Jan 15, 2017

BCG Retrospective XXXVII: Boss Upgrades.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Next: Boss Weapons.

Gimmick Out.


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

    -> I'd just put it in as a boss only power/ upgrade/ MP purchaseable thingy. ummm, say costing 30 MP (transformation + superior morphing).

    My rough idea for now using "Boss Upgrade" would simply be that "create several forms for your boss, and switch forms at every threshold level lost" ... unlike other upgrades, no raw stats bonuses or maybe each succeeding form would get +5 MP (stacking)? Instead of the boss getting "stronger" as the fight goes on, strength stays about the same, but instead the challenge is that the PCs have to figure out how to deal with an entirely different situation, on the fly. (a lot of difference dealing with a long range AOE boss and a close quarters beast)

    1. So its an Alternate Form but for Bosses. Interesting. Yeah, that could work. There's some issues that would need working out, as Boss Upgrades aren't really balanced for that kind of use. It Keeps Coming Back is the ultimate 'last form' ability, while being kind of junk before that. Other than that one, you'll want to use instant triggers like Bullet Hell and Nanoskin Shell then pick a L4 ability that grants tons of buffs. If the Upgrades were designed around this kind of interchangeability though, it could be interesting.

  2. I don't like Adaptive Morphology. It's balanced against the PCs "overall"... but in terms of individual PCs, it's rather imbalanced. For example, in a group of 4 players, 1 of them is a beamspam, 1 has no beams, and 1 has a way to get past active defences. ... during the fight boss goes anti beam, and erm, 2 players are basically totally unaffected by this boss upgrade, but the 3rd player basically gets to twiddle his thumbs for the fight. ... or manuever and grant def buff or something maybe. ... you mentioned those JRPGs? Well, for those, like say Persona, 1 human player is controlling a team of characters, so when your fire guy is useless, you get him to potion up the other guys while your ice guys get some glory. ... it's completely another story when each human player only controls 1 PC, and that PC has been rendered ineffectual, while his teammates are totally unaffected by this power. -> The D&D equivalent would be something like a boss which "only spells can damage him". And not even magic item spell like effects like wand of fireballs, just actual spells. The fighter, thief, etc, just roll their eyes and start playing support roles.

    A similiar scenario would play out for Bullet Hell, and how it affects the melee duelist vs the team sniper. ... or how That Will Not Work Again makes The Beast player just give up fighting.

    ... Now having said all that, the GM can work around this, by building the scenario, as you mentioned, and putting in various grunts or rivals which are tailored to give every player something to do, and similiar challenge levels. ... but, frankly, this is a lot of work for the GM, who has to keep a copy of every players character sheet and plan his encounter accordingly. ... and it's a fragile sort of scenario too, where, after all that careful balancing, if 1-2 players can't make it for that session, your entire scenario needs a quick rebalancing. (this has happened to our campaign a few times so far, but to a lesser extent)

    1. If Bosses were designed to be the equivalent to 4 PCs, they wouldn't have abilities that completely ruin one person's day, they'd have more generic buffs and debuffs that even someone who is being 'countered' would be able to play around. They're designed to be a match for 2 PCs though, this specifically so that in the average 3-5 person party there will be more enemies to battle.

      Obviously, since we're still talking about how to make Solo Boss Fights work, that was probably not the right idea. BCG Superboss-only games work but requires PCs built around the idea of facing monsters that can neuter one third to one half of their specialties at any given time. It's not for everyone and it is a shame that this is specifically the kind of gameplay that many new groups gravitate towards. If I'd known at the time, I'd have made things differently.

      Note that ever since the first days of D&D there's always been encounters with anti-magic shields, elemental immunities, poisons that cripple you unless you have save vs poison/high fortitude, etc. I'm not saying this excuses those things being unfun, but rather that they happens in most tabletop games when enemies are designed specifically around a very extreme concept.

  3. So, on a BCG topic nothing to do with Boss Upgrades, I got called out for my munchkin combo in today's gaming session. ... I immediately lifted my hand and pled guilty, since it really was a rather dirty combo wombo. :p

    The actual combo is: I built a trasnformer, with speed 4, syatem 0, but in phoenix form, it has system 4 speed 0, flyer, and ground zero. And, yup, the idea is to get in a duel, and then spam ground zero to stack extreme terrain, and the opponent can't even move out of it when he wins the speed test, since my movement is 0. ... Well opponent could disengage or use slippery chasis though, but... still a dirty combo, and I understand why my GM objected to it. hahaha.

    Now that I think about it, I'm glad that this came to light during an anti-grunt operation... would have been pretty messy if it came to light while I was duelling the season boss or something! O.o

    1. Haha, that's quite the clever build and it is the first time I see it. Being denied flight would be a death sentence, but it really is rather on the munchkiny side of things.

    2. Well, actually, I was previously using Magneburst and Ground Zero, and I was getting irritated because my duel opponents kept winning the duels and then moving away from the "funzone". So... yes, rather munchkiny to say "aha, I transform! Now speed zero, you DIE!" ... hahaha... If denied flight, I'd just transform to my other mode and get out of the fire, so, not really a death sentence at all. So, overall, very very cheap and not much to counter it.

      I just sent you 2 messages via the "contact me". Add me on FB or something, so we can discuss stuff on places other than this blog! ;) ... I'll send you some TRULY funky munchkin builds, power level 1 stuff that can basically one shot anything that doesn't have oldtype or internal fortification. ;)