Jul 30, 2017

Monsterpunk: The Summoners RPG.

It has been over two months since the last update about the Summoners RPG - long enough to get a better name: Monsterpunk. Let's do a quick recap of the last post before we continue:

In Monsterpunk it is not uncommon to have PCs control two units -and possibly more - at the same time. The first puzzle to solve here was how to do summon and summoner stats. The biggest problem was that none of the stat systems I came up with were simple yet intuitive enough to satisfy me. The solution I came to was to make a class-based system instead of my typical point-buy and stat-based approach. The second puzzle to solve was action economy. It is very hard to make characters balanced with each other when one of them needs two or three times as many actions to do what other characters can do in one. The solution was to limit the number of units controlled by a single PC to two at a time (at least for the base rules) and to give the classes with multiple units ways to 'cheat' at action economy by spending actions as if they were of a higher tier for their summon.

As for the classes themselves, there are four categories: Cavaliers (ride the summon to battle), Tamers (buff and support the summon), Fusions (fuse permanently with the summon to gain its powers) and Solos (no summon, but have increased physical abilities, psychic powers, better tech, etc.). That was what they were called back then. Now they're called Riders, Partners, Gestalts and Ubermensch - in the same order.

Now that we've got that covered, let's get to the part that ties all these things together: The Core Mechanic.

Puzzle #3: What's the Core Mechanic?

I had a class and action system in mind but I still didn't have thought up the way players would roll dice to solve problems yet. I couldn't do the good old "dice + stat to beat a target difficulty number" approach, because I didn't have stats. In fact, without stats there's little room for any of the things that make interacting with game mechanics fun and interesting. This was a big roadblock and I'd love to say that I came up with the answer entirely on my own.

But the solution didn't come to me until I was shown a different RPG's core mechanic. The game in question is Strike! In Strike! You roll 1d6 and consult a table with 4-5 results. The results for rolls outside of combat go from catastrophic failure to critical success with other interesting results (success with a cost, unexpected twists that throw the situation off the rails, etc.) in between. Combat results include missing and hurting yourself, doing damage and having a special effect, doing damage or having a special effect (player's choice) and doing double damage plus the effect. The PCs' affect this result by changing, say, 3's to 4's (giving you damage and effect when you would usually only get one) or giving the player the ability to roll 2d6 and choose which roll to keep. Thus, everybody rolls the same 3-4 tables which they'll probably memorize after a few rolls. As a bonus there's no need to do math with bonuses and penalties, which keeps the pace of the game flowing smoothly.

This, dear readers, is one of the most novel and elegant core mechanics I have ever seen. There are as many things that I adore about it as there are things that bother me, but since this isn't a review of Strike! I'll keep to the part that is relevant to our story.

I knew from that moment that I wanted to have a table of fixed results as an universal mechanic. Of course, I would do it differently. Here is Monsterpunk's Table:

This game really needs a more fitting name than "Intermissions" for its out of combat scenes.

Here is what those terms mean:

You did the thing! Go you!

Something went wrong. Not only do you fail but you also have a new problem to deal with. Maybe you got wounded, maybe you set the place on fire, maybe you succeeded but in a way you didn't want, as if an evil genie granted you a wish.

Success with Twist
You succeed BUT you also have a new problem to deal with. Basically it is both of the above as one result.

Success with Bonus
Also known as a 'critical success'. If a success is usually a step forward in advancing the story, this is a step and a half forward. Maybe you finish the task much faster than intended, maybe you gain a clue for what to do next, maybe you impressed an important NPC who now looks at you favorably.

Base Effect.
What your ability always does. The weakest abilities don't have a base effect - a result of 1-4 means they miss. The strongest abilities always do something, like inflicting status conditions or high automatic damage, even without getting any bonus effects.

Bonus Effect.
All combat abilities have three bonus effects. Some effects can be applied two or three times while others can be only applied once. Hence, you can get up to three bonus effects on top of the base effect - if your ability has one.

What I really like about the d10 is that it has just enough randomness to cover a wide range of results while still being fairly predictable and intuitive. You can tell at a glance that there is only a 40% chance of total failure at any given time, but the highest possible result is very rare at 10%.

Here's some more probability calculations:

Credit for this one goes to Gzar who kindly set up anydice code for my Monsterpunk needs.

In this system Advantages and Disadvantages matter a lot more than they did in BCG. Having a single Advantage to your roll makes it more likely to get a success with bonus than a twist, but a Disadvantage gives you a 64% chance of total failure and a mere 1% of amazing success. This makes managing your Advantages and Disadvantages a tactical priority. It is a much bigger factor than an extra +2 damage on top of your 13 damage attack and I really like that.

With all the important rules well on their way to being solved, it was time to lay the groundwork on the nonmechanical aspects of the game: Setting, tone, mood and all those things.

Why "Monsterpunk"?

I figure I should start with the title.

Monsterpunk is a hybrid of Urban Fantasy and Science Fiction. Like most -Punk genres, Monsterpunk has its roots in science fiction, exploring worlds and societies where amazing technology has led to a dystopic way of life... Except in this case there's no artificial intelligences or genetic engineering or other scientific advancements as part of the setup. The foundation of the setting, the thing that changes everything and makes the world a different place, is the sudden arrival of fantastical and mythological creatures that proceed to take charge.

The game takes place several generations after this change, a long enough time for Humans to be no longer at the top of the food chain on a worldwide scale. People are now servants, nourishment and, quite often, playthings of their new masters. The Monsters need humans as a food source, with the "civilized" Monsters feeding on the psychic energy of living humans bred specifically for this purpose, while others just plain eat people's brains. Most people chose to side with the former against the latter, and the resulting conflict is how the world ended.

Yes, it is a post-apocalyptic world. Satellite networks and power plants are dangerous infraestructure to leave in the hands of potential human resistance factions, after all. Life in the controlled territory of the larger Monster factions means following their rules and paying them tribute (which means feeding them) in exchange for their protection from other Monsters and maybe a nice mid-1900's lifestyle if they're nice and care about electric grids. Outside the territory controlled by any given Monster faction, you're struggling to survive in a hellish wasteland where everything is trying to kill you.

The PCs take the role of a mercenary company - they're tough, relatively independent survivors. Like in most RPGs, combat is expected (in case the table didn't tip you off) to happen often. As mercenaries, PCs are in the middle of a brewing storm between warring factions, having the option to side with any of them or stay as independent as possible. The former means taking on missions to secure uncontrolled territory, sabotage other factions and suppress internal attempts at rebellion. The latter means making a living in a ravaged world where brain-eating monsters roam the wilderness, everything is poisonous and the weather is always extreme.

Regardless of the path they choose, horrible things will happen to them along the way, testing the limits of their sanity and their own humanity.

There's a bit more to it... But, to be honest, I spent most of my Monsterpunk time during the past two months tweaking game mechanics instead of writing lore stuff so the ideas are not fully developed yet. Mechanically speaking, the game is more or less ready for playtesting so there'll be more news soon.

Until next time, Gimmick Out.

Jun 29, 2017

Sudden News!? A Discord Channel Appears!

While I'm still a dinosaur who refuses to use social media and sticks mostly to IRC, I have recently started using Discord, so here you go: https://discord.gg/9ZTyKeM

(The next project update post is coming, I swear)

May 28, 2017

The Summoners RPG

The Summoners RPG is something I started earnest work in relatively recently. Inspiration for it struck just this past March, with the first playtest being this last week. Since then, my leisure time has been spent on this, Shin Megami Tensei IV (Finally playing it like four years after release. Not that odd for me.) and then Persona 5 (Like two weeks after release. Very odd for me.). Of both, I would say that SMT IV is the bigger influence and the one that sparked my interest in going ahead with this project the most, but don't get me started on them or we'll be here all day talking about Summoner Videogames instead of Summoner Tablegames.

First, in case you're not familiar with Shin Megami Tensei, or SMT, it's a JRPG franchise in which every game is full of monsters, deities and legendary humans from pretty much every mythological stripe and a suspicious favoritism for Japanese history. The main appeal is that you're often negotiating with these enemies to make them join your party. The stories are often post apocalyptic cyberpunk(...ish? there's magic along with technology, so it's more like magipunk) or begin when the apocalypse is right about to begin, offering multiple endings to let you rebuild society and create the dystopia of your dreams find the least sucky option from a bunch of terrible, awful aftermath scenarios.

I've spoken about making a Summoners RPG in the past, but never really got around to it. Back then I wasn't really sure how much it would take from SMT. That was mostly because there were a couple of system puzzles to solve before I could really begin. Now that they're in place, I can make the game. Let's start with said puzzles and how I solved them.

Puzzle 1: The "managing stats for multiple units" problem.

Numbers and math are one of those things that RPGs make use of a lot, whether you like it or not. You have your stats, the enemy has theirs, HP totals go up and down in the course of the fight while buffs and debuffs modify these stats and a lot of the games' tactical elements involves doing some mental math to figure out whether something is a good idea or not. In BCG there are two separate sets of stats (for the character and mecha) and a plethora of ways to buff them, debuff them, use one in place of the other and even ignore dice rolls entirely when using a specific stat. I like working with numbers even if I'm not the biggest fan of math, because they make tactical combat more fun.

So my first instinct was to try for a similar approach, giving PCs and all their Summons their own stats for story and combat scenes. It... Well, it was such a mess that I scrapped it halfway through writing it up.

The worst part isn't that it is complex, because complexity is part of the charm when each PC is its own mini-army. The worst part is that most of the mechanics are useless and won't ever be relevant. How often is a Minotaur going to use a Charm or Intellect skill? How often is a Succubus going to roll Vehicles or Electronics? How often is a Zombie's... ANYTHING going to be relevant? Writing all that stuff down is a waste of time and effort.

After this I transformed all the Summons into a pile of combat stats with some story scene abilities. The Minotaur can use its raw strength, tracking and and maze-navigation skills out of combat. The Succubus is a master of diplomacy and deception. The Zombie... Well, I still had no idea what to do with the Zombie but I figured that I'd solve the problem later. This approach alleviated the issue somewhat but it had the problem of inflexibility. What happens when a Summon is hit with a debuff meant for PCs that they don't have the stats to handle? Should they be immune to those things? Then why are your Summons immune to, say, fear and sickness outside of combat but still susceptible to it in the middle of combat? Should they just use your stats? Then why on earth is the nerdy wizard's Minotaur passing its Intellect Tests and the Succubus terribly incompetent at anything that doesn't involve Charm or Intellect? WHAT DO I EVEN DO WITH THE STUPID ZOMBIE IN A SITUATION LIKE THIS!? It looked like there was no elegant solution to what I was calling the "Stats with multiple units" problem.

What alternative was there to using stats? Well, stats can be replaced by tiered skills (instead of having stats, you just have a list of things you're good at with different bonuses for each) if we want to use a point-buy system of some kind. We could also go class-based and ignore stats entirely, making the things you're good at part of your class. I don't have anything against the former method and I think some games use it fairly well (FATE in particular) but it misses what makes point-buy exciting for me (the number-juggling and potential modeling or simulating of nearly anything you can think of), so I decided I'd try to make the idea work with a class-based system.

I knew that I wanted four or five distinct types of character builds represented: A pure "Tamer" type who lets the Summons do most of the work, a "Cavalier" who rides them around in combat, a "Solo" type who at most uses a familiar and does most of the fighting themselves and lastly a "Fusion" type that has fused with a Monster permanently and become something greater than human. Summons could, likewise, be distributed into categories very easily: The tanky melee type, the long range blasty type, the sneaky status condition type, etc. I divided those ideas into classes and things seemed to work okay this time. Sure, there weren't any stats to play around with, but in lieu of that I introduced all sorts of status conditions to compensate. The Minotaur can stun you, knock you down and push you all over the place. The Succubus can charm but also cause fear and incite rage. The zombie can poison you and... Uh, maybe grapple you or something. At least the example Zombie can do THINGS in this scenario.

The big draw of classes is that they're flavorful. As long as there's enough of them, they can be a bit narrow in what they represent yet pack enough cool flavorful stuff to compensate. One kind of Cavalier specializes in riding flying units like Dragons, Chimera or Pegasi focusing on physical skills with some area-of-effect magic. Another Cavalier is a more Reaper-like class that rides undead steeds throwing curses and plagues at enemies. One of the Fusion classes is a monstrous cannibal like if Eva 01 met Venom from Spiderman, using shapeshifting abilities to strike down enemies and heal from their remains. Another of the Fusion classes has combined with a self-appointed divine being that can use the power of song to heal allies and pacify enemies. The Solo and Tamer classes took a bit more effort. Riding Dragons and playing a Symbiont are some of the most obvious "I want to do this" choices for a fantasy game where you control the monsters or become them. Solo and Tamer classes don't have that luxury, as one minimizes the monster aspect while the other minimizes itself to focus on the monsters. Eventually the Solo classes ended up disregarding the monsters entirely becoming alchemists, psychics and power armor users. Who needs Summons when you've got THE POWER OF HUMANITY? FUCK YEAH! And the Tamers? Those didn't solidify for me until partway through solving the next problem. Which is...

Puzzle 2: The Action Economy.

If you're not familiar with the term, "Action Economy" refers to how the most precious resource in turn-based games is not your HP or your money or whatever else you've got but your own Turns. Turns can be transformed into anything, usually more HP for you or a reduction in HP for the enemy. It is why gaining extra Turns, or Actions as they're most often called in Tabletop RPGs, is one of the most powerful things you can do and is usually what enables the most broken and degenerate overpowered builds in these games. Most well-thought out games give everybody one or two Actions per Turn and make it very rare or very costly to cheat around this. BCG gives everybody one Action and it costs a lot of energy, GP, or your future Turns to grant yourself free Actions to use Support Upgrades or follow up to your own attack with your Funnels. Most tabletop RPGs acknowledge the issue and tell you to make rare the 4v1 encounters against a single Boss Monster because even the most overpowered and stat-inflated Big Bad struggles to keep up against people who act 4x as much as they do, or 2x in the games that just give the Bosses additional Turns.

The Problem for the Summoners RPG is that having multiple units per PC necessitates some tweaking of the model. If you have three units on the battlefield, they all need to do things when it is your turn. How do we balance that with someone who has two units? And with someone who has only one? If the classes with more units on the field had more actions, but they were very limited in what those actions could be used for, it could work. Say, the Tamer classes get 3 Actions instead of 1 per Turn, but those two additional Actions can only be used to move into position. The problem there is that it limits the design of the Summons themselves way too much. A fire elemental that does damage to enemies near it is balanced when it is a single unit that has to move and attack to maximize its usefulness every turn. It's not balanced when a Tamer has two of them and doesn't really care about attacking because it is spreading passive damage auras all over the battlefield without even making an attack.

One thing became clear after the first few tries: There's no balancing having three units with having one. Two? Yeah, two is easier to manage, but three is just too wide a gap. If I balance for one then having three ends up feeling like half your team does nothing. if I balance for three then having one unit makes you feel like you're playing 33% of the game that other people are playing. If I balance for two then it pisses off both of those teams while being slightly closer to a sweet spot but not being quite there.

This problem took quite a long while to solve and I don't remember all the things I tried along the way, but at one point I looked at the classes and so many of them looked like they wanted to have one unit (Solo, Fusion) or at most two units (Cavalier) that I discarded the idea of having two Summons on the field. Tamers would have to be satisfied with just one of them. This way I could balance the Action Economy around having one unit, I could just treat the classes that ride their Summons as if they're just one and tweak some numbers for the Tamers to make their Action Economy deficiency worth it.

What I ended up going with is giving everyone a Simple Action, a Utility Action and a Primary Action for their Turns. Primary Actions are used for attacking, healing or other big effects. Utility Actions are used for moving, guarding or other important but not-quite-primary abilities. Simple Actions are, mostly, for class abilities like tanks taunting enemies to come at them and healers removing status conditions from one or more units. Tamers instead have abilities that let them 'upgrade' actions for their Summons. For example, a Tamer can use a Simple Action to let its Summon move around using its regular walking speed. It is still a little bit tight, but the rest of the Tamer package seems strong enough to compensate for it.

The big problem for Tamers now was that they lost the one thing that made them stand out conceptually. Without having a whole menagerie accompanying them, they're like more boring cavaliers. They're fine, I guess, but they're closer to being D&D archetypes than I'd like. I thought long and hard about how to make having one powered-up Summon feel special enough to sacrifice the much conceptually cooler idea of riding them to battle or fusing with them. Then I realised that one of my favorite videogame franchises had the solution to my problem. That franchise was Drakengard.

The main characters of the Drakengard series have made a pact with a magical creature, like a Dragon or Fairy or Golem or whatever else is around. A pact is a magical bond which links their souls (if one of them dies, they both die) and powers up the human at a great cost. For the protagonist of Drakengard 1 the pact cost was his ability to speak (therefore playing into the 'mute main character' trope), this produces a lot of dramatic ironies like a bard losing his ability to sing or a glutton losing his ability to taste food. The more powerful the entity, the greater the price, with one notable tremendous loser from the first game having made a deal with a petrified dragon and losing his... Hair. No, really. It's as ridiculous as it sounds. The pact beast often makes this deal to feed from the humans' emotions, though often they both make the pact because they're in a pinch and need the power boost to survive. The games focus a lot on the relationship between the character and the monster they're bonded to, often showing a surprising amount of chemistry. Watching a mass murderer  bond with a condescending and aloof dragon is strangely heartwarming. This, in addition to giving me a few sinister ideas for the character creation process, became the key to giving the Tamers something unique to base the classes around: Their relationship and the circumstances under which they entered a pact.

A Necromancer uses forbidden magic to bring back a lost loved one, only to find their personality... Different afterwards. They're helpful and even seem glad to be back, but there's something extremely offputting about them and you can't shake off the feeling that it might just be a different being using the body and memories of the person you knew. For the Demon Hunter class, a spirit descended from the heavens one day and promised an angry human wishing for revenge the ability to enact justice on their mutual enemies. They are partners rather than friends, and at some point their buddy movie is going to hit a bump in the road when they disagree vehemently on whether to spare the demonic child or kill it to be on the safe side.

This was a very recent discovery, so recent that these new and more interesting tamer classes weren't finished in time for the test that happened this week. I plan to finish writing them down later today, actually. If you were wondering why "The Summoners RPG" doesn't have a more fancy title, it's because I'm showing you my working process so early in the project that I have no idea what the final title is going to be yet.

Puzzle 3: Actually, this post is getting a bit long.

I've got a neat new core mechanic and game setting/general tone and feel to talk about, but the former needs a lot of words while the latter could use some more time to refine the idea. So we'll set them aside for the next post.

Until then, Gimmick Out.

Apr 30, 2017

Its been a while.

It feels like it has been a lot longer than two months since the last post... Which might be because it has been almost three, now that I think about it. So what have I been up to?

I wrote some play aids for BCG (GM screen, random tables, interactive character sheets) but they feel half done and unpolished. They've been put on the backburner though, because they're a lot less interesting to work on than the things below.

I got RPGmaker (version MV, from 2015) as a gift and have been tinkering with it in trying to adapt BCG's mechanics and storytelling style to a JRPG format. This objective was met with varying degrees of success and at times it seems just plain impossible. I've not given up though, I'm going to keep at it. I do really like the way how much the engine has grown over the years (I used to tinker a lot with RPGMaker 2000 in my early teens) and it seems decently robust. Makes me wish there was a Tactics Maker, I would be all over that.

I've also written the skeleton of another tabletop RPG! This one is about making pacts with monsters and going to battle alongside them, with each player controlling multiple units at once. Think Drakengard meets Shin Megami Tensei. Its a very different game from... Pretty much any other tabletop RPG I've played before. I find myself questioning my usual design methodology fairly often and that makes it a very fun project.

They're very early projects and I can't promise I'll have anything to show soon, but I do want to write about their design process so I'll be updating here regularly about them. Relatively regularly, at least.

Oh yeah and I have to do the BCZ retrospective at some point. That'll happen sometime soon(ish?) too.

Gimmick Out.

Feb 5, 2017

BCG Retrospective XL: Ally NPC Reinforcements

Allied Reinforcements are the last bit of hard rules in the book. They're not used a lot or even well known, which I guess is logical since they're hidden in the back half of the manual. They serve two important purposes that make them worth looking at, however: First, they allow the GM to include friendly NPCs in the battle without having to write detailed sheets for them. They do this without drawing attention and screentime away from the PCs, which is nice because their owners still have earn that victory. Second, they're a good way to adjust difficulty mid-battle and make things easier for the PCs when things become accidentally too hard. A GM can have them show up and immediately heal a PC or do a bunch of damage to one NPC, then either continue assisting or have them leave afterwards if their help is no longer needed.

Their three available Actions emphasize this support role: They can do chip damage with Barrage, draw fire away from the PCs (and probably die heroically in the process) with Overwhelm, or use Knowledge is Power at no GP cost with Analyze.

By default, the GM controls Reinforcements just like any other NPC. But my favorite application of them is allowing the PCs to command their allied NPCs during battle. The other Players have to decide together which abilities should be used and when they should be used, so it takes a bit of planning and coordination, but it's not too much. This way they can become a regular fixture of Operations adding another tactical element to the game and involving NPCs more in battles.

The six Reinforcement Powers include: An offensive buff (Formation G), a GP bonus (I'll Grant you Power), a defensive buff (Raise the Shields), doing a moderate-to-large amount of damage to a single target (Focus Fire), an extra Action (Carry our Hopes) and lastly a big heal effect (Live!). Focus Fire is the only one that isn't some kind of support ability to benefit PCs, most of them being considerably stronger than anything available to PCs.

Formation G
Formation G is one of the strongest buffs in the game and, until the expansion, the only way to gain Aim + Suppression bonuses to an immediate attack that didn't cost an arm and a leg in Energy + MP. I think the power level and flavor are solid, since it's just a big buff that sets up a PC to make a strong attack but they have to use the right weapon and hit the right target to make it count.

I'll Grant you Power
This is a very strong utility power. Because RPs regenerate over time, these can grant potentially infinite GPs to the PCs. This is the kind of ability that only works because the game is so fast paced that, while the Power is strong, it can't really slowly turn around a battle by sheer attrition. At least I don't think it does. I'm sure there's some build out there made to exploit this ready to prove me wrong.

Raise the Shields
A bonus of 10 to Defense can make a PC all but invincible momentarily, but I think this one should have been a Damage prevention effect instead. This Power often goes on PCs that are already wounded and would be taken out by some direct damage effects, which do happen quite often, and it would make them better at surviving a wider variety of enemy attacks. A damage prevention shield of, say, 15 Damage would have worked fine I believe. It'd be worse against generic Grunt swarms but better against nearly everything else.

Focus Fire
This is a waste of RP during the first few Rounds of an Operation, but it's crazy strong afterwards, easily taking out a whole Threshold Level of whatever it is pointed at with each activation. I think I overdid it with this one. Doing 5-8 Damage per activation is fine but after Round 5 it is just gross and completely trivializes Bosses. Reinforcements don't have a lot of variables to work with though, so there's not a lot of ways to guarantee it doesn't spike to doing 10+ without making it too weak. The best alternatives I can think of would be Tension + Level or just plain 1d10.

Carry our Hopes
It is almost as good as getting an extra Turn. I say almost because the target doesn't get extra energy regeneration or other beneficial triggers that happen at the beginning of their Turn. It still lets them double attack, maneuver and attack, double suppress (it stacks!), repair and maneuver, etc. The flavor is, I admit, sort of a big shrug, sadly. Still, few things boost PCs as much as giving them extra Actions. Things like the very last Reinforcement Power below...

I knew from the beginning that the best and strongest of the RP effects should be one that heals for a lot. It's the staple turnaround effect, after all: When the hero looks like they're done for, they stand up again one final time. This is very strong and gets the job done, but I think the effect could have been better. I would have liked for it to restore a defeated PC with their last Threshold Level healed, but that didn't work well with the ejection system, punished people for using Live Another Day and forced retconned descriptions of mech explosions. Resurrecting the dead and healing them is a very cool effect but it wasn't working out in the end. I do miss how badass it was, though.

That's all six Reinforcement Powers. There aren't any in the expansion, only because I don't think that any more are necessary. I made the abilities as varied as I could in the core book, so they could represent anything from sidekicks with grunt mechs or support from transport ships to Deus Ex Machina like the will of the Getter Rays from Getter Robo or the Bullet X from GaoGaiGar. I think they do a very good job of representing the former two examples but aren't as bombastic as they could be for the latter. Then again, I'm not sure just how much more bombastic they could get. The ability to repeatedly heal PCs for 15 is already very close to just plain saying 'you win' in its description. Perhaps the abilities should be divided into two systems, one for repeatable abilities and one for big turnaround effects that save the day. I suppose that is one of the big lessons from the NPC section of the book: Three categories of enemies isn't enough and one category of abstracted allies isn't enough either.

And that's all for the rules design aspect of BCG, closing in at a nice total of 40 updates. Posting is going to slow down now that this series is done, at least for the rest of February. I'll do BCZ eventually but I want to give it some time first, seeing how its been out for less than a year. This has been insightful and I hope that you enjoyed reading it as much as I've enjoyed writing it.

Until then, Gimmick Out.

Jan 29, 2017

BCG Retrospective XXXIX: Boss Capstones

Capstones are big, impactful abilities that wouldn't make much sense if they were active for only a part of the battle or can't be cleanly divided into three distinct levels. Thus, they can't be Boss Upgrades. Most of them have effects that are too powerful to have around on a low PL Boss, making them usable only by high PL enemies as a balance mechanism.

Aura of Misfortune
What I really like about Aura of Misfortune is that, rather than coming up with a brand new way to debuff the PCs, it makes use of rules that most players should already know of. Overheating and Unreliable can be viewed as a -4 to all Might Tests, because PCs ought to roll two extra dice to compensate for the risks of using those Weapons. It works very well with defensive abilities like Afterimages and You Are Too Slow, as forcing rerolls with extra Disadvantages and Overheating/Unreliable is the kind of tyrannical mechanic that superbosses should do.

Probably the coolest of all the capstones, because holy moly the Boss is huge you guys. The rules for such a thing have proven difficult to wrangle, though, mostly because this is a game where multiple Units can share the same Zone. If not for that, larger size Units would be a more frequent thing in BCG. The first version of this had a size of 4 Zones instead of 9, but that didn't allow much variety in shapes, so 9 was chosen to make it possible to have a 3x3 block, a long but thin snake-dragon-thing, or something more exotic like an X-Shape enemy. Its body counts as Extreme Terrain to represent that huge monsters destroy everything in their path just by passing through.

Embodiment of Evil
This essentially halves the total number of Genre Points available to the PCs. It's really strong and basically forces everyone to lose a bunch of Threshold Levels in order to fuel their Powers. Mechanically speaking I think the effect is fine... But Genre Powers are one of the most fun things in the game and losing the ability to use them kind of sucks. While this is a very powerful ability fitting for scary and oppressive major antagonists... It may be too good at its job of to the point of not being fun. I'm not sure this was a good idea, in the end.

Energy Drain
This is very strong with builds that can make use of the extra energy... Which isn't that many, actually. The debuff effect is solid but it only weakens one PC at a time, leaving the other to beat the crap out of the Boss. It's okay, it does a good job of weakening only one PC for the Boss to pose a challenge but not be overwhelming, but it's probably the weakest Capstone without some serious optimizing to abuse the extra Energy.

Hypersonic Striker
When NPCs have sufficiently long range weaponry and speed, giving them the ability to 'kite' or hit the PCs while running away, can make them effectively invincible. Given how many movement abilities and long range guns Bosses have, this ability just couldn't be anything but a Capstone. It also wouldn't work well as an Upgrade because the ability to run away from PC attacks doesn't mean much when they've already been pummeling your Boss for a while. With all that said, the ability to kite is a 10 MP upgrade, so this gives a very large bonus to all Weapon Ranges to make it feel more Capstone-like and let the Boss snipe with Telekinetic Strikes and Technoleeches if they are so inclined.

Against most Squads, this messes up their positioning and doing some Damage and/or inflicting the Suppression debuff, which is okay. It becomes borderline unfair when there's a The Beast user among the PCs. Everything I said about Embodiment of Evil about potentially being too unfun applies here. The Beast is one of the abilities that are most in need of a hard counter, though. I'm not sure I like this but at least it doesn't spend Weapons and cripple Technique users like it once did. Now that would have been terrible.

And that's all of them. There's only six Capstones in the core book, because I still believed that if I insisted enough times that Operations should feature Grunts, Rivals and Bosses all together then people wouldn't try so much on running 4v1 Bossrush games. Like I've said before, I probably would have written things differently had I known how popular that 'gamemode' turned out to be. Hindsight is always 20/20, like they say.

I think Capstones do a lot to make late game Bosses (or early/midgame Superbosses) feel different from most Enemies by having big effects that change the rules of the battle from the very beginning. A proper 'Superboss' tier of Enemies would most likely start with Capstones or Capstone-like abilities then go from there.

Next: Allied Reinforcements.

Gimmick Out.

Jan 22, 2017

BCG Retrospective XXXVIII: Boss Weapons.

Boss Weapons are much like Default Weapons in that they're immune to Maims. This is because Bosses are supposed to get stronger through the course of the battle, rather than weaker. I think that doing that would have been a good move. The one problem with Boss Weapons is that they're a tad repetitive and, even when the Boss has more than one, there's not much reason to not use the best one for your build.

Unless the Boss has some kind of offensive Upgrade, all you have to do is be able to resist or stay off the range of their primary Weapon and you're good to go for the whole fight. This makes me think that they should have been more like Boss Upgrades: Perhaps Boss Weapons should've had a bonus Advantage to all attacks for each level of Threshold lost, much like Default Weapons with The Beast. Perhaps they should gain extra abilities instead. I don't know, something to break up the monotony.

The concept for this weapon is a Melee weapon that prevents PCs from getting away. While the flavor works well for monsters of larger size than the PCs that can easily immobilize PCs, it is rather weak mechanically. I considered making it just freeze a PC in place, but that just wasn't fun at all. Instead it halves Speed, which is a big deal for some builds at least, and has an extra Advantage when attacking. It neither hits for a lot nor does is the debuff particularly strong, but it isn't terrible either... It is just kind of average. This probably should have been Crippling.

Healing yourself for 5 with every attack (or at least every attack that lands) is quite strong. If I had to choose one Boss Weapon to call the most generally useful one, it would be this. It doesn't strike multiple targets and it doesn't debuff, but healing half a Threshold Level is always nice.

Tentacle Lash
Burst is a really, really good ability and that becomes evident when you pair it with long range. This Weapon needs Systems to be useful, but a mere 10 MP is already a Range of 5 which is enough to hit everyone who isn't packing some kind of long range Weapon. It also doesn't cause friendly fire, so this is right behind Merge in being always useful. Good think they all work flavorwise for big, hulking monsters, huh.

Suicide Swarm
This does a lot of damage in a sizable area of effect. The self damage aspect seems like a downside until you realize it can be used to trigger Boss Upgrades. Pair it with something like Bullet Hell and you get full control over triggering it, damaging as many PCs as you can cover in a Blast (5) area. That's a very big area, by the way, so it should be most (if not all) of them. It's not the easiest Weapon to use in the world but it's a good tool for GMs that want a little extra control over their Upgrade triggers.

Telekinetic Strike
The idea for this is the archetypal big bad guy who just raises his hand and ragdolls people around like a Jedi. This is the first ability in the game that forces others to move and introduces the 'rules' for being slammed into other units or into impassable terrain. The expansion would use this a lot more and make the values a balancing factor so that each individual ability had its own contact Damage modifier. The variable energy cost is for builds that use energy to attack but expect to have their energy debuffed, so they still have an use for their remaining Energy with their backup Weapon.

Needle Storm
Extremely nasty on sniper builds, whether they're the stationary kind that stay in a well protected location or the hit & run kind with the appropriate Capstone. It basically forces a single PC to stay still or take a bunch of damage and likely miss their counterattack anyway. It's okay in other builds too, simply because the debuffs are solid. One of my favorites.

This is the most effective debuffer Boss Weapon in the core book. It doesn't care much for damage, but the debuff is very mean and covers a wide area of effect. The flavor is a leftover from when all Boss Weapons were biological in nature and I never came up with a better concept than "leech-like missiles, I guess?". A Boss that spams this isn't going to kill anyone, but it is going to be a priority target because the debuff is that solid.

Ultimate Bomb
This used to be a Blast (10) for flavor reasons (it's pretty much a nuke) which... Well, it was kind of gross, let's just say. As a Blast (5) it is a lot less ridiculous, while still being very exploitable with the snipy builds.

A Beam Line that creates Extreme and Difficult Terrain? This thing hurts. Overfreeze is a threat at all PLs, at low PLs that's because of the Terrain effects, and at high PLs it is because it is a Beam Line. It's powerful but not too powerful and I think it's one of my best Boss Weapon designs because it just always works.

Final Beam
The only Weapon in the game with infinite range and, before the expansion, the only Weapon in the game with a charge and recharge time. I would have liked to have more Boss Weapons that do unique things but it turns out coming up with 'things you have not done already' isn't all that easy. As for its inspiration, Final Beam is based on the classic JRPG Boss that tells it is about to unleash a super attack and you get 1-2 turns to heal/buff/defend before it hits.

And that's Boss Weapons. If I were to redo them, I'd probably take away some of the offensive power of Boss Upgrades and make Boss Weapons get stronger for each Threshold Level lost instead. Whether it is with unique new abilities or just plain giving them more Advantages, that would have been a nice thing to give them, I think.

Next: Boss Capstones.

Gimmick Out.

Jan 15, 2017

BCG Retrospective XXXVII: Boss Upgrades.

The average boss monster in a tabletop RPG is a speedbump with a ton of HP that has a strong first turn and then is either: A) annihilated in a single round of focus fire or B) does nothing but flail ineffectually at the PCs after being debuffed to ineffectuality.

Boss Upgrades are BCG's plan to keep this kind of thing from happening. They do a decent job of it, but it could have been better. Their biggest issue is that a few have effects that only trigger at the beginning of their turn, which, when they're being focus fired, can mean going multiple PC attacks without the defensive buffs that the Upgrade should be giving them.

I'm going to count how many of those there are while doing the rest of the review.

Adaptive Morphology
This is quite the powerful defensive effect. An extra 5 Defense is fine but an extra 10 Defense is near-unbeatable against an unprepared PC Squad. Most optimized units use Beams or non-Beams exclusively, not both, so either option makes for a good weak point. The 'pattern shift' effect can be optimized by switching to the specialization of a PC that has already been defeated by the time the Boss hits its 4th Threshold Level. With all that said, even if the PCs can't naturally play around the ability, a few of them should have ways to ignore Active Defenses anyway, keeping this from being unbeatable. Adaptive Morphology is based on the 'elemental barrier' abilities that some bosses get in JRPGs, making themselves immune to all but one element and cycling through them as the battle goes. It is more of a fantasy videogame genre convention than a science fiction anime convention, but I think it still works. Delayed Defensive Upgrade Count: 1.

Afterimages is great. It makes use of a good mechanic that doesn't get a lot of love (Disadvantages), is quite strong but not strong enough you can't punch through it; And you don't even have to wait for the Boss' own turn to start using it. If the Boss is being focus fired (which they probably are) then they can use this right away. This is probably my favorite defensive Boss Upgrade.

This one seems kind of weak at first, because it only works against a single target... In theory. As written, it also works against PCs that are in a Duel with NPCs, which means you can make a very nasty encounter with lots of melee Grunts and give the boss this + Tentacle Lash + Whirling Death to do absurd amounts of Damage. It is borderline unfair. I would have preferred if this ended up being strong the old fashioned way instead of being weak when not being optimized to hell and back, but I'll take it. This is a half offensive, half defensive Upgrade, and the part that we care about is the offensive one, but its defensive bonus does take some time to come online. Upgrade Delayed Defensive Upgrade Count: 2.

Bullet Hell
One of the best Boss Upgrades in terms of raw power, doing about 25 Damage to at least two PCs if you use Not So Fast to assist with the repositioning when being attacked! It might seem overpowered, but the investment in Systems means that the Boss probably lacks the Might/Guard to attack and defend the traditional way, so an ability like this is necessary. It is devastating at how PLs when PCs still have low threshold totals and still lack the Genre Powers and Active Defenses to withstand an attack like this or the reach and mobility to stay out of its area of effect. At higher PLs, PCs tend to have those things and can mitigate or avoid the damage trigger, making it still dangerous but much more manageable.

It Keeps Coming Back
Probably the most powerful defensive Boss Upgrade. Even assuming a worst case scenario where the Boss is being focus fired and could die in a single round, the Level 4 ability will negate death and fully heal that last Threshold Level. If the Boss had 1 Threshold left and took 50 Damage? It still lives with its last Threshold Level full. That's really good! The L2 and L3 abilities are just okay, but considering how great the L4 ability is, the extra healing there is just gravy. Obviously, this isn't very good with Bosses that have a Threshold Attribute of 5 or under. With a Threshold Attribute of 10 and a single activation of the L3 ability, this heals for 15. Let's say the defeat negation effect counts for 5 more points of Damage, and that leaves us at 20 extra health. That's 50% bonus HP, which is a very healthy amount of extra endurance... And that's assuming the base regeneration effect doesn't trigger multiple times! This is a scary ability, fitting for the regenerating supermonsters that the genre loves so much. Delayed Defensive Upgrade Count: 3.

Nanoskin Shell
This is the other candidate for most powerful defensive Boss Upgrade. Nanoskin Shell used to protect the Boss for a static value regardless of PL. At first that was 15, which was useless at high PLs. After that it was 30, which was fine at PL 5 but overwhelming at PL 1. Eventually, I made PL part of the formula and this became the first ability that used PLs for its mechanics. There's still very few of those and the territory is largely unexplored, with Nanoskin Shell being probably the best applied of the bunch. Comparing it to IKCB (the above Boss Upgrade), it is more reliable against optimized parties but doesn't have the potential to make the Boss near unbeatable with constant regeneration. It is a very close race between the both of them and I would give it to IKCB, but not for much and not for all Boss builds. Clearly, this means that supertank Bosses should get both instead of just one.

Phantom Predator
Phantom Predator is very powerful but also very susceptible to debuffs. Either you can drain the Boss of Energy or debuff their Speed (assuming they don't use Systems), or you have to push through 8-10 extra Defense with each attack. It is possible to build around debuffs by having 10 Energy and using Systems instead of Speed, but that's taking MP away from more generally useful Attributes. It is a little too binary for my liking, but it is one of the more useful abilities for pushing PC Squads to the limit. I would be more negative of it if it was available to PCs. But as a NPC-only thing that is not supposed to be repeated often, I think it's fine. The name is a reference to the Predator, by the way. Delayed Defensive Upgrade Count: 4.

Three Times Faster
Three Times Faster, possibly the most famous Mecha meme of all time, is on a surface reading a tweak on Bloodlust. Take a second look and you realize that it is probably better than Bloodlust, because you don't have to be Dueling the target for its benefits and this goes perfectly with a kiting Hypersonic Striker build. Should you dig even deeper, though, you'll find that Speed debuffs pretty much kill such builds and Bloodlust can be exploited as has been pointed above, making Bloodlust better than TTF when optimizing Operations around it. Delayed Defensive Upgrade Count: 5.

We are Many (Specialist)
Big bads that spawn lesser bads are a videogame staple that happens to work really well in a game like this. This take in particular lets you craft a lot of interesting Operations. You can do a lot with six PL 0 Grunts, and while having minions spawn endlessly every other fight could get old, the many ways you can build them should keep things relatively fresh. It is also extremely powerful when optimized, because six glass cannons that are guaranteed to spawn after Tension has already gone up a point or two make Weapons like Resonance Cannon and Incinerator even more dangerous than usual when in the hands of Grunts.

In Conclusion
That's 5 Upgrades that, in hindsight, should have been effects that happen immediately, grant offensive buffs, or have defensive effects that can be used without delay... At least in theory. I'm not quite sure how to make a regeneration effect for IKCB that triggers immediately but isn't just Nanoskin Shell with different wording. It would also break the symmetry that the half offensive half defensive Upgrades have going for them, though the offensive bonus could also apply immediately to fix that I guess.

I think this is important because BCG combat is very quick and that applies to Boss fights too. Unoptimized Bosses will last 2-3 Turns against a Squad of PCs that know what they're doing. This means that the effects have to be very powerful because each turn taken might be the last one the Boss gets to make. An combination of defensive abilities on par with the optimization level of PCs can give the Boss a shelf life of 4-5 Turns, which is a much better number, but doesn't make them the near-invincible monstrosities you'd think a defensively optimized Boss would be .

Another problem they have is that some of these are so powerful they're borderline broken and multiple Bosses with them at the same time would likely provoke a TPK. It's dangerous to have too many abilities like that in the game, but Bosses have a lot of trouble handling 2 PCs on their own otherwise, let alone 4 or more. Like with Grunts, many things about Bosses rely on implicitly trusting GM's to not purposefully design unwinnable scenarios. It is not easy to optimize your Bosses by accident to the point where they can do that, thankfully. It's not my favorite kind of approach, but I'll take a game that is accidentally too hard every now and then over one that is almost always too easy.

Overall, I think these are a step in the right direction for tabletop RPG boss monsters. It's not quite as dynamic as bosses having multiple forms that all play differently, because all the Boss Upgrades do is strengthen the same ability the longer the battle goes. It's still better than the usual, though.

I would like to figure out a way to codify multiple forms into a single Boss someday, though it may take so much space and be so complex that the end result may not be practical.

Next: Boss Weapons.

Gimmick Out.

Jan 8, 2017

BCG Retrospective XXXVI: Boss Powers.

Last week it wasn't until the middle of the night that I remembered it was a Sunday and I was supposed to update. RIP my half-year+ streak of regular updates.

Boss Powers are different from PC Powers in that they're much stronger, but having less of them makes Bosses less versatile. Powers are a big part of their identity, providing a repeatable trick that can be used from the beginning of the battle and doesn't spend a Turn, unlike Boss Upgrades and Boss Weapons. Some Boss Powers are defensive, others are offensive... All of them are strong enough that the PCs will have to adjust their plans accordingly after seeing them.

The defensive Boss Powers generally prevent Damage while the offensive Boss Powers usually do direct Damage to PCs, they don't buff attack rolls or the Defense substat because that's something Upgrades already do and I didn't want bonuses that could stack too high for PCs to beat.

But all that pales in comparison to my favorite thing about Boss Powers: Their names that encourage you, the GM, to go full ham while calling them out. I like this feature so much that I will be reviewing the Powers not just on their flavor and mechanics, but also on how awesome and fitting the names are. Mechanics and gameplay are cool and all but overdone theatrics are the heart and soul of playing an antagonist.

Behold my True Power
We begin with one of the oddest Boss Powers, because while doubling up energy is a very powerful effect in specific circumstances, it doesn't actually achieve anything by itself. In the proper build though, BmTP (if there is one downside to the amazing Power names, it is how long they are and how ridiculous they sound made into an acronym) works both defensively and offensively. It is defensive because it lets the Boss use its special abilities after they're targeted by an Electromagnetic Detonator or similar effect. It is offensive because it works with variable energy costs like those from Power of Despair, Telekinetic Strike and Final Beam and makes those abilities absurdly powerful. Perhaps the classic villain line it is named after would have been better given to a more obviously powerful ability like, say, a Power that granted Might/Guard bonuses... But, as mentioned above, that risked a serious problem in making a boss accidentally too difficult. This makes the name worth a good 4 out of 5 Hams, so calling it out is always a solid choice.

Do you Desire the Power?
DyDtP offers a choice between losing 1 GP and taking 5.5 Damage on average, or gaining 1 GP but doing 11 Damage to your Allies. At low PLs, this is devastating because everyone has a low GP total, often being forced to take the second option. Worse, PCs often have low Threshold scores at that point, so an unlucky roll of 2d10 could take out two Threshold Levels of two Allies at the same time. That's kind of brutal and a little too swingy for my taste... But the choice should have a degree of randomness to it, so that the 'deal with the devil' aspect of the Power makes players uneasy. I'd rather keep the high lethality and randomness if it means the Power isn't a 'safe' business transaction. Hamwise, this is one of the best of all the Boss Powers, it doesn't just fit the mechanics like a glove but you have to ask the chosen player to take one of two options to use it already, so playing the role of campy corruptor happens naturally.

Die for Me!
This does between 3 and 6 Damage per activation and there's no real way to mitigate it outside of Damage prevention. It's simple, but effective, and works well for the high Systems builds that may not have the Might necessary to hurt PCs the traditional way. Looking at it like that, it is like a more reliable version of DyDtP that packs less of a punch and doesn't mess around with GP. I like the name, though it isn't from mecha fiction but rather is a Shin Megami Tensei reference. It's not a bad name to call out, but the low damage keeps it from being as impactful as you'd think it could be.

I Accept your Offering
A very, very flavorful and delicious Power. Eat up those minions to heal and do Damage at the same time! What's not to love? Well, for one, the values are kind of low. You need to sacrifice a high PL Grunt or one at full Threshold for a respectable amount of health or damage. Speaking of that, it might seem strange at first that this Power does Damage instead of just healing, but it would be very easy for the PCs to ignore the Boss and render the Power useless by destroying all the Grunts first. This way, at least they get a single okay effect no matter what. In hindsight, it probably should have just healed double the amount and left the weakness of blowing up the Grunts as is. The ham level is also quite low, as the line itself doesn't have a lot of impact and is mostly directed at an NPC. The idea is cool but the execution could have been better.

I Believe This is Yours
This is ridiculously strong. Its like Die for Me!... Except it also gives a Defense boost! The problem is, of course, that you need to take the Power twice in order to be able to use it against everything. The name also works very well for what it does, though it is not as theatric as that of its Boss Power brothers and sisters. I think the concept is cool and the execution is solid so this gets an A.

Make my Monster Grow
MmMG is, in addition to one of the funniest acronyms in the game, a Power that makes the Colossus Capstone much more common than it would usually be. In a way, this devalues Colossus because it is going to be less special when a Boss shows up with it... But the idea of turning a random Grunt into a miniboss and echoing Rita Repulse is too good to pass up. The healing will not help the Grunt survive much longer than it usually would (read: not very long) and the fact that the Grunt is going to be probably focus fired doesn't do much for its survivability... But all it has to do is stick around for a Round to hurt a PC or two enough to make it worth it. Overall, a cool power.

That will not Work Again
Inspired by monsters that adapt to attacks like the Devil Gundam or the Gilgilgan, this is one of the strongest defensive Powers available to a Boss that has enough staying Power to make use of the healing factor. The problem with that is... Well, much has been written already about BCG's combat being rather fast and brutal more often not. It doesn't do much against Techniques and Oneshots that don't get resupplied, either. But against PCs that rely on repeating the same attacks over and over, like Beast and Boosted Lance builds? It works like a charm. Not very showy, though, it just heals you. It's alright.

This Power used to be a weaker but repeatable Power that could be used in reaction to attacks. Why? So you could go MUDA MUDA MUDA! like Dio Brando of course! The original intent was you would spam it to block out any given attack with a flurry of punches Genre Powers. That was a bit too powerful though, allowing the Boss to fully negate attacks as long as it had GP to do so. The Boss could calmly take it easy until they were at their final Threshold Level then basically gain a shield for 20+ Damage points. The current version is easier to play around and the effect is not as oppressive. It is, however, a lot less memetic. Still works though. And I do like that this version plays much better.

You are too Slow
By far the best defensive Boss Power in the core book. The reroll is a great effect but it also grants plenty of utility value with the repositioning. The cherry on top is, of course, that the name makes a great taunt when you say its name out loud. The worst thing I can say about it is that it is probably too good at being the best defensive Power, but its power level is fine, if anything else the other Powers should be slightly stronger to catch up to it.

Your Fate is Sealed
YFiS is the final nail in the coffin for Techniques and Restorations in the core book. Not only are both underpowered abilities without the expansion, but this Power completely negates them. It should have been a debuff to Might and Guard. With all that said, it is an okay Power now that the expansion has buffed those builds considerably, allowing you to call it out smugly to let the PC know in just how much trouble they are.

And that was Boss Powers. As you can see, I was not kidding about the Ham Factor being my favorite thing about them. It was a nice change of pace to write about style for a bit more than just substance like usual. Next week we're back to normal with Boss Upgrades.

Gimmick Out.