We’ve been playing Kapow! and overall I’d say it’s going well: the players seem to be engaged and having fun. At the end of one session, in which as a result of one of his character’s Complications it was revealed that unbeknown to him, his character had a 20-year old daughter, Doug gave it a big thumbs up and said “This is a great comic!” And Wendy has praised the clarity and concision of the combat cheat-sheet.
One thing that hasn’t gone quite as well, or at least has caused me to rethink one of the basic rules, is what happens to a character’s defenses when they are Hindered. Where other games like Champions have status conditions like Stunned, Knocked Down or Blinded, Kapow! has the more generic Hindered. It’s simpler, in the sense that it’s one status condition to cover everything instead of separate rules for each kind of thing that can interfere with the character’s ability to act effectively, and it’s less debilitating than some in that you can still act while Hindered. Losing a turn due to a status condition gets boring pretty quickly, particularly if as in most games it can happen over and over so you end up spending all your turns standing back up or recovering, only to be stunned again on the villain’s turn (sometimes called “chain-stun”).
I wanted to avoid that, and to avoid the “Death Spiral” effect where getting stunned or damaged makes you more likely to get stunned or damaged in the next round, so that once you start to lose you’ll probably be defeated if you don’t run away. So in Kapow! not only can you can still act while Hindered, albeit at a penalty, being Hindered doesn’t reduce your defenses. For many, if not all, superhero defenses that makes a lot of sense: if you’re invulnerable, even if you’ve been temporarily blinded or glued to the spot with webbing you’re still just as hard to knock out. And in play it means that just because you’ve gotten hit and are suffering from a penalty to your attack, you’re not on the verge of losing. For some defenses, such as acrobatics where if you’re tied down or dazed you really ought to be easier to clobber completely, it makes less sense, but sometimes playability trumps what passes for realism in comic books.
The problem that play-test revealed is that the players really expect to be able to soften up the villain’s defenses by Hindering them so that follow-up attacks by their companions stand a better chance…but that’s not how the rules work. One of my design principles is that if players keep misremembering a specific rule, that probably means you should change the rule to match their mental model of how things ought to work instead of trying to beat it into them that they’re playing it “wrong.” Fixing it to match the way the players think it works, though, could cause a ripple effect through the rest of the rules in order to balance things out (for instance, I don’t want to make Powerhouse characters, who are designed to have fewer but more powerful actions weaker than fast, nimble Jack of All Trades characters…but if they had to keep spending their limited actions on shoring up their defenses they could be).
What Doug suggested, and we’ll probably go with at least to test next session is that we make what the players are attempting one of the combat maneuvers. So the rules for defense would stay as they are, but the players would have the option of deliberately trying to weaken a target’s defenses just as they were (repeatedly) trying in our play-test sessions… but there would be a built-in penalty for doing so since trying to weaken the target’s defenses would preclude trying to KO the target with the same attack. In addition, Weakening the target’s defenses would only last for the next attack (or maybe the next round, we’ll have to experiment); that way Powerhouses wouldn’t have to spend all their time undoing the weakened defenses. The characters could act deliberately to set them up for a more devastating attack, but they would have to keep doing it to continue to get the benefit, and the slower characters wouldn’t be unduly penalized by forcing them to spend their time recovering from being weakened.
I may also emphasize that certain defensive powers (like acrobatics, or heightened senses, or super-speed) really ought to be taking the Disadvantage “Can Be Hindered” to represent the fact that they’re much easier to interfere with than, say, being invulnerable, or being able to become intangible. It’s possible I should swap it so that by default defenses are affected by being Hindered, but you could take an Advantage “Can’t Be Hindered” for characters with defenses that don’t really involve being maneuverable or having heightened awareness of attacks…my gut is that being really tough and able to withstand a beating is a bit more common as a defensive superpower, particularly when you include villains, than being really nimble or having great reflexes, but I could be wrong. Comments are welcome.