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Author Topic: [Polaris] Our first actual play  (Read 13935 times)
GreatWolf
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« on: September 01, 2005, 10:41:06 AM »

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.

And so it was...

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

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Seth Ben-Ezra
Dark Omen Games
producing Legends of Alyria, Dirty Secrets, A Flower for Mara
coming soon: Showdown
Brand_Robins
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Posts: 650


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« Reply #1 on: September 01, 2005, 10:57:47 AM »

Excellent post.

I too have recently been thinking about environment in games, and how much of an effect it can have. I normally play in my very comfortable living room, either by candle light (for most fantasy and horror stuff) or with some harsh glare from my TV turned to a dead channel and a nasty old florescent light I picked up for the purpose (for cyberpunky games). Either way everyone is comfortable, there is mood lighting and mood music, and something of the environment fits the tone of the game. (I have also occasionally taken my group to High Park and played fae game or high fantasy out among the old oak trees, and it works very well. So does playing Tribe 8 out on the Canadian shield around a fire.)

However, in the last little bit I've played several games far outside that zone. A game I played with my mother in law (written up in <a href "http://yudhishthirasdice.blogspot.com/">Yud's Dice[/url]), one in a gaming room at the Canadian National Gaming Expo, and an ongoing one played in the conference room of my building. In all three cases I found it taking me longer to get into the focus of the game, and found myself not staying in "game head" as well. While most of the funk and cerebrality of game stayed about, the emotional angle always suffered.

Also, thanks for the advice about playing the mistake. Between that and the Daedelus article about running the Master in MLWM, I'm starting to convince my group that yes, can be healthy to try to punish each others characters in nar based games. Save the teamwork for the Midwestern D&D farmboys, and put some passion into your opposition.


BTW, I'm considering running a Polaris game in High Park this autumn, waiting until the Canadian summer is dying and the nights getting cold and then running out under the stars. Do you think this would help with the game's mood, or was the candle focus more appropriate?
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- Brand Robins
GreatWolf
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designer of Dirty Secrets


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« Reply #2 on: September 01, 2005, 11:04:59 AM »

If I could figure out a good way to play at sunset, I would.  I think that those sorts of touches can be quite powerful, assuming that they don't interfere with playability (like being able to read the character sheet).

That being said, the candle functions in a different way.  It wasn't as much about the mood of the game as establishing that the ritual space had been "consecrated".  While the candle is on, we're playing.  When it's not, we're not.  When I saw a playtest version of the game, where Ben suggests using a candle, I actually suggested making the candle mandatory.  Obviously, he didn't go that route, but perhaps that communicates the intensity of my connection with the element.

Now, part of what makes this interesting is that, as a Presbyterian, I'm familiar with the idea of ritual being used to consecrate a space.  At the beginning of each of our worship services, the pianist plays a little something.  It's not the same each week, but everyone there understands that this means that it's time to set aside other stuff from the week and get busy worshipping.  My old church also played a short piece at the end of worship as well.  Over the last few years, I've begun investigating the impact and effectiveness of ritual in life, both in worship contexts and elsewhere.  As a result, Polaris especially resonates with me.
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Seth Ben-Ezra
Dark Omen Games
producing Legends of Alyria, Dirty Secrets, A Flower for Mara
coming soon: Showdown
Meguey
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Meguey


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« Reply #3 on: September 01, 2005, 01:46:54 PM »

This is fantastic, and it's exactly what I just posted about over in RPG Theory. The way you went about examining and changing the Environment to be more condusive to the game is super.

Seth
Quote
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.

I think this applies to several games, actually, where we are trying to properly antagonize each other's characters.
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Ben Lehman
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Blissed


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« Reply #4 on: September 02, 2005, 12:30:52 AM »

Sounds like a great game, Seth!  As far as I know, this is the first game of "proper" Polaris ever played (i.e. from the book and not a reference document.)

The candle really does make the game better, but I felt a little funny requiring it.  Don't know why.  Perhaps that will change in later editions.

If you get a chance, could you let us know where the Experience rolls happened in the game?

Brand -- What an awesome atmosphere!  I look forward to seeing how the game goes!

yrs--
--Ben
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GreatWolf
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designer of Dirty Secrets


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« Reply #5 on: September 02, 2005, 05:06:34 AM »

Actually, we didn't have any Experience rolls.  This is due partly to our lack of experience (heh heh), since I was still teaching the game.  No one has yet used the conflict phrases which exhaust a Theme, so the Hearts have had no reason to seek Experience rolls.  Also, I don't think that we as Mistaken were thinking about ways to force the protagonists into having to roll.

In some ways, the game was still a tutorial.  I had made a reference sheet with all the phrases, but it became a little awkward because I hadn't provided a sheet to everyone.  As a result, I couldn't say "Look at these phrases..." as easily.  Also, the mood of the group was such that it was better to learn through play then for me to sit down and explain each of the phrases.  So, as we went forward, I would say, "Now, if you don't like what I just said, you can negotiate it away by saying 'But only if...'' and things like that.

So anyways, Experience is something that I'm going to point up to the rest of the group the next time that we play.  Personally, the next time that we play, I'm planning to try to force Experience rolls from Raquel, including gambling on "It shall not come to pass..." a couple of times.  Hopefully, if the dice land well for me, I can begin the long erosion process on her knight.

I will provide another writeup the next time that we play.

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Seth Ben-Ezra
Dark Omen Games
producing Legends of Alyria, Dirty Secrets, A Flower for Mara
coming soon: Showdown
Keith Sears
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« Reply #6 on: September 03, 2005, 07:24:40 PM »

It sounds like a great game, Seth. I wish I could have been there to enjoy it with you. I;m happy to hear about the birth and I feel really bad about the cough.(Yes, I'm afraid I am the one that infected them.)
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Keith W. Sears
Heraldic Game Design
Publisher of "The Outsider Chronicles" and soon, "Silver Screen: The Story Game of Hollywood Cinema"
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http://www.heraldicgame.com
Larry L.
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Posts: 616

aka Miskatonic


« Reply #7 on: September 06, 2005, 06:47:51 AM »

Nice stuff, Seth.

The way conflicts revolve around trying to rescind or modify your opponent's narration really encourages a cool "Go for the throat" style of narration. It rocks.

The ritual elements are a really powerful and effective way to establish  "Playing with purpose," as opposed to hanging out and arbitrarily killing time. If people can't get into the ritual bits, it's a good sign that maybe you should just go out for beers that night or something.
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Christoph Boeckle
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Geneva, Switzerland


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« Reply #8 on: September 08, 2005, 09:46:48 AM »

Really nice report ;)

I chime in with the fact that setting up a proper environnement really works. I've experimented with music.

What I did in my last Paladin 40K game was to begin the session with gregorian chants. One guy went "ah, here we are".
Then I put some minimalistic background "music" to set the mood.
At the end, another gregorian chant as the PCs come back to the base. This really marked the end of the session, and I think I noticed the players were kind of relieved after the tension in the game.

So I'll definetly try to work more on the ritual aspect, as it really seems to focus everybody.
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Regards,
Christoph
Judd
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Please call me Judd.


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« Reply #9 on: September 08, 2005, 09:48:01 AM »

It would be cool in PTA to have a theme song that you play before each episode began.  That'd be neat.
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Brand_Robins
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« Reply #10 on: September 08, 2005, 09:58:58 AM »

It would be cool in PTA to have a theme song that you play before each episode began.  That'd be neat.

::blinks::

You mean there are people that don't do this? In 10 years I don't think I've played with a group that didn't have theme music that got played before game. I guess this proves, yet again, that my anecdotal experience means nothing.
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- Brand Robins
Judd
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« Reply #11 on: September 08, 2005, 10:00:02 AM »

Brand,

I'm drifting here but I've only played the game once, at a con.

It was awesome but I've never taken it to my home table...yet.
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John Harper
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flip you for real


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« Reply #12 on: September 08, 2005, 10:04:02 AM »

My games almost always have theme music, especially for Feng Shui. One of the players in our Bridgewater PTA game made a CD of "music from the show" complete with custom cover and insert.
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Agon: An ancient Greek RPG. Prove the glory of your name!
Nev the Deranged
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Dave. Yeah, that Dave.


« Reply #13 on: September 08, 2005, 02:19:54 PM »

It would be cool in PTA to have a theme song that you play before each episode began.  That'd be neat.

At the risk of hijacking this thread entirely, I have it in my PTA Producer's Notes (a quickref guide I put together) that coming up with a theme song for the show is de rigueur. I also would encourage players to come up with theme music for their characters, and suggest what actor would play or voice (for animated) their characters.

 Just my 2c.

 D.
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