Every month the DramaSystem Series Pitch of the Month Club brings you a new and unique series pitch for the Hillfolk RPG. For December, Jesse Scoble draws you into the dark and violent world of border drug trafficking with Narcocorrido.
Here, narcotraficantes and the Border Patrol circle each other on the imaginary line that separates North and South, probing for weakness under the merciless sun. Assassins are made the heroes of pop ballad narcocorridos, and most fame and fortune ends with a buzzard circling a shallow grave.
Mi trabajo y valor me ha costado Manejar los contactos que tengo Muchos quieren escalar mi altura Nomas miro que se van callendo Han querido arañar mi corona Los que intentan se han ido muriendo.
—Los Tigres Del Norte, “Jefe De Jefes”
Narcocorrido’s main cast centers around one of the principal groups tied up with the border:
A law enforcement group such as Border Patrol or Mexican Federales
A criminal element such as La EME (the Mexican Mafia), Los Zetas, or the Sinaloa Cartel
Thanks to the overwhelming generosity of our Hillfolk Kickstarter backers, we are able to bring you the DramaSystem Series Pitch of the Month Club – 2000+ words of setting material written by a stellar cast including John Wick, John Kovalic and Hal Mangold.
Each month from November through to November you will get a new pitch – new subscribers will get all pitches to date.
If you are a backer, you should have received a voucher for your free subscription. Email support if not.
1. No Crowns
Sean Patrick Fannon (Shaintar, Star Wars: Edge of Darkness) unleashes the struggles of democracy and free market capitalism in a high fantasy world. Discover the answer amid the greed, passion, and power plays of No Crowns.
Jesse Scoble (Wizard101, Game of Thrones d20) sings a narcocorrido for you on The Devil’s Highway: narco traficantes and border patrol circle each other in the canyons and deserts between North and South.
3. Honor Among Thieves
John Wick (Legend of the Five Rings, Seventh Sea, Houses of the Blooded) steps into a world of sorcerers, crowded cities, corrupt nobles, eldritch assassins and big payoffs in Honor Among Thieves. In a world where everything is illegal, everything is a crime, and it only pays to be a thief.
4. Hold the Chain
By Matthew McFarland. You are the entertainment in the gladiatorial arena of a steam-powered flying city on the brink of revolution.
Rob Wieland (Shadowrun, Star Wars Saga Edition) shows you his jazz hands in Encore, following the dreamers, has-beens and never-will-be’s who make up the cast of a touring jukebox musical.
6. Iron Tsar
ASH LAW (The Reliquary) cranks up Iron Tsar: engineers battle zombies in the Imperial court of a magical 1920s Russia.
7. Sheep’s Clothing
Jerome Larre (Qin, Tenga) takes you inside the Sheep’s Clothing of a tranquil bedroom community for cops—as a massive Internal Affairs bust threatens dozens of its key citizens.
8. Art and Murder
By Robin D. Laws. In a post-scarcity economy, there remain only two routes to status: Art and Murder. As guardians of the Great Museum, you struggle to protect the world’s cultural patrimony from outside marauders—and your own ambitions.
Raven Daegmorgan (Orx) sails the black tides of the cosmos in Niflgap. As the universe dies, you, the fractious Norse gods, set forth in starships from lonesome Midgaard, hoping to find salvation in the void where armies of the hungry dead writhe endless beneath black suns.
10. Promised Land
By Caias Ward (Strike Force 7, Noumenon) In a far-future religion based on enlightenment through genetic engineering and organic technology, a squad of young cadets struggles with their commanders, their fellow cadets, the outside universe and crises of faith.
11. Terminal X
Hal Mangold (Atomic Overmind, Green Ronin) loses your luggage in Terminal X: A fractious circle of modern sorcerers wage a subtle turf war within one of the world’s busiest airports, while fending off occult forces threatening to erode the very source of their power.
12. Campus Desk
John Kovalic (Dork Tower, Munchkin) returns to ink-spattered halcyon days with Campus Desk: students behind the Daily Forward, newspaper of Wisconsin State University, figure out life, love, and burying the lede.
In DramaSystem, the group takes turns selecting themes for each episode. At the end of each session, players explain how they brought this theme into play, and related it to their Dramatic Poles, the internal contradictions that lend dramatic characters coherence and motivation.
Certain basic themes recur again and again—as well they should, since they represent the classic emotional conflicts that underlie all drama. Altruism vs. Selfishness. Loyalty. Betrayal. Vengeance. Star-crossed Love.
Hillfolk lists a number of these classic themes; when you’re the episode caller responsible for choosing the night’s theme, you can’t go wrong by simply picking the most appropriate item on the list. Assuming no one has beaten you to it…
The Series Pitches in both Hillfolk and Blood on the Snow all come with their own lists of suggested themes.
Using these ideas hardly counts as stealing. That’s what they’re there for. But if you’re feeling larcenous, lots of lists of DramaSystem episode themes out there don’t even know they are lists of DramaSystem episode themes.
Scan an episode guide for any serialized drama and you’ll see that many of the episode titles can be appropriated wholesale for your use.
Not all episode titles work as themes. Set aside those that simply refer to the overt action of the episode, or mention specific characters or situations. Look instead for abstract episode titles, or ones that read like epigrams. Always pick titles that resonate emotionally. Unsurprisingly, dramatic shows like “The Sopranos” or “The Good Wife” tend to work better for this than procedurals like “Star Trek” or “Doctor Who.”
To start with a show high on gamer radar systems, let’s look at “Game of Thrones.” Episode titles that would also make great DramaSystem themes include:
Winter is Coming
Cripples, Bastards and Broken Things
You Win or You Die
The Pointy End
Fire and Blood
Old Gods and New
Any of these could work for Hillfolk or nearly any other DramaSystem series. Even the arid southern badlands suffer when winter comes. You do face one problem with appropriating directly from “Game of Thrones”, though—it’s so imprinted in geek consciousness that the obviousness of the references may become too glaring.
Instead, you might step a little outside the fields of genre, to a show where players are less likely to have the episode titles committed to memory.
Red in the Face
For Those Who Think Young
A Night to Remember
Love Among the Ruins
Wee Small Hours
Commissions and Fees
The biker gang crime drama “Sons of Anarchy” offers up a particularly high ratio of immediately filchable episode themes:
The Sleep of Babies
Turning and Turning
Fruit for the Crows
Call of Duty
Burnt and Purged Away
Certain TV shows adopt a standard theme for their episode titles. A group could easily do the same for a DramaSystem series.
“True Blood” uses song titles, which then play under the closing credits. Occasionally they’ll cheat a bit by commissioning a song titled after an element in the show, like the great Iggy Pop track “Let’s Boot and Rally.” Mostly titles derive from existing songs, which we hear either in classic versions or as a cover. (The show occasionally breaks from the formula, playing the title song as source music within the episode, but let’s not get bogged down in technicalities.)
Turn! Turn! Turn!
Everybody Wants to Rule the World
Authority Always Wins
Everything is Broken
She’s Not There
When launching a new series, the group could agree on a similar theme. To stick with the song title idea, you might ask the group to pick songs that encapsulate the period. A series set in the late sixties might give you themes like:
Won’t Get Fooled Again
So You Say You Want a Revolution
19th Nervous Breakdown
You Really Got Me
Are You Experienced?
Tears of a Clown
Ball of Confusion
The corpus of blues songs drips with the emotions that drive a great DramaSystem episode, letting you give your character’s dramatic opposition a fitting workout. Their folkloric imagery dovetails superbly with modern supernatural settings, like Jason L. Blair’s “Inhuman Desires.”
Hellhound on My Trail
Fattening Frogs for Snakes
Evil (Is Goin’ On)
I Ain’t Superstitious
The Sky is Crying
Empower yourself to nick song titles whether or not everyone has agreed to use them all the time. When you’re stumped for a theme on the way to game, grab your portable music device and scroll through your playlist until something lands with you as appropriate to the current narrative.
Shakespearean phrases have been plundered for titles for generations. You might make them a consistent theme in series like Dave Gross’ “Shakespeare VA” or Ed Greenwood’s Elizabethan faerie intriguer “Queen or Country.” Like song titles, they also function well as standalones. The main challenge you meet here is that so many of them have already been memorably stolen. Shakespearean references so pervade English idiom that you may be using one without even realizing it—”Sea Change,” anyone? “Foregone Conclusion?” “Salad Days?”
Hawk and a Handsaw
Thrice the Brindled Cat Hath Mewed
Too Much in the Sun
What’s In a Name?
The Dark Backward
Let Slip the Dogs of War
The most recondite recent use of the themed title in television is “Hannibal,” which names each episode for a high-end cooking technique. That might be a little ambitious for DramaSystem.
You don’t want to pick a reference so clever that everyone has trouble relating it to their Dramatic Poles during the post-session wrap-up. If the rest of the group looks at you blankly when you announce a theme, you’ve gone too far.
But with a little advance preparation, you’ll already have another brilliantly stolen idea on your list to immediately replace it with.
Hail, raiders of the Gen Con high country! To celebrate the launch of Hillfolk and its companion volume Blood on the Snow, we’ve arranged two signing events at the Pelgrane Press booth. We have so many contributors at the show that we’re going to be splitting our signers into two bunches.
On Thurs Aug 15th at 3 pm swing by to grab autographs from such tentatively scheduled luminaries as Jennifer Brozek, Steve Dempsey, Dave Gross, Rob Heinsoo, Ryan Macklin, Michelle Nephew and illustrator Rachel A. Kahn.
Then come back on Sun Aug 18th at 11 am for the cuneiform stylings of Keith Baker, Emily Care Boss, Steven S. Long, TS Luikart, Andy Peregrine, Wade Rockett and Pedro Ziviani.
The Pelgrane Booth has moved to bigger digs this year, and is now #101, across from our fine pals at Paizo.
I’ll be there for both events, and around the booth for much of the rest of the time. As always I’ll be happy to deface any of my books, new or old, for you.
Many other contributors are at the show but unable to make this event. This will not prevent you from suavely bushwhacking and/or waylaying them as they perform their duties at booths elsewhere on the exhibit hall floor.
Kickstarter backers will recall that they can arrange ahead of time to pick up their books at the show. And of course there will be copies on sale for those of you who did not join us for the campaign back in October.
In the shadow of empires, an epic saga of ambition and desire!
In an arid badlands, the hill people hunger. Your neighbors have grain, cattle, gold. You have horses and spears, courage and ambition. Together with those you love and hate, you will remake history—or die.
With the Hillfolk roleplaying game, you and your group weave an epic, ongoing saga of high-stakes interpersonal conflict that grows richer with every session. Its DramaSystem rules engine, from acclaimed designer Robin D. Laws, takes the basic structure of interpersonal conflict underlying fiction, movies and television and brings it to the world of roleplaying. This simple framework brings your creativity to the fore and keep a surprising, emotionally compelling narrative constantly on the move.
As you build your story, you mold and shape the Hillfolk setting to fit its needs. Do you entangle yourself with the seductions of your wealthy cousins to the north? Do you do battle with the fearsome sea people to the west? Or do you conquer the scattered badlands tribes to forge a new empire of your own?
Detailed play style notes show you how to make the most of DramaSystem’s new tools. Once you’ve mastered DramaSystem’s nuances, you’ll hunger to take them to new vistas. A stunning talent roster brings you 30 additional series settings. From Cthulhu cult family drama to ninjas, pirates, and steampunk cowboys, Hillfolk offers years of play value.
Contributors from every corner of the gaming scene and beyond include Ed Greenwood, Gene Ha & Art Lyon, Jason Morningstar, Kenneth Hite, Rob Heinsoo, Meg Baker, Wolfgang Baur, Jesse Bullington, John Scott Tynes, and Keith Baker.
Authors: Robin D. Laws, Jason Morningstar, Michelle Nephew, Kenneth Hite, Matt Forbeck, T.S. Luikart, Jason L. Blair, Chris Pramas, Emily Care Boss, Rob Wieland, Steven S. Long, Eddy Webb, Jesse Bullington, Gene Ha & Art Lyon, James Wallis, Chris Lackey, John Scott Tynes, Ryan Macklin, Graeme Davis, Dave Gross, Allen Varney, Meguey Baker, Sarah Newton, Kevin Kulp, Mac Sample, Jason Pitre, Wolfgang Baur, Keith Baker, Will Hindmarch, Rob Heinsoo, Ed Greenwood
Artists: Aaron Acevedo, Andrew Gustafson, Gene Ha, Jon Hodgson, Rachel A. Kahn, Jason Morningstar, Scott Neil, Jan Pospíšil, Hilary Wade, Jonathan Wyke
Christian is very close to being finished with the layout for Hillfolk, and it’s really capturing the feel of the game. We’ve also had a picture from the printers of one of the bags for the Hillfolk tokens. Here are some initial mock-ups of how the books, the cards and the bag will look.
Within any gaming group you’ll find a variety of tastes regarding any facet of the roleplaying experience. According to a Thing I Always Say, one of the main tricks of GMing is to find the sweet spot between those tastes and gratify it at the gaming table.
Yet you can’t even get to the gaming table if you can’t agree on what it is you want to play.
Some gamers love novelty. They follow design developments avidly and want to know the cool new thing by direct experience. They want to play the new games they’re excited about, not just hear about other people playing them. If you read columns like this one you may fall into that category.
Others could care less about that stuff. They know what they like and they’ll have more of that, thank you. News of a promising new thing brings them nothing but cognitive dissonance. It threatens to disrupt their groove, to deprive them of the pleasure they’ve already found by pulling the attentions of their group elsewhere. They do not read columns like this one.
A basic tenet of the Robin’s Laws theory is that you can’t really change someone else’s tastes. Players who treasure familiarity, or the element that their familiar game already delivers better than any new thing could, ultimately can’t be made to like something different.
On the other hand, some of the very people who are most averse to a new concept in roleplaying turn out to be its most fervent advocates, once they undertake the mental shift needed to embrace it. In these instances the very strength of their resistance turns out to be a symptom of that adjustment starting to take place.
You can’t always tell ahead of time which category a player falls into. Sometimes I’ve designed games thinking that a particular fan of one of my past designs is just not going to be on board for this one. Their initial responses prove my assumptions right. Until they surprise me by digging in anyway and becoming textbook cases of the conversion experience.
So, as a novelty-seeking GM, you can only lead a horse to water. But if you sharpen your sales pitch, he might just take a drink.
Pitch the fun, not the theory. Players leery of novelty don’t want to hear about how new and different this game is. They especially don’t want to hear about it in the abstruse terms the cognoscenti use to discuss game theory on their favorite forums. This may be why you’re interested in it, but for them the newness is a drawback, not a selling point. Instead, find the core activity of the game and describe that. What do the player characters do in this game? Make that the focus of your presentation.
So with Hillfolk, it’s not, “this system hinges on dramatic interaction, bringing to life the structure of emotional interactions from other story forms.”
It’s “you raid, feud and make alliances in as hardscrabble tribesmen in an age of hungry empires.”
Find a familiar hook. From having played the game she’s reluctant to set aside, you know what this player enjoys doing. So as you expand from that initial description of the game’s core activity, do so in terms allowing her to picture herself doing the stuff she enjoys.
“So if you played a character like Dagedin from our Earthdawn game, you can finally build that web of alliances she was working on before the horrors ate her.”
If she always likes to build items: “So let’s say your character invents stirrups two thousand years earlier than in our history. For you, the campaign would revolve around demonstrating them, convincing your tribe to use them, and then pressing your advantage before everyone else cottons on to your design.”
If she likes to bash stuff on the head: “So imagine a society where your bruiser isn’t a feared outcast, but a revered hero of her clan.”
Shorten the curve. Novelty-shunning players may be assuming that the new game you want to try requires the same enormous investment in time and memorization that their current favorite does. Chances are that a new cool thing of today is simpler and faster to get into than its counterpart from a decade ago. The Revivified version of Dying Earth, for example, gets you playing right away instead of asking you to participate in the usual involved character generation process of a traditional game. Assure the reluctant player that the effort cost of trying the new thing is much lower than he may be imagining.
Naturally the challenge of pulling this off increases if you’re pitching a game as or more complicated than the player’s favorite. Promise an introductory session taking the workload out of the player’s hands. Supply a pregenerated character. Build that character to be as simple to play as possible, both in terms of the rules complexity the player will have to handle at the table, and in its similarity to his past favorite PCs. If you do get the player to sit down and take part, teach only the rules you need as you need them, framed for maximum clarity and simplicity.
Acknowledge burn marks. Has the player been burned by past attempts, by you or other GMs, to introduce new games? If so, show that you’re aware of this and will avoid a repeat. Outline the key differences between the game you want to try and the one that crashed and burned. This may be more a matter of demonstrating that you see the mistakes that crashed the last swing at a new game, and will make sure that they don’t recur.
Play to please: If you do get the green light for a trial run, focus on the leery players and tailor the action to show them a great time. Draw them into the story. Invest them in their characters. And end on a question mark, to make them want to come back for more.
This month’s topic comes courtesy of Chris Bloxham and his play group, as a perk of his Badlands Overlord reward tier from the Hillfolk Kickstarter. Thanks for the great question, Chris!
With editorial for Hillfolk and Blood on the Snow completed, it’s time to take a break from DramaSystem to work on another of the obligations arising from our November Kickstarter. That would be the System Reference Document for Open GUMSHOE.
On one level, this seems like an exercise in cutting and pasting, taking the basic iteration of the rules as found in the upcoming Esoterrorists Enhanced Edition (the text of which you can grab now as a preorder benefit), cutting out the setting-specific bits and then adding in elements from the other GUMSHOE games. It does however require some thought on what an SRD ought to be doing.
When you decide to throw a game system open to all comers, you naturally give up control over what happens to it as others present it for their own creative purposes. This is a concern because GUMSHOE departs from some standard assumptions and becomes a better play experience when GMs and players understand where, how and why it does this.
For example, rating points in abilities mostly don’t represent a simulated resource in the fictional world. Instead they function as a sort of narrative conceit, measuring the characters’ spotlight time and how they grab it. (A few abilities, like Health and Stability, can be regarded as measurable resources in the game reality—although of course they’re still an abstraction. When you break your leg, you can’t consult a numbered meter to see how many points you’ve lost.) GUMSHOE seems confusing to some players until they grasp this. This explanation, though not a rule, strictly speaking, serves as a key tool to enhance play. So while you might categorize it as GM advice or a player note, it’s really a pivotal component of the game. As such, the explanatory text should be available to anyone publishing their own GUMSHOE adaptation. We can’t require adopters of the license to use it—as indeed, we can’t force them to make any particular choice. We call this Open GUMSHOE, not Passive Aggressively Controlling GUMSHOE. Still, we can encourage people to include it by making it part of the standard boilerplate text in the document.
This reflects a broader priority. We’ve chosen to make GUMSHOE available to other designers. Yet we remain its foremost custodians. If we’re going to let it out of the nest like this, we’d better provide excellent care and feeding instructions. We want others not only to produce GUMSHOE games, but to design great GUMSHOE games. It should therefore contain at least some guidance on how to do this.
The GUMSHOE SRD differs from the most famous versions of its breed, the D20 and its descendant, the Pathfinder document, in that it won’t also comprise a playable game unto itself. It’s not The Esoterrorists with the IP elements scrubbed out, but rather the set of components you need to build your new game on the GUMSHOE chassis.
If you’re designing a GUMSHOE game, we want you to be able to do it well. So it has to contain at least some signposting showing you how to adapt it to your needs.
For example, the build point totals for purchasing investigative ratings vary with each iteration of the game, depending on how many of those abilities the game includes. So the SRD can’t just give you the flat numbers as they appear in The Esoterrorists or Ashen Stars or whatever, because you might include a different number of investigative abilities in your GUMSHOE game. The document has to break from the text as third-party publishers might incorporate it into their rulebooks to provide the formula to calculate what the build point totals should be.
At least in these passages, the System Reference Document becomes something else—a System Design Document. We’ve gone from SRD to SDD.
Extensive passages on how to design GUMSHOE games go beyond the scope of the project. That sort of thing is better saved for occasional columns like this one. But the SRD does have to provide designers with the basic tools to construct GUMSHOE games without having to reverse engineer from the existing books. A balance must be struck here. If the document contains too much advice, it might create preconceptions that might lead other designers away from what would otherwise be brilliant leaps away from the game’s current assumptions. Too little, and it doesn’t give them enough to simply reproduce what we’ve already established in another setting.
GUMSHOE is not a generic system, but a chassis on which you can construct an emulation of any investigative genre. For a classic example, see the grenade. Grenades in the real world work the same regardless of the context in which they’re exploded. In fiction, they can work quite differently, depending on the reality level of the genre at hand. So in the Tom Clancy-meets-postmodernism-meets-visceral horror mix of The Esoterrorists, grenades are pretty deadly. Mutant City Blues treats them as less effective than the super powers at the heart of that setting. If you for some inexplicable reason decided to fuse high energy action movies with investigation, you might make yet a third choice, depicting them as wildly damaging to property and inanimate objects, while allowing people to escape harm from them simply by jumping and being carried away by the massive fiery explosions they generate.
So again the SRD can’t just pick one grenade rule and make that the default for all genres. It has to provide a quick design note about genre emulation and point you toward the solution that works for your design goals.
Likewise we won’t be providing a complete list of mutant powers from MCB or virology implants from Ashen Stars. But we will give you examples of each special rule structure so you can then kitbash it for your own purposes.
In the process I might even learn something new about my own game, as I figure out what is and isn’t essential to it.
I am very pleased to report that editorial for the core Hillfolk book has been completed. The last submissions are in, edited, and proofed, and the text and illustrations are now in the hands of graphic design supremo Christian Knutsson. That final straggler of a Series Pitch is now in hand at last. Barring unforeseen calamity, that means that Blood in the Snow should be ready for layout by the time Christian has finished with the core text. He estimates that layout will take three weeks. After we sign off on the layout, we’re looking at an eight week turnaround for printing.
We will fulfill electronic editions as soon as layout is ready, so everyone will have the PDFs in hand even as the presses are rolling on the print copies.
So raise your cups of mead, raiders. The snows of an overlong winter have delayed us, but we have finally equipped our forces. We now ride off into the badlands, to claim our victory.
If you missed the Kickstarter but want to jump on board now, stay tuned for pre-order details.
And here, apropos of nothing in the first paragraph, is John Kovalic’s illustration for his Blood on the Snow Series Pitch, “The Dagon Bar and Grille,” which brings to DramaSystem the vibe of an animated sitcom. Plus tentacles, natch.
If it’s mid-April it must be time for another Hillfolk progress report. Here’s where the project stands.
I am still awaiting submissions from three Series Pitch writers. Once those are in I’ll be know how the actual word count compares to the goal. This will allow me to edit two other pitches that came in over the requested length, because I’ll then know how much of these I have to cut.
That’s the work of a few days. Once everything’s in and proofed, layout will take about three weeks. We can’t assume that Christian can immediately clear his schedule of other projects when I drop the manuscripts on him, so there’s an indeterminate amount of time there. Once he’s able to start work, we can estimate a hard release date. Turnaround from layout to print is eight weeks. Then the shipping starts.
So our current timeframe looks like [waiting for final submissions] + approximately 1 week final editing + [deck-clearing for Christian] + 3 weeks layout + 8 weeks printing.
Absent a hard release date, let me see what else I have up my sleeve…? How about the long-teased identity of Hillfolk’s mystery contributor?
That would be Ed Greenwood, whose pitch “For Queen or Country” mixes espionage and faery folk in Elizabethan England. Ed surprised me with this over-the-transom submission of piracy, subversion and the Horned Man. This will appear in the main Hillfolk book. The illustration is by Aaron Acevedo. Looks like the original inspiration for Tinkerbell preferred Tudor-era court dress to a miniskirt made of leaves.