Book Review: “Hillfolk” and “Blood on the Snow”

Hillfolk coverToday 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.


Blood On The Snow coverThis 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.

The Result

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

"Did I just get what I wanted?"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.

Fate of the Budayeen: ebook versions

An ominous meetingNow that I have finally completed my Fate of the Budayeen series, I thought I’d make up for the lateness of the last instalment by offering readers e-book versions.  All three are fully bookmarked and more-or-less spell-checked. Ahem.

  • PDF, with illustrations; two-column layout. Edit: All the hyperlinks are there but you have to hover your cursor in the right spot to see them.
  • ePub (for use with Nook, Kobo, iPad, etc.) with cover and metadata, in a zipped file. Just unzip and add to your library.
  • mobi (for use with Kindle, Mobipocket, etc.)  with cover and metadata, in a zipped file. Just unzip and add to your library.

Feedback is welcomed!

Credits: Image from OpenClipart.

Fate of the Budayeen: Putting It All Together

Dubai street scene

[Turning a setting idea into a game world for the Fate Accelerated Edition (FAE) role-playing game system: this is the sixth and last in the series.  Sorry about the delay, I have to give priority to the War of Ashes RPG commission I’m working on for Evil Hat Productions, but while I think about extras and system issues for War of Ashes, this is a great time for me to go back to thinking about the Fate dials.]

We’ve been looking at the step-by-step process for turning a bright idea for a setting (we picked George Alec Effinger’s Budayeen setting for the cyberpunk series chronicling the adventures of Marîd Audran) into a campaign for Fate Accelerated.  Our objective was to get from light bulb moment  to game with a minimum of fuss for the Game Master.

Let’s recap what we have done to date:

  1. Gather inspirations (Assemble our clippings folder.)
  2. Define feel of the campaign and setting (What is it about the setting we’re trying to emulate with the game?)
  3. Adjust the rules, create extras (Using the Fate tools to get that flavour in.)
  4. Faces and places from the source material (≠ what the group will decide at the table.)
  5. Preparing to improvise (More clippings and lists.)

Step 6: Putting It All Together

Fine-Tuning: Using the dials

Before we sit at the table with the entire group, we still have a few decisions and adjustments to make.  Because we picked a gritty setting, Fate’s default pulp adventure mode may need a little tweaking.  We have a few tools available to adjust this.  They are touched upon in Fate Core but best explained in the Fate System Toolkit (Chapter 5).  A detailed discussion of these dials should wait until I have time to review the whole Toolkit, but let’s say for now that we are going to do a few things to give this dark, hard-boiled, dangerous quality to our campaign:  Continue reading “Fate of the Budayeen: Putting It All Together”

Blog To-Do List of Tall Orders

Black cat on top of a book pileHaving now thoroughly promised more on this blog than I can deliver unless I set priorities and timelines, I’ll ‘fess up to what readers can realistically expect, in descending order of priority:

1.  Notes related to the games I’m running at Big Bad Con next weekend: two scheduled games, Rob Wieland’s CAMELOT Trigger using Fate Accelerated Edition (FAE) instead of Fate Core, and Emily Care Boss’s Colony Wars series pitch for Robin D. Laws’ Drama System; and two stand-by packs for Games on Demand, The Muppet Show for FAE based on Tom “Blue” Tyson’s playset, and Jared Sorensen’s psychotronic game of post-apocalypse octaNe.  Since I’ve committed to those months ago and the whole thing is going to be over in a few days (Big Bad Con runs October 4-6, 2013), they go first.

2. Notes related to writing the War of Ashes RPG for Evil Hat Productions.  The project is on a short schedule, it’s a contract commitment, and it’s fun.  I’ll probably concentrate a lot of effort on this through March 2014, then  it should decrease as the book will then belong to other team members.

3. The last post in my Fate of the Budayeen series.  I’ve had it outlined since I posted the previous entry, and I started writing the first section but the other commitments must take priority for now.  Still, I’ll slip it in as soon as I can while I still have momentum, so I hope to post it in October 2013.

4. The occasional cooking post.  They don’t take much time to write and I like sharing recipes.  Posts of opportunity only.

5. The book club notes, maybe.  It looks like the Goodreads book club is moribund right now, but should it rise from its ashes, I enjoy writing pop culture notes on the monthly selections.  If it lives, and if I can fit it in, monthly posts.

6. Occasional game reports.  I’ll continue to post my character sheets and pictures when I play, and if I have time, mini-reviews of games I try.  Posts of opportunity only.

7. Wild promise #1: Fate of the Skyrealms.  Yes, I announced I wanted to use FAE to adapt Skyrealms of Jorune and I still think it’s a great project, but it will have to wait.  Probably a lot, like summer 2014 at the earliest.  I’m pretty sure I made other equally ambitious project announcements I can’t recall right now, and they will have to wait too.

Fate of the Budayeen: Mise en Place

2013 - 1

[Turning a setting idea into a game world for the Fate Accelerated Edition (FAE) role-playing game system: this is Post #5 in the series.]

In cooking, mise en place means getting all your ingredients measured and utensils prepared, lined near your work area, and generally setting up so you won’t have to fumble around looking for something while your hands are covered with flour and egg.

It’s the same when you prepare to run a role-playing game: you want to have the information you’ll need at your fingertips, organized so you can find it quickly.  In a lot of systems, this means having fifteen different sourcebooks tabbed and bookmarked, but not here.  We’re using Fate Accelerated, which is a pleasantly short little book; while we’re also getting some additional material from the heftier Fate Core while we prepare, in play we won’t need to refer to it.

But our setting source material comes from works of fiction literature, and we certainly don’t want to have to flip through the books to find a good description of the locations or technology.  This is why we have set up our lists of Faces and Places in Part 3; now we will add a few more lists to refer to when our players ask: “What’s in the victim’s pockets?”, “What does the data deck look like?” or “What is Farrad eating?”

In the process, I’m going to be borrowing the method described by Robin D. Laws in his book of advice for Game Masters, Robin’s Laws of Good Game Mastering (published by Steve Jackson Games).  Laws suggests preparing lists of names, sample dialogue, and personality traits which the GM can just pick from when it’s time to create minor characters.

Step 5: Preparing to Improvise

or: What do you mean, I can’t play a white American?

In Part 2 of the series, I mentioned that gamer groups who have trouble thinking past “white American” characters will need to do a little more work.  I’m serious, on countless occasions I’ve observed gamers who, told they could not play white Americans in a given setting, then tried to play white Englishmen, white Canadians, white Australians, or failing those, other white Europeans.  If you really twist their arm, they may play a katana-wielding Asian character.

It pays for the GM to prepare against this by having lots of flavour bits to include in her setting, thus helping the players get in the right mood; and references to help her players choose a few character elements that will fit well in the Budayeen (name, physical description, connections, habits, occupation, orientation, beliefs, etc.) Continue reading “Fate of the Budayeen: Mise en Place”

Fate of the Budayeen: Faces and Places

City of Dubai at night, UAE

[Turning a setting idea into a game world for the Fate Accelerated Edition (FAE) role-playing game system: this is Post #4 in the series.  We finally return to our setting construction exercise, after a couple of more general posts on Approaches vs. Skills and Approaches vs. Aspects in FAE.]

Because I’m relying on a setting detailed in several books, a lot of material has already been created for me.  I’m going to draw up more lists for Step 4: Faces and Places, summing up what I know about people and locations of the Budayeen that appear in George Alec Effinger’s books. (As a bonus, this can serve as a handy reference for people who are currently reading the books.)

These will merely serve as backdrop for our game setup, however.  Once the whole group sits down at the table to create our specific setting, people may say “I’d like to have a third crime lord in the mix,” or “There should really be a pilgrimage site near the cemetery,” or “I’d prefer if Marĩd Audran didn’t appear at all in our version.”  Continue reading “Fate of the Budayeen: Faces and Places”

Approaching Fate Accelerated: More Crunchy Bits

FATE Accelerated cover

Edit, Oct. 16, 2013: Rob Donohue discusses how approaches and skills differ, and why you need to look at them in a different light.  

In my recent review of Fate Core and Fate Accelerated Edition (FAE), the standard and streamlined versions of the Fate role-playing system, I discussed how FAE’s use of Approaches differs from the use of Skills in Fate Core.  I even argued that this made FAE a more faithful adaptation of the Fate “pillars”, Competence, Proactivity and Drama.

The latest post in my current series showing step-by-step how I use FAE to adapt a literary setting discussed using the FAE (and Fate) mechanics to model specific features of the Budayeen setting from George Alec Effinger’s Marĩd Audran series, a Middle Eastern cyberpunk version of New Orleans’ French Quarter.  This post attracted a number of questions on the use of Approaches, as well as on the role of Aspects; many gamers are still left somewhat confused on how Approaches fit in adapting specific settings to FAE, and exactly what they represent.

Here are some more thoughts to help clarify the issue.  While this post fits in with the Budayeen adaptation series, it addresses a more general context applicable to any game you plan using FAE — and, I think, Fate Core.

The Golden Rule

Fate Core CoverYou may have heard the Fate system described as “fractal” because you can use the same methods at different scales.  People usually refer to more specific rules mechanics, and we’ll discuss them further when we talk about the “Bronze Rule”; but in fact, Fate’s fractal or scalable nature applies throughout.

Fate Core’s Golden Rule (p. 185): Decide what you’re trying to accomplish first, then consult the rules to help you do it.  While this rule is first brought up when discussing the Game Master’s job during play sessions, it actually describes most of a GM’s job right from the moment you decide you’ll run a game.

Specifically in setting creation, adaptation, or conversion, you need to set clearly what you’re trying to accomplish in order to use the rules effectively to do it.

In my Budayeen example, my goal is to create a game setting that will provide the feel of Effinger’s Budayeen stories in a game powered by the FAE system.  Maybe I should call it Step 0: Goal, since in started my example with Step 1: Inspirations.  Most of the time when I work on a game setting that borrows from literary fiction, comics, movies or television, this fidelity to the setting is going to be part of the goal.

However, there are occasions where a GM may try to model other features; in particular, sometimes a GM wants to replicate the feel of another game system.  For example, maybe you’ve been running a campaign in another system and you’d now like to port it over to Fate.  Or maybe you’re creating a whole new campaign, but your players are die-hard fans of another system and you’d like to make this look as familiar as possible.

These are all fine and achievable goals, but unless we make them explicit, articulate them clearly right at the beginning (Golden Rule), it will be very hard for two people to have a clear discussion if their implicit goals are different.  Continue reading “Approaching Fate Accelerated: More Crunchy Bits”

Fate of the Budayeen: Crunchy Bits

Waiting[Turning a setting idea into a game world for the Fate Accelerated Edition (FAE) role-playing game system: this is Post #3 in the series.]

Despite the process shown in Fate Core pp. 22-24 and “A Spark in Fate Core” (see previous instalment in this series), I’m not going to directly move on to “The Setting’s Big Issues.”   Unlike a game world created from scratch, I’m borrowing tons of material from an existing setting, so it’s easier for me to grab the bits I want and build my issues around them, probably in collaboration with the rest of the game group unless this is a one-off game.

Instead, let’s jump to an element most gamers tend to spend a lot of of time on — probably too much: rules questions, or what Robin D. Laws calls “crunchy bits” in his inestimably useful Robin’s Laws of Good Game Mastering.

Step 3: Adjust the rules to the setting

Philosophy.  As you might guess from my choice of Fate Accelerated Edition (FAE) instead of Fate Core, I like simple game systems that get out of the way of building a good story when we’re at the table, and don’t require too much effort to adjudicate.  There’s nothing wrong with liking more crunch, many of my friends do; but when preparing my own game, if I’m tempted to create new rules material, I always ask myself whether it’s necessary or whether I can use what is already there.

Approaches in FAE.  Fate Accelerated replaces skills with six Approaches that describe how a character does things, in what style.  It’s excellent to model very competent characters (see my earlier review), but will it be too powerful for the gritty cyberpunk feel of the Budayeen?  Well, George Alec Effinger’s books are certainly rough on main characters, so NPC opposition will have to be brutal and the stakes will be high, but on the other hand, the reader hardly wonders whether the overwhelming odds will be overcome, merely at what cost.  So at first glance, FAE would work.

Let’s check our specific Approaches and decide whether we need to rename them or even replace them in order to reflect the setting.  Can I readily think of typical character actions in the Budayeen that would be covered by each approach? Continue reading “Fate of the Budayeen: Crunchy Bits”

Fate of the Budayeen: Establishing Foundations

[Turning a setting idea into a game world for the Fate Accelerated Edition (FAE) role-playing game system: this is Post #2 in the series.]

Collaborative or GM-Driven?

Yesterday we talked about the Budayeen setting as seen in George Alec Effinger’s stories, and listed some other sources inspirations we’ll be using.  Before I go any further, I should take a minute to discuss how my approach will fit with the game creation process described in Fate CoreContinue reading “Fate of the Budayeen: Establishing Foundations”

Fate of the Budayeen: Let’s kick this off!

Dubai at night -- concept for proposed "rain cloud" building on the right

A few days ago I posted a little poll to see which setting people would be interested in seeing used in a step-by-step example of creating a setting in the Fate Accelerated Edition (FAE) role-playing game system, all the way from initial Light Bulb! moment when an idea grabs you to prep notes for a game.

I just closed the poll, and it looks like the Budayeen setting, from George Alec Effinger’s “Marîd Audran” series, won the poll.  That suits me fine because, as Fred Hicks pointed out, too many people still think FAE is just for whimsical or light-hearted games.  I am convinced that FAE can be successfully used for any setting which the more detailed Fate Core can power.

My ambition is to convince readers that it’s quite easy and they can do it with modest effort.  Just to be clear, I will be putting in way more effort than I normally have to, because I want to write clear posts giving you context — which means way more legible than my typical game notes!   For those who have not read the books, I will throw in a little background.

What is the Budayeen?

Continue reading “Fate of the Budayeen: Let’s kick this off!”