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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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Minireview: New Tales of the Yellow Sign, by Robin D. Laws

The “King in Yellow” stories, originally written by Robert Chambers in 1895, are only tangentially related to Lovecraft’s Cthulhu mythos, though nowadays they are widely considers to be a part of it. This is largely due to their inclusion in the Call of Cthulhu roleplaying game, initially via scenarios (especially the classic “Tell Me Have You Seen the Yellow Sign?” by Kevin Ross). Compared to Lovecraft’s tales, the Hastur/Carcosa tales have a more prominent fantastical element; less eldritch horrors and more creeping insanity and a lingering sense of wrongness, mixed in with what is almost sword & sorcery at times.

New Tales of the Yellow Sign is a collection of tales from Robin D. Laws, expanding on the “King In Yellow” mythos and the stories that it originated from. Not all of the stories even mention Hastur, the King In Yellow or Carcosa (though some do), but all share elements from the tales: alien, unexplained and often malignant influences, strange alternate histories, and slow spirals into insanity. Some are set in an alternate dystopian history, in which New York has “suicide booths” and history has taken several strange turns. There’s very little exposition here, the reader is just presented with weird elements mostly without explanation, and referred to past (strange) events also without much explanation. It works very well in generating a sense of unease in the reader, a sort of “what else aren’t they telling me?” feeling.

The stories are quite excellent. Sure, there are a few that didn’t quite “click” with me, but even with them I got a feel for what the writer was (maybe) going for. There’s very little stock “Cthulhu mythos” here (apart from some quick references), which suits the tone just fine. Some are historical tales, some involve alternate histories (maybe in a past, maybe in a future), and some are set in (our?) modern day. One notable story involves a very creepy smartphone app. Some of the stories even have a happy ending… but it’s always tinged with darker elements.

I really liked this collection, it’s a very different sort of collection of “Cthulhu stories”. Very much recommended.

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