A Column about Roleplaying
by Robin D. Laws
With my nearly year-long Feng Shui 2 series properly ushered to its exploding, juncture-rattling big finish, and my days currently occupied by a mobile game project I don’t have to playtest, I thought the Thursday night game should slip back into the familiar waters of DramaSystem. Its nonexistent GM prep demands make it a perfect fit for my current work schedule. This also affords me the opportunity to see the game played with a group that is now well accustomed to its style and able to grab the steering wheel from the first scene and keep on roaring.
I started by picking seven of the Series Pitches found in the core Hillfolk book, Blood on the Snow, and the Pitch of the Month Club and presenting them to my players to choose from. This follows the famous rule of seven, which says that once you give the human brain eight choices it shuts down completely and asks for a mug of hot tea.
By email the players found a quick consensus for “Alma Mater Magica,” Angus Abranson’s pitch about magicians who saved the world as young students, now in disappointed middle age and back as faculty at the school where they learned wizardry. Look for it on p. 159 of Blood on the Snow.
Players had the choice of specifying whether their characters been working at Concord University for a while, or would be returning in the course of the first episode. Concord, by the way, is less like Hogwarts than it is like Durham in Newcastle. Albeit with a layer of weirdness below its quotidian veneer.
Characters who were already on staff as of the start of the first episode were:
Dr. Jacobson, aka, “Doc” (played by Paul Jackson.) No one knows his actual first name. Head of the Department of Theoretical Thaumaturgy, Doc typifies the stuffy, arrogant, out-of-touch academic. Dramatic poles: Arrogance vs. Altruism. Desire: Recognition.
Ann Snooks (Rachel Kahn), assistant at the uni library. She wants to keep her head down, advance in her modest career, and forget the craziness of her nearly world-ending youth. Dramatic poles: Assertive vs. Doormat. Desire: Agency.
Einar Halverd (Justin Mohareb), aging party animal and Professor of Troll Studies. Eager to relive the glory days before he got so battle-scarred, he’s the who looks forward to seeing the band get back together. Dramatic poles: Domesticity vs. Action. Desire: Vitality.
Just now returning to Concord University are:
Earl Pudgely (Chris Huth), once unflattering nicknamed “the Earl of Pudgely.” Bullied as a shy, awkward student, he abandoned sorcery for a mundane life as a musician in the Manchester scene. Now nearly unrecognizable as a haggard recovering addict, he has taken a post as a Counseling Psychologist in the trenches of the uni’s threadbare student support system. Dramatic poles: Respect vs. Loathing (for self and others.) Desire: Sobriety.
Professor Stephen Kim (Scott Wachter.) A hotshot on a downward trajectory, the brilliant but erratic Kim has accepted a post teaching High Energy magic. A gift to any GM, he is the sort of reckless figure who gets plots moving. Dramatic poles: Action vs. Reason. Desire: Stability.
As DramaSystem requires, players established character relationships to one another as they created them. Given the premise of the pitch, the players described the relationships they had back in the day, which would then evolve or revert to form when the cast began to interact in the grim gray present. So far there’s been a lot of reverting.
- Ann was his surrogate sister
- Earl was his disappointment
- Stephen was trouble
- Einar is a gnat, beneath contempt
- Doc was her alpha
- Earl was her project
- Stephen was a creep
- Einar was the group weirdo
- Stephen was beloved sidekick
- Earl was best friend
- Ann was his frenemy
- Doc was his rival (the head butting was literal)
- Ann was his confidant
- Doc was the one you wanted respect from
- Stephen was the bully he’s struggling to forgive
- Einar was fear object
- Earl was his target
- Ann was his crush object
- Doc was his academic rival
- Einar was his partner in crime
Note the asymmetrical nature of certain relationships. Ann dismissively remembers Einar as the group weirdo; Einar thinks of her as both friend and enemy. Einar remembers Earl as a best friend, but Einar frightens Earl. And in a classic unequal relationship, teenage Stephen was sweet on Ann, who thought of him as a creep. This mimics real life and provides grist for the conflicting needs that generate dramatic scenes.
The next stage of DramaSystem group character creation takes these relationships and renders them active by asking players to specify something emotional they need from other players’ characters. The character named as the object of the want then explains why the desiring character can’t have it.
Doc wants Stephen to admit he’s right; Stephen doesn’t buy that.
He wants Ann to be happy; she doesn’t admit she’s sad.
Ann wants Stephen to get over his creepy high school crush; he doesn’t want to have to tell her that he no longer finds her attractive.
She wants Earl to stand up for himself and make his life better; he doesn’t want to be her project any more.
Einar wants Ann’s forgiveness; he can’t have it because she didn’t care in the first place.
He wants to relive his wild years with Stephen; he can’t have that because Stephen’s gotten too old for this shit.
Earl wants Doc’s respect; he can’t have that because Doc feels he doesn’t deserve it yet (and won’t until he admits he was wrong to renounce wizardry.)
Earl wants Einar to stop being intimidating; Einar doesn’t admit that he is.
Stephen wants Einar to not act like they’re teenagers; he can’t have it because for Einar to admit that would be giving in to entropy, which is death.
Stephen wants Earl to forgive him. Earl doesn’t trust him.
Next month we’ll look at how these elements came into play (or didn’t) during the series’ early episodes.
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.
As a result of the Hillfolk Kickstarter, the DramaSystem is now available under two open licenses; the Open Gaming License and the Creative Commons 3.0 Attribution Unported License.
It is not a teaching document structured to show you how to play and enjoy DramaSystem, but a reference document for writers and game designers to create their own products derived from DramaSystem.
If you want a gamer-friendly version, packed with additional settings and beautifully illustrated, get Hillfolk and its supplement Blood on the Snow from the Pelgrane webstore or you local game store.
Download the CC version here.
Download the OGL version here.
In the latest episode of their insidiously well-connected podcast, Ken and Robin talk the games they’re running right now, Beyonce illuminated, pastiche and Jamestown cannibalism.
After a brief break to complete another commitment, I am once again at work assembling Hillfolk. Here’s an update for backers and future buyers.
All of the key art for Hillfolk and its companion volume, Blood on the Snow, is now in. We’ll need a few spot illos for the LARP and Master Class sections of the latter, but I have an ingenious plan for that and it shouldn’t impact the schedule. This project not only allows for, but requires, a range of illustration styles as great as the range of settings you can bring to life in DramaSystem. So you’ll see a much greater visual variety in these books than any one RPG project would normally accommodate, from line drawing to digital manipulation to painted work to photo collage. At right appears Aaron Acevedo’s evocative illustration for Lester Smith’s ghostly series pitch, “The Spirit Is Willing.”
As of this writing, I have 96% of the text for the core book in hand, and 93% of Blood on the Snow. Almost all of this has already been copy-edited. Two pitches from each book have yet to come in. These include pieces from key names I greedily wish to keep in the books, rather than shifting them to the Pitch of the Month Club. Two of the submitted pitches exceed the standard length; I can run them in extended form if outstanding submissions remain in the wind too long. A fun pitch from an aforementioned and unannounced gaming guru also grants me flexibility to shift the line-up if need be.
I’ve been discussing with graphic designer Christian Knutsson how to handle the presentation of the two books. He’ll be creating two layout styles for us: the Hillfolk theme previewed during the Kickstarter, and a more generic DramaSystem look for the series pitches in the main book. The latter will also appear throughout Blood on the Snow. Christian has valiantly agreed to go above and beyond his original commitment to complete both books for us and I can’t wait to see what he comes up with.
When we launched the Kickstarter, for a 128-page book from a team of five people, I estimated an April delivery date. I had hoped, against all logic, that we could stick to that after stretch goals expanded the project to two books of twice that size, and a team of approximately eighty contributors. (Eighty? Good grief!) Reality has now set in, and I’ll get a revised publication date out to you when we have one nailed completely down. I don’t want to issue a series of guess dates and then keep having to revise them, so please bear with us as we finalize our duck alignment.
People have been asking how they might support the project now that the Kickstarter has closed. We’ve suspended orders for the moment, in order to concentrate on making the books. When we draw nearer to the final release date, we’ll open a new round of pre-orders for those who missed the crowdfund. Watch this space for further announcements.
In this week’s episode of their indispensable podcast, Ken and Robin talk game design economics, why we game, and silver-shirted Hollywood Nazi occultist William Dudley Pelley. Long-awaitedly, we re-enter the historical cage match to once again take on the legacy of and Woodrow Wilson. Was he, as Ken asserts, America’s worst president?
Alan Ball, creator of Six Feet Under and True Blood, is about to launch a new cable show, Banshee, about an ex-con who, through the peregrinations of an opening plot twist, becomes sheriff of a small town in Amish country. This will give Ball another chance to air his issues with conservative Christianity and presumably his mother. Given the wildly contrasting tones of his previous shows I’m curious to see where he takes this one. Also, they had me at Ulrich Thomsen.
It’s on Cinemax in the US and, through the peregrinations of pay TV licensing, HBO Canada in my maple-strewn homeland.
I mention this here because it inspired a thought experiment. The synopsis given on the HBO Canada site (and presumably repeated on its Cinemax counterpart) goes like this:
From Alan Ball, creator/EP of True Blood, this exciting new Cinemax action drama charts the twists and turns that follow Lucas Hood (Antony Starr), an ex-convict who improbably becomes sheriff of a rural, Amish-area town while searching for a woman he last saw 15 years ago, when he gave himself up to police to let her escape after a jewel heist. Living in Banshee under an assumed name, Carrie Hopewell (Ivana Milicevic) is now married to the local DA, has two children (one of whom may be Lucas’), and is trying desperately to keep a low profile – until Lucas arrives to shake up her world and rekindle old passions. Complicating matters is the fact that Banshee is riddled by corruption, with an Amish overlord, Kai Proctor (Ulrich Thomsen), brutally building a local empire of drugs, gambling and graft. With the help of a boxer-turned-barkeeper named Sugar Bates (Frankie Faison), Lucas is able to stay on even footing with Kai and his thugs, and even manages to bring a measure of tough justice to Banshee. But eventually, Lucas’ appetite for pulling heists pulls him and Carrie into a dangerous cauldron of duplicity, exacerbated when Mr. Rabbit (Ben Cross), the NY mobster they once ripped off, closes in with vengeance on his mind.
That’s complete enough to serve as the basis of play for a DramaSystem series. As a series pitch, it’s way truncated, but you don’t need a series pitch for everything, especially stories set in our familiar world.
The experiment would go like this: take the synopsis of this or any other upcoming serialized cable drama. Use it as the basis of a DramaSystem series…without watching the show. Or otherwise keeping up with where it’s going. When you finish you own series, rent the original on DVD, and compare and contrast.
With the holidays in the rearview mirror, it’s time for another Hillfolk progress report. I continue to receive great contributions from stretch goal writers ahead of the Jan 31st deadline. This grants me a useful head start, one I’m sure I’ll need when February 1st rolls around and the task of assembling the full books begins in earnest.
Jason L. Blair’s “Inhuman Desires” delivers the promised paranormal romance in sterling fashion. It doesn’t let death get in the way of a tortured love story.
Meguey Baker’s “Under Hollow Hills” pours on the faerie atmosphere, bringing an evocative prose voice to her series of intrigue among the fae, and the humans caught on the thorny boundary between their realm and ours.
Jennifer Brozek’s “Transcend” brings the post-human condition to the dinner table, letting you explore the consequences of radical transformation either on a future Earth or in the social hothouse of an orbiting space station.
Graeme Davis has swashed his buckles with “Pyrates”, bringing the time-honored crime gang drama to the blue waters of the piratical Caribbean.
If you prefer your epic drama under the waves, Richard Iorio has turned in “Dolphins.” Just like he said, it bridges the moods of Finding Nemo and Lord of the Rings.
Compelling human storytelling occupies a smoldering center stage in Greg Stolze’s “Fire in the Heartland.” What is it like to serve as first responder in a community so small you know everyone you’re ever called on to rescue?
Also, I received an early Christmas present in the form of a completely unexpected, ready-to-print series pitch from an RPG heavy hitter I’m not quite ready to announce. This luminary’s surprise participation gives me leeway in the unhoped-for-event of a drop out from an announced series pitch contributor. For the moment I’m keeping both the name and the concept under my hat.
Contributions from Ash Law, Emily Care Boss and Pedro Ziviani have arrived and will be reviewed over the next few days.
Meanwhile, I’ve completed work on the reference document for the DramaSystem open license. This will allow us to release it concurrently with the book.
Art contributions are beginning to roll in. I’m very pleased with what I’ve seen so far and am confident that you will be, too. As a teaser, at right is Rachel Kahn’s illustration for TS Luikart’s “Malice Tarn.”
A tip of the Pelgrane hat goes out to Michael Rees’ new blog, The Game Is Afoot, dedicated to all things GUMSHOE and DramaSystem. Entries so far include a Bookhounds of London adventure, Burmese Trail of Cthulhu doings, and Bone Wars, a DramaSystem series pitch in which you play rootin’-tootin’ paleontologists.
Now that Hillfolk Kickstarter backers have had time to digest and play the game, it’s time to solicit submissions for the Master Class section of the Blood on the Snow Companion book. This is an opportunity for the emerging game writers among you to gain some experience and see your name in print.
We’re looking for contributions of approximately 300-1000 words in length that will help readers understand, play, and expand DramaSystem.
The theme: challenges you encountered during play, and how you overcame them.
If you wish to submit a piece taking another angle on DramaSystem play or design, feel free to do so, with the understanding that pieces adhering to the theme are more likely to be accepted.
Whatever your subject matter, all pieces must show that you have actually played the game. Armchair ruminations will have to seek other homes.
These submissions will appear in a 20,000 word section of Blood on the Snow, interwoven with commentary by Robin.
This is an open call for pieces written on a spec basis. We will accept as many quality submissions as fit within the section’s word count. In the case of similar submissions, we’ll pick the one of greatest utility in DramaSystem play.
Deadline for submissions is Jan 14. Send submissions in .doc, .docx or .odt format to Robin at robinlaws at-symbol rogers.com.
You will not be asked to perform rewrites. Instead, Robin may adjust your prose for clarity, brevity, and maximum impact, allowing you the opportunity to comment on these changes.
Authors whose pieces are accepted for publication will receive 3 cents a word US, due on acceptance, in exchange for all rights to your text. You will receive credit both as a byline and on the table of contents. Due to the brevity of these pieces our budget does not permit us to offer complimentary author’s copies. (Remember that all Hillfolk backers already receive the book in electronic form, whether you purchased the print copy or not.)
Note to Established Designers
This open call addresses new and emerging game writers. If you are an already established designer and wish to submit, contact me with a concept brief and we’ll discuss alternate terms.