Tuesday, November 26, 2019

KAPOW! NaGaDeMon 2019 Project Reflection

As I mentioned in my previous post, my 2019 National Game Design Month (NaGaDeMon) project is KAPOW! The Campy Superhero Role-Playing Game. Earlier today, I published the rules and all the sources on GitHub. The game is free to download, play, and modify, with all the resources provided under the CC BY-NC-SA 4.0 International license. NaGaDeMon has simple rules: Create, Play, and Talk. I created the game was able to play two full sessions, and this post is crafted to satisfy the third rule.


In my formative years, I used to play a lot of Dungeons and Dragons as well as some Shadowrun. I also crafted and playtested some of my own systems, the notes and sites for which have long since disappeared. For the curious, the two that I actually got as far as testing included a time-traveling system in which you roll boatloads of dice and, on the opposite end of the spectrum, a completely diceless fantasy system. These days, I read many more rulebooks than I have a chance to play. The Clay That Woke and Apocalypse World are two amazing systems that I supported on Kickstarter and for which I have read the rules, but which I have never actually played.

One of my scholarly activities in Spring 2019 that I have not mentioned before is that I had two students in a CS499 Independent Study experience. We each were working on our own game design projects, mine being Race to the Moon. One of the students was Austin Tinkel—whom I will mention by name here because I want to link to his work—who developed a pulp action tabletop RPG called That Belongs in a Museum! He gave an excellent presentation about this at the 2019 Symposium on Games, where he talked about how it transitioned from an abstract idea about action momentum into an Indiana Jones-style adventure with PbtA mechanisms. (That is, it drew upon design ideas established in Apocalypse World.)

Working with Austin inspired me to re-read Apocalypse World and reinvigorated my interest in narrative-first tabletop role-playing. I don't know what made me connect this to 1960s Batman, but my family and I have been slowly working through the series since I got myself the box set for Christmas in 2017. We're on the final season, and in fact, we just watched the famous "Bat Shark Repellent" episode, which I have to say—as a fan of campy superhero stories—is one of the worst pieces of television I have ever seen. In any case, the idea tickled my fancy to try to combine campy superhero stories with a PbtA ruleset. This seemed like a good hook for trying to get my head into the PbtA space.

I sketched no more than a page of ideas in the intervening months until around September or October, when I started thinking about whether I should participate in NaGaDeMon again. I had some professional and personal obligations looming (including the aforementioned Symposium), so I decided ahead of time not to pursue a programming project: the odds of getting caught in a debugging death spiral was too high. My mind drifted back to the idea of marrying 1960s Batman sensibilities with ideas and systems from Apocalypse World. This seemed like the kind of thing that would fit into the time I could afford, and I'm glad I made this choice.

The Tech Stack

I started by writing my notes on paper, and then I transcribed them roughly into Markdown. However, I knew that I didn't want to compose the whole thing in Markdown because of its lack of expressiveness for structure. Consider the concrete case of defining the basic moves. At the time I was writing, I wasn't exactly sure what all the basic moves would be, but I knew that I didn't want to have to redundantly define them in a rulebook and in a handout. This would be a DRY violation—anathema to my personal idiom.

Choosing the best method to compose my rules required me to make a decision about how to disseminate the final product. On one hand, I considered a Web-first writing approach using lit-html. I have significant experience with lit-html since I have used it for my course sites such as this semester's CS315 class as well as some side projects such as my Call to Adventure scorecard. I knew that I could do some tricks with JSON-formatted data and html templates in order to separate, for example, the basic moves' definitions from their representation in the rulebook or in handouts. On the other hand, I considered using LaTeX for a print-first writing approach. This would let me easily generate PDFs and niceties like a table of contents and an index. However, I have never done anything like a "model-view separation" in order to keep my writing DRY in LaTeX; it has simply never come up.

I decided to go Web-first, which seemed like a very well-considered and contemporary choice. I wrote this way for really only a few hours before I ran into a significant problem: how exactly was I going to produce the kinds of handouts that players would want to have at the table? Playbooks are a standard technique in PbtA games, and lists of basic moves and narrator moves seemed like a good idea. I started tinkering with using different CSS styles for screen and print media, and very quickly realized that this was basically an instance of the "debugging deathtrap" that I had wanted to avoid by making a tabletop game.

I turned instead to LaTeX and immediately started to consider how I could separate my basic moves' definition from their explanation in the rulebook and their summary on a handout. It dawned on me that I could do something akin to concrete data structure like JSON by having different documents interpret environments in different ways. The narrator moves provide a good example. The project has a file narratormoves.tex which contains several narratormove definitions, like this:

\begin{narratormove}{Separate them}
  Use this move to separate the members of the team or to separate
  the team from their objective.

Notice that the custom narratormove environment has two arguments, the first of which is the move's name and the second of which is the explanation. Then, in the rulebook, I can define the narratormove environment before importing the source file like this, which will print each move as an unnumbered subsection with its explanation:

{\subsection*{#1} #2}

Meanwhile, in the Narrator handout, I can define it in such a way that it produces only the moves' names in an itemized list:

{\item #1}

Not too shabby! I'm happy with this approach, which is used throughout the project. It reminds me that, somewhere in my courses, I should be showing my students this kind of thing to break them from their trained dependence on Microsoft Word—to show them how thinking like a Computer Scientist lets you solve complex problems in more interesting ways.

The Unexpected

There were a few unexpected twists in the design of this game. I wrote about several of them in my playtesting notes post, and the most important of these was really that I was coming in green to the PbtA scene. I had read Apocalypse World several times and recently also read Dungeon World, but the only exposure I had to playing a PbtA game was Austin's That Belongs in a Museum—and that was pretty early in testing. I have been playing ICRPG again with my boys using a traditional fantasy setting, but the kinds of DungeonMastering advice that I listen to on YouTube is very much aligned with D&D-style systems, not PbtA. That said, I do feel like this project met my design goal of helping me put my head into the PbtA space a little better. Each time I tried to either talk through a scenario myself or run a session with playtesters, I got a little better at thinking within the balance of hero moves and Narrator moves.

The 1960s Batman stories, and my dad's 1960s CCA-approved superhero comics that I grew up reading, are almost always mysteries: the hero needs to figure out the who, what, why, and where of the problem before the Villain gets away with it. This stands in stark contrast to the character-driven harsh open world of Apocalypse World or high-school melodrama of Monsterhearts. Dungeon World is somewhere in between, in that it tries to take the traditional D&D approach and wrap it up in PbtA clothing. KAPOW ends up looking more like Dungeon World than Monsterhearts, where parts of the system really sing while other parts are strung loosely together.

The principles section of the rulebook was one of the last things that I wrote, and it represents my current thoughts about how to reconcile these different pieces. I challenged myself to think about the Narrator's ground rules: what would help them creatively tie together the Villain's scheme with the player's agency? I think I did a fair job of articulating these, but I think it's the sort of thing that can only really be tested by another gamesmaster trying to run the game from what I have articulated. Unfortunately, that was out of scope for this November, but I'm eager to hear from anyone who tries. After all, with a CC BY-NC-SA license and GitHub's collaboration tools, there's always an opportunity for improvement.


This was a great creative exercise. It allowed me to explore an idea that has been on my mind in a rigorous, timeboxed way, with the additional help of a supportive community. I think the resulting game rules provide a fun setting, and I legitimately enjoyed all of my playtesting sessions. If other people can also get some joy out of it, then that's all the better for it. In the meantime, I feel like I was able to strengthen my writing muscles while learning some new perspectives on design. 

Given unbounded resources, I know of a few places where I would shore up the current design. Obviously, the rulebook and the handouts would be greatly enhanced with some genre-appropriate art and graphic design. A brilliant idea from Apocalypse World is providing sample answers to open-ended questions in the playbooks. For KAPOW, I would like to give players a list of choices for hero name, real name, appearance, occupation, and contacts, but this was both too onerous to implement and would have broken the one-page design of the character creation sheets, such as it is. Having such options would greatly speed up play, especially in my testing sessions: I was able to confirm that many players enjoyed the open-ended questions and creativity of making characters, but this was also fundamentally individual-creativity time rather than collective storytelling time. Finally, I think it would be helpful to new Narrators to have an appendix of sample villains and schemes. Many of the examples that are provided in the game come from the simple designs I put together for playtesting, but an easier on-ramp could be provided for new players by giving them something more clearly canned.

Thanks for reading! Feel free to post here if you have any questions, and feel free to share the link to KAPOW to any of your tabletop roleplaying or campy superhero friends.

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