Jun 12, 2016

BCG Retrospective VII: Operations

Ah, Operations, the heart of the game. It pumps the blood that powers the rest of the book in its 6 pages. While the individual Powers, Upgrades and Weapons make each ability call back to specific mecha genre conventions, these rules are the ones that charge the general feel of the game with anime goodness. If these failed at their job, then it wouldn't matter how flavorful or fun the entirety of the Mecha Construction chapter was. Fortunately, I think this went rather well, but let's put that to the test, hm?

Operation Structure

The first thing to note in Operations is that a Character & their Mecha together are called a Unit. The collective of Units is called a Squad. The idea is that, since some rules affect the pilot but not the robot (and viceversa), this would be an useful distinction to make. In hindsight, nearly all instances of "Unit" could have just said "Mecha" instead and it wasn't a necessary distinction to make. Likewise, Squads are referred to only a handful of times in the rules, I could have just replaced those with 'all Allies' or 'all Enemies' instead of making up a new rules term.

Anyway, we proceed with how the Round/Turn structure works. Steps 0 through 3 are all about setting up an Operation, so let's get them out of the way first. Step 0 is choosing equipment, which only applies to Units with Alternate Forms and the like. Much like it, entering formations and deploying everyone on the battlefield is a formality. While we're on the subject of movement, I'll be honest about Zones. If it wasn't necessary to have abstract distances to allow for all kinds of Mecha sizes and weapon ranges, the Zone system would be in metric rather than abstract. It is just a lot easier to explain, visualize and generally play with. Abstract Zones do make it easier to have Duels with both Units in the same Zone, but I'm sure I could have found a workaround for that if it was necessary to keep that element.

Initiative is more interesting to talk about. My general experience with initiative mechanics is that it is a necessary evil. Games with a focus on tactical combat need an initiative system of some sort. It doesn't have to be like BCG's. You could make it so that characters (all or just some) roll multiple times and act multiple times per Round. You could reroll initiative each round to keep PCs from getting too comfortable with the turn order. BCG doesn't do either of those, partly because multiple actions per turn are hard to balance and partly because rerolling and rearranging initiatives every turn slows things down. I think the current form of BCG's initiative system is the right one for the job.

This brings us to my favorite mechanic in the entire game: Tension. Tension is a bonus to attack rolls equal to the number of turns that have passed, that's it, it is very simple. And yet, it is also so much more. See, Tension is the game's primary 'powerup' mechanic (with Genre Points/Powers being secondary) and powerups make for some really cool game mechanics. Bonuses to Tension have a very strong feel of badassery to them, meanwhile Tension denial makes for some serious 'oh shit what do I do' moments. Between core and expansion, I've explored a lot of what you can do with Tension, but I keep feeling like there's more to be found. There could have been more mechanics in the vein of Techniques (giving a large boost to Tension but 'using it up' in the process) or Limit Engine (passively boosting Tension based on certain conditions) than the handful we've gotten. Of all the mechanics, it is the one I most want to reuse and expand on by far.

There are two more steps pertaining to beginning and ending a Round. They're fairly irrelevant and only there for the purposes of making things clear. Instead of them, let's take a look at how Units take Turns.

Taking Turns

One big difference from other tactical RPGs is that BCG only gives PCs a single Action per Turn. Many other RPGs have multiple Actions per Turn, and you're supposed to use the second (and third, when there is one) Action to move into position, set up buffs, heal an ally, and other such generalities. In BCG anybody may use as many special abilities as their Energy/Genre can afford, which makes for really, REALLY big turns when a PC decides to go all out. The downside of this is that balance can get out of hand when PCs earn enough Energy and Genre to go crazy early and often in battle. The other quirk of the One-Action-Turn is that movement is automatic, it happens with any Action you take. It does not allow you to move AFTER your attack though, only before, but it is a simple way to make the One-Action-Turns system solid. I think that was the right call for an anime-themed game trying to keep the gameplay moving fast. With that said, having multiple Actions per Turn opens up more tactics and gives more ways to tweak and balance special abilities, so I can't deny I'd like to give such a system a try.

Anyway, Actions. Offensive Actions gain the benefit of Tension, but you can't move freely with them, and Utility Actions let you move in any direction, but you can't attack with them (I know there are exceptions to these rules, they'll get their own posts later). The movement speed of the average Mecha is between 4 and 6, but many of the Weapons in the game have as much (if not more) Range, making it trivial to hit and run (or 'kite' in MMORPG terms) enemies endlessly with a high speed/range build. Hence, the creation of what I call the "anti-kiting clause" in the movement rules. Arguably, I could have cut the Range of most guns in the game by half instead of doing this, but I think this is more fun for everyone as it encourages medium range builds that interact with the enemy as the default and lets the specialized snipers shine by being the only ones who can attack Enemies 15 or more Zones away.

On to the various kinds of actions themselves, we'll start with the Offensive Actions which are the most common, but we'll skip Attack since it has been discussed in the Core Mechanic post so we'll be moving on to the others.

Aim adds between one to three Advantages (plus bonus Range) depending on the Weapon used, meaning it is either very powerful or a waste of a Turn. I think it is cool that some Actions work a lot better when used with certain Weapons, but it is a fine line to tread between making sure an Actions is useful by itself and gets stronger from there and making it good by itself and overpowered when building around it. A little bit of trivia: Aim is the only Offensive Action that doesn't involve a Might Test.

Assist is the one with the least of its design space explored, in fact, it wasn't until the expansion that there were Weapons made with Assist in mind! I think it is okay, it just suffers from being similar in concept to Support Actions (from Support Upgrades) so most of the build options that could have been made for it ended up being given to Support Upgrades instead.

Suppress on the other hand is an Action that does a lot and, it works well with so many things, it got made into a Weapon keyword. Honestly, it is kind of a mess, so let's break it down into parts to explain why: It inflicts a Disadvantage to attacks, it lets you choose which Area is Maimed, it doesn't hit Allies in a Duel and it lets you defeat Enemies without killing them. Suppress represents a precise subdual attack, which is why it has the downside of doing half Damage... Unless the target moves away from your grapple/cover fire/whatever it was you did, in which case they take the other half of the Damage. It is honestly a bit too complex for one Action. The problem is that none of its four basic effects are, frankly, worth having their own Actions. So I just decided to lump them all in together, give it a flavorful drawback, and call it a day. It is a fairly elegant solution, in the sense that it eliminates a bunch of unnecessary Actions from the game and makes them all worth using by combining them into one, but it is also inelegant in that it has a ton of rules effects happening at once. I wonder if it wouldn't have worked better as a regular attack Action with one or two Disadvantages to the roll depending on how many effects you had stacked.

Speaking of Actions with a lot of text, let's take a look at Engage's six whooping paragraphs of rules. You'd think I'd have a problem with this after what I said about Suppress, but I don't. Well, not as much as Suppress, at least. The only reason Engage has that much text is because I piled up all the rules text explaining Duels into the Action text itself, otherwise its rules text is basically 'move up to range 0 and enter a duel with your opponent' which is very short. In all honesty, the rules text for Duels should have probably been its own section. Anyway, speaking of Duels, they're a very flavorful anime way to divide big battles into multiple one-on-one fights. My biggest problem with Duels is just that they don't work well in online games using maps - the tokens overlap when placed in the same cell, tile or square. They also have a little memorization problem in that you have to remember even attack numbers hit the target while odd attack numbers incur friendly fire, but that's not too bad.

Boost is our first Utility Action going in alphabetic order. It is simple, it does what it says it does, and doesn't suffer from any significant rules problems. At one point Boost was named Charge and you had to move in a straight line when using it. Good thing that got changed, huh? Much like it, Delay isn't really particularly interesting to talk about. Disengage is an Action that, in hindsight, I would have deleted. I would just have made it part of the Boost Action and said that if you Boost away from a Duel you only move your Speed instead of twice your Speed. There's also the Dock Action, which is better discussed when we get to Base Units.

Last but not least is Maneuver, the most powerful Utility Action, granting a sizable Defense boost large enough that it is the primary reason Multipilot Combiner Units are so strong. Properly balancing the Maneuver Action was tough, and it went through a lot of changes. The first version was a Mixed Systems/Speed Test that granted the result as a Defense bonus and made the user untouchable, which was kind of not a very good idea. The second version was a Systems OR Speed Test that granted HALF the result as a Defense bonus and was a lot less broken but was a bit too swingy for my tastes. In the end we went with a flat bonus based on either Systems or Speed. It is very strong, but just as difficult to exploit. I would have liked to keep a Test in there, but the current Maneuver rules are good in my book.

There's also a bunch of minor Utility Actions that are tied to Powers and Upgrades. We'll do the same thing we did with Docking and leave them for later when we get to their respective abilities.

Damage and Maiming

Like I said several posts ago, the idea behind the current combat math was that it would take 3-5 attacks from a PC to down an evenly-matched NPC. Each attack would average out to one Level of Damage, with unlucky rolls missing and lucky rolls taking out two Levels. This looks fine until you realize that PCs can focus fire down Enemies and, worse, Enemies can do the same to PCs. The game is designed and balanced with this in mind because it expects even large scale battles to break down into one on one (or two on one) combat. Still, until the day where each manual points out "Hey, Listen! You can force the enemy to reroll a high attack result!" to new players, I will continue to wonder if simply making things less lethal wouldn't have been the way to go.

Anyway, it is relatively common for Units to lose not just one but two (or more!) Levels with one attack. All too often, Levels kind of just blur together and you lose or heal multiples at once. This raises the question of Levels being relevant at all. Couldn't people just get a big chunk of HP and start with their maximum GP? Arguably, the game would be simpler and better then. It would, however, lose a lot of its anime flavor. We want PCs to get more fierce the more Damage they take and Mecha to to lose body parts and keep fighting, Threshold Levels do both things just fine. Conceptually, Threshold Levels are probably the most elegant way to include damage to various body parts in RPGs. The execution could have been better, but the fact is, it doesn't use hit location tables and doesn't make called shots to the head/reactor an autowin, so it is miles ahead of other similar systems.

One quirk of the system is that sometimes it cares about using even/odd numbers for your attack rolls or for the damage dealt. As mentioned before, it is a million times better than having hit location tables or the like, but I know people who have played the game for years and still trip up remembering that all the even numbers benefit the attacker and the odd numbers benefit the defender. I wish I could have included a mnemonic in the game to help with that, but there weren't any good ones so instead the book repeats it enough times until it hopefully sticks. I'm not satisfied though, so I would like to explore alternative systems in the future.

Anyway, there is a fifth Threshold Level of sorts in the Core. The Core is one of those rules that generally doesn't matter because most PCs and Rivals will use Live Another Day, while everybody else explodes when defeated. Still, sometimes PCs will try to capture a Grunt or be defeated without any spare GPs to retreat, and these rules exist for that reason. Originally, Cores could use their Internal Upgrades. I thought this was cool, not only did it make sense (that's where they're installed, after all) but they could use some of the Mecha's special abilities to put up a fight or escape. Then playtesting showed a Core with The Beast that was a lot stronger than it should be, effectively granting Mecha with The Beast a whole extra Level to play with. We went for the safe option and cut Internal Upgrades from Cores entirely and prevent this problem from resurfacing again. Now Cores are terribly underequipped to do anything relevant about 90% of the time which is, you know, fair, considering their owner already lost.

Well, there's one kind of enemy that a PC using their Core could still overpower: Regular NPCs. I still think it is the better idea to just say that anybody trying to fight a giant robot without their own should just plain lose, because this is a game about giant robots gosh dangit. But I know people will try it anyway because some of them think that's fun, so it is my job to make sure the rules for going David vs Goliath are somewhat reasonable. Plus, it means a GM can spring a lone Grunt on the PCs for a cool scene and watch as they either try to fight them or just run.

Terrain

Unlike Intermissions, there are concrete Terrain types for Zones in Operations. I think that Plain and Difficult Terrain are the ones with the best execution of the five in the core book. Defensive is a clean and elegant design but is a little weak in comparison to Difficult, which greatly penalizes Speed, and Extreme which is brutal against anyone who hasn't spent considerable MP on stats or bought the Upgrades to fly over it. The last, and probably rarest of the five basic Terrain types is Impassable, which really should have a note at the bottom that says "Units cannot fly over Impassable Terrain.", and we'll probably talk more about this when we get to the flight abilities in the game.

So that's that. 1 Chapter done, 3 more to go, and it only took a month and seven updates. Now that we're out of the basic rules of the game, I'll stick to posting on sundays.

Next: Skills!

Gimmick Out.

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