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Friday, July 16, 2010

The Only Cure is MOAR ROBOTS!

A review of Mecha RPG.
My previous post on the Quickstart Rules.
Mecha RPG is published by a house called Heroic Journey, who also did Bounty Head Bebop, an action RPG which took a lot of inspiration from a certain science fiction anime.

Metal and flesh live and die as one
Well, happy birthday to me! (For real, actually) It's time to review the PDF version of Mecha RPG, available at the above RPGNow link. I'd like to say, first and foremost, that this looks like a fantastic system to game with, particularly for fans of the mecha anime genre. It's possibly one of the best thought-out RPGs that I've seen in some time. It hits a sweet spot between rules and description, being a bit more "rules-lite" than most systems, but having enough rules to make an enjoyable game. It's also a very flexible system, because of this.

Mecha RPG, to summarize, is all about emulating the Mecha genre of anime. Big robots, big stories, serious may be more or less present, depending on if you're talking Gundam or Super Robot Wars. The rules in this game allow you to do it all, by providing a loose framework that still contains enough game on its own to support the roleplaying. It's a fantastic match that still carries the theme while allowing for setting and story flexibility. You could run a steampunk game with giant clanks, a game of mortals riding primordial elemental golems, or a science fiction life-or-death struggle over resources on an asteroid, featuring biomechanical powersuits...and the system would fit.

In my opinion, there's one or two slip-ups here and there, design-wise. I'm not a big fan of the table of contents, but it does do its job. I'm not sure why, but the font can also be a tad hard to read at times. The overall design of the book, though, is good. It uses a two-column format, with a simple design aesthetic. The two-tone header and footer do a great job of giving a subtle "tech" feel, as does the choice of header font. Tables are also well-placed. The game art comes in a few different styles, but is all well-done. Diagrams are used to simplify the concept of the "bullseye battlemap", the abstract system used for combat depiction, and character portraits are sprinkled about the three settings provided with the book.

The rules are intuitively structured, as well. They begin with a section on character creation, saving the game rules details until later. Following that is a basic outline of the game rules, then the structure of play, and finally an extensive section about combat. After that comes a few miscellaneous rules, including the rules for advancement, and then the section for the GM. I'll speak more on this later, but it's one of my favorite parts of the book. Finally, Mecha ends by outlining three different settings: Revolution Deity Godblind (a blend of science fiction and mythology), Steel Gunner (a science-fiction series in the middle of a war), and Special Research School (a high school where everyone has a mecha...oh, and mecha football).

The Rules
There's not much I can add to what I've said earlier on the Mecha rules. Using a simple dice pool system, Mecha delivers quick, snappy action. What I'm also very impressed with is the non-combat mechanics. Mecha suggests a very freeform approach to roleplaying, but it doesn't remove the rules. Roleplaying nets you specific advantages in the big fight for each episode, as well as moving the plot along. Those specific advantages are what the rules determine. Mecha knows where the rules belong, and it uses that to its advantage.

The play structure is perhaps my favorite part. Like a series might do, the game instructs GMs to give each player their own scene in turn, concluding in a scene for the GM, and then the episode-concluding fight scene. It goes on, however, to suggest that many players will want to combine scenes, and it encourages this as well. The play structure is well-suited to the medium, and it's a great framework to keep the plot moving.

The GM Section
I felt like this section deserved its own part of the review, simply because I was so impressed. One of the best parts is that the GM also receives advice outside of his section, such as the advice given to players for roleplaying outside of their set scene. Where this shines, however, is in the GM advice section. Simply put, there's been a lot of thought and work put into it. And when I say a lot, I mean a lot.

For those who have little familiarity with the genre, the book devotes a full three and a half pages to explaining the theme, structure, and common tropes of mecha anime. In very helpful detail, it gives lists and a very structured explanation of how these shows tick. Following that, there's seven and a half pages of discussion regarding how to run a game, covering a huge amount of topics, from "How to Start a Fight" to "How Did the Characters Meet?", a section complete with random rolling charts.

This section, which has been described as one generated from personal experience, has a very personal and instructive touch, and covers many bases that a GM might otherwise overlook. In eleven pages, the book provides a concise yet thorough help that will be invaluable to anyone wanting to run a game of Mecha. Combined with the rules system, it's a critical success.

The Settings
I couldn't let this review go by without talking about the settings given. Mecha RPG outlines three different settings, giving a concise feel to the world, as well as to the major antagonists and players on the scene. Then, for each one, it lists basic rules and special rules. Finally, it gives the GM advice on how to tell a story in the setting, using "Story Stages" to outline a potential progression of events in the world, allowing the GM to drop players in at any point.

Revolution Deity Godblind is a dystopian sci-fi fantasy setting, where humanity dwells in the Living City, ruled by the enigmatic and tyrannical "Seven gods". The techpunk elements are well-done, and this setting promises a good number of interesting questions, although it's not as fleshed-out as the others.

Steel Gunner Destiny Tomorrow is a science-fiction setting about a civil war within a solar system, about rebels against an empire. This isn't the cut-and-dry Rebel Alliance versus Evil Empire, however. The lines of good and bad don't really extend to the individual soldiers fighting in the war, and that's where the nuances lie. Dragging in supernatural elements, the setting promises to make an intriguing story.

Special Research School is nothing but fun, a setting focusing on a high school with mecha. Students pilot their own mecha, and can partake in activities like mecha football and non-mecha school dances. The high school is quite fleshed-out, and written with a lovely tongue-in-cheek tone at times. The cast of the high school is greatly colorful.

In Summation
Mecha RPG gets two big thumbs up from me. The system is flexible but flavorful, and the GM Prep section is fabulous. I would not hesitate to recommend Mecha RPG to anyone looking for their giant robot fix, or for an RPG experience unlike most.

Overall Rating: 4.5 out of 5

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