Tuesday, March 6, 2018

Five or So Questions on CAPERS

Today I've got an interview with Craig Campbell on CAPERS, a super-powered roleplaying game set in the 1920s, which is currently on Kickstarter! Craig talks about the setting and the mechanics of the game in the following responses - check them out!


CAPERS cover by Beth Varni.
Tell me a little about CAPERS. What excites you about it?

CAPERS is a super-powered RPG of 1920s gangsters. Players portray bootleggers and mobsters working to make their fortune and their mark during Prohibition in the U.S. And they have low-level superpowers. But so do their rivals and so do the feds. The game uses a press-your-luck playing card based mechanic. You might have a successful card flip but only be barely successful and opt to flip another card to try for a better success. But you might fail in the process.

I'm not a huge comics fan, but I am a superhero TV and movie fan. I love stories of people with extraordinary abilities in what is otherwise our normal world. There's plenty of supers games out there set in the modern day (and plenty that are about HEROES), so I decided to explore a period in history from a less heroic angle. The Prohibition era has always interested me and I enjoy the romanticized movies and TV shows that tell stories set during that decade. So I thought it'd be fun to explore it in RPG form. There aren't many RPGs that touch on the 1920 other than Call of Cthulhu stuff. And the majority of supers games fall in the comic book style, capes and cowls and all that. These two things make CAPERS pretty unique, but also familiar.

It's become sort of a chocolate and peanut butter thing for me. I took two things I really dig (super-powered characters and the 1920s) and mashed them together to see what would happen. I feel it's worked out pretty well.

A different kind of car chase by Beth Varni.

Where did you build your setting from? Did you use a lot of realistic resources or did you span out? 

The world of CAPERS is based on real-world history but with some liberties taken. Most notably, a small percentage of people started exhibiting extraordinary abilities shortly after the Great War (WWI). For the most part, the origin of these abilities is kept vague. However, there’s a chapter that brings science into the game setting, along with a largely not understood source for the powers.

A trio of primary backdrops have been developed for the game – New York, Chicago, and Atlantic City – along with a bit of info describing a handful of other cities. Much of what’s described there is based in real history, though some details have been changed and some new things have been added, wholly from my and other writers’ imaginations. A general overview provides context for the world. What are the new technologies of the era? What’s popular in entertainment? What is life like in the 1920s.

Several notable personalities of the era are present. Enoch “Nucky” Johnson and Al “Scarface” Capone are described in some detail and provided with stat blocks. However, given that the well-known personages of the time are largely Irish and Italian guys in their 20s-40s, historically, I’ve taken some liberties. Atlantic City’s Mayor Bader is a black woman. Charles “Lucky” Luciano has become Carla “Lucky” Luciano. And the hardcase DOJ agent making trouble for Capone in Chicago is Vanessa “Ness” Elliott rather than her real-world male counterpart. Additionally, a wider variety of characters of color, female characters, and LGBT characters are presented to round out the world. All in all, this is presented simply as “how this world is” though some of the animosities between different ethnicities remains for flavor, such as Capone’s largely Italian gang squaring off against Dean O’Banion’s largely Irish northside crew in Chicago.

Concussion beam in action by Beth Varni.
How do superpowers function in CAPERS? What makes them really pop?

First a bit on the game mechanic.

The game uses playing cards, rather than dice. Each player, and the GM, has their own deck (52 suit cards plus 2 jokers). Your character has six traits – Charisma, Agility, Perception, Expertise, Resilience, and Strength. Each trait is ranked from 1 to 3 (higher if you have the right powers). When you make a trait check, you look at the trait’s rank and that is your card count. If you have a skill appropriate to the trait check, your card count is increased by 1 .

To make your trait check you flip cards. You can flip as many cards as your card count but can stop at any time and take the most recent card flipped as your check. The pip count of the cards flipped (2, 3, 4, etc, on up to ace) determine success or failure, whilst the suit of the card determines the degree of success or failure, starting with clubs (lowest) and proceeding alphabetically to spades (highest). So, you might succeed, but barely, and choose to gamble for a better success by flipping another card… but risking failure.

Each superpower has a standard effect, the thing it does or effect it generates most of the time. Each power also comes with a variety of boosts. You choose which ones you want when your character gains a power and gain more boosts as you increase a power’s level. Each boost makes the standard effect better or more versatile, provides an alternate standard effect, or provides something else your character can do related to that power. However, each boost you use in a turn reduces the card count of whatever you’re trying to do by one. You can stick with your standard effect and not suffer card count reduction OR you can use several boosts to gain other cool stuff but reduce the chances of success on your action for that turn.

It’s a “press your luck” system. The combination of trait check mechanic and boost use makes the system a balancing act for each character each turn. More power equals reduced chance of success. Less power means greater chance of success. You also have a sense of what cards remain in your deck, so that colors your choices as well. Players have found the system very engaging. You’re making active choices whenever you’re flipping cards, not just rolling a die and looking at the number.

On the street by Beth Varni.

What were challenges you encountered trying to emulate both a unique time and place and a very trope-heavy genre?

Combining a specific time period and a trope-heavy genre can easily become overwhelming. The first thing I did was make a conscious decision that CAPERS is not a superhero game. It’s not a supervillain game. It’s not even a supers game really. It’s a gangsters game where the gangsters and law enforcement HAPPEN to have superpowers at their disposal.

Once I focused in on the gangster game, it became a question of what tropes of supers were appropriate and which weren’t. I wrestled with a number of powers I thought were cool, but ultimately ended up being too complicated for a game that is, at its core, a stylized cops and robbers game. I also scaled back the POWER of the superpowers. There’s no mind control. That’s a power that becomes to easily abused unless you give the target ways to get out from under the influence. And if you make that readily available, mind control loses its “cool factor.” There’s no magnetism control either. It’s just too darn versatile compared to the other powers in the game. There’s a reason Magneto makes such a formidable foe even on his own.

So, too, I looked at other tropes of comic book stories and developed my own take on them (or had another designer help with that). A 1930s version of super-science. An explanation for where powers come from. Alternate Earths and planar travel. Super-prisons. That stuff is in the game, but it’s all optional.

There are a lot of chances for something to fail, even though it's got a lot of chances to win. What makes failing in CAPERS interesting? 

I’m a big fan of failure in RPGs. They add drama, insert complexity, and turn the story on a dime. That said, I don’t want every failure to be a huge narrative-laden thing that slows the pacing down. In CAPERS, you can succeed with a complication (a mini-failure), fail with a special bonus to help you next time, straight up fail (with no additional effect), or botch. Each type of failure has its place and helps the story in a different way. Complications add interesting tidbits that make the encounter more fun. Failure with a bonus later incentivizes the player to take further risks. Straight failure keeps the pacing moving. And of course, botches make for the best stories, especially when the characters ultimately succeed later, overcoming the botch.

The playing card mechanic requires the players to make choices on whether they keep the card they have or flip another and take a chance. A player who succeeds with a complication may choose to suffer that complication just because the group needs a success, even if it’s minimal. A player who fails with a bonus later may take that failure because they’ve suddenly come up with a cool idea for their character’s action next turn and want that bonus to come into play for their big risk.

How failure plays a role in a character’s actions is in the player’s hands a fair amount of the time. It’s not entirely at the whim of the random. It’s my hope that this provides for a more memorable story for the players.

CAPERS is coming from Craig's company, Nerdburger Games!

Thanks so much to Craig for the interview! CAPERS looks pretty cool and I hope you've all enjoyed learning about it, and that you'll check it out on Kickstarter today!

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