Sunday, September 9, 2012

Tommy's Take on Capes, Cowls & Villains Foul

I've reviewed a couple of Spectrum Games’ releases in the past, so I thought I’d take a look at their first foray into supers gaming with Capes, Cowls & Villains Foul.

WHAT YOU SHOULD KNOW: Spectrum Games takes genre emulation very seriously, with Slasher Flick being the prime example, although Cartoon Action Hour Season 2 is nothing to sneeze at. At the time of this writing, the PDF is $13.99 for 163 pages in full color, or in softcover Print on Demand for $31.99. Disappointingly, there are no bookmarks or clickable links, two things I’ve come to love about PDFs.

The guts of Cartoon Action Hour live on inside CC&VF, with the game using all d12s, player-defined Traits, Factoids and so on. Damage is handled with Setback Tokens, not unlike Stress in other slightly-less-traditional RPGs, except all types of Setbacks are calculated together…there is no tracking of Physical Stress, Mental Stress, etc.

Character creation is point based, with three scales given: 100 pts (for Street Level or rookie characters), 150 (default) and 200 (The Big Guns). Traits, as noted, are player-defined, and you are assumed to wind up with 5-12 of them. Traits are rated as Human (1-4), Superhuman (5-8) and Cosmic (9+). Human Traits might be stuff like DETECTIVE. Superhuman might be TIME-SHIFTING while Cosmic might be GOD OF WAR. Traits wear down as you use them in a scene, and you can further define them with Bonuses and Restrictions. Some examples include Auto-Defend (one free use per Issue for defense), Hint (very GM-heavy Bonus, allowing for “hunches” or psychic flashes), Linked (allowing you to use multiple Traits to boost a roll), or Situational (where Traits get better in specific situations). Restrictions include Editorial Choice (where you must spend Editorial Control to use it), Not-A-Finisher (cannot end a fight), Definitive (it always works in a certain way, and there is an associated drawback to that), and Shared Trait (like a headquarters or AVENGERS ASSEMBLE! or something). A cheat sheet of modifiers is provided, as is a series of example traits and how they are built (like making duplicates of yourself, mind control or even sidekicks). There’s also a big list of example traits of various types like Professional Traits (Detective, Investigative Reporter), Genre Traits (Breaks the Fourth Wall, Revealing Costume), Equipment Traits and so on. Examples are ALWAYS good in player-defined Trait systems and they don’t skimp here.

PCs have Editorial Control, which are essentially plot points. You can spend them to re-roll dice, avoid knockouts, save innocents or pull off random twists…and if you want REALLY random twists, there’s a chart you can roll on giving you effects like interrupting combat (giving you a free action and then restarting initiative), Great Shot (giving you an attack modifier), Sacrifice (giving you a bonus to a Trait roll to help someone else), a surprise cameo and more.

Complications give you points of Editorial Control when activated, while Factoids just further round out your character (like your shrinking, leaping, super-strong robot EATS LOTS OF POTATO CHIPS, for instance).

A character creation example is included, as well as Plug and Play Templates for various power levels, and a slew of heroes and villains (like Americana, Boy Frog and Death Stalker or Dead Eye, Death Star and The Rat King).

The basic mechanic is simple: Roll a d12, add a Trait, beat a target number. If you have Linked Traits, your bonus is higher. If you have Benefit dice, you roll multiple d12s and take the best result. If you have Detriment dice, you roll multiple d12s and take the lowest result. If you roll a 1, that’s a fumble. If you roll a 12, double the value of the Primary Trait before adding the die and modifiers. If you fail a roll by more than your Threshold (based off of your starting Editorial Control), then you take a Big Hit and are knocked out.

Initiative is free-flowing. Essentially, when combat begins the Editor (GM) decides who goes first. After they act, they pick who goes next and so on and so on, but everybody has to get a turn before anybody else gets a turn. Advice is given for adjudicating the rules in situations (like when a player insists on using a Trait that may not be appropriate for an action), as well as gang piling, combos, or Pushing (taking Setback token to roll more dice…that stick with the result, rather than just having you pick the higher one).

Villains get their own chapter, and scale depending on whether they are working solo or in a team. Think about how Spidey can be pushed to the limit by each member of the Sinister Six individually, but still not be overwhelmed by them attacking him at once. Villains also get to spend Editorial Control on things like Escapes, Big Speeches (which will either demoralize the heroes or give away crucial plans), setting off big explosions or even pulling the “It was really a Doombot all along!” bit. There’s even a section on shorthanding the random villains that get used to fill out the Masters of Evil or the Taskmaster’s lackeys in a pinch.

Optional Rules include Zero Level Traits (letting you make a straight die roll without modifiers for something that everyone would have on some level), a suggestion on cheating the die rolls for NPCs (starting off by roll 2d12 and taking the highest, and shifting to taking the lowest near the climax of the adventure), shifting Auto-Defend to once per scene (instead of issue), mixing and matching heroes of different point totals (this equals more Editorial Control for the lower total characters), and playing “Heroes in Training” games where you build the “end result” heroes and shave points off to get the “rookie” version. There’s also rules for Killing Damage, LARPing and Experience Points/Upgrades/Overhauling characters.

An extensive example of play is provided (complete with PCs of differing point totals in order to show those rules off).

The Issues chapter offers some general GMing advice, as well as a pair of pretty-well-ready-to-run Issues featuring villains from earlier in the book.

The book ends with a character sheet, glossary, summary charts and index.

WHAT WORKS: Tons of examples. Simple system, with the Setback Tokens being among my favorite “non-Hit Point” damage systems I’ve seen (with the word Stress just stressing me out). CC&VF seems to have taken a lot of ideas from other games but implemented them well. Oh, and I loved the random twists. The system is very flexible without being completely hand-wavey.

WHAT DOESN’T WORK: Very few of the example characters terribly inspired me. Many of the optional rules (like the templates or building heroes in advance and working up to them) don’t do a thing for me…but they are optional. There are big chunks of the system that are open to player-GM negotiation, which can go bad in the wrong hands.

CONCLUSION: While many of the support pieces did little to inspire me, the core seems very flexible and very sound. With large parts of the system open to such interpretation, certain types of players can make for nightmarish sessions, just like certain kinds of GMs can, but that’s true of any system (and especially Supers systems, which require a certain amount of buy-in from all parties above and beyond most genres). Unlike some other recent entrants into the supers RPG realm, I feel confident that I have a good/decent grasp of the mechanics right away, but I suppose I would have actually preferred the “serial numbers filed off” approach to the sample characters, rather than the characters used, because generic versions of Thor, Flash, Batman, Silver Surfer, Captain America, Wolverine and Superman are more useful for me in pinning down the important bits of the system. Does CC&VF hit some magic area that no other supers game ever has? Not for me, not really. “Hawkeye fighting alongside Thor” has been built into more and more games over the years, with BASH and ICONS even handling it in largely the same way. Does that make CC&VF a bad game? Heck no. If anything, I'd call it the more "traditional" alternative to Marvel Heroic. I intend to play around with the character creation to see how well it models certain characters of mine, but I’d be inclined to put it near the top of my Supers options right now, if not at the very top.