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I was intrigued by it and saw some interesting tidbits about it online during the development processes. Hillfolk promotes itself as a game of Iron Age Drama, but that title alone does not capture exactly what this is. The focus of the game is on narrative connections between players and how the story itself moves along. The DramaSystem builds off of elements of narrative structure and collaborative gaming that are common to many games in the story game category, but it aims for something bigger and meatier.
The system works by deconstructing story action, pacing, and drama and applies a structure to the interactions at the table to create a story between the participants. The story is the thing. The Iron Age setting that comes after the short 65 pages of rules and GMing advice is only a handful of pages itself and certainly not the meat of the book.
The bulk of the book is dedicated to other setting pitches written by guest authors, but the meat of the book is in the explanation of the DramaSystem. The first thing you see when you look at the character creation section is a seemingly long 18 point list of character creation. This is really just a detailed list that shows how to take turns to build your character relationships. It is also the first step in wrestling a mind familiar with traditional roleplaying games into embracing the narrative focus of the game.
The steps are actually incredibly simple and the detailed focus is only there to ensure the collaborative order and try to prevent people from getting ahead of themselves in fleshing out character concepts.
This is definitely a group character creation. The idea behind Hillfolk is to build a varied and nuanced character with connections to other characters. This is not the sort of game that you go into with a preconceived notion of your character. Your character will change as you intuit the groups overall build and decide that you would fit better in a different way.
All this occurs while tilling some soil ripe for planting character seeds. The majority of the rules section is about building the narrative and taking turns, and very little about the procedural mechanic. The DramaSystem gives narrative control to players in turn, letting them set up parameters for scenes and decide who is interacting in them.
Other players can spend drama points to remove or add themselves to scenes. The scenes are played out with a focus on narrative resolution. Mechanical resolution is not needed except in special cases. Each scene has a petitioner who wants something and a granter who has something.
The scene is played out to get that thing, tangible or intangible respect, acceptance of a treaty, groundwork to build a future alliance, the knife used in a murder, etc. If there are challenges not worked out in this narrative or disagreement on some point, the mechanics of Hillfolk put it to a group vote to be decided. The role of the Game Master is less of control and more of social engagement. The power of the Game Master is not assumed absolute, but they are there to help set up scenarios and scenes and help players move on to the next narrative element.
Procedural scenes, where there is action that requires a non-narrative determiner, are handled by use of tokens and cards. The Game Master has tokens that they spend to set the strength of the challenge. The players spend tokens, based on their action types, to draw cards. The Game Master draws a target card and, based on the strength of the challenge and the type of token spent, the players attempt to match the value, suit, or color of their card to the target card to achieve success and move the story along.
It all comes back to the story. The mechanics determine the ups and downs of the procedural scenes and the players are left to act out the framework that they have created with their tokens and card choices. The system also has bennies that are awarded at the end of each session. They are awarded by playing to your dramatic poles and the other players determine who gets them at the end of each session.
Players make a case for how well they played to their dramatic poles and the other players rank the cases, awarding bennies to those who played most to their dramatic poles.
The bennies can be used to gain tokens for use, to draw extra cards, to jump into scenes, and to affect the situation in a broader way. The initial setting for Hillfolk is an iron age land of multiple tribes struggling for survival. One look at the map made it clear that it was reminiscent of an ancient Israel, if not outright meant to be set there.
The initial setting is rich with information to play a tribe and act out the dramatic scenes that are found in a group still new to advanced culture. The setting information covers only about 10 pages or so, enough to get a feel for it and then move on to your own stories.
After that is a description of how to pitch other settings. The remaining hundred and twenty or so pages are setting pitches written by other authors. The mass of setting pitches in Hillfolk are varied and diverse, showing that the DramaSystem is used to create stories and that the system can handle stories of any sort. There are Hollywood noir stories, transhuman sci-fi, cold war spy stories, mafia trial stories, paranormal romance stories, wrestling mixed with breaking bad stories, ants in an anthill fighting zombies, etc.
You could play out a scenario in any of these settings over a night or two and keep coming back to it if you find ones you like. Crafting your own setting is fairly easy as well. Merely figure out the story and themes, then craft some challenges and define a few supporting characters with a couple of sentences.
Present it as a pitch to players and you can begin playing immediately. The concepts in Hillfolk are pretty simple, but the writing is a bit complex. It took me a while to figure out why the writing was crafted in this way. The system is certainly easy enough to grasp, so why write in the deeper style that Laws chose? There had to be a purpose to it, and there was. The style of writing is aimed at getting people to think in a different way.
The book was hard to parse at my first glance, and like previous reviewers it took a more detailed read through to pick up what Hillfolk was laying down. This would be the only failing of the writing that I can pick out. The best metaphor I can come up with for the writing in Hillfolk is being taught a new board game.
In the same way, Laws writes in a way to bring gamers out of their preconceived notions of mechanics heavy games by not putting the mechanics up-front. A few paragraphs outlining the overall flow and feel of how the system works might make the writing more accessible.
That criticism aside, the writing really cuts to the heart of what makes a narrative a narrative. Reading the DramaSystem section of Hillfolk will change your thinking as a Game Master and improve your game incredibly. Getting your players to play one session will yield changes in the way they approach other games. Much like some of my favorite books, the reader will have to work at it a bit in order to interact with the work, but the benefits will be all the greater for it.
The rules section asks you to think about gaming in a new way and then pulls you along to that new way of thinking. The art and design of the book is primarily black and white with splashes of color. Everything focuses on dramatic emphasis. Even the pieces with color show muted palettes with a focus on the story that is going on in the piece. The quality is high and there is no piece in the book that fails at evoking emotion from the viewer.
Because of the smaller size of the rules and initial setting, most art is a single piece to compliment the other series pitches, but the art that exists in the rules and initial setting information is crafted in a way to inform the reader of true iron age paradigms and make sure they are not relying on other stereotypes. The book is effectively and beautifully designed.
The DramaSystem is the sort of thing that will fulfill your desire to run many types of games. The mechanics of other games will often get in the way of achieving the feel you want, but with the DramaSystem you will focus on that feel and developing that story.
Hillfolk is my current go-to game for expanding my players horizons. It definitely stands as a solid and strong work and will be sitting on an easily accessible part of my gaming shelves. The presentation there is mostly the same as the one in Hillfolk it looks like a production copy, complete with dialogue call-outs and sidebar notations. Have you played Hillfolk or the DramaSystem? What did you like or dislike about it? John Arcadian is a freelance writer and art director, a website developer, a builder of sonic screwdrivers, and a purveyor of kilted mayhem.
When he isn't out causing trouble in his kilt Well, that's pretty much the default. Go check him out on twitter and youtube, where he promises he'll post more frequently. Really, he just has to get past this next project Dreadfully sorry about that. I just looked at the kickstarter page and was unaware that it was not yet shipping. I picked up my copy from the booth at Gencon and talked to Robin about the art in it a bit. I feel your pain. Unfortunately, the distribution of physical copies to KS backers has been a litany of errors.
I am a big fan of the DramaSystem, and now use it for background and setting creation for my campaign. I love the way that a network of relationships are formed. For my latest campaign I ran a DramsSystem character creation session as the first stage of introducing the Players to the game. The Arch-villain was in the centre, so each Player had to establish a relationship with the villain as well as with each other.
I found it easy to ignore Hillfolk from early reviews; confusing or obscurantist language has no appeal for me. The language in the book can be a bit over-complex at points, but the feel of the piece comes across once you focus on it and get past that. Your email address will not be published. Subscribe to this comment thread via email we'll send you updates. Written by a team of veteran Gamers and Gamemasters, Gnome Stew is a widely read gaming blog with multiple awards and thousands of articles.
We're dedicated to helping gamers have more fun at the gaming table. Through our partner Engine Publishing, we've published six system-neutral books for GMs, with over 28, copies sold. Available in print and PDF.
You Pick It Review – Hillfolk
Hillfolk is a tabletop role-playing game designed by Robin Laws and published by Pelgrane Press. It was initially launched via Kickstarter in ,  with the funding being sufficiently successful that a second book called "Blood on the Snow", containing 33 new settings, was produced as a part of the kickstarter. Reception was positive, with RPGamer saying "mechanics don't so much get out of the way of roleplay as provide a supportive foundation for it to happen. From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia. Hillfolk Cover.
DramaSystem/Hillfolk: A Brief Review
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.
I loved both as source material, but I wanted more experience with the game mechanics in play before I could review the system itself. Since I gave a pretty lengthy description of the two volumes last year, I will concentrate here on the mechanics and the feel of the game. The system relies on shared narrative control between all participants, everyone taking turns at selecting theme and setting scenes, starting with the game-master. The focus of the game is the cast of player characters, which are created in the first session and are linked by a web of relationships established by the players. These relationships are deliberately held in balanced tension and constitute the dramatic underpinnings of the game. The character creation process is also largely the setting creation, and with a group of people who enjoy shared narration, this turns into pure magic.
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