Friday, 29 November 2013

Two-Fated Tales

November has been quite a busy month for me, what with playing Tremulus at the beginning of the month (hoping to play it again in December); getting my haircut and my right-side wisdom teeth pulled out that week; gaming at Concentric the weekend following; and going to a wedding party, the 4th Day of Boardgamers, and a staff party all last weekend. That on top of the increased traffic at work and the hustle and bustle of holiday shopping starting this weekend, I've only had time for two posts this month!

Anywho, I just wanted to check in before this month is over with my current intentions:

One thing I hadn't mentioned beyond my social media outlets is that my FATE Core kickstarter bundle arrived a few weeks ago much to my elation. After some minor indecision, the first book of the bunch I chose to dive into is Strange Tales of the Century, a semi-supplemental book to the FATE-powered pulp game Spirit of the Century, one of my personal favourites.

I'm about a third of the way through this 500+ page volume; I intend to read it cover to cover and write my Impressions on it. Alas the material I'm making my way through (a global gazetteer of the years 1935 and 1951) has slowed my progress a bit because, though interesting, is rather dry. I'm hoping to read more action-oriented sections of the two-fisted variety coming up. Skipping briefly ahead I did also see that STotC explains how to (easily) update SotC to the new FATE Core ruleset, a concern for some of us fans.

On that note, I've found myself taking breaks from STofC and reading The Day After Ragnarok, another FATE-powered pulp game, although more post-apocalyptic. Having backed the FATE Core kickstarter, I had received DAR a few months ago on PDF, which I briefly browsed but never spent the time to fully read; although I did like it enough to pre-order it in print at discount (hopefully it'll be arriving sometime soonish). 

Again I hadn't spent the time thoroughly reading through the PDF, that is until I read this top-notch review of the FATE version. At that time I was fully into pulp again having begun to read STofC, listening to Doc Savage: The Man of Bronze audiobook and The Red Panda dramas by the Canadian outfit Decoder Ring Theatre, and watching the 80's series Tales of the Gold Monkey. So much Pulp!

I saw in the aforementioned review and confirmed for myself in the PDF that DAR contains a section for GMs who'd like to transition their Spirit of the Century game into the settings and themes of The Day After Ragnarok! Something I think I'd like to try if and when I ever run SotC again...

Onward and Upward! ;{١

Monday, 18 November 2013

Numenera - Convention Tips & Cypher Deck Houserule

This past weekend I had the privilege of running Numenera at the local ConCentric event.

I decided to run my first two-slot adventure at a convention, and that adventure was Vortex. I was planning on running the original two-halves of the adventure; The Temple and then Through the Vortex; but the time I spent introducing the setting and system after a late start combined with my players' slow progress through the story meant I ended up splitting just The Temple between the two-sessions; finishing off and picking right up after they dealt with the whispering lurker in Jutte. I felt no need to rush my players as we all seemed to be enjoying ourselves very much. :)

At the beginning of the first session I gave my four players 2 XP each so they had the option to spend them on rerolls, denying GM Intrusions, short-term benefits like specific skills, and my cypher deck houserule (see below).

At the beginning of the second part I awarded my players 3 XP each (on top of their 3 XP from the previous session), for discovering the mystery behind the whispering lurker as the source of the disappearances in Jutte, to spend on a taste of character advancement benefits. One of the players didn't show up due to illness, but a buddy of mine got the chance to try out Numenera by filling the vacant seat.

Our second session ended with my clever players using a visage-changing cypher on their Clever Glaive Satha to disguise her as Evanna to find and assassinate Abrassal, whilst the rest of the group snuck through the darkened areas of the narthex to find where Evanna's brother was being held. The disguised Satha ran into her male doppelgänger Norrid, and fainted from shock to later to awaken alone in a dormitory with Abrassal; whilst the rest of the party dealt with the dangerous mysteries of the facility. Everything culminated in a big climatic showdown in the dwelling area between Evanna (Satha) vs. Abrassal on one side, and the rest of the group vs. Gregor and Relle on the other with the remainder of the stunned worshippers looking on. I pushed the PC's limits and their player's did not disappoint.

I ended with the teaser to the beginning for Part 2: Through the Vortex with a telepathic message from the Vortex itself... ;{١

A few of my students players. It was fun running my sessions from a lecture hall, I got to use the blackboards and feel like a professor!
They were both awesome sessions; and I think my players really enjoyed both the system and the story. I am also happy to report one of my players informed me at the end that she hadn't played many RPGs before (she could've fooled me though, she had the cadence of a seasoned veteran!) and she really liked Numenera as well as my friendly and animated playstyle! (I might have blushed...)

And since we only made it through the first part, I'm hoping to run a local game in the future with all of my players to conclude their character's adventure. Again I thank everyone who showed up to play Numenera last weekend!

Enough about me gushing about my con games, onto more tips and my houserule:


To bookkeep my play sessions better, I prepared a one-sheet reference following the guidelines listed on page 345-346 of the corebook, with focus on recording player/PC names with any personal GM Intrusions; a list of NPCs/Monsters with their base level, modded levels, gear, disposition and appearance. I borrowed some pointers from convention advice by Mr. D. W. Brown at the Ninth World Hub topic on Vortex.

I also printed out a very concise rules reference from The Alexandrian.

My tools: print copy of adventure, reference sheets, notepad and pencil, bag of glass XP beads, cypher cards, and my iPad with my Numenera playlist!

Numenera is also a great game to GM from a podium because you don't need to roll dice!

Cypher Deck Houserule

I came up with this houesrule idea when I was printing out cards from the Cypher Deck (I am looking to order a full copy in the future) for the con game. As I was running Vortex's provided pre-generated characters, I decided to search through the PDF I had of the Cypher Deck and print out a copy of each card that lists the rules for each cypher the pregens had, sleeve them, and clip them to each character sheet. I did this to avoid the hassle of looking up and referencing cypher's effects, and having each player or myself write it all down. I also printed 10 additional cards that could be drawn to replace the cyphers the players use with ones their characters discover.

A frequent concern is that each card lists two, sometimes three different cyphers and their effects; and one might not want their players spoiled with the knowledge of other potential cyphers. I read a DTRPG review where the solution their group came up with was to sleeve the card and then cover up the other cyphers listed.

This wasn't a concern for me at a convention game, where I figured that additional insight into the cypher possibilities for players may increase their general interest in Numenera. I decided to take this concept one step further and introduced this houserule:

When a player receives a new card after discovering and identifying a cypher, determine (randomly) which of the cyphers listed on the card their PC now has, as well as its level. After the outcome has been determined, the player has the future option of spending 1 XP to select another cypher option listed on the card. All the cyphers listed on a card share the same level. A player may not elect to change from an Anoetic cypher to a Occultic cypher, or vice versa.

This houserule allows a bit more versatility and player choice when acquiring cyphers via the Cypher Deck, particularly with smaller groups, as well as eliminating the concern for cypher "teasing". Of course the GM is well within his bounds to curtail this option if the "metagaming" aspect of it is unappealing, or if the constant selection the PCs make of cypher types appears to be uninspired and/or repetitive; although I do see this option as costly in XP for the players to be constantly tweaking their ideal cyphers, so I don't believe it would be a huge concern. (I believe it only happened twice in each of the two sessions I ran, once per.)

I also think this houserule probably works best over a limited number of sessions rather than long-term campaigns, to avoid the players seeing the majority of the cypher options available in the deck and dulling the mystery therein.

Have any tips of your own or thoughts on my houserule? Leave a comment!

Cheers! ;{١

Friday, 8 November 2013

Hillfolk: DramaSystem - Read Impressions & Storytelling Theory

Many of you have probably seen the popular 11 Ways to be a Better Roleplayer article I linked to back in June. If you have or have not (which you should), it doesn't matter because this post does not pertain to it as much the lesser follow-up article: Stanislavski vs Brecht in tabletop roleplaying.

It may not be as catchy as 11 Ways (we all love lists), but Stanislavski vs Brecht focuses on roleplaying and narrative in RPGs. It's advice for any game; for both GMs and Players; and focuses on a vital component greatly under-written in the majority RPGs: Storytelling.

Many systems offer pretty good (if similar) advice on roleplaying, but don't go as far I believe the article does because they're heavily rooted in presenting setting and resolution simulation. Story, narrative, and roleplaying theory take back seat to the game and is something the GM/Players might be given common basic advice on how to handle, but otherwise left to their own devices.

Without repeating the article's points verbatim, it reminds the players to think beyond just their characters' motivations and into the narrative as a whole and what's best for it. What it doesn't mention is that it is equally important for GMs to allow them ample opportunities to do so and encourage it.

Myself and fellow player, GM, game designer and friend of mine were pondering over this given advice and how it's similar to what we've experienced in our Dresden Files game group. I had concluded that I didn't believe it was so much the Dresden Files RPG itself, but our actual group. I think we (consciously or not) had been applying most of these narrative techniques to our game.

Thus this is one of the reasons I think know why gaming with this group has been the most satisfying for me: The actual game we play doesn't matter, only the story we create.

This ties into Hillfolk and my impressions of it:


A Game of Iron Age Drama, is an RPG that is vastly different than any other RPG that I have read (and I've read a few in my day). It can shatter preconceptions one might have of RPGs, because such preconceptions can initially make it difficult for a reader to grasp what the author Robin D. Laws is presenting to you. Even coming into it with an open mind, I can see it taking time to wrap one's head around. It took me a bit.

Hillfolk is not a game where your character is a collection of numerical stats on a sheet with an assortment of abilities and gear. Hillfolk is not a game where dice chance is used for mechanical resolution, in fact the only random element is a seldom-used deck of playing cards. Nor is it a game where the characters explore a fantastical setting.

Hillfolk is about refusing or giving into your character's desires and those around them. Hillfolk is where telling your characters' story as they seek fulfilment has greater import than succeeding at practical or material goals. It is where the characters explore the relationships they have with others.

Hillfolk is truly about the journey, not the destination.

No other system up to this point has made me think as deeply about roleplaying and narrative theory as much Hillfolk has. I came across the aforementioned article on Look, Robot and Ron Edward's GNS Theory about the same time I began my dive into Hillfolk, and I found both sources helpful in my greater understanding of not only Hillfolk, but both story in RPGs and Storytelling games in general. They're both worth a good read.


I can best sum up that Hillfolk's DramaSystem is an amalgamation between traditional multiple-session RPGs and one-shot Storytelling games: providing longer play for developing characters and heavy focus on episodic drama, with mechanics to make these two seemingly disparate things function together. Looking at it from a strict GNS categorical standpoint, I'd say that Hillfolk would appeal most to the Narrativist, although the Simulationist that enjoys story development will find appeal as well. Gamists that share neither of the other two views will find little of interest.

I first heard about Hillfolk's kickstarter when it made it's way around my gaming circles over a year ago. I was intrigued by what I heard of an RPG that aimed to recreate the story and drama of movies, theatre, and television; and that the DramaSystem is the practise to the theory presented in the author's book on narrative called Hamlet's Hit Points (a book I intend on getting in the future).

I didn't fully decide to back it until I had read Mr. Lowell Francis' experience with it; that and it was inexpensive at $25 (heck it still is, it's listed as $30 on that back, considerably cheap in comparison to most RPG that cost around double that price.). Having backed it I gained access to the PDF, which I read a few pages of but couldn't digest it the way I could spending time with a print copy. And mine finally arrived last week.


The book is laid out as follows: The first third of it contains an introduction followed by all the minutiae for creating characters, laying out episodes, the scenes (dramatic and procedural) that comprise episodes, the remaining notes on play, and finally the background for the eponymous iron age setting of Hillfolk. This Gnome Stew review does a good job of presenting a basic run-down of the mechanics, so I shan't go over them here in detail.

A Drama King?
Every few pages are interspersed with beautiful full-page sepia-toned art depicting denizens of this iron age setting in various dramatic poses. Also peppered on every page or so is a small amount of dramatic dialogue that provides flavour and possible inspiration.

The latter two-thirds of the book covers over 30 additional settings ("Series Pitches") written by various known authors, such as Kenneth Hite (of Trail of Cthulhu), James Wallis (of The Extraordinary Adventures of Baron Münchhausen), Chris Lackey (of The H.P. Lovecraft Literary Podcast), Wolfgang Baur (of Kobold Press and Midgard), Keith Baker (of Eberron and Gloom), and Ed Greenwood (of Forgotten Realms) to name a few. I personally think that this is a large selling point for Hillfolk to GMs and players alike who aren't really interested in telling stories in the prime iron age setting (it didn't seem that appealing to me at first, but then I realised this low-flash, alternative history theme was to keep new players focused on exploring narrative than a fantastic-but-detracting setting), nor those up to or yet ready to create their own series. Each Series Pitch is accompanied with a full-page (occasionally coloured) art piece.

I'd love to give The Whateleys Series Pitch a run. I imagine them more monstrous than The Munsters, and creepier, kookier, spookier, and ookier than The Addams Family.

30+ additional Series Pitches have been collected in the companion volume Blood on the Snow, which also contains additional rules, including LARP rules. These additional Pitches further extend the versatility of Hillfolk as a system to tell any variety of story.

Hillfolk has also been released on two open licenses: Open Gaming License and Creative Commons; so I have to give Robin D. Laws props for making the DramaSystem engine free to aspiring designers.

Final Review Impressions

If I have one possible misgiving about Hillfolk, beside its initial learning-curve, is that its uniqueness does make it an oddity amongst RPGs. Unless one has a gaming group that is big on heavy storytelling/roleplaying over multiple sessions, is open to trying out new games, and/or can leave the dice and stat blocks at home, one might be hard pressed to get the chance to actually play it consistently, let alone at all.

One of the draws of Storytelling games I believe is that they're single-night affairs; something to perhaps fill some time or play when the fancy strikes, and then put back on the shelf until next time. I wouldn't want to play a Storytelling game like Fiasco, Baron Münchhausen, Umläut, or Dread continually at every game session; I believe I would begin to crave the numbers, abilities, and randomness of dice that make up the common traits of standard RPGs, not to mention longer-term characters.

One could always inject those RPGs with a healthy dose of storytelling, though it might not be as dynamic or dramatic as what Hillfolk can bring to the table. Although Hillfolk suggests ways to import some or all of its concepts into traditional roleplaying games; which may be an excellent way of introducing the DramaSystem gradually to a gaming group or providing your game with a little more narrative 'omph' without entirely discarding the system/setting. This cross-system hack allows more versatility with the DramaSystem, making Hillfolk a decent addition to any gaming library just for the concepts contained within.

That all said, Hillfolk is different than the all of those Storytelling games I just mentioned. Sure they may have their similarities and they all focus on telling stories, but Hillfolk's intention is to bridge the gap between those games and traditional RPGs. It looks to fill that niche, and although it may never reach the popularity of traditional RPGs and/or Storytelling games, it fulfils that purpose very well.

A related concern is somewhat addressed under the Notes On Play section, which suggests if a local group is unsuitable (for a variety of possible reasons) for play that an online group might be found via the internet using a real-time medium like Skype or Google Hangout; Hillfolk's emphasis on character dialogue and simple mechanics make it an excellent option for an online conference game over traditional RPGs that require more work on the GM's part to moderate online tools like virtual tabletops, as well as the game itself. Also since Hillfolk is heavy on collaborative storytelling, the online players can be made more engaged in the game than simply stating how their PCs react to the descriptions and events provided by the GM: together they are actively creating the story rather than controlling characters in the story.

I think considering it's potential as both an online game and a system hack was one thing that helped me grasp the theory behind the DramaSystem, despite it being written out for me: This isn't an RPG that uses mechanics to simulate narrative, this is an RPG that uses narrative to simulate mechanics. The rules of the game aren't tied into stats, abilities, and numbers, but desires, relationships, and dramatic poles.

Hillfolk shall have a special place on my bookshelf, partially because it doesn't fit normally.
It is taller than your average RPG book.

As it is, I'm really not one to judge/predict Hillfolk's future popularity with gamers by alone reading it and not having played it. I aim to give Hillfolk an honest try when I have the time and the players, and if you get the chance I think you should too. We only learn and experience new things when we branch out from what we're familiar with: personal growth through drama. :)

Played Hillfolk? I'd love to hear your thoughts and impressions! Leave a comment!

P.S. I dedicate this post to my Dresden Files group for helping my greater understanding and appreciation of storytelling in RPGs.