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Author Topic: [Polaris] I'm surprised.  (Read 4616 times)
Eetu
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« on: December 02, 2005, 09:49:08 AM »

We played a six player (three guys, three gals) Polaris game yesterday. I was the only one who really knew prior to the session what type of game we were getting into, but that's how its been for the past year, with me bringing a new (mostly indie) game to the table every week, and us having a go at it. But still, this session brought out all sorts of curiosities like nothing else I've hit upon yet. I really don't know fully what all this means, but I hope at least some of it proves educational.

I loved it. Everybody else seemed to either actively hate it or not really get it or not really be interested in it. Still, when I after the post-game discussion asked if it really was true that I was the only one who had dug it, they all said they'd be interested in trying again. What the?

The two other guys, one in particular, were clearly stress-testing the boundaries of the system. This resulted for example in the exchange: "The senator sentences you to death at dawn tomorrow", "but only if a goddess rescues me, I kill the senator and take his place at the senate". What was awesome to me was that the game didn't crash! In the end, he was able to provide a satisfactory explanation to how that all happened and I, as the Mistaken was still able to provide just as much pressure, just now in a completely different arena.

Still, even though the more forward stress-tester clearly had the hang of the system, he commented after the game that he'd liked a freeform game about polish punksters we had about a year ago better. At the time, I didn't have any clue as to why he was comparing Polaris to such an old freeform, but now I've realized he was probably referring to the authority distribution in that game. Then, again, we were three guys and three gals, and we played it so that first the guys GMd (so that any one of us could say anything about the world) and the girls played characters, and we switched halfway through so that we played the characters and the girls GMd.

So the comparison, maybe, was that in Polaris you have this ritualistic structure whereby the Heart and the Mistaken control the world, and switch roles when switching characters, while he preferred the structure of our freeform, where you just switched from a position of "power" to a position of protagonist, and while in that position of power you had to tread carefully because there was this delicate, silent balance of power between the three GMs that wasn't really enforced anyhow but was kept because everyone knew otherwise the game would just suck.

Another curious thing was that while the guys at least got the hang of the system and why it was the way it was, the girls all seemed more or less lost.

My girlfriend, who has the least amount of rpg experience of us all, and that experience has mostly come from indie games, was really jarred by what I'd though a classical gamer/gm attitude: she was stuck with pre-thought things she'd want to happen, but then couldn't formulate or split them into but only if/and furthermore statements. Which of course, you really even can't do in Polaris, because Polaris is based on the story emerging from the point to point creative ripostes between the Heart and the Mistaken, and the mechanics pretty much make sure that your well-thought ideas on how it will all go crumble on the next key phrase. But, she was also really tired and a bit edgy, so maybe that had a lot to do with it. When I talked with her later, I managed to clear up many misconceptions she and and explain what the system was actually meant to provide, and she agreed to try again with just myself.

The other two girls then, too, suffered from a classical behavior that I'd associate with traditional games and gamers - they didn't seem really interested in what was happening in other people's scenes. They did what all girls do in traditional guy games - they drew. What puzzles me is why, 'cause they too haven't to my knowledge played that many traditional games, and for the last two years at least have played mainly similar games. And, they didn't seem to have any similar problems with for example Under the Bed.

One thing I've identified with my group and games with relatively free scene framing authority like Polaris, Under the Bed and Universalis is that we really have a hard time keeping scope small and retaining a sense of continuity or even thematic relatedness. Somehow people just always get really wild, frame scenes all over the space-time continuum, and play in a larger scope than any of us would really want, if we stopped to think about it. So we got stories of the sort "He is on patrol, attacked by demons in the waste, and his companion falls in a crevice." "The demons fly him off to the enemy general's camp (and his companion is just forgotten)" "In the camp, as the demons are distracted by a closing colony of knights, he does fierce battle, slays all the demons and returns home a heralded hero". And this was in a situation where the closing colony of knights were other PCs on a mission, which then sorta fizzled to "okay so we go there and get the McGuffin back, and we too are heralded as heroes".

And I mean, none of this happens out of spite. It just gets out of hand. Every goddamn time. I'm not really sure why - I just now really understood the problem, and haven't really had time to talk about it or analyze it fully. If I'd hazard a guess, I'd say that maybe we're all trying to be really hyped up and trying to live up to producing really really good scene material, which somehow has become equated to "dramatic, large, new". So, we're getting hurt trying to overdo ourselves, not understanding that in for example Polaris, any scene, any small situation would do, the game mechanics are there to make sure it grows into something memorable. Hmm, I guess I'll bring this up with the group.

Mm. that grew long.

 - Eetu
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Josh Roby
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« Reply #1 on: December 02, 2005, 10:07:17 AM »

I haven't read Polaris yet.  Does it have explicit mechanics that bind the action to specific and concrete story elements?  What I'm trying to get at is that Polaris gives you the power to go hither-and-yon with scene framing, but does it offer any incentive to create the tightly-focused thematically distilled scenes that you seem to be missing?
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MatrixGamer
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« Reply #2 on: December 02, 2005, 10:17:05 AM »

I've encountered the same problem with Engle Matrix Games. Total freedom overwhelms some people because they just can't make up their minds about anything. Other people can make things up but don't know how to structure a story. This is not really surprizing. Think how difficult it is to write a really good sentence. Think next how hard it is to write a good paragraph. Writing a good story takes a lot more.

I think of it geographically. Total freedom is being placed on a flat open field with nothing to the horizon in any direction. People will either walk in circles or fly up real high to see what is farther off. What if the game was in a valley? The story can go two ways and weave around in the ditch but tends to advance more coherently - and there is nothing to stop them from leaving the valley.

Around 1998 I started work on how to make those "valleys". What I've come on is to provide players with a "plot track" that suggests a course of actions (a murder occurs, find clues to means motive and opportunity, arrest someone, did we get the right guy, hold a trial). This coupled with pre written characters (whose short written descriptions suggest certain story lines) create a mental landscape the players play in.

The valley idea works for me partly because my role play games were already moving in this prescripted direction. Freedom in the game does not have to be totally free, structure helps give meaning to events. Freedom plays out inside the structure. In the Flat featureless plain world the players first have to create the world and then play in it. It is hard to come down from that lofty perch.

Chris Engle
Hamster Press = Engle Matrix Games
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Chris Engle
Hamster Press = Engle Matrix Games
http://HamsterPress.net
Brand_Robins
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« Reply #3 on: December 02, 2005, 10:20:07 AM »

A few questions.

With six players, how did you divy out guidance? Was everyone involved in every (or most) scenes, or were people sitting on the sidelines?

Were the women drawing any old thing, or drawing things realted to game? I have several visual artists in my games, and they always draw -- knowing what they are drawing makes all the difference in knowing how they feel about the game.

When your things escalate to bigger scale, is it usually at key emotional moments, or is there some other common theme to it? I know that in my groups we often get a "I am in an intense situation that makes me uncomfortable, and so to deal with it I will go over the top in order to avoid the painful drama of the moment." In otherwords, we find it easier to go large than to go deep. Did you see any of that in your game?
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- Brand Robins
Eetu
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« Reply #4 on: December 02, 2005, 01:34:54 PM »

Brand,

Usually things were moving too fast to even have a meaningful role for the moons. So yes, people were sitting on the sidelines a fair deal. It also added to the fragmentariness, having six protagonists roaming around mostly in their own scenes.
 
The women were drawing things inspired by the game backstory, but not really related to game events. At some point, they said explicitly that they weren't any more really up to date on what was happening in the game. Unfortunately, we didn't stop to really discuss or explain - at that point I think I was considering them lost causes, who maybe would be drawn back in in their own scenes.

There was no rhyme or reason to the scope, and it really didn't seem to escalate as much as be kept absurdly high all along. It is certainly possible that the escalation came immediately as an easy way out of a troubling situation, but if it was, I think it was more the players feeling that they had to perform. Game content escalation - got that down pat playing Dogs.

Chris,

I'm sure that's just the case. People feel overwhelmed with "having to create something great", and not feeling they've got a firm base on which to stand on, or any trusted directions to pick.

Though as long as we're playing Polaris and such games, I'd like to keep as much as possible of the freedom they provide. But yes, I guess we're in need of at least some guidelines or best practices on how to frame scenes on a reasonable scope.

Joshua,

Starting players have four common themes, and possibly, hopefully, common npcs in their cosmoses. Themes can be brought into conflicts to more forcefully get one's way. So no, there is no direct game mechanic incentive to create thematic scenes, but after playing a bit, probably both the themes and characters will begin tying the net tighter.

Maybe that's just it. That it was just our first session, and Polaris takes time to brew. Because the characters' personalities and relationships don't really need to be deeply known to the players before game, the first session is actually "character creation". Because, in the end of our session, it did seem we were getting to know our characters better, and they'd also had thematic relationships form between them, and were starting to feature in each other's scenes.

Actually, when I talked with my girlfriend later, that was one thing she had a problem with. That because she didn't KNOW any of the characters,  she felt that what happened to them didn't have any significance or meaning to her. When I explained that actually the first scenes of play can be seen as us getting to know/create the characters by their choices, she said she'd had enjoyed the game much more if she'd have thought about it that way.
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Brand_Robins
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« Reply #5 on: December 02, 2005, 01:55:17 PM »

Usually things were moving too fast to even have a meaningful role for the moons. So yes, people were sitting on the sidelines a fair deal. It also added to the fragmentariness, having six protagonists roaming around mostly in their own scenes.
Quote

I'd hazzard a guess that it also didn't help with the "I don't know the other characters, and so am not invested" angle. The two primary ways that people at my table seem to interact positivly with other PCs is either by having the PCs know each other, or being invested as active agents in each others stories without knowing each other. The second can be hellishly hard to setup, which is what relationship maps and such are about, but in Polaris it gets easier when everyone in into everyone's stuff.

If you're sitting watching a scene just between the Mistake and the Heart, you aren't going to have the same kind of relationship to the sceen, or the character, than if you are playing the Heart's lover who the Mistake is trying to kill while you urge the Heart to save you with passionate cries of desperation. I know somefolks can get attached to an RPG character just by watching them, but almost everyone I actually play with will do it much much faster and much much harder if they have some active stakes in the character's story.

Quote
The women were drawing things inspired by the game backstory, but not really related to game events.

That's not great. It's not the worst either. When they're drawing things that have nothing to do with the game at all is when you're in real trouble. At my table this one usually means "I like the concept of this game, but cannot find a way to engage with it right now" -- which sounds pretty close to what you got.

Quote
Unfortunately, we didn't stop to really discuss or explain - at that point I think I was considering them lost causes, who maybe would be drawn back in in their own scenes.

Yea. Did it work at all? Or were they too out of it by then? I've got some mixed experiences on this front -- some players do actually respond better to waiting their turn to reingage, and actively dislike stopping game to try to fix things outside the structure of scene-flow. Others are the opposite, and need to talk now to have any chance of fun play later.

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- Brand Robins
MatrixGamer
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« Reply #6 on: December 02, 2005, 02:04:52 PM »


Quote
The women were drawing things inspired by the game backstory, but not really related to game events.

That's not great. It's not the worst either. When they're drawing things that have nothing to do with the game at all is when you're in real trouble.


I concurr. When my wife get's bored she makes herself known. "Bored Now!" very bad. She is the perpetual novice which makes her a great play tester though. She was one of the original play testers for the first Star Trek and Dr Who RPGs put out by FASA. She saw great GMing up front and has little tolerance for poor GMing or poor rules now.

I also have her check out my book binding techniques to see if they are sound. "Tear up this book, Terri." She shows me all the flaws that way!

Chris Engle
Hamster Press = Engle Matrix Games
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Chris Engle
Hamster Press = Engle Matrix Games
http://HamsterPress.net
jburneko
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« Reply #7 on: December 02, 2005, 04:52:43 PM »

I'd like to speak to the "scope" problem.  Often, I observe, that people forget how many smaller scenes make up a great story.  They remember the big battle or escape or chase but forget the little moments that make up or lead up to these events.  Often those big events are the "payoff" moment so get a 1-to-1 association with "drama."  They they take this to roleplaying and start trying to get that payoff into play and start right in with the big battle or escape or chase and then can't figure out why it feels so "hollow" compared to the movie, book, whatever they just experience.

The single greatest moment in my roleplaying experience happened during a capes game.  There were three characters all created by my wife.  A gageteerm the gageteer's father and the gageteer's robot "son."  She was playing the robot and the gageteer, I was playing the father.  I threw down "get the gageteer a date" and she threw down "the robot displays a genuine human emotion"  I decided I was going to fight the emotion conflict and she decided she was going to fight the date conflict.  I lost both.  The result was scathing family feud with the father telling his son it was time to grow up and get a "real" family.  The punch moment came when the "display of emotion" from the robot turned out to be the robot saying, "I hate you" to his "grandfather."

It was perfect and it was small scale.  The real sad part is that I think the content of the scene was lost on a lot of the other players at the table.

Jesse
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Ben Lehman
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Blissed


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« Reply #8 on: December 02, 2005, 05:43:02 PM »

Hey!  Thanks for the write-up.

As far as disengagment -- I'm okay with that during their Dummy scenes.  Were they disengaged as Moons?  If so, that's a problem.  Try framing a scene without any Mistaken characters in it.

Here's another suggestion, this time for keeping the scope lower: If you negotiate something in the future (I return home a champion) don't just play it out really quickly.  Add it as a Fate aspect.

yrs--
--Ben
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Eetu
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« Reply #9 on: December 03, 2005, 02:52:37 AM »

Thanks for all your replies, having this conversation has really cleared up some things for me.

It seems like most of the problems we had were due to our crazy-go-fast pace. And that may just be due to misthinking "large, climactic scene" for the whole of a longer story. I mean, when the moon characters were present, in most cases they were just relegated to wailing once before being brushed aside in the battle between the Mistaken and the Heart. At least have to try framing with only moon characters present.

 - Eetu
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Victor Gijsbers
Acts of Evil Playtesters
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« Reply #10 on: December 03, 2005, 03:02:01 AM »

In my first session of Polaris, we were all pushing for really high and far-reaching stakes, and the result was that the story was terribly chaotic and contrived. Then we started anew (with a slightly different group, but I do not think that was important), and the two sessions we've now played did not have this problem at all. The scenes follow each other almost logically, centering about a small set of events and NPCs and making up a damn fine story. Perhaps it is just the rush of having so much power that makes people do all kinds of weird things the first time they play the game.

So I fully agree with your own analysis.

I'd also like to say that I'm playing the game with three girls, and they certainly get the hang of the system. There doesn't seem to be a gender issue there.
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GreatWolf
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« Reply #11 on: December 03, 2005, 12:18:15 PM »

I'd also like to say that I'm playing the game with three girls, and they certainly get the hang of the system. There doesn't seem to be a gender issue there.

Ditto.  I'm the only guy in my Polaris group, and it's going fine.
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Seth Ben-Ezra
Dark Omen Games
producing Legends of Alyria, Dirty Secrets, A Flower for Mara
coming soon: Showdown
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