In the prevailing icy conditions, it seems only to apt to add to my blog this review, written last year when the weather was rather more clement! This review is “Adventures in running indie games with hard core war gamers and power gamers with a strong gamist tendency.” If that premise amuses you, read on.
In this review I will discuss Ben Lehman’s Polaris: Chivalric Tragedy at the Utmost North. The cover suggests 3-5 players aged 14 and up, and the game is really designed with four players in mind, though rules for three and five player variants are included. As one of my players said, “in some ways this resembles a board game”, and the requirement to have 3-5 and ideally four players immediately shows you some of the similarities. Nonetheless, Polaris is very much an rpg, and a beautiful example of how far the medium can be taken away from the D&D inspired conventions we think of when we here the words “roleplaying game.”
This is a very unusual game – but don’t let that put you off. You might well read a few paragraphs and think – hey, this is a Forge inspired indie game, it’s not for me – but stick with the review and see how I fared. Lets start with the stuff I found intimidating, and why it’s taken 3 years for me to run the game…
Polaris has no GM. Of all the heresies you can commit, this must be one of the most blatant. I’m a simulationist. I like to play against a written plot, and solve puzzles. My player group likewise. So collaborative storytelling? It reeks of campfires, folk music and real ale – three things I like, but I mean this in a bad way. The story is driven entirely by the players, responding to a beautifully written background, and the conventions of romantic tragedy and heroic knightly adventure. I half expected the players who turned up to walk out the door, as a previous group (who were Heroquest players – I was trying the Ars Magica/AD&D types this time) I had tried to get interested had, but after a minute of stunned silence they said, “sure, let’s try it…”
Secondly, Polaris is beautifully written. – which can be a bad thing! I have a few friends who were willing to try Nobilis, but were put off by the beautiful writing, especially the little epigrams, declared the game “pretentious” and never bothered to learn. I thought this could happen with my player group for Polaris. John is a hard core wargamer who loves tactical problems and avoiding conflict by careful planning, Tom I have only ever played once with, and Ed loves character generation and careful design, as in Ars Magica. I decided to read them a few pages of the background, then summarise more of it to give them the feel for the setting. About ten minutes of reading, answering questions about the background, and we were off. On seeing the character sheet they were intrigued enough to want to play.
So what is the background? It reminds me a bit of some of HP Lovecraft’s fantasy pieces, like The White Ship, Polaris, etc. In fact it reminds me even more of Robert Chambers, Oscar Wilde, and a few of the other Decadent/Celtic Twilight/Romantic authors, if that means anything to you. It’s a haunting fairy story about a land in the ultimate north, with a beautiful people who were destroyed in Arthurian style tragedy, and the players play the knights who have survived the death of the King and Queen, and the destruction of the capital in “The Mistake”. Whether the people are made of ice, human, fairy or something other I do not know – the nature of the tragedy is ambiguous, but deals with the rising of the sun, the dawn, and the coming of day to destroy the endless blissful night. It could be an allegory for many things, but even read literally all kinds of possible meanings and explanations arise from the beautifully written (if you like late 19th century/Edwardian prose, as I do) opening account. There are 28 pages of this, which despite the superb use of ambiguity which gives the players great scope to tell the story in many ways, is actually quite detailed in others.
The King and Queen are gone, lost with the destruction of the capital (though I can’t help wondering about the enemy knight Solaris and the Frost Maiden, but hey!) and the players play members of the Order of the Stars, a knightly order armed with Starlight Blades who guard the four remaining outposts of the people from the demons who pour from the Mistake where the capital was, and against corruption from within.
Here we have potential problem number 3. Your character is doomed. The world is ending, and the story is a tragedy. Tragedy however is not always depressing – and the game is written in a way that gives you considerable leeway in how that tragedy plays out. Ultimately you will be corrupted or killed – but is not the same true of Call of Cthulhu? The important thing is that you choose how the game will end for your character, and you are architect at least partially of your own downfall. In fact, despite the sombre tragic tone of the game, my group had a blast with it – there was more laughter and smiles than I have seen in a long time. We found Polaris great fun, and i wish to stress this. While we played seriously, the way the game works led to much clever negotiation to screw over each others characters, yet there was no recrimination or hostility, as I have even seen creep in to Paranoia (a game I have never managed to run successfully) – instead there was a strong competitive element I have not seen work well before in any rpg.
So potential problem 4 play was essentially competitive. Your character sheet has your Heart (your character, called the protagonist): the player who sits opposite you is your Mistaken, and plays your adversary and in play tries to complicate and make difficult your characters life; the player to the left is your New Moon, and plays characters with whom you have a formal relationship, such as other knights, the Judge, an Archivist, the Head of your City Council, or whatever – and to your right the Full Moon, you plays all the characters who you have an emotional and important relationship with. You also have four sets of Themes – Blessings, Offices, etc – which are effectively Virtues, Abilities, Backgrounds, call them what you like.
Before I describe how play works, if you are interested you can download the pdf character sheet here here Have a quick look, and you will quickly grasp how it works. You sit around a table, and the positions dictate the role of the other players with regards to your character. I was Tom’s Mistaken – he was mine. Ed was John’s and vice versa. Ed was my New Moon – he got to play a Royal Clerk who I worked for, and John as my Full Moon played the Goat Twins, two sisters I was torn between. You choose at least one character for each section of your sheet, the NPC’s important to you. the other players can play them, and from time to time one is removed from the story and crossed out, or a new one added. It works very well indeed.
We took it in turns to launch a scent each. You don’t have to, but for a first game it works pretty well, and I recommend it. A scene can involve your character, or the person sitting opposite you, and you have to be far more assertive than in many games. Instead of “I chop at the demon with my sword” you can say “The demonic legion falls upon me: for an afternoon I know no rest, but as my blade flashes in the night I slay relentless, till the ground for yards around is piled high with the melting corpses and rancid ashes of the demons. At last the army falls back, and I cut a path to the city, having slain three score demons…” Yes – very heroic – but you can bet it will go wrong. My Mistaken (Tom) is not going to let me get away with that! There is a formalized set of phrases which dictate how conflicts are resolved. Tom might respond “but only if… your beloved believing you lost to the army rides out alone to try and save you, or dies along side you, and is captured by the demonic horde…” I now have to either accept that, or use a phrase to undo it, or continue the story with an appropriate keyword phrase “but only if…. I here her pitiful screams, and spur my faithful horse as I ride after them…”
You have to be sensible here. It would be easy to push real world buttons, or be an arse. Don’t. Polaris demands maturity and trust. Do do not describe squicky, morally repugnant or deeply emotive scenes unless the other players can handle that I guess. The game demands maturity, and a certain ability to detach from the horrors and tragedy.
Right, so how do these key phrases which run the conflict mechanism work? Polaris is not freeform. There are very definite rules and game mechanisms, and you need to learn them, though from my experience this is best done in play. Polaris feels like a GAME, not a storytelling contest, though it is both. OK, again the best way to get the idea is to download the following useful files – Key Phrases Reference and Conflict Flowchart. We printed these off and kept them close to hand throughout play. They are invaluable.
I never thought my players would get the hang of this, and I thought I wouldn’t. You grasp it quicker with experience, and within a fairly short time we were all entering in to it fully, and resolving long and complex scenes. You certainly aren’t going to forget the game mechanics and go for full immersion – the mechanics are MORE blatant than dice, and negotiating scenes to an resolution requires quick thinking, wit, sensitivity and is very creative – but the game mechanics are extremely important. If you forgot them and just described what happened, it would cease to be a game, and Polaris is a skillful game. A single d6 is used, fairly infrequently, but the structure of the narrative through key phrases makes this game quite rules heavy compared to some I have played – and is better for it. The mechanic is pretty much unique to Polaris as far as I know, and unlike say Inspectres I would not want to borrow it for another game – but for this one it works beautifully.
So in essence, Polaris is a beautifully written, highly original and very unusual rpg, but it is a game, with solid well thought out mechanics that reflect the characters corruption and loss of faith, and well reflect the theme of the tragedy. My players loved it, because they are gamist – they could tell stories, but just as importantly they could use the mechanics to make each others character lives difficult, and while sometimes scenes involved our own characters, often we started scenes about our “Mistakens” character just to watch them squirm as we put them in horrible or emotionally charged situations. Most importantly, we laughed, swore, and had a great time!
The game would shine in campaign play – I would have thought 5 sessions would work well, though Ed’s cynical betrayal of the Knights and the People led to him falling pretty fast towards weariness and ultimate doom in our game – he reached a Zeal of 1 from 4 in a single session, but that was with unlucky dice rolls and repeatedly cynical self-serving choices. We have all agreed we will play again, though getting the same player group together owing to work and distance issues will be difficult. For three years I had owned this game and thought it an interesting piece of indie game design – having played it I can now say it’s an interesting and highly playable game which will appeal to gamers of a wide variety of interests.
The game is available from indiegamesrevolution in the US, or Leisuregames in the UK, and I expect other stockists. A well bound but small paperback book, £13.99 is a little pricey for the indie production values – I’d have though £10 would be fair – but the quality of the writing, the game and the art taken from Boris Artzybasheff’s work is so high I can rate it no less than 5 for style. For substance I gave 4 – I can see me playing this many times, but the setting is ultimately limited to what it does, and does very well.
If you are a mature traditional roleplayer looking for an interesting and revolutionary piece of rpg design ,and playing with exactly four players is to a problem to you, I really recommend this game. Get your friends to sit down and start playing, and be willing as we did to sacrifice tragic poetry to competitive gamesmanship and clever storytelling, and be willing to have fun with it – and the game will work just as well as if you are a group seeking catharsis and epic emotional drama.