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Marvel Caper!

June 30, 2014

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.


Getting away from pre-gen characters in Lady Blackbird, and using it to play D&D

February 10, 2011

So, it appears the bloom may be fading from 4e. If you read my bio on this site, you’ll see why I’m not terribly broken up by these rumblings coming from amongst my various gaming groups. While Dungeons & Dragons will always be my first love and entre into gaming– and to this day many of my favorite settings, tropes, and themes are to be found amongst that cargo cult (Forgotten Realms, Spelljammer, Planescape, Birthright)– I fell off the wagon during the 3e years, totally ignored the 3.5 years, and reluctantly came back recently to play 4e because, well, it literally became one of the only games in town… If I wanted to continue to game with and hang out with folks whose company I enjoyed, I had to take the bitter medicine.

And honestly, as a player, there were some things I did come to enjoy about 4e. Man, can you play the ultimate sneak thief sniper from hell in that game!

But as an erstwhile DM, I was frankly horrified by the amount of labor that seemed to be involved in prep, and then the herculean task during the game session of keeping tabs on all the moving parts and widgets for not only all your NPCs but also trying to ::ahem:: help keep the PCs honest.

Anyways, as I was saying (talk about burying the lede), lately there have been some rumblings of dissatisfaction with 4e amongst various and sundry in the remaining Boston loyalists of the Ephemeral Circus. Hopefully I’m not outing anyone when j’accuse the founder of this site– Chris Tatro himself– confided in me that he’s toying with the idea of possibly thinking about perhaps looking in to maybe moving his campaign (which is about to enter Spelljammer territory) to something that “better suits his DMing style.”

Maybe nothing will ever come of this, but never being one to shirk from any consideration of rules toolboxes and tinkering with fiddly bits, I began thinking about it. One of the first games that came to mind was Lady Blackbird, an indie steampunk skyship game that crossed my desk a year or two ago. I honestly only skimmed it at the time, but it stuck with because the graphic design is gorgeous.

I hit Story Games for the first time in many months yesterday, and saw some of the great things people have done with those rules in the meantime, and was duly impressed and intrigued. Could one truly step down from the precipice of 4e rules bloat, play ersatz D&D in a rules light indie game, and at the same time breathe new life into all those bookshelves worth of sourcebooks by recycling their simulationist widgets as narrativist ‘tags’ and ‘aspects’? It seems so!

However, the one thing that gave me pause was Lady Blackbird’s seemingly baked-in conceit of GM pre-generated characters. I don’t know if that’s a relic of the game being a convention one shot or something… or perhaps because of some narrativist need for touchy/feely inter-party story hooks… but it strikes me as incredibly odd that in their quest to liberate the grognards from the shackles of DM railroading and ‘bad’ “I kill and loot the body” storytelling by introducing player narrative control, that they’d shackle those same players to being unable to roll up and create the character they want to play and evolve through said enlightened storytelling.

(And yes, before anyone yells at me in the comments that I’m being insulting, simplistic, and ad hominem, I am being deliberately hyperbolic and obtuse here for *hopefully* comedic purposes. Deal with it.)

So anyways, if you are still bearing with me, let me share with you some ideas I’ve come up with for addressing this gross oversight and crime against not only the hobby, but affront that cuts to the very core of what makes us human.

Taking a page from Spirit of the Century, I can envision the first session of a prospective campaign being one in which the DM pitches the overarching plot he’s got in mind (“in this game, you’ll be pirates in arcane space,” “in this game, you will be agents for a decadent and increasingly paranoid King”) and the players then make up their characters and build hooks to each other by writing up some of their prior off-screen adventures together; basically replacing SotC‘s pulp novel conceit with D&D‘s adventure module one.

So, mechanically, here’s how I’d run char gen for Dungeons & Blackbirds:

  1. Each player names 4 Traits for their character. These Traits can be pretty much any tried and true D&D trope like race, character class, prime requisite ability score, class feature, skill, AD&D non-weapon proficiency, 3e feat, signature weapon specialization, magic item, alignment, patron deity, 4e character role, etc. etc.
  2. For each of these Traits, name 2 Tags that further build upon and describe what that Trait means and does.
  3. Now, each player will come up with a title for one of the modules/adventures their character took part in. There will be one module for each player at the table. And feel free to dust off dimly remembered chestnuts from your childhood… who wouldn’t want to have their new character to have been in the Expedition to Barrier Peaks? 😉
  4. They will write up a few sentences describing a pivotal scene their character had during this adventure. Based on this scene, they will come up with 4 more Tags that further flesh out their developing Traits and character advancement. These can be four Tags under one Trait, one Tag under each of the four Traits, or any combination thereof.
  5. Once everyone has done this, they should pass their adventure page to the player to their right. Now, they will write a scene their character performed as a member of the party in this other adventure. Based on what they describe, they will come up with a further 3 Tags for their character, again under any combination of Traits.
  6. Keep passing the adventure sheets off to your right until everyone has had a part in every adventure. For each of these additional scenes they get 2 more Tags due to character advancement. Once your adventure has finally returned to you, you should have several Tags for each Trait (it appears the pre-gens in Lady Blackbird each have between 5-9 Tags per Trait). It is time to move on to:
  7. Coming up with Keys. Keys are the motivations, problems, connections, duties, and loyalties that pull on your character. Each character will have three Keys.
  8. Each player should read aloud the final write-up for their adventure module. Based on what transpired in the story (and rather than choosing from pre-fabbed laundry lists of Keys which I honestly don’t have the time or desire to do right now) the players should discuss and brainstorm and come up with some ideas. Again: character classes, origin and background feats, alignments, prestige classes, magic items and relics, Forgotten Realm secret societies and Planescape Factions… they can all provide possible fodder for Keys. From the crowd sourced list that arises from their module, the player will pick one Key for their character and one Key for the character of the player to their left– the last person to add to their adventure module (and the one who ostensibly wrote the exciting climax).
  9. Once everyone has two Keys (one they picked themselves, one given them by the player to their right), the DM will assign each character their third and final Key. This can be something left over from the brainstorming session lists, something new that they want to see explored by the player during the campaign, etc.
  10. Finally, each character gets 2 Secrets. Secrets are extraordinary powers, abilities, rituals, magic items, etc. Dust off your D&D and AD&D sourcebooks and find some spell, artifact, prestige class, etc. that you want to be your character’s big guns. Mechanically, it appears Secrets are supposed to work in one of two ways:

* You can re-roll a failure once per session, or give someone else in the party this benefit.
* You have a power or ability that automatically accomplishes something storywise, and you get to narrate the scene of this success.

It all seems fairly straightforward, but never having actually *played* Lady Blackbird, I can’t quite be 100% sure that it is this simple. I think I may want to try and use this rules hack to run that Planescape police procedural I’ve always wanted to do (Law and Order: Sigil?!?), so if I can ever make that happen, I’ll let you know.

“Hi, Billy Mays here for Dungeons & Dragons!”

July 29, 2010

My wife just saw a TV spot for this product, and thought it would be pretty useful for gaming. And by god, I think she might be right.

More musings on 4e and my apparent software/hardware mismatch.

March 19, 2010

I usually don’t read gaming blogs (present company excluded), but a friend on LiveJournal (badlydrawnjeff) linked to a post this morning about 4e combat, I thought it articulated the reasons 4e probably did not click for me the one time I played it, and I thought I could boil that post down into a simple mathematical formula:

A) Powers: “we’re playing a card game now” +

B) Positioning minis: “we’re playing chess now” +

C) Too Many Choices: choices for movement, choices for hitting, choices for encounter/daily/etc powers… it leads to boardgame over-thinking and stagnation =

D) Combat is just too damned long.



Thoughts on InSpectres

September 3, 2009

We had our second session of Howard Hughes’ Men of Action last night, and I am very pleased with the way it’s been going. The system is fast and light and doesn’t get in the way of the gonzo, collaborative storytelling. The modified Franchise mechanics are allowing me to add some rules heft to the game’s non-linear, era-jumping narrative structure. And I’m finally getting the hang of calling for Stress Rolls as opposed to Skill Rolls. The group took some major licks last night, and I think that added to the sense of urgency and paranoia.

And props! Oh, how I love using props in games. I had mission briefing handouts, mp3 recordings of number stations to play for the team, and a cool MacGuffin for them in a biohazard bag.

But most importantly, my players are great. They just run with the premise beat I lay down in the beginning, and riff over it like great improvisational jazz musicians and take the story in wild, wacky, and entertaining directions that keeps everyone on their toes. Everyone gets to bring their own individual geek cred and passions to the table, and weave them into the plot.

I think this game truly captures what Rob MacDougall was talking about a few years back in this post on 20×20 Room:

Too often, though, it’s the GM who does all the research, who strings together all the conspiracies and gets the most jollies out of the elaborate setting. How much more exciting it could be, I wonder, if all the players were in on it, all Googling up connections and conspiracies, jointly spinning out the mad secret history of their game world?

Indeed. Five heads are proving better than one in this game.

I’ll try to get into more specifics later about the game’s story, mechanics, and group dynamics… but unfortunately I do have to get to work. I’ll just close by saying: if only Agent 15 would read the frigging mission briefings, maybe Control wouldn’t always be so irate. 😉

Oh, and a big shout out to Chris, who proved himself to be a Man of a Thousand Voices last night. His Patrick McGoohan was impeccable. 😉

Ruminations on PTA, pt. 1

July 24, 2009

I’ve been gearing up for a possible game: Howard Hughes’ Men of Action. It has been recommended to me that Primetime Adventures would be a good way to go. I know a lot of you reading this love Primetime Adventures, and you’ve run and played in a lot of fun games with it.

But, allow me to steal Rachel Maddow’s bit for a moment: (more…)

‘Aces’- yet another ‘Agon’ homebrew

June 21, 2009

So, two funny things happened while I was away on a business trip recently. The first was that whatever momentum I had working on Praxis got blunted, and I had ample time to let a new serial addiction to take root in my brain. The second was that I actually got to meet the Baron von Richthofen, descendant of the WWI ace, the Red Baron.

So, it was only natural for a young man’s fancy to turn to dogfighting.

See, I love Crimson Skies… the genre and setting at least, but not the rules. I *hate* the rules. But I got to thinking… could Agon’s abstract battlemat and combat system be used for a relatively rules light air combat game? I think it can.

As is my usual wont, I designed the character sheet first.

Here’s hoping I can play test this sometime soon. I have lots of cool Crimson Skies heroclix that demand some lovin’.

Ship Rules for Praxis/Agon

May 31, 2009

So, I had a crack at creating naval and skyship rules for Praxis/Agon this evening. I *think* they work a lot like the regular Agon battle rules in theory, but since I’ve neither actually played Agon nor play tested this new homebrew, I honestly have no idea how well they’ll work in practice, or if these are fair and balanced. Hopefully I’ll be ready to pull the trigger on this bad boy in a couple of weeks and I can finally find out!

I do have to say– mapping the cannon die sizes to the shot weight? Pure genius if I do say so myself. 😉

‘Praxis’: an ‘Agon’ home brew variant

May 26, 2009

So, it all started a few weekends ago… I re-read Guy Davis’ amazing comic book, The Marquis, and re-watched Brotherhood of the Wolf in rapid succession. “Self,” I said to myself, “you should run a swashbuckling game of religious Inquisitors and political intrigue.”

And if I could crowbar skyships into the mix as well, all the better.

I didn’t feel like writing up yet another 21 System variant however… I wanted to just pull something off the shelf. The first thing I pulled off the shelf was Dogs in the Vineyard. Seems like a natural fit, no? Reframe the setting from Wild West kinda-Mormonism to a Renaissance/Enlightment kinda-Catholicism & Gnosticism mash-up. In my usual fashion, I designed a character sheet first… here is the character sheet I came up with for Inquisitors in the Vineyard.

But once I started reading and re-reading the DitV rules, something just wasn’t clicking for me. I think a lot of it was just a visceral reaction to the layout of the rulebook and the style of prose… I just wasn’t grokking the rules, and was dreading trying to actually run a session of the game.

Then Chris recommended Agon, and that I blog about the development of the homebrew here on Claw/Claw/Peck. Turns out going with Agon was a great idea… the blogging? I leave that to you to decide. (more…)

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