Kapow! Mini-Recap

We’ve had a couple of sessions since the last report, and the players seem to be enjoying it a lot, but I’ve been too busy with other things (such as working on the manuscript for Kapow!) to do proper recaps.

Just so that we don’t forget what’s gone on so far:

Redline has been working with Dr. Barbara Kelso, the scientist who developed the original treatment for the degenerative nerve disease that young Artemis Simon was suffering from, which eventually led to her being banned from the Olympics (and years later to her become Olympia) and Dr. Kelso being booted from her university on ethics charges.  Dr. Kelso landed at Paradigm Labs, Where the Future is Today!, where she’s being continuing her research on apes.  Redline felt guilty about falsely accusing her of being in cahoots with Olympia, so to  make it up to her offered to help fund her research at the lab; this led to them collaborating on some research having to do with the neuro-mechanical linkages he’s developed that let him control the Redline suit.  Of course, he’s doing all of this obliquely,showing her the interface components without the suit to try to preserve his secret identity.

While he was at the labs he got a call from the CFO/accountant at his small business, saying that he had found something disturbing going over the books before the audit that was supposed to happen in 48 hours as part of the deal Redline was setting up providing certain pieces of the Redline technology on an exclusive basis to a large motorcycle manufacturer; before he could explain what it was he found, the call was abruptly cut off.

Racing into action, Redline headed back to the firm.  On the way back he was challenged to a drag race by a mysterious silver-and-blank racer… and he lost.  Arriving at the parking lot of his company, the silver and black racer was waiting… and transformed into a powered armor suit of an unfamiliar design.

To be continued…

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.

Kapow! Quick Hit

Last night wasn’t scheduled to be a Kapow! session, but since there was some confusion due to skipping last week’s session to finish Russell’s Gradulfiad arc, Dan didn’t bring his game, so Kapow! it was. Since both Redline’s and Public Defender’s players were absent, I sidelined their plot threads; also, because the players were starting to use Out-of-character reasoning about a mysterious conspiracy tying all the threads together, I took the trouble to disabuse the players of that notion. While it would have been amusing watching them chase their tails for a little while, I know from bitter experience–bitter I tell you!–that if you let this group of players start to get paranoid it’s a death-spiral for the campaign. Telling them flat out that it was just separate plot threads that coincidentally all started at once because it was the beginning of the campaign will save heart-ache down the road. That left tracking down whoever had killed and cut the heart out of the young woman in the park according to the forms of an ancient Inca ceremony.

In the interests of GTTFM (mildly nsfw), while the group was discussing a road trip to Connecticut to consult with the only other expert in the US who could have accurately reproduced the ceremony, a news flash came on the TV: a scantily-clad woman with a 20′ albino ghost anaconda had taken a bunch of children hostage at the Public Gardens and was issuing a challenge to Akela, the Jungle Gal.  No, really I had that part planned all along…the villain came to the US to confront Akela, so there was no reason for her to skulk around waiting for them to find her.

The group raced to the park to confront the villain, who revealed herself to be a rival of Akela’s from the jungle village that had (partially) raised her… Nusta, the daughter of the witch doctor who taught Akela her secret jungle recipes.  She had come to America to hunt down and punish Akela for her cultural misappropriation, abandonment of the People to side with the Outsiders, misuse of the secrets entrusted to her by the traditions of the witch doctors, and generally being a pain in the ass all those years growing up and overshadowing Nusta.   This, of course, pushed all of Akela’s buttons, and she was ready to offer a truce and to show Nusta that the Outsiders really weren’t all that bad and that she was just helping people as the witch doctor would have wanted… until the others reminded her that this young woman had cut the heart out a girl in the park just the other night in order to summon the demonic snake that was menacing the toddlers.  And so the fight was on!

The fight went reasonably well from the point of view of play-testing some of the system.  We tried out the new way of handling actions in turns (basically having to declare all of your attacks at once if you’re making multiple attacks, instead of making one, waiting to see if it worked, making another, etc.) and it did indeed speed up people’s turns so play went around the table quicker.  The rules for disabling powers got a workout when it turned out that Nusta was quick enough (and people were rolling rather poorly) that they were having difficulty tagging her straight-out.  First the Wraith disrupted the ghost snake, then Harbinger managed to take away Nusta’s spear, and the Wraith drained her Super Speed.  Akela finished the fight magnificently by combining her powers with her jaguar’s to KO her rival.  It really did feel like it was straight out of the comics, at least to me.

As she was being hauled away by the police, Nusta vowed that this wasn’t the end of it, and the pharmaceutical companies that were going to tear up the jungle around the village searching for medicinal ingredients would be stopped.  Of course, this left Akela further conflicted.  Ah, complications.

One thing thing that, unexpectedly, some people found confusing was how the increasing die-sizes work.  The problem is there’s no such thing as a d14, d16, and so on, so unless I force everyone to use an electronic die-roller I have to fudge the progression.  The progression d8, d10, d12, d8+5, d10+5 was deeply counter-intuitive to the less rules-crunchy types, so much so that I’m considering whether to replace it with d8, d10, d12, d10+d4, d10+d6…  All in all, the shakedown continues to go pretty well, I think.  I hope the others chime in with their impressions.

Kapow! Playtest by Guest GM

My friend Russell agreed to use Kapow! to run a short adventure for Elyssa and me, so that we could get some kind of sense of how well it would go with somebody else running it, and I’m pleased to say that from the point of view of the players it went very well indeed. Russell didn’t seem too traumatized by it, either.

The strength of the game continues to be in the ease and flexibility of the character generation: I was able to (re)create a character that I’ve been trying to play for years in other superhero RPGs, never to my complete satisfaction. He’s a kind of cross between Batman and Sandman, called The Nightmare, and in systems like Champions he always seems to end up being spread too thin as a beginning character. Clever abuse of the point-buy system can alleviate some of that, but he’s always lackluster compared to the more straightforward beat-em-up martial artist or gadget types, and almost gimped compared to the same tricks applied to a more specialized character. In Kapow! that pretty much goes away; he has different strengths and weaknesses compared to the more specialized characters, but I really didn’t get the sense playing him that it would require a bunch of XP before I could afford to have the kind of character I wanted him to be or that he was and also-ran compared to the much more Brick-like Namaste, super-yogini.

The system mostly got out of the way for the rest of the game. It was primarily an investigative scenario, with only two real combats, and neither one really required any of the rules for special situations. But they were quick, and they were satisfying, and that pleased me a lot. I think one thing that was missing, not system related, was at the end we didn’t get an explanation of the villain’s plot from his point of view. I’m hoping that Russell will leave a comment that fills in the details of why those particular victims and the odd calling card….

Kapow! Preludes and Knockouts

We had another good playtest session on Sunday (2/21/10).  I distributed some combat cheat-sheets, which the players found helpful, and Doug, as usual, spotted a cheap exploit that needs to be plugged.

During the session proper, the group decided to hire a PR firm to announce their formation as the Beacon City Watch, and Harbinger’s alter-ego got in touch with his former agent to arrange that.

Namaste was menaced by steroid using thugs outside her Yoga studio, and got in a fight with the monstrous dealer and leader of the gang, Beef.  She polished off the minions with one leg-sweep, but actually got Knocked Out by Beef throwing her through the plate glass window and into the back wall of the studio.  Fortunately she’d called for backup before throwing down with him, and Akela the Jungle Gal, Harbinger, and Public Defender swooped in.  After some amusing banter with Harbinger, whose intangibility frustrated Beef no end, Akela KO’ed him with her trusty spear, and the police hauled him off.

Later that week, on her way back from a society party, Akela’s Heightened Senses detected a blood-curdling scream from far off in the distance; racing to the location she found a semi-secluded park in one of the ritzier sections of Beacon City, mysteriously shrouded in unseasonal fog.  In the park, to her horror, she discovered a young woman, who had been staked out and had her heart cut out and burned on a makeshift stone altar.  The air was filled (at least to her senses) with the cloying scent of flowers from her native jungle.  As she was contemplating this grisly scene, a ghostly Anaconda, at least twenty feet long, slithered out of the fog and attacked.  It proved to be intangible as far as her attacks were concerned, though it didn’t seem to have any problems affecting the physical world, and her Animal Empathy revealed it to be a demon in snake form…so no hope there.  Fortunately her holy jungle potions caused it to unravel into ghastly worms of light that faded away leaving only the scent of rotted flesh and jungle flowers.  When the other heroes showed up they found no trace or trail of whatever had killed the girl, but Akela was able to determine that the wounds had been caused by an obsidian knife just like her own.  At this point, she decided that it would be best if she didn’t hang out until the police showed up…

The next day she went to consult an acquaintance of hers, Professor Potter of the Sherman Museum of Anthropology at the New Towne College (Potter had been on the expedition that brought Jungle Gal back to Beacon City, through the magic of instant back-story).  Before she could subtly pump him for info, Potter showed her the exciting story from that morning’s paper about a genuine Incan sacrifice; as near as he could tell from the pictures and reports the ritual had been performed precisely correctly in every detail, even down to the correct orientation of the sacrificial altar for the latitude Beacon City occupies.  He was amazed that anybody on the continent could have come up with such an accurate hoax, other than himself and “that hack Carruthers of Whitney University in Connecticut.”  Akela made a mental note to investigate Carruthers, and to get Public Defender to suggest to the BCPD that they consult with Professor Potter if it hadn’t already occurred to them.

Meanwhile, that morning as he was shaving Public Defender was startled to find the word REVENGE VENGEANCE written in blood on his shaving mirror, as well as a shaving cut on his cheek and blood on the fingers of his right hand, but no memory of cutting himself.

And there we broke for the evening.