Mecha Setting Creation
In honor of Ryan Macklin’s post How to Better Utlize Facebook, this post will cover my thoughts for setting creation in Mecha with the intent of starting a dialogue regarding rewrites I plan to do for a revised version of the game. However, in honor of my own writing style, I will first meander a bit and explain how this post came about. Go to the break for the solution.
Why This Post
A post on Story-Games.com from Cedric P was the impetus for the following post. He first asked if Mecha was still supported (which, I will admit was a little embarrassing) and then provided some invaluable feedback for the game (for which, by the way I can’t thank him enough…both the feedback and the kick in the butt.)
One of the areas that Cedric felt could use some extra attention was the setting creation section. In Mecha, setting creation takes up 2 pages (really a page and a half) and as I read over the rules, they’re not fantastic. It’s interesting because I realize what I wanted to say as I wrote that meager page-and-a-half, but now as I sit back, I realize I didn’t accomplish my goal.
At this point, all I can do is chalk it up to a lesson learned and try to do better with the following thoughts. Starting now…
Settings and Mecha
Here is my one major issue with Mecha setting creation. In Mecha, setting is both really important and totally irrelevant. And I think that the me who wrote Mecha a year ago felt that at some level, but didn’t articulate it very well.
Why is setting in Mecha irrelevant? Mechanically, it basically makes no difference. In terms of the rules of the game, fighting in a swamp in power armor and fighting in space while piloting semi-organic mechanical wolves makes no difference. This isn’t a game like, for instance, Burning Empires where there is a world to burn and that world will affect dice available to roll or anything like that.
On the other hand, setting is irrevocably tied to the game because it is a role playing game and without an engrossing setting there’s no conflict and without conflict there’s no reason to play the game. Mecha is not fun unless you are fighting for something. Believe me, counting exploding D6 dice pools isn’t much fun without a purpose.
So I’ve established that there’s a need for setting (to faciliate fun), but at the same time, I don’t see there needing to be a big to do or strict set of rules to build the setting. So, at some level, what I am going to have to do with setting creation “rules” is to provide my best advice on how to optimize the creative process. In doing so, I will document the process I have gone through to create several settings and present that process to potential setting builders.
To illustrate these points, I will use an example that was put together by Wayne Humfleet and I so that I could try to record our creative process. I shall leave it to you, O gentle reader to see if this process is repeatable and makes sense.
Mecha Setting Creation
A quick note: these rules will refer to “the group.” I have done a 180 on setting creation and I now believe Setting Creation can be a lot of fun if done as a group activity (whereas I used to assume only the GM would do it.) If you, the reader, is looking at create a setting on your own, that’s cool…you’re just a group of 1!
Step 1: The Idea (aka But With or Meets)
In the beginning, there is an idea.
The best ideas for Mecha Setting Creation usually start off with a single sentence consisting of two (hopefully unrelated ideas) joined together with “but with” or “meets.” (Or some similiar phrase.)
Big O meets Dark City (This was the original concept for Revolution Deity Godblind, an SRS in the Mecha Core Book)
Mobile Suit Gundam, but with a Supernatural Element (The original concept for Steel Gunner, as I understand it.)
American Graffiti, but with mecha (The original concept for Special Research School.)
And the setting Wayne approached me with: The Cold War, but with Mecha
Really, two ideas must come together to make the setting interesting … and noteworthy. Obviously, just doing Big O isn’t interesting as much as it is a copyright violation and just doing the Cold War isn’t really a Mecha setting. Only when two ideas are mixed does the setting maybe start to become something worth considering further.
And in case you are wondering, it does rankle me a bit that “, but with mecha” is an interesting enough twist for some settings. I would prefer two unreleated things to come together with mecha like perhaps Kiss Saves the Universe meets X-Files, but with mecha (or something.) However, the existence of mecha in a time where there were not mecha–or where common setting tropes don’t allow for them– is often interesting enough to move setting creation to the next step. Especially for those who like mecha as a genre.
Step 2: Activity Brain Overwarp!
Step 2 is really just brainstorming, but I wanted to give it a cheesy anime title. Let’s just call it brainstorming.
If this step is being done in a group of 2 or more, the lines between GM and player should be pretty blurred. Everyone should be free to add details, suggest modifications, request the removal of certain details, etc. At this point, the GM is more of the moderator than a master. Oh, and someone should be taking notes.
This is, by far, the most fun part of setting creation, especially in a group setting. The idea here is to start asking a lot of “What” and ”How” questions. Also, Gamemasters should not force this process. If the Idea is there, this step should flow fairly organically.
I know that when Wayne and I were doing this, I was careful not try to guide the process at all. It was more important that he and I riff off each other and build out this world. In the end, some questions we asked were
- What does it mean that there were mecha during the Cold War? Did only one side have them? If so, how could there be a Cold War if one side had such a crushing Tactical Advantage?
- What does it mean to have mecha using only Cold War technology? How much handwaving do we need to have to allow for mecha in a historical setting?
- Which nations have Mecha?
- What do the look like?
- Does everyone know they exist?
- How many are there?
- Who is fighting?
There is no definite duration for this Step. It should last as long as the group has enthusiasm for adding details. This stage will have a natural ebb and flow that is largely driven by the frequency (and forcefulness) of participation. Of course, in a group of more than 1, not all players are going to just shout things out so the GM should be sure that everyone has had a chance to speak before moving on to the next step.
Going back to the example, in the span of about 30 minutes, Wayne and I created a cloak-and-dagger style Cold War game. Mecha were invented late in the war, too late to avert the outcome that happened historically (ie Germany is split in two and the Russians and Americans don’t care for each other.) The thing we both found interesting about what we created was that Mecha don’t officially exist, so the players play pilots who go out in the middle of the night and fight a proxy war in the ruins of war-torn Germany.
We also decided pretty early on that Russian mecha would be larger, boxier, and use Configurations that supported this idea of them being powerful. On the other hand, American mecha were sleeker, faster, and lighter. Then we decided they were the only two countries to have mecha.
We decided pretty early on that the technology would be basic Cold War, pre-Vietnam-era technology with mecha running on diesel engines and their primary drive systems running on a lot of handwaving (ie not really important to the storyline we envisioned. More on this in a moment.)
Step 3: The Checklist
After a while, the conversation generally died down and we were basically done with brainstorming. Still, there are some things that should be part of a Mecha setting and so I, as the moderator, ran through a checklist just to make sure they were all there. It is important before moving on that all people involved in setting creation agree on the items in this checklist since it will form the backbone of the setting.
- Time period
- Overall technology
- The Nature of Mecha
- Availability of Mecha
- Number of Mecha Models
- Types of Archetypes
- History of the World
- Who is trying to kill who?
- Mooks (tanks, infantry, helicopters, Elementals in power armor, heavy lifters)
(If I can introduce an aside, the checklist is basically taken directly for the Setting Creation in Mecha with some of the less interesting parts removed.)
Obviously, from Wayne’s and my example, time peiod, history, etc. was pretty well thought out. We did have some thinking to do about the nature of mecha. For instance, one thing that hadn’t come up was weaponry, so we decided on WWII-era weaponry, only retrofitted for mecha. How they work and where they came from were not really discussed as they weren’t important to the story. However, we had to agree on that before we could move on to the next step.
Step 4: Who is trying to kill who?
Step 4 should be covered in Step 3, but if not, give factions all the TLC they deserve.
Next to The Idea in Step 1, factions (ie who is trying to kill who) and WHY they trying to kill each other are the most important part of the game. As far as I am concerned, Mecha has to have a minimum of two sides who are opposed to each other or the game falls flat. Please don’t hear that as me advocating black-vs-white, us=good and them=bad storylines. I like depth and complexity. I like stories where both sides think they are doing right, it’s just that their “right” puts them at odds with each other.
However, in Mecha there has to be a reason to fight and a clear group to fight. (This is due, in no small part to fact that GMs are mandated by the rules to pick a fight with players once an episode.) Having factions opposed to each other helps drive that. Yes, it’s awesome for a character to find out that her sister is fighting for the other side and have that character worry about if she is going to kill her sister everytime … but the fight must go on. Factions and the reasons the factions are fighting are central to that.
You can have games without clear factions, but it’s harder to drive the story. In the name of pure honesty, I hate running Special Research School games because there is no clear enemy. Normally, during character creation the group picks an enemy group (usually football jocks) to hate. But given the open nature of the setting, that falls away because there is no pressure for the group to work together and, in fact, they often don’t. Which means that characters get pulled into fights for no reason. In Godblind, on the other hand, the bad guys are a group of 8 feet tall “gods” who will kill you on sight. That’s conflict.
In Wayne’s and my game, the two sides are the Americans and the Russians (naturally.) History has given these two superpowers plenty of reasons to fight and we use that in the game. Can characters from opposing sides fall in love, respect each other, etc.? Of course! That’s good gaming, especially if the GM will threaten those relationships during an episode. But at the end of the day, there still has to be a fight and having two factions that are inconsolably at odds makes that easy.
Oh, as a side note. During Step 3 and 4, it’s not uncommon for a player to decide she really likes a faction. This is good because she will take ownership. On the other hand, don’t let the player dominate the conversation or try to only get the best stuff for her side.
Once the factions are built, they need NPCs. The GM may have to flesh out the NPCs, but the group should get to decide who the major figures are in each faction.
Step 5: The Rules
Once the story elements are locked down, it’s time to get mechanical. At this stage, a number of things shold happen (and in this approximate order.)
- Determine damage types (this is largely for flavor, but good to have)
- Disallow Configurations (do any not make sense?)
- Determine any special rules (Combiners? New skills? Anything else needed?)
- Assign Models to the group (In a group of more than 1, players should be able to submit mecha models)
- Assign Archetypes to the group (Again, if there is more than 1 person in the group, let players create Archetypes)
- Assign non-mecha units (let players design mooks and sturdy, non-mecha units like tanks)
- Assign NPCs (This is at the GM’s discretion, but players may want to generate a few famous enemy aces. That level of ownership makes the more fun to crush on the battlefield.)
In Wayne’s and my case, we did this:
- Melee, Impact, Explosive
- For the Cold War we decided against Transformer. It seemed to gadgety for the tech level.
- No special rules needed
- We determined that the Americans and Russians would each have 2 standard models and an experimental model following the above guidelines for speed vs. power
- We determined there would be 8 archetypes: 4 common and 2 specific to the Americans and 2 to the Russians. The Americans got the GI Joe like Gunnery Sergeant and the peaceful Diplomat. The Russians got the Femme Fatale and the Political Officer.
- We both decided to create several period tanks using 20 points instead of 22 (which is how many a starting mecha/pilot combo has.)
And that’s setting creation. When it’s all said and done, it’s time to generate player characters and start playing.
This is, as near as I can tell, the best summation of how I have created every setting for Mecha (and any game with open world creation.) I would welcome any feedback.