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Designing the Mecha Monogatari RPG

Posted by Doug on May 16, 2009

What follows is a series of thoughts and design ideas for the new version of the Mecha Monogatari RPG that I am currently working on.  The gameplay mechanics are still nebulous, so don’t be surprised if very little of this makes much sense.

The Bell Curve Roll (BCR): To make a BCR, roll four six-sided dice, and add them together, counting sixes as zero. This results in a random number between 0 and 20 (the average roll is exactly 10).

Task Resolution: To determine whether a character succeeds or fails at a given non-mundane task, make a BCR, add any modifiers (which represent the character’s skill at that task) and compare the result that to a target difficulty number set by the GM (which represents how difficult the task is). If the result is greater than or equal to the target difficulty number, then the character succeeded; otherwise, they failed.

Minimalist Character Design: All characters, unless otherwise specified, are assumed to have a +0 modifier to all checks and a 10 in all stats (representing average ability).

No Levels, No Experience Points: Characters begin with the abilities their concept require. For example, a character who studied kendō would be at least proficient with a shinai; one who had won kendō tournaments would have bonuses to attack rolls and defense and access to more elaborate techniques (and perhaps other abilities). Further they gain new abilities and improve existing ones by roleplaying actions that could reasonably be expected to cause that effect—the kendō practitioner trains for two hours every day to improve his skill, for example.

Escalating Requirements for Improvement: The more skill a person has in a field, the more difficult it is to improve it further. One could learn to play chess in a day; have a firm grasp of the rules in a week; be the best among their small group of peers in a month; win local championships in a year; become a grandmaster in a decade.

Broadly Defined Weapon Groups With Considerable Overlap: Weapons are grouped together according to how they are used, but there is considerable overlap between the groups. For example, a character who studies kendō typically uses a shinai, but they could use most if not all of their skill and techniques when wielding a bokken, or a live katana, a Chinese jian, a European-style arming sword, or even a straight stick. Basically, the GM should allow a player to use their abilities in as wide a variety as possible without straining credulity too much. One cannot use their skill in kendō to pass their mathematics test.

Skill in Techniques: A formalized “technique” in the Mecha Monogatari is not a single technique, but a class of similar techniques with identical mechanical usage and effect. A character can learn and have use of any number of techniques, limited only by the practical opportunities for usage.

More Powerful Techniques cost TP: Each character has a number of TP (technique points) per encounter they can spend to utilize more powerful techniques. Most techniques should cost 0 TP; the more powerful ones between 1 and 5 TP.

Second Wind Restores TP: Using the second wind ability will restore a small number of technique points (one-fourth of the maximum).

Technology Notes: The Mecha Monogatari takes place in the near future (2016), but with a significantly altered timeline. Still, most civilian technology is still available, such as inexpensive personal computers, cellphones (but not satellite phones), and portable media players. There is no World Wide Web—the world has been too fractured by the Eschatos for that—but in Japan, for example, there is a national network that serves the same purpose on a smaller scale (it has sharply limited access to other networks).

The Eschatos: Most Eschatos are unmanned and follow very simple AI routines, and are rarely a match one-on-one with a JGSDF Titan Corps pilot, i.e. they are minions. Unfortunately, they never fight one-on-one. Ten-on-one is far more common; even pilots of legendary skill can be defeated by sheer numbers. Occasionally some AI-controlled Eschatos will prove to be a challenge; sometimes, the Eschatos will have a living pilot; sometimes, the Eschatos will have an unliving pilot…

Magic: Supernatural ability—magic—exists in the world of the Mecha Monogatari, but it is subtle, stubbornly refusing to be recognizable by the methods of science. While the advanced technology of the Eschatos is sometimes indistinguishable from magic, there is a technological rationale behind it.

Pilot Training: Not all who are discovered to be synchronous end up as titan pilots. Candidates are cycled through basic titan pilot training up to three times; only eighty to ninety percent go on to be admitted to one of the four Academies. Those who wash out typically end up being labeled as “losers” for the rest of their lives…and they are the lucky ones.

Teamwork: Individual skill is good, but being able to work together with a team is considered to be a more important talent.

Roles: Any one character can serve as multiple roles, depending on their abilities and the situation at hand; there are no designated “defenders”, “strikers”, “controllers”, or “leaders”. Most titan pilot techniques will be “defender” or “striker” techniques. Air strikes can be called in, which should act as “controller” techniques. Some titan pilots have abilities that improve the abilities of their allies—“leader” techniques—and many of these pilots find their way into the higher ranks.

No Ability Scores: There are no ability scores, merely generalized abilities that function much the same. In other game systems, the modifiers and scores that characters actually use are secondary, calculated from other modifiers and scores. This will largely remove the need for having two sets of stats—one to calculate the second, the second actually for use.

The Main Defenses: Melee defense is a character’s ability to avoid getting hit by melee attacks (punches, sword swings, old women’s handbags). Ranged defense is a character’s ability to avoid getting hit by ranged attacks (arrows, gunshots, thrown rocks, snowballs). Area defense is a character’s ability to avoid attacks that target an area, rather than an individual target (grenades, volleys of covering fire); a successful area defense always forces movement of some kind, usually away from the center or source of the attack, but sometimes by merely falling prone. Will defense is a character’s ability to avoid being affected by psychological effects (such as fear, mind-controlling effects). Various secondary abilities may modify the defenses in specific circumstances (such as during a pushing or “bull rush” attack, the defender may gain a bonus to their melee defense from being unusually strong).

Personal Combat and Mecha Combat are the Same: The only differences are the scale, and the fact that if a mecha is destroyed, there is a chance the pilot may survive (if the pilot is destroyed, the mecha ceases to function).

A Character Who Can Do Everything Is Boring: Even the greatest of legends (for example, the Seven Gray Knights) had their weaknesses, fields where they possessed no talent, no defense; they became legends by overcoming their weaknesses, not by not having them. A character who is not affected by anything around them (by, for example, having multilayered persistent defenses, effectively making him invincible in combat for unlimited amounts of time) is not suitable for use as a player character. Munchkinism has no place here.

Only Roll the Dice if the Outcome is Uncertain: If the outcome of a battle is certain (ten JGSDF titans versus a single, ordinary unmanned Eschatos), do not bother playing it out round-by-round.

The Mecha Monogatari is a cooperative storytelling game with randomized task resolution, set in a world where mecha are commonplace, and alien invaders of unknown power and purpose threaten the world.

The Mecha Monogatari: Second Edition shamelessly borrows game mechanics and rules from other RPG systems. However, keeping clunky, unmanageable rules—or even well-functioning rules—simply because they are familiar is folly. Rules do not need to be familiar (even the most unfamiliar rule will become familiar with use); they need to make sense and be playable. Potentially, one such example is the initiative system used in the d20 variants; it is a fairly clear rule, it works, it gives results. However, the initiative order usually devolves into patterns that can be generated by much simpler systems.

WHO GOES FIRST?

There are multiple ways to handle initiative. The basic way is to have every actor in an engagement (enemy and ally alike) make an initiative roll for themselves, and the one with the highest result goes first, then the next highest, and so on. This is very organic, and allows those who maximize their potential for going first to gain the most benefit from that, but it involves a large amount of rolls and bookkeeping, especially on the part of the GM.

To simplify this process, the GM would make one roll for each group of enemy, rather than one roll per individual enemy, or one roll for all the enemies as one, and then utilize each individual enemy in a fairly arbitrary progression. This confers a tactical advantage to the enemy, as they can coordinate their attacks better; the players likewise would avail themselves of delaying turns so that they all act together, at which point initiative would cease to track which character’s turn it was, but rather whose side’s turn it was.

Wouldn’t it be simpler to just have one initiative roll for each side in an engagement? Whose roll should it be? If a group of four JGSDF Titan pilots have bonuses to initiative of +7, +3, +1, and +0, what number would modify the roll? The fasted to act (+7)? The slowest (+0), as everyone was waiting for them? The average (7+3+1+0=11, divided by 4 is 2.75, rounded down to 2, so it would be +2)? Whoever was the leader (if the quickest one was the leader, the slower ones would effectively get a boost; if the slowest was the leader, the faster ones would be held back)?

Does there even really need to be an “initiative” modifier? Initiative is only an advantage in the first round.

An alternate idea is simply have whichever side that initiated the encounter to have initiative, with no rolls, and then the members of that side could act in any order as they saw fit. Instead of being decided by a roll, initiative would be narrative-based. This would greatly streamline the process, but take some of the randomness out of it.

I didn’t like this rule at first, but upon considering it more, it makes better sense to me. Consider: in a battle of the JGSDF Titans versus the Eschatos, the JGSDF Titans will typically have to wait until the Eschatos make the first move. In such a situation—which will be more the norm than exception in the Mecha Monogatari—initiative is irrelevant. Whoever initiates the encounter (the Eschatos) will get to act first, even if the JGSDF Titans rolled ten times the Eschatos’ initiative roll.

An encounter would begin at the moment it was possible for one side to directly affect the other, typically the moment when one side could launch an attack at the other. Pre-battle positioning, advancing to get within range of one’s weapons—these things do not directly affect the opposing side. They would be purely narrative.

Initiative works in Dungeons & Dragons, but it quickly devolves into the patterns of simpler systems. Why not simply skip the complexity? One could argue “if it isn’t broke, don’t fix it” but the goal of building the Mecha Monogatari is not to fix what seems to be broke, but to include by design mechanics that best handle the situations most likely to occur in the game.

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