Armagideon Time

Toward the tail end of the Summer of 1987, I began spending less time with my buddy Scott. There was no drama or ill-will behind this slow drift. Scott was a hyper-motivated Type A personality on a fast track to success, and that brought a host of CV-building obligations that cut into his free time. We remained friendly and still did geeky shit together on a regular basis, but our days as inseparable besties had come to an end.

As a consequence, I began hanging out more frequently with Damian, another veteran of the glacial Tomb of Horrors debacle. It turned out to be a good pairing. Where Scott was a nerd who dabbled in geeky stuff, Damian was a full-on unabashed avatar of geekdom whose interests closely aligned with my own teen fanboy obsessions. He was utterly relentless in his eternal pursuit of the next “must-have” thing, and had an indulgent mother who was willing to chauffeur him around Boston’s northwest suburbs in pursuit of them.

His behavior was utterly alien to me and frequently frightening — especially the tantrums when his desires were denied — but I was more than happy to paddle along in his wake as he spent fistfuls of tokens trying to beat Ikari Warriors at the Tewksbury arcade or tried to will an as-yet-unreleased NES game into materializing onto the shelves of the local Toys R Us.

Damian was also a big fan of anime (or “Japanimation,” as it was still called back then) of the giant robot variety, and the only other kid at Kennedy Junior High who still carried a torch for Star Blazers and Robotech. Despite a growing interest in material and small but increasing number of localized offerings, it was still very much a fringe fandom at time — photocopied fanzines, bootleg VHS tapes of unsubbed material, and isolated clusters of fans and pen-pals arguing over the correct pronunciation of “Urusei Yatsura.” Any snippet of information or — better yet — physical artifact that provided further insight into the exotic and unusual scene was a treasure beyond price.

Our shared interest in anime steered the rest of our fandom, particularly in the realm of comics, videogames and role-playing games. The aesthetic was the root of my devotion to both Zillion and Phantasy Star, and Xenon and the domestically produced Robotech comics replaced the D&D monster compendiums as my primary influences in art class. (Meanwhile, two towns over, a seventeen year old Maura was applying to art school in hopes of furthering her dream of becoming a manga artist.)

So when it came to the first non-dice purchase from Games on Call (which was Damian’s discovery, by the way), I opted for the Mekton II rulebook.

Written by Mike Pondsmith and published by R. Talsorian Games using its “Interlock System,” the Mekton RPG franchise was created to simulate both the combat and melodrama of mecha-themed anime material.

Unlike Battletech — a wargame which dropped purloined robot designs into a poor man’s version of Dune — Mekton was a sincere effort to capture the hyper-stylized vibe of the source material. The core mechanics were essentially a stripped down cousin of the Hero System used by Champions (and the two would later attempt a fitful merger around the turn of the millennium) and could be easily scaled to handle anything from 60-ton war machines exchanging blows to a handful of wildly coiffed robo-jockeys having a bar fight.

The base mecha creation system was fairly limited, but did cover almost all of the familiar archetypes. This was fleshed out in later supplements which added additional customization options in exchange for more intensive levels of complexity.

The signature component of the “Interlock System” was the “Lifepath System,” a flowchart of random tables used to determine a character’s appearance, motivations, and web of social relationships. The tragic romance, the “lost” sibling, the friend-turned-enemy — all were accounted for in the branching tangle of tables, offering players and the gamemaster ready-made hooks in line with the source material.

It was goofy as heck, but it further emphasized (along with the straight-from-a-Macintosh table design) that Mekton was a product for fans by fans.

I read and reread my copy of the Mekton II rulebook until the covers disintegrated and every page was marked by some kind of food-based stain. I created scores of mechs and colorful characters to pilot them, and spent long hours trying to get my lifted-from-comics sketches of both just right. The litany of strange series titles — such as Aura Battler Dunbine and Armored Troopers Votoms — in the campaign suggestions section filled me with burning envy toward those fortunate few fans who had access to the original laser discs.

When it came to actually playing the game, however? It was the same familiar story.

Like Champions, Mekton required players who were absolutely onboard with the source material and willing to accommodate a rule system ripe for metagaming exploitation. And like Champions, the breakneck pace of the source material’s action sequences was extremely prone to getting bogged down when translated for a gaming table.

As simple as Metkon’s rules were, mecha combat could turn into a slog when more than a handful of combatants were involved. It didn’t help things that my grand vision for a campaign habitually settled on the grand space operas of Macross and Mobile Suit Gundam as their inspiration, when the group would’ve been better served by something closer to Getter Robo‘s monstermech battle of the week focus.

The only modestly successful Mekton runs took part in were ones where role-playing was jettisoned in favor of straight up wargaming — a Star Blazers inspired space combat scenario I staged to irritate some Star Feet Battles purists and series of robo-arena battles between low-tonnage battlesuits refereed by my college pal Mike.

Even though my experiences with the game never matched my stratospheric expectations and my taste for anime has dwindled greatly over the years, I’d still rank Mekton II as one of my favorite RPGs ever — mostly due to the fact it came into my hands at the exactly the moment for it to achieve maximum fandom impact.

Related posts:

  1. Role-Playing with the Changes: Shy of perfect
  2. Role-Playing with the Changes: Crash and burn
  3. There and mech again

2 Responses to “Role-Playing with the Changes: What you mech of it”

  1. Jason L

    Easily one of my favorites, even if I never got to play enough of it.

  2. Dean

    For some reason, I have a real weakness for RPGs with lifepath generators.

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