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.
The RPG Geek DramaSystem Contest 2015
by Yohann Delalande
I only discovered Hillfolk a year ago. I was fortunate enough to experience a demo game run by Robin D. Laws himself at the Chimériades, a small French convention with a huge gaming-holiday feel. This experience turned into a real eye-opener.
DramaSystem showed me how to play with characters’ agendas and interpersonal relationships. Finally, I had all the tools I had been looking for to run games based on emotional conflicts.
Then, last February, the stars went right when the announcement of the Bundle of Holding on Hillfolk coincided with a discussion I was having with some fellow members of the RPG Geek community about writing series pitches – Robin’s name for settings you can play with DramaSystem. This is when the idea of a contest suddenly popped up in my mind.
I had already run other contests on this site, so I asked for permission to the community’s administrators and to Pelgrane Press, who both replied positively and were willing to sponsor it. In less than 24 hours, the RPG Geek DramaSystem Contest 2015 was born and launched.
One of the assets of RPG Geek, beyond its huge database of games and designers, remains its international community who constantly strives to uphold some high standards of diversity and inclusion. Everybody is welcome there, whatever their tastes in gaming are. This meant it was the perfect place to hold such a contest.
With such a positive spirit, all the participants were committed to offering their most innovative pitch, but also to supporting each other’s efforts. And although I expected to be positively surprised, we all ended up being absolutely astonished by the fantastic quality of the 22 submissions.
However, as in every contest, there have to be some winners, and despite a fierce competition, three stood out:
- Our 1st place winner, The Unchosen Ones, co-written by Heather Silsbee and Jon Cole, revolves around the faith crisis a doomsday, ecoreligious cult faces when the apocalypse prophesied by their guru does not match their expectations at all.
- Our 2nd place winner, Eagle’s Twilight, written by Charles Picard, brings us back to 5th century AD Britain near the Hadrian Wall when Rome withdraws all its troops, leaving the Britons without any Imperial rule or defence.
- Our 3rd place winner, Game On, written by Wendy Gorman, throws us into the mid-40s US with the creation of the All American Girls Professional Baseball League, and offers us to explore the difficulties and the social challenges professional sportswomen faced at that time
Obviously, our 22 Series Pitches will offer you a wide panel of diverse gaming experience to discover and play. All of them are hosted in the RPG Geek database and in the Hillfolk resources page – you can see the full list here – and they can all be downloaded for free.
Finally, there is no better emotional reward for a game designer than knowing that their creations are being played. This is why I would strongly encourage you to play them all and to share your experience with us on social media.
A Column about Roleplaying
by Robin D. Laws
Early episodes of television series sometimes seem perfectly wrought in retrospect, ably setting up the themes and situations that the ending pays off. Others evolve from the original conceptions the writers set out for themselves in their pitch documents. “Parks and Recreation” gives us a textbook example. In the famously not-quite-right brief initial season, Amy Poehler’s Leslie Knope character comes off as a female version of Michael Scott from “The Office” (US edition.) She’s more pathetic loser than the over-enthused powerhouse of positivity she becomes when the series hits its stride. Likewise Chris Pratt’s Andy Dwyer, meant to appear only for a short run, appears as a selfish dullard and not the lovable human puppy he evolves into.
This happens when outlines turn into stories and creators begin to see new, more satisfying or richer ideas emerge. There is no shame in this dynamic: it’s what you want to happen.
Likewise, some of the ideas you generate during DramaSystem character creation will fall by the wayside as you play out your episodes. Some will fade into the background, perhaps to be picked up later. Others will be eclipsed by the conflicts and contrasts that grow out of actual scenes.
With that in mind, let’s compare the poles, desires, and unmet needs created during the first session of my ongoing Alma Mater Magica series to what began to emerge during its early episodes.
It is especially fitting that relationships should shift quickly in this series, which is all about a group of people coming together again and confronting who they were and what they did when they were students, thirty years ago.
The relationship between Ann and Earl typifies the resumption of old patterns. Ann saw the misfit and childhood bullying target Earl as her improvement project. Earl’s player, Chris, specified that Earl wanted to get away from this. But in play, the need for each character to have at least one supportive confidant figure has pulled him back into their childhood pattern. At any point he could revert to his desire to distance himself from her help, but for now he needs it.
Likewise the idea that Earl fears Einar but Einar thought of him as a best friend didn’t make much of an appearance in the first four episodes. In part this was due to player attendance, which can exert a powerful shaping force on a DramaSystem game. You may set out a rich conflict but be unable to realize it because you miss a night or two. Once you return to the table the story may have moved on, leaving you looking for a way to hook into what has happened in your absence. This invites comparison to television shows who have to make up for the surprise unavailability of an actor. Although in roleplaying we don’t yet have contracts forcing players to show up to play every week…
In general we’ve seen more of Einar’s party-hearty side than his craving for domesticity and fear of death. With other players staking out darker notes for their character, Einar’s player, Justin, filled the vacant slot for an extroverted, lighter-hearted portrayal. Since then a big comic turn occurred, with a supposedly dead doppelganger (or is he?) of self-perceived leader Doc coming back to life. The real Doc/doppel-Doc double act, half of which is played by the GM imitating the player, filled the comic relief void. This may give Justin the tonal space to fill in the originally conceived darker shades for Einar.
The romantic subtext between Stephen and Ann has been muted so far. These sorts of storylines often fade, as players are uncomfortable playing this particular staple theme of serialized storytelling. Friendship dynamics come easier than love at the gaming table. In a theoretical sense this tendency is a shame, as it leaves out key swathes of dramatic subject matter. On the practical other hand, you’re never going to get good results by forcing or bribing people to play outside their comfort zones.
But I digress, which is a thing the GM must keep a watch on in DramaSystem.
Dynamics established during character creation that did play a major role in early play include the contrast between the stodgy Doc and the reckless Stephen. The latter’s messing with highly and illegal and dangerous unicorn blood has only been complicated by the fact that his supplier is Doc’s ex-wife. (Or not-so-ex, as we were to later discover.) This was followed by a reversal showing that Doc can be heedless himself, especially in his lack of attention to financial matters.
These sparks arose from scenes I chose to call as GM, whose job is to tighten the screws and thus heighten contrasts between characters. Even in DramaSystem players tend to protect their characters by making safe choices. Here it was my job to ensure that the theme of adult messiness was realized in the action, adding realistic tones of gray that would keep the characters from coming off as purely procedural wish fulfillment figures. Hence the introduction of Doc’s ex-wife and cash flow problems, and Stephen’s involvement in occult underworld activities.
Ann has slipped into a voice of reason role, allowing her to assert her Assertive dramatic pole while speaking up for the Doormat values of the person who wants only a comfortable life in the midst of incipient chaos. Chris, Earl’s player, found an addiction angle on his relationship with Doc’s ex, Imelda. The group’s focus on her has turned this supporting character into series’ main quasi-antagonist, at least in the early going. What a character thinks about Imelda has become as or more important to some of the threads they set up towards each other.
So, then, the answer to the question posed in the title is: they evolve quickly.
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.
SHUFFLE 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.
These are no longer available for sale.
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.