Thursday, May 17, 2012

Sooooooper Geeeeenius

I changed the description of this blog because, although I prefer old-school RPGs in general (and old-school, pre-2nd edition D&D in particular), I do play in a variety of games.

Two weeks ago, Marvel's The Avengers came out and smashed all sorts of box-office records. (Of course, I don't know what happens if you normalize for inflation and population growth, but in any case, some execs at Disney are happy that they bet on this particular horse.) As I watched, I couldn't help but think about setting these characters up as RPG characters.

My first thought was for Champions, by Hero Games. This stalwart game, which later morphed into the more generic "Hero System", was among the first superhero games, and one of the early "point buy" systems. It was, as far as I know, the first that allowed you to buy extra points with disadvantages, so if your flying strongman weren't quite strong enough, you could take a susceptibility to, say, glowing green rocks, and boost your strength attribute a bit more.

But another supers game has caught my eye recently, the independently-published Capes. Not a traditional RPG by any means, it's more of a so-called "story game", but more fun than other games that call themselves that. There is no GM in Capes; players take turns setting up scenes, and one player may suggest the overall conflict for the night, but that's about the limit for how much one person influences the game.

Instead, players try to spend down their emotional Debt and gain Story tokens in order to influence the outcome of the game. They do this by using character abilities, but who plays which character can change from scene to scene. To counter this apparent anarchy, Capes has a more rigidly-defined structure than most other RPGs; play, for example, always goes around the table to the left. If I start a scene and Greg is the second player, next scene he'll be the starter and I'll be the last to jump in. And, barring some house rules, that means he can start playing the character I was playing last scene.

Conflicts are resolved by creating and claiming Goals, and using your character's abilities to raise the dice (starting out as single d6's) For or Against them. Every power is ranked from 1 to 5, and you can only influence a die (by rolling it down in case of the opposing die, or up in the case of the supporting one) if your ability has a higher rating. If you stake Debt (a resource representing the emotional burden of such astounding responsibility), you can "split" the die, turning it into two evenly-matched dice; so a four turns into two twos, and a five would split into two and three (as close to even as you can get), so you can raise the total even higher.

There are more intricacies, but that's the basic gameplay. Half the fun, as it often is in point-buy-based RPGs, is coming up with your character. It is very simple with Capes: you create twelve powers in three columns, Powers, Attitudes, and Styles. No column can have more than five or less than three entries, which get numbered from one to however many slots are in that column. Powers are whatever you can think of: rocket boots, laser eyes, super strength, power armor, magic hammer, whatever. Attitudes are personality traits: shy, idealistic, loner, leader, etc.

Styles are not simple traits themselves, but are common events or situations that arise as a result of powers and attitudes. My favorite example in the book is for a Giant Robot character, "Massive Property Damage".

Anything not in one of these three columns can be normal or extraordinary, but will not affect the game. So you could have a character who flies, but if it's just the way he gets from scene to scene, you might not even list it as a power. Advanced rules show how objects and locations can be treated as characters and brought into play on a scene-by-scene basis, or how one character sheet can represent an entire horde of ninjas or mooks.

If this sounds pretty abstract, it's because it is. It's the responsibility of the player to determine what happens when they use their powers, and specifics (flight speed, upper weight limits) are hand-waved away; only the numbers on the character sheet and on the dice make any difference. In fact, you could do away with the superhero trappings altogether and make it a dice game about gaining and losing points in certain categories, but despite this, it really plays like a fast-paced RPG.

I wrote up three of the Avengers characters as Capes PCs a few nights ago, a process which took about an hour for all three. You can see from my Thor example that abilities are very subjective things:


Flight:   1
Hammer:   4
Strength: 5
Invulnerability: 2
Lightning: 3

Determined: 3
Rebellious: 1
Reckless:   2

Hammer Returns when Thrown: 4
Appears in a Clap of Thunder: 2
Casually overpowers Mortals: 3
Escapes without a Scratch: 1