Friday, March 7, 2014

Hillfolk (Robin D. Laws)

With the second season of Vikings starting, my mind turns to axe-wielding maniacs in longships pillaging the English coastline. Briefly, I considered the idea of creating a B/X setting based in large part on the show (adding fantasy elements, of course), but however interesting exploration/exploitation is, that's not really the focus of the show. Rather, what's important is the relationship between the characters and how those relationships intersect (and often conflict) with the characters' desires and ambitions. B/X is not a great vehicle for that type of role-playing.

But Hillfolk by Robin D. Laws is perfect.

I picked up Hillfolk in January (I think)...shortly before things started getting really hectic around the home front. I own several games written (or co-written) by Laws, including Over The Edge, Pantheon, Feng Shui, Hero Wars, Ashen Stars, Mutant City Blues, and the Dying Earth RPG. Most fall into the category of "games-owned-but-never-played;" the only ones I have played are Over The Edge and Pantheon, and only OTE more than once...mainly because no one I know is interested in them. Sure, I may not do a great job selling 'em to people...but whatever. Point is, I like Laws's games, I have a lot of respect for his work and his designs, and I have put more money into his pockets than I have with any other designer, save Gygax, Siembieda, and Mark Rein-Hagen.

[ooo...that's kind o sad when you think about it!]

Spear-chucking with purpose!
Hillfolk uses a new system (the DramaSystem) to cut right to the chase of where long-term RPGs eventually end up: a soap opera of clashing personalities. That may sound less-than-complimentary, but I don't know a more succinct (and yet positive) way to describe it. The point of the system is to play the emotional exchanges that occur between people in tightly-knit (clan) relationships. The default setting is a small group of Iron Age villagers (hunter-warrior types) just on the borders of the "civilized" clashing empires. Consider perhaps a pre-Conan look at Cimmerian life, and how the people of the village get along in the face of internal politics, familial ties, and external threats.

Like Fiasco, PCs are created together and are defined (in part) by their relationships with each other: specifically what they want emotionally (and what they're unlikely to get) from each other. Unlike Fiasco, the characters also have some practical stats (for doing things like fighting and whatnot) and inner drives that color the ways they go about seeking their emotional "payoffs;" also, Hillfolk uses a GM, unlike Fiasco...though with a little thought, I don't think it would have been too tough to push it into the realm of collaborative role-playing.

Also, like Fiasco, the default setting is only a jumping off point...the game mechanics easily translate into other close-knit, tribal (or tribe-like) structures. Only one-third of Hillfolk's 230 pages is devoted to the system and its basic, Iron Age setting. The rest of the book is additional settings in which to use the DramaSystem, including a rural moonshining family, the Aztec empire during the coming of the Spanish, a support group for recovering "mad scientists," Spanish patriots fighting the Franco's fascists, a colony of humans on Mars, and the henchmen of a low-powered super villain. In all, there are thirty additional settings with players taking the form of everything from robots to pirates to irks to faeries at war with Victorian England. It's easy enough to come up with new settings: the key ingredients are simply small group facing external odds/adversity, while dealing with the normal group dynamic of clan. Hillfolk does the kind of thing OrkWorld wanted to do, but doesn't pussyfoot around with it, cutting right to the heart of the matter with its system.

I assume, anyway...I haven't actually played Hillfolk.

Back when I was a kid/pre-teen, I played in a looooong-running AD&D campaign, one that lasted several years. It eventually got to the point that "actual adventures" weren't as interesting to our high level characters as our own agendas, schemings, intrigues, and romances; if we killed some trolls in a session, it was usually a very minor part of whatever else was going on (internally) with our "characters." I've written before that I've never managed to reproduce this kind of D&D experience (a very fun one), because such an experience only developed organically after years of play, bushing the boundaries of the system, exploring the end game of high level play, and developing trust and intimacy within our gaming group. Hillfolk produces this kind of play without the need to sit around the gaming table for years. If this is the kind of gaming experience you long for, you might want to check it out.

One more interesting thing about Hillfolk: back before I started experiencing the burnout that led me to look at GM-less RPGs, I was working on an even simpler fantasy adventure game, that more emulated a literary/folktale type genre over the D&D mold of "treasure-seeking delvers" and one of the things I was looking at was mechanics regarding character motivation/desire, internal obstacles to that desire, and player created statements of who the PC a ritualized, "this is the story of (blank) who seeks to do X, Y, and Z." Hillfolk does all this, mimicking in many ways the very structures I was implementing. The difference is Laws does this to get to the emotional exchange between players in a system devoted to emotional exchange...while I was still trying to figure out how to mechanically impact an "adventure game." The end result: his works and mine was struggling mightily (to the point where I mostly ignored the systems in actual play-testing, instead simply allowing such signs to stand as guidelines for "how to play your character;" lame!). Seeing the system in print (and the way it works) really took the wind out of my sails!

Anyhoo, most of Laws's quite innovative and interesting, and may be the best offering I've yet seen from Pelgrane Press (I like GUMSHOE and Dying Earth, but they are still a little too clunky for my taste...damn skill systems!). It's not something I'd want to play all the time, but it's certainly something I'd like to play.

Probably with a Vikings setting, though.
; )


  1. I haven't picked up Hill Folk yet, but keep meandering back to it. Damn title gets me. I hope you get your Vikings game going. Sounds like a good time.

  2. When you say the "damn title gets me" do you mean the title is a turn-off or a turn-on?

    Personally, it makes me think of one of those "Hills Have Eyes" horror movies about mutants.

  3. When I think of hill folk I think of back woods culture, Appalachia, mountain magic and folks that are wired completely different on how they see the world and what they need to survive in it. Love the title.