Lancer: A Review
I think I’ve done it – I think I’ve finally found a roleplaying system that covers my three primary loves in games: freeform lightweight narrative, crunchy tactical combat, and mecha. Yes, today I’m talking about Kickstarter darling Lancer from Miguel Lopez and Tom Parkinson-Morgan of Massif Press.
Many years ago, I got my start in playing games online through a series of PBeM/forum games focused on amalgamations of the various series in the Gundam franchise (and, at times, heavy doses coming from other series as they came into the community’s consciousness). I even ran a couple of them; in the one I have the fondest memories of, I attempted to port in elements from video games and tabletop games (which I had, at the time, just recently returned to after a long hiatus). I had a dream of how to run that game that I could never fully achieve – and now, about fifteen years later, I have found that dream fully embodied in Lancer.
In the far future, humanity has spread to the stars, nearly died off, been reborn as a utopic society, and spread to the stars even more. At the edges of the utopia that is Union, though, not everything is so shiny and the earliest settlers of space come into conflict with those they see as usurping the true inheritors of humanity. Well, that’s a very light summary of the setting – in the full core book, there’s nearly a full hundred pages delving into the governments, corporations, and people of the far flung future and it would be impossible for me to cover it in any real detail here while still giving proper respect to the material.
But that incredibly detailed setting is just the icing on top of a tasty set of mechanics that are both lightweight when it comes to narrative and full of tactical goodness when it comes down to the nitty gritty of mecha combat. The basic flow of each game focuses around missions, which are subdivided into sections of preparation and boots-on-the-ground time with downtime helping to round out the space between missions. And boots-on-the-ground isn’t all blazing combat; that gameplay is divided into narrative play, where the impetus to move forward comes from the players in a freeform bit of cooperative storytelling only occasionally interrupted by lightweight dice rolling when the players initiate actions that could be a challenge, and initiative based tactical mech combat.
The freeform of narrative play covers everything outside of mech combat itself – interaction between players and non-player characters, even fist-fights and small arms firefights, are handled by the occasional skill check as character action dictate the need for them. Players state their goal and the game master decides on the consequences of failure – if there’s no consequences, there’s no need for the roll. There are minimum modifiers in the form of small bonuses from your character’s triggers – things and situations they’re good at – and small, easy to manage modifiers in the form of Accuracies and Difficulties. At that point, you pick up and roll a d20 (and a number of d6s based on Accuracies/Difficulties remaining, but only one will ever influence the final total) and, on a 10+, you succeed. That’s it. Everything else is up to your freeform narrative.
(I will note here that it’s not always that simple – there are additional rules for Risky and Heroic checks but they don’t alter the basic mechanics behind skill checks, just the way success and failure are applied. As I said, the system is very lightweight and makes it easy to freeform these sections.)
Mech combat, on the other hand, feels like the complete opposite: it is bound within the confines of a set of tactical rules that are very reminiscent of the Battletech miniature game crossed with D&D 4th Edition. Positioning matters, cover matters, and battles are fast and furious with overheating, taking massive volleys, and heroically struggling on against overwhelming odds. Different mech frames have different battlefield roles and an endless variety of gear combinations to tailor them to your exacting needs for each mission. And, even if you lose your mech in combat, it isn’t the end as you can continue fighting on foot and, when the battle is done, attempt to rebuild your mech or just print yourself a new one.
Then, once the mission is complete after bouncing back in forth between several instances of narrative play and mech combat, the player characters withdraw, debrief, take a breather, level up, and have some sweet, sweet downtime where, no doubt, they’ll get into more trouble before setting out on another mission.
Yes, you level up after every single mission you complete. While this does, in a way, set a clock on how long a campaign of Lancer can last, it’s also the primary mechanism for mech customization. As you level up, you increase your license level with a specific mech frame. As your license level with a mech, you can access to a suite of new options that you apply to any mech frame you’ve already unlocked and mix-and-match with no limitations and no extra cost. Yup – almost everything from any mech can be used on any other, within the confines of a mounting and points system that ensures you aren’t just piling everything onto whatever frame you want. As a player, you gain an increasingly complex customization system that allow you to make changes to your mech at essentially any time outside of mech combat (restricted, of course, by the needs of the current story).
Honestly, I cannot stop myself from squeeing a little at this system every time I look at it. Part of my brain is constantly crying out to me to give it the Gundam skin that would make it the system I always dreamed of having all those years ago. I’ve only touched the surface here in this look – and I haven’t even touched on the additional official supplements or the plethora of fan-built content. And I didn’t even talk about the amazing official app for character and mission management. I could go on forever but I’m quickly running out of word count here.
So I’ll just end with this: do you like tactical combat interspersed with freeform narrative segments, all framed in the most open sci-fi setting I’ve laid eyes on in years? Even better, would you like all of that as the beating heart of an amazingly fast paced mecha combat simulator? If the answer is yes, do yourself a favour: play Lancer.
Oh… this might not also be the last time you hear about Lancer from us. I’ll just leave it at that for now.