in Philosophy of Tracking

The Pedagogy of Play: Bite-Sized Pieces, Part IV

For background and context, read the first three in this series:

The Pedagogy of Play: Bite-Sized Pieces, Part I

The Pedagogy of Play: Bite-Sized Pieces, Part II

The Pedogogy of Play: Bite-sized Pieces, Part III

I went to the Indie Hurrican at Gamestorm 11 this weekend, a game convention. I playtested my fluency strategy (“bite-sized pieces”) for Polaris, and had some great results. This has helped me improve it. Thanks to Zach, Jim, Mark, Jennifer, and Gilbert; I hope that your passion for Polaris inspires you to play it with people you care about! Read on for the changes and clarifications in my method. I’ve left out a lot of details and page number references, as you can find them in previous versions.

0. One-paragraph summary of the Polaris setting.
1. Give brief Road Map of how we will acquire fluency in Polaris: Warm-Ups, Character Creation, Scene Framing skills, and the Ritual Phrases.

1. name story
2. firing line
3. yes, and
4. color, advance
5. counting

1. Choose a name, one aspect, write on character sheet (using ben lehman’s polaris name/aspect handouts).

2. Character Circle/”I don’t see it”: semi-collaborative character creation. One person gets 30 seconds (or so) to describe their character; then, randomly (popcorn-style), everyone in the circle gets to add one piece of “what they see”, keeping a hold of the initial description, staying true as possible to it. The formula for adding a piece: “[character name] has [braids/big sword with runes/constant pain from leg wound, etc.]”, “I see [character name] [chasing jehovah’s witness/filing her nails compulsively/painting a masterpiece]”, “[character name] [dislikes/likes/loves/hates]”, etc. You get the idea. The group goes for about 3-5 minutes, then switches, unless someone pops the bubble by saying something that anyone else just can’t see fitting. The poppee must then say to the popper, “I don’t see it!”. They then move to the next player, who in 30 seconds also describes their character,etc. etc.. The goal: don’t pop the bubble, or put it off for as long as possible. Also, to get everyone repeating each other’s character’s names, so that we know them by heart.

CARD HANDLING: For each of the following categories, I slap down an index card with the ritual phrases on them. Between each card, as facilitator, I have picked out one paragraph or so of setting text for a player to read, rotating the reader of course. For each card, we go around the table giving everyone a chance to practice, resulting in 4 scenes per card (except for the session card and player intros, of course].

1. SESSION CARD: “Long Ago, The People Were Dying at the End of the World…”/”But All That Happened Long Ago, And There Are None Now Who Remember It.”

[SETTING: you might now read “moments frozen in time”, from the beginning of the book]

2. CHARACTER CARD: “But Hope Was Not Yet Lost, for [name] Still Heard the Song of the Stars…”

3. SCENE CARD: /”And So It Was…”/”…And So It Was.”

[SETTING: another paragraph or two, etc. etc. continue to do this between the rest of the cards]

4. NEGOTIATE CARD: “But Only If…”/”…It Was Not Meant To Be”/”…And That Was How It Happened.”

5. MOONS CARD: “…But It Was No Matter.”/”…We Shall See What Comes of It.” (moon vetos I)

6. ESCALATE CARD: “…You Ask Far Too Much!”/”And Furthermore…” (exhausting themes) (moon vetos II)

7. DICE CARD: “…It Shall Not Come to Pass!” (assign ice, light, zeal) (start to check experience)


However far we got in slowly adding and mastering each ritual phrase in order, when the session ends, we always discuss how it went, talk about high points, look for improvements we can make, etc. I know that most groups will need a “cool down”, just like they had a “warm up”, and I haven’t quite wrapped my head around where I want to go with that yet.

For next session, I recommend starting at the beginning (keep the same characters if you want, of course), and adding in phrases as people demonstrate fluency, building them back up to where you left off. Don’t simply go “ok, we all mastered all those phrases last time”, DOUBLE CHECK, methodically. You’ll have fun reliving the process, and you won’t regret the chance to go over it again, I wager. Don’t think “we already did that prep stuff last time”; think “this counts as part of the game; when you play polaris, you start with this part”. Enjoying the step-by-step nature will become part of the fun of playing Polaris. And when you teach it to new folks, you won’t have to change how you play; just play as you always play, starting at the beginning.

Write a Comment



  1. Polaris’ ritual phrases creates a very clear beginning and ending, Do you think that contributes to the feeling of warm-up games as “extraneous” and unnecessary? What if we performed the opening ceremonies before, and had warm-up games more clearly related to the rest of the game?

  2. No, if only because no-one in my playtests experienced the warm-ups as “extraneous” and/or “unnecessary”! :) Quite the opposite; most folks at the table commented that they felt like the fun had well begun as soon as we started the improv games (I had asked them for exactly the reason you bring up).

    It seems to me, that we tiptoe too much around what we think will bother the players. I often have a feeling of “how will I squeeze in this or that innovation”. But strong game facilitation and leadership seems to make everyone take it for granted that “we just warm up – you start that way”. Of course, I ran playtests in a con environment, which resembles the stage at one of those motivational seminars where any volunteer that makes it up there will obviously have pre-selected the experience based on their enthusiasm.

    I included an important caveat in my Gamestorm 11 game listing. I said something like “only sign up if you want to experience intense role-playing, and want to play improv games to warm up”. I think this makes a difference, stating from the get-go that we won’t go for safe or mediocre; we’ll take some risks and learn some new things, otherwise why bother?

    I think this further separates the philosophy of “storyjamming” from “role-playing” per se; we “role-play” for entertainment, but we “storyjam” to suck the marrow out of the experience.

  3. Oh, but to answer the second part of your question: yes, whether or not the warm-ups feel extraneous now, I still think good game design compels us to make them a seamless part of the Polaris (or any other game’s) experience, rather than something tacked onto the beginning.

  4. Oh, man, that’s sweet. Can I have permission to use this (credited, natch) in conjuction with the game?

  5. Hi Willem

    This sounds like a great approach. I ran Polaris at Viking Con in the fall and experienced exactly what you describe – people are simply not confident in the key phrases to lift the story jamming to the level Polaris should be able to get us. Addressing the learning curve is cool – your recipe makes me want to try out Polaris again.

    Many indie games seems like they just assume that people need to learn them before the fun can begin – but if a game does not deliver at least a reasonable play experience the first time around, will you come back? The board games are a great inspiration for addressing learnability – something I had as an explicit design goal with Montsegur 1244. Dogs in the Vineyard is another great example to follow – initiation conflicts are brilliant.


  6. Montsegur 1244 stands out as doing this so well one hardly notices it! A definite danger of creating elegant, seamless design. :)

    Frederick, I hope you try Polaris again and tell me how much the method above helped! It has a lot of room for improvement – only a beginning really.

    Yes, also, I purpose to provide a great play experience the first time, so that players will come back. Exactly.

  7. Willem linked me to this page from our forums, where we actually talked about this process, but did so second hand. Zach is good friends with my co-host Justin and described the process to him. By the time it got to our podcast, we had only captured the “icebreaker” aspect of these exercises and not the culture of play they were creating.

    Having just pitched Mouse Guard to my wife and daughter, I saw exactly what you mean about indie games only being compelling if someone has a desire. My daughter (who I read the comics with) was super excited to play the game so we jumped in pretty fast, leaving my wife (who hadn’t read them) wondering what she was doing.

    I’m going to be running Burning Wheel this month at KublaCon and Mouse Guard in July at Good Omens Con and I’d really like to incorporate some of these ideas into both games. Polaris, however is a very different game. Willem, can you give me an idea where you started from to structure this process?

  8. Sure, Sean. Do you have any specific questions? What about how I described the process leaves you needing more info?

    I hope the whole “games as both diagnostic and prescriptive” makes sense, at least – does it?

  9. We’ll take Mouse Guard as an example. My goals for training the game would be.

    1. To establish the setting (playing mice in a medieval fantasy setting that challenges your existence at every turn). I’d like people to start thinking about how big the world is to a mouse and how dangerous things like rain or ants could be to a mouse.

    2. Establish the mindset of a guard (“Send any mouse to the the job and it may or may not be done. Ask the Guard to do the task, even death cannot prevent it from completion”). Thankless heroes who exist outside society, the wild west Gunslinger, the Samurai, the Ranger of Middle Earth.

    3. Gather a patrol. Hopefully in steps 1 and 2, the players are participating enough that they are ready to start shooting out ideas for a patrol. “We need need a tired leader”, “Ooh, and a bee trainer”, “And the new recruit with a chip on his shoulder,” etc. I might skip this step and bring character templates to reduce the paperwork aspect of the game.

    4. Once the cast has been established (half baked at this point) and characters selected by players. The finishing touches should be added as a group exercise – belief, instinct and traits.

    5. Examples of play, akin to the DitV accomplishment or a kicker. Flashbacks to formative experiences for the Guard. Experience with the core mechanics for resolution.

    6. A group challenge. Either just before meeting Gwendolyn for assignment or just after leaving Lockhaven as the first obstacle. A morale and team building challenge like chasing a parcel down a stream before it is lost in the rapids.

    7. By this point, the players have started their mission but have been playing all along.

    I’m going to work offline at trying to incorporate elements from the process you developed for Polaris to work with these goals.