Sunday, July 9, 2017

My Life as a Gamer: Palladium, Robotech, & Mecha Gaming

In the 1980s, Palladium Books got the license to two (at the time) popular properties. One of them was Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, and the other was Robotech. Outside of the company's flagship (which didn't drop until 1990), these two were big drivers for the company's increase in profile and the success it signifies. In time, both licenses expired and the product lines allowed to go out of print.

To make use of the former, Palladium rebranded that game to After The Bomb and focused upon the post-apocalyptic setting option of the old line. That wasn't an option for the latter, so a new license got sought; when the (second) aborted sequel came, Palladium got that license and Robotech: The Shadow Chronicles hit the shelves.

I remember how many things Palladium got wrong with the original edition, above and beyond the necessity to conform to the licensor's setting bible vs. the original series' bibles. (e.g. The Beta Fighter all wrong) Now? Mostly fixed, and within the tolerance allowed for (original series) vs. Robotech. The rules are in the wrong place again (the back), so all of those Character Creation and such game info has no context due to contents being out of proper order. The original printings were Digest Format; newer ones are back to the old 8.5x11 format Palladium built its business with- and it doesn't matter which you get.

The other obvious catch is that the rulebook defaults to the Shadow Chronicles setting, with the more popular stuff from the original series shunted into supplementary material. That's how the license works, so I can't be mad. If you want to get your Valkyrie on, you're buying two books; same for you wanting to get your Hovertank action, or being anti-Inbit partisans. (Sentinels fans, on the other hand, have to make due with just the rulebook for now- or find a used copy of the old Sentinels book.) Or you can make up your own using fan sites, wikis, and hacking together your own ruleset- in which case you're just two steps behind Palladium anyway.

What neither the old edition nor the new edition does is address the elephant in the room: D&D-style dynamics rarely work in Real Robot mecha show settings. It's no surprise, therefore, that practical gaming focuses on the Invid Invasion or otherwise seeks to replicate those dynamics. Why? Because partisan cells are (current) D&D-paradigm-friendly and formal military units are not. That doesn mean that you can't make it work, but rather that you have to use another approach.

A mech pilot is no different than a tanker or a fighter jock; they are there to work the controls as they fulfill specific military objectives within a short interval of time- minutes or hours vs. days or longer (i.e. a specific sortie). You don't mix tankers, fighter jocks, mechanics, and grunts together into a squad or platoon-sized party. That only happens when the ordinary function of the military institution breaks down, and it's meant to be a temporary affair.

How do you get around this? Multiple characters per player. Each one focuses on a different playable space, adapting the way you'd run this as a wargame campaign to the tabletop RPG space. One time you're out clearing the skies with your fighter jocks. The next you're clearing enemy bunkers with your grunts. Intelligence operatives do their thing the session after that.

A similar approach is to open up the table, with an eye towards having people who really like one specific part of the whole to play out that part and pass on the success or failure to other groups who handle other elements of the overall operation- similar to how real militaries work. If you're willing and able to run for multiple groups, this is the model for you; more people get to have their fun, while verisimilitude is maintained.

But, for most, they just want to play this game like they do D&D: stake out a role in the party, and go. You're going to have a bad time in most of the playable spaces that Robotech offers, and no amount of Storygame bullshit will fix that. The result is that this game in particular--and mecha gaming in general--rarely leaves the wargame sphere for RPG Land because of the common gamer's unwillingness to adapt to the setting's circumstances. For them, the game is about being in the mecha--being in their favorite mecha--and fuck everything else because it's boring as shit. Most people won't work for their entertainment, and that includes changing how they approach a given category of game; as "RPG" equals "D&D" for most, they approach all RPGs that way- and that includes game designers and publishers. This is a mistake. Yet, it keeps happening. "Will not work" is why.

I like the game enough to have it on my shelf, but most don't. Too confining and restrictive for many to be enjoyable. A'int that ironic: a game featuring mech piloting that most Mech Pilots don't like.

1 comment:

  1. Sentinels races at least appear in Robotech: Expeditionary Force Marines http://palladium-store.com/1001/product/553-Robotech-UEEF-Marines-Sourcebook.html

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