|A former member||
Players: Cheryl, Laura, Brandon, Martin
Game: Polaris with setting hack
Setting: The space station Canopus, a self-sustaining artificial environment
Mistake: The Collapse. As years go by, machines break down, organizations degenerate, and people get more fractious and self-centered. Nothing works anymore, and nothing gets done about it, and sooner or later Canopus itself will fail and everyone will die.
Knights: Members of the Proctorate, the ancient order of technicians and bureaucrats who are supposed to keep things running.
Protagonists: Justicar Sarin, judge and chief of police in Sector 6. Called "The Butcher of Sector 6" by his detractors. [Brandon]
Engineer Rigel, who keeps Sector 7 working and habitable. Loud and irritating, but well respected for his dedication. [Cheryl]
Sarin reads reports that a religious group known as "The Songbirds" has been tapping the Sector 6 power lines, giving them as much power as they want but subjecting everyone else to outages. They seem to be using the extra power to fortify their compound. He sends a flunky to bring their leader, Alasfi, in for questioning. When Alasfi refuses, Sarin takes the Songbird compound by force. He succeeds, but in the process one of his men is caught on camera shooting a blatantly unarmed teenager.
Rigel discovers that the Sector 7 Quartermaster, Algol, is stealing supplies to manufacture illegal drugs, using a dangerous home made lab. Rigel files a report with the justicars, which is ignored. Faced with the difficulty of making Algol stop his illicit trade, Rigel settles for teaching him how to do it safely. Unfortunately, there are witnesses to this, but they are keeping quiet for now.
Alasfi insists that the Songbirds simply want to live in separate peace, and are fortifying their compound because they've been targets of violence from local thugs, which the justicars ignored. He offers to disarm and remove the power tap if Sarin will offer them official protection, but Sarin declines, insisting that the Songbirds return to their government-assigned jobs before he will consider protecting them. In a renewed surge of violence, a local mob destroys the Songbird compound, forcing them to disperse.
It turns out that Rigel's sister Ankaa is among Algol's customers. She has a particularly nasty overdose, and is arrested for drug possession. Rigel comes to bail her out and bring her home, but is confronted by an enraged and thoroughly inebriated Algol. Rigel fends him off and has him arrested, but the neighbors have heard the commotion, and Rigel's role in the sordid affair comes out, deeply harming his reputation.
The Songbirds have been forced back to their government-mandated jobs, which they regard as slavery. They stage a public passive resista. Sarin scrambles to manipulate them into ending the protest, and succeeds, but not before they have inspired other workers to do likewise. In a matter of days Sarin has a general strike on his hands. Sarin remains steadfast in his pro-slavery stance even as the strikers turn to sabotage, threatening the integrity of the sector.
Rigel has overcompensated for the damage to his reputation, and begun hunting out corruption in Sector 7 wherever he finds it. Unfortunately, in this day and age corruption is literally everywhere, and Rigel soon becomes something of a public gadfly. The role suits him, and he starts his own crusading newsletter. A crimelord called Betelgeuse decides to put this new annoyance to use, and threatens to hurt his sister Ankaa unless he publishes fake evidence accusing an honest politician, Kalem, of treason. Rigel caves, and Kalem is arrested.
Sarin gets Alasfi out of prison to negotiate for an end to the strike. The two agree that workers should be allowed to retrain for new jobs if they dislike their mandated ones, and that free elections should decide who controls Sector 6. The sticking point is that Alasfi does not trust Sarin, and insists that he personally resign before the elections go forward. Sarin agrees to resign as Justicar if he can keep his more general role in the Proctorate, and the strike is ended.
Rigel agrees to testify for the defense in Kalem's case as long as he and his sister get protection. But his record of drug involvement plus some creative perjury allows the Prosecutor to discredit him before he can even get on the stand, and the Defense dismisses him and revokes his protection. With the mob hunting him and the justicars uninterested, Rigel does the only thing he can do, and signs his life over to Betelgeuse in exchange for his sister's. Betelgeuse sets him to work using his Engineer's all-access key to cheat, steal, and blackmail.
Alasfi fraudulently wins the election for High Justicar, setting up shop in Sarin's old office. Sarin reveals the fraud to the public, but the tables have already been turned, and Alasfi's men have all the guns now. Sarin calls on the Proctorate in other sectors for reinforcement and barricades himself in his quarters, killing Alasfi and several of his men when they come to arrest him. Proctorate forces storm the sector and destroy the rest of the insurgency, but Songbird agents detonate a bomb in the main power core, cutting off life support in the entire sector. [Note: in this scene Sarin lost his last point of Zeal, which means that his next scene will involve a personification of the Mistake.]
Rigel and Ankaa concoct a plan to free him from his enforced life of crime: he will work his way into Betelgeuse's inner circle and then betray the mob from the inside. Doing so requires a campaign of more and more heinous activities; the final test of Rigel's loyalty is that he betray his mentor Cheleb, releasing information so damning that the old man commits suicide.
Sarin is alone in his quarters during the blackout. His computer monitor flicks on in the darkness, and he is confronted by Canopus, the AI which controls the ship. Canopus explains that he admires Sarin for being one of the few humans to understand what awful hateful wasteful creatures humans are, and for helping Canopus rid himself of the infection. A matter of days to go from a peaceful protest into a full scale massacre! And now that life support is down, all of Sector 6 will be dead within the hour unless Sarin repairs the generator. Canopus offers a choice: he will help Sarin fix the life support, but delay turning it back on in insurgency-controlled areas until everyone Sarin dislikes has suffocated; or, he will go away and let Sarin try to fix it himself, which may mean that everyone suffocates.
Sarin chooses a third option: he uses his little remaining time to launch an attack on the AI itself, deleting it from the mainframe but allowing thousands of people to die, himself included. The victory is Pyrrhic, however, because the station cannot be run without an AI, so it must be recreated to avoid collapse.
Rigel has accumulated a massive dossier of evidence against Betelgeuse, and is in a position to destroy his whole organization. The mobster finds out at the last minute, and delivers swears to destroy Rigel and everyone he loves if he publishes, but Rigel publishes anyway. Rigel's mother is killed in retaliation, his sister turns on him to save her own life, and he must live the rest of his life in hiding. The collapse of the mob plunges Sector 7 into chaos, and food hording turns quickly to famine.
Rigel was a fun character to inhabit -- not least because of that stubborn last point of Zeal that just wouldn't go away. His story was a long string of failed attempts at redeeming himself.
I also loved watching Sarin's dedication to order crumble as order failed him.
Polaris seems to require a mindset for protagonist-players that we found tough -- we have to play characters who actually *want* things, but then be willing for them to fail, over and over.
I also enjoyed the little bits of setting-information we created along the way:
- At this point in the station's history, organized crime is a critical cog in food-distribution.
- The station's culture doesn't value the arts (or at least, song and poetry) as integral to the functioning of society.
- There is a serious taboo against inter-generational relationships.
& I wonder to what extent we would have been able to revisit or deepen any of those had we kept going longer.
Also, there was a question as to whether AIs gloat (answer: yes, but only within reason).