Marvel Caper!

June 30, 2014 by

I’ve recently embarked on an experiment to modify the Caper! rules for a superheroes game— specifically a game of superhuman private security contractors in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Some of us in our Boston extended gaming family had played Marvel Heroic Roleplaying last summer, and sadly the rules just never really clicked for me. I liked a lot of what they were trying to accomplish thematically, and the books were absolutely gorgeous, but as a player I never quite groked all of the various mechanics for dice pool builds and Opportunities, Assets, Distinctions, Complications and whatnot. And I know Chris (who was GMing that campaign) also had some problems on his side of the table, what with the Doom Pool, the nuts & bolts of building opposition, etc.

(Chris & I may have further muddied the waters a bit by attempting to bolt on a Smallville-inspired life paths system to the character creation session, adding Values, Relationships & Resources to the mix, but that’s neither here nor there…)

I decided that this summer was going to be the Summer of Marvel Caper! We’ve played two sessions so far, and it is going pretty well. The rules themselves are a work in progress, but what is amazing to see is when the narrative control widgets really click for a player, and when they really grok how to leverage the framing and storytelling of the various Letter mechanics and whatnot… it really takes the stories in very unexpected directions, which is really gratifying for me as a game designer, and I think for the rest of the players as well. This game, more so than any other rpg I think I’ve ever played, makes us all into an audience that can be genuinely surprised by some really clever plot twists and turns.

(Also incredibly refreshing for me as a GM is that the game is essentially zero prep, which I honestly think is a must for me now that I’m in my dotage.)

My first passion being character sheet design, I pulled out all of the stops for this, creating a line of 2-sided sheets that include pretty much all of the rules to the game. However, being the perfectionist/completist that I am, I ended up customizing sheets for each PC for the second session, with art of the players’ characters which I created with HeroMachine (or yanked off of the web if they’re playing a Marvel canon character… apologies in advance to the copyright holders!)

Bunny Hanlon's character: Commander Grace Chopra, ex-SHIELD agent and current Heir of K'un-Lun.

Let me tell you about Bunny’s character: Commander Grace Chopra, an ex-SHIELD agent who is now the current holder of the Iron Fist Legacy. (Photo Credit: Bunny Hanlon)

Rules-wise, I still have some more tweaking to do. After the first session and an overuse of Letters of Introduction— that mechanic works great for heists, but in supers I found it a bit genre-straining— I came up with an alternate use for face cards: rather than going to a contact and having them perform a bonus action on your behalf, you can now instead play a face card to perform an additional “power stunt” during your turn. I freely admit I took a page from Marvel Heroic Roleplaying for this, and I call this mechanic a ‘Letter of Intent‘. Thematically the stunts worked great, but mechanically I feel like they only worked okay— I think having yet another formula for success might have been a bit too confusing for some of the players. (As was the use of Spades/Wild Cards, but that’s always been a real source of confusion for first-time players… and annoyingly I’ve yet to craft the right spiel to adequately explain the rules out loud… hence my summarizing all of the rules on the character sheets!)

Anyways, yesterday’s session was also the first time I’ve ever played the 21 System with an actual GM (and not as a GM-less Caper! session), and I also think that worked out pretty well. There were only a couple of times I had to take over narrative control because I had some specific plot points I wanted to touch upon (when a character consulted some old SHIELD contacts to learn the big bad’s secret identity, for example). Otherwise, I felt like the players were able to sandbox and scenery chew to their hearts’ content.

I’ve always liked to jokingly say (okay, it is not a joke) that I designed a game system using cards as the randomizer because dice hate me. But the ironic thing during yesterday’s session was that my cards hated me! I perpetually had nothing but twos through fours in my hand, punctuated by the occasional seven or eight.  I don’t think I ever had a single face card the entire session! And I *know* I was never graced with an ace… the players gobbled those right up. And an ever-elusive Joker? Ha! Forgetaboutit!

Anyways, this dearth of heavy hitting cards essentially led to a total rout, as my hordes of MGH-fuelled favela kids couldn’t touch the PCs. This’ll necessitate tweaking the mook rules a bit, but I’ll need to avoid going too far in the other direction if the worm turns and I ever find myself with a killer hand… because that’s the other thing I hate in games: swingy math.

My too-clever-by-half XP mechanic was an abject failure. I think. Upon further consideration today, I can’t help but feel that there’s some there there. Essentially, all of the chips the PCs cashed in during the session would get thrown in a box, which represented the ‘boffo box’ that the movie we’re collaboratively creating would earn… get it? ::groan::

Anyways, at the beginning of the session, each player secretly wrote which color of chip they’d want to claim as a share of XP at the end of the session (each chip being worth 1 XP). Which color they choose to claim should be based on how they envision playing their character during the session— if they’re going to be going on the offensive, they’ll want to claim reds; if they’re going to be helping/healing leader-y types, they’ll want to claim whites. Blues are for those who’ll alter the physical and human terrain of the story by creating temporary props & set pieces, retconning parts of the story, etc.

Well, at the end of the session, the box ended up having forty some-odd reds and only like a dozen each of the blues and whites. And once I looked at the slips of paper to see who had claimed what, only one player had claimed red, one player claimed blue, and three players claimed whites. Now, where’s the fault in this mechanic? How much of this chip disparity was caused by my piss-poor hands of cards and never successfully landing an attack on the PCs that they then needed to recover from by spending white chips? How many of the three choices of white had to do with two of those players having never played the game before, so the chip mechanics were entirely new to them?

Even Chris— the sole player to claim red chips as his take— immediately said he shouldn’t get 40+ XP for the session, while the rest of the players only got a pittance. We ended up just doing an even split, with the remainder getting awarded to Bunny, who was voted MVP (she had devised a really cunning plan that totally carried the day and gave both sides— including the “villain”— a win.) So, chalk that one up to the social contract, I guess! [1]

Anyways, maybe its my Caper!-centric ruthlessness, but I can’t help but feel there remains something to this “box office” mechanic. I mean, isn’t a trope of the superhero genre that you reap what you sow? That you get back what you put out into the universe? That with great power comes great responsibility? Like I said, I can’t help but feel there’s some there there, and that with a group of players who’ve played before, who fully understand what the chips do, and are also familiar with each other’s character, their powers, backstory, and what they bring to the table… this mechanic will add an interesting wrinkle to the roleplaying, the storytelling, and will narratively reinforce the chip-cashing that mechanically drives both.

There were some other rule changes that we kicked the tires on for the first time yesterday: an initiative mechanic, I had tweaked the stats for the Letters of Introduction, and I added a new “Previously, on red23…” opening scene mechanic that gives the players an opportunity to introduce their character and enter the session with some chips in their back pocket. All of these seemed to work out fine… or at least I didn’t hear any complaints about them after we wrapped and jawboned for awhile. But that may have been because the XP box office gag dominated the conversation. 😉

Anyways, I’m really looking forward to session three! I’ve already decided its going to be a PvP ‘Danger Room‘ session so I can really see how the combat rules work.


[1] Call it sour grapes if you will, but even now— nearly eight(!) years after I designed Caper!— I still fail to understand the complaint I heard from some critics that they didn’t like the game because it led to backstabbing and ruthlessness since— unlike most (if not all) roleplaying games— it has an actual ‘win condition’. Methinks those folks need to play some Diplomacy.



June 11, 2014 by

“So, why exactly did it take you six months to update us on your progress in the Long Road game thing,” a hypothetical reader might ask.

This is mostly Bill’s fault. I’ve been sucked into Warmachine. I held out for two or so years but I’m not made of stone.

Starting in February or March or so I jumped in the deep end of the pool, acquiring a pretty solid army via eBay. I’ve only played about ten or so games so far (and lost almost all of them) but the rule system seems pretty solid and I have a good time, although I have nearly zero tactical skill.

The faction I chose is Khador, a pretty thinly veiled analogy for the Soviets. Warmachine has a kind of WW1 steampunk with magic aesthetic and I don’t love a lot of the faction designs but Khador’s imperialist aggressor nature speaks to me.

I’ve spent a lot of the last three months painting and crafting. And buying stuff at craft stores and hardware stores, both places whee I feel completely out of my element. Having spent the past couple of years painting the Descent figs (no, I’m not done with that and oh god I have the Reaper Bones2 kickstarter stuff coming in less than six months) I felt I got my painting skills up to very basic standards. I’ve learned a lot more techniques for painting and modeling form various internet places and tried to apply them where I could. Like my playing skills, I have a long way to go but I’m pretty happy with how things have turned out so far.

I chose a deep red/dark gray color scheme for my army as opposed to the candy apple red of the studio scheme, and decided on a winter/snow theme for the basing. I also decided early on that I needed to have an identity for my army, and that the unit needed a nickname like the Bridgeburners or the Bonehunters or the Wild Cards.  I eventually settled on the 58th Infantry Battalion, colloquially known as the Coldbringers.  That decided I wanted a unit badge to put on the models – something distinctive enough but not too complicated as I was going to be slapping this on the shoulderpads of 30mm models. After an attempt at freehanding the badge I decided to print my own water slide decals. Cutting out these very very tiny things with an xacto is rough going but better than painting it on, and from 3 feet away they don’t look terrible.

So enough jibber jabber. Here’s my Warbarbies (so far)

Read the rest of this entry »

[The Long March] Ages 1-3, inclusive

June 8, 2014 by

Moth gently reminded me that I hadn’t been updating here regarding our progress on the Long March in about six months. Shameful! We continue onward!

The pace has been slower than originally intended.  What I envisioned as one-shots has become 3-4 shots so it’s taking us about 2 months to get through each Age. I don’t think that’s entirely a bad thing; it gives us a chance to poke at the systems in more depth and also to get in touch with the characters.

The other change is that John dropped out, which left us with a substantial hole in the roster of games to be played. We’re filling that in as we go, and I’m hoping to stumble across some games when we go to Origins next week that can be put into the lineup. As noted in the paragraph above we’re not in an all-fired hurry. So far we’ve swapped out Burning Wheel for Torchbearer (easier to jump into for a short run), added in the “basic” version of D&D Next that is coming out later this summer, and Ali is probably going to run Princesses and Palaces at some point.

I’m going to focus on system stuff here. The “in-story” stuff can all be found at the game wiki:  (Eventually. I haven’t put up all the 3rd Age stuff yet)

The  First Age/Chapter 2 was Agon, a game of Greek myth, legend and honor. Ali ran this one. I’d played this at come cons years ago and really liked it but I have to say it didn’t click for us here. I’m not sure if it was the size of the group or the fact that we’ve now seen 13th Age do zone-based combat really really well (no offense to Agon) but the combat piece in particular felt clunky and we didn’t really get the hang of positioning and splitting the dice pool and such, and we ended up just kind of abstracting things toward the end.  I wish I’d written this back closer to when we played so I could give more concrete examples of where the system caused us frustrations; I remember flipping through the book a lot and looking for answers to some questions that came up. Maybe I should have read the text more carefully to internalize it and prepare.

For the Second Age Bill ran Numenera.  The default setting for this game is a post-apocalyptic world, so Bill crashed a moon into the middle of the map. The system here I feel took a backseat to a mystery/puzzle solving bit Bill inserted where we were trying to decipher the strange runes and text we found inside one of the complexes.  The fact that these runes were from a culture with a completely different mindset and the same rune could mean multiple things depending on context really added to the mysterious and alien feeling of the game.   The system itself was okay, but not something I’d rush back to play again. It uses the same stats for expending effort as it does for “hit points” with the result that once you start getting injured it’s hard to succeed at anything and you just get locked into the death spiral. That’s one of my pet peeves in games. I also think it would have been better if it hadn’t been slavishly married to the d20.  Each “step” of difficulty was actually +/- 3 on the die and at least initially that gave me a massive brain disconnect. I feel like moving it to a percentile based system or a dice pool or something might have gotten around that.

We’re currently in the middle of the Third Age, which is being run by Kevin. For this we’re going back to the classics: Basic/Expert D&D. The red and blue books from the early 1980s. It’s a fun nostalgia trip for those of us who played back then, but I fear it’s all weird nonsense to those who didn’t.  When we were making characters, Jonathan asked why all the attributes were in the “wrong order” (Strength, Int, Wisdom, Dex, Con, Cha) rather than being grouped logically like in 3/4e (Str, Dex, Con, Int, Wis, Cha). The only answer we could give was “it’s the order that Gary thought of them. Now shut up and roll your 3d6 to generate your random stats!” Armor Classes going down instead of up, THAC0, wanting high rolls for some things and low for others, alignment languages…man, this game is nuts. Also brutal. Two Cure Light Wounds spells per day does not get the job done! 4e has made us soft.

So that’s where we are. One or two more sessions of Basic and then I inflict Rolemaster on the group!

[The Long March] Chapter 1: Sorcerer (and a bit of Chapter 2: Agon)

December 24, 2013 by

I’ve been busy and haven’t gotten around to writing things up lately, but the Great 13 One Shots Experiment has not died on the vine! We’ve finished off the first chapter (Sorcerer and Sword) and have done character creation for the second (Agon). Due to holidays and grown-up schedules and such it’s slower than I’d hoped, but so it goes.

I’ll discuss the systems and play below. The summary of the story is over at the Book of the Long March site. Read the rest of this entry »

The First Transport Is Away!

October 9, 2013 by

Tonight was the first session of the “campaign” I discussed in my last post. It’s a series of 13 one-shots, building up the world for an eventual 13th Age campaign.  Possibly the most ambitious gaming endeavor I’ve ever been a part of.

(obligatory wiki/site is here: The Book of the Long March)

Fortunately I’m not doing this alone.  I have the crew from our previous 4e/13th Age game, and we’ll be rotating through the GM’s chair. Everybody put in games they want to run and we’ve got a vague sense of how this is all going to work. One session for each Age, with the first being the rise of the Dragon Kingdom/Empire and the Dawn of the First Age. Read the rest of this entry »

13 First Dates

August 4, 2013 by

A word about why I’m reading Dungeon World.  I had an idea that I proposed to my local group (the same bunch from my 4e/13th Age campaign) – we would do a series of one-shots of systems we’ve wanted to try out for a while, rotating who GMs, using those to build a world history for an eventual main campaign. Kind of a longer-running variant of a lexicon game.

I have a handful of systems I want to try out for this. Dungeon World, Burning Wheel/Torchbearer, Sorcerer & Sword, and of course my beloved Rolemaster (or a d20-ish mashup of it that may be more palatable to the group). Others have thrown in 3.5 or Pathfinder, Sons of Liberty, Falkenstein, Agon, old school BECMI D&D, and who knows what else is to come.

The eventual goal is a 13th Age campaign with a fleshed out history, with legends epics of the past and different Icons for each age, all fleshed out by the group. We may well end up with a very different picture than the established Icons and “modern” setting of the 13th Age core book (the presence of Sons of Liberty and Falkenstein in the lineup suggests rather more steam-power than canonical) .  We may well have a one-shot for each Age (I’m planning on kicking things off with a 0th Age Sorcerer & Sword session around the fall of the Wizard King). And if we do one game a month (one session for character creation and basic grasp of the rules, one for play) we may well be looking at a full year.  It’s exciting, challenging, ambitious, and likely to end in calamity. We’ll see where it goes.

A Whole New World

August 4, 2013 by

A quiet day with tacos, hot wings, the Shaw Bros. and a pile of rpgs to read. Pretty perfect.

On the last note, I’m currently reading Dungeon World and I think I’m missing what makes people fall in love with the game. The Moves seem to be regular D&D-esque class abilities, the triggers are just explicit statements of how the abilities are to be used, the DM moves seem like basic techniques. Maybe once again I’ve been blessed with outstanding gaming groups where this kind of play is the norm and not completely revolutionary. I can’t even imagine what most groups must be like if that’s the case.

I do like the resolution mechanic of 10+ being a success and 7-9 partial. That bit I may want to steal. And the Bonds that connect the PCs together. Fronts seem like a good way to organize and do larger picture prep – I feel like I do a lot of this already but not in a structured way.  The directive to “begin and end with the fiction” is a good one, and one I could bear to keep in mind more often. So there are very nice bits in here without question.

If you’ve read or played Dungeon World or any of the other Apocalypse World hacks, what makes it sing for you?

Gentlemen, to evil!

July 7, 2013 by

This summer I’m running a game of the late lamented Marvel Heroic RPG. But with villains. It’s an angle on supers that I haven’t done and I think allows for more sandboxing than the usually responsive hero mode.

John and I whipped up a Pathways system based on the Smallville RPG, and out first session was to follow the flowchart and make the relationship map. It was a lot of fun, and it created a lot of interesting twists the players hadn’t considered, but we should have talked more about themes and directions before setting off into it. And we made some assumptions/mistakes – we left out the step from Smallville that everybody defines their connection to all the other PCs. I’d said (but perhaps not very clearly) that I’d wanted the group to be an already established crew. It turned out very much not that way and the first two sessions have almost entirely been trying to get the PCs together.

I also wouldn’t recommend this kind of approach to a GM who has a firm story that s/he wants to tell in mind. I went into the session with only the vaguest notion of an overall plot for the game, and have since completely discarded that.  Too much good stuff on the paper to just ignore it (and why ask the players to do all that if you’re not going to use it?).

Regarding MHR itself, I still really like it but I feel like I don’t fully get it. I have no idea if I’m managing my Doom Pool correctly. I don’t have a good sense of what’s an appropriate opposition level for my group. I feel that the differences between Assets/Resources/Complications are fuzzy at best. It’s hard to explain but it feels like a better game in theory than in practice to me.  I’ll keep keeping on – this game has 4 or 5 more sessions theoretically – and see how I feel at the end, or if I can explain the problem I’m having with it any better.

Also, note to self: 4-5 players, max. Always. I love my friends dearly and love that they have interest in things I want to run but 7 person games are going to drive me to drink.


RPGs and Crowdfunding

January 28, 2013 by

Have many of you gotten involved in crowd funding games on sites such as KickStarter or Indiegogo?

I’ve been late to the game, I think.  I’ve only recently started looking at this (last 6 month or so), but I see that more and more small press and indie games are being funded this way.

From 20th (or 10th, or Xth) anniversary copies of older games, to expansions of more recent games, to variations of the latest indie darling – there is a variety of things being put up for crowd funding.  Given the contraction and consolidation of the game market through the latest recession it seems more and more individuals and companies are using sites such as Kickstarter to not only judge the interest in their product, and fund it, but also to solicit feedback and playtest comments that are then incorporated into the final product.

Planning Ahead

November 30, 2012 by

I’m beginning to toss around thoughts on my next game after my current one (D&D 4e converted to 13th Age) wraps. I’m pretty firmly settled on some kind of historical fiction. I’ve never really done that before but I work better either in a licensed setting or when stealing someone else’s intellectual property.  I’m a better synthesizer than I am a wholesale creator; I know this about myself and it’s where I have more fun. And history gives me that. Read the rest of this entry »

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