12 - Campus Desk cover_350The default DramaSystem setting is Hillfolk, but you can easily play DramaSystem games in a wide variety of settings beyond this. Series Pitches are 2000+ words of setting material, which uses the core DramaSystem rules to enable you to play in completely different worlds, times, and genres.

In Campus Desk, John Kovalic (Dork Tower, Munchkin) returns to ink-spattered halcyon days:  students behind the Daily Forward, newspaper of Wisconsin State University, figure out life, love, and burying the lede.

Campus Desk is available as a stand-alone product from the store, or as part of the Series Pitch of the Month Collection.

Stock #: PELD15D Author: John Kovalic
Artist: Jonathan Wyke Pages: 9pg PDF

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02 - Narcocorrido_350The default DramaSystem setting is Hillfolk, but you can easily play DramaSystem games in a wide variety of settings beyond this. Series Pitches are 2000+ words of setting material, which uses the core DramaSystem rules to enable you to play in completely different worlds, times, and genres.

In Narcocorrido, Jesse Scoble (Wizard101, Game of Thrones d20) sings for you on The Devil’s Highway: narco traficantes and border patrol circle each other in the canyons and deserts between North and South.

Narcorrido is available as a stand-alone product from the store, or as part of the Series Pitch of the Month Collection.

Stock #: PELD05D Author: Jesse Scoble
Artist: Jonathan Wyke Pages: 10pg PDF

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No Crowns coverThe default DramaSystem setting is Hillfolk, but you can easily play DramaSystem games in a wide variety of settings beyond this. Series Pitches are 2000+ words of setting material, which uses the core DramaSystem rules to enable you to play in completely different worlds, times, and genres.

In No Crowns, Sean Patrick Fannon (Shaintar, Star Wars: Edge of Darkness) unleashes the struggles of democracy and free market capitalism in a high fantasy world. Discover the answer amid the greed, passion, and power plays of No Crowns.

No Crowns is available as a stand-alone product from the store, or as part of the Series Pitch of the Month Collection.

Stock #: PELD04D Author: Sean Patrick Fannon
Artist: Jan Pospíšil
Pages: 7pg PDF

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Malandros cover Nov2015 small

[Editor’s note: the Malandros Kickstarter ended on 20th November 2015]

Malandros is a tabletop roleplaying game based on the award-winning DramaSystem rules engine created by Robin Laws. Like its predecessor Hillfolk, it’s a game of personal struggles and interpersonal drama. Making a new DramaSystem game like this is possible thanks to the generous backers of the Hillfolk Kickstarter campaign. One of the stretch goals they reached released DramaSystem under an open licence for people to use for their own designs. The text of Malandros will be released under a similar licence.

Characters & Setting

In Malandros, you play characters in a tight-knit community in the final year of the Empire of Brazil: gang leaders, captains of industry, fishermen, martial artists, swindlers and more. You all know each other – you’re family, friends, rivals or enemies, all living in the same part of town. You all want something from each other. Maybe it’s respect, maybe it’s love. Maybe it’s fear, or something else.

Rio de Janeiro at the end of the 19th century is a city of slums and palaces, street gangs and tycoons, the most modern technologies of the era and ancient traditions. As a setting, it’s got everything. A bustling city, people from all over the world, ethnic and class tension, street fights, sharp suits, magic, martial arts, freed slaves, carnival parades, corrupt elections… you name it, pretty much.

The malandros of the title are a classic carioca archetype. The well-dressed, work-shirking wise guy who sidesteps society’s rules to live as he pleases. Or tries to, at any rate. It’s not a term that’s always applied to someone approvingly, and many of your Player Characters might not see themselves as malandros even if other people do.

Malandros caricaturesYou can download a PDF sample from the character creation chapter, containing the dozen archetypes you choose from when creating your game’s main cast:

System

Malandros uses an entirely new system for procedural scenes, which ties into the scene economy in a different way to that of Hillfolk. Robin Laws explicitly designed Hillfolk’s procedural system so that one character acting alone is unlikely to succeed – you need to get other PCs on board with your plan to have a decent shot at success.

The reason for this difference is the outcomes each game is designed to produce. Hillfolk emulates ensemble TV dramas, such as Deadwood, Peaky Blinders or Battlestar Galactica (the more recent one, not the one with the robot dog).

Malandros draws on the legends of historical malandros and capoeiristas, 19th-century novels and modern telenovelas. These stories more often involve characters who are connected but go off in different directions to follow their individual agendas. So the Malandros procedural system lets you go off by yourself to do stuff, probably succeed if it’s something you’re good at, and get into trouble by yourself too. When it comes to dealing with the repercussions, that’s when you may want some help.

The core of the procedural system is simple: roll a d6. If you choose to spend a relevant ability, add its rating to the result. If you get a 6 or more, you succeed optimally. On a 3-5, it’s success at a cost, and on 2 or lower you fail.

So a bonus of 2 or higher from an ability or other source will guarantee at least a partial success – but once you’ve spent it, you can’t use it again until you refresh the ability in a later scene. Forward thinkers will try to approach high-stakes scenes with several abilities they can bring to bear on the situation.

If you don’t have a usable ability, you might get by through the blessings of Axé, which is what Afro-Brazilian religions call the divine energy of the world – the power to make things happen. In game terms, rather more prosaically, Axé lets you re-roll a result you don’t like.

The other half of the system in play, resolving dramatic scenes, is largely unchanged from Hillfolk. This made playtesting a lot easier, since that’s a set of robust, already tried and tested rules.

One new thing that’s important to the rhythm of the game is that procedural actions are hooked more directly into the scene economy. You refresh a spent ability by calling an appropriately unstressful dramatic scene, which helps maintain a pleasing balance between laid-back chats, everyday life and scenes of high drama or furious action.

You can download an extract of the procedural rules.

The Kickstarter

Malandros is currently raising funds on Kickstarter to cover its art budget. The game is already written, with a few more playtests scheduled before release in early 2016.

Malandros character creation spreads

The reason for running a Kickstarter instead of just releasing the game in its current form is that it needs more art to effectively communicate its themes and setting. Some things are better shown than explained with words. But while there’s a wealth of fantastic art available from the period, many of the people and activities that feature in the game don’t show up in contemporary art. Rich white people – no problem. Everyone else – not always as easy. So the funds raised will go towards custom artwork and photography licences to cover those gaps.

The stretch goals for the Kickstarter project include a number of alternative settings that apply the Malandros model to different eras and genres with a similar dynamic, focusing on ordinary and marginalised people:

The Sydney Razor Gang Wars – alternate setting in 1920s Australia
Aluminium Wars, a 1990s Russia setting by Mark Galeotti
Victorian London setting by Paula Dempsey
Other Borders, modern-day sorcery setting by Tod Foley
Gangs of Titan, an SF setting by Stras Acimovic
Kingsport Shore, Lovecraft/Twin Peaks style weirdness by Steve Dempsey

[Editor’s note – the Kickstarter is over, but you can still pick up the game here.]

When I start a new series, I always intend to keep it separate from the last one. Certain factors inevitably continue from one game to the next. At the top of this list appear the habits of individual players in creating and portraying their characters. The way any two players tend to riff off one another tends to act as a constant, too. Players can shift these with effort but the reasons that bring them to the gaming table tend over time to push the game toward the group’s default groove.

I have my habits too and try to consciously avoid some of them. I ration the use of particular themes that I’ve used too much in the past.

Sometimes though the story can have a surprising way of wending back to previously explored territory. A new player joined the Alma Mater Magica DramaSystem game I’m currently running and improvised her way to an area the rest of the crew already knew well. She introduced a dream reality into the setting, along with the sort of dreamscaping that featured in our previous Dreamhounds of Paris campaign.

Other players started to joke about the possibility of a cross-over.

At first I decided that I wouldn’t set about to introduce any elements from the old game in the new. If another player had wanted to, the narrative freedom of DramaSystem would certainly have allowed it. But no one did.

You might interpret this as meaning that they didn’t really want the current series to become a sequel to the last.

But the jokes and references kept coming.

I knew it would get a positive response when it happened, so when the story allowed the opportunity, I succumbed to the crossover urge.

A minor antagonist character turned out to be someone else in disguise. He revealed himself to be an insane dream reflection of a PC from Dreamhounds.

Yes, you guessed it. A simulacrum of Salvador Dalí turned out to be the big bad antagonist of the series’ second season.

Lesson: the fun value of a thing is more important than abstract qualms about the cheapness of the effect. In roleplaying, use what works.

Although Dalí hails from the Dreamlands, so far we’ve kept the rest of the Mythos out of it. So in our hunger for that sweet, sweet crossover buzz, we did show some restraint.


Hillfolk is a game of high-stakes interpersonal conflict by acclaimed designer Robin D. Laws. Using its DramaSystem rules, you and your friends can weave enthralling sagas of Iron Age tribes, Regency socialites, border town drug kingpins, a troubled crime family, posthuman cyberpunks and more. Purchase Hillfolk and its companion Blood in the Snow in print and PDF at the Pelgrane Shop.

In my recent piece on the necessity of kicking out incorrigibly disruptive players, I briefly mentioned geek culture’s fear of ostracizing behavior. JS3’s comment on the post has me wanting to consider that in a little more depth.

The idea that geeks don’t separate themselves from fellow members of the sub-culture due to their own experience being shunned in the wider world has achieved truism status. However, as the sub-culture increasingly becomes just plain regular pop culture, it’s one that could use some examination.

I’d argue that the narrative of our collective instinct against ostracism is largely an after-the-fact rationalization of something much simpler and near-universal: the desire to avoid confrontation. Audiences at GM masterclass panels laugh delightedly when I say, “kick ‘em out” because they wish they had the wherewithal to stand up to that toxic, disruptive player in their group. But most of us will put up with a lot before launching into an unpleasant interaction. Not just introverts, either—you have to be kind of toxic yourself to enjoy confrontation.

This of course is what toxic, manipulative people depend on; this natural impulse lets them get away with their hijinks.

That’s one of the big emotional roots of Donald Trump’s otherwise surprising appeal. Lots of us would love to yell “You’re fired!” He’d kick that inveterate rules lawyer out of the group in two seconds flat.

(As GM, that is. As player, he’d be that rules lawyer.)

But just as no halfway empathetic person enjoys the sickly adrenaline rush of a touchy personal interaction, we also don’t like to admit that to ourselves.

That’s not just a geek thing either. Confrontation avoidance rules the day in most social environments, covered up with one justification for inaction or another.

But when we sidestep a messy interaction, we create a narrative around it that makes sense to us, the fable of anti-ostracization. If we didn’t have that explanation we’d find another.

That’s a big part of Hillfolk’s appeal. DramaSystem lets you fantasize about telling people off in exactly the same way that D&D encourages you to vicariously slay monsters. Through its rules structure and the distance afforded by playing fictional characters, it lets the confrontation-averse safely yell, browbeat, protest, issue stark demands and, yes, even storm off, slamming the imaginary door on the way out.

I’m not proposing a Hillfolk series as a cure for emotional reticence. But it sure provides a sweet vacation from it.

Original image by Gage Skidmore, under CC BY-SA 2.0 license.


Hillfolk is a game of high-stakes interpersonal conflict by acclaimed designer Robin D. Laws. Using its DramaSystem rules, you and your friends can weave enthralling sagas of Iron Age tribes, Regency socialites, border town drug kingpins, a troubled crime family, posthuman cyberpunks and more. Purchase Hillfolk and its companion Blood in the Snow in print and PDF at the Pelgrane Shop.

The play advice in Hillfolk largely focuses on the GM as the source of external pressure that keeps the player characters at odds with one another, generating new and compelling drama. However, as a DramaSystem player, you may well enjoy the process of tightening the screws on, or delivering comeuppances to, other players’ characters. A crass application of this technique can tip the game into unwanted PvP territory. But a sneakier, more subtle use of your scene-narrating powers can crank up the fun for everyone.

For example, in a recent game of the Alma Mater Magica series I’m currently running, stuffy, pedantic wizard Dr. “Doc” Jacobsen (Paul Jackson) finally took it upon himself to destroy a parasite criminal French elves had installed in colleague Dr. Stephen Kim (Scott Wachter) in order to remotely monitor group activities. The parasite, a centipede named Maurice, had been a staple of the series over many sessions. No one had bothered to do much about him, in part because they probably reckoned that I as GM would somehow stop them, but mostly because Maurice had sparked too many fun scenes to get rid of. Yet now his presence had finally precipitated its long-foreshadowed catastrophe. The time for an exorcism had come. Paul described the scene in which the parasite was removed and Maurice apparently met his end.

Until Chris Hüth, playing reluctant returnee to the world of magic Earl Pudgely, decided that Maurice was still too fun to lose, even if he was no longer clinging to Stephen’s pancreas. So he narrated his next scene to describe a bent and broken but still very much alive Maurice crawling away. That’s the sort of thing a GM would do, but Chris, author of Blood on the Snow’s article on playing DramaSystem to win, saw an opportunity to confront another player with an entertaining turnaround and took it.

When stumped for a scene to call, you too might look to see if you can envision any scenes that will delightfully complicate the lives of other cast members.

As of this writing, Maurice still lives, having inveigled his way into the life of yet another PC, just barely convincing her of his value as a familiar. And because it was Chris who made it happen and not me, it doesn’t feel like the editorial hand of the GM pressing down to keep things moving in a certain direction, or granting script immunity to a treasured GMC.

So when you try this at home, think of it as the Old Centipede Trick.

Le mille-pattes est mort! Vive le mille-pattes!

Image credit: Matt Reinbold, via Creative Commons CC BY-SA 2.0


Hillfolk is a game of high-stakes interpersonal conflict by acclaimed designer Robin D. Laws. Using its DramaSystem rules, you and your friends can weave enthralling sagas of Iron Age tribes, Regency socialites, border town drug kingpins, a troubled crime family, posthuman cyberpunks and more. Purchase Hillfolk and its companion Blood in the Snow in print and PDF at the Pelgrane Shop.

Robin Laws’ multi-award-winning Hillfolk is a great game in its own right, but its DramaSystem engine includes a toolkit for describing and dissecting characters that can be used in other games. One of these tools is the concept of dramatic poles.

To quote Robin: Driving any compelling dramatic character in
any story form is an internal contradiction. The character is torn between two opposed dramatic poles. Each pole suggests a choice of identities for the character, each at war with the other. Events in the story pull the character from one pole to the next. Were your character’s story to conclude, her final scenes would once and for all establish one of the identities as the dominant one… In many cases, you can conceive your dramatic poles as your desire, on one hand, and, on the other, the character trait that makes you least likely to attain it.”

In 13th Age, the player characters have relationships with one or more Icons – rulers and other powerful NPCs who shape the world from behind the scenes. As a relationship can be Positive, Negative or Conflicted, a well-designed Icon is always divided on some level. Even the most heroic Icon needs a little hint of darkness; even the vilest villain needs some redeeming quality. In the Dragon Empire setting, for example, the Lich King may be an undead tyrant who wants to conquer the lands of the living and restore his lost empire, but he still thinks of himself as the rightful ruler and has some sense of obligation towards his prospective ‘subjects’. The Priestess may be the mystic champion of all the Gods of Light, a shining vessel for their blazing kindness, but her overwhelming niceness might be hiding a secret agenda.

A well-designed Icon, therefore, is torn between two dramatic poles – usually, one that might draw the player characters to serve or support that Icon, and another that makes the Icon seem suspicious, dangerous or destructive. Evil Icons flip that around, so they’ve got one pole that makes them villainous and ghastly, and another that doesn’t redeem them, but makes them more nuanced and interesting than straight villains.

For the default Icons, I usually go with the pairs of poles below. Your own interpretations may differ, of course – and if you’re creating your own Icons, then you may find these helpful as inspiration.

Archmage: Benevolence versus Hubris – is the Archmage building a utopia, or a house of cards?

13th Age icon symbolsCrusader: Necessity versus Humanity – what does it profit a man to raze Hell to the ground, but still lose his soul?

Diabolist: Power versus Self-Interest – does the Diabolist have the courage of her convictions, or it all just a game?

Dwarf King: Tradition versus Friendship – can the dwarves move past the grudges and debts of their ancestors?

Elf Queen: High versus Wood versus Dark (yep, three poles) – which aspect of Elvendom holds sway?

Emperor: Law versus Truth – can the Emperor save the Empire from the intrigues and double-dealing of his courtiers and governors

Great Gold Wyrm: Heroism versus Sanity – mainly for the Wyrm’s followers, when does divine inspiration become indistinguishable from madness

High Druid: Nature versus Humanity (the concept that of Icon – and its followers – being pulled between elemental forces and humanity shows up a lot in my games).

Lich King: Death versus Obligation – what do the dead owe the living, and vice versa?

Orc Lord: Destruction versus Destiny – is the Orc Lord a disaster, or an opportunity?

Priestess: Divinity versus Humanity – can a mortal embody the gods and remind human?

Prince of Shadows: Anarchy versus Civilisation – what’s beneath the Prince’s mask?

The Three: Hunger versus Intrigue versus Malice (three poles again) – which head of the Three is dominant?

In DramaSystem players both work together as co-authors to build a story, yet also compete as characters in pursuit of their unmet emotional needs. By requiring you to call scenes featuring other characters who don’t necessarily want to give you what you seek, it bends you toward conflict. But if you’re used to a more traditional game in which you all work together to solve an external problem, like the mysteries at the heart of GUMSHOE, your group reflexively pulls together. Albeit with a little bickering as you plan solutions to problems, for spice and contrast. As players we have good reason not to want to get too harsh with each other: that goes against our social instincts.

That’s one of the main reasons why DramaSystem keeps a GM in the mix. When you’re in the GM’s chair, your task will often be to break up the group as it moves toward harmony. YouR primary weapon here are the externally pressuring plot developments found in each Series Pitch under the “Tightening the Screws” header. When the group gets too cozy and too lovey-dovey, pick a shift in their underlying situation that will again pull them apart.

Not coincidentally, this mirrors the flow of ensemble-cast TV shows. You can find the best example of this in the sitcom “Community.” The title tells you what you need to know. Again and again, a new situation shifts the equilibrium of its key setting, Greendale Community College. This pulls members of the core study group apart. Usually one or two of the characters is inspired by the shift to pursue an emotional need that trumps collective harmony. This leads to comic disaster, and the eternal, heartfelt realization that the group matters more than the individual. The group drifts apart, then reasserts itself.

A couple of cast members, chiefly Chang and Dean Pelton, orbit the group without being part of it, often generating or amplifying the conflicts that pull at the threads of group unity.

DramaSystem main casts organically tend to mirror this pattern, with a tightly knit if internally fraught key group, and one or two outliers. Many scenes revolve around efforts to bring the outlier more fully into the fold.

In my own group I’ve noticed that certain players gravitate to the outlier role and others to the harmonizer. This goes far beyond Hillfolk, repeating itself in more traditional procedural games as well. If you spot this in your own play, you might experiment by making a pact with your counterpart to step outside your comfort zone and switch roles next time.

Just as DramaSystem characters are torn between two dramatic poles, we as roleplayers may find ourselves torn between two roles: character and co-author.

Certain games and play styles encourage us to think only of what our PCs would do. Some players who prefer this approach take a semantic leap overboard and declare any game where you do anything other than that as definitionally not an RPG.

(Really they mean it’s not the kind of RPG they like, but hey. Without hyperbole, we would all be thrown into the sun and instantly incinerated by the screams of a million super-demons.)

Focus only on the character as decision-maker can become a challenge if the player is also intensely self-protective. The extreme version of this player requires the GM to petition him for permission to insert the group into a genre situation. “Why would I go down the basement into the old house? My character would just stay home and call the police!”

GUMSHOE players will recognize that as the problem Drives address. They put the onus of engaging with the premise on the players. GUMSHOE assumes engagement and asks you to specify the flavor of it that suits your investigator’s personality.

Most of us move fluidly between character and co-author states without having to think about it. Your character might talk over everyone else if given the chance. As a player you know enough to establish her as relentlessly verbal, then step back and allow your fellow participants equal time to speak. Your character might want to murder that hobo, but as player you rely on the other players, talking in character, to convince you otherwise. That way you get to show a key point about your character, but the plot doesn’t go in a direction you don’t actually want.

An equivalent disjuncture occurs in our experience as audience members for fiction. We may identify with a character and hope that everything works out for them. At the same time, we might see that the goal they’re pursuing will actually lead them to ruin. So we are rooting for them in general but against them on the specific, tactical level. That’s a type of dramatic irony. You can find it everywhere from Washington Square to “Better Call Saul.”

In a recent DramaSystem session, one of the players bumped into this. His character wanted to solve the problem at hand. (Something about a vat of unicorn blood.) However, as co-author he saw that there was still plenty of tension and story development to be had out of this plot device. If the problem got solved too quickly it would disappoint everyone at the table. As he groped for the right scene to call, I suggested that he come up with one that explained why his character would be unable to do what he wanted. He invented an obstacle in his own character’s way, called a scene around it, and the unicorn blood vat was preserved for another day.

That shows how far DramaSystem takes you onto the co-author side of the continuum. Where procedural games are all about problem-solving, Hillfolk may well encourage you to protect, nurture and cosset your characters’ problems.


Hillfolk is a game of high-stakes interpersonal conflict by acclaimed designer Robin D. Laws. Using its DramaSystem rules, you and your friends can weave enthralling sagas of Iron Age tribes, Regency socialites, border town drug kingpins, a troubled crime family, posthuman cyberpunks and more. Purchase Hillfolk and its companion Blood in the Snow in print and PDF at the Pelgrane Shop.

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