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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 […]

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In the shadow of empires, an epic saga of ambition and desire!

Limited edition with bookplate

Only 100 copies of this faux-leatherbound limited edition Hillfolk exist. 50 are available to customers in the U.S. and Canada, and 50 are available to customers outside the U.S. and Canada. The books are faux leather with foil, and each one includes a sticky-backed bookplate signed by author Robin D. Laws for you to add to the book.

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?SP14-The Whateleys

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.

 

Buy the limited edition

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
Pages: 240pg A4 Hardcover Stock #: PELD01L

Some of the most powerful roleplaying experiences I’ve ever had have come from running DramaSystem games. Starting with the Hillfolk roleplaying game, and continuing with Blood on the Snow and Series Pitch of the Month, DramaSystem offers a wealth of setting options for players to inhabit, and create compelling stories of interpersonal conflict and emotional drama. You might choose to play in 1930s Shanghai, a steam-powered flying city, a post-scarcity future of art and murder, a magical alternate-history Russia…even humanity’s universal unconscious.

However, DramaSystem is primarily designed for campaign play. What if you want to run a game at a convention? The challenges are significant. You have limited time to create an engaging story; you probably don’t know your players (and they probably don’t know each other); and it’s entirely possible they signed up for your session, not because they’re dying to play emotionally-charged dramatic scenes with strangers, but because they had time to kill and the setting sounded interesting.

Here are some tips that I, and other GMs and players, have learned during convention play.

Tell the players up front that this game is about character conflict, and player conflict

The most challenging DramaSystem game I’ve ever run was the one in which the players were too darn nice. Nobody wanted to be a jerk, so they never made strong demands, never used drama tokens to take away someone else’s narrative power, and never withheld anything that was asked of them.

Emphasize again and again that this is a game about interpersonal drama, conflict, and powerful emotions. Beyond that, make sure your players understand that DramaSystem is a game of player antagonism. Unlike other games they’re used to, they won’t be cooperating against some outside threat, or working together to achieve some external goal. They’ll be trying to get each others’ characters to grant emotional concessions—things like love, respect, forgiveness, friendship. Things those characters don’t want to concede.

Offer a manageable number of roles and dramatic poles

My series pitch The Secret of Warlock Mountain lists more than 20 possible roles the players could take in the game, from “ship’s captain” to “dream-haunted oracle”. You can certainly let the players choose from a long list, but I like to take six to eight roles and create very simple playbooks for them. (To see examples, download the playbooks for Hillfolk and Secret of Warlock Mountain on the DramaSystem Resources page.) This helps avoid players becoming paralyzed by too many choices, and also helps me run the game—I know that a given convention game of Warlock Mountain will involve some configuration of Captain, Doctor, Scientist, Elder, Comic Relief, Teenager, Criminal, and Soldier. This gives me a good idea of what kinds of relationships and stories I’ll be facilitating as the GM.

Likewise, there are a vast number of dramatic poles that a player character might have. I like to fill in each playbook with three dramatic poles per character—the players can either choose from those options, or come up with their own.

Max out the number of “I want from them/they want from me” relationships

DramaSystem character generation normally continues until every character is the object of at least two other characters’ wants. This is fine! However, I’ve found that it can enhance play at a convention to keep going around the table until every character wants something from every other character, and is the object of a want from every other character.

This approach gives players more flexibility, because now every character is a potential source of drama (and drama tokens) for every other character. Callers feel more freedom to include anyone they wish in a scene, because no character is “wasted” due to a lack of dramatic conflict with the other participants. It also gives every player something interesting to do in every scene: nobody is there in a purely supporting role.

Ignore or minimize the procedural rules

Whatever the setting, DramaSystem game sessions should stay laser-focused on the tensions and conflicts within a small, tightly-knit group of player characters. These characters might at some point fight orcs, sabotage a bridge, or plan a daring heist; but all of that is just background to their drama.

The goal of a convention game is to show your players a good time, and give them a sense of what makes the game fun and distinctive. With DramaSystem, that’s collaborative storytelling, player-vs-player conflict, and the drama token economy—not the rare instances where characters engage in procedural scenes.

You can keep the session drama-focused by ignoring or minimizing the game’s procedural rules. Instead, encourage the players to handle procedural scenes as dramatic scenes. Maybe their group of soldiers is trying to break out of a World War II prison camp, but what’s really going on in that scene is the boiling tension between the wealthy Bostonian Lt Thorndike and Sgt O’Malley, whose father was murdered by Thorndike’s uncle. You can give such scenes a procedural feel by asking questions and introducing threats. (“Up ahead you see something you didn’t expect, that will make the escape harder. What is is? How do you deal with it?”)

Other options include:

  1. Using the 13th Age RPG montage mechanic, where every player has the opportunity to narrate a challenge and a solution.
  2. Using one of the stripped-down procedural resolution methods.

Nurture the drama token economy

Drama tokens are the currency of DramaSystem. Make sure the players understand that an important part of the game is amassing enough tokens that their character has the power to influence what happens in the story. With enough tokens, their character can crash scenes where they aren’t wanted, duck out of scenes they don’t want to be in, force other player characters to do what they want, and resist being forced. This game is working when drama tokens are changing hands, passing from one player to another. If the players don’t push each other or resist being pushed, that won’t happen, and the game will remain drama-free and un-fun.

Every dramatic scene ends with an exchange of one or more drama tokens. If the petition is willingly granted, the granter earns a drama token—from the petitioner if he has one, or from the kitty if not. If the granter refuses, the petitioner gains the token— from the granter if she has one, or from the kitty if not.

In a convention game, I recommend letting players take drama tokens from the kitty for a longer period of time than you would in a campaign session. If, early in the game, Joan grants Jeff’s petition, and Jeff has a token, ask Joan to take her token from the kitty instead of from Jeff. This method increases the number of tokens in play more quickly, which heightens the suspense and raises the stakes. Pointing out to the group that a couple of players have two or three tokens in front of them causes everyone to realize that those characters now have more narrative power than the others. This creates an incentive for the other players to make difficult concessions or challenging demands, so they can take tokens away from those players and use them to push their own agendas.

Remember that the GM calls scenes too

It’s easy to get so caught up in the story the players are creating that you forget the GM takes a turn as well! You can use your scene to tighten the screws, or bring together characters who haven’t yet played out a dramatic scene. You can also mix things up by bringing characters together in a different combination than previously—if the rebellious daughter is never alone in a scene with her mother, throw them together in a stressful situation, and see what happens.

Further reading

Want more tips? Blood on the Snow includes a chapter of advice on running DramaSystem one-shots, including agreeing on a story outline beforehand, and stronger GM control over the narrative.

Good luck running your next DramaSystem con game, and have fun!

In my last Page XX column I promised a rule for a rare instance of procedural resolution. This occurs when the caller of the scene wants to be surprised by the outcome of an external event. I admit to being surprised that people want this, but it turns out that a few groups do. It does fit certain genres where the group works together toward a common goal that regularly repeats itself. This might apply to series set in the worlds of sport, the arts, or around other occupations.

In the standard procedural system seen in Hillfolk, you fail more frequently than you would in a standard adventure-oriented RPG. Compelling drama arises from failure, from the tightening of the screws on the characters. So the system skews to that, just as action and investigation games like GUMSHOE and 13th Age favor success.

By contrast, the Surprise Outcome resolution option outlined below assumes a 50/50 shot of success, which you can calibrate in whichever direction you prefer to allow for the desired possibility of surprise.

Surprise Outcome Procedural Resolution

The caller poses a yes or no question about a possible procedural outcome:

“Will Chessboard win the race, beating Percival’s horse?”

“Will our band have a great gig?”

“Will this be the time when one of the firefighters gets hurt?”

The caller then draws a card from a freshly shuffled deck. If the result is an 8 or higher, the answer to the question is Yes. If not, the answer is No.

When the card is revealed, the scene caller narrates accordingly, then frames the dramatic interaction arising from it.

A surprise procedural outcome never counts as a scene unto itself. It is always a prelude to a scene.

Callers seeking additional complication can specify any card as the target to hit, allowing adjustment of the odds upwards or downwards from roughly even. (Well, 54%, but this is DramaSystem so who’s counting?) I’m not sure why you’d bother to call for a surprise and then skew the odds to lessen the chance of having one, but there you go. Each card represents a difference in odds of roughly 7%. So if you want a 21% chance of success, make the target a Queen or better. For a slim 21% chance of failure, make it a 5 or better.

DramaSystem doesn’t use dice or coins or spinners but if you’d rather substitute a randomizing method of your choice, it is unlikely that the Great Pelgrane will swoop from its perch in Clapham Common to devour you.

Some Hillfolk players report cognitive dissonance over an edge case in the game’s procedural resolution system.

Success in a standard procedural scene with the players on one side and the GM on the other depends on matching a target card. When the GM spends a green procedural token, at least one of the player’s cards left on the table at the end of the process must match its denomination. So if the target card is a 4 of Clubs, the players have to come up with a 4 of Spades, Diamonds, or Hearts. (The odds of beating the GM’s green token are meant to be extremely daunting.)

However, if the GM has only spent a yellow procedural token, the players only have to match the suit. When the target card is the 4 of Clubs, players need only draw any other Club card.

The odds improve even further if the GM spends the lowest token, the red. All players have to match is the color of the card. In our 4 of Clubs example, any Club or Spade brings success.

That does mean, though, that two cards that might lead to success if the GM spent a green token do not in the other two cases: the cards of equal denomination in the opposed color don’t help for green or red tokens. The GM does not reveal the token she spent until all cards have been drawn. So when, in our example, a player gets the 4 of Diamonds or Hearts, that could be decisive in your favor, or irrelevant.

As players narrate a contribution to the effort according to the impressiveness of the card drawn, this can introduce an uncertainty some find confusing.

I actually like the uncertainty of this, asking the player to describe an action that could be amazing or could be nothing.

But if members of your group find that too much of a headscratcher, you can always borrow a variant rule from Susan Davis, an intrepid member of my Thursday night group and mastermind behind the Worlds of Adventure DramaSystem actual play podcast.

In this variant, denomination matches also grant success regardless of suit or color, regardless of the drama token spent by the GM. When one is drawn, and the GM is unable to knock it out of play, the procedural automatically concludes, as a success for the players.

This tips the odds only slightly more in favor of the players.

The downside is that it allows for a premature certain success, removing the moment of suspense at the end where the GM reveals the token and you find out whether the cards you’ve drawn spell success or failure.


Hillfolk is a game of high-stakes interpersonal conflict by acclaimed designer Robin D. Laws. Using its DramaSystem rules, you and your friends can weave enthralling sagas of Iron Age tribes, Regency socialites, border town drug kingpins, a troubled crime family, posthuman cyberpunks and more. Purchase Hillfolk and its companion Blood in the Snow in the Pelgrane Shop.

In a world where it’s impossible to watch enough great TV shows to declare any of them the greatest TV show now in production, I’m still gonna call “Better Call Saul” one of the best shows going. (And I still haven’t made it all the way through “Breaking Bad”, which might suggest some kind of ambivalence about the original this one is sequelizing.)

However you rate it, BCS provides an especially tight example of the Dramatic Pole at work. As players of Hillfolk know, the dramatic poles provide as the central opposition around which a lead character’s inner and outer struggles revolve.

Jimmy McGill’s dramatic poles hew to about the very first words said about him in his later guise as Saul Goodman in his original “Breaking Bad” appearance: “You don’t want a criminal lawyer… you want a criminal lawyer.” Yep, they’re criminal vs. lawyer. We see Jimmy (the brilliant Bob Odenkirk) pulled between the respectability that he vainly hopes will win him the respect of his older brother Chuck (Michael McKean) and the con man instincts of his Slippin’ Jimmy persona.

In parallel we see the second series lead, Mike Ehrmantraut (Jonathan Banks) pulled along similar lines, with the poles ex-cop vs. criminal. In season two his effort to provide for his daughter-in-law and granddaughter, his involvement with cartel smugglers deepens.

Jimmy’s girlfriend Kim Wexler (Rhea Seehorn) mirrors his dramatic poles, but with the balance reversed. She starts on the straight-laced lawyer side but her association with Jimmy starts to awaken, then inexorably pull her toward, the criminal pole. In a DramaSystem game you might be reluctant to pick the exact same poles as another player but here we see how effective that can be as long as each character is moving along the continuum in a contrasting way or at different rates.

Poles for the other key figure, Chuck, can be defined according to his tortured relationship to Jimmy: is he dependent or dominant? His environmental sensitivity puts him in the first position. He remains in that state until it becomes apparent that Jimmy is once more threatening to achieve the veneer of respectability that Chuck can’t let him have. Then he summons the strength to assert his dominant side, again becoming Jimmy’s chief antagonist.

Remaining cast members are foils—clearly GMCs if this were a DramaSystem game. As such each embodies a single pole for one of the leads. Slick lawyer Howard Hamlin (Patrick Fabian) incarnates the respectable lawyer side for both Jimmy and Kim. Mike’s daughter-in-law represents his need to stick to his ex-cop side (and motivation to go dark), where his gangland ally Nacho Varga (Michael Mando) serves as his contrasting foil for the criminal pole.


Hillfolk is a game of high-stakes interpersonal conflict by acclaimed designer Robin D. Laws. Using its DramaSystem rules, you and your friends can weave enthralling sagas of Iron Age tribes, Regency socialites, border town drug kingpins, a troubled crime family, posthuman cyberpunks and more. Purchase Hillfolk and its companion Blood in the Snow in the Pelgrane Shop.

Although DramaSystem, the rules engine underlying Hillfolk, builds game sessions that feel like episodes of serialized TV dramas, differences between the two mediums do sometimes lead to somewhat different results.

One device you see all the time in TV shows rarely appears in DramaSystem.

Very often on a TV show the writers emphasize the emotional stakes of a scene by having one character pull another out of a group situation into a private one-on-one.

This happens quite a bit on Sons of Anarchy and Arrow, but you’ll find it in all sorts of places.

Arrow often segues between a group conference scene in the hero lair into a one-on-one. Sons of Anarchy frequently has a third-tier player in the room at the head of a scene for the sole purpose of seeing him immediately shooed away by a more important character.

In DramaSystem if you want to call a private session with someone else’s character you just do that. Players more often want to increase the population of a scene, to have bystanders while a discussion goes down. It’s more collaborative, and it takes the pressure off of the caller to come up with interesting choices, especially when she’s not entirely sure what her character wants.

I offer this less as a problem than an observation. One-on-one scenes are easier to write, shoot and perform on TV. Multi-character scenes are easier to play at the roleplaying table.

However, if you do want to give a scene you call a jolt of importance, start out by describing a Game Master character as being prestent at its outset. Then, immediately ask him “would you mind stepping out please?”

As a tactic, this also shows the character you’re petitioning that they, at least for this moment, is more important than the other one. Or it could be an intimidation move, putting the granter on the defensive. Either way, it’s a power move. It puts the other character on notice: you have an agenda and you’re here to pursue it, without distraction or comments from the peanut gallery.

Such scenes usually revolve around the exchange of secret information. Secrets and their revelations fuel dramatic storytelling. Whenever you think things are getting slack, find a secret to share with some fellow cast members and keep from others.

Another player could attempt to jump into the scene, as per the usual rules. But even if the scene doesn’t remain private, you’ll have established its intensity.


Hillfolk is a game of high-stakes interpersonal conflict by acclaimed designer Robin D. Laws. Using its DramaSystem rules, you and your friends can weave enthralling sagas of Iron Age tribes, Regency socialites, border town drug kingpins, a troubled crime family, posthuman cyberpunks and more. Purchase Hillfolk and its companion Blood in the Snow in the Pelgrane Shop.

In Hillfolk the GM acts as the custodian of the overall narrative. You mostly do this when calling your own scenes. You use these to heighten tensions, add new fresh developments, and picking up previous ones that got dropped along the way.

Less evidently, you can also intervene during player scenes. This requires utmost subtlety. Be careful that you’re not trying to impose your storyline on the group. Focus on making the emergent story sharper.

I mostly intervene to hint to players that they need to get to the point of the scene, or that the point of the scene has been reached and it’s time to wrap it up.

Recently a new instance of subtle GM contribution came up in our long-running game using the Alma Mater Magica series pitch.

Hard-living Professor of Troll Studies Einar (played by Justin Mohareb) was taking a verbal shellacking from resentful librarian Ann Snooks (Rachel Kahn.) She came at him by accusing him of being no fun any more since he’d stopped drinking. As Justin responded, I could see that he’d momentarily forgotten a telling bit of emotional history. With 28 sessions and counting, there’s a lot of that history to remember, so no shame there. But had this been a written scene in a TV episode, you could be sure that the writers would have had Einar point out that it had been Ann who pushed Einar to quit drinking in the first place. That’s the sort of delicious irony you can’t just leave on the table.

So I stage-whispered that to Justin and he made that his next verbal parry.

My prompt didn’t require him to insert it but he did because why wouldn’t he?

Presumably another player could also have pitched that in from the peanut gallery. As a careful watcher you as GM are more likely to spot an unexploited moment like that.

I take very skeletal notes on each episode, which help me to recall stuff like this. Some of it needs explicating in the pre-action recaps I give at the start of each session. It’s more the paying attention to the note-taking than the notes themselves that make this happen.

I wouldn’t advise looking for memory prompts to give the players. But when the perfect instance arises, consider it part of the DramaSystem GM’s toolkit.


Hillfolk is a game of high-stakes interpersonal conflict by acclaimed designer Robin D. Laws. Using its DramaSystem rules, you and your friends can weave enthralling sagas of Iron Age tribes, Regency socialites, border town drug kingpins, a troubled crime family, posthuman cyberpunks and more. Purchase Hillfolk and its companion volume Blood in the Snow at the Pelgrane Shop.

03 - Honor Among Thieves_350The default DramaSystem setting is Hillfolk, but you can easily play DramaSystem games in a wide variety of settings beyond this. Series Pitches are 2000+ words of setting material, which uses the core DramaSystem rules to enable you to play in completely different worlds, times, and genres.

In 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 a world where everything is illegal, everything is a crime, and it only pays to be a thief.

Honor Among Thieves is available as a stand-alone product from the store, or as part of the Series Pitch of the Month Collection.

Stock #: PELD06D Author: John Wick
Artist: Pierre Legay Pages: 17pg PDF

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04 - Hold the Chain_350The default DramaSystem setting is Hillfolk, but you can easily play DramaSystem games in a wide variety of settings beyond this. Series Pitches are 2000+ words of setting material, which uses the core DramaSystem rules to enable you to play in completely different worlds, times, and genres.

In Hold the Chain, Matthew McFarland (Mage: The Awakening, Hunter: the Vigil, Chill, curse the darkness) makes you the entertainment in the gladiatorial arena of a steam-powered flying city on the brink of revolution.

Hold the Chain is available as a stand-alone product from the store, or as part of the Series Pitch of the Month Collection.

Stock #: PELD07D Author: Matthew McFarland
Artist: Pierre Legay Pages: 7pg PDF

Buy

05 - Encore_350The default DramaSystem setting is Hillfolk, but you can easily play DramaSystem games in a wide variety of settings beyond this. Series Pitches are 2000+ words of setting material, which uses the core DramaSystem rules to enable you to play in completely different worlds, times, and genres.

In Encore, Rob Wieland (Shadowrun, Star Wars Saga Edition) shows you his jazz hands, following the dreamers, has-beens and never-will-be’s who make up the cast of a touring jukebox musical.

Encore is available as a stand-alone product from the store, or as part of the Series Pitch of the Month Collection.

Stock #: PELD08D Author: Rob Wieland
Artist: Jonathan Wyke Pages: 7pg PDF

Buy

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