Robotech: The Role-Playing Game Capsule Review by Darren MacLennan on 11/02/01
Style: 3 (Average)
Substance: 1 (I Wasted My Money)
I metaphorically apply a belt sander to my face yet again by reviewing Robotech: The Role-Playing Game - which was my second role-playing game of all time, and which did hideous damage to my conception of what role-playing was supposed to be for a long, long time.
Product: Robotech: The Role-Playing Game
Author: Kevin Siembieda
Company/Publisher: Palldium Games
Page count: 110
Capsule Review by Darren MacLennan on 11/02/01
Genre tags: Science Fiction Far Future Space Anime Post-apocalyse
A confession: Robotech: The Role-Playing Game, by Palladium, was the second role-playing game that I ever bought, on a trip to the Edmonton mall when I was about eleven. (The Edmonton mall, incidentally, is a great place - or it was when I was there.) I liked the picture of the giant robot on the cover, and the system inside wasn't too different from the basic Dungeons and Dragons game that I already had. (The red-box version, if you're curious.) I'd even managed to play the game with my brother, dragging rules from my own imagination.
Once I had the game, though, I started a rather destructive habit: Buying and playing Palladium games.
Allow me to share an inight that today's gamers are utterly spoiled. If you've just started, you're living in a golden age. You're dealing with about twenty years worth of gaming evolution, going from complex gaming to simple, going from strictly simulationist games to games that have a wide range of possibility, going from combat-based games to games that can, again, be just about anything.
Not that you'd know any of this from reading through Robotech: The RPG, since it's metaphorically coated in dust from 1978. There is little to no evidence that there's evolution taking place at Palladium - as a matter of fact, there never has. Palladium has survived on a steady diet of providing twinkery to munchkins in the form of RIFTS, which offers - well, World of Synnibarr with a slightly better pedigree. Robotech is just the start of this, insofar as I'm concerned.
If I sound bitter, it's because I am.
As I've read, the Robotech series was a major factor in bringing anime to America - supposedly, it used to be really popular during the eighties. Unfortunately, I lived in an area - North Dakota - where Robotech came on at about six-thirty in the morning, an hour that I'm aware of only because other people have told me about it. (I tend to sleep late.) When I did see an episode of it, I wasn't terrifically impressed, but they were into the marriage between Max and Miriya Sterling, which wasn't exactly the kind of pulse-pounding action I was into when I was eight. Also, I still thought romance was icky at that age.
However, I was able to read the sterling Jack McKinney Robotech novels, which were utterly perfect adaptations of the original source material that managed to add much onto them besides. (Southern Cross just couldn't be helped, but...) If you wonder why I went ahead and bought those novels - besides the fact that they're excellent - it's because I needed them to even get a toehold in the game. I say it again: There is almost no information about the setting within the book itself. There is no detail of the Robotech war, or how it got started, or the trip that the SDF-1 took home from Pluto, or how the SDF-1 ended the war - you get the general idea. This is all crucial information in understanding of Robotech as a whole, permeating your understanding of these war machines and the people that fly them. There is information on the events during the reconstruction of earth, a period notable in Robotech history for being completely glanced over.
(An excuse that I've heard is that when it was written, the Robotech TV series was all over the airwaves, and therefore there was no need for background information within the book. This is a good explanation, but does not speak well on the behalf of the designers.)
You know, when you pick up Tribe 8, or Heavy Gear, or Battletech, and you see pages and pages of information on how the Clans are structured, or the fights between the North and the South, or the horrors of the Z'bri and how they affected the various Tribes, be grateful. Be grateful that you bought something from companies who actually give a damn about what they do. Because I am staring into the cold mouth of Hell when I read Robotech role-playing game, essentially.
The opening chapters set up the system of Robotech; there's a brief explanation of what a role-playing game is - but the example of how to role-play, while technically competent, deals with Rick Hunter dealing with a pair of micronized Zentraedi who are robbing a bank, rather than fifty-foot tall mecha kicking the hell out of each other in Macross City. Failure of imagination? Yeah, especially when you're dealing with anime - anime, for crying out loud. Flurries of missles and epic spacecraft combat rule the day, and Palladium's idea of how best to represent it is a petty bank robbery.
Am I nitpicking?
Yes. Yes, I am. This is because there is very little advice in this book on how to actually role-play, but I'm getting ahead of myself.
The opening chapter dives directly into the system itself, which is essentially AD&D with a lick of paint - and I do mean a lick, because not much has changed.
The dice rolling is a touch quirky - if you roll a sixteen, seventeen, or eighteen on a roll of 3d6 for character generation, you get to roll another six-sided dice and tack it on - that means that you can, hypothetically, have up to 24 points in a single stat. Is this unbalancing? I'd say so; instead of a range of 1-18, there's a range of 1-whatever. There's no real upper range to the system - well, probably about 30 or so - but there's no way of telling how much prettier somebody with a Physical Beauty of, say, 14 is than a character with a Physical Beauty of 8. Or how much uglier than somebody with a Physical Beauty of 30 is.
There's absolutely no way to make an attribute check in this game; it all comes down to a skill percentage, which is fixed and goes up per level. More on the skill system later, but I can tell you that the lack of an attribute check system is a major mistake in just about any game system that purports to be fairly generic. (There are exceptions, to be sure, but since Palladium is AD&D with a lick of paint - well, you get the idea. They should have this kind of system, especially if they're just getting intro players into this game.)
There's a dry little table that lists your bonuses for various items, although it doesn't make much sense - for example, a high P.B (Physical Beauty) gives you a "bonus to charm/impress", but the actual chart lists a simple percentage - 35%, 40% and so on. I assume that you're just supposed to roll under it, or something along those lines. Players of 1st and 2nd edition AD&D will be familiar with this stuff, but they had the excuse that they came first and were dragging a lot of old-system deadweight; Palladium actually copied this stuff on purpose. This is not an auspicious start.
Same thing with the insanity tables and their layout. There's insanity tables about eleven pages into this book. Please note that the number of characters who have gone insane in any Robotech series can be counted on one hand, presuming that the hand has been been playing chicken with a stationary industrial fan. Insofar as I can remember, nobody in Robotech has ever become schizophrenic, kleptomaniac, manic-depressive or become a raging alcoholic. Lisa Hayes had depressive jags, but that's part of her character. Why is this information included in the book? Maybe because Palladium wanted to make Robotech more adult; on the other hand, any of these mental illnesses stands a good chance of ruining the game - they just don't fit with Robotech's kid-friendly, anime-based setting.
There's actual levels in this game. Gained through experience points. Enough said. You can even multiclass once you hit third level, although I doubt that there's any benefit gained by such an action - if you're a Veritech pilot, why multiclass as a Communications Engineer? Why not just pick some skills when you hit fourth level or so?
Speaking of which, the skill system is a disaster. Everybody starts out being equally good at any given skill - everybody with First Aid starts out with it at 50%, and will automatically gain 6% every time that they level up. The same applies for every other skill. You do get a bonus for certain skills if you're a particular occupation, most of them dealing with your military specialty, but every first level Mechanical Engineer will have the same stats as every other first level Mechanical Engineer. The only way to increase a skill is to have a high I.Q score, which parcels out a measly little bonus - usually around 4-6% for potential ranges of skill. In just about every other game system that I can remember, there was always some way to specialize - even in ancient games like Twilight 2000, if I remember correctly. Not so in this game.
There's also physical education programs. Here, I find myself torn between two possibilities. Each physical education program ups your stats by a varying amount, giving you bonuses to hit, bonuses to your hit points and SDC - and, most importantly, bonuses to your attributes. When you're used to the "frozen" attributes of the original D&D system, being able to alter your stats is like manna from heaven. On the other hand, it's a twink's paradise.
Take Body Building:( 2 P.S (Strength), 10 SDC),
Boxing ( 1 to Parry/Dodge and Roll with Punch, 2 to P.S and 3d6 SDC),
Gymnastics ( 1 to Roll, 1 to P.S, 1 to P.P (Dexterity), 3d6 SDC)
and Wrestling ( 1 to Roll, 1 to P.S, 1 to P.E (Constitution) and 4d6 to SDC) and you wind up with - let's see - 11d6 SDC, 5 to your P.S, and a handful of miscellanous bonuses.
That's enough to take a weak character from a modest score, of, say, nine to a healthy fifteen - or to take a P.S of, say, 21 and pump it up to an inhumanly strong 26. It's not quite as bad as I remember, and you're fortunately not able to stack a repeated application of a single program to get the benefits, but there should have been some balancing mechanism included to prevent people from abusing this stuff. Me, I used to take "Wrestling" more than once and turn my characters into monsters, so it's not as if it's difficult to do this stuff.
Worse yet, you're forced to repeatedly flip back and forth between the skill lists and the OCC. Including the skill percentages next to the OCC templates would have speeded up creating a character immensely, but there was apparently some kind of licensing conflict between the two parts of the book, so that nothing from the beginning could appear later on. Or something, since I can't think of any other way that that'd happen.
Robotech also has character classes, which seems an awfully odd choice for a setting like Robotech. Besides the standard Veritech pilot, there's fun choices like Communications Engineer, or Electronics Engineer. I believe that absolutely nobody in the known Robotech universe was an Electronics Engineer, save for Louie Nichols - from Southern Cross - and there have never been Communications Engineers within the series either. The Field Scientist character class isn't bad for characters of a scientific bent, and the Military Specialist is basically a fancy name for a general soldier. But if you're not interested in being a Destroid pilot - if you want to play a journalist, or a singer, or a freedom fighter, or any of the million other potential occupations within the Robotech universe, you're fresh out of luck. (There are rules for playing Zentraedi, though.)
Even more amusingly, while there are skills for repairing mecha, there's no rules for them whatsoever. It's a percentage skill with no accompanying system. Say that you get hit with a couple of Zentraedi laser blasts and you want to repair your own mecha because everybody else is tied up, or because, say, you're on another planet. Wanna know how much MDC you can repair in an hour with the right tools? Good luck. That information isn't contained in the basic Robotech rules, which seems important - it is, after all, the basic reason Mechanical Engineers exist. Invid Invasion has some decent rules for this stuff, if you feel like shelling out $10 for information that should, by all rights, be in the main book. (The fact that it also covers another setting entirely is just an extra kick in the nuts for loyal Palladium fans.) If the Robotech Defense Force is responsible for repairing all of your mecha, fine - that's legitimate. But don't include an OCC whose sole purpose is to repair mecha and then not include any rules for it.
Palladium also has the dubious distinction of creating a split between your physical life force - your hit points - and your basic ability to absorb toughness, which is represented in the form of your S.D.C. S.D.C, one of Palladium's innumerable and unnecessary acronyms for a term that clunks like a lead coin. Essentially, the average character gets hit points equivalent to his P.E (Physical Endurance) plus a D6, and S.D.C dictated by his Occupational Character Class, which ranges from 20 to 35 or so. The average character can survive, say, forty points of damage from various sources, which is a nice switch from the one hit-point wizard from D&D. (I know that Star Wars does this, but I don't think that the system is as clunky as Palladium's.
However, in a development that everybody - except the folk at Palladium games - saw coming, the hit point system is incredibly open to abuse. A 7.65mm Walther does 2d6 per bullet, a .45 does 4d6 or so. A first level Veritech pilot - and that sounds as weird to me as it does to you - with a P.E of 10 will have about 35 hit points, enough to soak maybe three or four bullets - more if needed. But once you get more S.D.C, you start getting cockier, since there's no way that a single bullet can kill you. I remember reading something in one of the Palladium's house journals about somebody intimidating bad guys by shooting himself in the head with a .45 - with his high S.D.C, he couldn't possibly die, and the damage was relatively trivial. Instead of providing a way to soak minor damage, Palladium essentially created massive hit point inflation. Is it just for twinks? No, because if the players know that they can soak a fair amount of damage, they can jump into a gunfight knowing that they can take at least one gunshot before they're dead. Let me rephrase that: They can easily break any standoff situation by just grabbing at a gun, since they can easily take at least two gunshots before they're dead. Jumping into a gunfight could be more lethal since you can take more than a single hit in a single round. I don't entirely feel comfortable with the mechanic, let's put it that way - and especially in an anime games, where most characters are either kicking everything's ass or looking for a dramatic way to die.
Are they to blame for creating an easy-to-abuse mechanic, ripe for twinkage? Yes and no. No because every system, with the possible exception of Chaosium's Basic Role-Playing System. Yes, because SDC doesn't really work as it's described. The ability to soak damage with Consitutition, or a similar stat, is what they're after - what they're getting instead is a bunch of extra hit points that allow characters to take a lot of damage before they're actually in trouble. Gunshot wounds become an annoyance, rather than a lethal threat.
In - I think that it was the Big Palladium Book of Weapons and Combat - Siembeida created a new rule that said something to the effect that gunshot wounds inflict half of their damage to S.D.C and half to hit points, which makes them much, much more lethal, but which has the potential to cripple more cinematic games. Of course, since it's very likely that this rule hasn't even been reprinted, and since it's also much more likely that Palladium will update their system at about the same time the earth crashes into the sun, I don't think that it makes much difference. (In a good game, of course, the GM will crack down on this kind of twinkery - but this assumes that this isn't the GM's first product, which it most likely is. A lot of kids like Robotech.)
Then there's M.D.C - Mega-Damage Capacity - which was a good idea that was grossly mishandled in later products. In Robotech, most of the characters are piloting enormous war machines, and those war machines don't tend to take a lot of damage from the everyday weapons that you can find on the street - guns, clubs, knives, etc. So, instead of normal hit points or S.D.C, Veritechs, Destroids, and Zentraedi Battle Pods have M.D.C. Anything that inflicts S.D.C damage can't even touch a vehicle that has M.D.C; it's just too tough. However, a single point of M.D.C is about a hundred points worth of S.D.C damage.
I'm going to start typing them as SDC and MDC before the period key on my keyboard wears out from the strain.
In game terms, this works pretty well - the average robot can stomp a car easily, and an average human can't sit there wailing on a Veritech with a baseball bat and actually get results. I was going to go off on a tear about how much damage a laser pistol inflicts until I realized that Robotech - thankfully - hadn't decided to do the whole laser-pistol-that-does-more-damage-than-a-bazooka schtick. There are handheld laser weapons, and they do damage, but it's well within reason to have them do SDC damage rather than MDC.
The combat system is, simply put, ripped off from D&D; you roll a d20, trying to beat the whopping target number of five.
I repeat here once again, just in case you think that's a typo: five.
You'll hit three-quarters of the time in this game simply by virtue of being there - and with various bonuses to strike, the odds of you not hitting are almost nil. In order to dodge, all that you have to do is roll above your opponent's "to hit" score.
I keep thinking how this is bad - is it because it's monstrously easy to strike, and because dodging is a matter of pure luck? Something like that. Most of the strategy comes from determining what weapons to use on what; in just about every mecha, you've got a wide array of weapons to shoot at your enemies. Since you get more than a single attack per round of combat, you can do more than just using a single weapon on a single target. Three attacks? Shoot your mecha's cannon twice and launch a volley of missiles at a single battlepod. Or launch two volleys and your head laser. If you notice a distinct lack of enthusiasm here, it's because I really, really don't want to go through the godawful mess of making a character and running him through a quick combat with whoever. Some other kind soul - or perhaps a Palladium fan - could help me out.
I can't really be too hard on the combat system, ultimately. It also has the problem of not simulating the original source material from which it draws. In Robotech - the animated series - I'm informed by a friend that the average Zentraedi battlepod blows up with a single good shot from a GRU-11, the standard battle rifle that the Veritech comes with. This keeps combat fast and fairly nonlethal for the RDF's side.
According to the rules, however, this is never going to happen. The standard battle pod has an MDC of 50; the GRU-11 only inflicts 1d6 x 10 damage when you fire it for a full melee round. In other words, we have a combat system that's specifically tuned for long, drawn-out conflicts to simulate a series where short, brutal combat is the order of the day. Missiles are pretty destructive, but there's only so many of them, and they'll very likely run out once you get into a serious combat.
The mecha themselves take up a huge portion of this book, carefully annotated in Palladium's "bold, underline, italic, bold, italic" format. I shouldn't be complaining, since the layout here is quite clean. Of course, there's also the minor difficulty that they're not entirely faithful to the feel and scope of the game that they portrayed.
A quick aside: Robotech's Destroids were very likely inspirations for the Battletech game, especially since the designs of a lot of Destroids and the like showed up in one of the boxed sets. The Marauder, for example, is a carbon copy of the Zentraedi Officer's Battle Pod. However, I'm also under the impression that the designs weren't copyrighted, or something along those lines. Anybody who knows anything about the situation is welcome to chime in on the sassback forums.
In any case, I was under the impression that the Veritechs were essentially useful weapons to the RDF, but hardly the mainstay - after all, there were only four of them, but there were at least six Destroids of immense firepower potential. (You haven't seen a hardcore mech until you see the MAC II "Monster". ) Of course, this is exactly counter to the way that the series goes. The Veritechs are the indispensable workhorses of the RDF, capable of fighting just about anywhere - including deep space - while the Destroids see use in the series about...twice, I think. (Most of their uses involve marching them to the ends of the SDF-1's arms and cutting loose when the SDF stuck its arm into something.) But they get a substantial number of pages devoted to them anyways, just about equal to the Veritechs themselves.
The question that arises is: Why? They're nice vehicles, of course, and I like the looks of them, but they're essentially tanks to the Veritech's helicopters. Leaving their stats out might provoke some complaints, but it'd be easier to minimize their stats and stick them in the back of the book. The Destroids get just as much page space as the Veritech section - and the Veritech section is mostly taken up with gigantic pictures of the Veritechs in different poses, each of them featuring - get this - their own distinctive laser head-turrets.
These pictures are full page. Palladium could have easily used this wasted space on damned near anything else, ranging from the tactical role of the Veritech fighter to combined-arms tactics with Destroids to a brief history of the Robotech saga to the themes and ideas behind the Robotech series to more characters to a more in-depth examination of the Zentraedi to potential adventure seeds to anything else you'd care to find in a role-playing game made by, you know, a better company. Nope. Big, dumb art rules the day here.
There's also - and I believe that nobody in the known universe wanted to see this - a bunch of vehicles that made brief appearances within the series, ranging from the utterly useless - an RDF motorcycle and helicopter - to the silly - a trio of fighter jets that'll more than likely never show up in your games - to the potentially useless but badly misused, like the A.R.M.D space stations. The A.R.M.D space stations, I should note, lasted about a minute apiece against the Zentraedi fleet. For those of you who like their excitement white-hot, there's a suggestion of allowing the characters to control the multiple weapon systems of the A.R.M.D platform, picking their targets at will. If you can reduce your players to acting as glorified firing control systems for an enormous station, man, you've definitely arrived. Mix some bleach and ammonia in a closed room to celebrate.*
To be fair, there's also a pair of suggestions counter to this - one of them to have the player's mecha engaged in close combat on the surface of the platform, another suggesting the players going renegade and fighting the platform for some reason, which will last all of two seconds once the GM realizes that the platform's weaponry can atomize even the toughest mecha in the space of a second. Ultimately, this section comes down to wasted space.
You may be thinking "Well, it's bad, sure, but it's also pretty old. Shouldn't he be giving it credit for what it does right?" No. For two reasons: Number one, because even for an old game, it's bad, and it doesn't do much right. Number two - and this is the real kick in the nuts - the book that I have is a reprint from 1992. If I remember correctly. Palladium just doesn't seem to have the interest in updating this thing in any way, shape or form. Compare to any other product line that old; even AD&D has updated twice. Palladium's entire system hasn't been updated since its inception, insofar as I know.
I write this as an education for naive role-players who are interested in Robotech and are giving this product the eyeball. Do not. Go buy Big Eyes, Small Mouth and Cool Robots, Big Starships, or whatever the mecha supplement is called. Leave this godawful turkey on the shelf. As an introductory game, it is pure drivel; as a product for more experienced gamers, it's a few tiny bits of goodness wrapped around a solid core of useless information.
I do not know if this is a fair review of this product or not. I wrote it over a long period, forcing myself to wade through the interior, tried to make sense out of the combat system. I didn't playtest it - well, I playtested it a long time ago, and there wasn't much good stuff to it. I blame Palladium for dragging me away from better games. I blame Robotech for giving me a lousy example of what a role-playing game can be. I blame myself for not forcing myself to pull this thing apart further.
I'll leave the review here, like Excalibur. Feel free to pull it out and give it a shine job if you think that you can add something on. :->
* Do not do this. It will create chlorine and kill you. I only found this out about four months ago. No, I didn't find out the hard way, smart guy.