Recently I had a chance to look at a copy of the Mechwarrior RPG’s 1st edition, and realised that in some respects it was the last gasp of a very old-school approach to RPGs. You see, just as Dungeons & Dragons in its original edition had that longstanding connection to Chainmail – perhaps never actually used in the context of an RPG session, but there if you wanted to resolve a mass battle in your D&D campaign world – and just as 1st Edition Chivalry & Sorcery considered shiftng between roleplaying and wargaming to be sufficiently central to play that it included a full wargaming system in its core rulebook, Mechwarrior is an RPG joined at the hip with a wargame – in this case Battletech.
So far, so obvious; Mechwarrior never pretends to be anything other than the Battletech RPG. So far as I can make out, this extends to an assumption that ‘mech combat will be resolved via Battletech gaming; whilst a combat system for person-to-person combat and other non-mecha combat forms is provided, the actual ‘mech-based material here consists of additions to the Battletech rules, rather than a restatement of them or a reformatting of them for theatre-of-the-mind play.
This leads us into interesting territory. What constitutes an interesting fight in the context of a wargame is often different from what people consider to be a good fight in the context of a roleplaying game. In a wargame, unless you are going for a high-simulation approach where one side is specifically disadvantaged or advantaged because that was the situation in the battle you want to play out, 99% of the time you want things to be reasonably fairly balanced so that both sides have a decent chance of victory. In tabletop RPGs, there’s often an unspoken assumption that in a typical combat, the PCs should all survive and overcome their enemies.
Note that I said typical there – that’s deliberate. Most roleplayers seem to be alright with PC deaths – or even total party kills (TPKs) – associated with a truly climactic fight. On the other hand, even though many RPG players ostensibly like the idea of letting the dice fall where they may, I suspect that the majority wouldn’t actually be cool with their PC dying during the first combat of a campaign. Exceptions do exist, of course; a swathe of the OSR community embraces the idea that death can come at any time. On the other hand, the very fact that this attitude is associated with a niche interest group within the hobby rather than being reflected in its most commercially prominent games suggests that it’s very much a minority view.
It’s not surprising that this is the case – people tend to get quite invested in their PCs’ survival in tabletop RPGs. The whole point of the exercise is to identify and empathise with them, after all, and outside of games with very significant narrative-sharing storygame mechanics your PC is also your sole means of interacting with the world. The more significant the links your PC has to the ongoing action – and the longer they survive, the more links they gather – the more of a lurch it is to have to start again with a clean slate.
So we run into a problem here where, since it’s very much a Battletech accessory rather than a standalone thing in its own right, and since Battletech combat involves the violent destruction of the other sides’ mecha, and since a satisfying Battletech battle is likely to be seen by Battletech players as one where both sides have a reasonable chance of success, the chances of character death in Mechwarrior seem elevated. Yes, there’s rules for ejecting from your ‘mech before it explodes, but success and survival are far from automatic there. How does Mechwarrior deal with the issue of PC attrition through battle?
As it turns out, it actually advocates that each player should cook up multiple PCs – not just ‘mech pilots, but also various supporting characters in other roles too. This comes close to the troupe-style play advocated by Ars Magica later (with only the sharing of refereeing responsibilities being novel to early Ars Magica‘s conception of troupe play), and also harkens back to the early days of D&D, when people maintaining multiple PCs was the norm in Gygax’s original campaign.
It’s not hard to see why, over time, the “My Guy” assumption – the convention of one live PC per player at any particular time – became the norm in RPGs. Even in a comparatively simple system like D&D, more PCs inevitably means more book-keeping to keep track of which PC is where doing what. Character creation systems have generally become more intricate and incorporate more involved decision-making and crafting to an idea than OD&D‘s “roll stats in order, pick a class, roll hit points, buy equipment, get assigned spells, done”, so it both takes much longer to craft an entire roster of PCs and you’re probably more invested in them at the end of the process simply because you worked harder to make them. At the table, it can require a bit of effort both to keep who is currently playing whom straight and for the referee to keep all the PCs involved in some capacity. Over time, what you might call the “My Guy” effect has crept in to the point where it’s regarded by some as an essential axion of RPGs that you have one PC that you identify with all the time, rather than a cast of them – to the point that by the 1980s Ars Magica could claim with a straight face that using multiple PCs was a bold experiment rather than a rediscovery of an old technique, and people largely believed the claim.
Nonetheless, for a game like Mechwarrior it makes a lot of sense to go for troupe-style play, at least in terms of everyone having different PCs for different functions. Not only does this allow you to be a bit freer about how you challenge your PCs on the battlefield – because even a total wipe there doesn’t necessarily end the story for the PC group as a whole – but it’s also arguably truer to the sort of anime source material that the mecha genre was built on (and if you need ideas for ways non-mech pilots can do relevant shit in a mecha setting, you can always look back to the politicing of the various Gundam series or the occult machinations of Evangelion or other sources of inspiration).
It’s a particularly apt solution for a tabletop RPG tied to a wargame. Only War sort-of-kind-of made concessions towards the idea by giving PCs sidekicks, but even so it feels like none of the Warhammer 40,000 RPGs have made much of an effort to leverage the wargame or associated games for the purposes of resolving large combats. (Alas that Rogue Trader didn’t lead to a Battlefleet Gothic revival!) On the one hand, there’s advantages to not doing so – it helps keep the games in question self-contained and therefore accessible to participants who might want to focus exclusively on the roleplaying and the individual character-level stuff and have no interest in “zooming out” to take in the bigger picture, and it also makes the game more viable to play for groups who aren’t already invested in the associated wargame.
On the other hand, if your group has already bought into the wargame to a certain extent, or if they are very interested in a campaign style which involves the sort of zooming in and out between individual-scale roleplaying and more “big picture” stuff – as games ranging from Arneson’s original pre-D&D Blackmoor campaign to Microscope embrace – having an RPG with such a tight relationship with a wargame as Mechwarrior has with Battletech is a damn good idea. I wouldn’t recommend Mechwarrior to groups that are disinterested in Battletech – but if you enjoy Battletech at all and like the idea of zooming in and out between scales from battles to roleplaying scenes, I’d say Mechwarrior is definitely worth investigating.