Saturday, January 07, 2006

We wrap our first game of Polaris

(The previous report is here.) (This account was also posted on The Forge. You might find the responses from the folks there to be interesting.) We did it. After five sessions of play, we wrapped our first game of Polaris. I admit that we cheated a bit to get there (more on this below), but still, what a ride! For those who are interested, the previous session report is here. Let’s get into it, shall we? Long ago, the people were dying at the end of the world. Quotables: “Are you going to die?” “I’ll try!” “Okay, plotting epic conflict—not knitting.” Overview There’s a lot to go over, and to make my life easier, I’m going to lay it out by character, rather than in chronological order. When we last left Bellatrix, she had walked out to the Mistake with her demon child to meet its father. Of course, we all knew that this meant that Marfik had returned for one more scene. As Bellatrix and Marfik argued, I narrated Marfik brushing off his skin which flaked away to reveal his true demon form. We agreed that it looked something like this but worse. Embedded in his chest was a crystal in which burned the light of the Sun. Bellatrix and Marfik argued about their agreement, which was written on a scroll in Marfik’s possession. Even though Bellatrix tried to tear it up, she was unable, since she had signed it in her own blood. Marfik, though, had used someone else’s blood, so he was not bound by it. Bellatrix tried to kill Marfik but was unsuccessful. At this point, Azrakralizec materialized from the shadows and was about to kill Bellatrix. However, Marfik’s son stopped him, insisting that she be crucified on the wall instead. Bellatrix took advantage of the lull, picked up her son, and threw him at Marfik. The spines on his head cut Marfik, seriously wounding him. Then, Azrakralizec drew his shadow sword and attacked. We cut away to another scene at this point. When we returned, the duel had ranged out onto the floor of the Mistake. That’s right, Bellatrix was dueling Azrakralizec in the very heart of the Mistake. The light of the midnight sun shone down through the mist, illuminating the combatants as all the demons in the Mistake gathered to watch. But Bellatrix was no match for her opponent. With a mighty blow, the demon clove her sword in two and cut deep into her chest, hurling her to the ground. In a rage, she leaped to her feet and charged him with her bare hands. He simply sidestepped and cut her in half. As she lay dying, Marfik bent over her to taunt her. “At least you kept your part of the agreement,” he sneered. But, where her blood stained the floor of the Mistake, a single snowflower bloomed. This connected quite well with Bellatrix’s first scene, where she rejected a flower that Marfik had brought her. Sadly, only Gabrielle actually picked up on this in the middle of play. If Raquel and I had been a bit more aware, we might have played it up even further. Meanwhile, Heka was disowned by her father for being part of a secret marriage. Moreover, her son was again showing signs of being tainted by the Sun. So she took him to a holy man in the remnant who put the blessing of the stars upon her son. “He will be safe,” he said, “for as long as this city stands.” She thanked him and left. Mintaka wandered out into the wastelands, heading towards the South and the mythical Flame of the South. He fended off snow demons by humming the ballad that he had written for Heka, but eventually he succumbed to the elements. When he awoke, he was in a strange place in the South. The players all knew that it was modern-day New York City, which led to some amusing moments. Eventually, Mintaka located the Flame (which was a gem of some kind) and evaded capture by running down the side of a building. Then he began the long journey back to Polaris, followed by several inhabitants of the city that he had left. However, the snow demons attacked again, killing several of his followers. However, Mintaka fought them off with his lute. This led to an interesting post-game discussion. Gabrielle saw her character as physically assaulting the demons with his lute, while Crystal and I thought that she was using music to kill the demons. Once the demons were dead, Mintaka pulled out the Flame and cast it into the snow. Then he turned his back on Polaris and led the surviving members of his small band back to the South. Na’ir Al Saif quested out into the wilderness, seeking the Wail of the Wilderness which has slain his father. But soon the Wail found him, manifesting as a business-like demon who informed him that one person would die in the remnant every hour until he agreed to work with them. Na’if refused, cutting the demonic manifestation in half with his sword. This did not seem to affect the Wail, which continued to speak to him. Na’ir then turned and headed for the Mistake, where he cried out his challenge to the demons below. He could not agree to the Wail’s demands, so he knew that he must try to do something at the Mistake to force the problem to end. Only the Wail responded, reminding him that people were dying in the remnant. So, gripping his father’s sword, Na’ir descended into the Mistake. As he descended, he met the Frost Maiden, who blocked his way. When he refused to stand down, she smiled and said, “I will only step aside for my friends.” And then she stepped aside, allowing him to continue into the depths of the Mistake. At the bottom of the Mistake, Na’ir found Marfik. (We figured that this was soon after Bellatrix’s death.) Na’ir challenged Marfik, thinking that he was behind the current attack on the remnant. With a contemptuous blow, Marfik shattered Na’ir’s sword, leaving him gripping only the hilt and a jagged stub. In turn, Na’ir plunged the shard into the crystal on Marfik’s chest, causing it to shatter. Blazing light exploded from the shattered crystal, burning Na’if and blinding him as his eyes melted away. Yet, as he put his hand out, he felt the shards of his father’s sword on the ground. Gripping them, he stabbed Marfik through the chest, killing him. Then he heard the Wail again. “We are all still here,” it said. We cut away at this point. When we returned, Na’ir was emerging from the Mistake, bloody and broken but still clutching the hilt of his father’s sword. Nonetheless, he knew what he had to do. He staggered to the remnant and entered it. The city was full of wailing and crying as the Wail exacted its vengeance. He groped his way to the top of the Starsinger tower, which is the tallest tower in the remnant. Grasping the hilt of his father’s sword, he plunged it into the floor. Then he lifted his face to the sky and called out a name. And the stars began to fall. And with them, they brought healing and life. In response, the Mistake belched up a demon horde which poured from its maw, hurtling towards the remnant. Na’ir drew forth his father’s sword, which was reforged in ice, and personally led the defense of the remnant. He rallied the defenders, including Heka, and forced the demon horde back from the remnant. Then, in a scene reminiscent of Return of the King, cavalry from another remnant arrived and charged. The demon horde was scattered. A falling star obliterated the Wail. The remnant was saved. And then, as Na’ir turned from the battle, a stray arrow pierced his heart. He fell, and he died. No one remembered him and his noble leadership. No songs were ever sung of his sacrifice. Indeed, he was blamed by the people for raising the Mistake against the remnant. He was accounted a traitor to the people, and his name was dust on the winds of time, forgotten by all. Except for us. How We Cheated For a variety of reasons, we knew that this was going to be the last session of the game. And so, admittedly, we cheated. Only two of the four Knights were actually played through to completion. Heka and Mintaka were left incomplete. However, there were good reasons for this. In many ways, Heka was largely played as an innocent. Crystal didn’t really “get” the game until the last couple of sessions, and, as a result, her character wasn’t really “Knightly” until the end. Instead, she seemed to be the sort of person that justified all the Knights’ sacrifices. The players unanimously agreed that it would be too heart-breaking for something really terrible to happen to Heka. So we decided to let her off the hook. Certainly, her fate is tied to the remnants, and the remnants will fall, but we don’t need to know how it happened. Mintaka is a bit of a different story. By the end of his arc, Gabrielle saw him as having regained some of the honor that he had sacrificed by murdering Arcturus. However, that honor was not to be found in the lands of Polaris. In part, she made this decision because she felt like Mintaka’s story was running out of steam. Gabrielle and Crystal had a hard time being truly adversarial to each other, and I think that it showed in the lack of intensity in their characters’ stories. So, rather than jumping the shark with Mintaka, we ended his story here. Besides, now we can take it from the top, with another player. Ralph will be joining us when we start things up next time. I’m looking forward to being his Mistaken…. Thoughts on Ice and Light When we started playing Polaris, I eyed Ice and Light and thought, “We’re not getting any mileage out of those at all.” Even when I took advances, I bumped Ice based on my opinion of Na’ir (who I saw as being quite duty-bound), rather than on my own sense of gaining Effectiveness. Boy was I wrong. During Na’ir’s climactic battle, I used “It Shall Not Come To Pass” about four different times in quick succession. He had just tipped over to Veteran Status, so his Ice was 4 and his Weariness 1. Therefore, I could get my own way 50% of the time. So, while my Mistaken desperately tried to thwart me, I kept brushing aside her complications. “It shall not come to pass.” “It shall not come to pass.” And what I really meant was, “You won’t stop me from getting the death scene that I want.” More on this in a bit. It all worked because I put Na’ir in a situation where he was supporting the societal structure at the peak of his Effectiveness. As a result, I was able to force the outcomes that I wanted. Rolling well helped, too, I admit, but the thematic decisions that I had made over the course of the game in continuing to ramp up Ice suddenly had a massive impact at the story’s climax. It was amazing. Thoughts on Getting The Exit You Want I’ve generally been talking about Mistaken tactics during this series of Actual Play posts. However, I noticed something this session about playing the Heart. Every Knight will eventually betray the people unless he dies first. So, once your Knight clicks over to Veteran, you should be angling to get your Knight to die before he betrays that which he loves. There are a couple of obstacles to getting the good death that you want. The first is, of course, the Mistaken, who ought to be doing his best to make you pay for anything resembling a happy ending for your Knight. The second obstacle, though, is all the unfinished business that your Knight has. So, part of the tension of the game is trying to finish up the work at hand before betraying the people. Ideally, your Knight should die in the process, keeping him from doing any more damage to the people. To get this to work is a bit tricky, though. You can only call for your Knight’s death as a “But Only If…” statement, which means that you need to get the Mistaken to throw down. On top of that, you have to accept the Mistaken’s statement in order to get your death scene. (Think about it, and it will make sense.) So, how to get your pristine death scene? Here’s how I did it. First, I started digging up all the things that I wanted to accomplish for my Knight. He saves the remnant from the Wail. He transcends his blindness to lead his people in a desperate battle against the hordes of the Mistake. For a brief moment, he achieved that sort of mystical stature that only few heroes achieve. I kept pushing and pushing and pushing, trying to get a rise out of my Mistake. Then, when the Mistake began throwing out obstacles, I just slapped them down with “It Shall Not Come To Pass”. This worked because of all the Ice that I had accumulated, of course, but I think that it would also work with “It Was Not Meant To Be” or judicious application of “You Ask Far Too Much”. The goal here is to get your Mistaken to hand you a conflict statement that you’re willing to accept. Until he does, no mercy. Of course, this approach could backfire. I could have failed all those rolls for “It Shall Not Come To Pass” and started racking up the Experience checks. But, nothing worthwhile can be accomplished without risk. So, in our game, finally the Mistake threw out “But Only If Na’ir is blamed for the demonic attacks.” And, in that moment, I thought of a passage from Ecclesiastes: Also this I came to see as wisdom under the sun, and it impressed me. There was a small city with few men in it and a great king came to it, surrounded it and constructed large siegeworks against it. But there was found in it a poor wise man and he delivered the city by his wisdom. Yet no one remembered that poor man. So I said, "Wisdom is better than strength." But the wisdom of the poor man is despised and his words are not heeded. (Ecclesiastes 9:13-16) “That’s perfect!” I thought, and so I ran with it. “But Only If Na’ir dies.” And the Mistaken accepted it. A Brief Meditation on the Mistake While I don’t buy Joseph Campbell’s overall thesis, I do find some of his observations on the hero story to be interesting. The one in particular that I recall is the “Journey into the Underworld”. In the Journey, the hero descends into the Underworld and faces his greatest challenge. As a result of his victory there, he returns with life and knowledge for his people. When we had finished up our Polaris game, I realized that, at least in our game, the Mistake was the Underworld. Two of the characters had gone to the Mistake, seeking knowledge. Both had made sacrifices within its depths and had returned with the knowledge that they needed. Just an interesting observation. I wonder how other Polaris groups approach the Mistake. The Necessity of an Aesthetic Sense As I mentioned earlier, I have been writing a lot about tactics, particular the tactics of playing the Mistake. However, it is important to remember that Polaris is not about “winning”. The goal really is to create a good story through the use of the strategy and tactics. As a result, all the jockeying for position between Heart and Mistaken needs to be counterbalanced by a shared aesthetic sense of what makes for a good conflict outcome. (I mention this idea here.) There were several times over the course of our game that a Heart or Mistaken said, “But I don’t want to object to that. I like it!” That is good. It’s important for all players to be willing to say, “I like the outcome of this challenge, even though it means admitting that my opponent got the better of me.” When a player says something and everyone else nods, being a Jerk needs to go out the window. The scene is right; don’t mess it up. Post-Game Observations After the game, we found ourselves sitting around, talking about our characters. In particular, Raquel raised an interesting point. She said that the group had worked for Bellatrix to have something of a heroic ending. However, she wasn’t persuaded that Bellatrix really deserved it. She said that Bellatrix had been arrogant and selfish, putting her own desires ahead of the welfare of the people. As a result, Raquel found herself pondering Bellatrix’s story quite a bit. What did it all mean? Or, for that matter, what does Na’ir say about me? Originally I wasn’t wanting to play a noble loner, which is my default character, but I think that’s where I ended up. At the same time, Na’ir was fiercely dedicated to a people who failed to care anything for him. In his death, Na’ir saved them all from an agonizing demise, yet they spit on his grave and called him a traitor. Still, I thought that his story ended happily. After all, he did save the people, and even if they don’t care, I do. No one else remembers the noble death of Na’ir before the walls of his remnant, but the four of us do. Indeed, our memory of his life and death still remain while the people of Polaris are already dust. And, somehow, that is enough for me. shadow of a stone swirling snowfall obscuring tracings of a star But that was all long ago, and there are now none who remember it. (The next report is here.)


Blogger dlr said...

waaay too long...


1/09/2006 09:10:00 AM  

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