What is Claws & Affect?
This is a rules-light roleplaying game based on Lasers & Feelings by John Harper, which fits on one side of A4. I bought this re-skinned (re-furred as the author says!) version from Kevin Petker’s (@KevinPetker on Twitter) itch.io page, after seeing them post nice things about other people on Twitter, and vice versa.
Believing in there being more Nice People on the Internet, I took a look at their game selection and was pretty much won over by the blurb of Claws & Affect. I’ve always wanted to join (or run) a game of Call of Catthulhu but it’s always had a few too many rules to squeeze into a game night where we’re down a player and we only have one night to fill.
As you’re about to read, Claws & Affect fits that niche very well.
The basic idea is that everyone plays a cat protecting their neighbourhood from arcane and supernatural threats. Humans can’t possibly comprehend the danger they’re in, so it all lands on our feline heroes (who else is going to take care of it? Dogs?)
Nothing that states that this game must be played entirely seriously. You’re playing cats, and cats are fickle creatures. The GM has a set of four tables to roll on to determine the supernatural threat the cats are facing, and these categories are wide open to inspire you how they may. It would be easy for a GM to steer the game away from any thematic areas they or their players prefer to avoid.
I did discover an unexpected line-in-the-sand from one of the players in our group, however, which was that they would never, ever, want to play this game if the threat involved the “Queen of Teeth” (one of the bad-guy options). He didn’t know what or who that could be, but the very thought alone sent shivers down his spine.
I think, if we play this again and I roll that bad guy from the table, I’ll just rename her to be the Queen of Sleep/Neat/something-that-rhymes-with-teeth and carry on. This would negate a (possibly) disturbing mental image.
Our bad guy was “rats”. So we were a-ok on that front. (To go into why that was almost as bad as the Queen of Teeth would be an entirely different post. Let’s just say that whenever rats showed up in our previous campaigns, they rolled ridiculously well all the time.)
Thematically, this game can be trivially bent to my preferred atmosphere. 5/5 on that from me.
This is also an easy process, where the players pick a name, a “guise” and the “nature” of their cat. This amounts to a three word descriptor-type sentence, similar to what you might see in a Cypher System game but without the accompanying rules baggage. For example, we had:
- Lady Priscilla the Fourth, the pampered purebred
- Logan “the Negotiator”, the feral alleycat
- Kaiser, the serious mouser
The rules come with a list of eight guises and seven natures to pick from, but any cat described in those terms would work just as well.
Players then pick a number between 2 and 5, which sets where their cat lies on the Claws & Affect scale. Low numbers indicate a cat that is better at using body language and making considered actions. High numbers indicate a cat that is more action-oriented, displaying some physical prowess.
During character creation this sliding scale posed no problems – but I will come back to this later.
Players set a goal for their cats, to motivate them a bit in thwarting the evil about to beset their neighbourhood. Then, finally, as a group they decide on the nature of their neighbourhood. They select three advantages and two disadvantages from a list, however the list could be expanded upon indefinitely.
The neighbourhood discussion was particularly useful to listen in on as the GM, because here they essentially shape the world your plot is going to unfold in. They decided that they wanted the perks of Kindly Older Folks, Many Trees and Hedges, and a Well Regarded Veterinarian. The neighbourhoods disadvantages were Lax Leash Laws (dogs!) and a Wily Animal Control Officer. Since we’re playing in the UK we decided Animal Control was actually an enthusiastic neighbour who liked to catch, get neutered, and release stray, un-microchipped, cats).
I’ll discuss how this informed my GMing later, but say now that I did find this character creation exercise useful for plotting-on-the-fly, and the players found it fun. They built a little cat team together. They found adorable cat photos online and posted them on Discord (I should say, we played this over Zoom). There were lots, and lots, of cat gifs exchanged.
Character creation gets a 5/5 from me – the one issue I do have is more of an issue with Lasers & Feelingsrather than this re-skin.
I will say upfront that the only prep I did for this game was to pre-roll what the threat was to be before getting on Zoom to play the game. Our usual gaming group wasn’t able to meet, so we were down a player, and I had had an atrocious morning that led to an afternoon where there was literally no time whatsoever to anything resembling game prep. I was resigned to improvising 100% of the night, and that was really the best approach I could have taken.
Preparing more than “what is the threat” in advance would have negated all of the ideas that came from the players at the start of the game. So I’m glad I had no time to be tempted into thinking about it.
As mentioned earlier, the supernatural threat is created by rolling 1d6 on four separate tables (or you can choose, or devise your own threat). The result of my four rolls: The Rats want to Capture the Fae Courtwhich will Pierce the Veil (bold indicates die results).
After creating the threat, the GM advice is “play to find out what happens”. Okay, I am fine with, I have techniques to rely on to get a game going. A new player might struggle without a bit more advice. It is a 1-page RPG, so space is limited for setting what that advice is, but I think a small paragraph of “getting started” text could be included to help people out. Personally, advising they do something like I did, which I’ll go into next.
GM advice: The supernatural threat table has some interesting idea-inspiring entries on it. The running the game section is barebones but basically good. I’d just like a bit more there to get a new GM running with it: 4/5
Playing the game
We’d made characters, made a neighbourhood, and gone over the very simple rules for resolving uncertain situations (i.e. when to roll dice and how). Then it came time to play, and I felt that little flutter of “uh-oh, what now? Rats are trying to capture the fae court… what on earth does that mean?”. So I fell back on a tried and tested delaying tactic that also helps me flesh out the narrative and get the players more into character. I asked each of them what their day had been like. Lady Priscilla had lounged about over a nice warm floorboard and tripped up her owners continuously. Logan had ‘done the rounds’ looking for food at a variety of takeaways and restaurants, and protected his turf. Kaiser had sat under a birds nest for the third (fourth? fifth?) day in a row waiting for the squawking things that were annoying him to try and fly and fall out so he could eat them.
Alright. Plot is go. Something falls out of the nest, but it isn’t a bird. While Kaiser is perplexed at what it is, he delays his pounce just enough for a cheeky rat to try and swipe it away from him.
Cue kitty antics – I imagined this little baby critter was a faerie dragon youngling of some sort that the rats were capturing to hold the Fae Court hostage (along with other types of fae young). The cats had a direct line to chase one down and see what might be happening. I decided to describe the faerie dragon, rather than name it (i.e. what fell out of the tree was a lithe, sinuous, green-scaled shimmering creature with gossamer wings folded tightly against its back) because what mattered more was that it was an unusual creature they’d never seen before rather than giving it a “label”. It also meant I was free to think up other weird creatures on the fly without having to also think up names for them.
The cats pursued the rat, the rat got away, they discovered fallen nests with the remains of pearlescent pink eggs covered in rat-scent, and the plot thickened. Some setbacks meant they needed to regroup, taking the youngling with them. Further setbacks meant they were “framed” for the kidnapping.
From start to finish we had about 2.5 hours to play in (a short night for us), but it was easy to keep an eye on the clock and know that actually it would be quite easy to get them to a conclusion at any point if needed. We finished up the night with a sequence of unbelievably good rolls, with cats leaping from trees and bushes onto unsuspecting rats. The Fae Court, who were about to capitulate for the sake of their young, were inspired to join in the fray. They were successful, and we were all left with 15 minutes to talk about how it all fell out at the end.
From a narrative and timing standpoint, everything worked out just great.
Any faults I’m about to relay apply to the game that Claws & Affect is a reskin of, so I don’t feel like Kevin is really the one ‘to blame’ here for the parts that don’t suit our particular table. The long and the short of it is that the game filled a night, that would have otherwise been a bust, with laughter.
Adjudicating what should be rolled is very intuitive. If the action a cat is taking is quick, physical, or requires snap reflexes, they roll for Claws. If it’s anything else (requires thought, is slow, involves intuition) then they roll for Affect.
Most of the time, the cats success came at a cost. This meant thinking of ways to push the plot forward in ways that caused more complication. The neighbourhood disadvantages were good to have at hand for these. This did break up the action so it wasn’t going to be an automatic case of “we follow the rats trail, find out exactly what’s going on, and fix it” within the first thirty minutes of gameplay.
I really struggle with the linear scale for rolling a skill check. If you’re rolling for Claws, you want to roll under your skill number. If you’re rolling for Affect, you need to roll above it. Maybe once I managed to remember which way round it was without looking at the sheet. I’d pin this on my being dyslexic, but I did catch the others sometimes needing to remind themselves of which way round they wanted their numbers to be.
Personally, I’d prefer a number for Claws, a number of Affect, and a single way that the dice are “meant” to roll for a success. However, how it’s written here is how it is in Lasers & Feelings. I can’t really expect a re-skin to also redesign the game for me.
The failure mechanics also, sometimes, slowed down the game. It’s a way of driving the narrative, but I found myself asking what each cat was doing about a situation rather than letting one player have all the fun, and then finding that all three get no successes (or mostly no successes and one success at a cost). Finding a way through two major setbacks and one minor setback that makes sense was a bit of a logical puzzle at times.
The simpler solution is to not do what I did, and ask for one roll from one cat to resolve one problem. You might suggest that I’d made them assistance rolls, but to assist you still need to make a roll and it was unclear if “making a roll” to assist a cat was, rules-wise, any different from “making a roll” for any other skill check. We decided it wasn’t, so setbacks continued to pile up.
One or two are easy to narrate, a pile at once is clunkier for me (I’ll be kind to myself and add “after a rough day” to that statement).
Finally, one part of resolving die rolls that I thought would be useful, actually wasn’t. If a cat rolls a number equal to their Claws/Affect skill, they get to ask the GM a question that must be answered honestly. These came up a lot. They struggled to think of questions to ask me, while I sat there thinking “ask me this!” This might improve if we play again, but for the first go through it seemed lacklustre.
There are mechanical parts of this game that niggle, but they are also core parts of Lasers & Feelings, not just Claws & Affect. I would play this again, but I would take the character creation and GM threat table and add it onto a different die rolling mechanic.
Now I have a better feeling for how often failure comes up, I might put more thought into how that failure can “stack” when there’s multiple cats acting at once. I think I did okay, but I could have done better.
I could also see a sentence or two being added to the “running the game” section that could get a new GM started a bit more easily.
Aside from that, however, this is a lovely re-skin of a game that I (apparently) don’t quite get on with. The character creation makes simple, yet beautiful, relationships emerge between the cats. The GM threat table is filled with inspiring and wide-reaching plot hooks.
Would I play this again: Yes
Would I propose this again on an intermission game night: Yes
Does it work well if playing remotely: Yes
Is it what I was hoping for? Not exactly. I think my ideal world situation is to see how Kevin might re-skin something more like Honey Heist. Then I think I’ll have found my ideal cats-vs-supernatural game.