Polaris by Mile'ionaha
Moments Frozen From the Flow of TimeOriginal SA post
One game that has a whopping 55 posts in the Indie games thread, but no reviews here, is Polaris . I have a bit of a crush on this game, so would like to review it for the thread. Written by Ben Lehman (of Bliss Stage fame), it helped open me up to the way mechanics can impact the flow of play, and how every mechanic should have a purpose that furthers your goal.
It should be known that this is a melancholy game, a game designed to evoke a very particular mood: Chivalric Tragedy. Unless you have a story that will involve an inevitable rise and fall, this isn’t a game that can work on a wide variety of themes.
There is nothing left.
There are no artifacts.
There are no stories.
There is no history,
not even in secret.
There are most especially no games.
Moments Frozen From the Flow of Time
We begin with the setting, starting with a montage of scenes describing heroism and tragedy in a kingdom at the North Pole, a kingdom that has now fallen.
As it was
Once upon a time, there was an immense city of ice, lit by stars and spared the light of the sun. Its inhabitants were tall and elfin, beautiful and wondrous, and they lived that way, dancing and singing and sculpting and painting, for ages uncounted, not understanding time or fear. They were ruled by a King and his Snow Queen, and she was tended to by a company of knights who loved her, led by Algol, who exceeded all the other knights in his love.
Then, one day, a new star began to appear on the horizon bearing new colors of crimson and gold. It was called the Dawn, and the King became obsessed with it. He built a great machine that belched smoke to track its passage, and his kingdom learned ugliness. When the Dawn appeared, the King and his court would just watch it. Soon the Dawn was a constant light in the sky, drowning out all the others. Music inspired by the Dawn sounded only like horrible screeching.
The Queen and her knights hid away from its light, and swore to stop its strange, malignant influence. Their oaths to the queen were marked by the symbol of a sword, and sealed with a kiss. Perhaps that is what caused the Mistake. Perhaps it was adultery between the Queen and Algol, or horrible rituals enacted by the King and sealed and blood, or a great battle that destroyed the horrible calendar. Whatever caused it, the Mistake ended the uncertain age of the Dawn and ushered in the end of the People and the reign of the Sun and the Moon, which is a ghostly hole left from where the Sun burned through the empyrian into our sky.
The Mistake fell from the sky like a meteor, or perhaps birthed from the center of Polaris like a cancer. Either way, the city is now a smoking crater save for small surviving refuges at each of the four corners, guarded by the Order of the Stars. The Mistake lies hidden in the smoke at the center of things, and it births demons that will wipe the People clean.
As it is
Those People that survive while away the end of their civilization in senatorial debate, lovers’ trysts, and the cultivation of leisure. They will not raise a hand to reverse the fall, or even to save their own lives. That, if it is done at all, is left to the Knights of the Stars.
The Knights fight the demons that boil out of the Mistake, each a horrible, twisted thing that defies imagination. Some are simple, made of flesh and bone. Or just bone. Or just blood. They might have any number of weapons or poisons at their disposal. Other demons are formless, and possess members of the People. Each has a weakness, but each weakness is unique.
Greatest of all the Mistaken are the Solaris Knight and the Frost Maiden. The Knight is clearly one of the people, and though he has been beaten back or killed, he returns each summer. The Frost Maiden wanders the wastes and turns hearts to ice with her kiss, killing empathy with her songs. If you thought these two might be the King and his Queen, or Algol and the Queen, you’d be wrong. Mostly. The Knight and the Maiden are the collective wills of every knight who has, at the end of his rope, turned his back on the People and joined the Mistaken.
They are the future of every knight who does not die in battle.
The game can easily be made into a seasonal venture.
Spring is a time when pitched battles wage, demons boiling out towards the four Remnants while the knights coming together to fight the hordes of demons. The rest of the People are frozen before the sun.
Summer is a time of questing, carrying messages between the remnants, and drawing of new maps. The rest of the People hold feasts to the sun and play its horrible screeching music.
Autumn is the season of crusade, waging war on the Mistake. The rest of the People hold marriages and duels of wits.
Winter is a time when the Sun drops below the horizon, certain conservative members of the People remember the old songs and dances of the stars, the People carry out games of politics and debate, and the knights try (mostly in vain) to appeal for more support to stop the threat. Meanwhile, the Mistake grows.
The Mysterious South
It’s possible to quest beyond the lands of the people. Most who do, do not return. Those who survive come back rambling of strange cities with names like “Byzantium, Alert, Chang’an, Hopi, Rome, Mecca, Grail, Ur and Jerusalem.”
Next time: the game as it is played
Class MechanicsOriginal SA post Polaris: Part 2
The game is meant to be played, ideally, with four players. There are four roles, and play rotates around the table, with everyone taking turns.
When its your turn, the game would look like this:
You would be the Heart , and would be controlling your protagonist in their fight.
The person opposite you would be the Mistaken for your character, and would play all your demonic antagonists.
The person to your right plays the Full Moon , and has control over all the people your protagonist has direct societal/hierarchical links to (colleagues, leaders, family members) as well as minor male characters.
The person to your left plays the New Moon and has control over all the people your protagonist has emotional links to (lovers, close friends, confidants) and minor female characters.
Both moons also act as referees for the action and exchanges between the Heart and Mistaken.
Once youd (and your Mistaken) conclude a round of play, the story rotates one spot. You would not play a Moon to the people who had previously been your Moons.
The game itself operates on a series of Key Phrases . Everything in the game is started with, ended with, or bracketed by a key phrase. Those phrases are:
The general use key phrases are:
Long ago, the people were dying at the end of the world.
But hope was not yet lost, for [name] still heard the song of the stars.
And so it was
But that all happened long ago, and now there are none who remember it.
The eight key conflict phrases are:
But only if
It shall not come to pass.
You ask far too much.
It was not meant to be.
That was how it happened.
It was no matt er.
We shall see what comes of it.
A Knights character sheet is also called his Cosmos. This holds his relationships, his Antagonists, his Values and his Themes.
Values are your stats in this game.
*Ice is the strength of your knights relationship with society. A knight with a high Ice value would fight well at the head of a unit, or when fighting in defense of another, or when defending an ideal. This starts at 1.
*Light is the measure of your knights personal prowess, and is rolled when acting alone. This starts at 1.
*Zeal is the measure of your knights purpose and drive. This starts at 4, and drops during play.
*Weariness replaces a Zeal value of 0, and rises during play.
As a matter of fact, your Ice and Light values rise, together, exactly as fast as your Zeal drops. You start young, optimistic, and unskilled, and wind up bitter, jaded, and proficient.
Themes represent blessings, curses, special skills, and items, and fall under certain categories.
Offices Themes: Knight of the Order of the Stars, Champion, Aide to a Senator
Fate Themes: Events, Ideas, Relationships
Blessing Themes: Starlight Sword, Memory Crystal, My Horse Artax
Ability Themes: Lore, Techniques, Attributes (Big, Refined), Skills (Sculptor, Musician)
Themes are used to open up new options in conflicts.
Next up: Character Creation
Character CreationOriginal SA post because the art is awesome and I should post more of it
Polaris Part 3: Character Creation
Character creation is a very simple process, as is natural for a game that is more interested in the journey than its beginning.
First, we name our character. Since all of the People are named after stars, I will name my character after a star in my favorite constellation. Everyone, meet
Second, we write out the Values. Ice(1), Light(1), Zeal(4), and Weariness(-)
Third, we write out some Themes. Every protagonist starts with a package of Themes.
Office: Knight of the Order of the Stars
Blessing: Starlight Sword
Abilities: Lore of Demons
Fate: A demon or person that all protagonists will agree to have in common. Acrux and his fellow players choose a corrupt senator who is the core of a dark secret society, one that the characters are all just beginning to get rumors of.
Fourth, we choose Aspects for our themes. Just like FATE’s Aspects, each Theme has a Pro and Con. A sword will help you in battle, but will make you be perceived as a clueless warmonger on the senate floor, or accidentally hurt a friend, or your antagonist might be immune to blades, for instance. You can also use the default Aspects from the end of the book.
”Example from the Book” posted:
Lore of Demons
Description: You have learned from the Knights about the nature and types of demons, and how to fight them.
How it might aid you: You recall something about a demonic weakness, and exploit it. Your use your lore to diagnose a demonic possession, or perform an exorcism.
How it might hinder you: Your lore is incorrect. Demons use your knowledge to manipulate you. Your knowledge separates you from the people.
Fifth, fill out your supporting cast in the Cosmos. You should have at least one person or demon in your Full Moon, Mistaken, and New Moon areas. Two or three per area are sufficient. Acrux chooses a Drill Sergeant, Engine of Wicked Gears( a Demon of War), and his still-innocent kid sister.
Sixth, the people who will be your Full Moon, Mistaken, and New Moon can look at your supporting characters, brainstorm about ideas for how they could interact, and add up to one character to their designated area. Acrux’s buddies add a Quartermaster, a demon that exists as a viral contagion, and a favored aunt to his sheet.
Finally, when you are finished with character creation, you utter the Key Phrase that denotes it.
But hope was not yet lost, for Acrux still heard the song of the stars.
Key Phrases & GameplayOriginal SA post Polaris part 4: Key Phrases and Gameplay
Now it is time to get to the nuts and bolts of gameplay. Polaris is fascinating, in part, because it relies on a set of key phrases to interact with your fellow players. I mentioned them above, but now I’m actually going to explain them.
Key Phrases exist to further the themes of the game, and to focus the mindset of the players. They could easily be pretentious, but they do serve a purpose. Each formal interaction at the table, each invocation of a Key Phrase requires a certain response and reinforces the structure and mood of the game. If D&D is wild swing dancing, this is Noh.
This also means that scenes will grow along certain lines. A scene could be a very simple open-and-shut bargain, or it could be an elaborate series of exchanges that go between the protagonist, the Mistaken, the supporting cast, and back again. Almost every scene, however, takes the form of some kind of narrative bargain.
Structure of Play
When you and your fellow players are done with tabletalk, done catching up on the events of the last week, and ready to begin play, you begin with the Key Phrase
Long ago, the people were dying at the end of the world.
If you want to start a scene, and have not done so before, you introduce your character by saying
But hope was not yet lost, for Acrux still heard this song of the stars
And so it was
One thing that makes Polaris interesting is that a style of description that would be called ‘godmoding’ in most RP situations is actually encouraged.
“I swing my sword at him” is good in D&D, bad in Polaris.
“I swing my sword at him, killing him instantly” is bad in D&D, good in Polaris.
This works out just fine because the Mistaken can respond with “Yeah, but I get this in exchange.” Any time the Mistaken wants something you disagree with (or vice versa), the scene goes into Conflict mode. This is the meat and potatoes of Polaris gameplay.
The Key Conflict Phrases are (again):
But Only If: a basic ‘yeah, but’ response. It can be answered with any phrase.
And That Was How It Happened: Finishes the scene. An agreement with everything that has come before.
And Furthermore: Locks in previous statements, and adds something that must go along with it. Can be answered with “It Shall Not Come to Pass”, “And Furthermore”, “You Ask Far Too Much”, or “And That Was How It Happened”.
It Shall Not Come To Pass: A rejection of the terms set by the Mistaken. You reject the last statement, but must roll under (or equal to) your Ice or Light value. Succeed, and you get what you want without accepting the terms of your Mistaken, fail and you have it forced upon you. This decisively ends the conflict. Naturally, you will fail most of your rolls early in the game, but have a good shot at winning rolls at the end of the game.
You Ask Far Too Much: You exhaust one of your Themes, but your opponent must ask for something else.
It Was Not Meant To Be: Negates both your previous statement and your Mistaken’s previous statement. Ends the conflict.
Let’s have a sample conflict.
And So It Was that Acrux, was defending his Bastion from the demons. Powered by his zeal, he cut them down left, right, and center.
But Only If (start of a conflict) your innocent kid sister is caught up in the fighting.
Your sister cries for help! (says the New Moon)
But Only If Acrux is able to slay his hated enemy, Engine of Wicked Gears.
And Furthermore, his sword passes through the demon, into the heart of your sister.
You Ask Too Much! (Exhausts his Starlight Sword to force a different outcome)
Hmm, ok, then your sister becomes enraptured by the bloodshed, shattering her innocence forevermore.
That seems like a fair revision. Go for it.
It Shall Not Come To Pass!
(Rolls dice, fails the roll)
Even as Engine of Wicked Gears is slain, his corruption enters your sister forever.
Any time you fail a roll or refuse to fight with all your might against the demons, you roll Experience. Roll at or under your Zeal or Weariness. If you roll equal or under, increase your Ice or Light by 1, and lower your Zeal (or increase your Weariness) by 1.
That’s the game.
It’s important to realize that the sky’s the limit. You can say things like “And So It Was that Acrux built a golden citadel to stand against the Mistake for all time.” You just need to realize that the Mistaken will ask for something equally weighty in return.
What about the Moons?
Generally, the moons are judges and spectators. They add color commentary and people to roleplay with. They can participate in a conflict with Key Phrases, but only if the Heart and the Mistaken allows it.
So, let’s replay the scene above
The kid sister grabs a fallen sword and impales the demon!
But It Was No Matter (denies the Moon’s ability to alter the scene, if and only if the Mistaken also says the Phrase. Instead, the Mistaken could say…)
We Shall See What Comes of It. (If the Heart or Mistaken says this, then they adopt the Moon’s suggestion as if it was their own statement. Conflict (or free play) proceeds from there.
Likewise, if you want to use someone else’s protagonist in a conflict, you need that player’s permission. No Key Phrase applies, though.
The End of the Game
If, at any time, your character’s Weariness is greater than zero, you can call for their death.
And So It Was that Acrux built a golden citadel to stand against the Mistake for all time.
But Only If Acrux, exposed to the corrupting influence, becomes a horrible dictator, grinding out the beauty of the People
But Only If… I die. Before he can truly corrupt what he has made, my character is slain. The circumstances of his death are hidden, and he becomes a martyr for the People, inspiring them to reclaim their greatness.
Whoa. Alright. And That Was How it Happened.
If, at any time, you make an Experience roll that would raise your Weariness above 4, you instead fall. You become a Demon, all of your skills and powers now turned against those you once sought to defend.
However your Heart’s story ends, it is an appropriate time to recount their experiences, their life, and the impact of that story. You may then create a new character, or not.
Rest of the Book
The book finishes up with alternate rules for playing with 3 or 5 people, if you must. It also lists a ton of sample Themes your character can acquire in play. Lastly, it finishes with ten pages of star names. Not all of them are technically stars, but you could play X-1, being named after a black hole.
And That Was How It Happened
Once play is done, once everyone has told the stories they want to tell, the session is over. Blow out your candle and say the final Key Phrase.
But that all happened long ago, and now there are none who remember it.
Thou Art But A WarriorOriginal SA post
Just like it says on the tin, Though Art But a Warrior is an alternate setting for Polaris that makes each of the protagonists into a Muslim knight in the muluk at-tawa'if, or, translated, the Era of the Party Kings. The term refers to the era after Ibera (Spain) was ruled by a united Muslim kingdom, when it was instead split up into various taifa , or city-states.
During this period, each taifa began to grow more insular, militarily reserved, and politically selfish. This ‘every man for himself’ policy meant, among other things, that the Reconquista of Spain by various Christian powers needed to deal with small kingdoms rather than a united Muslim army. Many of the taifa had such a crippling fear of conflict that they would pay bribes to the Christian kingdoms in the north of Spain rather than rally the troops and put down the threat. As time passed, the Muslim forces consisted of more mercenaries than Muslims. All of this, together, meant that the taifas effectively funded the eventual war against them.
It is into this strange, petty, corrupt era that the characters are cast. They are the few, the faithful, the Muslim knights who would stand between the People of the Prophet and the People of the Book.
The people of the taifas
A fairly rigid caste system existed at this period of time, and is described in the game. Arab Muslims are the smallest group and control the political power. Moorish Muslims are the second tier, and could claim high ranks in religious and intellectual arenas. Intermarriage between these two groups was common.
Below them were the muladi , or Christians and Jews who converted to the faith of the Prophet. Lowest of all were the dhimmi , or the People of the Book (Christians and Jews) who did not convert, instead agreeing to wear a token of their status (yellow for Christian, blue for Jewish) and pay a special tax, or jizya . A Moorish Muslim might cause a scandal by taking a muladi or dhimmi wife, but an Arab Muslim could expect to be disowned for doing the same.
The course of history
With the leadership of the taifas more interested in internal matters than guarding the borders, the fall of the Muslim kingdoms was inevitable. Thou Art But a Warrior chronicles that fall and its impact on your characters.
Most of the changes to the game are cosmetic. The Mistaken becomes the Infidel, and certain key phrases change to reflect the theme. None of the conflict phrases are changed. Themes change to ones that are appropriate to the setting. All characters start with Man of Reason as a Theme, and this theme must be exhausted before you can bring in supernatural elements into a scene, with some exceptions.
What really sets this game apart from Polaris is a focus on an arc that all the characters share in, and an elaboration on what the transition from Zeal to Weariness means. As the knights lose faith, and their Zeal turns into Weariness, they get to play out a scene where, through divine revelation, dreams, or astrology, they become certain that Allah has abandoned His people, and shines his favor upon the Christians. At this point, death or dishonor is an inevitability unless the taifa falls, first.
Rolls for experience, lapses in faith, or acts against the knights’ code of honor increase the Discord of the taifa your characters are a part of. As Discord increases, the fall comes closer and the Infidel gains more power to affect the story. At a Discord of 5, 10, or 15, the characters get to experience some kind of divine message of woe, display of corruption, or omen of doom.
At low Discord, the Infidel can affect individual people within the taifa, but can’t really affect it overall.
At middling Discord, the Infidel can make worrying but temporary changes to the scene. At higher discord, the Infidel has no limits. Should a knight die, the player doesn’t roll up a new character.
Once the taifa acquires 20 Discord, the taifa falls and the game is over. Knights can then narrate their future course based on whether they held onto their Zeal or not, whether they lost their faith or not.
The add-on is pretty brilliant. Just as some artists produce their greatest work when acting under constraints, Though Art But a Warrior offers a ton of narrative zing and chance for a variety of stories by cropping the infinite (though inevitable) possibilities of Polaris down to a more manageable size.