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.

Strangers

It’s been a long time since my last post; Nothing much happened here, one of the player gave birth to a beautiful little girl in the last week or so. That meant placing our Night’s Black Agents game on ice for the time being. The new baby put two of the agents down, while the mom and dad nurse their “injuries”, we will start a DramaSystem (Hillfolk being the first implementation) game.

Naturally, we will create our own setting based on the following ideas.  We will merge the Mutant City Blues setting with the ideas created by Matt Forbeck’s in his “Brave New World” series. Other sources of inspiration will include the Marvel’s Civil War series, Watchmen by Alan Moore  / Dave Gibbons and superheroes stories in general.

 


 

Strangers – A DramaSystem Setting

Nutshell

Newly heightened humans come to grip with their powers in an era of social upheaval, during the height of the cold war (.. – 1962).

Setting

Six months after a flu pandemic touched 1% of the world population, people start exhibiting strange new powers. While the United States and USSR battle for global domination in foreign territories, rights activists try to rock the foundation of the home country. Will the arrival of these newly heightened humans bring the world closer to World War 3 or will it spark a new golden age for humanity.

Sources

  • X-Men (Marvel/DC)
  • Brave New World books – Matt Forbeck’s
  • Watchmen – Alan Moore / Dave Gibbons
  • Heroes (Series)
  • Kick-Ass (Movie)

Characters

  • The Veteran – The Comedian
    • You have seen it all, as an old military or police officer. if only the world could stay as it was. If it worked for so long it’s probably because rules were in place and good people took care of it. You were probable one of those people, you are still one of those people. The kids with the long hair call you Big Brother or the Man. They can go back to smoking their drugs and dreaming about freedom, you know the horrors of the world. You know that your are their only chance, even if they refuse to see it. You fear change above all, where will your place be when you no longer recognize the world.
  • The Loner – Wolverine
    • You never asked for these powers, you will always try to walk away from it all. But your capacity for self-hatred only means that you comes back for more punishment. Unable to form long term relationship, they often end in tears and sometimes blood. You so wanted a normal life, but these powers put an end to that dream. you are a freak, and nobody should get to know the real you, less they get hurt.
  • The GeekBeast, Ironman, Mister Fantastic, Doctor Manhattan
    • Now that you can work on these ideas without interruption, you know you will come up with the solution to whatever got you going in the first place. The sickness that killed Aunt Julie or the accident that made you the monster you became. You despise being interrupted and will take any measure to be able to work unhindered, even if it means alienating people around you.
  • The Golden BoyCyclops
    • You got these cool powers, no longer just somebody, you are it. You know you will do great things, and it even works, at least most if the times. You will show the world, and the world will recognize you as a great person. You will accomplish great things, failure is no longer an option. They will remember your great deeds.
  • The Rebel – Ironman
    • Why do it the way they want me to do it. you  knows that you have to shakes things up to make change happen. People in power never understand when you say no, they think you difficult, even opposing. In truth, you fear becoming a tool for big brother. You are sometimes perceived as an anarchist or something to control and you despise this more than anything. You do everything for a sense of hedonistic pride.
  • The Caregiver – Invisible Woman
    • Caring for those around you, even if they don’t need or want your help. You can’t stop yourself, more often than not your help did good. Some of the stronger ones resent you for being the one who saved them. They will always try to make it up to you, but you know who holds the true power.
  • The OutsiderThor, Spawn
    • What the hell are you doing here, this is not your fight. Someone or something sent you here and expect you to complete the task. You probably don’t want to, but if that is the only way to get home, you’ll do it. Your goals are often at odds with the natives, but in the end your desire to go home, should be enough to break your will. And that might be your only fear.
  • The Fearless LeaderCapt. America, The Patriot
    • By God, you’ll take care of the situation and show the world that this is a positive event. People will be made to understand that what happened here is the next step in human evolution and that under your guise it will be better than before. People resisting this change are social dinosaurs, their opinions are of no interest. With your leadership skills you are able to make people bend to your will, even if sometimes you doubt your own motivations.
  • The PlayboyHuman Torch, Ironman
    • As long as you looks good doing it, you don’t care much about the consequences of your acts. You have powers now, why should you refrain from using them. You probably drove a red car before the Event. Now you  just flies around. You don’t really want power or control, you only want to be famous. Every second you spend out of the limelight is a step closer to the end of your 15 minutes.
  • The Kid – Robin, Spiderman
    • Holy Shit! Holy Shit! Holy Shit! That’s so awesome, your no longer getting beat up in school by the bullies who now seem so irrelevant. Initially you tried to impress everybody around by trying to emulate the bullies themselves, until you realized that you are still a kid. You do not know who you really are anymore, you never knew either. Before you were a social pariah that could not do anything about it, now you are still alone, people are afraid of you.
  • The Risk Taker – Daredevil, 
    • You are an addict, if you could you would not stop. You have always been seen as a weakling or an handicap but when you don the mask you exhibit powers beyond your wildest dreams. Saner man Will you be able to resist being absorbed by your alter-ego? Will be able to resist pushing out friends and family who only fear for your safety.
  • The Player – Gambit
    • This is only a game isn’t it? And you’ll play it as long as you got a chance to make a profit. You are the ultimate profiteer, creating opportunities out of thin air. All those other fools are stuck in the same game you are, but only you realize it for what it is – and that is the greatest advantage you can ask for. You know one day you will be put in front of the greatest prize of them all, will you go all-in or will you chicken out and become one of the losers?
  • The Strategist – Xavier

Themes

  • Patriotism
  • Individualism
  • Xenophobia / Racism
  • Fear
  • Alter Ego
  • Big Brother
  • Golden Age
  • Moral choices
  • Security vs Freedom
  • Evolution
  • Heightened Rights vs. Human Rights

Tightening the Screws

  •  A member of congress un/sympathetic to the cause is assassinated.
  • Government declares martial law in answer to troubles between heightened groups and “Normals”
  • Right-Wing groups propose regulations to limit the rights of Heightened Humans.
  • U.S. Government approves Article 18 (Heightened Statute Limitation) and proposes constitutional amendment to declare Heightened Individuals as dangerous elements of the population
  • Doctor Emerald Quade from the Berkeley University biological research group announces that he can start a project to map the heightened powers.
  • USSR sends its navy to Cuba – baiting the U.S. in open war.
  • Canada offers immunity to all Heightened Individuals refusing mandatory registration.
  • Government declares a ban on all costumed heroes, arresting anyone who opposes the measure.
  • Minority groups demand equal access to state resources and equal treatment. Their demands are lost in the Heightened crisis, some frustration grows and some group resort to in-state terrorism to make their demands.
  • Unable to control the newly heightened population of prisons and insane asylum the government added the unrestrained use of heightened powers to the United State Criminal Code as a Capital Offense.
  • The first child born from declared heightened is due to be born in Detroit this week. Police and the military are on high alert. Heightened advocacy groups and anti-heightened opposition organizations have declared that they will show up at the event.
  • Following the death of hundreds in the destruction of the Sears tower, the city of Chicago has asked the state legislature and Federal government to limit the rights of heightened. Meanwhile the city increased its statute suspending the “Citizen Arrest” law.
  • The Catholic Church declared that until it can determine if the advent of powers is the work of the Devil, it will refuse asylum to the heightened. This decision could split the Church.
  • The flu was not a natural occurrence, upon further studies from the CDC in Atlanta it was found to be an advanced bio-engineered virus. The research team who made the discovery is unable/unwilling to say where this type of compound could have been created.
  • New powers unlisted on the Quade diagram have started to appear. The press hungry for news have started relaying the opinion of conspiracy theorist from all over the United State saying that the Quade diagram was the unclassified version of  a much larger web of powers. The New York Times even prints an interview with Doctor Herbert, once research assistant to Doctor Quade. He explains that  …

Additional Elements

Using the 60s as a backdrop, this setting is a (game) study in the road map to fascism. Given a traumatic event would the U.S. have clamped down harder and closed its frontiers. Refusing equal rights to some groups based on the fear of the majority that their world was crumbling. Would those groups have resorted to stronger actions to make their demand clear. This is still a game, please just have fun.

The Troubles

A Drama System series pitch

[Hillfolk Website]

Nutshell

Working class people struggle to keep their families united in face of discrimination from another culture. Protestants and catholics fight one another to determine the status of Northern Ireland. The protestants are backed by the British government and troops creating an atmosphere of oppression for the catholic community. The characters might be members of an Active Service Unit from the Provisional Irish Republican Army, simple citizens trying to make a difference.

This setting deals with strong religious/cultural discrimination between the people that live in Northern Ireland; this might not be for everybody, as it might acerbate real conflict around your table. Please discuss it with your players if you believe this can happen.

Characters

Pub Owner
Dock Worker
Informant*
Priest
Ulster Defence Regiment soldier (UDR)
Worker representative
Political Organizer – Sinn Fein
Thug
ASU – Quartermaster
Low Level member of government (clerical)

*High Tension

To add some tension, you could allow a player to take on the role of informant to the government/military/other group. If you wish to do so, do not let the players know who is the informant. This will give your game extra tension, and the feeling of a cramped setting. You could also not let anybody know about it, except the player of the informant. This way it will give the players two information to discover during play.

“How could the police have known about our meeting tonight?”

“Who’s the rat?”

Setting

It is the 80’s, tensions run high in Belfast. The peace process fails every other week. Have you any hope for the peace process? Do you believe the solution to the conflict is political? The characters are the working class of Belfast, they have lower end wages and have a strong sense of their community. They are strongly catholic or protestant and hate viscerally the other group. – Do you really care about religious affiliation? Or is this more of a way to differentiate yourself from the Other? For the catholics it stems from years of discrimination, unjust treatment and the fear that they could be detained for any reason. For both community in addition to the primal fear of the Other, they have to content with a high unemployment rate – What do people spend their time on? – Where do the lucky ones work at?, Is it unionized?, a housing crisis – Where do homeless people live? – and random violence that can erupt at any moment. Often only separated by a street or two, catholics and protestants must live with one another, work in the same shops, share the same neighborhood, and hope to see another gloomy day. Do you know people from the other side?

Sources

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Troubles
http://www.bbc.co.uk/history/troubles
http://www.theguardian.com/Northern_Ireland/flash/0,6189,344683,00.html
http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0107207/

Themes

Love
Discipline
Trust
Identity
Loyalty
Commitment
Revenge
Betrayal
Paranoia
Forgiveness
Buried Secrets

Tightening the Screws

  • The daughter of one of the players starts dating a boy from the other area.
  • The other group beats up an uninvolved citizen and her kids, will you let it go?
  • The local council allocated an empty house to a single girl of 19 (secretary of a local politician) instead of two homeless families.
  • A pacific march was harassed and attacked by the loyalists and off-duty cops.
  • The other groups bombed water and electrical services blaming you.
  • Some republican prisoners have started a hunger strike, how will you show support? Will you protest against their supporters?
    • What if some of the prisoners die?
  • Weapons coming from Libya/South Africa are arriving next week, how will you handle the transfer and payment? How will you send the weapons to the different groups?
  • British troops are stepping up pressure after the bombing of a club frequented by British soldiers.
  • A cease fire has been declared, will you be the one to break it? How will you respond when taunted to break it?
  • Elections will be held shortly, some advocate disrupting the process. Where do you stand on the issue?

Additional Elements

The setting is really geared for the players to play the roles of Irish nationalists and republicans, I feel this is where the most drama can come from. Since the unionists and loyalists are often backed by the British government, it is easy to use as a plot device to really tighten the screws on the players. I see no reason why your players couldn’t play the loyalists, or even members of both group.

Names

Male Given Names

Female Given Names

Surnames

Jeffrey Margaret Young
William Elizabeth Walker
James Pamela Wardlow
John Aoife Parry
Francis Emily O’Sullivan
Aidan Áine Ryan
Liam Lisa Sweeney
Conor Sorcha MacDermott
Eoghan Isobel O’Rourke
Colin Kathleen Hogan

Places

West Belfast Peace Line
Falls Road
Shankill Road
Short Strand
Cluan Place