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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 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

Buy

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

06 - Iron Tsar_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 Iron Tsar, ASH LAW (The Reliquary, Shards of the Broken Sky) cranks up a magical 1920s Russia, in which engineers battle zombies in the Imperial court.

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

Stock #: PELD09D Author: ASH LAW
Artist: Rachel A. Kahn Pages: 7pg PDF

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07 - Sheeps Clothing_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 Sheep’s Clothing, Jérôme Larré (Qin, Tenga) takes you inside a tranquil bedroom community for cops—as a massive Internal Affairs bust threatens dozens of its key citizens.

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

Stock #: PELD10D Author: Jérôme Larré
Artist: Jonathan Wyke Pages: 7pg PDF

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