Monday, August 26, 2013

The Robotech Role Playing Game, first edition

Wow, this one really is typical of the mid-eighties. It reads like something that was written by a guy that thought that D&D really defined rpg's. He really wanted to go beyond what he saw as its limited confinesbut at the end of the day, he still thinks in terms of D&D. So you roll 3d6 in order to get your attributesthen chose a class based on what options you have as a result of these numbers. Except for a bonus or two, these numbers don't really come up again in the game, really . You pick an alignment, roll on some random tablesand thenuhI guess after that you go fight stuff, gain experience points, and level up. Oh, but there's skills here, yeah . It's just that the skill system looks like something that was cooked up by someone that thought that the thief class was a great idea.

There is no unified mechanic. This game's system was a contemporary of an ahead-of-its-time system like Victory Games James Bond 007. But this was developed years before GURPS and MegaTraveller came out and pretty well cemented the norm of having one type of roll determine everything. It seems crazy now, but the combat system is an entirely different thing from the skill system- they aren't integrated all except through a hodgepodge of bonuses and special effects.

My favorite thing about these rules is how the game designer occasionally interjects his personal opinion:

* "From time to time I hear the complaint, for example, how somebody can be bashing or shooting into a door and the door is in perfect condition until all its S.D.C. is depleted?"

* "The reason I use an experience point system is because I find them extremely realistic and practical.

* "In my original, PALLADIUM ROLE PLAYING GAME, play-test campaign; after two years of weekly, long (average 9 hours), playing sessions; the characters averaged 7th to 9th level and progressing, ever so slowly, toward tenth level."

* "I've found that many players like as much background and details about their characters as possible."

* "I avoid random hit location tables because I feel the randomness is too flukey and unrealistic."

This gives the game a breezy, personable feel that makes you feel like you're in the presence of a real-life, obnoxious know-it-all game master!

The rules are barely even ten percent of the book. Most of what is presented here is in effect a high tech monster manual: scads of clay pigeons that will presumably get blown up during play. The damage capacity of each hit location is painstakingly spelled out, butmost of this will be used only when a player specifically goes out of his way to make a called shot. This is a bizarre design choice for anyone coming in from BattleTech. I guess GURPS players accept that some campaigns will be more abstract while others might embrace a random hit location tablebut it is strange to have the designer come down so vehemently on this issue within the main text itself- especially since so much else in the game is clearly marked as being optional or else introduced with suggestions for how game masters might rule on it.

For the most part, though, I'd describe these rules as mostly being everything in D&D that was actually used by your typical teenaged gamerbut then extended occasionally with an attempt at having a much more GURPS-like comprehensive approach. The designer is mired in a Gygaxian approachwhile occasionally yearning for a Steve Jackson style of implementation. This is most clearly illustrated in the combat sequence. Initiative is in a random order. (It would be so hard to run this game and not do initiative in order by speed attributes!) The to-hit roll is strangely easy: roll five or better on a d20, but with enough strike bonuses you'll never miss. (The armor system is mentioned here, but there are no example body armor items for the players to purchase that I can find. These would make the to-hit roll a bit more interesting if they were here, but there is no armor rating in mecha combat due to the Mega-Damage system.) The defender gets the option to dodge (which costs the player an attack that turn) or parry (which doesn't cost an attack but which can only be done against hand-to-hand attacks.) If the defense roll fails, there's still a chance that the defender can "roll with punch" and take half damage if it was a physical attack. These defense rolls are done with d20 rolls with bonuses based on skills and skill levels- the defender has to beat the attacker's to-hit roll on a d20.

Nowthe text here tells me that these combat rules are "designed to be fast moving and easy to understand," but there's still a few things that aren't 100% clear to me. For instance, if you attack first in the roundwill you have to guess at how many attacks you save back for defending with latter on? If you guess wrong, are those attacks lost ? There is no clear instruction on whether to use a grid, a hex map, or a range band system. Being an early eighties design, I guess I can only assume that "theater of the mind" is the default mode for combat . And those gun clusters on the Excalibur and the Gladiatordoes it take one attack to fire each thing in the cluster, or would one attack handle them all at once sort of like the missile volleys are handled? Finally, the terminology here seems to use "melee attack" to refer to any type of attack- you might use one of your "hand-to-hand attacks" to fire a ranged weapon. This is really confusing and it makes it hard to understand what the rules are supposed to be communicating.

Perhaps the biggest surprise here is that the game is set in a strange post-apocalyptic setting that occurs after the end of the first Robotech series. The world is divided up into zones and there are beaucoup Zentradi on the planet; many of them that wander around looking for trouble, while other micronized Zentradi integrate themselves into human society. The adventures presented here are essentially random combat encounters and one elaborate set piece scenario. Stats for Minmei are included, courtesy of designer fiat. (You can't build her with the included rules, but rather have to just pick stuff out of thin air.) There is absolutely no advice or counsel on how to handle the endemic love triangles that take up so much of the series. Taken together, the implication is that the bulk of your game session is going to be about shooting things.

While we do have all the stats for the Veritech fighters, the Destroids, and the Zentradi Battlepods, there is almost nothing here about the real star of the show: Macross city. There is nothing here about weird eighties synth-pop, either. On the other hand, there are some really good notes on the source material that explain some of the continuity problems that emerged in the course of re-cutting three separate series into an epic saga for American TV.

This is a really strange game. It would be quite a challenge to play it as-is. I would be strongly tempted to work out some sort of system for using attribute checks for everythingand I'd really want to work up a custom random hit location table for each unit in the game. The setting here is both sketchy and weird . I'd be further tempted to crank the strangeness up to eleven- almost to Gamma World proportions. Once I had a feel for how things really wereI'd want to go back to the character generation system and whip up something a little more Traveller-like that feeds directly into it. All of this would be so much work, I'd never get around to actually doing it, so playing the game as-written is still my main option.

No, I could deal with the wonkiness of the system, I suppose. The biggest barrier to getting a game with this off the ground really is the default setting. The Japanese have no problem blowing everything up, burning it all to the ground, and then letting things get freakishly weird. As the book says, "units of as few as a half dozen, brave men and women would be asked to patrol and protect thousands of miles of hostile territory against deadly and unpredictable foes." I can see how this setup would make sense for a role playing campaign, but I if I told people I was going to be running Robotech, I doubt that this is what they'd really expect the game to be about.
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