Role-Playing And Giant Robots

From J. Kline

Roleplaying Tips Newsletter #0176

A Brief Word From Johnn

Supplemental #15 Now Available: Wilderness Encounters

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Johnn Four
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“Featherball! I mean, featherrrr……..”

Role-Playing And Giant Robots

I love science fiction and the allure the future holds. Part of that allure is the concept of mecha: combat robots. According to modern physics, they are not only improbable (lack of materials, computers, sufficient power-source, etc.) they’re also a lousy investment on the field of combat. They have a high silhouette, less armor, vulnerable joints, and so forth. But reality notwithstanding, the image of giant humanoids clashing energy swords and 55mm gun pods is great.

Of course, that presents one or two (not so) little problems for the GM. How do you hold characters with 50+ tons of destruction in line? And how do you create challenges greater than “go to point X, search and destroy”?

Keep the Players in LineMilitary Hierarchy

Perhaps the most likely owner of any giant robot is the military, and they have ways of keeping the players in line. Promotions and medals are positive rewards; kitchen duty and menial labor, coupled with demotions, are negative reinforcers. Additionally, militaries are constrained by the need to appear justified to the taxpayers, political rules of engagement (sometimes conflicting with the reality of the situation), and the bureaucracy that withholds ammunition or runs out of flight suits.

Hence, players can be held in check by parts being unavailable, or faulty intelligence, or just the enforcement of off-limit areas.

Secret Societies

The Battle Tech Clans are one of the best examples of how this method works. Players must accumulate honor or engage in duels beforehand to prove they are worthy of going on the mission. If they shoot targets in the back or fail then they receive less potent equipment.

Maybe it’s a religious order and you must practice a certain faith or go on a crusade to gain the honor of using special equipment? Of course, if Mr. Big doesn’t like you, you’ll get the worst mecha possible, and the toughest assignments.


Technically, owning your own mecha should be the least likely option; after all, these things cost millions of credits. The cheapest mecha I’ve seen cost about 100,000 credits, but that was still about 50 times the average worker’s yearly pre-tax salary! If the players are mercenaries or freelancers for some reason, your best bet is to give everything a broken-down cyberpunk feel. Force them to spend so much of their earnings on fixing the stupid mechanical beast and running across known space for parts that they can barely eat!

Mecha Quirks

My stereo refuses to accept commands from the remote when it’s pointed directly at the main unit. Instead, I must bounce the infrared beam off the far wall. If a simple stereo can be that temperamental, how about a robot with more parts than we could name? Overheating, misaligned lenses, a funky air-conditioner, slow reaction time, or warning lights that go on and off without reason are just a few of the problems a high-tech robot could face.

What if the robots are powered by elemental spirits or operated by an artificial intelligence? It’s bad enough that the enemy is trying to kill you, but it’s just intolerable when your robot hates you as well.

Go Beyond Search and DestroyEnemy of the Week

This is by far the simplest and perhaps least fulfilling option to providing new challenges. If continued for an extended time, it results in a campy, “Power Rangers” or “Voltron” feel. Week after week it’s single combat and the heroes win. If you’re going to introduce something new, try to add a role-playing element. For example, the PCs may try to woo a scientist on the enemy side to give them the secret weakness of the unit, or run across space to learn about a certain bounty hunter and his mecha.

If done in a military setting, let the unit run amok amongst normal forces for a while and don’t just let the players waltz over it.During the American Civil war, there were only four ironclad ships in the world at the time of the battle between the Monitor and the Virginia (usually called the Merrimack). The other two ships were Warrior in Britain and Le Glorrie in France, neither of which could have crossed the Atlantic. Create a “sink the Bismarck” or unstoppable juggernaut feel, and the players will enjoy winning so much more.


Now I’m not the best puzzle solver, but this is a great challenge. How does a 50 ton mecha get across a broken bridge that can only support 20 tons? How can the PCs transfer a couple of trucks they’re guarding across the abyss when the trucks are too heavy to carry?

Further consideration must be directed towards the long-term effect of the challenge. Firing missiles to clear the path uses up ammunition and may alert the enemy, but lifting the rocks will strain the servos and set back your tight schedule.

Reward unusual thinking

Modern tanks have one high velocity cannon for dealing with most targets and some heavy machine guns for light targets. Very few have missiles, grenade launchers, shrapnel bombs, etc. It’s a well-proven military maxim to stick with one effective weapon. So why shouldn’t the players stay with one attack?

Overheating and ammunition limitations are the two easiest limits, but how about style? Or maybe the light lasers can hit small targets with no penalty? I allow mecha hand to hand combat to injure the pilot as he’s thrown about the cockpit allowing my players to capture enemy mecha battered, but intact.


Establishing a character’s history is always important, and more so in a mecha game. Do their parents encourage them to find a safer job? Is their sister a pacifist on her campus? Did their grandfather die in the last war? Mecha (usually) can’t solve personal problems. One of the best sessions I ever ran involved a mecha pilot meeting a Spanish girl and protecting her, going so far as to break into the apartment of her abusive ex-boyfriend.


Give the players a world to explore. Let them be a small part of things and build up. Have them begin ostracized to a broken down ship on the outskirts of the empire, fighting pirates. Then they find a pirate ship ripped apart, everyone aboard dead. Find clues to this mystery that hint of a mecha elsewhere, but one never seen before (e.g. organic spines lodged in meter thick walls). Or perhaps their powerful mecha has a hidden AI that reveals the plans of a secret organization ready to conquer the planet. Create a world that must be explored and prodded.


A plasma cannon and a giant bastard sword have the same end effect on the target, but the feeling is a bit different: instant white hot annihilation versus a chivalrous duel in close quarters. Do their wingmen die, despite their best efforts, or are the NPCs lucky SOBs who waltz through a bullet storm and crack jokes all the way? Can the players be killed, or does fate favor them? Remember, there are no sunny days in a cyberpunk campaign.


Personally, I prefer the technology to be well explained and probably well understood: a high school recruit with 18 months of training can repair the robot. Then again, you could say all the robots are animated dragon skeletons brought to life by a guild of necromancers. Robots that are hard to understand and repair give an air of mystery or suspense. On the other hand, if every PC can soup up their steed then desired upgrades become more common. What about the computers: childish AIs or business suit holograms?


Yes, you read that right. It’s quite possible for a robot to be lost yet for the pilot to survive,

meaning they can fail but still try again. However, you must look at how this fits into the story. In Macross, the SDF-1 was nearly a character, serving in the face of great odds, and it would eventually become the center of a city bearing its name. On the other hand, military robots are just general issue equipment, and if one is lost, it can be replaced. It is possible to create a sense of imminent death by damaging his robot, but not him.

Closing Thoughts – Some Mecha Settings30 tons of Vietnam mud

The characters are soldiers in a politically unpopular war far from home in an inhospitable environment. Your laser ports and targeting camera are constantly blocked by mud, the enemy fires rockets at your knees from the underbrush, and one stray missile could cause a massacre of innocent civilians. Robots are not well suited for this environment, but can usually be made to work. However, woe be it to the pilot of number four; it can be 105 degrees in the cockpit with no air conditioning!

Knights in shining power-armor

It was hopeless! The goblins had tunneled under the wall, trolls were smashing through, and every time one of our friends fell, he rose as an undead horror bolstering our enemy’s ranks. And then this – giant – came. It was nearly the size of a castle battlement; its silver hide reflected the fires like a crystal in the sun. It drew a mighty sword and cleaved the biggest of the enemies in two. It saved our kingdom! I hear it’s run by some magical source, but you’ll need to buy me another drink first.

SWANSS- Special Weapons & Armor National Security Service

The Suspect is a Caucasian male in his late thirties, believed to be in possession of a type-7 Prometheus unit and a stolen class G weapon system. You are advised to approach the warehouse with extreme caution, but there are no known hostages. The subject is wanted for several counts of robbery and non-lethal force is preferred.

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About the author: J. Kline is an English Major who has roleplayed for about 5 years and would rather get a VF-1 Veritech (Macross) than win the lottery.


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Tips From Roleplaying Tips Game Masters

Have a roleplaying tip you’d like to share? E-mail it to [email protected] – thanks!

Mines and Tunnels Tips

From Keith M.

I recently had the pleasure of visiting the Great Orme Copper Mines in North Wales. These mines were in action 4000 years ago and are one of the oldest such mines known to man. There are almost 8 kilometres (5 miles) of tunnels, all carved out by hand with only stone tools.

While travelling down the long tunnels I started to think about D&D, and after my visit I wrote some observations down which may be of use to anyone with a mine or man-made setting in their game.

  • The tunnels followed the veins of ore, in this case Malachite, which after a smelting process purifies to copper. In practical terms this means that the mined passages are not uniform: they bend, dip, and increase in height, widen out, and narrow at random. A main tunnel is created in mines that have multiple veins, permitting air, food, and miners to travel in and mined material to be carried out. Side passages can appear overhead or below the level of the main tunnel. Also, the main tunnel is rarely level, rising and falling gently or steeply, depending on where the veins of ore run.
  • To reduce the amount of material being hauled out, old tunnels were filled with spoil from the new excavations. This allows the opportunity for hidden passages or secret chambers for observant adventurers to find.
  • Smaller veins were mined by children, some as young as 6 to 8 years old, yielding tunnels that a full-grown adult would have difficulty entering. Think of the possibilities of a section where the PCs have to magically shrink to enter. In such places ordinary creatures inhabiting the tunnel, such as rats, lizards, or spiders, become giant monsters. Cracks become wide ravines, gravel becomes boulder fields, and spider webs become hideous traps.
  • A large mine will have a thriving community outside and will be a centre for commerce, with traders bringing goods and food to sell in return for either the raw materials or finished goods. If there are sufficient raw materials in the surrounding area, such as water to clean, polish, provide power for mill wheels, etc., and wood for building, burning, and charcoal, then it is likely that craftsmen and artisans will be present to work the mined material into finished goods. Finished goods cost more; consequently, if the quality is high, then the community may be quite wealthy. Maybe they store some of their wealth down in the mines in an abandoned or concealed tunnel.
  • A standard 3-5 foot wide tunnel is very restrictive in terms of movement. Those carrying bulky equipment and armour will have difficulty maneuvering. Combat will be restricted to thrusts with bladed weapons, short spears, or staves. It would be impossible to swing a blow overhead or from side to side except in larger tunnels or chambers.
  • In tunnels, combat will be restricted to those at the front of the group. In a normal passage it would be impossible to get past or to aim a blow over the heads of those in front. If a colleague is wounded or dies you may be able to clamber over, but those attacking would be able to get at least one free attack.

Well, these are my thoughts from my visit; if you’re in the area I recommend taking a tour. The guides are excellent and the gift shop sells a lot of geological goodies, and a cool line in cheap secondhand books, too. Their website is: It gives a lot of background information and pictures.

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A Twist on Adventure Keys

From John G.

Re: RPT#175 – 3 Tips For Writing And Running Adventures

I liked Dariel R. A. Quiogue’s article on writing adventures; he had some good ideas.

Under the heading of “Keys”, one cool twist is this: the great key to everything that the party has been seeking throughout the campaign is an innocuous-looking item that they have been carrying around the whole time. When they find out they’ve had the “key” all along, their reactions should satisfy that nasty streak we GMs all have.

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3D Terrain Generation Resources

From Don F.

Landscape / Terrain

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Booby-Trapped Tunnels

From oo7ofnine

I recently saw a show on the History Channel about the Viet Cong tunnels. They had all kinds of ingenious booby-traps, such as water traps at the entrance, pit traps with spikes, multiple exits disguised as huts, twisty passageways for ambushing invaders, etc. These people actually lived down there for weeks at a time! American and Australian forces found hospitals, command centers, even recreation rooms in the tunnels. They were built in multiple layers that one guy said reminded him of the ant farm he had as a kid.

It occurred to me that this tactic could be used by intelligent but weak monsters, like kobolds in D&D. Instead of your typical dungeon-crawl through a dungeon built by who knows, send your players through a kobold-built tunnel complex.

The Viet Cong made booby traps with explosives scavenged from unexploded American bombs and grenades taken from dead soldiers; kobolds could similarly make traps with magical items scrounged from dead adventurers.

With any luck, your players will be quaking in their boots when they hear the word kobold! Here’s a web sites with descriptions and diagrams of some of the tunnels:

If you need more info, just point your search engine to “Viet Cong tunnels”.

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Tips on Not Being a Party Killer

From Killer GM

Here are a couple of tips on not being a party killer:

  • Take a longer term approach. Wear the party down through several easy encounters and then hit them with a tough encounter. Not every encounter needs to be to the death. The players will never tire of, and always get excited over, easy victories. Easy combats also take less time so they don’t drag the game down. In fact, if you add clues, hooks, and consequences, short and easy combats can make a huge, positive impact on a game.The goal is to make the spell casters use up a couple of spells each time, have the warriors lose a few hit points, use up a few once-per-day abilities, whittle down missile weapon inventories, and so on. Eat away at the party’s resources slowly. If the party rests frequently, counter with wandering monsters (more easy combats).
  • Look out for monsters with low challenge ratings but powerful abilities based on the throw of the dice. Bad luck can wipe out a whole party. For example, in D&D a ghoul with its paralysing touch can easily overcome a higher level party that fails their savings throws. Other powers to beware: petrification, paralysis, hold person, stunning, insanity.
  • Give the PCs more one-use items like potions and scrolls. These items give the characters a chance without unbalancing the campaign – if the PCs get too many of them, just cut off their supply for a bit. Defensive potions are particularly good for campaign balance.

From Travis B.

  • Not all encounters need to be life threatening.
    Try a hit-and-run attack from a thief in the street. The party strikes back but the thief has stolen something from them and escaped. Pick the item at random: it may be money, an important quest item, or even the player’s favorite weapon.
  • Capture may be the idea.
    A powerful necromancer may want a meeting with the group. He sends a massive number of undead that are capable of paralyzing the group. Once captured, the group are bound and led before the Necromancer who then offers them a choice and sets them free. They must decide for themselves whether to take the offer or not. This choice may even be an offer for work.
  • Introduce the players to strong allies.
    Give them a suitable opportunity to earn those allies’ favor and then, if needed, allow them a rescue by that ally. Be careful not to wear this out! I make sure that every time the players are rescued I add more work to their goals as a price for the rescue. For example, the sheriff rescued the party from a band of brigands and now expects them to join his search for a pair of notorious killers.
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Making Wilderness Encounters Interesting

From Christopher in Des Moines

Have the enemy attack from the shadows so that the PCs are uncertain about the nature and number of enemies being faced. This can be especially interesting if the enemy is weak but gets the drop on the PCs. Imagine a medium to high power party getting shot up by ordinary goblins (very weak in most systems) using either bows or darts. You can play this up by rolling twice as many dice as there are monster attacks.

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Local Flavor

From Jeanne R. J.

For giving local flavor to my Forgotten Realms campaign, and to sprinkle a few errors in here and there, I used inspiration from the AAA tour guides. I came up with the Guide to the Heartlands. This book is available for sale only in the large cities, but most cities that are written about have their own copy of their write up, which is usually at the best inn in town, or the city offices.

In this Guide, you’d find information on the general population, interesting facts, tourist destinations, best inns, best food, seasonal events, etc. A fun thing about it is, when your players travel, they can meet up with the people who write for the Guide. So it’s a bit from AAA, Douglas Adams, and the published Forgotten Realms materials, but I am sure it could be adapted to any setting.