Interview: Chris Perrin

Creepy Chris and his knives I met Chris Perrin at this year’s Gen Con Media Meet & Greet event. Alas the location was far to dark and too loud for my tastes. I felt tired and exhausted and the location didn’t really improve things. So there I was chatting to some bloggers and podcasters when Chris came in. And of course I didn’t even recognize him, even though we have been in contact over the internet for some time. Eventually we had a short chat, but as I mentioned before, the location was not really the perfect place for long conversations.

So when I returned home from Gen Con I apologized and asked him for an interview. Since he’s a very nice guy, he didn’t use his creepy looking kitchen knives on me, but agreed to answer a few questions for me.

Stargazer
Thanks for answering a few questions for us. Can you please start by telling a bit about yourself? What do you do for a living? How long are you part of the RPG industry? What has been the first roleplaying game you ever played?

Chris
Of course!  Let’s see for a living, I am a Solutions Architect for a Marketing Database company.  I design and implement technology to run marketing campaigns and I work a lot with databases: Oracle, SQL Server, etc.  I am also a food writer with several credits to my name.  It’s hard for me to say when I became part of the industry, because that can mean different things to different people.  I tend to say I started in the industry when I made my podcasting debut on the Diana Jones Award nominated podcast, The Canon Puncture Show that was basically four years ago.  The first RPG I ever played was, I think, Marvel Superheroes when I was in the third grade.  If it was Marvel, it was Palladium Book’s Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles.  Basically, there were four games that I played all about the same time, Marvel, TMNT, Robotech and BattleTech, but I think Marvel came first.

Stargazer
Today we want to talk about your Mecha roleplaying game. When did you have the idea to create a mecha game and what made you choose that genre?

Chris
The thought of creating a mecha game started when I wrote my first BattleTech clone called LaserTech when I was in the fourth grade.  My friend Jeff has used the 4C system to do a BattleTech clone and I wasn’t about to let him beat me.  I don’t remember much about that game except that it sucked and I think was basically an exactly copy of BattleTech with the names changed.

Really, though, I have Robotech to blame for my fascination with big robots.  I saw one episode and it blew my mind.  After that I was hooked.

Stargazer
Has Mecha changed a lot during the design process? How close is it to your first ideas and what did you leave on the cutting floor?

Chris
Mecha The original draft of Mecha is maybe 10% similar.  Heck, originally Mecha was called Neoborn Genesis Honor Blade and was a narrative game without dueling rules.  That draft that is recognizable as Mecha was {{{{THIS BIG}}}} and was fairly crunchy, poorly defined, and generally not much fun to play.

The process of playtesting, which took almost 18 months, was very much a subtractitive (instead of an additive) process whereby we took every mechanic and ran it through a filter.  That filter was simple: “Name me a time when X happened in giant robot anime.”  If the mechanic passed that filter, it was run through a second filter: “Okay, name me another time…”  We kept mechanics that stayed true to the feel of the game and those that didn’t went away.  A good example of this was the skill list.  Pilots used to have a fairly in-depth skill list ranging from stealth to rifles to pistols to tactics to strategy to cooking, etc.  Then we ran a playtest outside on our mecha (based on a suggestion from another designer, Matt Gandy) and found that the skill list didn’t work.  It was possible for the PCs (who were playing spec ops commandos) to be awesome at prowling and shooting, but get pwned in hand-to-hand combat and couldn’t operate a computer terminal, let alone access data.  Ugh.  That’s not fun and it wasn’t really true to form.  Anime main characters (which the PCs are) don’t get pwned by anything except enemy aces, but we didn’t want to just have a huge skill list and a bunch of skill points.  So we tried simplifying the skills down to the bare minimum (shoot, sneak, repair, heal, etc.) and realized that all we needed were the ones we had and that was that.

Then there were other things like Initiative, which was additive.  One of my playtesters came up with that.  Initiative used to be one of two rolls that didn’t follow the standard D6 die pool.  It used to be Engineering + 1d6.  Well, one of the playtesters came up with the idea that it should be a standard roll with the change for a Cutscene, etc.  And it worked.

Come to think of it, I didn’t add one meaningful thing to the book.  (Kidding.)  I do say that without the patience of my playtesters, Mecha wouldn’t have been what it is today and sometimes the best thing I could do was not get in their way.

Stargazer
In the book you mention that you had to be convinced by your players to include the scene structure. Could you elaborate on that?

Chris

Before writing that part of Mecha, my experience with set scene structure was limited to two games: Primetime Adventures and Burning Empires.  I love them both, but I felt (and still do feel) that their turn sequence produces a particular type of play which you could call regimented or structured.  As a player, there were times when I felt constrained and that I was forced to act creatively to have the scene I wanted.

My fear was that switching from open to regimented roleplaying would be too much.  I already had a game with a die pool, that was science fiction, and was played on a circular battlemap.  With each decision I made, I felt like we were falling away from what everyone was used to and into those other thing that was different and, my fear at the time, was that it would be so different people wouldn’t like it.

Fortunately, I am a sneaky dude and in an interview with Luke Crane, disguised a few questions about Mecha in an interview about Burning Empires mechanics.  He said something fairly profound: (and I am both paraphrasing and recounting an interview from several years ago) that scenes in BE were resources to be juggled like hit points and it was no less immersion breaking than checking your hit point total.  So, with my fears calmed by the master, we revamped the skill system to work with the scene structure and played it.  And we loved it.

Today, I can’t see the game working any other way.  Having that scene structures ensures that everyone gets their spotlight, can contribute meaningfully every turn, and has a guide for how to be pilots outside of mecha.  It also gives the GMs ways to give the players (not just the PCs) more challenges.  Believe me, as the GM I want the player to be thinking “Do I go for a Social Scene and get a point of Overdrive or do I Repair my mecha” just as much as I DON’T want to have to face that challenge as a player.

Stargazer
What tips do you have for someone who wants to play (or run) Mecha for the first time?

Chris

1s explode.  You reroll them and total your successes.

Even more than Link Stats, that is the mechanic people seem to get tripped up on!

More seriously, I would remind players that Mecha works on mecha anime physics, not real world physics.  It is perfectly fine in mecha anime combat to have a Range 6 (longest range in the game) jump kick, fight on a bullseye, and have Range 1 switchblades (and Range 2 atomic spitwad throwers and Range whatever atomic pom poms.)  While Mecha is not a silly game, there is a certain suspension of disbelief that is required as players ride their mecha across the school yard to the Hypersonic Drive-In where they can eat chili cheese hot dogs on their mechas’ shoulders before going to the sock hop.  In 1960s Japan.

See, that’s perfectly anime.  It’s just not very realistic!

To GMs, play hard.  Mecha has included a fairly lengthy GM’s section, but really it’s just advice on how to play the game.  As the GM, you are at a disadvantage because all you really control is the aftermath of the scene rolls and your side in combat.  But the players are spending their turns gaining every advantage to use against you and normally, you are out numbered 3 or 4 to one.  If you don’t play to win, the players will walk all over you and that gets boring.

Stargazer
As far as I know your second passion besides roleplaying is cooking. Have you ever considered writing a cook book for gamers?

Chris
Many times.  In fact, if your readers would like to share stories of how food has affected their gaming lives, I would like to collect them for a book I’d like to write.

Stargazer
What are your next plans? Will you use Mecha’s system for other games or do you think it works best in that genre?

Chris
Ah, the future.  Right now I am working on the Mecha combiner rules.  Combiners are things like Voltron where many PC mecha form a super robot.  I am set to playtest those rules and if things go like I think they will, that supplement should pretty much write itself.

The funny thing is, thoughm I have this feeling those rules are going to be received with mixed results.  I could be wrong on this one, but the Combiner rules are really, really simple and probably not what fans of the game are expecting.  However, fans should rest assured that we tried a number of different plans, including taking averages of all the mecha’s stats, building a prorated scale based on number of mecha in the combination, and none of it worked.  Then we changed on an idea and it seems to just fit.

The fun of that book will be explaining the choice we made, not to apologize for it, but because it’s important for GMs to understand the logic behind the rules so they can best apply them to their campaign.  Of course, GMs of the game are free to tell me I’m nuts, write their own rules, and post them on srssource.mecharpg.com.  I welcome the sanity check.

After that, we’ve been asked to do a Kaiju supplement (think Godzilla).  Also, I am writing a setting for an I-20 (another HJP system) supplement, a 4th Ed supplement, and starting what I hope will be a line of Savage Worlds sci fi games.  Oh, and I am writing a Facebook RPG app as well.

Also, my publisher is really keen on doing a fantasy game using OCF! and he almost has me convinced.  Plus, in the back of my head I have ideas for two more games: Mana and another one that will start with M and end with an uh sound.  (Not Messiah, that game is behind me.)  Mana will be a sort of pre-apocalyptic future where magic and technology coexist and the pro-magic forces have decided that all technology is evil.  You play peacekeepers whose job it is to sniff out technology and eradicate it.  However, it will be a sandbox game so there is only a set amount of Mana left before the world ends.

And all of your magic uses Mana.  So does your robotic partner whose brain is basically a magic fueled computer.

Stargazer
You have been attending Gen Con this year. How did you like it? How was it compared to the Gen Con in the years before?

Chris
My first Gen Con was 2007 and nothing will every top it.  Because it was my first.

Still, this year was awesome and made me really happy for the hobby.  My fear was that with the economy in a recession that in any other time period would be called a Depression, that it would be underattended by patrons and game companies alike.  Nothing could be farther from the truth. I hope that translates into industrywide sales and that we finished 2010 strong and go into 2011.

Oh, and Chris Parmas was very gracious when I told him about my Vampire character.

Stargazer
What was your favorite product at this year’s Gen Con?

Chris
Um…Mecha?  In all seriousness, I still get a kick out of playing it every year.

I think the thing that would have been my favorite would have been the Adventure Burner, but Luke sold out (I yelled at him.)  With that said, it would have to be Freemarket.  Jared and Luke made a great game there.  Colonial Gothic was also sweet.

Stargazer
Is there anything you want to share with my readers that I haven’t asked you yet?

Chris
Every hour some one doesn’t buy a copy of Mecha, a star blows up.  I don’t know why and you can’t see any other them, but I’m pretty sure that is happening.  Yep, one just blew up.

Okay, threats aside, I would just ask that everyone who thinks Mecha sounds cool can download the Quickstart on RPGNow or buy the full version for $12.00?  Either way, everyone is welcome to join a fairly vibrant Mecha community.  Right now, we have some good threads on RPG.NET, we have srssource.mecharpg.com where people have uploaded their own SRSes (settings.)  Plus, you can always send us questions and suggestions on myheroicjourney.com (just don’t send us Viagra ads.)  We’re all about fan service (kidding.)  We’re here because we love to play good RPGs and we want to support everyone who loves to play good RPGs.  For instance, it was because people asked for it that we’re doing the Kaiju and Combiner supplements.  I had another supplement I was working on, but that’s been backburnered because we want to be as accommodating as we can.

Stargazer
Thanks for taking your time to answer our questions! Have a great day!

Chris
Thanks.  I appreciate it!

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