Wednesday, October 17, 2012

Hillfolk: DramaSystem: RPGs I Like

I don’t know any other way to say this: I came into reading Hillfolk expecting it to be a colossal disaster and absolutely something I wouldn’t want to play.

I took away two key elements from advance word on the project: it would be a game combining the Dramatic Beat concepts from Robin Laws’ Hamlet’s Hit Points with an Iron Age pseudo-historical setting. I shook my head when I saw that.

I’d read HHP and really enjoyed it- it had many great ideas. (You can see my review here: Reading Hope and Fear at the Game Table). It made me more aware of pacing in my games and helped me remember to switch dramatic states and approaches in a game sessions and campaigns. I even worked through a session using the framework to analyze what I’d done (Applying Hamlet's Hit Points: A Changeling Session Analysis). Hamlet's Hit Points has been a useful tool and helped me be more reflective on my practice. Robin Laws work always does that. Even if I don’t buy into everything- I always come away from reading his work energized, with new ideas and techniques to bring to the table. More often than not I’ve loved the way he’s managed to emulate genres and add concepts that cut through problems. He’s one of three authors- along with John Wick and Ken Hite- that I have reliably gotten great rpg material from.

BUT the structure suggested in HHP was fairly elemental. It focused on non-rpg narratives, analyzed them and then applied those lessons to games indirectly. I really couldn’t see how you could put a game together out of that. At least I couldn’t imagine a game which would appeal to me. I’m a narrativist, but I also like rules; I run for a group that’s story-oriented, but still want structure. Honestly I expected a hippie, loosey-goosey, all improv game which would make Fiasco look like D&D 4e.

Which brings me back to the setting. I like historical games and gaming; I’m one of the few in my immediate gamer circle who does. I can get behind the ECW of Clockwork & Chivalry, the early modern Europe of Mage: The Sorcerers Crusade, and the Victoriana of Victoriana. But Iron Age tribes… my teeth start to grit. Just doesn’t appeal to me- never cared for Ice Age, Celt, or Old Testament games. I thought that if by some distant chance the game system had some interesting ideas I could strip those out and ignore the setting. I backed the Kickstarter because it seemed relatively cheap for something I could find a couple of concepts in.

I say all of this because I expect many readers might be like me- liking Laws’ work and having some sympathy for story games- but also look at this thing and remain deeply skeptical.

Man, was I wrong.


Reading through the rules I was dubious; then I was intrigued; then I wanted to run this system in this setting- right now.

Hillfolk is a rpg using the new DramaSystem in which you play members of an Iron Age raider tribe eking out a life in an unforgiving land. The DramaSystem aims to emulate longer-running serial dramas as exemplified by HBO series such as The Sopranos, Deadwood, Oz, and Carnivale. It offers tools for managing and tracking dramatic interactions- making them a core element of play. Action and procedural scenes still occur, but they’re often at the service of dramatic points and arcs. I’ve been thinking of it like this: Fiasco’s about a limited series of events which implode quickly (at least in narrative space). It is a one-session game about a crisis that catches fire. DramaSystem, on the other hand, considers the long form of those dramas- the serials that continue to go up and down with shifts of power and position. There’s a rise to the narrative- often resolving in a season or series-ender. Fiasco tunes its approach to the one-shot, while DramaSystem brilliantly manages the campaign.

The project is currently in the Kickstarter phase- funded and with various stretch goals getting knocked down every day. The funding period ends 11/2/12.

I won’t say much about the presentation, since this is a Kickstarter Backer Preview Draft. But already it is clearer, better laid out, and more sharply written than many “finished” games I’ve picked up. Laws’ has a keen sense of what elements need to be established before others. At least for me, as I read and picked up ideas, it made me want to read further. He shows you what’s cool about the game and what you’re going to be doing up front and then leads you through to show you how to get there. The pdf is 100 pages long- the final book will be significantly longer. Besides art, you’ll have a vast array of new setting pitches by amazing authors (added as Kickstarter stretch goals).

Hillfolk isn’t a thin system. It offers rich detail, discussion, and balance in its mechanics. So I’m only going to gloss the surface of those systems here- to provide a general feel for the game. I’m skipping some of the purely mechanical details.

The game begins by setting up the idea of the dramatic scene versus the procedural. Procedural scenes represent overcoming external obstacles: tasks, problems, fights, crises, bomb disposals, all of those crunch bits. Classic gaming focuses on those and offers a wealth of mechanics to resolve them. On the other hand, dramatic scenes are internal. They revolve around emotional rewards and responses- usually gained from interacting with others. Laws points out the problem with dramatic scenes in many rpgs. Players tend to play their characters absolutely- refusing to bend, unwilling to compromise, unwilling to make an exchange. They fall back to “I was just playing my character” or “why my character wouldn’t…” justifications. The DramaSystem focuses on those exchanges and in a way, commoditizes them. Players have a mechanical basis for making those difficult choices, one which doesn’t get in the way of telling an interesting and compelling story.

Hillfolk follows the lead of many recent games with collaborative character creation. Collaboration and consensus are key through the mechanics- with simple and intuitive options for resolving conflicts. DramaSystem characters will be connected members of a group (tribe, company, city, castle) often isolated through some means (culture, location, profession, codes of conduct). In Hillfolk the players take the role of members of an Iron Age tribe engaged in raiding and even banditry. They are like their neighbors, but different from them- differences the players will later define.

Order of actions and declarations are randomized by the GM using cards before each stage of the process and in play. After setting up the premise, the first player presents their name and who they are in the tribe. Then the second player describes that and defines their relationship to the first player. Next the third player identifies themselves and describes their relation to players one and two. This continues until all characters and relationships have been established. A relationship map has thus been built. There’s room for negotiation throughout this.

Next each player describes their character’s desire. This is a simple goal- such as approval, love, respect. The abstractions, difficult to achieve through simple procedural actions, drive the character’s choices. With that in mind, each player defines what they want from any other player. That player then defines why they can’t get it. They can then negotiate and adjust that slightly to clarify the relationship. This process continues from one player to the next, until each character has been tagged at least twice by another player. This creates a set of potential scenes and exchanges from the start, with others arising naturally through play.

The final step in defining the characters’ narrative elements comes in setting dramatic poles. These define their internal contradictions. Laws offers the classic example of Rick from Casablanca who moves between selfishness and altruism. Jake from Chinatown could be read as shifting between cynicism and trust. These warring identities offer the player and others at the table stakes to play off of in exchanges. Rather than simply sticking to a static identity- “my character wouldn’t do that”- they shift between them. Dramatic poles have a mechanical purpose as well, being a means of winning bennies at the end of sessions.

The last touches establish competencies for the character. These are called Action Types- Enduring, Fighting, Knowing, Making, Moving, Talking, and Sneaking. These can be designated as Weak, Middling, or Strong. Players can also choose to specialize in a particular kind of action at the expense of other talents. Each character sets two Action Types as Strong and adds a descriptor showing what they’re really good at in that. Finally the player describes their character with a complete sentence to finish up.

A session of Hillfolk is called an episode. Each episode has a theme, with the initial session of Hillfolk revolving around "Hunger." Once the campaign gets rolling, players will each have a chance to set the theme of an episode. An episode begins with an opening scene to set things up, a number of developmental scenes, and finally a closing scene- which happens when the group feels like something ties up the themes. The GM determines the player order at the start and sets things going.

Each scene is set by a player, the caller. They establish the cast (who is present), the setting (where it takes place), the time break (time relation to the previous scene), the mode (most will be dramatic, but a few may have external tasks like a fight which makes them procedural), and finally the situation. Players have room to modify the caller’s choices slightly- through challenges, negotiation, and voting. For example, a player might ask to be present at a scene. The caller could allow it or permit it but put some limitation on their presence. Players can also use drama tokens (a game currency) to insert themselves into a scene. Interestingly the GM, who runs the recurring and minor characters, is limited to calling one scene in any go around- just like players. It’s worth noting as well that the caller must pay a drama token if they set up a scene where they’re not present. Most dramatic scenes have a particular issue or set of stakes- players may not repeat those unless a significant change has occurred in a story (to keep players from retrying and bogging the narrative down).

A dramatic scene involves a verbal conflict over an emotional reward. The petitioner seeks the reward and the granter decides whether or not to do so. The dialogue between the two plays out until the question has been resolved: the petition has been granted, the petition has been definitively rebuffed, or the scene loses tension. In this third case, the GM steps in and asks the characters involved what they’re impression of the resolution was- this can be a mix of ups and downs- for example, the petition may have been granted, but at a greater cost than the petitioner wanted. Voting among the group can happen to help resolve this. If the petition was granted, the granter earns a drama token. If refused, the petitioner earns one. These come from their opposition or from the central pools if they have none. Drama tokens in hand can be used to force concessions, but with significant costs and wagering. Exchanges can also happen with recurring characters run by the GM.

The mechanics presented in the rules make sense- and reading through you can see that the process will become smooth with play. I’m already struck by the simplicity of the approach. Most of the rules revolve around edge cases and complications, as well as helping the GM work out what the play actually looks like.

Procedural scenes, on the other hand involve concrete and external goals: surviving a mountain crossing, breaking into a vault, fighting an army. In these cases, the system shifts to a different system. Each player has a set of tokens- red, yellow, and green. These represent effort with green being the best. In a procedural conflict, players choose their level of effort. This determines number of cards drawn- trying to knock out cards played by the GM’s opposition. The trick is that PCs only refresh their set of tokens once they’ve used all of them. Meaning if you go big early, you may be caught out in later scenes. Mind you, sessions will have a limited number of procedural scenes. The system for resolving these conflicts is more involved- but interesting and fun. I like the wagering and risk taking aspect of it- victories can add advantages and losses can add complications to later scenes. PvP contests use the Action Types, with a similar mechanic.

At the end of a session, each player gets to make a statement about how their character worked through and explored their dramatic poles. The group then votes on the best performance, ranked #1 (best) and up. The two lowest totals (after subtracting drama tokens in hand) gain a bennie. These can be used in later session in a number of ways. As with many dramatic games, there’s no system for character advancement, which really makes sense here.

Examples drawn from the Hillfolk setting appear throughout the rules. While the general shape of the premise is set up early, we don’t get a full examination of it until page 68. And that works- by the time we actually get to how the world’s presented, I’m already interested and hooked by the dramatic possibilities. We’ve been teased with scenes and examples. This is a game about a thematic Iron Age, not a specific history or location. The material on the setting supports that- it offers some details and structures: geography, names of areas, and the nature of the rivals. But that’s merely a skeleton. Players will define that setting through play- adding a mix of player and GM-crafted details to flesh it out. The few pages of material here focus on the kinds of questions which can be brought up and answered- the key questions that shape the world. Laws wraps up the brief section with a discussion of his rationale for a “Fictionalized 10th century BCE Levant.” It absolutely clicks- and I’ve been thinking about how to run it ever since reading it.


Hillfolk has several other key features. The first is the concept of a Series Pitch. This is a brief (about 2,000 words) set up for a campaign. As with Hillfolk’s own open-ended setting set-up, these pitches set up the basic ideas for a premise and give the GMs and players enough materials to run a rich and satisfying campaign. Each pitch has a Nutshell, Character Type List, Setting Statement, Suggested Themes, Ideas for Tightening the Screws, Names, and possibly Additional Elements. These details often take the form of key questions again- details about the world which, when answered in play, shape the story. I really like the approach here- it is minimal and perfect for the kind of game suggested here. It keeps authors (and GMs) from going overboard with details that would tie the story down or limit player choices. I imagine and hope that Series Pitches will become as ubiquitous as Playsets for Fiasco. Many of the stretch goals for Hillfolk have involved the addition of new Series Pitches to the main book crafted by masters like Jason Morningstar, Kenneth Hite, Matt Forbeck and Michelle Nephew.

A large portion of the Hillfolk rules presents advice and suggestions for how to use the game. This isn’t your typical GM section. Instead it looks at what the game does and how it is played. It comes to grips with many of objections and concerns of conventional gamers. It considers how to handle those and how playing DramaSystem might actually help players better come to terms with story- not as defined by the GM but as emerging from play. Hillfolk discusses how to marry it’s dramatic resolution system to other systems. I have to say the text shines in this regard- there’s discussion presented on many levels: from immersionists, to one shots, to balancing success, to advanced resolution mechanics, to tracking and logistics. It is a smart set of rules- approached as a game to be played and mucked with.


I really liked this and I think you should back it. At the very least, pick it up after it hits the shelves. It is a game for people who like stories and prefer rules-modest games. But there’s so much here any gamer will find interesting- ideas about how to connect characters and how to craft dramatic tension within your play. I think those techniques can be useful in any game. Robin Laws has crafted rules both compellingly written and clear. But most of all, he’s created a game which just sounds like fun.

A sample Series Pitch- Malign Universal- can be found here

tl/dr I didn’t think this game would be good. I read it. I was terribly wrong. It is great.

The Kickstarter Page is here. 
DISCLOSURE: I am a Kickstarter Backer so that means I now have some interest in more people investing in this product. After I backed it, I helped Gene Ha choose the theme he wanted for his series pitch (a stretch goal which has been passed).


  1. Impressive review. I'll follow the kickstarter for now, and jump on it if my budget allows. I prefer to buy into print levels, so the price point has to be at a sweet spot. This kickstarter has got it, at a $25 print level. So, it is likely I will support it... unless I'm charge shipping to Canada. That usually kills the deal for me. Those who want shipping cash to send to Canada usually ask an obnoxious $15.

  2. Great review! I was interested before, you've increased my interest.

  3. Good review. I've been a backer since the first few days, but I'll point my players to your writeup to help sell them on playing it. =)