Tabletop Storygames: Polaris

Screen Shot 2013-05-02 at 11.38.30 PMPolaris is a tabletop RPG in which you know from the start that all the protagonists are doomed, and their civilization is doomed, and everything is ruined and is going to end in flames. This is exactly what happened in our recent session. I also can’t remember an RPG session in which I’ve laughed so much. It was great.

Okay, back up. Polaris is framed on the website linked above as a game to take 12+ hours. We needed to compress it into an evening’s play, so instead of having each player be a protagonist, we instead set it up to be about two protagonists and two players who were playing antagonist roles. Each of the protagonists was the knight of a civilization that had already partially fallen to The Mistaken; the latter, in our game, were a kind of body-jumping demon eager to bring about the end of time.

The mechanic enforces the idea of character corruption while leaving a lot of room to work out how this happens. In each scene, a protagonist is confronted by one or more characters played by the antagonist-player. These may be enemies, but it’s often more effective for them to be a friend trying to dissuade the protagonist from doing his knightly duty, or a family member asking for personal rather than public loyalty, or something of that nature — characters who have the ability to sway the knight through persuasion or deception or simply by presenting a conflict of priorities, rather than by direct opposition. The scene escalates into conflict, at which the protagonist and antagonist engage in a kind of narrative bidding process, which for us went something like this:

Protagonist: I lunge at Musca with my sword and run her through.
Antagonist: …but only if, when you kill her, you also destroy the sacred crown you’d come to seek.
Protagonist: …but only if, even though the crown is broken, there are shards I can take home with me.

There are also mechanics for rolling back part of the negotiation if you don’t like where it’s gone, also using key phrases (“You ask far too much”), but we didn’t invoke those as much. Things specified in the conflict stage can get quite large in scope; at one point a negotiation wound up narrating how the character would die, who would survive afterwards, and about five years of subsequent civil war and chaos. The entire extinction of the Polaris people was put on the table, but ultimately bargained down to a deal where they just had to leave the north pole and go to live in warmer, less happy climates.

After the scene is over, the participants agree on how many times the protagonist has in some way violated the honor code of knights, or experienced callousness, apathy or despair. The protagonist then has to roll a d6 that many times. Each time the score on one of those die-rolls is less than his current Zeal (4 to start), he loses a Zeal point. That means he loses Zeal easily at first, but the last point may be hard-lost.

When all his Zeal is lost, he has an encounter with the Solaris Knight or the Frost Maiden, embodiments of the terrible power that threatens; and then begins instead to gain points of Weariness. Weariness climbs via the same mechanism as Zeal is lost: at 1 it is hard to grow wearier, but as Weariness goes up, it becomes easier to gain more. When Weariness hits 6, the knight is fully corrupted.

This is numerically clever because of the pacing it imposes, but honestly I think I would have been just as happy dispensing with the dice entirely, especially for a low-mechanics one-shot, and just verbally agreeing as a group how much Zeal/Weariness stat change the protagonist had likely undergone. In some cases we had protagonists go through incredibly traumatic events — broken up with a lover and disowned by their family all in one swoop, for instance — that nonetheless through implausibly lucky die rolls didn’t count against them much. The die roll might be effective for keeping in line protagonists who as players are really trying to “win” (why? the mechanics guarantee that’s impossible), but everyone in this game was more focused on making an interesting story with the intended arc.

Playing the antagonist was one of the most challenging things I’ve done in story-gaming so far. It’s partly a GM/support kind of role: you’re constantly needing to think of more ways to put the protagonist in a terribly binding situation, one that is likely to force her to do something she doesn’t want to. In addition, because there’s not a huge amount of formal structure to the game, it’s not always possible to be thinking ahead effectively. The protagonist’s encounter with the Solaris Knight/Frost Maiden is pretty much guaranteed to happen at some point, so one can be imagining what might occur then, a little bit in advance, and though I hadn’t played before, I had enough warning that this was coming up that I was able to brainstorm a setting and some dialogue for that encounter. But at other times, events overtook what I’d anticipated.

Why was our session so funny? That would be harder to explain, but I think we laughed largely because there was something freeing and cathartic about playing in a context where everyone was making horrible decisions, where the good guys were often transparently gullible, and where all the omens pointed to Doom. I feel like this might not have been the intended tone, and there were things about the session that were genuinely rather disturbing, sad, or grim, but I took a fair amount of entertainment from roleplaying characters who were free to go their length, disowning each other, ending marriages, having drastic fights. There was less focus on setup and maneuvering than in some games, and more where Stuff Happened, in a big, colorful, over the top way. Even if it was typically bad stuff, like someone being foolish enough to drink the blood of a demon, or someone killing an ex-lover without remorse.

I feel like I should probably acquire the rules and read through them at some point to see what we might have missed: the version we played was somewhat adapted for one-shot purposes, and we had a basic explanation of the setting but did not read together through the rather extensive backstory provided.

12 thoughts on “Tabletop Storygames: Polaris

  1. The die roll might be effective for keeping in line protagonists who as players are really trying to “win” (why? the mechanics guarantee that’s impossible)

    Well, a lot of storygames put you in situations where you’re meant to advocate for your character, and it can sometimes be easy to fall too hard into that role. The protagonist/antagonist scene resolution encourages that, and so does the scene-postmortem discussion, where basically other players are pushing their own interpretations of the protagonist’s actions, and the protagonist often has to explain how they understand their own character’s inner states, in a defensive mode. So the heart of the game is about trying to win even though it’s impossible.

    (This doesn’t mean that you couldn’t take the dice out of the equation, of course, or dial down their range a bit.)

    • The protagonist/antagonist scene resolution encourages that, and so does the scene-postmortem discussion, where basically other players are pushing their own interpretations of the protagonist’s actions, and the protagonist often has to explain how they understand their own character’s inner states, in a defensive mode.

      True, but all of that has already happened by negotiation before the dice are rolled, which makes the dice seem fairly pointless to me. The negotiation itself is more interesting, and we didn’t get into any places where people just couldn’t agree on how to call a situation.

      • Sure – that’s a distinct issue. I think an element of randomness is a Good Thing in storygames generally, for purposes of limiting too-broad choice or

        But with narrative pacing, which is basically what Zeal/Weariness is about, it seems pretty sensible to me to make that decision more deterministic than random. (In Downfall, a game with Polaris-like qualities that’s presently in development, the pacing is established by shading in sections of a circle, and that works perfectly fine. (It doesn’t have any mechanical effect, so there’s that. But the eyeballed-area rather than explicit-number thing makes an excellent substitute for randomness.)

      • Oops. “Limiting too-broad choice or introducing unexpected elements.”

  2. Man, I’ve had the book for a couple of years now and never quite managed to get the right group together to play it. The “exactly four people” and “deathly serious tone” thing in combination makes for tricky logistics. Glad to hear it worked even with allowing for some light-heartedness. Did you guys feel it brings anything unique to the DM-less, fixed(ish) story arc tabletop genre, or are there other games that do that better?

    • I’ve played other games with an explicit antagonist function — Shock does this — but I felt that it worked better in our game of Polaris, possibly because in Polaris you’re not tied to a single antagonistic entity but can make up more antagonist characters at need. So for instance my first antagonist character died very early in the plot, but that was totally fine, and I made others. In general, the mechanics were fluid enough that it was possible to treat some characters as expendable and make big-deal events happen early on in the story. This suited the tone of the piece but also meant that very little of the game felt like we were just spinning our wheels getting ready for the interesting stuff to happen later.

      I also really liked the “but only if…” negotiation mechanic. I think that could be fruitfully lifted, with only slight alterations, for other story games. It’s about giving people a way to “Yes, and…” each others’ story narration while still taking opposing roles in figuring out what should happen next. That led to pleasingly mixed scene outcomes, surprise reversals, and cases where a protagonist got what she thought she wanted, but it backfired in a big way.

      The combination of these features was very freeing. In a lot of storygaming situations I find myself hesitating to narrate a really drastic outcome or turn of events because I fear it might trample someone else’s ideas. But that can lead to less interesting sessions if everyone’s too timid about Actually Making Results Occur. In this game of Polaris, there was a very large amount of plot in a fairly short time, which was gratifying.

      So, upshot: yeah, Fiasco and Downfall and a few others do a fixed arc Things Are Going Bad process, but specific mechanics features of Polaris made it a good time, and I’d be interested in seeing them applied elsewhere.

    • For what it’s worth, you can totally hack Polaris with three (combining the Full Moon and New Moon into one role).

      And to mostly reiterate what Emily has already said: in Storygames Seattle, Polaris is considered one of the four core merit-badge storygames that everybody should play (along with Fiasco, Microscope and Shock). And the two big reasons for that are a) antagonism is a difficult and vitally important skill for this kind of game, and Polaris is really heavily focused on it; and b) the negotiation mechanic is great at encouraging players to make decisions at a larger scale than ‘this is what my guy does next’, and developing narrative negotiation outcomes more nuanced than ‘okay, let’s go with your idea’.

  3. Who says tragedy can’t be fun? Because this was both. Both protagonists had very sad stories in their own ways, which was awesome. I never felt like it was a struggle to differentiate my tale from that of the other protagonist. And their tales ended up entwining in interesting ways, especially at the end! They were both indirectly responsible for the destruction of the society they’d sacrificed so much and fought so hard to defend.

    There was a lot of levity around the table but like Emily said, there were many bleak moments as well. (Which is how it should be, this is a tragedy.) I really enjoy the system. So much narrative freedom! (Which can be a blessing or a curse. In this case, it was a blessing.) The conflict system works neatly to serve the story. You may be able to get most of what you want but only if (see what I did there?) you’re willing to make some hard choices. It also allows the story to travel in unexpected and interesting directions in a natural way as the decisions start to snowball.

    And that is where the brilliance of the conflict mechanic comes into play. (One of the same things I like about Downfall too.) How far are you willing to push it? What does that say about your character? How will it affect them and the society? You have to take risks, actively go for what you want.

    I enjoyed being able to watch the other tale unfold! Being able to play a role in the other story was really cool. It provides a nice sense of connection to what’s happening with the other protagonist. Having two protagonists and two antagonists feels about right but even if you had four protagonists no one would have to sit around and wait to play for long.

    Sam’s suggestion for a hack for three players could work neatly, I think.

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