It’s been a while since the last Firing Squad interview. I’ve been pretty head-down on other things . . . but I got the opportunity to chat with fellow IGDN member Craig Campbell about his upcoming RPG, CAPERS.
It’s a cool concept . . . 1920s gangsters with moderate superpowers during prohibition. It features a pretty awesome and novel card-based resolution system that I found quite compelling.
But don’t take my word for it . . . watch the video, read the transcript, or listen to the MP3!
(transcription courtesy of Christopher R. Rice)
Douglas Cole: Good afternoon and welcome to Gaming Ballistics’ Firing Squad. It’s been a while since I’ve done one of these, but today I’m joined by Craig Campbell of Nerdburger Games.
Craig Campbell: Hellooo! Hey Douglas.
DOUG: Hey. Haven’t done these for a while I know that you’ve been busy since you’ve got a Kickstarter coming up next week and I’ve been busy doing and getting some books. But today is all about the Capers RPG and the upcoming Kickstarter. So tell me a little about it.
CRAIG: Capers is a tabletop roleplaying game. It’s sort of a game in super-powered gangsters in the 1920s. Prohibition era criminal activity organized crime is one the rise and alcohol is illegal and criminals are out to make their buck off that. We think of it as the rise of organized crime in the United States and the federal government and law enforcement agencies were not prepared to deal with the rise in illegal alcohol they are fighting a losing battle very much. Historically it was repealed a little over a decade after it was enacted, but during this game, its happening and you’re portraying potentially a gangster who happens to have a superpower or two, kind of low end. Nothing world-bendy. Nothing no is going to be mind controlling the entire neighborhood. Think of it as X-Men B-Team street level stuff. But then otherwise it’s that gangster era you can think to shows like Boardwalk Empire, basically any Jimmy Cagney movie, a lot of earlier gangster and noir stuff – maybe not fully noir, but in that era. (mumbled) Untouchables and stuff and kind of create those stories. You’re the villain. You’re the bad guy. Maybe you’re the villain with the heart of gold. There are a lot of ways to go or you can play the members of law enforcement attempting to bring these criminals to justice and that has its own uphill battle and its own struggles and you’re looking at all the gang groups have some members who have some sort of superpower or ability. Members of law enforcement have that as well and it gets to be more than tommy guns and laser eyes and flying around and force fields and invisibility and all that stuff.
DOUG: So the Roaring 20s genre as a pretty vivid canvas. What inspired you to add superpowers on top of that. In a way it’s Reese’s Peanut Butter Cup. [both laugh] You got superpowers and you got gangsters you put them together and you got awesome. What was the spark that said You know what was the mash-up that said we need it do it!”
CRAIG: It started as an idea for a supers game and you know I’m not a huge comic book readers I still enjoy supers stories in other media. I’m big on various movies and TV shows and so forth. There are super heroes and they have been down to death and there is plenty of modern day because there are fifty systems out there that do that. I kind of wanted to play capes and cowls and primary colors and you know super hero stuff. So I started thinking about different periods in time and the 80s and old west and different areas that interested me because I wanted to do research on them. I just happened on Boardwalk Empire from HBO and I started thinking about what would super powered gangsters and federal agents look like in kind of that era just before comic books really start.
DOUG: That’s a good point.
CRAIG: In this world these characters are sort of the beginning of that because there are going to be dimestore novel because it’s sort of true sort of fictitious stories of people like Doc Holliday and Wyatt Earp and so forth. In this world I imagine these super-powered gangsters in ten years become the subject of stories like that. Potentially the first comics.
DOUG: The nice thing about that is that you don’t have this background of “Oh, well we’ve been reading comic books for 50 years and we know all the tropes.” The people in the scene are going to be discovering this and living this real time along with the characters which is a neat…it avoids having to retroactively reinvent the fourth wall.
CRAIG: What happened was it started as this supers games. Not superheroes. Supers. In this era (mumbled) this is not a supers game. This is a gangsters game. The gangsters just happen to have superpowers and I honed in on what happens to make it a gangsters game and I put the superpowers on top of it and figured out how that meshed and what made that interesting.
DOUG: You got a gangster game going on where people have built in superpowers. But it sounds like maybe someone can run as fast as a car, but they’re not running around the world. Maybe someone is going to have a guy blowing up Manhattan.
CRAIG: Exactly. You’re doing some pretty cool stuff, but you’re not conquering the world. You’re not influencing nations. You’re influencing neighborhoods or perhaps the city you are living in.
DOUG: As you sit down to make a character in this game what are the core components that you walk through.
CRAIG: The system of the game is relatively straightforward. There are six traits: Charisma, Agility, Perception, Expertise, Resilience, and Strength. If you see them running down the character sheet that is C-A-P-E-R-S – that’s the name of the game. You basically are making trait checks. Each of those are rated 1-3. They can be rated higher if you have like the super strength (garbled) give you some focus that allows you to gain a little bit of a bonus too. That rating is 1-3 or sometimes 4-5. The game uses playing cards rather than dice so a standard deck of playing cards with two jokers I there. The jokers are important so you got to make sure they are in there. Let’s say you had an Agility of 2 and a Gun skill that means any time you are using Agility with guns – in case with shooting for example – you’re going to bump that two up to three when dealing with Guns. You might have a score of three. In the game that’s called a car count. You flip cards one at a time from your deck and you can stop at any point, but the playing card itself…when you flip the card the pip value of the card determines success vs. failure. You might need an 8 or higher to succeed or a Queen or higher to succeed. But the suit of the card determines the degree of success or failure. Clubs is the worst and means you are barely successful or barely a failure. All the way up alphabetically – Diamonds, Hearts, or Spades – Spades is always the best result. Supreme result. You might flip a King of Clubs, which is almost certainly successful. It’s a King, but it’s Clubs so it’s the worst possible degree of success. There is going to be a complication with that. You can gamble. You can flip another card, but you have to take that one. The old card goes away and you take the new one. So you might fail on success or the process.
DOUG: So in the preview version of the game you’ve got…you call that advantage and disadvantage (crosstalk)
CRAIG: Advantage and disadvantage bumps the card count up or down. Rather than adding +2 and -5. Everything is manipulated by the number of cards you flip.
DOUG: If you wanted to go with a 5th edition analogy “oh, I’m going to take the best of two.” That’s not how the game plays! You’re gambling all the time. It’s ridiculously thematic because I love it. Oh, Advantage this is how it’s going to work. Oh, no no no. No no. You do it one at a time and you get to say whether you’re going to go to the next card. I love the fact that even with…as much benefit as having a 2 in Agility and a skill in Guns, you get three chances but here’s the King of Clubs do I want to barely succeed or do I hope for a nine of spades. It’s a neat way of dealing with the difference of a success roll and an effect roll and it’s right there in the cards. I think that’s a cool way of collapsing those mechanics.
CRAIG: It worked out nicely because dice don’t give you as many of those options. You can kind of extrapolate multiple bits from a die that can play a roll. Sometimes the 1 means something sometimes the 20 means something. But with the card you got the color, the suit, the pip value of the card (whether it’s an Ace – always make Aces cool, right), whether it’s a Joker (Jokers have a special effect), you can eve do something like face card vs. not-face card means something. Just as an easy way to bring down everything. You can do odds and evens, but I stuck with the pip value and the suit. Sometimes the color is important, but more often the suit and then resolved it all in one flip. You’re already spending a little time making the check. So if you had to make a series of card flips to hit and a full series of card flips to damage and a full series of card flips to soak or dodge or whatever then that starts to be a really long turn. With everything resolved with one card it takes a few seconds for the person to make their decisions and go through with it but once they are comfortable with it [snaps fingers multiple times]
DOUG: Opportunities you get to see whether or not the card that you’ve taken is the one you want to pick. The other thing that’s nifty about it is a game like Hackmaster or something like that is everyone is looking at that opportunity to jump in so everyone is invested at every moment. The card’s draw and whether you are going to go for the next roll or not is a little bit more immersive and interesting to the crowd and the rest of the people. You’re not just saying success or failure. Are you going to go for more or less. I’ve never played it, but I have to imagine the playtest sessions were fun.
CRAIG: Yeah. And that’s something I didn’t foresee when I was designing the game. Alter the first round of playtest feedback came back that said everybody was paying attention to what everybody else was doing at the table. Nobody was fiddling around on their phone or flipping through the book. There was active discussion when flipping cards because you can count cards too and have a sense of high cards or low cards left and you might have a sense of what other people have available. So in playtest I’ve had people who…someone was flipping the cards and someone next to them is going go ahead keep going, you got a lot of face cards left. Go, go, go. It becomes almost this group dynamic. It’s a very active dynamic as opposed to just rolling a die and taking the result.
DOUG: And if I read the preview correctly the GM has their own deck and all the players share another.
CRAIG: Every player has their own.
DOUG: Every player has their own. I wasn’t sure about that. Because that would be interesting too. If you succeed and fail as a group. I drew a king. I drew another king. You’re taking all my cards!
CRAIG: Like a blackjack table right in front of you stealing that ace or that face card that would have helped you. Everybody gets their deck and that kind of comes into play as it allows them to have ownership in their deck and what they are doing. There is also in the game for example a superpower that’s called probability manipulation where you ca use that power to see the top of other people’s decks and manipulate it to a extent.
DOUG: That’s a really clever…anything like foresight, precognition, that kind of thing is one in the more pain in the butt powers to deal with in the game. You never know what the dice are going to do, but you can absolutely look through the top three cards in the deck. I really like that.
CRAIG: It’s a fun little power and I had to be careful about how its balanced and so forth. It’s one of those things that it’s got a significant limiting factor to it otherwise if you didn’t put any limits on it you’d have somebody constantly manipulating. It has to be kept t one deck at a time.
DOUG: Right. That makes a lot of sense. So let’s come back around to the locality of it. Where in the game do you go for verisimilitude where things work like you expect and where in the game are you like “Look, it’s a supers game with superpowers and lightning shoots from the eyes and we’re not going to worry about conservation of momentum. Tommy guns do a lot of damage because tommy guns are cool and I want people to have Tommy Guns.” Where did you draw the line between “meta” and “that..(garbled)
CRAIG: It’s mostly make it interesting and make it fun. Like damage from powers never gets…it kind of scales the top end of damage with powers with Tommy Guns, for example. With your handheld weapons I needed I needed Joe Schmo goon with a tommy gun be a threat otherwise you’d need a super battling supers all the time. When your powers is topped out the guy with the Tommy gun is ding about the same thing. Tommy Guns are more powerful than pistols are more powerful than knives. That kind verisimilitude, but for the most part it’s not…it’s very much a gamist game and to a simulationist game. It doesn’t try to simulate anything …everyone gets to play by and everyone gets t benefit from the things to get by. People can choose to take the powers or use the guns or whatever.
DOUG: That’s cool. Everyone loves…Gaming Ballistic right? I’m going to check the firearms rules to see if they work and it’s not that kind of game. Honestly, one of the things that as you dig in how projectiles or whatever wound people it’s incredibly random anyways. I liked the ability for almost any weapon to wound is limited. Anything that’s kind of an invasive projectile or beam or whatever can do a major wound. Frankly, that’s almost a better reflection of reality than hey, here’s a bucket full of dice. That’s been something that people have talked about in some of the more . . . like GURPS has a very detailed firearms wounding system. As you get into ridiculous energies like the .50 caliber Browning – which is available in CAPERS – I actually looked that up. You can roll 14d6, but you can never graze anybody. You can only turn them into paste. You’re always rolling close to average with that many dice. I kind of like the way the spread works. It weights things without getting to crazy. It stays light. You’re not going to bog down, you’re going to look up your cards and look up your damage and roll on.
CRAIG: Yup. You don’t have a lot of different dice to work with. The cards themselves kept it simple. Basically, some cards function like 1d2 by looking at color – red vs. blue – sometimes you use the suit and it functions as a 1d4. Then (garbled) +1 and +2 to kind of give an upper limit that’s a little higher than 4. Any firearm in the game if you roll well enough you will take out any normal person in the game. The super characters of course have more hits. They can take more damage. You’re regular joe is going to have 3, 4, 5 hits so a good roll on a Tommy Gun will take them out.
DOUG: It’s sort of the up down out sort of thing or is it hit point ablation?
CRAIG: It’s hit points. You’re at full power until you are at 0 and at which point you are knocked unconscious or dead. That depends on you. With a character there is a little more control about what happens when you hit 0 hits. When you are dealing with 0 hits you can kill them or knock them out. Whatever serves your story. If you’re out to just murder the bad guys or other bad guys criminals or whatever. As a cop that’s what you’re doing. If you’re looking to keep someone alive to question them than let’s not worry about that and have some sort of second track for subdual damage. There was a point where I had mental damage track in the game for a while, it became clear that I got two tracks of damage and I have to deal damage to both of those sources and how do I do that with different things and it got to complex so I snipped it back down to one.
DOUG: For a design to be invested in what’s going on at the table I think that makes a lot of sense. Like I was going to make a joke – I always make a joke about game development – what have you done with grappling? Can you grab and immobilize in the game?
CRAIG: Sure. You just treat it as skill checks equates to 8-9-10-Jack-Queen. That’s your defense score. They are going to try to grab you the higher your agility, [garbled[. Once they got you grabbed they can try to wrap you up. The game is kept relatively GM fiat. There is a handful of things like the standard ones you see in a game. There is a rule for falling and one for grabbing and one for disarming, but they are very simple. If you want to expand them and make them more complex then go for it.
DOUG: Right. That would be the kind of thing where I’ve seen it called telescoping verisimilitude. If you are just trying to mow through a bunch of mooks then “Yeah, you grappled, they’re out. You grappled, they’re out. You grappled, they’re out. You’re hit. They’re out. You’re shot. You’re out. Now you are doing a big guy and we can do sort of a blow by blow next because the story is more interesting that way. Sort of the Buffy the Vampire Slayer thing. The first time you meet the vampire he’s really tough and it takes the whole scene to fight him and then Xander is like stab-stab an he’s dust or (garbled) goes stab-stab and he goes to dust. The threat has already been established. So let’s turn a little bit. I love the concept of the thing. I really enjoyed the playing card…it’s nifty because it seems on one hand it would be really simple – everyone knows what playing cards are – but the number of axis you can play with or that you’ve leveraged
in the game. The ace of spades only comes in at 2% of the time. Which is actually more rare incidence than a critical hit on a d20
CRAIG: It only comes up that many times if you play through your whole deck. IF you reshuffle the deck up half way through you may not see the ace of spades through five or six sessions if you get unlucky. (cross-talk) Or you may see it constantly.
DOUG: That’s really cool. I wanted to segue into the crowd-funding aspect. I’m looking at roughly 40-50 page preview document and I know we’ve talked about this a little bit. I know that you’ve got really cool layout plans and stuff, but it’s clean. It’s readable. Which is more than one can say about a lot of stuff. Tell me a little about where you are and you’re about to be. The funding goal is relatively modest for a book with the production value and quality you’re looking to make.
CRAIG: The whole game is written and playtested and edited. The Kickstarter is looking to go toward artwork, layout, a little bit of final proofread, odds and ends that need to be dealt with – graphics. There has already been money put into it. I’ve got a bunch of graphic design work underway, some artwork done, I put money into it. I looked at it…I did this with Murders and Acquisitions too. I have a game that’s around 150 pages. What’s the thinnest version of that I can release. (garbled) it’s relatively low, it’s attainable, it’s not intimidating to the backers. They say we can hit that let’s go. I’m in. Then stretch goals fatten that book up and get you the funds for additional artwork and now you got more pages for layout and stuff. The funding goal is $2,100, which is not bad at all for a Kickstarter and it’s gonna be a color book and it’s done in a comic book style as appropriate t the genre and I think the stretch goals will be spaced apart not a huge amount. Don’t get me wrong I wouldn’t mind seeing a little profit for my efforts [chuckles].
DOUG: That is crazy talk! Game designers are not allowed t make money!
CRAIG: Before profit too is just reimbursement for money already spent. If CAPERS des fairly well – if it does what I think it may. I’ll be fine. I’ll end up in the black and we should be able to get all the stretch goals – they are very attainable. Everything is gonna become pretty straightforward.
DOUG: My first I did the same strategy and I was really tentative. I was very tentative because I’d never done it before. I pitched the game and the kickstarter got funded and I was able to achieve the stretch goals for everything I wanted. By the time the game had closed I’d paid for the game. Yay. Order a little inventory at a loss and make that back. Second book didn’t go quite as well I was so confidant that things were going to work and I laid out a bunch of money and didn’t get it all back. For what you’re going to get out of this it’s going to be a pretty book. It’s got a great new mechanic and the flavor of it is really sweet. How long have you been working on this? Was it something that flopped on the page fully formed or has it been years of writing.
CRAIG: From the first moments it’s been over two years since I first started laying stuff down. I was in the ramp-up for that Kickstarter for Murders and Acquisitions when I first started tinkering with the idea. There came a time little before the kickstarter I put it on the table at a convention at the last slot of the day to give the playing card thing a spin to see what it looked like. And I said “OK, that didn’t suck.” Let’s expand it. During the whole Kickstarter process of Murders and Acquisitions and through the fulfillment I was tinkering and expanding it out. Last year it went card down into constant playtest and revision for the year. I got to the end of last year I felt like I could set a Kickstarter date and able to do this Kickstarter date with this preview edition in the book based n where I saw it on where everything was at and rolled over into the new year and into this year and doing podcasts with fine people such as yourself and here we are. All things considered by the time it’s fulfilled it’s going to be two and half plus years overlapped with Murders and Acquisitions and CAPERS will be overlapped with the next thing which is already percolating.
DOUG: So couple of questions then. What did you learn from the Murders and Acquisitions Kickstarter and then to this one. For people who are looking at Kickstarters what are your primary things that are taking account or were you worrying about before but no longer or feel better about?
CRAIG: I think the first time around on Kickstarter you are probably in the same kind of boat I’d done a ton of research coming into it and it became like this monster during this first week where everything gets busy (if things go well) and then it becomes a drudge and it just dregs and drags through the middle and then gets a little busy at the end. I’m better prepared knowing how the inverse bell curve of how things will hopefully go. I’m prepared for all that. I had a limited amount of reach into the gaming industry with social media and people that I knew in the industry and people that I worked for and freelanced a little bit who pimped the Kickstarter a little bit. Relationships established with podcasters and more people that I know in the industry that will help will at least say “Hey! Check this game out” and everything will go ok. I think there will be more – I have a better reach. As far as going from the first game to the second game. They are such different beasts. Murders and Acquisitions is a modern day game and has add-on stuff, it’s a dice game, it’s a very simple system. It was just an experiment – Can I design my own system from the ground up just one time rather than writing something in an existing system which I’d done plenty of time as a freelancer. I feel like I’ve take the experience of designing my own system and I’ve leveled up as it were to designing a system. I think it’s more interesting, it’s more robust without being heavy-handedly so. Three is more going on there is more complexity and nuisance to it but it’s still an easily grasped system even though it’s a little out of the ordinary.
DOUG: What I’d say in terms of that is the complexity is emergent, it’s not written into the rules. It comes out of the natural axis you built into it. Am I going to gamble on the next draw? Am I going to gamble on pips, suits, or colors? That’s not rules complexity that’s depth. (cross-talk)
CRAIG: The nuisance of the system is not everything it appears to be at first glance. That I’m happy for and a little proud of and I created a system that has a little more to it than roll two dice and add them together.
DOUG: Having at least – I’m watching an author I’m working with with a great deal of design experience come up with something new. Coming up with something new in a fairly saturated market (like today’s RPG market) is a neat trick.
CRAIG: I’m sure there is a game out there that flips cards and has the betting mechanic to it – the press your luck mechanic. I didn’t find it. I generated that whole cloth myself and it’s possible that somebody else has done it too and it was two concurrent evolutions of using the card systems. There are quite a lot of them in the mechanic and now you have certain choices you make out of your hand and it’s a question of how your hand replenishes and how you’re forced to play the bad cards and so forth.
DOUG: Right. And that gets a lot of meta behavior. You’re not in the game, you’re playing your hand.
CRAIG: Not that CAPERS is terribly different. You’re playing the randomness of the deck. You don’t have as may cards to choose from for the meta. There is a bit of meta game element that you’ve got this deck you’re keeping track of.
DOUG: I suppose.
CRAIG: You can’t help but do that.
DOUG: That’s fair. Last Kickstarter question. You’ve chosen to fulfill through Print on Demand.
CRAIG: Yeah, through DriveThruRPG. The base backer level is $15 and that gets you the PDF of the game with all stretch goals and whatever we unlock with higher level to get the extra. It gets you some support materials that are not necessary t play the game but are useful, are helpful. Gets you a discount link for the book, a discount link for a deck of themed cards. You can play with any deck of playing cards, but I got a deck I’m putting together that’s CAPERS themed and they’ll have…if all goes well with the Kickstarter the cards will have NPC illustrations on the front of them. You can grab that as you want. You’ll get the preview edition after the kickstarter wraps you can get one of those things…you backed the thing an you immediately get to check it out at least in its rudimentary form. Quite a lot of stuff for the $15 level and that was done on purpose to keep it enticing. The higher level backer levels all the weird nice little perk things. The limited backer levels.
DOUG: Right. I remember getting your NPCs and faces on cards and stuff like that.
CRAIG: There is a level to get your likeness on an illustration so you can be a superpowered something or other in a quarter page illustration. It’s good stuff. My artist did some of the work on Murders and Acquisitions and she did some likeness work there too. She’s really solid. She works in comics. That’s 90% of her commissions is indie comics.
DOUG: Cool. One artist for the whole thing?
CRAIG: Yeah. She’s a professional fulltime artist and I hashed this out with her months ago. Here’s where the Kickstarter is gonna be and here is when the kickstarter is going to end and over the course of a couple of three months or whatever we worked out the specifics can you hit this many illustrations. She’s able to plan for it. She knows that she can’t take on too many other commissions at the time.
DOUG: Having one artist do the whole thing is great for consistency. I have never even attempted that. Not that I think it’s a bad idea especially since you for the planning down.
CRAIG: Depends on the type of art. You want to do super photorealistic art looks like it’s painted or is painted art for a big book all on one artist that’s tough. Just for the amount of time each piece takes. But it’s comic book oriented so this what Beth does. She can sketch something up and here it is and I give feedback and she’s onto hardline and has relatively quick turn around she’ll do it in batches of 6-8 illustrations at a pop.
DOUG: That’s really great. That’s excellent. I’m excited about it. When this pops up it’s something I’m going to get. It’s something where…although the subject matter is a little different the mechanic is so straightforward that a children’s game with this system would be brilliant. I not sure that I want my 8.5 year old playing an alcohol-dealing Tommy Gun-wielding moll that’s a little sophisticated for 8 even if she’s read all the Harry potters. But I could easily see this resolution mechanic being much more graspable for a youngster add all this and divide by this.
CRAIG: The lack of math is nice.
CRAIG: Then it’s a matter of how many cards.
CRAIG: I want people to take a look at the Kickstarter. It goes live Tuesday March 6th. Take a look at your calendar I’m not doing your work for you. It’ll run for about 30 days and take a look if you dig it back and if you really dig it share it around with your friends. Word of mouth is the indie game designer’s best friend. Because none of us have a real marketing budget – like a significant marketing budget. Do you have a marketing budget?
DOUG: I do not.
CRAIG: Do you have a person in charge of marketing?
DOUG: right here! Hell, I don’t even pay myself.
CRAIG: Word of mouth is where it’s at. If I’m going to send people away with anything it’s if you dig it don’t just back it. Tell your friends. Tell your eemies. I don’t care.
DOUG: Best publicity of all. Thank you for joining me this afternoon