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Author Topic: [Capes] Playtest  (Read 2364 times)
TonyLB
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« on: July 21, 2004, 03:41:46 AM »

[ WARNING:  Long Post! ]

I ran Capes for the first time tonight.  What a strange, strange experience to see the game in action, after having tinkered so much.  It's like having had all the parts of an engine laid out on your living room floor for months, then finally putting them together and starting it up.

I had three other players, all of whom I've gamed with before.  Two full-blown adults, Eric and Danny, and Danny's teenage son, Seth.  We spent half an hour doing a once-over of the rules, then an hour creating characters, and two hours playing.

Describing the rules was laborious, painful and (as Danny pointed out) probably not the right way to start.  When we hit character creation the interest around the table improved with shocking speed.  Even though people had only the vaguest notions of what they would be using the Abilities for, they had a huge amount of fun inventing them.

Danny recommended (and I agree) that it is easier to introduce people to the system by letting them make a character, and then tying the description of rules to the structures of the character sheet.  So instead of saying "There is such a thing as a Trope, which we will now define exhaustively even though you have no idea how it connects to you", I should rewrite to say "Your character has Attitudes, Tropes and Powers, which we will roughly describe... later, in the rules section, you'll see how those allow you to achieve advantage in combat".  That's a large (possibly comprehensive) rewrite of the rules, but a very valuable one if it makes the system more accessible.

So, back to the game.  Eric created Icefall, an ice-projector who has been raised by the government and is in search of his unknown family.  Seth chose to pay homage to a character he knows from television, a shapechanging party-dude that I will refer to only as BB.  Danny created the Mysterious Monkey King, borrowing loosely from chinese mythology.

I came within a heartbeat of blowing what turned out to be one of the finest elements of our play.  Character creation was nearing completion, and I thought about skipping Exemplars.  It was good that I reconsidered.  Folks had a huge amount of fun making up the NPCs, and they turned out to be pivotal in the story.

With three people the interlacing of Exemplars is extremely tight.  Any two heroes have an Exemplar in common.  It is hard to overstate how easy this makes life for the Editor who wants to weave stories together.  The two links that cropped up powerfully in this particular story were:  
    [*]Icefall is aided in his search for his past by journalist Paul Sullivan (Exemplar of Truth).  Sullivan has long excoriated the playful, but irresponsible, shapechanger BB in his newspaper column (Exemplar of Hope).[*]Michael King (a.k.a. the Mysterious Monkey King) would do anything to protect his little sister Simi from such dangers as supervillains, corrupt western culture and corrupt western boys (Exemplar of Duty).  The girl-crazy BB, however, has fallen head over heels for the young asian girl, and will not rest until he makes her his girlfriend (Exemplar of Love).[/list:u][/color]Seth got the honors of defining the first scene.  He maxed out on complications, desribing a burning firework warehouse, where he was under attack by Taurus (the evil Man-Bull), while a hapless bystander was trapped nearby.  I immediately said "How about if the hostage is Paul Sullivan, who became entangled in the fight when he was following you for another story on how dangerous and reckless you are?"  Seth loved this opportunity to drag his rival away from the world of newsprint libel and into the gritty reality of super-powered combat.  As he said "If it were someone else in trouble, I might actually want to save them!"  The other players took great glee in pointing out that this was precisely why Sullivan has such a low opinion of him.

    And, naturally, where Sullivan goes, Icefall is likely to follow.  If I'd been on my game I would have had Sullivan call Icefall on his cell phone.  That conversation would have provided a better context for Eric to think about his relationship with the reporter and to frame what was important to him about the conflict before making the scene.  Instead I simply said "Icefall can arrive any time you see fit".

    There was a serious rules hiccup at this point:  Icefall didn't have enough dice to "break in" to the combat between Taurus and BB.  Though neither was contesting his actions, the rules said that he couldn't act until they had spent so many dice that he had the most successes.  With threes and fours cluttering their Success Pools, this just never happened.  We seriously considered changing the rules right there and then, but I stayed the course, wanting to see if the rules as written would redeem themself.

    Given that I had two animal supers on the battle (and a third in the wings) it seemed natural to have a ludicrously well-outfitted Collector break in, intent on capturing both BB and Taurus for his menagerie.

    The combat shifted in an interesting way right there.  Up to then we'd been mostly pouring points into Clobbering each other.  The Clobbering Complication was acting as a place-holder to track what was essentially a straight slug-fest.  But the Collector caught both his targets in Electro-nets, which were represented as Complications.  I observed that Seth really took an interest in getting free of the net.  Mechanically it was no different than other minor penalties that he'd worked around earlier in the combat, but the particular description made it a priority for him in a way that the other Complications hadn't been.  Lots of points went into that Complication, contesting control of it on both sides, and generally setting up a more complex battle situation, where people had to meaningfully decide whether to try to break the nets or try to pummel the bad-guy.

    While this was going on I realized that the session was fast escaping me, and I needed to weave the Mysterious Monkey King into it.  I looked over the sheets and it took me much longer than it should to realize several simple things:
      [*]The Collector was interested in both BB and Monkey King[*]Their shared Exemplar, Simi King, was the link between them[*]Simi was also their achilles heel (as Exemplars so often are)[/list:u]So I had the Collector pull out Simi (who, apparently, he'd already kidnapped), and reveal that he intended to use her as bait to lure the Monkey King to him.

      In retrospect this was a ludicrous thing to happen.  How would the Collector have known of her importance?  Why would he have brought her to this warehouse?

      I could be wrong, but I don't think any of those obvious plot-holes were even registered by players (myself included) at the time.  As with the earlier introduction of the character-creation process, the introduction of Simi created a very noticeable upswing in peoples interest and intensity around the table.  All logical inconsistencies were trumped by how the new development played to the concerns and style of the heroes.  In Danny's words "This lets me get to so many things in my character."

      So then there was more fighting.  BB resolved the issue of the net entangling him, which (because folks had fought over it so bitterly) put the group a sizable chunk of the way toward being victorious in the scene.  Icefall, with four powers active, became a dominant force in high-end Wonders.  The powers had put him in debt, but he staked that debt on the Complications his hero wanted to address (bystanders, building fire, etc.) and worked most of it off in the course of what he (probably) would have done anyway.

      And Monkey King made the scene in grand style, delivering unexpected punishment to the Collector.  Danny took an early, substantial, debt in Duty, and used the dice to achieve things that activated some of his many Tropes (thereby earning him yet more dice).  He turned that into a cascade, one Trope feeding into the next from turn to turn, combined with effective play in his Attitudes.  In a very short time he went from no dice at all to a huge pile.  At the same time, his well-chosen Tropes forced him to narrate events in his characters own inimitable style.

      Monkey King and BB got into a fight (against each other) about who would rescue Simi.  They contested bitterly over the Complication, dumping more Wonder Points into that than any other Complication.  The girl changed hands (and trunk and paws) almost half a dozen times.  When I asked them whether they wanted to bet on the Complication they both immediately reached for their chips.  

      Indeed, that prompted one of my favorite situations of the evening:  Seth didn't have enough debt in Love to match Danny's bet from Duty, and complained bitterly about it.  He felt it was an affront for his rival to have more emotionally invested than he did.  Since I'd been hoping to have people view the Debt tokens as a resource, I was happy to see this.

      Eric got a grim, poetic satisfaction when he was able to use the same rule that had earlier blocked him from spending his successes to, in turn, prevent the Collector from getting any benefit out of a spectacular roll I managed (twelve dice rolled EIGHT sixes and two fives... all for naught).  Because he was able to shut the Collector out, Icefall managed to resolve the Clobbering complication... he had hit the Collector so hard and so often that, despite the villains drive to succeed, he just couldn't continue the fight.  That also reached the Victory Target for the scene, which was tidy (but not surprising, given that the Clobbering Complication had almost twenty points on it).

      BB and Monkey King were still contesting who rescued Simi when the scene closed and all Complications were resolved by fiat.  BB managed to run off with her, leaving Monkey King with a huge pile of debt tokens that they'd both heaped onto the complication earlier.  Danny got a big smile on his face as he commented that his character had completely failed in his duty to protect his young sister, and that this would clearly drive his hero to even greater efforts in future.

      If I'd been paying more careful attention to the rules I would have had Seth narrate how rescuing Simi created new facts about Love for him... I'm sure he would have had something good to say, along the lines of her being so impressed by his rescue that she decided she would be his girlfriend after all.  My only excuse is that it was late and we were all a bit loopy.  Indeed, because of time constraints I closed up the session without running the Letters Column, which was sort of a shame.

      Overall I found the playtest extremely encouraging.  There were places where the game sang, and places where things were rough.  But the game sang in exactly the places I'd hoped it would sing, and it was rough only in places that I think it can be easily polished.  

      Things I just plain did wrong as an Editor:
        [*]I did not prepare enough scenes and villains before the game began... though I would never have invented the Collector until I saw the heroes that were being played[*]I didn't throw a challenging power-level of villains against the heroes as a whole... and particularly I didn't have the two villains team up against the three heroes.[*]I didn't create enough situations where the players could explore their heroes, their backstories and motivations[*]I didn't emphasize the rules of how Victory Points lead to the end of a scene... people had fun playing, but it was a little undirected in the absence of a looming Victory Target for them to be racing toward.[/list:u]Things that need polishing in the rules:
          [*]Explaining the rules at the beginning was an extreme buzz-kill[*]There are IIEE issues as we played it tonight that make it easy for a player to be shut out of the action when they first join a conflict.[*]The "describe new facts" that happens when you win a gamble doesn't have any rules backing:  It is purely subjective, and therefore very easy to ignore.  Even a simplistic system for objectively tracking that will make it easier to focus on[*]There is nothing in the system (yet) that encourages players to create more details about their backstory on the fly.  It would have taken a conscious choice on somebody's part (probably mine) to create circumstances where that was natural[*]There wasn't much rules encouragement for monologues and chatter[*]In their rush to declare wonders, people sometimes went straight from the end of one turn to rolling their dice for the next, forgetting the importance of activating powers and tapping attitudes[*]These three difficulties above (backstory, chatter and attitudes/powers) encourage me to formally add a "Chatter" or "Monologues" phase to the sequence of the turn, during which all of these things could be addressed[/list:u]Things that rocked:
            [*]Exemplars tied the game together[*]Fighting for control over a field of Complications helped players decide what was important to their hero and focus the story there, without anyone needing to do that consciously[*]Drives and Stakes helped players create a powerful sense of involvement and commitment for their heroes, again without anyone needing to do it consciously[*]The players really got a kick out of inventing their own style and narrating their own successes, once they got used to it[*]I deliberately did not tell people how I thought they "should" be playing their characters, or what my vision for the game was.  I wanted to know whether the sort of play I enjoy would arise naturally form the combination of players and the rules.  At least in this case it did.[/list:u]
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