a column on roleplaying
by Robin D. Laws
When characters in DramaSystem want to accomplish something practical, external to their emotional goals, the full procedural system seen in Hillfolk allows you to narrate a detailed scene around that. It determines not only what ultimately happens, but lays down a series of suspense beats along the way.
The system’s default assumption is that you will use this only rarely. Mostly when you want something practical to happen, the scene caller just describes it happening:
“The village is on fire and the Horseneck tribe are riding through, pillaging! I go to Tallbeard to urge him to renounce his vow of non-violence and lead the charge to drive them off!”
“Ann has altered the library into a vast black labyrinth and locked out all the students. Doc, who she did not see over by the study carrels when she wove the spell, comes over to complain.”
“Chessboard, Asim’s horse, wins the third race by a nose. Asim approaches Percival, hoping for congratulations.”
Only in two cases would you bother to treat these changes to the ongoing situation as anything other than a fait accompli:
- Not everyone in the group agrees that this should happen
- The caller wants to be surprised by the outcome (a rare case I’ll deal with in a later post)
The original procedural system as seen in Hillfolk serves as something of a Rorschach test for player group culture. Of the groups who’d rather use an alternate, some want the procedural system to behave even more like a traditional RPG resolution system. Others want to set aside the suspense of the current system in favor of the quickest possible answer to the question at hand.
Here are two options for those belonging to that second camp: one simpler, one way simpler. They let you dispense with the red, yellow and green procedural tokens entirely, stripping the game down to two resource types: drama tokens and bennies.
They also assume that there is no such thing as a scene consisting only of a procedural action. Here, the procedural only serves as a prelude changing the conditions before the real meat of the scene, a dramatic interaction.
This removes the option of calling a procedural as a way of ducking the commitment of placing your character in yet another emotional situation. As with so much else in the highly personal play experience DramaSystem provides, this might be a plus or minus, depending on the tastes of your particular players.
The GM checks to see how many players care about the outcome, and what they want to happen. The caller draws two cards from a freshly shuffled playing card deck; each other player who cares one way or the other draws a single card. The GM does not take part. Players may spend bennies to draw additional cards. Each card costs one bennie. After everyone has had a chance to draw as many cards as they wish to pay bennies for, the players begin turning them over.
- have all players whose characters are taking part in the action flip over all cards at once. The player with the highest card describes what happens.
- narrate the ups and downs of each card outcome.
The first choice, Quick Narration, cuts to the chase, giving you a speedy outcome so you can get right back to the drama.
The second, Suspense Narration, draws out the suspense, getting you a little closer to the set-piece action/thriller sequence feeling the established procedural system permits.
Ties between cards of the same value, as always, resolve using this suit order, from best to worst: Spades, Hearts, Diamonds, Clubs.
In either case, the outcome a player wants might be the opposite of their character’s desires. This happens when your plans as author and the motivations of the character contradict each other. Ava the player might want to see the situation shaken up by a successful enemy raid on the village, even though her character, Ashwind, doesn’t want any such thing. When you’re rooting for the group to get into more trouble, you might well narrate bad stuff happening that your character either fails to stop or is not directly involved in.
In both of the following examples, Ava, Bob and Carla think it’s more interesting to let the Horsenecks successfully raid the village, with Darius, Emily and Fran hoping to see them driven off. Ava is the caller.
Quick Narration Example
Ava draws two cards. Darius, who plays Tallbeard and doesn’t want to be put in this position, pays a bennie to draw an extra card. Everyone turns their cards over at once. The highest card is the King of Spades, drawn by Emily. She narrates:
“The village may be on fire, but we rally and send the Horsenecks packing without Tallbeard’s having to draw his sword. His vow remains intact.”
This requires Ava, who is still the caller, to revise her intention of the scene. Her character, Ashwind, still goes to Tallbeard. Now, however, she uses a bit of tribal reverse psychology, congratulating him on training the others so that his own hands don’t get bloody any more.
Suspense Narration Steps and Example
In Suspense narration, the caller reveals the first card and describes a step in the action that goes her way. Then you go around the room from the caller’s left with each other player who wants to influence the outcome revealing his cards in turn. With each card reveal the player turning a card over describes:
- a step toward his desired outcome (if this card is the highest so far, or if the highest card so far has already been drawn by a player driving the story toward the same outcome)
- a step away from the desired outcome (if this card does not beat the highest so far, which is held by the other side)
Keep going around the room until you get back to the caller, who reveals her remaining card(s).
With all cards drawn and narrated, the player with the high card concludes the description by describing the final outcome.
(As the King of Spades is the highest card and can’t be beaten, its appearance prompts an exception to the rules. A player revealing it narrates an immediate end to the action sequence, in her favor.)
Example: Ava, the caller, reveals a 4 of Diamonds. The first card is always the high card when drawn, so she says: “The village is on fire! The Horseheads come riding in.”
Darius, on her left, wants the village to repel the attack and has paid a bennie for an extra card. He reveals the 8 of Clubs. That’s better than Ava’s card, so he describes events turning the village’s way: “Using Tallbeard’s training, the people spring into action, flinging sling bullets at the hated foe.” He turns over his second card, an 8 of Diamonds: “The Horsenecks break formation, and the people cheer!” (Suit order tells us that this is the new high card.)
Bob, on his left, reveals the 6 of Clubs, worse than the highest card so far. He has to describe events going against his desires, which favor of the invasion: “Even our smallest children join in the defense, pelting the invaders with well-aimed stones.”
Carla, on his left, reveals the 9 of Clubs, the best card so far. She favors the invasion: “Then their mightiest warriors regroup, sending our hurlers fleeing with terrifying swings of their great bronze war clubs.”
Emily turns over the Jack of Spades, now the best card. Opposing the invasion, she says: “Our best fighters, Tallbeard excepted, clash with theirs, sending them toppling from their mounts.”
Fran shows her card, the 7 of Diamonds. That’s not the best card but she’s with Emily in wanting the invasion to fail, so she gets to describe a positive result. “Seeing this, the Horseneck auxiliaries flee.”
That takes us around the room back to the caller, Ava. If she draws a Queen or King, she can turn this back to her original intent. But she only gets a 10 of Clubs, and must describe an opposite step: “Still on horseback, our war leaders herd the downed Horsenecks past our fortifications.”
As owner of the high card, Emily gets the final narrative touch: “We jeer them, hurling dung and insults, as they limp back toward their dry and wretched lands.”
As in the quick narration example, Ava, the caller, then revises her intention of the ensuing scene. Her character, Ashwind, still goes to Tallbeard. Now, however, she uses a bit of tribal reverse psychology, congratulating him on training the others so that his own hands don’t get bloody any more.