Monday, 4 November 2013

Hillfolk - first thoughts

On Friday I received my copy of Robin D. Laws' Hillfolk, which I've been dipping into periodically over the weekend when time allowed (I was a Kickstarter backer). This is really just a first impressions piece, and I've by no means read it cover-to-cover or been able to fully digest it.

Some time ago I was working on a Savage Worlds scenario called Village People. While I never got around to running it, the premise of the scenario was that the characters were the burghers of a small village in a typical fantasy roleplaying world. For example, one of the PCs was the local blacksmith, another was the sheriff, etc. They were tied to their community and to their fellow villagers. The action would be driven by primarily external events, but the hope was that a mini-campaign could be procured through the dynamics of interplayer interaction was well as via external threats and intrigues.

In retrospect, Savage Worlds might not have been the right system to use. Hillfolk, on the other hand, probably is. Hillfolk uses a default Bronze Age tribal setting, in a fictitious Levant of circa 2000 BC before the big empires of the next 1000 years or so really got rolling. It is the beginning of recorded history, and because details are so sketchy about the people of this time, players can improvise with confidence.

Hillfolk is driven by the emotional dynamics and relationships of the player characters themselves. It does not use dice, but there look to be some random elements involved using a deck of cards. It is not a complex game, and has shrugged off much of the tactical wargame elements that have dominated previous generations of RPG design. It feels in some respects like Cold City, an RPG I love, and seeks to deliver a high degree of narrative control to the players.

Unlike in Cold City or Paranoia, characters in Hillfolk are not necessarily plotting against one another, but they do want / need things from each other. There are no secret agendas between players, although there may be between characters. In some ways, Hillfolk reminds me a little bit of Pendragon, but it travels further, and is more genre neutral. While things that happen to the players are still important, like a TV series, it is the relationships between the players which really make it tick. Think about Battlestar Galactica the TV series, and you will know what I mean.

The idea of Hillfolk is almost to create a TV series on your tabletop, with each session of the game being one episode in that series. I have to say that, in my experience of GMing in the last couple of years, some of the most entertaining bits of the games I've run have come from when the party has gone off script, and left the adventure as written for parts new and undefined. Frequently they have not realised when they have been doing it, but being able to roll with it has ended up generating some of the most brilliant RPG incidents.

The second half of the book is comprised of 'series pitches' - alternative settings. While it is recommended that groups use the default setting as their first attempt in this area, there are some great ideas for subsequent forays. It seems as if a group could really only play through the default setting once, so having tons of other options in the wings to follow on with is great.

I have yet to finish reading Hillfolk, and may revert with more conclusions once I have.