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Minireview: Hillfolk, Blood on the Snow

Hillfolk, a game by the esteemed Robin D. Laws, is the product of a Kickstarter that got quite a bit of support; the originally pitched 128 page book with iron age clans + narrative rule system ended up as two books of twice that size: “Hillfolk”, which is the core game plus a big bunch of extra settings, and “Blood on the Snow”, which is billed as a “Dramasystem” companion and contains some rules discussion and tweaks, plus an additional big pile of settings.

The core of the game is the “Dramasystem” rule system, which is a highly narrative rules framework meant for playing socially-oriented games. Quite different from traditional rules systems, it focuses on dramatic moments in the story and runs on a Drama Point economy. Someone has described it as “a slightly more crunchy version of Fiasco”, and based on reading it I cannot disagree. It sounds interesting, but actual play (which I haven’t tried) is where the rubber meets the road. Fiasco works beautifully in what it sets out to do, so this one may also result in great games. I suspect it depends a lot on the players, and on them being on the same page. Like most narrative-heavy game systems, this would probably collapse if treated with an overly “gamist” approach and minmaxing. In any case, it’s a fairly lightweight and interesting system for running drama-based, social rpgs.

To this game system one plugs a game settings, here called a “series pitch” – one more nod towards the aim of dramatic stories, in the same sense as good TV series are. The default series pitch is a tribe of “hillfolk”, primitive hunter-gatherers who try to survive. It’s more actual history than fantasy, there are no magical elements here (primitive religion and superstition may exist, but they have no “reality” behind them). It’s decent, but maybe not something I’d run myself… which is not a problem since the book contains a whopping 30 extra series pitches, with genres all over the place. There are Cthulhu cultists, scifi settings, traditional fantasy, ninjas, pirates, and all sorts of fun stuff. In this sense also I get a small Fiasco feel from this; a simple core rules system which is plugged into a game/setting document.

Blood on the Snow is a companion book to Hillfolk, and features such things as LARP rules, discussion on rules tweaking and how to fine-tune the system, and (of course) an extra set of series pitches. Between these and the ones in the core book, I’m pretty sure there’s something for everyone – and you can always plug the Dramasystem machine into your own setting, it’s quite simple.

Overall, it’s a non-traditional and interesting narrative game framework + huge pile of game settings. The production values are great and it’s a good read, but as to how well it works in practice… well, that would require a playtest or two.

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