Why Yet Another System?
Besides the fact that I like making up systems, I was dissatisfied with the popular existing systems, particularly when it came to emulating specific genres such as superheroes. I wanted something where character creation wasn’t a mini-game of its own that players could be good or bad at. I also wanted it to solve both the “Batman problem”, where a beginning character based on Batman has to pick only one or two of the things he’s supposed to be good at or be relatively ineffective at all of them, and the “Justice League problem” where the capabilities of characters are on such different scales–particularly when it comes to combat–that the GM has to in effect give them different simultaneous adventures: Superman, you fight off the alien invasion single-handed, while Batman tries to find out why they’re invading, and Green Arrow…goes and stops some muggers or something. I also wanted what people were saying at the table as they played to sound a lot like how they would describe a scene from a movie or comic book they read instead of “Adventures in Accounting” or working out a chess problem, and I wanted something that smoothly scaled from character that barely had powers at all to characters that could crack planets with their fists.
Kapow! makes it so that there’s no real skill to devising a character: in essence you just describe the character in terms of her powers, things she can do, background and the issues (called complications) you’re interested in seeing her deal with as part of her adventures, and that’s your character. There are mechanics that attach to these descriptions and help you determine how they work in play as well as their relative strength compared to each other, but it’s all designed to minimize any knock-on effects, synergies or emergent properties that reward deep study of the character creation process. The most naive approach to writing down your character should be pretty much just as effective in play as any other.
That solves the “Batman problem” because you can just describe what you see Batman-like character as being able to do: Martial Arts, Acrobatics as a defense, Detective, Stealth, a utility belt full of gadgets, maybe a fancy car, a hidden cave with a butler, a kid sidekick, and write them down. That all fits in a “Standard” character template, no better or worse than any other standard character, and no stretching yourself too thin to be effective or having to sacrifice large parts of the concept until you can earn enough experience to buy it.
It also solves the “Justice League problem” because for a given Scope a character with, say Martial Arts, is no better or worse at combat than a character with Super Strength, or Adamantium Claws. They all have different descriptions, so would require different narration on the part of the player to justify using them, but if they’re the same level they roll the same dice when it comes time to see if what the player is attempting to do succeeds.
Kapow! tries to guarantee that the description of what’s going on at the table sounds like the genre by requiring the players to provide that narration in order to justify rolling the dice; it encourages them in this by giving them a lot of narrative control. Basically the player doing the narration of her character’s actions is the one that gets to decide whether those actions are plausible given the character description and genre conventions. The GM is allowed to remind the player of facts that might be pertinent, and is free to describe the consequences of the attempt according to what makes sense, but is discouraged from overruling the player’s narration. So, for instance if the GM has described the villain hovering above the heads of the characters, the player whose character is using a super-sharp sword could describe how she cuts through a telephone pole to cause it to fall and tangle the villain in the phone lines…inventing the presence of the phone lines in proximity to the villain in the process. If the GM knows the villain is just a hologram, he can describe the pole and lines passing harmlessly through the image, but in Kapow! it’s not considered kosher for him to say, sorry there aren’t any phone lines near the villain.
Finally, Kapow! makes sure that it can operate at any scale by introducing specific “Scopes” that describe the action. Powers and abilities have the same numerical ratings and relationships regardless of Scope, but what they amount to in the world differs. A level 4 power is weak, a level 6 power is strong, and a level 12 power is tremendous, but a level 12 power at “Street” scope might represent being able to lift a medium car, while at “City” scope it would be a semi-trailer, and “Interplanetary” scope a small mountain. This avoids the problems many systems have in the game mechanics only working out comfortably at a fairly specific range of power, with action outside that range either breaking down or becoming unwieldy.
What about the other games?
It turned out that my players liked the Kapow! approach so much they asked to apply it to other genres we were playing. The first was supernatural thriller, and that became Argh! The Supernatural RPG which we play-tested in a campaign run by my friend Russell Impagliazzo, and the second was Zap! The SF RPG, being play-tested with Dan Rossi as the GM. While they all use the same basic system, which we decided to call SFX! after we started naming the games using sound effects, each has some special rules to make them a better fit for the genre. For instance, Argh! pretty much does away with Scope, since it’s relatively uncommon to have characters operating at really high scopes where individuals can fly from world to world under their own power and the like; Argh! replaces the fairly generic notion of “Utility Powers”, powers that have no real combat effect, with an expanded system of Shticks because in supernatural investigations there’s a lot more emphasis placed on the different skills and training the characters have and a lot bigger role for non-combatant characters. Zap! introduces equipment into the mix, because SF characters spend a lot of time fussing with gear and trying to improve or replace it, and rules for making interplanetary and interstellar travel be more interesting and textured than waving your hands and saying 6 months and 12 jumps later, you arrive at Omicron Persiae 8.
Do you have any plans to do my favorite genre?
What’s your favorite genre? I’ve been hashing out some things I’d like to see in a fantasy game, tentatively titled Hack! such as smoothly handling conflicts and development of kingdoms over years and generations, accumulating wealth, and doing interesting “sandbox-style” travel and exploration while still using the somewhat free-form narration style of play in SFX! instead of hex-by-hex mapping and book-keeping of supplies. I’ve also got a framework for Poof! The Fairy Tale RPG, but currently nobody interested in play-testing. We’ve brainstormed a bunch more titles for genres, like Twang! The Robin Hood RPG, YeeHa! The Western RPG, Yar! The Pirate RPG, Ratatat-tat! The Gangster RPG, but haven’t gone any further. If somebody actually had a yen to play-test some particular genre, that would likely move to the front of the queue…