I’ve often wondered when I’d open the door to the realm of in-game violence for our son. Up to now we’ve played RPGs that either don’t have a combat system, or that just aren’t about physical conflict. I’ve known for a long time I was going to hold off on introducing him to the play culture of D&D until he’s older for, well, reasons. Suffice it to say that I wanted to turn him on to a variety of games before introducing him to the 800 pound gorilla. And I wanted him to experience lots of ways to play, so he doesn’t get the idea that RPGs are just one thing.
And, fundamentally he’s a gentle soul. He might talk trash when his character pilots a mech, but in real life he’s gotten soaked with rain while saving worms from drowning in mud puddles. He’s that kind of sweet, big-hearted kid.
Recently he’s gotten into the idea of BattleTech thanks to looking through my old battered boxed set. (One of my favorite things about Xander is that if he likes something, he doesn’t care if it’s shiny or new, or if anyone else gives a crap about it.)
It got me thinking… maybe it’s time. Maybe the boy trapped at home who can’t see his buddies could use a power fantasy. Maybe it’s time for him to kick a little ass.
And so last week I started looking around for a light Mech game and I rediscovered The Mecha Hack. I read through the player-facing rules with Xan, dragged Mom into the mix, and we were off and running…
I have a good buddy who always says let’s roll up characters! no matter the system. It’s dead charming. It always makes me think of those lazy summer afternoons of playing when I was a kid. And, yes, since The Mecha Hack is based on the OSR game The Black Hack, you do some Stat rolling.
Xander naturally ended up busting the curve with some sweet rolls, while my wife barely scratched out a 12 on 3d6 as her highest stat. There was no fudging, but I did let them put the rolls on whatever abilities they wanted to. Not surprisingly, Xander roided-up his combat-facing abilities (Power & Mobility), so he can swagger into a firefight with a lot of confidence. I’m here to tell you, Dear Reader, that a chest thumping little boy is a happy little boy.
SETTING THE STAGE
Since Dad doesn’t really know that much about BattleTech, he’s taking it easy on himself and using the off the shelf Mecha Hack setting. It’s a little thumbnail of a thing, but well thought out:
Ages ago, the humans of a dwindling Earth sent three massive colony ships through a space-time fissure on the outer edges of the Solar System. Two of those ships survived the trip and arrived in a far-flung star system with habitable worlds and unknown constellations. Those early Terran colonists uncovered ancient alien technology that allowed them to develop the mighty reactors that would power the backbone of their culture – the mecha. These massive, mechanized exosuits built the cities and settlements of a new home spread throughout the livable planets and moons surrounding the newfound yellow giant star, which would come to be known as Lodestar Alpha.
The colonists lived in relative peace for centuries, united under the rule of a noble clan called the Neo Dominion. Then, without warning, the third colony ship arrived through the space-time rift, several centuries late. Commanding unfathomable alien technology, these newcomers called themselves the Aeonic Primacy, and immediately set to work conquering and subjugating the people of Lodestar Alpha. Though human, the Aeons were alien in their methods and motives, and they quickly overpowered the militarized forces of the Neo Dominion through the use of an ancient portal system called the Verilian Tunnels.
So you’ve got the plucky Terran Collective, which our heroes belong to, versus the Aeonic Primacy, with the Neo Dominion as an intriguing frenemy. And, there’s one more wrinkle. The portal system was actually sealed off for millennia, and acted as a prison for dreadful Kaiju creatures called the Voidmaw. Now that the portals are open again, the Voidmaw have been loosed on the world.
Xander is playing a character called Starian, with a blinged out Mech called Star. He insisted last week at the point of tears that he draw his own mech. Since this is all about growing and supporting his imagination, I was happy to agree. The Terran Collective house style is plowshares to swords, though, so we decided that Star was captured from the Neo Dominion. (A good plot wrinkle for later!) Starian’s archetype is Commander, which brings with it the ability to give actions to allies and some cool protective moves that may never get invoked. In keeping with his go big or go home aesthetic, Xander choose the Titan template. His mech is big and tough, and has the largest hit die in the game. Interestingly, though, it doesn’t do the most damage. He also decided to take the Super Reactor module, a really mature choice. Basically it means he can drive his mech really freaking hard before it overheats.
My wife, Deanna, plays Thumper, destined (I fear) to be the sidekick in the Starian show. Thumper is built with the Engineer archetype which comes with some really handy repair abilities. Deanna chose the Scout chassis which gives her a cloaking field and ambush ability to play around with. The Scout is a nice balance for Starian’s Titan. To make up for the Scout’s lack of hit points, she wisely selected an armor repair module, the Nano Shroud.
AND, THEY’RE OFF…
There’s one thing I knew I wanted to do with this campaign: start it with a bang, but I also wanted to give everyone a chance to get familiar with the rules. So I fell back on a time-honored conceit: the Simulation!
I set the stage with a briefing from an irritated CO, and then they were off. I had a nice big OGRE battlemap set up for them, so I think it looked like we were going to start with a civilized little 2-on-2 mech bashing, but I had a few more tricks up my sleeve than that…
As we began the Sim plunged them into a hangar bay on a half-destroyed drop-ship. Thumper tried, unsuccessfully, to get the crew to abandon ship once her scan revealed that the bridge was toast. They both avoided getting smashed by flying hunks of debris. Starian got them out of the ship by smashing through the drop doors. (This was my moment to introduce them to ability tests.)
After successfully landing dirtside, they have it out with a couple of enemy mechs of roughly similar ability and power level. NPC mechs are rated by Hit Dice, and PC mechs are rated by Level. Matching HD with Level should, in theory, create a balanced encounter.
Instead it played out more like rich man, poor man. At Star’s controls, Starian shrugged off attacks, closed in, and pummeled the other two mechs into submission without getting a scratch. Even with her cloaking/ambush combo, Thumper couldn’t seem to actually hit anything. When she whiffed on an attack, she’d get rocked with a counterattack. Even with her Nano Shroud, the Scout felt underpowered.
Just when they thought everything was wrapping up, the wrecked mech at Star’s feet sank into the sand only to be replaced by a hideous Voidmaw spawnling. (Played nicely by a LEGO octopus.) The spawnling managed to rough Star up a bit, and it was Xander’s first moment of taking damage. It was an interesting wake-up call. I think up to then he’d felt invulnerable. He was also surprised when the injured spawnling caused more damage with its acid blood. (I could see the wheels turning… “oh, the bad guys have different abilities.”)
It took a little doing, thanks to some subpar rolling, but they managed to best the Voidmaw spawnling… only to discover that back in the real word, their base was under attack!
So, we ended on a nice little cliffhanger.
I very much want this game to be about more than mech smashing, so I’m GMing this the way I do everything else: ask questions, weave the answers into the game.
Luckily the home table is into story-telling, so generating narrative is second nature to them. When prompted, Deanna and Xander each came up with cool ideas for their “pit crew.” Deanna said her guy is called Mother, and we decided that he’s a world weary tech who’s seen ’em come and seen ’em go. Star gets maintained by a posse of small spider mechs lead by the puckish SPDR-103. Also, they agreed that Starian and Thumper are descendants from the same generation ship.
With little prep time I’m forced to fall back on tropes, prior experience, and improv. My most inspired moment of this session came at the very end. It might seem obvious to you Dear Reader, but it hit me as we were wrapping up to pull that “you’re really under attack now!” move I mentioned above. Sure, the session would have been okay without it, but it’s a nice way to build anticipation for the next time.
LOVE AND LESSONS
In general I’m my own toughest critic at the gaming table, but I’d say this went well.
At the end of the session my wife told me the length had been “just right,” which validated my choice to split up character creation and play. (During chargen Xander put his head down and said he was bored. Definitely not ready for 5E!)
On a walk a few days after we played Xander said, “Dad, I forgot we were in a simulation!” He had a huge grin on his face. That alone would have made the whole thing worthwhile.
As we move forward I want to create situations where Thumper’s hacking and cloaking abilities can take center stage. Right now Starian sees Thumper as a little brother that needs protecting. (If I do it right, Xander will realize there’s more to the game than raw power.) And, it’ll give Deanna a better outlet for her creativity and generally clever play.
Xander has also discovered “challenge bitching” this week. He quizzed me several times about why the Voidmaw spawnling attacked him and not Mom. Even I after I pointed out that he was the one who failed his system roll to detect it coming, he said that I had picked on him. When I mentioned that the competition next time out would be stiffer, he begged me not to bring higher level enemies. He’s just a baby gamer at this point, but I think he’s ready to be tested, at least a little… maybe more than he realizes.