Tuesday, December 7, 2021

Rambling Thoughts on Lancer


So for about half of 2021, I ran a Lancer campaign. Lancer is a game about giant fighting robots, set in a future that, while not perfect, is characterized mainly by the idea that humanity, after nearly destroying itself multiple times through greed and hate, may be finally creating a society that is actually good, learning from the lessons of the past and vowing not to repeat them. A bit like the original vision of Star Trek's Federation. Setting-wise my own campaign deviated from standard Lancer canon on account of being set on an artificial world-construct from my own sunset-realms that had interdimensionally jumped into the lancerverse because reasons, but the interaction between my own accursed world and the larger setting still demonstrated the tone of the base setting I think. All in all the tone of the game is a welcome change from the usually crappy space-futures other sci-if games offer, so it's no surprise that I see some intersection between the osr-dream type communities and Lancer.

Mechanically, its very much a 'crunchy tactical combat' game, a departure from OSR, closer to perhaps 4e D&D where diegetic reasoning and flavor takes an explicit backseat to the mechanical and mathematical interactions. While there are resolution mechanics for on-foot adventures, they are highly abstract and storygame-styled, and sessions that do not have a 3-8 hour robot punching section are more freeform RP than, say, a PbtA style thing. That said, I think the simple downtime actions in lancer are really good- I like having between-session downtime for the players to relax and roleplay in low-stakes situations, and having what are basically carousing tables for preparing for the next mission is great.

Lancer wouldn't be nearly as playable without the player-facing content being free, and there existing a character-tracking tool called COMP/CON. Being able to track characters on automated character sheets online streamlines the learning process for players for a game with a lot of moving parts, and makes it easy to tinker with character builds on your own time.

If you don't care too much about the system nitty-gritty, feel free to jump straight to Closing Thoughts.

I don't think I could have run/played this game online without comp/con being offered as a free service. Also check out Retrograde Minis, another great service with pixel art for lancer PC and NPC mechs

Character Building
I sometimes complain that 3.5 and pathfinder, character creation has less to do about character, and more to do with building a mathematically optimal battle robot. Ironically, the game where you literally ARE building a mathematical combat robot doesn't annoy me nearly as much.
In some part, I think there is an advantage in Lancer's disconnect between your character, and their combat. If you are a Half-Wagon Half-Dulcimer Hexsinger Bladelock or whatever in pathfinder, the profane blasts and whirlwind cleaves and +4 strength and whatever are all locked into your character sheet as an integral part of them. In Lancer though, you will go through many mecha frames. You will change out their loadouts, retrain your personal tactics and change your strategies. In D&D terms, it would be like being able to pick your class and so on again every time you levelled up. Your ability to do violence in various flavors is just tools you pick up and discard, and your pilot's identity is more separate from their frame's identity, which is further exemplified by how the pilot has a name, a Callsign used on the battlefield, and a name for their mechs.

That's very high-concept explanation for why I don't dislike the entirely combat-based character creation of Lancer but spurn D&D when it does the same thing. But onto more nitty gritty details that are basically just me complaining about the half-campaign I was a player in, and the full campaign I gm'ed for.

All in all, character creation and tinkering and evolving your build over time is great fun in lancer. You don't build the character at level 20 and grind your way there, you have to build for where you are right now, adapting to what the GM's style is, what your fellow PCs are doing, what you find you enjoy, etc etc. One player I had started as a hacker and then ended up as a giant fist punchy robot instead. Another player liked variety and basically had a new build every mission- and unlike D&D they didn't have to change characters to get the variety they craved, they just needed a new robot. Though I may come off as quite picky as I work through the text, Lancer is a top-tier game for players who enjoy detailed charop. (On the negative note with regards to Looking For Group dynamics, this leads to a similar problem as later editions of D&D, where everyone wants to play their super cool character, but no one wants to be the one behind the screen enabling everyone else's character.)

My problem with the stats in lancer is that, compared to the easily swappable gear and talents, the stats of the mech (tanky, dodgy, hacker, and (roughly) action economy) feel a lot more baked in, with fewer ways to get around not having them, and wildly different levels of efficiency. It takes 1/3rd of your career as a lancer to maximise your agility, but within any given enemies toolkit it probably has at least two ways to make your EV (AC equivalent) basically irrelevant. If you don't put points into hacking you will soon find that hacking, even as a side-strategy, becomes futile except against the explicitly easy to hack enemies compared to your naturally improving gun accuracy, which requires no stat investment. Hull has such an insanely dramatic effect on survivability that the first ~2 pointss should honestly be mandatory and built-in-. In D&D terms, playing without Hull investiture it feels akin to playing with 3 constitution, not simply the lack of a con bonus.

Similar to feats,  these are a bit of a mixed bag. There are talents that enable you to do new things, and there are talents that allow you to do things better, with +1d6 to hit. While all-in-all I'd say these are much better than 3.5 style feats, I feel like some of them feel like obligatory filler. The "shotgun" feats just make you more accurate, then finally do something new by letting you shoot enemies who enter your threat zone immediately, instead of being a more 'attack of opportunity' style deal. I really like that last one, but the weapon-based accuracy feels a bit like a 'feat tax' that is pervasive throughout the design, and one that is easier to lean into than any attempt to focus on the talents that change how you play, rather than how powerful your play is.

Core Bonuses- Even moreso than talents, these rare and valuable character upgrades have a lot of interesting options... and a lot of 'do thing +1d6 better' and those mathematical bonuses are really, really hard to say no to for the sake of flavor, because Lancer is a pretty spicy tactical game and without some degree of optimization your 'flavor' may well be 'I'm the guy who dies a lot.' These effects also are tied to licenses (See below) which has a tendency to encourage picking either the powerful 'Generic' bonuses because you don't qualify for the one you actually want, or picking one of the clearly optimal specific core bonuses from a certain set, and then not being able to choose a more flavorful second one from that same set without feeling like you are intentionally making a decision to lose more.

License Levels-  The real appeal of the system, each LL is associated with a different robot frame, along with associated guns and systems. Each one is, to use an OSR analogy, like templates 1-3 of a glog class. You unlock these slowly and mix and match what you unlock, rather than using it all at once, and since you can swap them out this allows for versatility in character building, variety in how you mix and match, and a very digestible flow of information for new players. The best part is, I think, how most of this is a side-grade, or something not directly comparable to the default equipment list every character has access to from LL0. It is not only possible to stick to the 'starting' mech and associated systems, but it is low-key a pretty powerful and versatile choice to do so, the other mechs being for more specialized roles like slow shield tank or whatever.

While some of my earlier complaints may sound like I have a terminal case of 'not being able to pick everything I want,' the restriction works quite well for license levels, as it prevents analysis paralysis, but still provides progression goals without being a straitjacket as 'classes' sometimes are.

Lancer uses a fairly familiar kind of game action economy. You get a basic 'free' move, then two more moves, or a single 'big' move. You can 'overcharge' to take another move, at the cost of increasing heat and maybe eventually exploding or becoming vulnerable. Actions available in combat are quite good and valuable in many ways, though at later levels, the 'attack' option gets better and better by virtue of the scaling math on both sides of the equation making other options less appealing. But that is a minor complaint- you can shove mechs around, you can self destruct, you can hide in smoke, you can assist your allies, it's pretty great from a tactical combat sense.

Damage and the problem of the destroyed mech
Taking serious damage in lancer causes you to temporarily lose access to systems and weapons until repaired (or, sometimes to shrug the hit off, and sometimes to eat shit and die instantly/lose turns/both). If you are taken out completely, the cost of becoming operational again is prohibitive in the extreme. Basically, every time a players mech was destroyed, they had to choose between negotiating for a mech in better shape somehow (normally the party only 'Full Repairs' every 2-4 mission, but there's a GM-fiat heavy but canon way to appeal for superior healing) or trying to play another mission 1-2 hits away from death (in practice, this would usually mean you get to play 1-2 turns, then sit out for the next 3 hours of combat. Suffice it to say, GM lenience with getting new mechs was required for the sake of letting people actually play the game, which meant the threat of having ones mech destroyed could feel a bit of an empty threat.)

Now personally, I really like the idea of limping along with a heavily damaged mech and trying to make do with what remains... but due to the occasional swinginess of 'instant dead' or 'lol I'm fine' that middleground of desperation did not exist as much, especially due to the way losing weapons and systems works. Namely, when the player must mark something as destroyed, they get to choose what is lost... so what happens is typically that players will never lose their best gear, their gear supported by talents. They'll lose random smoke grenades, their backup missiles, but their tactics do not significantly change, they do not have to adapt, because they will almost certainly still have their main tactics undamaged until they are blown to pieces.

Players will also sometimes accumulate a great many horrible statuses like being pinned to the ground, slowed in goo, on fire, jammed and blinded, etc etc. These statuses accomplish to some degree the 'adapt your tactics' I wanted to see and I will praise, with the caveat that, especially in the later levels, the idea of 'dead is the best status effect' seemed to be the most accessible tactic for both players and NPCs.

Lancer is not OSR- player death is rare. This allows for a healthy level of daredevil behavior, with the 'mech blows up from overheating' a good disincentive to push too hard, as that's one of the ways a player actually can die (the other, being shot at while outside their mech, an event that typically never happens due to honorable reasons, and is further reduced in likelihood by 0 pilot HP only meaning death 1-in-6 time.)

Furthermore, death is not really penalized- there are suggested options for playing a flash clone of the old character to carry on with the same ol skills and tactics, +clone angst, but an entirely new character does not start at LL0 again. The idea is that, for the tactical combat part of the game to continue next time, the narrative should move forward with that in mind. Similarly, if the players lose a sitrep against space pirates or whatever, they should probably just have a narrative time of jailbreaking, then getting in stolen pirate mechs of suspiciously convenient design and kicking ass. It's not a game about being kicked while you're down, basically.

This is interesting because while it's different from OSR games with level loss for raises and the like, I think it goes to show how very storygame-type thinking can serve the purpose of enabling something entirely different- in this case, the tactical wargame element. Anyway, this section became a bit of a tangent but I think it goes to show that you can think in genre and what's good for the game without actually running a storygame when it comes to adjudicating serious complications.

Lancer uses sitreps, where you have to escort targets, defend zone, and otherwise not just engage in grueling deathmatches. These sitreps really make things that aren't raw damage output shine, and while some of their rules feel very janky, the general concept is very good for spicing up combat in any system I think. A context for the violence, a stage upon which it plays out, a time limit applied quite arbitrarily to create tension and stakes and cut down on 'superior forces wipe out smaller forces.' While OSR games tend to already be good at this, ones that are doing combat heavy dungeon crawls could benefit from Lancer's practice of assigning arbitrary metagame restrictions like 'defend this area for 6 turns against a horde of enemies, any enemy inside this area means you are overrrun and captured.' I myself am reminded of a 'Dance Pentagon' I made up for a courtly ball in an osr game, in which there were very arbitrary rules for who could dance with whom, what the consequences of dancing were (HP damage from exhausting dances with mean nobles, recovered at the drinks bar, as an example.)

The Enemies
At last, the GM side of character building. Enemies in Lancer have very specific roles and are designed to work with each other in mixed groups, much like (I assume) 4e(Maybe 5e?) monsters were.

A Slurry of Good Things About Lancer Enemies
Enemies did things that required answers. Some enemies were almost always hidden and invisible. Some enemies walled off areas. Some enemies shelled the players from afar, punishing bunching up.
Enemies were annoying and dangerous, making targeting priority an interesting question. I think Lancer finally opened my eyes to the value of having 'mixed' monster encounters being far more engaging than simply multiple monsters of the same type, which current D&D encounter tables currently do not really encourage. Enemies also did flat damage instead of rolling (mostly) which I think is good for tactical games, but probably bad for OSR, where the swingy jankiness of combat is part of what makes it thrilling. Mostly "Hard" instead of "Soft" enemies, based on what the Into the Odd author wrote on the subject (ie, don't softball monster moves into having activation chances, saves against, only ending someone after 3 failed saves, hiding damage behind saves, etc etc). Having templates to apply to enemies like Veteran, Pirate, etc could be a good way to change monsters from all manner of games, though the work required to make these templates and the design behind them should not be understated (My favorite template, Spacer, has more to do with movement options than making something tougher or fire-themed, so similar OSR templates would need consideration on many levels to avoid being bloat).

The Bad, Slightly More Organized
As a general rule, I think enemies have too high a heatcap- I could probably count on one hand the number of enemies that overheated over the course of like 50 action-packed sessions. Hackers seemed to give up on hacking about halfway through both campaigns I was in.

Similarly, HP feels too high- it feels as if, in design, some players optimized damage output, so NPC HP was tweaked to match those players. But that leaves players who did not optimize for damage with very limited options for helping- trying to shoot down an enemy with 1 Armor and 18HP is not at all unusual, but it is extremely nonviable to try to do this with a 1d6 weapon and a 6 round time limit when you are outnumbered 2-to-1 (or more) by such enemies.
They were also, for the most part, far too accurate. They have built in ways to get accuracy via Lock ons and Ramming Prones, and reducing enemy accuracy significantly would encourage those actions more seriously. In the current paradigm, I took those actions mainly to make things easier on the players- NPCs who single-mindedly use their second action to Invade is generally agreed to be such an optimal action that the lancer community encourages GMs not to do this.

Rules Clarity And Density
It is VERY crunchy and not for players who do not enjoy lengthy tactical combat and charop.The rules, while mostly solid, are subject to a great deal of differing interpretation based on sentence structure and RAW vs RAI, and common sense rulings are not the intended style of rulings. This is because combat mechanics are non-diegetic, subject to reskinning for flavor, and intended to bring about mathematical outcomes. "Immobilized" does not mean what you might think it means based on the word, it is more akin to 'Unable to choose to voluntarily engage movement systems.' The difference between 'An Attack' and 'An Attack Roll' was a particular quibble that plagues me still after like 60 sessions, as there IS a difference, but it is often unclear which is meant. My interpretation of the meltdown rules is that most NPCs do indeed melt down if overheated following the usual rules, but the majority of the Lancer Community believes that they instead simply take double damage, being curiously immune to meltdown unlike their stronger variants. In an OSR game, ruling however you please will rarely cause issue, but in a game like this, ruling one way or another could completely alter a player's build, so there is rather more at stake, making rules discussion considerably more exhausting even when all parties involved are acting in good faith, and making the game more likely to burnout GMs.

Closing Thoughts

Despite my majority negative expression above, I really enjoyed Lancer as a big robot slugathon game as a change of pace from diplomatic OSR games. Of course, the narrative and character motivations and actions navigating the scene I created led to a bunch of intrigue anyway. It helped that I had great players (even if I had to separate them into two groups for the sake of social dynamics and time constraints) but I think Lancer as a system encourages good games to come about, rather than being an obstacle to that.

I don't know if I'll run Lancer again. While I had some houserules the first time, they were bubbly little houserules for fun. If I ran it again, I think there'd be seriously warped houserules like condensing talent trees into a single talent, damage to systems/weapons hitting random targets, 'direct hits' causing special damage like perma-immobilize or jammed cockpits instead of Destruction, changing to-hit into deterministic, no-roll events based on accuracy and difficulty, slamming NPCs with almost universal -6HP, -2Heat Cap, -1 Accuracy, and generally just making the thing an abomination that players with their precious characters built for regular Lancer have no place in. On top of that, I'd have to decide if I had the energy to prep that many maps and encounters again.

Of course, I'd PLAY lancer again with my own precious character builds. It's one of those games for making the players have a good time, after all.

On a less rules oriented note...

the little doll is called Kind-As-Night
The first-arc villain, fighting a futile war against the KRX, No Sirrah. The dictator clone of notable Lancer setting space fascist Harrison. The government he led was taken over by a PC, Sir Richard Keynes, in a coup and repurposed to properly prioritize saving lives over making glorious war martyr propaganda. The main lesson learned from him is that spelling an established villains name backwards is a 10/10 stupid gm trick

The Sunset Realms IN SPAAAAAAACE
Converting my fantasy realm to correspond to a Lancer Future was ridiculous. But, it was fun, mumbling about 'well, maybe it's magic, maybe it's just DNA recognition giving you access to command terraforming nanites.' Themes of the game were deception, (the main antagonists, the KRX, not being aliens but biomechs made by a human cult of Lumar trying to isolate or destroy the world to contain a memetic entity, as well as the good guys of Union trying to keep things Not Meant To Be Known under wraps), and probably the power of friendship, exemplified both in the party splitting, then learning to work together again, as well as recruiting cyberdogs, off-planet hackers, local factions, and even allying with the 'enemy' faction against the murderous AI/God that had orchestrated the event. It also definitely had that classic superhero 'with great power comes great responsibility' going on too, with the players having to decide not just if they can do something, but if they should. Finally, maybe a theme of 'everyone has their own story' might play out based on the different factions and rival mech teams the party faced, which ranged from simple misunderstanding, to alternate narratives, to meta shenanigans about arguing over who the actual protagonists of the campaign were.

The party split early on into those folks who were 100% on board with the 'careful investigation and handling of an event to avoid potential misunderstandings with a new culture' and those who were like "YOU DON'T TELL ME WHAT TO DO SPACE GOVMT" and ended up unleashing some ancient evils in an attempt to discover the truth. In the end, they both had the interests of saving people at heart, so this wasn't a pvp scenario, just a 'having two playergroups to account for different preferred playstyles and campaign expectations.' Also, us not dropping dead after an 8 person, 12 hour combat sessions was a perk.

This splitting of groups was, I think, a lesson I didn't realize I should've learned. While future splits would be better done with more thought given to scheduling, or some kind of 'pick your own team' player focused thing, even if I CAN run games for 9 players in simpler systems (like my current Esoteric Enterprises game), running 1 campaign with 2 groups isn't as brain-bending as I had feared, and allows for more character-focused moments with smaller groups (as well as allowing hirelings- there's not much call for Jobbo the Torchbearer in a party of 9, after all).

Another thing the players reacted well to was recurring villains who were reactive to the players. First-time opposition usually wouldn't play as well against the players, but if they got away they'd adapt and improve and the second encounter would be even more memorable. There were several minor recurring villains who were just nameless enemies who came back as Veterans, several recurring conflicts with teams who were intended to showcase the ideology of the faction they represented and fall along with their faction, a true 'rival adventuring team' that was basically weird parallels of the party to serve as a dark mirror, and finally, a Dragon (not a literal dragon, though there was one of them too) in the form of the High Anathemant, a mad cultist of the lancer entity RA(who would not condone this guy at all) who was tricked into serving Lumar. Like my favored use of actual Dragons in fantasy games, the High Anathemant showed up early where he was very overpowered and left an impression and gave the party someone to strive against for vengeance (they scattered him across space and time via portal, and defeated Lumar shapeshifted into his mech for some mechanical closure to see if they could've defeated him in regular combat too once they were properly prepared. The answer was very yes, but now thanks to the portal shenanigans I may have to battle Ultra-Mecha-Lolth in combination AD&D/Lancer in another campaign. But I'm getting off topic- suffice it to say the FLAILSNAIL protocols on my server have gotten out of hand)

 Memetic Infection rate of Kind-As-Night estimated 33% from this transmission method. Compliance noted in 3 new player hosts.

 I hesitate to call this a lesson learned, more like a lesson well executed, since past campaigns I've run on the advice of Champions rulebooks were what really told me the value of recurring villains, and I've used them before. Basically, there are several lines to avoid crossing when it comes to recurring villains- they can't recur too often, since they'll become stale and it is frustrating to the players to capture someone and then have the capturing not 'stick.' Players may wish to just murder the bastards if the annoyance grows too high, which either is at odds with campaign tones for heroic campaigns, or a simple end to the 'recurrent' part of the villain.

Very tl;dr, but this campaign retrospective wasn't going to fit into the usual OSR posts, so, yeah.