03 December 2013

Hollowpoint


Hollowpoint, by B. Murray and C.W. Marshall of VSCA Publishing, is a kinetic action game of (as the tagline puts it) bad people killing bad people for bad reasons.

The premise of this game is that you are an agent who has a problem that needs solving. The kind of problem that will require your particular brand of skills to solve (hint: these are the kind of skills that would likely be considered a war crime if they ever came to light - you aren't just a bad person, you are probably a terrible person). In fact, things are so terrible that there has to be an entire team of agents to resolve whatever problem has come up. Which means that who or whatever is on the other side of this probably isn't going to make it out alive. If they're lucky.

While everyone is an agent and works for the agency, what those actually are and what they mean are is flexible as you need them to be. From the typical shadowy government sponsored cleaners, to shepherds keeping warring criminal families in line. Or even stranger than that (angels man, angels murdering demons in Las Vegas), it all works within the framework of the game. All that there needs to be is your team (agents), who they work for (the agency) and what they are doing (the mission).

Setup is a breeze for everyone involved. The GM (referred to as a "ref") is responsible for providing the background, which is pretty light and centered around the Mission. Initially they just need to supply players with some background on their agency and what it is about (the "Charge" - e.g. GI Joe, or OSI), their enemy (e.g. Cobra, or Sphinx), and the setting (the "Era"). From there, players will create their agents. The GM has some more things going on and we will get back to that shortly.

There is a list of six default skills for players to take (Con, Cool, Dig, Kill, Take and Terror) along with examples on how that list can be tailored to the particular setting and/or mission, including a list of optional skills and how they can be used to compliment and differentiate from the default skills (Boss, Hurt, Seduce and Watch). Since you get to select five skills, one at each rank from 5 to 1 (5 being high), keeping the list to six skills is almost certainly for the best so that nothing truly falls through the cracks.

Following that, players get some traits that can be burned to for a bonus during play. They're pretty similar to one-shot Aspects from Fate, though there are some suggested methods for generating them to keep things from getting bogged down in finding that perfect Aspect. If you've played Fate, you've been there. The structure can certainly help players that may have issues the process for any number of reasons and give some common ground for everyone to riff off of each other.

There is a final piece for each character: their complication. It is what makes this mission personal. They need to go through the GM for approval generally, but it is the player's chance to put their mark on the mission and contribute to how it is all going to go horribly wrong. Which certainly isn't the objective of the agents, but should certainly be the objective of the players.

The GM is also responsible for creating NPCs for the mission, both those that are disposable and those that represent some significant opposition (referred to as "Principles"). While creating some awesome scenes that they want their players to experience is also up there, the exact course that events take will likely be fluid with the resources that the players have at their disposal. Those resources could take the form of backdoor access to the NSA tap on the internet backbone, to a keen knowledge of local snitches and a willingness to get their hands dirty. When a Principle shows up in a scene, things are about to get real for the agents and there is a good chance not all of them are going to make it out of that one intact.

Action is handled through pools of six-sided dice. After rolling your pool, matching dice are put into groups, similar to ORE. While more dice is generally better, there comes a point where too many dice can get you into trouble and sets you up for things going terribly, awfully wrong. It's a very clever mechanic and part of how the presence of a Principle can really wreck the agents' day, by splitting up the GM's pool into two pools which allows them to form more sets from each of those pools.

Everything goes down quickly and brutally for everyone involved. Remember, this is something so rough that an entire team of agents is required and there is no expectation for all of them to make it out of this one. To help with this, the agents can ask each other for help. Helping out takes your agent out of the action to support the other, which means that you are no longer at risk, but also that you aren't directly contributing. Pros and cons. If an agent refuses to help, the asking agent can take some dice from the group Teamwork pool to make up for it. Again, pros and cons. It's a clever little mechanic that has some strategy to it and reinforces players "Moving On", as when a new character is brought in they will add dice back into the Teamwork pool.

If things go sideways for an agent, they can decide that it is time to move on. Whether that means they suffocate from a pool cue to the lung, or are quietly informed that the opposition knows exactly where their secret family lives. Regardless the cause, that character is gone and the player makes a new one, this time coming back as an operative.

The introduction of an operative is the signal that things have gotten screwed up and the agency is sending in someone to fix things and get this mission back on track. They're like a corporate project manager with even less morals. Coming back with an operative gives the player a chance to affect the narrative and suggest a new direction for the mission. Perhaps the old goals simply cannot be achieved - maybe the hostage is dead, or the investigation doesn't matter because the chateau fell off of a cliff. Nonetheless, someone still has to answer for all of this. After the operative comes the handler. Pray that it doesn't come to a handler showing up.

Hollowpoint is a face-paced action game that is perfect for a one-off, or a series where the actions of the agency are more important that the individual agents that work for it. While you are never forced to move on, it's probably going to happen - don't get too attached. With minimal preparation required and a fast pacing that is easy to maintain (and if you keep it brisk enough, players won't have time to think about the plot holes they caused). The book is loaded with examples and advice on how to keep things going, including a mission actual play and an overview. If you are in the market for some rules light violence and mayhem, look no further. Or if you have ever wanted to play Archer.