Apr 27, 2014

Let's Talk Attributes

When I first approached the idea of a true "point-buy" system where you may customize a PC to your liking, I thought it was either nearly impossible or waaaaay over my head to do it without the resulting game being super easy to break over your knee. A year and change later I'd start to think I could do that, but only if I could find a "Focus Point" for PCs. A Focus Point would be something for the various special abilities of Characters and Mecha to draw power from, power up, and be costed around.

Attributes are that Focus Point. They're the core of all Characters and Mecha, and therefore the core of the rules themselves. Might is what you use to attack other Mecha and Weapons are conditional bonuses to Might Tests, and nearly every Mecha wants to have some Might as a consequence. Energy does not do anything on its own, but it conditionally boosts all the other Attributes to make them all perform above average for a fraction of what it would normally cost. Systems protects you from Extreme Terrain and extends the Range of your guns, but is also directly tied to the power of Restoration and Support abilities.

Everything revolves around your Attributes and is balanced around them. Like with any design paradigms that you decide over others, this has its pros and cons.

Three Reasons it Works

It is simpler to create PCs with. Instead of forcing you to compare various premade classes to find out the one that does what you want for your PC best, you can just pick whatever you want from the start. If you want to be the strongest and fastest hitter on the battlefield then you know you need Might and Speed. If you want to be a walking fortress that's Guard and Threshold. If you want to have a flamethrower, forcefields, or the ability to fly you can just grab those without much trouble. Easy peasy.

It is simpler to play with. You don't have to worry about weapon damage tables, armor resistance types, hit location spreads, tracking ammo and fuel, radar systems or acceleration speeds and types of movement. The most complex and possibly finicky of the six are Energy and Systems, but at the base level they still are "Energy is how much juice I have per Turn and a point of Systems is a point of Range" and Systems only gets more complicated if you choose to build around using it as your primary or secondary Attribute.

It is easier to design and balance. This one comes with a caveat, but generally speaking it is so much easier to work with than any class-based or level-based system I've modified for my use or worked with as staff member. You have no idea, seriously. The caveat is that a pure class and level based system is easier on its own, but when you let people customize said classes and levels from a common pool of Skills/Talents/Feats/Whatever the balance almost inevitably tips greatly towards one or more classes.

Attributes are the primary reason the game works as intended, because it was engineered around them working the way they do. But with that said, it does have a few complications.

Three Complications it Creates

All PCs need a ton of XP. If we want the average PC to be reasonably competent, they will need a lot of points for said character. Not only do they need to have enough to get some Attributes, but they also need to have enough left for everything else afterwards. Finding the right balance between "just enough" and "too much" is difficult, and I'm glad that I have Power Levels to help with that. The consequence there is that low end PCs are a little lacking and top of the line ones have absurd amounts of XP, with the sweet spot being somewhere in the middle. Since you can use whatever Power Level you wish, that's not a big issue.

Attributes are often more efficient than abilities. Attribute purchases scale and abilities have a static price, but Attributes can't be too expensive or else we make the issue with the previous paragraph worse. This means that, for the first few raises, Attributes have to be cheaper than most abilities that revolve around them. Special abilities would be used to specialize and perform above average, but not before then. This means you'll be essentially purchasing Attributes for the most part with your first few points, and it tends to make low Power Level characters look a bit samey. Like with above, being able to choose your Power Level goes a long way.

Advancement is not all that exciting. Roughly half of your total XP (maybe a little more, maybe a little less) will be spent on Attributes. I think that increasing your Attributes is a good way to show that your PC is growing or powering up, but it is not as flashy as getting a new gun or learning a new robo-kenjutsu technique every other session. On the other hand that is more in line with how anime character progression works, and it does make each new ability you get feel more rewarding instead of being the powerup of the week.

We at Gimmick Labs are always looking for ways to improve the experience of our end users. I feel dirty having typed that out, but the point is that even if these quirks will always be there, I can always make them feel more like features than bugs. Thus the revamp to the Attribute advancement, XP, and Power Level system in our first Experimental Mechanics issue.

Enhancing the Game

There was quite a bit of talk about said revamp, and most of the disagreements with it seemed to come from the XP per Power Level, saying it was not enough to work as intended. My mistake came from keeping Attribute costs slightly lower and decreasing the total experience earned per Power Level to compensate, when it should have been equal or perhaps higher.

To be honest, more XP per Power Level is a change I can work with, and that I doubt anyone will mind. Would you like to have more toys or less? I am fairly certain the answer would be yes more often than not, I'm not even sure it is worth polling. What might be worth polling are the costs of each individual +2, though, but that's for later.

What I am more interested in keeping is Enhancing Attributes by 2 per advancement. I've stated above that you're going to do a lot of Attribute purchases, and while I provided a multitude of templates to make using them at various Power Levels easier, the actual purchases are more complex to work with. If you don't use any of the templates and want to customize your starting array, arranging your starting Attributes is kind of annoying. That is the primary reason behind this change. But it does have some nice side effects.

To continue our streak of explaining things by threes, here are three more beneficial side effects. Some of these are from last week, but one is new.

It does not alter the balance of the game. I can keep most XP costs as they are, and only would have to make some Upgrades and Weapons cost slightly less or more in terms of Energy, not all of them though, but for example most of the Upgrades that cost 5 Energy to use would cost 4 instead. I don't have to rewrite the rules significantly, except possibly those for NPCs. That means no builds are changing significantly other than by getting an XP boost.

We can start rounding things up. The primary reason that anything rounds down in this game is because a lot of Attributes are getting halved here and there, and causing those to round up would encourage you to have everything as odds rather than evens, making a 10 never worth it when you could get a 9. If Attributes are always even there is no rounding up or down to be done with them, so we can afford to make halved instances of Damage round up and speed up the game just an inch more.

We can break the Attribute cap of 10. More XP to go around and lower total XP costs means characters at PL 5 are effectively as Godly as the name of their tier implies. At that point they start to look the same again, not because they don't have enough to diversify, but because they've had enough to get everything. I think letting PCs achieve Legendary status with their Attributes is fair, it lets hyper-focused specialists remain the best at their fields and gives Bosses something to do beyond getting 10's in everything. I don't know how much it should cost, it could be 20, 25 or even 30. But the exact value can be settled later. The one thing I do know is that Grunts won't ever be touching this.

I really, really want to make this change work. If it doesn't, that kind of blows but we'll move on. But if it does, it'd be a pretty good improvement. My internet service has been terrible for the entire weekend so excuse the lack of images in between sections, just getting this posted was an ordeal in itself.

Apr 20, 2014

BCG April Update

Ah, Easter. In my corner of the world, it is known for being the year's one four-day weekend, making it perfect for meeting friends and family, taking a mini vacation trip somewhere close, and writing roleplaying games.

That is how people usually spend their holidays, right? Shutting themselves in and writing stuff, no? Anyway.

Today I have for you a middle of the road update. The text has less typos, is better organized, and in general things are clearer. There's still a lot of layout work to do (the current page backgrounds and sheets are placeholders) so I will probably do another of these updates with 'quality of life' improvements in 1-2 more months. Hopefully after that the game will be finished.

A few weeks ago I brought up what you were going to see today, and the grand majority of it remains the same. A few things did change between then and now though, so let's go over them quick.

Two Promotions and two Demotions

The grand majority of changes are buffs, and they are either pretty inoffensive buffs or obviously necessary. Those are 'Stable' changes, while the more adventurous and dramatic changes are called 'experimental' and have their own separate pdf.

Two supposedly Stable changes stood out in discussion as being perhaps more strong than intended: Interference Bomb and Electro-Sapper Pods. To ensure that their power level is fine they'll go in the experimental manual for now. In the meantime, Interference Bomb will halve the Might of all Units in an Area, while the Pods remain as-is because a bonus 1-3 points of Damage isn't a bad deal anyway.

Two Experimental changes got promoted to Stable: Powered Rifle and Your Fate is Sealed. They aren't really significant enough to warrant months of testing, though they are quite powerful if you make the most out of them. Your Fate is Sealed which denies Tension and healing entirely but only for one Round. Powered Rifle which takes a bit from its Boosted counterpart and has improved Range when you Aim (A Range of 20 is not too difficult to get), but can only be used against targets at least at Range 5.

Because sometimes you just need to shoot beyond the horizon.

Changes I Forgot to Mention

Tweak things back and forth while testing them out long enough and you will forget to note down some of them. While checking out feedback and comparing it to my notes I realized that I forgot to bring up a few more changes. Here they are:

-Experimental Reactor got a slight nerf to cost 2 Energy instead of 1.
-Got you Where I Wanted lets you move the target a number of Zones equal to the entirety of the Damage.
-Take One for the Team lets you redirect all of the Damage towards the user.
-Bloodlust was missing its Level 2 buff, now it grants 5 Might.

Two are welcome buffs, one is a moderate nerf to basically the game's best damage increasing ability, and the last was kind of obligatory. There really is not much else to say.

An Absolute Barrier works pretty well with Take One for the Team.

Expanded Experimental Material

Three weeks was more than enough for me to notice some of the more obvious problems with the first draft of the Experimental Content I posted. It was also enough to come up with some more things to try out. The most dangerous change (yet also the most exciting) was by far the buff to Commander Type, I did say that it was potentially extraordinarily powerful... And that's basically what it was.

At the end of the day the only way to effectively counter a Commander Type User was to cut off their energy supply...  Through another instance of Commander Type. In consequence I retouched and weakened it a little. It is still very powerful though, so be careful if you want to allow it in a game.

That's the bad news. The good news is that there are two new buffs: Don't Give Up now restores an amount of Threshold equal to the user's Systems and Overcharge costs 5, so that you can combo it with the Experimental Commander Type.

Closer and closer to a viable Mecha concept.

And last but definitely not least...

Attribute Advancement Changes

All PCs under the Experimental rules start with 100 Character Points and 100 Mecha Points to spend however they wish at Power Level 0. Each Power Level also grants them 20 Character Points and 20 Mecha Points, plus a Genre Point and a Genre Power. Attributes start at 0, and you Enhance them in instances of +2 each, as shown in the table below.

I pinky swear that any resemblance to mechanics from GGG is coincidental.

Let's quickly go over what this accomplishes:

Elimination of leftover points: The way the math worked previously it made getting 4's and 5's the one surefire way to avoid having a leftover of points. I was aware from the beginning that low PL characters would look a bit same-y Attribute-wise, but even after that the increases tend to come in '15s' (4 to 6 or 7 to 8) because otherwise you'd have 1-4 spare points you can do nothing with. With everything coming in multiples of 5 that would no longer be a problem.

Starting characters have more XP and can spend it on whatever they wish: This allows for a little bit more variety in what starting Characters and Mecha can do. The total XP at Level 1 is basically the same amount, but being able to do whatever you want with it does help. It is also less confusing because you don't have to manage a predetermined amount for Attributes, a predetermined amount for abilities, and then the amount you can do anything with. This one is all upside as far as I'm concerned.

High Power Level characters have less XP: This one is half upside and half downside. On one hand it cuts down on some of the more powerful strategies that PCs of PL 4 and 5 could get away with... On the other hand, that's not always a bad thing. Having less XP at the high end makes things easier to balance and also weakens Grunts and Bosses, not just PCs and Rival NPCs.

Your Attributes can only be in even numbers: Again this one has its pros and cons. The con is that there is less freedom in how you can distribute your Attributes and you can't really make a Character with slightly under or above average Charm, it has to be strictly average, bad, or great. The game already grades your Attributes by twos, though, so it is not really a big change in that regard. Also, by having all Attributes be always even, we could reinstate the old rule of always rounding halved values up. I'm not entirely sure this is the right call yet, but the main reason BCG roundes values down is that there is a lot of Attribute halving going around and the balance of the game is better when Attributes are rounded down, not up.

Attributes are slightly cheaper to increase and more convenient to manage: Even if there is less XP to go around, Attributes are actually cheaper to increase now so endgame PCs can end up with builds that are pretty similar to the ones in the current version of BCG. It might sound like a loss of 40 points, but it is really more like a loss of 20-30, and it is spread through five Power Levels. It does not hurt that much, but it does mitigate the commonality of some late game obscene combos.

There's a few more side effects, and honestly I should go more in depth into the numbers there, but I think it should get a post of its own if I am going to do it justice.

That it feels similar to this is a nice bonus.

One More Thing

Terrain. Yes, that thing is Terrain. There has been some (quite a bit of) confusion over how Terrain and Terrain-like effects work. The troubleshooting section does clarify this, but it keeps coming up so perhaps I ought to rewrite how they work so that they're more intuitive. Currently abilities like Flyer and Anti-Gravity let you ignore Terrain, but not Terrain effects like those of Incinerator or Ensnaring Trap. Terrain effects also do not stack, so you can't be set on fire twice but you also can't be set on fire while having mines detonated under you. Well, you can, but the second effect will not do anything.

The general idea was that I could let the effects be stronger if they couldn't stack, for example Ensnaring Trap halves two Attributes when I originally was going to make it only halve Speed. I do like the way Terrain itself works, but the abilities that cause Terrain effects might be in need of a touchup. Hence the poll you see to the right.

I could rewrite abilities like Incinerator or Ensnaring Trap so that they create Zones of Extreme or Difficult Terrain, thus they would function in the way that seems to make the most sense, without having to change any other rules. But I could also change Terrain slightly and make the negative conditions stack if you apply multiples of them on the same Zone or target.

I hope to get the production gears spinning a little bit faster in what is left of this month and the next. I have a schedule more or less planned out, so there'll be lots of things to discuss in the near future. The schedule itself should be the subject of a post coming soon, as well.

But that's for another day. Today Easter awaits. Have a Happy Easter if you celebrate and a Pleasant Sunday if you don't.

Apr 6, 2014

Designers do not Play Dice with the Rules

Last week I made a case for randomness in Roleplaying games, even for those with a focus on narratives and tactics, which are usually not random. To summarize, my points were:

Randomness adds an element of surprise. You never know for sure how well each individual roll of the die will go, it might spectacularly tip the odds in your favor or it might fail to achieve anything. When you cannot anticipate all that is going to happen then things are bound to be more exciting.

Randomness is fair because dice don't play favorites. In a conflict between characters of perfectly equal strength the winner will be the one who can take the most advantage of high rolls and mitigates better the bad rolls.

Randomness makes things less repetitive. If every battle against every enemy went exactly the same way, you would get bored of them pretty quickly. Your guns might get a lucky critical hit one moment and blow up in your face the next.

If we don't apply these traits correctly then our game becomes exactly the opposite. If you're not careful, randomness will transform your game into nonsense.

Nonsense can be fun though. Just make sure you do want nonsense.

Slice of the Dice

A good RPG knows just how random it wants to be and designs its rules around that. Some games are highly random while others save the randomness for very few specific instances. They are both opposite ends of a spectrum. I am going to gloss over Roleplaying Games that have no random elements to them and those that are entirely and one hundred percent random though. There are such games, but they are too extreme to compare them to BCG.

Deterministic games leave very little to chance, usually they are built around the idea of predictable outcomes and dice rolls all have a bell curve probability to them. You are usually in full control of your character and can reasonably tell in advance whether you'll succeed at something before you do it or not. These games tend to be better when their focus is on a strong coherent narrative and with an eye on game balance.

Chaotic games instead leave a lot to chance, seeking to create a strong play experience full of surprises. You usually have very little control over what happens since your own character is randomly generated. If Deterministic games are a walk through the park, then Chaotic games are a rollercoaster. These games are better when used to roleplay the type of fiction where the PCs are lowlives in a vast and uncaring universe where everything can and will go wrong.

Most games are, of course, somewhere between both of them. Battle Century G is closer to the Deterministic side of the scale. It solves conflict by using ten-sided plus a number between 1 and 10 to try and get a result between (most often) 11 and 21. You can add more modifiers on top to make sure your result is high, and sometimes you want to roll low while other times you want to roll even  but the gist of it is that the dice are somewhere between one third and one half of what makes your result - the rest is up to your Character.

Because it is a game with an emphasis on big flashy heroics and a smooth narrative, this works out just fine. If it were a game about insignificant nobodies who could die at the drop of a hat with no rhyme or reason because life is cheap, then it would need vastly different rules for conflict resolution.

This method would represent the idea perfectly.

Running the Numbers

I went with the d10, but I could have used something different.

I could have used a d6 instead of a d10, with lower Attributes (from 1 to 5) and Advantages becoming being transformable to a +1 instead of a +2 to compensate. That way the game would have a more coherent flow of narrative to it, leaving less things up to chance. I didn't, though, because the game is already Deterministic enough as is. You have Genre Powers to turn a failed roll into a success, several abilities that grant you Advantages to let you keep the better roll or add flat bonuses to the result, and other fancier stuff. If I were to make the game any more Deterministic it would be too easy to "solve" it like you would a math exercise.

Likewise I could have used a d20 and raised the Difficulty Number scales to range between 10 and 30 instead of 1 and 20, that would have made the game swingier and more exciting. But I didn't, because it is much harder to work with it on a mechanical level. Lower Attributes (between 1 and 10) would be worthless when compared to your die result, while high Attributes (between 10 and 20) would automatically succeed at many tasks. You could combine both of them (between 1 and 20) to get the best of both worlds, but you also get the worst of both worlds in that sometimes the dice decide everything and sometimes they are meaningless.

Instead of thinking about what the game would be like with d6's and d20's, let's think bigger. Let's think d100. For those who don't know, a d100 is two d10s but using one as decimals and one as units. This is often used as a "Percentile" system, where you want to roll under a specific number (say 50) and your odds of success that are an exact percentage (in this case, 50%). Percentile dice are very good for modeling a complex world with complex characters, because there is just so much range between 1 and 100 you can add a lot of detail to things that way.

The problem is that it is too complex and detailed to play smoothly. Making every 1% of that 100% matter is, to put it lightly, difficult. If you are not going to make every 1% matter and you'll just stick to making things come in chunks of 5% or 10%, then you might want to use a d20 or d100 instead. Percentile is also very, very random. It has more variance than the d20, though it fortunately has flat odds of success so it doesn't have the problem where your stats are either too high or too low to be comparable to the dice roll. It does work much better in Chaotic games though, especially those with tables of random results. I like percentile but it is difficult to design with it.

I could also use "dicepools", which is to say, have every Test involve lots of dice. Said dice can be added up to make a greater result, adding multiple d6s together (often between 2 and 4) to create a bell curve effect. You can roll very low or very high, but most of the time you will roll average. Much like with just having 1d6, I don't want the game to be that predictable by default.

There are also systems featuring "Exploding" dice. A die that explodes is one where getting the highest possible result means you get to roll again and add the new result on top of the original number. You roll a 10, and that lets you roll another d10, and getting another 10 lets you roll another one again. The name comes from, presumably, the fact that your totally average roll can randomly explode into a ridiculously high result. This is very exciting, as you can imagine, because it means you can poke a man with a stick and watch him explode in hilarious fashion, but it is also very difficult to balance because, well, a man can explode from being poked at. It is fun to play with but a little too random for my taste.

There is also one other method to solve things in a random way: Cards. You could have everyone draw cards at the beginning of an Operation and play them instead of rolling dice, using the appropriate number as the result. It adds a whole new element of strategy to it, because you want to save your best cards for your more important plays but at the same time you can't just play 1's early on because you'll just get killed. There could be ways to let you draw more cards and replenish your hand during your Turn too. The GM too would get to play like this, having more cards than the other Players and likely saving the good ones for the Boss while letting the Grunts die. It would make everyone perform much better when it counts, and I'd love to give designing a game like this a try sometime. The problem is that I do most of my gaming online, and decks of cards are harder to simulate with a chatroom bot than dice rolls.

There are also the d8 and d12 but I like to pretend they don't exist.

Seven Years of Bad Luck

No type of conflict resolution is inherently better than others. As long as you are aware of how each method works and what type of Roleplaying Games it is best suited for, you will do good. I know I've skipped over a few, but these are the ones I considered briefly for use with BCG. There are a few things that you should not do with randomness though, they are the "Taboos" of luck-based mechanics in a way, and anyone who breaks them will suffer frustrating gameplay and annoyed Players.

Randomness should always have an upside. The fun part from rolling dice comes from the possibility of getting a ten, and this is particularly true with exploding dicepools, making it akin to how playing the lottery means you could maybe win the big prize. What you should not do though, is to have an equivalent where getting a 1 means you automatically fail with dicepools. An in-built rule in the game that penalizes the PC for rolling badly, turns the excitement from rolling dice into tension and suddenly you don't want to gamble at all, which in this case means you don't want to play the game.

If you want to introduce tension to the rolls, you should make it a thing that happens infrequently like with Miracles or Overheating Weapons. If you want to introduce a random element that penalizes the Player (like say, a table to determine which mental illness you get from enduring a horrific experience) it should only have negative outcomes. That way you can still get "good" results because you're not getting the absolute worst ones you did not want, without being frustrated that you're still getting a bad thing.

Do not manipulate other Players' luck. Everyone has ways to manipulate their own randomness, and the game more or less revolves around hitting enemies for lots of damage and avoiding getting hit for lots of damage. To that end you can do lots of things to increase your odds of success and decrease those of your opponent. But the one thing that is barren from the land of mechanics is outright deciding results for your opponent.

If dice rolls are fun because you can get a ten, being told in advance that you can only get a five (or lower) in advance is really, really annoying. An ability that makes you tougher to hit by buffing your Defenses is powerful but feels right. Deciding someone else's dice roll result for them could be balanced until the intellectual half of our brains is fine with it, but it will never stop being annoying to the emotional half that feels robbed of the chance to make a cool move.

Frontload randomness and avoid making it the deciding factor. Random complications are fun when they happen early on and you can react to them. Randomness is part of the journey, but cannot be the destination. One dice roll should not be what resolves the climax of the game, that's why all Players have so many abilities they can use to power through bad rolls with bonuses or to fix a bad result with a reroll. If your character dies without you getting a chance to respond to it in any way then you feel like the dice robbed you of a character, but if you get a chance to respond to it and make a mistake you feel like you learned something.

This is why random character creation is so popular: If you get a character who is better than average then that's fantastic, but if you get a character who is below average then that's your chance to prove you can make it work because you're just that good. Even when it does not involve the rules and you're only randomly determining fluff traits, the challenge of making a strange combination of traits work is a fun exercise in itself.

Break these Taboos at your own risk.

Ultimately randomness is a double edged sword that makes things more fun as often as it makes them less fun. Battle Century G wants to have its cake and to eat it, because it has a fair degree of randomness to it but also gives you plenty of ways to control the results. If you want to write your own game then deciding how random it is and to what end it will use randomness is one of the most fundamental aspects. 

Until next week, may the dice be with you.