Jeffro's Space Gaming Blog

Microgames, Monster Games, and Role Playing Games

The Robotech Role Playing Game, first edition

Wow, this one really is typical of the mid-eighties. It reads like something that was written by a guy that thought that D&D really defined rpg’s. He really wanted to go beyond what he saw as its limited confines… but at the end of the day, he still thinks in terms of D&D. So you roll 3d6 in order to get your attributes… then chose a class based on what options you have as a result of these numbers. Except for a bonus or two, these numbers don’t really come up again in the game, really…. You pick an alignment, roll on some random tables… and then… uh… I guess after that you go fight stuff, gain experience points, and level up. Oh, but there’s skills here, yeah…. It’s just that the skill system looks like something that was cooked up by someone that thought that the thief class was a great idea.

There is no unified mechanic. This game’s system was a contemporary of an ahead-of-its-time system like Victory Games James Bond 007. But this was developed years before GURPS and MegaTraveller came out and pretty well cemented the norm of having one type of roll determine everything. It seems crazy now, but the combat system is an entirely different thing from the skill system– they aren’t integrated all except through a hodgepodge of bonuses and special effects.

My favorite thing about these rules is how the game designer occasionally interjects his personal opinion:

  • “From time to time I hear the complaint, for example, how somebody can be bashing or shooting into a door and the door is in perfect condition until all its S.D.C. is depleted?”
  • “The reason I use an experience point system is because I find them extremely realistic and practical.
  • “In my original, Palladium Role Playing Game, play-test campaign; after two years of weekly, long (average 9 hours), playing sessions; the characters averaged 7th to 9th level and progressing, ever so slowly, toward tenth level.”
  • “I’ve found that many players like as much background and details about their characters as possible.”
  • “I avoid random hit location tables because I feel the randomness is too flukey and unrealistic.”

This gives the game a breezy, personable feel that makes you feel like you’re in the presence of a real-life, obnoxious know-it-all game master!

The rules are barely even ten percent of the book. Most of what is presented here is in effect a high tech monster manual: scads of clay pigeons that will presumably get blown up during play. The damage capacity of each hit location is painstakingly spelled out, but… most of this will be used only when a player specifically goes out of his way to make a called shot. This is a bizarre design choice for anyone coming in from BattleTech. I guess GURPS players accept that some campaigns will be more abstract while others might embrace a random hit location table… but it is strange to have the designer come down so vehemently on this issue within the main text itself– especially since so much else in the game is clearly marked as being optional or else introduced with suggestions for how game masters might rule on it.

For the most part, though, I’d describe these rules as mostly being everything in D&D that was actually used by your typical teenaged gamer… but then extended occasionally with an attempt at having a much more GURPS-like comprehensive approach. The designer is mired in a Gygaxian approach… while occasionally yearning for a Steve Jackson style of implementation. This is most clearly illustrated in the combat sequence. Initiative is in a random order. (It would be so hard to run this game and not do initiative in order by speed attributes!) The to-hit roll is strangely easy: roll five or better on a d20, but with enough strike bonuses you’ll never miss. (The armor system is mentioned here, but there are no example body armor items for the players to purchase that I can find. These would make the to-hit roll a bit more interesting if they were here, but there is no armor rating in mecha combat due to the Mega-Damage system.) The defender gets the option to dodge (which costs the player an attack that turn) or parry (which doesn’t cost an attack but which can only be done against hand-to-hand attacks.) If the defense roll fails, there’s still a chance that the defender can “roll with punch” and take half damage if it was a physical attack. These defense rolls are done with d20 rolls with bonuses based on skills and skill levels– the defender has to beat the attacker’s to-hit roll on a d20.

Now… the text here tells me that these combat rules are “designed to be fast moving and easy to understand,” but there’s still a few things that aren’t 100% clear to me. For instance, if you attack first in the round… will you have to guess at how many attacks you save back for defending with latter on? If you guess wrong, are those attacks lost…? There is no clear instruction on whether to use a grid, a hex map, or a range band system. Being an early eighties design, I guess I can only assume that “theater of the mind” is the default mode for combat…. And those gun clusters on the Excalibur and the Gladiator… does it take one attack to fire each thing in the cluster, or would one attack handle them all at once sort of like the missile volleys are handled? Finally, the terminology here seems to use “melee attack” to refer to any type of attack– you might use one of your “hand-to-hand attacks” to fire a ranged weapon. This is really confusing and it makes it hard to understand what the rules are supposed to be communicating.

Perhaps the biggest surprise here is that the game is set in a strange post-apocalyptic setting that occurs after the end of the first Robotech series. The world is divided up into zones and there are beaucoup Zentradi on the planet; many of them that wander around looking for trouble, while other micronized Zentradi integrate themselves into human society. The adventures presented here are essentially random combat encounters and one elaborate set piece scenario. Stats for Minmei are included, courtesy of designer fiat. (You can’t build her with the included rules, but rather have to just pick stuff out of thin air.) There is absolutely no advice or counsel on how to handle the endemic love triangles that take up so much of the series. Taken together, the implication is that the bulk of your game session is going to be about shooting things.

While we do have all the stats for the Veritech fighters, the Destroids, and the Zentradi Battlepods, there is almost nothing here about the real star of the show: Macross city. There is nothing here about weird eighties synth-pop, either. On the other hand, there are some really good notes on the source material that explain some of the continuity problems that emerged in the course of re-cutting three separate series into an epic saga for American TV.

This is a really strange game. It would be quite a challenge to play it as-is. I would be strongly tempted to work out some sort of system for using attribute checks for everything… and I’d really want to work up a custom random hit location table for each unit in the game. The setting here is both sketchy and weird…. I’d be further tempted to crank the strangeness up to eleven– almost to Gamma World proportions. Once I had a feel for how things really were… I’d want to go back to the character generation system and whip up something a little more Traveller-like that feeds directly into it. All of this would be so much work, I’d never get around to actually doing it, so playing the game as-written is still my main option.

No, I could deal with the wonkiness of the system, I suppose. The biggest barrier to getting a game with this off the ground really is the default setting. The Japanese have no problem blowing everything up, burning it all to the ground, and then letting things get freakishly weird. As the book says, “units of as few as a half dozen, brave men and women would be asked to patrol and protect thousands of miles of hostile territory against deadly and unpredictable foes.” I can see how this setup would make sense for a role playing campaign, but I if I told people I was going to be running Robotech, I doubt that this is what they’d really expect the game to be about.

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15 responses to “The Robotech Role Playing Game, first edition

  1. Runeslinger August 26, 2013 at 7:58 am

    I was never interested in Robotech so, while I was deeply into Battletech, and Palladium games when it was new, I have never played it. The Palladium system however, apart from a few setting specific tweaks, and a few revisions between editions, has a core which remains consistent.

    When I heard about MDC (Mega-Damage) from Rifts players, I was glad I avoided it and games with it (such as Rifts). That doesn’t leave me much to comment on in this piece, other than what you refer to now in hindsight about the author in a mainly humorous but slightly critical vein, was often felt to be absolutely true to we teenaged gamers who ‘threw off the shackles’ of what we thought D&D was and embraced the freedom of Palladium. Perception is at least 9/10 of reality~ ;)
    Like you, I have gone back to read the old D&D books cover to cover as an adult and experienced gamer and there is much there to appreciate. Some of the old frustrations still remain, however. I still play Palladium Fantasy from time to time, but have not found the desire to play D&D again~

    What I can offer here is that combat in Palladium 1st and 2nd editions was really easy despite the way it may read the first time through. The key point is that it is adversarial and that makes it a whole lot of fun and very, very different from how D&D and other systems of its day play and feel in play. You mention the roll 5 and over aspect of the combat but then mention nothing about the other side of the attack/defense process. In most cases, trained combatants both roll at the same time. The attacker rolls a D20 to hit and the defender rolls a D20 to defend. If the combatants have multiple attacks per round they alternate attacks in order of initiative. If one has more attacks than the other these come at the end of the round. If the attacker rolls under 5, they miss and that is that for that attack, regardless of what the defender rolls. If the attacker rolls over 5 but under the defender’s roll, their attack has been parried or warded off. If they beat the defender’s roll, but under the armour rating they hit armour, and if they beat the defender’s roll and the armour rating they get through a chink or unarmoured section of the target.

    In your question about initiative, the process of combat means it alternates back and forth from attack to defense from each participant, so the thought process of choosing to parry, choosing to dodge, or choosing to strike simultaneously is an attack by attack choice, not a per combat round choice.

    • jeffro August 26, 2013 at 8:15 am

      Woah, your explanation of combat is very different from the rules as written in this book– at least as far as my reading went. The book does point out how they are specifically stripped down somewhat from Heroes Unlimited, especially in the area of Weapon Proficiencies… and that might explain SOME of the difference… but still.

      Alternating attacks within the turn the way that you describe is NOT what I gathered from the rules when I read and reread them. Of course… my take on the Moldvay basic combat rules is different than most other people’s as well. It blows my mind just how ambiguous the exact sequence of play really is in these old games…!

      • Runeslinger August 26, 2013 at 9:38 am

        Well, you are talking about 1st edition so there is a chance that there was still a variance in how some things took place, but this is a pretty consistent item in my experience with various Palladium titles.

        Without that book in front of me, I cannot say for certain where the difference might lie, but the place to look is early in the description of combat where it describes initiative. I suppose it doesn’t come out and say fighters attack in alternating rounds, but it does say:

        “…the higher roll has the initiative. In case of a tie each player rolls again. Roll for each new melee round. This will set the pace for the entire melee round. Even though both characters may have two or more attacks per melee, the character with the initiative will always have the first attack for the entire round; the opponent is on the defensive parrying or dodging and then striking back…” (Palladium 1st Edition Revised, Kevin Siembieda)

        The text here is more or less the same in the other games which followed it (barring changes for genre). It may be that things were changed in this regard for the mecha combat, but such a change would surprise me.

        The combat chapter text got cleaned up in 2nd edition to include step by step combat instructions which explicitly states that the winner of initiative takes their first strike with the others following in descending order.The text for this is virtually (or actually) identical in Palladium Fantasy, Heroes Unlimited, Beyond the Supernatural, etc. We started playing in 1st edition and did not regard this as a change or revelation, Must have been a zeitgeist thing~
        ;)

        It IS very intriguing how ambiguous or unintentionally vague rules for the earlier games are. Sooo much was left unsaid without anyone seemingly realizing it, or wasting page counts on giving references to other sources.

  2. Tedankhamen August 26, 2013 at 12:08 pm

    Had some fun with that game back in the day, mostly because we messed around with the canon so much. I gonzoed it up and players had a choice to stay on Earth fighting commies and Zentraedis or go with the SDF, which they did and found a secret Invid hive on Pluto. The best memories were the non-mecha roleplaying bits, where the PCs put down unemployed dockworker riots, chased down Akira-style protoculture motorbike bosozoku, and worked security for the big concert. Sadly, all stuff that is barely touched on in the rules, and I’ve got a half-finished homebrew called ‘Love & Robots’ on my harddrive somewhere based on this experience.

    As for combat, it was brutal keeping tracking of whose number what action it was until I instituted ‘Combat Momentum.’ Basically, you win initiative, you keep attacking until 1) You fumble or miss 2) You decide to stop 3) You run out of actions (which meant no dodging). Worked like a charm, and came in handy with Rifts a few years later. Stealing the SDC damage for mecha pilot rules from Rifts would also make it better.

    I’d play/run it again as it was such a part of my childhood, but not RAW. Palladium rules-as-written are umpossible…

    • jeffro August 26, 2013 at 12:19 pm

      “it was brutal keeping tracking of whose number what action it was” — That’s a big part of why I assumed that players would use up all of their actions at once on their turn… and then decide right then how many attacks they’d save back in case they got hit later. (Note that such an approach is very close to how GURPS plays. Using all of your attacks would be the equivalent of an all-out attack maneuver.)

      • Runeslinger August 26, 2013 at 5:57 pm

        We used tick marks on a notepad and generally had more than 5 players, but we were young and without out the game we’d have had to have studied~ ;)

        Because of the back and forth flow of attack/defense in the game I just never found tracking actions to be problematic. Finding saving throw numbers scattered in the text to add to GM notes was much harder. ;)

        That said, there was a reason for a second edition.

  3. Tedankhamen August 26, 2013 at 8:40 pm

    The Robotech setting is pretty roomy, so like you I always found it strange that the first book stuck to the ‘Top Gun’ storyline when there was so much going on in the background. Having the first three books (Robotech, Southern Cross, & Invid Invasion) gave you TONS of inspiration & possibilities, while the arc of the story in the background made the setting feel really lived in. I didn’t get that so much with Battletech. As you say, it is 99% clay pigeons to shoot up, but the social aspects are easy to wing if you’ve seen the anime. It’s sad that the setting keeps attracting people (look at the scads of material people are still producing for it on the web, there’s even a fan-made Robotech rpg with a different system), but the wonky Palladium system dampens their enthusiasm. It’s funny that Palladium just made a mint with its Kickstarter for Robotech: Tactics, mainly on the strength of promo art of its cool minis. If it’s built on the chassis of the old system, however, there’ll be a backlash and drop of interest.

    Years back I put a ‘Palladium Patch’ out on the web, if you can still find it. Besides the above Combat Momentum rule, I added in order of importance D&D style uniform attribute modifiers (I am surprised you didn’t mention the whacko attributes you can get with high rolls); stripping out the leveling system; random hit locations; determining skill percentages based on attributes; penalties to dodge techno-missiles; and using AR as damage resistance for SDC damage, so that damage exceeding AR goes straight to hit points and necessitates a major wound. Basically, I tried to use the numbers they gave me in more ‘logical’ (to me) ways, as a total revamp of the system was too much trouble. I’ve read that Siembieda GMs differently from the books in person, which makes the cut & paste nature of his books a bit sad.

    • jeffro August 26, 2013 at 9:21 pm

      The “Unauthorized Palladium Repair Kit” sounds cool. Yeah, the challenge is to leverage as much of what is there in all the stats, maintain a Palladium-ish flavor, and yet still keep from rolling a completely new system from scratch. Given that the game is fairly well in the same mold as many seventies rpgs, this sort of hack-the-system-until-it’s-yours thing shouldn’t be surprising. With OD&D, the fact that you have to do that in order to even play the game at all is considered to actually even be a feature, but Palladium doesn’t seem to get near the same level of slack. And given that it’d be another decade before GURPS could seriously handle all the genres that Palladium Books tossed around so effortlessly, I tend to not want to harsh on the game overly much. Still, with this game, AD&D, and Gamma World Third Edition being my first games, it took me a long time to realize that there were role playing games out there that could be played pretty well as written!

      • Tedankhamen August 26, 2013 at 9:44 pm

        Interesting you should mention Gamma World – the 4th Robotech book, The Sentinels, achieves near-GW levels of gonzo with its introduction of alien wizards, amazons, rock people, and berserker space-bears as playable races. Throw that in with the first three books and you’ve got some great inspirations.

        [I played Sentinels back in the day– and I totally dig the crazy stuff. — Jeffro]

        I’m going to steal that ‘Unauthorized Palladium Repair Kit’ title and re-do my patch, I think…

        [Note that Steve Jackson used to run those sorts of articles back when he was doing Space Gamer. For instance, see Allen Varney’s Unauthorized Paranoia Repair Kit in issue #76. — Jeffro]

  4. bscrivener August 26, 2013 at 9:53 pm

    Ah, Palladium. I read Rifts back in the day and have hung onto Beyond the Supernatural for a couple of decades, but it’s only within the last year that i actually got to play anything Palladium–turns out a friend of mine is a big fan of the system. My basic take on it is that Palladium has its charms but it’s really AD&D with an immense load of occasionally conflicting and constantly rewritten rules bolted onto it by a lunatic dual-wielding atomic-powered bolting devices. Okay, maybe that’s unfair but your perception of Robotech seems to match up fairly well with my experiences playing Palladium in general.

    The company’s continued existence seems to indicate that there must be something there, but I’m not sure what. Maybe the person running the game makes all the difference…usually does. If so then my ‘DM’ is not really doing it right because it mostly seems like a hot mess from what I’ve seen.

    • jeffro August 26, 2013 at 10:14 pm

      Lavish illustrations (far superior to most GURPS books), low learning curve, and everything-you-need-in-one-book. I’d argue that it’s a better starting point than many toolkit games… and definitely better than one that requires you to get three expensive hardback books just to run a game.

      And of course… there are a lot of people that to this day make “new” games that are even more derivative of D&D than the Palladium system. While some of these are done with a great deal of panache, there’s something to be said for an authentic fantasy heartbreaker.

      • Tedankhamen August 26, 2013 at 10:29 pm

        I’d say Palladium is a professional heartbreaker… the great IP they either own or created linked to a system that refuses to budge past 1981 breaks my heart indeed.

  5. Tom August 28, 2013 at 8:59 am

    Oh Palladium. Their books are so pretty and their settings are neat, but their rules are such a mess. I played Rifts for a while and had similar reactions to the skills and attributes as you did. Also the mega-damage system just didn’t work well.

    I seem to remember an option in whatever edition of Rifts we were playing to make X number of SDC = 1 MDC, so it helped make MDC less crazy, but even then the numbers we were dealing with didn’t balance it out. I’ve seen other systems handle scaled damage better. Mekton Zeta does it well and for all its flaws the old West End Games D6 Star Wars did a surprisingly good job with scaled damage.

    Anything Palladium puts out is on my list of “pillage for ideas but avoid the mechanics”.

    • jeffro August 28, 2013 at 9:50 am

      That passage on MegaDamage about the kid, the ball, and the tank… I remember it being a very big deal to my 12-year-old self. It seemed like an epic, common sense rule at the time. Of course, Car Wars metal armor and GURPS damage resistance and Traveller/Striker penetration rules give you a lot of granularity. Palladium gives you two distinct levels of combat that more or less use the same rules. It’s good enough I suppose, but not particularly sophisticated or competitive from a design standpoint.

      • Tedankhamen August 28, 2013 at 11:29 am

        I remember finding MDC wonky until I read a Robotech comic where a bunch of rebels on a rooftop fired an RPG at a battloid and it pinged off. The pilot turned and flamed them with his head laser – measly d4 in game, the most useless weapon I had thought before I read that.

        In my ‘patch’ I had the following rule:
        For every 100 SDC a weapon does to a mecha, it takes 1 MD damage. Aside from using rockets or ramming a mech, SCD weapons were largely useless.
        SDC structures take minimum damage from MD weapons, but for every MD they take d100 SDC damage. Gave creatures and structures a meager chance at survival. I remember a character surviving a laser shot with that once.

        I guess the point is that there are a lot of good points if you read between the lines of the system. Sad it never got across on paper.

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