Hillfolk: First Impressions

Earlier this year Robin Laws staged a kickstarter for a new game called Hillfolk which introduces the DramaSystem. Robin Laws is the author of such works as Over the Edge, GUMSHOE, and Robin’s Laws of Good Gamemastering. He has also contributed to D&D 3rd edition with Dungeon Master’s Guide II. Hillfolk and the DramaSystem in general draw from another book of his, Hamlet’s Hitpoints, which takes apart literary works such as Hamlet and Casablanca and then applies that analysis to game sessions.

Before we get too far into this review, we need to define two major of the types of scenes that make up stories, whether they be literature, television shows, or a roleplaying game session. This will help us understand what I mean when I say Hillfolk focuses on dramatic scenes. We begin with a very common type of scene in roleplaying games: procedural. A procedural scene focuses on the characters attempting to resolve an external conflict. This could be a physical obstacle like climbing a mountain or it could be overcoming another character, such fighting a horde of goblins or beating someone in a game of poker. In a procedural scene a character is focused on external practical goals: saving the princess or convincing the king to fund your expedition.

By contrast dramatic scenes focus on a character’s inner goals, their emotional needs and desires. These scenes then focus on the relationships a character has with others. For example, a dramatic scene might concern one character trying to win another character’s trust or affection. Another example is a jilted lover ruining the object of their affection’s date to emotionally harm them. These situations often come up in roleplaying games but there are usually no rules for handling them. Taking the first example, few systems include any game benefit for someone to put their trust in another whether within the game world or as a benefit for the player. That can lead to situations where one character tries to petition another for an emotional concession and the other just digs in to resist.

In Hillfolk, mechanics are introduced to resolve these difficulties and allow a game to focus on dramatic scenes without grinding to a halt. If Hamlet’s Hitpoints is the theory, Hillfolk is the practical example. It is a system designed to support the kind of play seen in television drama series where the major conflicts are not about overcoming external challenges but instead revolve around changing relationships of the character and their emotional development.

So that is why I was so interested in it. There are plenty of great games that handle procedural scenes well but relatively few that deal with dramatic scenes in any fashion. The few that come to mind have all been relatively recent additions to the gaming community: Fiasco, Microscope, and to a limited extent Apocalypse World. So for me I see Hillfolk as a system which I could overlay on a more “standard” game to enjoy the best of both worlds. In part this is a designed use for the system.

As for the kickstarter, it was wildly successful. The initial goal was $3,000 to support a small print run. The final tally was over 31 times larger, raising $93,845 dollars from 2,185 donors. This immense outpouring has allowed Robin Laws to include over 50 additional settings for the DramaSystem (for which Hillfolk is only the most basic). This led to a need for a second book of additional settings, called Blood on the Snow: A DramaSystem Companion. The DramaSystem will also be released as an open license (also due to the kickstarter there will be an open license for the GUMSHOE system). A limited edition version at higher quality is being printed and theme music for Hillfolk will be composed. Finally there will be a monthly Pitch of the Month club for settings that overflowed from the Companion book.

The author list for the additional settings reads like a Who’s Who list of the roleplaying game world including such luminaries as Kenneth Hite, Eddy Webb, Keith Baker, David Pulver, John Kovalic, and Matt McFarland.

The default setting of Hillfolk is that of Iron Age raiders protecting their clan during a period of clashing empires. It draws on material from the Middle East around the first millennium B.C. but with sufficient filing off of serial number and names to be its own world. Notably it contains no fantastical elements which might distract from the relationships that core to the game.

The Character & Setting design system is well laid out in the preview sent to those of us who contributed to the kickstarter. Crucially each character chooses a position of importance in the tribe, which serves to define their niche and to describe what is important in the game. If no one plays a religious character then obviously that aspect isn’t important to the story, where as if someone plays the raid commander then raids are important part of the game. Once roles in the tribe are decided then relationships are determined between each character. These could be familial (son, sister, cousin) or something else like student, friend, or sparring partner.

A very important part of the game is the idea of a character’s emotional goals or wants. These can be things like winning respect, punishing others, or gaining approval from others. In some ways this is like the Nature and Demeanor or Virtue and Vice roleplaying aid from the World of Darkness games but with a much more personal design. These wants will drive the dramatic scenes of the game as the character attempts to gain satisfy these desires by interacting with other, both the player characters (PCs) and non-player characters (NPCs).

As part of this internal desire each player defines their character’s dramatic poles: opposing roles or behaviors that the character is pull to. This could be things like king vs. tyrant, wisdom vs. folly, or leader vs. follower. They represent extremes of the character’s personality. What finally brings these pieces together is taking these poles and working out what they lead you to want emotionally from the other PCs and why you can’t achieve this. As part of a mutual discussion involving each relationship, the group determines what their character wants from another and what obstacle stands in their way.

For example, perhaps the PC with the role of the chief seeks respect from others. He might have a relationship with the raid leader where he wants him to obey his commands about when the raids happen. The raider might reply that he does not listen because the chief is too cautious. That then becomes the source of conflict with the headstrong raider ignoring the chief while he tries to rein him in every time.

The game follows the recent trend of collaborative game where each time the story enters a new area or location it is put to the players to help fill in the blanks. Examples include the nature of foreigners religions, names and look of the local geography, and how the tribe is set up.

The mechanics of the actual game play are divided between the two types of scenes: Procedural and Dramatic. The Drama mechanics are actually the simpler part of the game. The key components are identifying one character as the petitioner, the one looking for an emotional concession over another called the granter. If the granter gives in they gain a token from the petitioner or the ‘bank’. In a similar way if the petitioner is denied they also gain tokens. Petitions can be forced with an expenditure of tokens (and a forcing can be countered). Tokens can also be used to duck scenes you are called to be in or jump into scenes that someone does not want you to be in. They also serve as a form of experience for bennies which allow further alteration of the narrative.

The rules for procedural scenes are more complicated but also revolve around tokens as well playing cards. Characters bid tokens for extra cards which are then used to gauge success. The system favors teamwork as befits a game where the action focuses on relationships. There was a conscious effort to avoid dice. I’m not entirely convinced it is worth the extra contortions.

The game mastering advice seems fairly solid and fits with my own feelings on running game, particularly ones of this sort.

As for actual play, that will have to wait until the spring as will the actual printed work. Hopefully by April I will have both Hillfolk and its companion in my hands and be able to give it my own playtest.