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Polaris RPG Takes Us Beneath the Dystopian Waves | Geek and Sundry
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Gamers have an embarrassment of riches when it comes to choosing a post apocalyptic tabletop
setting, it just depends on how shiny or how dark one wants to get. However, one markedly
absent setting revolves around mankind’s journey across and beneath the seas to eke out what
meager existence is left. And that is exactly where Polaris takes us.

One of the most popular home-grown RPG’s in Europe, Polaris has been through three editions
since 1997. Stewarded by game designer Philippe Tessier and his company Black Book Editions,
the game has seen its rules and product line expanded, and thanks to a very successful
Kickstarter campaign, is finally coming to our shores in an English language version.

As you might have gathered from above, the world of Polaris is a dark, cold place. Mankind has
rendered the surface of the earth uninhabitable, and even with the help of some mysterious
benefactors known as The Geneticians, they flee beneath the waves of Earth’s swollen oceans to
survive in any way possible. Mankind’s base nature gets the best of them, and before long, new
grudges emerge and the water becomes spotted with the blood of the innocent and guilty.
Decades of squabbling ensue over increasingly diminishing resources, and it seems the end is
nigh until a phenomenon known as The Polaris Effect instills myriad individuals with powers
that science cannot adequately explain. The default game setting takes place after all of this has

Players can take the role of the usual post-apocalyptic types: mercenaries, soldiers, doctors,
pirates (because hey, you’re under the sea), as well as devotees of The Cult of Trident, whose
members tend to be proficient in the manipulation of The Polaris Effect. There are a number of
enclaves settled about the globe, and groups can either align themselves with one of the several
geographically locked factions or travel The Seven Seas in search of adventure. But man isn’t the
only thing that lurks beneath the surface, and mysterious monsters and allies await the
adventurous and foolhardy.

polaris character

The game uses a modified version of the familiar d20 resolution mechanic: roll a d20, add a
number, and hope that you hit a target number. However, unlike other d20 based games, you
want to roll low to succeed here. Good modifiers raise a difficulty number so rolling under it is
easy, and bad mods lower it to make rolling less than your target almost impossible. There are
also the usual critical successes and failures, and Polaris offers a fun chart to see just how
badly/well you failed/succeeded.

Combat follows the same basic model, and the amount of damage a player or target can take is
annotated on a character sheet by a number of boxes. The more boxes are checked, the worse it
gets for you, affecting dice rolls and crippling limbs. It should be noted that weapons do quite a
bit of damage, too. The Polaris Effect is also available to certain classes, and works much like
magic/superpowers/The Force works in other games. Players can heal, harm, and rend reality
with the mysterious power of The Flux.

Also: thanks to the aforementioned Kickstarter, there will be a version coming out for Savage
Worlds as well, for those who prefer the popular universal rule set!


There is zero question that Polaris is gorgeous. The layout and art are a testament to the care
and craftsmanship the good people at Black Box Editions bring to the table. One chief
complaint, especially among those gamers who build their libraries via PDF, is that the core
rules are split up in to two very large rulebooks. Another is the somewhat steep price of entry for
the core set. While these concerns are not without merit, they are hardly unique to Polaris. In
fact, the designers have made it clear that they are aware of the issues of their consumers, and
assure them that no malice is intended, and having two large books is easier for most physical
purchasers to handle and store than one truly gargantuan one.

There are already plans to translate some of the supplemental material in to English, and you
can even pick up a robust quickstart/adventure on Drive Thru RPG. Physical copies will be made
available shortly to backers and can be ordered on

This game has a ton of worthy buzz surrounding it, and is definitely a must-have for fans
SeaQuest, Mad Max, and Metal Hurlant (that’s Heavy Metal to you and me). The combination of
a slick package, solid and time-tested system, and unique setting make it a refreshing entry in
the American RPG market.

Every Polaris game must begin with that sentence. It’s a rule of the game, and that’s the best
summary I can think of: it’s a game concerned with helping a group structure a certain kind of
story, a bittersweet tale of tragedy and heroism. It does that very, very well, but because it is so
focused and has many unique qualities, it won’t appeal to everyone. So I’m going to start by
explaining who won’t like it and why before I get into the details.

Who won’t like this game

People with very conventional tastes in RPGs.

This is a “Forge” game, a game built outside the main industry production/distribution network,
and one that has little in common with D&D and other big-market-share RPGs. Characters are
defined by only three stats, and none of them tell you which PC is the strongest or the prettiest
or the smartest. There is no GM: the roles of the GM are distributed amongst the group, so that
everyone has a PC (or “Protagonist”) and everyone takes a partial GM role for everyone else.
Although a single d6 is occasionally rolled, the game is mostly driven by player negotiation and
invention. So someone looking for a standard GM-players, “roll your strength score” type game
will be either disappointed or very surprised by Polaris.

People who insist on logical, scientific settings

The world of Polaris doesn’t make scientific sense and doesn’t intend to. The game is set in a
“long ago” society at the North Pole and makes no attempt to explain how these people survive
the frigid conditions. The society had a perfect age before the coming of “Dawn.” How it could be
that there were people in the Arctic who had never seen the sun long enough to develop a society
is likewise not explained. The game simply isn’t concerned with logical cause and effect: it’s
trying to create myth, not “realism,” and is more concerned with consistency of tone,
atmosphere, and theme than consistency of physics or ecology.

People who want everything clearly defined

While the rules are clear and specific, in describing the setting Polaris evokes rather than
defines. There’s no timeline of what happened when in the city-state of Polaris, but rather a
telling of alternative stories that might explain its decline. The game not only refuses to establish
one “true history” of Polaris, it strives to create a feel where no one would attempt to. Again the
best word I can think of is myth: the game is trying to get you to tell tales of an impossible place,
tales that feel true even though they obviously can’t be true, so there’s no problem if the tales are
contradictory. Likewise, this isn’t a game that provides stats for monsters and NPCs: the
mechanics don’t require such stats, and the game has no desire to pin things down that way.

People who find their “fun” only in humor, ultimate victory, or character advancement
Polaris describes itself as “Chivalric tragedy at the utmost north,” and tragedy is exactly what the
game is intended to provide. By the rules, the story of an individual protagonist can only end in
three ways: the protagonist dies, the protagonist becomes corrupted and joins the forces of the
Mistaken (demons, the bad guys), or the world ends. While protagonists do become more
capable over time, they also move inevitably from optimism to pessimism. This is not a game
that tells light stories, or funny stories, or stories of the gradual increase in power and wealth
before a final triumph over all enemies. In my opinion, it also doesn’t tell angst-ridden stories or
tales of base people doing what they can to “get theirs.” The game as written only tells the tales
of people striving to hold off inevitable defeat.

People who have trouble taking things seriously, especially ritualized things
As I mentioned at the opening, the game prescribes a phrase that must be said to open the game,
and another that closes the game, and another to introduce each protagonist for the first time,
and another to open each scene. The designer suggests that other rituals might be used as well,
but absolutely insists on these “key phrases.” He has good reason. These key phrases help to
invoke the setting and mood of the game, and they also help to draw stronger lines between
“game time” and “non game time,” something that’s always potentially helpful in face to face
gaming but especially so in a game as serious and “heavy” as Polaris. Conflict resolution features
several additional key phrases that must be used as the players negotiate the outcome. While I
wouldn’t want Paranoia or even Earthdawn to tell me what I have to say to start the game, here
it makes perfect sense. But if you can’t imagine your group doing that without giggling, this isn’t
the game for you.

People who aren’t comfortable trusting their gaming group

This is a game that explicitly asks for trust among the participants. Although there are clear
rules for resolving conflict, the rules involve negotiation among the players and are hardly proof
against someone who actively tries to violate the spirit of the game.

What it is
If you haven’t been scared off by any of that, you’ll find a lot to be in love with in Polaris. Let me
try to explain what you get if you buy it and then I’ll get more into what’s so amazing about it.

The product
Polaris is a 140-page 5½” by 8½” black and white book. It features a table of contents but no
index. Six pages are taken up by advertisements. The rest of the book provides setting material
(about 20 pages), game rules (about 60 pages), and extensive play aids (about 40 pages). Each
chapter begins with a one- or two-page art piece. I’ve had the book for six months and have no
complaints about its durability: while I haven’t used it extensively, it has survived a move and a
lot of carrying around without losing pages or anything.

The setting
Polaris is a city-state at the top of the world that evokes Camelot more than anything. There is a
king (also called Polaris), his queen (unnamed but with several epithets), the knights who serve
as the queen’s guard, and the captain of the knights, Algol. Originally these people did not know
the sun but only the stars, so they are all named for stars (the game includes a very extensive list
of star names to help with this). But now the sun has appeared, and reappears every spring to
dominate the sky all summer (remember, we’re at the North Pole), and with the sun came
corruption. Whatever the exact cause of the corruption, Polaris is not what it once was. Now it is
composed of four strongholds circling “the Mistake,” an opening into the pit of hell. Out of the
Mistake pour the Mistaken, demons intent on destroying all that is left of Polaris.

Yet the people on the whole are passive in the face of this threat, idling their time away in gaudy
parties and petty politics. Only the Knights Stellar recognize the threat and fight it. The PCs all
play the roles of these knights, fighting against the Mistaken and their own inevitable fall into
death or corruption.

The game: character definition and control

Polaris is designed for four players, and while variant rules are provided to allow for the “3-5
players” identified on the cover, it’s obvious that the game is going to work best as written, with
four participants. Normally each participant would control a protagonist, although it is possible
to use only a couple of protagonists even with four participants, because everyone has a role in
each protagonist’s play.

The way these roles work is by assigning each player to be a particular “guide” for a given
protagonist according to where they sit around the circle. The person who primarily controls the
character is called the “Heart” for that character. This is pretty much the conventional “player”
role: you say what the character does, thinks, and feels. The person sitting opposite is “the
Mistaken” for that character; this is an adversarial role, trying to introduce conflict and
temptation and controlling all enemies or opposing forces. To the left of the Heart is the “New
Moon,” who controls all the characters who have a close, personal relationship with the
character (and any minor female characters in the game). Opposite from the New Moon is the
“Full Moon,” who controls characters who have a more social or hierarchical relationship with
the protagonist (and minor male characters).

So in a scene in which a knight meets with her lover, the Heart plays the knight and the New
Moon acts out the lover, with the Mistaken trying to introduce conflict into the scene. Once
conflict occurs, the Heart and the Mistaken negotiate the outcome according to fairly strict rules,
with the moons acting as advisors and referees. (More about conflict later.)

Each Protagonist’s character sheet is meant to include everything important happening in that
character’s story. So enemies are listed in the “Mistaken” section, close friends under “New
Moon,” etc.

The Knight’s unique characteristics are defined by four types of Aspects: Offices (social
positions, like “Renowned Champion” or “Aide to Senator Altair”), Fates (people, events, or
whatever that are “tied, irrevocably, into your story,” like “Event: Betrayal of the People,” or
“Idea: the Greatest Knight”), Blessings (artifacts like the Starlight Sword every knight starts
with, or “Memory Crystal”), and Abilities (skills, knowledge, or competencies, like “Lore of the
Stars” or “Skill: Musician”). The game lists several sample Aspects but players can also create
their own.

Each protagonist is further defined by four numerically rated scores. Ice measures the knight’s
connectedness to and commitment to society and helps the knight to struggle for Polaris and
others around. Light measures a more internal and independent focus, the ability to fight for
oneself, by oneself. When a die is rolled to resolve conflict, it’s a single d6 compared to either Ice
or Light (the moons decide which guided by the rules). Both scores start at 1 and improve with
experience. New protagonists start with a high Zeal score, indicating optimism and commitment
to the cause. This declines over time, eventually being replaced with a Weariness score, as the
knight comes to recognize the futility of the fight.

The game: play, conflict, and experience

Play of the game involves two modes, “Free Play” and Conflict. “Free Play” is what some of us
would call “roleplaying it out,” just participants declaring what characters under their control do
without any use of game mechanics. Conflict gets invoked when two participants disagree about
what happens or when someone thinks something ought to have a price attached.

In Conflict, the Heart and the Mistaken negotiate the outcome of the events using several key
phrases like “But only if” and “You ask far too much.” This is probably the most complex part of
the game, but there is a cheat sheet included, and I suspect that it would seem pretty natural
once you’d done it a few times. (If I ever get to play, I’ll let you know.) Rules in conflict are strict:
you can only use certain phrases in certain situations, and some require that you check off one of
the protagonist’s aspects to use them. Depending how the negotiation goes, the Heart and
Mistaken may agree to a certain outcome (say, that the knight’s lover is under the control of a
demon but will not be killed by it) or they may come to an impasse that must be resolved by
rolling a die. The die rolling is simple: 1d6 compared to either Ice or Light: lower or equal means
the knight “wins” or succeeds.

Experience gets checked either when a knight fails in a roll or anytime a knight shows signs of
corruption: callousness, sympathy with the demons, hatred of the people, etc. Experience is
checked by rolling a die and comparing it to Zeal/Weariness. Success gets an increase to Ice or
Light and a move toward maximum Weariness, “failure” means that you refresh all your checked
off aspects.

What’s to love
I’ve already given away a lot of this, but I want to highlight some really good features of this
product, including a couple I haven’t explicitly mentioned yet.
It’s beautiful
Polaris doesn’t have full-color art from a dozen different professionals. What it does have is
stylized white-on-black drawings by Boris Artzybasheff that remind me of Greek paintings and
medieval manuscripts. The art is perfect for the flavor of the game, and each piece includes a
caption that attaches the art more strongly to the game itself.

But that’s not all that’s lovely. The layout and typefaces are simple, clean, and appropriate, and
the writing is fantastic. I read much of this book the way I read poetry I love: to savor both the
sound and the sense of it. The poetic language is fun to read and effective in evoking the mood
and setting of the game. In fact, it’s so good that I’d be a little hesitant to play with someone who
hadn’t read at least the setting parts of the book.

It’s soundly designed

The game mechanics are cleverly put together to keep everyone involved at all times and in
equal ways. Everybody gets their turn to be the protagonist, the villain, the spurned lover, the
angry authority figure. Characters grow more powerful and more despondent with each failure.

The mood and theme are powerful and consistentThis is a game that really does tragedy. The
game consistently encourages players to “go for the throat” in making bold statements. Even in
free play, you’re encouraged to say not “I take a swing at him” but “I knock his blade aside and
slash through his heart!” (Conflict will resolve it if the others don’t think you should succeed at
this.) And at all times, someone is charged with introducing temptation, conflict, and trouble.
The flavor text, the examples, and the setting material all serve to put me in mind of
Shakespearian or Greek tragedy or the best versions of the Arthur legend I’ve encountered. This
game does exactly what it sets out to do.

Overview and Ratings

I love this game and recommend it strongly. Not everyone will like it, as I’ve said, but if it’s your
kind of thing, you’ll find a lot to love. I’m giving it the top rating in each category because if Ben
Lehman asked me what to change in the second edition, I’d barely have any suggestions. But “5”
can mean different things to different people, so I want to elaborate and defend my ratings a bit.

The top rating here should not be misconstrued to mean that this game has the same visual
impact as the latest $50 book from Wizards of the Coast or White Wolf. But I find the art, the
layout, and the writing to be compelling and totally appropriate. This is a stylish game with a
stylish setting. If the book is a little understated, well, that fits too: in this game, the heroes favor
the subtle stars over the gaudy sun.

Top rating here doesn’t mean that the designer included everything that could possibly be
included. The four remnants of Polaris are named but not described. The general nature of the
demonic forces is briefly discussed, but there’s no list of all the demons you might encounter. All
of this is deliberate and right for the game. The details will be invented by the group to fit the
story being told, rather than defined by the canon game line. But you have everything you need
here: evocative description of a rich setting and a clever, focused game system. You don’t need to
buy a supplement or download anything (except maybe a bigger character sheet) to be ready to
go. If I were going to suggest anything else to be included, it would just be a distinctive key
phrase to mark the end of a scene. Otherwise, everything I want is there. The only thing that
isn’t included is three other friends who’d enjoy something like this. And if you’ve already got
that, well, I envy you.

I can only close as every Polaris game must close:


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
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

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,

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

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

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

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.

Bonus Round:

Polaris is like Cyberpunk 2020 with a much worse skill system and no pizzazz in the guns and
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

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