CAPERS Core Design Conceits and Game Design


The next round of CAPERS playtesting will start in the next couple weeks. As I prepare, I've been reflecting on how I got to the point I'm at with the game design. There are a number of things that have been mentioned by playtesters that I thought I would address. I normally don't include design decision stuff in playtest documents, so I think it'll be of interest to the playtesters, as well as the rest of you, to see parts of my decision-making process.

This discussion is less about the specifics of rules text and math results and more about the core conceits of the design and how they've been addressed.

Gangsters with Powers, Not Supers with Guns

I set out to design a game about gangsters. Those gangsters have Powers. Or at least they CAN have Powers. There are rules for non-Powered characters. It's not a game about supers who happen to live in the 1920s and happen to be gangsters. This is an important distinction for me.

There are many supers RPGs out there. Most of them focus on the fact that the characters are superheroes and/or supervillains. CAPERS is about gangsters and feds first and Powers second. This distinction informs a variety of decisions I've made in the design.

Guns vs. Powers

Some playtesters have asked why Tommy guns are as damaging as Powers that deal damage. The reason for this is twofold. First, I want it to be a valid and worthwhile choice for a player to play a character that uses a Tommy gun and focuses his Power choices on utility Powers and things that make him better with a gun.

Second, this is not a game where the characters are fighting against super-powered baddies all the time. They're dealing with regular folk a lot of the time. I need guns to be real threats in these situations. None of the Powers are super-duper Powers. There is no Hulk or Superman. Characters with Powers are frail, or at least more frail than characters like Superman. Guns need to be a threat to such Powers. Every NPC needs to be a threat.

Power Levels

Powers in the game range across levels. Some only have one level of power. Some have 1-2 or 1-3 levels. Some range 1-5 in level. Some playtesters have asked about this discrepancy. Can't a Power that has two levels be expanded to have five levels like some of the others?

The decision to let the level range be what it is for different types of Powers falls on how this isn't strictly a game about supers who happen to be gangsters. The Powers that range 1-5 do so because they require Power Checks that can compare to Traits that can range 1-5 in relative power. The normal maximum for each Trait is 3, but Powers can be used to raise them as high as 5.

Traits and Powers ranging up to 5 have been balanced against each other. I hope. Still playtesting and tweaking.

Complexity of Combat Rules

Some playtesters have asked why there aren't options for dual-wielding, a full defense maneuver, multi-target/area of effect Powers, and burst fire for Tommy guns. After all, many games that handle combat in a more complex manner include such options.

CAPERS already uses a non-traditional mechanic (playing cards rather than dice) and utilizes a unique set of terms that players have to learn. Excluding these options is built on the idea of simplifying the game a bit.

Dual-wielding is, in essence, having two attacks per round. That exists in the game but requires expenditure of Moxie, a limited resource. Making dual-wielding a standard thing that costs nothing makes it preferable to other options that involve only one attack. That adds complexity and necessitates "amping up" a great deal of the rest of the system.

I opted to not include full defense in order to promote characters doing more active things. Full defense (and similar options) can slow the combat.

Multi-targeting is available in limited form for some Powers, but it has a cost. Making it easy to use, again, makes such an option much better than single-targeting. Area of effect Powers are limited to mostly non-damaging effects, and have a cost as well. You can do this stuff, but there's a downside.

Burst fire for Tommy guns is at the top end of problems already discussed. It adds significant complexity and makes Tommy guns that much more awesome. Even without burst fire, they're pretty awesome in the game. They're fucking Tommy guns, after all, and deal the best damage of the guns available.

Finally, if someone buys the game, it's no longer my game. It's THEIR game. There are people who will house rule/hack these things into the game, and that's fine. I just don't want to assume all players want that added level of complexity. CAPERS is "gamist," not "simulationist." Everyone plays with the same restrictions.

How Much Success is Too Much?

Some playtesters have commented that CAPERS seems to see more successes in the mechanics than failures. This is done on purpose. I want the game to be one where the characters succeed. Don't get me wrong. There are plenty of ways to fail and it happens a fair bit in the game. But I'm not interested in CAPERS being heavy on failure. There are games that do that, but this isn't one of them.

Additionally, there's a whole sub-set of "success" that is actually "success with complications." I like complications. They raise the stakes, make players think, and cause shifts in the immediate action as well as the entire story. They're engaging and I feel this makes the game better.

Counting Cards

When I first started designing the playing card mechanic for CAPERS, I realized very quickly that "counting cards" would affect individual players' game play. The more cards you flip (before shuffling all the cards back together), the better sense you have of what cards are still in your deck. You may not be able to keep track of every card, but you can certainly know if the cards remaining in your stack tend toward high cards or tend toward low cards. You can keep track of whether you've flipped any of the jokers or aces.

I was initially fearful that players who aren't as good at this sort of thing might feel like they're at a disadvantage compared to those who play Poker regularly and have an easier time keeping track. My solution to this was to encourage the GM to call for all players to reshuffle their discarded cards (those already flipped) back into their decks. "Reset" the randomness, as it were.

My fears proved to be unfounded. In the early stages, many players remarked that the card counting aspect of the game was a feature, not a bug. It was engaging and exciting. If you're rolling a d20 each round, the chance you get a 20 is always the same. However, if you know you have a lot of face cards and aces in your deck, you might have your character take more chances, relying on the "inevitability" of those high cards saving your butt and making your character really rock.

Engagement With the Card Flipping

Here's something I totally did NOT expect when I designed the playing card mechanic.

I've had multiple playtesters remark how ENGAGING the mechanic is. In some games, you roll a d20 and check for success. If you succeed, you roll damage, announce it, and move on. Maybe there's a resistance roll or saving throw or hit location in there. Each time, you roll and report.

BUT, with the CAPERS system, every card flip matters. You're constantly considering whether or not you'll gamble and flip another card to try for a better success. And...more importantly, the OTHER players are engaged in YOUR card flipping.

It's a group thing. Everyone loves a crit. But when you're gambling partial success on the CHANCE of a huge success, it draws the eyes of the other players. I've run may sessions where everyone at the table was shouting their thoughts and directions at the player who was flipping cards. They ALL rejoiced in an ace of spades flip.

It's pretty cool. And something I totally didn't expect to see when I laid out the groundwork of the game system.

In Conclusion...

I hope this helps explain some things for playtesters and gets others excited about trying out the game.

If you're interested in playtesting CAPERS, drop me a line at and let me know. I'm looking for people brand new to the game to help me find holes in the manuscript. I'm too close to the design and can fill in the gaps in my head. I need people to tell me that I need an example here or clarification there.

Game on,