Interview with the Creator of "Capes," A Super-Hero RPG

Monday has arrived and I  found another interesting indie game publisher to speak with. Today, I present an interview with Anthony Lower-Basch from “Muse of Fire Games “, creator of “Capes .”

“Capes” is a super-hero genre RPG with an interesting system. There is no GM! I am not going to explain the game mechanics, but if you are interested in seeing a clever flash-based  explanation of game play and a sample of the rules, you can download them both here .

With no further delay, here is the text of our interview.

Trask: Tell us about yourself? Are you a writer by profession or is game writing a second career for you?

Anthony Lower-Basch (ALB) I’m a computer programmer and mathematician by training.  Game writing is one of several interests that I’ve pursued to the point of making a little money at doing it.

Trask: Your game “Capes” is  a comic book hero RPG. Why this genre?

ALB: Well, a huge amount of my early roleplaying was done in Champions (back before folks were really calling it the “Hero system”), and so I’ve got a lot of roots in the genre.  I’d drifted away from it, into lots of other things (particularly Amber) for years and years, just because … I dunno … I think precisely -because- I have such love for comic books, I had a very painful sense that we weren’t consistently hitting the things that strike me as most important about comics. [cont]

Trask: Such as?

The thing about super-hero comics that can run at cross-purposes to a lot of role-playing is simply that the -details- really don’t count for much.  Coming at the building of a super-hero fight from a bottom-up way, where you say “Okay, so he hits with the NND now, then follows up with the martial kick,” gives you an accumulation of details … but then, if you’re trying to make a story be about the broad sweep and the grand themes, about what the heroes and villains -stand- for, then you’ve got to be dovetailing those details together, and often they just don’t add up.

So there was this belief (or at least I perceived a belief) that -somebody- had to vet all those details … that if you just had everyone tossing them out in service to creating the overarching vision, there would be chaos.

Trask: How does “Capes” address this issue?

ALB: It gives everyone well-nigh absolute power to run over everyone.  Basically, it hands GM power to everyone, and veto power to nobody … except in very explicit circumstances.  So if you want to say “Billy Triple smashes the Brute across the nose, and sends him flying back into the Hudson River,” you just -say- that.  And, honestly, that’s how super-hero comics work.  You don’t win by stopping other people by being cool … you win by seeing their cool, and raising it.  “You throw Brute in river?  Water can’t stop Brute!  Nothing can stop Brute!  Brute is the strongest one there is!”

ALB: There are just a very few mechanisms that let you say “Okay, this thing -right here-, this is something that we shouldn’t just do by fiat.”

And then those things become the focus of a scene.

Trask: This brings up the up a question I had about the game. The preview indicates that there is no GM. A departure from usual game designs.  How do the players “referree” the game? Consensus?

ALB: eh.  No.  The polar opposite of consensus, actually.  It’s brutally competitive, and the best thing you can do is to threaten to do exactly what everyone else at the table wants to prevent.  I mean, there’s no GM, so -somebody- has to be playing all the bad guys, so there’s got to be an incentive for the bad guys to be bad guys … which, fairly frequently, means getting pounded because you pushed things one step too far.  So, for example, you can set out a “Conflict” which is “Goal:  Destroy Boost City in a gigantic fireball of apocalyptic proportions, killing every non-super-powered man, woman and child.”  If the other players are playing heroes, you’d like to think that’s the kind of thing they’d say “Oh I don’t THINK so!”, and really jump on preventing.  So once you declare that, it’s one of those things I talked about above, where you can’t just narrate it into existence.  It’s a conflict:  You thrash it out over the course of several set-tos, with dice and all that, and until that happens nobody gets to narrate it Yay or Nay.  But you hope that the heroes jump in, they say “We stand for the common man,” or “With great power comes great responsibility,” or whatever their moral basis is, and they dig deep (as superheroes do) and they win the day.  Then, the “dig deep” resources they spent get turned into rewards for the player of the heinous villain who stood up to get his face beaten in.  So you lose the fight, but it’s a big win for you as a player.  And the heroes players don’t get the rewards, but they saved the day.  Everybody wins … all by fighting each other tooth and nail.

Trask: You have a background in math. Did this influence you choice of dice mechanics?

ALB: Oh, absolutely.  Math and computer-science both.  There’s a branch of … well, both, really … which deals with distributed systems:  Individual little units chugging along their merry way, doing their own thing by their own (different) programming.  There’s this huge body of technique on how you get all these units to work together on a common goal, when there are breakdowns in communication, and programs that get broken, and all that … and while I’d never systematize a game to that point (people not being CPUs), the ebb and flow of those sorts of frameworks have really informed a lot of what I think is -possible- in RPGs.  It convinced me that people didn’t have to be brought into lockstep in order for good things to happen.

Trask: Do you have plans for further supplements to “Capes?”

ALB Well, I’ve got a “scenario” for it that I just need to get the information uploaded to IPR, and they’ll put it on sale, but after that I suspect I’ll be done for a bit … I’m focusing much more on my new game, “Misery Bubblegum,” and the mindset of it is so completely different that it’s really hard for me to switch gears easily.

Trask: I must ask. What is “Misery Bubblegum?”

ALB: “Misery Bubblegum” is a game about quiet, sweet high school drama.  I’ve taken a lot of inspiration from the really good work that manga artists in Japan have done in making sweet, believable stories about just kids trying to figure out their lives and their relationships … but I’ve increasingly had to keep telling people that it’s not about reproducing -manga-, it’s about reproducing the types of stories that have had good treatment in manga.  So where Capes is all about the biggest possible thing you could conceivably do right now, Misery Bubblegum is about all of these quiet moments that are made intense precisely because they -don’t- matter to anybody else … but they mean the world to the people who are in them.  Like I said, a very different mindset.

Trask: Is there one thing that everyone should know about “Capes?” What sets it apart from other superhero games?

ALB: It’s the only supers game that I know that really drives home the way that heroes and villains are locked in a conflict that is -primarily- about the different things they believe and believe in, and only -incidentally- about lightning bolts and force fields.  I mean, I watched the first Spiderman movie probably a hundred times while designing the game, and if I’ve helped people to recreate the sort of head-on collision of beliefs that Spiderman and the Goblin play out in that movie, about responsibility, and people’s decency, and what it means to be exceptional … if I’ve helped players capture any of that sort of spirit then I’ll be content.  That’s the lightning I wanted to catch in a bottle.

Trask: Just to thank you very much for this opportunity, and to say that I look forward to the cast of other designers that will be coming as the weeks go by.

ALB: Just to thank you very much for this opportunity, and to say that I look forward to the cast of other designers that will be coming as the weeks go by.

This is the interview’s end, but not the end of the interviews. I got a great response from a variety of game publishers and I hope that every Monday you will join me for another gametable-side chat with the creative minds behind some great games.

As always, if you are a game publisher and would like to chat about your game or your thoughts on game design, contact me through this link .

Trask, The Last Tyromancer


Trask is a long-time gamer, world traveler and history buff. He hopes that his scribblings will both inform and advance gaming as a hobby.