A Look Back: The Original Robotech RPG Line Review

I’ve mentioned before that one of the pillars of my early roleplaying game experiences is the Robotech RPG by Palladium Books. I first encountered it in junior high school, where I encountered some other young gamers and—at first—I mistook the books for Battletech books. It seems odd to me now to think that I knew of and could recognize Battletech as an IP before I ever was exposed to Robotech, but that’s how it was.
Obey the Minmei!
I had seen episodes of the show, of course, but only sporadically, as it was not played on the air for any of the broadcast channels I had access to in my youth in central Arkansas.
Nevertheless, as soon as I got a chance to look the books over, I was enthralled. Giant robots fighting giant aliens? For love? This, to me, was incredibly cool. I must’ve doodled about a hundred different veritechs in my trapper keeper over the next few years.
Looking back on it now, I could tell we had a lot of trouble making Robotech work as a game. For one thing, none of my friends or I had any real-world military experience. We were junior high school students in the 80’s… all we knew about military pilots and aircraft carriers came out of Top Gun.
Editor’s Note: Actually, I used to dream about Robotech so much that I came up with an entire story about a lost ship full of Robotech pilots where each chapter corresponded to a specific song on the Top Gun soundtrack… I’ve promised someone to do a blog post about that by itself later, so stay tuned)
We played the heck out of this game, and I actually lost count of the number of characters I’ve made for it. The last time I played the game was sometime in 1995 during a brief stint in the US Army, so it’s been almost twenty years for me at this point. Quite a distant perspective!

The Core Book

As the battle goes on we feel stronger…
Let’s begin by pointing out a few important facts. First, this game was published in 1986, which puts it in the first wave of Palladium’s RPG offerings and is fairly early in the industry as a whole. RPG’s have evolved quite a bit since then, but it is unfair to judge it entirely by modern standards.
Secondly, the Robotech license itself is a fairly tangled web, ensnaring at least three very different anime shows and multiple games (for example, Battletech) amongst the legal issues involved. Even in the modern era, America has not received anything new related to Macross (as just one example) in decades due to the copyright wrangling that is still ongoing over pieces of the Robotech puzzle.
I am compelled to point out my ground rules of the blog: there is no hate on Rogue Warden. I may be disappointed with something or find it lacking, but I’m seeking to avoid using loaded emotional terms like hate.
With those out of the way, on to the review.

Visuals

Actually, the Robotech RPG core book is actually the “Macross Saga” portion of Robotech as an RPG. The front cover says nothing about the “Macross Saga,” which along with the material inside can lead one down a path suggesting that Macross equals Robotech, which is not really true.
Also, the cover has a small but noticeable mistake: the Veritech on the cover is painted like Roy Fokker’s Skull 1, but it is the wrong model. Entirely forgivable, but worth mentioning.
Another important thing to mention up front is the amazing artwork: I’m a fan of Kevin Long, and I think it’s fair to say that his work heavily shaped the vision of the Robotech RPG (based on its animated origin, of course) and Palladium Books in general in those early days.
I remember trying again and again to figure out how Kevin had drawn the Veritechs so well, with his distinct curve of their leg nacelles and the glassy texture of the optics.

The System

Guardian Mode, AKA Gerwalk
One of the things that makes me face-palm about this book is the example of play on page 3. One would imagine that, in an RPG about giant robots and drama and romance and defending earth against invaders, the example of play would have something to do with all of that.
The example of play is about you, as Rick Hunter, confronted with… a mugging. A micronized Zentraedi is threatening a janitor and demanding money. This. Is. A. Mugging.
Keep in mind we’re not even sure what a Zentraedi is yet, besides some kind of alien.
Page 5 is all about Hit Points and S.D.C., which stands for Structural Damage Capacity. It’s unclear why you have two different things to track about how hard it is to kill you, and it’s all useless at any rate, because next we have: Mega-Damage!
Basically, Mega-Damage means there are things out there that are so tough, they can’t be hurt by S.D.C. weapons no matter what. You can whale away all day with a baseball bat on a tank and cause no damage, the book explains (in another baffling example).
So, a Mega-Damage weapon inflicts normal damage on MDC things and does the same damage x100 vs. SDC things. This means that mecha-sized guns, lasers, and missiles do amazing amounts of damage, which is kind of cool.
Next you have some information on OCCs (Occupational Character Classes), alignments, and experience points, which is all fairly standard stuff for a mid-80’s RPG.
Then we get… 3 pages of Insanity rules. Now, granted, some Robotech characters are definitely insane—Colonel Edwards comes to mind from the Sentinels—but it is hardly a staple of the show. Robotech is in no way related to Call of Cthulhu. So these detailed insanity tables seem exceptionally jarring and out of place. Plus rules for drug addiction! Again, not so much a part of Robotech.
What are the available classes? Well, there’s Destroid Pilot (ground robots) and Veritech pilot (flying robots). Those are very cool and match what you get the in show. So far my expectations are met nicely.
Next we have Communications Engineer. Er, this doesn’t sound like a lot of fun, to sit around and fiddle with radios. Not exactly military action, definitely not really related to giant robots fighting stuff.
After that: Electrical Engineer, Field Scientist, and Mechanical Engineer. Hrm. Not really exciting or applicable. I suppose I could see someone playing a field scientist, maybe even a mechanic… and they can learn to pilot mecha… but these choices are really reaching outside the boundaries of your typical military action genre heroes.
The Military Specialist is basically a spy, and he does get to drive Mecha almost as good as the Destroid and Veritech Pilot, so he’s a decent choice.
At the end of this chapter, I’m puzzled as to why you’d ever want to play anything besides a Destroid Pilot, Veritech Pilot, or Military Specialist. I don’t recall any of our Robotech games even including a character from one of those classes.
At the time this game was published, one of Palladium’s other game lines was Recon, a military action game. I think a lot of Recon’s mindset bled over into the writing and development of the first Robotech RPG, stressing the “we’re military guys doing military things” theme but with little actual resemblance to any other aspects of Robotech. Guns, gear, and Mecha are the unabashed stars of the show in this book, and it is clear that the game is meant to be played as more of a military simulation than as a drama.
Skills, combat rules and gear round out the system portion of the book. Possibly one of its finest features is that it does go into great detail about the mecha and vehicles, lovingly showing the reader many of their systems and cockpits and discussing all the stuff they can do. In many ways, this book does succeed in being a Robotech mecha resource manual in that it really shows you what the Veritech fighters look like and how they work.

The Story

Cover art by Kevin Long
Actually, there’s… not much about the story at all in this book. You barely get a page and a half about who the Zentraedi are and what they want. We get a page and a half on the reconstruction of Earth and about the same length about the various remaining regions and conditions on Earth. We then are introduced to a handful of NPC’s and some information about the SDF-1, and then the book ends.
To say that this book presents very little about Robotech is an understatement of massive proportion.
I suppose Kevin Seimbieda assumed that his consumers were fans of the show, and thus, they were already watching the story and didn’t need to see it inside the books themselves. That’s quite an assumption, but I don’t really have anything else to go on.
Looking on the bright side, I do owe this book a great debt in that it caused me to seek out any and all information about Robotech that I could find. I devoured the novels by James Luceno and Brian Daley, I watched any episodes I could find, and I researched as much of the story as I could. I found a lot to like about the Macross Saga and Robotech in general.
There’s a lot of things about Robotech—specifically the Macross Saga—that I really hold dear: the romance between Max and Miriya, the brotherhood of Roy Fokker and Rick Hunter, the tragedy of what occurs to the hopes and dreams of the human race, the aching loneliness of Lisa Hayes, Minmei’s sometimes sweet/sometimes annoying naiveté, the stoic honor of Captain Gloval—these things and much more make up the core of what Robotech is really about.
Unfortunately, the Robotech RPG covers only a handful of these ideas, and even those are just briefly touched on in favor of more guns, more mecha, and more combat rules.
For another perspective, check out the RPG.net review here:

Supplements and Sourcebooks

The Robotech RPG line had a troubled history with sourcebooks and supplements. Some, such as the Southern Cross and Invid Invasion books (detailing the second and third chapters of Robotech, respectively) were quite good overall.
Others, such as New World Order and Return of the Masters, attempted to flesh out the setting with more information on the situation on Earth with varying results and quality.
Oh man. This book is full of crazy.
The original Robotech RPG line had one major misstep with its sourcebooks, the infamous Lancer’s Rockers, featuring transforming “instrumecha” and “battle of the bands.”
The Sentinels received a couple of books later on that cover the later chapters of Robotech (and hopefully not the last). Unlike previous sourcebooks covering periods of Robotech, the Sentinels books discuss more of the story and background.
The big one in back is the MAC II “Monster.”
Of these sourcebooks, my favorite is definitely Strike Force, which presented some new Macross mecha, some decent setting information for post-Macross Earth (Indochina), and probably the line’s best adventure, dealing with an inventive and cunning Zentraedi warlord.

Adventures

I wonder why they’re in Guardian mode in deep space…
Overall, the adventures for the original Robotech RPG line are lackluster at best. The RDF Accelerated Training Program, for example, is basically just a bunch of random encounters, tables to generate bands of enemies, and reprinted material from other books (including the superfluous insanity rules).
Two words: Metal Siren
There was an attempt to make a Macross II RPG based on the anime of the same name. However, Macross II is not really Robotech… and, in fact, it is only a parallel universe to the actual Macross Saga that started the whole thing in the first place. Aside from some new mecha and vehicles, it doesn’t really offer anything different.
The expansions for Macross II featured one sourcebook with additional mecha and bad guys and three volumes of deck plans, in case you wanted to dungeon-crawl your way through an alien ship. I found these to be singularly unimpressive and a disappointing use of the page space.

Overall Verdict 

Note that heads are not to scale.
The original Robotech RPG is actually a pretty bad example of a “licensed game.” It get some things right, particularly in the visuals, but in nearly every other way it fails to get across to the consumer just what Robotech is about and how to experience that in a roleplaying context.
Other than the license, it doesn’t really have anything to offer as an RPG—it’s basically just Recon with the serial numbers filed off and giant robots put in.
The thing that I keep coming back to with Robotech is that I don’t think it really knew what kind of game it wanted to be. Most of its products leaned heavily towards mecha military action, more of a tactical exercise than really exploring themes or ideas or stories.

Bright Spots

In an attempt to end this review on a high note, I am really glad that Palladium made the Robotech RPG. It helped introduce me to a lifelong love of anime, giant robots, and cool sci-fi stories mixing the two. Looking through my “nostalgia goggles,” I can remember how each new Robotech RPG book made me imagine amazing action-packed battles against alien invaders, rescuing the pretty idol singers from certain doom, and flying a kickass space fighter through impossible odds.
Also, Robotech really helped Palladium grow in its early years. Who knows, it is possible that without the Robotech RPG, we may have never seen Rifts, or Nightbane, or Chaos Earth.
The brightest spot of all is that Palladium decided not to abandon Robotech and began releasing a new version of the Robotech RPG in 2008 with Robotech: The Shadow Chronicles. Tune in next time for my review of the new (and definitely improved!) Robotech RPG.

3 responses to “A Look Back: The Original Robotech RPG Line Review

  1. I think that your posting here put into words that gnawing sensation in the back of my mind as to why I never really fell in love with the Robotech RPG. I loved the show growing up and after looking at the books in the mid 90’s when I picked them up, I always felt that they were, somehow, lacking but I just couldn’t put my finger on it.

    Interestingly enough, I felt that in a number of ways, Macross II was a superior product…though I think this is because as a game it knew what it wanted (no insanity rules, no OCCs that were not in the show, etc.) and I feel it had better artwork. Don’t get me wrong, Kevin Long is awesome, I love his work! But I don’t think his work always lends itself well to the anime style, at least not like Wayne Breaux anyway.

    Still, a great post and I’m looking forward to what you have to say about later installments.

  2. I remember playing this game way back when… had the frst few books but only ever played
    in a setting post-Macross
    and pre-Southern Cross. It was fun but you had
    to contribute a lot to
    make stories as the books gave almost nothing
    for that.

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