Capharnaum is a fantasy roleplaying game set in a world inspired by Arabian nights, Argonauts and adventure. The game is not a historical setting RPG or even an alternative history RPG, it’s complete fantasy, and that becomes important if you start to think about cultural appropriation, sexism, the role of religion and a whole bunch of other ‘spicy subjects’. I tackle some of those questions with the line developer Sarah Newton in an accompanying interview.
The RPG is a large book that pushes the 400-page mark and its a colourful one. The art isn’t as adult as some of the contents implies, and the sexiest picture is the front cover where a bellydancer poses in such a way that your eyes might not at first notice the curved blade she carries.
Capharnaum is in three parts; the first contains the rules and how to play the game, the second, starting on page 147, details the world and the final section is the GM’s Guide to Capharnaum. Except the GM is called ‘Al-Rawi’ in this game. Thankfully, in Al-Rawi’s Guide to Capharnaum, there is a multi-page glossary. I found it very handy. You’ll also quickly notice that Capharnaum takes pains to give you page number references whenever it mentions another rule, a piece of world info or game mechanic and I appreciate that effort very much.
I’m going to talk about Capharnaum’s smart game system first because it’s brilliant (I suppose literally in the sense of shining stars – more on that later). Also because the setting is sophisticated, has different ‘bloods’ of people (family and origin) and lifestyles that all I can do is scratch the surface in this review to give a flavour of it.
The Capharnaum game system
You roll a bunch of d6s in Capharnaum, and one of them will be a different colour from the rest. That’s the dragon dice, and you have it because your character is different from everyone else, they are Dragon-Marked.
The total dice you roll in action resolution is (often) determined by your attribute plus skill total. You are trying to beat a difficulty target where 9 is set as an average challenge, but you don’t get to count all your dice. You order the dice by highest first and count your attribute’s worth. For example, if you have Dex 5 and Riding 3, then you’ll roll 8 dice and count the highest 5.
One of the many things I like about Capharnaum is that exciting things happen with each dice. Just beating the difficulty target is rarely enough – generally you’ll want to see how successful you’ve been. Capharnaum tackles this by talking about ‘magnitudes of success’. The dice that your rolled in the challenge but didn’t count as your highest are used to determine your degree of success. If your lowest dice rolled 2, 3, 4 or 5, then each one gives you an extra degree of success, and if your lowest dice rolled a 6, then it counts as two.
In other words, your natural talent and training helps you get things done – achieve the difficulty target number. Your practice and skills help you get things done well – boost your magnitude of success.
So if on that Dex+Riding roll check used in the example before if you roll 6, 6, 6, 6, 6, 1, 1 and 1 you’ve succeeded but not particularly well with 0 magnitude. You only needed 9 to succeed (on average), and so someone with Dex 3 and Riding 5 (a superb rider) who rolled precisely the same will be successful and have 4 degrees of magnitude which is a memorable success.
I’m taking it to extremes with this example, but it illustrates the nuanced balance between skills and attributes. Yes, Capharnaum has thought carefully about people specialising or becoming an expert in individual skills.
There are two additional ways to influence your magnitude of success, though, and both lend themselves to storytelling.
The first is ‘swaggering’. In this heroic adventure where reputation is so important, you can play to the crowds and show off a bit. This mechanic means you can hold dice back from your roll (making it harder to succeed) but add them to your magnitude after (making a good success more likely). To do this, the player has to describe how her character is swaggering and that’s a nice touch of roleplaying built into the rollplaying.
The other way to boost your degree of success is with your dragon dice, that different coloured d6 I mentioned before, as that’s not locked in place when you order your dice from high to low. You can put that wherever you want.
This system is new to me, and I like it.
There’s more potential drama with each roll, though, as Capharnaum has the concept of ‘Lighting up a Constellation’ (the stars). If your Dragon-Marked rolls three or more dice the same value such as three-3s or three-5s then that’ll activate a magical effect. Which magical effect is triggered by triplets on the dice roll depends on which lifepath your character is following. These Paths are as close to character classes as Capharnaum gets.
Was that a dramatic and vital time to Light up a Constellation but the dice didn’t come through for you? You can spend points from your character sheet to force the effect. This ability helps keep Dragon-Marked alive in a world where healing happens slowly.
Capharnaum also uses a brave magic system that does away with spell lists (though the book provides many example spells to ease your transition if you’re used to them and struggle to break free). Instead, with this system, your magic using character needs to know the right magic words to make a spell, gets penalties or bonuses based on how well they match what you’re trying to do, and then you spend magnitudes of success to add targets, damage, range, etc., to the spell. It’s a system that rewards creativity.
Character Creation in Capharnaum
I think picking your character’s blood (their origin), and a path will take up the most time, but it’s the archetype tweaking I appreciate the most. Your blood determines some bonuses and which paths you might qualify for.
For example, let’s say you’re playing a character from the Jarekid Tribe and the Clan of Mimun, Servant of Jarek. This choice means you come from a tribe dominated by women, your founder is responsible for an exotic magical practice called Kitaba Nader, and many of your kin are artist-courtesans who live lives of corruption to bring down the decadent cities of Jazirat from within. You benefit from CHA +1; Assassination +1 or Flattery +1 (which is your skill in bed, so it’s a harder decision for some players than it might first appear), Scared Word +1 and Stealth +1. A good path for you would be one of the paths of Mimun.
Ambitiously – but successfully – Capharnaum covers many different cultures. You could also play a more ‘Western blood’ by coming from one of the Quarterian Kingdoms (those who workship Jason the Quartered-God) and end up as a knight from the Aragonian academy of the Duellists of San Llorente de Valladon.
Mixing and matching is possible, Al-Rawi willing.
Centre of the paths and of many of the game mechanics are Heroic Virtues. At character generation and guided strongly by your path you have to assign points between Bravery, Faith and Loyalty. This influence not just your roleplay but your rollplay as you spend them from time to time. Collectively these three determine your Heroism score which is useful for activating some path abilities, avoiding wounds and which also influences how many XP (or adventure points) you get at the end of the session.
It’s the use of archetypes that I like in the character generation as they make you think a bit about your character using words rather than numbers. There are eight; The Adventurer, The Labourer, The Poet, The Prince, The Rogue, The Sage, The Sorcerer and The Warrior.
Players take this list of eight and rank them in order of how well they fit their character.
So if you went with the Quarterian duelist after all perhaps you would start with The Warrior, follow up with The Prince, The Adventurer, The Poet, The Sage, The Labourer, The Sorcerer and finally The Rogue. That order determines a set of skill bonuses. In this case, the duelist gets no bonuses from The Labourer, The Sorcerer or The Rogue’s list but a healthy bonus from The Warrior and a few more from all the rest.
To do that example above I found myself thinking whether my Quarterian duelist would be less interested in Rogue skills or Sorcerer skills and about whether the etiquette and elegance of The Prince were more important than the survival skills of The Adventurer.
The Capharnaum chargen finishes off by helping to round your character out, working out the legend of the Dragon-Mark that surrounds them already and helping to foreshadow what might happen next.
The Capharnaum setting
I think the book could call it quits after the first 200 pages and still be considered complete. It doesn’t. These extra pages are spent describing the world.
I’m cautious of Capharnaum in two areas.
Firstly, I think it will take me several more re-reads of the book and perhaps several months of gameplay with an experienced group to confidently know the rich history of the expansive world. This isn’t just fluff. Magic can work differently, or feels different at least, between different cultures. One group, for example, believes ‘Create’ and ‘Destroy’ as magic words as the preserve of God and so are effectively restricted to ‘Transform’.
Secondly, Capharnaum seems to conjure up adult situations often, and so I’d want the right gaming group to play the game. For example, the character from the Jarekid Tribe and the Clan of Mimun we considered in the character generation section will likely have a path ability which activates if they Light up a Constellation during sex (CHA+Flattery roll) then they gain a point of temporary Heroism that can be used in the current session. There’s not just dice rolls for sex in this RPG there are mechanical bonuses for being good at it and therefore reasons to eye up every pretty NPC that takes your fancy.
In particular, the overlap of magic and sex will need careful and thoughtful adult consideration. I think of it as Rohypnol magic. There is more than one example in the game where magic can be used to make someone horny enough to want to sleep with someone they didn’t previously like. The effects of magic are temporary, and that urge will wear off. I know this comes straight out of the source inspiration material, stories full of love potions and wishes being granted, but the potential for unpleasantness is there.
Much of the second section of Capharnaum, the world guide, is presented almost like a tourist guide. We get an introduction to the place, its history and then exciting places to visit. We also get a lowdown on the personalities in charge whether those are the princes running the armies or Quarterian invaders who have settled in for the long haul. If you are a GM being used to run in a sandbox, then this will be perfect for you, but I think it’s too much to take in on a single read. I think the only way to learn the Capharnaum world is to start off in one patch of sand and then explore slowly around.
This section also has the lore of the world, and each culture has its different take. It’s hard to deny magic exists in a world with magic. The Dragon-Marked have actual dragon marks on their backs. In most cultures, the Dragons are the servants of the gods. Not only do the core rules of Capharnaum give you a geography of choice they have space for as much anthropology. It’s enough to put some Conan or Tolkien fantasy RPGs to shame where the default assumption is everyone has a culture a bit like the West, with maybe a few quirky changes (Elves live in trees! Dwarfs live underground!) but with most other things broadly similar.
I feel I’d have to be more experienced with all the cultures of Capharnaum before I could confidently portray them as either a PC or Al-Rawi. That’ll come with time and exposure, I know. Right now, though, I can’t recall which city is liberal and tolerant and which is full of zealots, and this feels like a big deal.
Capharnaum has a great system in a novel setting and, best of all, the two are wonderfully linked. I want to play this game.
I want to play this game to discover the world through a player character’s eyes as that will be magical and because I’m struggling to take it all in just by reading.
I want to play this game with the right group because I predict exotic adventures and thrillingly tough decisions.