May 23, 2016

BCG Retrospective III: PC Advancement

We continue our retrospective of BCG mechanics and slowly eating our way towards the meat of the game. Today, the entree in our plate is character advancement mechanics, which in our case means Experience Points and Power Levels. BCG is what we know in the hobby as a "point-buy" system, meaning everybody starts with a bunch of points (in our case that's 100 Experience Points) to spend on making a PC from the ground up. The alternative is to have a "class and/or level" system where you choose an archetype and it gains more abilities (often, but not always, predetermined ones) as it levels up. Now wait a second, doesn't BCG have Power Levels? We're only about to end the first paragraph and you're already contradicting yourself, Gimmick.

Hold your horses, my imaginary friend, and let me explain why I think Power Levels don't contradict me calling BCG a point-buy system. Power Levels are mostly an indicator of a PC or NPCs strength and track their total XP. Usually Level-Based systems give PCs a whole bunch of things when they level up and then the characters stay the same until the next level up. In BCG you can spend your XP in between Power Levels as long as you have any points remaining, and then you can Mid-Scene Upgrade with points you don't have to go in debt for even more goodies. Then there's their weight in the rules: in mechanical terms Power Levels only grant one Genre Point and one Genre Power to each PC, so they are not fundamental to the rules. In Level-Based systems, Levels tend to be so built into the rules that you can't really break them down into their individual components. If you wanted to strip away Power Levels from BCG all you would have to do is give people another 15 XP (the cost of an Assistant, who gives you a Point and a Power) and you're set. You'll have to do some math to calculate Power Ratings and use some NPC abilities but that's hardly rewriting the whole game system. With that digression over, let's go over the nuts and bolts of Experience Points.

Experience Points start at 100 and are earned at a rate determined by the pacing of the narrative, the difficulty of battles, and however else the GM feels like handing them out. The only rule here is that every 30 of them gained is a new Power Level, to a maximum of Power Level 5. PCs can start at any Power Level (including Level 0, for the ultra hard mode "all robots are made out of explodium alloy" experience) and Power Levels 1 and 2 are the recommended starting points and Power Level 3 is the recommended end point. Other than that, everything is up for each individual group to decide.

How did things turn out? Well, I learned a few things...

We could have used Power Levels for more 

There are only two mechanics that I think stayed relatively unexplored in BCG: Genre Themes and Power Levels. Genre Themes will be the subject of the next post, so let's move on to Power Levels. As was stated before, a handful of enemy abilities use Power Levels as a variable. The Trait "Overwhelming Pressure" knocks foes of lower PL unconscious, the Power "I Accept your Offering" gets stronger the beefier the sacrificed Grunt and the Upgrade "Nanoskin Shell" prevents more Damage at higher Levels. In the expansion we have the PC Genre Power "I Have Control" which costs more Energy with higher Level Grunts and the Boss Capstone "Tyrant of Lost Souls" even goes so far as to use the Power Ratings of Grunts around it.

All of these are about enemy NPCs. Even "I Have Control", a PC Genre Power, uses it because the effect is directly related to enemy NPCs. I didn't think about it at the time, but if Power Levels can be used as a mechanic for NPC enemies, why not the same for PCs? After all, Power Levels are a very flavorful anime thing. Right now Power Levels give more Genre Points and Genre Powers, which is very thematic, but they could do more. Imagine if Power Levels gave out bonuses to stats or to rolls, that would not only make a lot of sense, but it would also be really cool.

If the game had been designed from the beginning with that idea in mind, it'd probably be easy to balance around it too since the bonuses are relatively small and would help keep PCs of similar levels balanced next to each other. It wouldn't even make the game any less of a point-buy system, honestly. Right now it is most likely not a good idea since it risks breaking the math of the rest of the system, but it is a thing to think about.

The freedom of Point-Buy has problems

So here's a funny thing about recommended start and end levels: Most people ignore them. Most groups I've seen start out at Power Level 0 and intend to go all the way to 5, even though the game suggests otherwise. What bothers me about this is that the whole of the book keeps telling you how all characters are awesome but Level 0 PCs are deliberately meant to not be awesome yet, but a lot of people will get their first impression from them and feel disappointed. This tends to change with more experienced groups who do choose where to begin and where to end, but it means that recommendations and suggestions for inexperienced new players are largely useless at their job. If I had to do this again, I would make character creation start at Power Level 1 and insert 'Level 0' rules somewhere in the back of the book for those who really want them.

Another lesson learned here is that the sheer breadth of choices in point-buy systems often paralyze people, this is bad enough for players wondering what to give their PC, but it is even worse for GMs in need to craft not one but many NPCs. The GM's section includes a set of tables with premade Attribute arrays for Grunts, Rivals and Bosses of every Power Level plus general build advice, which I figured would be enough, but wasn't. As of the expansion and its sample builds, I believe the issue is solved, but I had clearly underestimated it.

Battle Century G had to be a point-buy system in order to represent the sheer variety of concepts in mecha anime, but if it had been a Class & Level system it would have been much easier to actually play. And that's not the only upside, for example: Having to stick to generic point-buy flavor meant that sometimes the rules played things safe, instead of taking more risks and making something as awesome as it could have been. The same goes for description text, at times it was kind of ho-hum instead of always dripping with fun and cheesy flavor. If there had been a 'magic-powered mecha' or a 'rainbow-beams spammer' class, then all of its upgrades and weapons could have been customized to fit, we would have ended up with more unique abilities tailored to the concept. The game already encourages reskinning so it is not like the fewer represented concepts would have been a huge loss.

With that said, I wouldn't envy the guy with the job of writing several dozen classes, each with their own unique lines of upgrades, weapons & powers and having to make every single minor variation sound different and exciting on its own. Spoiler: I would be that guy. Also, that would increase the page count immensely, instead of having 30 or so pages for all character options, that would probably cover just 4-6 classes. It is a bit much if you're not WotC who can crank out multiple 400+ page rulebooks in their sleep.

As an aside, I think games are better when they go all in one or the other. When the whole of the game is point-buy, you can balance all options around their XP cost. When the whole of the game is class-based, you can balance all options by limiting which classes can take them. When you mix things up and make some options available to everyone and some options available to a PC choice made during character creation, bad things happen. Take D&D as an example, where multitudes of feats, weapons and all sorts of choices range from being completely useless to absurdly broken depending on your race or class, but the game pretends they're all equal. That's not how you balance a system.

Poll Level-Up 

Anyway, it is time for a new poll! Has it really been over a year since the last one? Sheesh, I should be doing these more often. So, the topic of the day is "Point-Buy" versus "Class and Level". How do you like your RPGs better? I want to hear your opinions, people.

Next time: Genre Points and Genre Themes.

Gimmick Out.

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