Pirates airship by Min-Nguen

Hillfolk’s DramaSystem as a Meta System

Today’s guest post is from a longtime LARP ally and RPG writer friend of mine, Chris V. Chris has always astounded me with his knowledge of game systems, to which this post stands in testimony. Enjoy.

Robin D Law’s  Hillfolk: the Roleplaying Game of Iron Age Drama, and by extension the underlying DramaSystem game system, has been around since the end of 2013.  Thanks to the Kickstarter project we have many settings — or Series Pitches as they’re called — and the DramaSystem reference document.

The Hillfolk hardcover book has had a major impact on my gaming group, but not in any way we would’ve imagined when I first explained the game to them.  It changed how we build characters for other games.  We’ve begun to use parts of DramaSystem to build our characters and their relationships, before we even pick up the character sheets of the game we’re actually playing. It has become a metasystem we use for most of our games.

Pirates airship by Min-Nguen
Pirates airship by Min-Nguen

In Hillfolk, Robin Laws distinguishes between dramatic systems e.g. Hillfolk and procedural systems e.g. D&D, White Wolf’s Storyteller, Cortex and SilCore. In traditional games, the focus is more on what your character does, instead of why they are doing it. Instead of pouring over tables, calculating modifiers and having the dice decide your fate while facing off against an antagonist, effectively you and the other players come to a mutual agreement on the result.

The focus always returns to the characters and their interactions with each other.This is very much in line with the style of storytelling found in television series such as the Sopranos and Game of Thrones, where while there are actions scenes, the focus is more on the characters and their personal goals.

In our groups, we discovered that we enjoy a balance between the different styles of game play. We enjoy the different procedural systems for the excitement and flavour they bring to action scenes.

Dramatic systems, on the other hand, encourage depth and increase player involvement in the story. They add layers to characters, turning the characters into more than just a collection of numbers that exist only to deal vast amounts of damage to foes. They bind adventuring groups along more lines than just abilities and the bonuses. Characters become brothers, sisters, fathers and mothers. They become chiefs and advisors, rivals and lovers.

Many groups—including ours—consider those concepts when building our characters anyway, but using a system such as DramaSystem focuses the group on it. Everyone becomes involved in the dramatic side, even the player who always plays the loner and only speaks up to call out the amount of damage they did, gets involved. Instead of their tragic backstory getting lost in the Gamemaster’s notes and being resolved in one on one sessions, it becomes part of the whole game.

Both types of game systems gloss over the parts the other focuses on. Instead of playing a pure DramaSystem game, we use the system to add more to our traditional procedural games. Instead of clashing, we found that the systems ended up complimenting each other.

The first game we used the DramaSystem in this manner for was our Abney Park Airship Pirates game. Our Game Moderator came to us with the idea of playing a crew of pirates or traders belonging to the Skyfolk faction in the Abney Park setting. He then set precedence (a DramaSystem concept) by asking who wanted to be the captain?

As the first player it fell to me to proclaim my name and role in the group:

  • Always a fan of playing a dashing swashbuckler, I stepped up and proclaimed myself as Captain Eric Hail and said that I liked the idea of having a family member on board.
  • Our next player decided to play Eddie Hail, a scoundrel and Eric’s younger brother.
  • Our last player noticed that both of us had picked names beginning with an E and chose the name Epitome (Epi) Hail for our levelheaded younger sister, medic and engineer.

In this way we decided each character’s name, role and relationship in turn. We moved on and defined each character’s desires:

  • Eric wanted to rebuild the family name to honour the memory of their father and his wife after they had died due to a feud with another family.
  • Eddie desired nothing more than to be free to see the world after growing up in his brother’s shadow.
  • Epi wanted to keep her family together through this feud, so she could go back to university.

Next up we defined our character’s dramatic poles:

  • The pull between being a dashing hero and a responsible elder sibling became Eric’s dramatic poles.
  • Eddie on the other hand was torn between being a free spirit with a criminal bent and a respectable member of the the Hail family.
  • Drawn from her desire, Epi’s poles became the need to continue her studies and take care of her brothers.

At this point we had a good idea of the characters and began to define what each character wanted from the others and why they would not give it.

  • Eric obviously wanted the well educated Epi on his crew as an engineer and medic, but her player pointed out that Epi was an independent young woman and that, while she would fulfil those roles most of the time, Epi would not be ordered about like a common sailor.
  • Epi on the other hand wanted Eric to forgive himself for the deaths of their father and his wife, but Eric saw it as his duty to avenge them and rebuild the family name.
  • Epi wanted Eddie to rejoin the family that loved him, but Eddie loved his freedom and had done things he didn’t want his family to know about.
  • Eddie wanted Epi to just let him go, but Epi was afraid of losing him for years again.
  • Eddie wanted Eric to see him as his own man, but in Eric’s eyes he was irresponsible and had deserted his family in their time of need.
  • All of this was because Eric wanted his brother at his side, rebuilding the family, while Eddie had acquired a taste for doing what he wanted and not what others wanted of him.

Our character concepts defined and explored with DramaSystem, we ignored most of the procedural system of DramaSystem. We used the Abney Park system to build our characters as we normally would and used its procedural system instead.  An interesting side effect we noticed was that because we already had full-formed concepts, the nitty gritty character building went quicker.

Some of our choices even added side characters and background to the family we ended up creating.  For example: Our youngest brother named Ernie who looked up to Eric and got himself into trouble trying to impress him, usually spurred on by Eddie and taken care of by Epi.

The game played like most of the procedural style games we have played through the years.  We enjoyed the action that the procedural game provided.  Using DramaSystem though meant that when scenes became dramatic, we focused more on them and they turned into an enjoyable part of the game.

We knew what buttons the other players wanted to push on their characters and how our characters would react when they did.  The procedural nature of the game defined who was in a scene and established the framing and all that was left to do was to roleplay the scene.  The lessons learned from DramaSystem affected how we resolved the scene.  In this way we overcame a shortcoming of traditional procedural games: how to resolve emotion filled scenes.

So when we discovered Eddie’s secret family and Ernie’s actions almost turned the crew against the Hail family, we had powerful scenes of family struggles, set against a backdrop of dashing duels and tense airship chases.  Instead of playing a DramaSystem game with a Series pitch, we played an Abney Park Airship Pirates game enhanced by the DramaSystem.  It focused us on our characters, deepened the connections between them and to the world, and enhanced our overall experience.

Chris lives in South Africa, where he enjoys exploring the depths of RPGs
and other forms of storytelling. He also enjoys cooking and organizing
events, as a way to live and hear even more stories.

5 thoughts on “Hillfolk’s DramaSystem as a Meta System”

  1. This is a really interesting article! Was the DramaSystem as-written just used for character creation, or did you replace Abney Park’s task-resolution rules with the DramaSystem scene resolution mechanics when social/dramatic conflict came up?

    Do you have any comments on how this sort of approach would compare to other games like FATE or Burning Wheel, where the procedural and dramatic elements are more effectively connected to each other than in many other traditional systems?

  2. In this case we used the DramaSystem rules just during character creation and stuck to Abney Park for task-resolution. Due to all the discussion about the system, we formed the dramatic scenes as described in DramaSystem, just more organically without needing the actual scene mechanics.

    A good example was when the GM needed to step out during a particularly long session. We continued to play out the dramatic interactions between the siblings after the GM left. As each scene concluded we took a hook left by one of the other characters and added into the new scene. By the time the GM returned we had to fill him in about happened while he was away.

    We’ve used this process as described for Hunter:The Vigil and less formally for Rogue Trader, I have even seen my veteran players note things like Dramatic Poles for our recent Feng Shui 2 and Only War games.

    Even with games that blend procedural and dramatic elements the paradigm shift that DramaSystem introduces into the game is useful.

    You ask the questions:
    What is my character’s role in the game?
    What is the emotional goal of my character?
    What are the dramatic poles that my rule my character?
    How do I connect with the other characters?

    These questions impact more on the game than a twenty page history only you or the GM read. It guides players to develop their characters in relation to each other and the story.

    Another game system that has had a dramatic impact on my/our gaming style has been Houses of the Blooded. It showed me to let a little narrative control go and trust the players to twist the story into unexpected directions, which lead to some incredible tales. The GM’s job becomes less rules lawyer and more one of facilitating the story and keeping things flowing.

  3. In this case we used the DramaSystem rules just during character creation and stuck to Abney Park for task-resolution. Due to all the discussion about the system, we formed the dramatic scenes as described in DramaSystem, just more organically without needing the actual scene mechanics.

    A good example was when the GM needed to step out during a particularly long session. We continued to play out the dramatic interactions between the siblings after the GM left. As each scene concluded we took a hook left by one of the other characters and added into the new scene. By the time the GM returned we had to fill him in about happened while he was away.

    We’ve used this process as described for Hunter:The Vigil and less formally for Rogue Trader, I have even seen my veteran players note things like Dramatic Poles for our recent Feng Shui 2 and Only War games.

    Even with games that blend procedural and dramatic elements the paradigm shift that DramaSystem introduces into the game is useful.

    You ask the questions:
    What is my character’s role in the game?
    What is the emotional goal of my character?
    What are the dramatic poles that my rule my character?
    How do I connect with the other characters?

    These questions impact more on the game than a twenty page history only you or the GM read. It guides players to develop their characters in relation to each other and the story.

    Another game system that has had a dramatic impact on my/our gaming style has been Houses of the Blooded. It showed me to let a little narrative control go and trust the players to twist the story into unexpected directions, which lead to some incredible tales. The GM’s job becomes less rules lawyer and more one of facilitating the story and keeping things flowing.

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