Magical Burst Design Journal June 2014

Last week I ran the third session of my Magical Burst playtest campaign. Even more so than I’d intended, the 4th draft has wound up being a nailing down of the overall structure with a lot of details needing more work. Combat is important to the game of course, and I’ve made it in such a way that it needs some careful balancing to really work. One of the key steps is going to be sitting down to really iron out the math and the design structures around it. A lot of things are working about how I want, but a few key things aren’t, though I’m starting to better understand why they aren’t. Here’s an update on where I’m at, which should give a general idea on what I’m going to be trying to do for version 4.1.

Specializations and Talents
Some things simply needing clarifications or rejiggering to work properly, but there’s also issues with game balance and making these crunchy bits actually be fun to engage. It comes back to the thing that the perspectives of a designer and a player are really different, and it can be difficult to look at it from the other side and make sure that the choices presented to the player are compelling and appropriate. Ideally I want the lists of Magical Talents to be a collection of good choices that are all more or less equally compelling.

The Witch’s Hex ability is one of the big things that is proving to be a problem all around. In an earlier version of the game I took a cue from Magical Burst ReWrite and gave Witch magical girls a flat +1 to damage, but we wanted to try something more interesting, hence the Hex ability that lets a witch put a cumulative point of continuing damage on an enemy. There are a few different potential issues with this, one of the big ones being the potential for abuse. I did take the precaution of making it so that each witch can only use it once per turn, but with multiple witches (or even a team of ALL witches) it’s easy to imagine killing an enemy with nothing but Hexes, which is definitely not what I was going for. It also has issues with both the opportunity cost and the way it’s used. Since it uses your Minor Action, it’s really easy to get through a turn without getting a chance to use it, and it’s also just not as interesting as it could be because you simply declare it and it happens. Our present working concept for a revised version is a thing where the Hexes a witch places on youma are by themselves inert, and another witch ability “detonates” them to do a base amount of damage or add additional effects for multiple hexes. Multiple witches could thus build up to the special effects faster, but wouldn’t be able to dominate a youma without touching the dice.

Link meanwhile is one of those things that’s a really nifty idea that’s hard to limit in the right ways to keep it from being overly powerful or overly weak. I’m still trying to figure out what to do with that.

Relationships
Probably the biggest flaw with the relationship rules I’m seeing right now is in how they’re set up. Relationship with other magical girls are harder to damage and easier to figure out creatively (since you don’t have to invent any new characters whole cloth), so players end up emphasizing those and neglecting the intended emphasis of relationships with normal people, potentially for game reasons but also simply because it’s easier. The part about assigning points is also a bit more time-consuming than I’d like. Between the two factors, I’m thinking of changing the setup process a bit. Maybe something along the lines of relationships starting at a rank of 2, and players getting 3-4 relationships they can create in addition to those with the magical girls.

Non-Combat Moves
So far I haven’t given the non-combat moves as much testing as I’d actually like, and that’s partly due to simply needing to run the game in such a way that they come up more often. Investigating is potentially a major element of the game, and it’s something that RPGs have never been great at in general. On top of that, it’s proving hard to give players a basis on which to investigate nonsensical magic stuff and still have it be compelling.

On the other hand I was really happy with the effect that invoking the Stay Calm move had in last week’s session. It brought home the impact of that week’s Shocking Revelations, and totally changed the mood of the scene.

Fallout
Someone on 4chan pointed out that Fury fallout is often much more disruptive than other kinds, which is definitely something I need to work on more. It’s true that a glitch in reality or a weird hug are potentially easier for a friend to overlook than if you suddenly punch them, and also in play I find that sometimes there’s not a huge difference between Distortions and certain Temporary Changes. I’m still trying to figure out how to approach it, but another reworking of Fallout is definitely a possibility.

The other issue that’s come up is just figuring out how and when to make fallout happen. I think I need to do more to encourage players to call my attention to it as the GM, especially since in my playtest campaign I’ve got 5 players, which is pushing the upper limit of what I can really handle in general. I try to integrate the fallout stuff into natural situations and such, but it takes a decent amount of effort on my part.

The Battlefield Map
One of the big challenges of using the Battlefield Map has been making it necessary and interesting. In playtests characters tended to move into the right range to attack and stay there unless something forced them to do otherwise. The concept of Nightmare Features was partly meant to add things to make movement more necessary. I’m still trying to figure out what to do with the whole “Disengage” concept, because while it makes getting in close to an enemy a more interesting prospect, it also makes the battlefield more static.

What I’m currently thinking is to bump the map up to 6 positions, and to have the linear map be the default but not the thing used for every battle. In Last Stand the map system has maps of around 6 areas, arranged however the GM sees fit, whether a 2×3 grid for a section of city, a single line for a long corridor, a tower for a skyscraper, and so on. Moreover, I need to think about ways to have the youma move around in interesting ways.

Youma Design
My experience with previous drafts was that I’d made the youma too weak. I tried to power them up in this version, and I’m finding that they’re still too weak, though they do at least work well in terms of serving the purpose of saddling the magical girls with Overcharge.

Probably the single biggest issue is making them into viable “boss” monsters. Creating one enemy that can be a viable threat to multiple foes without the difference in numbers work against them runs against the grain of how RPG design typically works in general. Culling through the D&D4e monster books provided me with a lot of ideas for individual elements to make a good boss/solo enemy, but assembling a complete picture out of those is a good deal harder. One thing that emerged is that it’s easy for a boss to get layered with status effects, and hard to know how much a boss should be able to counter that. The current system where the youma’s Power Level and Spread set up certain stats and give the youma two kinds of ability selections isn’t really working, and I’m thinking I need to develop something a little more detailed, and something that covers the basics that a youma needs automatically. Right now my general thinking on that is to make a small selection of youma classes/specializations, which in turn have certain abilities that scale up according to PL and Spread, and then allow for some additional stuff on top of that. That will make it easier to create stuff to scale number of attacks, status resistance, etc. according to what the youma actually needs to have.

Story Stuff
A thing that’s emerging in a big way in both my campaigns and the novels I’ve been writing and brainstorming for is that magical girl antagonists are just incredibly useful. They make great foils to the heroines of the story, and they can bring full human intelligence to bear and cause problems in everyday life. I had been thinking about, for example, having the eventual “Magical Burst Companion” book have rules for magical girls falling to the Dark Side (inspired by the manga Planet Guardian, where that’s a fairly important plot element), but with or without explicit rules, I’m thinking “dark magical girls” are a trope that deserves more of a place in the core implied setting.

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2 thoughts on “Magical Burst Design Journal June 2014

  1. Ewen, would like to recommend an RPG that I find great for Magical Burst:
    Little Fears – Nightmare Edition
    http://www.littlefears.com/
    It’s essentially about playing children who experience monsters & nightmares.
    It has imo the best guide to constructing nightmares and related monsters. I.e. monsters have the abilities “Fight, Grab, Chase, Scare” und a Terror-track. There is no “real” magic like in MB. However, esp. small children can use their innocent belief for magical purposes.
    I recommend “Little Fears – Nightmare Edition” to any GM who wants to create Youmas and nightmares!
    The original Little Fears RPG on the other hand is just very disturbing (probably too disturbing). The new one is smoothed out and has better game mechanics.

    While we’re at it, two more things:
    GUMSHOE might be worth looking at for investigation mechanics:
    http://pelgranepress.com/site/?tag=open-gumshoe
    Instead of rolling dice to check _if_ you find something, it’s using a clever system of clue types and mechanics to make an investigation more interesting.

    Apocalypse World has some of the best GM rules and the apocalyptic setting & mechanics might apply well to a dark magical girl setting with scarce (magical) resources. Just check out the GM advice (“The Master of Ceremonies”).
    http://rpg.drivethrustuff.com/product/95433/Apocalypse-World

  2. I don’t know if you’ve seen it since you’re already referencing feedback from 4chan, but there was a good bit of discussion pertaining to relationships and social stuff in a ReWrite thread. Here’s the link: https://archive.foolz.us/tg/thread/32781284/#32784245 with conversation starting at the anchor point but interlaced with discussion on other topics including rampant shitposting.

    I’ll also post some of my own stuff pertaining to out-of-combat and youma boss design on the G+. Youma design’s a bit odd because no matter what you do, you’re not going to make a girl die who doesn’t want to, really, it’s just a matter of how much OC they have to take.
    Can’t say I ever had trouble with fallout though; going with “at the end of the scene” just makes it “at the end of battle” most of the time, which works fine.

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