Polaris is a tabletop RPG in which you know from the start that all the protagonists are doomed, and their civilization is doomed, and everything is ruined and is going to end in flames. This is exactly what happened in our recent session. I also can’t remember an RPG session in which I’ve laughed so much. It was great.
Okay, back up. Polaris is framed on the website linked above as a game to take 12+ hours. We needed to compress it into an evening’s play, so instead of having each player be a protagonist, we instead set it up to be about two protagonists and two players who were playing antagonist roles. Each of the protagonists was the knight of a civilization that had already partially fallen to The Mistaken; the latter, in our game, were a kind of body-jumping demon eager to bring about the end of time.
The mechanic enforces the idea of character corruption while leaving a lot of room to work out how this happens. In each scene, a protagonist is confronted by one or more characters played by the antagonist-player. These may be enemies, but it’s often more effective for them to be a friend trying to dissuade the protagonist from doing his knightly duty, or a family member asking for personal rather than public loyalty, or something of that nature — characters who have the ability to sway the knight through persuasion or deception or simply by presenting a conflict of priorities, rather than by direct opposition. The scene escalates into conflict, at which the protagonist and antagonist engage in a kind of narrative bidding process, which for us went something like this:
Protagonist: I lunge at Musca with my sword and run her through.
Antagonist: …but only if, when you kill her, you also destroy the sacred crown you’d come to seek.
Protagonist: …but only if, even though the crown is broken, there are shards I can take home with me.
There are also mechanics for rolling back part of the negotiation if you don’t like where it’s gone, also using key phrases (“You ask far too much”), but we didn’t invoke those as much. Things specified in the conflict stage can get quite large in scope; at one point a negotiation wound up narrating how the character would die, who would survive afterwards, and about five years of subsequent civil war and chaos. The entire extinction of the Polaris people was put on the table, but ultimately bargained down to a deal where they just had to leave the north pole and go to live in warmer, less happy climates.
After the scene is over, the participants agree on how many times the protagonist has in some way violated the honor code of knights, or experienced callousness, apathy or despair. The protagonist then has to roll a d6 that many times. Each time the score on one of those die-rolls is less than his current Zeal (4 to start), he loses a Zeal point. That means he loses Zeal easily at first, but the last point may be hard-lost.
When all his Zeal is lost, he has an encounter with the Solaris Knight or the Frost Maiden, embodiments of the terrible power that threatens; and then begins instead to gain points of Weariness. Weariness climbs via the same mechanism as Zeal is lost: at 1 it is hard to grow wearier, but as Weariness goes up, it becomes easier to gain more. When Weariness hits 6, the knight is fully corrupted.
This is numerically clever because of the pacing it imposes, but honestly I think I would have been just as happy dispensing with the dice entirely, especially for a low-mechanics one-shot, and just verbally agreeing as a group how much Zeal/Weariness stat change the protagonist had likely undergone. In some cases we had protagonists go through incredibly traumatic events — broken up with a lover and disowned by their family all in one swoop, for instance — that nonetheless through implausibly lucky die rolls didn’t count against them much. The die roll might be effective for keeping in line protagonists who as players are really trying to “win” (why? the mechanics guarantee that’s impossible), but everyone in this game was more focused on making an interesting story with the intended arc.
Playing the antagonist was one of the most challenging things I’ve done in story-gaming so far. It’s partly a GM/support kind of role: you’re constantly needing to think of more ways to put the protagonist in a terribly binding situation, one that is likely to force her to do something she doesn’t want to. In addition, because there’s not a huge amount of formal structure to the game, it’s not always possible to be thinking ahead effectively. The protagonist’s encounter with the Solaris Knight/Frost Maiden is pretty much guaranteed to happen at some point, so one can be imagining what might occur then, a little bit in advance, and though I hadn’t played before, I had enough warning that this was coming up that I was able to brainstorm a setting and some dialogue for that encounter. But at other times, events overtook what I’d anticipated.
Why was our session so funny? That would be harder to explain, but I think we laughed largely because there was something freeing and cathartic about playing in a context where everyone was making horrible decisions, where the good guys were often transparently gullible, and where all the omens pointed to Doom. I feel like this might not have been the intended tone, and there were things about the session that were genuinely rather disturbing, sad, or grim, but I took a fair amount of entertainment from roleplaying characters who were free to go their length, disowning each other, ending marriages, having drastic fights. There was less focus on setup and maneuvering than in some games, and more where Stuff Happened, in a big, colorful, over the top way. Even if it was typically bad stuff, like someone being foolish enough to drink the blood of a demon, or someone killing an ex-lover without remorse.
I feel like I should probably acquire the rules and read through them at some point to see what we might have missed: the version we played was somewhat adapted for one-shot purposes, and we had a basic explanation of the setting but did not read together through the rather extensive backstory provided.