The Independents: Lancer

Things get lonely out here in the Long Rim, especially when you’re laying an ambush for the pirate who almost killed you a month ago. A white hot sun beats down on the black-glass face of my SSC METALMARK, but I’ve dimmed the cockpit displays and cranked the internal temperature controls way down. Gotta stay frosty.

Welcome to Lancer, a game of big robots, big guns, and big personalities. If you’ve ever wanted to fly through space tinkering with the parts of your mech and the hearts of your enemies, Lancer is the game for you.

Lancer is a self-proclaimed “mud-and-lasers” RPG about science-fantasy mechs and the pilots that crew them. It’s the first game by Massif Press, the brainchild of Tom Parkinson Morgan and Miguel Lopez. For more than a year the team at Massif has been teasing the game, dropping art, lore, and early incarnations of the rules to build an audience. It has been a long process, but it seems like the wait was worthwhile: Lancer has developed into a beautiful, polished game, and has built quite a cult following in the process. Massif’s Kickstarter campaign smashed through its target of $46,000 just hours after launch, and it has already cleared quite a few stretch goals.

The Lancer core book is hefty, coming in at over 500 pages in its beta pre-release version. Don’t be intimidated though, the actual rules of the game are only a fraction of the book; something like 80% is art, worldbuilding fiction, and a plethora of guns, lasers, swords, and physics-defying paracausal weaponry for you to strap to your mech. This thing is truly a wonderful combination of rulebook, setting book, and artbook that you will savor down to the last page.

Interestingly enough, the actual text of the game has been available for months, and is completely free. The Massif team decided to take a development path I have only seen in a few other RPG’s, and released the game as a progressively developing, living document. This beta period was a time for the rules to be revised and refined, and I think it heavily contributed to the early success of the Kickstarter campaign. The community has come to trust and enjoy Lancer, and they are willing to shell out for a premium version of the game. Even if you don’t back the campaign, the core rulebook will always be available for free, albeit devoid of some of the art and layout which makes Lancer so magical.

Art & Setting

A HORUS MINOTAUR emerges from a cave, painted all black except for the skull-and-bones on one flank. I’m ready for him this time. My Rail Rifle swings up and launches a steel bolt into the antenna broadcasting his Interdiction Field, blowing it off his chassis. Now that his tech is gone, I can get close enough to do what I do best.

You may recognize Lancer’s art style from Parkinson Morgan’s other project, a webcomic by the name of Kill Six Billion Demons. It was this art that drew me to Lancer in the first place; the style oscillates between intricate, colorful, and grotesque. Parkinson Morgan has clearly proven that he can do futuristic robotics just as well as he can do accursed monsters. The art direction as a whole is incredibly interesting and cohesive. Mechs from the same manufacturer share obvious stylistic similarities, and the depictions of pilots are just as sublime, painting a broad set of characters ranging from military officers, to cultists, to wandering mercenary-knights. And if that wasn’t enough, Massif has assembled a mighty team of other artists to pad out the already beautiful book; 17 are listed on their Kickstarter page.

The setting of Lancer is evocative, and follows the human-centric path of some of my favorite science fiction. Massif’s list of inspirations is truly epic, claiming Aliens, Blade RunnerAkira, Cowboy Bebop, Dan Simmons’ Hyperion Cantos, Bungie’s Destiny, Ursula LeGuin’s The Left Hand of Darkness, The Thin Red Line, Band of Brothers, Platoon, Tarkovsky’s Stalker, Cronenberg’s Videodrome, and Evangelion as narrative precursors.

In Lancer humanity has spread to the stars, and despite the general control of the hegemonic Union, human factions and alliances run rampant. The universe’s communities range wildly from orders of galactic paladins, to spacefaring nomad-traders, to corporate run techno-states. There is a deep well of fictional spacefaring to draw from, so you could tell all kinds of stories within Lancer’s setting. In fact, you are expected to get creative; the book suggests some organizations your players could be a part of, but there is no default. It’s up to you to decide what role you play in the Union.

Of course, the intricacies of technology stand in the forefront of Lancer’s storytelling. This is a world where lightspeed Blink Gates dot the galaxy, clones wander the streets of mega-cities, and fully intelligent AI assert their own will on society. There is also an extensive catalog of mech weaponry and systems, along with flavor about how each piece works. For example, one corporation produces the “Impaler Nailgun” capable of pinning mechs to the ground with massive stakes. Another manufacturer licenses the “Tachyon Lance”, a massive weapon that flings minuscule particles at light-speed into your foes. There are self-propulsed hammers, paracausal probability-manipulating cannons, and a plethora of operating protocols to equip your mech with.

The mech-making corporations are incredibly flavorful themselves. General Massive Systems is the stalwart, universal-standard in quality and efficiency. IPS-Northstar mechs are tough machines capable of taking plenty of damage, then dishing it back out in brutal close-quarters combat. Smith-Shimono Corpro produces lithe, agile frames focused on speed and accuracy. Horus mechs are unsettling things, reminiscent of ancient monsters, built around experimental tech and electronic warfare. Harrison Armory designs extreme weapons capable of blowing holes in starships, and includes mechs just so you have something to carry your weapons around in.

The corebook exposition alone makes Lancer the single most setting-dense RPG I have ever seen on release; not to mention the campaign module and 3 setting heavy “field guides” that have already been unlocked as stretch goals. Lancer’s world rivals the depth of some decades-old game series, and I can unequivocally say: I am still hungry for more.

Gameplay & Systems

I charge, dancing between his machine gun fire, drawing my Nanocarbon Sword. This is the last remaining piece of my beloved mech, an old IPS-N BLACKBEARD that carried me through dozens of battles before. It knows the taste of pirate blood, and it finds its way home into the MINOTAUR’s core. There is a roar of fire as the pirate mech explodes, and by the time the smoke clears I’m gone, using my Tactical Cloak to flee from the pirate’s comrades before they have time to target me. Serves him right.

Lancer markets itself as systematically unique among mecha RPGs, a claim which stands up well to scrutiny. In its press kit, Massif makes the claim that “Narrative play and tactical combat demand different rulesets and scales of play. Whether you want the game to move at a more narrative pace, or jump right into tactical combat, Lancer establishes clear guidelines for when and how to implement differing styles.” They reference Shadow of The Demon Lord, Armored Core, and Blades In The Dark as mechanical influences to their design, and I want to do a bit of analysis on how these systems work, and what kind of game experience they cultivate.

Lancer’s gameplay systems are actually a bit difficult to summarize as a whole, because they range pretty drastically from super-crunchy to relatively rules-light. On the one hand, gameplay is largely simple and narrative-driven when the pilots are outside of their mechs. Any time players take a difficult action, the GM prompts a skill check, which is a 1d20 roll with a fixed difficulty of 10+ for success. The swingyness of the d20 is mitigated by some well-defined skills and gear that characters can use to boost their chances with a flat bonus. This character-focused system is clearly intended to encourage the development of personality and proficiency among pilots, without stifling combat options or mech choices.

On the other hand the mech combat system of Lancer is intricate, reminiscent of tactical grid battles from other RPG’s, complete with weapon ranges, overheating systems, mech grappling, and dozens of mechanically unique weapons, strategic tools, and modifications. Each turn is made up of a movement action, and either two quick actions or one full action. This flow gives players flexibility to be strategic about when to deploy weapons and countermeasures, while still leaving turns relatively uncomplicated. I hesitate to compare Lancer’s combat system to D&D, because it feels so incredibly different, but there are definitely some structural similarities to both 4e and 5e. There is one area, though, where Lancer throws out all the games that have come before, and wades into new territory: classes and advancement.

It’s undeniable, Lancer has some of the most complex character advancement options I have ever seen in an RPG—but the process of advancing is actually quite streamlined: each mission completed grants your pilot a level, and each level gives you a few stat buffs, some skill improvements, and one “License Point”. This is where Lancer really shines. License Points allow you to unlock mech frames, weapons, auxiliary systems, and technology bonuses from the five in-fiction mech manufacturers. There are no strict classes, but the mech frames and systems you accrue will form the backbone of what kinds of mechs you are able to build. The game is generous with its mech customization, and once you unlock parts there is no cost for mixing, matching, and remixing your robot into the most efficient murder-machine possible. The only limitation is your imagination, and how many different mount points your mech has to strap on guns.

Finally, Lancer takes a crack at making a downtime system that lets characters explore the world and prepare for their next mission during lulls in the action. Downtime frees up pilots to pursue goals outside combat missions: do they have a family, run a business, or make political waves? There is a lot of freedom during this phase, but most of the time it will culminate in one roll. Players get to choose from a list of downtime pursuits such as a training montage, a night carousing at a bar, or a shopping spree. These pursuits allow characters to build a reputation, learn new skills, or even make contact with influential people outside of the normal play loop. This is probably the most freeform system Lancer has, but it’s a freedom that fits well into the frontiers of space.

Conclusion

I’ve spent a lot of time over the past few months reading mech RPG’s, writing about big robots, and watching Gundam. It’s a new obsession of mine, spurred on by the wonderful Emotional Mecha Jam from back in February. There is a lot of discourse floating around about how the mecha genre is useful for discussing transhumanism, disabilities, and human bodies; and while that is also true for Lancer, I want to take a moment to indulge my 12 year old self and talk about the aspect of the game which stands out the most at first blush: the power of technology. The art and the mechanics of Lancer work together incredibly well to paint a picture of terrifying mechanical power, esoteric physics, and bewildering function. This is a setting where mech pilots have the ability to weaponize gravity, project data holograms capable of shorting out both brains and computer processors, and teleport all about the battlefield. It’s a view of technology which borders on magic. It may be childish, but there is something so satisfying about hearing the hum of lasers, feeling the thrust of jump-jets, and seeing as a metal frame spins into position and locks in place. It’s a familiar unknown to anyone who has had experience with mech-themed media, and Lancer embraces the wonder.

I would highly recommend you pick up Lancer. This has been my single most anticipated game of 2019, and I cannot stress enough how amazing the project is. This is the most aesthetically pleasing RPG I’ve ever seen, paired with the deepest character advancement system in recent memory, tacked onto a lovingly crafted sci-fi setting. In the coming years, I think Lancer will prove to be the standout product in an already booming genre, and I think Massif will have earned the praise.

You can currently back Lancer on Kickstarter, and secure your slice of mud-and-lasers mecha action. The full PDF, along with a bunch of extra digital content, will run you $25. A hardback version will cost $60. The free version of the game can currently be found on Massif’s itch.io page, but I heartily suggest picking up the Kickstarter version to get the fully produced art, layout, and numerous bonus books. The campaign runs through May 10. You can follow Massif Press on Twitter, alongside the game’s designers, Miguel Lopez and Tom Parkinson Morgan.

May your core run cool and your cannons hot, pilot.

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