by Robin D Laws
A DramaSystem Series Pitch
If you’re following the Hillfolk Kickstarter campaign (in progress until Nov 2, 2012), you’ll already know the concept of the Series Pitch—an alternate DramaSystem game laid out for you in a simple and handy format. As of this writing, we’ve funded additional Series Pitches for the main Hillfolk book from such luminaries as Kenneth Hite, Matt Forbeck, Chris Pramas, Emily Care Boss, and more. These pitches set you up to create extended series set in the worlds of cold war espionage, Mars colonization, contact-period Aztecs, supervillain support groups and more.
To get prospective contributors up to speed on the concept, I wrote up a version of the second DramaSystem series I played with my in-house playtesters. I’ve mentioned this before, on my own blog and on Pelgrane’s. Called Greasepaint, it took an ensemble cast of carnival folk through Texas at the height of the dustbowl era, with the paranormal nipping at their heels.
As you’ll often be able to do with DramaSystem, we launched this without a Series Pitch, or in fact any written notes at all. The players collectively decided they wanted to play Depression-era circus performers, with the possibility that they might turn out to have weird powers. (During play, they proved surprisingly reluctant to actually give themselves the strange abilities they thought they wanted.)
We knew circus + Depression + Texas + weirdness, and that was all we needed to weave an exciting series populated by quirky, complicated characters.
Certain common dramatic series concepts will be like this. You’ll never need a medical drama Series Pitch. All you have to do is say “medical drama” and everyone in the room will know the parameters. From there you go straight to character creation.
Because this is a retroactive Series Pitch for a concept that didn’t need prior elaboration, it’s much shorter than the ones currently being funded for addition to the Hillfolk book. This is a little under 700 words, where the stretch goal Pitches will come in around the 2,000 word mark, with an illustration apiece. They’ll need the space due to their high-concept natures or unfamiliar milieus.
(For comparison’s sake, the actual Hillfolk setting material in the book consists of around 4,500 words. This longer presentation not only provides information on the world of Hillfolk, but shows you how to customize it during play through a question-answer process.)
Now that DramaSystem will be available on an open license basis, we could see its adopters come up with all sorts of other formats for Series Pitches, from one-sentence loglines to entire books replete with specific detail.
But without further ado, ladies and gents, step right up to a tent of marvels and mysteries, of sweat and sawdust… the Greasepaint setting pitch!
The freaks and performers of a traveling circus try to keep their community of outsiders together against the desperation of dustbowl-era America.
The main cast are the key members of a ramshackle traveling circus. Roles the players might adopt for their characters might include:
- the carnival’s impresario
- snake charmer
- hoochie-coochie girl
- freak (dog-faced boy, fat lady, bearded lady, lizard man, geek)
- snake oil salesman
- roustabout / laborer
The carnival starts its first episode in small town Texas, at the height of the dustbowl, the exacerbated drought that intensified the misery of the Depression.
They start in the small town of West, Texas, where they run into some sort of conflict pitting the ordinary folk of the wider society against their micro-society of freaks and outlaws.
While you could research these towns and the social milieu and present telling details as needed, the group should feel free to make up the look, feel, and makeup of these places from its storehouse of media images.
Depending on where they decide to go from there, later episodes could take the characters to the equally small town of Waco, Texas, and from there to the bustling cowtown of Abilene. In the playtest version, they wound up fleeing toward Roswell, New Mexico.
Below the realist surface of the setting lies a layer of supernatural strangeness. The characters may manifest unearthly abilities as the game goes on. Recurring characters in or out of the carnival may also turn out to have freakish powers. These paranormal elements reveal themselves slowly over the first few episodes. Players may prove reluctant to grant themselves weird powers, even if they found this central to the premise’s appeal when you first presented it to them.
Episode themes you might expect participants to invoke might include:
- Freakishness: who are the freaks – the circus members, or the ordinary folk who loathe and hate them?
- Desperation: what do you do when backed against the wall?
- Old Bargains: how did the circus get to be a magnet for weirdness in the first place? Does the secret lie in one of the characters’ past?
- Cages: how many ways can we lock ourselves up?
- Damned to be Free: maybe there was comfort in those bars
Tightening the Screws
Traveling between towns gives this series a more episodic feel than one located in a single place. Recurring characters will come and go as the circus moves on. Each town may offer a new threat:
- a murder committed by a secretly monstrous carnival member, which is pinned by a narrow-minded sheriff on the most vulnerable of the PCs
- the discovery that an old rival is performing in one of the towns the group visits
- the Klan
- religious fanatics
An ongoing antagonist might follow the group, tying their disparate encounters together into a larger story arc:
- a scientist determined to study the gang’s freakish powers
- a Mephistophelean figure aiding the group so he can use them in the upcoming apocalypse
- a government busy-body who thinks the carnival’s minors would be better in an institution than degrading themselves as performers for ignorant gawpers