Robin D. Law's Hillfolk (Victorian Circus)

Testing experiment 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 (Victorian Circus)

Post by nemarsde »

The question remained, how would Hillfolk work with a different setting? Of the books, over 60% is dedicated to additional settings and some of them are very far removed from an Iron Age village, like a rabbit warren or ant colony. But conceptually, the most different is probably Teatime for Elephants where the player characters are part of close-knit Victorian community in the British Raj.

The external pressure on the characters is much less. The Victorians are people of means, they can come and go as they please. But they are forced together by their choosing (or duties).

For a while I thought of transplanting this idea to Roman Britain but the players were keener on an alternative I proposed, a Victorian circus. So we decided to play another short run of Hillfolk set during the Golden Years of Great Britain, 1860. All the characters belonging to the same fictional circus touring England.

Timeline of the Victorian Empire | Royal Museums Greenwich
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Player Characters

Post by nemarsde »

The English

Fortune-teller. Horatio's daughter
Played by pchan and seeded by Wesley from The Princess Bride (1987)
Private self v. Public persona
My story is of a woman who wants power and respect in her own right.

Producer. Hired by Ben Lyman to run the day-to-day circus operation
Played by rossi720 and seeded by Fisk Sr from Dean Spanley (2008)
Controlling v. Nurturing
My story is of a man who would pass on his legacy, but fears it already lost.

Clown. Horatio's younger and least favourite son
Played by Bigby and seeded by Logan from Logan (2017)
Solitude v. Family
My story is on a clown trying to forget his past by entertaining others... and scotch, lots of scotch.

Soldier killed in Crimea. Horatio's elder son
GM character seeded by Boromir from The Fellowship of the Ring (2001)
Duty v. Honour

The Irish

Equestrian. Mack's half-brother
Played by Gypsy and seeded by The Cooler King from The Great Escape (1963)
Loyalty v. Rebelliousness
My story is of a man who wants freedom (and the money to sustain it) but in a way that does not hurt others.

Knife-thrower. Horatio's henchman
Played by SteveH and seeded by Bishop from Aliens (1986)
Inhumanity v. Companionship
My story is of a man who has lost his humanity but found family and seeks acceptance of his failures.

Trapeze Artist. Mack's daughter
Played by slill and seeded by Victoria from Red (2010)
Work obsession v. Friendship

Hillfolk form-fillable character sheet
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Ben Lyman's Circus Internationale

Post by nemarsde »

We determined that our Victorian circus is ahead of its time, having exotic performing animals and foreign acrobats before British circuses did historically.

So far acts are spread across the two halves, separated by an interval. Other than the big top there are also sideshows under the same management.

Main Acts - First Half
  • Clowns throughout
  • Equestrians
  • Knife-thrower
  • Lion tamer
  • High wire
Main Acts - Second Half
  • Clowns throughout
  • Mentalist
  • Ostrich racing
  • Contortionist/Snake dancer
  • Trapeze
  • Parade
  • Funfair
  • Fortune-teller
  • Freak show
  • Pie stalls
  • Troubadours
  • Escaped animals
1860 Tour of England
  1. One Night Stand. Netley Abbey, Southampton
  2. Layover. New Forest, Landford
  3. Weekend Show. Salisbury Racecourse
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The Land and its People

Post by nemarsde »

It is 1860 and the United Kingdom's "Golden Years" but the machinery of empire, industry and transport is still driven by sweat and blood.

It is one land, two worlds. The big cities are busting at the seams, filthy, squalid and choked with smoke, bustling with immigrant cultures, new ideas, new money, yet old divisions of class and privilege.

But beyond in the countryside it might as well be the Middle Ages. Landowners have enclosed most common land, denying the right to roam and creating the patchwork landscape we now know. The few good roads in the country are toll roads, administered by turnpike trusts. Other roads are unmanaged and little better than dirt tracks, so travel and the pace of life in the country is slow, isolated.

By 1860, the railways have matured and standardised, connecting the regions with vital trunk lines except for the centre of London, encircled as it is by slums.

Whether in the city or country, common people must work hard. Around half of all children attend school but it is not compulsory. Working-class children work at least some days of the week, often gruelling manual labour. A decade ago, children were prohibited from working more than 12 hours a day in the summer, 10 hours in the winter, and only half a day on Saturdays.

Although adults work longer hours, the Sabbath is enshrined by law. Pay packets have risen sharply, ahead of inflation, and treatment of workers has improved by leaps and bounds as businesses realise it benefits productivity.

With fuller bellies and more spare time, the youth have driven an explosion of organised sports. Local football clubs have hundreds of members and play by their own rules, but there's now a concerted move to create a national association.

Entertainment is in high demand. Purpose-built beerhouses with hand-pumped ales supplied by fiercely competitive breweries have cropped up everywhere. It is the advent of the modern pub, providing afterwork refuge for the British working man. Music halls have spread from London to cities and towns across the country, managed racecourses with grandstands are big business and growing. And bringing excitement to the counties, travelling circuses are enjoying their golden age!

Beware prostitution though. It is outlawed in all forms and loathed by most of society, held responsible for an epidemic of venereal disease so severe that the government will soon be forced to act.

Literacy rates are at around 50%, making reading a national past-time for the first time. Books, newspapers and magazines, and in the big cities chapbooks and pamphlets, drive conversations up and down the country.

And those conversations are also carried by the Royal Mail. Pre-paid post was first introduced in 1840 with the Penny Black stamp and letter writing has boomed in popularity since then. In 1860, Brits will send over half a billion letters!

Restrictions on religion are relaxed and secularism and agnostic thought are so widespread that about half the country supports the disestablishment of the Church of England. The CofE is largely seen as old, irrelevant and an obstruction to progress. (Its forced evolution to a friendlier, more open-minded religion would eventually save it.)

Blasphemous libel is still a crime, so you can take the Lord's name in vain but slandering him might land you in hot water. Promoting an insult to God is worth a few months inside, but Darwin's On the Origin of the Species was published last year without much hullabaloo. Most Christians viewed it as a discovery of God's divine instruments.

The law is enforced by the police but local forces have only been a national requirement since 1857, paid for by the Treasury and answerable to a central inspectorate of the constabluary. Policemen must be at least 5'10" tall and wear their uniforms at all times. Uniforms are navy blue topcoats, black stovepipe hats and prior to 1860, white trousers. This year the more sensible navy trouser has been adopted. The black-and-white duty armband shows a constable on active duty as does their billy club. Night patrols are routinely issued with police short swords but firearms are kept under lock and key at the station. (They can be withdrawn by plain-clothed detectives or for special operations.)

Civil unrest has changed in the past twenty years. Most families can afford to feed and clothe themselves (if not much else), trade unions are established. But only landowners and freeholders of property have voting rights, disenfrachising the working class. Only the upper and middle class have a say in the running of the country, but the working class are better educated and shrewder than they've ever been. Protests in the future will be far larger scale but peaceful, gaining the admiration of the influencers of the day.

Gang crime is rife in the big cities, however, hence the urgent need for policing. The terms "underworld" and "upperworld" are coined around now. In the depopulated countryside, crime is generally petty. 55% of the country's population live in towns and cities, compared to 35% at the start of the century. The population of England and Wales at this time; a mere 20 million.

It's 60 million by 2022, and the Victorian Age has other stark contrasts that might flavour our game. Let's have a closer look!
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Cultural Exposition

Post by nemarsde »

As a player, all you need is a basic familiarity with Victoriana and movies, TV and books have probably already given you that. Just enough so you can imagine yourself in the scene and create player-driven background details that won't be challenged. Saying your character will jump in a car and race to the next town ahead of the train, for example, is likely to be challenged on two counts: There are hardly any surfaced roads and Benz didn't invent the automobile until 1886.


About a fifth of the country's roads are toll roads, surfaced but expensive enough to cause riots in 1844. Post-roads (trunk roads between cities) are also fast and well maintained. The rest are pretty awful.

The rail network is mature and nationwide but has little reach into rural areas. The postal network is cheap but varies in speed. 12 deliveries a day in London but elsewhere 2-3 days is normal. The railway lines out of London operate telegraphs but the technology has yet to be acquired by the General Post Office. There are no radios, no telephones, no long-range instant communications.

Women in Victorian Britain

Most working-class women have some employment, even if it's working from home in cottage industries. They have no trade union and are paid less than men, but at least work shorter hours. "A woman's work is never done" however, as they must also maintain their own households. Working-class women normally marry in their late teens.

In the upper class, women aren't employed and seeking employment would bring shame on their husbands. A woman should be married in her early twenties and not before; marriages are usually arranged with substantial dowries trading hands. The lady of the house will have servants for domestic work, but it's her job to manage them and the payroll. She will have copious spare-time though, to indulge in gentle lawn sports, reading and art.

Unmarried women of the upper class might find employment as governesses but schoolteachers, nurses and midwifes are middle-class jobs, as is serving in an upper-class household. Middle-class women tend to marry in their early twenties too and irrespective of class, grooms are around ten years older than their brides.

Legally, when a woman marries she loses all rights of ownership (even of her wages) and is herself the possession of her husband. She doesn't regain ownership in the event of divorce either, and forfeits custodianship of any children. A husband's infidelity alone isn't valid grounds for a divorce (unlike a wife's) but domestic violence is grounds, made law in 1857.

Women can't vote, though neither can most men.

It's interesting to note that modern concepts of hetero- and homosexuality have not yet been invented. There are a broad range of queerish behaviours accepted as mere foibles or eccentricity to Victorian society and sex isn't as taboo as often portrayed.

Upper-class women are expected to have passionate relationships with their female friends and there's no law or stigma against lesbian sex. A bisexual women isn't unnatural if she still fulfils her womanly duties. Even between men, most consensual sexual acts aren't specifically outlawed (fellatio, for example). But whether man or woman, buggery is a crime that carries the death penalty and this pushes many gay men to visit molly houses by night. Remarkably, changes to the law in 1828 made sex with a child under the age of 10 a felony misdemeanour; a capital offence previously.

Trouble Overseas

Europe has been at peace for the past 50 years, and though the United Kingdom incorporates Ireland in its entirely, the Irish people are fearful of another civil war and decimated by the potato famine. Rebellion isn't high on their agenda. So Britannia has become complacent in her national defence but recent events have led to sweeping and rapid changes in the military.

The last war to involve Britain was the Crimean (1853–1856). This hugely unpopular campaign started as an argument between Napoleon III of France and Nicholas I of Russia about who would guarantee the rights of Christians in Palestine. The churches settled the matter swiftly but the monarchs' willy-waving dragged Britain into a conflict that was marked by incompetence on all sides and horrific conditions on the ground. With 20,000 war dead, over a fifth of its contingent, the government responsible collapsed and the sprawling aparatus of the military was reorganised under a new War Office.

Just in time. In 1857, the East India Company's mismanagement finally caused a violent uprising amongst its native troops that tore it apart. By 1859 the so-called India Mutiny had been suppressed at the cost of around 6,000 British lives. The EIC was dissolved, its holdings and interests taken over by the Crown. The system of the British Raj was implemented and Victoria declared Empress of India. The EIC's troops were merged into the British Army.

Why is this important? Because the British armed forces and reserves now make up around 2% of the population. Roughly half are stationed abroad but that's still 1 out of 100 people you meet on the street being a trained killer, possibly a veteran. That doesn't even include ex-military retirees, invalids, or undesirables.

Rapid deployment isn't possible with the technology of time, so the War Office considers its forces spread thin despite the massive manpower. In 1859, the Orsini Affair led to widespread anti-French sentiment and tabloid scaremongering of French invasion. (In short, an assassination attempt on Napoleon III was organised by radicals in Britain. But the British public still hated Napoleon III for the Crimean War, so there was little sympathy.)

Fear of invasion has prompted the creation of the Volunteer Force. Entirely independent of the Army, these are middle-class, middle-aged men from local rifle clubs, formed into units along county lines. Each volunteer has to supply his own battle dress and rifle, and pay dues to cover expenses. Tea and cake don't buy themselves! Since there's no standard uniform, the volunteers are a colourful bunch of fancies, ridiculed by some publications. All the gear and no idea isn't a new phenomenon.


During the Napoleonic Wars (ended 1815), millions of flintlock weapons were produced by both sides. It's these weapons that have persisted in civilian hands for most of the 19th Century. There are no laws restricting the ownership of firearms but the cost of buying a new percussion handgun or rifled musket is the equivalent of about £10–20K. It's not on the cards for most people. Farmers commonly use smoothbore muskets firing lead shot, either with their original flintlocks or converted to caplock.

Percussion caps are small brass caps containing primer, struck by a hammer to ignite a separate gunpowder charge that fires the bullet down the barrel. Rifled muskets are otherwise very similar to flintlocks, being very long and muzzle-loaded with a ramrod. Handguns, however, have already evolved into the six-shot revolver.

Although the East India Company issued its officers with revolvers, the British Army and Navy only replaced their muzzle-loading caplock pistols in 1856, after the debacle of the Crimean War. Thus, the volume of handguns made for the military is small and teeny-tiny for the civilian market, but this will change fast...

In 1860, the USA stands on the brink of war and once it breaks out revolvers will be produced in their tens of thousands. Over the next decade, the police will be forced to replace their flintlock pistols with revolvers as these terrible weapons fall into the hands of criminals. Carrying a firearm at night with intent to commit a felony is a crime but it will be another 10 years before licencing is brought in.

So in our game, carrying a pistol is more the purvue of wealthy, fashionable gentlemen and women, who have the money to burn on fancy gadgets. And it's more likely to be a lightweight pepper-box pistol, built to order, than a heavy revolver. You never know where an old flintlock pistol might show up though and revolvers are becoming more available on the black market too.

Alcohol and Drugs

The sale of alcohol is licenced and taxed but there are no age restrictions. Indeed, alcohol is still prescribed medicinally for fortifying ones constitution, as pain relief, and is the most commonly used anesthetic for surgical procedures.

This is a world without antibiotics, where the first dental school was only opened a year ago in London. If you have an infection or toothache, good luck. So there are no drugs laws; people of all classes take whatever necessary to get them through the day.

Opium use is widespread, mainly in derived products such as laudanum (alcohol, herbs and spices for flavour, and opium), mother's friend (treacle, water and opium for infants) and an array of pills. Raw opium is wholesaled for chemists wanting to mix their own remedies, they might sell sticks over the counter too. Big name, branded opiates are sold up and down the country and the medical profession consider them a cure all.

Morphine is more expensive, upper class, injected by hypodermic syringe. But it's the strong stuff and should be treated with as much caution as Jamaican rum, which can be as high as 160 proof (80% ABV). Heroin is not yet discovered.

Cocaine has yet to be discovered but coca tonics are available, wonder drugs that contain about 25 mg of pure cocaine per glass. Cannabis is another wonder drug, prescribed as a tincture for many ailments and considered to have no serious side effects.

Tobacco is subject to special import duty but is otherwise unrestricted and smoking is such a popular past-time that in London over 90% of the working class have notched teeth from clay pipes. Many of the country's top physicians now know it's bad for your health but it won't be until the Army tries recruiting for the Boer War in 1880 that the Authorities realise "smoker's heart" is a serious problem.

As of 1860, addiction is not recognised by science. A person with elevated use might be described as suffering from "elevation" but over-indulgence is a sign of weak character. It is certainly frowned upon as with alcohol or any other drug.

Slavery and Transportation

Slavery has been abolished for several decades. Any slave setting foot upon British shores is automatically, immediately and with permanent effect, a free man. War is brewing in the United States of America though. Initially Britain will support the Confederates until President Lincoln declares abolishment of slavery law under the Union.

Despite this, transportation to Australia is still a punishment for felonies in Britain of 1860. It's rarely employed by the courts these days due to the recent Australian gold rush causing a surge of immigration and development in the colony. In short, wily villains started committed crimes to obtain free passage to Australia!
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The Circus Folk

Post by nemarsde »

  • Ben Lyman. A great Victorian bloke. Entrepeneur, showman, owner of the circus, who made his money from steeplechases.
  • Cricket. Young lad, early teens, runner in the circus.
  • Connor and Patrick. Cody's right hand men.
  • Diamond Jim Fisk. Eager young American businessman and partner of Ben Lyman's. [Real-life historical figure.]
  • Goliath. Tall, 7'2" Sikh and circus strongman.
  • Jean-Guy Fontaine. French Malagasy showman who built his own travelling menagerie, later contracted by Ben Lyman's circus. Also an accomplished card sharp. Later found dead in the ferry village, Southampton, the police suspecting he was lynched because of his dark skin. Had previously cleaned out Diamond Jim in a card game.
  • Seamus. Trusted member of the Irish equestrian team, Cody's understudy and Casanova. Beaten by a mob in Landford for canoodling with a local lass called Daisy.
  • Tandy. Sergeant formerly of the Bengal Light Cavalry, East India Company (before it was dissolved following the India Mutiny of 1857). Now private security employed by Lyman to protect the circus on tour, with an armed detail of five ex-soldiers total.
  • Uncle Bagley. Ringmaster and failed Shakespearean actor, also ringleader of circus skulduggery, organising opium, prostitutes, muggings, pickpockets, etc..
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Hoi Polloi

Post by nemarsde »

  • Mrs Browne. Irish horse trainer. Cody borrowed one of her horses (apparently owned by "some duchess") to escape from agents of the Crown.
  • Finnegan. Boss of the Blackthorn Boys, the gang running the Salisbury Racecourse, known for their liberal use of the blackthorn club (shillelagh). Held Mack ransom, forcing Horatio to buy his freedom with a bag of guineas and deeds to a racehorse.
  • Gus Drummond. English horse trainer and country squire, who approached Horatio to hire his racehorse to cover an Arabian mare owned by a third party. Horatio gave the racehorse away before the deal could be made.
  • "Paddy the Irishman". Alsatian chemist, wanted by Crown agents acting on behalf of the Home Office, probably in connection with the Orsini Affair.
  • Pebbles of the Raj. Dappled grey racehorse with Camargue blood, owned by Horatio and Cody but later deeded to Finnegan in return for Mack's release, safe and unharmed.
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