A column on roleplaying by Robin D. Laws

When I run Hillfolk in a single session demo, I downplay the procedural resolution system.

In the mode of play DramaSystem is tuned for, the extended campaign, the procedural system does the job set out for it.

(For those who haven’t played yet, a procedural scene is one in which one or more of the main characters confronts an external obstacle. They raid a neighboring clan, try to convince a Northern potentate to send her trade route through their village, or go out hunting the lion that has been preying on their horses. Procedural scenes exist as an occasional spice in a game mostly concerned with, you guessed it, drama—scenes in which characters seek emotional rewards from one another, in pursuit of their inner desires.)

Because procedural scenes occur infrequently, it’s okay to break for a multi-step process that shifts the pace. The procedural system given in the book allows for suspense, with the progress of the procedural scene unfolding in stages. Players can affect the outcome by choosing to play a green, yellow or red token, with values in stoplight order: green is best, red worst, yellow in between.

By giving the procedural scenes a separate economy, the rules emphasize the sharply different narrative weight these scenes are meant to have. (For the same reason GUMSHOE presents one system for its key element, the investigation, and another for its equivalent of procedural actions, the roster of general abilities.) Shifting to procedural is a big deal; the game wants you to think twice before reflexively turning toward it.

To that end, the rules allow players to simply specify that their characters have accomplished procedural things—or failed to, for that matter. So long as no one objects to the advancement of the narrative, the event becomes part of the story.

For example, in our playtest series, one of the players decided that a neighboring village had attacked the clan, leaving the corrals in flames. Another player could have objected and asked for a procedural scene to see if the clan could have driven them off before they got that far. But because it raised the stakes and made the story more interesting, no one did.

In a single-session demo, I tell players that the procedural system exists, but that we’ll have more time to explore the heart of the game, the dramatic interplay, if we set it aside. I encourage players to rely on the narrative challenge mechanism. Generally players don’t object to procedural events introduced through narration by their fellow players. If they do challenge, the proposing player withdraws or adjusts.

This suits my agenda as someone who wants to teach the game and emphasize its main point of difference with other similar RPGs.

However, you may find yourself playing a DramaSystem game for a single session without treating it as a demo. If you know the procedural system, you can certainly use it.

Or you might prefer an alternate approach that collapses the time spent on procedural resolution.

Here are a few of ideas, all unplaytested. If you do use them, let me know if they work.

Show of Hands

Players vote on whether to allow the action to happen as narrated by the scene caller. The GM breaks ties.

Toll Demand

This one actually fits the rules as written. Players may give their drama tokens to other players at any time.

(Drama tokens act as the game’s central currency. You earn them when you either give in to someone who wants something from you, or when you ask for something and are rebuffed.)

A player who objects to a proposed narrated outcome can ask for any number of tokens as payment for withdrawing the challenge.

This risks a spiral in which players object just to get tokens, or compete to be the first to issue a challenge. To solve the second problem, generate a new precedence order to see which of the objectors gets the tokens. The fact that some players will want the procedural action to take place should limit this dynamic.

You might make the right to challenge a scarce resource as well, by saying that each player gets only one challenge per game. Although most players won’t wind up challenging even once, people do like to hoard resources just in case they need them.

Draw to a Total

First, determine whether all the characters are working toward the same goal against some other opposing force, or have different stakes in the outcome. In each case, two sides draw cards, seeking a higher total of values than the other. Jacks are worth 11; queens, 12; kings, 13: aces, 14. If both players and GM get the same total, the players win.

Players acting together: In the first case, each participating character draws a card in turn, starting with the player to the left of the scene caller, so that the caller is last to draw. After each player draw, the GM draws a card. If the players’ total meets or beats the GM’s, the players succeed. If not, they fail.

Player vs. player: When players are pitted against each other, they divide into sides. The two sides alternate, drawing one card apiece, with the scene caller’s side going first. If the caller’s side meets or beats the opposition, the caller’s proposed action succeeds.

If you want to mix the drama token economy into the procedural outcomes, you could try allowing participants, including the GM, to spend tokens to add more cards to a pile, at a rate of 1 token per card. Tokens spent return to the kitty. (I wouldn’t recommend this, because it reverses the build that brings more tokens into play during the early stages of a session. But some people really want to get drama tokens all up in their procedural grille.)

In the latest episode of their submersible podcast, Ken and Robin talk sunken Dunwich, Gulina Karimova, professionalism, and saving Anne Boleyn.

I was wondering when someone would run a DramaSystem LARP using Emily Care Boss’ brilliant live action adaptation of the rules as seen in Blood on the Snow. The answer, it turns out, is last November. The Twin Cities’ LARP House, a group dedicated to Nordic-style play in America’s Scandinavia, ran two events using the “Family Business” Series Pitch by Aaron Rosenberg. They’ll be running it again in June; see announcement in above link. While you’re clicking, check out these notes on play from participant Adam McConaughey, who makes some key observation about the nature of power and the weakness of coercion in DramaSystem.

Yung Chang’s documentary China Heavyweight, now streaming at a video service near you, follows the impact of a high-school boxing program meant to recruit amateur fighters on two young men who buy their coaches’ promises of a way out of their poor tobacco-farming community. In addition to providing a window into cultural change in today’s China, its fly-on-the-wall style allows us to see real-life examples of the dramatic structure at the heart of Hillfolk.

In the game’s DramaSystem rules engine, conflicts between people who care about each other identify one participant in the dialogue scene as the petitioner and the other as the granter. The petitioner seeks an emotional reward or concession from the granter, who chooses either to grant it, or to withhold it. This structure underlies all dramatic storytelling, and is powerful because it boils down the ways we really interact with one another.

The style of documentary that simply shows us people behaving over time lets us see this in action.

In one scene, restless young would-be “boxing king” Yunfei Miao seeks his hardworking mother’s blessing to pursue his boxing dreams. Struggling to contain her anger, she sees nothing but disappointment from him, and withholds her approval. If this were a DramaSystem scene, Yunfei would be the petitioner and his mother the granter. She shuts him down, and he earns a drama token.

In another scene, Yunfei tells his coach he’s taken a construction job. After briefly protesting that the young man still has the potential to win, he resigns himself to Yunfei’s decision. Here Yunfei seeks his coach’s emotional acceptance and, after some resistance, gets it. In this case, the coach’s player would get a drama token, for granting Yunfei’s request.

In another instance, the two young boxers sit on a bench in a shopping district girlwatching. The shier of the two, He Zhongli, both fears and admires Yunfei’s apparent superior skill getting phone numbers. He seems to be petitioning Yunfei for tips, but under the surface really seeks permission to be shy. Yunfei, lost in his own cockiness, scarcely notices what is being asked of him. In a DramaSystem scene, He’s player would snag a drama token from Yunfei’s.

Next time you’re watching a character study doc shot in this style, watch for the petitioner/granter structure and the movement of invisible drama tokens across the screen.

Hillfolk_cardsSHUFFLE UP SOME HILLFOLK INSPIRATION!

This custom playing card deck for Hillfolk and DramaSystem includes face cards styled for your next saga of Iron Age Drama.
Special scene prompts appear on each card, giving you suggestions to jump-start your creativity the next time you’re stumped for a scene.

In addition to illustrations for the face cards and the standard playing cards element, each card has two graphically distinct bands for text:
• Emotional goals (used to spark dramatic scenes)
• Practical complications (used to spark procedurals or ease your way into dramatic scenes)

Scene prompts are genre-free and can be used in any DramaSystem series.

You can play DramaSystem with ordinary playing cards, but these will make you the envy of the all the badlands clans.

If you are live in the US or Canada, you can purchase the Hillfolk card deck here, while stocks last.

If you are live in the UK, EU or rest of the world, you can purchase the Hillfolk card deck here, while stocks last.

 

Drama tokens Hillfolk_bagDRAMA TOKENS

In DramaSystem, all participants, including the GM, collect and spend tokens throughout the course of an episode.

Red, yellow and green tokens are called procedural tokens, and are used to call procedural scenes your character is not in and determine how many cards you draw to resolve procedural scenes.

Blue tokens are recommended to represent drama tokens, an in-game currency encouraging players to strike a balance between rebuffing and granting petitions from other players.

The Hillfolk token set contains 6 red, 6 yellow, 6 green and 18 blue semi-precious stone tokens in a custom dice bag.

If you are live in the US or Canada, you can purchase the Hillfolk tokens here, while stocks last.

If you are live in the UK, EU or rest of the world, you can purchase the Hillfolk tokens here, while stocks last.

 

 

Hillfolk_books_mockup

HILLFOLK AND BLOOD ON THE SNOW LIMITED EDITIONS

Limited Editions of Hillfolk and Blood on the Snow are now available. These are deluxe faux leather embossed versions of the core books. You can see an image of a Blood on the Snow limited edition here, and there’s an unboxing video here featuring the Hillfolk limited edition.

You can buy these individually or as a bundle along with the Hillfolk cards and Hillfolk tokens.

If you are live in the US or Canada, you can purchase the Hillfolk limited editions, cards and tokens here, while stocks last.

If you are live in the UK, EU or rest of the world, you can purchase the Hillfolk limited editions, cards and tokens here, while stocks last.

Hillfolk_books_mockupLimited Editions of Hillfolk and Blood on the Snow are now available. These are deluxe faux leather embossed versions of the core books. You can see an image of a Blood on the Snow limited edition here, and there’s an unboxing video here featuring the Hillfolk limited edition.

You can buy these individually or as a bundle along with the Hillfolk cards and Hillfolk tokens.

If you are live in the US or Canada, you can purchase the Hillfolk limited editions, cards and tokens here, while stocks last.

If you are live in the UK, EU or rest of the world, you can purchase the Hillfolk limited editions, cards and tokens here, while stocks last.

 

 

Hillfolk Tokens

Hillfolk_bag Drama tokensIn DramaSystem, all participants, including the GM, collect and spend tokens throughout the course of an episode.

Red, yellow and green tokens are called procedural tokens, and are used to call procedural scenes your character is not in and determine how many cards you draw to resolve procedural scenes.

Blue tokens are recommended to represent drama tokens, an in-game currency encouraging players to strike a balance between rebuffing and granting petitions from other players.

The Hillfolk token set contains 6 red, 6 yellow, 6 green and 18 blue semi-precious stone tokens in a custom dice bag.

If you are live in the US or Canada, you can purchase the Hillfolk tokens here, while stocks last.

If you are live in the UK, EU or rest of the world, you can purchase the Hillfolk tokens here, while stocks last.

 

Hillfolk Cards

Hillfolk_cards_mockupSHUFFLE UP SOME HILLFOLK INSPIRATION!

This custom playing card deck for Hillfolk and DramaSystem includes face cards styled for your next saga of Iron Age Drama.
Special scene prompts appear on each card, giving you suggestions to jump-start your creativity the next time you’re stumped for a scene.

In addition to illustrations for the face cards and the standard playing cards element, each card has two graphically distinct bands for text:
• Emotional goals (used to spark dramatic scenes)
• Practical complications (used to spark procedurals or ease your way into dramatic scenes)

Scene prompts are genre-free and can be used in any DramaSystem series.

You can play DramaSystem with ordinary playing cards, but these will make you the envy of the all the badlands clans.

If you are live in the US or Canada, you can purchase the Hillfolk card deck here, while stocks last.

If you are live in the UK, EU or rest of the world, you can purchase the Hillfolk card deck here, while stocks last.

Up until the middle of the 20th century, when class distinctions started to soften and an egalitarian ethic took hold in the West, differences in social status remained a key concern of the English-language storytelling tradition. Today’s audiences sometimes have trouble understanding why Tess of the d’Ubervilles doesn’t leave and set up a hat shop in Durham. But if you really want to evoke any historical moment other than our own, social barriers may become recurrent themes.

The key is to create the main cast so that emotional needs surmount differences in status. Avoid Upstairs Downstairs set-ups where rules of status prevent one half of the main cast from meaningfully interacting with the other. This constrains play by essentially creating two parallel casts, where the low-status characters can only call scenes with each other and the high-status ones likewise. Focus instead on gradations in status within the same class, with family bonds sometimes allowing the lower-status characters to score emotional points against the higher. In an aristocratic milieu the patriarch of the family enjoys the highest status but his unlucky third son, who can only expect a modest life as a clergyman, still has the standing to petition for emotional rewards, or to be petitioned for them.

By creating a pitch where status within the group can shift over time, you build potential for narrative movement. In the default Hillfolk setting a chieftain can become outlaw, a shepherd can rise to take his place, and a scrappy young hostler can turn into a dangerous grand lady. (All of these things happened in my in-house playtest.) Looking back on these changes lends a feeling of sweep to your overall story arc. Where procedural storytelling can be cyclical, bringing the good guys back to where they were before disorder intruded on their lives, drama depends on movement from one emotional state to another. Status upheavals, for good or ill, provide a clear outward reflection of the protagonsts’ altered inner states. They also serve up heaping helpings of motivation, a way for characters to measure how well they’re doing as they variously hurt and comfort one another.


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 the latest episode of their eponymous podcast, Ken and Robin talk character agency, palimpsest recovery, Hillfolk Kickstarter logistics, and saving Vinland. Featuring special Pelgrane guests Simon Rogers and Cat Tobin!

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