Dec 17, 2017

BCZ Retrospective VII: New General Powers.

The New General Powers are... Well, they're New and they're Powers alright. They don't have a specific purpose or theme, they're just ideas that I thought would make for good Powers or stuff that people commissioned. Not the most exciting origin story, I know, but that's how it happened.

Hang in There!
This Power is the kind of ability that the expansion was made for. As a countermeasure against a very specific kind of enemy (Invasive ones), it is either a lifesaver and nearly obligatory (because you're fighting them often) or almost a waste of a Power slot because you're not fighting them at all. These are what I call 'feast or famine' abilities, where they're either great or terrible with little room for a middle ground. I think it is best when a core book sticks to stuff that more or less everyone can use and the binary or niche rules content is expansion material. There are some feast or famine powers, upgrades and weapons in BCG, but none to the extent of this Power.

I Am a Loose Cannon and Stake My Life on It
Attack bonuses are badass, and attack bonuses that hurt the user are even more badass. The problem with balancing them is that, should you win the battle after using them and before the enemy gets to counterattack, their risk factor is negated. Hence, I think these bonuses are best when you don't have full control over neither the damage boost nor the kickback you get from it. Of these two Powers, the former is highly variable in effectiveness while the latter depends on the status of your current Threshold Level. I think that's the right way to go about them. With that said, they're still very exploitable and an instrumental component of some overpowering builds which I'll get to later. Some fun facts about both powers: I Am a Loose Cannon is a commissioned ability that went to print as it was conceived after my first chat with the creator. Stake My Life on It used to be a Weapon in an early draft of BCG (and in GGG, before that) but was discarded because it was a bit too complex and difficult to use properly.

I Am Your Opponent
Another commissioned ability. This one is a staple of the anime action genre and the mechanics go very well with its flavor. It is an okay option for duelist builds, but I think this could have been a bit stronger.

Take Cover!
By far the easiest way to break the game is to stack attack bonuses with a crowd control weapon and nuke the entire enemy force all at once. This is a huge no-sell to those strategies. Arguably, it is too much of a hard counter, but it is a necessary one. I have said in the past that defensive abilities need to be stronger than offensive abilities, partly because there's less of them (so you can stack offensive buffs to overcome them) and partly because there's no point to bothering with a defensive ability if it can't negate the kind of attack it is supposed to defend against. Having around NPCs with Take cover! means that Blast-and-Burst happy PCs must get rid of those NPCs first or at least make them use the Power before going all-out. Which, in turn, means that the PC squad need to spend more GPs scanning enemies to figure out who are the Take Cover! users and how many there are in each given fight. It makes combat much more cerebral and forces PCs to work together so they can make the huge blowouts possible. I don't think that's the right approach for every kind of game, but it is the one I prefer for a point-buy system like BCG.

You are Already Dead
I don't know how it took until the expansion for a Power with this name to get made, but somehow it wasn't in the core book. Unfortunately, I think it ended up a little bit on the weak side, as all it really does is hit an Enemy for moderate Damage once per battle. At high levels, the Damage is very high indeed, but it is only to a single target and at that point enemies are much bulkier than low level ones. It is simply more practical to take Signature Weapon (which does about the same total Damage, if not more, at all stages of the game) and Impetuous Style (which almost always does more, though only with specific Weapons) But then, what would be the right Damage number? Might + Tension? That would probably be overpowering with all the Tension bonuses in the game. Might + Half Tension? Probably unnoticeable without the aforementioned bonuses making the halved Tension large enough. Half Might + Tension? This one is more interesting, as it is more useful at mid and low levels, but it remains exploitable. I'd be interested in hearing ideas for this Power, if you my readers have any.

That's the General Powers. These didn't have to commit to any strong particular themes and could largely be anything they wanted. They ended up being rather strong and, for the most part, perform their jobs very well.

Next: Rush Powers.

Gimmick Out.

Dec 10, 2017

BCZ Retrospective VI: Alternative Powers.

A long time ago I made a houserule for a game, in this game all PCs had three extra Genre Powers that costed a special resource unique to that game. I liked them enough that I made two more and considered making them general powers in the expansion. Then I realized they were very similar thematically to the default powers and figured they would make cool alternatives to them.

One common trend among them is that Default Powers lean towards handy narrative aids and common genre conventions while the Alternative Powers lean more towards raw power or represent more uncommon genre conventions.

Fight Smarter
Despite being the first in the book, this was the last of all the Alternative Powers to be created. I had Alternatives for all the Default Powers except Knowledge Is Power, so I tried to think of ways in which gaining enemy data could give you an edge. The problem here was that a lot of Genre Powers in BCG already use that flavor, Tactician Powers in particular. The power itself is a generic buff that involves a Systems Test to make it feel more unique. I do like this Power thematically but mechanically I think it is too generic and not interesting enough to be the corresponding Alternative to one of the most useful and memorable Default Powers. In hindsight, a more interesting mechanic (like predicting an NPC's next turn) would have been better in its place. It is my least favorite of these six. It is okay for the high systems combat builds though, so there is that.

I Don’t Think So
This was one of the first three Alternative Powers, back when they were just houseruled abilities. While Not so Fast is stronger, it only works for Squads in which characters want to (or can) protect each other. This is weaker but way more useful for selfish characters who don't care about their allies, such as most Rival NPCs. It is a hit mechanically and a good fit thematically. What more could you ask for?

It’s Over!
This was the fourth or fifth of the bunch to get created. It draws inspiration from the Try Again With Feeling houserule from the BCG core book, except that instead of adding +2 to a result it adds +5 but only if it would finish off an enemy. In being more narrow and stronger it loses 90% of what makes people use Try Again (to reroll low results) and that's a cool take for an Alternative.

Parting Shot
The second of the three houseruled abilities. Back then, you could could combine it with Live Another Day for a tremendous middle finger to your enemy. That was silly. As an Alternative Power that can't be used at the same time as its Default counterpart, it works a lot better. This is my favorite Alternative Power, because there's no more obvious way to signal that you're willing to let your PC die than taking this Power. There is no other Alternative Power that trades this much narrative power for pure combat power, making it the best example of what I mentioned at the beginning of this post. Additionally, it is one of those Powers that are amazing for Rival NPCs - assuming you don't care about letting them die, of course.

The Strong Adapt
This was the last of the original three houseruled abilities. The idea was to make a power that represented anime powerups in a different way from Mid-Scene Upgrade. With Mid-Scene Upgrade, you keep your powerup forever. With The Strong Adapt, you get your powerup once and then forget that it exists for the next dozen episodes. This is basically how every aquatic modular upgrade in Mecha works - you see it once and it helps beat the giant shark or whatever and then it ceases to be outside of plastic models. Other than that, I think this is very good. IIRC this Power originally lasted until end of Operation but that was very silly in terms of power level so it got changed. Much like most of its friends, NPC Rivals love it.

This Is For My Friend!
This was created alongside It's Over! as either the fourth or fifth of this bunch. It is a badass and strong but conditional Power. The problem with this it, from an optimization perspective, is that this Power only works when things have already gone wrong, as opposed to most Powers which you use to make sure things never go wrong in the first place. Still, entire groups shun Synchro Attack on principle, and for them this is a godsend. It is cool, powerful and simple. By the way, this isn't just good for Rival NPCs, it is incredibly silly if you go by the rules as written, as it refreshes when Grunts of the same PL blow up.

And that's Alternative Powers. The Default Powers are my way of giving every PC abilities that I think are necessary for a game like this, but by using Alternative Powers you can greatly change tone and mood. Instead of using Synchro Attacks to win as a unit, you are at your strongest when you're the last pilot standing. Instead of being harder to kill than a cockroach, any time your Mecha is defeated could be your PC's last dying breath. They're simple changes, but no less effective.

And, of course, they give you fun ways to tweak your PC. That's a big draw in a system like BCG.

Next: New General Powers.

Gimmick Out.

Dec 3, 2017

BCZ Retrospective V: New Anomaly Traits.

Anomaly Traits are BCZ's take on character flaws in the vein of design flaws that mecha get. They're not quite the same, since they have a positive side, but pure negative flaws are supposed to be Banes. You know, from Genre Themes? Yeah. The logic is that a real drawback, something that actually affects the character's life, is best roleplayed rather than given a mechanical representation. If your character simply has a penalty to social scenes, they will just avoid those instead of bumbling their way through them. But if they get a reward for doing so, they will actually roleplay it out. People requested character flaws with mechanical downsides every now and then, but I wasn't sure how they could be implemented in a way that didn't undermine Banes.

At some point I had a conversation with a friend about the "outsider" type characters in anime. By "outsiders" I mean characters that feel inhuman or alien in some way among the cast, usually because they're robots or actual aliens. Those characters usually have some kind of weird plot power (like being able to talk to monsters or being able to use the mcguffin or something like that), which made me think of the Enhanced Human Trait and its original form: Mysterious Origin. You can probably see where that went... Although, ironically, Enhanced Human isn't compatible with them because I was worried it would be too imbalanced. I had an Eureka moment and realized there was a way to add character flaws (sort of) via anomalies. They are more like Anomalies/Features than Design Flaws, yes, but the benefit they give is clearly just a CP bonus and you can buy them out anyway, so they're almost pure flaws.

Augmented Creature
Hey, have you ever wanted to play a psychic cat piloting a giant robot? Well do I have the Trait for you then! Sure, you already could do that with just BCG alone, but it wasn't backed up by mechanics! Intellect is arguably the strongest Attribute in the game and that's why it is linked to what are possibly the two strongest Miracles in the game that don't use Intellect. Because linking a free Intellect Skill with a penalty to Intellect would be a dick move, you see. Probing and Sight are also the most generic psychic abilities (telepathy and clairvoyance) outside of Force (representing telekinesis), which makes enough sense to give to an animal with an upgraded brain.

Financially Incompetent
The idea to have one Anomaly for each Attribute meant that I'd have to come up with a way to represent a Resources Disadvantage. The flavor here is one of cultural differences making a PC consistently commit mistakes, which is more interesting to roleplay than simply being perpetually broke. Resources is the closest thing the game has to a dump stat that nearly anyone can reasonably ignore, but becomes very powerful when you put everything into it. Because this might as well be free points for a bunch of different characters, it gives Phasing and Portals, which are very good but not amazing by themselves and either use Fitness or work best with Fitness builds, which are relatively underpowered. Unfortunately, neither Miracle being connected to Resources.

Hivemind Drone
How do you represent a lack of willpower? With a suicidal lack of fear. What kind of benefit could a PC get from that? Being better at working with others. Fortune and Life were chosen partly because they're the two 'Support' Miracles that can be used to represent someone who will give their life for others or someone who is friends with all the important people. This led me to the concept of a character with a mindset like that of eusocial insects. Mechanically speaking, both Miracles are very different from each other. Fortune is a buildaround that enables a specific gimmick build and Life is the logical end point of a build designed around two different Attributes. This is one of my favorite Anomalies.

Mismatched Body
Phantasm and Temperature don't make much sense with the flavor of being an alien but at least they don't get in the way of the Fitness penalty inflicted by this Trait. The idea is that you're alien enough you can breathe fire or create illusions just because, well, you're a weird alien that can do those things while in a human body, I guess. In all honesty, both Skills are very good while Fitness is kind of weak, making this a mechanical as well as conceptual failure. I do like the flavor of getting a Fitness penalty from using a body that isn't yours and enjoyed writing the description but this is a very weak design all around.

Offbeat Senses
Matter and Electricity aren't related to this Trait's flavor at all. That would be because they were chosen simply because I believe them to be the two strongest Miracles in the game, and so they're tied to the strongest Attribute that doesn't use them, which is Awareness. Coming up with a proper justification for an Awareness penalty was difficult and the flavor I ended up using is... Not the best. I wanted to elaborate more on it to try and justify it but it was going to take half a page just to have it make sense and there wasn't enough space to do that. This is mechanically solid but terrible flavorfully, so I guess that makes it better than Mismatched Body at least.

Wrong Language Data
We end on a high note with this one. Sight and Somatics work very well for a physical powerhouse that is socially incompetent, which is a trope many androids or aliens pretending to be regular people in fiction usually work with. Zany speech quirks are an anime staple and the description gives you a handful of ridiculous ideas to represent your mannerisms of choice. I really like how this one turned out in both mechanics and flavor.

With three hits and three misses among six abilities, it certainly could have been better. I suppose the lesson here is to not try and force a whole cycle of six abilities to happen if you only have good ideas for three of them. In hindsight, the other three Anomalies could have used different upsides and the six of them could have been compatible with Enhanced Human - it probably would have been fine.

Next: New Genre Powers.

Gimmick Out.

Nov 26, 2017

BCZ Retrospective IV: New Equipment Traits.

Chapter 1 of BCZ has three main goals: To give more tools for the less powerful PC builds, To allow a greater variety of PC builds and, lastly, to mechanically represent PC concepts that didn't have rules support in the core book. While the robots always took priority, these goals were also present at the character scale.

I bring this up because all abilities address (or attempt to address) one or more of those issues at face value, Equipment Traits have the secondary effect of contributing greatly to the utility of Resources-based builds. Each new gadget added to the rules makes Resources more of a power stat.

The game has less Equipment than it does General Traits because, in theory, Resources can make you like Batman - with enough preptime and money, you don't need other Skills and Traits. BCZ only adds 9 new Equipment Traits, which is a good amount but not remotely close to enough for a Resources Ubermensch to take over and dominate Intermissions.

Let's have a look at the new devices in the inventory.

Call System
This is a handy way to access proxies, which are large and cumbersome by nature, to let you use them in situations where you usually wouldn't be able to. It is not a super amazing effect though, so it's cheap. A bit of Errata: This should say 'Specialist', because you can take it multiple times.

Nanomedical Vest
Intermission combat veterans know that pilots often feel like they are made of wet tissue paper. Even when they wear protective body armor, it feelsl ike upgrading from toilet paper to aluminium foil. The Nanomedical Vest helps by buying combatants another turn in the fight... Sometimes! Maybe. Only if the dice don't hate them. Okay, it is not all that great, but it is cheap so there. Maybe it should have been a guaranteed pass but have been more expensive? It would probably be more flavorful that way than as it is now, where it sometimes helps you and sometimes doesn't.

Portable Barrier
So 5 Defense is a very good bonus... But if you take an Action to set it up you're probably taking more than 5 during that setup Turn, therefore making it rather pointless. The problem here is that making this a free action would turn this Trait into 15-30 CP worth of defense for 5 CP, which is kind of silly. Perhaps this should have been a free action with a duration of one turn? Or maybe make it like Absolute Barrier and absorb a number of damage points (5? 10?) before it expires? I feel like this one was a decent idea that wasn't well implemented.

Tracking Device and Smart Manacles
When your game revolves around simple effects that can be described however you want, you have a problem when you have to coming up with special items. Equipment need to make more sense as, well, Equipment than as General Traits... Yet they must remain fairly simple, as if they were General Traits! Both of these Traits make a lot more sense as items than they do as, say, magic or other supernatural talents, so that goal was met here. There is one unfortunate problem with both of them, and it is that, mechanically, neither technically does anything. I somehow forgot to write what it means to be tracking or to restrain someone, as if the name and the flavor text were all you needed. How far can you track someone and how detailed is the information? What kind of actions are the manacles preventing? These get a one star rating and a frowning face for their review.

Smoke Bomb
This is like the opposite of I was Here all Along, but cheaper because it is generally less useful to get out of trouble than it is to conveniently be at the right place at the right time. This and Live Another Day are the game's Get Out of Jail Free cards, though both work in different circumstances and cost different resources or need different Skills. I like Smoke Bomb. It is good. 

Performance Enhancer
What's cool about this Trait is that it adds an easy Advantage to many Miracles, for those of you that want to exploit Expanded Miracles. It is pretty straightforward, honestly. Though, in hindsight, this could have been an Advantage to all Tests just to make it useable in more builds.

Speed Booster
This Trait should've been in the core book. It is a simple effect that doesn't need much elaboration and even has an equivalent in the Mecha section's Overbooster. So um... That's all there is to say about it, really. Next!

Self-Destructing Note
And now for the star of the show: As if Electronics wasn't strong enough already, now it comes with the funniest way to kill somebody in the game. This Trait is hilariously lethal once you've sufficiently jacked your Electronics Tests. Remember how I mentioned Team Player and Leadership during the last post? Yeah, with the power of TEAMWORK you can create a bomb with a DN of 30+ that must be resisted with a naked Willpower Test. This should probably be weaker, but honestly it is difficult enough to use (you have to physically access the device and make sure the intended target is the one who reads it) to compensate for the power level. Also, it is funny. I love it.

Next: New Anomalies.

Gimmick Out.

Nov 19, 2017

BCZ Retrospective III: New General Traits.

One of BCZ's goals was to fix imbalance, build variety and concept representation problems in BCG, not just for the robots but also at the character scale. All 10 General Traits in the expansion address one or more of those issues. Let's have a look at them.

Adaptable Eyes
The character creation rules are written for human PCs. If you wanted to use BCG to portray alien species, fantasy races and intelligent animals you had to get by with aggressive reskinning. This Trait is one of many abilities in the expansion made to enable PCs and NPCs of inhuman origins, which are more common in stories that take place in fantasy settings or beyond our solar system. Conveniently, Adaptable Eyes works best in games revolving around exploration and horror, which are both genres that vanilla BCG struggles with. The expansion makes this easier by adding fear and insanity rules for the horror games and assists the exploration games with fantasy and attrition rules. It is not a particularly strong Trait, but it does what it is supposed to do.

Better Lucky than Good, Plan B and Practice Makes Perfect
I'm addressing all three of these at once because they have the same purpose: Making Skill-intensive builds stronger. In vanilla BCG it is more effective to raise your stats very high and buy a few Skills than to buy many Skills and raise your stats to above average. This is particularly true for the Attributes that have too many Skills, such as Intellect. These three Traits give you strong benefits to taking not just one but many Skills, balancing things back towards the middle again. If you're building to reliably hit a result of 15+ in your Skill Tests, Practice Makes Perfect helps immensely. If you want to make use of the Expanded Miracles in chapter 2, you pretty much need Plan B. Of all three, Better Lucky than Good is, well, the most random of the three, but at 5 points it is a very good deal and works very well with the Advantage system (each additional die rolled is twice as likely to be a 10). These three are excellent and probably my favorites (in no particular order) of this section.

Team Player
This one is a little like the three Traits above in that it encourages people to train Skills but I'm giving it a separate entry because it serves a different purpose. It is not the flashiest of Traits, but Help Tests are deceptively powerful. For the majority of Tests, which have DNs of 10 or 15, this is overkill and you might have been better off spending these points in something else, yes. Where it really shines is when you're aiming to let one person get a result of 20+, with multiple Team Player PCs and one PC with Leadership making it possible to hit the legendary DN 30 required for the strongest Expanded Miracles. Teamwork gets things done, people!

Ace in the Hole
I was already buffing Skill-intensive builds, so I figured I would buff Trait-intensive builds as well. That's it, there's not much more to say about this Trait. It gets the job done and, er, I like the trickster flavor, I guess? Next!

Enhanced Human (Specialist)
This is the first of the many abilities in the expansion that were commissioned during the Kickstarter to make BCZ happen. The original was an Anomaly called 'Mysterious Origin' and gave an advantage to all Tests of a specific attribute but had social repercussions, like being hunted by shady organizations or caused roleplaying issues with people who saw you. The first problem with this kind of ability is that, if your drawback is having plot relevance and requiring the GM to write specifically around you... Then it is not a drawback! Getting that kind of focus is a good thing, not a bad thing. The second problem is that roleplaying issues happen with the majority of Anomalies already and they don't suffer a mechanical penalty for it, except some which take a flat Charm Disadvantage. The Trait seemed to want to be all upside and no downside in mechanics so, after a little emailing back and forth, it became a General Trait with a temporary effect. As Enhanced Human, it lets you benefit from a specific Anomaly temporarily, using its benefit only when necessary, and avoiding its drawback until then. Depending on the chosen Anomaly, this can be as close to a direct upgrade as it gets.

Assassin, Deceptive Fighter, The Meat Shield
One of the many problems with BCG's on-foot combat rules is that most games either avoid it like the plague or have so much combat that all PCs build around it and become same-y in the process. These three Traits add a few ways to diversify Intermission combat roles by giving Charm specialists something only they can do. They also give an extra edge to those that raise both Fitness and Awareness instead of just one. In hindsight, more Traits like Deceptive Fighter (but using other Attributes) would have been preferable to Yet More Ways To Abuse Awareness, it is not like Fitness and Awareness don't already get plenty of use during combat.

And that's all for now. Mechanically speaking, I'd say The Meat Shield is the weakest of the General Traits in Z. It is only relevant for a specific kind of game and doesn't do much to make those games more interesting or varied. All the others are mechanically sound and make the game a lot better with their inclusion. The 2nd and 3rd place spots would go to Adaptable Eyes (which has at least another purpose) and Assassin (which flavorfully helps PCs survive the onslaught of BCG Intermission combat) so I still like them both.

Next: New Equipment.

Gimmick Out.

Nov 12, 2017

BCZ Retrospective II: New Miracles.

One thing I didn't mention when I did the BCG retrospective is that Miracles are actually very hard to design. You need to come up with a powerset that is broad and useful enough to make it worth the cost, yet can be successfully boiled down to two paragraphs and a handful of examples. Many of the Miracles in BCG went through multiple iterations in which they were streamlined, toned down or otherwise rebalanced compared to themselves and the other skills. The final result wasn't perfect (the power is particularly skewed towards Awareness and Intellect, which, well, read below) but it did its job well enough and was certainly better than the earlier versions.

While writing the first draft of the expansion, I had a handful of superpowers (4-6, I forgot how many) that could be found in anime as well as in other RPGs but weren't present in BCG. I initially tried all of them, but they didn't meet the qualifications in the previous paragraph. In the end only two remained. Life was present in a previous version of the game but got removed from BCG because it lacked the versatility to make it worth taking, while Portal was brand new to BCZ. I wish I could tell you what the other candidates were but I've forgotten them by now.

I'm going to review both of the Miracles in BCZ using the same system I had back for BCG, which is as follows:

Proactive - A good Proactive skill is one that can be used to advance the plot or further your PC's agenda.
Adaptable - An Adaptable skill lets you react to GM prompts and resolve the problems they present.
Synergy - This grades how well the Miracle Skill complements General Skills and Traits using the same stats.

Life

Proactive - Mediocre. It takes the least proactive aspects of Medicine and Investigation and combines them into a single Skill. You can find proactive uses for Life with some creativity, such as locating a plot-critical person or entity that can't be located with other means, or using your healing powers to form a cult around your person... But it just isn't as good as other Miracles at that.

Adaptable - Excellent. A buff to Medicine and Investigation in a single Miracle? Why yes, that does help you adapt to a whole multitude of problems. It is almost like those two are very good reactive skills and getting additional Advantages to them is really good or something. The only problem here is that you can't use Life to heal yourself, but Miracles hurt the user so doing that would be... Not very useful, to say the least.

Synergy - Good. Awareness and Intellect have lots of really, really good Miracles that slot easily into many different builds using those Attributes. This is a good one that also happens to benefit from taking some of the best Skills that those excellent Attributes have to offer. If you have both relevant Skills, this is a no-brainer. If you have only one, then this is a good reason to consider taking the second. If you have neither, then you have better options.

Portal

Proactive - Good. The only thing holding this back from being Excellent is that your Windows need to be set up in advance and that you can only have two at a time. It doesn't make Forces, Phasing, Athletics or Stealth redundant because you still need to physically reach the place you're going to first. Once you've been there though, you can come and go as you please. At least until you need to use another Window to reach somewhere else.

Adaptable - Good. The secondary use of Portals is the ability to create pocket dimensions. Anyone who has played D&D knows how handy something like this is. Need a place to hide something or someone? What about hiding you and your entire group from the enemy sentries? It doesn't actually solve any of your problems, but it sure can avoid them long enough that you don't have to worry about them until a better solution comes up.

Synergy - Good. You know how I mentioned that this Skill isn't a replacement for the other Skills that let you move around? Well, those Skills use Fitness (and Intellect, in the case of Forces), while this uses Awareness. If you don't want to actually invest in Fitness then this lets you have a way to escape from danger and get to places fast with a different Attribute. What is very interesting is that, unlike most Skills in competition for a similar function, Portals is even better when combined with its competition, because you can combine it with Forces, Phasing, Athletics or Stealth to get anywhere and transport your whole team afterwards.

I really like both of these. At least, I like them by themselves. My one problem with them is that the Awareness and Intellect builds already had some of the best General Skills and Miracles in the game, and this just gives them more toys to play with. By the time I did the BCG retrospective and realized this, the expansion was already out. If I'd caught wind of that a few months sooner, I would have made a serious attempt at coming up with more Miracles using the other Attributes. It is something to keep in mind for possible future supplements.

And that's all for today! Join me next week when we continue making our way through the Character options towards the Mecha goodness 5 pages away. We're getting there!

Next: New Traits.

Until then, Gimmick Out.

Nov 5, 2017

BCZ Retrospective I: New Terrain.

A little over a year ago, I started to write a series of posts reviewing the mechanical aspects of BCG. Today I start the review of BCZ, judging how well the mechanics do the job they were created for. Along the way I will be sharing behind-the-scenes information and talking about game design in general. Much like with the BCG Retrospective series, this will take many months, but at least updates should be weekly on average. I will be going through BCZ in the order of the book's contents, which means we'll start with the new Terrain types that BCZ introduces to the rules. It is not the most exciting new content, but it serves an important purpose, so let's get started already.

Interference Terrain
Interference Terrain uses the same rules that Stealth Field from BCG does. I don't remember when stealth became synonimous with 'Two Disadvantages to non-AoE attacks' but, if I'd known how much it would stick conceptually, I'd have made a Stealth keyword or status condition so I wouldn't have to repeat the rules every time. it was solidified like that. One unique thing about Interference Terrain is that you can't ignore its effects by flying over it. This is for two reasons: The first is that Interference Terrain doesn't represent something you walk over but rather a cloud or mist in the vein of Minovsky Particles from Gundam. The second is that you could exploit flight + Interference Terrain to grant yourself an insane edge against non-flying units.

Sliding Terrain
Sliding Terrain started as a way to represent strong gravity, winds, currents or other terrain that would move units around. Originally, it was going to be used by several abilities as an indirect way to move both enemies and allies around. At some point I realized that it was much more more convenient to simply slide targets around directly, leaving Sliding Terrain as a tool for the GM when creating battlefields.

Withering Terrain
This almost suffers the same fate that Sliding Terrain did - the few abilities that create Withering Terrain almost got rewritten to halving the target unit's energy. Halving someone's energy regeneration isn't quite the same thing as halving their currently available energy, though, and most of the abilities that create Withering Terrain also create Difficult or Extreme Terrain as well, so sticking to Withering Terrain is simply more elegant.

Variant Anti-Air Terrain
This rule is mostly there for GMs. If the entire PC squad is flight-capable then your battlefields might as well be flat Boss Platforms. By using Anti-Air Terrain the GM can force Flyers to avoid specific areas and keep Antigrav users in the ground to make them choose between the dangers on the ground and those on the air. It is also handy for PCs who can create two instances of Terrain during one Turn (like, say, using Surprise Minefield twice) to force a target to take the effect regardless of whether they fly or not.

Lastly, there's the sidebar about how multiple instances of Terrain stack. This was a rule back then in BCG as well, but the rules effects weren't properly spelled out and, I figure, the addition of new Terrain types is a good reason as any to write everything down. All the effects are pretty intuitive, but I think Extreme Terrain might deserve some explanation. Originally, stacking Extreme Terrain simply added a Disadvantage to the Test, but that didn't feel as lethal as it should've been. I tried two Disadvantages as well and, while that was sufficiently lethal for two stacks, it was thoroughly insane for three stacks and above. Now you add Tension multiple times to the Test, which is sometimes rather anemic and sometimes absurdly overpowering, but the transition happens over time in a natural fashion instead.

That's it for today. Think of this update as a short appetizer, we'll get to the main dish and its walls of text soon enough.

Next: New Miracles.

Until then, Gimmick Out.

Sep 24, 2017

Ideas for Additional BCG Material

Before I got caught up writing about making pacts with monsters, I had a few ideas for BCG play aids and supplementary material. Right now, all these projects are on hiatus until I finish Monsterpunk. Some of them may be finished after that, while others will probably never happen.

The first of the play aids would be a GM screen. For simplicity's sake, it would come in the form of printable inserts to use with something like this: The main reason that I never made one is that BCG already comes with a fairly comprehensive quick rules reference. There are a couple of things that aren't in there (mostly expansion material like new terrain and the transpatial randomizer tables), but overall I thought there wouldn't be much of a need for one. The subject of a GM Screen does come up every now and then though, so I figured I would make one. To the five pages of the quick rules reference, I was going to add Ally Reinforcements, Troubleshooting and the Transpatial Randomizer tables. Adding up all this stuff made it go to a total of 13 pages - a little bit more than a GM Screen is meant to handle. It might be possible to trim it down to 6 pages with some creative summarizing, we'll see.

The second set of play aids I thought of were a number of random idea tables. These were pretty fun to make at first, including Character names that would be right at home in any Gundam or Tomino series, such as Tetsu Terfing and Akasha Apostolo. Mecha names forged in the fires of mount ham like God Grangunner and the Wingbein Powered. Weapons of every shape, color and flavor like the Lunar Gunblade and the Atomic Shotgun. Unfortunately I ran out of ideas around that time. I was going to try writing disguised company and product names (like WcDonalds and Starducks) when I got caught up in other things.

The third idea was to make a couple of ready-to-play missions that could be used for oneshots or as a starting point for longer games. The problem here is that BCG is a setting-agnostic system where the plot revolves around the character's goals and needs. Any given Operation should be tied to one or more PC Themes and help advance a larger plot which... Doesn't work well for a standalone oneshot concept. These issues, incidentally, are why BCZ features five operation scenarios without any plot to them. One way to go about this would be to use the setting in the core book, including premade characters and writing a story arc for them to cover multiple episodes rather than just one. This would be a much larger time investment though, I'm not there's enough interest to make it worth the effort.

There was also an idea to print a deck of ability cards listing what all the abilities in the game do, reminiscent of what D&D 4E had. The main problem here was one of production costs: The game has around two hundred Powers, Upgrades and Weapons between BCG and BCZ - not counting enemy or character-scale abilities. Illustrating all those cards isn't free - on the contrary, it is quite expensive. This is one of those ideas that were discarded and will probably never happen.

The last and possibly most ambitious of these ideas was to put out there a Custom Weapons Creation system. The big problem for custom weapons is that the system is inherently an exploitable mechanic and begs to cause balance problems. I originally thought this could be fixed by writing pages and pages of guidelines and advice for what to allow and what not to allow... But I really, really wouldn't hold my breath hoping for that to work. If it were to be released at all, it would come with a huge disclaimer saying you're on your own if there's any balance problems.

In the end I set all these ideas aside to focus on Monsterpunk. If there is interest for these, I may change my mind and go back to them earlier. If you want them and want them this year, drop me a comment.

Until the next update, Gimmick Out.

Aug 27, 2017

Let's talk a little bit more about Monsterpunk.

I've made considerable progress in both mechanics and flavor text in the past month. As of this weekend I have 30 pages of lore (which still need to go through editing) and am going to start the fourth revision and balance pass of the rules (basically v0.4). Last time I introduced the core mechanic and the game setting, in that order. I only barely got started on the game setting though, so this time I will compensate for that and show you the game's main factions. But before that, here's two quick paragraphs to explain some important terms.

The PCs belong to a Strike Team
The PCs are all members of a Strike Team, belonging to either one of the major factions or to a smaller independent force. They may have been recruited recently for their first job (their first in-game mission) or they could already have been working together for a while before the start of the game proper. The main difference between staying with a major faction or going at it alone is that the former gives them a network of support NPCs to provide them with information, supplies, assistance and a home they can be sleep reasonably safe in, while the latter is a constant and desperate struggle for survival... But at least nobody is going to treat them like glorified attack dogs. Many groups of raiders start off as Strike Teams for monsters that decide to go rogue one day when they don't want to take orders anymore or actively rebel against their old masters. If the PCs choose to go independent, then they are probably their group's sole fighting force - in fact, they may just be their entire group.

Orgone energy is a new power source.
Orgone is a form of energy present in all natural life, similar in concept to other biological energy concepts such as ki or prana. All animals and plants produce orgone, but human brains are the richest source of it. Orgone can be used to power amazing technological devices, to manifest incredible magic or psychic powers and to create medicine capable of curing any ailment. Monsters must eat orgone to survive, with most of them consuming exclusively human orgone. Monsters could subsist using orgone from other sources, but it is considered inefficient and doesn't satisfy them the same way. The solidified form of orgone is a translucent green crystal called orgonium and it is usually minted into small coin-shaped crystals as the most common form of currency in monster-controlled territory.

Basically, Strike Teams are the excuse to gather all the PCs together and give them just enough agency they can do anything but not everything. Orgone is an unifying system that encompasses magic spells, psychic phenomena and basically every superpower into one system that fits the setting. That's it for the prologue, let's introduce Monsterpunk's five main factions:

The Order of Elysium
Led by the Host of Archangels, The Order of Elysium is a cadre of knights and necromancers, laser-focused on the goal of military conquest of the world. They have the largest number of troops and they're the best trained fighting force in the world, making their goal a scary possibility for everyone else. These advantages have one common origin: Warriors of Elysium who fall in battle are raised as ageless ghostly knights. With the reward of an afterlife as a provable fact, it should be unsurprising to learn that their morale is always high. The Order's warriors live to the fullest and die young, then they're raised as eternal soldiers to enjoy the thrill of battle once more. It is easy to see why indoctrinated humans would choose to serve them in the front lines.

Humans coming of age in Order territory have two options: To study or to fight, those who fail to do either of them are reduced to indentured servants. Students become researchers and developers working on new and improved means to eliminate the Order's enemies with orgone-based weapons and death magic. The fighters are rewarded with great feasts and orgies for as long as they live and granted an eternal life as true Knights of the Order of Elysium in the afterlife - at least a life as eternal as possible until total physical destruction. Humans are encouraged to reproduce, but children are taken away and raised in common nurseries by human and golem servants.

There is one Archangel at the head of every large settlement and they're considered to be in charge of every other settlement that isn't closer to another Archangel's territory. The highest ranked monsters in the faction are Angels, the only ones who can innately raise the dead into ghostly knights. The middle ranks consist of ghostly knights and liches, human necromancers that have mastered death magic to such a degree they've immortalized themselves. The lower ranks consist of humans and golems, the latter of which are beings created by the Angels or by the Order's own human scientists, most of which lack sapience.

The Order believes that war is the finest manifestation of all that terrenal life has to offer. It is not just the raw adrenaline rush you get from conquering a foe and the satisfaction of seeing your training pay off. It is also about making deep bonds with your comrades in arms, being part of something bigger than yourself and becoming the best possible version of yourself. Their ultimate goal is not just the destruction of all other factions and the taking of their territories, but also reclaiming all the territory that has been lost to the apocalypse and resettling there. If there is one group who can defeat the endless monsters roaming the wasteland, it is them.

The Order of Elysium might just be the only instance of a rigid hierarchy that works as intended. Angels and ghostly knights are fiercely loyal, while the humans and golems at the bottom don't have much opportunity to oppose their superiors. The only exception are the liches, who retain just enough of their humanity to potentially scheme against their Angelic overlords. However, liches mostly work alone and don't participate in combat directly, limiting just how much they can influence other humans and monsters. So far, none of them have staged a rebellion or made any significant gestures towards doing so.

Strike Team Missions for humans in the Order are generally simple affairs: Go to a place, kill all hostiles, take their stuff, go back to base. Sometimes you are to secure an area until a proper occupation force arrives. Other times you escort VIPs and caravans across dangerous territory. Strike Teams in every faction are expected to fight when they go out in a mission, but those of the Order are the only ones sent with the promise that they're going to run into something that needs killing or subduing.

The Principality of Arcadia
Led by the Fairy Council, the Principality of Arcadia is an isolationist nation of scientists and wizards, more interested in unveiling the secrets of the universe than in waging war against its enemies. The Principality's most important advantage over its enemies is their mastery of large-scale orgone manipulation. Their large settlements are linked together by a network of Fairy Circles that allow instant transportation, protected by Weather Control Towers that redirect emerging Psychic Storms to enemy territory and policed by self-aware elementals to act as Living Architecture, an automated security system inside and outside the walls. What makes them scary is what they do to their enemies: Engineered plagues, self-evolving biological weapons and spells of apocalyptic power.

The Principality has a feudal system, with the families of the Fairy Council at the top, their servant humans and monsters in the middle and serf humans at the bottom. There's little chance of social mobility for humans, the only way is to catch the eye of the Fairy Nobles. Doing this is not necessarily a good thing, however, as the things that the Fairy Nobles put their human servants through range from being simple conversation partners to becoming the experimentation subject of their personal projects. The Fairy folk are a curious sort and they're fascinated by human technology, having made it their trademark as a faction to mingle their arcane knowledge with it, creating all sorts of wonderful and horrific orgonetech contraptions.

As much as the Fairy Council would prefer to keep to themselves and use humans as nothing but playthings, microchips and particle accelerators don't grow on trees. Their experiments require constant trips outside of their territory and that's not something they're keen on doing themselves. Every year, at the time of harvest, Human communities must offer a number of their young and able bodied to serve as conscripts, orgone batteries or potential Gestalts (humans that have fused themselves permanently with a monster). Only the most intelligent, beautiful and physically capable humans become Gestalts, joining the ranks of the Fairies as scientists, wizards and bodyguards. Some Fairy Nobles go so far as to kidnap human babies and raise them from a young age to serve them as adults, these are known as Changelings.

The Principality may be a defensive faction, but they're still very much a threat. Every year, their Living Architecture grows and expands the interior of their arcologies, their Weather Control Towers reach a bit farther and new Fairy Circles widen their already vast network. Between this and their love of orgonetech weapons of mass destruction, the other factions know that they're too dangerous to leave alone.

In theory all the Nobles cooperate together to lead the Principality. In practice, it is a club of petty politics and glamorous displays of wealth and power. The Council only has four seats at any given time and the competition for those positions is extremely fierce. Most who have been present to a Council meeting agree that the main reason the Principality doesn't take the offensive more often is because the Nobles are too busy squabbling with each other. Fairy Lords and Ladies who fail to showcase amazing inventions or increase the Principality's territory regularly lose their Council seat, which is then given to the most promising up and coming Noble.

The Principality's Strike Team Missions usually involve collecting rare technology, securing areas with functional factories or power plants, and capturing live enemies to do research on. Fairy Circles make escort missions a fortunate rarity, but the routes that go back and forth between smaller Principality settlements still need protection. Another uncommon occurence are the rare times when humans are ordered to go out and field test some new weapon or gadget... Which has about a 50/50 chance of being the most fun the Strike Team has had in years or end catastrophically in the accidental deaths of the whole unit.

The Children of Gaia
The Children of Gaia is a cult of dragon worshippers, with each major section of its territory being under the control of a different dragon clan, brood or family lineage. They forsake large settlements and instead encourage many small communities, using druidic magic to make the land fertile again. Of the three major factions, they have the least controlled territory, but they have the most combat capable monsters of any faction, in quality and quantity, including the most humans that have made pacts with them. The Children are starkly against technology of the industrial revolution and beyond, so anybody caught with a working cell phone, motorcycle or assault rifle will need a very good reason for doing so or risks being fed their brains to a monster. Unfortunately for humans, this means that there's no way to create modern medicine such as pills and vaccines, making childhood mortality rates higher than in any other faction, though life expectancy is a comparatively acceptable 50 years or so - higher than the Principality, much lower than the Order's ageless immortals.

To the other factions, monsters who make pacts with humans are outliers, but that's not the case in the Children of Gaia. Pacts are so common that the bulk of their Strike Teams consist mostly of pact-makers. The Children of Gaia's leaders still feed on human orgone, but they're not dictatorial savages, humans are expected to do their part for the greater good of the community. Humans who don't make a pact with one of the Gaian monsters are instructed to work the arable land, pay a periodic levy of orgonium coins and make plenty of babies more ambitious than them.

The Children of Gaia casts a varied ecosystem of monsters in their numbers, with all sorts of beasts, birds and vermin in their ranks, with who else but dragons as the apex predators at the top. Dragons are considered the ultimate life form, majestic creatures of amazing power to match their sharp intellect. The dragons teach their most trusted servants the druidic magic necessary to restore the land and are the ones who make the decisions on where to expand, who to attack and how to do so. Few humans get to make a pact with a dragon and getting the attention of a one is considered the greatest honor, while rejecting such offer is an insult that ends at least in exile of the offending human if not in becoming a tasty snack.

The druidic magic of the Children can restore the wasteland, an amazing feat to be sure, but it requires constant caretaking and takes years to return a few kilometers of land to their pre-apocalyptic vitality. The dragons that lead the Children affirm to be protectors of Mother Earth who fight in her name, firmly believing that technology was what transformed the planet into a wasteland. This makes them natural enemies of pretty much every other faction, arguing they will destroy what little is left of the world before the Children can make the fields green and the sea blue once again.

Dragons are considered the only ones fit to lead Gaian communities, partly out of tradition and partly out of nobody being suicidal enough to contest it. The last time a group of Gaians rebelled against their local draconic masters, a massive force of loyalist monsters paid them a visit and made them reconsider their decision. With that said, dragons of the same clan often compete with each other for sole ownership of their shared territory. Each dragon clan has its own traditional competition that they run every few years to decide who is the most qualified to lead. Some of them run tournaments of raw physical strength, others play games of skill and cunning... And a precious few engage in the strange human tradition of democratic elections.

Gaian Strike Team Missions tend to be about securing territory, as that is the thing the Children are in most need of. Their lack of infraestructure and fractured organization means that Strike Teams often have to assist neighboring territories against incursions from other factions, raiders and unaligned monsters. Local monsters often collaborate and help with patrolling smaller settlements and trade routes, but they can't repel an invasion force alone. Sometimes dragons compete with each other using Strike Teams as proxies, ordering them to complete all sorts of tasks or even to fight each other to decide which one of them has the right to rule.

The Cybernetic Hivemind
The Cybernetic Hivemind is a human-controlled faction with the peculiarity of having the least monsters in their ranks. Their territory is the smallest of all factions and they are considered the last bastion of humanity's global dominance as the ruling species of Earth. The Hivemind are the most technologically advanced faction but also the least powerful in terms of orgone manipulation. This is because their population consists of Cyborgs, people that enhanced their physical forms with a multitude of cybernetic modifications at the cost of dampened orgone field outputs. Many of them go the extra mile and reduce their ability to feel emotions and experience strong physical sensations to improve their performance even further. Fortunately for the other factions, they have little interest in expanding their borders beyond the safety of their arcologies. Between making for unappetizing meals and their vast armory of twenty-first century technology, the other factions mostly consider the Hivemind not being worth picking a fight with.

They are the faction that most closely resembles the western capitalist lifestyle from before the apocalypse, but maintaining that lifestyle is not easy. Members of the Cybernetic Hivemind give up much of their individuality - their passions, dreams and pleasures - for the sake of the group. The life of every citizen is controlled by a communal cybernetic computer called the Panopticon System. People are still free to make their day to day decisions, but the big ones such as which career to pursue or who to procreate with, must be approved by the Panopticon System. Else, the human is labeled an emotional criminal and fined, imprisoned or worse.

The practice of orgone manipulation is highly regulated but just as highly rewarded. Orgonetech is very important to the Hivemind and registered practitioners are granted special enhancements that don't interfere with their emotional and physical senses as much, allowing them to use their orgone fields at maximum efficiency. Monsters are allowed within Hivemind territory but they're always watched and must work hard to earn their orgonium coins. Naturally, most monsters would rather live elsewhere, but some of them - generally humanoids and constructs - prefer this peaceful and orderly way of life compared to the extremisms of the other factions.

Without irrational feelings of individuality getting in the way, the Hivemind has erased corruption and regularly maximizes the meager gains that can be had from the wasteland's natural resources, sustaining a strong internal economy and keeping life expectancy in the 70's. Citizens continue doing their part until the end of their lives, with all citizens willingly choosing to walk into the recycling vats during their last moments. For citizens of the Hivemind, all pursuit of happiness must be intellectual or communal in nature. Those who can truly abandon the vulgar demands of flesh and manage to succed in their studies are allowed a lifestyle that, compared to life outside, is like that of kings. Those who fail to adapt to the needs of the many over their own are relegated to menial labor, kept entertained with tv shows and rewarded with periodic narcotics to make them experience the fleeting sense of satisfaction they can't get otherwise.

Particularly successful and intelligent minds are invited to upload their minds into the Panopticon System. Each settlement has its own Panopticon System, which is connected with other Panopticon Systems through the internet, allowing for proper coordination between arcologies as a single nation. As the most peaceful faction, they sometimes even buy, sell and trade with other factions peacefully. This happens about half as often as Strike Teams are sent from the Hivemind to steal, sabotage, raid or otherwise meddle with operations from other factions. Much more frequently, they must stop enemy Strike Teams from trying to do so.

Most missions for the Hivemind's Strike Teams are about inteferring with enemy forces getting too close for comfort. Currency in Hivemind territory is digital - the Datacoin - since they lack the orgone production and manipulation of other factions. Thus, they frequently raid their enemies for orgonium, using them to feed their monster population and to fuel their orgonetech devices. Stealing orgonetech from other factions and expanding their territory would be nice, but the Panopticon brains worry that doing so would make them a priority target in the eyes of other factions. The Hivemind knows that the stalemate between the monster factions plays a big role in their relative peaceful way of life, and rocking the boat too much could be a fatal mistake.

The Magnasapiens Brotherhood
The Magnasapiens Brotherhood is a human-controlled faction with no territory to speak of. That's because they're a party of several raider bands under one loosely-defined banner, wich each band corresponding to a different lineage tracing back to the Brotherhood's origins. Early in the days of the apocalypse, a demon-worshipping cult turned on their infernal masters and consumed them - literally killed them and ate their corpses - using a now-forgotten ritual to gain their power and become part monster. As superpowered humans, they allied themselves with all the disenfranchised monsters the other factions neglected to form The Demihuman Empire and rule the wasteland. Their reign was short lived, as the angels, fairies and dragons teamed up to destroy them in a handful of years.

Nowadays, the Demihuman Empire's remnants are known as the Magnasapiens Brotherhood, a mere shadow of what it used to be. Most of the original founders are dead, having passed down only a part of their powers to their descendants who now each lead the Brotherhood's many roving bands. An individual band is comparable in size to a large Strike Team, an appropriate comparison given that almost if not all of them are combat capable. The Brotherhood's numbers are few and many bands often group together for large scale operations, but most other factions still consider them glorified raiders and a lesser threat in comparison to the three big monster groups.

The Magnasapiens consider themselves the next step in human evolution. Or rather, their leaders - the Magnasapiens with demon blood flowing through their veins - consider themselves to be. Humans once stood on top of the food chain and they can do so once again, provided they can all evolve into Magnasapiens. This belief stems from how the Magnasapiens can consume the orgone from monsters for sustenance, something no purebreed monster can do. This knowledge is lost to them, but while the many band leaders argue with each other on how to rectify the situation, they can all agree that they must have more Magnasapiens children and fight back against the monsters who took their world from them.

The Brotherhood are human supremacists. With the exception of the few monsters that are the last survivors of the Demihuman Empire, they want all monsters dead and only allow the less threatening ones to live a life of servitude for now. Captured enemy monsters are kept as slaves performing the most degrading jobs imaginable until the band decides to experiment with reenacting the ancient demon-eating ritual. Unfortunately for them, but fortunately for the rest of the world, it never works. They just don't remember the details accurately enough and their lack of central organization certainly doesn't help.

Outside of those common beliefs, each band has its own peculiarities and behaves differently. Some of them barter with human settlements and only raid monsters and monster sympathizers, while others treat everybody who isn't one of them as a resource to be exploited. Some Magnasapiens are dictatorial savages while others are amicable leaders who care for their own. Some bands keep human slaves, while others allow human survivors to run for their lives. The rarest of bands even allow their members to make pacts with monsters that hate their kind as much as the Brotherhood does, granting the chosen monster amnesty from the usual treatment the Brotherhood would otherwise do unto them.

The Brotherhood doesn't have a need for Strike Teams, they're their own fighting force, but the larger and more strategically minded bands may form small units and allow them to work alone, provided they can get results. As you can imagine, most such missions are about raiding the other factions for supplies and slaves, with some good monster slaying as a fun diversion. They know the monsters are too busy keeping each other in check to really pay attention to them, and the Brotherhood intends to prove this is the last mistake they will ever make.

In the Grim Darkness of the Monsterpunk Post-Apocalypse, Everybody is a Jerk.
At almost 4k words, I think this entry makes up for last time's very short introduction to the setting. As suits Monsterpunk's inspirations, all these guys are jerks and you want to take them all down, but you probably need to work with them first before you can do that. I quite like how this is coming along and could post more about it. But I figure I've talked enough about Monsterpunk for now, so I'll make a poll instead and let you decide what I'll blog about in the next few months.

Until then, Gimmick Out.

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:

Success
You did the thing! Go you!

Twist
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...

Live!
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.