Feb 23, 2014

Battle Century's Genre

Right after a brief explanation of Roleplaying Games in general, the first few pages of Battle Century G talk about the Mecha Genre. It is a pretty broad definition that is more about execution and style than concept and themes. Fantasy is usually about good and evil, Science Fiction is usually about the progress (or regress) of society with new technological developments, and Romantic Comedies are about Ben Stiller doing the same character over and over. Mecha sometimes is a little like fantasy, sometimes a little like Science Fiction, and an unfortunate lot like Romantic Comedies aimed at perverts.

Featured: A show that had official porn made of it to fund a second Season.

Battle Century G is built on the idea of having an effects-based universal system for Mecha. That is all well and good, but Macross is very different from Godannar which is very different from the Evangelion. Odds are that if you were to try and run a RPG centered on their worlds with their cast of characters, some (or most) of them will feel out of place. The differences in tone between Godannar's hijinx and Evangelion's drama is so jarring it grades on the Richter magnitude scale. From this we have to conclude that you cannot really make them part of a single unified Genre.

So what is this Mecha Genre then? A lot of Mecha fiction has common elements that, during the translation to a different medium, we can emphasize to make them stick and build the rest of the narrative around. Battle Century G has a distinctive feel to it gained from the way it mixes and matches elements from many different genres into a single cohesive entity.

Collaborative Tone and Mood

A few sidebars tackle some of the issues you could run into when translating giant robot storytelling conventions into Roleplaying Game form. For brevity's sake I will not be discussing the complications, but instead I'll bring to the front how it facilitates things. Starting with issues of Tone and Mood.

For those who don't know, the Tone in fiction is the attitude the writer or narrator is trying to convey about their piece, while Mood is how the reader or audience feel in response to the Tone. A Roleplaying Game about kids who build custom robots that beat each other up in a world tournament that has an upbeat Tone and embraces its zaniness will probably have a Mood like ROBOT FIGHTS ARE AWESOME. On the other hand if the Tone is about children being brainwashed from an early age into piloting actual giant robots when they come of age to die for their country then the Mood will probably be a tad more cynical and grim, even if the plot only goes as far as the teen championships.

Gundam Build Fighters
Pictured: A gritty drama about glorifying violence and consumerism. Not pictured: My sarcasm.

Tone in Roleplaying Games is usually the GM's work. They have the entirety of the world with all of its NPCs to sell the other Players a Tone. The job of the other Players is to establish a Mood, since the audience surrogates or main characters aren't written by the GM, but the Players. The GM can then take their Mood input and adjust the Tone according to their actions, or reinforce the intended Tone so the PCs will react accordingly and adjust the Mood themselves.
That alone takes care of the big issue about jarring shifts in tone and mood. It is a collaborative process, and everyone gets a say in it, so as long as there is an intent to actually collaborate from all parties involved things are a lot more likely to work out well. You can have lighthearted stories that get much darker sometime in the middle, or with intermittent spots of heavy drama, or just run a rollercoaster of a narrative full of extremes. You have to be careful with extremes of any kind, but this is a medium where the director gets to ask for the audience's consent first, so it usually works out much better.

Genre Themes incorporate the possibilities for doing all of those into a tiny little package that you can take in whatever direction you want. It is at its best when there are shifts from the whimsy of Typecasts to the heroics of Reasons to the tragedy of Banes. It does not have a set Tone or Mood, but you could say that it can fluctuate very well between a variety of them.

Faction Unity

A whole lot of shows with giant robots feature a cast of characters that is there to support the leads not just in a narrative sense, but in a fictional sense. There is this big organization staffed with mechanics who keep the robots functional, engineers developing their weapons, operators who keep the pilots up to date with information relays, and so forth. Everyone also has a common enemy they are fighting against like the Mecha Demon Legions from Hell, or the Space Nazi Empire, or just Kaijus From Another Dimension.

Most of the time this is just a handy way to to populate a series with a cast of minor characters who are relevant every once in a while and to let the main cast provide different perspectives on the same conflict. Many shows do away with the idea altogether and have the main characters as loners taking care of jobs without any immediately obvious connection to them. And they are pretty good shows!

But in Battle Century G assumes you are going to have a cast facilitating things out for the PCs as a single force. You could have a story about wanderers with robots looking for fame and fortune but the game expects you to have a recurring cast and for all the PCs to have a clear shared goal that keeps them working together.

This is a very big contrast to how most Roleplaying Games work. In the grand majority of them the PCs are wanderers looking for adventure and never staying in one place, the genre is like Pulp mixed with a Western. The second wave of massive Roleplaying Games did expect you to have established setpieces and a recurring cast to keep coming back to, but it also encouraged the PCs to split up among various factions and to be at odds with each other. These games are more about political intrigue and drama than combat, so it works for them. But they're still pretty different from Battle Century G's defaults.

Just in case you couldn't tell, this is who I am talking about.

Other games have "Alignment Systems" where characters who associate themselves with a similar moral values stick together, but if they don't want to they don't have to. That makes having conflict between them difficult, because they can just cut off communications between each other entirely. BCG wants everyone to be distinctively on the same side of the conflict. Even if they don't like each other, they have to work together if they want to win. They can have differences in how to resolve the conflict, or what to do after it is over, but the PCs are meant to be an unified force and so are the NPCs.

The unity of the group around a common faction is a subtle but important element of what makes the game work. It permeates everything from the attitudes of NPCs to why characters who hate each other might want to try and find common ground. The Faction that the PCs belong to is in many ways the avatar of Tone, it influences the Mood and the Mood of the PCs influences it in turn.

You could say that BCG's Genre is one of Faction-Based Action/Drama. You have a common goal, giant robots to fight with, and big heroes who trump big challenges. I'd like to go more in depth about this later, regarding which series it represents very well and which ones take more effort.

Feb 16, 2014

Level Select

One of Battle Century G's idiosyncrasies is that the Power Level you play it with alters the gameplay drastically. It does not change the rules of the game, but it does change the best strategies around. For the most part, you can still play pretty much anything, but if you're looking for optimization then each Power Level encourages different ways to play. Let's take a look.

A foreword: We could spend all day arguing whether a Scopedog would beat a Gundam in a fight but that is not the intent of this post. I am using well known classic Mecha as representatives of each Power Level but that is just my personal opinion of them.

Power Level 0

Models not to scale.

At this Power Level the Mecha are made of paper mache. Getting one or two good hits in will blow up almost anything, Extreme Terrain is a Squad-wiping hazard, and giant robots have to watch out for things like planes, helicopters or tanks that would usually be chaff.

The gameplay revolves more around positioning and trying to not get hit at all rather than overpowering your foes, because numerical advantage can and will make mincemeat of the Pilot. Beam Weapons are way too expensive to be worth it, but you do want a Shooting Weapon that you can use with Reversible Thrusters. A Support user can be invaluable because of their ultralong range strikes against Enemies with very low Threshold. Restoration Upgrades are just too slow or expensive to get much done, but Stealth Field is a godsend.

Overall it is still Battle Century G, but a superfast and more positioning-based version of it. It should make for a fun couple of games, though something like one third of the game's abilities are too expensive to be convenient, so I'm not sure it can sustain a long-term campaign.

Power Level 1

Still pretty firmly in real robot territory.

This is the recommended starting point for beginners, in which Mecha are closer to representing what we know as the giant robots of Main Characters. Level 1 Mecha stand out from their Level 0 brethren by having one or at most two special abilities going for them, and having superior performance otherwise. Combat at this Level is still pretty fast and decided by one or two super swings, but you can now take on Level 0 mooks who have the numerical advantage as a fair challenge without being terrified they might roll a 10.

You can specialize rather than generalize at this level but it will leave you with obvious weaknesses like having low Might or Speed. Energy-wise you can do anything but not everything, and can distinguish your Mecha with a special barrier or strong beam weapons. You could get both things if you feel like spending your entire Power Level's worth there, but that's as far as it'll get you.

Overall it represents basic protagonist Mecha fairly well, they are a tad similar stat and loadout wise outside that one Power Level of XP in tricks they spent, but at least you have Genre Powers so you're missing out on a lot less. Power Level 1 is meant to be an introductory Level where you still have to pay attention to things like Terrain and positioning, but it takes more than one mistake to ruin your day.

Power Level 2

World-Destroying Superweapon sold separately with Power Level 5 Expansion Pack.

Eventually you'll grow out of Power Level 1 into Power Level 2, or you'll just start there because you've got more toys to play with that way. This is the Level where the game begins to shine, where Boss-type Enemies can show up and Threshold goes higher than what one superattack can take out.

Your Mecha can now afford to cover their weaknesses or to uber specialize in something. If you are not using Beams, you should consider getting Weapon Specialization to remain competitive. Support Mecha get access to enough options they can start getting tricksy with chained Supports. Transforming or Combining Mecha don't lose out on too many points. Generally way more strategies are viable.

Overall this is probably the game's sweet spot with the least amount of weird idiosyncrasies. If your Mecha is just a fighter without many tricks up its sleeve, then this is the point of the game where growth slows down. Attributes are still cheap and you want as many as you can get, maximizing performance without diversifying. This is representative of most arcs where the main character has to learn to make the best of their giant robot and the GM starts to get creative with the challenges thrown at them.

Power Level 3

Here There Be Supers. Yes, I just called Gundam ZZ a super robot.

Power Level 3 is much like 2 but bigger, badder and better. Individual Mecha can go toe to toe with Miniboss enemies without help from their allies, are effectively playing Dynasty Warriors with all the mooks around, and have enough choice in Genre Powers to start thinking of combos.

You can effectively take on multiple roles now. Snipers can also be Support users while Duelists can put Restoration or Stealth Field to use. Beams get particularly attractive now, because you have enough XP to make the best of them with an efficient stat spread and also get Active Defenses.

This is the game's other sweet spot in my opinion, and the expected endpoint for games that start at Power Level 1. After this it is almost a different game. The late game Power Level issues that become more pronounced still haven't taken over.

Power Level 4

If you thought super robots defeating entire armies was silly, you haven't seen a Newtype push back an asteroid.

Combat is slow because of inflated Threshold values and all the defensive Upgrades running about. Expect battles at this point to be about who has more tricks up their sleeve. Weapon Specialization's barrier-negation ability is a gamewinner here since you can repeat it indefinitely. Halving Attributes is also very effective if you can do it repeatedly, as it should be a 3-4 point swing that lasts a whole Round.

Attributes are too expensive now to effectively keep buying them, but at the same time there is not much else you can do to diversify, so might as well go along with it. You might want to consider having backups for your most important abilities. For instance you could have Absorbing Armor to increase your Guard by 3 for 'free' a decent percentage of the time, or a Reactive Booster in case your Custom Defenses get disabled.

This Power Level is recommended as an endgame point for the most part, because the gameplay shifts dramatically. Beams are much more effective than their physical counterparts when there is this much XP to spare. Terrain is a non-factor because you ignore it on demand and cause its effects through Upgrades or Weapons when it would matter.

Power Level 5

Models very, very much not to scale.

This is Power Level 4 but taken up to eleven. You can get away with pretty much anything you can think of since you are bleeding XP. You can face multiple Bosses per Operation and they're all just as brutal as the PCs themselves. You want Beam-based Damage-per-Turn tactics to gun them down with quick focus fire or teamwork-based burst Damage based on Synchro Attacks and You can do Better than That to put them down ASAP.

It is similar to Level 0 in that it is better reserved for one-shots or short campaigns. Non-Beam Weapons just aren't competitive at this point outside of the rare megatank build that spends its energy shielding the team or healing itself. You want either ultra offensive glass cannons backed up with a single unit that can use Restoration, Support or Stealth Field. It is kind of repetitive.

It does represent Mecha fiction fairly well though. Of course they would laugh at Extreme Terrain, though that is frustrating for Support characters that were using it as a way to deal Damage. Of course they fight shooting death lasers at each other, but that makes half the weapons in the game ineffective choices.

We are on the Same Level

There's a lot to be said about balancing stuff around Power Levels, and each one of those paragraphs could easily make a full post of its own. Generally speaking the game can be divided into three categories (Levels 0-1, 2-3 and 4-5) and most of the rules were made with the intermediate Levels of 2-3 in mind.

Beam specialists have a hard time during Levels 0-1 because they are one-trick ponies beaten by a single Active Defense but dominate the game at Levels 4-5, and Fire at Will goes from ultralong range guaranteed Damage to a laughable nuisance. I don't know how much of this is a bug and how much of this is a feature, and I want to find out through real game experience rather than theorycrafting and simple playtesting.

Some things could be better though, and I will be taking steps to correct that. Experimental Reactor's bonus could be a little less aggressively priced. Likewise Chaindblade, Airstrike and Interference Bomb could all use the full Tension bonus instead of just one half of it. Electromagnetic Detonator could likewise stand to be more effective at its job, losing the area of effect and incorporating a 'burnout' effect like that of Cool your Jets. Fire at Will is a sketchier issue, but it could use a slight buff too, like incorporating Tension into the DN.

What about Weapons? It all comes down to Beam Weapons being more expensive and having an Energy cost. If they were to Cost 5 and didn't have that innate Advantage they would be more comparable throughout the course of the game. Why not make everything cost 10? Because at that point having any kind of weapon diversification really, really hurts - it basically becomes impossible to try and stat out existing Mecha of low Power Levels. We could keep some Weapons with a cost of 5 and some with a cost of 10 (spread out between Beam and non-Beam) but that would bring us back again to some of them being fundamentally weaker.

As always, let me know what you think.

Edit: I forgot to bring up Attributes. Those could also be priced differently too, but that is honestly more of a topic for a post of its own.

Feb 9, 2014

Let the Games Begin

As of today Battle Century G v1.0 Beta is available for download. Let's talk briefly about what it is and, perhaps more importantly, what it isn't.


Fully playable rules: The rules for Pilot Characters and their Mecha are complete and you can use them to play or run an entire campaign, or just to take a peek at what the finalized version down the line will look like.
Advice to help you visualize how the game is meant to be played and run: If you want to change the way the game is structured, there are also guidelines for doing that.
Three scenarios sharing a single setting: There is a pretty big setting ready for use, but because it is divided to focus in three different factions with their own battles, it is relatively simple and you don't have to worry about internalizing all of it.

Do not Expect

Art and other visual assets like Pilot and Mecha Sheets: They'll take time to get done, so for the time being you get a barebones black and white pdf.
Layouting and an index: The layout work is about halfway done, but there is the odd page here and there that could use some improvements, it also bears mentioning that there are bookmarks in the pdf and a table of contents to compensate for the lack of a comprehensive index at the end.  
Editing: The manual went through a quick editorial skim, but the comprehensive and detailed editing process will have to be later.

If you've read or played Giant Guardian Generation, and if you've been following the previews, you'll see a lot of familiar faces in there. Some things have changed slightly since the previews, but it is very much not GGG with a different coat of painting. So y'know, don't expect that. Here is a quick rundown of the manual's contents.

Chapter 0: Introduction - A more detailed version of what you're reading right now.
Chapter 1: The Rules - You'll learn how to play the game in this first quarter of the manual, this has pretty much every rule you'll need during a game session.
Chapter 2: Character Creation - This chapter has everything you need to know about your Pilot Character and what they can do. Probably the section most similar to its GGG counterpart.
Chapter 3: Mecha Construction - The same as above but for Mecha, with a big emphasis on having flexible rules to cover all types of Mecha or Mecha-like things.
Chapter 4: The Genre Master - The How and Whys of GMing Battle Century G have advice to help you pace your game, create memorable enemies, and more. There is a lot of that, to the point I actually printed it out for a friend who just needed general GM advice using an entirely different system.
Chapter 5: The Fluff - A game world divided into three scenarios each evocative of different Mecha genre conventions, plus a lot of example NPC Allies and Enemies. This one is pretty similar to the GGG version too, but it has a slightly tighter focus and tone.

That's the v1.0 Beta in a nutshell. I figure it will take half a year or so to finish it for good, maybe more, hopefully less. I will probably do one or two small updates in between to improve the layout and fix issues of clarity, spelling, or the like. But there won't be any gameplay changes until I've deemed the beta period to be over.

In the meantime, there are lots of things to talk about concerning how the game works. What it does very well, what it doesn't, what is balanced and what could get out of hand if you're not careful, and so on. Until next week it is!

Feb 2, 2014

Start your Engines

These two weeks have been... Hectic, to say the least. I am not even typing this from my own home, because the power in my block has been out for most of the weekend. Skip all the way to the next heading if you want to read about Battle Century G. I'll be using the next few paragraphs to explain the other changes starting from today.

It is a new blog, with a new face, under a new username, for a new game project. The previous blog had a good run for its two years, back when I thought that I'd make maybe one or two system updates to GGG and call it a day - a simpler time, to be sure. The game was a love letter to Super Robot Wars, one that worked around the limitations of a tabletop RPG and took a few artistic licenses to deliver a similar experience, but very much tried to be like the videogame series otherwise.

In many ways it was a big experiment, and I had no idea how well it would be received. You have to understand, if GGG 1.81 is a pretty unique RPG now, then GGG 1.0 was just plain weird. And I like that. I like experimenting and finding new veins of game design to mine. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn't. Sometimes I get carried away doing different things for the sake of being different, or I just do weird things to see if I can make them work. I admit I could do a better job reining those impulses in, though I'm getting better at that.

Part of it comes from me having read a lot about game design, but not having enough experience to know better about what works in practice and what doesn't. I've learned a lot in these two years, and one of these things I've learned is that communication is key. I want to get better at communicating, so I'm getting used to making one post per week, and I want it to be interesting to read even when there isn't an update on the way.

But why a new blog and username? Well, they were making things more complicated. You see, I'm a huge fan of the Megaman franchise of games, and I've been adopting Megaman-themed usernames for at least a decade now. TK-31 is this guy from the Zero series, who also goes by the name Elpizo.

I was silently giggling to myself when I put a picture of him in the section about GMPCs.

The problem with keeping that name throughout the years is that the internet is a big place. Usernames derived from media lend themselves to misunderstandings when someone is trying to reach you only to find the source of your terribly unoriginal handle. And that is before someone else also has the brilliant idea to also be inspired by the same source, at that point you better just stay out of each other's way or things will get confusing fast. Lastly, TK could be interpreted to be an abbreviation of my name... Which it very much isn't.

It worked well enough as my username when I was just writing a goofy super robot rpg, but I'm trying to take things more seriously now. And it wasn't working too well as a serious username.

Neo Arcadia was also the name of a fictional city from the games that TK-31/Elpizo originated from, so that also needed to go. I am still a nerd for Robot Masters, Reploids, NetNavis and their ilk though. So I figured I might as well crack a joke at their naming scheme (for those who don't know, they tend to have names like Elec Man or Splash Woman, there's more variations but that's the gist of it) and at my own game design tendencies while at it. Also the picture is of Amuro Ray because I think he is an alright chap, not much more to it than that.

Bringing this introduction to a close, I welcome you to my new laboratory, where I experiment with fun. I'm dead serious about game design now, so let's get on with the Battle Century G stuff already and I'll show you what I mean.

From Alpha to Beta

I know myself, and that I know that I could spend an eternity tweaking a +1 here and a +2 there, and I'm taking precautions against my obsessive perfectionism. I'm not officially releasing Battle Century G until every single ability has been satisfactorily tested and approved, the text has been thoroughly edited to be easy to understand and as mistake-free as it could be, and I have enough art to illustrate the manual with stuff I legally own.

I built GGG in a cave with a box of scraps, but I want BCG to be a truly professional work. What I can do by myself, I'll do it to keep costs down. What I can't (or shouldn't) do myself, I'll be hiring people to do it for me. I am spending money because I am committing to giving you all one true version of the game, maybe with some errata if it comes down to that, but the days of fervently rewriting things are long past.

And yes, the game will continue to be free. I might put up a paypal button for donations, or offer the fancy-looking version as pay-what-you-want, or something along those lines. But at the very least I guarantee you that the rules, which I'm pretty sure is what most of you reading this are here for, will be available for free.

GGG, now with 200% less G's and 100% more original material.

Unfortunately I don't have a download link to the beta manual for you yet. These two weeks have made it impossible to put the finishing touches on it, so it'll have to be next time. I wanted to get this stuff out of the way now rather than later, so next time will entirely be about the cool stuff you'll get to read.