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!)
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! 
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.
 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.