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Author Topic: [Capes and impro] Not getting it / making it work  (Read 5009 times)
matthijs
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« on: March 19, 2005, 02:28:05 AM »

We tried Capes last night.

Setting: Students at Megapolis High School. In a physics lab experiment gone wrong, three students get super powers.

First scene: Detention! Professor Williams tells us to clear the school cellars as punishment for causing trouble in physics class. Down there we discover a huge robot - the fourth PC - hidden behind a locked door. He can't get out without more power! We debate whether to help him or try to shut him off, when suddenly we hear a car going by outside. The robot drains the car's power and comes charging out.

The car stops, and Alvin and Martha - two students - get out. Martha's really mad at Alvin: This is the third time his car "breaks down" conveniently on a date.

Martha sees the robot and screams. She calls the police. Wailing sirens.

New scene: Outside, Martha talks to the police. One of the cops mistakenly tries to arrest Prof. Williams. A new robot appears in the basement: An evil twin! He kills some of the cops, one of which is being kissed by Martha as he dies.

At this point, the game had gotten too chaotic. We didn't have any direction, and conflicts on the table were "Event: Prof. Williams says 'Nice and clean in here!'" and another one (even less dramatic, I believe). We were about to start a conflict: "Goal (Mento): Make Martha do a strip show". Bleh. We just stopped.

Problems we had: Not grokking the game. We weren't into the whole tactics thing, we just wanted to tell a good story, and felt like the rules weren't helping us do what we wanted.

Why did we have to use abilities to do stuff? How did we end up resolving the cool conflicts too fast, and the boring ones too slowly? Why should we invest any interest in the events going on?

We weren't prepared for what the system would do; I spent a lot of time looking up rules and clarifications, and several players had to pass turns because they got frustrated trying to keep the rules and the plot in their heads at the same time.

We want to try it again - but we have to be aware of what we're getting into. This is a tactical game, not a go-with-the-flow game. It's about setting up conflicts not just because they sound like fun, but because they can give you an advantage later in the game.

- - -

So. We decided to give it a shot right afterwards, new characters, new setting. Post-apocalyptic surrealism. We're mutant survivors in a bleak world. A strange & scary Zone of weirdness is growing, and has taken part of our city. We have to go into the heart of the Zone and find out how to stop it. (Sort of Tarkovskij's "Stalker" meets "Mad Max").

We decided to give ourselves more time for free play and setting the scene. So we started out going round-robin, taking turns narrating stuff. After doing that for a while, someone mentioned starting a conflict, and we just couldn't fit it in - since I didn't respond with a rules fix, and it didn't seem like anyone felt the need to introduce mechanics at this point, we just kept on talking. The same thing happened two more times; after that, we went with the round-robin narration.

It worked out well, but it had nothing to do with Capes. It was a reaction to a rules set that was obstructing us in our goal: Telling a story together and getting into the atmosphere of it.

- - -

I want to emphasize that we'd like to play Capes again, and I don't have any fair criticism to the game at this point. We didn't know what we were getting into, and played the game in a way that didn't work - wrong tool for the job. Next time we'll give it a go the way it should be played.

But yesterday, the impro was very good, and the Capes session wasn't.
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Garbanzo
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Posts: 108


« Reply #1 on: March 19, 2005, 05:38:17 AM »

Hey, matthijs.

I've played Capes exactly once, but it did happen to be with ol' TonyLB himself, so presumably it went the way games usually go.

My take: Capes is a really rather amazing engine for modeling golden- or silver-age comics.  I suspect it is really rather bad for doing other stuff.  (It'd almost have to be: it's too good at doing what it sets out to do to be easily drifted.)

I think that there's a bit of a mis-match between what the game does, and what you want it to do.  The rules are all about sorting between clear and competing eventualities, and require that the players are at odds, and willing to make a big fuss about being at odds.  It sounds like in your game, there wasn't this tension.  Is this right?

The game is strikingly different from most RPGs in a couple of ways:
1.  The characters have to be in opposition.  All the game does is resolve conflicts that occur between the characters.
2. Because of this, conflicts can really go either way.  If there's a <Goal: Destroy the world>, then it might happen.  This requires a good deal of acceptance about the possible directions the story will go.  If you're not ok with things going either way, there's trouble.  
3. Interestingly, there's a clear gap between what I as a player want to happen and what my character wants to happen.  I might introduce a goal that I doesn't especially care about winning.  Primarily because I want to suck in one of the other players who I think will be really invested in not losing.

Your game sounds like a typical "party" of allied folks in a situation together.  Uh-oh.  Where's the conflict?  
In our game, there were six of us, and Tony (to my surprise) alternated hero and villian roles around the table.  And suddenly, BAM!  We were all tussling and struggling.  <Goal: The president gets killed live on national tv> was the first thing on the table.  So it was time for super powers and day-saving.  
Heroes vs. villians, we were all willing to get some debt and make things happen because we knew our characters were at odds.  If our characters weren't all that opposed, the whole thing would've been a bit of a wash.  (Yeah, ok, the president's in danger!  So...I save him, with minimal fuss!  Uh.)


My reactions to the specifics:
First scene, we've got a huge lumbering robot, Alvin vs. Martha, and police!  This seems just about right, to me.  A couple of different conflicts rolling, all hitting substantially different things.
What were the goals/ events, and how did they resolve?
It sounds like this-
<Event: The robot is loose!>
<Goal: Martha thinks Alvin is a real creep!>
<Goal: Martha calls the police.>

Is this right, more or less?  And how did they end up resolving?  Your description cut to scene two without resolving for us scene one!  Did this happen in the session, too?
But it couldn't've, because by definition, the scene isn't over until all the pieces resolve.

Ok, scene two.
<Goal: The cops help>, which failed, and they end up trying to arrest the prof.  Evil Twin shows up, narrated into existence with <Goal: The Evil Twin wreaks havoc>, which succeeds.  

Can you tell us what the actual conflicts were, who was interested in them, and how they resolved?

I mean, from the above, so far so good!  What happened?  When did things get so disasterously off track?  What were the specific times when you felt frustrated by the system?  My guess is that everyone wanted to collaborate, which is the opposite of what the game is for.  Am I on track?

-Matt
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Sydney Freedberg
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« Reply #2 on: March 19, 2005, 07:40:05 AM »

Quote from: matthijs
We weren't into the whole tactics thing, we just wanted to tell a good story, and felt like the rules weren't helping us do what we wanted..... a rules set that was obstructing us in our goal: Telling a story together and getting into the atmosphere of it.


Yeah, you've nailed the problem here: You wanted one thing, Capes is set up to do something else. I've heard people make the same complaint about My Life With Master, which is even more highly structured. Both of these designs (and others around the Forge) operate on the [U.S.] Founding Fathers' principle of "the wise restraints that make us free," or poet Robert Frost's rule that "writing poetry without formal structure is like playing tennis without a net." In other words, you have things you want to do, but the formal structure -- sonnet form, or constitutional checks and balances, or Capes conflict resolution rules -- gets between you and that goal, complicating things.

If you're not expecting this, if you're used to transparent systems that exist to make telling the story you thought up easier, then it's really, really frustrating. If you embrace this, if you let go of your initial idea and let the game throw up unexpected stuff, then it can be a lot of fun.

Imagine water flowing neatly through a tiny stream in an ornamental garden; very nice; but what if you put some big rocks in the water? All of a sudden you get unpredictable perturbations in the flow, and boy, can that look cool.

{EDIT to add afterthoughts:}

Two more things came to me while I cleaned up the baby's cheerio-encrusted high chair:

1) Capes not only relies on formal structure, it relies on capitalism: You invest by borrowing, the whole "winner's debt becomes loser's story tokens" economy is about paying the other side to lose, and, above all, the game, like a capitalist economy, absolutely requires individuals to compete seeking selfish individual goals in order to produce a harmonious and mutually beneficial whole. If you don't compete, if you try actively to cooperate, then the game stalls. Counter-intuitive, but powerful.

2) Because Capes puts formal structure and mechanics in the way of anyone's idea for the story (Fortune and Karma over-rule drama), and because it's competive, something very interesting happens. The downside I've seen is that a player who is low on self-confidence and self-assertion is going to get overwhelmed and drop out (I've seen this happen). But the very interesting upside is that people who have a certain minimal level of self-confidence and self-assertion will flourish, because the structure protects and nourishes their competitiveness against more dominant players who, in a pure drama system, would just ride over them: In our Forgite DC pickup game last night, the people who dominated the casual conversation before the game were much less dominant than they were during the game, when rules kicked in to make sure anyone who wanted to got to contribute.
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Valamir
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« Reply #3 on: March 19, 2005, 08:58:59 AM »

Yeah, in this Capes has a lot in common with Universalis.  Both are games specifically designed to eliminate "pass the conch" play.  If you're looking for them to provide rules to enhance "pass the conch" play...you're bound to be frustrating.

Uni's rules on Complications are there specifically to allow other players to call a halt to the conch and bring into play a dice mechanic that, depending on how the dice fall and what resources were called upone for dice, really change the direction that play would have gone if the conch had continued.

Capes goes a step further and has that sort of Complication as the standard mechanic, in play at all times...not just on occassions when a player calls for it.  In Uni if you Gimmicked Complications out of the game (or just ignore using them),  you are left with much more of a "Pass the Conch" play with some additional mechanics for Challenges and Interrupts.  In Capes the conflict mechanics are so central that there is no ignoring them.

Going into Capes with the attitude of "how do I use the conflicts to help support the story I want to tell" won't work.  In Capes the mechanism is so strong that you have to go into it with the attitude of "how do I identify what the story is from this menu of conflicts that are in play".  Since that menu is added by the players, you have to atune your senses to identifying what the potential conflicts in any given scene are...use the rules to establish those as the menu of conflicts...and then seek to tip the balance of those conflicts in a direction you favor while the other players are tipping the balance in different ways or throwing wrenches in by adding conflicts you hadn't thought of.
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Christopher Kubasik
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« Reply #4 on: March 19, 2005, 11:12:50 AM »

Okay,

I'll bite.  What is "pass the conch" play?

I checked the glossary. Nothing.  I found the term in serveral posts using the Search function -- but never defined.  So.... Come on, let me sleep tonight.  What's it mean.

(You know, sometimes this place really is like wandering into the text of A Clockwork Orange!)

Thanks,

Christopher
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"Can't we for once just do what we're supposed to do -- and then stop?
Lemonhead, The Shield
Larry L.
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aka Miskatonic


« Reply #5 on: March 19, 2005, 11:30:37 AM »

It's a reference to Lord of the Flies.
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Valamir
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« Reply #6 on: March 19, 2005, 12:14:26 PM »

Yeah, as Larry says.

Its not a Forge jargon term.  Actually I'd thought it was in fairly widespread use to describe play where players take turns narrating freely.  Who ever "has the conch" gets to say what happens.
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matthijs
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« Reply #7 on: March 19, 2005, 12:48:00 PM »

Okay, here's a thing.

I get what Capes is trying to do, but I don't like it. Like Universalis, it has two things that don't really go well with my playing style:

- An assumption (or implicit requirement) that players are competitive
- A system mirroring a capitalist world view of investment and returns

And I'm thinking maybe it's not just me and my personal style. Maybe it's actually a cultural thing. Competition, cash returns, using the system to get what's best for you.

See, the cultural references I was brought up with are way different than the ones you've got in the states. Things like - my country (Norway) is a socialist democracy. The shows we all watched as kids were all about cooperation and getting along together - heaps of social realism. The sports we excel in are mainly sports where you don't win using tactics, only through personal training and excellence.

Another way it's a cultural thing: Four-color superhero comics. I can't understand their significance - not won't, but actually can't; they're almost alien artifacts to me. You read one, you've read them all. They seem so very, very basic. Why on earth try to recreate that? I've understood that they have some sort of mythical significance in American culture, but only through reading stuff like "Watchmen" and "Maximortal" am I getting why adults would even look twice at the stuff. I'm not trying to say they have no worth - but it's not a worth that I can easily understand, given my frame of reference.

I'm definitely not saying that all Norwegians are like me, or that all Americans are like X or Y or Z, but sometimes the cultural differences show. I thought I'd have problems understanding Dogs in the Vineyard, but everyone I've played with grokked that after half an hour of chargen. Capes, however, is taking us longer to get.
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Valamir
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« Reply #8 on: March 19, 2005, 01:44:03 PM »

I think it very well may be a cultural thing.

I started balking at your use of the word competition to describe Universalis, because to me the level of competition in Uni is very mild.  I find Uni to fit the very definition of what I consider to be cooperative.

Then it struck me that that itself is quite likely a cultural thing (acknowledging that cultures are not homogenous among their members, of course).

Coorperation to my way of thinking is enhanced by elements that you likely consider competitive, but which to me are an essential aspect of keeping cooperation effective.  To my way of thinking cooperation between parties must involve party A challenging party B's assumptions and party B defending them, otherwise you just get lack luster output that caters to the least common denominator.  Meaning that the only thing that gets done is what everyone can agree to...which by definition means its devoid of conviction (unless dealing with a very homogenous group who are all convicted about the same thing...which I'd call rather cultish).

The difference between this and competition is that in cooperation the challenge and defense exchanges are there to filter out the bad ideas and let the cream rise to the top.  Both parties are dedicated to making the output the very best it can be.  But both parties also believe that not all ideas are equally good.  The only way you can get a) the best possible output given b) a range of quality in input is to test the input and allow only the best of the input to stick.  That testing is what the Interruption, Challenge and Complication mechanics in Univesalis is all about.  There are 5 people around the table.  They all have a number of ideas.  Some of those ideas are good and some of them suck.  The challenges and defenses are how the bad ideas get discarded, and the players collectively agree on what to keep.  That's my definition of cooperation.

This is in contrast to competition where the object is NOT to jointly produce the best possible output but only to achieve the result you want at the expense of results others want.  Take football for instance (either real football or that silly soccer game with the round ball and the net).  Niether team is dedicated to jointly creating a great game for the fans to enjoy.  In fact, they'd much prefer a boring lop sided blow out of their opponent than a down to the last second dramatic finish.  Their goal is to get their desired result (a win).  As long as they win, they don't care if the output (the game as experienced by the fans) sucks.


That's why, to me, Uni is a VERY cooperative game.  The mechanics are there to allow parties to jointly dedicate themselves to producing the best output by providing mechanisms to test and discard the bad ideas in favor of the good (acknowledging, of course, that "bad" and "good" are entirely subjective).  Played competitively, Uni is horrible.  Which is why I always balk when someone suggests its a competitive game.


But then I suspect this is where the cultureal differences in our understanding of the nature of cooperation and competition comes in.


**I tackled this from the perspective of Uni, which I obviously know very well, but I suspect the same reasoning is behind the design of Capes.
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matthijs
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« Reply #9 on: March 19, 2005, 02:04:43 PM »

Ralph, I think you're on to something.

To me, cooperation in storytelling is much more based on impro theatre: Say Yes. Whether an idea is good or bad: You've got to accept it and try to make it work. This doesn't mean that what gets done is what everyone can agree to - it means players take turns dictating what the story is about. That doesn't make for lackluster, LCD output, quite the opposite - it makes for intensely vivid, but sometimes incoherent output.

The sort of cooperation you're talking about is, to me, a mood-breaker. When we're trying to tell a story, but anyone can interrupt anything with a smack of the rulebook, clattering of coins and counting of pips on the dice, it's a horror. Sure, you get stuff that looks nice when you tell it to someone afterwards - but there's just no chance that the group will sit around being thrilled and scared by what comes pouring out of the collective imagination. At worst, it's like watching a great movie that stops every ten seconds because someone wants to rewrite the plot or take a vote about what should happen next.
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matthijs
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« Reply #10 on: March 19, 2005, 02:13:20 PM »

Quote from: Valamir
Going into Capes with the attitude of "how do I use the conflicts to help support the story I want to tell" won't work.


(Minor point: Doesn't it say in the beginning of the book that it's a good idea to have a story planned before you start? I don't have the text right here...)
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jburneko
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Posts: 1351


« Reply #11 on: March 19, 2005, 03:01:33 PM »

Hello,

I agree with Ralph's assessment and I thought of an analogy that might help clearify things.

Consider a boxer who wants to be the best fighter that ever lived.  That boxer has a coach who's constantly putting obstacles (like punching bags) in the boxer's way and screaming things at him like, "harder!  faster!"  He chastizes him when he fails.  Are the coach and boxer competing?  I don't think so, and I would hope not.

In Capes, I want to create a character who is cool, exciting and compelling.  The index cards are my punching bags and my fellow players are the coach yelling, "more!  more!" in form of adversity.  Are we competing?  Or just pushing each other to be the best we can be.

Jesse
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Valamir
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« Reply #12 on: March 19, 2005, 03:48:09 PM »

Quote
To me, cooperation in storytelling is much more based on impro theatre: Say Yes. Whether an idea is good or bad: You've got to accept it and try to make it work. This doesn't mean that what gets done is what everyone can agree to - it means players take turns dictating what the story is about.


Interesting.  See I'd define that as anarchy, which seems about as horrible to me as what I described seems to you.
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matthijs
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« Reply #13 on: March 19, 2005, 11:32:14 PM »

Jesse,

(I just want to repeat that this isn't about whether Capes is a good or bad game; I haven't assessed that yet, because I haven't played it right).

Interesting analogy with the boxer getting better by meeting obstacles. Did you read mine about watching a movie and getting interrupted the whole time? Or, it's like I'm trying to do this subtle and difficult dance with four different people, and this guy is standing on the sideline yelling "Punch! Punch!"

It really depends what you value highest: Immersion or story. Yes, I know those are two huge cans of worms - the first is supposed not to exist, and the second has a whole bunch of GNS baggage attached to it. So I'm going to put it differently.

Usually when I play, I don't see the "finished product" as the sum of the in-game events. The atmosphere I experience is what matters. Capes and Universalis are two games that focus on getting the story right, in different ways - the events are what matter. Now, so far when I've played those games, the atmosphere has ranged from good to nonexistent.

It's as if the systems are training wheels that I want to ditch, not just because I'm pretty well trained at what I do, but mostly because they're leading me in the wrong direction. I don't see conflict as the end-all and be-all of a story.
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matthijs
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« Reply #14 on: March 19, 2005, 11:45:52 PM »

Quote from: Valamir
Interesting.  See I'd define that as anarchy, which seems about as horrible to me as what I described seems to you.


Well, yeah. But we're not talking about a form of government here, nor about a training exercise... it's a cross between a game and a form of art, and different cultural expectations and rules apply. You don't use democracy to compose music, and you don't depend on market forces to give you a good plot for your novel.
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