Friday, 8 November 2013

Hillfolk: DramaSystem - Read Impressions & Storytelling Theory

Many of you have probably seen the popular 11 Ways to be a Better Roleplayer article I linked to back in June. If you have or have not (which you should), it doesn't matter because this post does not pertain to it as much the lesser follow-up article: Stanislavski vs Brecht in tabletop roleplaying.

It may not be as catchy as 11 Ways (we all love lists), but Stanislavski vs Brecht focuses on roleplaying and narrative in RPGs. It's advice for any game; for both GMs and Players; and focuses on a vital component greatly under-written in the majority RPGs: Storytelling.

Many systems offer pretty good (if similar) advice on roleplaying, but don't go as far I believe the article does because they're heavily rooted in presenting setting and resolution simulation. Story, narrative, and roleplaying theory take back seat to the game and is something the GM/Players might be given common basic advice on how to handle, but otherwise left to their own devices.

Without repeating the article's points verbatim, it reminds the players to think beyond just their characters' motivations and into the narrative as a whole and what's best for it. What it doesn't mention is that it is equally important for GMs to allow them ample opportunities to do so and encourage it.

Myself and fellow player, GM, game designer and friend of mine were pondering over this given advice and how it's similar to what we've experienced in our Dresden Files game group. I had concluded that I didn't believe it was so much the Dresden Files RPG itself, but our actual group. I think we (consciously or not) had been applying most of these narrative techniques to our game.

Thus this is one of the reasons I think know why gaming with this group has been the most satisfying for me: The actual game we play doesn't matter, only the story we create.

This ties into Hillfolk and my impressions of it:


A Game of Iron Age Drama, is an RPG that is vastly different than any other RPG that I have read (and I've read a few in my day). It can shatter preconceptions one might have of RPGs, because such preconceptions can initially make it difficult for a reader to grasp what the author Robin D. Laws is presenting to you. Even coming into it with an open mind, I can see it taking time to wrap one's head around. It took me a bit.

Hillfolk is not a game where your character is a collection of numerical stats on a sheet with an assortment of abilities and gear. Hillfolk is not a game where dice chance is used for mechanical resolution, in fact the only random element is a seldom-used deck of playing cards. Nor is it a game where the characters explore a fantastical setting.

Hillfolk is about refusing or giving into your character's desires and those around them. Hillfolk is where telling your characters' story as they seek fulfilment has greater import than succeeding at practical or material goals. It is where the characters explore the relationships they have with others.

Hillfolk is truly about the journey, not the destination.

No other system up to this point has made me think as deeply about roleplaying and narrative theory as much Hillfolk has. I came across the aforementioned article on Look, Robot and Ron Edward's GNS Theory about the same time I began my dive into Hillfolk, and I found both sources helpful in my greater understanding of not only Hillfolk, but both story in RPGs and Storytelling games in general. They're both worth a good read.


I can best sum up that Hillfolk's DramaSystem is an amalgamation between traditional multiple-session RPGs and one-shot Storytelling games: providing longer play for developing characters and heavy focus on episodic drama, with mechanics to make these two seemingly disparate things function together. Looking at it from a strict GNS categorical standpoint, I'd say that Hillfolk would appeal most to the Narrativist, although the Simulationist that enjoys story development will find appeal as well. Gamists that share neither of the other two views will find little of interest.

I first heard about Hillfolk's kickstarter when it made it's way around my gaming circles over a year ago. I was intrigued by what I heard of an RPG that aimed to recreate the story and drama of movies, theatre, and television; and that the DramaSystem is the practise to the theory presented in the author's book on narrative called Hamlet's Hit Points (a book I intend on getting in the future).

I didn't fully decide to back it until I had read Mr. Lowell Francis' experience with it; that and it was inexpensive at $25 (heck it still is, it's listed as $30 on that back, considerably cheap in comparison to most RPG that cost around double that price.). Having backed it I gained access to the PDF, which I read a few pages of but couldn't digest it the way I could spending time with a print copy. And mine finally arrived last week.


The book is laid out as follows: The first third of it contains an introduction followed by all the minutiae for creating characters, laying out episodes, the scenes (dramatic and procedural) that comprise episodes, the remaining notes on play, and finally the background for the eponymous iron age setting of Hillfolk. This Gnome Stew review does a good job of presenting a basic run-down of the mechanics, so I shan't go over them here in detail.

A Drama King?
Every few pages are interspersed with beautiful full-page sepia-toned art depicting denizens of this iron age setting in various dramatic poses. Also peppered on every page or so is a small amount of dramatic dialogue that provides flavour and possible inspiration.

The latter two-thirds of the book covers over 30 additional settings ("Series Pitches") written by various known authors, such as Kenneth Hite (of Trail of Cthulhu), James Wallis (of The Extraordinary Adventures of Baron Münchhausen), Chris Lackey (of The H.P. Lovecraft Literary Podcast), Wolfgang Baur (of Kobold Press and Midgard), Keith Baker (of Eberron and Gloom), and Ed Greenwood (of Forgotten Realms) to name a few. I personally think that this is a large selling point for Hillfolk to GMs and players alike who aren't really interested in telling stories in the prime iron age setting (it didn't seem that appealing to me at first, but then I realised this low-flash, alternative history theme was to keep new players focused on exploring narrative than a fantastic-but-detracting setting), nor those up to or yet ready to create their own series. Each Series Pitch is accompanied with a full-page (occasionally coloured) art piece.

I'd love to give The Whateleys Series Pitch a run. I imagine them more monstrous than The Munsters, and creepier, kookier, spookier, and ookier than The Addams Family.

30+ additional Series Pitches have been collected in the companion volume Blood on the Snow, which also contains additional rules, including LARP rules. These additional Pitches further extend the versatility of Hillfolk as a system to tell any variety of story.

Hillfolk has also been released on two open licenses: Open Gaming License and Creative Commons; so I have to give Robin D. Laws props for making the DramaSystem engine free to aspiring designers.

Final Review Impressions

If I have one possible misgiving about Hillfolk, beside its initial learning-curve, is that its uniqueness does make it an oddity amongst RPGs. Unless one has a gaming group that is big on heavy storytelling/roleplaying over multiple sessions, is open to trying out new games, and/or can leave the dice and stat blocks at home, one might be hard pressed to get the chance to actually play it consistently, let alone at all.

One of the draws of Storytelling games I believe is that they're single-night affairs; something to perhaps fill some time or play when the fancy strikes, and then put back on the shelf until next time. I wouldn't want to play a Storytelling game like Fiasco, Baron Münchhausen, Umläut, or Dread continually at every game session; I believe I would begin to crave the numbers, abilities, and randomness of dice that make up the common traits of standard RPGs, not to mention longer-term characters.

One could always inject those RPGs with a healthy dose of storytelling, though it might not be as dynamic or dramatic as what Hillfolk can bring to the table. Although Hillfolk suggests ways to import some or all of its concepts into traditional roleplaying games; which may be an excellent way of introducing the DramaSystem gradually to a gaming group or providing your game with a little more narrative 'omph' without entirely discarding the system/setting. This cross-system hack allows more versatility with the DramaSystem, making Hillfolk a decent addition to any gaming library just for the concepts contained within.

That all said, Hillfolk is different than the all of those Storytelling games I just mentioned. Sure they may have their similarities and they all focus on telling stories, but Hillfolk's intention is to bridge the gap between those games and traditional RPGs. It looks to fill that niche, and although it may never reach the popularity of traditional RPGs and/or Storytelling games, it fulfils that purpose very well.

A related concern is somewhat addressed under the Notes On Play section, which suggests if a local group is unsuitable (for a variety of possible reasons) for play that an online group might be found via the internet using a real-time medium like Skype or Google Hangout; Hillfolk's emphasis on character dialogue and simple mechanics make it an excellent option for an online conference game over traditional RPGs that require more work on the GM's part to moderate online tools like virtual tabletops, as well as the game itself. Also since Hillfolk is heavy on collaborative storytelling, the online players can be made more engaged in the game than simply stating how their PCs react to the descriptions and events provided by the GM: together they are actively creating the story rather than controlling characters in the story.

I think considering it's potential as both an online game and a system hack was one thing that helped me grasp the theory behind the DramaSystem, despite it being written out for me: This isn't an RPG that uses mechanics to simulate narrative, this is an RPG that uses narrative to simulate mechanics. The rules of the game aren't tied into stats, abilities, and numbers, but desires, relationships, and dramatic poles.

Hillfolk shall have a special place on my bookshelf, partially because it doesn't fit normally.
It is taller than your average RPG book.

As it is, I'm really not one to judge/predict Hillfolk's future popularity with gamers by alone reading it and not having played it. I aim to give Hillfolk an honest try when I have the time and the players, and if you get the chance I think you should too. We only learn and experience new things when we branch out from what we're familiar with: personal growth through drama. :)

Played Hillfolk? I'd love to hear your thoughts and impressions! Leave a comment!

P.S. I dedicate this post to my Dresden Files group for helping my greater understanding and appreciation of storytelling in RPGs.

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