Layers

Do you remember that game session that went so well, you never had to resort to the dice or look at your character sheet? A session where the gamemaster walked away and the play continued without her? A game that bordered on drama play, where players are more interested in exploring the depth and richness of the characters than rolling some dice?

The last time I had this kind of experience, I was in college, and it was a Vampire the Masquerade chronicle. For you youngsters, when Vampire came out, it was a role-playing revelation, it contained minimal system and was big on story. It promised, and delivered on the relationships between a diverse group of vampires vying for control of a city. Sadly it all went to pass, for multiple reasons, we grew up,  the min/maxer found it and the story element was replaced by a greater combat centrist flow.

Do not get me wrong, I like the crunchy bits of role-playing, but I hope for the drama, the pathos of stories that cinema cannot even touch, that books hint at and that theater can really manage. The question remains, is it possible to build interesting dramatic stories using improv and role-playing. I believe it is.

Two weeks ago I had the good fortune to play in my first DramaSystem game. The group comprised experienced role-players and something rare, a role-playing virgin. Some players had improvisation/theater experience and all were willing to try this new system. As a fan of the GUMSHOE system I jumped on the Hillfolk kickstarter, for no other reason than I trusted the creators, both Pelgrane Press and Robin D. Laws, to put out a quality role-playing game that would challenge my preconception of gaming as much as GUMSHOE had. I pledged in and received the beta draft of Hillfolk, read it, and could not fathom it. I was definitively challenged! I had read Hamlet’s Hit Points and found it interesting, but it seemed at the time so far away from anything in games that I could not understand how I could apply this to my gaming. It was a cool exercise in style from a doctorate level student of the game, but for the layman like me, it could have been gibberish, much less applicable than Graham Walmsley “Play Unsafe” book.

So, back to the Hillfolk beta,  at the time of reading I understood the “drama” vs. “procedural” explanations (based on Hamlet’s Hit Points) but the picture in my head was definitively more General Hospital than Game of Thrones. I could not understand why would someone play out these dramatic exchanges and be enthralled by them. The grandiose drama I had hoped for, seemed a bit difficult to attain. I still followed through because I liked being challenged and the last time a game had made this impression on me was when I read Fiasco, by Bully Pulpit Games. And for those of you that have played Fiasco, you know how much it has been a game changer.

Fast forward at least a year after the kickstarter ended with great success, my Night’s Black Agents game on hiatus, this was my chance. I managed to convince three long time friends to try it and between them got two others to jump in. Not really knowing what to expect.

To better our chances I had previously asked the players to read the rules section of the Hillfolk book, to my happy surprise, they all had done so. Note to self when starting another game, do bother asking, players are often surprising. The session went really well, we made it through character creation, laughing and telling stories about characters that were taking shape right before our eyes.

The chosen setup was an hybrid between Mutant City Blues, Matt Forbeck’s Revolution Series, The Watchmen and Marvel’s Civil Wars Series. We started off with character creation which got all the players – myself included – giddy and really excited. One player went so far as to consider that “he had been playing with one eye closed all these years”. If you read this and are intrigued, let me tell you that the character creation alone is well worth the price of the book. While talking about it in the following weeks we came to the conclusion that this game mechanic could be easily applied to any game, any system. It takes the “you are in a bar/tavern/club/inn”  trope and kills it, no more will characters have no reason to be together, and look to split at the first moment.

The character generation process is long, but well worth it, in addition to creating their own characters, the players are actively involved in helping create the characters of the others and define the world they will play in. This makes the players take ownership of the game as much as the host. With a setup like this, there is no possibility of railroading, no predefined trail, just a collaborative story with potentially great drama at the key. I hope to be able to play more of this new system, at the very least it will have opened my eyes.


 

Relationship Map [kumu.io]

relations


 

Characters

These character descriptions are based on what we had time to explore during the first session of play (character creation + 6 scenes). Some relationship were not even approached yet, therefore I made the choice to omit them as they will be defined during our next sessions.

Doctor Finklestein (Mad Scientist) [Ethics – Results]

A old Nazi scientist, extracted at the end of World War 2 by Richard Sharpe under orders from Stuart Dunn (CIA).  He managed to adapt to his new life by working at the University of New York, making great progress in the research on human genome. Rumors has it that Mr. Olympus could be one of his creation. He will stop at nothing to have his life work be approved by the rest of the scientific community.

Mr. Olympus (Golden Boy) [Restraint – Excess]

A Greek God wannabe, Mr. Olympus stands tall on the shoulder of Persei and Hercules, as these are both a shadow of Mr. Olympus himself. Destined for greatness, as one of the first avowed Supers, Mr. Olympus quickly understood that he needed good marketing on his side and contacted Stuart Dunn (Owner of the New York Post) to act as his publicist. Olympus true identity remains a mystery, this might be a challenge in face of the enactment of Article 18 and legislature to force heightened individuals to register themselves.

Rick Smith A.K.A. The Librarian (Geek) [Fear – Action]

One of the few black men at the New York University in 1961, he managed to get in via a small clerks job at the university library. A quick learner he became one of Doctor Finklestein confidants, to the surprise of many. Unable to enroll officially in the NYU scientific program he managed to learn as much as he could by attending courses as a shadow student. He often writes scientific columns in the New York Post under a pen name. Since the advent of the heightened syndrome declaration he quickly became obsessed with Mr. Olympus.

Richard Sharpe (Enforcer) [Apathy – Empathy]

An oddity by himself, Sharpe is a heightened Lazarus (He cannot die). Tired of the human comedy/tragedy, he clearly tries to cling to one last hope for humanity. He sees Stuart Dunn as a possible lifesaver, if only he himself can care enough to implement Dunn’s vision.

Stuart Dunn (Media Mogul) [Power – Responsability]

The controlling owner of the New York Post, knows that the human race survival is at stake. He knows where the hand of fate should be swayed but currently lacks the the power to nurture the required changes for the future. He looks at Richard Sharpe as a tool, an extension of his will through the ages. What is the greatest power if not to influence humanity from beyond the grave.


 

Scenes

#1

Caller : Éric

Location : Chrysler Building

Cast :

  • Mr. Olympus sitting on a couch
  • Stuart Dunn at his desk
  • Rick Smith storming in

Rick Smith wants to know why his latest article was not published.

#2

Caller : Yan (Host)

Location : N/A

Cast :

  • N/A

As the heightened are revealed, groups around the United States are clamoring for protection from the federal government. Proponents of stricter controls have placed regulation to Congress mandating the registration of any citizen with heightened powers. The president office unsure of its constitutional grounds and weary of special interest groups has placed a question to the Supreme court asking “Are heightened Individuals granted the same rights by the U.S. Constitution as other citizens of the United States”. In the meantime the federal agencies have geared up to begin mandatory registration of heightened individuals. Rumors hint that if the Supreme Court decides that the Constitution does not apply to the heightened, internment camps could be created to insure public safety.

#3

Caller : Simon

Location : Chrysler Building (20 minutes before)

Cast :

  • Mr. Olympus sitting on a couch
  • Stuart Dunn at his desk

Mr. Olympus is tired of being a second string violin, he wants more.

#4

Caller : Martin

Location : Central Park

Cast :

  • Richard Sharpe sitting on a park bench
  • Doctor Finkelstein

Sharpe needs help from Finkelstein, he wants to create a list of them.

#5

Caller : Patrick

Location : Chrysler Building

Cast :

  • Stuart Dunn
  • Doctor Finkelstein
  • Mr. Olympus (Jump)

Finklestein needs more study subject, he is really close to cracking the mystery of heightened DNA. For this he really needs to have the support of Stuart Dunn…

#6

Caller : Jonathan

Location : Europe 1945

Cast :

  • Stuart Dunn (young)
  • Richard Sharpe

Sharpe orders Dunn to recover a scientist named Finklestein before the Red Army gets him.

 

With DramaSystem and many more story games its no longer just about breaking down doors, killing the monsters, stealing the treasure and rescuing/getting the girl. Our hobby just became that much more interesting/challenging/complex.

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