Kit Bashing: Polaris Spycraft (Agents of Northstar)

Forget all that mythic tragedy beneath the fading stars stuff: I wanted to try Polaris as a modern spy game. It seemed perfect for the job, since the key conflict phrases looked like they would work really well for rapidly spawning the kinds of twists and revelations that are the meat of espionage. Flexible, but with a rules structure that fostered collaborative discovery. I was anticipating exchanges like:

“I open the safe and find the stolen files. Go me!”
“But Only If you also find evidence that your partner was working for the other side.”
“Okay, But Only If he did it against his will — he was blackmailed or something.”
“Sure, And Furthermore you find information he gave them about you to set up that assassination attempt you escaped. Willing or not, he sold you out too.”
“Damn! It Shall Not Come To Pass!”

The Tweaks

We wanted to mix things up a bit and avoid traditional national battle lines, so we agreed that the agencies were super-national shadow organizations with their own agendas, not government agencies like the CIA or KGB. We made the protagonists agents of Northstar, a NATO-spawned intelligence agency (because titular homages are fun). We left “the other side” intentionally vague to start with, agreeing that there were probably several real threats, but during play Edelweiss emerged as the primary adversary (shades of the gnomes of Zurich).

The only rules tweaks were cosmetic. Polaris game terms reinforce the mythic tone, so we changed some terms to avoid jarring references (“you got your tragic poetic saga in my mission plan!”). Mistaken became The Other Side, Blessings became Assets, Ice became Connection, and Light became Drive. We left other terms the same, either because they didn’t look like they’d get in the way or we couldn’t think of something appropriate — coming up with a replacement that captured the spirit of “the Moons” didn’t get very far, so Moons they remained. We started to change the key conflict phrases but it got too confusing, so we just satisfied ourselves with changing “It shall not come to pass” to “Over my dead body,” which seemed to capture the tone nicely. The general key phrases were too genre-jarring, so we replaced them entirely with things like “Agent ____: Your mission, should you choose to accept it…” and “Report Filed”

It’s my theory that when you kit bash like this, there is usually at least one aspect of the original game that you are going to leave behind — after all if it was already a perfect fit, you wouldn’t be adapting the game in the first place. In this case it was the tragic decline and “original sin” that’s at the core of the Polaris setting. We didn’t want anything like that in our spy game, so we just left it behind. The arc of personal tragedy and decline was still there, and quite genre appropriate, but the world itself was not necessarily going to hell in a hand basket. At least not so overtly.

The Characters

Since we were new to Polaris, we started with two protagonists (arranged perpendicularly), so each player was a protagonist or antagonist in one story and a Moon in the other. As play went on and we got a feel for things we made up and brought in the remaining two protagonists giving us a full house.

Our starting pair were:

Colin Shepherd — A once successful agent now punished with inactive status (and under surveillance by his own people we find out) because of his unwillingness to give up digging into the details of his partner’s demise. Was his partner really a traitor? Shepherd is determined to find out no matter what the damage to his career. His antagonist is Lloyd Argyle, a Northstar station chief who really is a double-agent (even if Shepherd doesn’t know it yet) and who may turn out to know quite a bit more about what happened to Shepherd’s partner than he’s letting on.

Anya Boginskaya — Russian by birth and a sharpshooter by trade, Anya’s heritage made her a perfect candidate to infiltrate a Moscow government building as a clerk. Sure she’s just supposed to steal some plans, but where’s the sharpshooting in that?

We later added Max Giger (involuntary spy, ordinary guy swept until into events beyond his control or understanding, a situation that starts him out hunted by both sides) and Thomas Flynt (bad ass in the dog house after his fervor led him to blow a bodyguard mission and get his target killed, along with a good chunk of his own team).

When each player filled in their cosmos, some secondary characters had fairly clear concepts (“she’s ostensibly an enemy agent but we have a sexy rivalry going, so sometimes we help each other”) and others were literally just names with no preconceptions, with the understanding that they would emerge during play.

The Game: “He’d have lived if we liked him more”

Definitive statements and the conflict phrases took a little getting used to, but before long we were chugging away spinning harrowing tales of espionage and betrayal.

We also learned an early lesson, which is that if the Moon doesn’t play up a character in a way the main players like, that character is a lot less likely to dodge a bullet when the time comes. Archibald B’dango was expected to be an amiable Bahamian bureaucrat, but when the Full Moon started spinning him as an increasingly nefarious troublemaker he caught an early sniper bullet — just another casualty in the trail of mystery.

On the other hand the reverse was also true: the Moons sometimes took skeletal characters and ran with them to everyone’s delight.

Colin Shepherd is in the Bahamas, ostensibly on vacation after being put on inactive status but really investigating a lead into his partner’s death. He pays a social call on local Northstar station chief Lloyd Argyle, who Colin doesn’t know is a full bore double-agent and traitor (and primary antagonist). They chat over drinks at a patio bar, and while there’s lots of back and forth I realize pretty quickly that I’ve set up a scene with no conflict. Or rather there is a deep conflict, but for the short term there’s no way for it to come out. Whoops.

Moons to the rescue! The name Kip Blaine is scribbled in my Full Moon area (right above the now crossed out Archibald B’dango) with the terribly informative note “agent” (of Northstar we assume), but he hasn’t made any appearance yet. The Full Moon announces that Kip has been loitering nearby watching the whole thing — Northstar sent him to the Bahamas to watch Colin the loose cannon and make sure he stays out of trouble. Argyle knows about it (since of course he’s the station chief), and Colin notices Argyle noticing Kip (intentionally? to make Colin nervous? we don’t know).

Now we’ve got some grist. Colin and Argyle say their farewells, and I quickly declare that Colin let’s Kip follow him down an alley then stops him at gun point. After Kip identifies himself as Northstar and admits his mission (“you’ve got the higher ups worried about you”) we get into the conflict:

me: Colin turns Kip to his side. Kip feels like a rat for spying on a fellow agent who is just trying to find out what happened to his partner. He’s helping me now.

antagonist: But Only If Argyle is watching you two talking and knows what’s up.

me: But Only If Kip mentions something that links Argyle to Operation Doppelganger. Kip doesn’t even know it’s important, maybe just some detail that Argyle was stationed in Yugoslavia during that period.

antagonist: But Only If Argyle frames you for the murder of B’dango. Northstar thinks you killed him.

me: And Furthermore I know he’s lying to frame me. Once I find out about it anyway. Exhausting my Fate Theme using my Aspect Idea: Traitor.

antagonist: Yep, that’ll get things moving. And So It Was…

The Moons were liberal in weaving in secondary characters from the cosmos, which worked out very well and was usually upheld by the protagonist/antagonist. Someone coming up behind you? Why that’s probably Uri, the previously unidentified guy in your Full Moon.

The fast paced twists and turns of espionage also meant that characters moved around between cosmos areas in surprising but very pleasing ways. Uri started off as a generic co-worker in the embassy (faceless placeholder in the Full Moon area), got seduced by Anya to prevent him from learning too much (moved from Full to New), then turned out to be an enemy agent (moved from Full to Other Side), then turned out to not really be an enemy agent but a pawn being used by the other side (back to Full), forcing Anya to choose love or loyalty, at least until the poison killed him and she checked Experience for being so cold.

The Conclusion: Did it work?

The important question is: did it work? Oh definitely. The rapid “But only if” exchanges created pretty complicated espionage/betrayal/revelations quite nicely, which my was reason for wanting to try Polaris as a spy game in the first place. Plus everybody had fun and wants to play again, which is the only real test.

What was the real purpose of Operation Doppelganger? Will Anya love again or just express her feelings through her sniper rifle? Will Max ever find out why everyone is after him or what’s in the briefcase? Will Flynt betray Northstar just to see Sofia again, or will he wise up and recognize that sleeping with the wife of an enemy operative is just asking for trouble, particularly when that enemy set up the first tryst? I want to know, but we’ll have to wait until the next mission update to find out.

    Ben Robbins | January 16th, 2008 | what we played | show comments