Turning the Gears

Sean, Jon and I have, for a few months now, been playing Heavy Gear — a science fiction role-playing game set on a futuristic planet where a cold war is turning hot, with a high emphasis on armed combat between the titular “heavy gears” — human-shaped fighting machines inspired by Japanese comics and cartoons (Appleseed and Armored Trooper VOTOMS are a couple of obvious inspirations).

In that time, I’ve been recording all of the sessions (except one, due to operator error) and I’m finally starting to go through the tapes and get them uploaded to Youtube. Accompanying this post is a link to the video for “session zero”, where we talk about how we’re going to approach the game and make up some characters for Sean and Jon. Some things that stood out to me, rewatching this session after a couple of months:

1.) We spend a lot of time trying to parse the difference between choosing to start with what the game refers to as “gritty” or “adventurous” characters, which relates to how many points you get to spend on your characters’ skills (dice rolled for different kinds of pass/fail situations) and attributes (flat additions to the number rolled on your skill dice). I’m really fixated on the difference in starting skill loadout, but as we’ve played, it’s become clear that experience points earned during play can bring a “gritty” character to the “adventurous” skill level really quickly. The real difference is in attributes, which are very costly to raise with experience points, and extremely impactful statistically.

2.) More significantly: Jon did some character groundwork here and in some written notes, particularly about Fica’s family background, that I’ve neglected to address through situations in play. There are some reasons for this, going back to my prep for our first session. I immediately put Jon and Sean into a combat mission, for a selfish reason, but one that I don’t regret — given that we had decided to focus on characters who were going to be involved in gear combat, I wanted to know sooner rather than later if I was actually going to enjoy the experience of playing those combats. If I hadn’t, I would have pulled the plug pretty early — but in fact I found a lot to enjoy about that part of the game, as did Jon and Sean. As a result, though, Jon’s character Fica went in the direction of following up on the aftereffects of that mission, and I never went back and reviewed what was originally meant to be going on with the character — until now. Fortunately, it’s a good time in the game to really try to bring some of those ideas into play.

3.) We talk a little bt about the possibility of having each player play multiple characters, either as a fixed feature of prepping the game or on an impromptu basis throughout it (like in Star Trek Adventures). So far, this hasn’t happened, possibly because everyone feels like they’ve got enough on their plate already? Jon and/or Sean, thoughts?


5 responses to “Turning the Gears”

  1. I’m looking forward to it

    The issues you've mentioned fit right into lots of recent discussions about initial situations of play and how much "this is what it's about" is baked in.

    But I am already jet-packing into thoughts about science fiction role-playing. First on the list is deceptively simple: what are gear and "person" play like? I recall from years ago that the rules were definitely different; gear combat was effectively a miniatures skirmish game. But that's not really what I mean.

    What I'm thinking about is the contrast but also reinforcement between the times you're playing in armored firefights and the times your characters are walking around doing other things, while the gear stands in the hangar. I'm interested in what happened during a fight so that the characters de-gear and have all kinds of things in mind they want to do about that right now, and what happens due to those interactions and actions which factor into the tensions of the next fight.

    I've played Bliss Stage, which is very formal and fixed about these exact interactions, and therefore it's important to me to call attention to how they may occur in the absence of formal, fixed mechanics.

    • One interesting part of play

      One interesting part of play so far has been the bleed from personal to tactical and back again. I think Rod has done a great job keeping some of the religious themes front and center in all of the conflicts. So we have characters questioning what they are doing as active combatants in the Badlands and then dealing with those consequences when we return to base. My character Chalk has a different outlook on the overal socio-political situation, but the religious aspects are less important to her. On the other hand, as a veteran of the previous conflict she has a stake in the lives of her fellow soldiers. 

      So she does a bit of mother – hen over their gears' damage, making sure they are re-supplied and ready for the next fight. But Chalk also tries to back Fica's play, Fica is the squad leader, both in the field and at base. One example from session 2, I think, is Chalk suggesting the squad XO (Fleas) needs to back the squad leader and be less of a pain in the ass. 

      I realize I may not be addressing your question fully, but those are the thoughts I have for the moment. Thus far, I have felt a great deal of tension in the firefights, requiring characters to let off some steam in the 'doing other things' phase. 

    • Hi Ron, your curiosity about

      Hi Ron, your curiosity about that stuff definitely calls for me to get the rest of these videos up, so we can answer by example. But so far the answer is "we just try to do it ourselves", by trying to get grabby situations into the fighty-fight parts, reacting to them and developing new stuff from those reactions.

      In that context, I don't feel I'm missing formal mechanics for now-it's-the-mission vs. now-we're-on-base; rather, what I want — and what isn't there — is a clear idea of how the "people" rules can mesh seamlessly with the "gear" rules *during* the mission, which they ought to have done: gears aren't Gundams or EVA units, they're about the size of a Toyota Camry, and the milieu of the game is clearly about a human-scale experience of war. As an example of this problem, when session four is up, I think you'll be able to see me describe something which is clearly a Champions-style Presence Attack, realize that there *aren't* Presence Attacks or anything like it in this game, and trail off flummoxed, with no knowledge of how to make what I was trying to express feel impactful as a game event.

  2. Sessions 1 and 2 up

    Well, okay, session 2 is a recap I did with Sean's help since I didn't get video for it (pro tip: you have to press the "Start Recording" button for it to record). And session 1 is in two sections, the second dealing with us learning the fighty-fight game mechanics of gear combat. I genuinely don't know how watchable it is, but anyway, there it is.

    As a note on the preparation for these sessions — first, after session 0 we did more messaging about the characters and I ended up proposing this scenario in a message:

    Well, so here's what I've been thinking, or what I propose, I guess. Sean, your character (it's hard to make out her name in the recording) based on how you described her age and career, has been in the service since shortly after the War of the Alliance. Her rank in the Northern Guard is Sergeant. Her normal duties are gear training on base, but she is doing a combat duty rotation that's kind of a, you might say, continuing education requirement for her job, to make sure her skills are still relevant to actual battlefield demands. So she's attached to 3rd Company's Section 3, Alpha Squadron (General Purpose) as a combat advisor to the squad leader (and can take over in the event of incapacitation of the squad leader, if she chooses — which would interrupt the normal devolvement of command to the designated assistant squad leader). Alpha's squad leader is Jon's character Fika, who was recently promoted to Ranger, an NCO rank just below Sergeant. Squad leaders are normally senior corporals, and there is gossip in the section that Fika was overpromoted as a political convenience, because it would "look bad" for an enlisted rank to be in charge over a sergeant. In particular, her assistant squad leader recently made senior corporal, and beleives he would have been in charge if she hadn't been "jumped up".

    They liked the sound of it, so that's the background of some of the squad dynamics depicted, sketchily, in these sessions. Maybe by intuition, or by my explicit suggestion (I don't remember) we fell into an arrangement where they direct their NPC squadmates' actions in combat (sometimes depicted in the fiction as giving them orders, but not always), but I supply their voices and opinions. Or at least that of "Fleas", the most vocal of them. The other two have been kinda-just-there; we talked a little bit in a recent chat about how they might be fleshed out, and by whom, but didn't reach a conclusion about it.



  3. My 2 cents

    I’ve been meaning to add my thoughts and reflections. As Rod says, the big “hole” in the game seems to be the assumption that certain domains of character activity (i.e., use of the various social and perception skills) will stop once the tactical Gear combat system comes into play. This is somewhat striking, as the intermingling of soap opera and robot combat is a central feature of the source material. Furthermore, it’s odd because, as we’ve begun to see, the authors of Heavy Gear did seem like they were paying a lot of attention to different possibilities for the use of social skills; there are a lot of tools that the text does provide to support uncertain outcomes in interpersonal situations, but no guidance on how they might be used in combat. However, despite this hole and despite the lack of formal structure between the gear combat and the “downtime”, I think the consequences of the battles are naturally spilling out into what our characters care about and what actions they pursue during downtime. A good example is after an ex-Northern Gear Pilot surrendered to us, Fika wanted to make sure that the shady Military Intelligence higher-ups weren’t reneging on the terms of the surrender, and so has taken it upon herself to see to his fair treatment. Earlier, she’s sought out reassurance from her friends about the “rightness” of her missions, as she the “moral grey zone” of a lot of the decisions she is being asked to make are not sitting well with her. This reminds me of another useful tool the text gives us: the Human Perception skill, which is kind of what it sounds like: it lets you read people to pick up on their motives, emotions, etc. Fika has rolled this and failed it twice: both notably in her attempts to connect with people on the other side of the conflict, and her failure meaning that she still can’t see their side of things without bringing in her own biases. These failures have been important in our understanding of Fika’s relationship with those characters and her attitude toward her mission. Finally, I wanted to reflect on Rod’s comments about not bringing in the backstory elements that I wrote up for Fika. That hasn’t been a problem for me, and thinking back on them, I often wonder if the “big list of questions” that the character creation section asks you to start with didn’t bring out some of my tendency for unhelpful baroqueness when making PCs. It’s enough for me that I’m keeping those details in mind as I think of her responses, but I like that we’re focusing on what she’s doing now and the potential change in her perspective on her role.

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