Interview with the Capharnaum RPG Creators part 1: Raphaël Bardas
As we're almost at the 80% funded mark here on Kickstarter, I thought it might be interesting to interview the two main co-creators of Capharnaum, Raphaël Bardas and François Cedelle, about the game. So today, please meet Raphaël, Capharnaum co-creator, writer, and Al-Rawi!
Hi Raphaël! So, tell us, what was the origin of Capharnaum? Why did you decide to create a game like this in this kind of universe?
Hi everyone! Well, at the time when I first started to write Capharnaum, I'd been playing a lot of Legend of the Five Rings and 7th Sea, and I thought it was a shame there wasn’t something similar for the universe of the One Thousand and One Nights. We’d been hearing a lot about a “Legend of the Burning Sands”, but as it turned out that didn't materialise until a lot later. So, I started to jot down some notes myself, for a roll-and-keep type game.
Since childhood I’d been brought up on stories of the ancient Mediterranean - Greece, the Arab countries, and then Spain, where I have my roots - and soon I found I had the basis for a solid game setting. I actually first started out by writing fiction there, in a novel which (so far!) has never seen the light of day. But, one day, I was talking about Capharnaum to my friend, François Cedelle, and about how it could be an RPG setting, and pretty soon I found I’d talked myself into it being a real project! François was this mad guy who had some similar ideas to mine, and he just really got into the project, adding in his own references and what he wanted to see in the game.
For you, what are the main themes of Capharnaum that Al-Rawi GMs and players will come across during play?
First and foremost Capharnaum is a swashbuckling game. But it’s also a game of passion, intrigue, and ancestral mysteries. There’s also the theme of transcendence, with the Dragon-Mark, and the fact that the characters you play are in some way chosen by the gods. But nothing is decided in advance - every Dragon-Marked character has his own path to find and tread, his own personal quest to follow to become a true hero. On the way he’ll question his faith, his courage, and also his own relationship to others, his friends, family, the world around him. In that way you can explore lots of other themes beyond those which are more typical of ancient world or mediaeval fantasy games. Without being an overly intellectual game, Capharnaum indirectly asks you: what are the choices you should make to deserve the title of “hero”?
On top of that, Capharnaum today has a particular resonance with world affairs, in my eyes. This is my own personal vision—I’m not speaking for the publishers when I say this—but the fact that round a table you can have a holy warrior in the Arabian mould, a combat dancer inspired by the Hebrews, characters who are Templars and gladiators, all united, despite their differences, in a common quest, finding ways to resolve dangers threatening a village, a nation, or even the world—all of that is exploring how we bring about peace, or at least coexistence. Friendships are going to be created which will go well beyond the differences which may initially seem to divide people. I love cosmopolitanism and multiculturalism, and in my view that’s one of the central themes of Capharnaum.
As far as the rules are concerned, what are the things you think are special or unique about the Capharnaum game?
I think perhaps the advanced skills. They give you a different paradigm for skill resolution. They’re optional and maybe not for beginners, but they let you add a certain degree of narrativity to the game. I’m always more of a story-teller than a simulationist when I game, even as a player, and I think it’s an important part of the Capharnaum system. And then there are the rules for Urim and Turim, the Stones of Destiny, and the improvisational magic system based on assembling sacred words. These elements bring a flexibility to the game and make the story you tell richer, whilst remaining solid elements of gameplay.
In Capharnaum, the PCs are supposed to advance to high levels of power, perhaps even approaching heroes, demi-gods, or even gods. What were the challenges that you had to deal with to make that kind of gameplay manageable?
It was a double paradox. First we had to make sure that you could just as easily play the cousin of the king, a blacksmith, or a thief, but at the same time we had to make sure those characters could aspire to the kind of deeds worthy of the ancient legends or of the heroes of the Trojan War. The Dragon-Mark was the solution: whatever your origin or upbringing, you’ve come to the attention of supernatural beings who need you and who think you have the capacity to make the world better. Things like the Dragon Dice, Swaggering, and Heroic Virtues help simulate all that in play.
Then, the second aspect of the paradox is in the level of jeopardy your characters face. In spite of all the superheroic potential of the Dragon-Marked, they face challenges equal to their abilities. So, even if a sorcerer can stop the flow of a river or a fighter can mow through dozens of Babouche-Draggers, he or she is coming up against creatures and phenomena which surpass understanding—djinn, shaytan, mythical monsters, other Dragon-Marked—and which block their way. On top of that, political conspiracies, plots motivated by passions, the power of myths which make reality sometimes incomprehensible, are all the types of situations and conflicts you find in Capharnaum, against which simple dice-rolling is often just not enough…
Do you have a favourite moment from your experience of playing Capharnaum?
For me, it’s when things become so strange that everyone loses their points of reference. When you play Capharnaum, it’s like playing the Three Musketeers, except there’s this gorgeous smell of oriental spices and grilled mutton! Pinning it down to a precise moment is complicated; let’s just say that when my players are so excited by their adventures that they jump up from the table and start acting out a combat, a dance, or singing some seductive song, I’m in my element!
What are your future plans for Capharnaum?
I have a few scenarios up my sleeve. ;) Also, when we ran the crowdfunding campaign for the 10th anniversary edition of Capharnaum here in France, I wrote a wee adventure novel set there, too. If people like it and the publisher agrees, I’d love to tell more stories about the characters in the novel. But that’s a project for another day!
Do you have a message for the English-language gamers who are about to discover the Capharnaum game and setting?
Don’t be daunted by the size of the core book! Grab hold of the essential stuff, the stuff you like, in this mix of myths, the 1001 Nights, and heroic fantasy, and just play! Later you can delve into the finer details, the customs and habits of the various cultures, the geographical locations, and bring that into your games. It’s better to put on a bit of atmospheric music, burn a little incense, and serve up some some fried peppers in cumin and olive oil, than to try and memorise the family tree of the kings of Kh’saaba! ;)
Thanks to Raphaël for sharing his views on Capharnaum - in part 2, tomorrow, I'm talking to François Cedelle, the second of the games co-creators.
Ila al-liqa, and to the next update! Thank you all for supporting the Capharnaum Kickstarter!
Sarah (with Raphaël and all at Team Capharnaum)