When seeking structural inspiration for DramaSystem play, you’ll find the purest sources in literary fiction and realistic drama. With no genre conventions to process, the bones of relationship-based storytelling clearly show through.

The satirical literary novel Startup, by Doree Shafrir, features an interconnected group struggling to stay afloat in NYC’s tech world. You could easily use it as the inspiration for a DramaSystem Series Pitch skewering the same scene. (To which about 20% of you are currently thinking “Oh no, that’s what I roleplay to get away from!”)

I bring it up here, though, for its foregrounding of a key dramatic storytelling technique, the explosive secret. Dramas often hinge on a terrible revelation that instigates the climax, changing everything for the cast of characters. Here Shafrir plants a bomb in pretty much all of the key relationships. Vaguely, to avoid spoilers:

  • a reporter has gained information in a way that will hurt her boyfriend’s career
  • a character has accrued giant credit card debt without telling her husband
  • another character makes his marital unhappiness clear to a colleague, who then gets to know his wife
  • a casual office affair has crossed the line into sexual harassment

These metaphorical bombs build suspense the way a literal bomb would in a thriller. As readers, we know they’re there, and we know they’ll alter or destroy relationships when revealed. In Beat Analysis terms, we fear that they’ll come out, and hope that the people we care about can either keep their secrets or will emerge all right on the other side of their revelation. (Having read more than one novel, we instinctively understand that they will come out, but want our viewpoint characters to avoid that all the same.)

When creating DramaSystem characters, you might add a step where each player describes a bomb that will change their relationship to another PC or PCs when revealed:

  • your husband, Big Axe, doesn’t know that Flowerleaf isn’t his son, but is instead Horse Talker’s
  • you didn’t really have the vision you claimed, so Horse Talker, not you, should be chieftain
  • you didn’t just fail to poison the snake priestess, as Big Axe demanded, but actually struck a deal with her
  • you know exactly where the lost scepter is, but keep it hidden to stop Sharpbrow from launching her peace plan

As a player, you can always set a bomb for your character regardless of whether the GM adds this step. You can do it during character creation, perhaps as an explanation for why you can’t meet another character’s need. Or you can introduce the bomb during the action, calling a scene in which you strike a deal with the snake priestess, check on the spot where you’ve hidden the scepter, or drop a line of dialogue suggesting Flowerleaf’s true parentage.

Players know more than their characters, allowing everyone to enjoy the delightful agony of knowledge, waiting for the bomb you’ve planted to go off.

Finally, as with many DramaSystem techniques, you can use this move in any other RPG game where relationships between the player characters matter.


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 print and PDF at the Pelgrane Shop.

Forgery ColourHave you ever noticed that having one really beautiful set of mechanics next to another really beautiful set of mechanics leads to lots and lots of friction and unforeseen attraction between them? It’s like the set of a CW show up in this Pelgrane design space, sometimes.

Here’s how to take the wonderful Relationship rules from 13th Age (pp. 35-37, 179-183) and use them to add still more behind-the-scenes action and maneuvering to your Night’s Black Agents game.

Relationship Points

At the beginning of the game, each player may spend up to 3 build points (total) on Relationships with … not Icons, exactly, but mighty powers with their own agenda and overweening ego. You know, like the CIA. The Relationships need to be with entities capable of operating at a distance most places in the world, and capable of low-profile, high-power maneuvering: intelligence agencies, multinationals, major NGOs, the Vatican, non-vampire conspiracies, etc. (All right, Icons it is.) All Icons are Ambiguous or Villainous, except in Stakes-mode games, where agencies of the good guys (defined however) can be Heroic. Likewise, the game group’s politics likely determines which are which.

You can put all 3 points in one Relationship, split them up, whatever. (In Mirror mode, you can save them to be “revealed” later.) You then characterize each Relationship, as in 13th Age, as Positive, Conflicted, or Negative. So you might have: CIA (Positive) 1, Mossad (Negative) 1, Royal Dutch Shell Oil 1 (Conflicted). This doesn’t outweigh your Network contacts (or any other spends) with individuals in those agencies; this is a “default” based on your dossier, past, and general rep with the Icon. But a Positive agency asset NPC might be open to Reassurance in a way a Negative agency operator wouldn’t.

Relationship build points come out of the General build point pool.

In Burn-mode games, no Icon Relationship can be Positive.

In Mirror-mode games, starting with a Positive Relationship gives that Icon 2 Trust points from your agent. Each time you get a 6 on a Relationship roll for that Icon, it gets 1 more Trust point from you.

Relationship Rolls

Just like in 13th Age, at the beginning of each session (or if the Director suspects this will introduce too much chaos, at the beginning of each operation), roll one die per Relationship point. 6s and 5s are just like it says in 13th Age: positive boons from the Relationship, or favors with strings very much attached.

However, in the darker world of espionage, you also need to look at 1s. Those mean someone will screw you over — maybe send a wet-worker after you, maybe just rat you out to the locals and raise your Heat (by +1 per 1 rolled), maybe anything the Director’s cruel heart can surmise. And yes, the Director can absolutely save up those 1s for a less propitious time. Who, exactly, is gunning for you depends on your Relationship: If it’s Negative, it’s the Icon or one of its cut-outs; if Conflicted, it might just be extra Heat or unwanted interference; if it’s Positive, it’s not the Icon but its enemies who are griefing you — your CIA (Positive) earns you the enmity of the Chinese MSS or al-Qaeda. (And vice-versa for 6s from Negative Relationships, of course.)

If your Relationship is part of (or has been infiltrated by) the Conspiracy — if, in our example above, Shell Oil is vampire-riddled — that should get some story juice (blood) flowing for sure. Clever players may even be able to guess at such vampiric subversion when a few too many of their Shell favors come with a side of Renfield attacks.

Relationship Spends

You can also spend Relationship points as a dedicated Investigative ability pool for finding things out involving that Icon. You can also spend 1 Relationship pool point to get a +2 on a related General test; e.g., spending 1 pool point of FSB for +2 on an Infiltration test to break into an FSB facility, or on a Surveillance test to shed FSB watchers. Relationship pool points refresh like Investigative pool points, at the end of an operation.

You can also spend Relationship pool points (1 for only +1) on Network contact tests if the contact is either part of that Icon or actively opposing the Icon in that test.

Relationship rolls are based on ratings, not pools, so “spending yourself invisible” is impossible.

Relationship Shifts

While at Heat 6+ your Relationship automatically shifts to Conflicted or stays Negative; it shifts back one session after the Heat dies back down.

The Director may also shift your Relationship negatively if she senses you’ve abused it too much; conversely, she may just have the Icon demand a favor right now at the most inconvenient possible time in order to “balance the books.”

If you are the sort of teacher’s pet agents who go around doing favors for globally powerful entities (or if in a Stakes-mode game you do something unimpeachably heroic) you might be able to shift a Relationship from Conflicted to Positive. Only in the sunniest possible game can you shift a Negative Relationship to Conflicted, much less to Positive.