Since I’ve spent the better part of December watching Tarantino films (for reasons I can’t even begin to comprehend), I thought I’d review a game which comes close to the spirit of his work. In fact, it would almost certainly be the game Tarantino would write if he was into RPGs.
Hollowpoint opens with a simple tagline that sums it up very nicely: Bad people killing bad people for bad reasons. And even though it is named after a particularly nasty kind of bullet, it is less about guns and more about the people who handle them. But make no mistake: Hollowpoint’s stories will invariably have lots of guns. And explosions. And plenty of badass moments. This is a high-concept game about extremely competent, ultra-violent people working as a team even though they’re not really team-players. Think of Die Hard with several McClanes working together. Yeah, that’s probably not going to work very well.
Violence, intimidation, terrorism and other unpleasantness are the theme of the day for a Hollowpoint story, as explored by larger than life characters. The game is designed so as to require very low prep for a session, making it attractive to time-poor gamers. There are very few rules to learn and emphasis is placed on narrative interpretation of the dice rolls.
Hollowpoint comes as a 110-page book, although some of the back pages are taken up by filler text that does a good job in reinforcing what the game is about but is not really essential. The text is arranged in a single column without borders or any other fancy distractions. A few minimalistic B&W art pieces can be found here and there, doing a mostly good job in breaking the walls of text.
There is no specific setting covered by the game. Instead, Hollowpoint has been designed to emulate a variety of settings built around a few key characteristics. One of those is The Agency, an organisation (usually clandestine) the players belong to and that hands down their missions. The GM doesn’t need to spend a lot of time in coming up with a fully detailed hierarchy, since the players will usually have very little interaction with The Agency during missions and should not expect any serious support from it. A few simple pieces of information regarding The Agency’s goal, opponents and the era during which it operates is all that is needed, although it may be a good idea to expand on this minimal set-up in later sessions if the group wants to stage a campaign rather than an one-off game. Thus, the premise of a Hollowpoint game may have the player characters operating as a black ops team contracted by the CIA, or a group of hitmen employed by the Mafia, or even soldiers of fortune getting their missions from a shady mercenary company.
Speaking of characters, they are a breeze to make up. Each has a small list of very broadly defined skills, for example Kill to, err… kill people, or Terror to intimidate them. Simply pick five skills and assign a score of 1 through 5 and you’re good to go. Remember what I said earlier about larger than life characters? With a score of zero representing a layman’s competency, a Hollowpoint character easily becomes one of the best in the world in a few selected fields. Like this isn’t enough, each character can also have five traits, one-use representations of gimmicks, gadgets and memories that can be burned in the game to get a few extra temporary dice. If you feel brave and want an extra challenge, you can also choose a complication for your character, a secret that makes the mission more personal and can seriously spice up the story.
Since you’re already a true badass, don’t expect your character to develop a lot between sessions, even for a long campaign. In-game experience is fairly limited; characters won’t raise their skills, but they can get extra trait slots or unlock new special abilities as they rise in The Agency’s ranks. In truth, Hollowpoint characters are designed to be disposable, like one would expect from operatives in a violent, unforgiving world. Any player can retire his character if he chooses so, even during the game in dramatically appropriate moments, and start with a fresh one.
A Hollowpoint mission is usually centred around two objectives and consists of a number of action scenes called conflicts. Like many action movies, conflicts are based on the principle of escalation. Each conflict won by the player team gives way to a more difficult one. Many scenes will just require the players to overcome their opposition in any way they see fit, but some conflicts may feature catches, separate goals that require a particular skill to be used (for example, stealing an item or hacking a computer).
Conflicts are resolved by simply rolling d6s and hoping to get a better result than the opposition. Hollowpoint uses d6 dice pools with a custom mechanic that made me think of the One Roll Engine or Yahtzee, since it relies on getting matching sets of dice. Dice sets, ranked by both value and number of dice, are eliminated in sequence using rules that at first may seem a little bit confusing in paper, but are quite easy to use during a real game. The important thing is for the players and GM to narrate what happens at each step of the sequence, translating each set of dice that gets knocked out into colourful description. This step-by-step process serves to add tension to Hollowpoint sessions. A long and high dice set might mean that you burst into a room with confidence, beating down surprised henchmen with ease, only to be foiled by your arrogance when you realise there are many more of them than you thought. As you stare down the barrels of several shotguns about to blast you to kingdom come, your teammate with the sniper rifle kicks in, getting headshot after headshot from the next building. Those henchmen are history, but in the resulting confusion the gang leader stabs you and makes a hasty exit. The clues can be found in the dice and it’s up to the players to bring them to life.
This is a game about a team, but not necessarily about teamwork. By default, Hollowpoint characters are not great team players, having big egos and other issues that disrupt harmonious cooperation, and teamwork here is a double-edged sword. Any player can ask you for help with their particular plan of action and you can lend them your dice for the scene, losing your chance for glory if you think they have a good shot at making things work out. However, you can also deny them any help, stealing some of their dice for your use to really rub their nose in turning them down. Scorned players can always take refuge in the team dice placed in the middle of the table, but those are a limited resource that don’t regenerate between scenes. Those dice mechanics create some unique social dynamics around the table that I haven’t seen in other games, but which fit perfectly with Hollowpoint’s theme about bad people doing bad things.
Conclusion: A great little game that’s easy to pick up and requires very little set-up. Flexible enough to cover many different settings it’s perfect for one-off games, maybe less perfect for longer campaigns. Hollowpoint is spartan with rules, but its few game mechanics have been carefully crafted to fit its central theme like a glove.