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I have had recurring trouble with a subject I like, and would like to implement into my games, but can't find a good way to do so: mechas (big huge robots)

From a system point of view, it is usually quite easy: just a big suit of armor with specific weapons. The pilot has to be inside to be able to use it, and it is too big to use just anywhere. Most systems can allow it.

However, I can't find a good game balance for it. The main problem is that the whole "normal person when outside the suit / super-destruction-machine when inside the suit" makes too much of a difference in-game. For example, any challenge when the pilot is outside the suit is a trifle when in the suit; while any challenge for the suit is impossible for the pilot. It ends up feeling like playing two games at the same time: the mechas' game, and the pilots' game.

I have tried reducing the difference between the pilot and suits (making the pilots stronger and/or the suits weaker), but then the suits have almost no use, and the players end up almost never using them.

I have tried mainly in BESM (since it is already implemented), D&D, and even tried to develop my own system (with Mecha/pilot classes and perks). I'm looking for a Gundam/Front Mission style, i.e. mechas are big and powerful, can potentially be destroyed by well-equipped and organized infantry, but are mainly in their own world (mecha vs mecha)

So the question is: how would you balance a game focused on mechas?

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In fiction, the challenges are generally social/mental outside of the suit, and preposterously physical inside. It sounds like you want normals to be able to compete with mecha in physical contests. Is that what you're asking? –  Brian Ballsun-Stanton Jan 23 '12 at 19:55
    
Do all of the characters have a mecha? –  Khaal Jan 23 '12 at 23:10
    
@Runeslinger No, never read a RPG intentionally focused on mechas, I thought it didn't even exist, especially because mechas seemed so ill-adapted to RPG –  Cristol.GdM Jan 24 '12 at 3:08
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@Brian Ballsun-Stanton: In the old Battletech novels, the coolest heroic characters like Grayson Carlyle would often be forced to defeat towering enemy mechs with nothing but satchel charges and shoulder-launched Short-Range Missiles. The rules in Mechwarrior RPG cover this sort of thing. –  RMorrisey Jan 24 '12 at 7:49
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As others have mentioned, Battletech already addresses this. If you want more possibility of parity between in Mech/Out of mech look at Rifts. Rifts includes Mechs and mech-like things, but also has monsters capable of tearing them apart and mages and psionicists that can go toe-to-toe with a mech on their own. Also think about real life fighter pilots and tank commanders for some inspiration. –  TimothyAWiseman Feb 18 '12 at 1:04

10 Answers 10

up vote 18 down vote accepted

I'm assuming that by "big huge robots" you're talking about Gundam/Mech -style "I'm bigger than a house!" robots, as opposed to "powered-armor" a la Starship Troopers (although there's some overlap between the two).

The first thing you need to decide, is what you want the focus of your game to be. I can think of a few examples:

  • Focus on in-mech interactions.

  • Focus on in-person interactions.

  • Alternate in-person and in-mech.

  • Mixed in-person and in-mech party.

The focus drives the design. A design can still support other modes of play, but the preferred mode is going to dictate a lot of design decisions (both in your fiction, and in your system choices).

Focus on in-mech interactions

In this mode, the characters effectively are their vehicles. Stating and advancing the mecha (and mecha-like support vehicles) becomes a focus... A character's sheet is likely to include more information about their mecha than the pilot.

In this mode, you don't need to worry about power-disparities between mecha and non-mecha characters. Mecha pretty much squish anything that isn't on their level, and that's fine (because all the players have one).

Combat encounters will almost always be fights between mecha, with out-of-mecha interludes being more narrativist, or focusing on evasion.

Focus on in-person interactions

This is probably the easiest... The characters happen to be involved with mecha in some way, but most of the game-play happens when they aren't in their vehicles. Use a standard character design, with the mecha implemented as vehicles (there are plenty of examples of this sort of setup around).

Mecha segments are kept sufficiently short and infrequent that non-mecha characters don't feel too sidelined.

Again, you don't need to focus too much on mecha/non-mecha interactions. Mecha are bad news when you aren't in one, but most combat encounters will be built around the characters outside of their vehicles.

Alternate in-person and in-mech

This is the synthesis of the above two scenarios. It'll lead to a bulky system because you need a fully fleshed out "human" set of stats, and a set of "mecha" stats.

It still operates on the assumption that all of the players will have access to mecha (or equivalent vehicles), and that mixed-mode combats don't happen that often. Therefore the rules don't need to be quite as smooth when dealing with mixed mecha/non-mecha combat.

Mixed in-person and in-mech party

This is where things get challenging, because you have to balance characters that are on entirely different physical scales. Your combat system will need to be flexible enough to accommodate both at once without breaking.

To begin with, I would avoid using constant social/mechanical constraints against the use of mechas as a balancing factor. Keep them if you like the flavor, but understand that GMs and players alike will be actively looking to downplay them. If a player signs on to play a mecha, they aren't going to want to NOT be a mecha while they wait for the stars to align.

What you need to look at, is what's necessary for humans to occupy the same battlefield as mecha:

  • How can humans withstand mecha-scale firepower?

    Perhaps the humans are dramatically more difficult to hit, or have a chance of "taking cover" to turn a hit into a knock down.

    Or maybe humans simply wear powered armor that gives them a relatively high degree of durability.

  • How can humans approach the speed of a mecha?

    Jetpacks, flight suits, jeeps, or genre conventions can all apply here.

  • How can humans harm mecha?

    Planting charges, or BFGs, perhaps?

The goal here isn't to equalize humans and mecha, but simply to get them somewhat close to each other. Close enough that a mecha does not automatically blow away a human, and that a human doesn't automatically evade a mecha.

Finally, you want to give both mecha and non-mecha characters distinct niches within combat.

Mechas are easy: They're big, strong, durable, and often fast.

Humans are harder. Perhaps humans have mobility modes not available to mechas (flying, quick turns on a grid-map, etc.). Perhaps humans can hijack opposing mechas. Or are much more accurate in their attacks. Perhaps humans are the masters of stealth (becoming the equivalent of a rogue class).

The Goal

Regardless of mode, the goal remains the same: Give all characters the ability to meaningfully interact with all major modes of play that is true to their character. Sometimes this means forcing everyone to have a mecha. Sometimes this means giving the non-mecha characters a leg-up.

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+1 for a Starship Troopers reference that's from the book and not in the movie. –  Toast Dec 5 '13 at 22:42

The original question mentions rightly that many systems can handle the mechanical requirements of mixing interactions between infantry and mechs. Older systems such as Palladium's Robotech and Rifts do this from a primarily abstract sense, as do newer systems like CthulhuTech and Revenants. In asking how to balance the interactions between meat and machine, the question seems to focus more on approaching these elements from a story or mind's eye sense than a tactical sense. It also seems to focus more on power armour than on mechs due to the use of the word suit. As a result, the connection to Battletech may not be immediately obvious. However, a game system which allows for all of the interactions described in the question, including power armour, is A Time of War; the 4th Edition of the venerable Mechwarrior franchise.

The Included Setting:

Battletech and its RPG formerly known as Mechwarrior envision a war torn future where the premier war machines are Mechs, 10-15m tall, piloted, generally anthropomorphic bi-pedal or quadrupedal, heavily armed and armoured weapons platforms capable of deployment virtually anywhere. The setting includes literally hundreds of these machines, plus vehicles, aircraft, naval ships, submarines, aerospace fighters, drop ships, small craft, jumpships, space-going warships, and all sorts of planetary and political environments in which humans find the need to battle.

It is a huge and sprawling setting, and it has been lovingly crafted and expanded for more than 25 years.

The Technology:

There are several eras represented in the setting from a golden technological age, through a long dark age of dwindling technology and enforced scavenging, back to a renaissance of discovery of old and new tech. There is a definite feel to the equipment of the setting. Mechs are not sentient nor are they controlled (until much, much later in the time line) by a direct neural linking or symbiosis between craft and pilot. (For that sort of thing check out CthulhuTech). Pilots control automated processes with sophisticated computer support, and provide the critical thinking and physical balance for the mech. Essentially, these are giant robots, controlled from within.

The RPG System:

The game system is quick to use, but can look daunting at first glance. It is based on rolling 2D6+modifiers for skills and actions. Many common interactions such as found in combat are actually quite elegant and are quick to pick up. The hardest part seems to be getting comfortable with the modifiers chart, and getting familiar with the equipment. There is a lot of equipment. In A Time of War you will find tech ranging from stone knives and bear skins on up to tailored biotoxins and anti-mech weaponry. The system for explaining the traits of all of this gear and all of these machines is consistent and once you start using it, makes a lot of sense. It is not something you can pick up and just play, but once you are playing, it works smoothly.

The A Time of War core book provides the RPG rules, as well as a tactical addendum for conducting play with the "zoom level" down to individual infantry vs mechs and other war machines. For abstracted play without maps, this and the technical readouts of the mechs themselves are all you need.

Going Whole-Hog:

For play which includes broad and in-depth tactical miniatures use, the full rules for Battletech would be needed in addition to the RPG rules. The miniatures rules are found in Total Warfare and cover the mech zoom level as the default, with rules for infantry, aerospace, power armour, tanks and other armoured vehicles, as well as naval vessels.

Dropping the Setting:

Learning to run this game without its impressive and detailed setting would be quite simple. Adding AI to the mechs, or symbiosis between mech and pilot require no additional rules or tinkering, just imagination.

The concept of Operational Heat Build-up and how it affects and limits war machines in the rules may be something with which you would have to contend if this is not an aspect of mechs you wish to emulate in your games. It can simply be dropped, but if you are into designing your own machines via the design rules you will have to find a way to use the excess weight dropping this factor of the game would entail. Playing around with those ideas would be part of the fun. The mech design rules are found in the Techmanual.

To Infinity and Beyond?:

Additional zoom levels are available in the advanced rules, but these are purely optional and take play toward strategic levels of varying degrees, ultimately finishing on a galactic level of conquest. These zoom levels take the focus pretty firmly away from the man and machine interaction described in the question, so I will not detail them here.

Balancing Meat and Machine:

In Battletech the tactical war game of mech combat, and in its attached roleplaying game, the challenge of facing opponents is a primary concern, and the added challenges of using limited resources, facing superior or vastly superior forces are a major component of scenario design and dramatic tension. From a tactical sense, the onus is on the players to discover ways to tip the scales in their favour, or to use their resources appropriately. Can openers, not laser rifles, are for opening cans, but given a can-opener, how can one be used to foil the advance of a lance of mechs? For the GM, ensuring that the world can accommodate the plans of the players and allow them to be proactive is extremely important in getting players to bring their minds to bear on problems as much if not more than just the equipment of their characters.

The desired balance between in mech and out of mech tales can be supported through the use of the setting itself. The rules of warfare, rules and regulations of safe operations, and/or the threat of reaction from other mech-using forces can keep their deployment in check unless the circumstances call for it.

Resources can be a factor if you incorporate repair and maintenance costs, support crew requirements, transport, and so on. Wear and tear can be as big a threat to an operational force as weapons fire over time.

Scale, as always, will play the biggest role in guiding player decisions in interacting with the game world. If the players are not sensitive to appropriate scale of action (such as walking their mechs to a park to secretly meet an informant) then either this sensitivity will need to be increased, or the types of tale will need to be limited to focus on the sort of action the players seem to be desiring/fearing (combat).

It can sometimes be hard to expand the range of stories in an ostensibly mech-based game to out of mech activities, but working with the players to establish that the world is more than just battlefields and combat drops will go a long way to helping this to happen.

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There are several major mecha oriented RPG systems. The ones that may fit what you're looking for best are from Dream Pod 9 - their Heavy Gear and Jovian Chronicles lines (both based on the Silhouette ruleset, which I played in a campaign under). Mechs are 12-18 feet tall, more mobile than but weapons not as powerful as a main battle tank. The ruleset branched off of an earlier Armored Trooper VOTOMS game, and if you've seen that anime you know that mecha aren't overwhelmingly favored vs infantry and other vehicles. This makes mecha combat, other combat, and other interaction work together a lot more smoothly than settings where there's a huge dichotomy between "mecha scenes" and "people scenes."

There's a bunch of others, though mostly out of print (but all available); mecha isn't a popular genre right now. But there's Battletech/Mechwarrior, Mekton Zeta, there's even GURPS Mecha and d20 Mecha rules (the latter from BESM's Guardians of Order during their d20 phase). In fact on the weirder more Evangelion side there's Cthulhutech, free quickstart rules available - that's the only currently supported mecha game I know of. For more you can go search DriveThruRPG for "mecha." If you didn't think a mecha RPG could exist you probably have some more research to do before rolling your own.

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As a bonus, I've heard from multiple unconnected people that they consider Heavy Gear one of the best settings ever produced. –  SevenSidedDie Jun 7 '12 at 4:27

For an alternate take, try Ben Leheman's Bliss Stage.

The man-fights-mecha problem is avoided by having the fights happen in a dream dimension. So, there is no actual combat between men and mechas.
But the game has no two different sets of rules for human and mecha conflict since human conflict is completely absent. The whole human relationship part is about these pilot kids dealing with each other in a base - which influences their stress level and is in turn influenced by the fighting events.

Maybe it's not what your group is looking for but it was worth mentioning.

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The litany of BattleTech/MechWarrior suggestions and other genre games are fantastic, but if you want to keep the d20 Mecha (which is likely my favorite d20 supplement because it's also a golem factory), then you have to be the one to make the mecha. If the Armor on these things is kept in balance, say no higher than 10, that's only a DR 10 and in the d20 system you can do damage even with standard sidearms albeit they must roll high.

The weaponry is limited to one weapon per turn, which can solve some of your "Mass Destruction" aspects, especially if ammo is a big concern. (Heavy Arms ran out of ammo how many times?). Plus, as someone mentioned about certain epic characters in canon fiction, tactics play a huge role in everything. What good is having an Area Burst fire if the opponent is situated over a high school? What good is a heat-seeking missile near an active volcano?

All of that aside, if you want to make your own system, I highly endorse doing so as a side project (if your players are patient and want to help you, then bring it to the front more). You can visit rpggeek.com or boardgamegeek.com if you need support from other game designers.

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I'm surprised that nobody has given this answer yet: setting enforced balance.

Adeptus Evangelion (AdEVA), and AdEVA Borderline deal specifically with this problem. AdEVA forces a mixture of both scales of play, being a roleplaying game about Freudianly disturbed teenagers enacting their Freudian terrors out on Mecha scale messengers sent to destroy all mankind; with expected roleplaying trajectories including TPK, Total Party San Loss, and every single human dying (also during the "good end".) Meanwhile they attend school, suffer failed romances, and pout a lot.

AdEVA mixes these by linking pilot drama to mecha drama through the setting basis. It also does this by Person and EVA scales both being required to advance the plot. The periodic structure of EVA scale incidents, while focused on roleplaying whiny teenagers with severe mental issues, also matches up quite nicely. Combat advances plot, and plot then reinforces combat capacity. The shift between P and E scale is complemented by the nature of the adversary (stupid, almost goonish, even when dealing with the 17th Angel). The plot also has a fairly rigid structure in terms of there only being 16 EVA scale confrontations in the standard plot, with a limited capacity to expand this. There's also a RP social contract that EVA scale incidents which interact with players during Person scale play will not annihilate player capacity for action in a "rocks fall" way.

Partly this is accomplished by an nth player with a disparite capacity for action, who controls "the city" and mecha's bureaucratic apparatus as their "mech." So EVA scale events that should remove character autonomy or agency are instead inflicted more generally on future group capacity for action. "That block of the city collapses, Shinji watches in shocked horror as the towering beast from beyond destroys—but is stunned by an aggressive young woman pulling up in a sports car." Means that Players don't die, but Katsuragi's decision to nuke her own city to save Shinji, will mean that Shinji will be more ineffective in future battles.

The other reason that "rocks don't fall" is that AdEVA runs rather strongly with a "death isn't the end" structure combined with "there are worse losses of player agency than character death"—much worse. Probably the best outcome for an EVA pilot in AdEVA is to die horribly in one of the first 6 angel confrontations. By the last 4 confrontations, character death is probably a better conclusion than any of the other options.

The level of social contract tends to be higher in AdEVA games, partly because the RP is about driving disturbed teenagers insane, killing them in most scenarios, if they survive the fate being worse than death, the meta-plot involving horrific Freudian reveals, and just for laughs a mixture of body horror between mild and extreme. Oh, and fan service. Congratulations!

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Good suggestion. Although if we're going that far out, it's also time to mention the Evangelion-inspired Bliss Stage. It solves the problem with a similar level of teenage-emotion-driven mecha horror plot. swingpad.com/dustyboots/wordpress/index.php?page_id=244 –  Tynam Jun 7 '12 at 17:05

I guess it all boils down to this question: "What do the other player characters do (other than fiddle thumbs) when mech pilots power up their machines?". Here are a few suggestions:

Crews

Mecha are huge and complex machines that require a competent crew of more than one. The characters are the crew of a single mech, with different and interesting duties like piloting, gunnery, sensor operation, power management and damage control.

All-purpose

Mecha are common, abundant and do not require much training. Everybody can pilot a mech of some sort if needed. There are specialized mecha for other duties not related to combat, and non-combatants can do a lot of interesting things with their specialist mecha.

A good example for this would be an extraterrestrial setting with a hazardous environment, where the characters are explorers. Such a hostile environment warrants that any outdoor activity takes has to be with mecha. The characters themselves are too vulnerable.

Taking the idea further, the game could even be about interactions with a sentient alien species that are physically on the same scale as the mecha. The mecha and their pilots may be more than combat machines, able to fulfill social and diplomatic roles.

Balanced scales

While their advantages regarding firepower, speed and endurance are obvious, mecha may also bring a number of flaws to the battlefield in a way that lets infantry grunts still have their uses.

Probably, mecha are huge, and easily targeted across the battlefield, it is not easy to conceal a mech. Infantry are easily concealable, and can spring ambushes even when the mech pilot is aware of their presence somewhere out there. Not to mention that they have advanced weapons that can hurt mecha.

Mecha probably have problems with terrain that is easily navigable by infantry. They are a logistics nightmare, requiring frequent refueling, re-arming and repair. Combat becomes more interesting when an infantry squad faces a mech that only has three autocannon rounds left.

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+1 for crews. I imagine it wouldn't be too difficult to modify and reflavour the rules from Traveller or some other large-vehicle-with-multiple-operators game. Something with a hit location table - assuming that that's your thing. –  GMJoe Feb 14 '12 at 4:03
    
Here's a nice inspiration approach that may work: Infantry well-equipped enough to deal with mecha: youtube.com/watch?v=caiIamHIzBY –  edgerunner Oct 27 '13 at 13:46

One option that you could take is to reduce the "intelligence" and capability of the mechas (whether or not there is somebody clever inside, as the pilot will have to follow procedures anyway).

Write down detailed block diagrams of the main functions of the mechas (scan surroundings, identify friend or foe, move towrds enemy, combat routine, evasive maneuvers...) and, when you roleplay them, follow the procedures to the detail.

This way the players will learn, for example, that mechas move full speed straight in the direction of the first enemy spotted and attack him first, use first long range weapons, then short range weapons, or when they scan the surroundings, look first to the left, short radius, and only then to the right, short radius, etc. all this will create clever escape routes or attack strategies for your players.

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I think you just need to figure out your genre expectations. Clearly, a mecha is going to dominate in situations where a giant walking war machine is called for. That's what it was designed for! If an infantryman were able to handle a threat like that, they wouldn't bother making very expensive robots.

Maybe you just need to make sure that the action parts of your game are all against enemy mecha or giant radioactive lizards and not bother with human-scale fighting.

Another thing to consider is your mecha operation model. If running a mecha is just like being a regular guy (except taller), meaning that your characters use the same "shoot gun" skill as they do while on foot, then the differences between mecha fights and personal fights is just one of context and scenery wreckage. Exalted's warstriders are like this. They're just a tall and strong suit of armor.

On the other hand, if being a mecha pilot is a specialized skill, you'll probably want to play up the differences more. Maybe they have intra-service conflicts with the infantry grunts who like to point out that they're not so tough without their big suit of armor. Cue the drunken brawl at the officers' club.

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Mechs are in some ways similar to historical tanks. In WWII, Infantry (with specialized weapons and tactics) was quite effective against tanks. Of course, tanks were incredibly effective against infantry without specialized weapons and tactics. The most effective units incoprorated infrantry alongside tanks with long range firesupport backing them up. –  TimothyAWiseman Jun 7 '12 at 17:11

I'm going to make the assumption that the size/power of the mech vs the pilot is similar to Robotech or Neon Genesis Evangelion. My thoughts:

  • Pilot's should be squished if trying to fight an NPC meant to fight a mech
  • Mech's should impose huge social penalties if not used VERY carefully.

Have the pilots focus on stealth, diplomacy, and plot advancement. Use the mechs to handle whatever giant villains you like. Using the mechs should be serious business, with huge limitations like:

  • Power Usage (how are they powered)
  • Collateral Damage (pilots will be outcasted/imprisoned if they destroy cities)
  • Expensive repairs (requires specialty tools, materials, the crew to handle it, etc)
  • Social Outcry (people will not sit quietly while mechs dual it out)


Remember, there are certain situations that mechs are not meant to handle. Provide a range of challenges (with appropriate penalties for failure), and you should be able to find a respectable balance.

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+1 for plot advancement and diplomacy when outside the suit. –  OddCore Jan 24 '12 at 8:08
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Yup, the main problem is that it feels too forced/obvious, like when something appears, it feels too much "Oh! It's mecha time!" or "Oh! It's social time!"... But after all, it seems to be this way in mecha series too –  Cristol.GdM Jan 24 '12 at 12:55
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Embrace it, don't fight it. Next time it's mecha-time, secretly hit play on the Power Rangers CD you have hidden under the table. –  Toast Jan 24 '12 at 15:59

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