Originally posted at: http://diehardgamefan.com/2011/10/27/tabletop-review-hollowpoint/
“No one in this game is innocent.”
WHAT IS IT?
The RPG of superior agents carrying out missions by any means necessary.
Hollowpoint is a complete and mechanically simple game intended for pick-up or short campaigns. Those campaign will have to be short because characters will die. Players run agents – skilled, expert, and trained – on a level far beyond ordinary sheep. They know how to get things done and they have no compunctions. The mission must be completed regardless of cost or means.
The subtitle for the game is “bad people killing bad people for bad reasons.”
THE BOOK ITSELF
Hollowpoint clocks in at 110 trade-paper sized pages. The presentation’s careful and exact throughout. While the authors offer some nice typographic and design flourishes, nothing gets in the way of the reading. The stark presentation fits the tone of the game. Black silhouette illustrations leave the images open to interpretation and reading. Just as the gameplay asks you to fill in the details of these two-dimensional characters, the art leaves plenty of space to come up with your own stories. Hollowpoint‘s probably closest to the recent indie RPG hit Fiasco in look. But where Fiasco possesses a gritty, run you through the mud tone, Hollowpoint maintains clinical detachment. The authors use their words precisely. Brief and gritty narrative passages open each chapter, contrasting that precision.
Authors Brad Murray and C.W. Marshall begin Hollowpoint with a statement of design philosophy. They point to a scene in Michael Mann’s 1995 film Heat. The gang has just completed a heist and find themselves confronted by the police while leaving. The gang manages their escape through expertise and willingness to inflict damage and terror on their adversaries. In a standard RPG, players might have to model each shot, track positions, and calculate exact damage to play out that situation. Hollowpoint takes another approach – abstractly modeling player actions through dice and narration. Players roll and cause general effects, which allow them to escape by applying violence and fear.
This is a game about that violence, combining a quick combat resolution system with description-driven results. It specifically cites 100 Bullets, Kill Bill and Wanted as models. The relentlessness of video games like Kane & Lynch, Army of Two, and the recent release Payday: The Heist fit with this game. Even a non-modern setting like Assassin’s Creed fits this. Lt. Aldo Raine’s unit in Inglourious Basterds provides another model, as do some of the darker Asian crime thrillers. Some of Garth Ennis’ work, especially The Boys, could easily be done with Hollowpoint. It actually deals with a narrow set of models. Most films of violence have an arc of development or a need to protect. Though the Expendables might come to mind as fitting into this genre, those characters are too moral for the game built here. These characters are explicitly described as hyper-cool and above any other considerations. Compare something like Akira Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai to Takashi Miike’s recent 13 Assassins, and Hollowpoint‘s firmly in the latter camp.
With that established, the second chapter takes those ideas and spins them. Creating a Hollowpoint game begins by answering a set of basic questions. Depending on the kind of game – pick up or trying for a series – the players and GM will have different levels of control. Hollowpoint focuses on “the table” as a collective sharing power, but still has places where a leader must manage decisions. That first decision involves defining “the agency” – the group that all characters work for. Having an agency offers a central tension for the game. These characters are strong, independent, superior operatives. But in order to succeed, they have to work together. The agency provides the leash tying the PCs together.
Three details define agencies. First, the Charge, gives a simple statement defining the agency’s purpose. For example, “Hunt Down Rogue Nephilim Before They Can Access the Dreams of Inspired Humans and Use Those to Rewrite History.” The morality and means of the agency isn’t an issue; some games may have a benevolent agency (G.I. Joe) while others may not (COBRA). Second, the Enemy, defines the specific or general group of people threatening the Charge. Third, the Era describes both the time period and the flavor of the setting. A near-future game might be brightly lit and razor sharp or it might be dirty, liquid, and contaminated.
Setting up a campaign is easy. It shouldn’t take more than a few minutes of bantering to put something together or confirm an idea the GM brings to the table. I only have one minor sticking point with the chapter – that they call the generic agency offered up for play “The Agency.” I had a strange Yo Dawg moment when I heard that.
Hollowpoint offers incredibly simple character creation in tune with the rest of the system. Players can put together their characters quickly, allowing for an easy pick up game. All characters begin at Agent Rank. Later characters have access to two other ranks, Operative and Handler, but that’s usually because their character has “moved on.” In other words: they’ve gone from the game. It bears repeating: players shouldn’t get too attached – they’re going to lose characters. It isn’t an inevitability, but pretty close.
Any character has six skills. Players rank skills from best to worst, getting five dice for their best and one less for each step down. Everyone will need a big batch of d6s for play. Six skills may not seem like a lot, but most of the time, that’s all the skills present in the game. The template skills are:
KILL: Inflicting lethal damage. Just plain killing anything.
TAKE: Seizing other people’s stuff by various means.
TERROR: Creating fear and terror in your targets.
CON: Tricking people
DIG: Finding out things, often things people don’t want you to know.
COOL: Just being awesome.
As you can see, those focus on the end effect rather than the specifics of the process. Different settings and games may use a slightly different skill list, adding a couple or substituting some. For example, the authors offer BOSS as a sub for COOL- providing an A-Team “Hannibal”-like skill in tactics and planning. Games with more fantastic elements might have skills cover those powers, but focused on what they try to do. So you might have SUPERBRAWL for dealing with superheroes, rather than describing particular powers or techniques. In play, players have the opportunity to narrate the how of these actions, casting the story as they wish. Ratings in skills translate directly into dice usable for conflicts related to them.
Next, players choose five traits. Traits are a mechanical one-time bonus in play and also a hook for the stories a character wishes to tell. In play, traits can be “burnt” for two extra dice on a roll. The player then has to narrate how the trait interacts with the story. Traits can be physical or abstract. Burning a physical trait means the loss of that object or thing. Burning an abstraction means a flashback, narrative interlude, or the like. They’re gone because no one wants to hear the same story twice. Hollowpoint presents three different ways for players to generate traits for their character. For example, players might come up with traits before a game based on a set of questions (You don’t have a lot of scruples, but you would “never do this”; “That one time in Utah you took a souvenir; it was “this.”). That can generate many different answers, some of them presenting a real challenge for the player to work into a scene. They’re akin a concrete version of an aspect from the Fate system.
Finally, players create a complication tied to the mission. This makes that mission personal for the character. And it offers the opportunity for a significant story twist later in the session. Complications can be can be anything from your agent sleeping with the target being investigated, to having sworn revenge against an ally, to being the real traitor behind the scenes. The GM looks at the various complications so they can kick the game in that direction during the session. Alternately, players can keep their complications secret from the GM as well, pulling them out as a surprise. That option’s recommended for experienced or high trust groups.
Overall, putting together a character shouldn’t take long: assignment of numbers, a short list of personal details, and one complication tied to the plot. That speed’s excellent, especially since you’re going to lose those characters fast.
Hollowpoint‘s structured as a series of scenes, bleeding into a series of conflicts. The game suggests that while players could take individual scenes, the intent of play is to have have the group present and active in each one. Scenes are free-form – they can be bs’ing around, plotting out plans for a heist or getting people in place for the operation. Hollowpoint offers no rules for these elements- the players can play freely as long as they want. However, once something becomes contested in a scene, the mechanics shift over to conflict, at which point the dice come out. Little details don’t get rolled, only complications that spark the conflict.
In Hollowpoint any mission has two objectives. Dealing with each objective requires a series of scenes, some with conflict. Some conflicts involve a Principal, a significant named character. Any conflict with a Principal is immediately followed by another scene with a Retaliation Conflict. All conflicts resolve through a series of dice exchanges; after dicing and resolving, the scene results in success or failure. In any conflict, the GM and players frame what’s at stake – what will be resolved through that success or failure.
Once conflict starts, players pick up dice equal to the rating of the skill they’re using that round. Players pick skills based on what outcome they want to achieve. That dice pool can raise or lower through additional options. Notably, players may bid for dice from the teamwork pool – five dice in a bowl for each player. Once per conflict, players can request help from a teammate. If the target player agrees, they hand their dice to the requester and sit out the conflict, offering support. Alternately, they can say no – or something more colorful – and take two dice from the person who asked for help. A rejected player may then take as many dice as they wish from the teamwork pool. Taking too many will cost everyone in the long run, and perhaps even the glutton in the short run.
When players roll, they create dice sets of matching numbers. Each set has a length (number of dice in the set) and value (the actual number showing on each die). So a character rolling five dice and getting 2, 2, 4, 4, 4 has a set of 2×2 and a set of 3×4. Opposing this, the GM gets two dice per person at the table, including themselves. As the mission presses on, the GM adds more dice for each succeeding conflict. If a Principal is involved, the GM adds even more dice and splits that pool before rolling. After dice are rolled, everyone arranges their sets by length and then value. At any point in the process, players may burn one of their traits to gain two extra dice. That trait’s gone forever and the player has to narrate what went down with that.
That arrangement determines order, with the longest and highest sets going first. Starting with the best set, the owner chooses a target and declares what’s happening to them. In the case of players, they’re usually going for an effect based on the skill chosen. The target of the action must remove a die from one of those sets. The implication is the wearing down of defenses, suppression of response, and progress towards goals. Single die sets get set aside in case players want to burn traits. If a target has no sets left, they take an effect based on the skill type. Again, players and GMs narrate what happens – the successful use of TAKE looks very different in effect than KILL. After a set is applied for an action, it is removed and the narration moves on to the next best set.
Since players can’t pass, this means that getting a really long set can hurt. They might go first but end up using up their actions. A successful hit means that the target takes an effect. Effects have two stages: first and second. For example the first stage TERROR effect is Hesitant, first stage COOL is Dazzled. Players can take all kinds of first stage hits, but once they take another hit from the same skill they go to second stage (Babbling, Outclassed, etc). At this point they’re out of the conflict. Players with second stage effects may choose to “move on.”
Interestingly, the power to choose that character death always remains with the player. They can keep on or, more likely, take the opportunity to spin a great story about how they went out. Players with characters who move on make up new ones – they appear in the next scene – probably chewing out the rest of the PCs about what an absolute cock-up the mission has become. Players can come back as Operatives or Handlers instead of base Agents. The only difference between these ranks is the minor special ability possessed.
Hollowpoint offers a few other complications to that conflict system, but basically that’s it. The actual dice mechanics of the game are rather simple, and luck will loom. The trick is how to actually narrate the events to both tell a good story and manage to work towards completing the mission. Hollowpoint offers some advice for handling that story telling and strategies for working those dice. The chapter on Conflict ends with two fully described example conflicts, one standard conflict and one with a “Catch”, essentially a dice clock the PCs have to fight against. Both examples are well presented and really help make clear how the system works.
The last third or so of the rules focuses on material for the referee. It begins with mission-building. The important concept in a mission to to create two distinct but connected objectives. These should have NPCs connected with them, some as Principals, others not. Those may or may not be known to the players at the beginning. But the key idea is that players do know their objectives up front. The GM lets them spin and plan from those right out of the gate. Player complications may shift how the referee sees the story, but won’t affect the opening mission statement. That kind of simplicity and clarity makes Hollowpoint outstanding for a pick up game.
The Missions chapter provides a lot of solid advice – about how to maintain pace, construct hooks, and create memorable moments. The authors provide three very different mission examples to help referees get a handle on the process. Each presents a very different frame and approach, from The Wild Bunch to Outland. They do an excellent job selling the versatility of the system. Even further, the appendices offer two more fully-fleshed session overviews, both drawn from playtests. The first has a classic mob vs. mob feel and ends badly for the players. The second borrows more from In Nomine, The Prophecy, and Legion in a tale of divine enforcers trying to keep down fallen angels. As well, there are several pages of agency Field Guides on various topics (shotguns, pistols, first aid, etc.) that are a pleasure to read and that players would definitely benefit from. The book has an index which opens with “Adult Diapers 82.” It’s a little tongue-in-cheek, but its always good to see an index of any RPG.
What you get out of this game will really depend on your interest in the genre of violence and cool. If you’re a fan of movies, comics and games like this, Murray and Marshall have put together a gaming engine that purrs. My gamer wife read through the rules and came away with admiration for the precision and design. She says it is the best written and produced game she never wants to play. I think that rightly sums things up. Gamers interested in the genre ought to pick it up.
Hollowpoint focuses on the aesthetics of violence, not the morality and philosophy of it. These are iconic characters – unchanging and unaffected except at the end. There’s no arc of development for them. This game shaves away all the other concerns, just as it shaves away all the details except for intended effect. Yet at the same time it combines that with an emphasis on story and narrative. It’s a brilliant and unexpected combination.
Hollowpoint seamlessly blends genre and system. It offers a unique way to model these kinds of characters and conflicts. I think it would be hard to capture the speed and stakes of these situations with another system. Most lack the abstraction necessary and focus on impacts over actions, results over specific means. Even something like Fate or Wushu wouldn’t handle this nearly as well as this fine-tuned machine. On the flip side, I think the Hollowpoint engine might be tweaked for other purposes, but not ones that are far removed from the original. You could inject a degree of humanity, perhaps of tragedy, perhaps of morality, rather than focusing on the absolute cool superiority of these iconic characters. You might end up with something close to The Expendables as I mentioned earlier, or in another genre, The Thirteenth Warrior.
A GM might go the other direction and skip the humanity. One could run a loose take on some of the classic White Wolf World of Darkness games using this system. I’ve seen GMs who’ve run those settings more for the violence and power than moral questionings or angst. Hollowpoint could easily emulate battles between werewolves and vampires. Hunter the Reckoning or Hunter the Vigil could be done in a frenetic session of Hollowpoint with a couple of new skills providing the trappings.