Right at the top of the request list for You Pick It Reviews this year was Robin Law’s new book Hillfolk. I was intrigued by it and saw some interesting tidbits about it online during the development processes. So, of course I had to pick it up and see what it was all about.
What It Is And Isn’t
Hillfolk promotes itself as a game of Iron Age Drama, but that title alone does not capture exactly what this is. While Iron Age Drama is the first setting presented in the book (there are many), it is also the first full roll out of Laws’ DramaSystem rules. The focus of the game is on narrative connections between players and how the story itself moves along. Hillfolk is not a “crunchy” game of powers and rules and tactics, but neither is it the sort of hyper-focused story game that provides only a single night’s play in a particular setting. 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. Hillfolk uses a lot of the concepts developed by Laws in his previous book, Hamlet’s Hit Points. 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.
When broken down, character creation goes like this:
The GM provides an overview of the setting and what the group will be (iron age tribe, group of mad scientists, mafia family).
The players take turns describing their names and roles in the group. This is not detailed, but is a simple “Ill be Elkkiller, a hunter.” to provide basic group roles.
The players then describe their relationship to other characters, building the first of many narrative bridges between the players.
The players then take turns describing their desires. These are not practical goals like kill one-eye of the other tribe, but desires like Win Respect Through Battle.
Once that is done, the players describe their dramatic poles – the two extremes they move between. (altruism or selfishness, leadership or tyranny)
The next step has the players building another narrative bridge to other players, describing what they want from another character. The other character’s player says why they can’t actually get that. (I want respect from Bearjaw. I won’t give that respect unless you earn it in battle.) Does it seem like this is just setting up some inter-party conflict? In another game yes, but in Hillfolk the sharp edges get blunted and these sorts of things are fodder for character relationships and strong bonds. They will fade and change, but they are the initial conflict and fire-starters for action between characters in scenes later on.
The game is not all just drama between players though. There are action scenes that require a resolution mechanic, and so the players define their action types (fighting, knowing, making, and other broad categories which are set up to feel like attributes but don’t feel as strictured). The players define a few strong and a few weak action types and leave the rest at middling. The action types then get customized even more with a brief how you do it. Essentially, you take the Enduring action type and add some descriptors that are how you endure things. (doesn’t buckle, gets beat down but gets back up, pushes himself past limits even though it will hurt him later)
The final step in character creation is defining your story. My story is of a man/woman who…
would rule the empire
seeks to leave their life of violence.
only wants love but can’t open themself up to it.
The first thing that leaped to mind after coming to the end of Hillfolk’s character creation was that the DramaSystem is the only game that I can imagine handling the game version of a Kurosawa film perfectly. 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 character creation in Hillfolk feels like every hook or tactic I’ve used to draw more characterization out of a crunchy RPG has been combined into a character creation for a game all it’s own. I plan to use this for my next game as a way to build character relationships before getting to the actual game’s character creation.
Much like the character creation focuses on creating a character rife with story, the “Mechanics” of Hillfolk bring everything back to the story as well. The majority of the rules section is about building the narrative and taking turns, and very little about the procedural mechanic. This control of the group’s flow is a mechanic in and of itself. 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. The rules focus on setting up the order and ways that participants are expected/allowed to engage in the scenes, making it more about choosing how you want to participate in the story rather than how you resolve mechanical challenges.
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.) and drama points are awarded or transferred based on how the group and GM feel about the resolution of the scene.
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. Hillfolk’s mechanics are reminiscent of betting and challenge – a very simple kind of poker to help move the mechanic 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. These bennies are similar to drama tokens, but aren’t the same. 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. If you aren’t familiar with story games or more independent/smaller scenario focused games, then Hillfolk needs to challenge what we think of traditional roleplaying in order to expose what it is. 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. The person teaching the game knows the concepts and lays them out in a way that makes sense to them, but often glosses over the initial explanation of how to “win”, a brief foray into this territory would make it easier to grok and parse the other rules that are being presented. 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.
Art & Design
The art and design of the book is primarily black and white with splashes of color. Everything focuses on dramatic emphasis. The pieces are done in an evocative style that shows the emotion on the characters’ faces. 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. Those moments when you watch a tv show or read a book and go “Man, I want to make that scenario happen in a game” is what the drama system is made for. 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. It won’t satisfy your need for a crunchy down and out dungeon crawl, but it will provide a gaming night full of interaction and engagement. 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.