DramaSystem/Hillfolk: A Brief Review

Blood On The Snow cover Hillfolk coverOver a year ago I posted a book review of the two-book set, Hillfolk and Blood on the Snow (Pelgrane Press.) I loved both as source material, but I wanted more experience with the game mechanics in play before I could review the system itself. Since I gave a pretty lengthy description of the two volumes last year, I will concentrate here on the mechanics and the feel of the game.

I experienced the system in two modes: I hosted a game at Big Bad Con 2013 using the “Colony Wars” setting pitch by Emily Care Boss; and I played in a mini-series inspired by Kevin Allen Jr.’s series pitch “To End All Wars.” Both groups of players were just fantastic.

The system relies on shared narrative control between all participants, everyone taking turns at selecting theme and setting scenes, starting with the game-master. The focus of the game is the cast of player characters, which are created in the first session and are linked by a web of relationships established by the players. These relationships are deliberately held in balanced tension and constitute the dramatic underpinnings of the game.

The character creation process is also largely the setting creation, and with a group of people who enjoy shared narration, this turns into pure magic.

Two types of scenes are used: dramatic scenes, in which one character tries to obtain something—an emotional reward—from another who presents some opposition; and procedural scenes, in which the characters confront and overcome external obstacles.

In most role-playing games, we are used to paying attention mostly to procedural resolution: opening the door, killing the monster, escaping the larger monster, and so forth. However, in most dramatic fiction, there is a lot of time spent on dramatic scenes: will President Roslin get Commander Adama’s support? Will G’Kar agree to help Lando Molari? Will Detective Marty Hart trust his creepy partner Rust Cohle?

A majority of the scenes in DramaSystem are expected to be, well, dramatic, with characters pushing and pulling on each others’ motivations. Each scene is set by a player in turn, with their character trying to get something from another. If the petition is granted, the player whose character yielded gets a Drama token; if the petition is refused, the one who was turned down gets the Drama token. In other words, you either get what you want or get a Drama token as consolation prize. Drama tokens can be used to force concessions later, to crash a scene where your character was not invited or, on the contrary, to avoid a scene you are called to, and so forth.

External challenges are resolved using procedural scenes, using three types of Procedural tokens (red, yellow and green) and ordinary playing cards. The Procedural tokens grant a certain number of card draws, and do not replenish until all three have been used (i.e., you won’t get another red token until you’ve used both your yellow and green ones; when you’re out, all three replenish.) Procedural scenes are normally resolved with two sides, either GM against one lead PC, or two lead PCs squaring off, and all other PCs either supporting one of the two sides or abstaining.

In addition, there are seven very broad skills (e.g., Talking, Fighting, etc.) and using one of your strong skills versus someone else’s middling skill grants an additional redraw, while using a strong skill versus a weak one means automatic success. In practice, of course, creative players always find a way to use their strong skills.

There is some back and forth between the two sides, taking turns describing the results of each action, and a stronger position can allow one side to knock high cards out. However, the truth is that the whole system, with its multiple tokens, unclear descriptions of card draws, and high luck factor just doesn’t feel very exciting. It’s not horrible, it’s certainly workable, and sometimes the cards even cooperate. But most of the time, procedural resolution ends up being rather anticlimactic. This was particularly highlighted for my husband and I recently by the contrast with another card-based resolution system that provided high suspense and interesting tactical options: the Motobushido RPG.

On the other hand, Hillfolk and especially Blood on the Snow provide a number of alternate rules options that we have not had a chance to try. I did use the advice for single-session play contained in these books when I ran “Colony Wars” at a convention, and found it very helpful. But reading the Advanced Procedural Rules presented in appendix in Blood on the Snow got our group somewhat confused.

In short, the tension and pacing supported by the DramaSystem structure, and the drama that resulted, were highly satisfying. However, the mechanical resolution of procedural scenes was lacklustre; in the future, I am likely to either tinker with the mechanics—perhaps using some of the plentiful ideas provided in the two books—or use the structure with a different system altogether. Nevertheless, I greatly enjoyed the games, I would certainly play this again with a suitable group, and I am glad I bought the books.

This is a great game for people who like to think about how a story is constructed and what makes dramatic characters tick, and who enjoy creating a lot of the setting material in-game. You may enjoy this game if you like Primetime Adventures, Fiasco, Universalis, or In A Wicked Age, or if you read Robin D. Laws’ Hamlet’s Hit Points and found yourself nodding in agreement. It’s probably not a good choice for people who prefer richly detailed sourcebooks, procedural action, lots of mechanical options, or dice rolling.

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