posted by GimpInBlack Original SA post

I should be doing real work today, but at least while I wait for the coffee to kick in, let's talk a bit about...

Minimalism. We has it.

Hollowpoint is the second game by VSCA Publishing, after their Traveller -inspired FATE sci-fi game, Diaspora. For Hollowpoint , they ditched the FATE system and came up with an original d6-based dice pool system, which we'll see more of later. For now, I'll just say that it creates some interesting tactical decision-making and that the math isn't nearly as transparent as you might expect from a dice pool system. According to the Special Thanks section, the system was developed with the aid of probability software provided by someone known only as "A Terrible Idea." So let's get started, shall we?

Chapter 1: Introduction
Hollowpoint is a game about a (reluctant) team of hyper-competent, hyper-violent individuals absolutely wrecking shit in pursuit of their goals. PCs are called Agents , because they all work for some shadowy Agency that brings them together to accomplish difficult missions--even if they'd all rather be badass lone wolves gazing broodingly off into the middle distance. The GM is called the ref , and her job really is just to set up the missions and play the bad guys (well, okay, the antagonists --odds are the Agents are pretty bad guys themselves). Most of the authority to actually adjudicate rules and shit is handed to the table as a whole.

The emphasis in Hollowpoint's mechanics is on teamwork, group dynamics, and accomplishing large-scale objectives rather than what the book refers to as "guy vs. guy" action. The example given uses the bank robbery and subsequent shootout in Michael Mann's Heat , and it's pretty good on its own so I'm just going to quote it:

Hollowpoint posted:

There’s a bank robbery scene in Michael Mann’s movie Heat (1995): the crew has robbed a bank and in the course of exiting they are bounced by the police. The crew has automatic weapons, great training, and willingness to cause harm and hurt others, but they are also professionals: their objective is to escape with the money.

Now in most guy-versus-guy gaming, this would be a really hard scene to model, because the system will focus on which cop your character is trying to kill each time-slice. The player is focused on the wrong thing with distinctly uncomfortable effects:
  • First, I (the player) have to plan how most effectively to kill police officers because what the system primarily lets me do with my assault rifle is kill people. I am not enjoying that in this context.
  • Second, I (the character) am not explicitly interested in killing police officers. I am interested in escaping with the money and don’t care if I kill police officers. But the system only models me defeating police officers with my rifle.
  • Finally I (both player and character) have sophisticated, staged objectives that involve violence against a large opposing force with full knowledge that I cannot just kill all of them.

For me, at least, it's that second point that's key to getting Hollowpoint as a game. You have an objective, and the question is what you're willing to do to accomplish it, not how you actually do those things. You're going to be utilizing violence, fear, good intel, and sheer badassery to bring you closer to your goals, not calculating your to-hit bonus with an AK-47 and comparing it to a cop's AC.

The setting in the game is deliberately left light and vague, and really to be honest you could graft the game onto pretty much any setting you want as long as it supports telling stories of violent, competent bastards on a mission. However, any setting you build is going to have three common points:

How about with some examples from fiction to put you in the right frame of mind? The biggest inspiration is Brian Azzarello's 100 Bullets , but you're in the right ballpark if you're thinking James Bond or Jason Bourne if they worked with a team. Kill Bill's Deadly Viper Assassination Squad is a perfect fit, as are The Expendables (even though that's not mentioned in the book). If Quentin Tarantino had directed Ocean's 11 , or if the crew on Leverage didn't care who got hurt on their jobs, they'd fit too. Of course, it's really easy to reskin the skills in this game into something less violent, if you'd rather be modern-day Robin Hoods or "gentleman thieves." Then of course you can look at sci-fi or fantasy for inspiration: Highlander is mentioned as an example, as is The Terminator .

The Introduction wraps up with a section on reference material: in a nice touch, all the references are textbooks and scholarly texts on things like the psychological impact of killing, homicide investigation, and poisons. Never hurts to have some extra verisimilitude.

Chapter 2: Agency
The first thing to do when you're prepping a game of Hollowpoint is to create your Agency. This is a table decision, and it consists of three very simple steps:

And that's it; it really shouldn't take more than a half-hour to hash this out. Remember the Agency is there for background and context only, it's not supposed to be a major, active part of the plot. Questions of agent loyalty or "are we working for the right people?" should be sidestepped for now--if at any point the Agents turn on their employers, they effectively become a new Agency whose Enemy is "our former employers." If you're spending even half as much time dealing with the Agency as you are with going on missions, you're giving the Agency too much spotlight time.

For quick pickup games or convention sessions or the like, you can always go with the default Agency:

Chapter 3: Characters
Normally I'd break here to solicit example characters from the thread, but honestly, characters in Hollowpoint are designed to be simple, quick to create, and ultimately disposable. For all that Agents are incredible badasses, it's assumed that over the course of a game Agents will die off, sacrifice themselves, or just retire to go raise their little girl in the Bahamas. In fact, having an Agent "move on" is one of the only ways to "level up" a character. It takes about 10 minutes or so to make one, and there's nothing particularly interesting about the process, so I don't see a lot of point in doing a bunch of examples.

Character creation has five steps, and if this is the first session of the game (or if any player has to create a new character), it's during this process that the ref should be explaining the Mission.

Step One is to note your Agent's rank. Starting characters are always Agent rank, but if you're creating a replacement character you may be eligible to be an Operative or a Handler . Each rank has a special ability, but since we've literally seen nothing about the game rules so far ( ) we'll save those for later. For now, just know that they exist.

Step Two is Skills. Agents have six Skills, and by default they are:

Excuse me a minute while my inner grammar nerd twitches at having verbs, nouns, and adjectives all on the same skill list. Anyway, you can replace or add skills to this list really easily. Maybe your fantasy badasses need skills like MAGIC or your 007-inspired game is better served by SEDUCE than TERROR. If you're modelling a Liam Neesons character, you might replace CON with HURT and beat the information out of fools. All that's totally kosher, and really you could probably swap out skills on characters in the same game if you want to enforce a more specialized team.

Assigning skills is really easy: You get one skill at 5, one at 4, one at 3, one at 2, one at 1, and any remaining skills are at 0. Remember, 0 just means "about as competent as a normal human being." By default you'll just have one skill at 0, but if you've added to the list you might have more.

Step Three is just naming your character, and if you really want to writing a paragraph or so of description about personality or appearance, but that stuff's better brought out in descriptions during play.

Step Four is where you pick some traits . Traits are kind of like Aspects in FATE, in that you can use them to get a temporary bonus on a roll and use them to declare things about the game world. The difference is that traits are burned when you use them: if the trait is a physical object, it's lost or destroyed, and if it's something intrinsic like a scar or a memory, you tell the story and then shut the fuck up about it, because who wants to hear that goddamn story about the time you got shanked in Belarus twice?

Traits can be generated in one of three ways, and everybody should use the same one: You can either answer five questions about your character (things like "You wear a black suit over a clean white shirt and a skinny black tie. No hat and well groomed. Nothing to make you stand out, except this .").

Or you can pick five "company traits" from these categories: gimmicks are things that aren't skills, but you're really good at like "driving" or "demolitions;" gadgets are, obviously, James Bond style super-gizmos like "laser watch" or "exploding toothpaste;" sidekicks are NPCs who can lend you their expertise. Needless to say, when sidekicks get burned, it's often literal.

Finally, you can go in completely blank, and when it comes about that you need a boost on a roll, you retroactively declare a trait and tell the table a story. If they like it, you get the bonus.

The last step is easily the coolest: Your complication . At this point the ref should have given you a mission briefing, so you (and any other player who wants one; complications are optional) write down something on an index card that makes this mission unexpectedly personal for you. Maybe the assassination target is your ex-wife, or you are the traitor the mission is trying to root out, or maybe the mission is taking you back to the prison where you did ten years' hard time. You don't have to take a complication, but complications are required to win. Yeah, that's right: this is an RPG you can win. We'll get to what that means later.

Next Time: We'll start looking at how this game actually plays. this is where the game really starts to sing.


posted by GimpInBlack Original SA post

Hey, I owe you guys some more Hollowpoint , huh?

Chapter 4: Conflict
We've seen how to build our stone-cold badasses and the world they live in. Let's talk about how they kill the crap out of people.

Like most story games, Hollowpoint breaks its play down into scenes. Scenes can be totally freeform, like planning a bank robbery or casing the joint, but when it's time to execute the plan, we go to the dice for a conflict. Conflicts are played out in a series of rounds that alternate between dice rolling and narration, and each conflict is a little harder than the one before it.

Simple, right? Again we're reminded that, when the dice come out, there's a decent chance an Agent ends up dead or otherwise "moved on," so don't break out the dice for anything that's not important. We don't roll to pick the lock, we roll for the whole burglary, and that's the scene.

So, dice pools. Each round, players declare what skill they're using this round to effect their goals ("I'm spraying lead over the hostages' heads to keep them from running" would be TERROR, "I'm hacking their security system and setting off false alarms all over the place" might be CON.) and roll dice equal to their rating. You're looking for sets , dice showing the same face number. Group all your dice into sets (you can't split sets; five 3s is always five 3s, you can't make it three 3s and two 3s) and rank them from largest, highest value to smallest, lowest value. Don't toss your single dice yet, you might be able to match them if you burn a trait. You can do that an any point during the round; you just roll the bonus dice and look for new matches.

The ref assembles her dice pool a little differently. NPCs don't have individual stats, rather, the entire opposition is represented by the ref's dice pool. The ref's pool starts at two dice for everyone playing, including the ref herself, and increases by two dice every conflict. The ref still describes what skill the opposition is using for purposes of effects, but that doesn't impact the dice she rolls.

Once everybody's rolled and ranked their sets, we start resolving. The largest, highest set goes first--the player (or ref) describes who the set is targeting and what they're doing to accomplish their goal. That target takes a hit ("target" for a player is always just "the opposition"). If the target has any sets, he loses a die from the smallest, highest set he has. If that knocks a pair down to a single die, it can't be used in the conflict. No matter how big a set is, it only knocks out one die, then it goes away. This is what the game meant earlier when it said the math isn't transparent, and that more dice isn't necessarily better. More dice increase the odds of big sets, which are fast as hell but can leave you vulnerable if you have one 6-die set and your opponent has three 2-die sets. Basically, it's like jumping one guard, only to realize he's got 15 buddies behind him and they beat the shit out of you.

(This, incidentally, is the main advantage players have in Hollowpoint. Since the ref is rolling one dice pool, no matter how many dice are in it she's only ever going to have six sets, max. Players can each theoretically get up to six sets.)

If the target is all out of sets, he takes an effect . Every skill can inflict two effects: the first-stage effect is something superficial--Shot for KILL, Exposed for DIG, etc. First-stage effects don't actually matter, but if you take a second-stage effect, you're out of the conflict and might move on at the end of the round. If the opposition takes a second-stage effect, the conflict's over and the agents won. If all the agents are taken out, it's a failure for them.

Moving On is an option for anybody with a second-stage effect. At the end of a round, your character leaves the game--killed, arrested, fed up with the whole ugly business and retires to Borneo, whatever. Next scene you get to bring in a new character sent by the Agency and, in my favorite rule of the entire game, you get to lecture the other agents about how bad they fucked up and how you're here to fix everything. No, seriously, the game stops for a minute while you dress them down. Your new character is the boss now, and if the ref is cool with it, you can even change one of the mission's objectives.

If you moved on during a conflict that's somehow relevant to the complication you came up with for the mission, congratulations, you win! Your next character levels up, from agent to operative, operative to handler. If your character was a handler already, you've won the entire fucking game. Tell everybody else to buy you a drink.

Now, that's the basics of conflict action, but of course we've got some wrinkles to keep things interesting.

First of all, players have teamwork. Once per conflict, you can ask another agent for help. If they agree, you get all their skill dice for this round, they sit it out. However, the other agent has the option to say "Fuck that!" (Again, that's not me being colorful, that's the rule .) If they do, they instead get to steal two dice from your hand. On the plus side, you can supplement your reduced pool by taking dice from the teamwork pool . This is a special pool of five dice per player, but once you pull a die from the pool, it's gone. The only way to replenish it is when a new character joins the team.

At the end of each round of conflict, check to see whether anyone took an effect or if anyone burned a trait. If the answer to both questions is "no," the round is a wash . Something goes wrong, and every player takes an effect from the skill they used this round. This keeps the pressure up and eliminates the risk of a long, slogging conflict where everybody gets just enough sets to cancel everybody else out.

Refs have a couple of tricks up their sleeves, too. If she wants, the ref can introduce a principal . Principals are those rarest of beasts, NPCs who can compete with agents on their own level. They're not necessarily the targets of mission objectives--if your job is to whack the ambassador from Turkmenistan, the diplomat probably isn't a principal--but maybe his ex-Spetznatz nightmare of a security chief is.

Principals are usually defined as part of mission creation. When one's on the scene, the ref adds two dice to her pool for the conflict and splits her pool in two. Effectively, she's now two characters--the principal and the rest of the opposition. They track sets separately (so now the ref can have up to twelve ) and can use two different skills every round. Players have to take out both to win the conflict.

The ref can also introduce a catch, something the agents have to do before the conflict ends. Maybe they have to jam the bad guy's dead-man switch before they shoot him, or maybe they have to plant the incriminating evidence before they set fire to the factory. To set a catch, the ref takes three dice out of her opposition pool and rolls them. These dice get set aside; a player can knock out a catch die by using one of their own sets, as long as the set is at least as high as the catch die. So if the catch has a 1, a 3, and a 6, the players need to use one set of 6s, one set of 3, 4, 5, or 6, and one set of any value. If all the catch dice aren't removed before the conflict ends, the conflict is a failure for the players, even if they took out the opposition.

And that's Hollowpoint's dice mechanic. It comes across as a bit opaque on the screen, but once you see it in action it's a slick, tense little bastard full of unpredictability and nasty surprises. I did a fair bit of chopping and moving to (hopefully) make it a little more comprehensible--the text slaps things like principals and teamwork in the middle of the rules, before it's even explained sets and how resolution works--the first time I read it I didn't get it at all . Hollowpoint in general isn't as well laid out as TechNoir was, IMHO, but once you've given it a few reads it sinks in well enough.

Next time: Mission creation and wrap-up. Hollowpoint is a pretty short game.


posted by GimpInBlack Original SA post

All right, let's put Hollowpoint to bed. It's had a few too many shots of straight tequila and smoked too many Red Apple Cigarettes and needs to sleep it off.

Chapter 5: Mission
Hollowpoint's final chapter (like I said, it's a pretty short game) covers building missions and pacing out a game session. It's basically the GMing advice chapter. So let's look at how we keep this pack of murderous bastards occupied, shall we?

Missions always start with two objectives. A two-stage mission gives the team more flexibility in its approach and makes it easier to set up unexpected twists and reversals and the like. Objectives always need to be stated in such a way that it's crystal clear when they're accomplished. "Stop the Tattaglia Family from killing the Don during the peace talks" is a good objective: if the peace conference ends abd the Don's still sucking oxygen, good job. "Bodyguard the Don" is too open-ended--when can you call that "accomplished?"

Objectives are always conveyed to the Agents before the session starts. As we've seen, though, the arrival of a replacement Agent during a mission can change the objectives of the mission. This might be because one has straight up failed ("the Don's dead, so now you have to take revenge") or maybe it's just no longer applicable ("the peace conference was a setup, now fight your way out!"). Players use the mission objectives to come up with their complications for the mission--unfortunately, we get no advice on what to do if players choose mutually-contradictory or identical complications beyond a vague "the ref might want to adjust her plans once she sees the complications, but maybe not."

The part of the mission you don't tell the players to start with is the principals. Every mission has at least one, and it's usually a good idea to have two. You save these guys for nasty surprises during the mission.

Again we're reminded not to bother rolling dice for every little thing, but as soon as 1) the Agents are doing something active and badass that seems to fit the skills and 2) there's some kind of meaningful opposition present, it's time to explode into action and start a conflict. It's also totally okay for the ref to be the one that initiates conflicts--if the Agents seem to be getting complacent or falling into a pattern of "go here, get intel start fight," you should shake things up. Have all the windows of their safehouse explode as a SWAT team crashes in, put their faces on the front page of the New York Times , whatever. Principals are good for this--in fact, every scene that involves a principal should be followed up with a retaliation scene like this.

Actually building a mission is pretty simple and starts with the Agency we created way back in Chapter 2: Once you know the Agency's Charge and Enemy, you should start to see plenty of potential missions. The stock "criminal cartel peacekeepers" Agency probably isn't going to be putting out a hit on Kuth'tul'tuk the Ever-Dying, and the Ancient and Venerable Masonic Lodge of the Stars probably doesn't give two shits about whether or not Vinnie the Cripple is skimming a few keys off the shipment to sell on the side. (But hey, you never know, smetimes going cross-genre is fun.) Another trick that can help you fill in the details is to think of a single, indelible image you want to present the players with, something that will really stick with them: The alien bursting out of John Hurt's chest in Alien or those shots of a completely empty London in 28 Days Later maybe. Between all those, it shouldn't be too hard to come up with two objectives and a few principals--and from there you can sit back and let the players tackle things however they like.

Next up we get three sample adventures to illustrate the thought process behind creating missions. The first, called Arena , has the Agency as super-black US or UN operatives tasked to find the missing Vice President of the United States--who, it turns out, has been snatched by a criminal cartel that snatches celebrities and forces them to fight to the death in a gladiatorial arena. The "indelible image" for this one is the Vice President being stabbed to death by teen pop sensation Alana Alabama while a bunch of jaded multibillionaires cheer her on from the stands.

The second, Magnificent , is pretty much just a straight-up Magnificent Seven ripoff. Nothing too special here.

The third and final, Callisto , has the Agentrs as the genetically-enhanced clone security force on a science station on Jupiter's moon. The latest supply ship from Earth is two months overdue, tensions are running high... and scientists are starting to die. Violently. This one's actually got some pretty cool ideas and a few examples of rules tweaks: Agents add HURT to their skill list, because the clones are programmed to be unable to use KILL on humans. We also get an alternate list of questions to determine Agent traits:

Hollowpoint posted:

  • How do people looking at you know you are a clone?
  • What human object do you keep secretly?
  • What childhood event do you remember even though it never happened?
  • What special equipment do you have to help you do your job?
  • With what enhanced skills have you been programmed?

After the sample adventures there's a short section on pacing advice, which is mostly pretty bog-standard: keep the group together if you can and regularly shift focus between them if you can't, motivate your players to want to advance the story, and-okay, actually, I have to stop here and share this "motivate your players" advice:

Hollowpoint posted:

What motivates players is not always obvious, but part of the ref’s responsibility in terms of maintaining the pace of the session is to push the players into interesting areas. Sometimes player choices appear irrational in terms of game mechanics: they should move on, but want to persist doggedly with their character, even though it means repeated failures.

Offer incentives within the story. Gushing praise from an attractive NPC can have a surprisingly positive effect. Inventing someone just to say how badass the agent is and buy them a drink can offer psychological reinforcement for the player. Conversely, presenting the need for the character to wear adult diapers as an undesired alternative can push some players towards actions they otherwise might not consider, simply because the phrase “adult diapers” has been established as the worst that can happen to a shit-hot ultra-cool killing action hero.

The one kind of novel idea (well, besides suggesting "yes, but you'll have to wear Depends to do it" as a tool for player motivation) here is the coda --basically, if the game ends a little early and everyone still wants to play, but you don't have time to whip up a new mission, you can stick one last scene onto the current mission that ties up a loose end or introduces an unexpected twist for next time. The example the book gives is the end of On Her Majesty's Secret Service : The mission is accomplished, James Bond is about to move on by getting married and it seems like everything's over, but then Blofeld makes one last attack and kills Bond's fiancée. Suddenly everything's different, and of course James Bond Will Return.

And that's effectively it. We get an Appendix with actual play write-ups of two different playtest games of Hollowpoint , which are useful examples of how a game might play out but kind of redundant given how many examples are scattered throughout the book. One is a bog-standard 100 Bullets -esque tale of Agents as the peacekeepers of an international criminal consortium, the other is a story about angels sent to earth to hunt down and destroy the Fallen. It's a nice example of how easily Hollowpoint adapts to other genres and styles, but I wish it, like Callisto in the sample adventures, had a little discussion of rules tweaks for such a setting. Finally there's a pseudo in-character "Field Guide" which is just a brief primer on various weapons and tactics to help you spout off suitably gun-porny dialogue and loving descriptions of the carnage you inflict.

So yeah, that's Hollowpoint . Great game, really slick system, but especially coming right off of TechNoir the layout and organization feels pretty scattershot. It's one of those games that's pretty easy to reference in play, but hard to read cover-to-cover and get an easy sense of how things work.

Next Time: My weird fixation with reviewing d6-based dice pool systems continues with a review that pretty much defines the "obscure" side of "obscure and mockable." We're talking about a game that's been described as one of the only real collector's items in the tabletop RPG hobby outside of the earliest printings of D&D. A game that was only sold for four days in the summer of 2000. That's right, folks, strap on your shield belts, brush up on the articles of kanly, and always remember that killing with the point lacks artistry, because we're going to be taking a look at Last Unicorn Games' Dune: Chronicles of the Imperium.