The Project

In just over one week, klik is going on a zen retreat — from Sunday afternoon until Saturday morning. I always take those weeks off work too, because I don’t fancy working all day and then coming home to a house filled with grumpy cats. And most times, I set myself a goal, or a project to work on, so that I have something to show for my week off — instead of simply vegetating behind my computer.
For some time now, I have been looking for an RPG that captures the feel and themes of the Macross anime series — and failing to find one. The recent Robotech/Macross RPG just wasn’t good overall. I have quite a few other mecha RPGs in my library, but most of those are rather one-dimensional and lack the background structure of mecha pilots being part of both the military and society.

So my Project for that week will be to write a Macross-inspired RPG. I have been doing research for a bit, and I have some design goals and ideas on how to hit those. The end goal would be to be able to playtest a skirmish on Friday.

RPG week

Last week’s RPG adventures started off with an online game of Fiasco, really early on Sunday morning. I had not played Fiasco before, and in general these ‘GM-full’ games (where every player is responsible for setting up part of the plot) are not really my thing. I’d rather just concentrate on playing my character instead of meta-gaming towards an interesting outcome. The premise is interesting: it’s like you’re all directing a Coen Brothers movie while having a ‘favourite’ character in the story.
The playset (basically the set-up for the game) we used was “Upton Abbey“, a setting inspired by British dramas about upper- and lower-class interactions in the 20’s. We weaved a tangled web of debt and sordid affairs both in business and in love. In the end, my character got stabbed by his pregnant lover, and his business partner let him bleed out and made it look like a suicide…
It was good fun, especially considering I played with a group of players that I had never played with before, which is always iffy. I knew some of them from our interactions on RPGGeek, so it’s not like I went in totally blind (I just would not have played). And this group has been playing together for years, so dropping in as a new player made me extra nervous. But it was good, clean fun, and the other players were patient with explaining the mechanics and made me feel at home. In fact, I’m playing again with them next Sunday!

I also bought the new Robotech RPG, which details the “Macross saga”. My love for Macross is well-documented on this blog, so I couldn’t pass up a new RPG. It uses the Savage Worlds ruleset, which I know is hugely popular with some people but that I never encountered. So I had to read up on that too. So far, it’s not that great — it’s been endless lists of character stats and equipment (and mecha!) lists so far. And the editing is quite atrocious too, which does not bode well. We’ll see!
Reading through it and identifying all the oddities how Harmony Gold perverted the Macross lore made me want to re-watch Macross to determine which statements in the game are actually true and which ones are American inventions. I ripped my DVD set on my anemic laptop, because that’s the only machine that still has a DVD player in this house… I’ll be watching through that in my ‘downtime’.

And yesterday I found out there is an upcoming RPG called “Against the Darkmaster“. I mean, at any given time there are upcoming RPGs, and most of them don’t interest me. But this one grabbed my attention because it has the exact same font and ‘trade dress’ as the classic MERP and Rolemaster games. Some research revealed that this is, indeed, a ‘retro-clone’ of MERP with all the Lord of the Rings-stuff stripped off. They have a quickstart and playtest, and I might download that and see what it’s like. It’s unlikely that I would go back to MERP/Rolemaster-style games as they are too ‘heavy’ rules-wise and too lethal for the more cinematic experiences I want these days. But on the other hand, the largest part of my RPG shelves are filled with those books…

We’ve finished watching both seasons of Knights of Sidonia — five years after the first season started. Yes, it has been kicking in our to-view pile for years now, but the CGI animation and the lethality of the setting for the characters put us off — but now that we have seen it, I’m glad we did. It is really under-appreciated.

It is like a very dark version of various Macross series: the setting is a massive ‘seed ship’ built into an asteroid (presumably Sidonia), with a large city inside, as well as manufacturing and military facilities. It was launched to set up colonies throughout the galaxy (a direct parallel with Macross 7 and Frontier), and it is beset by an enemy that can’t be communicated with (also a direct parallel with Macross 7). There is focus on the personal lives (including romance!) of the pilots, and on non-combat inhabitants (though to a lesser degree). And there is even romance with a (variant of) an alien — which we also have in the original Macross and Macross 7.

But it’s more gritty (everything is scratched and dirty), the lethality of the setting is much, much higher than in Macross (pilots fall left and right, especially the newbies) and as the series progress, Sidonia falls into some kind of militaristic fascist dictatorship. The biggest difference however is in the animation. Sidonia is all CGI, with the associated jarring character animation. And with the muted colour palette the show uses, it looks really drab. This is also the main reason cited for why it doesn’t get the popularity it deserves. It’s also why it has been hanging in our backlog for so long.

I was glad we watched it, and if there’s a third season (long rumoured, but the lukewarm reception must have made the business case for that kind of iffy), I’ll be sure to watch it. If it was an RPG, I’d be sure to play it.

Hacking Tachyon Squadron

I backed the Tachyon Squadron Kickstarter for 1 dollar, which gave me immediate access to the text-only version of the rules. It’s called “text-only”, but it is a fully laid-out PDF which looks gorgeous. There are empty spaces where the art will go, but other than that, it’s the complete game. A pretty good investment!
And it’s really good: lots of good systems to emulate dogfights in space, like we know from movies and TV series. I also note that in the list of inspirations Robotech is mentioned… The only drawback is that it uses the FATE Core system, which I like in principle but had not gotten to ‘work’ in my own campaigns. And looking at the play examples, the players are busier with the mechanical aspects than with the fiction. And it’s the fiction I’m interested in…

So maybe I could port those excellent systems to the narrative dice system that FFG uses in its Star Wars games? Or maybe the Apocalypse World Engine? The Star Wars games obviously already have space battles, so I might read up on those first.

One of my colleagues bought an old arcade cabinet. He stripped all the electronics and bought a “Pandora Box”, a small machine containing 815 arcade games that you just hook arcade controls and a screen on. He even got a coin slot, which has to be fed with guilders (the currency we had before we switched to the euro 15 years ago! That was, back in the day, indeed the price for a single credit, so extra nostalgia!). It turned into a really cool two-player machine, and today he installed it in our break room.
There’s an interface to select the game you want to play. Unfortunately, it’s not in alphabetic order, so there’s some poring over a printout needed to find something if you’re looking for something specific. My eye fell on the Super Macross game: a vertical shooter (my favourite arcade genre) based on the Superdimensional Fortress Macross anime. Of course, I couldn’t resist.

I have been limiting the number of sessions at the cabinet, because otherwise I’d spend all day in the breakroom, trying to better my highscore. I have started to take a cellphone pic of my highscores, because every time you choose a different game, the highscores have been reset!
I now have roped a colleague into my sessions, too. With two players, it’s both easier (there’s another player to take care of enemies elsewhere on the screen) and harder (it’s more chaotic and it’s harder to ‘know’ your place on the screen), but great fun!

Please ignore if you’re not interested in rambling talk about my amateur RPG design…

If you want it done right, you gotta do it yourself. Let’s see if I can come up with something coherent in terms of a Macross RPG.

Amateur RPG design hour!

#RPGADAY, day 2

What is an RPG you would like to see published?
I would pay good money for a Macross RPG.

The mecha RPG space is dominated by Gundam — not in terms of actual licenses, but in terms of the types of stories told. Lots of focus on detailed mecha construction and mecha combat, etcetera. Very ‘militaristic’, and even though Macross always features a military squadron, it is not a military series. To me, Macross plays out on three levels:
– The story level (“During the initial attack, we accidentally jumped to a Jupiter orbit, now we need to get back to Earth”);
– The fleet manoever level (like how supply ships and support cruisers support the Macross-class main ship, or how enemies bring their main guns in position);
– The mecha combat level (which is traditionally the level that all mecha RPGs focus on exclusively).
And there’s a fourth dimension: there are always civilians, and their stories always mix in with those of the mecha pilots.

The system should allow for cinematic combat (no detailed hit locations or 25 different things to track!) and great social interactions, focusing on archetypes and their role in the story — something with Apocalypse World-style playbooks would probably work quite well.

Of course, the swamp that is the licensing of the Macross TV series will ensure that the RPG would never be released in the US, which basically kills any prospect of making it even remotely a commercial success…

Carl Macek, the guy who single-handedly started most of the anime fandom in the US, died of a heart attack yesterday. Macek is most known for importing Super-Dimensional Fortress Macross, Super-Dimensional Cavalry Southern Cross and Genesis Climber Mospeada and combining them into one single bastardised series called Robotech.

My feelings for Carl and the products of his handiwork are well-documented elsewhere. Suffice to say that we have lost a great producer with lots of vision, without whom the whole US anime scene would be totally different — if it would have existed at all.

I haven’t written any reviews for a long time now — the review queue has grown to twenty items. Time to get crackin’ again.

We’ve finished watching Macross Frontier. My first episode review is here.

The series is set on a Macross colony fleet, with the main ship called Macross Frontier. It is escorted by various agricultural and urban vessels, called ‘islands’, as well as a military fleet. The colony spans all vessels.
Alto is one of the inhabitants of Frontier. He is training to be a pilot, much to the chagrin of his father, who heads a kabuki group — Alto has very fine features, which makes him the star player for female roles. Alto and his friends practise a lot in ‘glider suits’, motorised suits with wings to glide through the air, though Alto tends to scold at the ‘low sky’ of the Frontier dome.
When interstellar super idol Sheryl Nome visits Frontier for a series of concerts, Alto and his friends are contracted to perform some stunts during the show. Alto runs into Ranka Lee, an energetic part-Zentraedi girl who is a huge fan of Sheryl. During the show, the Vajra attack Frontier. The Vajra are some sort of hive-mind space-faring species that are capable of flight and folding without any machinery involved. Outgunned, the Frontier military gets slaughtered, and Alto witnesses one human pilot being crushed by a Vajra — which then turns to threaten Ranka. Enraged, he climbs into the cockpit of the Valkyrie and shoots the alien.

Thus begins the struggle between humans and Vajra. Alto joins SMS (‘Strategic Military Services’), a so-called “Civilian Military Provider” — mercenaries that are hired by the military for certain tasks. Think Blackwater Security, only with Valkyries and Quadlunn-Rae. Sheryl falls ill and has to stay on Frontier. Ranka decides she wants to become a singer too and starts to work on her career by singing about rainbow carrots. Both fall in love with Alto.
And so it has all the traditional Macross ingredients:

aliens that attack, a love triangle and music
.

There’s not much more to tell — you just have to see the series to believe it. It is both a ‘modern’ series with modern themes and a very modern look, but it is also very ‘Macross’, with a plot that strongly resembles the plot of the series that started it all twenty-five years ago.
With the focus on music, the voice acting cast was carefully selected — and with great success. The voice cast works really well for all roles. And as for the music — once again, Yoko Kanno undertook writing the score, and as always she did a great job. There’s an ending song by Maaya Sakamoto too, which scores major bonus points. 😉
What is really impressive is that this series is the debut of Megumi Nakajima, who voiced Ranka Lee — both voice and song. She did a really good job, and proved herself very proficient. I hope to hear more of her in future anime.

Good points:
– Never a dull moment;
– Great visuals — CGI space fights leave you spinning in your seat;
– Great music and songs, with many a wink and a nod to the long-time fans of the franchise;
– Excellent plot.

I can’t really think of any bad points. A worthy successor to the Macross name, and a must-see for everyone. I’ll give it a 9.5.