Rules Lite Games and the Open Game License

This is in response to my Hollowpoint Reveiw from 2011; I’m presently playing clean-up on some draft blog posts.

FiascoHollowpointDo: Pilgrims of the Flying Temple are each rules-lite games that could  be summarized in about 2 full pages; Hollowpoint is by far the most rules intensive of these three.

Disclaimer: I am not a game publisher nor designer, so I don’t have any skin in the RPG business.

Pros to Releasing the Rules

Distill the fluff from the crunch: What are the core rules and what is the product’s identity. I know I prefer to have the lovingly crafted book, with a well thought out layout vs. a webpage with presentation as an all to often after thought.

Easy for third party adaption: If someone wants to expand on the game, providing a clear path makes it easier; Yes they could just ask the publisher for permission.

Product Preview: By giving access to the rules, crunch-minded people can “test drive before buying.”  If you have a highly stylized presentation, providing just the rules might be detrimental to your game (I’m looking at you my most gorgeous Do: Pilgrims of the Flying Temple).

Cons to Releasing the Rules

The skeleton of your game is now free to the public.  Will it hurt the sales?

What other consequences are there?

What license do you release under? OGL? Creative Commons 3? GPL? MIT? Apache?

Reality of Releasing the Rules

I am not a lawyer, but I’ve done a bit of research regarding the OGL and copyright.

According to US copyright laws, the language used to describe a rule is copyrightable, but the underlying concept of the rule is not.  So if you can, in your own words, describe a rule, then you are likely not infringing on the copyright holder.  Patents, on the other hand, are a completely different beast.

If I had the inclination, I could rewrite the rules of a game and release them.  It would then be a matter of whether the copyright holder of my source material decided to pursue a copyright infringement case or not.

This reinterpretation would be rather dick-ish and is in direct violation of Wheaton’s law.  Besides, would I rather copy someone else’s work, or would I rather work out my own creation.

Licenses for Rules Release

Survey of Conflict Structure in RPGs

One of the common elements of the role-playing game is breaking complicated sequences into turns.  This is particularly evident in physical conflict, where turn order can easily mean life and death.  This blog post is a breakdown of different initiative systems that I’ve seen.

Teams 1 then Team 2

Through some mechanism, usually dice, it is decided that one team goes first.  At that point, everyone on the first team performs their individual actions.  Once those actions are complete, the second team performs their individual actions.

I have never used this system, but the advantages are likely related to group size. The simplified turn order is easier for each player to handle their actions.  Think about the old adventures that say for 9 to 12 players, it’s almost a defense mechanism for the poor GM.

Team 1 then Team 2 Stepping Through Phases

Similar to Team 1 then Team 2 initiative, but there are particular phases that might be resolved as demonstrated below.

  1. Team 1 fires arrows, team 2 fires arrows.
  2. Team 1 moves, team 2 moves.
  3. Team 1 throws weapons, team 2 throws weapons.
  4. Team 1 moves, team 2 moves.
  5. Team 1 attacks with sword, team 2 attacks with sword.

Optionally, you could have a step 0 where the team members declare their actions.

Individual – With Phases

Following on the idea of combat phases, except each character selects their actions.  Rolemaster made use of this mechanism.  Old School Hack is another one.

Individual – Round Reset

Each participant rolls initiative at the beginning of the round and then actions are taken in initiative order.  A variant of this is where each player first declares their action, then initiative is rolled, and finally actions are resolved in initiative order (D&D 2E).

Individual – Circular Rounds

Each participant rolls initiative before combat begins, and for the duration of combat actions are performed in initiative order.  D&D 3E and D&D 4E come to mind.  There are rules for stepping out of the initiative order.

Scripted Simultaneous

Burning Wheel makes use of a scripted action sequence, both for physical combat and for social conflict. In the case of Mouse Guard for military or propaganda campaigns.

This system models the chaos of conflict.  Once the first bullet fires, everything is a mix of instinct and reaction.

Burning Wheel’s mechanic breaks conflict scenes down into multiple exchanges. At the beginning of each exchange, the players can survey the current state of the conflict and then privately script their actions.  Once the scripts are set, they are revealed and adjudicated.

Which means you may have wanted to swing at that guy with your sword, but he’s now inside your swing and poking you with a knife.  You’re still going to swing, but you’ll have quite a few penalties.

Within this mechanism there is the savoring of laying out a plan and the tension of watching the events unfold.  Very satisfying, and it does an excellent job of adding tension.

Social Initiative

Diaspora’s space combat takes a very novel approach for space conflict.  Each round is broken into phases for positioning, electronic warfare, beams, torpedos and damage control.  Unlike other conflict systems, the first person to declare the action is the first to resolve their action.

There are advantages to going first (i.e. striking a deciding blow). There are advantages to going last (i.e. striking where they are already hurt).

To facilitate this system, a caller is required.  They are the arbiter of when a particular phase is done.

Point, Counter-Point

Traditionally, most turn based conflict resolutions were focused on modeling physical combat.  As role-playing games have evolved, for better or for worse, the idea of structuring social conflict resolution has been explored.

D. Vincent Baker’s Dogs in the Vineyard accepts that conflict can begin almost anywhere ( i.e. a barbed word, forceful push, stabbing knife, or pistol shot), and works to address that.

If you want to start a conflict, do it, and roll some dice.  The defender rolls dice as well, and an exchange begins.  First the attacker makes a point, followed by the defender, then the attacker.  In many ways it is like the Individual – Circular Rounds method.

However, unlike other games I’ve read and played, Dogs in the Vineyard allows conflicts to seamlessly go from banter to pistols.  Other systems may completely exclude social combat, and when someone says “I draw my gun”, the conflict resolution mechanism changes.

Characters Only

Another relatively new mechanic for me is the idea of removing the Game Master from the pool of people that participate in the conflict.  This is the method of Apocalypse World and Dungeon World.

In both of these games, the action resolution mechanic incorporates the idea of Success, Partial Success, and Failure.  Applied to conflict, a Success might mean I hit and damage my opponent and they don’t hit me.  A Partial Success might mean that both my opponent and I hit and damage each other.  A Failure might mean my opponent hits and damages me and I don’t hit them.

Order of when characters act is far less important, as the characters moves define their outcome.

And More…

Hollowpoint looks to who has the most of any numeral (i.e. 5 sixes were rolled) and they act knocking out other dice, then who has the next most of any numeral.

Reign Enchiridion, which I haven’t completed, looks to be somewhat similar to the Hollowpoint (though I assume Hollowpoint received inspiration from Reign).

What if?

What if the conflict resolution had a determination phase like Race for the Galaxy?  In Race for the Galaxy everyone blindly chooses the actions that they will be taking that round.  In taking the action, they get a bonus, but everyone else also may perform the action.  So imagine sitting at the game table and choosing between: Move, Magic, Missile, Melee, and Defend.

In Conclusion

This isn’t meant to be a comprehensive list, but instead highlights some of what I’ve seen.  Personally, I’d love to see more mechanics akin to Dogs in the Vineyard where conflict seamlessly moves from one domain to another.  I also believe Diaspora and other FATE-based games are onto something when they have a unified stress track.

GenCon Games on Demand – Hollowpoint

As previously discussed, I signed up to run a game of Hollowpoint at GenCon for Games on Demand.  Nykki, one of the players in my Games on Demand Hollowpoint game, has already wrote up the session report.

So I’ll spare you the gory recount of the details, and instead focus on my perspective for running the game.

The Run Up

The previous day I had a minor bout of illness, and was not quite on my game.  On top of that, I was a bit nervous to be surrounded by many of the game designers of games that I admire were going to be there.

This was also the first time I had played an RPG at a convention, let alone run a game.  So I was hoping my somewhat insular RPG experience would measure up to those around me.

Those fears were allayed when I walked into Games on Demand and was greeted and I believe recognized by Steve Segedy, editor of Fiasco and other Bully Pulpit Games, and Brennan Taylor, designer of the Bulldogs! RPG.

To further ease my nerves, I had the wonderful pleasure of sitting down before the game and conversing with Steve Dycus about the new games we had both gotten from the exhibit hall (Sounds like I need to checkout Part-Time Gods).  Eventually Nykki B and Matt Boersma arrived  and we were off.

At the Table

We had three players, none of whom had read the rules for Hollowpoint.  I quickly went over the rules, and said “There are other rules that I can bring to bear that don’t have an immediate impact on your lives at this moment.  When it’s time, I’ll explain them.”

I told them up front that the opening conflict is very easy for them to win, so we needn’t worry about getting bogged down in the rules; the rules would become self-evident at the first conflict.  Also, if their character were to die, they could easily make another one and jump in at the end of the scene.

I decided to have the first conflict involve a Catch, as this would provide a low stakes means of seeing my favorite mechanic of Hollowpoint.  We quickly resolved the conflict, and the characters were taking form. The story flowed relatively easily, with quite a bit of role-playing in the second conflict.

It was interesting to watch as the players developed their character’s personality. As the second conflict unfolded, it became clear that Steve’s character was a rather terrifying and gun happy thug.  Unfortunately for him, he had put his Terror at a 2.  So I figured it would be more enjoyable to have Steve adjust his skills instead of altering his play (or worse, always rolling with a Terror 2).  I told him to switch his skills and we were back in action.

Wrapping Things Up

The rest of the session went pretty smooth, though I need to continue to work on narrating the scene.  I think I should take a cue from Apocalypse World and Dungeon World and draw more maps during a Hollowpoint session.

Having run two games, one with a hover combine and one with brass testicles ruining a helicopter rotor, I’m curious about Brad Murray’s comment regarding toning down the gonzo.  Clearly Hollowpoint is about extreme conflicts involving extreme confidence and competence.

Hollowpoint – Player vs. Game Hack – Take 1

This is a first take, and is intended to be a starting point for a conversation.  See also VSCA’s wiki concerning this same topic (I stumbled upon the aforementioned wiki after having written this blog post). 

I’ve been reading a few posts about pre-teens playing a referee-less game of Hollowpoint and got to thinking, what a great idea.  But where kids have unfettered imaginations, adults imagination has clearly been crushed by spreadsheets and pie charts.

So we, the aging gamer population, need some rules and charts to help in this potentially scary world.  Look at all those Fiasco playset charts telling you how to improvise.

Hollowpoint Player vs. Game Hack

These rules suggestions are to help facilitate a referee-less game.  As such, the table authority trumps anything the charts have to say.

Define the agency, charge, and Mission

The players define the Agency, Charge, and Mission.  Do it quickly, because the backstory isn’t nearly as interesting as the primary action. We’ve all seen the backstory for Star Wars: A New Hope; don’t dwell on that crap.

While you are at it, make sure that each player defines a Principal. You’ve gotta have some badasses to deal with.


I would recommend fleshing out something that is tangentially related to one of your long running campaigns.  There is an existing narrative to tap into and you can further flesh out that world.  In this case, you should probably as the referee/GM/DM of that game why they aren’t the Hollowpoint referee for this session.  If the referee/GM/DM doesn’t step in as referee, consider the campaign world free-game for this session.

Everyone defines a complication

Every Agent should secretly write down a complication that is not related to the principal they created/selected.  Nobody wants to see you make a badass and then weave a story of being that badasses piano teacher.

generating a scene

As you start negotiating a scene, unless the table comes to a consensus about what the scene is about, consult the following table by rolling a d6.

  1. Scene with Catch and Principal
  2. Scene with Catch
  3. Scene with Principal
  4. Scene
  5. Scene
  6. Scene

If a scene would resolve a mission’s goal, and you have yet to deal with a Principal, make sure a Principal is involved in that scene, and while you’re at it, why not make it two!

If the scene is a retaliation, use your best judgement as to what would be involved.  And nothing says you can’t use the chart above anyway.

defining the catch

My favorite component of the rules system is the catch.  It adds pressure to the scene and puts pressure on the agents to dig deep to not fail miserably at the goal of the scene.

If the scene is going to have a catch, roll a d6 and consult the table below to determine what the catch is about:

  1. Kill
  2. Terror
  3. Take
  4. Dig
  5. Con
  6. Cool

Nice and simple and let the table define what the Catch ultimately means.

conflict resolution

The opposition should first attempt to take out any dice that are likely going after the Catch.  If there is no Catch, the opposition should target the most exposed agent (i.e. the Agent with the weakest rolls).  No mercy for incompetence!  It is possible that I need to re-read the rules on how the referee should attack dice.  Does the referee get to choose which character to attack?  Or do they have to target the player with the weakest hand?

Optional Rule: The player with the highest set controls the opposition for that round.  In the case of a tie, the player with the lowest high set (or no set) controls the opposition.  And remember the opposition should go for blood!

Hollowpoint Review

Publisher Page:


Hollowpoint, by VSCA, “is a role-playing game that uses a novel engine to generate fast on-the-fly violent action at the drop of a hat, brought to you by the award-winning developers of Diaspora. It’s ideally suited to a single evening’s play and encourages regular character death because, hey, this shit’s dangerous. ” —

Required Materials

Aside from the rulebook, you’ll need quite a few d6s.  The referee will want about 24 dice for the opposition; You’ll want about 30 dice to represent the available helper dice; each player will need about 12 dice for their character (max would be 15).  As a side note, I’d recommend using small dice as Teamwork dice; You were the coward that asked for help, so the dice you roll should be equally puny. 

You’ll also want a handful of index cards to use for character sheets. Or you can print out Tony Love’s toe-tag character sheets.  And where there are character sheets, you’ll want pens or pencils.


The first part of the game is establishing the following background components.

  • Mission: What are the two Objectives that you are trying to achieve on behalf of the Agency .
  • Agency: The name of the organization for which your Agents are working.
  • Charge: The Agency works to keep this in check?

Once those are defined the players will create their agents.  The game suggests that you make sure to incorporate complications for each agent as it relates to the Agency, Mission or the Charge.

Characters have a list of Skills and Traits.

The Skills are initially defined as Kill, Terror, Dig, Take, Cool, and Charm.  The book includes other suggestions to properly establish the tone of your particular game (i.e. change some of the skills to Kung Fu, Illusion, Necromancy)

Traits are what make your character unique, and are used to give a one-time mechanical advantage in a conflict sequence.  They are things like “always leave a fortune cookie” or “I’d never burn a cat” or “spine-bone necklace” or “jetpack”.


The referee frames the scene and works towards the inevitable conflict.  Once conflict is certain the dice are cast.  The resulting conflict is narrated as the players attack each other’s dice pool.

Some conflicts will involve Principal opponents, a big bad or his number one bone crushing thug.  Those conflicts are even more challenging. If the players successfully overcome a Principal the next scene will be a Retaliation scene.  A Retaliation scene is one in which the referee gets to set the terms of the conflict.

If nothing mechanically exciting happens, burning a trait or someone taking damage, during the round, it is a Wash.  If the round is a Wash, all of the characters each take one point of damage in the skill they were using.

Of course, not all conflicts are cut and dry.  Some scenes will have a Catch, a second goal that also needs to be defeated in order to count the scene as successful.  A Catch might be ensuring that the big bad is killed while making sure that the self-destruct doesn’t go off destroying the precious research lab.

The key idea isn’t so much about eliminating my opposition as it is achieving my goal.  It could be to kill someone, or it could just as easily be to light a cigarette and smoothly walk past them with moxie and bravado.

There is a Teamwork pool that can be drawn upon to help out in situations. The Teamwork pool is a resource only available to you if you have asked for help and were in turn denied.

The game has a very specific scene mechanic in which a the difficulty of the scenes grows proportional to the previous successful scenes.  In other words, as you move the story forward, things get harder and harder.

The scene economy is codified with Catches, Principals, and Retaliations, but you needn’t worry about adhering to these concepts.  Instead focus on having exciting scenes.

Moving On

Characters are going to move on.  They are going to die, or be revealed as secret agents, or decide they’ve had enough of this life.  And that’s expected and encouraged.  Just make a new character and weave them into the narrative.

To Open Source or Not

I find myself a bit sad that Hollowpoint wasn’t released under an Open Game License.  The narrative style would be something that shouldn’t be OGL as it is what gives Hollowpoint it’s identity.  The mechanics, however, could easily be released as OGL.  I see why it wasn’t done, as Hollowpoint’s mechanics and narrative bravado are intertwined.  If you completely distill the rules, they are quite short, but the beauty of the game is in the story the rules tell you.  Those two factors would likely reduce the potential sales.

That said there is clear approval to write and freely release you own skins for the game, which ultimately is what I’m after: A publisher/author that understands and embraces Copyright’s Fair Use clause.


The mechanics are interesting and quite simple forming a solid skeleton on which to flesh out your story.  While you are playing, make sure not to deliberate too much, as you should continue to push the story to it’s conclusion.

I’ve refereed one game and we had a blast.  It is definitely a nice addition to my gaming collection and can easily be pulled out when our gaming group doesn’t have quorum.

Hollowpoint Session Observations

First and foremost, we had a lot of fun playing the game.  Here are my prep notes.

First Observation

I need to take the time to frame scenes better.  This is generally something I need to do more of.  I also need to remember that I can cut the scene and fast forward the story without narrating the in between moments.

I found a hard time preparing for the game, in part because I can see that the whole story hinges on in play reactions.  I also need to include a bit more information in my Mission so as to allow the players to incorporate complications.

I believe making sure to read Apocalypse World’s MC moves is a good first step.

Second Observation

If you are the best at something, you will make use of it over and over.  Make sure that is what you want to do.  I believe you’ll want to make sure your 5 and 4 rank skill give you enough viable opportunities.  Of course, other players are likely going to be better at other skills than you and are going to ask for your help.

Third Observation

In this game, the action goes to 11.  Jumping cars into helicopters, lighting cats on fire with a martini and cigarette, jumping onto a tank to commandeer the crew, “casually” driving a hover combine up to a guard tower, using cool to buy everyone drinks all the while having another person take the unknowing victims access credentials, calmly disabling the detonation device with your favorite piece of bubblegum and that black paperclip.

Needless to say, we brought the gonzo.

Fourth Observation

Another thing to keep in mind is you’ve gotta keep the game going.  Don’t worry about optimizing action based on if help would be better or taking from the teamwork pool.  After all, if your character dies, you can so quickly make another one.  The point is to move the story forward.

Fifth Observation

The Catch is a wonderful mechanic providing a secondary goal for a scene that is just as important as the primary goal of the scene.  The first Catch sequence I rolled was 6,6,6 as the characters were driving up a mountain trail with a helicopter gunboat giving chase.  They had little chance of handling the catch, they were going to crash.  They instead opted to jump their car into the helicopter.

Sixth Observation

Bringing to bear 24 dice against three agents with full traits is an excellent final conflict.  Of course adding a catch made things all the more interesting.

Using Hollowpoint to flesh out our Diaspora campaign

"Rounds" by Philip Clifford

The last Diaspora: The Precious Few session was June 5th and it looks like it’ll be at least another two weeks until we play again.  For me, it feels as though the energy and momentum of the campaign is in trouble.

This weekend would normally be our Precious Few session, but there are scheduling issues, so I’m going to be running something else — Hollowpoint to be exact.  Since I’ve volunteered to run Hollowpoint for a group of strangers at GenCon, I figured I’d better run it at least once.

I’ve been kicking around a few ideas on the Hollowpoint mission, and ultimately have settled on the idea of running a session in the Precious Few universe.

In the past, while other DMs were running long-standing campaigns, I would often run one-shots when we did not have quorum.  Most of these one-shots were set in the world of the long-running campaigns, and fleshed out tangentially related locations and situations.

So hopefully this brave endeavor will serve its many purposes: learn Hollowpoint, further flesh-out the universe, and reenergize interest in the campaign.  Heck, I even started writing up a Fiasco play set for the campaign.

Below is the mission that I will be running:

The Mission

Good morning Cercyons, you will be landing dirtside on Exxon shortly.  Your mission is to find and then secure the Dynamic Solutions data backup center.

The Forge has determined the data backup center is in the Emolument mountain range near the alpine village of Wachovia (34° 3′ 8″ N / 118° 14′ 34″ W).

Once the data center location has been determined and verified, use one of the two one-time orbital comm unit to relay the coordinates.  Then proceed in securing the data center. Once secure, notify the Forge via the final one-time orbital comm unit.

Should you need it, extraction information will be delivered upon completion.