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Good evening, afternoon, or whatever time it happens to be there, ladies and gents! I happen to be Andy, who happens to be a freelance web designer, musician, writer, and whatnot.

Roman Catholic, student of tabletop gaming, and someday soon I'll have my own designs in the field!

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Saturday, February 16, 2013

Hollowpoint: a Dice Bag of Bullets

You know, Hollowpoint is really not a game that I thought I'd consider to be interesting. I'm not generally one for its motif of ultraviolence and devastation. On the other hand, I thought that The Boondock Saints was interesting for the way it portrayed characters who were driven to such extremes, and I can't deny the appeal of an action flick. Oh, and then there's the fact that I've thoroughly enjoyed Bee Train's anime Noir and Madlax, which were totally about people who killed other people (and how they dealt with that). Enter Hollowpoint, the game which gives you a splendid framework to build all sorts of stuff around, if you like.

What Hollowpoint Is
The game makes it pretty clear right off the bat that it's not a game of pure inane violence. The team of characters (controlled by the players) is out to accomplish a mission, and violence only enters into the equation insofar as they don't shrink from committing it to accomplish their goal. As the book points out very early on, "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."

The approach is borne out by the general structure of the game. The players are encouraged to plan things out before they actually make a hit; dice only start getting rolled when conflict enters the picture--in other words, when the plan starts to roll into effect. Once the dice hit the table, Hollowpoint uses a fast and furious resolution system that dips into Greg Stolze's One Roll Engine, but with d6s. What makes it particularly fast is the fact that you don't roll dice for everything you do. Instead, as you narrate your character's progress against the opposition, you've already rolled your dice at the start of the round. You spend matching dice (a "set") in order to whittle down your opponent's dice. If they don't have any sets remaining, then they take an effect. If you use the same skill twice to inflict an effect on them, they're out of the fight.

How Hollowpoint Flows
I took the game for a quick spin on my own, just so that I could write a review after having seen a glimpse of how the system works in play. It's...beautiful. It's elegant, stylish, and action-oriented. The thing is, you really have to see the mechanic in action to understand how well-conceived it is. Consider this: if you were to combine Wushu Open's "Principle of Narrative Truth" (what you narrate happens, but the dice tell you how far that advances the scene) with a resolution mechanic that frontloaded the dice (instead of having you roll at the end of the scene), well...okay, this is it. (I have no idea if they actually intended it, but that's what Brad and C.W. have made.)

With Hollowpoint, you assemble a pool of dice based on the primary skill/approach you're using; these are short verbs ("KILL", "CON", "TAKE") which remind me of the Leverage RPG's Hitter/Grifter/Mastermind/etc. roles. So, actually, there's your analogy. It's the long-forgotten child of Wushu Open and Leverage, who got adopted by the One Roll Engine. With lots of hypercompetence and violence. You roll a dice pool at the start, and that becomes your resource pool to take the enemy out. This makes it devastating when you're suddenly clicking on empty (out of sets). The only way to salvage that is to "burn" character traits--tell the story of a scar (and never tell it again), lose something precious to you, change your character. That is a thing of narrative beauty.

A Limited Life Cycle
Agents go down fast. Like I said, when you take two effects, you're out. I only played through two Conflicts (one of which resolved ridiculously fast, thanks to luck), and my characters had burned most of their traits already. Somebody was bound to take two effects sooner or later. When you take two effects, you have the option to "move on"--your character dies, or is arrested, or something, and you bring in a new character to yell at the rest of the team for screwing things up and getting someone killed/compromised. Otherwise, you retain the first-level effect for the rest of the session. (I think you can see the incentives here.)

Because of that, the focus of play is, like Fiasco, about squeezing intense, pungent moments out of a character, making them come alive with a few sharp strokes, and sending them through potent scenarios. There's a certain desperation to it, especially as you start burning through your resources (traits, effects, and--on the lowest level--dice). It's fast, sometimes vicious, and really well-paced, especially for the style of game that it engenders.

The Swiss Army Knife
Did I mention that Hollowpoint can do oodles of things? The game itself calls out Ocean's Eleven and GI Joe as two examples of stories that you could emulate; The Expendables is an obvious fit, and The A-Team is also called out. You can set it pretty much in any place, at any time, and people have hacked it for Lord of the Rings and Skyrim. I could totally see a Jedi Knights (or smugglers) hack; it might even work for a high-action setting like Exalted. Oh, heck, it would make a pretty good shounen anime game. (Personally, I'm gearing up to hack a high school comedy/drama game out of it, which should hopefully be fantastic.)

Have I sold you on Hollowpoint yet? Did I mention that if you buy it off of Lulu, Brad will give you the PDF as well? Yeah, just go out and get it. If nothing else, you could run an awesome dungeon crawl with it. I mean, doesn't "hypercompetent and mal-intentioned violent specialists" pretty much describe an adventuring party?

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