Thursday, September 01, 2005

Polaris Actual Play

(This account was also posted on The Forge. You might find the responses from the folks there to be interesting.) Long ago, the people were dying at the end of the world. Ever since I read a playtest version of Polaris, I have been drooling with anticipation at having an opportunity to play it. It seemed to be in a similar vein to Legends of Alyria and Nobilis, which are two of my favorite games. So, when Ben announced pre-orders just as my birthday (and gifts of cash) arrived, I knew that I wanted to purchase this game and take it for a drive. So, the other night, my copy in hand, we sat down to play Polaris. Players Seth—that’s me. I like mythic settings that are more poetic than “real”. I like stories with tragic endings. I would therefore appear to be squarely in the target audience for this game. Crystal—my wife. Crystal generally does not like heavy system intervention in her games. If she has to think too hard about how to do something, it tends to ruin the gaming moment for her. I thought that the freedom of narration in Polaris would appeal to her, and I was correct. Gabrielle—my sister. She has similar tastes to mine in roleplaying, which made Polaris almost a no-brainer for her. Raquel—our friend. Raquel had tried roleplaying with us once before, when I ran Jailbreak from Unknown Armies. That session was mixed success at best; however, her interest in the activity was peaked enough that she had expressed an interest in trying again. I sent her a copy of Polaris to suggest that we try it, and she enthusiastically embraced it. Given that there was a recent birth in our family, plus we have been dealing with possible whooping cough in our respective families, we were all a bit exhausted coming into the evening, both physically and emotionally, but still this turned into a great evening of play. Environment First, a discursus. I haven’t been really happy with the quality of my roleplaying of late. Often, I have felt too tired to summon up the necessary creativity, but for whatever reason, I have not felt like my roleplaying fu has been particularly strong. We recently attempted Dogs in the Vineyard, and I felt like I fumbled through the entire session. It didn’t have the zip that I was accustomed to. I’m not blaming the games; obviously lots of folks have gotten good mileage from DitV. However, something was off. I didn’t want Polaris to be another failure, so I started considering the last time that we had achieved successful play. When we first moved to Illinois, Gabrielle, Crystal, and I used to play Nobilis on Friday nights. It was a great success. Our play more recently had been lackluster. What had changed? As I pondered this problem, I soon identified one major change. In my house, we have set aside a special room that I named the “Quiet Room”. (I didn’t figure that my children would understand “Meditation Room”.) We had decorated it in a faux Japanese style, which means that you’re sitting on the floor around a low coffee table. My sake sets are on display in this, as is the daisho that I was given by my family before we moved to Illinois. Outside one of the windows, we planted a dwarf cherry tree, so that we can see the blossoms from the window. (Ben, you might be a China geek, but I’m a Japan geek.) Ideally, this is a special room dedicated to being a haven of peace in an otherwise crazy house. In reality, it often becomes a dumping ground for stuff, as we try to fit eight people into a house that seems to be running out of room. It is often a mess. However, it was in this room that we had achieved some of our best roleplaying. Since then, we had been gaming at the dining room table, which works fine for the boardgaming that we do but was apparently the kiss of death for our roleplaying. So that day, before Raquel came over, we completely overhauled the quiet room. We bought a new set of bookshelves to fit the additional books that had accumulated in the room. We moved the children’s books into another room. We also shuffled the furniture around, moving the coffee table to be under the window, so that the center of the room was empty and ready to receive people. We bought a special candle and candleholder for use in the game and dug out the incense. In short, we prepared the creative environment. As the rest of this post will demonstrate, our efforts paid off handsomely. We all agreed that the room had been an important part of focusing our attention on the game. Perhaps it is another aspect of creating the ritual space that Chris Lehrich talks about in his article. I bring all this up to make an important Actual Play point: the environment in which you play is not neutral. Structuring your environment to provide maximum creativity is an important part of roleplaying. Power of Ritual Now, to the game. When I had read the rules, I fell in love with the use of ritual phrases for conflict. Also, intellectually, I knew the importance of the general key phrases to open and close the game and to introduce the protagonists. However, it is a completely different thing to experience it. We all gathered in the quiet room, where I put the candle in the middle of the room. I then called everyone to order and explained that the game always opened with a particular phrase. As I was teaching the game (and had paid the money for the game), I claimed the right to be the first person to open the game. So, I lit the candle and intoned, “Long ago, the people were dying at the end of the world.” Chills, folks. Chills. I felt completely on-point for the entire game, and I credit it largely to this innovation. Through this symbolic act, we were all agreeing that the time had come to focus on the game. I’m still trying to figure out how to steal this for other roleplaying games. If nothing else, perhaps I’ll use the candle. I’m not really sure. However, what surprised me the most was the effectiveness of the phrase used to introduce characters. As this was the first session that we were playing, a sizeable chunk of our time was spent on character creation. Honestly, I had thought that it was a little odd to use the “character intro” phrase at the end of chargen. However, once we had put together our characters, we went around the room, each repeating the phrase. Again, I went first: “But hope was not yet lost, for Na’ir al-Saif still heard the song of the stars.” And at that moment, I felt something stir in me. The world is coming to an end, but here is one who will not go down quietly. I could tell the others felt it as well. As we went around the room, each character’s name rang out like some mythic hero. The knowledge that only tragedy awaits each of them only added to the poignancy of the moment. I commented to Ralph yesterday that, from the outside, it all feels so silly, saying these special words. Yet, it works, and it’s almost frightening how powerful it is. The Importance of Being a Jerk As I was meditating on the lessons learned from this session of play, the biggest one was simple: when you are the Mistaken, be a jerk. I don’t mean that you should be cruel to the other player, but you should be as cruel as possible to the character. Show no mercy. The funny thing is that this actually results in better play for everyone, specifically the player controlling the Heart of this particular protagonist. Here is an example from play. So, we had been circling around some weird love triangles between a couple of the PCs and an oily fop named Marfik. That is all well and good, but I wanted me some violence. So when it was my turn to frame a scene, I dropped my character (Na’ir al-Saif) straight into a battle scene. He is walking guard duty on the walls of their remnant when a demon army hurls itself from the wilderness at the remnant. Raquel is my Mistaken and picked up this thread with relish. Suddenly the demons were flaming beasts and, at Crystal’s suggestion, they were led by a skeletal general riding a dracolich monster. This was all working for me. Then Raquel threw her first curve ball. The demons were throwing fireballs (or somesuch thing) at the wall where I was standing, shattering it and making me fall into the heart of the oncoming army. I wasn’t expecting that, but it was cool. Na’ir al-Saif is a bookish sort of fellow, trying to prove himself to his father and get out from the shadow of his older brother. So this was working well for me. An opportunity to distinguish myself in combat! Sweet! So I narrated how I stood up and slaughtered the squad of demons that I had landed in. Then I moved to attack the general on his dragon by cutting off one of the dragon’s legs. Then Raquel threw her second curveball. She cut to the ramparts where Marfik is standing on the ramparts next to Giauzar, my brother. Both are watching me in the battle. Marfik says to Giauzar, “This is not going as planned.” I was in awe. You need to understand that, while we all had this sense that Marfik was a Bad Guy, we didn’t know that it was this bad. We also didn’t know that my brother was involved at all. Up to this point, he was just the standard overbearing older brother to me and the Master Starsinger teaching Gabrielle’s character. With one brief narration, Raquel had completely rocked our comprehension of the entire story. But wait! There’s more! Much as I liked Raquel’s narration, there was no way that I was going to let her get away with such large changes without getting a little something for my troubles (both present and future). So I said “But only if Na’ir achieves great victory in the battle.” So, Raquel gets her cool cutaway scene only if I get to deal out major butt-kicking. Well, Raquel isn’t so sure of that, so she counters with “But only if Na’ir is greviously wounded in the battle.” Well, that satisfied my aesthetic sense, so I accepted. “And that was how it happened.” So, while the villain and my brother watched from the ramparts, I cut off the leg from the skeletal dragon, which promptly fell on top of me. It was probably the coolest scene of the evening, and it only worked because the Mistaken and Heart were completely biased advocates for their aspects. Had we been trying to cooperate to draft the story together, it would not have been nearly as cool as it was. Wrapping up play There are other points that I could mention, but I’m starting to run short on time. Suffice it to say that, despite the aforementioned fatigue, it was a great evening. Finally, we agreed that we were getting too tired to go on, so I said the closing phrase: “But that was long ago, and there are now none who remember it.” Then I blew out the candle. Summation Ben, this is a great game. I’m looking forward to getting a lot of mileage out of it. As it stands, this is already on my list of things that I wish that I had done. The entire group is looking forward to the next session with eager anticipation, wanting to answer that most vital of questions: “But what happens next?” But that was long ago, and there are now none who remember it (The next report is here.)

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