Oct 30, 2016

BCG Retrospective XXVII: Combinations.

Combinations are the most difficult set of mechanics that I've ever had to adapt to a tabletop RPG. Even after several iterations, each one simplifying them further, they still take a full page to describe and explain. There are only two Combination Upgrades, but they have very long entries, their own set of common unique rules and possibly the longest sidebar in the book explaining how they work in corner cases. It's complex stuff, but I think most people will agree that's kind of inevitable considering the subject matter.

I mean, there's so much you can do to simplify "All PCs are combined into one" in a game that is designed around having 3-5 separate PCs, each of them with lots and lots of unique abilities plus their own strengths and weaknesses keeping them balanced to their environment. It's not just difficult to adapt, it is also difficult to balance.

Let's start with their common rules: First, everyone has to take the same Combination Upgrade, that's simple and obvious enough. Second, all Units are treated as a singular Unit. The book at this part simply tells people to deploy preocombined for the sake of simplicity and leaves the rules for the Combination Action to their own sidebar - they are just that darn long. We'll go over those when looking at both of the proper Upgrades, and instead talk about Subpilots now.

Subpilots can only take Utility Actions, of which Maneuver is the most obviously powerful. Indeed, Maneuver is the one Action that pretty much justifies playing a Combiner by itself. The Utility/Offensive Action system was written with Subpilots in mind from the beginning, which might seem a bit weird since there's not that many Utility Actions a Subpilot would want to take, but that's why there's Upgrades that add more Utiltiy Actions to the repertoire. The first Subpilot Maneuvers and the second can use Boost or Disengage for positioning. Additional Subpilots need Support and Restoration Upgrades. The idea is to give Subpilots something to design their builds around other than just getting stats and maybe an Internal Upgrade or two.

Super Combination
The traditional sentai-esque combiner where one person shows off and the rest of the team just sit there and shout things wouldn't be very fun to roleplay. In BCG, dedicated Subpilots get to build around their role by taking Supports, Restorations or Upgrades that synergize with Maneuvering and make movement and positioning easier. It's powerful and fun, to the point that GMs should consider throwing one or two Super Combiners at the PCs to see how they handle it.

The downside is that Super Combination is very complex. It involves slapping a whole character sheet on top of someone else's, recalculating Attributes, and choosing one Area for the Subpilot to claim it as theirs. I simplified this and streamlined the Upgrade to the essence of combinations as much as I could and I doubt it could get much simpler than this without sacrificing what makes it cool. It is still complex. A Super Combiner that deploys precombined gets to have fun with a really powerful build without the complications of the Combination Action rules and can use a single character sheet, which is going to be crazy overstuffed, but at least it doesn't need multiple sheets.

Mid-Battle Super Combination is so complex that the rules for doing it are over a hundred words in length, and I think that alone does a good job of explaining the problems with it. There's a reason the book just tells you to deploy precombined. There is one problem with this though: Combining mid-Operation is a very tropey thing that mecha fiction does a lot of the time. Not all the time. But a lot of it. BCZ would later give Super Combiners the Invincible Super Combination Upgrade to fix this issue. In doing so though, it makes Super Combiners even more complex, because now you have to use the Combination Action rules. Though, to be fair, it makes them fifty-something words instead of over a hundred, so that's an improvement.

Unison Combination
This is the other common kind of combining super robot (more in the vein of Getter, Arbegas or Aquarion) which is much friendlier to the idea of a balanced party where everyone gets to do cool things. Unison Combiners are generally weaker than Super Combiners, but have two extremely powerful abilities: 1) A single-shot super Synchro Attack that costs only one Action 2) A lot of utility value in being able to freely share Genre Points. The source material often makes a big deal about the pilots being in sync with each other, having three hearts beating as one, etc. I think those abilities do a good job representing that kind of teamwork.

They're still complex, but not as much as Super Combiners, because all Units are distinct from each other. You can do a Mid-Battle Unison Combination, but there is no real benefit to it and you should just always deploy in the Combined form. They don't have a powerup Upgrade like Invincible Super Combination, because at the time I thought they didn't need it, but I wonder now if maybe they should have had one. Feedback here would be appreciated.

Writing about Extra Areas, Alternate Forms and Combinations in a row is painful because they were the genre conventions most difficult to adapt to an RPG. Combinations weren't just the most difficult to adapt, they were also the undisputed champions of just how complicated you can make an ability this side of D&D 3E's Polymorph spell. Deploying precombined removes most of the hassle and means you just need to make a single sheet for the combined mech, so I'm definitely glad that I kept them this way for BCG before BCZ went and made people want to Combine Mid-Operation.

I wrote a lot about all the problems with Combinations, but I do like how they play once you've solved those. I think they nail what makes combiners cool in mecha fiction while improving the formula and giving Subpilots more to do. But enough about Combiners! Now that we're done with the Trinity of Messy Adaptations, we can move on to more positive subject matter!

Next: Features

Gimmick Out.

Oct 23, 2016

BCG Retrospective XXVI: Alternate Forms

Mecha with switchable frames and multiple forms are staples of Mecha fiction. But, much like with Extra Areas, they have one glaring conceptual flaw that needs to be fixed before you adapt them to a point-buy effects-based system: You can already give your mech anything you want, there is no benefit to locking a flight mode or aoe weaponry behind a form that will only be useful some of the time.

My solution to this was to make Alternate Forms let you switch stats around by default, giving them a base benefit that justifies their purchase. The most obvious and probably most practical combination is to switch Systems and Speed, leaving one of them at 0 and investing your extra MP in the other. This gives you the benefits of a high mobility form and a long range utility form.

But of course, that wasn't going to be enough to make a plane form distinct from a humanoid form, or an artillery frame distinct from a submarine frame. I immediately wrote Superior Morphing to complement Alternate Forms and give them that something extra they needed to make each form or frame unique.

How'd that work out? Let's see.

Frames may not look like much at a glance, but Features make them a very efficient alternative to Antigravity. For 25 MP you get a land Frame and a space/underwater Frame which covers 90% of Operations. This will give you a +2 Defense from Defensive Terrain , lets you ignore Difficult Terrain and grants the ability to shoot over defensive formations. Each of your forms gets back 10 MP, so for 15 MP you've got half the effects of Antigravity (at no Energy cost) and a Defense boost to go with it. Then, if your game has more than a single mission in the third terrain type, you can Mid-Scene Upgrade for it with another 5 MP or just suck it up. The problem with this is that you don't have a convenient way around Extreme, Withering or (oddly enough) Sliding Terrain, but the +2 to Defense should make up for it.

This is a very effective Upgrade, but suffers from The Strong Adapt in the Expansion doing the same thing but better in nearly every way. The Strong Adapt requires you to not take Mid-Scene Upgrade though! You may know I've gone on record stating that Mid-Scene Upgrade is potentially the most exploitable ability in the game, so there's still a reason to use Frames.

Switching Features on the fly is really strong and easily worth the 10 MP cost, which is what Antigravity costs, but Transformation costs just 1 energy to activate (with Superior Morphing, at least) while antigravity costs 2. When you're not using the flight mode, you can use a Terrain Specialist or Extreme Adaptation Form, which is really handy. The balancing mechanism of this is that having to choose between those forms means sometimes you will have the wrong combination of Upgrades/Weapons/Attributes for the Terrain that you want, so it takes a bit of smart playing to get the most out of it.

Between that and the complexity of Alternate Forms in general, Transformers are not for beginners. This is especially true with Maneuverable Transformer encouraging you to switch back and forth every Turn and somehow not crippling yourself in the process.

In Conclusion
In hindsight, perhaps the core mechanic for Alternate Forms should not have been switching Attributes, but switching Features instead, because Features are the iconic thing Alternate Forms do in fiction. Superior Morphing does this, but it costs extra MP and complicates things by requiring you to take another Upgrade. The current version has the benefit of being more powerful. Switching Upgrades, Weapons and Attributes gives you more room to optimize your build than if you just switched Upgrades and Weapons, after all. The problem is that you have to understand how it works first and Alternate Forms are one of the upgrade lines that confuse new players the most.

I think Alternate Forms are messy and complicated, both things I'm not fond of. But they work and the builds they enable are powerful while taking some skill to play, making them rewarding to use. I'm not sure how the complexity problem could have been fixed though. Perhaps there could have been pre-written Forms with their own benefits and drawbacks (sort of like Features) and you could just select between them instead of assembling the Forms yourself with Upgrades and Weapons. I'm not sure that would be better in practice, but it would be easier to understand at least.

I do like them overall though, and given how difficult they were to work with, I'm glad that their complexity isn't necessarily a bug but can be considered a Feature for players looking for a more difficult build.

Next: Combinations.

Gimmick Out.

Oct 16, 2016

BCG Retrospective XXV: Extra Areas.

Both of the Extra Areas in the game are antimaim-type upgrades, but there was always a third type of Extra Area that I kept trying to include in the game but never quite got it right: The "Armor Purge" ability. Purgeable armor parts are a common genre convention, but they don't make a lot of sense as abilities in a point buy system. You can already buy any upgrades and weapons with MP, so locking your cool stuff under your other cool stuff doesn't make a lot of sense. Similarly, AI-controlled powerups and ejectable equipment need some tweaking in order to work in a system like BCG. The latter two concepts got into the game as the Extra Areas, whereas Armor Purge always suffered from fun or balance issues, never making it to the game.

Expansion Pack
Expansion Pack protects a whooping 30 MP of stuff from Maim status. It does this without costing Energy and comes with a free use of I Cannot be Defeated attached as a bonus. It is kind of really, really powerful. Oh sure, you'll lose all the stuff installed there when you purge it, fair enough. You know what else disables your Upgrades and Weapons? Exploding, which is what would happen to your Mecha without the purge effect. You could build with a Plan B in mind, to let you continue fighting effectively after a purge - or you could just not bother, because it is a really good deal as it is. Expansion Pack only costs 5 more MP than an Assistant granting the aforementioned Genre Power, and only 5 more MP than Integrated Weapons... But it protects your Upgrades and not just your Weapons. Would it surprise you to know that it was nerfed like 3-4 times and this was the weakest version of them all?

Expansion Pack is an absurd upgrade and the only thing keeping it somewhat balanced is that it'll cost you almost two full power levels to fill it up with stuff, and by then you may want to buy some more External Upgrades and Weapons, only you don't have a way to keep them from getting disabled. Honestly, if deadlines didn't exist this probably would have been weaker. I'll give this an A on concept, because it represents a mecha trope faithfully and feels good to play with, but it gets a B on execution because the numbers it works with make it waaaaay stronger than intended.

Secret Equipment
This one is also very powerful, but less so than Expansion Pack. The idea is that your giant robot "awakens" after the fighting has been going for a while and that unlocks its most powerful Weapons and Upgrades. What balances this one is that battles are usually too chaotic for you to reliably control how long they will last. Sure, you can try to durdle and Maneuver for a few turns while Tension goes up, but that won't stop the pure damage from Extreme Terrain or Bombardment, and by the time you're done powering up it may be too late - it's just you vs all the enemies left while your team curses your ancestors and descendants both.

Secret Equipment could be free unmaimable MP (or a total waste of it) depending on your team composition and how willing the GM is to let you activate it in peace, so it is a gamble. BCG Operations tend to end quick when optimized PCs and NPCs are going at it, making this Upgrade very bad under those circumstances. That's why BCZ has Limit Engine to help you reach Tension 5 semi-reliably. The tradeoff is, of course, that you have to build around that and try to get the attention of enemy forces. Suddenly, you're not anymore a loner on cleanup duty, but a team player that tanks for the rest. I really like how that worked out.

If BCG wasn't a generic mecha system trying to adapt as many genre conventions as possible, I might have taken the easy way out and just skipped on doing these. Between the concepts being difficult to adapt and antimaims in general being difficult to balance, Extra Areas were pretty tough to work on. Fortunately, these two worked out and made it to print.

But they wouldn't be the hardest genre conventions to turn into Upgrades. Oh no, we've only just gotten started on headache-inducing content.

Next: Alternate Forms.

Gimmick Out.

Oct 9, 2016

BCG Retrospective XXIV: Support Upgrades.

Not all giant robots attack their enemies directly. Heck, some of them don't even attack enemies at all! Support Upgrades represent those rare mecha, as well as enabling a different style of gameplay for players who like having more decisions to make every Turn. Some Support Upgrades are buffs, some are debuffs, others do one-off weird things and a few even let the user do a moderate amount of damage to a single target with an indirect attack.

The problem with supports was balancing them. They had to be about as good as weapons, but slightly worse, so by default they cost an Action to use and needed resupplying for repeated use. The way they were first written, Support builds had half their current range and needed to use most of their actions resupplying themselves and spending energy to use one of them at the beginning of the turn. It was too expensive in terms of MP to be worth playing at low power levels and only seemed worth the trouble against bosses.

It was then that Commander Type got split into two separate Upgrades, one of which resupplied the cheaper Supports after use. This made support builds a lot more fun to play, and at 9 energy you could then engage in double-support Action every Turn. Full-support builds got a lot more fun then, but they still had some issues with being a little too frail and weak compared to weapon specialists. Doubled range for all Support Upgrades gave them a little bit more of tactical flexibility and fixed most of the problem.

Even after all this, they were still a little weak at times, so one of the first Upgrades written for BCZ was Power Conversion to help them make use of Tension as a resource. I believe BCZ made the various support builds some of the best in the game, so I'm quite content with how they turned out.

Assisted Targeting
Most Upgrades in BCG are self-contained and don't refer to other rules in the book, but Assisted Targeting outright tells you to go look up the Aiming rules rather than just spelling them out. This has three benefits: First, it reminds people to familiarize themselves with the different kinds of Actions available. Second: It serves as a balance mechanism to keep this and similar abilities from stacking Advantages. Third: It grants synergy with Long Range weapons, most obviously the Sniper Rifle. This is probably the strongest of the 5-cost Supports. This should not be a surprise, as it basically lets you grant someone eles (or yourself) an extra Action, and that's very powerful.

Most builds have the exact amount of energy they need to use their stuff, so giving them extra energy doesn't help that much. But sometimes energy is halved or you want to set up a sick Jury Rig or Boost Power. Overcharge helps you do those things. It's okay, definitely one of the least useful of the bunch, but it has a place.

Support Fire
It's like Assisted Targeting, but with the Suppress Action instead! The second strongest after Assisted Targeting, only because it is slightly harder to exploit. If there had been more Weapons designed around the use of Suppression/Crippling this could easily have been different though, because it's a really strong effect! Much like with Assisted Targeting, multiple suppression effects on the same attack do not stack, Suppressing with a Crippling Weapon is wasting Damage.

Supply Delivery
Supply Delivery is one of the best Supports from a design standpoint. Delivering extra ammo makes sense as the kind of thing you'd be able to do. Its only problem is that this is a game that generally doesn't care about ammo, but for the builds that do care about ammo this is a very strong effect. It also enables builds going all-in on single-shot weapons too, which is really cool.

Surprise Minefield
This is another one I'm fond of. The name, rules and flavor blend perfectly into something that is really cool and most games don't pull off. It is also very good, though it has an obvious weakness in flight-capable units or those with Absolute Barrier. Still really good for a support-oriented character though, just mind your melee-minded allies. Fun fact: You can use this to kite melee specialists. You can even Boost away while doing so thanks to Commander Type! How's that for a trapmaster character?

Saturation fire and other forms of calling for allied firepower are very flavorful and iconic, but Grunt swarms are supposed to be the weakness of Support builds. It took some juggling of the numbers but I think Airstrike ended up being juuust good enough without being better than, say, Blast Weapons. What makes it stick are the extreme range and the freedom to position yourself optimally when using it.

Electromagnetic Detonator
A good candidate for best debuff in the game available to PCs. This is brutal against anyone who relies on energy, particularly beamspam builds. This originally only halved Energy and there was a Genre Power that turned Energy spent into Damage. Neither the Upgrade nor the Power were all that good on their own, so they got combined into this devastating debuff. It can render bosses without a backup weapon obsolete and Grunts with it are a borderline unfair tactic vs PCs. Looking at it that way, perhaps it is a little too strong, but I'd rather have it be this way than not give PCs any silver bullets against high-energy builds.

Ensnaring Trap
The other candidate for best debuff in the game. I believe this originally created Difficult Terrain and halved Guard as a side effect, but got streamlined to halving two stats fairly quick. This is much more straightforward in making one Enemy easier to beat up than Electromagnetic Detonator and is a lifesaver against builds that rely on Maneuver bonuses to defense, most of which use Speed and bump up Systems at higher Power Levels. The part about making targets lose the ability to fly was added late in development for flavor reasons and to make it synergize better with Surprise Minefield.

Fire at Will
Before BCZ, Fire at Will was used to represent Remote Weapons - funnels, bits, incoms and all the others. Proper remote weapons that could be deployed, moved and targeted separately from your own unit were requested frequently enough that I ended up writing them anyway. As for the Upgrade itself, it is an okay way to hit a Boss or Rival with high Defenses or flight for a good amount (between 5 and 8, assuming an optimized high-systems build) of Damage.

Jamming Barrage
This Upgrade was always a Blast for flavor reasons, and that meant making the debuff effect weaker than if it was a single target debuff. While it works okay as is, and the large area of effect guarantees it will weaken a good number of enemies considerably, I now wonder if it should have been a single target debuff that also denied Tension for a Round or something along those lines.

Supports are in a good place right now but it took a lot of work to get them there. The problem was always the same: BCG is a very streamlined game where you have one Action per Turn. Supports would have worked better as some kind of secondary Action you can take in addition to an attack, rather than a replacement for the attack itself. They were buffed a whole bunch of times and received enough new toys in the expansion that their power level is no longer a concern, but in hindsight the whole thing looks to me like I was trying to fit a square peg into a round hole. If I were to rework them, I'd probably make them use your systems stat as ammo like Restorations do, instead of forcing a resupply effect after each use - rebalancing them as appropriate in the process.

Next: Extra Areas.

Gimmick Out.

Oct 2, 2016

BCG Retrospective XXIII: Mobility Upgrades.

Mobility Upgrades are thematically but not mechanically related to each other, they're linked by having similar flavor but their mechanics are independent. They could have been internal upgrades, but they make more sense as external upgrades. Plus, making them external let me lower their MP/Energy costs, to counterbalance that they can be maimed.

This used to cost 1 energy and 5 MP. Suffice to say, it was an autoinclude on waaaay too many builds for my liking then. Now? Perhaps it is a bit on the costly side, but every time you dodge extreme terrain with it is worth the cost. One thing I like about Antigravity is that it doesn't say "You can fly." then tells you to flip to a different page explaining how flight works. Rather, it (and all the other flight-granting mecha abilities) tell you what flight means. In this system, flight means ignoring cover and ignoring terrain under you. Very simple! In saving 3d movement for a sidebar, it keeps things rather compact. There is still one problem though: It doesn't say it can't fly over Impassable Terrain! It does say it ignores Terrain under you, but you can't move into a Zone of Impassable Terrain first to ignore it, so it is kind of confusing. It probably should have added "Can't fly over Impassable Terrain" in reminder text at the end. The underwater/space part of the text is there to remind GMs that they can make their own terrain properties and treat them however they want, and that sometimes saying "This terrain doesn't like this upgrade/weapon" is okay.

This used to be a 2/4 Zones boost, now it uses the same numbers Custom Defense does but for movement instead of defense. It wasn't a particularly necessary buff, but I liked the parallel and doing it didn't break anything. Also, the odd number makes Boosted Lance users want to take Gotta Go Fast to move a total of 10 Zones + Speed and get a juicy damage bonus. I like that this is a viable alternative to base speed bonuses for builds with a ton of energy.

Reversible Thrusters
When I made Slippery Chassis into an internal upgrade, I also considered doing the same with Reversible Thrusters. I ended up keeping it external just to make kiting less of an autowin for the higher speed builds that can pull it off - doing some damage to them should at least present the risk of forcing them to fight head on. As a maimable 10-point upgrade, this is useful for its intended builds, but often in playtesting it wasn't quite worth the cost for anybody but the most dedicated of snipers. There were some variants, but this turned out to be the least abusive of them all while still being playable. Considering kiting as a strategy is kind of abusive by purpose, I suppose that means this turned out well enough.

So this is a bit of a short post, because these don't have much of a story to them and they're pretty clear-cut. I do have a lot more to say about next week's subject though!

Next: Support Upgrades.

Gimmick Out.