Robin Laws has spent his career as a designer creating mechanics to suit a certain style or tone from each setting or genre. Lately this talent has seems to have been harnessed toward satisfying bets and dares from his publishers. In the case of Hillfolk the dare was to create a game that emulates both the beat analysis model of story construction used in Hamlet's Hit Points and the character-oriented drama present in premium cable series. And like his other bizarre dare-based games, it delivers all while creating a story game I want to play more with as many different people as possible.
The character side of things is simple and deep in ways that I don't think any game has really attempted before. Each player creates an individual who is pulled between two opposing desires called Dramatic Poles. For example, Tony Soprano's character sheet might read 'family man vs "Family" man'. The player then maps out what he or she wants from every other player character but also why they can't get it. This front-loads lots of dramatic tension into the game. It also dovetails into the mechanical side of the game very well. Characters have a list of a dozen broadly defined skills like moving, fighting, talking, which are ranked from strong to weak and describe how the character does each of them. There are many ways to describe each skill, so a strong fighting skill could mean "seasoned fencing master" or "dirtiest brawler ever" or anything in between.
The mechanics side is about bringing player wants and Dramatic Poles into the particular Theme of each session. The Theme is determined by one player and that position rotates each week. Play consists of players calling scenes that they want to see played out. Scenes fall into two types: procedural and dramatic. A procedural scene is a simple mechanical test like an attempted assassination or fight scene. This type of scene only play out if failure is considered dramatically interesting. The GM, as well as each player, will have the chance to bid tokens to interact with the outcome of the scene. Each bidder must narrate how his or her bid will affect what is happening, and then cards are drawn based on those bids. In the case of the assassination scenario the GM will decide it's difficult the player trying to execute the assassination will bid his strongest procedural token then other players will bid tokens and narrate how their characters or circumstances affect the outcome of the action. Then the GM draws cards from a standard deck for each of those bids. The high card wins and gets the result the player wants, while other players may suffer negative consequences based on the outcomes of the draws.
Dramatic scenes, however, are about conversations between players, where one player wants something from the other. Whether or not the other player grants what you want dramatic tokens (which are different from procedural tokens) are exchanged. The plot point economy is really what drives this game because these can be used to buy greater narrative control. Dramatic tokens are also given out at the end of each session based on player votes as to how each player's Poles played into the Theme of the session.
The Game Master's role is less about storytelling and more about story making. Because they call scenes as part of the same rotation as the players they don't have much power to direct the story but he does have power to bring disparate plot threads that the players have built together. The GM also slips for in to an editorial role, as he or she is the individual most likely to decide when a scene is done. He has an incredible power; asking players if they got what they wanted from a given scene, then at the end of the session asking players to argue how the pursuit of their Poles played into the week's Theme. It may not seem like much when the major reward mechanic requires you to pull the story in the similar direction to all the players while simultaneously forcing each one to pursue their agenda. This dynamic tightens up the story-stick style play better than any attempt to place structure on story gaming I've ever seen
The default setting of Hillfolk is a serial numbers filed off take on Tenth Century BC Palestine. There are no actual fantasy elements, but people just as superstitious as any medieval setting. Players are cast as a tribe of semi-nomadic raiders, and define pretty much all aspects of the tribe. This builds a lot of ownership and investment into the micro-level setting while making it easy to take up roles of authority within their tribe. It's not something often seen in gaming and I just go gaga over player created setting material. The final book promises to have outlines for other settings as well.
This game and Smallville from Margaret Weis Productions are tackling very similar ideas in terms of genre and style, but from different angles. Hillfolk offers much more on the fly setting creation with a much lighter set of mechanics. Those mechanics don't so much get out of the way of roleplay as provide a supportive foundation for it to happen. Both are worthwhile games, but Hillfolk may be more broadly applicable in terms of setting.
Hillfolk is currently seeking backers via Kickstarter. It has already met its minumum goals but as more funds come in more settings and features will be added to the gamebook.
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