Despite being a run-away Kickstarter success back in 2012 that was delivered in a timely fashion, Hillfolk is a game that has made less of a splash than it probably deserves. The product of RPG industry titan, Robin Laws, this is a game that straddles the story game/trad RPG divide more successfully than most of its company in that niche.
On the surface, Hillfolk is a game in which a GM and players live out the struggles of an Iron Age tribal society. The player characters are the leading men and women of their tribe, and they must face all the challenges of their harsh environment: weather, famine, tribal warfare, and of course, interpersonal struggles. This last item is the true key to the game, though. Hillfolk was the first—and to my knowledge, only—iteration of Laws' DramaSystem ruleset. Under the hood, Hillfolk and the DramaSystem are meant to be an engine that provides gamers the opportunity to tell stories in the style of ensemble-driven television programs such as The Wire, Vikings, or Game of Thrones. Laws took great effort to deconstruct the writing and pacing of those shows and then masterfully applied the lessons learned to his game.
The book clearly lays out a method by which the GM informs their players of the "series" setting and then invites them to choose roles in their society such as Chief, Scout, Oracle, or Healer, to name a few. From there players are guided through a process of defining their relationships with one another in straightforward terms resulting in a Relationship Map which provides a thousand foot view of the characters, their motivations, and their relationships. This is an extraordinarily important step in creation as it lays the groundwork for nearly every story the group will tell. Further details about each character are generated, including a pair of "Dramatic Poles" inspired by famous fictitious examples (Walter White: virtuous weakness or anti-social power?). At the end of this collaborative process each player will have a well-rounded character with more depth than typically observed in a starting RPG character.
The games mechanics center on drawing from a deck of playing cards with modifiers in the form of tokens or gained situationally by the characters traits. This system is simple to understand and elegant in execution. Its greatest benefit is that it quietly gets out of the way of the dramatic tensions that are the real heart of the game.
A campaign is termed a "season" and like a TV season, has recurring villains, low points for the characters, and a satisfying payoff. Each session within a season is designed to focus on one or two of the characters just as in episodes of ensemble shows. While it is possible to have a satisfying single session of Hillfolk, it really shines when played over 10-12 sessions with a discreet ending point.
While Hillfolk uses a default Iron Age setting, dozens of alternate settings have been published in a companion book, Blood on the Snow, and as individual downloads ranging from explorations of drug trafficking gangs to gonzo insanity where players portray the members of an anthill at war with another nest. These 1-2 page overviews are each an excellent value, and many have even been written by RPG luminaries like Greg Stolze.
Hillfolk is the kind of nearly self-contained game that tends to have a big moment among gamers before becoming obscure because it is not the subject of a constant stream of published hard copy supplements. I believe almost any gaming group will get a lot of enjoyment out of Hillfolk even if it’s no longer the darling of the moment.