The early 2010s produced the indie darlings of today. While game design moves fast, systems like Fate and Powered by the Apocalypse still form the bedrock of what most gamers consider ‘indie’, even though they are relatively conservative extensions of traditional games like Dungeons and Dragons. There were other games that pushed further, though. In 2012, Robin D. Laws and Pelgrane Press campaigned a game called Hillfolk on Kickstarter. The Hillfolk campaign emphasized its Iron Age setting, even including a neat bit of interactivity in the campaign where backers could choose to back either the ‘Lion Clan’ or the ‘Wolf Clan’. The mechanics, though, were significantly more important and more interesting than the setting, as well as the most divisive feature of the game.
Hillfolk was supposed to be the first game using the ruleset Laws called ‘DramaSystem’, which provided mechanics to resolve dramatic conflicts between characters and favored such scenes over external challenges like what you would find in a dungeon or when facing a dragon. At this writing, though, nearly a decade later, Hillfolk is the only DramaSystem game that has been officially published (save for an SRD and Blood on the Snow, which is more of a supplement). Criticisms of the game sound very similar to criticisms of games written using Laws’ other ruleset, GUMSHOE: The game is good at doing one thing, and one thing only. This is fair, but it still leads me to ask why Hillfolk didn’t go anywhere. Dramatic conflict has not exactly disappeared from RPGs (especially indie games), and yet other, more recent games which feed on it, notably some PbtA games like Masks and Monsterhearts, seem to ignore Hillfolk entirely. Why is that? To answer this question we’re going to have to look at Hillfolk the game, as well as the nature of structured drama in RPGs in general.
Mechanics of Hillfolk
Hillfolk is a game run scene-by-scene, much like its indie predecessor Fiasco. Like Fiasco the game runs by going through each player at the table and having them ‘call’ scenes to progress the storyline in the session (or episode). Unlike Fiasco there is a GM, and there are mechanics which structure how each of the two types of scenes in the game will go down. Procedural scenes are those which are in the wheelhouse of most roleplaying games, where the characters struggle against an external challenge or threat. The rules for Procedural scenes are unique and interesting, despite this being the scene type which is both seen as more conventional as well as deprioritized within Hillfolk. For Procedural scenes the players and GM use Procedural tokens. Each player and the GM get three Procedural tokens, one each of green, yellow, and red. One Procedural scene covers overcoming one challenge, and both the players and GM choose to play their Procedural tokens based on how easy or hard they want the scene to be, as well as which tokens they have left. Each player refreshes their tokens whenever they run out, but this does enforce that everyone, GM included, must spend a roughly equal number of red, yellow, and green tokens. To start the scene (mechanically), the GM spends their token in secret; this will be revealed at the end of the scene. They then cut a deck of cards and draw one card; this is the target card. After the target card is revealed, the players spend their tokens and draw cards. A green card enables a player to draw two cards, a yellow one card. A red token also enables a player to draw one card, but it also gives the GM permission to knock out the best matching card on the table. Once all draws have been made, the GM reveals their token, which indicates what is needed to succeed at the challenge and therefore the scene. If the GM spent a red token, matching the target card’s color is enough to succeed. If the GM spent a yellow token, it’s necessary to match the card’s suit. If the GM spent a green token, one of the cards must match the target card’s value. If there’s a match, the action succeeds, and if not, it fails. There’s also a player-vs-player version of this where two players get a number of card draws based on their token spend (and possibly character skills depending on the scene), and then see who draws the highest card.
Dramatic scenes are those where one character tries to get something they want from another. This type of scene is the backbone of Hillfolk, which makes it a little odd that Dramatic scenes have fewer rules than Procedural scenes. Whoever is calling the scene will determine the cast, the location, and how much time has passed since the last scene. Out of that cast there is a petitioner, a character who wants something, and a granter, a character who can give it to them. The scene plays out, and it’s determined whether the petitioner got what they wanted, or whether the granter rebuffed them. If the petitioner got what they wanted, the granter gets a Drama token in return. If the petitioner did not get what they wanted, they get a Drama token. If the petitioner got something but not everything they wanted, then either the GM or a vote by the rest of the group determines which way the token goes. There are two primary ways drama tokens are spent: First, if you’ve already earned some drama tokens and you either get what you want from a granter or block a petitioner’s request, the drama token they get comes from you (if you have none, it comes from the neverending GM kitty). Second, you can spend drama tokens to force the outcome of a scene, spending two tokens (instead of the default one) to ensure that the scene goes your way. On the other hand, another character (or characters, players can team up and pool their tokens) can spend three tokens to block your forcing of the outcome.
The most important thing to make these mechanics work is a character which has strong enough motivations to give the player ideas for dramatic scenes. Character creation provides this primarily by defining the sources of a character’s conflict, and the relationships they have with other characters which can generate tension. The biggest element of any character is their Desire. These Desires are big, much bigger than, say, a Need in Fiasco, which lets them drive multiple sessions of conflict. Think something like “win the approval of my father” or “regain the respect of the tribe”. Complementing this is the character’s Dramatic Poles. If a strong overriding desire wasn’t enough, a character must also have an internal conflict which defines them. These are also big: Safety or Adventure? King or Tyrant? Selfishness or Altruism? The game is trying really hard to set you up with dramatic characters, which ultimately makes sense. Speaking of dramatic, the game doesn’t set a number of relationships you must define, instead requiring you to define *fraught* relationships with at least two other characters. It’s not enough to have other characters impact you, they must literally be withholding a source of your emotional fulfillment.
The final thing to note in all of this is Hillfolk’s setting. The mechanics are not tied to the Iron Age setting described in the book, and this is made even more clear by the number of alternate settings included in the book thanks to Kickstarter stretch goals. What the Hillfolk setting does, though, is provide a backdrop to explore small group drama that both makes sense and provides minimal complications. An Iron Age setting provides a logical environment for the rich relationship map of a tribe, while also not concerning itself with too many exogenous factors like wealth, politics, or more RPG-like elements like technology and magic. If anything, the setting of Hillfolk betrays its intent to be an introduction to DramaSystem, a more accessible starting point for an ecosystem that never really got built out.
Rules of Drama
The most difficult question I have for Hillfolk is ‘Why’. Why will a player care to use and engage with these rules? One interesting thing about Hillfolk is that, while it is the most robust set of drama-specific rules I’ve seen, it falls back on social contract and table dynamics a lot. Now, a game which concedes where table dynamics will overrule a mechanic is already better designed than many more crunchy systems, but a game which also concedes you don’t always need the rules is one that really needs to make it clear what the rules are getting you. And this is something I don’t think Hillfolk does well.
I think the biggest thing Hillfolk is missing is exposition. RPGs are famously bad at exposition, the ‘you all meet in a tavern’ trope is basically a hobby-wide institutional memory of sucking at writing an introduction. The saving grace of a game like D&D, though, is that as much as so many campaigns begin with some fallback or cliche, you get everyone pointed in the same direction through a simple goal that everyone agrees with. We need to get paid, or rescue someone, or find a murderer, or whatever else the starting hook is. Hillfolk, on the other hand, starts with a relationship map and a complicated one at that. You don’t need to know a huge amount to figure out how to play, say, a rogue who’s down in an abandoned prison, but playing a hunter who has to win the approval of his fiancee’s father? Or worse, recover from a tribe-wide humiliation (which you must define with minimal help from the rules)? Where do you even go with that?
What the best dramatic games do is provide structure to make dramatic characters, prompts to create dramatic relationships, and then a setting in which these characters and relationships must conflict. One of the reasons that games like Masks and Monsterhearts keep getting cited as excellent dramatic games is because the well of high school as a dramatic setting is incredibly deep. That said, these games do avoid engaging with drama directly, instead using procedural elements to ground the game and let the drama happen in the context of these elements. Masks, with Conditions and Labels being grounded to both the character’s dramatic conflict (sense of self) as well as the procedural mechanics, does this excellently. Monsterhearts, which focuses on drama over plot but doesn’t provide much in the way of drama mechanics, could benefit from seeing Strings and the like beefed up with, well, some Hillfolk.
I guess what Hillfolk ends up looking like to me is the GURPS of storytelling games. You have a very broad, highly applicable template for running dramatic games, as well as some good grounding on what makes a character dramatic. But then, other than a setting which was in some ways picked because it’s simple, you have no scaffold. I have no trouble believing these rules work really well, at least for a group which is bought in and has some idea how to create dramatic characters. But when I consider Hillfolk as a game…I don’t consider it a game, really. It seems more to be a role-playing tool when you have a premise and a good set of characters. And honestly, having an appendix of cool ideas other game designers came up with in the back of the book feels like evidence to support my perspective.
I don’t have much to criticize about Hillfolk directly. The procedural system is a neat way to do scene-wide resolution, especially if you want a spectrum of outcomes over the course of a session or campaign. The dramatic system is light-touch but keeps everyone feeling on the level. My issue with Hillfolk is it doesn’t give me enough to understand why I would use it. In my mind, the sort of character I’d want to play in a game like Hillfolk is the one I have after 3-5 sessions of a different game, when I understand who they are and what they really want. As much as I could see a game like this being really neat, the jump between defining your character as a desire and dramatic poles and then being able to in any way get in the head of your character is massive, and it’s a jump Hillfolk doesn’t do anything about.
When I first started reading this game, I thought the part I’d have the most issue with is the writer’s room approach, the need to jump between in-character and out-of-character to keep the game moving forward. This is such an issue with some gamers that it’s even covered in the preface of the book. As it turns out, though, the issue I have is in how characters are defined. I think the starting points of desire, dramatic poles, and relationships are excellent, and these are things every author and roleplayer should be thinking about with their characters. But coming up with them in a vacuum, even considering the extant setting, feels forced, incredibly difficult, and an easy way to torpedo the vast majority of campaigns attempted with this system. I think writing a game that de-emphasizes procedural, exogenous challenges is an excellent thing, and I think given existing drama, Hillfolk would be one of the first things I would crib from. I definitely see why this game is influential, and why it won awards. In the end though, Hillfolk has pushed too far from the RPG mold for too little reward. Hillfolk provides a strong ‘How’ for dramatic roleplay, but it lacks a ‘Why’.
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4 thoughts on “Hillfolk Review”
This is a very thoughtful review, but I feel Hillfolk hasn’t been as ignored as you believe. The token economy you describe reminds me a lot of Belonging Outside Belonging games. Perhaps there’s a line to be drawn there?
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That’s a fair read. This isn’t a deep-cut site; my choice to review it was because it still gets some attention and discussion when designers and forum heads talk about dramatic games. That said, the one place I still do largely believe that the game is ignored is in circles of players, and after reviewing it I kind of see why. As for the connection with BoB re: the token economy I can see it, but to be perfectly honest I’d need to do a more complete read of diceless games before I’d feel comfortable drawing lines myself.
Thanks, that was interesting. I’m planning to run some Hillfolk soon and I was wondering why it didn’t gain traction. (For me the unappealing physical layout didn’t help.)
But that aside, have you played Hillfolk? I don’t get that sense from your review. I would be interested if playing it changed your views.
I have played it (only once, at a convention – I want to play more) and coming up with a character wasn’t done in a vacuum. We played the basic Bronze Age setting and as a table, we came up with and developed our characters. Done as a group, this quickly established the conflicts and provided many options for scenes – especially when you add that episode’s theme (eg, Hunger – the food supplies are low and what is the tribe going to do?).
I found the clunky procedural system the worst, but I suspect that may improve as time goes on and the hard-medium-easy cycle repeats.