Every once in a while I stumble across a game that forces me to reconsider the hobby; Ben Lehman’s Polaris is one such game. I’ve just finished reading it and feel compelled to write an immediate review: it’s just that good. Several years ago I read a few reviews of Polaris over at RPG.net. At the time I was intrigued by the premise of knights traveling a tragic, frozen waste. I didn’t purchase Polaris at the time because it wasn’t in a PDF format. But when I saw it this last monday in a local gaming store I couldn’t pass it up.

But I really had no idea the calibre of game I had stuffed into my front pocket before venturing into a packed black metal show (if I’d known the quality of game at the time, I’d have taken much greater precautions). Polaris doesn’t provide a traditional introduction, instead it delves into the flavor fiction that served to hook my interests immediately. Even in the first few pages I realized that this game prioritized tone and (at a level rarely paralleled in the hobby) a very authentic and substantial emotional investment. Participants play the role of knights whose struggle is tarnished by the failings of their decadent people. As I mentioned earlier, this game ends in tragedy. This is made all the more profound to the reader only in the few final pages (before the appendixes), which is a writerly tactic I found to be surprisingly moving – without even playing the game!

[photo linked from gdargaud.net]

The rule-mechanics are on the more abstract side – which curtail to my personal RPG tastes. There is no GM (which if you’ve read my reviews before, you know I approve of). Instead every main character is surrounded by a (metaphorically speaking) cloud of story arcs. So while one character/player owns the spotlight, the other participants take on the roles of the other characters, events, and storytelling responsibilities.

At it’s heart this is a game about developing a constantly evolving group-infused story. But the game’s true innovation lies within the subtle deal-making quality that the rules encourage. The story develops as players take turns compromising with, or pushing the other players to drive the story. The more a player is willing to push a character or the story in a particular direction, the more their character slips towards the promised tragedy. This game is in a class of its own; truly a piece of gaming-art if such a thing exists. Polaris attacks industry standards to prove itself a premier example of indie game design. Saying anything else is a waste of your time when you should be reading Polaris right now!

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