A mercenary band of mecha pilots stands prepared to fight another day in the Lodestar Alpha system, all for the credits its various factions are willing to provide for their services. Wing Crusader, Onyx Edge, Jester Epoch, Dagger Alpha, Iron Glory, and Chimera Sunset are the weapons of war that will see their pilots make their fortune and maybe decide the fate of the system altogether. All pilots, get in your giant robots and get ready to launch. Let’s do a quick little review of, and then Meet the Party for, The Mecha Hack from Absolute Tabletop!
It’s been a while since we did one of these, huh? So of course it’s going to be a Meet-the-Party-as-delivery-system-for-a-review.
The Mecha Hack is based on The Black Hack from Gold Piece Publications, although it is a completely standalone game – no other purchase required. As such it is decidedly an OSR style game, following the design philosophy that a limited number of rules can make for a stronger game. Each character has four Stats – Power, Mobility, System, and Presence – and any sort of activity that has a chance to fail involves testing against one of those stats by rolling a d20. If you get under your number for that Stat, you succeed. If you matched it or rolled over it, you failed. A result of 1 is a critical success, a result of 20 is a critical failure. On a given turn you’ve got two actions and four options: Attack an opponent, Move around, Test against a stat in order to accomplish a task, or Use an ability or piece of equipment. You might have advantage and get to keep the more favorable of two dice, or have disadvantage and have to keep the less favorable of two dice.
There are more situational rules like how distance and cover and being disabled work, but that’s pretty much how to play the game – the basic rules that everyone is going to be running off of cover pages 3-9 of the 43 page book.
Looking back at when Aaron did a cross section of the OSR, I find that his summary of The Black Hack fits The Mecha Hack very well: “a great starting point for players, given how little they need to read and how clear it is.” When it comes to the GM side of things, I agree with Aaron that it could be a little more demanding for first-timers insofar as it’s a very improv heavy affair. However, if you have any experience with Powered by the Apocalypse games or the like, this will be a pretty easy transition? I’m sure some would call it heretical, but while the action resolution is more binary the vibes are very much the same: you set up the initial situation but are largely dependent on player decisions and rolls to tell you how things go from there, you’re not rolling dice yourself to see if antagonists succeed, and if you don’t go with the setting of Lodestar Alpha detailed in the books you (and your players) will be doing all the worldbuilding yourself.
Behind the scenes, the reason I’ve moved from staring longingly at my Mecha Hack books to actually doing something with them is that I’m going to be offering the game with Games on Demand at the upcoming PAX East ‘23 alongside Transit, and what got me thinking along these lines is that my prep level and mentality for both games is pretty much equal.
Alright, so how do you go about making your characters?
First, you choose your Pilot Type. Aside from a brief description your Pilot type increases some of your stats (which by default are determined by rolling 3d6 in a row) and grants a single ability – some are passive, most require an action.
Then you choose your Chassis type, which is your actual mecha. You’ll receive two abilities unique to the chassis, some of which will be passive and some of which will require an action. You’ll get your Hit Die which determines your hit points, your Damage Die which will be what you roll when you land an attack, and your Reactor Die. Abilities and equipment will often call for a reactor die roll once you’ve completed the related action – a result of a 1 or a 2 will downgrade the die, say from a d8 to a d6, and if you would downgrade a d4 your machine instead overheats and you can’t act for a turn.
Anyway, the chassis will also tell you which of your stats are more likely to improve whenever you level up (which works on a milestone basis): you try to roll over your current score for each stat to increase it by one, and each chassis will have two stats that it allows you to roll twice. Each chassis comes with a pre-determined load-out of equipment, which aside from a comlink consists of weapons (heavy ones take multiple hands to wield and are harder to aim but do +2 damage) and armor/shields (which grant Armor Points that can be spent to avoid losing an equal number of Hit Points). Each mecha also starts with a module installed, which could be an additional weapon, an additional defense, or an extra utility – you’ll get a few extra modules over the course of leveling up.
So, who are our mercenary pilots?
Katarina Frazier, The Commander
“I used to serve in an enemy faction, but defected.”
Power: 13 Mobility: 12
System: 10 Presence: 13
Pilot Ability: Battle Tactics
On-Foot Skills: Intellect (System), Coax (Presence)
Callsign: Wing Crusader
Armor Points: 5 Hit Points: 24
Hit Die: 3d8 Damage Die: d8 Reactor Die: d8
Chassis Abilities: Adaptable Robotics, Reactor Charge
Modules: Missile Barrage, Jump Jets
Equipment: Comlink, Sword (light melee weapon), Submachine Gun (light ranged weapon), Shield, Light Armor, Explosive Rounds, Frag Grenade
Katarina Frazier leads the way in Wing Crusader, helping get more out of the entire team. Battle Tactics grants allies extra out-of-turn actions and Reactor Charge can help allies stave off overheating for longer. Adaptable Robotics gives Katarina a chance to avoid critical failures, and the Jump Jets can get Wing Crusader out of trouble or to where Katarina needs to be across huge distances. Between the Missile Barrage module, the area-of-effect Frag Grenade, and the Explosive Rounds she can load into her submachine gun, Katarina can also bring an above-average amount of kaboom to the battlefield
Morgan Bron, The Vet
“I once took pity on an enemy and let them live.”
Power: 15 Mobility: 14
System: 10 Presence: 11
Pilot Ability: Too Old For This Shit
On-Foot Skills: Combat (Power), Intrigue (Presence)
Callsign: Onyx Edge
Armor Points: 5 Hit Points: 23
Hit Die: 3d8 Damage Die: d8 Reactor Die: d6
Chassis Abilities: Crippling Damage, Charging Strike
Modules: Funnel Drones, Dismantler Arms
Equipment: Comlink, Laser Axe (light melee weapon), Submachine Gun (light ranged weapon), Laser Glaive (heavy melee weapon), Shield, Light Armor
Morgan Bron charges into melee fights with Onyx Edge and uses their hard-won experience to tear the enemy apart. Being Too Old For This Shit, Morgan will only downgrade Onyx Edge’s reactor if they roll a 1. Charging Strike lets them move and attack in a single action, while Crippling Damage makes it easier to score critical hits and deal critical damage. The Funnel Drones can be launched to automatically deal damage to either one target or a whole bunch of them – they’ll keep doing so every turn for as long as Onyx Edge’s reactor doesn’t downgrade. Finally, to keep Onyx Edge in the fight its Dismantler Arms will take apart enemy mecha that are destroyed in melee, using their parts to restore Onyx Edge’s own Armor Points.
Uegaki Kae, The Quipster
“I was the sole survivor of a horrific battle.”
Power: 12 Mobility: 10
System: 11 Presence: 14
Pilot Ability: Inspiring Speech
On-Foot Skills: Athletics (Power), Acrobatics (Mobility)
Callsign: Jester Epoch
Armor Points: 5 Hit Points: 19
Hit Die: 3d10 Damage Die: d6 Reactor Die: d6
Chassis Abilities: Kinetic Absorbers, Energy Shield
Modules: Quake Generator, Shield Nodes
Equipment: Comlink, Chaingun (heavy ranged weapon), Heavy Armor, Verilian Battery
Uegaki Kae and Iron Glory keep the team going, whether it’s with a boost of morale or by soaking up damage. Inspiring Speech lets her grant an ally advantage on a test. Iron Glory’s Kinetic Absorbers let it take hits meant for others, its Energy Shield can reduce incoming damage for either itself or an ally, and the Shield Nodes can provide Mobility bonuses to allies for as long as the reactor holds out.. The Quake Generator allows Kae to make an area-effect attack around Iron Glory that damages enemies and hurls them backwards, and tapping into the Verilian Battery will keep Iron Glory from overheating for that much longer.
Sanura Asker, The Maverick
“I once took pity on an enemy and let them live.”
Power: 9 Mobility: 16
System: 13 Presence: 9
Pilot Ability: Reckless Attack
On-Foot Skills: Acrobatics (Mobility), Stealth (Mobility)
Callsign: Dagger Alpha
Armor Points: 5 Hit Points: 15
Hit Die: 3d6 Damage Die: d6 Reactor Die: d8
Chassis Abilities: Ambush, Cloaking Field
Modules: Static Cloud, Super Reactor
Equipment: Comlink, Dagger (light melee weapon), Revolver (light ranged weapon), Light Armor, Shield, Sensor Jammer, 25 Credits
Sanura Asker is the ultimate stealth operative in Dagger Alpha, with options upon options for vanishing in a haze of sensor static. The Cloaking Field allows Dagger Alpha to become hidden but the Static Cloud will also do the trick for when dealing some damage to enemies that are closing in is also called for. Sanura can only use the Sensor Jammer once, but it’ll hide Dagger Alpha and an ally. Last but certainly not least, when Sanura stops hiding she’ll be deadly: Ambush will grant advantage and extra damage when attacking while hidden, and Reckless Attack can burn AP for even more damage on a successful attack. Because she’ll be leaning so heavily on her reactor, Sanura’s gotten Dagger Alpha a Super Reactor which grants it an above-average reactor die for a Scout chassis.
Matej Zunec, The Engineer
“My family was collateral damage in a battle.”
Power: 13 Mobility: 10
System: 16 Presence: 11
Pilot Ability: Quick Fix
On-Foot Skills: Athletics (Power), Intellect (System)
Callsign: Iron Glory
Armor Points: 7 Hit Points: 18
Hit Die: 2d6 Damage Die: d6 Reactor Die: d8
Chassis Abilities: Core Override, Reinforce
Modules: Nano Shroud, Lodium Alloy
Equipment: Comlink, Ion Flail (light melee weapon), Scattergun (heavy ranged weapon), Shield, Light Armor, Boost Kit
Matej Zunec and Iron Glory are how all of these mecha can take beam fire to the chassis and still keep fighting. Quick Fix lets Matej spend Armor Points to restore Hit Points for other mecha. The Lodium Alloy that Iron Glory is made out of has provided extra AP in the first place, and the Nano Shroud will actually help grow spent AP back to keep tanking damage and making repairs. Core Override will let Matej roll his reactor die in place of an ally’s, and Reinforce grants an additional die to an ally’s damage roll. When things are really going wrong, the Boost Kit will grant Iron Glory some emergency AP and a reactor upgrade.
Robin Kerrisk, The Pariah
“I’m infamous for my ruthlessness in battle.”
Power: 12 Mobility: 12
System: 8 Presence: 15
Pilot Ability: Strange Empathy
On-Foot Skills: Combat (Power), Intrigue (Presence)
Callsign: Chimera Sunset
Armor Points: 5 Hit Points: 18
Hit Die: 3d6 Damage Die: d12 Reactor Die: d6
Chassis Abilities: Monstrous Mecha, Maw Beam
Modules: GEIST System, Energy Modulator
Equipment: Comlink, Greataxe (heavy melee weapon), Beam Cannon (heavy ranged weapon), Heavy Armor, Fusion Grenade
Robin Kerrisk uses the half-monster, half-machine Chimera Sunset to wreak havoc on the team’s opponents while also using strange abilities to stay safe and keep going. Right away the Energy Modulator has been installed to upgrade Chimera Sunset’s damage die, which the Maw Beam can deal to enemies by testing against Presence. Robin’s Strange Empathy allows for a Presence test to avoid incoming attacks, and the GEIST System tests Presence in place of making reactor rolls (although there can be dire consequences). Speaking of dire consequences, Chimera Sunset cannot overheat, but being a Monstrous Mecha will instead go berserk, possibly damaging itself or others or even slipping Robin’s control for a moment and fleeing.
Our pilots and their mecha were built using both the core rulebook and the Mission Manual, which on top of having a bunch of missions for a Mecha Hack GM to run (surprise, surprise) brought the total number of pilot and chassis types to eight apiece. Only the Bionic and Merc and the Colossus and Vanguard were left in the hangar bay for this one. Because these pilots are going to hopefully be launching into convention games I used the variant character creation method, which rather than rolling dice grants an array of numbers to assign to your stats. I specifically went with the slightly-better Soldiers array, which also gave everyone some extra credits to work with. HP, however, I left up to the dice.
I also increased their Level to 3, which granted everyone some more Hit Points, gave them some chances to increase their Stats (which worked for some better than others), and allowed them to choose a second module. Each also has two On-Foot skills first presented in the Mission Manual; getting out of your giant robot doesn’t change the basics, but these skills let you add a bonus to their associated stat when using them while, well, on foot.
It’s the pilot and chassis abilities and the equipment and modules that carry the mechanical weight of being the pilot of a giant robot, with help from the reactor die imparting the feeling of pushing your machine to its limits. The basic rules are just that, basic – it’s in putting together your pilot and mecha that you should start to really feel the Mecha part of the title, and I certainly do.
Who They Are & How They Interact
Lodestar Alpha is a star system wracked by war. The common folk of the Terran Collective have risen up to overthrow the noble houses of the Neo Dominion, only for the lost colonists of the Aeonic Primacy to arrive in-system and try to conquer the whole thing – accidentally unleashing the kaiju of the Voidmaw in the process. In this setting where a mere two-way fight between giant robots might be considered a slow day, there’s always room for mercenaries – the Collective will recruit anyone willing to fight for the cause, the Dominion are desperate, and the Aeons never turn their back on any possible advantage.
Enter the band known as Silhouette Zero, so named as a play on the rating category of Voidmaw kaiju – Silhouette Ten may be obviously dangerous, but only a fool looks at a SilZero and thinks they’re safe.
Katarina used to be a squire in the Neo Dominion, but defected shortly before the Collective rose up – rather than join the Collective, however, she decided to take Wing Crusader and start an independent operation. She’s put together SilZero and kept it alive through sheer workmanlike determination and a willingness to be wherever she’s needed in a fight.
Morgan was referred to as a knight errant in the days when the Neo Dominion ruled without question over all of Lodestar Alpha. Fighting as some noble’s champion changed to fighting for the highest bidder, which suited Morgan just fine, except as things continued to become more chaotic it occurred to them that flying solo was going to be an increasingly stupid idea.
Kae led a squad of her fellow Terran Collective pilots into battle against an independent band of mecha pilots commanded by the Warlord Jerzma. Jerzma and her ilk were driven off and the area Kae’s squad was defending remained safe, but when the dust settled Kae was the only Terran pilot left alive. She ran from the ‘threat’ of being asked to command another squad, eventually crafting a new persona and life as the quipster of SilZero.
Sanura used to be a professional mecha thief, stealing mecha to sell to her clients – the Collective who would take anything, the Neos who wanted Aeonic tech, the Aeons who wanted to better understand their divergent cousins. However, every thief has the one score they couldn’t bear to part with – Dagger Alpha was Sanura’s, and keeping her mandated a career change.
Matej did not have a ‘slow day’ – his home town was caught up in a five-way brawl between local Collective defenders, Neo and Aenoic attackers, the SilFive kaiju that followed the Aeons out of the Verilian portal, and a certain band of mercenaries that had been enjoying a day off at the local pub. Matej hopped in a construction mecha and did what he could, but he lost his family – and gained another he’s determined to keep alive.
Robin was the last to join SilZero’s ‘illustrious’ ranks, and she did so in the process of robbing them of work. The band showed up for a job only to find Chimera Sunset standing dormant among the wreckage, Robin asleep in the cockpit. Where she came from and how she came to be there, how Chimera Sunset came into her possession or how it can even exist in the first place, the nature of her strange abilities, all of these are unknown. With no client to pay them, however, the band decided they might as well retroactively declare it a recruitment trip.
Katarina and Morgan have been working together the longest, and are pretty much the co-founders of the mercenary band. While SilZero is not possessed of any kind of rank structure, if anyone is Katarina’s second in command it’s the old veteran. Katarina uses Morgan something like an Old Earth canary – if they start getting twitchy about a job, she knows it’s time to get out. Katarina tries to maintain a professional distance from the other pilots, although any hint that she’s acting as standoffish as a Dominion knight will have her overcompensating in the other direction.
Morgan follows Katarina’s lead when it comes to tactical decisions, but is otherwise among the quietest of the pilots, and considering Robin is there that’s saying something. Still, out of a sense of professional pride they often find themselves mentoring the less experienced pilots and charging into the thick of things to take the attention of the toughest opponents that the band faces.
Kae is the most boisterous of the group, building friendships with everyone to various degrees of success, although only Matej truly knows how much of that is a desperate attempt to hide how hurt she is and how afraid she is of losing people again. While the thought of actually being in charge again is nauseating, it’s no coincidence that Jester Epoch is so equipped to keep the other members of the team safe.
Sanura actually knows Morgan from back in the thieving days – she stole a mecha that belonged to them, although she had to ditch it before making delivery to the client. They work well together now that they’re on more even footing – it was the pair of them that spared the Aeonic ace that nearly killed them both. Sanura joined up, however, because she already knew the Commander, having stolen some weapons and gear for her back when the band were outfitting Iron Glory.
Matej really does think of his fellow mercenaries as a second chance at a family – a very strange family, but a family all the same. Kae and Matej have bonded over their losses and their desire to protect the others. There may be something more there, but neither is willing to pursue it at this point with the majority of the system seemingly on fire most days and each mission more intense than the last.
Robin is viewed with consternation by Katarina, Morgan, and Sanura, all of whom think she’s a valuable member of the team they’d jump to defend while also being pretty concerned about where she may have come from and whether or not Chimera Sunset will try to eat them some day. Kae and Matej, meanwhile, have practically adopted the strange young girl in all but name. For her part Robin splits her time between being befuddled by, trying to imitate, and (rarely, and in an effort to develop a sense of humor encouraged by Kae) deliberately messing with her new associates.
You can visit DriveThruRPG to get both The Mecha Hack and The Mecha Hack: Mission Manual in PDF and Print-on-Demand forms.
If you want to hear The Mecha Hack in action first, with a very different Silhouette Zero, you can listen to the exploits of October Gray and the Grim Horizon in a two-part actual play here and here – and yes, SilZero the podcast is why I ended up picking this game up in the first place, so really this is all their fault.
Meanwhile, will this SilZero thrive among the battlefields of Lodestar Alpha? Will Katarina, Morgan, Kae, Sanura, Matej, and Robin make it big as mercenaries or will they end up in the scrap heap? As always, that’s for you (and your dice) to determine – and if you’re at PAX East on March 23rd-26th, swing by Games on Demand to do so!
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