May 25, 2014

The Collateral that Kaiju Do

So I just watched Godzilla (2014), and I liked it. I didn't love it, but what was good about it mattered more to me than what was bad. That's my review, thanks for reading.

Because I am me, I could not stop thinking about Kaijus and the things that make them so cool but applied to Roleplaying. My favorite thing is that they are huge and unstoppable, they level cities just by walking around and kill anyone caught in the crossfire. Godzilla tradition is that the only thing that can beat a giant monster is another giant monster. Sometimes one of those monsters is "good", other times it is a giant robot, but even man-made machines created to stop Kaijus will leave devastating collateral damage in their wake.

To quote another movie about giant monsters: To fight monsters we created monsters of our own.

Mecha fiction often treats giant robots as a metaphor for nuclear power, this unstoppable force that can do great good and great harm. Kaiju, by the way, represent natural disasters and sometimes the wrath of nature itself. Consider that Japan is not just the country of Hiroshima but also from where we got the word Tsunami and our silly giant robot entertainment feels a lot more culturally meaningful.

The power to be a God or a Devil.
Great Power and Great Responsibility

One of my favorite things about giant robots in roleplaying is just how much power they put in the hands of the PCs. There are few ways to make someone feel like their PC is important and matters than giving them a walking weapon of mass destruction. The Mecha that are more down to earth diminish this considerably, but even Gundam touches on the issue a few times: If a beam weapon hits the reactor of a Mobile Suit, the Minovsky reaction causes an explosion devastating to the environment and other MS nearby. This forces Gundam pilots to engage in close quarters combat and defeat the other without hitting them there.  

In summary, giant robots are (and pardon the pun) a big deal. Getting that point across when you are running a game makes everything feel more powerful, it makes your victories more visceral and your failures more crushing. It is a matter of establishing the tone and gently pushing your Players to convey the mood, then reinforcing it with rules.

I've been writing rules for essentially two years, and it has been a long while since I wrote any actual campaign material. Contrary to most other people writing RPGs, I find fluff to be harder and less fun than crunch, but it is still a thing that I like to do and I kind of miss it. The good thing is that I am getting closer to the point where I can begin exploring other facets of Mecha as a whole, facets that might not be suited to the core universal system because most games wouldn't want to touch them.

I am talking about collateral damage, or the effects that Mecha have on the battlefield. Shows like Daiguard, Big O and Evangelion put a lot of weight behind the robots themselves, destroying the city wherever they go. If you want to explore that kind of thing, it would be cool to have some advice and rules for it, wouldn't it?

Why do you look so satisfied with the city in goddamn ruins?
How Would it Work?

I don't quite know yet, but I've got a few goals I know I want to prioritize.

Collateral should be a long term deal. If you have to protect a city from monsters or other robots, then damage done to that city should be a lasting feature. Let's say your city can take up to 10 points of Collateral before it becomes uninhabitable If your city takes 3 points of Collateral during one terrible and devastating Operation, it should heal maybe one per Episode or one per Arc, but not more than that.

The rules should be easy to work with. I don't want to have a dozen new Terrain types to differ Urban, Industrial and Rural Zones with their own rules concerning what happens if you, say, use a Blast Weapon there. It is not about tracking how many cows are dead or which houses got crushed. It should be something simple, but I admit that is probably going to be the toughest part.

It should feel somewhat random. You should not ever feel 'safe' just allowing Collateral damage to happen thinking that you can keep it under control. Maybe you think having the school crushed is fine because it is a sunday, but what if there were kids trapped inside and you never knew? This is one of the few instances in which I would advocate the use of rolling on a table to get random results to check if those points of Collateral were worse than expected.

The consequences should be felt primarily during Intermissions. Related to the above, an unexpected consequence would be along the lines of "One friendly NPC is first missing and only found after several days of searching injured or dead." or "The Police department is destroyed leading to several days of riots and looting." It should not cut the ability to repair PC Mecha, put a PC in jail, or cause something that forces someone to sit out of the game. At least not by the rules as written. If the group thinks that should happen, then that's a different matter.

There is a lot of virgin ground left unexplored and it is going to be fun once I can start tapping all that untapped potential. For now though, I've got to focus on Battle Century G core and I should have some news on that front soon!

May 18, 2014

Complex Business

Game design is about communication and like with any other thing where two (or more) people interact with each other, there is room for misunderstandings. To communicate in a way that is clear a game needs to be elegant, simple and concise. The more clutter your game has, the more likely it is that people will not understand the rules, be confused about what is going on in the middle of a game, or think they understand it all when they actually don't. Designing a game is a quest and Complexity is the dragon you must defeat to complete it.

But here is the thing: Complexity is also fun. If I wanted a game that did away with its complexity I'd be playing tic tac toe or rock paper scissors instead of doing this. You don't have to kill the dragon, just make it your ally - then you have a kickass dragon on top of whatever it was you were questing for. The point is that you don't have to get rid of complexity, you just have to know how to use it effectively.

As far as RPGs go, complexity works on three levels that I can identify. Some games stick to only one level, but most use all three. Today I'll go into those a little and how BCG uses them, while elaborating on what makes them good when done right or bad when done wrong.

Just remember some people will get it wrong no matter what you do.

Concept Complexity

Concept Complexity is the simplest of the three levels, and is the one we usually talk about when we say that a rule is simple or complicated. Concept Complexity is a combination of fluff, the rules of the game, and using language efficiently. More Concept Complexity makes each special character ability unique from a flavor and rules standpoint. But the more of them you have, the more complicated they have to be to keep them all unique. Having ten pages of weapons or spells distinctive from each other is the hallmark of a game with a lot of Concept Complexity.

At the core, Concept Complexity is about making the game's nuts and bolts unique. When you execute it properly, Concept Complexity makes each of the components in your character sheet stand out because each one is a different cool thing. When you execute it badly you end up with rules that are either poorly explained or carry a ton of unnecessary baggage.

For an example I'll use Combinations, one of the most difficult things I've ever had to design, more specifically Component Unit.

Component Unit
Internal Upgrade (10)
Effect: Choose one of the four External Areas belonging to the Unit you will combine with. After you have Combined, the lead Unit gains all of your External Upgrades and Weapons assigning them to the chosen Area and it may use your Might, Guard, Systems or Speed in place of theirs if it is higher. You are now a Subpilot for the lead Unit. If the chosen Area is Maimed the lead Unit does not lose you as a Subpilot nor do their Attributes return to normal.
Parts of your Mecha have been clearly designed to be linked up and shared with other giant robots. Maybe it can form the arms of even larger Mecha’s torso, or turn into a giant backpack for another Mecha.

This has quite a bit of text, so it ranks pretty high on the Concept Complexity chart. When you read it for the first time and break it down sentence by sentence the process should be something like this:

-I have to choose an Area? I wonder what that will do.
-Oooooooohhhhhhhhhhh I see I can use this to turn into the head! And this gives the other PC my Attributes. Cool.
-And I am now a Subpilot. Okay that makes sense, I'll look up what that means later.
-If the Area gets beat up I can still help. Neat.
-Oh hey the Subpilot thing is right next to this ability. How convenient! Subpilots can take Utility Actions and don't get to Move for free. That's fair.

Not included: Explaining how combining is supposed to work.

In rules terms there is a lot going on here, but most of it is pretty intuitive if you've ever watched a show with combining Mecha. By making "Subpilots" their own thing in a sidebar we unclutter the rules text and because the rule now has a name it is harder to forget what it does. It is not all that difficult to memorize it after using it two or three times.

Could Component Unit be even simpler? Yes, but not without losing some of its flavor or utility value. Tilt the Concept Complexity too much towards fluff and you get a hundred guns with their own range, clip size, weight, loudness and other things that are supposedly relevant but often aren't. Tilt it too far towards rules and you get gimmicky things that are different for the sake of being different and don't really resonate conceptually. Cut corners when editing and you end up with something that is confusing and needs to be read like three times over.

Most RPGs have a lot of Concept Complexity, the exception being the most freeformish or storygamey of the bunch. The problem is usually not in having Concept Complexity at all, but in not managing it well. Sometimes less is more.

Play Complexity

 Play Complexity is the most extreme of the trio, because games tend to either revel in either having all they can get or avoiding it as much as humanly possible. Play Complexity emerges from the choices available to a given player in the middle of the game, depending on what else is going on at the time. In BCG you have to keep track of things like Terrain or Tension that make some of your Upgrades and Weapons more or less useful depending on context, so it has a decent amount of Play Complexity. But you don't have to keep track of visual ranges, acceleration speeds or fuel usage so it is not all that complicated when you compare it to other similar games.

The flip side of the coin is that games with too little Play Complexity limit your options to shooting your guns at the bad things until they stop moving. Some PC abilities use existing rules to create Play Complexity, like Techniques do with Tension. Others create new spaces of Play Complexity, like Restorations, which have their own little rules system somewhat independent from the rest of the game.

Play Complexity also exists in the form of abilities that react to triggers, like how Active Defenses can be used in response to an attack or Invincible Alloy keeps you alive with 1 Threshold when you would have normally been destroyed. Every single one of those is another thing to keep track of in the middle of the game. Failing to remember a key modifier at the right time can lead you to lose when you ought to have won and that is pretty frustrating.

Basically don't be the guy on the left but be the one on the right.

When you pull it off, Play Complexity makes for dynamic and intense game sessions. When you mess up the execution, Play Complexity makes for fiddly and wonky mechanics that get more in the way than they help you have fun. Play Complexity can be tricky because the rules can be simple individually but complicated when you get them all together. A single Enemy with Commander Type is one NPC with essentially two Actions you have to take into account, and each new Support makes said accounting more difficult.

Build Complexity

Build Complexity is about the choices you have when creating a character or powering them up. In some games all you have to do is choose whether to be the fighty one, the brainy one, or the charming one and maybe pick a favorite skill or piece of equipment then you're done. BCG has quite a bit of Build Complexity, but since the entire point is that you're supposed to make a pilot and giant robot to taste, that issue is more of a feature than it is a bug.

Customizing your PC to your liking can be a fun minigame in itself in a good game, and that is what BCG aims for. Not just that, but your choices of Skills and Upgrades tell the GM more about the kind of game you'd like to play. If all your sheet says is "Elf Wizard" then you're probably interested in learning more arcane secrets. But if you chose Stealth, Survival, Animal Person and Danger Instinct for your PC you are telling the GM that you expect to see action outdoors and that you can work well on your own if you have to do it, and they can use that information to plan something suited to your character.

Build Complexity also has an element of long-term strategy to it - if you figure out ahead of time how you want to make your character grow and work towards that plan, you'll have a stronger character. It rewards optimization and number crunching a fair bit more than spontaneous decision making, but this is basically true of any game that puts the Player in control of character advancement. What there are things I can do to mitigate it: We have templates to help you with choosing your initial sets of Attributes + Cool Stuff, Mid-Scene Upgrade can make up for weaknesses in your loadout and the book outright encourages rebuilding or switching Mecha if they aren't working out for you.

Build Complexity adds a lot of replay value to the game because you can have similar characters that play out in different ways. You just have to be careful not to turn the process of character creation or advancement into homework by having way more options than you could need. BCG minimizes the amount of options by condensing similar ones together like how the Temperature Miracle does both heat and cold (with the option to specialize in, say, fireballs and do nothing else if that's your thing) or Terrain Specialist works for ground, aquatic, or 0g environments but makes you choose one.

Having too many options makes it harder to find what you want.

That Wasn't so Complex

Complexity is a double-edged sword, and knowing how to use it will open up new venues of play that other games lack. You can minimize complexity if you don't want to deal with it though, and that works if you don't mind having less options. Battle Century G is all about op
tions, but keeps complexity at arm's reach rather than fully embracing it. Part of why I like complexity as a designer is that it makes my job easier - it is easier to describe a flamethrower's rules in a hundred words than ten - but as a GM and Player I also want to have a game that can be played with minimal trips to the rulebook to look up stuff you don't remember.

It is difficult, but that's what makes it so satisfying when it works.

May 11, 2014

Terrain Ho!

When I first wrote Incinerator, Ensnaring Trap, and all those other pretty little abilities that mimic Terrain were slightly different. The ones that caused Extreme Terrain outright said "Flyer and friends won't make you immune to this." while the ones that halved Guard and Speed just said "This halves Guard and Speed." and did this specifically to make sure everyone got how they worked. I later thought of doing away with the reminder text to tidy them up a little and tried to convey it saying "the effects of Terrain" instead of creating a Zone of Terrain. Then I added a bit in the Troubleshooting section so the way they work would still be clear and the abilities would have less redundancy. Mission acomplished!

...It turns out the old way was much more clear. Whoops. That brings us to the most recent poll in which I bring up a third option: Turning them into abilities  that create Zones of Difficult/Extreme Terrain. For the most part this changes very little, it just weakens them slightly because now you can avoid them via flight or terrain adaptation. It is an acceptable setback, all things considered, but more on that later.

Anyway this also got me thinking about possibly making a few changes to Terrain itself. If abilities that mimic Terrain could use a rewrite to work like you would expect them to, then Terrain itself could also deserve getting another look at. It is not an herculean task by any means, but still one not to be taken lightly.

Time for a (relatively) short aside about rewriting things!

I'm no stranger to tweaking mechanics until I get them right, and can do adjustments on things that just need a slight buff or nerf fast and easy. The problem is when a change is not a matter of tweaking one or more knobs but requires an actual rewrite. Changing the rules of a thing often means changing what that thing represents in fluff terms and sometimes it requires changing multiple other rules to go with it.

I'm fine with doing that too, in moderation and for a good reason, like with Beams and Attributes/XP. But those changes are not just more complex from a design standpoint, they also take a whole lot longer and sometimes delay other things. When you have a +2 Gun of Shootin Gud and you buff it to make it a +4 Gun instead, everyone understands what you're doing right out of the gate. When you turn it into a +2 Scoped Silenced Gun of Shootin Gud you have to first test it out to make sure that the scope and silenced bits work as intended, make sure you write out the final version in a way that reads as intended, then finally make sure it doesn't create a black hole in rules terms when sitting right next to the rest of the game. Playtesting and editing are twice as rigorous when rewrites are involved.

Terrain is one of those rare instances in that the Terrain rules can get a tweak and the rest of the game should hold up fine enough in theory. In practice there's a lot of other rules that care about Terrain and those are going to need adjustments in response to make sure they work not just fine enough but flawlessly.

Pictured: My editor every time I bring up rewrites.

Old Places with New Faces

Plain and Impassable Terrain are fine as is. They are both pretty simple concepts and Let's start with the simplest change I've got in mind.

Extreme Terrain: As is, but you can use the better of Systems or Speed with the Test instead of averaging it. Conceptually this means you can maneuver out of the way of trouble or use your equipment to mitigate damage depending on what you know best, rather than being forced to do both. I also think Extreme Terrain could use a slight nerf. Since the DN increases with Tension and you can get hit by Extreme Terrain twice per Turn, repeated exposure feels like you're being hit by multiple Techniques. This way Extreme Terrain would still be pretty strong, but all it takes to decrease the average Damage taken is Systems or Speed, not both.

Difficult Terrain: Difficult Terrain would just halve your Speed and leave your Guard untouched. This is not because of balance concerns but rather for pure flavor reasons. Difficult Terrain is currently any kind of place where it is hard to move and you are a sitting duck, but if we change it to just halving Speed (what it originally did) we can now have Zones where it is hard to move but that also provide protection, like rocky hills or thick jungles. This would obviously affect the power level of anything that creates Difficult Terrain but let's set that aside for now.

Defensive Terrain: Defensive Terrain shields you with a Disadvantage against all attacks made against you instead of giving you a huge bonus only when Maneuvering. It does make sense that everyone would have an easier time in there rather than just Mecha playing defensively, right? This simplifies the entry considerably while making Defensive Terrain useful for everyone, not just the team tank. One Disadvantage may not seem like much compared to the combos you could pull off with it previously, but when you don't have to do anything other than sit there to get it every Turn, it tilts the odds in your favor considerably.

Simplifying Terrain and making it less excessive in its benefits and hindrances means we can let multiple instances stack safely. Two instances of Difficult Terrain will lower your 4 Speed to 2 and then to 1. Three of Extreme Terrain means you get hit between three and six times during your Turn. Four of Defensive Terrain means four Disadvantages or a +8 to Defense.


Terrain-to-Terrain Weapons

We need to update two Weapons and two Supports that deal with Difficult and Extreme Terrain. Let's not waste further words and get to it.

Ensnaring Trap: Halves Guard and Speed for a Round. Creating Zones of Difficult Terrain does not achieve much by itself, even if it were to continue halving Guard. Anybody you hit with it can just move 1 Zone away, after all. It also basically fails to do anything if they can fly, so just causing a debuff seems the way to go.

Finger Net: Halves Guard and Speed in the area of effect. This was always intended as an area debuff to more than just Speed, and thus would work more or less the same way it does now. It hits more targets than Ensnaring Trap and even deals some Damage but you have to get up close to do it, which makes it harder to use.

Fire at Will: Hits the target for Tension Damage and creates a single Zone of Extreme Terrain for one Round. The first real change. Just having one Zone of Extreme Terrain is pretty weak, most of the time it will only hit once and you can use your better stat to negate the Damage. This one hits twice right out of the gate, so it feels like a more focused Bombardment - and you better move out of the way before the second barrage hits you.

Incinerator: Gets a clarification at the end that it ignores abilities that would normally cancel Extreme Terrain. The flavor of being on fire makes sense like this and the simplicity of Extreme Terrain is important enough from a rules perspective that I don't mind making this the only ability in the game that needs this kind of reminder text.

There's other minor adjustments to make with things like Remote Hotfix or Stealth Field, but that covers the big ones. That's it for this week. I don't have a poll to follow the last one with but I'm still interested in hearing what you think.

May 4, 2014

Mid-2014 Status Report

Any time you start a project you have to know that you can have it done Fast, Good or Cheap, and that you can only pick two. To do something quick you have to either sacrifice quality or put up for someone else to help you out. Finishing a quality project necessitates a budget or plenty of hours to sink into it. If what you want is to do it cheap, you'll have to take your time with it or risk delivering something that just isn't as good as it could be.

The motto of "Fast, Good or Cheap but only two at a time" is a good rule of thumb to follow for any kind of project, especially those that require hiring other people. Sometimes you have to make do with just one, and sometimes you get to have all three, but most of the time you should be planning with two in mind. Last time I checked I wasn't in the shovelware business, and placing my budget somewhere between A and F nets you a G. That leaves time as the sacrificial scapegoat.

But hey patience is a virtue, good things come to those who wait, a delayed game is eventually good while a bad game is bad forever and so on and so forth. Where I'm going with this is that getting art for a two hundred page book has been going slowly. You need to give your eyes something juicy to taste in between all the rules, descriptions, guidelines and whatnot. Big names in the RPG trade know this and have least one piece of art every two or three pages, while the indie side tends to show a few illustrations every ten pages or so then repeat them in their bestiary or gallery of example NPCs at the end.

I'm going for a middle of the road approach, with something to let your eyes rest from all the words every five pages or so, though most of it would be bunched up in the end chapter. Without doing repeats that means that means forty unique pieces to cover two hundred pages. Anime is a popular thing, so if you spend some time looking and you'll find some pretty good artists who can do character design cheaply and without taking forever to finish.
The very first BCG design piece that I received.

Mecha art is a completely different issue though. Turns out mechanical design isn't so easy to come by! Our triad of Fast, Good or Cheap comes into the picture here, so it is going to take longer than expected to get everything finished. Do I have a tentative date? I currently have half of the art I'd like to have, so let's say around December/January.

On the positive side that means more time for me to make sure everything else is in order. It is plenty enough for proofreading to hell and back, tinkering with layout to find optimal arrangements, and adjusting the balance of things up and down as necessary. I think it is going to be for the better.

What Comes Next

I intend to use the next few months on the next step of the process: Expanding the game. That means rules and guidelines to better adapt the rules to sub-genres of Mecha like fantasy a la Dunbine or Escaflowne. It means including a Sanity system for games where PCs are neurotic and either suffer it like in Evangelion or revel in it like Getter Robo. It means more complex abilities like Downgrades that weaken your Mecha but grant you extra MP and Genre Powers that scale in usefulness if you spend Energy or Actions when using them. There is more, but let's not start building castles in the sky yet.

None of these will be coming out until BCG is finished, and they're barely more than drafts for the time being. But the plan is that you'll be able to take a look at them not too long after BCG is out. I think it'll be along the lines of a hundred more pages worth of content. Will a hundred pages really take a little over half a year? Well, yes. Probably.

I do most of my RPG writing on weekends and the occassional weekday night, this timeframe covers anything that goes into a manual, stress testing PCs/NPCS, and even this blog. I come up with new ideas during my one hour of train ride to and back from work, and that is also when I write proof of concept PC/NPCs using them as well as doing the general number crunching. A short aside: I have realized during the past few years that I have something of an addiction and that I can't even watch TV without a notepad next to me because I always come up with something while I least expect it. It is usually between ten and twenty hours per week, not counting actually playing and running games or the stuff I do while I'm away from home.

Good writers can do a thousand words of coherent writing that won't make an editor cry in an hour on a good day. I wrote most of the GM advice section during a single afternoon, at a rate of one 900-1000 word page per hour. Most of the time it would take me somewhere between one and two hours, and that is ignoring any time spent planning out how to write it, researching the subject matter or, God forbid, the time wasted when inspiration does not come easy.

Obviously this breaks down entirely when it comes to rules. Designing a single Weapon in a way that communicates clearly what it is and how to use it can take one minute or ten, for example. Then there is all the rewriting that inevitably happens during the development process. For a hobby it feels a lot like work. Funny thing, that.
But then I look at this little guy and it is all so very worth it.

That concludes our Status Report. I have considered that, since it is going to take time anyway, I could run a quick one month crowdfunding campaign to add more art and chop off some more months of waiting time. The big problem with that option is that my country is batshit tsundere about the US Dollar to the point that companies put bizarre barriers on their services offered here. It can be solved, but it is a hassle.

I said this before but it bears repeating, no matter what happens the rules will be available for free. Games exist to be played. It sounds obvious, but I think a lot of designers fail to realize this, and I'm not a fan of RPGs that are commercial products first and games second.