[Contains a mild spoiler for the most recent episode of Discovery…]

A note on tone in Ashen Stars invites you to think of it as the gritty reboot of a beloved TV space opera show from the past.

Enough episodes of Star Trek: Discovery have dropped to see that it is very much reading out of the gritty reboot playbook.

This raises the question: what kind of model does it give us for Ashen Stars scenarios?

Discovery asks itself how many of the bedrock assumptions of past iterations you can strip away and still have a Trek show. In particular they’re taking out the bits that made it SF comfort viewing: the overlit old school TV look, the absence of conflict between main characters, the idealized view of humanity in the future.

My guess is that if the show survives long enough to execute its overall arc, its intention is to withhold and then restore all of the above except the wash lighting.

Plus new photon f-bombs, of course.

Another element the show has switched out is the structure. In place of the episodic, space mystery of the week setup we’ve seen before, the show uses the structure pioneered by J. J. Abrams in Alias. Procedural problem-solving still plays a key role, but now comes second to serialized emotional drama. As is common in so many post-Alias shows, the drama can take up most or all of the fourth act, with the problem of the week dispatched at the end of act three.

Discovery still uses the device in which an investigation leads to a moral dilemma which must be resolved to bring the story to a conclusion. You see this in the most recent episode, “Choose Your Pain,” where Burnham uses her Xenobiology ability to realize that the ship’s experimental propulsion system is ethically insupportable.

This introduces a conflict with the episode’s action-oriented plot thread, the resolution of which leads to dramatic scenes in which pairs of main characters make or grant emotional petitions, as seen in Hillfolk.

In other words, I’m glad to live in our dimension, where Modiphius and not Pelgrane has the Trek RPG license. In the mirror universe where that is reversed, alternate me has to finally figure out how to fully merge GUMSHOE with DramaSystem!

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.

a column on roleplaying

by Robin D. Laws

When characters in DramaSystem want to accomplish something practical, external to their emotional goals, the full procedural system seen in Hillfolk allows you to narrate a detailed scene around that. It determines not only what ultimately happens, but lays down a series of suspense beats along the way.

The system’s default assumption is that you will use this only rarely. Mostly when you want something practical to happen, the scene caller just describes it happening:

“The village is on fire and the Horseneck tribe are riding through, pillaging! I go to Tallbeard to urge him to renounce his vow of non-violence and lead the charge to drive them off!”

“Ann has altered the library into a vast black labyrinth and locked out all the students. Doc, who she did not see over by the study carrels when she wove the spell, comes over to complain.”

“Chessboard, Asim’s horse, wins the third race by a nose. Asim approaches Percival, hoping for congratulations.”

Only in two cases would you bother to treat these changes to the ongoing situation as anything other than a fait accompli:

  1. Not everyone in the group agrees that this should happen
  2. The caller wants to be surprised by the outcome (a rare case I’ll deal with in a later post)

The original procedural system as seen in Hillfolk serves as something of a Rorschach test for player group culture. Of the groups who’d rather use an alternate, some want the procedural system to behave even more like a traditional RPG resolution system. Others want to set aside the suspense of the current system in favor of the quickest possible answer to the question at hand.

Here are two options for those belonging to that second camp: one simpler, one way simpler. They let you dispense with the red, yellow and green procedural tokens entirely, stripping the game down to two resource types: drama tokens and bennies.

They also assume that there is no such thing as a scene consisting only of a procedural action. Here, the procedural only serves as a prelude changing the conditions before the real meat of the scene, a dramatic interaction.

This removes the option of calling a procedural as a way of ducking the commitment of placing your character in yet another emotional situation. As with so much else in the highly personal play experience DramaSystem provides, this might be a plus or minus, depending on the tastes of your particular players.

The GM checks to see how many players care about the outcome, and what they want to happen. The caller draws two cards from a freshly shuffled playing card deck; each other player who cares one way or the other draws a single card. The GM does not take part. Players may spend bennies to draw additional cards. Each card costs one bennie. After everyone has had a chance to draw as many cards as they wish to pay bennies for, the players begin turning them over.

You could:

  1. have all players whose characters are taking part in the action flip over all cards at once. The player with the highest card describes what happens.
  2. narrate the ups and downs of each card outcome.

The first choice, Quick Narration, cuts to the chase, giving you a speedy outcome so you can get right back to the drama.

The second, Suspense Narration, draws out the suspense, getting you a little closer to the set-piece action/thriller sequence feeling the established procedural system permits.

Ties between cards of the same value, as always, resolve using this suit order, from best to worst: Spades, Hearts, Diamonds, Clubs.

In either case, the outcome a player wants might be the opposite of their character’s desires. This happens when your plans as author and the motivations of the character contradict each other. Ava the player might want to see the situation shaken up by a successful enemy raid on the village, even though her character, Ashwind, doesn’t want any such thing. When you’re rooting for the group to get into more trouble, you might well narrate bad stuff happening that your character either fails to stop or is not directly involved in.

In both of the following examples, Ava, Bob and Carla think it’s more interesting to let the Horsenecks successfully raid the village, with Darius, Emily and Fran hoping to see them driven off. Ava is the caller.

Quick Narration Example

Ava draws two cards. Darius, who plays Tallbeard and doesn’t want to be put in this position, pays a bennie to draw an extra card. Everyone turns their cards over at once. The highest card is the King of Spades, drawn by Emily. She narrates:

“The village may be on fire, but we rally and send the Horsenecks packing without Tallbeard’s having to draw his sword. His vow remains intact.”

This requires Ava, who is still the caller, to revise her intention of the scene. Her character, Ashwind, still goes to Tallbeard. Now, however, she uses a bit of tribal reverse psychology, congratulating him on training the others so that his own hands don’t get bloody any more.

Suspense Narration Steps and Example

In Suspense narration, the caller reveals the first card and describes a step in the action that goes her way. Then you go around the room from the caller’s left with each other player who wants to influence the outcome revealing his cards in turn. With each card reveal the player turning a card over describes:

  • a step toward his desired outcome (if this card is the highest so far, or if the highest card so far has already been drawn by a player driving the story toward the same outcome)
  • a step away from the desired outcome (if this card does not beat the highest so far, which is held by the other side)

Keep going around the room until you get back to the caller, who reveals her remaining card(s).

With all cards drawn and narrated, the player with the high card concludes the description by describing the final outcome.

(As the King of Spades is the highest card and can’t be beaten, its appearance prompts an exception to the rules. A player revealing it narrates an immediate end to the action sequence, in her favor.)

Example: Ava, the caller, reveals a 4 of Diamonds. The first card is always the high card when drawn, so she says: “The village is on fire! The Horseheads come riding in.”

Darius, on her left, wants the village to repel the attack and has paid a bennie for an extra card. He reveals the 8 of Clubs. That’s better than Ava’s card, so he describes events turning the village’s way: “Using Tallbeard’s training, the people spring into action, flinging sling bullets at the hated foe.” He turns over his second card, an 8 of Diamonds: “The Horsenecks break formation, and the people cheer!” (Suit order tells us that this is the new high card.)

Bob, on his left, reveals the 6 of Clubs, worse than the highest card so far. He has to describe events going against his desires, which favor of the invasion: “Even our smallest children join in the defense, pelting the invaders with well-aimed stones.”

Carla, on his left, reveals the 9 of Clubs, the best card so far. She favors the invasion: “Then their mightiest warriors regroup, sending our hurlers fleeing with terrifying swings of their great bronze war clubs.”

Emily turns over the Jack of Spades, now the best card. Opposing the invasion, she says: “Our best fighters, Tallbeard excepted, clash with theirs, sending them toppling from their mounts.”

Fran shows her card, the 7 of Diamonds. That’s not the best card but she’s with Emily in wanting the invasion to fail, so she gets to describe a positive result. “Seeing this, the Horseneck auxiliaries flee.”

That takes us around the room back to the caller, Ava. If she draws a Queen or King, she can turn this back to her original intent. But she only gets a 10 of Clubs, and must describe an opposite step: “Still on horseback, our war leaders herd the downed Horsenecks past our fortifications.”

As owner of the high card, Emily gets the final narrative touch: “We jeer them, hurling dung and insults, as they limp back toward their dry and wretched lands.”

As in the quick narration example, Ava, the caller, then revises her intention of the ensuing scene. Her character, Ashwind, still goes to Tallbeard. Now, however, she uses a bit of tribal reverse psychology, congratulating him on training the others so that his own hands don’t get bloody any more.

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:

System

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?