Polaris (2005)

Ben Lehman’s Polaris was my first exposure to a collaborative storytelling game and, boy, did it set a high standard.

The game is concerned with “chivalric tragedy at the utmost north,” following the Knights of the Order of the Stars first as they defend the People against the demonic Mistake they created, then later as they betray them to the same.

A four player game, there is no formal game master. Rather, each player controls an aspect of the story, depending on whose character is the focus of the scene. The Heart controls the protagonist and the Mistake the antagonists while the players in the role of the New and Full Moons split the secondary NPCs and moderate disputes.

The game uses some dice mechanics, but the system is first and foremost a storytelling one. Scenes are set on the fly, with elements created or suggested by the players. Conflicts are resolved through a sort of negotiation that utilizes key phrases like “But Only If,” “It Shall Not Come to Pass,” and “You Ask Far Too Much,” to manage the action. This gives the game both a sense of poetry and makes it seem like every conflict is a bargain with the devil. Which, it kind of is.

Polaris is a melancholy game, full of decadence, betrayal, failure and death. There is also a good deal of beauty to be found in its pages, particularly in the art by Boris Artzybasheff, a clever bit of repurposing of rights-free art (the art originally appeared in the 1927 book The Wonder Smith and His Son, by Ella Young) that goes miles to establish the strange, sad atmosphere of the game.

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