This familiar Anime genre is one that nearly every gaming group in the Philippines tries at least once. The Philippines has an interesting sociological link to giant robots and mecha with Voltes V. Aired in a time when the Philippines was under the rule of a dictator, it was rumored that when Voltes V was pulled from airing in local stations, it was because the anime encouraged fighting for freedom under an oppressive alien empire. The decision probably had more to do with the supposed harm that cartoon violence has on the child psyche, but the association stuck.
In any case no man or woman of my generation can ignore the fond memories they have about Voltes V, Daimos or any of the other mecha shows that were so prevalent in the Philippines at the time.
Going back to the topic of gaming though, let’s take a look at some examples of mecha anime:
- Gundam – One of the earliest examples of Mechas in a context of a war story, Gundam was conceptually inspired by the powered armor of Starship Troopers. Gundam’s popularity spawned a whole slew of sequels both in the “official” timeline of the first series and other Alternate Universes, such as Gundam Wing. With a few exceptions, Gundam usually falls under the “Real Robot” aspect where the show at least has some pretense of appealing to basic physics and engineering.
- Mazinger Z -This series stands as the grandfather of the “Super Robot” aspect of Mechas, the one singular machine that stands as humanity’s last hope, bizarre villains and a slew of technologically impractical weaponry such as a rocket propelled fists, or a strange tornado breath attack that erodes opponents.
- Evangelion – While not exactly a completely different take on things, Evangelion is part of a strange subset of Mecha anime that takes the “Humanity’s last hope” angle to one of biblical proportions. Serving as a strange Mechanical Messiah, Evangelion is the flagship for a subset of Mecha shows where the Mecha and it’s pilots serve to bring a new enlightened age in a metaphysical sense. Other anime that sort of fit this angle would include RahXephon and Genesis of Aquarion
Given that we’re looking at three takes on the genre as noted above, let’s see what elements we might want to consider:
- Global / National Threat - The Threat usually takes the form of a war, whether between nations (like in Code Geass) or even planets (like in most super robot shows). In any case, the threat is important because it serves as both the backdrop of the setting, the rationale for why robots are needed, and as the primary source of conflict for characters caught up in it.
- Uniqueness - With the exception of some Real Robot shows, the mecha of the heroes are usually unique in some fashion in it’s defenses or armaments, or even behavior. Mazinger Z was made of a near indestructible alloy, Voltes V had something to do with his Ultra Electromagnetic Energy, the Gundam was tougher and faster than any mecha the enemy had ever seen.
- Highly Motivated Enemies – I have yet to see a Mecha show which featured a spineless opponent. The adversaries of Mecha anime are devoted to their cause, and are willing to match the heroes blow for blow. In many ways, this feature is a wonderful way to present a foil for the characters, especially with the much beloved villain stereotype of the Enemy Ace.
Given the backdrop of war and or struggle, we’re left with a large list of possible character concepts. These concepts may overlap with ones you find in other genres, like war stories, but they all have a place in the Mecha Genre:
- The Natural – A popular pick for most fans of Robotech and Max Sterling, the Natural is often a pilot that has prodigious amounts of talent when it comes to piloting mecha. More often a feature of Real Robot shows similar to Robotech and Gundam, the Natural is an old standby in any game.
- The Ace – Otherwise known as Rick Hunter, the Ace is a pilot who got to where he is by sheer training and dedication. While the Natural gets off making things look easy, the Ace excels at making impossible things possible, even if it costs him dearly.
- The Playboy – Pilots are often portrayed as people who love living the fast life, and this is best demonstrated by the smooth-talking Playboy. Often a male character, there are also flirtatious female pilots (as evidenced in Vandread), which should spice up the time where the players aren’t out on a mission or blowing up enemy robots.
- The Girl/Guy Back Home -A common stereotype, the Girl / Guy back home is often a civilian (or a noble) far from the front lines. They represent the civilization that the pilots are fighting to protect. While not usually a popular pick for player characters, this stereotype works great as an NPC.
- The Mechanic / Scientist- There are people who love machines, and those who LOVE machines. The Mechanic / Scientist is a wizard when it comes to patching together the mecha after the pilots have abused them to high heck. As with many non-pilot concepts, the Mechanic / Scientist often has to deal with interpersonal threads more than anything else, but may be called to participate when the pilots need a new weapon, or a technologically innovative means to defeat the enemy.
- The Veteran – This is another interesting concept that is not usually a popular pick for player characters, as most Veterans in Mecha shows tend to die midway through the series. Great NPC fodder, and they serve as a mentor / role model for the Ace or the Natural.
- The Commander – The man in charge of the entire operation, the commander is like the stern father figure to the often unruly pilots. The commander is unfazed even in the most dire circumstances, and runs a tight ship. Again another NPC concept, but one that a sufficiently creative player could take and benefit from.
- The Second-in Command - Usually serving as the “Good Cop” to the Commander’s “Bad Cop”, the Second in Command is in charge of the smaller details, and usually has a closer relationship with the crew than the Commander. Yet again this is usually an NPC under the GM’s control.
- The Doctor – In all conflict, someone’s going to get hurt. The Doctor serves not only as the guy who does the patch up jobs, but is often the counselor for a lot of the pilots. The Doctor concept lends itself well to NPCs, but again GM’s should be willing to give this one up to players should they ask for it. Having a Doctor as a Player Character helps a lot in showing the human aspect of the war, away from the towering view of giant robots.
Now that we’ve had a look at the common tropes and stereotypes for the Mecha genre, how do you go about running one? One common dilemma is having the “all pilot” scenario, where everyone wants to be the guy driving the cool mecha. While having an all pilot gig is nice, you lose out on a lot of character interaction among the NPCs in the ship or base. Still both methods of play have a place in a game.
The upside to an all pilot game is that you have a tactically satisfying game without having to worry too much about the politics and wartime concerns of civilians. You get epic one-on-one duels and all the hallmarks of kicking ass and taking names.
The upside to a mixed game is that while the pilots are going through the drama, the field teams deals with the reality of war, strategic level positioning, politics and conflict of agenda. Depending on what kind of players we’re talking about this might be a good basis to decide on the campaign you’ll run.
Given my gaming group, which is split evenly between a team of very combat oriented players and players who enjoy character interaction, I’m considering the second approach. By making all the combat guys pilots, I get to run the objective oriented combat scenarios with the occasional moral quandary. On the other side, the other players deal with internal politics and decision making that can decide the fate of the boys in the front lines, as well as to pick which objectives to go for. Then both teams can complain about the other.
Another consideration is to go the same route as Battletech: Player characters could be Mercenary Mech pilots selling their services to the highest bidder. How they came upon their mechs should be something worth writing backstory about, and could possibly haunt them throughout the entire campaign. I figure this would be a decent default setup for most groups.
One last thing to look out for would be the same possible pitfall for military styled games: Pulling Rank. Make sure that the players are fine with playing people with differing ranks, as some might chafe at being “Bossed around” by other players. In a military (or pseudo-military) structure, discipline is to be expected or else people die. Depending on your group it might be a good idea to inform them of that before some gung-ho player decides to go reckless and ends up with a dead character.
Mecha games are a great genre because it allows players to take control of gigantic machines that really bump up the scale of the things they can do to epic proportions. At the same time, the unique elements of these settings are great for group coordination, and tactical focus. If swinging swords and slinging spells is getting tiresome, but you’re not really into cybernetics and street gangs either, mecha games might just be the kind of conflict your team is looking for.