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.

Conclusion
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.

7 comments:

  1. Complex, definitely! I'm a bit of a mechanics intensive player, and combiners frightened me off cause I got worried that I didn't understand them!

    suggested "Tip": just like how you included a tip on how alt form robots should really get superior morphing, a Tip on how combiners rely on Manuever would have been nice. When I first took a look at combiners, I thought that it ended up making your team weaker not stronger, cause I didn't take manuevering into account. :(

    Why do you say that Unison combiners are weaker than supers? I can imagine building some VERY strong unison combiners, especially at low levels, due to the fact that " Might, Guard, Systems and Speed of the current Lead." is used, you can have the main form with high stats there and a secondary with only good threshold and energy, but lots of good internal upgrades. :) ... also, for combiners with lots of components, the fact that each form gets to attack once per round, instead of Supers which only get to do 1 attack per round, can make a lot of difference! And it looks like Unison Combiners get to use a LOT of restoration and support upgrades compared to supers!

    Talking about just mechanics, ouch, yeah. I'm confused about genre point gain from getting maimed. And how are maim genre points calculated for invincible super combiner when 4 units that got 3 maims and received 3 genre points each for that, combine and the new unit is fully healed? ... how do you treat Features? :O

    ...

    In terms of flavour, I was a bit miffed that, when trying to make a Voltron or Dancouga wannabe with 4 units, when our team DPS with 8 might had difficulties hurting a high defence boss, Super combiner ended up with a robot with only 6 might, and ended up doing even lower damage to the boss than before combining. :( ... ... ... you know how, you were saying that, as a game designer, you don't like healing cause it "undoes" damage? ... and I replied that active defences do the same? ... Combiners main strengths seem to be manuever and maybe also jury rig or other restoration upgrades. IE, combiners seem to fulfil the same issue as healing and actdef, for the most part they seem to REDUCE your team DPS, gaining longevity in exchange. :(

    ... on the other hand, stretching out combat means that techniques become much more attractive, so that helps to do that whole trope of "Here's my final attack! Blazing Sword!" ;)

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    1. Unison Combiners are weaker in that they have the upgrades/weapons of only one unit at a time, instead of a whole lot of them at once. They're much, MUCH stronger offensively than Super Combiners, but they have to withstand focus fire meant to take down 2+ units.

      And yeah, Combination isn't a raw stat boost until you get the expansion content. This bothered me a little too, but we were very close to the final deadline and still tweaking Super Combination so I opted to be better safe than sorry and didn't apply the buff, since the build is already very strong defensively.

      One offensive upside of combiners is that you can make everybody take signature weapons, or other offensive powers that can normally only be used once, and do nothing but spam buffed attacks.

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    2. Can't the unison combiner also just let one of the pilots use manuever instead of attacking? In which case, it's just as strong defensively? ... unisons share all internal upgrades just like supers, right? So the unisons only lose out on the weapons and the external upgrades? ... hmm. having a large pool of weapons and external upgrades to choose from gives some added choice and flexibility, but you don't typically need THAT many of them at once. Most of the mecha I build, I would much rather have 25 MP worth of extra internals than to have another 50 MP worth of weapons and externals.

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    3. They CAN Maneuver, but Super Combiner components -tend- to have higher Attributes. They don't necessarily have them, but they are encouraged to sink more MP in them, partly because they're averaged and partly because they have a higher Attribute cap thanks to Invincible Super Combination.

      They can also afford to always have the right Active Defense for each attack. Absolute Barrier is fine but they can use ECS and Reactive Booster better than most single-pilot units, for example.

      Buuuut yeah, as of the expansion you have Internal Fortification, which does more for combiners than all the external area sharing in the world.

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    4. oof internal fortification and old type are pretty important at the higher power levels, since everything is so lethal.

      I especially don't like how those 2 skills interact with Synchro attack! :( ... well I guess that's what scan genre power is for.

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    5. Yeah, pretty much. By PL3 at the latest you want to be scanning all the rivals and bosses to avoid gotchas like this.

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  2. Oh, and the comining mid battle isn't so bad... just have to remember to draw up the final combined bot on another sheet outside of the session itself. ... though, yeah, if your group forgets to do so and only starts writing out your combined form in the middle of the combat session, it's a major mood-killer. :(

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