Tuesday, April 8, 2014

A Look at "Capes, Cowls, and Villains Foul"

Superhero RPG's: I like them and I have a lot of them. Ever since finding Champions circa 1982 I've been a fan of costumes, capes, and energy blasts in RPGs. Since we have a new big-time superhero movie out now I thought I would spend some time this week looking at some super games that aren't Champions, Mutants & Masterminds, or ICONS since those are the ones I talk about the most. There are a lot of them out there now and if you're at all interested in the subject there's bound to be one that hits the sweet spot for you.

Capes, Cowls, and Villains Foul is a set of rules released in 2012 by Spectrum Games, the company that brings us Cartoon Action Hour, among others. It's full color and 164 pages. There's a free quickstart version available here, the full version is here. I picked up the PDF a while back and thought I would share my thoughts.

First up: The game uses d12's and only d12's. That's an odd choice but I can work with it.

Character Creation:
There are four "parts" that make up a character, mechanically speaking:

  • Traits - these are your stats, skills, and powers and the recommended number is 5-12
  • Complications are what you might expect, aka disads or flaws
  • Editorial Control is hero points/fate points/bennies/determination
  • Factoids are sort of a boiled down background
Now this seems sort of FATE-ish but there are building points involved. Each Trait is ranked, with 1-4 being "Human", 5-8 being "Superhuman", and 9+ being "Cosmic" with point costs jumping at each tier. There are also various advantages and disadvantages that can be applies to each trait, changing the cost and the ways in which it can be used. These Traits are really the heart of a character and are wide open - examples given include strong, detective, robotic body, ruler of a small European country, flying car, revealing costume, wings, law enforcement contacts. Note that there is no big section on powers or abilities here - it's strictly up to the player to come up with their own choices.

Additionally, Complications can be activated (by the player or the GM) to give a point of "Editorial Control" . There is a list of ways control can be spent, requiring from 1-3 points to accomplish. It's fairly standard stuff like re-rolling a die, avoiding a KO, and modifying powers though the "saving a civilian" option is nicely genre-appropriate.There are other circumstantial ways to gain EC but this is the primary one built into the character.

Factoids are basically notes about a character that don't involve die rolls. These might be personality quirks or skills that one knows but are not combat-capable in. After reading through it I was thinking of them as comparable to Traveller's "0-level" skills.

Now after reading these in the first 40 pages of the book it all seemed a little fuzzy. How would I define my go-to superhero, the Amazing Aluminum Man in this system? Is "electrical control" too broad? Is "flight" better as a separate trait or would it be a part of the electrical thing? The whole thing is pretty loose and probably won't congeal until you've actually had a session with a group of players and a DM to help set some shared expectations. Fortunately there is a nice example of character creation that runs about 4 pages and hits all of the steps involved. I felt like it helped clarify things a great deal. I'd actually like to see more of these. There is only the one example walk-thru, but there are 20+ sample characters right after this that at least show some different completed examples. 

Sample character from the book
Taking Action
The resolution mechanic for using a Trait is 1d12 + Trait level vs. a set difficulty/target number or an opposed 1d12 + Trait. If the "attacker" beats the "defender" then the defender takes a "setback token". There are some wrinkles here:
  • Traits can have more than 1d12 associated with them. Most of the time this does not add together but creates a roll-multiples-and-choose-the-highest situation.
  • Traits can be "linked", such as using both your super-strength and your super-speed to really wallop someone, which will also add a die or an additional  fixed modifier to your roll.
  • When a trait is used in combat it decreases in effectiveness. Most of them can be used several times before they really begin to degrade. When they do it generally leads to a roll-multiples-and-choose-the-lowest situation. This puts a clock on things as players try to accomplish their goals in a scene before their traits degrade to uselessness and a flurry of setbacks.
Most tasks are handled this way, as a sort of attack vs. defense for damage, in the form of setback tokens. This might be a brawl, a conversation, an interrogation, or an investigation - it all works the same way. Setbacks represent everything from physical damage to disappointment to mental blocks to maybe even a failure of courage. In any given Scene, each character can take up to 4 setback tokens. This is very reminiscent of the Marvel Heroic game and it's three types of "damage" tracks, but here all of the different possible types of "damage" are treated cumulatively.

There are some additional notes on using this system with genre staples like pushing and the fastball special and just generally how to use it to do super-heroic things. This kind of thing is really helpful in an abstract system and I am glad it was included as it did answer some of my questions about specific cases or examples. 

Wrapping up, there is a nice 20+ page example of play that covers a lot of ground. I heartily approve of the efforts by the author to use examples like this as it really does help illustrate how the game is supposed to work. 

There is also a pair of introductory adventures to help get things started.

"Revealing Costume" - Heh
Overall Impressions
I have not yet played this, so please keep that in mind. The author's notes at the end of the book describe the origin of the game as wanting a "comic book simulator" instead of a "super powered character engine". My thoughts while reading it kept going back to FATE and MWP's now-lost Marvel Heroic, so I'd say it definitely leans in that direction. The character sheets look comparable to ICONS, call them "FATE with some numbers stuck on". The lack of a generic powers list or set abilities feels a lot like MHRP, but it does have the point system to put at least some kind of framework around it. 

So would it work for a Superhero campaign? Sure. It's pretty much wide-open when it comes to character design, has what looks to me to be a fairly solid resolution mechanic, and has a hero point mechanic to let players pull off outrageous things. It is very much a dramatic/storytelling type game over a simulation game if that matters to you, though there is no real setting presented here other than generic super-stuff in a modern world. It's very much a system and not a universe.

Mechanically it's on the lighter end of things, in the ICONS/MHRP neighborhood. There's more "system" around task resolution than ICONS, but less in-play manipulation of dice than MHRP. I'm also a little unsure of the variability: ICONS uses a range of ratings from 1-10 with a d6 on each side as the variable element. Here ratings appear to run from 1-12 or so with a d12 on each side as the variable element, so it's going to have a little more swing. That may be fine for comic books anyway.

If Champions or Mutants and Masterminds is your game then there's probably not much to see here. Despite the shared subject matter, it's a different approach and it's not going to have anywhere near the crunch you're used to.

So, will I be playing it? For me, it's a good game but no, probably not. It's mechanically light, but I already have ICONS and I like its flavor of lightness better. For a comic-book simulator I already have Marvel Heroic and I like its flavor of narrative better. Then I have Champions and M&M for crunchier games. It seems like a decent enough system, but there's nothing in it that just calls out to me to jump in and choose it over these others. I suspect that's a fairly big hurdle for any new superhero RPG that isn't tied to a franchise - what does it do better than every other system out there? I'd still encourage anyone interested in the lighter/narrative side of supers to give it a look. If you want more crunch than a pure FATE superhero game, and didn't like Marvel Heroic or ICONS it might be right for you.

1 comment:

WQRobb said...

Thanks for this. I played MHR for about a year and its shortcomings eventually got to me. I'm in the market for a different game and appreciate your thoughts.