DramaSystem – more drama than system

“Huh? Isn’t this blog dead?” No, merely hibernating. As it turns out, running a weekly game and writing posts inspired by that game occupy the same mindspace, and game preparation trumps blog. But having supported the kickstarter for Robin D. Laws’ Hillfolk/DramaSystem and consumed the preview rules in a day, I wanted to excise my impressions from my head and onto the (web)page. What did I think? Great theory, unconvincing practical application.

Update: oops, I’ve forgotten to actually say what Hillfolk is. It is an indie roleplaying game about Iron Age tribes in fictional 10th century BCE.  Its main focus is not heroic adventures, but rather dramatic interactions between characters. Hence, DramaSystem.

First things first. I haven’t yet played the game, merely read the preview rules. From my understanding, they’re unlikely to significantly change. I’ve also been left disappointed by almost all “narrative” roleplaying games I’ve tried, though I maintain it’s their fault. But I liked Robin’s Gumshoe, and so decided to give Hillfolk a try.

The game consists of the following elements : character creation, episode structure, dramatic scenes resolution, practical scenes resolution, setting. While it doesn’t quite break itself into these chunks, they are what comes to mind when I think about what I’ve just read. Lets dig in.

Character creation

Just like the rest of the game, character creation is very rules-light. What it’s got plenty of instead is smart suggestions on making characters that will actually take an active part in the drama the game tries to create. All PCs start out with established relationships, desires (both general and applied to other PCs, along with a reason why they’re not being satisfied), and dramatic poles. The latter are particularly interesting, and represent the internal contradiction of the character between which they are torn: selfishness and altruism, subservience and selfhood, etc. Players also pick which skills they’re good and bad at. They finish with summarising their character in a single sentence: “My story is of a (wo)man who…”

The text emphasizes the difference in the game’s approach to character goals by encouraging players to consider the underlying emotional motivation of practical goals we usually come up with. The character may dream of being crowned a king, but what they’re really after is respect.

Episode structure

Each game session, or episode, begins with a player announcing a theme that episode will explore. As with most other times when all players need to act in sequence, their order is determined by shuffling cards with players’ names on them. Having determined what the overall theme will be, players create a scene each in the (different) order of precedence. Scenes can be either dramatic or procedural, with the expectation that most of them will be of the former nature.

Of particular interest is the fact that the GM has his place in that order of precedence, waiting in line with other players for their turn to drive the story. This emphasizes a very important fact: DramaSystem is about the drama created by and among characters, not by GM’s plot.

Scene set-up provides one of the two major applications of drama tokens (below): players can spend them to either join a scene into which they weren’t invited, dodge the invitation, or block an uninvited guest. They can also challenge a newly set-up scene if they don’t believe it fits the story, which lets the whole group vote and doesn’t require drama tokens.

While the structured way of creating scenes seems a bit restrictive, it makes sure every player has a chance to explore the story and their characters, and will likely become entirely natural in practice.

Setting – Hillfolk

The setting is purposefully non-magic, to encourage players to explore the dramatic side of their characters, not their wacky adventures. It is also purposefully sparse. It sets up the general state of affairs (you’re a tribe of raiders in fictional 10th century BCE), and a number of tribes surrounding yours, all with slightly different attitudes, from mistrust to centuries-long hostility. The game does an interesting thing here: it lets players answer GM’s prompts to refine setting details as they become relevant by supplying sample questions. “Who is the most terrible of the Shell-Grinder gods?”, “Though Domer life is much like yours, there’s a big difference in the way families govern themselves. What would that be?”. This is a simple idea, and probably has been implemented before, but I haven’t encountered it yet, so color me impressed. Still, I wish there was more done with it – too many of the questions ask generic things like “what are their gods?” All questions should have had something unusual about them, something to spark players’ imagination.

As I was reading the few pages of tribes descriptions, I got a bit overwhelmed by their number. But, I suppose, in an actual game players would discover which tribes they’re actually interested in, and the rest will fade into background. Having a map would help, too.

This means that each group’s Hillfolk world will be different. In fact, the game suggests the same group of people probably shouldn’t play a Hillfolk campaign twice. Thankfully, the successful kickstarter has allowed for a number of extra settings to be promised.

Practical scenes resolution

Every now and then, the characters will want to take a break from seeking emotional rewards in dramatic confrontations with other PCs, and try to affect the outside world by accomplishing some practical goal. The game includes a simple and advanced system of task resolution, in both of which the participants (including GM!) spend their procedural tokens to indicate how tough the task is, or how hard they try. Everyone has one green, yellow, and red token, and they get them back once they’re out. Both systems also use regular playing cards.

The advanced system’s description feels somewhat gimmicky, but there’s nothing obviously wrong with it. The simple system, however, is not quite so fortunate. In it, players need to match either value, suit, or colour of the card the GM has drawn at the start of the conflict, depending on GM’s choice of token (which is secret). The tokens players spend determines how many cards they’ll draw as a collective: green grants them two cards, yellow one, and red one, but with the GM knocking out the best fitting card players have. While this may appear reasonable at the outset, brief consideration reveals that players with red tokens are a liability. At best, they won’t make the situation worse. If the card they drew is the best fit, or there were multiple best fits, they will have been carried by their comrades’ success. More often than not, however, they will actively hurt the group by their participation.

As the game has been very considerate in explaining edge cases and reasoning behind its rules throughout, I cannot imagine this being intentional with no mention of this fact anywhere. Moreover, this makes for an abysmal turn: the player knows they’re going to suck, and there’s absolutely nothing they can do about it.

Dramatic scenes resolution

I’ve left the core reason for the game’s existence till the last. The text suggests dramatic interactions (and all interactions between PCs are dramatic by definition) mostly consist of one of the participants, a petitioner, seeking some emotional reward, and another, a granter, who has the power to give it. I’m not familiar with drama theory, but sounds plausible.

This is where the drama tokens come in. Stripping away the fluff of dramatic interaction (which sort of defeats the whole purpose, but we’re talking about mechanics here), player interactions occur according to the following scheme:

“Say nice things to me, and I’ll give you this here shiny token.”

“No, I don’t think I will. Here’s one of my tokens, now go away.”

“Oh, but I insist. Here’re two, I’m forcing the issue.”

“No. Just… No. Take three and leave.”

In the former two cases, if the player who has to pay tokens doesn’t have any (as is the case at the start of each session), they are drawn from the bank. The latter cases of forcing and blocking a force provide a reason to have these tokens.

In and of themselves, these tokens explicitly do not represent anything. They merely attempt to elicit a rhythm of give-and-take from players – the game mentions several times a tendency players have to “dig in”, and proclaims that the DramaSystem solves it.

I’m not sold.

Again, I haven’t actually played the game yet, so this is pure speculation. But I think the abstractness of the drama tokens hurts them. They are not characters’ emotional state. They’re not players’ directorial privileges. They are just a pacing mechanism, allowing the players to exert minimal control over story and “get a win” if things haven’t been going their way lately. As small and unobtrusive as they are, being pretty much the only mechanic of the game, they will be gamed. And oh, it’s so easy to game them. Want something important to happen? Give in a couple of times on small things, then force the issue on something you really care about. Instead of thinking of drama, you’d be thinking of accumulating tokens.

Saying “you’re not meant to do that, it’s a narrative game, you’re missing the point” itself misses the point. This is the game. This is how it resolves the main problem it explicitly places before itself. The main mechanics of the game encourage strange player behavior. A player who plays this as a game, not just a storytime, will have undue amount of influence over the story. Would this be an actual issue in-game? No idea.

On a technical note, I don’t see a reason to have special rules for forcing. Why not simply let players have a bidding war over how many tokens they’re willing to give to another?

How do these components fit together?

In a word, they don’t, and that’s another problem. Procedural rules feel like a poorly thought-out add-on. Which they may very well be, as the game actually has a few suggestions on transporting its drama rules into any other system. What’s worse, they don’t interact with anything else in the rules. The book mentions drama tokens economy having an influence here, but the only thing they can do is rope people into helping you if they refuse your polite request (or block people with red tokens from participating – was that the intent?).  But whether or not a character participates in some dangerous activity should be left to actual interactions with said character, not throwing tokens their way when they’re hesitant.

Drama resolution and episode structure have drama tokens in common… Except this just confuses things: if drama tokens are there to establish a rhythm of give-and-take for characters, why are they doing something vaguely related for players establishing scenes? And character creation, as smart and useful as its advice is, has nothing to do with any of the rules the game has.

Furthermore, when the drama reaches its peak and the time comes for the characters to clash, the game just doesn’t seem to know what to do with them – unless I’ve missed some crucial part of it. By its definition, meaningful verbal interaction between PCs is always dramatic. By another definition, scenes which result in change to the world, not just the emotional state of characters, are procedural. So what if two characters are arguing about who should be the next chieftain? Not in some distant future, but right now – who will put on the crown? While there are PvP rules, they are procedural, and therefore not meaningful. And if we handle this as a dramatic conflict, which it very much is, the resolution of “I have 2 drama tokens and you don’t have 3, so suck it” is extremely disappointing.

The game presents an out: forced concessions are not magical mind control, and won’t necessarily result in players getting what they were after, just something that goes some way towards it. Which, while seemingly nice at first, means that there is no conflict resolution in it at all! If we both want the crown, and you force the issue, sure, fine, I’ll promise you the status of an adviser, how does that sound? For all its promise of solving the problem of PCs digging in and refusing to agree on anything, when it comes to making an actual decision, the rules do nothing to achieve it.


I’ll repeat myself yet again: I haven’t played this game, and I’d still like to give it a try. But from the initial impression of reading the rules, its not really a game at all. It’s a lightly structured collaborative storytelling activity. Storytime. It is full of wonderful advice on character personality, scene construction and episode pacing. But what few rules it has crack under pressure. Drama tokens are not sure of what they want to be. Drama is set up, but conflict is not resolved. Simple procedural rules don’t work. I do not regret reading it, but if it was meant to be the practical application of the theory presented in “Hamlet’s Hit Points”, another Robin D. Laws’ book, I think I’d rather recommend that one instead, before even reading it.


6 responses to “DramaSystem – more drama than system

  1. Your criticism of the drama system (that it can be gamed by unscrupulous players) reveals more about you as a player than the system. Players who want to play a game that emphasizes story telling and dramatic tension would collaborate because their goal it to tell a story. However, your description of a character who gives in on things that don’t matter in order to force outcomes involving things that do sounds like it would create a lot of drama because characters constantly try to manipulate each other. This might be a fun game in which to play. It would be like a George R. R. Martin novel or something. The players would then have to come up with the story that allowed all of the things that didn’t matter add up to a master stroke of devious maneuvering. This is the sort of thing that you see in movies, TV shows, and books all the time. It would also put the storytelling in the hands of players and not into the hands of the GM.

    However, It sounds like this game isn’t for everybody. Some want a lot of granularity in a game because they do not like to role play but rather like to roll dice. That’s cool though. There are tons of games where this is the main attraction: 3.5, Pathfinder, and 4e come to mind. The focus of these games is not really collaborative story telling, but rather negotiating obstacles put in your way by the GM who has all the real narrative control. It’s fun to hit monsters, and roll skill challenges. But I have never felt like I was telling the story in one of these games.

    • Now that is a feeble response. You just seem to be blandly repeating what you’ve read elsewhere about narrative rpgs and attacking the reviewer.

      Storytelling game usually requires some underlying system to drive the narrative and constructing those rules can be challenging to build. The discussion on rpggeek regarding the merits of “Tremulus” is worth looking at in this regard. If the reviewer doesn’t feel that the dramasystem rules succeeds, that seems perfectly fair. From what’s written above, it does seem that the game is less well developed than rules systems such as the apocalypse world engine that have had time to mature.

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