[Polaris] But only if it wasn't my fault

Started by David Shockley, December 26, 2010, 01:04:25 AM

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David Shockley

Earlier this month I went to visit my Grandmother in law for her 80th birthday. My wife and I were there for a week or so, and so was my Sister in law Casey (A friend of mine since High School, its still weird to call her that). Since she, my wife, and I are all fans of RPG's we decided to try out Polaris while we were there.

Unfortunately, we only had three players, rather than the recommended four, and we only had enough free time for two short sessions. None of our Knights made it to Veteran, and there were only 2 experience rolls. Overall the game was enjoyable, though I feel as though with more experience with the game it could have gone better.

The main issue, I think, was just not being in the habit of saying the effects of actions and not just the actions themselves. Also I forgot that the Mistaken player has guidance over 'background and environment'.

Long ago, the people were dying at the end of the world.

Na'ir al Saif - Casey's Protaganist, a Knight who joined up 'for the ladies'. He's in charge of the love poetry section of the remnants library and is a noted fencer.
Mulu-Lizi - Warden of Southreach, leader of the local knights and an enemy of Na'ir's due to Na'ir's not entirely honorable intentions towards his daughter. He's played in this scene by Darla, Casey's Mistaken.

But hope was not yet lost, for Na'ir al Saif still heard the song of the stars. And so it was that Na'ir al Saif was called into Mulu-Lizi's private office.

Mulu-Lizi informs Na'ir that he has been "randomly" selected to participate in the upcoming crusade against the Mistaken, on the front lines no less.

Casey: But only if I return safely
Darla: But only if Mulu-Lizi's daughter is wed to another.
Casey: But only if her husband goes on the crusade, and is slain
Darla: But only if you had the opportunity to save him. [Here there was a brief break, while Darla looks over Na'ir's sheet for a relevant Aspect to check off so she can use an And Furthermore instead, but none were relevant. Casey realized she should probably have an Aspect related to Na'ir's womanizing ways, but I convinced them to wait to add it until the next Advance because I like following rules.]
Casey: But only if Mulu-Lizi's son was also nearby, and in need of assistance.
Darla: But only if when you turn to him, the son says he doesn't need any help and you should go help the fiancee.
Casey: But only if I turn to help the fiancée, but by then its too late.

The negotiation continued from here, ending with Na'ir talking himself up in poetry back at the remnant, and getting trashed to Mulu-Lizi by Mulu-Lizi's son. We talked it over and agreed that Na'ir should roll experience for apathy/callousness. I mean sure he ran out of time, and had an excuse to hesitate, but we all knew it was really because he didn't want to save his rival. (I think I mostly decided this, but Casey agreed with it. I think I was supposed to make the call as the Moon, but I'm not sure if thats correct now..)

So, it seems to me that those last two pairs of 'But only if' statements were really all about what "you had an opportunity to save him" really meant, morally. (I'm not entirely sure it was just two pairs, there might have been a third that I don't recall). I'm having difficulty articulating why, but I'm not exactly comfortable with this. I suppose its because instead of moving forward things suddenly caught in place, as if we lost traction. I don't think we were breaking any rules, though maybe this sort of thing doesn't tend to arise with more experience? (For example, maybe there is a way to use the conflict phrases to gain traction again. If there were enough Aspects unchecked 'And Furthermore' and/or 'You ask far too much' would probably have done the trick)

PS. My Knights name was Apsinthion, the Greek name for Wormwood, the apocalyptic star in Revelation. I mention this here because I'm really pleased with it, and couldn't figure out a way to work it in above without making this post longer and more unfocused.

Ron Edwards

Hi there,

I hope people respond besides myself, because I am perhaps in the minority in hating But Only If. Or rather, I see its value, but I see it as an edge option in play, to be used sparingly and probably involved in absolutely momentous revelations or plot events.

For whatever reason, it's easy to get stuck in a But Only If loop, and at least sometimes, I think it's more behavioral and reflexive than actually creative - in other words, people responding to a perceived escalation in emotional, counter-escalation terms rather than staying with the fiction. You might be interested in the Phrases flowchart I worked up when we played Polaris a while ago. It helped me keep an eye on some important dynamics in the rules. With that in front of us, it was easy to see that when someone hits you with a But Only If that you find excessive, It Shall Not Come to Pass and It Was Not Meant to Be are right there, cost-less, to knock it down to size. The worst thing to do (for us) at that point was to get our little cockatoo crests ee-recting on our heads and try to "counter" with a bigger, more annoying But Only If. Tempting as it might feel at the moment, it actually doesn't "counter," but in fact, validates exactly the thing one is trying to diminish.

But Only If may be too free, in resource terms. At least for me. If I were to house-rule Polaris, I might suggest things along the line of "No But Only If in response to a But Only If," or perhaps making it a resource-drainer like some of the other phrases, at the least. At the most, I might find myself simply striking it off the list of options entirely.

I can't really recommend my view as a genuine suggestion for you. But maybe this idea can help - when someone says But Only If (blah blah) to you, then stop and breathe for a second. Think in terms of content, the fiction being created right there, and bear in mind that just because that person said it, does not mean it's established into the fiction yet. The only thing that will cement it there is you, saying "But Only If" back.

I'd be interested to know what your players make of that suggestion. If they have the same iffy, what-was-that feeling about But Only If that you expressed here, it might help them let But Only If stand only when it's something they like. Which as I understand it, is what that key phrase is for.

Best, Ron

David Shockley

The flowchart was printed and available on the table. I know the other players were aware of 'It was not meant to be' because at least once during that conflict while people were reviewing there options I spelled out where an 'It was not meant to be' would leave the conflict.

Generally, people did seem to prefer 'But only if'. Most of the time, I don't think it was being used as an attempt to counteract the other statement, or to escalate or outdo the other players. Obviously, in this case it was being used as a counter, but not really in an 'escalating' manner. I think the main causes were A) 'But only if' is the only free option (other than ending the conflict), and B) I felt that free play was more difficult than conflict.

Callan S.


That kind of reminds me of [Final Hour of a Storied Age] The trait/dice mechanics, as in, perhaps just a blunt limit on the number of 'but only's would be the thing? I mean, I think I sometimes see a trend in your discussion to a certain self discipline at certain points in rule usage. Self discipline that just as much could be replicated by a hard limit and indeed, actually preserve that cockatoo crest effect simply because it's a very human element that if preserved will syphon down into the characters played (and so undergo examination, but in the fun of roleplaying (with swords!!1!)). I think my gaming group has over time applied self discipline during gaming, not to go off on some tangent or such, because self discipline was the only barrier in place (no rule). And I think it just made things overly serious (and even tense). Further I think that led to less material in game - less of characters grabbing greek fire and spilling it about (AP example) so to speak and more the players quietly looking for a que. Anyway, as much as I'd grant not going cockatoo would work, in terms of options to choose from I think simple hard limits would be more beneficial here than self discipline.

Frank Tarcikowski

Hi there,

I think it's a feature of Polaris that there isn't the "one way" to play it, but rather, a group needs to find out what approach suits it best. Personally, I would say that most of those conflict phrases were outside the scope of the scene that had been framed, which was "called to the office" after all.

QuoteCasey: But only if I return safely
Darla: But only if Mulu-Lizi's daughter is wed to another.

Up to this point it could have happened in one of my games, as a sort of condition for future scenes. The next scene I would have framed as either Heart or Mistaken would probably have been the knight's return and learning of the wedding.

QuoteCasey: But only if her husband goes on the crusade, and is slain
Darla: But only if you had the opportunity to save him.

My personal interpretation of "scenes" would be that this is outside the scope of the scene, but could be established as something to happen in the future (maybe adding a fate aspect or however it was called). Casey's statement is not against the rules, but I would consider it poor play. To my mind it's a lame and boring counter of Darla's statement, the very thing Ron is aiming at with his criticism. If I were to house-rule it, I would probably just make it "BUT ONLY IF cannot negate the effects of the previous statement", or some such.

QuoteCasey: But only if Mulu-Lizi's son was also nearby, and in need of assistance.
Darla: But only if when you turn to him, the son says he doesn't need any help and you should go help the fiancee.

Darla's last statement might be counter to the rules because by replying with "but only if" she accepts that the son was in need of assistance, but then the son says he doesn't need help? Also, they are now definitely playing a different scene and have skipped a lot of time passing in mid-conflict. I'm not sure about the rules but I certainly would not like to play that way. I mean, what's the scene, who's there, what does it look like? Who killed the husband? What happened to the son? I have, somewhat dismissively, termed this phenomenon "neglecting the Shared Imagined Space". I think this lack of substance in the SIS might be part of why you feel uneasy with how this scene turned out.

Personally, I would have required at least two more "AND SO IT WAS" to arrive at the husband's death scene.

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

Gregor Hutton

I played a Polaris three-player at the first IndieCon 2 years ago with Andrew Kenrick and Graham Walmsley. I was the opposition to Andy and Graham was the opposition to me. I found "But only if" very frustrating in that game because Graham wielded it so bluntly in my interactions with him. His wordings were very eloquent, sure, but they were so blunt in their use: snap judgements, exercises in clever one-up-manship, and it led the story down a spiralling path of nothingness. Basically I had to accept what was thrown at me or ask him to try again (when I'd get something worse come my way). I reflected on that game session for a long time in my mind. It was all about stabbing and not about circling if you see what I mean.

Polaris has a great choice of phrases to be used and I found it creatively and socially frustrating when all I got every round was "But only if" on my turn. I'm not sure what the answer is, I feel that there are times when "But only if" can be a sharp, sharp tool to bring in, but only if its use is rare and not the first wrench grabbed out of the box. (Use of phrase intentional.)

Frank Tarcikowski

I think it's important to understand about Polaris that your job as heart and mistaken is not to outsmart each other. Ron's suggestion above, to note that by saying "but only if", you accept the previous statement, is a very good one. There are several dials in Polaris, like how often you evoke the conflict phrases, or how confrontational you go into the conflicts, but in the end you still need to be dedicated to create the most poetic, beautiful, terrible and tragic tale you can. Together.

Forget about that whole "everybody plays to win and the rules turn it into a great story" myth, it's bogus and always was.

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

Ron Edwards

One of the features of Polaris that I'd like to bring forward when I play it again is the 'family' of phrases that knock the current in-play statements down a peg. You Ask Far Too Much is the most obvious, which as I recall, by the book means that the person must revise his or her statement downwards, into a less extreme form. I remember when Ben was playing with the guy with the little demon puppet at GenCon,* and the puppet would say things like "I grab the moon!" and Ben would You Ask Far Too Much it down to size, again and again.

Gregor, you mentioned that You Ask Far Too Much would merely net you something worse from Graham. This sets off a danger-signal for me. As far as I can tell, that seems like a mis-application of the rules for that phrase.

The Moon statements also seem to me to be good regulators, if the Moons are paying attention. Perhaps that's one of the most serious limits of three-person play, that the structure of the Moon participants is so drastically altered.

Replying to Callan: In the diagram I linked to, some of the phrases are marked with asterisks. Those are the ones which cannot be used freely, but required using up resources from the character sheet. One of the mildest suggestions I made was to include But Only If in that category, so that it was not usable whenever-and-however, the way it almost is now. I do not understand how you can interpret this suggestion, let alone the more extreme ones, as discipline-centric. These are deeply mechanical points.

Best, Ron

* Too much to explain. From the DVD "Gamesmaster, Gamesmaster, What Have You Done?" made by Breakfast of Demons. The little demon puppet was a wonderful means of examining traumatized-gamer behavior.


In my experience of Polaris, it definitely seemed to me that But Only If... could easily be abused, but at the same time I'd argue that there is a sort-of-natural limit inherently imposed upon its use.
That is, it's hard to keep all the dependent clauses of the negotiation straight in your mind before you forget the whole thing.
Perhaps a house rule, like, "Every time you use But Only If..., you must recite, out loud, all previous, connected facts established by But Only If... during this conflict." Maybe add a thing in there banning folks from writing it down, so that the effects of a given conflict are short-form and pithy, rather than long-form and over-elaborate.

And, regarding the whole Graham maneuver with You Ask Far too Much, this seems like an example of deliberately breaking the rules in order to get one's way. Of course, I can't speak to Graham's motivation, or even to the nature of the scene and how it was affected by such rule-breaking, but YAFtM is written to be a method of scaling down the conflict - the player using YAFtM *must* scale back on his second suggestion, and the other player chooses which one he prefers.
If someone in my play group pulled that kind of shenanigans with me, I would think it best to stop play and discuss the rules for a moment.

Being an overly aggressive Mistaken is like being crowded or fouled in basketball - even though both of you want different things, you're going to have to exercise a minimum of "sportsmanship" in order to be on the court together. I think there is an element of "play to win" in the game, and phrases like YAFtM and It Was Not Meant to Be are intended to prevent excessive "gaming" of the system to punish people's characters excessively. If somebody capitalizes on the price one has to pay to use these phrases, and tries really hard to knock down all of a Heart's Themes to make them test Experience more often, that's mean and aggressive and not at all what the game is supposed to do, or even *written* to do. You can do it, but that's not what the Mistaken is there for.
Now, if only I had a copy of the rules with me so I could back this up with some quotations :)
Mask of the Emperor rules, admittedly a work in progress - http://abbysgamerbasement.blogspot.com/

David Shockley

'You ask far too much' does not require you to scale down the conflict. It requires you to either ask something lesser, or something 'completely different'. The exact meaning of completely different seems open to some interpretation, I think the rules leave this judgment to the moons. (Its possible he wasn't really asking something completely different, as the rules intend it but they don't contain any guidelines on what that means as far as I remember)

I don't see why you think you need to remember all of the 'But only if' statements? I see the need for remembering the last two (since thats what can be reversed) but not beyond that.

I wonder if Polaris encourages people to be aggressive as Mistaken because it has distilled all the antagonistic parts of being a GM into that one role, and left out the neutral elements (which go to the Moons).

Perhaps instead of increasing the cost of 'But only if', reducing the cost of 'You ask far too much' would be appropriate. Just reading the rules I had the impression that its cost was equal to 'And Furthermore', but after playing it seems like it is more expensive/less available. The main reason is because it does not allow you to introduce new content, so the aspect must already be salient in the established fiction. But its also related to the categorization of Aspects, and the way Cosmos encourages a focus on individuals (so Fate relationships are the most likely category to be salient). 'And Furthermore' prefers to use aspects which are already present (since the only reward for using it is to make the thing you narrate 'stickier', as opposed to say.. Dogs in the Vineyard, where you can narrate a trait in and get a mechanical bonus to the entire conflict) but you can also utilize arbitrary traits if you can fit them into whatever neat idea you wanted to make 'sticky'.

I've thought about introducing 'free' checkboxes, or just divorcing the checkboxes from the Aspect restriction. And maybe changing Aspects to some sort of scene framing tool. But I wouldn't want to make such large changes without having played the game more (with less of a focus on driving straight toward conflict and staying there as long as reasonable).

Callan S.

Ron, I have to say I just didn't read any note in your post to say that you'd changed any mechanics? If you changed some mechanical element, yeah, it was a mechanical change. I Just didn't catch the note on the rule change (still missing it on the rereads, for what it's worth).

Frank Tarcikowski

Ron, I think to require exhausting an aspect for "but only if" might lead to a lack of any "got to" conflict phrase to keep the dialogue up. Maybe contrary to some other peoples' experience, my experience with Polaris conflicts has generally been that they did not devolve into some sort of power struggle, but rather, would ramp up the drama and tragedy and make the fiction all the richer for it. "But only if" is the easiest way to do this, without having to worry about aspects or running into a wall where the conflict cannot go on by the rules even if you'd want it to.

Maybe my mindset when playing Polaris is different from the mindset of some other players? I've always played Mistaken in such a way that the Heart would appreciate my contributions (or so I hoped). When she'd say "you're such a bitch", that would be a compliment, without an edge of frustration. Very often, my first "but only if" would simply be answered with "and that was how it happened". And when I played Heart it's been much the same.

"I run that treacherous whore right through with my starlight sword."
"But only if, as you slay the demon, you also slay your unborn child."
"Fantastic! And that was how it happened."

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

Bret Gillan

Yeah, your But Only Ifs really spun out of control. Suddenly there was no need for the fiction - the entire game was being played out in the But Only Ifs. I'm not really sure of a solution for it though apart from the group growing comfortable with the rules and with one another.

But Only Ifs have been sticky whenever I've played, too. In one particular instance, a player was extremely overprotective of his character. He would routinely say things to the effect of, "But only if nothing bad happens to me," or "But only if all the negative consequences fade and have no impact whatsoever."

Ben Lehman

There is one rules point here which I think is quite important. Actually two rules points.

First, all things which you state in the future (outside the scene) with a key phrase (that'd be But Only If and And Furthermore) have to be written on the sheet as a Fate. This puts them absolutely "up for grabs" during play. "But only if, a month from now, you kill your father" doesn't mean that the character is magically locked into killing their father in a month, but rather that the topic of their killing their father in a month has now been introduced into play and can be the subject of more aggressive key-phrase use at a later date. This is pretty explicitly stated as a rule (I will look up a citation when I get home tonight) and I think is probably one of the most commonly overlooked rules in the game. In hindsight*, I would have stated it in much larger type, including on conflict reference sheets.

Secondly, experience is solely at the discretion of the Mistaken. This means that, unless you're willing to let the Heart bowl you over with weaselness, such cowardly statements as "but only if there was nothing I could have done" are completely ineffective in negating the moral decisions at the core of the game. This is another "in hindsight, I wish I had stuck more in the book about it" thing, but when I play, I simply don't allow such statements to affect my experience judgement. If anything, attempting to heartlessly weasel out of responsibility results in more experience. (Think about it: how terrible is it to not care whether someone lives or dies, but only whether or not it's your fault? I consider this even worse than a reasoned decision to let them die: it shows not merely contempt for a person's life, but an insane level of selfishness and narcissism. Such a decision merits hatred of a person and callousness, so two checks at the least.)

The conversation about "but only if" getting too convoluted is excellent, but I have little to add to it. I love the houserule that you must restate everything that's been said before in order to use the phrase, and will use it the next time I play.

"I kill the demon and the demon is actually my mother in disguise but only if she tells me she loves me as she dies." Yes, nice.


* At the time of first writing, it wasn't really necessary to state this: of course play was mostly linear in time and statements about the future were necessarily misty. It's only now, with a bunch of designs in which binding negotiation of future-play is actually acceptable, that this emphasis becomes necessary.

Callan S.

QuoteThink about it: how terrible is it to not care whether someone lives or dies, but only whether or not it's your fault?
? It's the player saying "but only if there was nothing I could have done", not the character, isn't it?