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Author Topic: [Polaris] Transcending the Rules  (Read 7155 times)
Frank Tarcikowski
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« on: March 02, 2008, 06:49:53 AM »

I just returned from another one of those German forum meet-ups. Yesterday’s Polaris game was a blast (what people call a homerun these days). Here are some highlights and a lesson.

  • All of the six players came up with incredibly great ideas. The best was a demon called the bee eater, who brought the sweet scent of flowers and honey and who used honey as the vessel of his power and made the people taste its sweetness.
  • A very dense web of crosses and weaves between the protagonists, keeping players on the edges of their seats even when they weren’t moons.
  • Three of the six protagonists just naturally emerging as the main characters, two as sidekicks and one not at all, with all players totally jazzed about it.
  • Random stuff people had written down as aspects or in the cosmos being picked up and making sense.
  • The fate aspects, both initial and acquired in conflicts, mostly being fulfilled in the end.
  • Real, consequential character development and growth.
  • A very dense and consistent atmosphere of beauty, decadence and tragedy.

I used to think that bloody hard adversity by the mistaken is key to making Polaris rock, and sure did we have conflicts in most scenes, but as opposed to previous games I’ve been in, we did not press too hard, and apart from a few times “YOU ASK FAR TOO MUCH”, most things got accepted. The game was much more amicable, and also, in some scenes the moons (usually full moon) started providing adversity and the mistaken just sat back, waiting for the moment for “WE SHALL SEE WHAT COMES OF IT” but it never came. As we played, ownership of the story shifted, everybody contributed at all times by making suggestions even though we stayed with the rules on “where the buck stops”. Fewer key phrases got used as the story had taken on so much momentum, and the contributions were adding so well to it, that we rarely felt need for it.

We had ripped the experience rules badly in order to be able to make veterans in one session, but with the last round of scenes, we stopped to even make experience rolls as one protagonist joined the mistake and the two “sidekick” protagonists’ deaths were simply narrated, without conflict, in the main protagonists’ scenes with the sidekicks’ players nodding enthusiastically (one of the sidekicks accidentally killed, Elric style, by another protagonist who loved him).

The lesson here is to go with the flow and let the transcendence happen. Ben has written a fantastic game and his rules and source material took us to that place, but we went on from there and brought the game to a breathtaking final which we could not have done quite that way had we not transcended the rules.

Questions and comments are welcome.

- Frank
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oliof
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Harald Wagener - Zurich, Switzerland


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« Reply #1 on: March 03, 2008, 08:18:12 PM »

You are aware how much your report fits the blog post about respecting the fiction over at anyway?
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Frank Tarcikowski
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a.k.a. Frank T


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« Reply #2 on: March 04, 2008, 12:58:14 AM »

Moin Harald,

Well, I like Vincent’s article (it kinda reminds me of this), but I do think that my "transcendence" is more than just “the fiction leading”. Because even when the fiction leads, the rules normally follow (like with the rules on character death in Sorcerer). To stay with the “dancing couple” metaphor, in our Polaris game the fiction let go of her partner (the rules) entirely and startet spinning in wild circles all on her own.

- Frank
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Ben Lehman
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« Reply #3 on: March 04, 2008, 01:07:21 AM »

Hey! This is really cool.

Yay on Polaris rules-breakers. Actually, given your end state, you proably broke the rules less than many previous players have (including me!) For instance: all the stuff about the protagonists shuffling off during someone else's scenes (with the player's nodding along) is there, in the rules. In fact, it's the only way a protagonist can die before hitting Veteran. All the stuff about everyone contributing to different characters: also there.

But there's definitely some absences.

So I had a metaphor talking about the rules in Polaris the other day. Particularly about "it shall not come to pass." What I said is "It's like a gun in a bank robbery. Ideally, it never goes off. But it still matters that you have it."

When I read you talking about people waiting for the phrases, but then moving on when they didn't receive them, it makes me think of that. The rules are there, absolutely. But they're not being used actively, simply there.

Check me on that. Do you think that that's a correct description?

There's some other interesting stuff here, too. Worth getting into. But I want to get a sense of this, first.

yrs--
--Ben
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Frank Tarcikowski
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a.k.a. Frank T


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« Reply #4 on: March 04, 2008, 01:30:40 AM »

Hi Ben,

Quote
When I read you talking about people waiting for the phrases, but then moving on when they didn't receive them, it makes me think of that. The rules are there, absolutely. But they're not being used actively, simply there.

True for the conflict key phrases! The rules were like the net or rope in a high wire performance. They would have been there to catch us had we slipped. Also true for guidance.

Not true for experience. The way we messed around with experience, we might have as well just changed the scores around at whim, and in the end we quit paying attention to them entirely. We did have one cool Solaris Knight scene, though.

That part about protagonist death is interesting, I had not been aware that we were actually within the rules with that.

Looking forward to getting into the other stuff.

- Frank
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Ben Lehman
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« Reply #5 on: March 04, 2008, 12:20:03 PM »

Yeah it is in the rules! I think you're the first group (at least, that I've heard of) to ever use the rule in that way. It's on page 76.

Quote
If you are using a protagonist as part if a scene (or even if you aren't), either active player can include that protagonist in their statements, but only with permission of that protagonist's Heart.

Oh, and since we're probably going to be laying out different sorts of relationships with the rules soon (what with the talk here and on anyway), I'm going to name this sort of play (where the rules are present and important but not actually used) as "bank heist play."

I think it's really telling that the experience rules were the primary rules system that got totally ejected. I'm trying to think about why that is, and why it isn't. Here's some thoughts:
* Some rules of the game are inherently passive: They're not there if you don't use them. This is, like, the conflict key phrases. The aspects and such also figure into this.
* Some rules of the game are eminently bypassable. For instance, with the exception of the Heart's guidance of the protagonist, any player can loan any other player a character for a scene or more, so ultimately "who controls what" can be negotiated directly at the table, with the Cosmos divisions as a fallback.
* Some rules of the game are basically non bypassable. These include the general key phrases, the experience rules, the initial aspects, and the initial cosmos rules.

So, what was your relationship with the general key phrases? ("And so it was" being the primary one in a single session sort of game.) My hunch is that you probably still used them, although I couldn't say why.

I'm also really interested in your relationships with the themes and the cosmos. Were the Cosmos active during play (as in: crossing off names, moving names, adding names)? How about the themes (as in: crossing off aspects, moving aspects, adding aspects?) How did you go about these procedures (presumably pretty ad-hoc)?

yrs--
--Ben
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oliof
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Harald Wagener - Zurich, Switzerland


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« Reply #6 on: March 04, 2008, 03:20:38 PM »

I'm  not going on a tangent with Frank here unless I hear what he and Ben have to say on this.
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Ben Lehman
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« Reply #7 on: March 04, 2008, 03:29:14 PM »

I'm  not going on a tangent with Frank here unless I hear what he and Ben have to say on this.

On what? I'm happy talk, at length, on any of the topics we've touched on but I'm not sure what you're referring to.

yrs--
--Ben
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Frank Tarcikowski
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a.k.a. Frank T


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« Reply #8 on: March 05, 2008, 01:18:15 AM »

Hi Ben,

Let’s see. Your hunch about the general key phrases is correct, we kept using them. However, at one point a lot of content got established outside the key phrase framed scenes. After 11 scenes of 18 (if I’m counting correctly), we cut from early spring to late summer and discussed what had happened in between, including some major developments for the protagonists. Basically, I just had a flash and suggested what had happened in a “GM narration” kind of style, and the others just nodded along. This was also the point where I turned my own protagonist into a sidekick.

As for themes, we did use them when we used the corresponding key phrases, but as I said, that happened less and less as the game continued. We did add some fate aspects that were established in conflicts earlier in the game. Also, when my protagonist gave the higher starlight weapon of his family to his little sister because she was the one that really ought to be wielding it, I erased it from my protagonist sheet and the player of my little sister added it to hers.

The cosmos was kept up to date for most of the game though I think we did not update it any more in the last couple scenes when it was pretty clear already where the story was going.

So well, we did not abandon the rules entirely, we were just kind of rushing ahead of the rules. I think the reason why we particularly hacked, and later ignored, the experience rules was that they were getting in the way of our pacing.

- Frank
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Frank Tarcikowski
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a.k.a. Frank T


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« Reply #9 on: March 05, 2008, 01:29:49 AM »

Hi Harald,

Actually, I'd like to save talk about Vincent's article and how that relates to what we are talking about here for later, because it would require me talking about Sorcerer and Poison'd and all kinds of stuff.

- Frank
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oliof
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Harald Wagener - Zurich, Switzerland


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« Reply #10 on: March 05, 2008, 07:58:27 AM »

That's why I wouldn't want to conflate this AP report, which is very interesting. Please go on discussing particulars. How did he experience rules get in the way of your pacing? I've never played Polaris besides a demo, but I always found the experience rules to be very low-key in handling time and only perceived them as a secondary pacing element; i.e. I thought they'd help people to find the denouement after an intense decision for their protagonist before everone moved on to the next big thing. After reading the report I'm convinced that If you (as a group) have your own (working) idea of pacing, this process can be bypassed without problems.

RIght?
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Ben Lehman
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« Reply #11 on: March 05, 2008, 11:26:26 AM »

Hi Ben,

Let’s see. Your hunch about the general key phrases is correct, we kept using them. However, at one point a lot of content got established outside the key phrase framed scenes. After 11 scenes of 18 (if I’m counting correctly), we cut from early spring to late summer and discussed what had happened in between, including some major developments for the protagonists. Basically, I just had a flash and suggested what had happened in a “GM narration” kind of style, and the others just nodded along. This was also the point where I turned my own protagonist into a sidekick.

Oh, neat. Yeah, that's the sort of thing that happens from time to time in the game (there was a rule -- I'm not sure if it made it into the final version -- about pacing such bits.) I really like it!

Quote
As for themes, we did use them when we used the corresponding key phrases, but as I said, that happened less and less as the game continued. We did add some fate aspects that were established in conflicts earlier in the game. Also, when my protagonist gave the higher starlight weapon of his family to his little sister because she was the one that really ought to be wielding it, I erased it from my protagonist sheet and the player of my little sister added it to hers.

The cosmos was kept up to date for most of the game though I think we did not update it any more in the last couple scenes when it was pretty clear already where the story was going.

*nod* So you didn't do a lot of manipulating of aspects, etc? But you did keep the Cosmos up-to-date? That's interesting. Often I see players do the exact opposite (adding and subtracting lots of aspects) but generally ignoring the Cosmos.

I'm trying to think about what, in particular, the experience rules are doing which makes them so objectionable to this sort of play (while realizing that they are objectionable to it.) It seems intuitively obvious to me that they would be, but I can't seem to articulate why. I think a chunk of it has to do with pacing, yes, particularly the limits on what can happen when, and what can be asked for when.

It's really cool for me to hear about this. What it sounds like, to me, is that you shifted the rules emphasis from (conflict key phrases + aspects + experience) to (cosmos + inspirational material). Which is something that I've not seen before, but is definitely part and parcel of the game design (more about that later). I wouldn't classify it as transcending the rules and thus imply that people playing with more focus on the conflict key phrases are mired in them, but rather as shifting the focus to a different chunk of the rules.

I know that this sort of thing is out-of-fashion these days, but Polaris was really written with a large number of different possible player types in mind, with the idea that each one of them would seize on different parts of the rules and utilize them in different ways, including the nigh-freeformers that I played with through college: in fact, a lot of it is about breaking the broken free-form negotiation that some of those games used. (This is why I get frustrated when people say that Polaris's conflict system is "just negotiation" because the structure is important: even when you're not using it.) It's really cool for me to hear about the game used in that way, since it's been more rare than I hoped.

Any thoughts about how the experience mechanics could change to integrate more freely into this sort of play? Or at least step aside more gracefully?

yrs--
--Ben
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Dirk Ackermann
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« Reply #12 on: March 06, 2008, 02:42:21 AM »

Hi there,

I was in that beautiful session and I have never experienced a Polaris session like this before. The other ones were emotionaly draining and ever so hard-pressing that afterwards you felt exhausted. Not this time though. It all emerged just perfectly organic (?) and smooth. Some players, including me, stated before the play that they were very tired and I did not like the idea to get even more tired because of Polaris! But then this perfect, deep well of play, imagination and shakespearean drama! Ben, this game is just a jewel!

I think the group was our first line in success, the "rest" was getting away from the phrases, but alway having in mind that they allowed us to get to this point and to have them if needed.

This was the second time -of maybe 7 or 8 sessions- that I saw the "endgame", only because of our mending with the XP-rules. I am inclined to say that, played as an oneshot Polaris need this kind of mending... otherwise, the XP-rules are a little bit too slow and that is even true for a campaign.

If there will ever be a revised edition or so than some pacing advices or equal stuff should go into the book.

Frank, cool that you have written it down here! It was a true homerun.

MfG
Dirk
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Frank Tarcikowski
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a.k.a. Frank T


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« Reply #13 on: March 06, 2008, 02:51:30 AM »

Hi Ben,

Quote
I know that this sort of thing is out-of-fashion these days, but Polaris was really written with a large number of different possible player types in mind, with the idea that each one of them would seize on different parts of the rules and utilize them in different ways

Out-of-fashion? I guess it depends on whom you ask. Not to resurrect the agony that has been the Bricolage discussion, but for what it’s worth, I much prefer that approach. I guess this is why Polaris has been about the only Forge game yet to appeal to those German gamers who play, y’know, with candles on the table and strings on the stereo and roll dice like once a session. Who write short stories about their character and stuff. We have a lot of them here. I used to be one of them, too.

I actually talked about this to Ron Edwards when he visited me last December. What I said was that these people embrace the “beautiful horror” atmosphere and the genre conventions of classic tragedy and totally dig this unavoidable downward spiral. They’re drifting the game toward High Concept Sim. I don’t think it’s what we did in our game because we had very strong thematic stuff going on as well and I guess that was primary. But whatever, both were strong and both were crucial.

With regard to the experience mechanics, I think the point was really that we were ahead of them both as a pacing mechanic and as a judgement. Personally, I would probably just forget about the roll entirely, to lose Zeal / gain Weariness and refresh aspects each time (or have the player choose), but that’s just my personal preference. Also, I don’t know how the fact that we were six players affected timing.

Ultimately, the rules can only do so much. This is why I emphasized the transcendence thing even though, yeah, it really only was the experience rules we kicked. I sometimes get the impression that there is some conception among the Forge participants that it’s bad to kick the rules that way: That if you need to kick ‘em in order to get the best out of play, either the rules are broken or you picked the wrong game for what you want to do. None of which is true for our Polaris game. We could not have picked a better game, and the rules are of course not broken.

The point is that this group as a whole was playing at the highest level of creativity, empathy and skill that I have ever seen in role-playing. We were really in a flow, and when that happens, only a fool would follow the game’s rules against his own gut feeling. That should go without saying. The problem is the ballast of the whole evil “rule zero” discussion, which is about something else entirely, but which still casts a shadow on what we are talking about here.

Wow. This is me, waiting for the controversy to begin.

- Frank
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oliof
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Harald Wagener - Zurich, Switzerland


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« Reply #14 on: March 06, 2008, 09:42:11 AM »

I don't see how this relates to Rule Zero at all.

Tangency: In my first PtA session ever, we had a similar experience. All the rules were in place and honored except we transcenced the conflict rules to a point where the producer was desperately clutching at straws to find something to conflict over. In other words, we outpaced one of PtA's core mechanisms. It's funny that that was the weekend we first met, Frank.
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