Friday, October 20, 2017

Game Review: Dramasystem

So I saw this video on a Youtube channel I watch sometimes, LindyBeige. It popped up in my feed and I clicked on it because of the title:"The coming revolution in role-play games?". Lindy talks about the story game Hillfolk and gives a rather rousing review of it. I showed the video to my gaming group one night when a game was cancelled and we were all just hanging out and there was a lot of enthusiasm to try it out.

So I got it!

And we played it!

And here is my review, both of Hillfolk and Blood on the Snow, the companion book that further expands the Dramasystem that Hillfolk establishes. The Dramasystem is published by Pelgrane Press and primarily written by Robin D. Laws with many guest authors for the settings (see below).

Design Notes:

There are two nicely bound books, both around 200 pages each with full color full page illustrations. They are on par with the production quality of the old 3.5 D&D books (the last physical RPG books I bought...).

Most of the art is pitch perfect, while some of the other art falls utterly flat:

Good art (Hillfolk)

Off color art (Blood on the Snow)

The text is presented in the standard two column format that has a sometimes confusing mix of hint boxes that consolidate rules (in a way the text never does), dramatic quotes ("You again!" -> "I told you I'd be back, when you least expected it.") (that I suppose is the author's way of showing how he thinks the game should sound like?), and the main text.

I have been consistently frustrated with the organization of the book, and it seems that others have been as well because there are several rule consolidating pdfs that fit on a single page as reference to use during play. This is a great resource, but its frustrating that the texts themselves don't fulfill this purpose.

One of the highlights of both books is the "Additional Settings" sections that take up the last half of both books. They are written by guest authors and illustrated by guest illustrators so there is a tonal shift in the writing and the art midway through the book, but many of the ideas are gold.My players and I were very intrigued by the additional settings, so to give a glimps at what the published texts claim to be able to simulate play in, here are some examples:

  • Support group for mad scientists
  • Undercover CIA agents spying on Soviet Moscow 
  • Courtiers fighting over the realm of the Rabbit King (think Watership Down)
  • An ant colony fighting the war on two fronts against a rival colony and a zombifying funagl pathogen
  • Professional Wrestlers turned thugs for hire in 1980s Ohio
  • Augustan intellectuals dukeing it out in 1700s London
  • Hyper-capitalist robot drama in a post organic earth
  • Orcs squabbling for the Chieftainship
  • Ninjas
  • A ship lost voyaging in Dreamspace, looking for reality
  • Robodoctor medical drama
  • Dolphin eco-quest
  • Magicians secretly fighting in WWI
  • Recently dead ghosts hang out together
  • Teenaged battlemecha pilots from Japan and America are stationed at the same base
  • And many more!
Basically if you can imagine a TV drama you can play that. The settings section also gives some good fodder if you want to run another game system with the setting concept.

System Outline:

Lets briefly break down some of the mechanics for the uninitiated masses. This is not a table top RPG in the sense that D&D or Pathfinder or Warhammer are, this is Role Playing. There are no dice, your character doesn't level up and hardly has statistics, gold and treasure don't matter, and most of the game is represented by "scenes" between players.

It is in short a story game.

Character Creation:

Characters are created as a group in the first session of play. Every one sits down together and decides on a setting (in my groups case the canon Hillfolk setting, Iron Age Middle East) and then take turns make declarations about their own character and their relationships with other characters. For example:
  • Get named (Jaw Bone, Savy, Flint, etc)
  • Their roles in their tribe are determined (chieftain, medicine woman, lead scout, etc)
  • Relationships between characters are established (siblings, lovers, raid partners, etc)
  • Desires are declared (I want respect!), with a strong emphasis on desiring more abstract emotional goals than concrete ones
  • Dramatic poles are chosen (spirituality or carnality?) that show how the character wavers between their conflicting natures
  • State something they want from any other character, the other character in turn tells them exactly why they can't have it ("I want your approval father!" -> "You will never have it because I loved your mother and I blame you for her death" etc)
  • Choose their strengths and weaknesses by ranking the following "stats" (you get 2 strong, 3 middling, and 2 weak): Enduring, Fighting, Knowing, Making, Moving, Talking, Sneaking
Once this process is done you have a fully formed web of relationships that can be mined for dramatic narrative tensions. The youtube video I linked to above does a good job of walking you through this using the TV show Breaking Bad as an example of how these narrative tensions look in a story that we are familiar with. There are also cool relationship webs that look like this:

Pacing (Episode vs Scenes):

Each session, as most of us would call the thing where we sit down together for a few hours to play a game and then come back for another one next week, are instead called episodes. Each episode has a theme that is chosen first by the GM (game moderator) then by the a randomly chosen player at the end of the episode before. Themes are things like: Hunger, Change is Hard, What's In a Name?, Progress, etc. Themes should be brought up and built upon or highlighted through their absence. i.e. the chief isn't going hungry when everyone else is licking rocks which highlights the absence of Hunger.

Within an episode scenes are called. First by the episode caller, then by a randomly chosen precedence order that cycles back around once everyone has called a scene. A scene has: a cast of characters who are there (and even what they are doing, "Jaw Bone you are evesdropping, feel free to chime in when/if you see fit),  a setting (down in the training yard, out by the freshwater spring, in my hut, around the central fire, etc), a time (especially if this is much later/earlier than the previous scene), and a "mode" (whether this is to be a dramatic scene or a procedural scene). Often the character calling is designated as the "petitioner", the person going into the scene with something they want on their mind. The caller doesn't even have to be in the scene and can designate anyone the petitioner.

Any one of the above attributes of a scene can can challenged by anyone at the table. Don't want your character in the scene? Just say so and the caller can allow or try and stop you from "ducking the scene". Or if the caller is amenable to the alteration it just happens, This is true for most of the game, there is a lot of negotiation and consulting with everyone for narrative elements.

Dramatic vs Procedural Scenes and the Relationship Economy:

Once the scene is called the cast begins to engage with it. This kind of just looks like talking if the scene is a dramatic one, think of a Game of Thrones scene where two or three characters are just being snide to each other and threatening and bargaining. Scenes should only take a few minutes, and once they start getting too long other characters can call "end scene!" to speed things up. At the end of the scene the petitioner says whether or not they feel like they got what they want from the scene. If they didn't get what they wanted they are given a "Drama Token", if they did get what they wanted they give a Drama Token to the one that conceded to them.

When players are in a procedural scene they tend to be in conflict with each other or some abstract opponent (a cliff face, a rival tribe, a herd of wild hores, etc) that they want to win dominance over. So if a character is challenging the chief for rulership they would have a procedural fight. This involves a deck of cards and drawing to match a target card. Its a little complex and I won't get into it here.

The Drama Tokens are a way to reward flexibility with narrative influence. If you allow your character to give a dramatic consession you can later spend that token for something that matters to them. They can be used to force scenes to happen the way they want, advantage in procedural resolution, and other boons.

Play Test Report:

My group and I played 4 episodes in the stock standard Hillfolk setting. We had a cast of 6 players all playing a family closely related to the current chief of their tribe.

Character Creation:

This took a majority of the first session. We sat down and literally read out of the book step by step how to create characters and it actually worked surprisingly well. This is a central part of the game set up, as having a sufficiently complex web of desires and relationships is what drives the whole game and the system that is presented is a good way to create these relationships.


In all honesty, it was pretty fun! There is a sufficient amount of structure to provide snappy and interesting play, but plenty of room (mile and miles of room) for creative collaboritve improvisation.

The largest complaint my group had about the system was the procedural scene resolution. Its clunky and we had to re-read through the rules each time we had a procedural scene. I don't think we ever satisfactorily learned.

It was also difficult to play with more or fewer players at a session, you are really tied to the cast of characters that you begin play with and its very hard to incorporate new players into the webs of relationships. On the flip side of the same coin, if you don;t have the whole cast present much of the tenssion dissolves; I am sure I am not alone in having trouble getting the exact same group of people together weekly for several hours at a time and having play rely on that is a significant weakness.

In Summary: What You Should Steal

The real innovation of Dramasystem is the web of relationships, I want to use it everywhere. You could have a fast version of the character creation process when rolling up a new party for D&D. This sets up the adventure to be more than just a hack and slash rampage through a dungeon. Having everyone give predefined relationships with each other also meets one of my goals of having a community driven adventuring party. It would also be a useful system to define tensions at a larger scale by running through the process with the factions in a setting (the Bloobloods want the capitol city of the Annix Empire back as their holy city, but the Empire will never let them have it because they think the Bloobloods are a shattered and broken people...)

The dramatic scene system has use in carousing. The party gets back to town and tries to blow off some steam and maybe some tension boils over (Matild! How could you let Hiens get slashed by the orc assassin, you know he is my little brother! I swore to protect him!) This also fits in with the longer time skips I am using in my games to allow for community scale events. The dramatic scene is also a way better way to handle negotiation with NPCs, certainly much better then rolling against a diplomacy DC!

The procedural scenes, as written, are my least favorite part of the system and I would scrap them completely. D&D and other simulation style games are built to handle these kinds of conflicts and do it better than Dramasystem attempts to.

Rating: *** /*****, worth checking out (more so with Blood in the Snow), but maybe not worth buying the hard copy, especially if you can't stand story games

Tuesday, October 17, 2017

1d6 Treant Knights and Their Quests

Lets talk about Knights and Quests.

A Knight is someone who, through ardent belief and pure heart, quests.

A Quest is a long-form search, often in the form of a journey, trial, mission or other strongly intentioned action, undertaken by knights.

(You may notice the circular nature of these definitions. Knights do not, it all makes sense to their dreamy eyes and airy heads filled with convictions and ideals)

Yes, even they were true Knights, even if they were very silly.
Source: Monty Python and the Holy Grail

Your love is betrothed to another? Become a Knight and Quest for their hand against all hardships and societal convention!

Your grand-sire once lost a fight ? Become a Knight and Quest to return your family's name to its original status!

Decide you really like that bridge? Become a Knight and Quest to never let anyone across it who can't beat you in a fight!

The church say that those infidels a hundred hundred leagues away live in the town God was born in? Become a Knight and Quest to cross the continent and join hands with your brothers and sisters to slaughter the nonbelievers and cleanse the holy city!

For the right Quest anyone can become a Knight. Even Treants.

1d6 Treant Knights and Their Quests

1: Ser Phoenix the Resiliant, first of the name, sprouted long ago in a lush oasis in the middle of a harsh desert. As the years past Able fought with his cohort in the slow wrestling match for light, eventually succumbing to darkness and death, or so he thought. He awoke to the hard wind of the desert covering his now animate trunk with biting sand and he took his first steps into the unknown.

Ser Phoenix quests to kill the South Wind, that wind that drowns oases in sandy death. He haunts the dunes around where he grew up, waiting for the day the South Wind is foolish enough to blow that way again. In the meantime he protects travelers unused to the ways of the desert.

Ser Phoenix is a date-palm of short stature, hardly taller than a man, and wears only his fibrous bark for armor. His lance is the quill of a dire cactus and he rides a chariot pulled by wild jackalopes. He has a rather dry humor, but will eventually warm up to strangers.

2: Ser Pruner of the Blossom was cut down six winters ago after a long treelife of providing crabapples to homesteaders. Her human neighbors had finally moved away and a logging camp had set up to clear the land, starting with Ser Pruner's orchard. As the axes bit into her stem, she gave a horrific shout and ambled out of the orchard and out of those mountains forever.

Still a young Treant, and a new knight at that, Ser Pruner quests to bear the best apples in the world. Through her journeys she collects pollen from her inanimate kin to bear their fruit, and every traveler she meets she will offer a brace of fresh apples to be judged.  Those that do not provide constructive feed back, or that run from the walking apple tree trying to get them to eat apples, will be the victims of her other quest: make sure everyone world loves apples.

Ser Pruner wears her ever blossoming branches loose and free, but wears a chainmail shirt and tabard with the likeness of an apple upon it. She does not ride, but rather has a pair of mules that cart the fruits of her labors. She wields a longstaff and wears a pair of sharp shears at her belt.

3: Ser Popule the Shaking was one ramet of a large aspen grove. He first sensed something was wrong centuries ago, when the far edge cried out in slow pain. As the decades ground on, so did his looming death, a glacier. When at last it was him and the wall of ice Ser Popule took his first quavering steps out of the way of the ice.

Now Ser Popule has made it his quest to never been cold again. Keep in mind that treants, like trees, aren't especially warm in the first place, but Ser Popule will not be dissuaded! He treks from cozy cabin to comfy bed, always with a thermos of warm sap in hand, always looking for a home the with forever be warm.

You'll rarely see his white barked face, Ser Popule wears heavy woolen clothing and furlined leather armor. He will occasionally strip to immerse himself in a hot-spring or tub, and then you will see his is tall and lanky and forever shivering. He rides a great white bear, and wields a flaming mace.

4: Ser Salix the Shambling grew wildly and with abandon in her youth, her greedy stems reaching for any light, her greedy roots drinking deep any water. One fall in the little valley choked with willow where she grew a chill settled on the lowlands, blackening her neighbors before they could shed their leaves and blighting them. Ser Salix would not sit idly by and freeze to death, so she uprooted and wandered to milder climes.

Ser Salix quests to protect the weak and helpless from the evils of gluttony. The Church converted her early on in her new life as a treant when they found her wallowing in the shallows of a creek drinking as much as her road hardened roots could absorb. The holy man that found her taught her the virtues of abstinence and so she preaches on the road and challenges any she sees as gluttonous to a duel.

Ser Salix would cram herself into the plate mail of a holy order of knights if she could, be she has settled for an iron corset of sorts, binding her many wandering stems into a tube. Its terribly uncofortable, so she will only gird herself when duels are imminent. She wields the most abstinent of weapons, a simple rod of iron and rides on an old donkey given to her by a converted farmer she preached to once.

5: Ser Cary who was Burned speaks little of his past, though the sharp eye can read his history on his old hickory face. The burn scars that go that deep rarely heal well, and the dead charcoal flesh takes on a deep black sheen after years in the rain and sun.

Ser Cary is on a quest to extinguish all fires. He is deep into this endevor, an expert fire fighter. He is currently arming himself with everything necessary to travel to the Plane of Fire to do battle there in a purer sense of the word with the animal spirits of the destructive element.

His fire hardened flesh acts well as a human knight's plate mail, and over it he wears a heavy oiled cloak to retard flames. He travels on the in a boat on the back of a water elemental he met and befriended years ago, and wields a strange mix between of an axe and pick that he swings with vigor and rage.

6: Ser Tsugan Half-Rotten will tell you his tale with a his great wheezey voice, how when he was still a tree a fungal blight came to his forest in the high peaks where he grew. In the alpine hemlock forests everything happens in slow motion, he watched neighbors and friends succumb to the rot, and one spring found the death in his own trunk. He sighed and figured he should see the world before he died, so he ripped up his roots and half-walked, half-tumbled down the mountain.

Ser Tsugan walks with obvious pain, and the remains of his corky face and often twisted into a resigned grimace. For all his discomfort Ser Tsugan is kind to every soul great and small he passes. You may find him politely listening to a waterfall waiting for it to be done speaking, or gingerly watching robins hatching in their nest. For his quest is to show kindness, even when it is hard.

Half-Rotten is a large treant, but bent into a hunch. He wears only robes of moss, kindly giving them a home. He rides no beast, but prefers to limp along side them for company. He wields no weapon, for what kindness can a weapon give?


Monday, October 9, 2017

Soul-Catcher Canyon

The idea of a plane traveling campaign has never really interested me. I always like it when I am gaining enough fluency with a setting that I can began to add lib on my own as a player. Jumping from gonzo plane to gonzo plane while playing a rat butcher from 1890s London sounds fun, but at a certain point the comedy of juxtaposition wears thin.

The idea of Purgatory similarly disinterests me. You die. Then you wait around a sanitary, not good, not evil place until all the little bad things you did in life are purified and you can go to Heaven. There is no tension in Purgatory, you aren't on probation where you can mess up and get sent to Hell.

So lets try and fix both of those with this plane/adventure(/dungeon?) concept.

Soul Catcher Canyon

There is said to be a place between this world and the next.

This place is said to be a network of canyons forming a circle around a faint and cold Sun. This cool celestial giant rises and sets, but in the center of the maze it oscillates on a vertical axis (not ringing the world as a faithful dance partner like in our good home). At night it sinks to kiss the center of the maze for a moment, and then it rises again to begin a new day.

The souls that find there way to this place call themselves Travelers, for they know that if they can reach the center of maze when the dim Sun kisses the earth and they touch the Sun the will be permitted to ask for one True Desire and will be allowed to move on to the next world. The Travelers hail from many different worlds, but they have all found their way to the Canyon.

Not many Travelers reach the center of the Canyon. Many loose faith, turning to cynicism and despair where they tarry on the Road. These cynics have built cities, claiming that this is the next life, that they should make the best of their time here by wasting away their time in hedonism and avarice. They take advantage of the hopeful Travelers, charging tolls for safe passage through their lands. But they wither and die in the Canyon, just like everyone else. No children can be born here, no planted seeds grow to trees, only rot blooms.

The cynics call the place the Meat Grinder, or the Labyrinth of Dust, or the Alleys of Despair.

The Travelers call the place Soul Catcher Canyon.

It kinda looks like that, but only kinda.

Mapping Soul-Catcher Canyon

Structurally Soul Catcher Canyon resembles a large disk with canyons inscribed on it winding their way to the center. These winding canyons intersect regularly at nodes. These nodes are centers of meeting and conflict. Many toll takers have setup their booths to get their due from the striving Travelers working their way to the Center.

The canyons in-between the nodes are still inhabited but operate much closer to a wilderness than a dungeon/cityscape, and even then I recommend using them as flux space.

From Etsy

So using the basic geometry of the dream-catcher above we can make a point crawl map:
Big C: Center of the Canyon
Rectangles: Node [Ring #, Node #]
Green Line: Outer Rim of Canyon
Blue Line: Canyons Between Nodes

Structurally we can see that there are seven "rings" of nodes relatively equidistant from the sun, and there are seven nodes to a ring. Souls enter the Canyon in the Outer Rim and work their way to the center to leave the plane. There is a minimum of seven nodes that they must visit on their way, passing through eight canyon floors.

The scale of the Canyon is very large, with most canyon floors being a mile across and the canyon walls are all around a mile high. The circumference of the outer ring is on the order of 300 miles

There are many paths to take, none of them is correct.

Light, Water, Clones, and Soil Formation: Ecology of the Canyon

So the big thing we get to play with in the Canyon is "aspect", the angle that the sun hits a surface. In our case the surface that we care about is the Canyon floor and walls. More light, for longer, and at a more perpendicular angle leads to a higher energy input into a system. The below two diagrams shows the the relationship between distance from the sun and amount of light a given canyon will get:

Light at noon

Light at dusk

So with that we can derive the energy, and therefore the heat characteristics of our concentric rings of nodes. The farthest out ring will be the very coldest, with its sunward wall getting some direct light and its floor only reflected heat from the wall, and the outer-facing wall remaining very icy and dark.

Because this is intended to all be a viable adventuring location I will assume the outermost ring is as cold as the coldest earth ecosystem, a tundra. Each ring closer to the sun will be warmer and warmer until we arrive at the desert at the center that gets continuous light. Using our handy rainfall/average temperature ecosystem graph we can create an easy way to assign ecosystem characteristics to an area:
The ring number remains static and determines the average temperature at the bottom of the Canyon. For rain fall/water content simply roll d8 and use that value as how much water is present in that system. If there is no ecosystem mapping to that rainfall value round down to the wettest possible ecosystem for that temperature and add a river, lake or sea to account for the extra water. For example in ring 5 I rolled a d8 and got 8, meaning I got a temperate rain forest with many large lakes.

There is no sexual reproduction possible in Soul Catcher Canyon, and because of this clones rule the Canyon. You see, asexual reproduction is totally fine. This means that the ecosystems are dominated by lifeforms capable of clonal reproduction, and these lifeforms experience a glacial genetic drift relative to the rapid diversification of sexual recombination. To make things worse any plants or animals that make it to the Canyon must first survive the tundra in the Outer Rim and make their way to warmer climes where the can establish their hegemony.

Because of the low probability for a diverse and adaptive ecosystem the the entire Canyon food chain is based on corpses, not unlike the Lut Desert in our plane of existence. Most everything that enters the Canyon dies there, and they act like migrating birds caught in unworldly heat swell dropping them from the sky to be fed on by scavengers.

There is no vulcanism in this plane, but the canyon walls do shear off occasionally leading to the formation of sedimentary rock. Even down to the geology there can be no birth here, only death, for what is a volcano but an explosively pure act of creation in the blink of a geologic eye? No, the Canyon only decays, and on the dust of the bodies of the fallen are the brief lives of the Travelers lived.

Example Encounters and Locations in the Canyon:

The Sky Gate: Usually just a stately carved archway set into the Outer Rim's leeward (?)(opposite of sunward) wall like all the other Gates that emit Travelers, it occasionally spews forth great vapors and mists into the Canyon. Those Travelers that have seen it rarely survive the super-cold fog or the shapes that scream in the twilight. When the fog dissipates and the killing cold passes they have found the bodies of creatures that have violently dedicated in the heat of the Outer Rim, the creatures seem to come from a much colder plane of existence.

The Demons Passage: If you ask around in the Slush District of Hailifax some frost drunk fool is bound to tell you to go check out the Demons Passage. If you can make it all the way through you'll be in a warmer better place, close to the Center! If you can make it through...

The Divine Cabal of Liches: Many forms of artificial life extension are available in the Canyon, one of the most expensive but sure ways is Lichdom. But first you must sumbit yourself for approval at the Divine Cabal, and if you are judged worthy they will not hinder your quest for immortality. They long ago gave up on leaving the Canyon, preferring to drink deep from the well of ego and squabbling amongst themselves, so woe unto the Traveler who would stand in their way.


Warbeast Strike Team vs Megapradator: When new Travelers come to the Canyon they often literally come in waves. Clonally reproducing megapredators lie dormant near an entrance portal waiting for the feast to come, while brave and kind souls riding a mishmash of cancerous vat cloned warbeasts rush to save them.

Demon Starfish, from Kamen Rider V3

Source unknown
Empire of the Starfish People: The largest nation in Canyon is the Starfish Commonwealth, dominating the seas and rivers of the inner rings with their dead eyes and blithe smiles. They reproduce easily in this strange land, a melee will do to hack off some limbs to grow new starfish people. The Commonwealth's goal is to perpetuate the cycle of death and decay, for it suits their strange lifestyle.