Reviewing Lancer, the Mecha TTRPG.

This article begins with John completing a time machine and traveling back to the year 2006. John appears in their childhood bedroom with their Fourteen Year Old Self [from now referenced as 14].

John: I’ve come from the future to ask you some questions. I’m struggling to review this book. 

Holds up Lancer, the 2020 Mecha TTRPG from Massif Press. Funded on kickstarter in 2019 to the tune of $432,029 on the back of a long beta-phase, facilitated by the Lancer subreddit, and the vibrant illustrations of Tom Parkinson Morgan. 

John doesn’t tell this to 14 because it would take too long to explain that in the future, people could have a job like that and make that kind of money. And if 14 knew, then the entire trajectory of their life would change.

14: Makes sense. It’s really big. What’s a Lancer?

John: Like 500 pages, but It’s not important. It’s like a Gundam.

14: Like Gundam SD? Zaku Zaku hour?

John: No.

14: Like G Gundam? With the horse guy?

John: No. I thought you were cooler than this.

14: Shrugs. So it’s just a mecha thing? Mechs are cool. That art’s really sick. Can I be that guy on the front?

John: Ideally. It’s like 4th Edition. Has that come out yet? Nevermind, you’ll like it. Here. Hands 14 the book. I want you to read through it and tell me what you think.

14 opens the book, flipping a few pages, then cuts the book in half, flipping quickly through the front and middle.

John: What’s that? What’re you doing?

14: I never read the front stuff. I tried with D20 Modern but it’s all just kinda boring. I wanna make a mech. In the Naruto D20 game we played, making your ninja was the best part.

John and 14 sit on the floor with some paper and make their mechs.

John: It says here that all new players start with the same basic frame, the Everest.

14 flips to the Everest.

14: There’s no picture for it.

John: Well, my guess is that they let you make it look however you want since everyone starts with it.

14: The others have pictures though, and look how cool they are. The Blackbeard, the Drake, the Nelson. I wanna be the Nelson. Look at the cape!

John: Can you make sense of the stats and stuff? 

14: I mean, it mostly makes sense. I don’t know what Repair Cap is. Or Heat or anything like that. But the traits are cool. Boost is probably an action. Immobilized or Slowed make sense as conditions. And the Skirmisher ability is so cool. I’m like, gliding through the battlefield with a spear, cutting down mechs and backflipping away.

John: Okay so… 

John bookmarks page 140 with a finger and flips back to page 30. They do this several times before reading through to page 36.

John: Um, ah, I see. So these things are your stats.

14: What’s Hull?

John: That’s like your strength. It says “Roll Hull when smashing through or pulverizing obstacles.” But you won’t know what your Hull bonus is until you make your pilot. They get mech skill points to put into your mech stats. We need more bookmarks if we’re gonna do this..

14: Mom’s got the printer. A lot of pdfs are like that so I just print off the important pages. You really only need like 20 of them to figure out the game.

John: Speed is movement. Evasion is kind of like Armor Class. Sensor is your range to detect enemies and use hacking things on them. E-Defense is Armor Class for hacking. Heat is like HP for hacking. Stress is like Structure but for hacking. Structures and Stress are, like, if you drop to 0HP, you lose a Structure and regain all HP and kinda do it all over again. So it’s like extra lives, except you might get a scar or something. Same for Stress.

14: Mom’s got the printer.

14 sits at a buzzing computer while the printer spits out some pages in black and white, jagged from the low ink. John reads about combat.

John: Do you still have the old gundam figurines? I think we put them in the basement. I don’t remember when.

14: I’m not sure, why?

John: First of all, don’t let mom throw them away. She’s gonna throw away a lot of stuff that you’ll wish you still had when you get to where I am. Secondly, we can use them for combat. It’s grid-based, so we’ll have to figure that out. Get a map or something.

14: I hate grids.

John ignores 14 and continues to read.

14: Figure all that out yet?

John: Yeah, I think so. I think it’s actually really simple, just that everything’s spread out. You’re just rolling D20-plus-stuff against the static numbers to see if you hit. Then your attachments can raise the static numbers. Accuracy and Difficulty are like additional modifiers that can happen with cover or if you’re affected by a status. It’s just like D&D. But with mechs.

14: It does just kinda give you a buncha numbers.

John: We also just flipped to the mechs though. 

14: That’s why we’re here though, right? I don’t want to read about all this random stuff. I want to take the mechs and play the game in as little time as possible. If I have to sit and explain all this to the group, they’re gonna be so bored. They’d rather play Star Wars or something.

John: You think it would be better if you opened the book and it was just mechs right up front?

14: It sounds kinda silly when you say it like that. It’s more that, it being a big book you already know it’s going to be boring, right? They always are. I feel like the good version of such a big, mecha book is that it would be filled with mechs. It should be filled with pre-built pilots and just, like, the rules for making your own if you want to. The art is so cool, why would you want to start by building your own mech when you could pick this cool gunslinger one? If I opened this book and it was just like “pick a pilot and pick your mech, here’s a grid so you can fight and here’s the one page with all the basic rules on it,” then I could play it right now and we wouldn’t be sitting here waiting for these pages to print.

John: Would it make you feel any different if I told you this was made by just two people? 

14: What? Really? Why?

John: Well, not only two people. Miguel Lopez and Tom Parkinson Morgan wrote and designed the whole thing. Tom and a bunch of others did the art. It was edited by Melody Watson and the layout was done by Minerva McJanda. 

14: I don’t know who any of those people are.

John: It was a small team, is what I’m trying to say.

The printer whirs to a stop.

14: But look, I just put together the important parts so that we can actually play. And I’m fourteen.

14 and John continue talking, sitting at the dining room table.

John: What about the GM section? Won’t you need it to run the game?

14: No. I’ve seen Gundam Seed. I’ll just do that but with, like, a Death Star or something.

John: Just take a look. I want your opinion on it.

14: GM Principles. Facilitate fun, no duh. Renounce control? That’s a no brainer. Just last week the group killed the big bad in the Star Wars campaign in the first session. Funniest shit that’s ever happened.

John: Haha, I remember that.

14: Consider your players… I’m sorry, but what is this? Is this book trying to teach me how to be a good friend to my friends?

John: Well, maybe you’re not playing with friends?

14: Why would I do that? And why would playing with strangers make me act like a jerk all of a sudden? 

John: Shrugs. Remember that game at the card shop when that new worker ran a game and was killing everyone’s characters for fun?

14: Yeah…that sucked. But that guy was just a jerk. He got fired for stealing Magic cards or something, I think.

John: Well, maybe the idea is that if this is in the book, stuff like that won’t happen or can be stopped. Y’know, like a kid reading this might feel comfortable enough to speak up.

14: The only reason we didn’t speak up was because he was an adult. We knew he was a jerk the whole time, we just wanted it to be over so we could go do something else. Maybe if adults weren’t assholes things would be better.

John: I understand. 

Beat. 

John: I kinda like the questions here under Eliciting Responses. Those are actionable and could be nice for awkward pauses.

14: Yeah, those are alright.

14 and John sit at the table having just finished making pilots.

John: How’d you like that?

14: That was kinda fun. The pilot portraits are really cool. There’s a lot of cool art in here that makes me really want to be those people. The backgrounds remind me of D20 Modern but they’re actually useful here. I like the Triggers and I want to make a bunch of them. I can’t wait to see what the group ends up making. 

John: My favorite part is that all skill checks are just trying to beat a 10. I’ve stolen that for some of my own games.

14: Wait, you make games?

John: Yeah. It’s sort of why I’m doing this interview with you.

14: Oh, so this is your job?

John: No, this is just sort of a compulsion. But my job is making games. I’ve made a few.

14: That’s really cool. I didn’t even know that could be a job.

John: You’re gonna like it. It’ll be a while before it happens though. You’ve gotta go through some things first.

14: But yeah, I really like the pilot stuff. I could honestly see us using that for its own game. I don’t know, my mind has like six different ideas for a campaign right now. You could use this as like pilots for fighter planes, or race cars, or like even some kind of Code Lyoko situation.

John: Is that important to you? Being able to reuse ideas or think of new ways to use what’s in the book?

14: Well…I think it’s more that the book showed me an easy way to make ideas I already had into a reality. Like, we always wanted to run a zombie game, but with D&D it didn’t feel right. After we read D20 Apocalypse though, it felt more natural.

John: That’s a good thought. What about Section 2: Missions and Downtime?

14: I probably won’t use any of it. 

John: Why not?

14: I don’t know. Like I said before, I’ve seen Gundam. I already know the stories I want to have. I think that’s the easiest part. 

John: What’s the hard part then?

14: Um, maps, enemies. Cool rival pilots. Things that give me more ideas. I don’t really need it to tell me how to do a mission or whatever. I’ve watched Saving Private Ryan and I’ve played Medal of Honor, so… the only thing missing is the inspiration. Stuff I couldn’t think about by just sitting and watching T.V.

John: And what about the downtime actions?

14: I don’t know. 

John: No opinions? 

14: Shrugs. Same answer, I guess.

John: Do you think the rest of the book is used well?

14: I don’t really know what you mean by “used well.” But it’s a lot of information to parse. They can’t expect I’ll read this all at once, or even read it all before I play the game. There’s so many templates and different types of NPCs. Tons of symbols for weapons and attacks. It’s just a lot of information that my brain can’t really make sense of right now. 

John: Do you wish it were simplified?

14: I think we both agree that the game is rather simple, the actual rules are easy to learn, but the way it’s presented makes it hard to grasp. 

John: Yeah, I agree. But when I actually stop to read any of it, the ideas are pretty good and usable. Like, reading the Sniper NPC gives me an idea for an encounter. But you’re right, it is A LOT. But I don’t think it’s any more or less than, say, what the Monster Manual has, for instance.

14: Yeah, but there’s so many optional things. The Monster Manual really just gives you one instance of a thing, so you can take out, like, a dragon, and just use it right then. You don’t have to build it or be selective about it. I don’t really know if one way of doing it is better, I just know that I feel overwhelmed by the book right now and will probably just make a lot of stuff up on the fly as we play.

John: I understand. 

Beat.

John: I wish mom would take you to the doctor.

14: Huh? Why?

John: It’s nothing. There’s so many things I wish I could tell you. There’s so many things you’ll learn between now and when you become me. And you’ll wish that maybe someone paid more attention. So many things that would help you make sense of who you are and how your brain works.

14: Wait, are you gonna cry?

John: No, no. 

14 and John run a few rounds of combat, just the two of them. 14 pilots the Nelson, decked out with a Custom Paint Job, Expanded Compartment, and Manipulators. The last of 14’s SP is spent to get the Type-1 Flight System. So now the Nelson counts as flying while it boosts towards enemies, War Pike at the ready. Sides strapped with two pistols and a shotgun in case things get hairy.

John builds out Horus’s Pegasus model but doesn’t use it for the combat. Instead, they control a few squads of infantry and an Archer NPC with the Flier Ship Template. John sets the scene: 14 is sent behind enemy lines to take out a ship that holds a nuclear armament. It’s set to leave the atmosphere this evening and must be grounded.

The fight is slow and methodical. They listen to the Halo 2 Movement Suite the entire time.

John: That was fun.

14: Yeah, that was epic. I don’t normally like tactical combat, but it kinda makes sense with mechs. It’d be really fun to, like, be the pilot and do Gundam Wing stuff before getting into this big conflict that’s, like, really intense.

John: I bet it might get a little monotonous with the whole group here.

14: Naw. I think it’ll be even better with more people. You can use strategy and talk to each other about where you’re gonna go and who you’re gonna attack. Coordinate stuff. I’m sure there’s a limit to how many people you can add before it’s too much, but that’s true of everything.

John: Good point.

14: I can’t wait to play some more tonight.

14 and John sit quietly for a moment.

John: Well I should really get back. Do you think I should leave the book with you or take it back with me?

14: If you need it, you can keep it.

John: It’s your choice, kid. I came here for you.

14: I’ll definitely keep it then.

John hands over the book to 14. They don’t hug or anything. They just stand there as awkward mirrors of each other.

John: So, you like it after all?

14: Yeah. It’s really cool. I’ll probably read it all some day. Or not. I’ll probably just make up the stuff that makes my brain all fuzzy.

John: Good plan.

John says goodbye to 14 and steps back through into the present. When they return, on their desk is a beat-up copy of Lancer. The pages are torn, some removed completely. Spine bent. Water damaged. Notes written in the margins. Black marker crosses out enough to make it look like poetry. 

Atop it sits a solitary Gundam figurine, waiting.

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