RPG Review: Capes, Cowls, and Villains Foul








I've a confession to make. Every time I think of the title to this game I keep visualizing it as "Villains Fowl" and expect something out of Howard the Duck...


With that mental image now in everyone's mind, let's talk about Capes, Cowls, and Villains Foul, henceforth written as CC&VF. I've talked about the difficulties I've had in running a good superheroes game. Or more to the point, a good comic book superheroes game, one that feels like something out of comic books. For example, Wild Talents is an absolutely awesome game but what it excels at is, at least in my experience, more of a gritty superhero universe. The Christopher Nolan Dark Knight trilogy would fit in perfectly in such a game as would Alan Moore's Watchmen. Where I've had problems is in trying to emulate the genre conventions of your typical superhero comic book. For example, having a story where Batman and Superman adventure together as equals. Managing a game where a fragile empath somehow manages to avoid getting slaughtered in a fight with the Incredible Hulk.


CC&VF is a game clearly designed from the start around those conventions. It is built around a system of traits. What is a trait could for? Whatever you want it to be. Traits can be things like powered armor, flight, super-intelligent, world's greatest detective, utility belt, trick arrows, spidey sense, you wouldn't like me when I'm angry, former Green Beret, super-cute, iron will, excellent with cats, etc. When building characters, you decide what traits you want. There's various modifiers to these traits to make them more or less useful in certain situations. If you've played the various FATE RPG games they bear some resemblance to aspects.

Now it's important to talk about resolution. For the most part a trait is represented by a value which is your bonus to a d12 roll - pretty much all resolution is by rolling a d12. But... traits are also defined by how often you can use them before you start adding detriment dice. For each detriment die you roll another d12 but you keep the lowest value. By default you start adding detriment dice after the first use of a trait (on a per scene basis - detriment dice go away after every scene). Some of the advantages to traits delay the accumulation of detriment dice. Some traits start off with you rolling extra d12s not as detriment dice but as bonus dice (you keep the highest d12 roll). Sometimes the bonus dice get bigger before reaching their peak and switching to detriment dice. Other times you start off strong an then start diminishing. Here's some examples of possible rolling combinations, with positive values above 1 representing bonus dice and each negative value representing a detriment die:

  • 1 / -1 / -2 / -3 / ... (the default)
  • 1 / 1 / -1 / -2 / -3 / ...
  • 1 / 2 / 3 /  -1 / -2 / -3 / ...
  • 3 / 2 / 1 /  -1 / -2 / -3 / ...
  • 2 / 1 /  -1 / -2 / -3 / ...
You are encouraged when purchasing traits to make them linkable to other traits, allowing you to combine the bonuses - though at the cost of counting as a usage for all the traits used together.

What I like about this is it encourages the action you see in comic books. Very rarely does a superhero in comic books constantly use the same power the same way. But in most superhero RPG games you'll find characters using the same power the same way round after round. The mechanics of CC&VF strongly discourage that behavior.

You can use traits both to attack and to defend. What sort of trait can you use to attack? Whatever you can justify. What sort of trait can you use to defend? Whatever you can justify. A doctor could, for example, use her knowledge of human anatomy to know precisely where to strike. A wise-cracking wallcrawler could annoy his foes. You are not attacking health points, mental health, etc. You are trying to defeat your opponent in a contested roll. If you do you deliver a setback - though if you defeat him by a lot you might take him straight out. With four setback tokens you are out.  What is out? Up to you. Someone defeated with witty banter might not be able to any more interaction or just doesn't care anymore. Someone in a fistfight is probably knocked out.

Like lots of games you have the ability to modify the action - this is called Editorial Control Points. This allows you to do things like reroll, get rid of setback tokens, get a one-use trait, have an ally show up, break the fourth wall, etc. If a weaker superhero (i.e. one built with less points) adventures with a stronger one then you get extra ECs. This reminds me a bit of how Eden Studios' Buffyverse games handled different types of characters.

Unlike most games, CC&VF discourages traditional character advancement in most situations. It encourages changes to costume, rearranging your traits, etc. to reflect how different creative teams interpret characters differently. By default, combat is always non-lethal though the game does have rules for those wanting to introduce deadly combat as seen in all those 1990s antiheroes...


What's the book like? It is a color illustrated book, 164 pages long. It's only available in PDF. Unfortunately it is not bookmarked - I greatly prefer bookmarked PDFs as they make reading on my tablet much easier and save me the trouble of modifying the PDF file myself... The rules themselves are presented fairly well though I do think they could perhaps be tightened a little bit - the book does begin with a Chapter 0 that gives an extremely high-level overview, something very useful. However there are some times where there's a concept being mentioned before it has been full explained. In some senses this is unavoidable - in a book that covers character generation first, you are going to need to talk about things that modify the standard task resolution system before plunging into that system. Continuing my comparison with Wild Talents I think Wild Talents is one of the best examples of a game which gives you the basics in a very succinct way. Don't get me wrong - CC&VF is not some undecipherable book - far from it - but there is some room for improvement and/or touchups.

As far as tone goes, it is clear the author, Barak Blackburn, and the rest of the creative team, love their superhero comics. The various cliches of those comics are features which this game embraces. I suspect for some people this will make the game absolutely awesome - I'm in that camp. On the other hand, if you're one who needs to know precisely what powers are capable of doing, this is probably a game you might find frustrating.

Spectrum Games has made a name for itself as a company which excels at genre emulation - not just making a game with characters for a certain genre, but rather making certain the game is representative of the genre itself, with all the tropes and cliches that implies. I can safely attest that CC&VF positions itself well as a game for emulating comic book superhero stories.


Disclaimer - I'm friends on Facebook and Google+ with Cynthia Celeste Miller of Spectrum Games, who did the editing and graphic design for this game. I don't think that influenced my review at all but felt it worth pointing out in the interests of full disclosure.

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