My booth pitch for Hillfolk describes its rules engine, DramaSystem, as emulating the structure of serialized cable TV shows. So let’s take an example heavily watched in geekland, “Game of Thrones.” Here’s a scene breakdown of the first episode of the fifth season with an eye toward identifying the petitioner and the granter and seeing who earns the drama token at the end. “Game of Thrones” presents so many featured characters that it would need an unworkably huge player group. Leaving that aside, I’ve treated only obvious foil characters, who exist only to highlight the main protagonists, as GM characters. I’m also leaving out scene snippets that in the game would be narrative bits at the head of a scene, or show us what would otherwise be revealed in dialogue. Unsurprisingly, the scene calling order doesn’t match the rotation you’d see in a game either.

You’ll want to watch the episode before reading.

And yes, I had to look up half the character names to do this.

In a flashback to childhood, Cersei seeks to establish her power over a witchy oracle, who denies her with an ominous prophecy. Cersei ‘s petition is denied, so her player gets the drama token.

An attendant petitions present-day Cersei to be considerate of the nobles gathered at Tywin’s funeral. She imperiously shuts him down, giving the GM a drama token.

Jaime petitions her to be more cognizant of politics and less worried for vengeanc towards Tyrion. She shuts him down hard, and he gets the drama token. (With her father dead, Cersei now has an easy shot reclaiming her spot as the show’s most prolific refuser of petitions.)

Safely on another continent, Varys petitions Tyrion to get himself together. He’s more interested in staying drunk so Varys gains the drama token.

Daenerys’ courtiers petition her for caution regarding the slaveowner’s resistance movement. She favors boldness and the GM gets the drama token.

Missandei (Daenerys’ translator) seeks a hint of intimacy from the Unsullied leader Grey Worm; he remains stoic and gives the GM, playing her, another drama token.

Meanwhile, back in the snowy bit, Gilly petitions Samwell for assurance that they will be safe; he tries but fails to assure her so she gets the drama token.

Melisande tries to establish her power over Jon Snow by weirdly coming on to him; her enigmatic smile at scene’s end suggests that she got what she wanted, so he gets the token.

Stannis asks John Snow to talk to Mance Rayder; he agrees and gets the token.

Brienne wants to dump her self-pity on self-appointed squire Podrick. He takes it, giving her what she wants and gaining a token to the GM, who has to be playing this classic sounding board character. character.

Sansa seeks information from Littlefinger and kind of gets it, so he earns the token.

Lancel, one of Cersei’s former minor paramours now turned penitent, asks for Circe’s forgiveness. She’s not interested so GM gets the token.

Loras Tyrell’s new boyfriend seeks for intimacy from him and gets it, so Loras gets the token.

Margaery Tyrell petitions Loras, her brother, to be cautious about his love affairs. Apparently unaware that characters who lead with their hearts don’t last long on this show, he’s not having it and his player hands hers the token he just earned in the previous scene.

Varys tries again with Tyrion and this time gets him to very reluctantly concede his interest in staying in the titular game. So the drama token goes to Tyrion.

We cut back to Daenerys’ court, where the rep for the rebelling former masters asks for a concession in exchange for peace. She denies it, giving the GM a token.

Later, in bed, Daario counsels her to reverse her decision on that, and also to regain her mantle as Mother of Dragons. Although we don’t see it here, in the next scene we realize that she has agreed to try and so she gets the token.

She then petitions the dragons for reconciliation and they breathe fire at her, transferring a drama token from the GM to her.

Jon Snow begs Rayder to bend the knee before Stannis but he refuses, so the token goes to Snow.

Finally, when Rayder is burned at the stake, Jon Snow answers his wordless petition for a more merciful death by shooting an arrow into his heart, earning the final drama token of the episode.

As you might expect in a game with twenty or so player characters, some of whom only get to call one scene per session, the GM playing all of their foils enjoys an advantage on the drama token front. She winds up with 5 of them.

Running a close second is Jon Snow, with 4.

Hillfolk_Cover_reducedRedditors dig Hillfolk. Here’s what some say,

cucumberkappa says,

“I played a “season” and it was one of the most fun campaigns I ever had… I really felt like a cast member-and-writer of a drama series as I played.”

“The finale was absolutely amazing. People held back all season and the finale became a madhouse of one-upping each other, dropping their saved up chips to take control of the big scene and turn it to their character’s advantage. But the whole appeal of it is – if you win now, you’ll pay for it later. And if you lose now, you have the power later to upturn the applecarts of the others.”

“I really recommend it for anyone who enjoys story gaming and the idea of a real drama series with mic-drop action.”

SpanishNinjitsu says,

“I’ve run several games of Hillfolk (well, DramaSystem) and it has easily become one of my all time favourite games. In my opinion it’s everything it promises to be and then some, it’s the most fun I’ve personally ever had behind the DM screen.”

“Hillfolk is goddamn great.”


“It’s awesome. I love how it’s so intuitive. I feel that it’s pretty well already become the go-to game when there’s not some other sort of crunch that I want out of the game. I was impressed at how we had a group of moderately different levels of playstyle and experience, but there wasn’t much trouble with everyone getting it and getting into it. It’s a very smooth startup that way.”

“DramaSystem is more a way of thinking about games rather than strictly just a game in and of itself. I like how it gets people to focus on when things become interesting in a game because there’s conflict, because you can sweep as much material as is necessary between scenes. There’s some surprisingly interesting metagame around the procedural system.”


Like most designers, when I get a stray idea for a game mechanic I try to exercise the discipline to make a note of it.

Here’s where I can’t speak for other designers: I almost never use them, because they are misconceived by dint of their very nature as stray ideas.

Mechanics for their own sake don’t serve the games we try to fit them into. The standalone rules idea is invariably aesthetically pleasing in the abstract. And that’s not rules should be. They should solve a problem arising from your design goals, not sit there looking all pretty and innovative.

For example, I’m glad I saved the following note, and even gladder that I didn’t build it into DramaSystem:

Grid you fill out to keep track of identically framed scenes –- repetition alters odds of success, as you can’t have the same outcome more than twice (and then only when you haven’t advanced the conflict in any other way.)

The idea of a grid you have to fill out seems momentarily engaging. It gives players a concrete way of interacting with the rules. You can imagine yourself behind a booth at Gen Con opening up a book and showing it to a someone you’re pitching the game to.

Yet in practice it would pose a distraction from the organic creation flow DramaSystem aims to facilitate. The occasional transfer of a drama token, and the even more occasional play with procedural tokens and cards, provides more than enough ritual gaminess.

It is worse than distracting, in that it sets out to solve a hypothetical problem that in practice never occurs in DramaSystem. Once it gets moving, the story moves so quickly that you’re not tempted to revisit an exchange that has already been resolved. Players searching for a scene to call naturally reject this option, without needing a rule at all, much less one that has them filling in a freaking grid.

No matter how beautifully graphic designer Christian Knutsson would have made that grid look.

Lesson: jot down those free-floating rules ideas for what they might teach you about design. But don’t wedge them into your designs, inflicting them on unsuspecting players.

As Gridlock the Stray Rules Idea, pictured at right in full tentacled glory, might say, “If I’m aesthetically pleasing in my own right, I’m too complicated!”

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 relatively new entry in scriptwriting jargon owes its secret origin to notoriously uncooperative movie star Bruce Willis. Kevin Smith recalls the moment, during their unfruitful collaboration on fore-doomed project Cop Out, when Willis started ripping out pages of dialogue he deemed irrelevant to the main action. This was chuffa, Willis said, and he wasn’t going to bother to shoot it.

Mindy Kaling defines chuffa as dialogue that expresses an amusing attitude without rising to the level of actual funny joke:

“Chuffa is filler that seems like it’s funny but isn’t really a joke. It’s just kind of an attitude. I watch Entourage and Weeds, but they have a lot of chuffa. I don’t mean to denigrate them, but I don’t think I’ve laughed once watching them. 30 Rock and Arrested Development are anti-chuffa.”

Aziz Ansari puts a positive spin on chuffa in his moving tribute to the late writer and comic Harris Wittels, who he describes as a master of genuinely funny chuffa:

Chuffah is the random nonsense characters in a scene talk about before getting to the meat of it that leads to story.

Roleplaying scenes can have chuffa in them too. Even in a deep old school F20 game, the banter you have with the blacksmith before he sells you armor could be considered chuffa. If it entertains, it’s the Harris Wittels variety. If not, it’s the Bruce Willis kind. Except that roleplaying is always the first and last draft, and there’s no movie star to rip boring pages out of a script. Or script for him to rip out of, for that matter.

In DramaSystem players often want to nibble around the edges of a scene with small talk and banter before the petitioner reveals to the granter what she wants from him. This follows the emotional dynamic of real life. We don’t immediately launch into a difficult request as soon as we encounter the person we want something from. We hedge, we distract, we beat around the bush, and we wait for our moment. But unlike real interactions, you do need to keep the attention spans of the rest of the group in mind. Players don’t expect the ruthless editing an episode of The Office would get, but attention will wander if a scene doesn’t get to the point.

It may surprise you to learn that the people of our great nerdtribe are sometimes prone to digression. Two participants in a scene may happily spin surface minutiae until the cows come home, with nary a petition in sight.

This is one of the main reasons why DramaSystem uses a GM: to keep an ear cocked for excessive chuffa. When as GM you sense that the scene has lost the rest of the room by failing to reach the point, gently intervene and suggest that the players move it along.

My response to overlong chuffa is usually to say, “Raise the stakes.” You may prefer another term, but whatever you say, your players will be grateful for your help in keeping scenes trim—by tabletop standards, at least.

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 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.

Page XX

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.

Doc’s relationships:

  • 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.

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.


DramaSystem Resources



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

All DramaSystem Series Pitches – A Complete List by Jean-Christophe Cubertafon

 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.


  • 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.

Previous Entries