Monday, 5 March 2012

We Played Polaris, and Now There Are None Who Remember It

This time I’m going to share this beautiful review (by Hans Otterson) of Ben Lehman’s role-playing game Polaris. The original post was taken from the blog Giant Fire Breathing Robot.
skreeek POOF!
The candle is lit.
Someone speaks: LONG AGO, THE PEOPLE WERE DYING AT THE END OF THE WORLD. We are playing Polaris.
And So It Was…
Four of us, gathered around a table, with a small open flame delineating our entry into the game-space: the Utmost North, a frozen land that exists long ago in a collective dream. The fall of the city of Polaris feels embedded in our genetic memory, and the corruption of the People a biblical ache.
And yet we take up our Starlight swords, making characters: knights of the People who are ultimately destined to fall at the hands of the Mistaken, or join their side. I am a Knight of the Order of the Stars, living in the frozen, beautiful dark, that marble dome of night that only very recently has been pierced by the hateful face of the Dawn. I fight against that face, and the Mistake it has spawned, the downfall of our People.
I am a Knight, a Heart, and across from me sits my Mistaken. He is the one who opposes me through many people; many individual Mistaken, those demons of Fire and the Dawn. I narrate what my Heart does, flying across the ice to an old outpost of the Knights, and he counters by saying BUT ONLY IF… adding to my narration and twisting it to his own ends; you do indeed go there, but only if it is in fact besieged by legion Mistaken.
But a Knight Still Heard the Song of the Stars…
And this is how we play Polaris, back and forth, my Mistaken and me, along with the Moons to my right and left. The Moons are the secondary characters in my Knight’s story, people I have written on my protagonist sheet, and people who step into being in an inspired moment of play. The Moons do not have a say in the dance of words that is shared only with my Mistaken; not unless one of us takes up their statement as our own. So the dance goes on, my Mistaken and I creating glorious and far-reaching effects into this world of northern memory, but only as far as the other will allow.
When I slash the corrupt Senator, spilling his steaming lifeblood onto the snow, my Mistaken will not have it, and perhaps says IT SHALL NOT COME TO PASS or YOU ASK FAR TOO MUCH. In this way the action is rewound, or routed into a different direction, or accepted with a caveat. Maybe it is even stopped. This verbal dance is the game of Polaris; these key phrases are codified rituals after which steps must be taken, instructions followed. These rituals, the rules of the game, are light contact points; places for us to push and pivot off of while crossing swords with a Mistaken or entreating a false lover.
The phrases do a nice, quiet job of shepherding us into speaking in a kind of lilting high-speech, befitting the Knights of the Order of the Stars at the End of the World. Nothing bluntly shoves us into speaking in this way, into creating this myth, but we do anyway, because the quietness and finality of the phrases suggest this to us.
But that is not the only game in this game. These phrases tell us how we must interact, and set the strictures for creative contribution into our game, as well as show us how to push for our agenda at the expense of another’s. The other game is the downfall of our Knights, which has been mentioned. After every scene, we look back at the actions of the Heart: was she sympathetic to a demon? Was she callous or cruel towards one of the People? These and more are our considerations, and each action thus taken gives our Heart a chance to lose Zeal for her quest, until there is none left, and only Weariness remains. Once Wearied, our Heart can die, and if this fate is avoided and Weariness increases to its ultimate value, our Heart is finally corrupted and becomes a Mistaken.
In this way you can see that there is no good end for our Knights, and you realize Polaris is a tragedy, much like our cultural memories of Paradise, and that lost.
The tragedy of Polaris belongs to everyone, and is in no sole player’s hand; there is no GM orchestrating it, only our Heart’s actions and the pushback on those actions by the Mistaken sitting across from us. In the same way that my Heart is put into a spot, choosing between bad and worse, the turn will come around to me again and I will be the Mistaken for the Heart sitting across from me. I will play Hero and Demon, in turn, and eventually the line between the two will begin to blur.
And Furthermore…
We play scenes of scorching beauty and intensity; you might expect it in a tragedy, and then you might not. There are times when, speaking with the Moon on my left, whose Knight and mine share a close relationship, I am uncomfortable because of this intensity. We lock eyes during the emotionally-charged drama, old comrades who have soured on one another over apathy and betrayal. I can’t help but giggle a little bit, or smile, in these moments. It is hard to look into the eyes of another human being with sincerity. You are vulnerable. And, again, you can’t directly point to something in Polaris that makes us do this; you might be excused if you thought we were bringing this to the game on our own, separate from what it inspires and instructs us to do.
I think you would be wrong, though. The setting, of which you need just a taste to give you a picture; the procedures of play related to the roles of Heart, Moons, and Mistaken; the key phrases; the downfall of our Knights; these all contribute, they all surround and seal us into a state of mind and play such that sincerely looking at another human being becomes a thing that we do.
With that sincerity comes the vulnerability of creation, a boldness that you have something to say and are going to say it, and out of that comes the beauty (sometimes terrible beauty) of the scenes we play. We see a Knight’s zeal for his quest estrange him from his lover, while another Knight takes his place at her side. We see one who uses the secrets of demons to overthrow demons, a strategy without a happy end. We see yet another who stays true, lifting up her flagging Order in times of despair, only to be cast to the wastes as they die around her and the ice burns.
This is the game we play: four sessions of it. This is no longer a history. The game is over. Someone blows out the candle, and words are spoken: BUT ALL THAT HAPPENED LONG AGO, AND NOW THERE ARE NONE WHO REMEMBER IT.
* * *
play this if…
  • You like to have a lot of creative input and the color of the setting grabs you.
  • You want to play a noble tragedy: the downfall of something beautiful.
  • The ritualistic elements of role-playing have ever intrigued you.
don’t play this if…
  • You like sharply delineated lines between player and GM roles.
  • You’re not interested in tragedy or a game with a heavy tone.
  • You like input into a game to be consensus-driven.

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