Under Hollow Hills Review

How much changes in a decade? A couple years ago I went to my tenth college reunion. I was struck by how different things were; how my old fraternity was simply not familiar any more, and how my favorite late night food spots gave me significantly more indigestion. I couldn’t help but notice, also, how much was exactly the same. The city of Pittsburgh was still the same idiosyncratic mix of rust belt and academic, and the campus very much elicited all the memories I had from being in that place. Ten years seems like both enough time for something to change completely and yet not change at all. And so it is with Powered by the Apocalypse.

It hasn’t been exactly ten years since the start of Powered by the Apocalypse (PbtA), Apocalypse World was released in 2010. That said, as the game scooped up awards through 2010 and 2011, we could say that it’s roughly the 10th anniversary of PbtA as a phenomenon. By the end of the 2011 awards season the momentum had built, and Dungeon World, the game that arguably sent PbtA into the next tier of indie phenomena, came out in 2012. No matter your exact accounting, though, 2021 is the perfect time to reflect on a decade of PbtA because the Bakers have released a new PbtA game.

Under Hollow Hills is, in many ways, absolutely nothing like Apocalypse World. But, just like my college campus at my reunion, it is in many ways exactly like Apocalypse World. In looking at Under Hollow Hills I must call out two essentially separable achievements: Under Hollow Hills is a celebration of PbtA a decade on, but also Under Hollow Hills is a delightful game of fey fantasy strictly on its own merits.

The Fairy Circus

What are you going to do if you want to role-play a fairy? Venture into D&D’s feywild? Hardly. Try to play one of Exalted’s fair folk? Ugh, no. Fairy tales have an accumulation of lore even deeper than that of vampires, and finding a game that does even a halfway decent job of really helping you get a feel for a fairy realm isn’t easy. Under Hollow Hills is one of the best I’ve read, though. By taking a limited conceit, a travelling circus, the game presents a setting that is both constrained enough to work with relatively scant mechanics but also flexible enough to allow for a wide range of potential characters.

Under Hollow Hills follows a travelling circus on its ventures between the fairy world and the mortal world. Characters are mostly fey, though some playbooks are mortals who are travelling with the circus for one reason or another. Playbooks are based on a character archetype rather than mechanical niche; in terms of the ‘roles’ one could play at the circus itself, each playbook has a non-exclusive list and they overlap extensively. Two playbooks that stuck out to me: On the mortal side is the Interloper, a mortal who has snuck into or smooth-talked their way into the circus for the purpose of stealing something. I’m not sure I’d want to play one, but the baked-in plot is just so evocative that I definitely can’t ignore it. On the fey side is the Stick Figure, a construct of sorts held together by lashings or thread, and who can ‘fall apart’ as one of their moves. Think Sally from The Nightmare Before Christmas, or think Mockeries from Electric Bastionland, but either way you have another immediate evocation. The moves (called Plays in this game) are very much turned toward interpersonal interaction, especially interaction with crowds (circuses have performers, after all) but there are a couple stand-outs. Call for a Line is a combination safety tool and party prompt, where a character in a tight spot (or not) can ask for help from their fellow players. It’s not like no one was doing this in games before, but having it on the Play list matters and changes how players will consider the action. On the other side is Touch a Fairy With Cold Iron. There are minimal combat rules in Under Hollow Hills, with most fights resolved through the Waylay Someone Play. Cold Iron, though, separates violence from malice, and fisticuffs from murder. Touch a Fairy With Cold Iron is the Play which allows human characters to permanently kill fairy characters, and the way it’s written immediately implies that the act is appalling. It’s an interesting commentary, too; all human characters have as one of their four unique Plays the ability to murder, as opposed to anything else. Both the weight to and commentary on killing are worth noting, especially when examined in contrast to pretty much any other RPG.

There are trappings here which further emphasize the fairy environs, though they’re on the lighter side mechanically. I enjoy the shifts between winter and summer, though they tend more towards prompts and characterization than rules. Same with the implications of insults and the need to answer challenges. One could imagine working this up into a system akin to Strings from Monsterhearts or Influence from Masks, but it makes sense not to because the game doesn’t depend on it or capitalize on it in the way that it does in those examples. The game turns on the circus, which is why I must note and applaud a different sort of mechanical innovation, event playbooks. In essence, the circus may show up at any number of events, from betrothals to harvest festivals to goblin markets and even funerals. The game has playbooks for each of these events, giving guidance to the MC for how they should write them and what sorts of characters will show up there. Beyond this, the guidance to the MC is much more structured in Under Hollow Hills than many earlier PbtA games, taking the classic MC Moves and Fronts and expanding them into a much more detailed palette of play options. This continued evolution and expansion of MC options reflects a lot of the RPG world over the last ten years, and just like in every other game it shows up in, I am totally in favor and here for it in Under Hollow Hills.

A Decade of Powered by the Apocalypse

If you are to look at the similarities between Under Hollow Hills and Apocalypse World, you’d best start way at the top. Both games use the same 2d6 dice roll with three outcomes, which are still 10+, 7-9, and 6-. Both games are still built around playbooks, and have the same philosophy about which character decisions are most important. And, of course, both games are built around a conversation, using the structure of Moves both to simplify mechanics and clarify the points of interface between the ingame conversation and the rules. What these boil down to, really, is that both games still look like Powered by the Apocalypse. Under Hollow Hills isn’t going to cause the same confusion and consternation as, say, Blades in the Dark, which took the same philosophical touchpoints as PbtA and then completely changed all the rules. All that said, though, the game still kills some sacred cows. The MC (Mistress of Ceremonies instead of Master) rolls dice! There are no stats! There’s no advancement! Some of these speak to the sort of game Under Hollow Hills is, and some speak to how the mechanics and have changed, but all are worth noting, at least incidentally.

If I had to summarize how Under Hollow Hills has changed compared to Apocalypse World, I’d highlight two things: First, the game has yet further abandoned traditional RPG rules, and second, the game itself takes a more relaxed stance towards rules as a ‘thing’. Apocalypse World in many ways reflected the traditional games the designer was surrounded with. The playbooks were often derived from tropes and idioms seen in character classes of other games, like the Angel or the Gunlugger. The game had stats, which sought to emulate ‘properties’ of the characters much like the stats of D&D. And the game had experience points, buying into the notion that character arcs in role-playing games were shaped around when and if the character grew in capability. In Under Hollow Hills, there is no character advancement, with progression and change being narrative and shaped around (should your game go that long) the circus’s touring schedule. Since the Plays are the core element of mechanical interaction, the bonuses and penalties previously conveyed through stats are now assigned directly to the Play. And finally, the playbooks are almost entirely literary in nature, accepting overlapping roles in the circus but modeling different fairy tropes which, despite mechanical overlap, are all different characters.

Under Hollow Hills demonstrates all of the juxtaposed strengths of PbtA, the strong structure to build a specific game experience upon matched with incredible flexibility in adjusting or changing elements of characters or events to suit your game. The very generalized and minimal core rules match with a specific narrative structure to get you to a unique game experience. And while the PbtA world already has a wild world of experiences, from the pressure cooker strategy game of Band of Blades to the pastoral thru-hike of Wanderhome, it’s no surprise that the Bakers, in returning to their old mechanical stomping grounds, produced a wonderful example of a genre that, in gaming at least, is notoriously hard to pin down.

In the end, Under Hollow Hills is a game of not low stakes but limited stakes. The circus is the thing, and the game doesn’t really have a lot of direction outside of that, not even for the characters themselves. To me, this is a perfect encapsulation of what PbtA was at the start, and what it continues to be as more and more designers use the framework. Powered by the Apocalypse is about building your perfect, specific game. While the dice rolls, moves, and playbooks are simple enough mechanical concepts, no PbtA game coalesces until the designer has written the playbooks and moves that aim the players directly at their conceit. In the beginning, the first bit of magic put into this system was a violent and stylish send-up of pulpy post-apocalyptic fiction; a game that could be any trad system but absolutely wasn’t. And now, after ten years, this same framework gets us a travelling circus, wandering between the mundanity and violence of the human world and the wonder and capriciousness of the fairy world. Under Hollow Hills has essentially none of the wild changes that created Forged in the Dark and Belonging Outside Belonging, it is quintessentially a PbtA game. And yet, in spite of that innate conservatism, I don’t think it could have happened ten years ago. For a game designer, it’s hard to imagine a better tenth reunion than that.

Under Hollow Hills is available in PDF and for hardcopy pre-order through Payhip.

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