Help me tinker up some Mecha rules for Smallville RPG!

edited September 2012 in Game Design Help
When the Smallville RPG came out, I thought it would be the perfect game to for playing the Mecha campaign I've dreamed of doing for years. So awhile back I wrote up alternate Pathways for a universe hacked together from various Gundam properties and Heinlein's the Moon is a Harsh Mistress: Earth depends on space colonies to mine resources, colonists demand autonomy, Earth refuses and moves to crush them, colonists develop super-mecha prototypes to fight back. Last night I got some friends together and finally took it for a test drive! The results were great, but left us with some lingering questions about how best to handle Mecha in the Smallville rules.

So, in the setting there are "Motion Frames," which are your run of the mill mechs purpose-built for mining, construction, and of course military use. I want these to be simple Gear abilities, with the SFX "Spend a Plot Point to reduce Injured or Exhausted Stress by one die size," and additional SFX based on model.

Then there are Meta Frames, super-powerful, poorly understood protoypes built from alien technology, with freaky neural interfaces that not just anyone can use without having an aneurysm. These are your big damn Heroic mecha that Protagonists and Antagonists pilot. Those rare individuals whose Meta Interface Aptitude awakens get this
Meta Frame Aptitude (name of frame)
d4: Earn a Plot Point and Add a d6 to Trouble when your status as a Pilot attracts unwanted attention.
d8: Add a d6 to Trouble to use a Special Effect from a connected Ability you don't have.
d12: Spend a Plot Point to access the hidden power of your Frame, gaining an unconnected Ability for one scene at a D6 die rating. Spend an additional d6 at the end of the scene to add the new power to connected Abilities.
Connected Abilities: Varies; list 5-7 including Lead's starting abilities. Name the abilities in the manner of mecha weaponry or systems.
Limits: Alien Technology
And then any Abilities that the character picks up during Pathways are systems and weapons for their Meta Frame, and the Frame has Damaged and Overloaded stress tracks that overlay the Pilot's Injured and Exhausted and protect them in most cases.

But I also came across this blog post about Vehicle rules for Smallville, which invests a vehicle with Values and Relationships, and a bit of implied personality:

Love may keep a ship flying, but they don’t really love back. Most objects only have three Values:
Duty: How much they keep going when the going gets tough
Power: How much they have to give to make the going of others tougher
Truth: How well they move around and respond to commands, both in and out of combat.

For an average vehicle, they all start at d6.

Vehicles can have Relationships, but they can also have Designs. As in what they were designed to do. Usually, this can be phrased as being like a relationship, eg

I was built to destroy THE FRENCH d10
I can easily avoid THE POLICE d8
I never let BAD GUYS get away d12
I smuggle things without THE EMPIRE noticing them d6
Some can be more personal:
I travel through time and space with THE DOCTOR d8
I am the last hope of MAL REYNOLDS d10
SHERIFF ROSCO never gonna catch the Duke Boys d12
So, I like the cut of that jib! The robots in this genre tend to have a bit more personality, and even the hint of WILL than a mere flashy tool. But I'm not sure how to integrate this with what we're doing. If I use the Vehicle rules as written, the Pilot Lead doesn't actually have simple Asset to roll for their Test and Contests, and thus every time they fight with their Meta Frame they've got to go through the Assist Process, assembling one Pool for themselves while Watchtower assembles a Pool for the Frame. Or else just allow that player to run the Frame and assemble the Pool, but that just feels like giving them a bunch of extra dice without being true to the agency that a Feature is supposed to have. But I don't want the Frame to be resisting and challenging the Pilot all over the place; this isn't Sorcerer or anything. Not sure where to straddle that line.

On the other hand, the Vehicle process seems like it might be UNDERpowered in a different way; all the Ability steps that a player buys during Pathways have to be spent on Values AND relationships AND specific Abilities with SFX. That's looking like the Mecha stats will be extremely spare--the two Meta Frame Pilot Leads we ended up with at the end of Pathways have 3 and 1 steps, respectively. So if their Frames are simple Ability Assets, they're a D10 and a D6. But if they're a Vehicle, then they've got 3 Values at D6, one Relationship at D4, no Assets, and only 1-3 seps to beef those up with.

Now, I'm fine with starting small and growing, to a point. But I'm worried that this would be TOO small. Particularly, that it wouldn't do justice to the personality and awesome majesty of the Mecha.

What do you Smallville gearheads think? Am I overthinking this, and Heritage plus Connected Abilities are enough? Or is the Vehicle thing awesome and I should just use that whole cloth? Or can I integrate the two? How would the Heritage rules interact with the Vehicle mechanics? Are there other methods you've used in your own games for this sort of thing?



  • You're definitely gonna want to see the stuff they have on gadgets in the Watchtower Report.
  • edited September 2012
    If the frames aren't going to be challenging the leads, then we don't care too much about what they think, in the same way that we don't care too much about NPC resources who aren't features yet. Let the personality come through organically on complication rolls involving the mechs (positive or negative).

    In terms of assisting, you get the same effect of adding dice with less paperwork by adding SFX to create resources on a plot-point spend with appropriate mecha action.
  • Yeah, I'm leaning toward that approach, Tablesaw. But giving Mecha Values and Relationship statements sounds SO DAMN COOL.
  • Ok, I've checked out the Watchtower report--WHY IN HELL DID NOBODY TELL ME SMALLVILLE ALREADY HAS RULES FOR MECHA???

    (except Mike. Mike told me. Thank you, Mike.)
  • Whooops, I ended up coming into this late! I'd given some idle thought to Smallville being good for that subset of mecha anime that focus hardcore on the chemistry and drama between the pilots, but have substantial out-of-cockpit action (Escaflowne comes instantly to mind, and especially Code Geass, as opposed to, say, most Gundams where pretty much all interpersonal conflict or shocking betrayal is yelled across comm channels on the battlefield), and for that kind of thing just statting them up as Gear, or maybe some wacky Heritage where all the Triggers have the Gear drawback (because in those shows things arbitrarily crap out or get broken almost more often than they work), but it sounds like that's not what you're going for. The vehicle Relationship thing sounds pretty cool.

    What's the Watchtower Report's approach?
  • The Watchtower report introduces "Integrated Gear," where several Gear Abilities are combined in one physical machine. One Ability is central, and instead of the usual Gear limit (broken, stolen, lost), has the Limit: Chassis (takes damage for other systems). It also gains the SFX "When another piece of Integrated Gear might be stole, broken, or lost, you may Spend a Plot Point to Reduce this Trait instead."

    And they have an example that's basically a Mecha:

    Effect: Defense
    SFX: When another piece of Integrated Gear might be stole, broken, or lost, you may Spend a Plot Point to Reduce this Trait instead.
    Limit: Chassis

    Effect: Enhancement
    SFX: Spend a Plot Point to have a piece of opposing tech, a robot, or enemy fighting suit "on file," bestowing a Reroll when attacking its weak points.
    Limit: Gear
    Integration: Armored Fighting Suit

    Effect: Attack
    SFX: Spend a Plot Point to destroy any inanimate object.
    Limit: Gear
    Integration: Armored Fighting Suit

    So, yeah. This framework looks pretty solid to me. The only issue is that A) the overall Mecha abilities should feel pretty potent (though certainly not maxed out), right from the start of play, and as I said these boys don't have a lot of Ability steps, and B) It should be pretty hard to actually destroy or disable the mech. So I'm thinking of giving you a couple of "starter steps" that come with the Heritage when you pick it, like starting the Chassis ability at D6, or even a D6 Chassis and a D4 side Ability. And I might wanna keep the Damaged and Overloaded Stress Tracks, though it'd be kinda cludgy to have that AND the chassis limit going on at the same time.

    I feel like the power is justified in that the mecha can't be used in a lot of situations. I mean yes, as you say Joe, a lot of the soap opera drama is yelled across comm channels, but a lot still happens on base or in civilian settings. And a Gundam-style Mecha is way more restrictive than even the Armored Suit above; the times when you're in it and the times when you're not are pretty starkly divided. We could even call this an official Limit (Limit: Huge?).

    What do y'all think?

  • Seems reasonable. The interesting thing about Smallville's Limits is that you can simply pile them on endlessly without unbalancing anything, because their primary use is in generating problems/complications/plot points.

    I'm really missing this game now.
  • Jason, you and Joel might be the sorts of people I need to help me out with a Smallville-related project for early 2013. If we can bring Josh back on, it will be the Triple J Squad. And if Jeremy does layout, it will be the J-Quad Squad.

    Shoot me emails if you're interested.

  • I'm pondering my Meta Frame Pilot Heritage a bit more. I gave it the Limit: Alien Technology, which I was thinking could cause shutdown if other alien tech interfaces with it catastrophically, or if the alien tech does freaky things to the Pilot's brain, or something. But I'm not sure if that's really grabby, and it's kind of at right angles to everything else we've set up in the fiction. My main impetus for the Alien Tech angle was a desire to not just copy gundam's setting details one for one.

    So what other Limits could the Heritage have? What can Shutdown mecha piloting? Being separated from the machine? Losing the will to fight? Getting sensory overload from the neural interface and going into shock? Suggestions?

    One of the players rewrote the D4 Trigger for the distinction; instead of "Earn a Plot Point and Add a d6 to Trouble when your status as a Pilot attracts unwanted attention" he's got "Earn a Plot Point when I am unable to access to my Meta-Frame." So that covers the "You can't always be in your Frame" limitation, but it also misses out on the whole stigmatization angle for mecha prodigies: they're different and special, so people hate them, envy them, or try to use them. And I'm not really sure that "I could REALLY use my giant robot right about now, but it's way back at the base!" comes up ALL that often in the source material. Sometimes, sure, but more often I see a simple division: some parts of the story are mecha mission parts, and you have your mecha. Other parts are human life parts, and you DON'T have your mecha. Every once in a while one "world" intrudes into the other, but most of the time they're just separate, with no real complications or angsting derived from it.

    So, there's that.

  • edited September 2012
    So what other Limits could the Heritage have? What can Shutdown mecha piloting? Being separated from the machine? Losing the will to fight? Getting sensory overload from the neural interface and going into shock? Suggestions?
    I definitely don't think "being separated from the machine" would work well; The logistical troubles of transporting or accessing a tens-of-meters high suit of armor are as nothing in a game where a player is given an explicit mechanical go-ahead to just appear in any scene, no matter where they were or what they were doing in the previous. I had a game once where I attempted to have a cliffhanger with three PCs chained in a prison cell and drugged, and as soon as I cut to a scene featuring another player, all three of them used their various "join this scene" Abilities and Distinctions to escape off-camera.

    It may be interesting to stipulate that the Meta Frame Heritage and its connected Abilities start the scene Shut Down and needs to be activated before use, which actually makes some fictional and genre sense-- either you need to radio to base to get your suit scrambled and sent, or there's a lengthy startup sequence, or just the basic rule of thumb that Voltron never begins a fight by going straight to Blazing Sword.

    On the other hand, I'm not sure how fun it might actually be in play; by the book, Smallville players have a tremendous amount of freedom to narrate in pretty much anything on their sheet (even an entire Location can be invoked if there happened to be a scene set there already) and limitations are pretty much just things players place on themselves to earn more Plot Points, so I'm not sure about basically locking off a chunk of the character sheet by default, especially such a defining chunk of the campaign. Then again, Smallville the TV show had Kryptonite constantly shutting down Clark's powers, so whadda I know.

    You might also go more meta, and have the Triggers on the Heritage itself mainly relate to social and knowledge stuff (gaining PP for prejudice against pilots etc, bonuses to rolls against other pilots because you know how they think, bonuses for repairing alien tech or reverse engineering unfamiliar robotechnology) and have the Connected Abilities represent the actual "I'm in a robot doing stuff" part. That way using the Heritage's actual die makes sense whether you're in or out of cockpit. Then again "I just pulled an unknown weapon or sudden berserker mode out of my butt" is another iconic part of the mecha genre, so probably saving the D12 Trigger for that may be good.
  • After re-watching the first half of the original Gundam series, here's some ideas:

    -When people expect you to be perfect because of your reputation.
    -When your enemy is unpredictable or surprisingly skilled.
    -When you cause collateral damage or inflict civilian casualties.
    -When your overconfidence makes you vulnerable in battle.
    -When your overconfidence alienates you from your teammates.
    -When you feel naked or useless without your mech.
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