Mud, Lasers, and Giant Robots – A Review of Lancer: The Mech RPG

Lancer is my current tabletop RPG obsession. It’s a game where sufficiently advanced technology chruns through the mud and dust at the edge of the human frontier. You are a Lancer: an elite mech pilot beholden to no one, or to your friends, or to a megacorporation, or to a cause, or to hyperadvanced enslaved math ghosts from beyond reality. Humanity is racing towards a post-scarcity utopia, and you’re on a crash course with whatever is in the way. You, Lancer, are here to make the difference.

Your tools are ingenuity, passion, and a giant freakin’ robot.

I plan to talk about why you should play Lancer instead of giving a play-by-play of the mechanics. I will focus on the things that make this game stand out from industry standards like Dungeous and Dragons. 

More traditional reviews can be found all over the internet. Here are some of my favorites!

  • https://cannibalhalflinggaming.com/2019/04/11/the-independents-lancer/
  • https://www.dicebreaker.com/games/lancer/interview/lancer-rpg-interview-future-roleplaying
  • https://stickybunton.com/2020/03/04/suiting-up-in-lancer/
  • https://www.cercatoridiatlantide.it/en/lancer/

It’s free for players and cheap for the GM

Massif Press offers a free, stripped-down version of the core book with everything you need to participate as a player. And, frankly, you don’t even need this thanks to the amazing companion app discussed below.

All the game master rules are available in the full rulebook for $25. The full Lancer book was also part of the big Itch.io Bundle for Racial Justice, so you may already own it.

The full book is worth the money, as it contains all the setting information, the absolutely gorgeous art, and everything you need to run the game.

It has the best companion app ever made

One of the hardest parts of playing a tabletop RPG is character creation and management. Dice. Paper. Pencils. Ten million options. Math. It’s often more like homework than fun. For game masters, it can be a chore to create encounters and track all of their abilities.

Enter Comp/Con.

Comp/Con is everything D&D Beyond wishes it could be. It sets a new standard for companion apps.

Wanna create a new Level 0 character? You can get it done, mech included, in nine clicks. It’ll even let you click for a randomized character name. You can have a viable character ready to play a game in ten seconds.

Leveling up is just as easy. Customizing your mech? Also dead simple. And it eases playing the game, too. You don’t even need to print a character sheet if you don’t want to: you can just load Comp/Con on your phone and use your finger to add/remove health, heat, etc.

But wait! There’s more!

Game masters can import a file (found with their core book download) that will enable an entire GM-related section. This mission designer allows them to plan out entire campaigns, leave notes, define NPCs, create encounters, and add rests. You can do it all. And then you can run the encounters within Comp/Con and it will track turns, health, everything.

Frankly, Comp/Con has set such a high standard that GMing other RPGs now feels like a chore.

When everything is overpowered, nothing is

Player abilities are all powerful and impactful. As a result, it is difficult to make a truly “bad” character. This makes the game very forgiving to newbies.Experienced players will be delighted to find new combos.

And, if a player doesn’t like the choices they made, there are re-spec options available at level-up.

Be anything you want

The system is incredibly flexible. You can create virtually any kind of character, or mech, you can dream of.

Feel like being a space pirate in a mech with chainsaws for arms? Lancer has your back.

Want to be a highly-augmented man of the stars whose life is spent at near lightspeed and thus has been alive for 1000 actual years (30 subjective), most of which is spent as part of an order of space paladins dedicated to wiping out guys like the previous suggestion? Join the Albatross today, stay for a millenia.

Want to roll up into a one-horse town as a grizzled veteran with an eyepatch and a cowboy mech? Son, that’s in the official art.

Accidentally blow up a moon, and spend your life on the run from a titanic corpro-state? Then discover you’re actually a clone of the original, and they’re still after you because killing you once wasn’t enough? So you build a titanic armored mech with an automatic shotgun and never, ever leave it? That’s one of my players in the game I’m GMing.

Do whatever you please. The game supports it.

The art is stunning

I mean, seriously. Go google image search for “Lancer RPG Art” or just scroll through the kickstarter page.

The art is done by Tom Parkinson, the mad genius behind the (absolutely stellar) webcomic Kill Six Billion Demons.

Combat is tactical. Narrative role play is rules-lite.

I absolutely love this system. A lite rules system for role playing allows your players the freedom to do whatever sounds cool or appropriate. They simply say what they want to do, then the GM assigns a difficulty and describes the consequences of failure. If the players wish to continue, dice are rolled. Whatever happens, happens. A bar fight, a tense negotiation, a stealthy infiltration, and a meme-based political smear campaign all follow the same rules.

But sometimes you simply must jump in a giant robot and wreck things. Mech combat is quick, brutal, and very tactical. There’s no initiative, like in D&D. Instead, the players and NPCs take turns acting. A player goes, then an NPC, then a player, and so on. Players can go in any order during the round, so they’re encouraged to set up combos off each other. Cover is important, and abilities that control or lock down characters are very useful.

You’re going to want some kind of map for mech combat. Lancer can use squares or hexes or, in a pinch, even just measuring in inches. There’s good support for virtual tabletops. And if you can’t find minis, just print off a paper mech from Retrograde Minis. Click the mech section and go hog wild. Every mech there is based off a Lancer PC or NPC mech.

Lancer’s setting is fascinating

Players with the full rulebook will find that half of the book is dedicated to the setting and worldbuilding. There is detailed information about NPC factions, technology, history, and much, much more. I haven’t been booked by such a sweeping, interesting RPG setting since Planescape.

The interstellar government is called Union, and it controls most of known space. Union’s has two oft-conflicting goals: relentless expansion into the unknown and bringing utopia to those worlds already established. Through technology and sheer will, Union’s core worlds are approaching a post-scarcity utopia. But on the fringes, Union’s control slips, and utopia is a dream for one’s great-grandchildren.

Away from the core worlds, conflict arises in the vacuum of Union’s control. There are dozens of organizations of all types, but four major corporations loom over them all. On the frontier, their power often exceeds that of Union. Each has its own goals, and those rarely align with each other or with Union itself.

A shadow lays over it all. Hyperadvanced, noncorporeal information singularities have begun to appear throughout human space. The first calls itself RA, and it shook Union to its core. RA manifested on Deimos, the smaller of Mars’ moons. In less than two months, it manifested, resisted all efforts to contain it, took control of machines throughout the Sol system, forced a set of Accords on Union, and, before the ink was even dry, fucked off to who knows where, taking the entierty of Deimos with it. Echos of RA’s presence reverberate throughout Union space as it does whatever it wants, whenever it wants, seemingly unbound by the laws of physics or causality.

And RA was but the first.

To learn more about the writing behind Lancer, check out this interview with Miguel Lopez, the lead writer of the core book.

You can start playing with ease!

As a player, visit the Lancer Discord and look for games that are recruiting. There are always some.

If you want to GM, get the core book somehow and recruit some friends.

And I could be convinced to run a couple of Roll20 games for Shackers…

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