Pity Mekton. After Mekton II managed to gain traction despite its flaws (due, perhaps, to having very little in the way of competition beyond Palladium’s Robotech RPG), Mekton Zeta provided a somewhat tidied up and debugged (albeit at some points quite crunchy) take on the game. Still, you’re talking about a 1994 design there, and there’s an appetite for further refinement and polishing. That appetite drove a Kickstarter for Mekton Zero, a new edition of the game, which raised some $50,000 in 2013.
However, the development and writing process for the game bogged down, and in 2018 Mike Pondsmith made the decision that, rather than allowing it to be another Far West situation, he was going to refund everyone’s pledges rather than making any promises about if and when the game would eventually come out. Since then, when it comes to new material R. Talsorian Games has had more success in getting out the starter set for Cyberpunk Red, their new edition of Cyberpunk (putting the Cyberpunk 3.0 timeline aside and acting as a bridge between Cyberpunk 2020 and the Cyberpunk 2077 videogame), with the core book delayed at first to ensure lore consistency with the videogame and then due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Perhaps Pondsmith will, one day, come back to Mekton Zero – but if he does, he’ll find there’s new competition. Massif Press’s chunky new Lancer RPG takes the same general gameplay breakdown of Mekton – rules-light, largely freeform play for when your characters are out of your mechs shifting into crunchy, tactically rich combat when you get into a mecha fight – and applies fresh eyes to the concept, yielding a much more modern system for delivering the same general deal.
The core Lancer rulebook is some 400 pages, but it delivers within that space the basic system, a mass of mech-building options, and some expansive setting detail – so it’s the equivalent of, say, the old Mekton Zeta core book plus the Mekton Technical Manual plus a setting book all in one. It’s also gorgeously presented, with an art style which resembles less a pastiche of anime and more a sort of blend of anime styles and the sort of visual style of Moebius and his Metal Hurlant peers.
The sheer mass of the book can be overwhelming, but starting a game doesn’t need to be. There’s a character level system here which has an in-universe reality; your Licensing Level, which goes up when you complete a mission, represents your mecha qualifications and the level of resources your organisation is willing to give you. At level 0, you only have access to the baseline, most jack-of-all trades variety of mecha and mech accessories – enough to give you some choices to use in outfitting your mech for your first mission, but not so many to make you overwhelmed.
Each license level allows you to unlock a tier of licences for mecha produced by different corporations, each corporation having its own specialisation – in other words, they’re sort of like character class specialisations for mecha. There’s 4 of these, with 3 ranks in each. You don’t have to be locked in for the long term, because when you level up you can reassign all your licences, and because there’s 12 possible ranks when you hit level 12 you can make mecha using the entire pool of frames and accessories in the book.
In general, the mecha combat system manages to offer the right sort of crunch – you have interesting tactical choices but it doesn’t get over-fussy about minutiae. The rules for adapting the game to space combat are particularly simple; in zero-G environments mecha not designed for space combat by having EVA systems have movement disadvantages and whatnot, but otherwise you’re not going to be locked out of participating in a battle just because it takes place in an environment you were not expecting.
With a setting that’s simultaneously reminiscent of classic spacefaring mecha anime but at the same time up to date in terms of the SF ideas it’s playing around with and isn’t afraid to get a bit surreal (told you the art reminded me of Moebius), Lancer feels like a much fresher game than any iteration of Mekton that actually made it to publication, and with Palladium losing the Robotech licence and Mechwarrior being very caught up in the Battletech ecosystem, it feels like Lancer fills a gap which in the market for a really-up-to-date mecha RPG system which, due to its declared intent to remain compatible with Mekton Zeta, Mekton Zero itself might never quite have been able to fill by itself.