[Polaris] Color! (inspired play despite rules gaffe)

Started by David Berg, December 12, 2009, 01:43:04 AM

Previous topic - Next topic

David Berg

Last Sunday, I sat down to play Polaris with Daniel, John and Terry.  John had played once before, long ago, and didn't remember the rules.  Daniel brought the book, had recently read it, and served as our rules guide.

Unfortunately, he forgot the rule that says we roll dice even in scenes where the conflict resolution mechanic doesn't require a roll.  So we basically whiffed on the core mechanism of character change, ignoring our Zeal, Weariness, Ice and Light stats entirely.

So, I'm not writing to comment on how Polaris plays as written.  The reason I'm inspired to write is because we had a lot of fun playing, and I think the book had a lot to do with that even though we missed a huge chunk of the rules.

Our session was full of great color, most of which stemmed from our creative interpretations of:
1) the game subtitle ("chivalric tragedy at the utmost north")
2) the terms on the character sheet and the meanings ascribed to them in the book (demon-mistaken, new moon-family, full moon-office)
3) the options we picked from the Fate etc. lists ("song of history" etc.) and the general tone of the lists themselves (inspiring me to create a Fate "event: vanishing stars")

We took that inspiration and added a strong "get to the heart of it" mentality.  We were planning a one-shot, and we'd all played enough one-shot story games at cons that I'd say we were all about addressing premise from the get-go.

This mentality led us to overlap all our connections -- everyone's demon was someone else's family or duty.  When looking for premise to frame someone else's scene, these relationships were where we turned.

We dimmed the lights, lit a candle, turned some creepy music on low volume, and delivered some nice character portrayals.

It's no huge surprise that you stick a bunch of friends who are all experienced roleplayers in the same room, charge after some themes, and get a fun session.  But I think the 1, 2, 3 I listed above really helped us get inspired and on the same aesthetic page.  I've put some effort into engineering the communication of such material in my own games, so I'm mulling this for takeaways.  I'll offer some thoughts on that soon, maybe after others have chimed in.

Highlights from the fiction:

Winged knight Altair tells his daughter she's not ready to prove herself fighting in the wastes, then accidentally gores her in a duel to prove his point.

Depressed knight Algorab fasts too long in a forsaken tower and sees all the stars vanish from the sky except for the constellation Perseus.  His lost son appears (demon? hallucination?) and tells him to seek the vanished knight Perseus in the wastes, as Perseus is the key to Polaris's survival.

Altair goes to the archives, where the voice of his demon taunts him, revealing that his daughter has lost her leg.  Altair sets the place ablaze.

Algorab tries to give Altair his sword to fly up and give to Perseus (the constellation), but grief-stricken Altair ignores him.

Knight Tarazed, out on patrol, meets an ethereal ice shark the color of his lost wife's eyes, and speaking to him with her voice.

Later, the Polaris high priest echoes the shark's entreaties to forsake the knights, drawing a third eye on Tarazed's head to "show him the truth" of the demons.  Tarazed burns the "eye" out with a candelabra.
here's my blog, discussing Delve, my game in development

David Berg

Corrections from Daniel (parentheticals mine):

I played Polaris once at Dreamation 2007.  I don't think we did much more die rolling then than we did in our session.  Things were compressed/accelerated because of trying to fit a satisfying narrative arc with five players into a convention slot.  By the book, the games seems to be designed to be teased out for longer than that.

I don't believe John had played previously.

Saying that we were four of the last five knights and taking the Common Fate of "Perseus, the lost 5th knight" was helpful in engaging us with the game quickly.

The players in the mistaken (GM) role leaned heavily on the moons (NPC players) to act in heart (spotlight PC) scenes.  I thought this was effective, regardless of how much the mistaken prepped the moon beforehand (with John GMing for Daniel, John took Terry aside to tell her how he wanted her NPC to act to put the screws to Daniel's PC).
here's my blog, discussing Delve, my game in development

David Berg

I'd been hoping that I could distill some useful takeaways from this regarding "designing to inspire color".  However, what I've come up with thus far seems rather common-sensical.  I still think this would be a fun topic to have a conversation about, so I guess I'll say my piece and we'll see.

Before I ever sat down to play Polaris, I had a few game color ingredients rattling around in my head.  Heroes & tragedy (from an online chat with the game's author, Ben Lehman), utmost north (from the subtitle), ornamented antiquity (from the cover) and a star (from the title).  Then I sat down to play.  We were short on time, and didn't carve out a "tell about the setting" period.  Instead, we discussed what we needed in order to get to char-gen: "Polaris is a city in the cold surrounded by the Wastes and the Mistaken.  The people of Polaris are a fading civilization under siege, and we play knights who resist that siege.  We like the stars.  Warmth and sunlight are bad.  Go." 

Filling out my character sheet consisted of:

  • Writing down the game's starting scores in Zeal, Ice, Light and Weariness.
  • Picking a star name.
  • Writing down the Ability "Lore of Demons".  Writing down the Blessing "Starlight Sword".  Writing down the Office "Knight of the Order of the Stars".  Writing down the common Fate we had all decided on: "Perseus, the Fifth Knight".
  • Looking through some short (7-10 items) lists (with no definitions or explanations) of optional other Abilities, Blessings, Offices and Fates.  I picked one I liked, and made up another.
  • Making up my demon.  Choosing other players' demons to be my family and official relationships.

We then began play.

In the first scene, we defined "Starlight Swords" as solid but softly radiant blades, "Wings of the Stars" as basically angel wings, and Polaris armor as ice-crystaline.

The second scene brought my demon to life, combining the notes from my sheet ("multi-colored land shark") with Terry's family relationship ("ex-wife Hydra").  Hydra had eyes that sparkled a certain palette, and those were the shifting hues of the ethereal shark, which glided on and through the ice with Hydra's voice coming from somewhere deep inside it.  The Wastes were defined as crags, cliffs, and chasms of ice.

The third scene (introducing Arcturus and his wife, the keeper of records), gave us a tall, dark, ancient archive.

The fourth scene gave us an abandoned chapel, a gaunt knight, and a vision of my Fate "Event: the Vanishing Stars" wherein Perseus was the only constellation that remained.

As best I can tell:
A) We were all motivated to lend our own visual expressions to the game's core aesthetic of grand, icy desolation.  We were all on the same page enough that we could appreciate each other's contributions.
B) We were all motivated to connect the dots, fill in the blanks, assuage our curiosity, and answer what was the meaning of all the (hitherto undefined) terms on our sheets.  This reminded me a bit of Sign in Stranger, wherein one might well be asked a question about a strange place and be forced to answer using a non-obvious term or concept.
C) We were all able to act on those urges thanks to distributed authority over setting.

In the first session of play, we began and ended scenes based on pacing consensus, and had a lot of "conflicts" end in "yeah, all this is cool, so be it" agreements.  The situations we'd set up provided a plentiful source of drama, and we made our way through scenes relatively leisurely, fleshing out whatever details caught our fancy. 

In the second session, having given the rules a more thorough reading, we were determined to play a lot of conflicts and roll dice, the better to experience the game's core reward mechanism.  Scenes instantly turned into conflicts, and color was less abundant.  It was still inspired at times, though, like when Daniel began a conflict by saying, "I take Cassiopeia to the top of the Tower of a Thousand Steps to exorcise the demon from her."  Despite having no formal role in the conflict, I was able to riff off that and throw in descriptions of the place's perilous nature.

Final takeaway (for now):
D) Pregnant situation fosters engagement with the fiction and thus motivation to bring it to life with detail.  However, it is quite possible to address the conflict in a situation without much color at all if you're playing to speed the story to conclusion.

So I guess the color-facilitating design advice based on all this would be to (a) give your players some common ground to work from, (b) hook their curiosity with material that needs to be fleshed out to be played, (c) give them broad ability to creatively contribute to the fiction, and (d) give them something engaging to do, but encourage them to stop and smell the roses along the way.
here's my blog, discussing Delve, my game in development

Paul T

Most excellent!

My experience with Polaris was similar: the way the text is put together really inspires a strong sense for the Colour, to an extent that puts you into the mood of the place without giving much specific description or information, allowing the players to fill in the gaps. I think the prose descritption in the Lord of the Rings is written in a similar way: often creating an emotional reaction without actually giving any specific detail.

We also played for a short time and left out or didn't apply much of the "experience" rules,  to an extent that those numbers (Zeal, Weariness, etc) didn't seem to be relevant to much of anything. I'd like to play it again sometime and see what those actually do when they're used right.

Sounds like you guys had an awesome time!


I would like a chance to play it again - when I did a one-shot (which was also a bad idea, since we ended up rushing at the end, and we had two brand new players), I found the "don't narrate, summarize!" style kind of wonky, and that definitely will take some getting used to.

Absolute agreement - Color was a huuuuge part of our game! But we kind of subverted the game a little when one of us decided to point towards the Evilness and go right for it. That kind of made things speed up real fast. Our character concepts were very interesting, though, and served us well - we had an astrologer, a forensic doctor, and a couple of patrolling knights with some very nice Moon-character overlaps. The coolest thing ever was how my Mistake character, a red comet in the sky, got picked up and introduced by someone else as a big theme in the story (evil, red-blade Star Knights!).
My takeaway: the Color was a tool through which we made one another's input matter, big time, and that's a wonderful thing to accomplish in design, one that I hope to learn from.

David, I think if you get a chance to play with all the rules put in, especially to roll for Experience, it'll be a good thing - you sort of duel with your Mistake player over which themes to use, how to use them, what to refresh... it gives you some comfortable limits on what you can do, especially 'cause it keeps you from repeating yourself too quickly. You exhaust your Starlight Sword theme, and man, it's gone for a while as a tool. I used mine to smash an ice-palace down around me because no one would listen to me, dammit! ^_^ It was a sweet scene.
Mask of the Emperor rules, admittedly a work in progress - http://abbysgamerbasement.blogspot.com/

David Berg

Quote from: Abkajud on December 20, 2009, 02:32:28 AM
My takeaway: the Color was a tool through which we made one another's input matter, big time

Just want to see if I understand what you mean by this:

One player contributes some facts or ideas to the fiction (there is a red comet in the sky), and then another player makes this contribution more meaningful by further coloring it (the red comet is made up of moving forms! in fact, they look like knights!).

Or, one player contributes some color to a scene (you see a red comet!) and another player uses that color to generate situation for play (the comet's made of knights that you now have to deal with!).

Or both?
here's my blog, discussing Delve, my game in development


Ahhh, more the latter than the former.
In the former, you're creating Color together, riffing on one another's ideas.
In the latter, well... I'll just tell you how it happened.

My Star Knight was the Royal Astrologer. I couldn't come up with anything for my Mistaken character pool, so I asked around if the definition of "character" (or whatever term the game uses) was broad enough to include a comet; I was told to go for it!

So - at some point, my Full Moon plays my boss, and she (my boss) informs me that the comet is a sign of good fortune for the People of the Stars. Whoa! Red flag, right? So I question her, she gets mad, and she tells me to go tell the High Priestess what I've discovered, and see what she thinks of it.

I go to the temple, and the Priestess tells me about this red-sword cult... they're Star Knights who have been blessed by the comet and whose time is coming soon. Ack! When I try to alert the duke to this malfeasance, MY sword turns red, and he won't believe me about the comet OR the cult! (this was an Experience roll coming in, I think...)

Does that example help?
Mask of the Emperor rules, admittedly a work in progress - http://abbysgamerbasement.blogspot.com/

David Berg

Absolutely.  Thanks.

I agree that it's immensely satisfying when someone takes one of your inchoate ideas and runs with it, using it to generate a cool situation that captivates the room.  I can remember feeling simultaneous pride (that's my comet, y'all!) and gratitude (it's made of knights? nice!) in similar situations.

Another note on Sign in Stranger: a lot of the people I've played with use the "make up words for random selection" phase to be funny or free associate or otherwise enjoy / get through it.  But I really prefer to come up with words that I like and find inspiring, so later, when someone else randomly picks my word and improvs something cool off it, I get to feel like I've contributed more.

...Which leads me to another note on Polaris.  The resolution options of "But Only If" and "And Furthermore" are used mainly to negotiate how well or poorly events unfold for the protagonist, but I could see a similar system used for color.  "Your sword can have glittering runes on it, But Only If the stars momentarily go dark when you study the runes."

Another mechanic worth mentioning here is from Paul T.'s game, Land of Nodd, where players identify elements they like from one scene, and then players get points for introducing that same element in subsequent scenes.  So if you introduce something particularly cool, there's a chance that other people will note it and request more of it and do more cool stuff with it.
here's my blog, discussing Delve, my game in development


I will check out Land of Nodd; thanks!

This thread http://www.indie-rpgs.com/forum/index.php?topic=28829.msg270383#msg270383has a greaaat example of seemingly innocuous or off-beat Color having a huge impact on play!
This got me thinking about your rune-sword example - the glossary definition of Color is a detail that lacks impact on "aspects of action or resolution in the imagined scene", and I can only assume "action" means the course of action being taken, even if that course involves free narration instead of consulting another mechanic.
Basically, your example is totally Color. However, my urge would be to take something juicy like that and make it some kind of Currency - i.e. gee, Sir Knight, your sword makes the stars go dim. Are you a demon?

Argh, I keep thinking that it's almost impossible to have Color without making it a potential plot device; but then again, there are lots of details thrown out there during a game that don't "mean anything", i.e. they aren't meant to be considered from a utilitarian perspective, but only an aesthetic one. I daresay plenty of things that are "useful" manage to remain Color only, if they never get "used" - a roaring fire that's never used to cook anything of consequence will stay Color, but obviously it could become something else, if used that way.

Thus, "pure" Color would transform very quickly into a source of Effectiveness in the hands of hard-core Gamism (for its tactical applications), but also in the hands of robust Narrativism, too (as a plot device). This dovetails into that old chestnut about N and G being kissing cousins, fraternal twins, whatever analogy you wanna use ^_^ in that they both support more of a meta-game, what-can-I-do-with-this mindset.

Color is Exploration but not a part of Currency or Effectiveness; and "being there", pure Exploration, is not what G and N are about - players with a yen for Story Now and Stepping Up share what a traditional RPGer might call "an agenda". In the various White Wolf games I've been in, play tends to focus on showcasing the features of the published setting, and when I've "gone somewhere" with such a setting from a Story Now kind of angle (i.e. discovered the story that I, the player, want to tell while playing the game, one that's very different from "back story"), my fellow players get confused or irked by my behavior.
You may have also played with someone before who was deemed by the group to be "too hard-core" or "only there for the combat" - this is almost assuredly someone who is not pursuing a Sim agenda, but rather a Gamist one, and feels kind of pushy by comparison.

So - a resolution mechanic for establishing Color. ^_^ My guess is that this kind of thing is ripe for Drifting into G or N, even if it's set up as a Sim support device. At least, this is the spot where players may have to decide what their goal is for play, on that day, with that group and game - are we talking Chekhov's gun-on-the-mantle, or is that rifle there just to make my host look more threatening?

Geez, with the full definition of Color in mind, Color is far narrower than I thought! I'd consider myself focused on hard-core Story Now, and I'm of the opinion that good ideas are too good to be "throwaways", though I might be missing the point of Color, or what it really is. If I "get" it, then for-real Color could very well be any detail that could have but didn't get snatched up and used as a strategic object or a plot device, making it retrospective more than anything.
Whew! Thoughts?
Mask of the Emperor rules, admittedly a work in progress - http://abbysgamerbasement.blogspot.com/

David Berg

Yeah, that's funny to think about. 

QuoteOne player contributes some inspired color:  "There's a dusty, gold locket on the mantle, leaning against the wall, with a single link of chain hanging from it."

The Gamist says, "How much is it worth?  Who can I bribe or blackmail with it?"

The Narrativist says, "What new meaning does this give to the protagonist's issue that we're bent on addressing?"

The Simulationist says, "Cool!  And what does the mantle look like?"

Heh.  That's a false distinction, though.  You can have high-color or low-color G or N or S.  When I played Grey Ranks (a session I'd feel pretty confident in describing as Story Now), there was a ton of color that added to the mood without ever evolving to touch resolution.  I think it's a shot in the dark to worry about drift without a lot more context.

A mechanic for churning out good color could potentially be accessed by all sorts of games with all sorts of priorities, provided that one priority was to spend at least some play time on making the fiction more vivid to the senses.  Perhaps you're raising a good point, though, in that talking about this is limited without some larger game system and objective to tie into.  Maybe I'll see if I can dream up a test example...
here's my blog, discussing Delve, my game in development