Hollowpoint

Hollowpoint cover

My first ever D&D session ended this past spring when the DM's campaign lost its focus and peoples' schedules began to conflict with our play time. My expat friends and I had used D&D as a way to pass the too-long winter here on Sado, and even though I had gotten bored of that particular campaign, I was still interested in giving PnP RPGs a little bit more time. But unlike our D&D DM, I didn't have the books and dice and extra stuff that seemed necessary to play D&D. What to do?

And how would this work out for an inexperienced tabletop player such as myself? I’d only just started playing D&D — I wasn’t really comfortable with its mechanics and pacing yet, and now I’m going to have to create a world, direct the action, and make decisions. My god, I'm totally going to screw this up!

As is so often the case, Gamers With Jobs came to the rescue. There was a podcast from the most recent Rabbitcon where a couple “smelly hippy” RPGs were discussed: Dread and Fiasco. Around the same time, I saw mention of a sci-fi based RPG called Diaspora. Upon checking out the Diaspora webpage, I was introduced to Hollowpoint. While Dread, Fiasco, and Diaspora sound awesome (especially Diaspora), Hollowpoint seemed a game that would be an easy first-step for an inexperienced P&P RPGer.

Based on the cover, I wanted this game. With further reading, I really wanted this game. It seemed that Hollowpoint was newb-friendly. I didn't need a ton of books (one single Hollowpoint manual). I didn't need maps or miniatures. I didn't need a bunch of n-sded or fudge dice, just a bunch of plain, old 6-siders.

Even better, a Hollowpoint campaign is only supposed to last about an hour or two. Characters are made at the beginning of the session and not expected to make it out alive. Going out in a blaze of glory is what this game is all about — that and slow-mo shots of bad guys walking away from explosions. I decided to give it a try.

I called together a couple of regulars from last Winter's D&D session to give it a go. We did pretty well. I’d given a basic overview of what the game was about and told them that it required a bit more roleplay than we’d done during our D&D sessions. They seemed to get it and had a good time coming up with their characters and fleshing them out (while getting chunks of flesh blown off) during the course of the session.

Character creation took about 45 minutes or so. The Hollowpoint manual gives a couple suggestions on making characters, but we chose the easiest. First you choose your skills, assigning a rank from 0 to 5 in six specific skills. The ones used for my session were the basic ones for Hollowpoint: Kill, Take, Cool, Dig, Con and Terror. Depending on the setting of the DM's story, you can use different skills, like Seduce or Necromancy (if you were playing a Hollowpoint fantasy setting). So for example, character Bilbo Buttkins (seriously, Charlie?) has the skills Kill-4, Take-2, Cool-3, Dig-1, Con-5, Terror-0. Those skill points affect the number of dice a character can roll in a particular encounter.

Conflict in Hollowpoint is resolved using a dice pool, with players rolling any number of d6s and trying to roll matching sets of the same number. The more sets you roll, the more you possibly get to do in an encounter.

After assigning skill points, you get to make 5 traits for your character. The manual offers a few ways to assign traits, but the easiest is a set of questions that the players must answer. Things like “You wear a black suit over a clean white shirt and a skinny black tie. Nothing to make you stand out, except 'this.'” Whatever “this” is is your trait. These are story-driven aspects of the character and a player can “burn” a trait during an encounter to get an extra two dice for his roll. In burning a trait, a player will narrate a story about their trait and how it pertains to the scene at hand. So for example, one of Bilbo's traits is a nasty scar on his nose. During a particular encounter, Bilbo decides to burn that trait, telling a story about the scar and explaining that one of the assailants looks similar to the person responsible for its cause. This throws Bilbo into a killing rage, giving him 2 more dice to roll on his Kill roll.

Once the characters are created, it's time for the DM to set them loose in the story they've created. Go, bad people! Go do bad things to other bad people!

The manual offers up a very easy-to-follow guide for creating a world for the characters to inhabit. On the most basic level, the characters are agents working for some organization. That organization might be the government or it might be the mafia or it might be the CSC (Convenience Store Consortium, an organization of the heads of the most powerful convenience stores in Japan — Lawson, Family Mart, Sun-Kuse, and 7-11 — charged with making sure no fly-by-night, mom-and-pop convenience stores cut into the profits of the big 4). The DM comes up with a conflict and some missions for the agents, and hopefully during the session, things will blow up, bad guys will kill bad guys, and someone will tell a good story while bleeding out from a bullet wound (or, preferably, several bullet wounds).

I'll spare you the AAR because, as someone wiser than myself advised, the stories are never as funny in the retelling, but it went down really well. My friends enjoyed playing characters of dubious repute and I enjoyed seeing how their decisions changed the story that I had set out to tell. That’s definitely one of the strongpoints of Hollowpoint for more experienced DMs, no matter how much you plan out as a DM, your friends’ characters can take the story in interesting, not-planned-out directions. Of course there were some missteps (unfamiliarity with the dice-pool mechanic, uncertainty with how some of the game’s rules work, etc.), but those will hopefully be worked out in subsequent playthroughs. Hollowpoint is a great game for folks new to the “smelly, hippy” RPG genre and for experienced DMs in need of a filler game for those nights when not everyone can make it to your regular gaming session.

Comments

Thanks for that review.

Hollowpoint was already on my radar (a friend recommended it), and this may tip me from "interested" to "should get a copy".

Definitely interesting!

In my experience, the game systems with the least hard details on characters, the most simple ones... These lead to the best emergent gameplay.

I was quite into P&P RPG's as a young lad/teen (back in D&D, AD&D and AD&D 2nd edition days), and while I've had excellent games with all sorts of systems, my personal favorites are always the simple ones. The more detail that goes into the mechanics of the system, the more flexibility the DM loses, and the more the players get shoehorned into specific actions.

Very loose systems, such as you illustrate with Hollowpoint, limit players only by their imaginations. You've got a basic set of tests you can use, then apply to any given situation. Of course, some players get lost here, unused to really employing their imaginations, and wanting a strident set of rules to "build" their characters around.

An interesting middle ground:

I once ran a campaign with a custom system for three years. This campaign was, player facing, using a pretty detailed system (based loosely on Harnmaster), a low-magic fantasy system with extremely realistic combat. It's an awesome combat system - one in which combat is extremely dangerous to everyone involved. No healing magic, detailed, and realistic injuries/infection and the very likely possibility of permanent disfigurement. However, it's a system that can lead to extremely short games if you've got D&D-style players who want to rush blindly into combat.

My trick? The players never knew it was all smoke and mirrors. They wanted a cool, realistic, detailed system, so I gave them one. I kept all my DM rolls concealed, as well as everything else. I presented everything in terms of proper game mechanics, but it was all BS. I had tables and tables and tables, but it was 100% bullshi*cough*storytelling. The never guessed, and had a great time.

I bought it for my eldest son for his birthday based on an earlier draft of this article, and since then he's run his first session. He'd never DM'd anything before, but all went swimmingly.

A useful addition is these character sheets.

Apparently it was fun and hilarious in ways it's awkward to talk to your mom about. His inspiration was the film "Kiss Kiss Bang Bang". It made a nice break from their regular DM's portentous Vampire: The Masquerade campaign.

Thanks for linking to those toe-tag character sheets, momgamer! I totally forgot to mention them in the write-up. I used them in my playthrough as well.

Thanks for this great review, Matt! It's really exciting to see how different communities of gamers can be totally open to new ideas like this when other communities -- often ones who prefer exactly the same games -- are completely shut down to the idea!

Yeah, this is a nice thing to see on the front page.

I agree with Wintersdark: simple systems usually generate the best stories. I haven't role-played much since we finished our epic high-school-through-university campaign in 1st and 2nd ed. AD&D, but I've glimpsed at the modern D&D rules.. and been sorely disappointed. It seems the game revolves almost entirely around miniatures now, which seems to miss the entire point of keeping the action in your head, not on the table.

A friend in Britain introduced me to a game of his devising called SomeWhat, which has even looser d6 mechanics, and showed me a pretty cool genre. Players play pre-teen kids in an after-school TV special, fighting 'baddies' with a plucky assortment of slingshots and traps made of string. Although I absolutely hated that kind of show as a kid, it was enormous fun to play.

(My favorite part of the mechanic: you get to choose any skills you like. You may choose very general skills like "hurt people" or very specific skills like "execute a perfect roundhouse kick". General skills are more useful, but specific skills are better when used. I recall that my preteen brat had the skill "Conceal minor injuries", which turned out extremely useful.)

Anyway, I'm rambling, but the point remains: talking good, flipping through rulebooks bad.

Oh, and one more thing: Hollowpoint sounds like it would be perfect if you just added 1000mm Clone Insertion Rounds.

That is all, citizen.

+1 for system simplicity. Easily my least favorite RPG is HERO System; we played 30s-adventure, but holy cow, you have to be a CPA for this.

One of my very fondest memories was a one-off game of Og (caveman rpg), but the GM used the mechanics from HOL. It was just perfect; we could play to the story, not the rules.

Nathaniel wrote:

Yeah, this is a nice thing to see on the front page.

I agree with Wintersdark: simple systems usually generate the best stories. I haven't role-played much since we finished our epic high-school-through-university campaign in 1st and 2nd ed. AD&D, but I've glimpsed at the modern D&D rules.. and been sorely disappointed. It seems the game revolves almost entirely around miniatures now, which seems to miss the entire point of keeping the action in your head, not on the table.

Tabletop miniature games are a lot of fun, but in my experience miniatures detract from RPG's because they push the game more and more to a game mechanics exercise than a role playing game. Sure, they help visualize, but they remove the DM and player's ability to fudge the realities of what happens, and the game drifts more to being a strategy game.

A friend in Britain introduced me to a game of his devising called SomeWhat, which has even looser d6 mechanics, and showed me a pretty cool genre. Players play pre-teen kids in an after-school TV special, fighting 'baddies' with a plucky assortment of slingshots and traps made of string. Although I absolutely hated that kind of show as a kid, it was enormous fun to play.

(My favorite part of the mechanic: you get to choose any skills you like. You may choose very general skills like "hurt people" or very specific skills like "execute a perfect roundhouse kick". General skills are more useful, but specific skills are better when used. I recall that my preteen brat had the skill "Conceal minor injuries", which turned out extremely useful.)

This is awesome, and leads directly to that awesome gameplay that encourages imagination to find creative uses for vague skills/abilities.

The key, I think, to making a really great P&P RPG experience is a memorable story. But it's more than just story telling, you need to draw your players into telling the story too. The best RPG's feature the DM and the players all as co-writers, as that interaction, that direct involvement is what really pulls them in. They're part of the story, not just spectators watching it happen. The act of imagining forces them to really picture what's going on, makes it so much more real for them.

Take away the need for imagination, and very many players won't get out of the "game playing" mindset, and will miss the best P&P RPG's can offer.

Sorry for the rambling as well, this just caught on to a favorite topic of mine

Wintersdark: this is exactly the idea behind Hollowpoint -- it's all about getting everyone engaged in creating the narrative. Your turn in a conflict consists mostly of using the dice results as a way to tell the story rather than using the dice to tell it for you. It's an inversion of the more common RPG methods and it makes for some great -- and often unexpected -- results. It's closest ancestors are probably Stolze's Reign and Jason Morningstar's Fiasco.