (the moons may beg for one of the two to intercede on their behalf). This creates uncertainty, which again fulfills the basic conditions for being entertained. There are two relevant mechanisms in play: Conflict and Experience.
Whenever a character does something and someone thinks there should be a price, the something should not come to pass or similar disagreements, conflict is initated. Polaris manages to structure the complex and annoying negotiation process by the use of Key Phrases AND ONLY KEY PHRASES. No bullshitting or delaying. This is why I feel the mechanism should work.
I feel the entire negotiation could be easily fitted into a flowchart. Conflict can begin with a basic negation of an event coming to pass. If the other player concedes, no conflict takes place and the action takes place. If he accepts conflict begins. From that point on, the player who initiated conflict can do the following:
* Attach a condition to the event taking place (BUT ONLY IF…)
* You accept the event taking place but attach another event to it (this can only be done by exhausting a theme, thus limiting the amount of events that can be folded into the negotiation process)
* You attempt to negate the event. This has a random chance of succeeding, based on Ice and Light and modified by Zeal/Weariness. The game is structured so that as the story progesses and the hero falls, it becomes increasingly harder for the Heart (the protagonist) to negate events, while it becomes considerably easier for the Mistaken.
* You force the player to reduce or change the event, as arbitrated by the Moons. You may then choose either the original or the altered version and continue the bargaining process. May only be used by expending a theme.
* You accept the negotiation (used to conclude the conflict).
* You negate your opponents last condition and your own last condition and end the negotiation (i.e Prince gets free booze (original statement) BUT ONLY IF he reviews Polaris (a landwhale) BUT ONLY IF he doesn’t get to grade it (Prince) BUT ONLY IF he is forced to write an in-depth review (a landwhale) BUT ONLY IF body positivity dies a natural and unsung death in the filth-strewn alleyways of a post-rational civilisation (Prince) and the Landwhale invokes IT WAS NOT MEANT TO BE then all of the events except for the death of body positivity and the in depth review take place and the conflict ENDS). Conditions may mean the loss of Themes, the deaths of followers, the betrayal of lovers and all manner of nastiness ensuing. Conditions that do not do anything are meaningless. There is a certain elegance to this system, simplified as it is, and indeed, boiling down a complicated negotionation to its base elements is the only way a storytelling game like this could conceivably work within any length of time.
When to invoke what Theme is adjudicated by the Moons but can actually be bullshitted for, and THANK FUCKING GARL GLITTERGOLD this version of Polaris has a giant appendix full of sample themes and when they may be invoked so as to give the players SOMETHING to work with, since they are by far the vaguest of the mechanisms in play. A change takes place when the protagonist runs out of Zeal and starts to gain Weariness. The BUT ONLY IF may now be invoked for two purposes previously banned. The protagonist may ask for his death and the Mistaken may ask for the destruction of large sections of the world. It goes without saying the Mistake can never be resolved in story or through conflict. Though this rule system is meant to add a degree of fairness and complexity to the negotiation, when it all comes down to it, it is still a game of collaborative storytelling and it will only work if all players abide by the spirit of the game. In other words, it probably won’t.
The only other interesting part is how the Protagonist actually loses zeal and eventually gains weariness (going from starry-eyed Neville Longbottom to the Sergeant from Cross of Iron). This happens whenever the protagonist loses a conflict or shows sympathy for demons, contempt, cynicism for his cause, hatred, despair etc. etc. The mistaken has the final say what does or does not count. Once this happens you get to roll dice again. The probability curve here is a sort of hill, meaning you gain experience (i.e you FALL) fastest in the beginning and the end phase of the game. It is relatively easy to go from novice with 4 zeal to 2 zeal, there is a sweet spot right around the 1 zeal/1 weariness point, and after that you will fall rapidly. If you ever get more then 4 weariness, you have fallen. As a herald to this death or corruption, the Solaris knight and the Maiden of Snow only start showing up once you become a veterean (i.e you have lost your Zeal and start gaining weariness). This also motivates the protagonist to act properly knightly if he wants to play long and virtually ensures playing chivalrous will actually be tough, which is the point of the game. As you gain experience, you also get to increase your knight’s Ice or Light, a stat that compensates somewhat for the increased difficulty of preventing the story changing in the Protagonists favour, and the Ice/Light division means the player must choose between either upholding his vows to society or standing alone and relyin on himself. Or something. The rules are pretty vague.
The game ends with some variant rules for Three or Four players, a bucketload of sample Themes so you understand what the fuck is going on, a list of stars and constellations so you and your astronomically deficient friends may still play Polaris ah la Carte. The Themes also add much needed extra context, lore and content to the setting of Polaris, which should help the players along in coming up with appropriate events, based on the almost entirely hypothetical scenario that they actually play it. A strange, almost science-fantasy esque setting of starlight weaponry, breathing suits, bug mounts, Stormbringer-esque ancestor weaponry, memory crystals, family feuds, the distant lands of the South and even a Bound demon companion.
So what does one think of Polaris? Let me start out by saying this is not an rpg. I cannot grade it as an rpg, for it is not one. It is not a game of skill, it is not a game of individual participation, it is not even open-ended or remotely like an rpg. What it is is a bizarre collaborative storytelling game, with intricate and baroque mechanics, vague terminology and an overal solid premise. The very thought of playing it fills me with vague incredulity. Who is this for? Good players and good GM’s are often very different types and I can see only very specific groups playing this shit every once in a while.
I know it was made by cocksucking faggots who like storygames and I weep. Oh if you were but an RPG, sigh I.
So, in order. Good premise. Wonderfully described setting. Great art too, well chosen. Hampered by a bizarre storytelling system somehow both impenetrable and ephemeral. I don’t know what alien impulse drove me to dig this up and review it. For all its promises of chivalric tragedy in the North, actually playing it seems a chore, and somehow even gayer then pretending to be an elf, because it takes itself so seriously. Someone should start a project to save these things and turn them into regular rpgs that don’t suck.
Pros: …but she is beautiful when she smiles
Cons: The line dividing us is small, but impassable. The wall perfectly transparent yet hard as adamantium and massive like the heart of a dying star. We are close enough to hear eachother’s heartbeat and see the reflection in eachother’s retinae but we cannot touch. We cannot, ever, touch.