a column on roleplaying

by Robin D. Laws

Looking for a new way to spark ideas for your next player character? Consider stealing a dramatic pole from classic literature.

As Hillfolk players know, a dramatic pole is the essential opposition that defines a character tuned for, you guessed it, dramatic storytelling. It allows the character to be pulled in two directions through the course of the story, fueling inner conflict.

Is Huckleberry Finn innocent, or corrupt?

Is Don Draper real, or an advertising image for a created self?

Is Rick Blaine of Casablanca selfish or altruistic?

You can usually define any classic character in a couple of ways. How you nail this down reveals your perspective on the work and the character. What matters is that you identify a key opposition that spurs the character to pursue emotional goals. This pursuit becomes the action of the story.

Shakespeare serves as a deep mine of classic internal oppositions. As a dramatist, he has to get his characters moving and into collision with one another.

Is Hamlet a man of action, or a man of contemplation?

Is Lear a king or a fool?

Is Brutus an idealist or a betrayer?

Is Juliet a loyal daughter or a romantic lover?

Let’s take Caliban from The Tempest. You could define him in a couple of ways. Rebel vs. servant would work, for example.

For this article, let’s pick another: man or monster. This one reverberates down through the story tradition. We see it again with Frankenstein’s monster, The Wolfman, and “Dexter.” A huge swathe of Marvel comics heroes use the man or monster opposition: the Hulk, the Thing, the Beast, Nightcrawler, and many more.

(To digress for a moment, if you want to sum up the difference between the Marvel and DC heroes, Stan Lee’s creations tend to have dramatic poles, whereas the earlier DC characters don’t so much. Spider-Man’s hero vs loser opposition takes center stage. Superman’s divided nature doesn’t get much play until much later revisionist takes like Man of Steel. The inherent wrongness of that film suggests that the character wasn’t built to support an internal opposition and can’t stand having one bolted onto it retrospect.)

The list above shows us that Caliban’s man or monster opposition serves as a rugged chassis for genre characters.

Most but by no means all genre characters appear in procedural stories, which are mostly about the overcoming of external obstacles. Very often the character appears in a serial format, undergoing multiple distinct adventures. This is the pattern that all traditional roleplaying games emulate.

As the Marvel examples show, serial characters who star in procedural stories can still use dramatic oppositions to hold our interest. However, if they’re to continue their adventures, the opposition can never truly resolve itself. Should Bruce Banner get cured, he becomes 100% man and 0% monster, but that means no more Hulk stories. That’s why experienced comics readers know that a new cure for Banner’s condition will never last very long. It’s just a temporary way of finding a fresh angle on man versus monster theme.

If you start with the idea of playing a man or monster PC, the task of adapting it to various genres falls readily into place.

In a fantasy game, you can literally be a monstrous being, whether an orc or minotaur, who aspires to acceptance and a higher self. If you’re playing 13th Age, you could select icon relationships that heighten the opposition. A fraught relationship with the Lich King, Orc Lord, Diabolist or Three could represent your monster side, even as you aspire to a greater connection to the Emperor, Elf Queen, or Priestess.

Science fiction dramatic poles often center around the nature of humanity. Your monstrous side might be represented as a grotesque or brutish alien morphology, or as extensive cybernetic implants.

Some horror games might permit you to have a bit of monster in you already as you start play. In Trail of Cthulhu, give yourself the drive “In the Blood” and you’re off to the Innsmouth races.

To use the opposition in Mutant City Blues, select mutant powers that make you look freakish, and make sure your powers grant you a defect allowing the question of your slow mental or physical deterioration to drive personal subplots.

When a setting doesn’t allow for literal monstrosity, you can always go for the metaphorical kind. As a cursory glance at history tells us, the real monsters out there are all people. To go back to Shakepeare, his portrayal of Richard III could easily be classified as having a man/monster opposition. (Like pretty well all of the history plays you could also give him just ruler vs. tyrant, but since that fits them all it fails the specificity test of great storytelling choices.)

Your ultra-competent agent in The Esoterrorists could have passed Ordo Veritatis psych evaluation by cleverly hiding her psychopathic nature. She starts out as a sociopath for the forces of good, just like 007 in his classic conception. But what happens when her Stability starts to slide below 0?

Any opposition you can find in literature can work in DramaSystem. The settings described in the various series pitches merely dictate whether the monster side of you is literal or metaphorical.

So for the core Hillfolk setting, as well as other non-fantastical pitches like “Brigades”, “Maroons” and “The White Dog Runs at Night” reality as we know it restricts you to the limits of human deformity. You might give your character a curved spine, paralyzed hand or missing eye in order to underline the monstrous side of his dramatic pole. Or you might find the way it associates disability with monstrosity unnecessarily stigmatizing and decide to chuck this longstanding literary trope into the dustbin. In that case you’ll make your character monstrous by action but not by outward appearance.

Other DramaSystem series pitches draw on genre elements allowing literal monstrosity. Your “Alma Mater Magica” or “Under Hallowed Hills” character could be half human, half goblin. A mecha pilot from “Article 9” could be infected with an advanced case of ATI (anime tentacle ichor.) In “Against Hali” you could be emotionally warped by exposure to the banned play, The King in Yellow. “Transcend”, with its theme of extreme futuristic body modification, revolves around this opposition. If you’re the central character, you might not see yourself as part monster, but family members run by the other players might.

Likewise you can take any of the other oppositions mentioned here and use them as a springboard for your character. The intersection between pitch and opposition makes for a different character each time. Your choice of family vs. love leads you to create a quite different character in the Icelandic saga of “Blood on the Snow” than it would amid the smoky cross-cultural intrigue of “Shanghai 1930,” because the historical contexts are so different.

Hillfolk15

DramaSystem Resources

 

Articles

Supporting Characters as Foils by Robin D. Laws

The No-Response Response by Robin D. Laws

Graybeard by Robin D. Laws

Alternate Procedural Resolutions for One-Shot DramaSystem

by Robin D. Laws

How Documentaries Show Us DramaSystem Scene Structure in Real Life

by Robin D. Laws

 Series Pitches

Alignment, by Michael Duxbury, illustrated by Melissa Trender – a fantasy setting of caste-based oppression, based on the Good-Evil/Lawful-Chaos alignment system from classic fantasy games.

 Forms

  • Download the Scene Breakdown Tracker
  • Download the Relationship Map
  • Download a Recurring Characters Tracker
  • Download the Main Cast Tracker
  • Download a list of Common Intentions
  • Download the Character Sheet
  • Download a French language one-sided DramaSystem character sheet by Jean-Christophe Cubertafon
  • Download an English language one-sided DramaSystem character sheet by Jean-Christophe Cubertafon
  • Download a 2-sided, landscape orientation, with player reference (procedural rules references are to the advanced system from Blood on the Snow) by Jon Cole
  • Download a GM reference sheet (procedural rules references are to the advanced system from Blood on the Snow) by Jon Cole
  • Download 9 quick-start character playbooks for Hillfolk (including GM instructions on how to use) as 2-sided, landscape orientation, folded into booklets by Jon Cole.
  • Download an Excel spreadsheet bennie calculator, which automatically calculates who should get bennies at the end of a session, by Jon Cole

 

 

 

In fiction, supporting characters often function as reflections of the protagonists. As we know from DramaSystem, main characters in a dramatic story can be defined as torn between two competing impulses. In the game we call these Dramatic Poles.

In Hamlet, our title character is torn between Action and Contemplation. And wouldn’t you know it, two minor characters exist in relationship to him, each of them expressing one of those poles alone.

Horatio reflects Hamlet’s contemplative side—he is all thought and caution, and thus (spoiler) the one who survives to tell the tale.

Fortinbras marches through seemingly only to prick Hamlet’s guilt about his inaction. Later he also helps provide closure at the end. Tellingly, the last interaction is between the two foils, Horatio and Fortinbras, indicating that Hamlet’s story is done, his story having been fatally resolved in favor of action.

In Casablanca, Rick’s dramatic poles are the ever-popular Selfishness vs. Altruism.

Laszlo (Paul Henried) serves as the foil who is purely altruistic—almost annoyingly so, since we want Ilsa to be available to resume her relationship with Rick.

Claude Rains as Captain Renault reflects the opposite pole, supplying cinema’s most delightful portrayal of pure selfishness. Notably, he too flips to altruism at the end. (Whoops. Another spoiler. Hey, it’s been out for six decades.)

Villains and mentors sometimes also serve as foils. To cite a more nerdly example, you could argue that if Luke’s poles are Light Side vs. Dark Side, Obi-Wan and Darth Vader each represent one of them. (Really Star Wars is a procedural with a few nods to drama, so the analogy breaks down when squinted at too hard.)

As a DramaSystem player, you can give your GM something to work with by inventing and interacting with supporting characters who each embody a single one of your poles.

As a GM, you can conceive of supporting characters as foils, pushing a character toward whatever pole she’s currently neglecting.

So if your Hillfolk game includes a chieftain torn between expediency and mercy, his supporting character foils might be:

  • Hard-Talker, a grim-faced, veteran adviser who always argues for the cruel but effective course
  • Petal, the fresh-faced priestess who speaks up for forgiveness

Often you can retrofit a supporting character created on the spur of the moment to fulfill a need in one scene, adjusting her so that she becomes a long-term foil.


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.

Illustration: Jonathan Wyke

When you watch the typical serial cable drama that DramaSystem, the game engine underlying Hillfolk, in large part emulates, you’ll note that the scenes tend to be short. Occasionally you get a change of pace episode structured more like a one act play. Mostly you see a large number of two-hander scenes in which the petition is presented, the granter plays various facets of the argument, the petitioner responds, and resolution occurs. DramaSystem players often like to get into the scene and pull every possible nugget of interaction out of it. However if you’re willing to engage in the occasional quickie scene, that provides a variety of pace that benefits everyone.

In DramaSystem the granter dictates the length of the scene more than the petitioner. As granter you can shorten a scene by allowing your resistance to be overcome in the tighter time frame you’d seen in the compressed medium of television or fiction. (Really every medium is more compressed than roleplaying, which is only fair since we’re making it up as we go along without aid of later editing.)

Another potential-rich way to keep a scene snappy is to leave the petition unresolved. In TV writing you’ll see that this happens all the time. The petitioner makes the request but the grantor does not tip her hand as to which way she’s going to go. In DramaSystem terms, a non-response constitutes a refusal. But it also leaves this conflict open to be furthered in a later scene, either to the advantage or detriment of the petitioner. This creates suspense, leaving a question hanging over the proceedings. Which way are you, as granter, going to jump?

As granter, a non-response response does cost you a drama token. At the same time, though, it heightens your character’s emotional power by leaving that narrative hook hanging out there. So although you may be tempted to end each interaction on a definitive yes or no to the petition, consider the occasional power of an unresolved scene conclusion. Just say, “I walk away without answering.” You may find it the coldest rebuff of all.


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.

DramaSystem series pitches do not typically describe particular Game Moderator characters. They are better invented during play than set out for you in advance. This allows you to tailor the GMCs to the player characters, ensuring that act as foils rather than drivers of the action.

However in Hillfolk one-shots, I do find myself returning to a particular GMC again and again. He occurs when the players do not include a chieftain character. When the group does include a chieftain a one-shot, as I’ve noted before, usually becomes a struggle to depose the chieftain. When that’s not the case I often find a use for an ineffectual, doddering old chieftain. His job, like any DramaSystem GMC, is to raise the dramatic stakes and incite PC action. Typically a naïve believer in outmoded values over hard realities, Graybeard mostly urges characters to foolish courses of behavior. Though his plans are bad, he does zero in on the burning desires of the characters he seeks out. He typifies that most dangerous figure: a persuasive idiot. In narrative terms, he embodies the need of a storyline for its characters to get into trouble. This brews useful conflict between the characters he’s urging on and the others who oppose their goals.

That’s all you need to establish about Graybeard before you know exactly what you’ll need him for. That way he’s free to be the doting father of a power mad daughter in one run of the game with one group, and the decrepit upholder of cruel patriarchal values with another. If Graybeard has shown a common agenda throughout his various incarnations, it’s in selecting the absolute least qualified player character as his anointed successor. To make the imminent import of this clear, Graybeard speaks with great difficulty, fighting a wracking cough.

In a one-shot, Graybeard also gives the GM a fun cliffhanger ending as an option to keep in pocket if needed. More than one of my runs has ended with the sudden death of Graybeard, leaving a power vacuum for the second episode with that address. Now, of course in a one-shot there’s not really going to be a second episode. But players can imagine it nonetheless. Open endings tend to go down better than the fast and brutal escalation that characterizes an episode meant to have a conclusive ending. My watchword for giving a new DramaSystem group a good time has become “leave them imagining more.”

Over many runs, Graybeard has been a great help in that regard. Surprisingly, despite all the coughing and the full weight of foreshadowing it ought to bring, groups usually react with surprise to his final keeling over. It’s funny how a trope you’d spot a million miles away in a movie or TV show still has the power to surprise at the gaming table.

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.

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.

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