Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Vampires: Hollowpoint

This Saturday I finally had the chance to run Hollowpoint. We had a break between campaigns, so I wanted to do a one-shot with something pretty distinct. Last time we’d done Dread, another game with a pretty central and different mechanical system.

Here’s the info I gave them ahead of time:

In the near future, monsters are real. That discovery by various secret organizations put them in a difficult position: pull back the curtain and cause panic and an all-out war or find a way to create quiet balance between the monsters and humanity. You belong to one of those organizations, dedicated to enforcing the rules and keeping things under wraps.

That agency is simply known as The Balance. It employs deadly and expert agents, called Exarchs, to carry out missions. It fights against the Vampires, Werewolves and other creatures of darkness who act as a supernatural mafia. The Balance allows the creatures to carry on, but within limits. When the beasts go out outside those limits they send in the Exarchs.

They send in you.
To the basic set of six skills, I added OCCULT- presenting magical knowledge and the use of sorcerous powers. The two effect stages would be Cursed and then Soulless. I did up little 4x6 two-sided character sheets, with a quick outline of the conflict mechanism on the back. At the table I walked through the game, stressing the broad approach to actions. They made up their characters pretty quickly, with a couple focusing on KILL, one on TERROR, one on COOL and the other on OCCULT. There were some interesting traits chosen as well and I pretty much let anything fly there.

I got down to brass tacks and described the mission. Their agency, the Balance, keeps the existence of monsters quiet and maintains balance between groups. In Chicago, that balance has gotten skewed. Vampires, in their ongoing war with the Lycan Werewolves, have gained the upper hand.

  • Objective One: Restore parity between the Vampires and Werewolves in Chicago.
Though is isn’t clear if it has a role in the current imbalance between the two forces, an important magical artifact has surfaced in the Windy City, the Tome of Asmodeus. It is likely in the hands of the Vampires.

  • Objective Two: Locate and retrieve or destroy the Tome of Asmodeus.
They wrote up complications. I made a mistake and didn’t stress that those should connect themselves to the mission objectives. A couple of people, in a more Microscope-y, way wrote up more general complications for the story. Those were great and I might have to use that as a technique in the future. But I had them revise those to make them more personal.


I moved the players on to the scene, allowing them the choice of where and how they wanted to hit things. I stressed again that each conflict meant that later conflicts would be tougher. The players also noted that they wanted to avoid a wash. They did some research- I allowed them to make a skill check. The Hollowpoint rules suggest successful skill checks count as successes for later scenes- adding more dice. I opted to only apply that raise once. I wanted players to have some ability to choose actions and roll even during the discussion sequence.

They got the basics on the Vampires. I borrowed from classic WoD, so we had a Giovanni family in control of the city, with mafia contacts. Cantor Giovanni was the patriarch, with son Petreus Giovanni as a right hand-man and warlord. His other son Michael Giovanni didn’t seem as involved with the current conflict. There were indications of smaller rival vamp families, a detail not used.

On the werewolf side, the tribe of the Silver Fangs was led by a Lord Steelbane. They got less information on them, except that they had a street gang of weak-blooded werewolves (metis) known as the Born-Broken. They seemed like a good point of engagement. The group also researched the book and discovered it had rituals relating to the powers of various monsters and rituals for enhancing them.

The group opted to use the gang as an entry point. Three went into the club to roust them, using COOL and TERROR. Two others worked on DIG (looking for evidence in backrooms) and OCCULT (reading the wards and magic around the area). It took a couple of rounds, with the group taking a couple of effects (Terror, Dig) before they finally cowed the gang leader Angor Sept. The players started to get their feet under them, and we had one trait burn in that conflict.


The PCs forced Angor Sept to set up a meeting with the werewolf lord, Steelbane. They met at an abandoned amusement park. Lord Steelbane had some of his pack with him, along with his second, Viska Sloane and his daughter, Selena Holt. The PCs suggested that they shared a mutual interest in hitting the Vampires hard. There was some agreement. They found out that the vampires victories had been more due to strategic intelligence and ambushes than anything else. Steelbane suspected some magic, since he’d vetted and checked his own people for a leak. Viska reacted oddly to this comment, but the group let that pass for the moment.

They pressed Steelbane for where they could locate Petreus Giovanni, if they wanted to send a message. He suggested the vamp-only stronghold of the Succubus Club. The PCs departed.


The group headed for the Succubus Club, intending to approach with a mix of skills- half the group playing hardball while the others went more quietly in. However, they drove into an ambush on the street outside the building. Someone had tipped off the Vampires. They raked the PCs vehicles with gunfire. The opposition included Petreus Giovanni, allowing me to split my dice pool.

The group responded by going full KILL for everything, intending to simply eliminate any and all opposition on the street. They burned traits and asked each other for help- piling up dice in two-three persons (of five) each round. My group’s pretty focused on cooperation, so despite the attraction of saying FU, they went with a united front to start. They quickly made a mess of the opposition- dealing a second stage effect to the general Vampire group, and a first stage effect to Petreus- at which point I had him withdraw. I did manage to couple of solid KILL hits on one of the PCs, but the players began what would be the key strategy for the evening. If anyone took a second-stage effect, the other players quickly distributed that using their Agent ability.


Having successfully dispatched the Vampires, the players opted to immediately continue and escalate the situation- driving straight through the doors of the Succubus Club. The group split between KILL and TERROR, with one player using COOL. Once again, dice consolidated in players hands through the teamwork mechanic. I didn’t have a split dice pool (no protagonist) so I ended up with some big numbers that went fast but left me with little. I dealt a couple of effects, but nothing awesome. The team set the Club ablaze, until finally they dealt a second stage COOL effect- forcing a Vampire to beg them for rescue in exchange for information.


The group drew information from the nameless vampire. He indicated that Petreus had been told that some kind of enemy would be coming to the club, and so set up the ambush. The nameless vamp suggested that the information had come from Michael Giovanni, narrowing down the source of the leak in the werewolf community.

One of the players (“Jake Boswell”) burned a trait, Flashbacks, to establish that he had a previous relationship with the werewolf second in command, Viska Sloane. I let him make a roll based on his CON 2. He ended up with two sets on four dice so I let it fly. Viska indicated that the Lord’s search for leaks hadn’t included his own family. She offered the group the location of the ambitious Selena Holt, the lord’s daughter.


The group breaks in to the abandoned warehouse where Selena Holt and her packmates doss down. They use a mix of skills, but the focus is clearly on KILL. The group has begun to really see how the effect stack- and they try to coordinate their work, rather than hitting the opposition on all fronts. The net result is that they finish things with a second stage KILL effect, which leaves Selena Holt dead- and unable to answer questions. However they uncover evidence linking Selena Holt and Michael Giovanni. The pair wanted to get ahold of the Tome of Asmodeus, which Cantor Giovanni keeps in his vault on his fortified estate. They planned to use the book’s rituals to empower themselves. They got some strategic information on the estate as well.


The group wanted more information on the book, and the potential magical safeguards as well as confirmation of the book’s presence. They wanted to check in with occult sources in Chicago. I offered two options: take time and make an Occult skill check to get some details OR go and kick in the doors of the various amateur warlocks and witches in the city, full conflict style to get the answers fast. The group opted for the latter. Despite the pretty huge pool of dice I had, they ran roughshod over the occultists pretty quickly. I distributed a couple more effects, players burned traits, and we had some dice finally taken from the teamwork pool. The group coordinated their FU’s to get at that. They got some more details- most importantly that most of the arcane protections were to keep monsters out. The party decided to take the fight to the fortified Giovanni estate.


The group came in with a two pronged attack: TERROR to offer a distraction and TAKE to crack the safe & security. I established that TAKE would have to be used in this final conflict if they wanted to get at the book. I also established a three die Catch which could be dealt with by any skill, it represented the magical wards and protections being closed down. I rolled a 1, 2 and 3 for that- which ended up being pretty bad for them. The Catch needs to be cleared by dice of those set values. Since sets get cleared from lowest to highest in a conflict, when it came around to them, I’d often already knocked out those sets. (Note: it was pointed out to me that you actually knock out shortest, highest sets first, so this would have been easier- but at least I applied the rule the same way across the session)

Once again, the group traded off support and assistance, with everyone pretty much burning all of their traits. They all also used their agent abilities to take various hits for one another.

But I had 26 dice, split among two pools (12 for five players + GM, 10 for five previous conflict successes, 2 for their various skill checks, and 2 for a protagonist on site- Cantor Giovanni).

The group worked through, getting a couple of effects and managing to clear the catch when everything went pear-shaped. I finally managed to take down on player with a second stage KILL effect on one round. No one had any room left to take his hits on sets or skills. That lost them his dice. The next round they took from the teamwork pool but I managed to overwhelm them- I hit three more with KILL effects. They’d already take stage one hits for others before that so suddenly they dropped like flies.

The final player, who’d supported on that round with his COOL- coordinating from outside in the van—watched as each monitor went dead. He briefly considered going out in a blaze of glory. Instead he turned the key in the ignition and drove off. He’d see at least two of his team in the future; both had complications that they wanted to be vampires…

But that day was in the future, and they’d managed to accomplish at least one of the missions.

  1. With a new group, I suspect you’ll find yourself dealing with the mechanical side of things on your first session. We ended up with less narrative in this game. I think that would be different if people knew the system and were ready for it.  
  2. If you’re like me and usually try to rush through combat/conflicts to keep the energy up, you’ll need to slow yourself down. Take the time to describe and narrate the moments.  
  3. It is easy to forget about complications early on. Or at least I did.  
  4. I would stress players’ ability to withdraw from scenes earlier- and that doing that doesn’t raise the stakes for the next conflict. OOH player’s don’t like to withdraw.  
  5. More importantly, I would point out that “moving on” allows the player to come in with a fresh and clean character. Because they’d used their Agent abilities to take hits for one another to keep them in the game early on, they were all hugely vulnerable in the final conflict.  
  6. Players will learn and figure out the dice system- what works best and what doesn’t- as they play. I didn’t give any advice on this, except that long rolls went fast but wasted a lot of dice to do it. They probably wouldn't have gone to the dice with the Occultists if they'd more familiarity with the system.  
  7. I enjoyed it, I think the players did, and we would certainly play this again. I think all told, even with a pizza break of about a half hour, we managed to do this in 3 ½ hours total.