Jul 31, 2016

BCG Retrospective XIV: Themes, Once Again.

Ten Retrospectives ago, in  Retrospective IV, I explained why Genre Themes were as setting-agnostic as possible.What I didn't explain was why there's three of them or why I specifically chose those three themes, which is what is on the table for today.

Three Genre Themes is a good number, it gives you enough plot hooks to juggle and pursue without bogging things down with too much baggage. With one you run the risk of being too singleminded. With two you instead stick to a favourite and go after the other one as a bonus or if the one you like more isn't available. With three you have options, but not too many options. Even if you almost always choose the same one for your first Genre Point, you can still choose a different second. Furthermore, three is just enough variety that you might inadvertently end up gaining a Point from a Theme that you didn't originally plan to use that day. With four and beyond there's so many of them that one or more will probably remain unexplored or only ever provide Points by coincidence. In rules terms, three Themes means a maximum of three GPs earned while roleplaying. It mirrors the three GPs you can earn in battle, making for a nice bit of symmetry.

As for the Themes themselves, I decided on them very early on and never looked back. Reasons get you thinking of a cool story and something to work towards. Typecasts get you thinking of how you want to interact with other PCs and fun interactions are the lifeblood of a party. Lastly, Banes give the GM buttons to push and give you an excuse to make mistakes and not accidentally roleplay a Mary Sue.

But before we end today, let's make a new poll! I find the results of the point-buy vs class & level poll bizarrely fascinating. See, I'm aware that class & level systems are generally more popular than point-buy ones, but I expected the people browsing this blog to vastly prefer point-buy. This tells me that one of my base assumptions about what people would like to play was wrong. Perhaps BCG/Z should have been a class & level system as well? It is something interesting to think about.

With that in mind, let's go one step further and ask an even more fundamental question: Do you prefer RPGs with deep combat mechanics or RPGs with streamlined narrative mechanics? Combat-centric rules or narrative-centric rules? Would you rather play BCG and D&D 4E or FATE and Apocalypse World? In an ideal world, a game would have both, but things are hardly ever ideal and all the games mentioned prioritize one over the other. I'm very interested in hearing what you think.

Next: Genre Powers

Gimmick Out.

Jul 24, 2016

BCG Retrospective XIII: Anomalies.

Anomalies don't have much of a design story, because I knew from day one that I wanted 0-cost Traits with a positive and a negative side to them. They would represent things that alter the character fundamentally as something different from the norm. All Anomalies do something very distinctive in flavor, mechanics or both. Some of them could, arguably, be regular Traits instead of costing 0 and having a downside. Others, though, just wouldn't make sense without their drawback. Mechanically, I think Anomalies offer a cheap way to get some bonuses but also condition your build in interesting ways, which is a pretty good spot to be in. Let's go over them one by one.

Grants a lot of damage immunities permanently at the cost of being worse off socially. If you're not going to make a social butterfly and don't care about the cost, this is a ridiculously good deal to take. Sure, your PC might not ever be poisoned or go weeks without having anything to eat, but it provides a tremendous safety net that just so happens to cover things like most uses of Miniature Chemical Weapon. The Trait is a little too strong, to be honest, and it should grant one or two Advantages to resisting the Damage it currently prevents. Still, the immunities aren't super common and being immune instead of resistant makes a certain degree of sense, so it is not too overpowered.

This one is for the PCs with a monstrous or creepy side to them, giving the user the rare ability to make attacks using Charm instead of Fitness. It can only make one attack per target, however, afterwards the target is immunized to it until the next Episode Arc... Which makes sense for what is essentially an intimidation attack. The problem is that it penalizes all other uses of the Charm stat, so you're likely making an attack with what is probably one of your worse stats without the appropriate skill, or you've made a gimped build which is probably worse. Flavorfully, this makes most sense as an Anomaly, but mechanically it wants to be a Trait that allows an intimidation attack once per Episode or so.

This might just be the best example of an Anomaly whose benefit and drawback are intrinsically linked to each other. You can't separate them and make this a regular Trait without spoiling the concept entirely. The mechanics are like a Backup Bodies on steroids and, flavorwise, it might just be the single most powerful ability in the game - few things have the impact that immortality does. The flavor text and the name ("Undying" rather than "Immortal") help convey that, while the benefits are pretty cool, the drawbacks are significant as well. Try this with an Unstable Reactor build!

This one is less an anime trope and more of a RPG trope. Much like Undying, the combination of benefit and drawback combine in such a way that it can't be made a regular all-upside Trait without missing the point of the flavor. The ability itself is really powerful in a science fiction setting, but the downsides are considerable. Missing out on Electronics, Vehicles and most Equipment makes for a fairly constraining Anomaly that works with Fitness and Intellect builds but prefers using other stats. All things said, this could have been a little stronger, but the effect is already so powerful that it would take considerable tweaking to figure out just how much it can be safely pushed.

The ability to communicate with animals is generally more of a western thing than something seen in anime, and it is not a very good fit for most science fiction games. That said, wild childs are relatively common and nobody is stopping you from taking the animal speech thing as a form of intuition rather than a supernatural skill. So how did this come to be? Well, we had room for another Anomaly and the game needed more options for non-Intellect and outdoorsy-type builds, and inspiration struck while discussing Aquarion. In that sense, you could say the inspiration for this ability is Apollo, who is a wild child mecha pilot (as in the concept, not this specific ability) through and through.

Other than Nightmare, all the Anomalies get a passing grade. They are the Traits that change and define a character the most, not bad at all for a bunch of abilities that don't cost any CP!

Next: All that's left for pure Intermission PC content are Themes. Then we'll start August with Genre Powers.

Gimmick Out.

Jul 17, 2016

BCG Retrospective XII: Deathblows

It is telling that Battle Century Z adds more General Traits, more Equipment and more Anomalies to the game, but no Deathblows. This is because I consider them a failed mechanic. It happens, not all of them can be winners, but it is important to understand why it is a failed mechanic.

The concept is fine: They're attack buffs that behave like mini-Techniques in that they're at their best the first time you use them, adding more options to Intermission combat so it is more engaging.

So why'd they fail?

  • Deathblows need frequent Intermission combat scenes. The Deathblow rules assume Matches will be frequent, possibly having more than one per Episode, which couldn't be further from the truth for most games of BCG. What is worse is that, having a whole page of rules to themselves, they imply that's not the case and invite new players to burn their CPs on them.
  • Intermission combat is too quick for them to matter. Matches are often decided by Turn two, so the core Deathblow mechanic (gets worse on repeated use) might as well not exist. Worse, many of them buff following attacks, debuff incoming attacks, or get better the longer the battle goes on. None of these effects are worth your CP in a game of rocket tag.
  • They can't be used against Mecha. Even after inserting a bolded line of text in the Deathblows section saying they don't work against Mecha, I still get asked if they work against Mecha. The confusion is understandable though, because if someone spends a bijillion CP creating a combat PC, how come some of their abilities arbitrarily don't work on robots? It creates frustration and that's not a good thing.
  • Deathblows are too weak. Every previous point could be forgiven if Deathblows were worth their cost in CP. The individual review entries will go more in detail, but this point here is the final nail in the coffin.

And now for their individual dissection...

Called Shot
This debuff inflicts a Disadvantage to all Tests for a Round. You know what's an even better debuff to give your enemies? The K.O'd status. Get another Advnantage to your attack and don't take this.

Distraction Move
All Allies gain an Advantage to attacking the target for a Round. This can sometimes be better than a single Advantage to all of your attacks, but it is unlikely to happen more than once, if ever. Better than Called Shot, but still not worth it.

Finishing Blow
This one causes Disadvantages to Willpower Tests made to stay in the fight. That's an alright effect for 5 CP. I wish the others were this good.

Forbidden Secret Art
This doubles the Tension bonus for one attack. So, for 10 points you get to double the +1 bonus during the first Round, which is to say, you just paid 10 CP for half an Advantage. Bonus: If you did your job and ambushed the enemy, the Tension bonus is 0. Avoid this like the black plague.

Sweeping Assault
This lets you target multiple Enemies per Test, assuming they're all in the same Zone. Easily the best of the 10-costers and it might just be worth taking if you expect a lot of Intermission combat.

True Strike
Lets you ignore Disadvantages to your attack. The best way to counter Disadvantages is to get Advantages of your own, and even if you somehow don't have any more to buy, you should be spending your CP on more Fitness instead of this.

A round of focused playtesting would have been enough to catch and then fix all the problems with these, but there was always something more important to work on. There was virtually no feedback about them, so Deathblows were generally left alone to work on something else.

If I were to redo them, Deathblows would be General Traits applicable once per Match. Each Deathblow would also grant one or two Advantages to the Test and you'd need to be trained in a Skill in order to use them, like with Gumshoe. Even then, a few are totally unsalvageable and should just be deleted.

So that's Deathblows, they're this game's absolute nadir, and it can only get better from here. But before we get to Powers, the first section directly relevant to mecha combat, we still have one last set of Traits to look at.

Next: We wrap up the Intermission abilities of the book with Anomalies.

Gimmick Out.

Jul 10, 2016

BCG Retrospective XI: Equipment

I've never been fond of long equipment lists and inventory/treasure management minigames in RPGs. It just feels too much like a chore and kills off any momentum during character creation. If I had to design, say, a D&D clone, I would most likely end up making equipment just another way to flavor your special abilities.

Maybe you know how to cast fireballs, or maybe you have a legendary sword or magic familiar that casts the spell for you. Point is, I'm not fond of detailed equipment systems, so the streamlined Equipment system in BCG is strictly an improvement as far as I am concerned. But that's just the system. What about the items themselves? Are they well designed and balanced? Let's take a look:

Body Suit
We start off with probably the most narrow and least useful item of the whole bunch. Body Suit primarily exists to enable adventuring in space outside of your robot, which is a thing that happens in the BCG's base setting (as the flavor text implies), but even then it only occurs in one of the three scenarios. The most interesting thing about it is that you can combine it with a Superior Proxy (Combat) to make yourself near invincible at character-scale combat. It does what it needs to do but, honestly, this is going to be borrowed temporarily whenever absolutely necessary and be ignored the rest of the time. I guess it is okay as that, but the Equipment section really should start with something cooler.

Ether Drive
Clarke's Third Law of science fiction states "Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic." and that is what this item is about. Ether Drives allow superpowers in high-tech games that don't quite want to cross the line of having magic or psychic talents. This was a very tricky design, because the thing keeping Miracles balanced is that they damage the user, which Ether Drives couldn't do. After going through a bunch of versions, the one that seemed to work best was to limit their versatility but keep them cheap to compensate for making them very narrow. In case you're wondering, the name "Ether Drive" comes from from the Xenosaga series, where nanomachines are essentially magic and several characters yell "Ether Drive!" when shooting beams or healing others.

Masterwork Tool
This is the most basic Equipment Trait and the one that all others are balanced around. It gives the primary benefit of a Skill for half the cost, but doesn't qualify as actual training in Skills for the Traits that care about that. Also, Equipment Advantages to the same skill do not stack, so you will often want a Superior Proxy or Personal Facility instead of this. Still, this is really powerful for its cost and another reason I should have included more Traits that need Skill Training in the core book.

Backup Bodies
There was one point during the game's design phase that it had plenty of Equipment Traits that granted Advantages, but it needed some Equipment that felt like cool science fiction material. This Trait is the direct result of tackling that issue, and possibly the coolest item in the game. I really like how the mechanics tell you the important part is that it wipes all Damage from your PC, while the flavor text entry is the one that handles all the minutiae. It is directly inspired by the clone vats seen in Evangelion.

Flight Pack
Jetpacks are a science fiction staple and this Trait lets you have one. From a designer standpoint, it provides rules for flight that can be used as a base for other homebrew material. Arguably better than buying a Specialization in Force for the same CP cost, and much better than that if you have a build heavy on Resources. Decent enough.

Miniature Chemical Weapon
This thing does from 1 to 20 damage, which is a lot when it comes out of nowhere, allowing Resources builds to put up a fight once per Episode. It also provides a baseline for custom content like anti-personnel mines and other surprise weapons. I got the idea from an episode of Zeta Gundam, in which Haman Karn breaks an earring filled with poison gas in the middle of an audience with one of her enemies and flees the scene. They don't make backstabbers of her caliber anymore.

Personal Facility
To call this 'strong' would be an understatement. This gives two Advantages to two Skills, and for each Skill that wouldn't benefit much from this (Stealth, Survival) there's another that hardly minds the condition (Craftsmanship, Electronics). If you're using the Expanded Miracles and Rituals from the Expansion, all of a sudden it is not too hard to reach DN 20+ by yourself and usurp the BBEG as the most dangerous person around. I think it is cool that this makes for a viable alternative to Masterwork Tool (with a location-based penalty), but at two Advantage to two Skills for 5 CP it would be a bit more balanced.

Range Booster
This didn't exist in version 0.1 of the rules, because Characters didn't get a free move with each of their Actions during Intermissions. Once Matches got updated to be more like Operations, this seemed like a logical piece of equipment to add to the game. There are no rules to stop kiting in Intermissions, by the way, so if you can ambush a lone unprepared target they're pretty much guaranteed to lose. Which, you know, makes sense what with the whole surprise attack thing.

Superior Proxy
Proxies are something that PCs can get access to for free in many scenarios, so this grants not one but two bonuses for PCs who want a custom ride better than most. Still, 10 points might be a bit much for just a proxy, perhaps this could have given an Advantage to two Skills like Personal Facility does. That way your armor boosts Athletics and Combat, or your car boosts Stealth and Vehicles or your drone boosts Investigation and Electronics. That would have been cool.

And that's all of them. I think the worst thing you can say about Equipment is that there's not enough of it, because most of it is fairly good. That's a direct result of removing shopping minigames, but I'll take it if it means I don't need ten pages of items nearly identical to each other. The expansion doubles the number of Equipment Traits available anyway.

Next: Deathblows. Oh boy do I have things to say about Deathblows.

Gimmick Out.

Jul 3, 2016

BCG Retrospective X: General Traits

If Attributes are the skeleton of a character build and Skills the flesh and muscle, then Traits represent the finishing touches like clothes, hair colors and the specific kind of impractical anime sword they wield. To put it another way, Traits are what people remember PCs by most. For example: One PC is an inspiring leader type, another is a combat cyborg, and the third is hard-boiled detective. All those descriptors stem from Traits, because they distinguish characters from each other the most.

There's four categories of traits (General, Equipment, Deathblows and Anomalies), but even within General Traits we can separate them into three categories:

  • Traits that are like Skills, but too narrow to merit making them cost 10 Character Points. Example: Intimidating is a Trait that complements Diplomacy and Deception, because if it was its own skill then it would be inferior to the other two.
  • Traits that grant bonus Advantages (or another similar mechanic) for PCs who want to roleplay a master specialist in a Skill or, in rare cases, an Attribute specialist. Example: Weapon Expertise and Attractive grant Advantages to a Test for which you already have Skill training.
  • Traits that exist to represent unique abilities that can't be represented in terms of pure Attributes or Skills. Example: Psychic Power does something no other ability in the game does.

Many of them are a combination of two types, most often a combination of the first and second.

General Traits Review

Individual Traits aren't as ubiquitous as Skills and some of them can't be compared directly against each other. With Skills, I judged them all based on the same criteria, but Traits are ill-suited to that, so I'll just do a round of individual commentary for each Trait.

Animal Person
One of the most powerful Traits for its cost, granting two Advantages for just 5 CP. The caveat is, of course, that it is extremely narrow. Most people will take this for flavor reasons to solidify a PC concept, so the two Advantages help to make up for how rarely this will come into play. I think this is okay for what it does, which is provide a cheap and powerful way to represent a very niche character trait.

Common Sense
A lot of games feature abilities for new (or just forgetful) Players that outright tell them (and the GM) to ask for advice. Generally speaking, this isn't worth 5 CP, because experienced Players and GMs will do this anyway. But having this in a character sheet reminds everybody that this is a thing they can do and encourages it to happen more often. It serves its function.

Danger Instinct
There are many ways to get Advantages to Stealth and Deception, this Trait exists to keep up with the specialist rogues who might stay unnoticed otherwise. The only reason this doesn't cost 10 CP is that it is hard to justify paying that much when you can easily buy 1-2 points of Awareness for that cost. It is worth more than 5 CP, but not quite 10, so this sits at an odd spot in terms of power level. Perhaps this should have been more like Jaded and less like a Specialization.

Another one that is mostly flavor. If it didn't boost Presence Tests, it'd give two Advantages instead of one, because it is about as narrow as Animal Person. Why was I so worried about Presence? Presence is tied to Leadership, which is is a very strong Trait. In hindsight, I should have made this give two Advantages to make going through the trouble of assembling the build more rewarding.

This is an oddball quirky Trait. Depending on the specialization and the kind of story you're roleplaying, it could do anything between everything and nothing. It will probably be too narrow to apply often though, hence it costs only five Character Points.

The Trait for people who don't want to miss plot clues EVER. Considering how useful that is, perhaps this should cost 10. This is one of those Traits that require Skill Training to function, to encourage picking up Skills (especially Intellect Skills, of which there are a lot) instead of always boosting Attributes.

This is the only mechanical support in the rules for doing things not actually mechanically supported by them. Meaning, this is a Trait that encourages breaking the rules. Because it is probably going to be something that you will suffer Disadvantages and/or low Attribute bonuses to doing, it grants two Advantages instead of one. The rules exist for a reason though, so Ingenious isn't something we want to happen too often, thus it is restricted to one use per Episode.

This is too narrow and underpowered compared to Diplomacy and Deception to be worth making a Skill. But it is a relatively common roleplaying niche (the 'if I cannot inspire love then I will cause fear' kind of social character) that it deserves having at least a Trait. One Advantage that stacks with other dialogue skills encourages making use of it whenever possible, despite the risks of acting like a big bully.

Willpower lacks Skills, making it difficult to stay competitive with Intimidate users in terms of Advantages. So instead of granting one or two Advantages, this lets the user autosucceed a failed Test once per Episode, which is considerably better. The flavor of being able to shrug off anything once per Episode is also very cool, as only sustained attacks will break through it, making the character seem that much more badass.

Make Do
This is a very narrow Trait for builds going all-in on Attributes, who won't have appropriate equipment on hand a lot of the time. Not all that good for most other builds, other than to remind them that they need training in Skills to avoid Disadvantages in many situations.

In most RPGs the ability to speak more than one language requires a considerable investment for something that may or may not be actually useful. With this Trait you're not guaranteed to know any one language, but you have very good chances of being fluent in it - along with many others. This implies that speaking only one additional language isn't worth making PCs spend CP on, which is most likely the case when you consider translation software has to be everywhere in most sci fi settings.

Sphere of Influence
Sphere of Influence works pretty much like you would expect a Resources Skill to work. Which, thinking about it, is because it should have been a Resources Skill.

Superior Immune System
See above, except with Willpower. I think this and Jaded are better off working this way rather than giving Advantages, because their reactive nature makes the autosuccess aspect harder to exploit.

Weapon Expertise
This might just be the platonic example of a Trait that exists to give specialists an extra edge and let them differentiate themselves from generalists. Much like with Intimidate, you could forego the Combat skill entirely and just use this, but your'e better off combining it with its proper Skill.

This might just be the strongest of all the Traits that give specialists an extra Advantage, therefore it costs ten Character Points instead of five.

"You have an NPC friend". That is pretty much the whole of the rules text for this Trait. This is one of those abilities for which I just can't think of a better way to execute them in rules terms, otherwise I would.  The question is, how else to do them while keeping them simple? Maybe they should be assigned CP, like the optional rules for allied Grunts, or perhaps they should be a singular boost to Resources once per Episode. The rules for NPC Themes in the expansion are, I think, the best execution of this concept - but that's not a Trait.

The talent of applying judicious amounts of technobabble to any problem until it is solved is one of the coolest and most powerful Traits in the book. Intellect is already very strong as an Attribute and, frankly, doesn't really need the boost from this Trait. But it is so fun that it just had to be in the game.

Hard Work and Guts
Probably the weakest of the Traits with a cost of 10. It lets you push through super difficult DNs that would usually be impossible, but that's probably too conditional for the cost. This would have been more useful if Disadvantages were more common, and is one of the factors that make me think I could have applied them more liberal as drawbacks in the rules.

Living Database
It is a Trait for beginners just like Common Sense, but slightly stronger because it is a passive 'always on' effect. Take both Traits for maximum handholding power and never miss anything you should have noticed!

I was Here all Along
This might just be most hilarious (and awesome) Trait in the entire game. It is awesome and I wish all Traits costing 10 could be this cool. 11/10 would design again.

Jack of all Trades
A very elegant execution to allow a neat character concept. Unfortunately, it also makes builds that spend most of their points on Attributes being a little too good in the base game. As you may have already noticed, I care a lot about game balance, so I'd be a lot more negative about this Trait if the expansion hadn't taken the necessary steps to rebalance things.

This is the mechanical reward for training yourself in Presence. Granting one or two Advantages to ALL TESTS for multiple allies is stronger than it seems at first glance. I recommend using it during downtime to buff Extended Tests (such as those from, say, Craftsmanship... Or the Rituals from BCZ), and suddenly DNs over 20 aren't very difficult for your teammates anymore. You have to jump some hoops and take some choices that seem suboptimal but the payoff is exceedingly powerful when you can start taking advantage of it.

Psychic Power
Psychic Power is necessary for some builds that can't spare points on Willpower but want to use Miracles anyway. It is also what allows builds that do have Willpower to spam Miracles every Scene. Originally this simply reduced all Damage to just one point, but that was a little too powerful for just 10 points. Even post nerf, this is one of the best Traits in the game.

Spirit of Steel
Take what I said about Genius except with a stat that needs some help instead of having already too much going on. Honestly, this could have been slightly stronger and given some sort of secondary benefit, if only to encourage more Willpower-centric builds.

A handful of General Traits could be tweaked to be slightly more or less powerful, but for the most part they're where they need to be. There's also a lot of flavor in there and they can enable some really cool scenes. They're not quite Genre Powers, but they are pretty good and I'm quite happy with how they turned out.

Next: Equipment

Gimmick Out.