So, Beyond the Wall…
Years ago I ran this short campaign over a holiday (as is our wont to go on hols to play games) that started out in a village out on its own in the middle of nowhere. Colour-wise I was going for a fantasy post-apoc Laputa/Nausicaa (Studio Ghibli) vibe.
To the East there was a very distant Empire, and to the West there was the scary forbidden lands ™ where once there had been the ancient race ™ that no-one really believed in or had seen for centuries, and in between there was farmland as far as the eye could see with only a few of the ancients’ ruined buildings here and there. The farmers used the ancient monuments as winter shelter for their sheep. It was pretty much the setup of Beyond the Wall and the party did much the same things and were much the same ages as BtW‘s protagonists — get hooked into exploring forbidden and dangerous places, mapping out the area, growing in physical and magical ability. And also, piloting mecha for the Imperial army.
Tuning BtW to that campaign would need a minor tweak (rebadging magic as psionics) and a major one, some mecha rules. These are those. So, some basics:
One: mecha equals werewolf
Mecha look like machines, and most games handle them like machines. But really they’re a lot more like werewolves. More often than not they’re a kind of living extension of the pilot, having the pilot’s agility and senses. So what mecha really do is elevate and transform the pilots physically (and maybe spiritually, too). Mecha bring their pilots closer to god, and take them further from humanity.
More superficially, the precocious teen is the mainstay of the mecha pilot archetype (sometimes, the only viable pilot). They’re a character with hardly any life experience thrust into dangerous and stressful situations (often by adults who aren’t giving them one percent of the truth). Sometimes they don’t even know their own limits, or the capabilities of their mecha. The hormonal coming-of-age werewolf analogy works.
And since we’re talking about the pilots, let’s consider two other archetypes that are important. The first is the best friend: someone who will never pilot a mecha of their own, someone who represents the “common people” the mecha pilot is fighting for and yet becoming more and more distanced from as they do terrible things and ascend closer to godhood. The best friend grounds the pilot, teaches them humility, etcetera.
The other archetype is the priest commander. They send the pilots on their missions and expect them to do terrible things. But also they understand things about the mecha and the external threat that the best friend cannot. They’re a separate priest caste, distinct from the “common people”, guiding the pilot through a physical and spiritual transformation… erm…
…warm in here?
Two: mecha are all about scale
A mecha that isn’t opposed by something equally big but instead just stamps on inferior forces isn’t really a mecha, it’s just some wanker in a robot suit.
Mecha solve a problem of scale. The invading force is physically dominant, bigger and more powerful; so the warriors transform into something of equal size to take them on.
And that’s pretty much it. Size varies from slightly larger than human (Ellen Ripley in her exoskeleton, Appleseed’s Landmates) to skyscrapers and beyond (Evangelion) but in each case, the protagonist answers a threat of similar size. But also because the fight is on a different scale it separates the arena from the human scale (how much depends on relative size).
Three: mecha have personality
So obviously if the mecha are extensions of the pilot, they are often owned by (or adapted to) their pilot, etc. Doesn’t always happen in the fiction or in games. Sometimes the mecha are just lined up in the garage and the pilot takes one. But Nagate Tanikaze is great at piloting the Mark 17 Garde, so the Tsugumori becomes synonymous with him as a pilot.
Four: you can’t wear the suit to breakfast
We know that fighters would wear their plate mail all the time if they could. But mecha, like werewolves, involve taking the suit off from time to time. This happens in one of two scenarios:
- Back home, no-one walks around in their suits, and the pilots engage with the other characters (best friends, commanders, etc.) on human scale.
- Out in the field the pilot might be separated from their armour because it’s destroyed, or they might peel their armour for diplomatic reasons, or because the suit is too large, they need dexterity, etc.
So basically, your mecha campaign will involve domestic phases and adventure phases. Domestic phases are explicitly out-of-suit, adventure phases are in-suit.
Five: a home to go to
Last, all this human vs. god scale matters because the PCs are usually defending something — a village, a colony, a superdimensional fortress, etc. Not much more to say apart from the obvious fit with Beyond the Wall.
Some Mecha Rules
First a shout out for Wrath of Zombie’s rules for the White Star game. I’m not going to use them, because they’re a bit too much mecha-as-vehicle and crunchy for me. But someone else might want to see them. I’m also not using the mecha rules in Stars Without Number, but that’s another option.
Here’s the approach for BtW. In the regular game PCs are differentiated by playbooks (for fiction) and 3 classes (for function). So
- The character class is the class of mech the pilot uses. Combat, scouting, specialist (magic/psionics/special technology etc.).
- Optionally characters are capable of the same things outside their mech as inside, it’s just the scale that changes. Magic/psionics could work via psionic lenses. Fighting scales, and a lot of physical activity is equivalent — it’s just the scale of the obstacle that changes.
- Monsters scale, too.
- Playbooks cover both the character and their mech.
- The game focuses even more between domestic parts (in the village, without suits) and adventure parts.
- May need to design a leadership structure within the “village” that directs where the characters go. Or maybe there is no such structure. See not bowing to authority.
- Consider the needs of a military campaign vs. a “village defense” campaign / scenario.
Concerning relative scale
In the alt main damage rules (inspired by Scarlet Heroes) damage is figured as one point per 3 points on the die.
All damage is relative: that is to say, a 3 point wound on a mecha isn’t objectively the same as a 3 point wound on a human, but it’s the same amount of inconvenience.
So, when mecha fight mecha, use exactly the same damage system.
When mecha fight something bigger or smaller, adjust the scale. There are two ways to do this. One is to just add or subtract a modifier to shift the roll up or down. The other is to change the stepping, e.g. a smaller target will take 1 point for every 2 on the dice, and a larger one will will take 1 point for every 4, etc.
The only slight issue is armour with the modified rules — because that would mean that a small target’s armour gets more effective at dropping damage. You can counter this by either having the mecha roll bigger dice, or some fiddle factor applied to armour (e.g. if the opponent’s bigger, armour is half as effective). I still need to work on armour scaling anyway, so something for part 2.
Need to consider what damage to the mech actually means. Is the pilot damaged? I’d like to think yes. Suggestions:
- Treat the pilot + mech as one organism; apply damage per the alt. damage rules. Both pilot and mech can heal minor damage, but when it gets bad, a repair is needed.
- Healing “spells” heal/repair the mechs
- Consider a threshold where the damage passes through to the pilot. If the mech has armour, all wounds the mech suffers over its armour rating are actually received by the pilot (so minor scrapes don’t do anything to the pilot; but a major 5-pointer is actually a hit on the pilot as well as the mech).
Playbooks and Building Mecha
Playbooks need to incorporate the hero and their mech, and they need to provide the fictional back story.
If we’re treating mecha as a set of powers that the character puts on (instead of a machine they pilot), expressing the mecha is pretty simple:
- enhanced attributes (for to-hit, damage, and saves)
- armour, weapons and defence
And as far as the playbooks go, just pick some of the tables to describe the suit, and the bonuses that the suit provides. Simples.
For hacking playbooks, some of the existing ones will lend themselves more easily than others — “type A” playbooks like the Heir to a Legend may translate better, because they’re obviously going to be front-and-centre for a military style campaign. Other more passive or less sociable characters may need a bit more tweaking.
Magic and Ritual
Re-skinning magic needs some thought. Spells work as one-shot resources in the mech (maybe drawing from a battery that needs to recharge). But what about rituals?
Here’s the suggestion: they’re not something the individual character can do, they’re a strategic resource that can be deployed with time. Maybe the mage acts as some kind of artillery observer or officer.
OK, that’s all for now. I have other things going on so I don’t know when I’ll finish this off, but this was an itch I needed to scratch.
Don’t go hand to hand with the blue bastard.