Tuesday, August 6, 2013

The Fire This Time: Hollowpoint

This week I had the chance to run another one-shot session of Hollowpoint. My friend Nick had asked to see the game. He’s running for "Games on Demand" at GenCon and wondered about adding it to his arsenal. I love Hollowpoint as a one-shot engine, so I agreed. I waited until the day of the game to come up with a concept- I wanted to see how long it took me from start to finish. I ended up going with a riff on Delta Green. However, these DG agents wouldn’t be paranoid and desperate agents, but instead fully-sanctioned bad-asses devoted to putting bullets in cultists and keeping a lid on Mythos weirdness.

I modified the toe-tag character sheets available from VSCA, substituting OCCULT for CON. I rolled “talking” approaches into COOL. I opted for OCCULT as the term over Mythos as HP aims for active use skills. I ran through the basic rules and gave them the mission:

Background: Six hours ago, DG lost contact with the secure agency facility in Chicago. That location isn’t an operational team, but instead an archive and holding center for dangerous materials and hazardous volumes. There had been some previous weirdness over the previous month in the area. Cultists had been dropping off the radar- with some suspicion of a cultist turf war. The Chicago team had been contacted by a highly placed cultist, Carlos Augustino, who’d offered to trade info on what was going on in exchange for protection. The Chicago office had been told not to take up the offer since they weren’t an ops team. The request would be routed to higher ups.

1. Investigate the local DG Archive and Vault.
2. Alarms indicated that the facility had been breached. Any stolen materials must be retrieved and the perpetrators neutralized.

The group came up with five characters after some discussion. They opted to spread out their specialties, with each person taking one skill as their “5”:

  • Walter: KILL specialist (Complication: Short Man Syndrome) 
  • Amiga: DIG focus (Complication: Diabetic)
  • Antoine: TAKE focus (Complication: Addicted to hallucinogens through which the mythos touches him)
  • Kurt Johansen: OCCULT expert (Complication: Wishes to steal Mythos artifacts)
  • Richard Andrew Andrews: TERROR expert (Complication: Description matches that of a suspect in a Chicago-area serial murder investigation).
Scene One: I gave the group time to ask some questions about the situation and gather some background details. I laid out the basics- a small team of personnel on site, lack of contact, deadly stuff present, weird shit going down in Chicago generally, the possibility of cultist or MJ12 opposition. They made a DIG check to get further information on the site and the potentially dangerous materials there. That success gave them confidence that if they entered they could quickly used the RFID tags to figure out what had been taken.

Scene Two: They arrived on an early Sunday morning, with Chicago gripped by a heatwave and jammed up due to a festival (“Taste of Chicago”) happening downtown. The DG archive had the cover of a postal sorting facility. On site they found the security systems taken down professionally. Inside the secure doors remained closed. Instead the attacked had managed to burn a hole down into the facility, cutting through concrete and steel. The group opted to go in via the normal route.

Inside they began exploring and immediately came into conflict with a set of Fire Vampires left behind. The group had to take the opposition down quickly. The Fire Vampires heat would could destroy records and possibly bring down the roof. The group used a variety of skills, but managed to dispatch the bad guys quickly- with a mix of distraction, occult knowledge and fire extinguishers. Andrews took a KILL hit- his face and hands severely burned. (14 Dice)

Scene Three: The group worked through several lines of investigation. Most of this we handled via back and forth questioning, but we had two skill checks in the process, upping the conflict dice. The skill and professionalism of the break-in made the team suspect it hadn’t been cultic, but might have been MJ12 or a like group. They confirmed one item had been taken, The Testament of Carnamagus, an ancient volume with references to the Elder fire god Cthuga. They did some further checks to see if they could find any other important places or times associated with the deity. A check through the facility revealed that all the agents had been killed, with one exception, the Section Chief Agent Danafer.

GM Sidebar: I’d sketched out my notes and plot pretty openly. I had at least three different directions I figured they could go at this point: a hard lean on the Mythos stuff and occult research; tracing the cultic underground; or pursuing the agent leads. I’d come up with a couple of scenes for those cases- mostly names, conflict settings, and leads. The time span I had for the session meant that once they went down one path, I tried not to throw in too many tangents or red herrings.

They tracked back on the missing agent- finding that he’d been doing some off the books investigations. That led to some other leads- most importantly, that he’d be black-bagged and grabbed up about an hour before the break in. Terrifyingly competent hobos provided the next clue- with a camera phone image of the snatch vehicle. The group tracked all of that back to a private shooting range which seemed to be used to supply weapons and equipment to black ops groups.

Scene Four: The group arrived on the site of Sharktooth Security. They’re able to ascertain that the grab van’s on site, along with a team of agents and the company’s security staff. We do one round of conflict in which I’m trying to get a couple of DIG hits on them in order to detect them. The group uses a combination of TAKE, DIG, and COOL to gather further information. I did this as a single dice pool. That transitions quickly into a much more aggressive approach once they’ve confirmed the numbers on site and Danafer’s death. (20 dice)

I consider the second round part of the same conflict and don’t raise the dice. However, it includes a named adversary, so I split my pool after adding two dice. (22 dice, split). The group does a decent job mowing through the opposition- burning traits and starting to use teamwork. I get single hits on several people. Amiga, the hacker, takes off after a single kill hit. And by take off, I mean rolls away in his advanced scooter since he’s just shy of 400 pounds. All the group hears is the sound beeping as he reverses away from the fight.

The team, despite some hits, clears the area. They find out that this is only half of the bad guys. They turn out to be renegade Delta Green Agents. They plan to use the Testament to create a Mythos-based 9/11, to bring the fight against the monsters out into the open. They hope to make that war an even larger priority than that against Terrorists. To that end, they’re going to brief summon Cthuga at the Art Institute in downtown Chicago and allow him to feast on everyone at the nearby outdoor festival.

Scene Five:
The group heads downtown, cutting through traffic and driving on sidewalks. Attempts to contact the museum fail. Clearly the enemy team’s already on site. They pull up maps and decide the most likely spot for the ceremony will be a new Persian exhibit. At this point, the group has two choices: a) take the longer rear way into the facility, allowing them a better chance of concealment and ambush or b) head in through the front doors in a quicker and riskier approach. They opt for B. Inside they meet immediate resistance- with the enemy striking with KILL to bring them to a stop. They burn yet more traits and empty the teamwork pool further. I place several more single hits on the group. (22 dice)

GM Sidebar: Here I should have had a retaliation for the last scene, but I wanted to move things on. So folded that into this conflict. If they’d gone in via the long route, I would have skipped this fight and instead significantly upped the catch in the next scene.

Scene Six: Past the first wave of opposition that charged into the ceremony. They found ex-DG Agent Krieger leading the occult operations. Krieger worked with COOL to attempt to convince the group of the wisdom of his actions and convert them to his side. The rest of the bully boys used KILL in an attempt to stop them. (26 dice, split). I made disabling the actual ceremony into an OCCULT catch of four dice. This went through several rounds- and I managed to deal single hits to several of the group. Johansen ended up with single hits on four different areas. The group burned through nearly all of their traits, emptied the teamwork pool, and used their Agent talent (taking the hit) several times. In the end they managed to stop the ceremony and take down Krieger and his goons.

I enjoyed myself and I think the players had a good time. This is the first time no one died. Two of the players had played before; three had not. I started about 8pm with character creation and wrapped the whole thing by 10:30pm.

I should note that this set-up veers a little away from the structure I’ve used before. I knew I’d have a tight timetable, and I wanted to keep the adventure under two hours, plus time for rules explanation and character creation. When I ran this before I came up with a simple formula- a cheat sheet you can easily use to structure the adventure.

Keep in mind the set up frame needs to allow the players to be bad-asses, without having to worry about the reaction and influence of outside authority figures. That means they have to be part of the authority, have enough pull to avoid serious repercussions, or have co-opted those structures. MiB’s have this through the brain-wipes and fake IDs; a Thieves Guild might have high-level corruption; or the adventurers might operate at the behest of a distant ruler.

Each operation is structured around two clear goals- concrete, but with enough openness to give the group room to come up with solutions. One problem shouldn’t necessarily nest within another- i.e. they ought to be related, but not “two birds with one stone” solvable. My cheat structure is this- the first of the two problems is solving/stopping/fixing a conflict between two groups. The players have to figure out what’s going on and put an end to it. Those solutions can range from soft to hardball. Second, the players have to retrieve or find something: a lost book, an agent who went missing, a hostage, or the like. That McGuffin’s in the hands of one of the two groups.

From there, coming up with everything else is pretty easy. What’s the conflict and who is behind it; what secrets/weirdness does each side have; where is each group based (the cooler the fight location, the better); and where’s the McGuffin & why? Develop a list of names and you’re good to go. That’s all.

Here’s another thing I noticed and we talked about briefly after the session- if you’re going to emulate a genre or existing setting, go big and go for something you know they players will know intimately. You don’t really want to be describing the rules of the premise except in the sketchiest terms. So go for Star Wars and make it truly over the top. They’re Commandos in the Old Republic, taking care of missions and problems the Jedi Council can’t or won’t take care of. Of come forward to the movie era and they’re agents of the Empire- perhaps even with a dark Jedi or two in their midst (with Force as a skill) hunting down rebels.