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:
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.
Hey, I owe you guys some more
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.
All right, let's put
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:
- 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?
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.