My Setup Heartbreaker

From here:

A set-up heartbreaker is a game where – when you’ve done the set-up – you’re super-psyched and excited about what’s going to come. It’s just so full of potential! And yet, when you get into play, all that potential never seems to translate into a compelling game. The game in your head at the beginning was far better than the game that ultimately emerges from the table. And what sounded so cool in set-up doesn’t really catch fire (or maybe not even make it to the table).

That describes the Hollowpoint game I ran at Concrete Cow yesterday.


The Issues

So, these were the specific problems I identified with the Hollowpoint game I ran:

  • Advertised as a Cyberpunk game, when it should have been advertised as a Hollowpoint game. I assumed that at least one player had signed up because of the system, but actually everyone came with genre-based expectations and the system threw them a bit.
  • Not flagging that it’s a narrative storygame, with very rigid system boundaries.
  • PCs need to be framed as amoral loners, instead they were framed as a collaborative group.
  • Using a Cyberpunk genre required the players to learn some back-plot and expectations which got in the way of learning the dice system.
  • My game was an investigation game; while there are examples in the Hollowpoint rules of running investigations (e.g. the Callisto scenario), it requires a conceptual leap that some players struggled with. Stick to guns and stuff, at least for a demo.
  • Needed better handouts that flag the moving parts (Skills, Traits, Complications, Effects).
  • GM needs to be more agressive, and push to victimise one player — something I’m terrible at.
  • Scenario needed better focus on the Catch, and Principals.
  • Six players is too many for the dice to work if you don’t make more of the Catch and Principals.

Why You Didn’t Like My Game

Talking more generally, these are the reasons you maybe didn’t like my game:

  1. I didn’t manage your expectations. That’s on me. Solution: pitch it better, include as much common language as possible (“storygame”, “dice heavy”, etc.). Tough to do when a lot of pitches are fiction-focused rather than game focused — unless people know Hot War or Monsterhearts or Hollowpoint they could wind up being disappointed.
  2. I didn’t match the scenario to the system. That’s on me, too, but sometimes really hard to anticipate. Solution: play games, get experience of what works, take the occasional knock to your ego in the process.
  3. You didn’t understand how to play. That’s my fault, up to a point — but no amount of making the system clearer will deal with the next point, which is…
  4. You didn’t like the system. That’s sort of on you, though it’s not “your fault”. Chalk it up to experience.
  5. You could have been playing something else. That’s also on you, but it feels like it’s on me.
  6. Last, the system has pitfalls — maybe they’re to do with scaling, or pacing, or suitability for one-shots.

We conflate these different points. 3 and 4 get mixed up — where people use not understanding a game as a reason for not liking it (fair! Adding a cognitive load on top of the narrative will make the game harder to engage with), but also where people don’t engage with the game because they don’t like the initial impression they got (perhaps not so fair).

I have control over 1, 2 and 3. I have no control over 4 or 5, although both feel like they’re my fault — but we have to draw a line somewhere. In particular the “could have been playing something else” begs the question “what else?” That’s an opportunity cost, and not only is it hard to say the real value of the game you didn’t play, you have to ask if all the options were equally available to you. Sign-ups have an element of risk, and I think that’s one area the GM has to limit his or her responsibility for a game that didn’t go so well.

A Look At Hollowpoint Probabilities

A bad worker blames her tools. One of the conclusions post-game was 6 people is too many. Which may be true… with 6 PCs + GM, the opposition starts at 14 dice.

I used the Troll Dice Probability generater with this code:

\ Hollowpoint Probabilities

\ Based on One Roll Engine probabilities
\ Use d6 in place of d10
\ For calculating probabilities
\ Shows width of sets (equal chance of each height)

roll := 4d6;
vals := different roll;
foreach x in vals do if (count x= roll) >= 2 then (count x= roll) else {}

Vary the number of d6 in the roll to calculate the probabilities of each kind of roll.

Summary probabilities in this sheet. Some observations:

  • in a straight fight (no Principals or Catches) 6 agents with a pool of 4-6 each will generate 7 sets compared with the Enemy’s 4.5 sets, and is likely to overwhelm the Enemy, or at least end in a stalemate. This is why the Enemy should victimise one PC, because it cannot reliably win against all.
  • the cap on the number of sets you can score is 6 for a single roll (doubled if you use a Principal) no matter how many dice you have
  • Even with the dice in the high teens, the chance that you’ll get a set containing at least one double is high — meaning that one set from the agents will spoil one set from the Enemy (because the widest highest set targets the narrowest highest)

So the game escalates non-linearly; at some point the escalation of the Enemy will cap out at 6 sets, even if those sets are all wider than the players’ sets. Having more dice isn’t always better, and if the GM doesn’t really pursue the PCs agressively to apply Effects, the PCs can walk every conflict and no-one will ever move on. The only way it gets harder is attrition of Traits and Teamwork. I think this is a major place where I missed a trick.

Analysing like this, it’s clear that to make it work I need to

  1. Victimise players with effects to force them to move on. This means the wide (fast) sets of the Enemy tend to pick off the characters lagging behind.
  2. Insert Principals earlier for more players
  3. Ditto Catches.


Hollowpoint’s a dice game, and it needs to be pitched as a dice game. More than just writing a general plot or sandbox the GM needs actual skill in balancing the dice to the players, and has to be prepared to play to win. It’s unusually adversarial in this regard; the only other game I can think of that does this is Don’t Rest Your Head and that has similar quirks re: dice pools.

Whichever side of the fence you sit on “Storygames are/aren’t RPGs” it’s clear that while Hollowpoint isn’t a traditional RPG, it’s slightly apart from Storygames, too. Storygames often feature passive facilitation, and it’s abundantly clear that this is not what is needed in this case.

More than usual, I need to practice.