May 15, 2016

BCG Retrospective I: The Episodic Structure.

Today I'm going to start the BCG Retrospective, a blog series reviewing various game rules to figure out whether something could or should have been done differently. If you like game design talk, this should be a fun read for you. I will be following the order of things in the book from start to finish, so we'll do the basic rules first then character creation, mecha construction, and finally going over the rules for npcs. This is going to be a long series that will take some time, but the updates will be regular (at least weekly, probably biweekly, maybe more if I find the time for it) so this might be the time to hit that Follow button to make sure you don't miss anything.

On to Chapter 1. The first bit of rules in the SRD defines Episodes and Scenes, it is not a super exciting opening but it is the one we've got. So! The way the narrative is structured, there's Scenes (divided into Intermissions and Operations), Episodes and Episode Arcs. The reason the way time is structured matters is because time measures how PCs replenish their resources. As time passes, PCs get back spent power/action/genre points, refresh abilities that can be used once per encounter/hour/scene and heal their wounds among other things.

Some would argue that it is more immersive or naturalistic to track things by hours or days, to which I say that it gets in the way of playing the game and makes things harder on the GM. The difference between both methods is that the more naturalistic method gives PCs the option to stall for time in order to always be at full power. Meanwhile, the abstract method of structuring time gives the GM full control over whether resources replenish or not, thus making it much harder to exploit the rules. Note that exploiting the rules this way isn't a problem if the PCs are always pressured for time or the Players themselves promise not to abuse the rules, but good rules systems should have as few ways to exploit them as possible. There is a joke in D&D saying that the typical adventuring day lasts five minutes, because after five minutes of combat everyone spends the rest of the day resting.

Battle Century G gives the GM the responsibility of measuring the passage of time, because it is their role to challenge everyone with appropriate Tests in Intermissions & Operations. To that end, they should be able to call when it is that people get back their Genre Points, heal their Plot Armor, reload their One-Shots and so on and so forth. To make things easier, the very first rules section in the book gives them a quick rundown of how the typical Episode goes and it boils down to "Do whatever with Intermission Scenes, just make sure there is one Operation per Episode." You can have more than one Operation per Episode, and the Expansion features a system hack to make the game work better that way, but it is not the default.

Partly this is because BCG adheres to genre expectations, making combat happen once per Episode against the monster of the week, but the real reason is that it tends to work better in gameplay. Nearly every resource that matters to combat is refreshed between combat scenes, making all PCs start every battle at full power. The grand majority of RPGs don't do this and expect you to only get back your stuff after several encounters with enemies, each one gradually wearing them down. In BCG, every Operation is meant to push PCs to the limit and possibly defeat one or more of them, forcing them to retreat - or die. Below are some of the pros and cons to doing things this way.

Pros:


  • Players get to go all out every fight without worrying about holding back good powers, weapons or items for later. This is the big one. Have you ever played a videogame and hoarded all of your powerups because you might need them later, only to win the whole game without ever using any of them at all? It is the same problem, but applied to tabletop RPGs. Players will save their best toys for as long as they can even if it is a bad idea to do so, they will struggle against foes during the first few fights because they refuse to use the powerful options they have at their disposal and overwhelm the superbosses meant to be a big climactic fight with all they've saved up. You can design the game around this and try to mitigate the problem, but this is just the way most Players will try to play the game, and a good game should enable them to do what they want to be doing rather than try to force them to play in a way they don't want to play. If you try too hard to correct them, odds are they'll just find the game unfun and abandon it at worst and houserule it so it works like they want it to work at best. 
  • Every battle carries a genuine risk to the PCs and takes effort to win. Solving problems with teamwork and overcoming difficult challenges is at the core of what makes RPGs fun. The easier things are, the more quickly you'll get bored of doing them, and the less that people will want to keep playing the game. If you need to get through two to three easy battles in order to get to the really fun one that takes things to the limit, at some point the pre-climax action scenes lose their sense of tension because you know you can win them easy with your big guns.
  • All PCs have equal chances of being relevant during every combat scene. If one PC has a streak of bad luck and is the target of too many enemies during one fight, they will have a lot less resources for the next set of battles. If the rest of the Players (GM included) don't make sure to account for this, then that PC will be powered down for the big action scenes that really matter while other PCs have an excess of ammo for their weapons, spells to cast or whatever else. This is most notably a problem with health, since a PC that runs out of ways to heal themselves in the middle of an episode arc or dungeon crawl is a Player that is going to be very bored when they spend half of the remaining combats with a K.O'd PC.

Cons:


  • It makes fights more repetitive because everyone can repeat the same strategy. When Players know that they will get all their stuff back when the fight is over, they will not hesitate to try to repeat the same strategy over and over. This is most commonly done with glass-cannon builds that attempt to blow out the opposition without leaving them a chance to fight back. Even if you can balance the game around this, it makes things repetitive, and repetition is generally not very fun. The way BCG goes to solve this problem is to try and enable as many possible builds for enemy NPCs that each and every PC strategy has a lot of counters. So many that they should always have some difficulty getting their plan to work, forcing them to always be on their toes.
  • When every battle carries a significant risk of defeat, there's higher chances that PCs will be defeated before they get to do anything cool. Making every fight difficult and nearly lethal to the PCs is good, but if the game is too lethal then some PCs will end up being defeated early in the scene and sit out the rest of combat which is not a very fun way to spend their time. The game must provide PCs with ways to mitigate this risk to minimize the chances of things going wrong, like the Not so Fast Genre Power.
  • Because every combat scene is meant to be an all-out battle with everything at stake, it is harder to surprise the PCs. Let's say you, the GM, want to set up a trap and catch the PCs unaware. This is a lot harder to pull off when they can be reasonably sure that a group of weak enemies are likely a distraction or somehow stronger than they look, because every fight has to be a big deal.


Overall, I would say that an abstract narrative structure and replenishing resources after every fight is the right call, especially for a game like BCG that desires to mimic episodic structures and wants combat to be fast paced. Sometimes it gets repetitive and sometimes PCs or NPCs alike are overpowered before they get to use their fun toys, but the game is aware of this and the book tells Players how to keep this from happening too much - also the expansion has a whole chapter to help the GM with it.

Still, I sometimes wonder what the game would have been like with a less episodic structure. Giving the PCs more control over their resources can be cool too, it lets them save all their powerups for the battle against their rival which is both anime as heck and a badass feel-good moment of payoff. What do people think? I'm always interested in hearing your opinion, but it is even more relevant now that I'm trying to figure out where to go next.

Next time: Attributes.

Gimmick Out.

2 comments:

  1. I tend to agree that an episodic every-battle-counts structure is the better option. Most of the cons can be mitigated by good GMing (such as using different enemy types or having them switch up their tactics to avoid repetitive battles), while the cons of the multiple-battles-per-day system (like the five minute workday) are harder to deal with, and basically require the players and the GM to agree to not abuse the system. It's also harder to balance a system that has to deal with both "random battles" against mooks where the players aren't expected to break out their big guns and "boss battles" where they use everything at their disposal.

    The only real downside to having one big fight once an episode is that it essentially removes some of the resource management gameplay. If you know you're facing several battles in a row (let's say you're fighting your way out of an enemy stronghold), and you have abilities that refresh at different frequencies (every round, every battle, and every day, for instance) then you have some interesting tactical choices to make. Should you use your powerful daily ability now, to blast through enemies and keep your HP up, or should you save it for later in case you run into a tough spot? As you point out, though, most players will almost always opt to save it just in case, and the tension system does a good job of replicating this question ("use it now for some early punch, or later when it may be more effective?") within the episodic system.

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    1. That resource management aspect can be pretty fun and is what makes me wonder if the 'per day' system could be fixed in an elegant fashion.

      Interesting point in regards to using Tension to approximate it. I experimented a little with hacks that change the the way Tension works each Operation to make specific battles feel different - it would start higher, remain at a fixed value, decrease over time, etc. It was a cool idea but not all that exciting in practice, so it got reduced to a couple of entries for random events in the expansion, rather than a full system module.

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