So, you probably know about Kickstarter. And you probably know about the Hillfolk Kickstarter by Robin Laws. Well, as a backer, I received a .pdf copy of the current (post-playtest, pre-final) draft of the rules, and I took a little time to read the game this weekend. I liked what I read, and so want to tell you about it. You can think of it as me shilling for the Kickstarter if you like; I certainly want the game to reach all its stretch goals.
In Hillfolk1, you play members of a tribe of iron-age raiders. The game uses a new engine, called DramaSystem, that emphasizes character-driven play – the game is more about the interactions and relationships between the characters than about the characters facing external threats. It’s meant to emulate the TV-style serial drama, in the vein of The Sopranos, Mad Men, Copper, such. In a way, you could call it a soap opera engine, I guess, but only if you call shows like Rome or Deadwood soap operas2.
Play happens through a series of scenes, each framed by a player in turn (including the GM). Scenes are divided into two types: Dramatic and Procedural.
Procedural scenes are scenes wherein the characters are trying to gain a practical result – raid an enemy herd, cross a dangerous desert, find a new grazing land, dig iron ore out of a mine, whatever. These are scenes familiar to most gamers, and often you’ll have several characters co-operating against the GM to accomplish your goal. Mechanics for Procedural scenes revolve around spending different coloured tokens to gain draws from a deck of playing cards, trying to match a card drawn by the GM. It’s pretty straightforward in practice, though a little convoluted to explain, and there’s an appendix that adds an advanced mechanic to the process for those who want a more detailed, fine-grained system.
Dramatic scenes are scenes where one character is trying to gain some emotional reward from another character. This is where things depart most from other RPGs – there aren’t really any rules to determine whether or not you get what you want in the scene. You go in with your goal and, at the end, the GM will ask you if you got what you want3. There’s a token system in play here that incentivizes not getting what you want – if the person that you want to respect you dismisses you as beneath him, you get a token; if someone comes to you looking for approval, and you grudgingly grant it, you get a token. Tokens can be used to manipulate the narrative a bit, including forcing a concession from someone or jumping in on a scene when the person setting the scene doesn’t include you.
The emphasis of play is on Dramatic scenes, with a goal of deepening, enriching, and entangling the emotional needs of the characters. Characters are built to feed into this, with each character defined more by what he or she wants than what he or she can do. Relationships are important, and during character creation, each character is given a relationship with a couple other characters, including something that the character wants and why the other character won’t grant it. These motivations are all emotional needs – approval, love, respect, fear, acceptance, praise, deference, etc. Each player also chooses two dramatic poles for their character to be pulled between: leader or tyrant, warrior or peacemaker, faithful or traitor, anger or wisdom, etc. And, almost as an afterthought, you get to pick some skills that your character is good at, and some that they aren’t.
The goal of the game, as I’ve said before, is to create the kind of rich, dramatic story of people and relationships that you see in today’s serial TV dramas. Sessions are played as episodes, with each episode having a theme, and the story deepens and richens as the characters interact, each reaching for their emotional need, and either achieving it or not, building a history for the relationships and the tribe as a whole. Needs may change over the campaign as the characters grow and change, and the story grows and changes with them. After a number of episodes, it’s suggested that you call an end to a season, and start a new season after some in-game time has passed4, letting the series take another step forward in development.
Now, the game is called Hillfolk, and that’s the default setting, but the book is also going to include a number of Series Pitches – alternate settings for DramaSystem games. There are currently 10 other settings unlocked as stretch goals, and they’ll all be included. Each setting, including Hillfolk, includes a brief rundown of the basic assumptions of the setting, along with a number of questions that the players can answer5 about things that will customize the setting for the game. You can see a list of the unlocked Series Pitches on the Hillfolk Kickstarter site, as well as any new stretch goals that have been added.
Now, I’m excited about this game, but I fully recognize that it’s not going to be the right game for some6 people. The emphasis on dramatic scenes, the lack of a “real” combat system, the sharing of authorial responsibility and, perhaps most tellingly, having your character “lose” in confrontations with other characters – these are all things that can scare off gamers, moving them out of their comfort zones. For some gamers, the game just won’t work7, because it’s not giving them what they want out of gaming. Specifically, I think that gamers who enjoy more simulationist combat and those who are more interested in their character than in their character’s story8 will find this game lacking or frustrating. And those players who demand hard and fast rules to determine who wins in any confrontation may find the Dramatic scenes particularly frustrating.
But for those who are interested in the kinds of story that involve lots of interpersonal drama, who want to model the kinds of TV shows that are getting a lot of press – and a lot of viewers – today, who are interested in the kind of gaming that de-emphasizes combat for interaction, this is a Kickstarter you should get in on. Now.
- And yes, I hear the theme from Lothar of the Hill People every time I read the title. [↩]
- Really, soap operas – daytime dramas – differ very little from the evening dramas in their basics. It’s in the execution and production values that the real differences show. Fair enough; after all, soap operas produce at least five episodes for every episode of an evening drama. [↩]
- Some similarities here to Fiasco and other story games. [↩]
- Or hasn’t passed, if you end the season on a cliffhanger. [↩]
- Usually in and through play. [↩]
- Perhaps many, but I hope otherwise. [↩]
- And the same can be said of any game. [↩]
- This is an important distinction. In stories, bad things happen to the characters. Some players just want to sculpt their character to be able to triumph over all the hardship without the setbacks that you find in stories. Nothing wrong with that; it’s just a matter of taste and play style. [↩]