Monday, January 18, 2010

The One Thing Not To Do In A Caper

Have the day off, so laziness provides the exscuse for me to do what I'm supposed to do and keep things short and sweet[1].

I love capers. I love cons too, but they're not quite the same thing - a can might be part of a caper, but a caper usually has more moving parts. I love capers because they're proactive stories - rather than have heroes respond to bad things and prevent them, the heroes have goals which they actively pursue. Of course, the fact that the heroes are usually also sort of villains goes a long way to help this, since it keeps from upsetting the traditional dynamic of proactive villains and reactive heroes.[2]

Capers make for fun, challenging play, but also make for challenging design. Because the players are proactive, their potential actions are much more unbounded than that of a traditional adventure. The GM can steer things a little, but the more she does that, the less caper-like the adventure gets, and that can be a real shame.

There are a few tricks for dealing with this. One common one that you see in Wilderness of Mirrors and some other hippie games is to give the players a lot of authorial control with the idea that if they create their own obstacles, then they're laying their own road and they won't go too far off it. There are a lot of virtues to this approach, but it definitely requires buying in to a particular approach.

For more traditional games, GMs ned to do things the hard way, and this is where to come to the warning. Capers are about smart problem solving, and a lot hinges on the players (or at least their characters) coming across as smart. This can be hard, and there's a trick that is often used in TV, movies and books to solve this problem. It's a clever solution, but it's one which is so obvious once you know to look for it that it can completely undermine a story, and by extension it can do the same to your game.

They make the antagonist stupid.

Sure, sometimes they're subtle about it, but it's crazily common because it's a lot easier to write the opposition as stupid than it is to have the heroes be smart. There are reasons for this: some writers suck, others can't convey smart without so many asides and footnotes that it breaks up the flow[3], others just don't know any better. As a GM, what's your excuse?

To give a little bit of context: do you know that idea of emotional play, where you want to relentlessly hammer the character's issues because that makes for a huge emotional payout? Where you don't want to throttle off because if it's not turned up to 11, it's not going to have the depth and punch it needs?[4]

For the problem solving player, the caper serves the same role. They want to be the intellectual equivalent of barefoot on broken class in Naktomi Plaza, with one bullet left. They want to have gon throug plans A through G and be desperately improvising plan H so it looks like they planned it all along, and when the GM pulls her punches, then it all falls flat.[5]

This is a tidbit that is helpful outside of capers. Tactics, politics, rally anything that calls for a brain. Using enemy stupidity to make players feel smart is condescending and sloppy sleight of hand. They will catch you at it, and they won't thank you.

1 - So the huge posts stand out as exceptions, not like I always talk that much. I mean, I do, but you don't need to know that.

2 - Obviously, the veneer of villainy tends to be very light so that you can still sympathize with these guys, either because they're likable and their target is much worse (Oceans 11, The Sting) or if they're really good guys using the methods and means of bad guys (Leverage, Robin Hood). Since atthis point were basically talking about Han Solo, the appeal to gamers is probably obvious.

3 - Wait....

4- If you don't...well, that's a whole other topic. It has its place and, in my experience, is magnificent when done right.

5 - Ok, not every problem solving player really wants to push it that far, but do you really know how far your players _do_ want to push it?


  1. My comment ran long so I turned it into a post on my blog.

    Games R 4 Grownups

  2. I tend to use two approaches. The first is to roughly outline the opposition, but then use the players own plan as the basis of the operation.

    The second is to actively help the players plan the heist, not just providing information on what is there, but actively helping the players plan the heist. If nothing else, it may help spark new ideas.

    Of course, the best cons use the opponent's overconfidence and planned responses against them. But to do that you have to actively gather the information you need.

    Don't underrate the value of preliminary surveillance and remember to actively point out the visible holes in the security screen.


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