Robin D. Law's Hillfolk (Bronze Age Village)

Testing award-winning game designs in a season of shorts runs, quick starts and starter sets. Slayers (Gila RPGs), Hillfolk (Pelgrane Press) and more.

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Robin D. Law's Hillfolk (Bronze Age Village)

Post by nemarsde »

So, we finally decided to try Robin D. Law's Hillfolk. The game's default setting is the Levant in the Iron Age. The designer says this is to free the players from historical constraints but to me it conjured the Old Testament, Israelites, Philistines and Assyrians, a setting well trodden by Hollywood's Biblical epics, even if its real history is quite poorly known.

An alternative then. I'm fascinated by the Black Sea and Caucasus of the Copper Age. There were some very mysterious and unique cultures there at the time, unlike anything we know from even ancient history. And nature was near pristine. Lions and tigers still roamed the wilds, and the steppe shook with the feet of woolly mammoths. This is hundreds of years before the Great Pyramids and two thousand years before the legendary Fall of Troy!!

Learn more about the archaeology on Wikipedia

Cucuteni–Trypillia Culture
Kura-Araxes Culture
Maykop Culture

This might have been where the wheel and axle were invented, where the Bronze Age started, where the first terrace farms and first wine where made. It was where some of the largest cities in the world existed, 40,000 people living within the same outer walls... over five thousand years ago. Incredible!

So our game would be set in the Caucasus, eastern shore of the Black Sea, some 3,000 BC.
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Player Characters

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We went through full Hillfolk character creation in the first session, drawing a mind map on a white board as we went. This took about three hours.

Before starting, we had an hour free-form discussion of the setting, settling more details about our tribe and their surroundings. We also established the first episode would have the theme Thirst and take place during a wedding between two Hillfolk tribes.

Finally, we squeezed in about three hours play and though tiring, we all enjoyed it.

"Caul"
Call of the Hunter

Played by Bigby and inspired by Neil McCauley from Heat (1995)
My story is of a man who is trying to heal his broken blood-ties while holding onto power

"Dar"
Thunder without Rain

Played by SteveH and inspired by Dar from The Beastmaster (1982)
My story is of a man who is torn between home and the wilds

"Dances"
Dances by Moonlight

Played by Gypsy and inspired by Dunbar from Dances with Wolves (1990)
My story is of a woman who wants respect and recognition

"Inigo"
In He Go

Played by pchan and inspired by Inigo Montoya from The Princess Bride (1987)
My story is of a man who believes he's destined for great things, and stresses out to achieve them.

"Mir"
Mirrors His Father

GM example character inspired by Boromir from The Fellowship of the Ring (2001)
My story is of a man who succombs to his fears
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nemarsde
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The Land and its People

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The Hillfolk

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All Hillfolk tribes share a common language and culture, trading and feuding freely between their villages.
High-wallers
The High-wallers are the most war-like of the Hillfolk tribes, living in the Pheasant Valley north of Two Little Lakes. They are under constant threat of attack by the Crying Men and build tall palisades around their villages and lookout posts. Their chieftains only come together for festivals or war councils. Protective of their territory, the High-wallers are antagonised whenever Long-striders are caught hunting in their valley.

Long-striders
The Long-striders were nomadic hunter-gatherers until most of the tribe settled at their summer campground by Two Little Lakes, prompted by the weather becoming drier and colder. The hunters are held in high esteem amongst the hillfolk tribes, being the most skilled at hunting the prized bison and elk, and tracking deadly predators like the leopard. Long-striders are ruled by councils of elders, the Men's and the Women's, each governing certain aspects of tribal life.
  • "Adel" Born in A Dell. Bride from the Long-striders tribe who married Canan on the first day of summer, the wedding taking place at the Long-striders' village.
  • "Canan" Can Anger Stone. Groom from the Smelters tribe who married Adel. Trained in the smelting of arsenical bronze.
  • "Gala" Garland with Flowers. Eligible maiden with massive hair from the Long-striders; keen on Inigo.
  • "Gallathea" Gallant Ever After. Caul's wife, no friend of Dances' but loyal to any family member.
  • "Ged" Speaks of Legend. Thoughtful greybeard on the elder council, stargazer, navigator and loremaster. Kindly and open to new ideas.
  • "Mush" Mushy Underfoot. Young, accident prone hunter.
  • "Sandyman" Made of Sand. Skilled leatherworker with seat on the elder council, afraid of outlanders and favours settling the tribe permanently.
  • "Sorbo" Sore Bones. Young, unmarried hunter of Long-striders tribe, who tends to get blind drunk whenever there's a celebration. Second best hunter after Inigo.
  • "Wim" Whimpers Not Cries. Ancient, rude and toothless crone on the elder council, who has the greatest accumulated medical knowledge in the tribe and favours the traditional ways.
Smelters
The Smelters are a Hillfolk tribe that has settled by Red Gorge, south-west of Two Littles Lakes. They know the deadly smelting process of arsenical bronze or "black metal", harder but more brittle than bronze and valued for making knives and spearheads. The old masters rule the tribe by esoteric tradition. The Smelters trade constantly with the Long-striders and trade disputes are a common cause of tensions between the tribes.
  • "Grancis" Grain of Malice. [Must have been a scary child -GM] Tallest and strongest buck in the Smelters tribe; very keen on Dances.
  • "Karsk" Wears A Casque. [Dropped on his head at birth? -GM] An elder of the Smelters tribe, who wants a skilled hunter from the Long-striders to be wedded into the Smelters, in return for Canan.
Wilds
The surrounding hills have steep wooded slopes, lush all year round and criss-crossed with fresh water running down from the Mountains of Shimmering Snow. There are many dark dells, often the lairs of leopards, wolves or bears, and wanderers must be wary of sudden drops into gorges and hidden pot-holes.
  • Devil in the Long Grass. A man-eating tiger that stalks the northern banks of the Gnawing River.
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Outlanders

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Beyond the hills are the domain of alien tribes that share very little in common with each other or the Hillfolk. They might not speak a familiar language, they might attack on sight or flee. Their ways and customs are strange and contact is rare and fraught with peril.
Barbarians
The southern mountains are prowled by barbarian tribes. A dark-skinned, kilted Wolf-landers that thrive on bloodshed and warfare and take grim trophies from those they kill. They worship demons, are without honour, and practice slavery.

Crying Men
These feared bandits and outcasts prey upon travellers passing through the Granite Gates but aren't beyond raiding Hillfolk or Fireshield settlements. They speak a pidgin language and favour simple flat bows and clubs. Although they allow youths to join their ranks, they will usually execute any full grown men they capture. Women are often used for sport then killed, or more rarely taken as prizes. The bandits paint black grease under their eyes, which is how they became known as the "Men Who Cry Black Tears".

Far Traders
Far Traders are a brotherhood of travelling merchants whose baggage trains bring goods and news from as far east as the Desert of Amber on the far shore of the Wolfish Sea, to as far west as the Cities of the Three Velds on the far shore of the Black Sea. Their overland route brings them from the Bay of Swarms (ice-free even in winter) on the Black Sea, southeast to the Granite Gates, then east through Fireshield territory to the Wolfish Sea. Far Traders are colourful folk, skilled in languages and storytelling. They visit the Long-striders to buy furs, antlers, herbs and medicines.

Fireshields
Originating from their capital on the Stormwracked Coast to the east, the Fireshields have expanded west as far as the Sacred Hot Springs. Their villages plant crops in fields, keep aurochs in pens and don't tend to feud amongst themselves. Each village is ruled by a chieftain but they revere a priestly caste, worshipping the Sky-father. Although mixed races are common amongst the Fireshields from the sea trade, they are fearful of Hillfolk and other western tribes and maintain well-equipped militias. Setting watch-fires around their villages at night gave them their name.

Goatmen of the Jagged Shadow
A brutish-looking, chinless people that make their homes in the shadow of Mount Jagged in the northwest. Hillfolk hunters that stalk ibex in the high crags sometimes encounter these red-haired, fleece-clad strangers, who always retreat quickly uphill. But more than one hunter has been found in the mountains with the back of their skull smashed in, suggesting ambush from the rocks above. Nothing else is known of the Goatmen of the Jagged Shadow.

River Runners
The southern banks of the Gnawing River are home to a tribe of cutthroats, who wage war amongst themselves constantly during the dry months. Raiding parties in canoes are a common sight on the river on summer nights, but they prefer to parley with other tribes first and are eager to be paid off. They are strong-armed, fierce warriors that favour daggers and long bows. Each village has its own chieftain with a distinct totem.

Spear-fishers
To the west is the Black Sea. The coast and vast wetlands are inhabited by the Spear-fishers, a tribe who spread along the coast from north of the mountains. They are a strange people with even stranger customs, obsessed with a gallery of petty gods that govern every iota of their surroundings. This makes it very easy to cause grave offence and unsurprisingly the Spear-fishers are very skilled at throwing pointy sticks.
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Beyond

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North
To the north, the known world of the Hillfolk is bound by the Mountains of Shimmering Snow. These stretch coast to coast from the Black Sea to the Wolfish Sea. Beyond them, tales speak of tribes that build orchards on the sides of valleys.

Northeast
To the northeast, the Great Steppe and its tribes of nomadic horse-tamers. Some are said to be part-horse.

East
The Eastern Plains spread eastwards to the Wolfish Sea and fall under the Chiefdoms of the Fireshields, with their chief temple to the Sky-father high on the cliffs of the Stormwracked Coast. Eastward across the Wolfish Sea is said to be the Desert of Amber.

South
South is bounded by the steep spurs of a plateau, the edge of the Wolf-lands where barbarians roam. Wolf-landers are dark skinned. Strangers venturing there can expect a swift death and looted corpse, if the lions and hyenas don't get them first.

West
On the far shore of the Black Sea lies the fabled Cities of the Three Velds, where people live behind walls in their tens of the thousands. Far Traders often bring their exquisite pottery back with them.

Northwest
Following the coast northwest leads to the sheltered Bay of Swarms and onwards to the Mother Swamp. There is said to be the lair of the Dragon That Breathes Green Flame, a monster that prowls the Black Sea and terrorises shipping.
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Episodes

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Episode 1

GM went first. The first episode of the first game should be themed Hunger but we tweaked this to Thirst to match the drought we'd talked about during character creation.

It's also recommend the first episode feature a wedding, so we went with that.

The first episode was largely explorative play, with the group adjusting to the new dramatic playstyle. The episode was set at the start of summer, with the players' tribe (Long-striders) hosting a wedding between Adel and a man of the Smelters tribe, Canan.

Plot threads created during the episode were the Smelters wanting a Long-striders hunter to marry into their tribe in return for Canan. Caul pushed Inigo for this duty but ended up agreeing to mentor the ambitious Inigo as a protégé. A love triangle developed between Dances, Dar and Inigo. We discovered that the marriage between Dances and Mir had darker undertones, as did Mir's death.

The wedding was punctuated by a procedural scene, narrated by the players, as embers from the bonfire set a hut ablaze. Trapped inside were three boys but all were saved and the episode ended in the hung-over morning after. The smouldering ruins of the hut reminded the characters that they were living in a sea of dry wood.

Later, when we voted for benny winners, Caul won with Inigo second. Votes are based on which character's moments in the episode most encapsulated the theme.

Episode 2

Gypsy went first, choosing the episode theme Betrayal.

The episode takes place midsummer, long, dry weeks after the wedding in Episode 1. The forest is like kindling and the drought shows no sign of abating.

We tried to keep to the 10-minute scene limit recommended in the rules. Unless otherwise noted, each scene was set a day or two after the previous.
  1. Gypsy calls Dances and Caul. She asks for his trust, he won't give it, he blames her for Mir committing suicide. If she shows her eagerness to integrate with the tribe by teaching others her healing skills, that would be positive step. Although wary, Dances feels Caul is giving her a chance and in return she can share her Wolf-land traditions. Bigby earns a token from the kitty.
  2. pchan calls Inigo and Dar. Inigo wants Dar's advice on wooing Dances, Dar reluctantly gives earnest advice. SteveH earns a token from the kitty.
  3. GM calls Mir and Caul. Flashback to winter. Mir and Caul are tracking Dar through the snow, who has stalked a deer up over the ridge. Mir asks Caul for his support in usurping the elder councils and proclaiming himself chieftain. Disturbed by his brother's paranoia and ambition, Caul nevertheless agrees and Bigby earns a token from the kitty. They then find Dar on a rocky outcrop surrounded by a super-pack of hundreds of wolves. Lighting torches, they fight through to Dar. Mir has his knee torn out, then the noise triggers an avalanche, scaring off the wolves....
  4. SteveH calls Dar and Dances. Flashback to winter. Dar visits his brother Mir, now lame and needing a crutch. Dar gets a moment alone with Dances and wants her to open up about the trouble between her and Mir. She reveals bruises and that she's treated like a slave. Dances has definitely confided in Dar and Gypsy takes a token from SteveH.
  5. Bigby calls Caul and Dar. The brothers are scouting for game along the Gnawing River. Caul asks Dar to move in with him and his wife, to show his commitment to the tribe whilst Caul tries to establish a dedicated long-range scouting cadre. Dar is convinced and agrees, SteveH takes a token from Bigby.
  6. Gypsy calls Dances and Inigo. She interupts Inigo's target practice to ask if she can join one of the hunts northeast to improve her woodcraft. Inigo suggests just the two of them go out together. Dances is happy with the compromise and it ends a no-contest.
  7. pchan calls Inigo and Dances. After a morning tracking bison into the hills, Inigo leads Dances to a romantic glade with waterfall. He tries to tempt her to join him for a naked swim. When Dances refuses, pchan cashes in his benny, spends two tokens to force Gypsy's consession. Dances bursts into tears and confesses to loving Dar. Afterwards, the group decides Gypsy earned pchan's two tokens but pchan also earned one of hers.
  8. GM calls Dances and Dar. Flashback to the spring thaw. On the high cliffs above the Red Gorge, Dances performs a naked Wolf-lander ritual whilst Dar spies on her from the bushes. Suddenly Dar is accosted by limping, lame Mir, who accuses Dar of being seduced by Dances' witchcraft. There is a scuffle, Mir is accidentally knocked over the cliff to his doom. Dances witnesses this. So Mir's death wasn't suicide, Dar and Dances have concealed the truth!! They earn tokens from the kitty.
  9. SteveH calls Dar and Inigo. The two hunters are hiding and observing a large caravan of Far Traders approaching from the south. Dar wants Inigo to withdraw his suit for Dances. Inigo gives up, loyal to his best friend, and jokingly asks Dar's help in finding another gorgeous babe to pursue. pchan takes a token from SteveH.
  10. Bigby calls Caul and Inigo. The tribe's hunters have tracked down a monstrous 200-kilo wild boar to a deep, wooded dingle by the Gnawing River. Caul tells Inigo that the lead hunter must learn to step aside and let others get the glory once in a while. He wants Inigo to fluff his strike on the boar and give Sorbo the kill. Inigo is conflicted but goes along with the plan; Sorbo slaying the boar with a spear after a ferocious confrontation. pchan takes a token from Bigby.
  11. Gypsy calls Dances and Dar. Dances meets Dar on the cliffs where Mir died and wants him to accept her despite a dark secret: The contraceptive she took whilst she was with Mir (the red germ – Queen Anne's Lace?) has left her sterile. Dar hadn't thought ahead to having children so the group decides this scene ended as a no contest.
  12. pchan calls Inigo and Dar. The Far Traders arrive on the outskirts of the village, wanting to trade riches from the east for precious bison hides. There is a festival spirit. Inigo is unsettled by the boar hunt and wants Dar to find out whether Caul is conspiring against him. The core conflict never arose in the scene though so the group decides it ended as a no contest.
  13. GM calls Caul and his wife—Bigby names her "Gallathea"—and a turbaned soothsayer of the Far Traders. The soothsayer wants Caul to believe his readings, telling Caul that his family is troubled by a restless spirit with unfinished business. He must sate the spirit but beware of black magic, and if successful he will have five children and the drought will break. Caul takes this mumbo-jumbo seriously, earning Bigby a token from the kitty.
  14. SteveH calls Dar and tribe's most senior wise woman, Wim. He asks her if there's a remedy for the damage done by the red germ. After some cajoling she tells him that ivory from the woolly mammoth can be made into a detoxifying potion. But she won't mix it unless Dar tells her who it's for. He doesn't. The GM gets a token from SteveH.
  15. Bigby calls a conference scene with all player characters and both elder councils. Caul starts a heated debate amongst the elders, requesting that Dances be evicted from her hut so it can be used by a new class of scouts. The elders approve of the scouts but can't decide where to house Dances. The most vocal faction wants her cast out but Gallathea passionately stands up for her sister-in-law. It's finally decided Dances should be housed with Ged, the old stargazer and storyteller. Dances accepts, Gypsy taking a token from Bigby.
After voting for the benny winners of Betrayal, Dar won, with Dances and Inigo in joint second.
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Footnotes

Post by nemarsde »

Even weeks after, I was fascinated by the tribe we created and what we didn't know about it, because a lot could be inferred from what we did know.

There aren't many nomadic tribes left in the real world's 21st-Century but there are some, still resisting the massive changes around them and adhering to their way of life. And there are modern forms of nomadism too, Travellers and #VanLife. So I find the idea of a nomadic tribe existing, surrounded by settled tribes entirely believable, same for the pressure to settle.

The Long-striders venerated hunting and lived in the densely wooded hills of the Transcaucasus, modern day Georgia. Their most prized game would surely be Caucasian bison (extinct as of 1927). The grasslands stretching east to the Caspian Sea would be the domain of the aurochs and tarpan but the Caucasian bison was not a plains-dweller like its North American cousin. The Caucasian bison lived deep in the woods, difficult terrain requiring the hunting traditions of the Long-striders. Red deer, leopards, wolves were all widespread across the Near East and beyond, but bison hides would be almost exclusive to the Long-striders, making hides valuable trade goods.

We never talked about religion during play, in or out of character. These hunters seemed focused on their way of life rather than gods or spirits, and although not by design, this was born out in what we decided about the Outlander tribes.

The Spear-fishers were considered strange for their animist beliefs and the Fireshields strange for their worship of gods, suggesting the Long-striders beliefs were quite different. We know the Long-striders were willing to believe in fortune-telling, ancestor spirits and destiny, so could it be that Long-striders followed a way, a creed, similar to real world Taoism (and yes, Mandalorians)?
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Verdict

Post by nemarsde »

Intense character/party creation and complete focus on dramatic role-play makes Hillfolk a challenging, tiring but hugely rewarding game imo.

After two sessions, the players had varying enthusiasm for more but all respected the system and what it enabled them to achieve in such a short time: Complex, meaningful characters and interwoven stories that came out of actual play.

I feel we learned priceless lessons about the nuts-and-bolts of what makes a role-play scene exciting for the whole group, lessons that we'll never forget.

So I recommend any gaming group give Hillfolk a try; it deserves its accolades. Not everyone will like it but on the day if you all say "What the hell, let's just go with it" I'm convinced you'll have fun and exercise creative muscles you didn't know you had.
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