Hollyworld by Adam Ultraberg is not to be confused with Hollyworld by Greg Porter. The latter was published in 2005, but it is the former that this review concerns itself with. I surmise that Adam will tweak the name for trademark reasons before final publication. For this review I’ll go ahead and refer to Adam’s game as HW.
HW is a game about egos coming together to make movie magic. It places the player characters in antagonistic relationships: Everyone is competing against everyone else even while collaborating to create a show or movie.
HW is a hack of the popular Apocalypse World game. Those familiar with AW’s engine will be at home with the mechanics presented by HW; though, there are some changes that help the game fit the paradigm better. For instance, the harm countdown clock is replaced by a stress clock with only four segments, the stats are changed to Real, Fake, Endurance, Connected, and Notoriety, and, of course, the playbooks are different (though there are naturally some parallels to those of AW).
One positive change is the “line!” mechanic. This allows you to ask other players in the game for advice on what you should do next. Of course, being flustered in character also leads to more stress for the character, but it won’t fill in your last stress segment. So a truly flustered character (3 stress), can continually solicit suggestions. Where AW proper tends to try to keep you in the fiction, this mechanic breaks the 4th wall. Personally, I don’t mind. It implicitly recognizes that everyone is there to have fun and that we all need help now and then. I find that more compelling than being a slave to the fiction.
Perhaps the best mechanic in HW is stress. As mentioned above, it takes the place of harm and you can trade stress, making it a fungible asset. Stress management, including the meltdowns that occur when a character’s stress fills up entirely, captures the theme the game is going for better than the playbooks or anything else. It clearly spells out that you are playing melodramatic, egotistical caricatures of Hollywood personalities. You can wind up ruining the lives of the little people or checking yourself into rehab if you let stress run away, which of course can give ammunition to other characters, which can lead to more stress. It’s a potentially vicious churn, and I believe that’s the point.
I also appreciated the game talking about the process of making a movie and then telling you which parts the game is going to focus on. Not all aspects of the real world are fun, and I like that the game is willing to say which parts it doesn't consider fun. It lets you know the author did research, and it also lets you choose to go back and add that stuff back in if you want.
HW isn’t finished yet. At this stage it’s mostly playbooks and a solid concept. It still needs fleshing out and some clean up. It usually gets updated after Sunday playtest sessions. The rules have a prominent “Still to Come” section and a “To Expand On” section that tell the direction of future development. Nonetheless, if the theme is one that catches your imagination, check it out!