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Polaris

June 28, 2012

Polaris, by Ben Lehman, is an indie roleplaying game of “chivalric tragedy at the utmost north”. Well, to be absolutely clear, it is a storytelling game more than a traditional roleplaying game in which you control a single character. In Polaris, each player (optimally four, with three or five accommodated with minor changes) controls a protagonist, but only one protagonist takes the stage, as it were, at a time, whilst the other players control antagonists and secondary characters (which may include other protagonists making a walk-on); and play is not the first person sort that many gamers will be familiar with, but more of a narrative told in the style of a story. Which brings me to the first point – the style of play is distinct and is going to be one that you either love or hate; not everyone will be able to get into the right mindset and not all who are capable will want to. If you prefer a more co-operative, story-based approach to your games, you will want to give Polaris a try; but, if you prefer a more defined game this is likely not for you.

Polaris was a game I had been interested in reading for a long time – the reviews and discussions I had seen all hinted at something marvellous – and, when I finally picked a copy up from Leisure Games for £14.99, I was not disappointed. With a promising cover, I was glad to discover that the promise didn’t lie. In fact, the wonderfully stylised art is probably the game’s strongest point, really adding to the feel of the game.

If asked for a single word that I would use to describe Polaris, that word would be transcendent. The setting description is crafted in a mesmeric, poetic fashion that demands you head to the north pole and adventure. The essential core of the background is that there once was a city at the north pole, which existed before the first dawn. The rising of the sun set in train the tragic events that led to the Mistake :  the destruction of much of the city and an invasion of demons. The Protagonists in the game are all Stellar Knights, fighting a futile war against the tide of demons (known as the Mistaken) which is overwhelming their world. The setting is fascinating and unusual and although the way in which it is presented – mostly in the form of enigmatic statements that players can develop into their own unique world, bolstered by a few sweeping statements – will not please those who want solid facts to work with, it perfectly suits both the dreamlike nature of the setting and the way in which the game, like any story, is revealed and developed over time through discovery.

On a more prosaic level, the writing style of the setting section is strong, perfectly building mood, and the book had fewer typos than many games I have seen. The addition of a list of star names, in the rear of the book, with which to name your protagonists and secondary characters is a handy resource for non-astronomers who want to get playing rather than doing research.

Unless the very nature of the setting, with its dreamlike quality and nebulosity, is a problem for you, the place where you will find problems is the rules section, which was a huge let down after the wonderful setting section.

Firstly, the way in which the rules are presented is offputting and utterly uninspiring, compared to the setting. Where the description of the utter north brought the word transcendent to mind, this section made me think of a less pleasant word, pretentious – the writing ceased to be poetic and become clunky, whilst preening in its non-existent brilliance. It isn’t helped by the fact that Lehman seems to believe that Polaris will be played by complete novices to gaming (yes, gaming, not just this style) – or perhaps he is pitching the game at idiots, which is odd – and feels the need to explain everything to a ridiculous degree. Setting aside the fact that it is unlikely that anyone would impulse buy Polaris without some exposure to gaming, the fact that it is relatively difficult, in comparison with many other games, to actually purchase, makes it unlikely that non-gamers will discover it. Thus we have an author who not only feels the need to explain that players can, indeed, discuss the game after it ends and clarifying that if someone is not enjoying it that you should stop, but also informing us that “one is less than two”…. I know there are plenty of gamers who are not great at maths, but I think this is insulting the intelligence of even the least numerate gamer!

Which brings us to the examples of play – so many examples! I’m not a huge fan of examples – I seem to have the sort of mind that clicks quickly with rules – but I do understand how other people find them useful. Unfortunately, these are not, in the main, good examples that will really help and the sheer number of them only ladles on the banality. For a setting that was so wonderful to read about, reading about people playing Polaris is distinctly underwhelming, showing naff and stilted interaction much of the time. Sure, you want to ease players in, but why not show players who are ‘getting’ Polaris rather than ones who seem to be struggling with the concept? The aim is to guide the reader towards intended play, not reinforce the idea that the intended style of play is difficult to achieve! And, it gets worse – the transcendent quality is tossed aside in favour of bathroom breaks and offers of lifts home! So, Lehman not only ensures that we know we are allowed to discuss Polaris outside of game sessions, but that we may also pause the fun to answer the call of nature. It not only makes me feel nostalgia for those early games that just gave you some barely adequate rules and a couple of paragraphs of setting and left you to figure it all out for yourself, but makes me wonder about the sort of people Lehman plays with or uses as playtesters…. All very odd and mood-destroying!

The rules themselves are an uneasy blend of brilliance and nonsense. The idea of a GM-less game with the players rotating spheres of influence in order to craft a joint story is good. With the right players, freeform games of collaborative storytelling can be great fun. Unfortunately, the rules here seem to sit uncomfortably between structured roleplay and freeform storytelling, satisfying neither urge. I haven’t played the games, so it might work better in practice than it appears to on paper, but I can’t see myself playing the rules as written – if I wanted to do freeform storytelling that is what I would do; I would loosen things or ditch the rules altogether. And, if I was playing with a group disinclined to such styles, I would adapt the setting to a more defined ruleset (Perndragon would be a perfect fit).

The only thing I really like about the rules is Zeal/Weariness – over time, as novice knights develop into veterans, their zeal is stripped away and replaced with a growing sense of weariness until, unless their player declares their death at some suitably climactic moment, they are corrupted and transformed into one of the Mistaken (which reveals an undiscussed element of the background :  most, if not all, the demons were originally People….)

The rules aren’t helped by the fact that so much about them, such as the use of opening and closing phrases, set phrases to define ‘conflicts’ in game and suggestions of  doing things such as lighting a candle to define the period of play, come across as terribly pretentious and silly. It isn’t that such things are alien to gaming in general – terminology is terminology, whether describing a die roll or verbal sparring, and it is not uncommon for campaigns to be given a ‘theme tune’ – but, seeing them presented in such a solemn way, as if they are utterly original concepts, and the fact that they largely are stated to be required for play, pushes them away from practicality and colour into pretension and nonsense. I don’t think I could keep a straight face if people were to proclaim things such as “But, it was no matter” on a regular basis, especially if it was done in the bumbling manner of some of the examples we are shown. The problem is that it tries too hard to force a poetic mood upon the players that would probably come naturally, but which feels artificial when presented this way. Such an approach doesn’t immerse you, it breaks the illusion.

Unfortunately, the Polaris rules are riddled with pronouncements on when you are doing it wrong, when a more positive approach would encourage the intended style of play, whilst avoiding prescribing equally valid if less desirable alternate approaches. Likewise, the obsession with all actions requiring a result (“I kiss him, and he falls into my arms. He loves me.” Versus “I move in to kiss her.” – to take two examples drawn from the book) seems to get in the way of the flow of the story by turning key moments into a bidding war as opposing players modify or negate one another’s statements until consensus is achieved. If the game isn’t to be arbitrated by a referee, I feel the latter sort of statement fits the collaborative style better – state an intended action and others can object, respond or elaborate before the decision is reached. I suppose that it is semantics, really, but the confrontational nature, even in fun, seems to go against the collaborative nature of the game, as well as offering ample opportunity for the players to lose the thread of what is happening as events are repeatedly retconned and modified. I suppose I drift towards either extreme – a structured, traditional, referee’d game or a freeform, collaborative game of storytelling. Polaris, ruleswise, doesn’t satisfy me on either count.

So, I’ve said Polaris has some great points and I’ve said that some aspects of it irk me – so do I recommend that you rush out buy it? From a setting point of view, I think it is brilliant, wonderfully evocative and extremely inspiring, and, as a read in its own right, extremely entertaining, although I am not sure how much reread potential it has and people who want something more solid for a game-setting are unlikely to find it useful. As far as the rules go, it is not anything much and I, personally, would ditch them altogether for freeform play or another system, making the rule-set largely superfluous and somewhat irritating.

Whilst I feel, perhaps, a little cheated that the rules were a disappointment after the setting material, overall I am glad that I assuaged my curiosity and bought Polaris (it probably helps that it was saved for and not an impulse buy). It is a wonderful, entertaining, inspiring book. Indeed, even though they’re a disappointment, I did find the four-way nature of the rules got me thinking about such approaches to gaming (and, how not to do it). Polaris wasn’t quite the revolutionary experience some have claimed – to be honest, ruleswise, it was more a case of ‘done that before, better’ as far as my experience goes, but it did still contain plenty to get you thinking.

Ultimately, whether you will want to buy Polaris or not, and it isn’t cheap, depends upon whether you want to try an indie game with a different approach to the hobby. If not, it comes down to the setting and, whilst it will satisfy if what you want is mood and inspiration, it will not be of much use if you want something solid that saves you from having to put in too much effort. Whatever else, it is wonderfully illustrated!

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