Tuesday, March 4, 2014

Polaris (2009): Courtly Tragedy & Crippling Depression In A Frozen Kingdom

"Long Ago, The People Were Dying At The End Of The World"

This phrase, spoken aloud, is intended to begin every play session of Polaris: Chivalric Tragedy at the Utmost North. Polaris is a strange game, and I hesitate to call it an RPG, considering its lack of elements like a GM, turns, and a formalized conflict resolution system. It falls into the realm of mechanically light, narrative heavy games like Fiasco, emphasizing storytelling and emotional drama (fluff) over mathematics and die rolls (crunch), and requires a group of dedicated, creative players to weave a satisfying narrative.Similar to Fiasco, the game lacks a dedicated referee, with GM duties being distributed across multiple players depending on the situation. Its core mechanic is a rudimentary 1d6 roll-under system governed by four stats, of which two are combined to generate a target number from 1 to 5, but I'll get into that a bit more later.

The real focus of Polaris is on forging an atmospheric, heartbreaking narrative, and the setting positively drips with both. The world of the Utmost North is gripped by the slowest apocalypse ever, a steady, implacable decline from unspeakable splendor and terrible beauty into decadence and ruin, in the mold of Moorecock's Melnibone, played out over centuries or perhaps even millennia. Citadels carved from ice and song, lit by prismatic bursts of starlight look out over glittering, glacial landscapes, while each turning season brings a horde of abominations flooding from a gaping wound in the Earth, a slow melt under the glare of the cruel sun, brave and doomed crusades by gallant knights, and cut-throat politics which shatter the bonds of society. The protagonists are thrust into the midst of this maelstrom of horrors, passions, and treacheries, playing the part of newly minted knights sworn to protect this failing civilization to their last breath.

As this is a game of tragedies, they will fail.

Failure is where Polaris's mechanics come into play. Every roll of the die brings each protagonist closer, by degrees, to an inevitable fall from grace, succumbing to either the literal demons spilling forth from the smoking hole in the glacial ice, or the metaphorical demons dwelling in their own hearts. Or both, of course, because the two could be one and the same. Each protagonist (PC) is governed by three of four Values (stats): Ice, which is used when the character enters battle on behalf of others, Light, which is used when the character fights for or by himself, and either Zeal or Weariness. Each character begins play with Ice and Light scores of 1, and a Zeal score of 4. As the character advances through conflict (but not necessarily combat) scenes, the player may increase either the Ice or Light score by 1 at his or her discretion, while the Zeal score invariably drops by 1. Once Zeal reaches 0, it is replaced by a Weariness score of 1, which steadily advances up to a maximum of 4, at which point the protagonist has succumbed to a fatal, moral flaw. This advancement is not entirely steady, the way an XP system would be, but rather is based on situations and conflicts organized along a protagonist's particular story themes. Each protagonist will have several themes, either relationships, or duties, or some sort of important life event or trait, which major conflicts will center around to force the character into a decisive choice or action. Once a theme is explored during a conflict, it is considered "expended" and cannot be used again until it is "refreshed" on a die roll.

The rolls themselves are, strangely, not frequently used for conflict resolution; resolution is based on consensus, with the involved players negotiating an agreement that serves the good of the story. Once this agreement is reached, the player controlling the protagonist's actions (referred to as the character's "Heart") rolls 1d6 against a target number generated from either the Ice score (if fighting for others) or Light score (if fighting for herself), adding the Zeal score (if present) or subtracting the Weariness score (if present). Rolling under this target causes Advancement as described above, with Ice/Light and Zeal/Weariness incrementing by 1 point, while rolling over this target causes a Refresh, where neither Ice nor Light improve, Zeal/Weariness remain unchanged, and all previously "expended" themes become usable again. On die rolls, the protagonist's Heart has the option to edit various elements of the character if they feel the character should gain or lose any aspects as a result of the conflict.

Now at this point, you're probably noticing some nonstandard terms being thrown around, namely the reference to a player as a "Heart." This is part of Polaris's particularly novel character creation and conflict resolution systems. Although the game is designed to play with four people each controlling one of four protagonist characters, each player also participates in some way with every other player's characters. The player who controls a character's actions, as mentioned earlier, is the protagonist's "Heart," and it is his or her job to negotiate in the character's favor during conflicts. The Heart is responsible for naming the protagonist, and describing the themes and aspects which will guide her conflicts and personality. The player who sits directly across from that protagonist's Heart is the "Mistaken," and he or she initiates conflicts with that protagonists, controlling the demons that besiege her and negotiating against her interests during the conflict discussions. Conflict resolution is adjudicated by the players sitting to the left and the right of the Heart, referred to as the "New Moon" and the "Full Moon," respectively. The New Moon is in charge of refereeing the protagonist's emotional and interpersonal conflicts, and controls minor female NPCs, while the Full Moon referees societal conflicts and controls minor male NPCs. Neither Moon player can directly determine the outcome of a conflict, but instead mediates and makes suggestions to the Heart and Mistaken players to foster an agreement about the way the story will proceed.

Rather than a full blown, detailed combat system, Polaris makes use of various "key phrases" to facilitate conflicts. Each scene begins with a player stating "And So It Was," followed by a scene description. That player's opponent (his or her Mistaken, if the initiating player is the Heart, or the reverse) can then modify the scene with phrases like "But Only If" (describing a terrible cost) or "And Furthermore" (describing a complication), which the initiating player can either accept ("And That Was How It Happened"), request a different circumstance ("You Ask Far Too Much"), force a die roll ("It Shall Not Come To Pass") or scrap the entire scene ("It Was Not Meant To Be"). The Moon players may offer suggestions for the conflicting players to agree upon, which can either be accepted (both players state "We Shall See What Comes Of It") or rejected (one player states "It Was No Matter"). The entire process becomes oddly ritualized, and I am not entirely convinced that I could play through this with a straight face.

Despite the weird, half-ritualized, almost Jack Chick-like gameplay, (the rules even suggest lighting and extinguishing candles to mark the beginning and end of play), there's something about the milieu of heartbreakingly beautiful people marching inevitably to their doom in a soul-shattering, starlit tundra, their breath condensing into snowflakes as their blood turns to ice, that I find oddly appealing.

"But All That Happened Long Ago, And Now There Are None Who Remember It."

*No character sheet this week, since it requires three other people to write one.

All artwork taken from Polaris: Chivalric Tragedy at the Utmost North, Starlight Starbright Edition, which is available either as an e-book from These Are Our Games, or in print from Indie Press Revolution. A Spanish-language eBook is also available from RPGNow.