Superhero RPGs offer the promise of serious wish-fulfillment. All of the flexibility and control of an RPG with the "anything goes" powers of your favorite mutant/alien/robot/whatever are at your fingertips. Yet while I don't mind going on another dungeon crawl, the standard course of your typcial superhero RPG just won't hold my interest for long. Perhaps it's the way supers RPGs seem to be about what you /can't/ do. Maybe it's the focus on clue hunting and fights that never seem to end. It could be all the details of the /how/ of powers rather than the /why/. In the end, I guess it all just doesn't feel "comic booky".
Now, a good GM can make a world of difference here, and if the players are on the same page, even more so. (And this doesn't even take into account the folks for whom that standard model is just fine and dandy.) However, just expecting everybody to magically "get it" is kind of lazy. I like games that offer not only advice as to how play the game in a comic-book way, but actually offer rules /procedure/ that facilitates it.
So, here I describe Tony Lower-Basch's game, "Capes". Capes runs a little differently than most games. For instance, it essentially has "multiple GMs". Everybody has GM power. Chaos, right? Not really. First, except for maybe the first session when everybody is on some kind of sugar rush from all of the freedom and power, nobody wants the game to be stupid. Nobody describes Clark Kent coming to work in a dress (even though they could) for the same reason that the GM of other games wouldn't, it's lame and its going to get dice thrown at him. The other important element is the rules themselves. When there's a conflict, when things could go one way or another, play goes to the dice. And while it's still possible to narrate anything at all, by the rules characters can only accomplish certain things if they win control of that conflict.
Basically, each "page", after some freeform roleplaying, the game goes into a strict turn order, with players establishing conflicts or using the traits on their characters to try to control those conflicts. Each conflict has a two dice on it, set to '1', and each player, through his character, tries to get the "high die". They do this by using thier Powers, Skills, Styles and Attitudes, as long as those traits are rated at the same level as the die or higher. If the die shows a '4', I can use my "Titanic Punch: 5" (along with some narrative featuring said Titanic Punch) to try to roll that die to a better number.
Skills, Attitudes and some Styles can only be used once per scene. Powers can be used over and over, but each use earns you a Debt token. Get too many, and your character loses effectiveness. You can get rid of Debt by gambling it on important conflicts, double or nothing. This is less risky than it sounds, because the other players (usually) want to lose to you, because for every Debt token you lose, they earn Story tokens which they can spend for extra characters, extra turns and more. And then they spend those extra turns using powers and gaining Debt and the whole cycle keeps feeding into itself.
There are also, "Inspirations", which are little notes about past conflicts that you can use to bump up a die on related conflicts to a certain number without having to risk rolling it. This has the effect of tying previous events to current events, and making everything feel like part of a whole.
Still, you might be thinking, with all of these people fighting to pull the story in different directions, won't it all be a big mess? Not usually. (well, that first session is still a gamble.) Once players realize that they get to decide who gets those Inspirations and Story tokens after they win a conflict, they should realize that they can reward what they like. If you've got two other players to hand out rewards to, and one tried to go on some kind of tangent while the other tied your story into his (or just pandered to your story entirely), then guess who's going to get most or even all of the reward? Reward for desirable behavior. Pavlov would be proud.
Still, you might be thinking, I'm not comfortable with being a GM and would rather just play. What then? Great! While you're still responsible for being fun and interesting, you can leave the creative heavy lifting to your friends. When your turn comes to set a scene, just pass. Don't know if there's a window in this room and don't want to decide for yourself? Just ask the guy who started this scene. You're still left with the freedom to describe your character and his actions and his powers (limited only by how you envision him). Good times!
That's the game in a (wordy) nutshell, but there are other important elements, like the characters' drives (Justice, Hope, Duty, etc) and "Exemplars", characters that represent some fundemental, recurring conflict for the character. Lois Lane might be Superman's Love Exemplar, for example, and Superman might be Lex Luthor's Pride Exemplar. "Advanced" players might even take on "characters" that aren't characters, like Locations (Abandoned Amusement Park) or Objects (Time Bomb) or more abstract things (Martial Law).
Some people describe the feel of play as being "like a board game", and I suppose I can see what they mean. Of course, people have said the same thing about D&D 3.0, 3.5 and 4.0, too, and both games are great fun, so I'm not too worried about it.
I bought my copy for $20 from "Muse of Fire Studio", and I think it was worth every penny.
You can also buy "Invasion from Earth Prime", which is (sort of) an adventure for Capes. Very helpful to get a game kick-started.
Next time (hopefully I'll have the hard copy by then) I'll do a review of "Smallville", another amazingly different superhero game.