Today I’d like to review Robin D. Laws book Hillfolk and its companion volume Blood on the Snow (Pelgrane Press, 2013).
Disclaimer: This is going to be a backwards review about everything but the core topic! You see, I don’t feel ready to review the game Hillfolk or the DramaSystem rules engine that powers it. I like to base my reviews on sufficient playtesting and so far I’ve only hosted one game. It went very well, but that’s not enough to speak with confidence on it, given that the system is intended to shine in continuing series.
However! This pair of books is an odd one, in many ways unlike your standard role-playing game, and I think it may actually be a good idea to review its other aspects separately. So here you are, this is a book review and not a game review. I’ll give you the latter after more playtesting.
This project attracted attention in the fall of 2012 with its Kickstarter crowdfunding. When the Kickstarter phase opened on October 3, Hillfolk was intended to be a small standalone project, described by lead author Robin Laws as “a 128-page book from a team of five people”. The book was going to be a 6″ x 9″ pocket-format paperback “game of Iron Age conflict” based primarily on narration rules and a token-based economy, the text was complete, many of the illustrations were already prepared, the layout concept was known, and it was a pretty focused project seeking $3,000 to go to production.
Then Kickstarter caught fire, as it sometimes does; the project was funded within a few hours, and Pelgrane Press had to start rolling out stretch goals faster, earlier, and more often than anyone had hoped for.
At the same time, all this interest generated its own buzz; Kickstarter backers were able to look at the draft and many talented people started thinking: “Oh, you could use this system to play ___!” Next thing you know, people were submitting series pitches for games to run with DramaSystem besides Iron Age conflict, while others were sending their thoughts about “hacking” DramaSystem and about best practices to run games. These supplied a stream of stretch goals that really got the crowdfunding going.
In the first few days, I was mildly interested but not swept off my feet; the Iron Age setting seemed nice, well-written, but it’s not the kind of setting that gets me excited. But the flood of series pitches made the enthusiasm contagious; people whose previous work or blogging I really loved were throwing in sparkling settings like jewels on the river bottom, and I had to dive with the rest of the community. (No, not lemmings! Bad reader, bad!)
As a result, when the Kickstarter phase ended 2,185 backers had pledged $93,845, or over 3,128 times the original $3,000 goal, and the project had become “two books of twice [the original] size, and a team of approximately eighty contributors”; the books were going to get hardcover and colour interior treatment, and the format had to change from the planned small size to full size because otherwise they would be too thick to handle properly. There was even material leftover that would become monthly series pitches released as PDF by Pelgrane Press, available by subscription.
So here is what Kickstarter backers got; I don’t want to detail every single option and tchotchke available, but the key points are:
- For $10, you were able to get the final PDF versions of everything: Hillfolk, Blood on the Snow, and nine months of series pitches.
- For $41 in the U.S., you got all this plus two hardcover books, shipping cost included. (If you have followed recent conversations on the Kickstarter model’s pitfalls, you know that shipping is a big issue. I’ll leave the discussion of international shipping to more knowledgeable people.)
In this review I want to talk essentially about everything the Kickstarter stretch goals added these books as books, i.e., excluding the other types of rewards like tokens, cards, or music; and also, perhaps strangely, excluding the core game for the reasons stated earlier.
Hillfolk is a 238-page, 8.5″x12″ (22 cm x 30.5 cm) hardcover book with glossy pages and colour illustrations. The first 65 pages are devoted to the system, the next 12 to the original “Hillfolk” Iron Age setting as essentially an extended series pitch, and the rest of the book offers thirty additional settings!
Blood on the Snow is 207-pages long and otherwise presented in the same form. It’s a companion book meant to enrich the reader’s experience with DramaSystem by offering advanced play and game-mastering advice, hacks such as a live-action role-playing (LARP) version, and 33 more series pitches.
I can’t think of any other role-playing product that offers this many alternate settings, or where so much of the material is effectively bonus material.
The Books as Objects
The two books are hefty but pleasant to the touch. The art varies mostly from good to gorgeous, and even the monochrome art such as the pieces created by Jan Pospisil for the original, smaller-scale project benefits from the rich greys and sepias you can get with full-colour printing.
The covers are a bit too understated for my taste; they feature otherwise very good drawings by Scott Neil but placed in negative as white images on a muted background, brown for Hillfolk and dark blue for Blood on the Snow. Both drawings show only the Iron Age setting. The books are so understated and give so little hint of what they contain that if I had not followed the Kickstarter, the only reason I would thumb through one at a game store is if I managed to notice Robin Laws’ name in thin font at the top.
The layout also goes for sober, elegant, and muted. It would have been a very good layout if the fonts selected had been at least two points larger. I don’t know if it was originally going to use that font size, or whether the change in book format and addition of so much material made some font reduction necessary, but both the PDF and the print books are terribly difficult for me to read now that I have reached the advanced age of 48. I can’t say for sure but I think it would have been too small for me even before my reading vision started deteriorating. I don’t have that problem with any other game books, but reading those two just kills me. To add insult to injury, the columns of text are narrow, making reading choppy, but the white margins are huge.
In fact, when I really need to study to understand, for example when I read system minutia, I have to rip the text section from the PDF and turn it into .mobi file I can read and zoom as needed on my Kindle. Unfortunately, it’s a huge amount of work to do that, particularly because of the staggered column format that turn text into mad-libs, so it would be a prohibitive effort to do for the whole books and even just for the system sections. Finally, the PDF files are not bookmarked. This is one of the reasons I’m not finished with playtesting DramaSystem: it’s so damn hard to read this.
The forms such as character sheet, list of recurring characters, etc. are usable but uninspired, and not very well sized to handle player handwriting. They remind me of the home-made character sheets we used to hatch on our word processors for White Wolf system hacks 20 years ago.
The Series Pitches
Let’s look at the bonus content: sixty-four series pitches including the original “Hillfolk” premise, plus nine more through the monthly subscription for a total of 73 game settings. The list of contributors is stunning, it’s like reading the list of cameo appearances in the movies Around the World in 80 Days or Mars Attacks.
What is a series pitch? In general, it’s a summary of the setting, key issues, key characters, etc. to propose a new series, such as television or graphic novel series. In our case, these are pitches for us to use, as the directors and editors of our own “shows”. Each pitch contains ideas of questions to explore in play, ways to ratchet up the stakes and suspense, and suggested names, relationship, and details to make the series come alive.
For me, the series pitches are the delicious chocolate centre of these two books. First, because that is how exactly how I start building a game idea; second, because it doesn’t matter if I end up loving DramaSystem or not: they are entirely usable in any genre-appropriate system of your choice. And third because for me they also spark lots more ideas of setting pitches to create.
I love that every single one of the writers who contributed a pitch is someone whose stuff I have read and loved elsewhere; some are not even primarily known as game authors but in other fiction media like comics (e.g., Gene Ha) or television (John Rogers). Some are directly employed by different publishers and just don’t end up contributing to the same books outside of this. Some are people whose articles, forum contributions and blog posts I’ve just enjoyed reading for years, and it’s my first chance to read their fiction.
Because the premise of DramaSystem is that the players are at the core of the action, the main characters in a continuing dramatic series, each pitch is created with this drama in mind to emulate the flavour of shows and books like Battlestar Galactica, A Game of Thrones, Firefly, NYPD Blues, or Lost. They offer hooks to create interesting characters, whether placed at the centre of power or skulking in the shadows. I love that the settings and genres represented are so varied.
I’m not sure how much the PDF alone will sell for; the books are still offered as a pre-order on Pelgrane Press’ site for the print+PDF bundle at US $30 or £19. But if the PDFs end up reasonably priced, I would recommend them for GMs who have a favourite system (e.g., GURPS, Hero, Fate, Heroquest) but like to try settings. (If it stays at $30 each, I would recommend checking whether you also like the system first.)
The “Masterclass” Advice
While I can’t discuss it in detail until I write my system review, I found the GM advice in both books to be very helpful. In particular, I used the advice on single-play session found in both books and was grateful for it. The hacks seemd full of clever ideas to customize the game to your group’s preferences.
Like the GUMSHOE system I reviewed recently, the core of DramaSystem can also be used as an add-on layer with another game system of your choice; the MasterClass advice provides useful tips, and studying the dramatic versus procedural discussions will be of great interest to GMs who like to run story-based games.
In fact, even if one never plays DramaSystem (which would be a shame but as usual, So many games, so little time…), the concepts discussed, the scene-setting process, the analysis of dramatic exchanges in fiction, etc. are all well-worth reading if you are the kind of gamer who got a lot out of such games as Primetime Adventures, Apocalypse World, The Burning Wheel, or Dust Devils.
If you try DramaSystem and like it, then I would say that for sure Blood on the Snow is going to be a worthwhile companion book for you.
Because I got in during the Kickstarter and got the books and PDF for a really good price, I can say that no matter how often I end up playing DramaSystem, this will have been a worthwhile purchase for me. I know I will use these ideas in my games. But dear Lord, if they ever put out an ebook version for sale at a reasonable price, I’m buying it.
To the 80+ writers, artists, and other contributors to these books: I want to hug you all, you gave us something new and exciting that I didn’t have in other game books.
My recommendation to game publishers for future Kickstarter stretch goals: I would place much more value on ebook format (such as .mobi or .ePub) than on special dice, bonus fiction, or even colour printing.
My recommendation to game publishers for layout: a game book is something that needs to be used quickly and clearly, no one has the time to decipher scribbles in play and if reading it makes one’s eyes water, it should be for the drama and not the font. I don’t care how elegant the layout is, you’re not publishing a coffee table art book.
All in all, very good books but not without peccadilloes.