A Rolls-Royce Phantom peels around a corner, stray dollar bills from the sacks in the back fluttering out the open windows, as a pair of police cars howl in pursuit. A man in the rear seat leans out and chatters a string of bullets from his tommy gun at the coppers, but his shots go wide and the gun jams. Cursing, he leans back in to try and fix his weapon, yelling at the woman riding shotgun to handle it. She leans out her own window, raises a hand . . .and a beam of cold energy shoots out of it, creating an ice slick right in front of one of the police cars. The vehicle swerves, skids, and slams into a street lamp, but the second pursuit vehicle gets around it and draws closer. Suddenly, there’s a flash of energy from behind the windshield of the crashed car as one of its occupants steps through a dimensional gate and appears perched on the hood of the Phantom, shotgun in hand, demanding the gangsters pull over in the name of the law. It’s the 1920s. Alcohol is Prohibited, crime pays very well, the law does what it can. And, of course, there are superpowers. This is the BAMFsie-award-winning roleplaying game CAPERS from NerdBurger Games!
Now, I’ve come across the ‘fantasy Prohibition’ trope before. There’s the illustrated novel Small Town Witch by Alex Singer and Jayd Aït-Kaci for one example, and Penny Arcade has its Automata for another. However, this is the first time I recall having come across the idea in Tabletop RPG form, and perhaps more importantly it’s the first time that it’s not the ‘fantasy’ part of the setting that’s the target of the Prohibition in question. Rather than outlawing magic or artificial intelligence or its own superpowers, CAPERS features the historical Prohibition of alcohol . . . but superpowered. So, the first question I asked of creator Craig Campbell was what inspired him to create this setting, and what he wanted it to offer to its players.
“There are plenty of modern-day, classic style supers games. I was toying with the idea of a supers game but wanted a hook to set it apart from those. I bounced around through history and settled on the Roaring Twenties and the Prohibition era during a re-watch of HBO’s Boardwalk Empire. It seemed like such a rich, interesting part of U.S. history…and one that’s not been explored in many RPGs (if it’s the 1920s, it’s usually Cthulhu stuff).
As I was designing, it occurred to me that I wasn’t creating a supers game, not really. Rather, I was creating a gangsters game, where the gangsters happen to have super-powers. That realization informed a great deal of the design choices from then on.
I wanted the game to offer players and GMs the opportunity to play in that very rich period in history. The addition of super-powers gives it just enough “fantasticalness” that it’ll appeal to a wider swath of gamers, particularly those who dig alternate histories and supers.”
Alright, so here’s how the system works. Every player has a full deck of 52 playing cards, plus both jokers. Every character has six Traits that are assigned a score from 1-3 (Powers can improve those, more on them later): Charisma, Agility, Perception, Expertise, Resilience, and Strength. There are also a pack of skills, from Athletics to Conveyances to Melee Weapons to Sciences to Willpower; skills don’t have a score, you just have them, and they’re not tied to any one Trait. When you want to do something, you narrate your intentions, and if there’s a question as to whether or not you succeed, you make a Trait Check: you flip a card off of the top of your deck, and the number on the card or the face (aces high) is compared to a Target Score, which will range from 4 to aces high. If it’s equal to or higher than the TS, you’ve succeeded.
So, wait, if you’re just comparing the value of the card to the TS, then what are the Traits and Skills for? Here’s where things start to get interesting. Your Trait score (+1 if you have a relevant Skill for the check) is your Card Count, the number of cards you can draw. If you have a Card Count higher than 1, when you flip a card you have a choice: stick with the one you got, or keep flipping. Your current card replaces the old one, you can stop flipping whenever you want, and if you max out your Card Count then you’re stuck with whatever you flipped.
Using a deck of playing cards for checks I’ve seen before – Shadows Over Sol, for an example right from The Independents – but this is new. So why did Craig do things this way, and what did he hope to accomplish?
“I toyed with a few different ways to use the cards. The current version, where you flip one card at a time and decide whether you want to flip another got settled pretty quickly. It turns each trait check into a little gambling game, and that’s very much in keeping with the era. After all, those gangsters are dealing in all sorts of illegal pursuits, including illegal gambling halls.
Development of the mechanic mostly came down to adjusting the target scores so the mechanics provided the amount of success I wanted to see on average. And also making the suits and certain cards (like the jokers and aces) interesting. Degree of success/failure is built into the flip, so you don’t need to make separate flips later for damage and the like. That helps keep the card mechanic from bogging things down too much. One set of flips resolves your entire action and all associated specifics.”
Craig mentions making suits interesting and creating degrees of success there, and that’s where the system gets nuanced. Hearts and Diamonds are pretty straightforward successes or failures, but Spades result in Success with a Boon or Failure with Motivation, while Clubs result in Success with a Complication or a straight up Botch. Aces are always Success with a Boon, and so is one of the jokers, the ‘good one’. The ‘bad’ joker is a failure, and even stops you from drawing more cards if you could. This really ups the vibe of taking a gamble. Yes, you might have a 7 and not be entirely sure if that’s enough, but what if your next card is a 10 of Clubs; probably Success with a Complication, but can you afford a Complication right now? Should you try to get a normal success, or is the next card in your deck a 2? Are there are any Aces left in the deck?
Now, there a couple more moving parts of the basic game engine before we get to the superpowers – how events can affect your Card Count, damage based on the suit of the cards, points of Moxie that can be spent in a variety of interesting ways, optional rules for adding mad science to the setting – but none of it’s particularly complicated. So I asked Craig what he’d wanted the system as a whole to do, and how it changed during the design process.
“I’ve touched on some of this, but I wanted the system to be as minimalist as possible while still providing a lot of variation in outcomes as well as flavor. I wanted it to be flexible, so I could apply the primary mechanical idea to trait checks, power checks, reaction checks, etc. And I wanted the system to skew toward success. The game is meant to be about your characters doing cool stuff.
The core of the system changed very little during playtesting. Changes came in fine-tuning and nuance. Making sure aces were really good (because gamers expect a “crit” to be cool). Making the good and bad jokers appropriately extreme, so that players would welcome the arrival of the good joker and dread the inevitable appearance of the bad joker.
There was a lot of tweaking that took place in the powers and exactly what they did. A few powers got dropped entirely. Some changed considerably. Some got minor tweaks that made them more playable (as well as less likely to produce infinite money or instant kills). The playtesters helped me find all the things I didn’t see, being the designer and being too close to the game.”
So, about those Powers. There are three types of characters in the world of CAPERS: Regulars, Exceptionals, and the eponymous Capers; player characters can be Exceptionals and Capers. Exceptionals are, well, basically exceptional Regulars; they stand out from the crowd because of talents or skills they possess, but they’re 100% normal human otherwise. Capers are, of course, superpowered individuals. I’ve seen this kind of power differential before: the Dresden Files RPGs and Masks: A New Generation can have a normal cop and a wizard and Hawkeye and the Hulk, respectively. The DFRPGs used stunts and a greater number of Fate Points for mundane humans, Masks made taking hits about emotions instead of HP, so how did CAPERS handle this potentially sticky balance issue?
“Truth be told, I expect that most players will want to play Capers. Because of that, Exceptionals don’t get a particularly deep treatment. Just enough to allow you to make a bunch of interesting, non-powered, yet tough and capable, characters.
Perks (which are the cool things Exceptionals get instead of powers) overlap with a few powers, just to make sure Exceptionals can, for example, increase their total Hits. But several of the perks are abilities that just didn’t fit into a power or for which I had trouble coming up with additional variations to use as Boosts. They just worked better as simple-but-useful effects unto themselves. Exceptionals can also more easily afford to spend advancement points on increasing their traits and gaining skills, meaning they can be more broadly focused on doing a larger number of things very well.”
There are actually some options for both types of characters at creation. Exceptionals can choose to gain two Perks – which range from gaining a +2 to your Card Count for a skill to being Power-Resistant to being Lucky enough to turn a bad joker into a Success with a Boon – or, if the mad science is in play, a sliding scale of choices that mix Perks and ‘trem-gear’ that lets you mimic some Powers. Capers can choose a Minor Power at Rank 2, two Minor Powers at Rank 1, or a Major Power at Rank 1.
Whenever you want to use a Power you make a Power Check, which functions exactly like a Trait Check except you’re using your Power’s Rank as your Card Count. Skills can’t apply to Power Checks, but all the usual ways of modifying your Card Count are in place, such as spending Moxie. Powers, which cover a wide range from Cold Beams to Dimensional Manipulation to Animal Affinity to Super Strength list out their effects, their duration, their target, how many ranks of them you can have, and Boosts: augmentations you can activate if you reduce your Card Count for a turn.
Now, all of that is mechanical stuff, but what about the world? Well, obviously it’s the Roaring Twenties, being set during Prohibition and all; the shadow of the Great War still lingers, but there’s cinema and cars and rising opportunities for women and advances in the sciences and arts and mobsters and speakeasies! It’s a romanticized look at the period, focusing on the larger than life gangsters and the federal agents that opposed them. However, it’s not just a superpowered version of the 1920s: it’s a more diverse one. More races, ethnicities, and ages are represented among the big players of the era in CAPERS than there were in real life, and it’s Carla “Lucky” Luciano instead of Charles while Al Capone is learning from Giada Torrio instead of Joe. Why make the change?
“It was a very simple decision for me. I want everyone to play my games. To welcome everyone into the games, I need to make sure that more than just white guys are represented. (And let’s face it, a lot of the well-known movers and shakers from that time period were white guys.)
So CAPERS is filled with a wider variety of NPCs than one might otherwise imagine being at the heart of such gangster stories. They’re in the text. They’re in artwork. They’re encouraged as players’ characters.
Inviting more people into the RPG hobby grows the hobby. And representing more types of people and welcoming designers from all walks of life, cultures, races, genders, and so forth is good for the industry and for the community.”
Well if that doesn’t fit in with what we want the CHG brand to be than I don’t know what does.
So what kind of advice would Craig give to prospective CAPERS groups, players and GMs alike?
“Watch a couple gangster movies. Remember that you’re not playing superheroes…you’re playing gangsters. Embrace the idealized version of the 1920s that is presented. And actively seek out action, romance, intrigue, and fun.
GMs, the rules as written don’t cover absolutely everything. Make your own calls as needed, but be consistent and fair. Players, embrace your character’s cool moment, but make sure everyone gets their cool moment, including the GM.”
CAPERS was released late 2018, and just the other day won its BAMFsie, so what’s in the future for the game and NerdBurger Games at large?
“On March 12, CAPERS Noir goes up on Kickstarter. It’s a supplement for CAPERS that presents a whole bunch of new player and GM content but also progresses the world timeline to the 1940s with a theme and setting that is more crime-noir with a horror bite (since Prohibition is over). Much of what’s in the book is perfectly usable in the core game, or you can play a moody, noir story in the WW2 era.
If CAPERS Noir does well, I have plans for two more CAPERS supplements. Beyond that, there are a couple other games in the works. It’s all in flux. More decisions will be made after the CAPERS Noir Kickstarter wraps.
This year, I’m also exploring the online community more. I’ll be getting CAPERS (and probably other games as well) onto some Twitch streams. I’ll be running a complete CAPERS campaign on the NerdBurger Games Twitch channel starting sometime in March.
There’s more in the works, but you’ll have to follow me on Twitter or join our Discord to learn more later.”
Final words for our readers?
“There is no such thing as too many games.”
If you’re looking for a game with will give you a superpowered twist on the larger-than-life characters of the Roaring Twenties, whether you’re upholding the law or breaking it, with a genuinely fun gamble of a rules system, then I’d say give CAPERS a look.
You can find CAPERS, as well as several adventures and a bunch of free downloads such as character sheets and rules summaries, on DriveThruRPG. You can find more information about NerdBurger Games at their own site.
Perform amazing feats! Make your fortune or enforce the law! With super-powers!
Thanks to Craig for sending us a review copy of CAPERS, and for answering my questions! Got a game of your own or one you’re a fan of you’d like to see in the spotlight with The Independents? Let us know on Twitter @HungryHalfling or drop us a line at firstname.lastname@example.org!
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