[Polaris] questions & new storygamer report

Started by vonkorff, September 22, 2009, 06:12:00 PM

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I tried Polaris for the first time recently.  No one in my group, including me, had ever played this type of story game.  I wasn't sure we could handle it, but it turned out to be a lot of fun.  However, advice would be appreciated, see questions below.

We used Myth Weavers' "pedagogy of play" plan, with improv warm-ups and adding one rule at a time.


It worked very well.  When we got confused, at least it was just one rule at a time.  The Myth Weavers' improv warm-ups were lots of fun ... we told a "yes and" story, a few sentences at a time going around the circle, about a village that had been abducted by demons except for one man.  When a force of knights came to investigate, the knights, too, disappeared, leaving one man again -- the commander of the knights -- who went mad.  It was surprisingly coherent, considering that every few sentences in sequence were spoken by the next person.  During warm-ups, we also told a story about the myth behind the "rope" constellation, which involved a man climbing up to a star on a rope, as well as the symbolism behind the "whale" constellation.

I'm wondering if anyone has played Polaris and has suggestions about these questions:

1. Pacing.  We were building continuity slowly with each scene.  In one scene, a knight was fighting demons on the front line outside the city.  In the next, he was recalled home by his father, the senator, to deal with family business, and had a Mistaken-inspired vision of his father dying in a thousand different ways.  He and his father don't get along, because his father had wanted him to go into politics, but he certainly wouldn't want his father dead.  In the next scene, he will presumably find out what that family business was.  The entire session took place in the spring of one year, perhaps over the course of a week or two.  Considering that each knight only gets 1/4 of the time, we could have gone on for 2-3 sessions without the father ever dying (if that was indeed destined to happen).  No major NPCs died, and only one showed any signs of evil (and that went uncontested.)  From the rule book, I get the idea that a normal father/son quarrel is considered "small potatoes" by Polaris, and should certainly not extend over multiple scenes.  If a scene doesn't result in the death or corruption of a major character, that scene wasn't worth having.  And you're supposed to move fast, so that you can tell the whole life story of the knights, not just one season or one year.  But I kind of enjoyed the little interactions between the characters.  What do you think?  Part of me wants to push the group to have bigger stakes.  Part of me says don't fix it if it isn't broken.  Though I suspect that before too long, we'll have grown so attached to the NPCs that we won't want to kill them off.  People will get upset when their NPC friends are hurt, and this will cause messy conflicts that don't end properly, see #3.  But if we do kill off an NPC just for the sake of doing it, that won't be very meaningful either ...

2. Experience.  We didn't have many PC actions that would cause experience, and it seems like we should have had 3-6 such actions per player per session in order to get the required 25-30 over 4-10 sessions.  Should I push people to be more evil / cynical / callous?  One character did poison his friend (non-lethally) so the friend would be unable to go to fight in the battle, where he would have died.  Which was cool.  But is that really cynical, or more heroic albeit in a twisted way?  No one did anything truly cynical.

3. Conflicts and competition.  Most of our conflicts were short and fairly uncontested.  So for instance, I was trying to pull a book away from an NPC.  The Mistaken said that the book crumbled into dust from the strain.  I said "but only if I keep my half of the book, which has at least some useful information in it."  And the Moon said he kept part of the book as well.  This was a neat compromise which will lead to more story -- now perhaps I have to get the other half back from the NPC somehow, in a later scene.  But there was only the one "but only if" in this conflict.

In our only extended conflict, a knight was escorting some villagers to safety.  On the way, the group was attacked by demons, and the conflict went back and forth like a chess match.  So "I stand in front to fight the demons."  "But only if half of the demons split off to attack the villagers."  "But only if the group of demons that attacks the villagers is very small."  "But only if the large group of demons that attacks you is too large for you to defeat."  It felt as though both sides were intensely involved, and we couldn't come to a compromise solution.  When the villagers were about to be eaten by the demons, the knight would say "it was not meant to be" and try a different way of rescuing them.  Eventually the knight challenged the leader of the demons to single combat, which was cool, but rather than continuing to extend the scene forever, we just stopped it there.  (I can imagine it going on forever like: "I kill the demon leader" "But only if the remaining demon army slaughters the villagers anyway" "Okay, it was not meant to be ... instead, I pin the demon leader, hold my sword to his throat, and demand that his soldiers quit the field" etc.)

Any thoughts on how to deal with this problem?  Note that we didn't have "and furthermore" or "you ask far too much", because we hadn't reached those rules yet.  Maybe that would have helped.

4. Scene length.  How long should a scene be?  Ours were 10-20 minutes, as we finished 11 scenes in 3.5 hours with perhaps some chatting breaks.  (We also spent 1 hour on warm-ups and 1 hour on character creation.)
Josh V

Ben Lehman

Hi Vonkorff. Do you have a first name I could call you by?

I'm glad you played Polaris and are having fun with it. However, I detect a tone in your post that you feel like you're not getting all you can from the game. I agree. There are two issues, You have some misconceptions about the rules, and there are also bits of your attitude towards play which may be getting in the way of your enjoyment. I don't think the attitude thing is your fault. Much as I like Willem's guide, it has some fundamental problems in approach which give potential players the wrong attitude when entering a game of Polaris.

Let me take your points in order, then talk about more general issues.

1) There's nothing wrong with a slow burn as long as everyone at the table is okay with that. It might indicate that you're all looking for a slower moving story. However, I have the hunch that this isn't the case. My hunch, based on your comment about "liking NPCs too much" is that you're trying to feel around for consensus. Polaris is not a consensus game. My recommendation is: if there's an action you want to take, and you're worried that someone else at the table will be unhappy with it: do it. That's tragedy fodder.

2) As for the rules, I want to be very clear that the Mistaken has absolute, complete, and final authority over what constitutes an experience check, full stop. There is no process of group consensus, feeling out, or room for "well, maybe he was just being heroic in his own way." Fuck that shit. It's the Mistaken's call.

Additionally, there's no room for considering the circumstances in experience. Experience is given for failing a roll in conflict or: Sympathy for a demon (or the demons as a whole), hatred of a person (or the people as a whole), apathy, callousness, cynicism, doubt, or despair.

Note the complete lack of content about whether or not the action was for the greater good, whether it was morally right, whether it was "natural" or whether there were extenuating circumstances. Those concerns do not enter into the calculation. That's the whole point. There's no tragedy where the plot is advanced only when the protagonists take wholly evil action. That just leads to Episode III bullshit.

Consider, for a moment, that the demons are right, that the people deserve to die, and that the demons are the good guys. Does that mean that a knight siding with the demons is not advancing towards tragedy and death, even though he's doing a "good thing?" Hell no.

I would also like to point out that the Mistaken (and moons) are totally allowed to set up a situation in which experience is unavoidable. Say, for instance, that a demon possesses the knight's lover. The lover comes to him and begs "take me, please. I cannot live without you. fuck me now!" If the knight turns away, that's callousness. If the knight complies, that's sympathy for a demon. If the knight tries some other solution, they usually (thanks to the conflict mechanics) get themselves even deeper in shit. You can come up with a thousand such situations on your own. Try it. You'll like it.

3) Okay. You have a serious rules misconception here, which I think is tied to your attitude misconception, which is totally not your fault but I'm going to be blunt about anyway.

"It was not meant to be" does not work how you think it does. It means that the previous (and only the previous) "but only if..." statement, and the statement which it is in response to, do not happen. All other statements that were a part of the conflict do happen.

So, in your example:
H:So "I stand in front to fight the demons." 
M: "But only if half of the demons split off to attack the villagers." 
H: "But only if the group of demons that attacks the villagers is very small." 
M: "But only if the large group of demons that attacks you is too large for you to defeat."
H: It was not meant to be.

This means that the Heart does stand and fight the demons, and half the demons do split off and attack the villagers. Sucks to be the villagers.

Further, I strongly disagree with playing the game with less than the full set of rules. The key phrases are not divided into "basic" and "advanced." They're a complete unit, a working whole, which cannot do without one part and cannot abide any additions. For a "training wheels" scene that's not actually play, sure. But if you're really playing the game, with the intent to continue, use them all or go play a different game.

Putting the rules aside, there is also a serious, serious attitude problem here. The sort of statements that both the Heart and the Mistaken (but especially the Heart) are making are, to point a point on it, crap statements. They don't add anything to the game, they just serve to wriggle out of whatever the other player threw at you. They aren't technically illegal they're just bad play as in wet, soft, and unenjoyable.

The best example of this is the initial statement. It's not the stuff that conflicts are made out of. In Polaris, you must say what your character does and what effect, if any, it has on the world. "I stand in front to fight the demons" is crap. "I stand in front and drive the demons away with a ferocious roar" is good. "As the demons approach, I behead the first to cross my path and hold the head up, screaming 'this shall be the fate of all who oppose me!'" is golden.

The crux of the matter is the issue of consensus. I'm not surprised you were unable to come to a consensus, because the Polaris conflict rules are not designed to facilitate consensus. Instead, they are designed to escalate conflict.

Let me say that again, in bold:
The Polaris conflict rules are not designed to facilitate consensus, they are designed to escalate conflict

4) Scene length sounds about right to me. Don't be afraid to go longer or shorter if it's appropriate, though.

Now, I want to address a larger issue. Let me say that thing again, slightly reworded:
The Polaris rules are not designed to facilitate consensus, they are designed to initiate and escalate conflict

I am convinced that the attitude you took to the game, is encouraged and fostered by Willem's lessons, and that it was destructive to your full enjoyment of the game. The attitude is that Polaris is a hand-holdy game where we all agree with each other while play-acting a pre-set storyline and being careful not to trod on each other's feelings. This is because Willem's lessons are based on two things: "story gaming" culture at large, a phenomenon that post-dates Polaris's publication and has little to do with it, and improvisational theatre, which is all based on building a consensus and not quashing each other's contributions.

Polaris is not either of these things. If I had wanted to write a game that required and fostered consensus, I would have written a game without mechanics. If I had wanted to design an improv theatre game, I would have designed an improv theatre game. Instead, I wrote a game which is best played with an aggressive, adversarial, rough-housing attitude. Go for the (fictional) throat.

Willem's background in both story gaming and improv theatre made it very difficult for him to teach this style of play, which is basically tabboo (and for good reason) in both traditions. But it is necessary for Polaris.

So, since you like exercises, consider this an exercise. The next time, before you play Polaris for real, invent a new character. Frame a scene for him.

For the Heart: During, make a definitive statement about intense and passionate action, and its effects, without serious forethought.

For the Mistaken: In response to the Heart's action, try to determine what the Heart holds most sacred. In your opposing conflict statement (but only if -or- and furthermore), defile that thing.

For the Moons: Try to force a situation as said above, where the Heart has no choice but to take experience.

See where that takes you.



Ben, I love that reply. You just helped me understand why Polaris doesn't play like an improv theater game, even though it does have some similar trappings.

While reading the OP, I had the thought that the next time someone said "I stand and fight the demons" the Mistaken should reply "But only if they disembowel you and strangle you with your own entrails while pounding your face into goo on a nearby rock!" I know I'd be all "How did that 'You ask far too much...' thing work anyway? Can we get to that part now, 'cause it sounds like you're asking far, far too much?"
James R.


Hi Ben.  My name is Josh.

Thanks so much for your reply.  We really enjoy your game so far, and hopefully we can get even more out of it.

I think your point about consensus is spot on ... we were looking for consensus.  The word "compromise" came up during the session.  The idea that if H says "I kill a demon" and M says "You only save half the villagers", then that's a "fair compromise" and should be accepted.  We assumed that when the conflict wasn't working, it was because we weren't acting in good faith to reach a fair compromise.  Also, we felt that we should all be acting to ensure a "good story", whereas it sounds like you're saying we should be acting to get what we want, and a good story will come out of that.

And if I understand you correctly, you're saying that the conflict wasn't working because (1) we didn't use the rules properly and (2) we didn't state the results of our actions.  (We said "The demons split off to attack the villagers" rather than "The demons split off and kill the villagers.")

But our misunderstanding of the rules was not what you are thinking.  We did understand that you can only undo the last two statements.  The problem is: what happens when, after undoing the last two statements, the outcome of the conflict is still not decisive.  The clearest, simplest example I can think of is a hypothetical 3-statement conflict.  Suppose this is the entire conflict, and nothing interesting happened before it:

H: As the demons approach, I behead the first to cross my path and hold the head up, screaming 'this shall be the fate of all who oppose me!'
M: But only if half of the demons split off and devour the villagers, swallowing them whole as they stand hypnotized with fright.
H: Oops, it was not meant to be.

Now what happens?  The one demon is not dead, and the villagers are not eaten ... nothing has happened yet.
a. Can the Heart try something else now?  Can the Heart say
"In that case, I wrestle the demon leader to the ground, and he calls off his minions for fear of my starlight sword."
or "It turns out that one of the villagers was a knight in disguise!  Together, we drive the demons away."
If so, couldn't this lead to endless conflicts, as the Heart keeps backtracking?  Since we are avoiding compromise, the Heart wants to do everything he can, within the rules, to protect the villagers.
b. Are the demons prohibited from eating the villagers ever again, because that statement was denied?  If so, what do the demons do, and why don't they eat the villagers?  Can they kill the villagers without eating them?  Carry them off into the wastes?  Again, a possibility for an unending conflict ...

Here's how this problem applies to the conflict I described:

H:So "I stand in front to fight the demons."
M: "But only if half of the demons split off to attack the villagers."
[followed by more statements, which get undone by the "it was not meant to be"]

Suppose you wind back to this point.  You said: "This means that the Heart does stand and fight the demons, and half the demons do split off and attack the villagers. Sucks to be the villagers."

But the villagers are not dead yet, because it doesn't say "the demons eat the villagers."  It says "the demons split off to attack."  (I know, I know, this is a wimpy way to run a conflict.  That's why the first example above is better.)  Why can't the Heart accept all that, but make a new statement, saying:
"It turns out that one of the villagers is a knight in disguise!"

Also, it seems like the "ask for what you want" philosophy could lead to very short conflicts ... wouldn't the knight start with "I slay all the demons" rather than "I cut off the head of the first demon?"  He might as well use his statement to the best possible effect, and go for what he actually wants.  Or how about "I slay all the demons, while protecting all the villagers so they don't get harmed, and in fact no one comes to harm from these demons ever again."  The conflicts will sound like someone making a wish from a genie that they know to be malevolent.  This may sound like a silly objection, but this is exactly the sort of thing our group might do, if we are told to go for the throat.  Is the Mistaken now forced to reach farther away and say "but only if your lover, back in Southreach, is slain by an assassin"?  Etc.

It's very kind of you to say that WIllem's exercises were at fault -- but I think our own inexperience is more to blame.  One part of the problem may be that it's hard to teach oneself the feel of a game, except by playing with others who have already played it -- even if one can read a beautifully written rule book like Polaris has.  I can remember all kinds of stupid things I did playing D&D as a kid, just because I was playing with complete novices like myself.  I don't think Willem's exercises encourage a pre-set storyline, in fact quite the opposite ... on the other hand, they certainly don't communicate the attitude you're recommending.  ("Defile something that someone holds sacred.")
Josh V

Ben Lehman

Hi Josh, nice to meet you. You're tying yourself into knots, here. I can try to untangle you, or you can take a deep breath, look at the rules (the rules, not Willem's document, but the actual book) again, and try to answer all your own questions. Which would you rather do?

Your questions are:
1) Why doesn't over-use of "but it was not meant to be" cause infinite conflict loops?
2) Are the demons, once prevented from eating the villagers in conflict, allowed to eat the villagers again? When?
3) Why can't the Heart say "one of the villagers is a knight in disguise!" without use of a key phrase?
4) Is it bad if the Heart says "I cow the demons, and no harm comes from them ever again?" What should the Mistaken respond with?



Thanks, you have summarized my questions very accurately.  This "do you want to answer your own questions" is a very sneaky technique, I approve.  Here are the best answers I can come up with.  But they aren't all satisfactory to me, so I would really like to hear your own answers, if you have anything to add to mine.

1) Why doesn't over-use of "but it was not meant to be" cause infinite conflict loops?

Just to clarify the question, I think an infinite loop could start something like this:

H: I behead one of the demons.
M: But only if the demons eat the villagers.
H: It was not meant to be!  Let's try something else.
H: This time, I hold my sword to the demon captain's throat, threatening him.
M: But only if the demons possess all the villagers, and the villagers attack the knight.
H: It was not meant to be!

And so on.  Every two statements, the Heart says "it was not meant to be" and tries something else.

Now, the rule book's examples do not say "It was not meant to be ... let's try something else" and start a new conflict on the same issue.  In your only "it was not meant to be" example on p. 72, Emily (Heart) says "No way!  It was not meant to be.  I ride a retreat away from the demon."

But you do say "Often, a scene will have lots of little conflicts."  (p. 78)  In this case it seems unavoidable.  The demons are still there.  The villagers are still there.  The villagers can't escape on a fast steed.  How can we possibly avoid another conflict?

So, perhaps the Mistaken has to use "and furthermore", preventing "but it was not meant to be."

M: And furthermore, the demons possess all the villagers, who attack the knight.

The only trouble is, what if the Mistaken has no themes left, and cannot use "and furthermore"?  (Or doesn't want to use up his themes on something so unimportant.)  In that case, I don't see how to prevent an infinite loop.

2) Are the demons, once prevented from eating the villagers in conflict, allowed to eat the villagers again? When?

They are not allowed to eat the villagers again.  "If you have asked for one thing already this scene, and it has been denied, you can't ask for it again (and generally it is bad form to ask again until things have really changed dramatically.)"  (p. 76)  However, they are allowed to kill the villagers, or abduct them, or possess them, or turn them into small clay statues using their demonic powers, etc.  This is what I was getting at in my question.  The conflict can go on indefinitely, because there are infinitely many things the demons can do to the villagers.

I suppose the Moons might instead rule that the demons cannot harm the villagers in any way, because it would be too similar to the request that had been denied.

3) Why can't the Heart say "one of the villagers is a knight in disguise!" without use of a key phrase?

I concede that my example doesn't work.  The Heart does not have guidance over anyone but himself (p. 40), except as a result of one of his own actions.  ("I kiss him, and he falls into my arms.  He loves me."  p. 61)  The Heart could request that one of the Moons say "one of the villagers is a knight in disguise", but the Moons' agreement is not guaranteed.

With a key phrase, you can clearly say that the villager is a knight.  Forcing the knight to fight with you seems like another thing again ... can you do this even with a key phrase?  The Moon has guidance over that character.

4) Is it bad if the Heart says "I cow the demons, and no harm comes from them ever again?" What should the Mistaken respond with?

I think that "no harm ever again" is okay from time to time, but this sort of sweeping statement could get silly if used too frequently or taken too far.  (Should every NPC you come across get blessed to live a happy life forevermore?)

An example in the rulebook states that the hero pins the Solaris Knight "forever" with his sword-shard.  So "never again" seems to be an option supported by the rules.  (p. 85)

In the case of "no harm ever again", the Mistaken has to work a little more, but still has many possible responses, ranging from "you ask far too much" (if he has themes left) to "but only if another group of demons arrives" to "but only if the ungrateful villagers attack you in order to steal your starlight sword."  But it would be undesirable for the Heart to try to anticipate every possible bad outcome, and prevent them all in his statement.

5) Is the "headless demon" statement complete?

If I may, I'd like to add this one question:

You said: "As the demons approach, I behead the first to cross my path and hold the head up, screaming 'this shall be the fate of all who oppose me!'"  However, this statement doesn't fully describe the results of the action.  (p. 61)   Presumably, you intend to frighten or cow the demons.  Do the demons run away in terror, or fall over from fear, or kneel to you and call you their new liege, or what?

I just want to verify whether you are endorsing such a partial statement?  Or did you mean this to be only the first half of a statement?

Josh V

Ben Lehman

Hey, Josh. Thanks for indulging me! Let's compare to my answers.

Here's mine:

1) No, they would use the "And Furthermore" or "It shall not come to pass" phrase.
2) If the demons are actually prevented from eating the villagers in conflict, then it is poor form to have them eat the villagers (or otherwise harm them) right away. All future scenes are totally up for grabs, as the future cannot be negotiated in a conflict (except by the introduction of a Fate aspect, which is not a promise, just a resource.)
3) That is outside the Heart's realm of authority.
4) It's not bad. It's how the game is played. The Mistaken should respond, not by trying to undercut the Heart's action, but by attaching a price to it which comes in addition to what the Heart wants. The two that come readily to mind are:
a) "But only if they take you as their king and you gain the Office 'king of demons.'"
b) "But only if they stay peacefully with the villagers, intermingling and intermarrying, and you gain the Fate 'half-demon children.'"

Comparisons: Mostly we're on the same page. I think that there are two misconceptions to be cleared up, one of which I'm slightly wibbly about myself.

1) Looks like we're basically on the same page. The only difference is that I would say that, if you don't want something to happen, but you don't care enough to spend a theme, the appropriate response is to either let it happen anyway, because you don't care that much, or to use "it shall not come to pass" which gives you a chance of stopping it and, importantly, is free.

There's a second important bit, but we'll get to that in the second part.

2) You are correct inasmuch as it is poor form (not explicitly illegal, but the book mentions it as poor form) for either character to immediately do something which was countermanded in a conflict.

But there's a difference between something being explicitly countermanded in a conflict (ex: and furthermore the villagers are unhurt) and something just being annulled with "but it was not meant to be." That's not an explicit request for something not to happen, just an immediate cancellation, which is clearly less important. Ultimately, it's the Mistaken's call what makes good form. Speaking solely for myself, if the Heart was blocking me so continually, I would not be afraid to simply act aggressively in any means (towards the Heart, the Villagers, or something else) immediately after the second "but it was not meant to be." To some degree it's a question of sportsmanship.

3) The rules for other Protagonists in scenes are in the book. I can't remember them at the moment: I rarely use them. You could easily introduce a knight as a secondary character with And Furthermore, though. But you still have to handle all your own conflict.

4) Note that "forever" in the example is not mechanically binding. I mean, yes, he's bound forever. Sure. Until another knight falls ...

According to the rules, you can't negotiate the future.

5) That statement indeed is not a strong base for conflict. There's a more advanced thing here (about times when it is okay to make such statements) but let's get the basics down first.



Ben -- thanks again for providing all this useful advice.  It's very kind of you to spend time on this.

Yes, I think we are on the same page.  To verify this, here's my summary of the reasons our one extended conflict didn't work as well as we would have liked:

a. We didn't use "and furthermore" when appropriate.
b. We didn't always state the desired results of our actions.
c. We didn't make aggressive statements (an aggressive statement asks for awesome, horrible things to happen, things that would mess with other people.)
d. We assumed that we should be seeking some sort of fair compromise or consensus.
e. We were using "but only if" to undermine or cancel each others' actions.  "But only if" should attach a price to an action, not undercut it.
f. We were making new statements that were minor variations of denied statements.  (Like "kills" instead of "eats.")  This is another way of undercutting.

However, regarding (e) the rule book does give one example where one player uses "but only if" to undercut another player's action.  On p. 74, where the Heart exorcises a demon from Fomolhaut:

Emily (Heart): I hold up my sword, and the light of stars shines into his eyes, and Doubt is driven from him in fear of my power and the power of my star.
Rick (Mistaken): But only if Fomolhaut dies.

I assume that the purpose of the exorcism was to rescue Fomolhaut.  So if he dies, the Heart's statement was undercut.  (Unless you consider possession to be a fate worse than death, in which case it's only a partial undermining, or a compromise.)

In (3) above, I was actually thinking about a secondary or tertiary character as the "knight in disguise", not a protagonist.  So the Heart could say "but only if the villager is my sister in disguise.  She is a knight, and she helps me fight the demons."  However, a key phrase is required regardless, because the sister is under the guidance of one of the Moons.

On (5), I am curious as to what your advanced thing might be, assuming we are done with basics.  I would have thought that you can say "I behead one demon, and the rest flee" whenever you want, since you have guidance over the results of your actions. (p. 40)
Josh V


Josh, I don't agree that's an example of using statements to undermine each other at all. Ben's initial post about the type of statements that the Mistaken should be making is here:

Quote from: Ben Lehman on September 23, 2009, 12:11:40 AM
Putting the rules aside, there is also a serious, serious attitude problem here. The sort of statements that both the Heart and the Mistaken (but especially the Heart) are making are, to point a point on it, crap statements. They don't add anything to the game, they just serve to wriggle out of whatever the other player threw at you. They aren't technically illegal they're just bad play as in wet, soft, and unenjoyable.

In you example, the Mistaken is clearly adding a price, a very painful and dire price to the act of exorcising the demon. Its up the Heart whether to accept that price (effectively, the heart decides if possession is worse than death). It definitely adds to the story. It adds a lot to the story in terms loss and sacrifice and strong character development by making a thematic statement about the Heart. An example of using statements to undermine or "wriggle out of" something might be "But only if the demon comes back that evening and possesses him again." That would allow the exorcism and rob it of any dramatic weight at the same time, rendering it meaningless in the story. "But only if" should not be used to block by permitting the Heart's action and then robbing it of meaning. Instead, the Mistaken should be challenging them with a consequence that turns the Heart's action into a pivotal moment in the story. Does the Heart kill Fomolhaut in order to save him from the demons, or is she unable to kill him and thus dooms him to become a part of the Mistake for eternity? That's poignant. That's the stuff good stories are made of.
James R.



Your post is very helpful.  You say "the Heart decides if possession is worse than death."  For some reason I was thinking it must be obvious whether possession is worse than death.  But in fact it isn't obvious, and that's what makes it interesting.  The Heart decides, and the choice is difficult and meaningful.

Maybe the best sort of conflict is where the Mistaken's price is not easily comparable to the gain asked by the Heart.  They are different in kind, they have different natures.  Like "Fomolhaut's life" vs. "Fomolhaut's soul."  Two different things should be going on at once, and it is unclear which thing is more important.  Now the Heart has a genuine decision to make, which reveals something about his or her character, as you say.  "Undermining" would happen when the price and gain are not only comparable, they are identical.  (Like Fomolhaut's demon gets exorcised, but the price is that Fomolhaut gets possessed again.)  It would be just as problematic to have a conflict over whether 100 villagers vs. 50 villagers get eaten ... there's no basis for an interesting decision, because 100 is just plain bigger than 50.  This issue came up in our actual play ... a conflict over how many villagers should get killed: all, half, or none?

Another example like this is the following conflict from our actual play:

M: As the two of you pull on the book, it crumbles to dust.
H: But only if I keep half of it, which has some useful information in it.

The Heart's price ("I keep half") is comparable, or similar in kind, with the Mistaken's gain ("you keep nothing.")  This makes the exchange meaningless as a conflict.  Instead, the Heart should have said "you ask far too much" if he wanted to keep part of the book.

I just fixed my name I think, now it appears as "Josh V" where yours does.
Josh V


Quote from: vonkorff on September 26, 2009, 11:11:20 PM
M: As the two of you pull on the book, it crumbles to dust.
H: But only if I keep half of it, which has some useful information in it.

It's hard to evaluate this interaction. What happens if the Mistaken just let's him have the book?
James R.

Ben Lehman


Yeah, absolutely! That's it.

I've also slept on the "but it was not meant to be" interaction, actually went back and reread the rulebook, and I finally figured it out.

The correct view is that *neither* the Heart's initial action nor the Mistaken's response should happen again in the scene. So the Heart says "but it was not meant to be" and that means that, no, he does *not* face the demons. Why, and what he does instead, is up to him (a tactical retreat, setting a trap, fleeing in terror, readying the people to die, whatever), but his initial action (standing against the demons) doesn't happen. Thus you don't get into an endless loop unless the Heart is playing *very* poor form and just repeating the same action, or a minor variation on it, over and over.

This doesn't change that the Mistaken's response (about half of them splitting off) is pretty weak sauce.


Frank Tarcikowski

Hi Josh,

I don't have anything to add to the in-depth rules / play discussion, but I would like to comment on this:

QuoteNo one in my group, including me, had ever played this type of story game.

I'm not fully up to date with the hottest indie stuff of today, but in my experience, Polaris is unlike any other game, including the so-called "Story Games". You should not expect other games to be the Polaris "type"; Polaris is unique.

- Frank
BARBAREN! - The Ultimate Macho Role Playing Game - finally available in English

Ron Edwards

I love this thread beyond all imagining.

My approval is nothing to be sought nor does it provide value beyond itself. But speaking as the content moderator, this is the kind of talking and thinking about play that this forum is for.

Best, Ron


Hi to everybody,
I just bought the new italian edition of Polaris and I still have to play, but I read the book twice and being an old time improvisor I would like to clarify a mistake I see often when somebody try to mix improv and rpg: the agreement.

The actors must agree, not the characters. The actors (and the players) have to agree about the Who, What and Where and there must be an agreement about wich conflict they will play. Their characters will then fight the conflict to the extreme.

Drama (and in Polaris players are creating drama) is all about conflict.
If players agree about the conflict, they will use the formula "But only if..." to rise the stakes for both the Heath and the Mistake, while the "It was not meant to be..." will not cancel the conflict,but it will forecast the consequences of that choice.

Polaris is a Chivalric Tragedy and in a tragedy the main character is always under checkmate: every move he chooses is wrong. Think about Oedipus: if he doesn't investigate the plague will destroy Thebes, if he investigates he will meet his fate.
And in Polaris the system seems to work in this way: the characters are doomed, they will die or surrender to the Mistake and every action they choose will bring them a step closer to that doom.
It is not D&D.

So, without having played Polaris, I tell everybody: as long as you agree about the conflict and play the conflict to the extreme you are doing well. Even in improv.