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Polaris The Roleplaying Game

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I picked up this beauty of a book maybe six months ago. It was a pricey buy, a two hardbound book in slip case set for, I think, 86 dollars. I have yet to see a cheaper version of it, so its one of the more expensive games I own.  It's a translation of a french RPG, there are some editors notes that give the history of the game and the setting, which is a nice touch.  I'd say it is a bit misleading: It looks a lot like a sci-fi RPG in the classic sense... in fact, the cover art is so damn nice it looks almost like it's got a major film studio behind it!... but it's actually an Earth-Only Undersea game set in a sort of future-fantasy. There is a picture of a shark in the cover art, and the blurb does talk about going back to the sea, so the clues are there.

Physically this is one of the most impressive books I own.  The cover art is photo-realistic, and while the interior art is a little lower in quality, its not by much. It is a bit stylized, and there were pieces of art I didn't much care for, but not because they weren't well done.  The inside of the cover has a map of Future-Undersea earth, with seperate maps for inside the front, and back, covers.  I'm almost disappointed that the second book didn't have two MORE maps... spoiled for choice I am.   The books are reasonably well organized, with only a few strange choices.  The First Book starts with the basics of the setting, moves into character creation, then the basic rules of the game. The Second Book has the equipment chapters, including vehicles, then has critters, then expands the rules with various options.  

As a note: This game has to be one of the better translations I've seen, particularly of French games. I can't recall a single instance of 'weird' syntax, much less out and out unintelligability.

So lets talk setting.  In the editor's notes, it is explained that this setting has been in play, in France, for a long time. The Author isn't really a science guy, but during one of the edition updates he had science guy fans help him with a lot of the undersea science stuff.  There is, consequently, some oddities in the science.  

The starting conceit is that the surface of the Earth is a terrible super-science-radioactive wasteland, utterly uninhabitable.  Apparently, originally, the game was planned to be a standard Post-Apoc wasteland survival horror sort of game, only moving under the sea as it developed.  There is no sense of when this is taking place, they vaguely hint that humanity may have been wiped out (or nearly) and then recreated by the mysterious Geneticians, which is a conceit I've seen before.   This is why I called it 'Future Fantasy'. If you can't draw a line between Now and Future, you're set in an alternate universe, its that simple.   Anyway, the Geneticians had all sorts of magic superscience, but were utter bastards, and so the Azure Alliance formed and, only slightly lagging the Geneticians in science, wiped them out.  Despite this, there are a dozen or so named Geneticians either in hiding or cold sleep storage wandering around like hidden demigods, waiting for Player Characters (I assume?) to find them and be slaughtered by them. No, aside from some names, we don't actually know anything about them.

Anyway, the Azure Alliance fell into infighting, split up through a remarkably realistic series of wars and political strife (for a game setting), into the modern world. Somehow, despite everyone needing all these cool technologies to survive underwater, they've mostly lost all their superscience long the way.  Also there is a sterility plague that has seriously impacted the culture. Fertile people (not just women) are practically pampered slaves in many City-States, and if you are secretly Fertile and not living like a slave, you are a wanted criminal.  There is a seriously distopian vibe to the whole thing.  Scientists and corporations regularly engage in a variety of inhuman experiments on sterile people, ostensibly to find a cure to the sterility plague, but often just for a political edge on their rivals.   The quote (from one of those Named Geneticians) on the back cover sums up the dystopian vibe quite well: "Humankind was born in the seas and is now coming back here to die.".  

One of the absurdities of the setting, a rift between the not-sciencey writer and the hard-science fans I guess, is the role of fresh water.  Citizens (of whereever... despite vastly differing city states, this is described in universal terms... sigh...) get one liter of fresh pure water a day. Showers? Not pure, chemically treated and will make you sick.  'purified' water is nasty and green?

Look: I can teach a five year old how to distill water to make it drinkable. You aren't going to convince me that an undersea civilization with fusion powered armor suits struggles to provide drinking water, m'kay?  Tossing in a line that the 'water corporations' may be deliberately fudging the difficulty isn't going to convince me.  There are multiple paragraphs in multiple places in the books reinforcing the existance of this utterly stupid idea... including a description of 'fresh water farming' using flumes. Oh... god... the stupid.  

There are a few other head scratchers, though few reach the level of the pure water bullshit.  We are told that most people believe they shouldn't get within 200 meters of the surface, which implies that everyone stays pretty damn deep. No problem.  Okay, two problems: One major nation uses inexplicable Magic Coral to protect themselves (its possibly sentient?). Fine and dandy, but Coral is a shallow water life form. Minor problem, this is Future-Fantasy magic coral, so maybe it loves it some deep water.  The second is that there are a number of dive stats that list maximum depth at 100m... um... you just told me no one likes to go into water that shallow?   That undersea cities are built in very deep trenches? You know, like the 'arianas' trench? How are these people using equipment (or better yet: Underwater mutations that make them very uncomfortable in the 'dry' cities?) without building a whole new 'shallow water' civilization?  

Lastly there is magic, or maybe psionics. It's called The Polaris Effect, and people who have mastered it (the Cult of the Trident) are a major political faction unto themselves, complete with an Adventure Friendly City of their own, called Equinox... in the Ariadne Trench.  A quick Google search reveals only Burburry Coats, for some reason, so I guess this is a made up trench?  Anyway: people who have the Polaris Effect ability naturally tend to be walking natural disasters for brief and pain filled lives, ending when they self destruct and take small stations with them (no, thats not an exaggeration, that's the example adventure).  The Polaris Effect also includes a sort of parallel dimension that you can 'dive' into, if you're suicidal or desperate.

While there are no playable dolphins, thank god, there are apparently natural(ish?) mutations of most ceteceans allowing them to play a part in this deep water undersea setting, despite a lack of surface safety allowing them to breath.  Blame the Geneticians, I guess.  At least in some places this creates a food based problem, despite a long exerpt from Fourty Thousand Leagues under the sea, with Captain Nemo talking all about how the sea feeds and clothes him, the setting then tells us most of the large undersea animals are protected, and eating them is legally equivalent to cannibalism?  Not buying it, undersea survival horror game. Hungry people will eat other people, dolphins are sea-beef at that point.

Overall, the setting is pretty good. I could do without Sea Magic, and I would love more on the Geneticians... and maybe a bit more thought in how people who need technologies X, Y, and Z, suddenly forgot how to make X, Y, and Z.   Preferrably one that doesn't magically assume that all the smart people gather in one place to be plot-conviently wiped out by some evil doer... but that would be a step up from just asserting that... nope, totally forgot how to make this life-necessary shit.  

Which, unfortunately, brings us to character creation.
So, we range from bland and servicable to near eye-bleeding in our character creation.  You've got 8 attributes, which is a bit high, a seperate luck stat which is GM assigned, advantages, disadvantages, and mutations (good and bad). All well and good. It tends to be a bit on the bland side overall, but that's not a deal breaker.  You get a pool of points for attributes, buying up from seven to twenty, with double cost over 15, and you get a second pool of CP (character Points) you use to buy advantages, extra attributes, and most importantly... professional skills.  Every CP spent gives you one year of time in a profession, which is your main source of skills... and here is where the system goes entirely off the rails!  

Mind you: Its not 'broken'. It works just fine. But if anyone is complaining about the tedium and complexity of Gurps characters? Yeah, run screaming for the hills from Polaris.   I'm going to go over this backwards, working my way back to character creation, m'kay?

So, first of all, there are a metric fuckton of skills. Not quite GURPS levels, but not all that far behind.  Just as one example, the power armor skill (a common enough skill) has four seperate skills. Undersea, Dry-land, Flying, and Space, and if you plan to use 'Hybrid' armor (usable, for example, underwater and inside a city...) you need both relavant skills.  TWO THIRDS of the character sheet is set aside for skills.

So that is a problem. There are a lot of skills, and you'll wind up with a damn fair whack of them by the time you're done.

So, how are skilled rated? Well, you've got a Natural Aptitude, from your Attribute (Like), your Targeted Mastery Rank, which is your level of training, and your Global Mastery, which is what you roll. Ok, so a bit jargony, but managable. Now, your 'cost' per skill changes as your Targeted Mastery Ranks rise, and every skill has its own starting mastery rank, from -3 to 0.  Getting fiddly now...

So now we're ready to put it together and get our character some skills, eh?  You start with a small whack of skill from your background, which is 'roll or pick' tables, fairly standard and easy to follow. I'm assuming you aren't getting points but actual ranks here.  You can chose to take a higher education pick, which costs 1 CP but takes two years (more on that in a minute), but follows the same easy to understand format as your background.

Now, for every CP you put into your profession you get 1 year in a, well, profession. There are some fourty odd professions, many of which have a number of years in other professions. The very first profession listed, assassin, is actually one of the more confusing (as a note, only the Pre-made Assassin character actually lists which professions and how many years, were used to make the character...).  The pre-reqs aren't horri-bad, but they did require some page flipping to work out. For example, I saw that I could qualify as an Assassin with three years as a Bounty Hunter, so I flipped to Bounty Hunter... and discovered I needed two years in one of four other professions (two of which were listed as pre's for Assassin!).  So... in general, until you find the jobs that don't have pre-req careers, it may take a bit of work to sort out your professional development.  A minor nuisance.

Each career lists some twenty to thirty skills. You get ten points per year to divide. Some of the skills may only be available to that profession. Mind you, the game assumes you will do this 12 times on average. Also, every year you get 5 points for 'professional advantages', which are distinct from regular advantages, complete with their own sub-systems, and every other year you can chose instead to roll on a table... which is in the OTHER book... for your profession to get more points, but assigned for you, and includes options I don't think you can spend points on, such as extra attribute points.

And you'll do this ten or more times per character. Mind you, this isn't even covering minor, repetitive annoyances such as the way skills are listed for each profession, or having to flip through the book for the professional advantages you're spending your yearly points on. And if you are rolling every second year? You'll have to do that in order, since you can gain alterations to your character which will affect decisions to change careers and so forth... such as joining an elite unit/company and gaining a salary (and presumably, with a half decent GM, a roleplaying boost) if you stay in the career.

So the profession/skill system is borked.  It WORKS, mind you. Its just incredibly tedious and fiddly.  Remember that the cost per rank changes as your Mastery Ranks rise, so you'll have to track your skills as you go, year after year.  

The last thing I want mention is that Polaris has one of the most punitive age systems I've seen.  On the off chance you want to play young, you're attributes are penalized differently at age 17, 18 and 19, and you star accruing penalties for being 'old' at age 30, which I think is the youngest I've ever seen in a game.  This makes the randomized starting age, combined with the average number of years 'pre-adventure' a bit of a dicey thing... almost every single pre-built character is over the age of thirty, with one 'old man' at 40.  This is minor and even believable/well done, but in real life I'm suffering the ravages of time already, despite my baby face... I'm not exactly eager to repeat that in a game!  

Now, there are some upsides:  This game actually takes the time to invest the characters in the world like few others do.  Many of the advantages, both personal and professional, are based on accumulated assets. You can wind up owning a store or a workshop or having a cache of stolen supplies that, if not used, may wind up stolen from you.  You automatically accumulate professional contacts and opponents based on your career. If you want to own a submarine to be more mobile, you can chose to pay down the debt somewhat, or just owe everything.  There is some real creativity and, if I'm fair, Honesty in how these things work. If only it wasn't such a pain in the ass to get it all sorted out and on your sheet!  In a way this is the inverse of a lot of games I've been seeing lately, where you have a nice clean decent character generation system mated to a horribly flawed set of rules.  Here, the rules are almost bare bones functional, without much of a hint of pretentious sexah, but the character generation system is so damn tedious and fiddly that my teeth hurt.... I LOVED Mechwarrior 3.  Maybe it is presentation?

You can bypass all that horrible generation by using the pre-made characters, but even there the skills list will probably break you. Skills are listed as Athletics (8+5), and you'll have to sort out the damned skill system yourself to make sure you've got the Mastery Rank and Natural Ability straight.  Almost everything is presented in raw data-dump format, though the art is pretty, and the back-stories are both detailed and modestly generic.

So, on to the rules. I'm gonna gloss this here. Its a d20 roll under, with a nice chart of modifiers for generic difficulties.  You can easily push the numbers into absurd territory, but you automatically fail on a 20 and you do count margins of success or failure. The basics of the rules are in their own 'chapter', which is about 8 pages long, at least the last three of which are solely focused on using the Luck 'attribute'.

The next chapter is combat, which is a much more complex iteration of the basic rules.  The first thing that stands out is that it uses a non-random Initative system.  You use your 'Reaction' Secondary attribute, combined with modifiers depending on your declared actions to determine initative order. Its not as simple and intuitive as a simple dice roll, but I like the look of it. Most of the chapter covers specific iterations, such as using martial arts, or whipping someone, or using supressive fire.  I think, overall, that it presents a short, but reasonably steep learning curve.

I should point out that these are actually sub-chapters. The basic rules are 3.1, combat is 3.2, and Health is 3.3, and the Polaris Effect being 3.4... each of these sub chapters is longer than the previous one, though I'm not sure that's deliberate.

Anyway: Polaris uses a fixed HP system, not too dissimilar from Cyberpunk 2020's health track. YOu have six wound thresholds, of five points each.  However, you also have hit locations, with a nice big chart of check boxes... which is also on the character sheet (on the back side) to track this.  I'm going to go on a limb and suggest that dying is damned easy in a Polaris Game.  The chapter is organized simply, diving right into the would thresholds and table, moving on to healing and stabilization rules, then moving into unusual sources of damage, such as acid, poison, falls and so forth.  Surprisingly, while there are rules for drowning and decompression, they don't actually take up a lot of space. THere is an oddity, where it talks about Apnea... not referring to Sleep Apnea, but the supposed Secondary Attribute for how long you can hold your breath... while in character creation this is referred to as "Suspend Breathing".  Aside from Healing, the biggest part of the chapter is disease and poison.

This takes me to the Polaris Effect chapter.  This is a fancy term for Sea Magic.

I'm not a fan of sci-fi space wizards per se, but I won't ding a game for including it... but I do have my biases.  That said, lets take a look.

So, aside from investing Character Points to get Sea Magic, the big limiters on the Polaris Effect is how it is used. There are no spell points or even, as far as I can see Fatigue drain, to limit your use. That said, it doesn't seem game breakingly powerful.

To begin with, it is a skill which you'll have to master, and it starts at the -3 level of mastery, so it is a points sink.  If I'm reading the rules right, it take four combat rounds to release a Polaris Effect, one to 'summon' the effect, and three to shape it, but margins of success can reduce this down to only the One round Effect. Still, you won't be dodging around a combat tossing off lightning bolts or what have you.   You have to roll twice, I'll point out, first to summon the effect then the second to release it. Failure on the first results in a nasty backlash, failure on the second (or interruption from wounds, etc) simply means it doesn't go off.  Then you take a shock test, which can stun you or knock you cold for a few minutes... this being the serious downside to space magic, I gather.   In case you've been sleeping, that is three tests to cast one spell.

You've got various rules to speed up the process, or use it without training, followed by d100 chart of 'very bad things' that happen if you screw up.  This isn't the most dangerous backlash effect table ever seen, its pretty damn tame compared to things from the various Warhammer games, in fact. I will note, however, that Structural Damage, which seems pretty innocuous, is a very bad thing in undersea habitats.

So what can a sea wizard do?

Well...  for that we first go back to the character creation chapter. Buying 'sea wizard' gives you a whopping one whole power. You can get up to three. But what powers? Well, that's randomly determined. Yes, you roll on the 'accidental release' chart as if you'd just spammed power at random.  There are about thirty odd powers, and each one is treated like a skill.  Now, I can't tell exactly if you roll one more time for the power you're using, or this is the skill tested in the release step (second test) that you use your success margins (if any) to speed up the power, reduce shock tests, and now to shape your power parameters.  Simply to cut down dice rolls, I'd probably run it that way, making the player parse how to spend their margins of success across these three areas.  That aside, the player can learn new powers by finding a teacher, which the game suggests is both hard and utterly up to the GM's mercy.  Sea Wizards, despite having a major political bloc all of their own, are jealous and suspicious of other sea wizards, apparently.

I'm not going to detail every power, but I will discuss their range.  There are powers that seem nearly useless (change in temperature, change in mass), but may have some utility in the hands of clever players, provided the GM isn't a complete dick... but I advise not playing with Complete Dicks anyway.  Then you've got combat monsters like Blob of Destruction that literally summons a Blob of Destruction... a slow moving but indestructable 'Blob' that does absurd damage (3d10, which is not super high for combat, but the damage is permanant).  You have force fields and energy bolts, which are fiddly sea wizard ways of getting by without guns and armor. You've got a dangerous trans-dimensional teleport. As with many things in Polaris, it pays not to glance at the name and assume you know what it does. Disintigration, for example, is really the power to make things insubstantial for a while, while Molecular Breakdown is the Disintigration spell we are all used to.  Naturally (?) there are plenty of psychic themed powers, but no real mind control (though the head of the Sea Wizards is said to have powers, including Mind Control, no one else does... but no rules for him, so...), and more than a few powers that are designed for use in a watery environment... like Sonar and Sound Scan.   All in all, a fairly broad range of abilities.

The chapter ends with a few pages of The Flux, which is the transdimensional... possibly even spiritual... plane that players can enter, or monsters can come out of.  I should note that the game posits that random Flux Rifts exist, so you don't need a Sea Wizard to use this section.  This section is mostly fluff, with a few random rolls and modifiers, but many of the creatures one can encounter in the Flux are also summon powers for the Polaris Effect sea wizards, so its not entirely without rules.

Book one ends with the two page 'chapter' on experience and growing your character, and an 'appendix' which is little more than the combat chapter condensed into tables of modifiers.

Book Two begins with, and at first appears to be entirely, Equipment.   I'll note that you absolutely do need this book to play the game unless you want to make up everything except the setting and characters yourself.

I like that the book starts with rules for maintenance and acquiring stuff, fitting its dystopian 'wasteland' aesthetic.  In a world where you can't just buy brand shiny new toys at the local 'gun'r'us' this is a good place to start.  Tucked away in this opening bit are the Tech Levels, which range from 1 to 7, in roman numerals, which covers, among other things, how hard they are to fix and presumably to make.  Repairers also have TL... which I'll be damned if I can figure out how that is determined.  As best I can determined, based on the explanation of the tech levels, your average PC is probably TL 3, but might be able to do TL 4 if they've got a super-high tech lab/workshop to work out of?  Partly this confusion comes as TL describes more a cultural value, with two TL values per cultural level, than training, so TL 3 is basically the default for the setting as it stands, while TL 4 is 'high tech, corporate and government secret squirrel shit' for the setting, while TL 5 represents the low end of the Azure Alliance, 6 represents the high end of the Azure Alliance and the low end of Genetician, and TL 7 is 'unknown super-science including some Genetician stuff'.

Curiously the very first item of equipment is... Cables.

Cables. By which I can assume they mean industrial support structure cables and not 'fiber optic data transmission' cables, but really it could go the other way. Not entirely sure why this is the first thing in the book... maybe its a French Gamer thing? Sorta like when I took over a group and discovered the party had more crowbars than swords because the previous GM loved problems that were best solved by levers?

This isn't entirely a random observation. The equipment is weird in general, much of it is very generic... 'Toolkits', like you'd see in any number of games, and others are oddly very, very specific.  So, you have two types of 'Cables', three lines for Grappling equipment, two types of rope... all in the first 'table' of equipment.  All the equipment is broken down into small digestible, themed chunks, so that first chunk is 'tools', the second is Communications, followed by Security, then Computers...

Again, its weird. Not alot stands out at first except the odder entries, such as the Ink Canisters... which make sense in the setting but still... weird.  Another thing that stands out is that most of this stuff wouldn't stand out particularly in the modern day.    Another thing that sticks out is that prices are absurdly high.  For example: A simple fire extinguisher costs 200 (Sols, I believe). Great, but most characters are only saving 500 odd 'sols' for an entire YEAR of work.  They can barely afford ROPE for god's sake!!!!  (120 or 900 per 50m depending on which 'model' you buy).  

As you get into Computers you see why there is an entire rule book for equipment: The computer chapter has most of the rules you need to actually USE computers (aside from the skill itself).  There are four pages, only the first of which is the actual computers, the rest is essentially the hacking rules.

Personally? I would have moved the Everyday Life section of the Equipment ahead of the Tools section.  I'm not sure how to take the idea that it costs 5 Sols a night to sleep in a Stairwell... is that an awesome level of detail, or an absurdity that hobos are paying rent?  Or, for that matter, that an Assassin doesn't earn enough to even afford to sleep on the stairs for more than three months out of the year? (I kid! I Kid!! I know that's 'after expenses' savings!!!)  For some very odd reason (bad organization, but we'll pretend its a mystery!), the section on everyday life is where they stash a short selection of Genetician artifacts, which gives you some idea of their superscience capabilities, though I'll note a lot of cross over with the Polaris Effect powers here, only 'technology!'.

There is a section on cybernetics that reveals another minor issue with the book overall.  The written text tells us there are, essentially, bioware and cyberware ways to augment the human body (attribute boosts), but the 'table' where the 'rules' are only has a single entry with no distinguishing differences. Is it cyber? Is it "hormonal synthesis Gene splicing"? Who knows?  Ok, that's an exaggeration, and an unfair one.  The point is that the table and the text are difficult to reconcile at best, often due to unclear labels and odd explanations.  Then you run into the issue of the Interfaces. I'll quote the book here:
"The neural implant (which links the nervous system to a device) and the neuronal implant (which links the brain to a machine)"... er? What? What is the difference?  THe brain is part of the Nervous System, and most Devices ARE in fact machines.   Mind you, in the table that accompanies this chapter, these two implants are identical except for the name.  These sorts of oddities are all over the book.

Anyway, that leads us to weapons. At last?

It takes two pages to tell us how to read the weapon charts, which means we are in for a rough ride.  Well, to be honest, a lot of this is stuff that is normally explained in a combat chapter (such as range increments and rules), so its a interesting, but not necessarily bad, choice to put it here instead.  We are introduced to the two scales in the game, Human and Vehicle, which I'll complain about later, and the idea that most weapons do some level of penetration, making armor v damage a bit more dynamic than it would first appear... but utterly ignoring the overwhelming amounts of damage most weapons do, given the health chart.  

The Melee weapons chart is more of the same: a mix of banal and generic stuff you expect to see, combined with some seriously 'wtf' entries, all mixed up humble-jumble.  So you've got a Dagger entry (with a very specific name for some reason... the Shark Dagger is the 'generic' dagger....), side by side with industrial equipment like Drilling Machine and Cutter Spreader. Then you've got the Magma Glove, which is a metal glove heated to white hot temperatures, which is listed as 'modern technology'... as in 20th/21st century stuff, and the Molecular Dagger, which is 'meh, average for setting', despite being super-science dark matter 'light saber' levels of bad-ass, in the shape of a, well, dagger, while the Ordainer's Staff (Sea Wizard stick?), which is little more than a electified staff with a switch blade, is listed as TL 5 pre-apocalyptic super-tech... um...  MAGMA GLOVE!!!!! ???

 The guns are better in that they are merely boring and utterly modern.  Where are my cool (and probably not terribly impressive when you look at the results) sci-fi guns?  Yay, I can has 'heavy Pistol', generic, one each?  Mind you, they are deadly given teh fixed hit points... the heavy pistol does 3d10+2 damage, to some poor chap with 30 total hit points to his name (to be fair, damage mitigation is a default... an ordinary person (ten to eleven stats) can ignore a point of damage already, and a more heroic character (average elite soldier needs two 15 stats, so we'll use 15s...) ignores three points of damage in his bare skin... and thats not counting mutations like Tough Skin (three points of armor) or the Hard Boiled advantage (1 extra point of damage resistant skin), but as you can see, getting shot in your bare skin is probably fatal, or very quickly so.

Now the game posits that MOST weapons are TL II by default and explains the rarity of higher TL weapons (despite, you know, TL III being the standard workaday stiff TL, and TL 4 being "mil-spec"???), and does allow you to 'upgrade' your generic guns to generic higher TL guns.  But that only leads me to point out weirdness in the heavy weapons (which have seperate damage for human and vehicle scale, which is nice... so much more believable than simply multiplying by some absurd 'you ded' number, like 50 (Cthulutech) or 100 (Rifts).  So an Autocannon (defined here as a high caliber gun...) is TL IV, or not quite super-tech... despite being a technology around since the far future days of WWI (Boys Antitank rifle being an early example), while Metalstorm machine guns (today a mere prototype, restricted mostly to heavy emplacements, and largely forgotten as a real advancment in weapon development despite early promise) are listed as TL II.  Fucking Magma Glove has just fucked the entire TL system up, hasn't it?  

As you might imagine we do have some rules for Torpedoes and spear guns, then we get the only real 'sci-fi' gun entries in the Supercavitation weapons. Described reasonably as 'forming a bubble of air around the specially designed nose of the round, they pass through water without being slowed by friction'... I paraphrase.  FIne and dandy, except two things: First, they work just fine out of the water (ok, no big...) and the do absurd 'sci-fi' gun levels of damage, even pistols hit like heavy weapons when it comes to vehicles. Um... what?   Fuck every other gun in the game, these are where its at!  This little chart tucked into the back of the weapon's chapter invalidates every other weapon in the game!  BOOYAH!

Well, actually there is more, but its stuff like sonic launchers and net guns and laser sights, plus some rules for explosives.  Meh.


This is where things take a turn for the worse. Prior to armor, the equipment book is just a little ugly, but usable. Armor.... welll..

FIrst we break it down into Simple armor, which works just fine, and Exo-Armor,which hits vehicle scale, and makes me weep bitter tears of rage.  On par with the Supercavitation guns, really.

You've got rules for stacking armor, and penalties for encumbrance, and a bunch of oddities. Heavy clothing is worth three points of armor, setting our low end, and Beta Security armor is at 20, setting out high end.  Then you've got force fields, which are absurdly expensive (5k/lvl at the low end, 80k/lvl at the high end.  Note that the level translates one for one for damage, and it breaks if you stop more than twice its level in a single shot... so in other words, you need to have enough levels to suck up 2d10 damage reliably in order to be effective, say a minimum of ten levels... force fields that matter cost more than armed submarines, probably.   They are also 'pre-apocalype' tech, which makes their price sensible.   In other words, this is 'magic item loot' type stuff, rather than a regular part of the game.

Since I want to stick with the armor, I'll skip talking about drones. There are drones, they do stuff and can break your game if you let them.

Ok, so Exo-armor is a major part of the game. Its basically powered armor. Leaving aside the environment its designed for, there are nine 'levels' of powered armor, broken into four scales, sort of. We can gloss over the light scale entirely, as it functions like human scale armor (but weirdly crappy), and half of the Medium armors, it isn't until Exo-3 that you hit vehicle scale armor. Note: Exo-2 armor weighs two and a half metric tons, but only provides a damage resistance of -7, which... unless I'm missing something important, is only twice as good as a simple leather jacket.  

Now, our Vehicle Scale Exo suits range from just under three meters (say 8-9 feet in height) to 4.65 meters in height (15-16 feet in height), and range up to 16 metric tons.  

Mind you, just because the exo-armors on teh light end use human scale armor, they still apparently use the rest of the vehicle rules in the exo armor chapter! So when someone punches a hole through your chest in your human sized Exo-Alpha suit (The lightest in the game) you will not risk death so much as vehicular destruction. You, the Pilot, despite making up 90% of the volume of the suit, only are hit on a 10 on a d10 table. I'll point out that an Exo-Alpha is 1.8m in size... which actually makes it a few centimeters shorter than I am...   Fucking Midget Euro-trash and their rediculously tiny power armor!

Now, it is entirely possible that the INTENT is that the vehicle damage scale rules are only meant to apply to the larger exo-armors, but this is not stated anywhere.  I'd house rule it, just to be safe.

Anyway, there are a large number of rules, such as tables of exo-armor stregth and so forth, and optional equipment that all make it seem like you can sort of custom build your exo-armor, This is a damned lie. You can customize the suits presented later in the chapter (which I'll point out pretty much only include underwater and underwater/surface hybrids, making pure surface, space and flying exo-armors restricted to teh skill set alone!), but certain core systems are simply absent that would make this a complete 'build your own suit' system.

Which is just as well, because despite there being an exponential difference in size between the 'low end' and 'high end' armors, there is no such scaling for the exo-armor weapons.  There is a limited number of weapons supplied, even in the generic sense, and no real way of telling how big or small each system is.  So, asided from strength bonus, there is no difference between a six foot Exo-Alpha wielding a power-drill, and a 16 foot Exo-Omega weilding a power drill.  Dafuq?  That's ok, though, as the Exo-armor weapon table is massively uninspired.   Let me list it out : Electro-claw, industrial dril, industrial saw, jackhammer, excavator, pincer/claw, speargun, dual-speargun, multishot speargun, neutron cannon.

See anything exciting there? Neutron Cannon seems nice. In fact it pretty much seems like the only actual weapon on the damn chart!    For something so 'big' in the setting, never mind the page count and art in this book, it really doesn't seem like they put much thought into this, does it?  

that's ok, though, because in our twenty odd examples of power armor they don't list anything above Exo-4, no heavy* or massive Exo-suits at all!  Aren't you glad they spent so much time telling us about those monstrosities?  I sure am!

Anyway, we close out the equipment portion of the book just past the half way mark, with 'vehicles'... which are all just one form or another of submarine. There is a little less here to suggest customizability or 'build your own', so its mostly just a decent cross section of vehicles, from the banal cargo movers to military attack subs.  I'd honestly love to repurpose some of the art for space ships, but I guess I can't complain too much about this chapter.  I'd LOVE at least a few options, like rules for mounting a torpedo launcher on a cargo hauler, or what have you, but they just aren't there, and frankly I'm fine with that.

It is fitting that the next portion of the book is underwater combat rules, seeing as the last two chapters of the equipment were purely underwater equipment.  It starts off discussing crew roles, since the bulk of the rules will be focused on actual submarines (and yes, at least one and probably more pre-made characters do, in fact, have submarines in their equipment!), and here I'll take a break from analyzing rules to make a fair point in the Game's favor.

Scattered through both rulebooks are light beige boxes of text that have all sorts of useful advice for using whatever rules are being presented.  Right here for example is a small box talking about the way skills on the 'ship' should be divided through the group to avoid having to bench anyone. Its a small thing, but a very good touch.  Flip the page and you have a list of the variety of 'soundscan types', which is more flavor than rules.  A few more pages on and it talks about the Tactical Coordinator (the Captain) choosing to go 'by the book' instead of rolling his tactics skill (and risking a failure), and what this means for the combat.  Its neat stuff, and while a lot of games do this, I think Polaris is doing a very good job with it, overall.

Back to the rules:
Given the environment the rules put a lot of emphasis on the fog of war.  It doesn't suggest magic detection technologies to make things easier, and a huge number of rules seem to focus on trying to find and identify targets, and trying to figure out what you did, or did not do.  The flavor text... those snippets of in-game fiction... in this chapter reinforces the idea. People underwater may not know if they've detected an enemy ship, or a whale.  They have to listen to 'see' the results of firing a torpedo, and any given detection has to be interpreted as best as possible.

Perhaps oddly, this is where you find most of the vehicle scale weapons adn the rules and charts for them.  I also did note a translation fail (or simply bad editing?) in the line on Hades Cannons, for your amusement "Manufactured by the Hegemonians, it literally vaporized water on his path."

On his path?

Next we get critters, divided into catagories. We read up on dolphins, after Chameleon Sharks, and learn that Dolphins can use the Polaris Effect. Dolphin Sea Wizards? No wonder dolphin meat is forbidden! On the other hand, why are there farmed dolphins if not for meat?  Yes, it does say there are farmed dolphins. I critique not from my own imagination, dear reader.

I'm not going to point out much of the 'natural' critters, other than the mermaids. Not ariel, think more like underwater harpies.  Also there are some critters that use the vehicle scale... but how do you track their damage?  Sigh. Mix and match scaling systems, fun amirite?

There are only four 'amphibious' creatures, three of which are made up vehicle scale monstrosities, and the other is a protoplasmic 'pod person' creature.

Getting progressively more fantastic, we then have the creatures 'native' to our Adventurer's Own CIty, Equinox, which includes two or four sorts of vermin (space rats), a mutant dog thing, which is probably vermin too (five sorts of vermin?), and Necrons, which sadly aren't alien robots sent to destroy all life, but just human slaves working the machines. Why they get a fancy name, I have no idea. I say that a lot in this review....

Then we get three alien critters that have strange implications on the setting.  There are the assassin larva, which are pretty much the worms you see early on in Attack of the Clones, and simply raise questions.

The big one is the Burrowers, which are some form of subterranian (sub-ocean terranian) alien demon things that mankind have been fighting for centuries as we/they mine for ore and living spaces that aren't soggy or radioactive.  Where exactly do they come from? Who knows.  They are mentioned in the setting information from time to time, but you'd think they'd get a lot more detailing than they do.

Then we get the Ternaset/Felorm 'set'. Ternasets are mind controlling alien flowers, or something. They may be native to deep trenches (20,000 meters down), but are apparently comfortable in shallower waters, or even inside habitats for 'reasons'... why something that feeds on microelements in the water would develop mind control powers and would be at all comfortable out of the water is a mystery. I have no idea, etc.

Felorm are their favored slaves, and look a bit like Sahugin or the creature from the black lagoon.

The rest of the book is advanced/optional rules. No, nothing here addresses any of my previous complaints.  It's a mixed bag, there are plenty of good things in this part of the book but some of it is space filler.  There is the aforementioned rules for random rolls for your careers, and a further section on random setbacks (which provide additional profession points, but not skill points) in return for random bad stuff. There's expansions to combat and limiting skills.

Hmm... I think I should have not dialed in my review so close on book 2... that is a LOT more detailed than I wanted to get into... but since I did, I'll leave it there.

Now, for a few big picture comments before I wrap it up.

First, I'm not a huge fan of the losing tech 'genre' of setting design.  Its surprisingly hard to lose knowledge in the long run, or for that matter to keep secrets of technology... secret. Polaris doesn't do itself any favors here at all, in that it piles on several collapses in a row, and the very last one isn't even a collapse so much as a writer's fiat that people are just sort of.... stupid?   Seriously: Why can't the people of Polaris maintain the technical knowledge of the victorious Azure Alliance?  Because Fuck You, that's why!  

Second: The opening fiction, and the frequent quotes and references to these Genetician Demigods, strongly suggest game play based around these secret masters/secret threats... and no information is given to support that.  There is more than a little hint that adventures should seek out Genetician and Azure treasure troves left over from the war, but again: What is there to support the GM filling these caches with anything?  We know that they'd probably look a bit like dungeons, mazes of trap filled corridors, possibly underwater?  But what is the PRIZE?  I get not letting the player know, but seriously, give a GM something to work with other than 'sea wizard power, in tech form'.

Third: I would love to have seen some more support for the surface world (seeing at there are plenty of excursions, etc), as well as space (seeing that there are, in fact, several space colonies detailed). We got nada. Thanks, guys. Way to really... stretch.  Why talk so much about things you have no intention of detailing?  I can get a god damn mutation that lets me spend x number of hours on the surface safely but what is the point?  There are Elite Soldier skill packages for surface mission specialists... but again... what is the point?  What is UP THERE other than radiation and magic radiation? I mean: Molecular Destabilization.  Monsters? Relics of a previous age?  God? Does he need a starship? Well, fuck you, we didn't include those either.  This setting is an Island, utterly unconnected to anything other than itself.  'Other Settings' are out there, somewhere... but you can't get there from here.

That said, how do I rate Polaris The Roleplaying Game?

Decent. Maybe not worth the entry price.  The setting is relatively unique and well developed, the books are fucking gorgeous.  The rules are blandly functional without being overly boring or simplistic.  Its got serious problems in organization, particularly in the second book, and it occasionally doesn't explain itself very well, but it also doesn't blandly repeat every other game out there.  I do think it could have used another round of design and or editing to clean it up... according to the editor's note at the beginning, the original french version was famously byzantine... so this may be a distinct improvement.

For me the deal breaker is simply the damn skills. Not just how long the skill list is, or how many you collect, but also how damn fiddly the system for acquiring them winds up being.  I've got a high tolerance for bloated skill systems, but this is simply too much, and weirdly the game doesn't offer me enough incentives to put up with it.   For everything the game adds to 'gaming as a whole'... such as the way characters are baked into the setting during Profession buying, its offset by a shockingly bland and serviceable rule set, or an annoying fiddly and complex way of getting there.  Things that should be cool and exciting often turn out to be boring ways of moving nearly pointless widgets around.  

Take for example the entries for the various 'hybrids', which are humans who are adapted to breath, and live, in the oceans.  Every one of the three gets a half a dozen attribute points, generally a +1 or rarely a +2 over six of the eight attributes.  Well, given the scale that attributes work on, not so much: every two to three points in an attribute moves it one step, meaning many of those bonuses will do very little to change your character... never mind that you'd get more attribute points NOT playing a hybrid and spending the points on your attributes directly... its widget moving, hollow choices.  The three Hybrid choices vary in only tiny ways from one another, mechanically, and could probably be made into one choice with three flavor options.  So what should be pretty neat winds up being pretty bland, like asking for a cheese platter and getting three different flavors of chedder. Wooo...

But then, its also incredibly fiddly when you read how the 'Hybrid' Skill you automatically know alters how deep you can dive, how you deal outside the water and so forth.  This takes a full page per hybrid type to detail.

Honestly, if you don't mind the skill system or you just really like the idea of a sort of post-apoc undersea setting, this is a good buy. If long skill lists and tedious character creation aren't your cup of tea, or you prefer your sci-fi a bit more open, then its not worth the price.

*Technically the Exo-4 is a heavy suit, but we're still missing a full third of the scale here.

Bonus Round:

Polaris is like Cyberpunk 2020 with a much worse skill system and no pizzazz in the guns and cyberware.
Polaris is like Eclipse Phase without the Body Hopping, but you trade an unpredictable skill system (doubles as criticals in Percentiles) for a predictable but tedious skill system.
Polaris is like GURPS but in two books instead of twenty and only one setting
Polaris is like Battlelords of the 23rd century, only with submarines instead of spaceships,and hybrids instead of aliens
Polaris is like Fragged Empires, except the setting makes sense but is boring instead of making no sense but being fun as hell
Polaris is like Fragged Empires except that organization is better, but mean about it

I tried to keep all of these glib but true.  The Cyberpunk one really stands out, the settings are remarkably similar, except, you know, underwater. Cyberpunk did it better is so many ways, but if I'm perfectly honest, I'm betting that Polaris's rules run a bit smoother around the edges.  I can probably rack up a similar number of problems each system has, but CP tends to win in the balance simply because it is 'get up and go', where polaris requires work for less payoff in fun.  Mock as you will, but I'll take CP's 200 odd guns with trivial stat differences over Polaris's generic 'gun', any day.

The Eclipse phase on is a personal observation. Both have eight attributes. Both have a bunch of WTF moments when going through the rules, both are beautiful and evocative books and settings that somehow are just too weirdly specific, and both of them have painfully generic 'stuff'.  The difference is that EP's WTF moments creep up on you through play and exploration of the system, while Polaris shoves them down your throat up front.   Also: Both have space magic and mysterious Demigod badguys that are never fully explained, leaving it to the GM to do the grunt work if he wants to use them.

The GURPS observation: well, I made that point a few times. Both have a tedious character creation system, though I'll admit actually Enjoying Gurps's system, mated to a reasonably simple and understandable rule set.  Both have too damn many skills, but at least GURPS seems to grasp that skills relate to one another, Polaris is missing that.

Battlelords? Okay, that one was a sort of joke commentary.  But there are a lot more similarities than you might expect. Battlelords doesn't take itself seriously, but the skills system is only a few degrees less tedious than Polaris's... in fact I think they work pretty similarly in a lot of ways! Better presented, but that's a low bar to hurdle.  Both have large attribute lines that serve their purpose without being too damn sexy about it, though I think Polaris has the advantage in being blandly serviceable here...  God, I really wish I knew how to explain it better than 'bland but serviceable'. I want some PIZZAZZ in my attributes, damn it!

The Fragged Empires? Well, I got it around the same time, and in many ways these games are polar opposites. FE has a small fixed skill list and sexy seeming (pizzazz filled) but largely useless attributes, but dear god the organization of the books almost broke me!   Polaris doesn't really offer customization of ships or equipment, but produces a functional, flexible set of rules for all that, FE offers largely meaningless but broad customization of everything, but produces mostly non-functional, or sub-functional results.  Most guns have two or three bullets, ranges are just short of punching distance and super high tech 'space demigods' use guns that are actually WORSE for killing fools than the low tech stuff everyone else is using.  FE and Polaris BOTH have weird techno-apocalypses following a great war between super-science powers, including the loss of technologies that are crucial to life in the setting...  and both offer power armor that is... broken.  FE treats its powered armor as just another set of armor, but only slightly (seriously, slightly) tougher, but crippling a vast swath of abilities many fighter types would have, but it's one line in the armor chart, so meh to that.  Both games offer the illusion of human augmentation as an option, Polaris by pricing it out of the market and saddling it with crippling boringness, and FE by making it just another 'talent'... which also makes it impossible to take another talent in that particular slot.

Wow.. FE adn Polaris are a lot more similar than I thought when I made that glib observation!  Still, given the particulars, I'd rather FE it than Polaris it. Still, I'm gonna bitch if I do.  Its who I am.

Wow! I was just recently looking at some articles in Backstab for Polaris and wondering what it was all about. The articles gave the impression it had a simmilar water world vibe to Blue Planet.

As for the 200m of the surface problem. Perhaps they had intended it to mean 200m of the shore?

I've never actually read Blue Planet... dolphins, man... fucking playable dolphins. As a core rule.... So I can't really comment much, and if I'm wrong about the way the 200m works (I don't.... think I am?), well, it IS a translation from French, and if that's the biggest issue with the translation then we are WAY ahead of the rest of my experiences with translated french games (what the fuck IS the name of that one game???? GAH!!!).

I don't recall if I pointed it out, but this is a really beautiful game. Well, okay, there is some ugly art.... but its SUPPOSED TO BE Ugly!  And the setting information in the front of the book is very detailed, with quick thumbnails of every decent sized settlement on Earth (underwater), complete with cute little jokes like having an entry for Leng.

I just wish the rules were a bit better, but at least its playable right out the box, or in this case, slip case.

Dan Davenport:
A very comprehensive review, Spike. You've given me a lot to mull over as I read the books for my own review. Nicely done.


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