50 Games in 50 Weeks: Hollowpoint

Posted by on August 9, 2011

Hollowpoint coverWhen my first game of Hollowpoint ended, one player burst out, “That was awesome!” and the others agreed that they’d like to run Hollowpoint again a bunch of times, trying different setups every time.

So, yes, this is a fun system.

Hollowpoint is built to tell stories about Agents on a Mission. These are the kinds of stories where everyone wears a black suit and a narrow tie, and carries a gun. Quentin Tarantino movies are perfect examples, though the system’s flexible enough to handle cop stories, hard sci-fi, etc.

The System, In Brief

Each character has a name, six skills, and five traits. The six skills are KILL, CON (conniving/tricking others), DIG (research), TAKE (stealing), TERROR, and COOL. Each player ranks these skills from 0 to 5 for their character, 5 being best. Each trait is a freeform description of some special ability, focus, or talent that a character can “burn” for extra dice.

Quick basics of conflict resolution: Each player chooses a skill, and rolls that many dice. The ref (GM) gets 8 dice in the first conflict, and more in later ones. Dice are pulled into sets by matching number, so if you roll a 1, 3, 3, 5, 5, you have two sets: two 3’s and two 5’s. At this point, you can burn as many traits as you want to roll 2 more dice and slide them into sets as appropriate.

Whoever has the longest set (and within that, the highest-numbered set) goes first, and can knock a die out of someone else’s sets. Remove one die in a set of two, and that set is completely knocked out. Attack someone with no sets left, and they take a first-stage effect. Attack with the same skill again, and they take a second-stage effect and are out of the fight.

There’s more to it–particularly regarding teamwork and introducing new characters–but that’s the basic flow. Characters are easily built and described, and the system encourages a more abstract ebb-and-flow to conflicts, rather than the “trading blows” mechanics of a system like D&D or Pathfinder. More significantly, it allows characters who suck at combat to be useful within it, as long as they can justify the use of their skills.

How We Set Up

I ran this game online via Skype, with every player’s video cameras on. I made two Google documents: one text document with blank character sheets, and one drawing to represent the dice on the table. In the drawing, I created five text boxes: one for my die rolls, three for the players’, and one for the teamwork pool (though we ended up ignoring the teamwork rules):

Hollowpoint table

Hollowpoint table

When we rolled dice, we’d group like-numbered dice together as shown in the screenshot, so we could easily see each others’ sets.

It took us about 45 minutes to decide on the era, the agency, and to create the player-characters.

How It Went Down

"Suit Day" by JuditK on Flickr

“Suit Day” by JuditK on Flickr

We decided to set our game in the future, but with a 1960’s heist vibe. The characters were all mercenaries working for a crime syndicate, who were hired by The Dragon (a heavy-drinking little person in a white suit) to steal an unnamed object being kept in the central vault of the Night Shadow, a casino/hotel ship orbiting Ganymede.

The player-characters were Lord Trap V, a mysterious masked man; Face, a social manipulator who was owed a lot of favors, and Mike, a squirrely hacker.

The players boarded under false identities and, upon casing the casino, discovered that the grown daughter of Ganymede’s President was hanging off the arm of the most dangerous-looking man in the place. Said man was an enormously obese man throwing vast sums of money away at the craps tables. The players used one PC’s poison needles to stun the girl, then in their first conflict, talked their way past security (“These are friends of mine; she’s just feeling a little faint”) to get her to her room.

Her room had been completely ransacked. A quick check of her computer terminal revealed that her system had also been compromised, and it was an inside job. Security burst in, led by the fearsome Security Chief Garibaldi, and the PCs again managed to talk their way out of it in conflict 2. They went to the Fat Man’s suite, where he managed to get security uniforms for them and swapped out their records for an incoming group of security personnel. They made their way to Security HQ, where they were led to an interrogation room. The door slammed shut behind them. They had been betrayed by The Fat Man!

Their third conflict was against an interrogation team, which the players lost. They revealed most everything. They were left in the interrogation room, at which point they used various mobile hacking skills to create a distraction (Face called in a favor), get out of the room, and sneak their way to the central vault. They used some ingenious tricks to unlock the vault, at which point they heard ironic clapping. The Fat Man stood in the doorway, flanked by two security guards!

The final conflict began. As the ref, I had a lot of dice, and while the PCs did well, The Fat Man eventually managed to shoot one PC until he was bleeding out, hit another, and rattle the third before the hacker was able to jack into The Fat Man’s cyber-brain and burn him out. Security backed off, and the player-characters made away with their goods.

What I Learned

Hollowpoint perfectly modeled complex, intense conflicts with a variety of different character types, and can be easily extended or changed to handle others (for a Mage-like game, one might swap out the TAKE skill for MAGIC).

It also models those stories well. The book provides a structure for the overall story, with certain conflicts involving the big bad guy, and retaliation scenes. The ref also gets extra dice in future conflicts, ratcheting up the tension and making later battles tougher.

One player made the point that the game really felt like an “Us versus the world” story; the characters were backed into corners constantly.

I also love the rule (and, yes, it’s a rule) that everyone must narrate every use of the mechanics. It got my players thinking about how to role-play, and how the numbers on the sheet corresponded to their actual actions.

To sweeten the deal, the paperback of Hollowpoint is currently available at Lulu for US $19.99. A PDF is coming soon, at a significantly lower price.

Hollowpoint was developed by the always-helpful Brad Murray and the other folks at VSCA, developers of Diaspora.

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