Reading Polaris – Chivalric Tragedy at Utmost North by Ben Lehman

I actually played Polaris last summer and I found it to be a nice game, but had some issues with the prep and found the rules rather confusing. Still, we had a great time and I put it on “my good list”. This week I got into a discussion on Story Games about Polaris, and the others could not relate to my experiences of the game. So I decided to read it myself.

The book itself
Polaris is a nice little book, just short of 140 pages, but only 80 of those are really the game. The remaining pages include some examples and a pretty big section of advertising for other indie games.

There are a few very odd, but rather fitting illustrations by Boris Artzybasheff.

The setting
The game is about knights fighting demons, and the players all know that the knights are doomed to either die, join the demons or see the world around them go under. It is a game with tragic stories.

Once upon a time, as far north as north can go, there lived the greatest people that this world will ever know. We cannot look upon them as they were, but we can understand them as they die, melting like a snowflake in the sun.

This is no longer a history; this is not yet a story. This is all that remains. Whatever else is what you make of it.

The knights are of a people that once prospered and ruled the north pole, but a disaster struck and now their people are dying. Tragedy, drama, and lots of it. The setting is described in about 20 pages of rather poetic prose. Few details are given and the players can pretty much include whatever elements they want in this fantasy setting, as long as everything points towards that final doom.

The rules
There are very few rules in this game, actually there are only two kinds of rolls that can be made, and they both revolve around the two stats Ice (acting with or for society) and Light (acting alone or for oneself), and the Zeal-Weariness scale what shows how close the knight is to defecting to the demons.

The form
See the short description of the rules above? Not much to base a game on. But what Polaris lacks in rules it makes up for in form instead. This game bulges with form. Play is rigidly governed by ritual and key phrases, there is even a whole system of conflict handling baked into the key phrases. There are extensive instructions in the book on how the game is supposed to be played using those key phrases.

The game is not a game of rotating GM-ship, but rather the role of player (called “the heart”) rotates among the participants. The other participants share the usual GM role between them, one manages the world and the introduction of obstacles (called “the Mistake”) and the other two act as arbitrators of the rules (called “the Moons”).

The setting is very focused as the players all play doomed knights in the utmost north, but also very open as while lots is said, little detail is given about it. Everyone can read the setting chapter in the book before playing, yet everyone will not see the same game world before themselves. Given the story focus of the game the free reins are nice to have, you can introduce whatever you need without contradicting anything “official”.

The rules are OK, they manage the game style that they aim for. But since all game terms have been given “in-game” names it gets rather confusing. As soon as a game term is mentioned everyone will first have to translate it into the real meaning of it before acting upon it. When we played I found this to be a major hindrance for getting into the game. The character sheet really looks like some sort of cool astrological chart, but the constant translation between terms and their true meanings is a bother.

The form is excellent. The key phrases and rituals around them are not only well explained in the text, they also work well to generate interesting scenes. And there is good advice on how to play the game in the book.

Will I play it (again)?
When I joined the discussion on the Story Games forums I could not imagine myself running Polaris, but possibly to play in a game facilitated by someone else. Now that I have actually read the text myself I think I’ll see if I can find three gamers that want to tell stories about doomed knights in the utmost north.

But first I’ll get the key phrases in Swedish, and I’ll redo the character sheet into something a bit more conservative. – The official Polaris page at These Are Our Games. – The discussion on Story Games where everything started.

1 Comment

  1. Dimfrost said,

    December 18, 2009 at 23:12

    I did post Swedish translations of the key phrases both at and the forge, should you be unaware.

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