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.

Malandros cover Nov2015 small

[Editor’s note: the Malandros Kickstarter ended on 20th November 2015]

Malandros is a tabletop roleplaying game based on the award-winning DramaSystem rules engine created by Robin Laws. Like its predecessor Hillfolk, it’s a game of personal struggles and interpersonal drama. Making a new DramaSystem game like this is possible thanks to the generous backers of the Hillfolk Kickstarter campaign. One of the stretch goals they reached released DramaSystem under an open licence for people to use for their own designs. The text of Malandros will be released under a similar licence.

Characters & Setting

In Malandros, you play characters in a tight-knit community in the final year of the Empire of Brazil: gang leaders, captains of industry, fishermen, martial artists, swindlers and more. You all know each other – you’re family, friends, rivals or enemies, all living in the same part of town. You all want something from each other. Maybe it’s respect, maybe it’s love. Maybe it’s fear, or something else.

Rio de Janeiro at the end of the 19th century is a city of slums and palaces, street gangs and tycoons, the most modern technologies of the era and ancient traditions. As a setting, it’s got everything. A bustling city, people from all over the world, ethnic and class tension, street fights, sharp suits, magic, martial arts, freed slaves, carnival parades, corrupt elections… you name it, pretty much.

The malandros of the title are a classic carioca archetype. The well-dressed, work-shirking wise guy who sidesteps society’s rules to live as he pleases. Or tries to, at any rate. It’s not a term that’s always applied to someone approvingly, and many of your Player Characters might not see themselves as malandros even if other people do.

Malandros caricaturesYou can download a PDF sample from the character creation chapter, containing the dozen archetypes you choose from when creating your game’s main cast:


Malandros uses an entirely new system for procedural scenes, which ties into the scene economy in a different way to that of Hillfolk. Robin Laws explicitly designed Hillfolk’s procedural system so that one character acting alone is unlikely to succeed – you need to get other PCs on board with your plan to have a decent shot at success.

The reason for this difference is the outcomes each game is designed to produce. Hillfolk emulates ensemble TV dramas, such as Deadwood, Peaky Blinders or Battlestar Galactica (the more recent one, not the one with the robot dog).

Malandros draws on the legends of historical malandros and capoeiristas, 19th-century novels and modern telenovelas. These stories more often involve characters who are connected but go off in different directions to follow their individual agendas. So the Malandros procedural system lets you go off by yourself to do stuff, probably succeed if it’s something you’re good at, and get into trouble by yourself too. When it comes to dealing with the repercussions, that’s when you may want some help.

The core of the procedural system is simple: roll a d6. If you choose to spend a relevant ability, add its rating to the result. If you get a 6 or more, you succeed optimally. On a 3-5, it’s success at a cost, and on 2 or lower you fail.

So a bonus of 2 or higher from an ability or other source will guarantee at least a partial success – but once you’ve spent it, you can’t use it again until you refresh the ability in a later scene. Forward thinkers will try to approach high-stakes scenes with several abilities they can bring to bear on the situation.

If you don’t have a usable ability, you might get by through the blessings of Axé, which is what Afro-Brazilian religions call the divine energy of the world – the power to make things happen. In game terms, rather more prosaically, Axé lets you re-roll a result you don’t like.

The other half of the system in play, resolving dramatic scenes, is largely unchanged from Hillfolk. This made playtesting a lot easier, since that’s a set of robust, already tried and tested rules.

One new thing that’s important to the rhythm of the game is that procedural actions are hooked more directly into the scene economy. You refresh a spent ability by calling an appropriately unstressful dramatic scene, which helps maintain a pleasing balance between laid-back chats, everyday life and scenes of high drama or furious action.

You can download an extract of the procedural rules.

The Kickstarter

Malandros is currently raising funds on Kickstarter to cover its art budget. The game is already written, with a few more playtests scheduled before release in early 2016.

Malandros character creation spreads

The reason for running a Kickstarter instead of just releasing the game in its current form is that it needs more art to effectively communicate its themes and setting. Some things are better shown than explained with words. But while there’s a wealth of fantastic art available from the period, many of the people and activities that feature in the game don’t show up in contemporary art. Rich white people – no problem. Everyone else – not always as easy. So the funds raised will go towards custom artwork and photography licences to cover those gaps.

The stretch goals for the Kickstarter project include a number of alternative settings that apply the Malandros model to different eras and genres with a similar dynamic, focusing on ordinary and marginalised people:

The Sydney Razor Gang Wars – alternate setting in 1920s Australia
Aluminium Wars, a 1990s Russia setting by Mark Galeotti
Victorian London setting by Paula Dempsey
Other Borders, modern-day sorcery setting by Tod Foley
Gangs of Titan, an SF setting by Stras Acimovic
Kingsport Shore, Lovecraft/Twin Peaks style weirdness by Steve Dempsey

[Editor’s note – the Kickstarter is over, but you can still pick up the game here.]

A column on roleplaying

by Robin D. Laws

A while back in the Alma Mater Magica series I’ve been running we came across an unusual situation not covered by the DramaSystem procedural rules. A wizardly confrontation pitted at least three player factions against each other. I polled the players to find out what their characters hoped to achieve, but couldn’t boil the conflict into two clear, opposing objectives. Some players had sorta-kinda-but-not-necessarily opposing goals. One didn’t know what he wanted, but still felt obligated to do something.

So here’s the new procedural system I came up with to resolve an inherently chaotic multi-sided showdown. P vs. P vs. P, if you will.

Each player with a participating character spends a procedural token. The token spent determines the total number of cards the player will get in the coming resolution: three for green, two for yellow, one for red. The GM does not draw cards or spend tokens. If the GM determines that story logic calls for one character to start the action, she designates that player as the first to draw. Almost invariably this will be the player who called the scene.

In the first round, the GM draws a card from the deck for each player in turn. When the card comes up, the player narrates what his or her character is doing, to an effect that depends on the card drawn. Face cards mean awesome results. Cards between 10 and 6 advance the character’s agenda a little. Cards between 5 and 2 indicate a disappointing outcome.

If at least one player spent a yellow or green token, this continues to a second round, omitting all players who spent red tokens.

The third round includes only players who spent green tokens. If no one did, it is omitted.

At the end of the final round, the player who got the highest card played at any point then narrates the final outcome of the encounter. To resolve ties between cards of the same value, use the suit order (from best to worst): spades, hearts, diamonds, clubs.

However, if at any point a player gets the Ace of Spades, the highest card in the deck, the procedural immediately ends, with that player then describing the ultimate outcome.

For example, Aaron, Babs, Clea, Dev and Maya are all playing semi-divine entities who have just graduated to the big leagues. They just slew the titans who used to rule the celestial peaks and now (mostly) want to seize the throne of command for themselves. Their characters, respectively, are called Adder, Banshee, Chimera, Dwarf, and Minotaur.

Everyone except Maya spends a green token. Those who didn’t have green tokens in hand spend bennies to get green tokens. Minotaur, however, as befits her Dramatic Poles of Competence vs. Insecurity, won’t let herself step up and seize the mantle of rule that really only she deserves. Maya decides that it’s fitting to spend only a yellow token.

Aaron called the scene and is the first to shout “And now the throne is mine!” So you as GM decide he should go first.

Then you continue around the room, where our hypothetical players have conveniently arranged themselves in alphabetical order by first name.

Aaron draws a 6, a merely middling result, and narrates, “I slither at speed for the still burning throne.”

Babs draws a hard-to-beat Queen of Hearts: “With a piercing scream, I force you all back, taking my rightful place upon it and grabbing the Scepter of Cronos.”

Clea draws an 8: “Chimera changes into a deaf white cat, immune to sonic force, and creeps up behind you, batting at your tresses.”

Dev gets a pitiful 4: “Dwarf has been completely bowled over, the Helm of Might that has previously served him so well now wedged over his face.”

Maya, however, gets the King of Hearts: “Affronted to be buffeted over when I wasn’t even trying to do anything, I use the blunt side of my axe to topple Banshee from the throne.”

Round two begins with an Ace of Clubs for Aaron: “I release a cloud of poison vapor, which only I can breathe. It shrouds the throne, which I now slither onto.”

Then Babs gets an Ace of Diamonds: “I sing the poison smoke into a ring of honey, easily step over it, and squish Adder beneath my diamond heel.”

Clea gets a 7, okay but no match for the face cards already piling up: “I leap at Banshee, but slide on the honey and get nowhere.”

Dev gets a 9, likewise: “I finally join the fray, war hammer swinging wildly. I land a solid blow against Banshee.”

Maya draws her final card, a 10: “Minotaur sees that none of her so-called friends deserve to rule. I swipe at the throne itself, attempting to destroy it.”

Aaron starts the final round with a mere 5: “I free myself from Banshee’s heel. I try to bite her as I go but don’t quite manage it.”

Babs only gets a 3 this time: “I stamp at him as he goes, then recover my dignity.”

Clea gets a 10: “Chimera becomes an owl and knocks Banshee from the throne into the ring of honey.”

Dev draws a Jack of Diamonds: “Dwarf smacks her a good one with his hammer and hops onto the throne, performing a victory jig.”

Maya doesn’t get a third draw so that’s all the cards. Although her rivals have described themselves getting a few shots in, the overall best card, the Ace of Diamonds, remains in Babs’ stack. So she gets the final word: “I rise, razor-edged musical notes flying from my throat. They slash at my friends turned rivals, driving them back. Dwarf tumbles from the throne as I reclaim it. A nimbus of light surrounds me as I achieve apotheosis, becoming mythic ruler of this new pantheon.”

The problem this solves is an edge case to be sure, but if it came up in my game, it might in yours.

Robin Laws’ multi-award-winning Hillfolk is a great game in its own right, but its DramaSystem engine includes a toolkit for describing and dissecting characters that can be used in other games. One of these tools is the concept of dramatic poles.

To quote Robin: Driving any compelling dramatic character in
any story form is an internal contradiction. The character is torn between two opposed dramatic poles. Each pole suggests a choice of identities for the character, each at war with the other. Events in the story pull the character from one pole to the next. Were your character’s story to conclude, her final scenes would once and for all establish one of the identities as the dominant one… In many cases, you can conceive your dramatic poles as your desire, on one hand, and, on the other, the character trait that makes you least likely to attain it.”

In 13th Age, the player characters have relationships with one or more Icons – rulers and other powerful NPCs who shape the world from behind the scenes. As a relationship can be Positive, Negative or Conflicted, a well-designed Icon is always divided on some level. Even the most heroic Icon needs a little hint of darkness; even the vilest villain needs some redeeming quality. In the Dragon Empire setting, for example, the Lich King may be an undead tyrant who wants to conquer the lands of the living and restore his lost empire, but he still thinks of himself as the rightful ruler and has some sense of obligation towards his prospective ‘subjects’. The Priestess may be the mystic champion of all the Gods of Light, a shining vessel for their blazing kindness, but her overwhelming niceness might be hiding a secret agenda.

A well-designed Icon, therefore, is torn between two dramatic poles – usually, one that might draw the player characters to serve or support that Icon, and another that makes the Icon seem suspicious, dangerous or destructive. Evil Icons flip that around, so they’ve got one pole that makes them villainous and ghastly, and another that doesn’t redeem them, but makes them more nuanced and interesting than straight villains.

For the default Icons, I usually go with the pairs of poles below. Your own interpretations may differ, of course – and if you’re creating your own Icons, then you may find these helpful as inspiration.

Archmage: Benevolence versus Hubris – is the Archmage building a utopia, or a house of cards?

13th Age icon symbolsCrusader: Necessity versus Humanity – what does it profit a man to raze Hell to the ground, but still lose his soul?

Diabolist: Power versus Self-Interest – does the Diabolist have the courage of her convictions, or it all just a game?

Dwarf King: Tradition versus Friendship – can the dwarves move past the grudges and debts of their ancestors?

Elf Queen: High versus Wood versus Dark (yep, three poles) – which aspect of Elvendom holds sway?

Emperor: Law versus Truth – can the Emperor save the Empire from the intrigues and double-dealing of his courtiers and governors

Great Gold Wyrm: Heroism versus Sanity – mainly for the Wyrm’s followers, when does divine inspiration become indistinguishable from madness

High Druid: Nature versus Humanity (the concept that of Icon – and its followers – being pulled between elemental forces and humanity shows up a lot in my games).

Lich King: Death versus Obligation – what do the dead owe the living, and vice versa?

Orc Lord: Destruction versus Destiny – is the Orc Lord a disaster, or an opportunity?

Priestess: Divinity versus Humanity – can a mortal embody the gods and remind human?

Prince of Shadows: Anarchy versus Civilisation – what’s beneath the Prince’s mask?

The Three: Hunger versus Intrigue versus Malice (three poles again) – which head of the Three is dominant?