Big Stompy Robots

Rod, Robbie, and I sat down on Discord to talk about giant robots, the influences and the games we have (or have not) played. It was a good discussion, and I will just hit a few of the highlights to open up the discussion here. Apologies for not recording it, none of us felt strongly one way or the other for recording. For another discussion of note, check this out: https://adeptplay.com/actual-play/what-if-catch-22-giant-robots

We began the chat by talking about our own first brush with the giant robot or associated media. Rod spoke about Macross (Robotech), while Robbie and I both mentioned Ultraman. In addition, I have fond memories of Science Ninja Team Gatchaman (Battle of the Planets/G-Force etc…) and of course Bubblegum Crisis. These are not necessarily all giant robots, though we agreed Ultraman came close as the hero was in a giant metal alien “suit” and fought kaiju. Criminally, we did not bring up Robot Jox. Also did not talk Pacific Rim*.

Note: we did not talk much about human vs. nature ie robots vs. monsters as we spent a lot of time on fights between robots and the human side of that.

The topic of the actual games and game experience was light actually. We mentioned some of the more obvious ones like Palladium’s Robotech, various R. Talsorian games like Mekton, Bubblegum Crisis, and Armored Trooper VOTOMS. Rod ran myself and Jon H through a game of Heavy Gear from Dream Pod 9 and I have been itching to run some Jovian Chronicles for a while now.  

All the basic discussions brushed on but did not dig deep into the idea that much of this has been imported and Americanized. My own understanding, such as it is, suggests a degree of influence from Starship Troopers and other military SF. However, and this is a point I am making, whatever one thinks of Starship Troopers, I think the influence here was largely one of designs as opposed to philosophy. The reason for that is related to what I think the two themes we discussed regarding the influential media, largely Anime, and their appearance in games.

The first is that the media of giant robots carries a largely anti-war message. We talked about several series and noted that, along with action and adventure, the militarism was often mixed with a reluctance to go to war and to fight. Many of the protagonists are not even professional soldiers, but civilians pushed into service in extreme emergencies.

This is something that seems to be lost in many of the associated RPGs, where tactical and non-tactical play seem disconnected at times and often favor the militaristic view. Though I will note that think Rod did a great job connecting the two in his Heavy Gear run. In terms of system there is not a great deal of connective tissue between the two.

The second theme was one of cosmic questioning and philosophy, with a helping of myth and religion, and this does seep into the rpgs as well as the original media. One example is that of the returning Clans in the Battletech/Mechwarrior universe. They are at first seen as unbeatable alien beings, somewhat godlike in their power. In Heavy Gear, an entire faction has a backdrop of religious dogma that can be central to the characters. It could be that much of attendant media and SF incorporates cosmic themes, or that could be a cultural artifact of the media itself.

Thanks to everyone for their thoughts and for Rod and Robbie for participating.

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5 responses to “Big Stompy Robots”

  1. Notes I forgot

    Robbie added these notes after the dicsussion.

    First, it seems like mechanization and the dominance of technology would inherently be a core concern of the genre. To my mind, an obvious way to foreground the theme would be to create a conflict between the mech warrior's humanity and his/her reliance on suit of metal and electric circuitry. Do any of the shows (or rpgs) fully dive into the idea that the protagonists are becoming enslaved to the machine that they rely on for battle?

    Second, we talked about the way the genre often plays out in two distinct spheres–the mech battlefield and the flesh-and-blood social world of the "pilots." I'm curious about whether any of the shows or games deal specifically with what happens when the boundaries between those two spheres break down. (One idea that's rattling around in my head is that some villains get marked as evil because they don't respect those types of boundaries–and perhaps the hero is there to try to reestablish them.)

    • In the early days of the

      In the early days of the Forge and Sorcerer's publication in book form, a friend explained to me at length how  Gundam was right in line with the rules/topics of the game, i.e., the mobile ship/bot things were basically demons, psychologically speaking. 

      This and similar franchises are bewildering in their versions and reboots and multiple media, and I haven't seen anything and don't know all the ins and outs, so I am not sure whether he was talking about the original series (1979) or what. Given the chronology, it was definitely one of the older ones in some form of U.S. release.

      I confess I lost focus when he went into detail about this or that character or event, but I do remember, and it's stuck with me, his description of the bots' subtle dehumanizing influence and the different characters' arcs in that context. So I'm inclined to think he was on the right track although I can't confirm it or advocate for the claim.

    • I am inclined to agree. A

      I am inclined to agree. A more modern and accessible example would be the recent (last decade) re-imagining of Voltron – Legendary Defender. As always with Americanized versions, Voltron as it appeared in the 80s was two (actually 3) different shows – Lions, Vehicles, and the mostly unseen three vehicle version.

      Anyway, the relationship between the pilots (Paladins) and the Lion robots is a close one, where each Lion can (mostly) only be operated by its Paladin and the Liosn instinctively know who this is. A Paladin can summon their Lion from a distance and command it, though a Lion will often work in its and the Paladin's best interest. The Lions can be downright stubborn. 

      The main adversary's witches, really druids, have the power to control Robeasts of their own creation. From afar through magic (or science or magic-science). 

      As an aside, all the discussions over the years about "Sorcerer in Space", I do not think I have ever considered this idea in that context. 

    • With regards to Gundam

      With regards to Gundam specifically, I would say that the first motif is all over the franchise in its various incarnations, from the original 1979 series all the way to the currently-airing series, and holding true for both the more lighthearted and campy series and the more straightfaced ones. There are possibly series where this is not the case, but I am unable to think of them. In any case, the enduring/acclaimed series (original 1979 and its sequels, G Gundam, Gundam Wing, Turn A Gundam) certainly put the motif front and center, typically intertwined with questions about where the limits of humanity lie in the face of transhumanist technologies, life in space, etc. 

      Sorcerer really is a natural fit, as a side note. 

  2. Any mention of ROBOTECH requires me to recall how, in the 1990s, before global fan culture was more or less homogenized by the internet, I felt like the pop culture standing of ROBOTECH in Chile was on par with that of Star Wars.

    ( Certainly, while arguably much more cheaply made, Ulpio Minucci’s soundtrack has a place in my heart next to John Williams scores https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=oRWKHqZ-mvM )

    Back on Lancer, I believe I mentioned this on Catch 22 with Robots, but to me the biggest hurdle of running that game had to do with the in story framing of combat.

    Any tactical combat game in the D&D4e tradition will have logistical hurdles to overcome if you want to have combat happen organically instead of being this unavoidable scene you’re steering towards because you already prepped it. However, I believe those can be overcome with experience and you could eventually be able to whip up a “centerpiece combat” on the fly, with enough practice or by prepping enough ready-to-use situations.

    Lancer has that issue as well. However, it also has the added hurdle of the players needing to be on top of their mechs for tactical combat to even happen. Because Lancer exacerbates the 4e philosophy of complex combat rules paired with very simple “narrative” ones (your character’s piloting abilities are very detailed, everything else is handled by a fuzzy skill system), for me there was an acute feeling of missing the point whenever I ran a session where mech combat did not happen. And because I set the first campaign I ran in space (influenced by their first published supplement), the narrative hurdles around getting the players inside the giant robot were even higher.

    I compare this with CthulhuTech, a game whose setting I love for doing a totally bonkers concept with a completely straight face. As the game may suggest, it is basically a Mythos-meets-Anime setting where the leaps on technology (which includes both giant robots and giant not-quite-a-robot mechas ala Evangelion) are explained by eldritch technology that may or may not drive the engineers applying it crazy. There is a species of humanoid anime like antagonists called the Nazzadi which turns out to be an artificial species created by the Mi-Go (which has also massively defected to the human side, though not completely), etc, etc, etc. In contrast to Lancer, this is a game where you can have detailed character abilities that have nothing to do with piloting a giant robot (psychic powers, combat skills, magic, etc), and you can run a campaign entirely without ever considering the giant robot aspect of the game and still feel like you’re using a fully fledged system*. If you want to run a mech based campaign, may of the narrative hurdles still apply, like for instance if you don’t want to split the action, you need everyone on top of a giant robot, yet because the system’s focus is evenly distributed among all aspects of the characters, there is less of a tension to have that happen at all costs.

    * The quality of the system is debatable (to me the weakest aspect of that game), but it clearly has a lot of work behind it.

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