Sep 25, 2016

BCG Retrospective XXII: Restoration Upgrades

Restorations are the most underpowered Mecha Upgrades in the core rules. While I believe the expansion's Restoration Powers did a more than adequate job buffing them, I'd like to go over how and why their core-only versions ended up the way they are. Let's start with something that will probably explain a lot: I don't like healing-type abilities in RPGs. I say this not as a player (I've always liked to play support), but as a designer.

Here's the thing about healing in combat-centric games: It doesn't do anything, it undoes what other people did. It doesn't win the game, it helps you not lose. And as such, it is either not worth doing or worth doing because it heals faster than other people can hurt you. Few things are as frustrating as managing to hurt your enemy only to watch them heal up the damage. It just isn't fun to be on the other side of.

This is not to say I didn't want to have any healing abilities at all, or that I wanted to make them bad. It is just that, in case of doubt whether something is too weak or too strong, I erred on the side of making healing abilities weaker rather than stronger. If I make a mistake balancing weapons or offensive buffs, combat is too fast and rocket-taggy, which is bad but manageable. If I make a mistake balancing heals or defensive buffs, combat is a slow grind that takes forever, which I think is a much worse problem. Consider that BCG is a game where everything available to PCs is also available to NPCs, and my position becomes easier to understand. I don't expect people to agree with all of this, but I wanted to make my position clear.

Anyway, Restoration Upgrades: I wanted to prevent potentially infinite healing and the Systems stat seemed like the most logical existing variable for the number of times you could use the Upgrades. I immediately realized that PCs who wanted to use these Upgrades would be the ones maxing Systems, rather than the ones keeping it at an average value. Restorations had to be balanced at 7 Systems and above, rather than between 4 and 6 which is what other Upgrades were balanced against. Again, I was being way too conservative about them. Let's go over the three of them:

Jury Rig
This was the first Restoration Upgrade designed. I had the basic idea of the Restorations system down, so to figure out what the basic healing Upgrade would do, I looked at Absolute Barrier. Healing is better than damage prevention, so I figured using a similar formula to Absolute Barrier's, but weaker, would work out alright. It wasn't terrible, but it wasn't great either. The real problem was when many of the weaker weapons in the game got buffed, that was when keeping up with the damage output of NPCs got very hard.

If Jury Rig's problem was that it had to be a weaker Absolute Barrier, Regenerative's problem was that it had to be a weaker Jury Rig. At first, this Upgrade healed HALF the amount of Energy spent on it, which, as you can imagine, is kind of terrible. Now it uses two Restorations instead of one and restores the same amount of Threshold Jury Rig does. The end result is... That this is pretty much just a worse Absolute Barrier. At least Jury Rig can heal other PCs who don't have all the Energy to spare. Not a fan.

Probably the strongest of these three, if only because it didn't need a Genre Power to make it useable. The best use for Resupply is to restore your own Support Upgrades so you can keep comboing them. The most common Support Upgrades are the cheap ones that can be used reliably without spending them first, but comboing the expensive Supports is very strong and Resupply is worth considering for a more debuff-oriented Support build.

So, in hindsight, the problem with Jury Rig and Regenerative is that they were designed as an Absolute Barrier variant. Had they used a different number for their healing value, like a static 5 or just the user's systems, they would have turned out more useful. A change like this would need both Upgrades to have less uses though. The total uses available to each PC would need to be half Systems or equal to Power Level or something like that. That would have also likely meant a buff for Resupply, likely just making it not use an action. Also, they probably would be internal upgrades rather than external upgrades.

Again, the expansion largely fixes the problems with both Jury Rig and Regenerative with the addition of Restoration Powers. Without it, both Upgrades essentially need you to have a way to stop taking damage while you heal in peace, such as having everybody temporarily hide behind a Guardian of Steel or short pauses between battles or something like that.

Next: Mobility Upgrades.

Gimmick Out.

Sep 18, 2016

BCG Retrospective XXI: Active Defenses

Active Defenses are some of the most important Upgrades in the game, because their use is baked into the game's combat math. That is to say, it is assumed you will buy one in the same way you buy Weapons, and without one you are going to have trouble keeping up with others.

When put this way I wonder: Should there have been Default Active Defenses the same way the game has Default Weapons? Probably not, if the concern is that starting characters are too vulnerable without them, might as well just give those a proper Defense boost.

Active Defenses generally give between 3 and 5 Defense points, because that's enough to block out some attacks but not enough to make an untouchable defensive powerhouse. The ones with a higher defensive ceiling have drawbacks beyond their Energy cost. This makes sure even defensive powerhouses have a weakness that can be exploited and the action never quite grinds to a halt.

Absorbing Armor
The inspiration for this Upgrade were the various defense systems in the Gundam franchise like Phase Shift Armor and I-Fields. To help represent those, Absorbing Armor started out only allowing you to choose between Beam and non-Beam. Playtesting showed very quickly that trying to stop Beams this way wasn't likely to block the whole attack, making the second half of the ability pointless, so the choice of specialization was freed up to any of Melee, Shooting, Beam and non-Beam. The problem with Absorbing Armor is that there's way too many offensive buffs in the game for it to reliably block attacks with such a small Defense boost. It works for very specific builds like Guardian of Steel users and Combiners, which can trigger the 3 Defense at no Energy cost much more often. It also works okay with Experimental Reactor builds that have a secondary focus in defense. The full block won't happen very often but they couldn't afford to spend 2 Energy per attack anyway. Perhaps it should have given a larger bonus but with a drawback of some sort? Overall it's not great, but it's okay.

Custom Defense
This was the first Active Defense to be written, and it is the most effective per point of Energy spent. Five points of Defense is enough to block out buffed low rolls and unbuffed high rolls. Originally you had to choose between Melee and Shooting for Specializations, but it got changed along with Absorbing Armor when that one wasn't working with Beam and non-Beam. The worst you can say about it is that it is kind of boring, but it more than makes up for that in effectiveness and being easy to reflavor to whatever you wish.

Reactive Booster
This started off being equal to Electronic Cloaking System, using all your Speed instead of just half, but Speed is generally more useful than Systems so it needed a drawback. The nerf came in the form of a halved bonus so that Boosted Lance users wouldn't be too difficult to handle in large maps. This Upgrade's problem is that it'll just grant 2 Defense for the first few Power Levels. It only costs 5 though, so it remains effective.

Absolute Barrier
The most unique Active Defense in the core rules. This started out as an all-purpose barrier that let you respond to attacks with a Defense bonus like all the others, but that proved very difficult to balance. With a 1 Energy to 2 Defense ratio it was very easy to make yourself invincible against anything that couldn't punch through barriers, but 1 Energy for 1 Defense was just plain terrible. Then I wondered "What if I make it an upfront investment as a balance mechanism?" and that naturally led to switching a Defense boost for Damage prevention to make it easier to track and play with. Absolute Barrier is a strong candidate for Best Active Defense, in competition with Custom Defense, simply because the adjustable output and ability to block direct Damage are just too useful. I would have liked to make more preventive barriers in the core rules, but they're tough to get right. When I tried to make a bunch more for the expansion, it ended in only one more (Organic Barrier) making it all the way to print!

Electronic Cloaking System
This one grants a very large Defense bonus so it has a weak point in Blasts, Bursts and Lines. Without that, Support Mecha would be too frustrating to fight against. I do like that, conceptually, the robots that fight indirectly or stay away from the front lines are the ones who can use invisibility defensively. With that said, this Upgrade suffers at low Power Levels, because you need a ton of points in Systems to keep it from being "Custom Defense, but worse". While ECS is kind of weak in Core, the Expansion added Dispersion Aura to defend specifically against Blasts, Bursts and Lines which covers this Upgrade's sole weakness. It is an expensive combination, but probably worth it if you're worried about survivability.

Shielding Aura
The Defense bonus is small, and in general it is more efficient to just let everyone else use their own Active Defenses than to buy an expensive one and give other people just 3 Defense with your own Energy. But with some planning, this can allow Squadmates to focus on stronger attacks instead of spending their resources defensively. It is especially useful at low Power Levels when MP is tight and most builds could use it on something other than Active Defenses.

One thing that jumped at me while doing this was that there's there's a lot less Active Defenses than there are Weapons. If they're supposed to be their defensive equivalent, then the game ought to have a few more options, right? Not too many, but at least two pages total rather than just one. Perhaps keep one page for the Defense boosts but give a whole page to ones that prevent Damage. Fortunately, the expansion does a very good job of, well, expanding Active Defense options but I figure there's still room for a handful more in the game.

Next: Restorations.

Gimmick Out.

Sep 11, 2016

BCG Retrospective XX: General Upgrades.

General Upgrades can be divided into two categories. A few grant simple benefits that can be very useful if you have the spare MP for them, but most are very specific abilities that require you to plan a character build around them. They're all Internal, and thus can't be disabled, the former because it wouldn't make sense for your Mecha to lose those abilities and the latter because that would completely ruin your character if you lost that. They're a hodgepodge of assorted abilities so it's more interesting to talk about them individually than as a whole.

Commander Type + Early Warning and Control
Support Upgrades are very strong buffs or debuffs but also they're rarely worth your entire Turn, especially if they are also spent on use. Commander Type was designed from the ground up to be the thing that pushed Support builds to playability. The Upgrade went through several versions, at one point it allowed multiple Support activations each turn and at another it also had an Early Warning and Control effect... For all Support Upgrades, not just the ones that cost 5. One Actionless Support each Turn with replenishing the cheaper Supports was the right effect, but it was a bit too wordy for a single General Upgrade - and it was also hard to purchase early since it was so expensive at 20 MP. The Actionless activation and replenishing abilities were split into two Upgrades and that's how both of them came to be.

As for how they worked out, Supports had to be buffed several times before Support builds were competitive with other specialists. Even then, they do suffer from being a little too expensive to function efficiently at low Power Levels. The expansion gave them enough new toys that I believe this is no longer an issue. I'll go more into detail when we get to the Support Upgrades section.

Expert Support
The name should probably be different, considering this is an ability that doesn't really have much to do with Support Upgrades. Other than that, it is a very simple and useful Upgrade that lets the user avoid friendly fire. It's fundamental for artillery builds and games full of solo Boss battles. It doesn't really make the user more powerful, it just keeps them from potentially killing their allies, so it is a very cheap Upgrade to encourage people to take it.

Slippery Chassis
This was once a Mobility Upgrade, much like Reversible Thrusters, but at a 5 MP Cost. It didn't make much sense as a thing that could be Maimed though, and at 5 MP you could buy as an afterthought to ignore the most common forms of movement denial. The result was that, after the first few Power Levels, nearly everyone had it. That was a little too good, so it became an Internal Upgrade for 10 MP instead, so it's much rarer but also harder to deal with since it can't be disabled.

Stealth Field + Guardian of Steel
These two used to be a single Upgrade in Stealth Field. The game needed something to represent cloaking tech, but invisibility is not just an extremely powerful ability but also logically a very weird thing to give to a giant robot. It had to be a purely defensive ability and those are hard to make both interesting and efficient to use without accidentally making someone invincible.

The original Stealth Field had a range greater than 1 so it could cloak allies with its absurd tech. It was extremely overpowered and it took separating its effects into two Upgrades plus reducing the range of Guardian of Steel to the very minimum in order to keep it balanced. Even then, NPCs with it often turn into puzzle encounters of a sort, forcing the PC Squad to find a workaround around it. Stealth Field ended up very weak without its companion Guardian of Steel, but it is still worth taking for Components to make Combiners even more invincible when Maneuvering. It took some effort but I think both abilities turned out alright.

Artillery Frame
This originally only gave an Advantage to Blast type Weapons but made the Blast area much larger. It was extremely powerful against Grunt mobs but very underpowered the rest of the time and actively a hindrance without Expert Support. It was too extreme, so the Blast radius bonus got toned down (as did many of the Blast sizes of individual Weapons) and then made compatible with Line and Burst Weapons. It is still a very all-or-nothing Upgrade, but it's cheaper than most other weapon specializations and doesn't automatically make your party hate you, so it's about as good as it gets for its concept.

I knew that I wanted Subpilot PCs to be allowed to use only Utility actions. This would let them Maneuver, Support and Boost or Disengage which should be enough to cover any situation. The problem with this decision was that then Subpilot NPCs would be extremely powerful, there's no way we could allow a PC to essentially buy 2 actions for every Turn. So we were going to need separate rules for PC and NPC Subpilots. The question was, how do we represent having another Character? We already had Commander Type for Supports, Mobility Upgrades for extra movement, and Maneuvering was out of the question. The other thing that PCs had to contribute other than their Actions were their Genre Points and Genre Powers, so we tried Assistant as just one of each at 10 MP and it was a little too good. After changing it to 15 MP it was still worth taking but not too good to not take it, so it stayed that way. I believe this is the right way to do Subpilot NPCs.

Duelist Model + Sniper Model
Originally there was a single Upgrade that had you choose between Melee and Shooting, giving you an Advantage to using that Weapon type. It was split into two different Upgrades with some additional bonuses. Duelist Model makes you decent at forcing enemies to focus on you, while Sniper Model lets you shoot from very far away. Sniper Model had some additional conditions to making it work - the Range bonus only applies to Weapons with the Long Range ability and the Advantage doesn't work at Range 0 - because at the time Shooting Weapons were generally stronger than Melee ones. Now that the Expansion has done more to balance Melee with Shooting, I think at least the Advantage clause could go away. But at the time it was a necessary matter for game balance.

Integrated Weapons + Invincible Alloy
Unlike the previous double entries, these weren't a single Upgrade that got split into two during development. I'm combining them so I can talk about Antimaims in a general sense instead. As I explained last week, Maims do wacky things to game balance and tend to skew combat towards who can Maim the other first, so I wanted to have a couple of Upgrades in the game to mitigate their effects. Playtesting showed that they weren't just useful, they were obligatory in order to keep Power Level 3+ combat fun, so there was a lot of pressure on getting them right.

Balancing these two (and the Expansion Pack a few pages later) with each other was hard. They were the abilities that got tweaked and rewritten the most in the core book, because they didn't just need to be balanced in a vacuum, they had to be balanced in the context of the builds each one slotted well into. Integrated Weapons had to cost just enough to keep Beam specialists from having too much raw attack power and Invincible Alloy had to give Duelists the extra survivability they needed to keep the Enemy focused on them. Your ability to use one of the available Antimaims in the game was a huge factor to how good your build was. They didn't cover all possible builds effectively in core, but BCZ added juuust enough more Antimaims to make up for that.

Experimental Reactor
This is the weapon specialization upgrade with the most raw power vs single targets. Beam weapons were always powerful and this made them even stronger, so we had to be careful with it. It's expensive, and Beam Weapons already have an extra MP cost in Energy, which is their main balancing factor. The other balancing factor is that, if you go all in on Beam weapons, you need to find the ones with the right abilities and Energy. It's relatively tricky and the extra vulnerability to Energy debuffs keeps it in check. Overall, I'd say this one is fine.

Superior Morphing
We'll leave this one for later, when we get to the Transformation Upgrade.

The Beast
The coolest and most badass of all the General Upgrades. Originally this didn't nullify the base Disadvantage from using Default Weapons, nor did it allow the user to punch through barriers. Both of those came through as a result of playtesting showing that 1-2 Advantages with no other secondary abilities was not enough to build around. The addition gives PCs a higher Damage ceiling without making the base attack power of Default Weapons too much higher. It's one of the builds with the most raw power and the easiest to play effectively, nearly every PC Squad I've seen has one person using The Beast, so I'm going to assume everybody else likes it as much as I do.

Next: Active Defenses.

Gimmick Out.

Sep 4, 2016

BCG Retrospective XIX: Areas & Maiming.

We're finally at the Mecha chapter part of this retrospective, but Before we get started on Upgrades, there's one more mechanic that comes before then: Areas & Maiming.

The mental image of mechs losing limbs and continuing the fight is a very strong visual. It also adds a strategic element to the game, making you think about where to assign your toys. You also get to customize the flavor of the Areas themselves, you don't have to stick to Head/Torso/Arms/Legs, which helps represent things like spaceships. It is a very cool system in theory.

The problem with the Areas/Maiming system is that losing one or more Upgrades/Weapons is a devastating setback when you're already behind in the damage race. Losing your active defenses or your best guns means whoever gets an early lead will probably win. If the game didn't have baked in mechanics to counter this then the gameplay would be very frustrating.

High Level PCs are so powerful they can take out 2-3 Levels of one Enemy at a time. Without antimaim abilities like Integrated Weapons and Invincible Alloy, the game would be a mess at Power Levels 4 and 5. On top of that, GMs have to deal with the added fiddliness of tracking the condition of multiple NPCs's limbs. Many Features mitigate or nullify Maiming to help with this. The Areas/Maiming system comes with a lot of problems.

But it is very flavorful and low Power Level combat  when people don't have reliable antimaims yet is intense. It really does make you feel like you're a glorified grunt piloting a robot made of explodium. I would have hated to lose that feel. The game already had many ways to make the Mazingers and Getters feel like super robots, it needed something for the Scopedogs and Zakus. The result is that the game feels a bit schizophrenic with its pulling in different directions.

I think it works out fine enough in the end. But I've been wrong before, so I'd like to know what you think. Maiming system: Hate it or love it? Do you play "hard mode" without antimaims or do you buy antimaims ASAP? Do you prefer less extreme variants such as Power Suit? I want to know what you think. To this end, GimmickLabs now premieres its double polling technology! Science has come far indeed.

Next: Upgrades.

Gimmick Out.