Gen Con Highlights: The Dark Eye and Polaris
Gen Con’s expo hall is a cornucopia of nerd-dom without parallel.
You find crowds of people poring over boxes of game dice like rare jewels on display at a bazaar, snaking queues for popular game pavilions, skyscrapers of bookshelves, traffic jams of cosplay, all with a titanic Pikachu hovering over it all.
Picking something out from the riot seems almost daunting but there’s more than a little big news hiding in the crowds. A pair of venerable and popular tabletop RPGs from France and Germany have been translated into English, Polaris and The Dark Eye, respectively.
Ulisses Spiele’s The Dark Eye (Das Schwarze Auge in German) was launched in 1984 and became the bestselling RPG in the German market, even outselling Dungeons and Dragons. The homespun alternative to D&D’s juggernaut can, at first blush, seem to offer nothing that kitchen sink settings like Forgotten Realms or Pathfinder’s Golarion don’t in spades. The anglophone market is certainly saturated with Tolkien-esque high fantasy already. But there are a few things that make The Dark Eye stand out a touch and may appeal to players like me who simply can’t get enough of Elves, Dwarves, and Dragons.
First and foremost, although its rule system is a modified D20 (except that critical successes are 1s and crit failures are 20s that require a “confirmation roll” to lock in, for instance) the character creation system of the 5th edition is a wide open build-your-own model. The Core book--which I received a review copy of--outlines dozens of possible character archetypes after outlining broad rules for brewing your own unique class. This isn’t The Dark Eye’s first English translation but it appears Ulisses Spiele is investing much more in translating its material this time, bringing out much more of its line of products in English. This neatly leads to the game’s second distinction, The Aventurian Herald.
When I spoke to the developers they emphasized again and again that the game and its setting of Aventuria, comprised a “living world.” In addition to all the malleability endemic to a tabletop game, they said, players had the ability to have a say in shaping the canon of the world itself. Their actions in-game and their stories could potentially be recorded as actively shaping the “official” world written by the developers. Ulisses Spiele runs a monthly newspaper--neatly printed and in broadsheet format, to boot--called The Aventurian Herald which updates players on the game-world’s news, written in-character by other players.
It seems more diffuse and less formalized than, say, the way CCP involves players in the direction of Eve Online, which at any rate is always instantly responsive to player input on its complex political universe. But this analogue method has charm, and it’ll be interesting to see if a new and expanded market pulls this game in a new direction. Their Kickstarter, funded fifteen times over, promised support for the North American version of this game “for years to come;” hopefully that pans out.
It is tempting to look for uniquely German elements in this game, but if anything it is a testament to what we share in common as gamers worldwide. One thing that did catch my eye, however, is that a forthcoming adventure pack takes on a distinctly Wagnerian theme: Offenbarung des Himmels, or Revelations from Heaven, is out in English next month and tells the tale of an isolated village amidst Alpine idyll disrupted by divine schemes and worldly evils. If it references the Walsung Saga in any way, your humble correspondent might well squee.
Polaris: The Roleplaying Game was purchased from its original developers by Blackbook Edition before publishing a new and updated version of the game in French a few years ago. It is this version of the post-apocalyptic, underwater game that has now been translated for the game’s anglophone debut.
Is post-aqualyptic a genre? If not, it surely is now. Polaris is set centuries after a climate catastrophe that left the Earth’s surface an irradiated toxic wasteland utterly inhospitable to most forms of life. Humans instead retreated beneath the waves to found underwater civilizations that, in time, came to thrive under the aegis of the mysterious “polaris effect” that protects the deeps from most of the surface’s toxicity. It’s a compelling game take on the afterlife of apocalypse, one of a growing number of games like Posthuman Studios’ Eclipse Phase that focuses on the civilization rising from the ashes rather than the wasteland itself.
Polaris’ system is skill-based rather than level-based, your skills allowing you to place significant modifiers on a D20 roll. During a skill check you want to get as close as possible to the “success probability” without going over it; it’s a rather head-bending affair that ties into the game’s emphasis on skills over classes. But once one gets a grip on the basic skill checks it opens a world of fascinating rules, up to and including a pretty extensive ruleset for submarine combat.
The translation has the feel of having been written by many hands, some more skillful than others, but the occasional clanger failed to occlude the game’s fascinating and inventive lore. For women, one of the more offputting things, at least at first, is that in this world where repopulation is a primary political goal, and where an anti-fertility virus is decreasing human fecundity, some nations treat women as breeding machines almost exclusively. Some truly gruesome, Handmaid’s Tale-style brutality obtains in the world of Polaris.
But, as I’ve written in the past, such blatant sexism is fine for exploring so long as the setting doesn’t normalize it as so much window dressing. Other nations, like the Australasian Coral Republic, are democracies that enshrine women’s rights and are even led primarily by women; the first core rulebook even details the actions of some female vigilantes who fight the breeding regimes of more backward countries. Far from being hostile to women, I would actually suggest that few games put the politics of reproduction front and center the way Polaris does--and looking at its incredible artwork, it’s hard to deny that there’s been an effort to portray women in a diversity of roles that go beyond simply showing off their appearance. The sexism of Polaris’ world is positioned neither as inevitable nor desirable, but a force that the players can engage with critically.
Neither game manages racial representation quite as well, lacking the intentionality of Paizo and Wizards of the Coast’s more recent offerings, but one hopes that as they expand their audiences to countries like the US and Canada that this might inspire Ulisses Spiele and Black Book Editions into better reflecting them.
Each game enters a crowded market but they won me over. I admit I’m the kind of person who could own a hundred broadly similar high fantasy games and still not feel like there were enough in the world, but The Dark Eye deserves a look even from those who’ve grown weary of D&D clones. It will be interesting to see how well its “living world” scales up if the game is successful in North America; a lot of it is potential right now, at least in its English version, which lacks the weight of history and familiarity of its German editions. But what is present is beautifully put together, and Nadine Schäkel’s masterful artwork entices you into the world, making you feel as if you want to be the character you’re looking at, a feeling I realize I’d not had in quite a while.
Polaris, meanwhile, presents a starkly original contribution in both style and substance. The twin core rulebooks, while unevenly written, nevertheless make you want to grab some dice and play a bit in this world. The universe of our world’s oceans remains relatively unexplored in many games, and Polaris’ contribution to our imaginations here should not be underestimated. The rules and how they are presented could certainly use some finessing, but that shouldn’t stop you from diving into this world and its compelling political intrigues. For the GM who’s looking for something a little different, Polaris most certainly abides.
I’ll be writing about more of my favorite games from Gen Con 2016--where I had the honor of presenting as an Industry Insider this year--so stay tuned!
Katherine Cross is a Ph.D student in sociology who researches anti-social behavior online, and a gaming critic whose work has appeared in numerous publications.