Kapow! Playtesting Continues

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.

4 thoughts on “Kapow! Playtesting Continues

  1. Russell says:

    I am somewhat confused by this post. First, are all defenses immune from hindering, or only passive defenses? The latter makes more sense to me.

    Second, don’t you already have a rule allowing attacks to disable a power? We discussed it, at least. Why can’t they use the disable maneuver to remove defenses?
    .-= Russell´s last blog ..Action Now! Time is almost up! =-.

  2. Joshua says:

    Only Passive Defenses, but I didn’t want to get down to that level of detail in a blog post aimed at a more general audience than just the play-testers. The terminology is tricky, since we say “Passive Defense” meaning defenses that you don’t have to spend an Action to Activate but they’re allowed to require effort by the character such as jumping around with acrobatics or reacting instantly with lightning reflexes.

    As to Disabling a power, Passive Defenses are immune to Disabling as well, for the same reasons…unless they have the specific Disadvantage “Passive Can Be Disabled.” And Disabling is much more severe than merely going down to a single die for being Hindered, since you’re reduced to just using the scope’s default skill. Anyway, this level of discussion is probably best done over at at http://openrpgblog.ning.com/group/kapow/ I was more soliciting opinions on whether it’s more common for superheroes/villains to just be able to take a beating or to actively have to dodge and parry.

  3. r_b_bergstrom says:

    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.”

    Thank you for saying that. I agree 100%. I wonder how prevalent this notion is within the industry? I’m tempted to say it’s a pretty rare sentiment, which is a shame. I think it could do us all a world of good.

    As to your question about whether supers tend to have more “take a beating” powers or more “nimbly sidestep” powers, I don’t know, but I suspect that’s not the right question anyway. What matters, in my opinion, is that players are more likely to make a point of remembering to beef up their own strength than to remember their weakness. That’s more important than the somewhat arbitrary analysis of the dominant defense type in the setting.

    In other words, it’s like your quote above. Of the two options, making people remember to take “can be hindered” or making them remember to take “cannot be hindered”, the later is the better. Because it’s the way our brains work, and the way that will be remembered best by the players.

    Someone who wants to be the man of steel will be likely to remember to take “can’t be hindered”, because it’s their character’s strength, and it makes them better. Someone for whom athletics and dodginess is a minor part of their character is more likely to forget to take “can be hindered” because it’s a minor part of their character and thus not what they’re focused on during character creation.

    If the invulnerable character forgets to take “can’t be hindered”, it’ll be discovered fairly quickly, and they’ll have something obvious to spend XP on (or a nice GM might let them revise the character). If the dodge-and-parry character forgets to take “can be hindered” it might not be noticed until a situation comes up that strains credibility, and by the time it does they may decide to just leave it as-is since it’s a benefit to them. It’s always easier to coax a player to upgrade their character, then to take away something they bought via the rules.

  4. Joshua says:

    That’s a good point. At the moment we’re still wrestling with exactly how this is going to work without making it over or under powered, but once we’ve settled on the mechanic I think I will make it so that the default it to be subject to it with the ability to ignore it being an add-on.

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