Wednesday, June 13, 2012

Thanes of Whiterun: Skyrim via Hollowpoint

A couple of weeks ago I ran another session of Hollowpoint, this time using the world of Skyrim. My lovely wife volunteered to write up a session report and assessment which I present here in full...

Hollowpoint: Session: Thanes of Whiterun

I think it's illuminating to add some info on the personalities at the table. What happens at the table is always as much a function of those interactions as it is of the system.

GM:
Edige23: veteran GM of a thousand sessions, master of baiting players into unwise decisions. Before we even start, he tells us about his last Hollowpoint game, wherein he eliminated all but one player at the end because they were all taking hits for each other early in the game and couldn't take the last conflict. Mark my words when I tell you that he is an evil man.

Players:
  • Patti: guest of honor, newish to RPGs having just started playing this year in a zombie campaign run by her fiancee; previous experience with gaming is primarily video games. Funny, infinitely adaptable and downright vivacious.
  • Derek: careful, strategic thinker, Patti's fiancee & her usual GM, comes from a tradition of adversarial GM-ing but has mellowed in recent years
  • Me: looking forward to playing Hollowpoint, exhausted from just this day finishing a six month project at work, usually a careful and strategic thinker. GM's wife.
  • Steve: unfailingly polite
  • Kali: enthusiastic punk-kid girl-geek niece—an 18 yr old among adults old enough to have been lying about their age for decades

So, we've got a couple classic gamers and a couple newbies who have yet to be indoctrinated into the roll-for-every-action mindset—and Steve. Steve defies categorization. That's only one of the reasons we all love Steve.

A Casing for Hollowpoint
The GM chose Skyrim as the thematic because all these players play it. Oddly—the GM was the only one who hadn't played Skyrim, so he researched by using the Official Game Guide for the video game and reading up on the internet memes.

He themes the basic Hollowpoint skills as follows:
  • Warrior for [KILL]
  • Thief for [TAKE]
  • Barbarian for [TERROR]
  • Bard for [CON]
  • Scholar for [DIG]
  • Noble for [COOL]
  • and he adds Mage for [SORCERY]
We're all to be Thanes of Whiterun—agents for Jarl Balgruuf The Great in the years prior to the return of the Dragons. The Jarl seeks to maintain neutrality, choosing to side neither with Stormcloaks nor the Empire—and he enforces that neutrality in his demesne by whatever means necessary. Hence, we Thanes are called to act whenever the balance threatens to tip one way or the other.

Making Bullets
The character creation is a cinch—distribute proficiencies between the skills and come up with descriptive traits for your character. The proficiencies say how many dice we'll be rolling when we use those skills and the traits are 'scene moments' that explain why we get to add a couple dice here or there. The rest of the rules are on the back of our “character sheet”--one quarter of a standard sheet of paper.

Derek and I flip to the back to read the rules. Derek asks the GM what's the downside of the entire group all putting high proficiencies into the same skill. He's already running the same thought I am—and the GM mildly suggests that it narrows our options for problem-solving and that there are challenges where certain skills have to be used. Derek and I exchange a significant glance—and then notice that the rest of table has already finished allocating their proficiencies. Undone! Our munchkin moment for extreme group cohesion is blown apart by simple instructions! Oh well. We scribble in our proficiencies and traits—catching up while the others mull over possible names.

It's all over in under 10 minutes TOTAL—and we're dutifully introducing our characters to each other:
  • Patti: Miriam, an Imperial who's all BARBARIAN first & WARRIOR second
  • Derek: Hresveld, a Nord who's WARRIOR first and BARD second
  • Me: Dwynn, a Nord who's NOBLE first and WARRIOR next
  • Steve: Azeem, a Khajjit who's SORCERY first and THIEF second
  • Kali: Fjora, a Nord who's BARD first and SCHOLAR second

So What's In The Cross-hairs?
Now the GM introduces the objectives—fulfilling the first means we win and fulfilling the second means we win BIG.

So Jarl Balgruuf calls us in:
  1. The small city of Sifkinning, on the route of pilgrimage to High Hrothgar (and hence significant to the gossip of Skyrim), is beset by renewed violent feuding between two families—the Stormcloak-leaning Radroths and the Empire-loyal Tyash. This cannot be overlooked. This cannot be tolerated. The feud must be put down. Heads of the family are Sotte Tyash and Ulfgard Radroth. The jarl of the city, Onming Lernyer, is old and only marginally effective—but at least he stays on the fence and remains obedient, knowing his kin's fate remains in Balgruuf's hands. Lernyer and his people will stay out of our way.
  2. Additionally, a mage named Inwold Kaers went missing in that area a few months ago—the College is looking for him, or more precisely, for items he had with him. Find those items—they must be powerful if the College is that interested.
Why Is Your Aim Off?
And then, for the last touch, having heard the objectives, the players are each are supposed to create a complication that ties the character into the objectives. If we somehow manage to “move on” during the game and make the complication tie in to our exit (be it death or leaving the mission), we “WIN”. These are secret and we certainly didn't speak of them at that point—but here's what everyone came up with.
  • Patti: Inwold is Miriam's uncle—she knows he's in hiding.
  • Derek: Hresveld 's grandfather was Sifkinning's jarl before Lernyer.
  • Me: Dwynn is a follower of Mehrunes Dagon, Daedric God of Destruction; she took on his blessings to eliminate the rival family in a feud that killed Dwynn's own family
  • Steve: Azeem stole his wavy dagger from Kaers at the Mage college
  • Kali: Fjora is the former lover of Ulfgard Radroth's heir

Ski, ski, ski, shoot!
The GM, who is made of evil, reminds us that planning and uncontested information gathering are free. However, any conflict or skill check gives him more dice for the next conflict. We're still a little uncertain how these conflicts play out, but we recognize that “more dice” is not what we want in the hands of them GM.

We ride into Sifkinning on tales of our killer horses and the cabbages we won from the intervening bandits. It's all good. Skyrim through and through. We set to figuring out who's who and what's what in Sifkinning. The Imperial legate in the city won't see Miriam. She goes straight to BARBARIAN, but we talk her down. No no no! We'll just see if we can figure out why he'd be so rude. For some reason, even though we know that Lernyer & his men will stay out of the way, Hresveld insists we go talk to him to get the lowdown and, apparently, squash his ego. Ooooookay. We come out not much wiser for the experience, except that everything started going to hell two months ago when their court sorcerer passed away. His apprentice was taken in by the Tyash. This corresponds with the time that Kaers went missing. Also about this time, the most eligible daughter of the Tyash broke off her engagement to a noble from a neighboring city. Fjora is anxious to use her BARDly skills to get info, but we keep pressing for other means. At her insistance, we do visit the skeeverhole taverns on the edge of town to get rumors about where the feud battles are going down and a few tales of disappearing pilgrims.

And then the Legate has the scion of the Tyash in for a visit and we still can't get in and the Tyash are strangely close-lipped. We can barely keep Miriam calm. Even if she never uses her BARBARIAN against our opponents, the rest of group is certainly impressed by the very threat of it. We decide to go see the Radroth—if the Tyash & the Imperials won't give us the time of day, certainly the Radroth will welcome a group of badasses like ourselves over to his side—and we're annoyed enough to offer our services.

Bullheaded. Stupid bull-headed Nords. We welcome the chance to actually go to dice when the Radroth are strangely resistant to our reasonable overtures. Except we don't want to use WARRIOR—so it's BARD and NOBLE and BARBARIAN (finally!). Dwynn's a natural—and I burn her trait 'infamous for killing entire rival family as vengeance'. We roll okay—but not as well as the GM, who takes all the teeth out of our attacks the first round. We're just trying to impress these backwoods yahoos—and they are so damned obstinate and...racist. The next round, we do even worse and the Talosian dimwits who are manning the door go all BARBARIAN on poor Azeem. We come to the first time when someone might be eliminated from the scene—the GM asks if anyone else will take the hit—and since it's the first fight, I say, 'well, let's see what happens if he goes out for the scene'.

Ugh. Let's say, losing a set of dice hurts. The snarl at the door leaves us seething and without our sorcerer. We finally get in and we're a little smarter about how conflict resolution works, and all the more leery to leap right back into it. Our conversation with Radroth convinces us that his understanding of the situation is perhaps a little worse than our own—he doesn't seem to know what's going on, but he and his bravo son Thoronor are strangely overconfident. His other son, Snodmir, is ill and not attending court. Radroth finally admits that the Tyash have some powerful magics—that the Tyash keep recovering from injuries that ought to have killed them. This makes the Radroth overconfidence more confusing. Eventually, he offers us a price for every Tyash head and we take the offer.

We'd Get Back to the Biathlon But the Course has Gone Hazy...
Now we're suspecting that Kaer's gear has something to do with the regenerative powers of the Tyash. Maybe we can lure them out with rumors of a more powerful artifact located in a dangerous nearby barrow. Collectors of power like to, you know, collect more. In Skyrim, there's always a Draugr-filled barrow nearby. Fjora explodes with excitement—finally she can use her BARD to help the group. No one can bear to stomp on her glee. She succeeds nicely and doesn't notice the GM's very pleased transfer of another two dice to his pile. We tip off the Radroth so our trap doesn't catch dumb puppy Thoronor.

Nothing happens, except that a few adventurers get out there and end up taking an arrow to the knee. So we've created more city guards, but not lured out a single Tyash.

Miriam is full of furious. We have to do something quick or she is going to warhammer down the Legate's door. We're not entirely unsympathetic but it seems like the Tyash may have more secrets. The GM's veteran players are a little stumped—typically we would have had a little glimmer of a clue by now, so whatever it is that is going on must be causing this non-reaction to both the bait and the overtures. We know that—but we haven't figured out what it could be. Azeem volunteers to go poking around the Tyash's estate—and we decide to escalate it to a full-on assault on their security—creating distractions to give him optimal conditions.

...And Then It's All Black And White
We start the distractions out with a fight in the street that escalates so that the front of the estate is under a hail of arrow fire—Azeem goes in a back window. While we're enjoying ourselves with ever-more obnoxious and nonsensical distractions for the Tyash houseguards, Azeem creeps through an eerily quiet Tyash household. No one's on the top floors. On the ground floor—no one, but the kitchen is a fright—blood splattered everywhere. Our rolls are going awesomely—the GM is rolling long but fewer runs, so while he can chip away at a few of our assaults, we're tagging him all over the place. Azeem has no trouble hitting the requirements for the catches. He secures the Tyash secret—a cache of human limbs and pilgrims' remains in an ice room in the cellar—and a glimpse of one of the guards watching the street—unbreathing and clearly undead and with strange stitching. He skitters out to give us the news—taking a quick check around for anything that might be the source of the necromancy first. He finds the cut-up corpse of the court wizard's apprentice, but other than that, he finds nothing.

It's been a fun little romp. The players were tossing out traits and having cool scenes throughout the distraction. We didn't even have to worry about washes.

This Is No Sport...
With the news of unsavory necromancy deeds, we resolved to burn down the Tyash estate—but first, we'd draw that Imperial Legate out to the place and see how he was involved. Knowing what to look for, we identified him as another undead as he scurried over to the Tyash estate upon getting our message that they were under attack. We started the rain of fire—SORCERY and WARRIOR and COOL (for impressive pyrotechnics)--and ran right into our first encounter with a Principal. The GM has to split his dice pool—but he ends up with more chances to act—and we have to clear threats off in a particular order. But we were rolling hot and spending traits and we just shouted out our runs and chewed through everything the GM had to throw at us. The Tyash estate and the Legate were ash—and we had only a few smacks between us.

On to the Radroth—we'd all gotten a bad feeling about that sick son of his and that strange overconfidence. We burst in demanding our fee for the heads of the Tyash—nasty undead heads—and at the mention of us wanting to see his son, Ulgard went all Principal on us. He was a much tougher fight—we weren't rolling quite so well. Fjora ran through the crowd of guards, taking nasty wounds but distracting them so that we could finish our work. She kept running, found Thoronor and they eloped right then and there. [Here, Kali WINS, by getting taken out but perfectly tying back in her complication. The kid had her eyes on the prize the whole time.]

We decimated the Radroth loyals who defied us, checked on the ill son—who turned out to be a were-Skeever. The Radroth were creating an “elite” group of these things to stalk the Tyash—and using Snodmir as the blood donor for conversion. Thoronor was not a very nice brother... Poor ol' Snodmir got put out of his misery.

We've Done Some Killing
We still haven't found the source of the necromancy so we head to the Legate's office. His notes are mundane—too mundane. We note that he made one entry about 2 months ago and then copied that same entry over and over. That entry mentioned investigating the disappearance of a pilgrim. We step out of the office, into the smoke and ash drifting over from the Tyash estate and see a crowd of townsfolk coming at us with hoes and shovels. It's an easy fight—but we're unnerved to discover they're all undead too. The necromancer is around and still ordering his minions about—and close. We note the stitches—and decide to go see the town alchemist.

Arriving there, we see a crowd gathered around the shop—some of them guards from the Tyash estate that we didn't bother to behead, others who had ended up with burns from putting out the fire...many of them undead, but not all of them...completely. The shop was ringed by the zombies and the wounded trying to get in for treatment—apparently some sort of compulsion.

We figured the necromancer was inside—and questioning one of the townsfolk heading there, not as undead as the others, found out the Alchemist's name was Ridmad Ghaeck. Definitely sounded like an evil necromancer. There was no way to get in except through the roof—so we jumped right up there, tossed the shingles down unto the crowd below and took on our next Principle & Minions conflict. This one was tougher. Kali rejoined the group as an adventurer who was caught up in events and decided to join with us—name of Khald. He's all WARRIOR and BARBARIAN. We burn through the last of our traits, slicing through the zombies Ridmad cowers behind and finally putting him down with a great twinned warhammer to the head from Miriam and fiery whosh from Azeem. Thankfully, the artifact, some nasty box of necromancy energy, is there—we get it shut and take it.

There's a denouement where Hresveld dishes out another verbal rib-kicking for old Lernyer, we sum the situation up for him and leave him trying to figure out how to recover from having a good half of his population put down in one evening.

Forensics
Post-Game: there's evidence all over the place. Lovely snacks had been prepared—and went forgotten. There was excited chatter about the complications—which got played out and which didn't...what scenes they'd envisioned when selecting them and where they might have inserted them if they'd been quicker on their feet. You heard “Next time” and “when we play this again...” and“now I wish I'd...”.

We'll play again.

The characters were strongly defined and easy to grasp—the use of the traits provided excellent character-defining cinematic moments. The conflict system was fast—and while it was quick to resolve, it's not easily 'figured out'. The GM can almost always do some pain—but if they do, they will usually end up having their baddies go down fast. The group interactivity—with the mechanics for asking for help (and being assisted or having the request refused) are very fun!

The true genius of Hollowpoint lies in the complications. After the objectives are stated, each player has a chance to write themselves a deeper role in the story. Every one of the players was envisioning a scene, a revelation—a way things might play out—and the game was shaped from the first second by those things. Hresveld was pushing for a fight from Lernyer, Miriam was doing her best to distract us from the Inwold Kaers investigation—and I was trying to provoke the feuding wherever I could. Chips on our shoulders, secrets to keep hidden...and they're all immediately brought to bear.

Derek and I kicked ourselves for reflexively declaring actions rather than narrating scenes—it was one of the things that makes me determined to play again. I want to get better at that. This system really does lend itself to descriptive play—you can risk anything and you can interpret your dice whether you fail or succeed. It's a story game where the dice are the adjudicators—but the player is the one who determines what those successes or failures look like.

Kali was ecstatic that she won the game. She really did too. Nailed it perfectly. She ends up with the character who successfully changes and moves on. That's a great nod to real story-telling—the iconic characters keep slogging away or expire unchanged, but the dramatic hero hits the crisis and has a chance to change things. They move on. Brilliant.

I can't wrap my brain around using Hollowpoint for campaigns, though my husband has some ideas for that. Hollowpoint seems strongest as a one-shot and could probably work as a short series of one-shots, like movies and their sequels.

Hollowpoint would also be brilliant within a campaign for a special interlude. I could envision using it when the PCs send a group of NPCs off to accomplish a mission—and then they play that mission as the NPCs. There's no need for a ridiculous detailed write-up of each of the agents. With Hollowpoint, it takes just 15 minutes of each player sketching out that NPC and investing their little fictional hearts into the goal via the complication and you've got one heck of a memorable “and meanwhile...” session--one with a rather high possibility of going horribly terribly awry.