If you are like me, you have probably shot straight up in the middle of the night, sweating, thinking, “what if Johnny Dangerously or Crimewave happened in the same universe as the X-Men? What if anyone other than me had actually seen Crimewave?”
If you aren’t like me, this has never happened to you, so please disregard. However, since I am me, I actually received a response to my fever dream in the form of Capers — a 1920s based roleplaying game about the clash between law enforcement and organized crime, with superpowers thrown in for good measure.
What Kind of Glad Rags Are These?
This review is based on the PDF of the product. The game comes in at 165 pages, including a one-page rules summary, an 8-page appendix, and two pages of Kickstarter backers at the beginning.
The book is full color, with various headers and sidebars to call out new sections and to highlight optional rules and intent. The chapter heading and sidebars use lettering and flourishes that are reminiscent of the time period, and do a good job of setting the mood for the material in the book. There is also a four-page inset between the Player and GM sections, with a full-color comic depicting a typical sequence of events in the setting, which is a nice nod both to the time period and the comic book inspirations of the game.
A Word About Setting
Capers is set in a world where many NPCs are a different gender or ethnicity than the historical figure that inspired that character. Given the world of 1920s organized crime and law enforcement, you aren’t going to see much in the way of diversity without taking a step like this. Despite these changes, the only real historical divergence is the emergence of super-powered individuals after World War I, and many references are made to the existing tensions of the time regarding race, ethnicity, and religious intolerance.
As a cis white male that cares about diversity, I like this on the surface, but I also worry that just because it makes me “comfortable” with the era as a setting, that may be allowing me to live in a comfort zone that I should instead be examining. I’m not saying this is a good or a bad thing, just that it’s a complicated issue that I don’t have an answer for, and I’m not factoring in this choice as a good or a bad thing overall. It is something I want to spend more time exploring and discussing in the future.
The Player Section is broken up into smaller chapters that cover The Game, Character Creation, Rules System, Perks, Powers, Goods and Services, and Trembium.
The Game is really a section on what the game is about. What is the setting, and what are characters expected to do? In this case, the focus of the game is on the Prohibition Era, and playing either law enforcement officials or criminals in this time period. There is a nice bullet-pointed list spelling out the kinds of actions that PCs may take, as well as how the core mechanic, which is resolved with cards instead of dice, plays into the feel of the game.
I really like that the game is deliberate about its scope, explaining that it’s very focused on 1920s “Cops and Crooks” gameplay. I also really appreciate that this section introduces a sidebar on safety very early on. It’s easy to fall into the over the top action of the setting and then trip over concepts like gang violence, racial tensions, and addiction. The sidebar doesn’t dive deeply into any one of these topics, but does make it clear that difficult topics should not be introduced if those topics push anyone’s boundaries at the table, and it mentions the importance of having discussions and safety tools available.
Character creation is the next chapter, and the process is one that should feel familiar if you have played any traditional roleplaying games. Characters are either Regulars, Exceptionals, or Capers, although PCs are most likely Exceptionals or Capers. Exceptionals can pick up perks that aren’t available to Capers, but they fall short of being superhuman abilities. Capers don’t get access to perks, but they get to choose powers.
Characters pick three anchors — an identity, a virtue, and a vice. These all have triggers written into their descriptions for gaining moxie, a currency in the game that has multiple effects. If you don’t have anything in mind, there are card values assigned to these anchors to allow for random draws. Characters then pick traits and skills, which are added together to determine the number of cards a character can draw when they attempt an action. The next step is picking perks and powers (and with the GM’s permission, access to special gear that simulates powers).
Characters are assigned a level, but the main function of level is to summarize how many advancement points the character has. After spending initial advancement points, each time a character levels up, they gain two more advancement points.
The Rules System
The Rules System chapter delves into how to make those things you picked in the last chapter work during the game. Character creation feels a lot like what you might do in a dice pool style game, adding skills to traits to determine how many randomizers are used in a pool for that action. The difference is, instead of using all of your randomizers, you choose how many of your card draws to use, one at a time. The value of the card will determine the success or failure, but the suit of the card will determine if there is an ancillary good or bad side effect to that success or failure. You might draw a high-value card that is likely to give you a success, but you may still be tempted to draw another card to attempt a success without a complication.
Some powers are passive effects that modify other aspects of the character (like having superhuman strength, bypassing the normal limit on the trait), while others have their own power level that determines the number of cards a player can draw when attempting to activate or use the power.
Moxie can be spent to increase card counts, reduce damage taken, use a previously drawn card, add an element to the narrative, reshuffle the deck (normally done at the end of a scene), or to take damage for another character.
Initiative is a fairly standard skill test, with ranked results determining order, and held actions triggering a change in the order. There is also a special section on how to resolve a standoff, that uses a three-round game of “keep or draw” with the cards to simulate a tense situation before the action breaks out.
Perks and Powers
The next two chapters are on Perks and Powers, but the Perks chapter is only a single page. Perks are simple mechanics that let a non-powered character be a little tougher, more skillful, or resistant to superpowers, without being super-powered themselves.
If you have seen a wide variety of games with superpowers, you may have seen that some games favor discreet rules packets similar to spells in a game like D&D to describe powers in the game, while others, like Champions or Mutants and Masterminds, include game effects that can be slotted together to assemble a recognizable superpower. Capers leans towards the former, with subsections explaining powers like “Cold Beam” having its own set of rules, as well as some upgrades that can be purchased later. Some have persistent maintainable effects that cause a character to reduce their card count while the effect is active.
The powers touch on a lot of comic book staples, but definitely stay grounded in what sometimes gets categorized as “street level” powers. Picking up a car is impressive for super strength, and mental powers lean more towards “super short term hypnotism” rather than a deep exploration of telepathic abilities.
Goods and Services
Goods and Services is another short chapter, coming in at two pages. It gives the most common prices for 1920s goods that would matter to a game centered around law enforcement and organized crime, and gives stats for items like explosives or weapons. It also covers the price of real estate, for when you need options for a new safehouse or expanding your business holdings.
Trembium is the final chapter in this section, and it’s about three pages long. Trembium is the element that has caused the upswing in superpowers. It can be used to create gear that mimics superpowers, and can be used in experiments to make super soldiers. While it is the default origin of superpowers in the setting, the rules surrounding it are optional, so it feels a little odd to have it in the Player’s Section. It’s an understandable compromise, however, since if it is allowed in the game, a lot of player options need to reference the rules.
In particular, the idea of nullifying or granting powers via direct injection of Trembium got a lot of creative juices flowing in my mind, and Trembium in general has a lot of potential if the Capers world opens up to other historical periods.
The GM Section contains chapters on GM Guidelines, Backdrops, Law Enforcement, Friends and Enemies, and a GM Toolbox.
The GM Guidelines section has advice on how to structure adventures and encounters, player agency, and examples of encounter difficulty. There are also rules for advancing NPCs, statting out animals, designing your own powers, and a whole host of other eclectic, GM specific items that might come up in a campaign.
What I like best about this section is that encounter and adventure building is very much focused on having an idea of why you want to include something, and the structure for how to move from point A to point B. It’s not deeply philosophical, as games go, but it is very functional, and a clear indication of how the game is expected to run.
The Backdrops section is one of my favorites in the book, because it does what I wish a lot more books that include a setting would do. It gives you the basics of what makes an area unique, summarizes the important people and things, and then gives you sample adventure starters and rumors that are in line with the setting that has just been presented. It is very focused on how to use the information at the table.
Atlantic City, Chicago, and New York get the deepest treatment, with several pages of setting information and adventure ideas, city maps, and a few pages for stats of unique NPCs. Atlanta, Boston, Cincinnati, Detroit, Kansas City, Louisville, Miami, Milwaukee, New Orleans, and Philadelphia all get single page treatments, which save space by cutting out maps and suggesting “generic” NPC stat blocks for notable NPCs that are mentioned.
I like the degree to which all of the backdrops are “table ready,” and I enjoy seeing the subtle differences in the interplay between law enforcement and criminal elements in all of these mini-settings. Knowing how it works in one place helps to reinforce an intentional tone for other settings. If anything, it feels like more of the larger setting NPCs could have been summarized in a similar manner to the smaller setting characters, but that’s a minor quibble.
The Law Enforcement chapter goes into about two pages of details about how federal and local law enforcement is organized in the 1920s, then presents some NPC Feds for use in the game. Friends and Enemies follows, and presents a stat block and a descriptive paragraph for various NPCs that the PCs may encounter in the game. For the most part, there are about four stat blocks to a page, starting with unique NPCs that can be inserted anywhere, then moving to more general stat blocks like “Cop” or “Gambler.”
The GM Toolbox has a lot of wide-ranging material that might be of use to a GM that is looking to throw another curve into the standard campaign expectations. There are guidelines for alternate Earths, super-powered animals, and “events” where the number of people with superpowers around the world spikes, shifting the assumptions of the setting for a period of time.
I’m a comic book geek, and I love alternate reality tropes, so that’s my favorite section in this chapter. There are outlines for a world where robots are commonplace, a “mirror universe” style Earth, and one where Earth has suffered from an alien invasion, with stat blocks of example NPCs, and even some guidelines on playing characters native to those worlds.
The Reference Section includes appendices that cover a wide range of materials. This includes 1920s slang, a power index, common names in the 1920s, an NPC index, a list of inspirational material, a full index, and a one-page rules summary as well as a character sheet.
Like much of the rest of the book, this material is very functional. Having slang and names handy for improvisation is great, and I really like the one-page rules summary, as it manages to hit on some of the biggest items that would normally tempt players and GMs to halt the game and look up how a given rule works.
It takes a fairly standard structure for how to resolve actions, and swaps in the card-based resolution that shifts expectations of how and when you should keep pushing your luck.
The card-based mechanics add an element of gambling to a character’s actions that trigger a different risk versus reward evaluation than simple numbers can evoke. Using the suit to add dimensionality to success or failure is a great use of cards as a randomizer. The various settings for the game are summarized in a manner that makes them very useable at the table, and manages to bring out some of the differences between these regions as settings for different ongoing games.
It’s a Raid!
In a game where the actions flow freely without a lot of granular tactical movement or tracking, listing movement rates and ranges of powers in absolute feet feels strange to me. Initiative order and how readied actions work also feel like holdovers from older game design that doesn’t highlight the best aspects of the system. I like the anchors, but some of the items that trigger gaining moxie feel a little soft — I personally like more pointed, yes or no questions when it comes to awards based on character traits.
Recommended — If the product fits in your broad area of gaming interests, you are likely to be happy with this purchase.
The strength of Capers is that it pushes just enough to make something familiar into something fun and new. It takes a known time period and genre, Prohibition-era cops and crooks, and adds in superpowers. It takes a fairly standard structure for how to resolve actions, and swaps in the card-based resolution that shifts expectations of how and when you should keep pushing your luck.
In a few places, I feel like it played the traditional structure a little too safe, but overall, it has a great dynamic energy that is engaging. Not only am I interested in this particular implementation, I want to see how this world develops, and how these rules can be used to express other genres in other points in history.
Have you been a fan of Prohibition-era gaming in the past? Are you a fan of adding superpowers to different time periods? What are your favorite games that have done this? We would love to hear from you, so please leave a comment below. Thanks!