Lyse Kapp & Rob Vaughn (Fantasy Flight Games)
In reviewing the body of RPGdom, sometimes one is blessed. One discovers a work that is sleek, elegant, beautiful, poetic and unique. Sometimes by merely perusing its pages one’s own home game is improved, no matter how slightly, forevermore. They whisper that beyond the grey nothingness wherein lie the merely mediocre or terrible games (Arrows of Indra to name but one entirely coincidental example that I just came up with at the top of my head and that is in no way to be taken as a slight against a certain Uruguayan rpgdesigner that has recently endorsed Age of Dusk as the blog that best highlights his every utterance yet has neglected to show up to the celebratory Age of Dusk Prom Event even though I had bought him a plane ticket as well as a beautiful skirt and assless chaps, leaving me bereft of a Queen of the Prom and thus the subject of mockery from my peers), there is a pitch-black void, an anti-RPGdom wherein each work of sublime quality has a horrid mirror-image. An inverted nightmare of rulesbloat and terrible fiction that actively abrogates some of the joy one takes in running rpgs and makes every home game slightly less perfect, no matter how slight. Today we will approach that dreaded anti-land and travel beyond it into unknown regions. Mechamorphosis is a queer thing, a transcendent rpg-like object that encompasses the whole spectrum of possibly great and anti-land in one unfathomable combination.
Mechamorphosis is the last in the Horizon series of mini-games for the d20 system. As can be gleaned from my loggorheaic (or gonoerrheaic) opening paragraph, it sucks, or maybe it is brilliant. I am not encouraging you to buy this ever. If you are going to buy it don’t and send the money to me instead. I need it for booze. Sobriety and Mechamorphosis do not go well together.
Uh shit, the actual game. Mechamorphosis is Transformers with the serial numbers filed off that runs on the d20 system. Surprise surprise, you play fully customizable transformers. It is 90% crunch and 10% useless transformers fluff with the serial numbers filed off. I hate it yet I also stand in awe of it. It comes across not as something to be played but the sterile end-result of a rules-heavy point buy system breeding program. It twitches grotesquely in pale semblance of an actual game, yet its malformed limbs and hot-housed biology hold a certain alien allure.
Let us begin at character generation, because more then 80% of the book is character generation rules. Full credit where it is due, you can play as just about fucking anything (you will not, you will not play this, no one will play this). If you are one of the denizens of anti-land that has always found the D20 system a bit too constraining and limiting and in need of less streamlining, your prayers have been answered. Since at least one person involved with Mechamorphosis had actually read it, they made the sensible decision of rescaling the D20 system for Giant robots. That means that despite the fact that you may begin play as a first level robot that can turn into a tank and you can crush buildings with your fists, your starting Str is still described as 10. But it is a robot 10, with humans having about a 1 on average on this new Str scale. Same goes for stuff like hit points. Humans are sort of there as window dressing, but the main focus is on the Mechamorphs. For some reason a starting Mechamorph is given a level adjustment of +6 but since there is no way the Mechamorph is compatible with anything else barring serious rescaling they may as well not have bothered.
I always found the random rolling of ability scores to be jarring in a game as carefully balanced as d20, which is why point buy made so much sense. Mechamorphosis has extrapolated that spergian desire for order and harmony to ludicrous proportions. Before one decides upon one’s type of Mechamorph, one must make a list of 1 to 5, 1 meaning most important and 5 meaning least important, and rank according to importance ability scores, alternate shape (and starting size), starting bonus form feats, special abilities and starting gear. And now we are just getting started.
Alternate shape may be a vehicle, an inanimate object, a mechanical dinosaur or animal, a weapon and a fucking building (yes, the rules have an option for having one guy turning into a fortress complete with turrets that the other guys can subsequently man and fight with, with the fortress providing cover and aid another actions where necessary). I cannot stress the ridiculous amount of customization options, hardpoints that come with alternate forms, and alt-form feats that can be used to further improve this process etc. etc. These options alone would be enough to overwhelm most casual player but of course we need to select a Class. Mechamorphosis is going to give you options and it is going to shove those options down your throat so in addition to feats and skills you may fully customize and select class features every 2 levels. AC bonuses are included in class progression to offset the merciful lack of expanded magic item esque equipment at later levels.
The first class is immediately the most baffling and complex one. The Controller is a class whose class features are based around having 1 or more autonomous sub-components in the form of animal companions or even humanoids, and various abilities that allow you to share special abilities, feats and other malarky with said animal companions. With additional class features, one’s humanoid companions may be given class levels. Throw in ranged Aiding others as a free action and you have the strangest support class I have ever seen. Incomprehensible and impossible to gauge. Naturally, one cannot take a Controller with a humanoid companion with levels in Controller, that would be cheating. The rest is your Scientist: a tech/medic monkey whose ability to create and repair advanced mechamorph tech is pretty much essential on planet Earth, since you do not have a machine store. A Scout which is essentially a ranger/rogue hybrid and the Soldier which is the most customizable take on the fighter class I have ever seen. You know how a fighter gets a bonus feat every 2 levels in d20, just imagine customizable class features every level you don’t get one. Jesus wept.
Fantasy Flight must have looked at the work and at least decided some streamlining would be necessary to offset the staggering amount of options available to even 1st level character so skills have been streamlined as is the norm for Horizon supplements of this type. A lack of healing potions means the Build/Repair skill in combination with the medic class feature does all the heavy lifting healing-wise, and since you are fucking robots you can even be rebuilt if someone destroys you, necessitating the possession of a Computer Use skill alongside the repair skill. The Feat selection is predictably expansive, with a plethora of feats ranging from the relatively mundane +1 to AC (an insane advantage for a single feat) or accelerate 50% faster while in vehicle form to the more esoteric feats that allow one to manipulate objects as though one were smaller or to swim underwater without sinking to the bottom.
Naturally all this is waaaaay too simple for Transformers genre emulation. We must also have special powers, ranging from a set of mundane spellike abilities that could conceivably be produced with advanced technology to the batshit insane mechamerge power that allows multiple mechs to combine into a giant super robot of death. While I hate Mechamorphosis and I would not play it under pain of death its thoroughness is utterly beyond reproach. What happens if you are in a mechamerge and you wish to take control of the giant robot of death? Of course there are rules for this also.
Equipment again blurs the line between class feature and item, every character has a number of slots that allow for the installation of upgrades of a certain power level. Some of them are extremely great and some of them only work in Alt form so an additional layer of gameplay is grafted on where there were already several. Acquiring tech is next to fucking impossible on earth, so it has to either be built from scratch or found/taken from some other unfortunate robotic asshole. An assortment of robotic firearms are provided but these are, sadly, nothing special, mostly what one would expect, just blasters and rocket launchers. A few notes on improvised weaponry spice up an otherwise ho-hum section.
Where would we be without the driving and flying rules? Do you remember the driving section from Redline, my first review, where I praised it for its comprehensive approach and utility but bemoaned its density? Now imagine that driving section expanded to flying, yet paradoxically shorter. There is no way the D20 system with its obsession with positioning and grids can co-exist with aerial combat at mach 5 whilst mechs on the ground take potshots using this rule section and you are better off just hand-waving the damned thing if you plan on running the type of shit that will inevitably happen. I mean, you might sucker one of your players into playing a robot that can turn into a refrigerator and another one that turns into a golf cart but the next logical step is always going to be Alt-form Fighter Jet. Hideous potential for Abuse! Remember the collision rules in Redline? Those still apply. And are dependent on size. And you can select that Size by allocating points to alt-form. And Alt-form Space Battlecruiser. And power-dive fuckers from orbit.
Now I know what Y’all are thinking: Buh buh buh Prince, this game does not give players enough agency during combat. Mechamorphosis provides us with… another fucking sub-system. Every character has a number of Nexus (think Energon) points equal to their level that may be added as one-time bonuses to damage, AC, DR/-, Saving throws or to ignore the robot equivalent of Fatigue. Also robots need to Stasis at least 4 hours per day to recharge these Nexus points. Temporary 24-hour Nexus cells (like batteries of floating modifiers) may be created so points may be borrowed to others at a 2:1 ratio and even extracted from crude human earth tech like oil fields or nuclear reactors (establishing a reason to fight over these). The only modification to the combat rules is the addition of a critical hit system where Transformers can sustain damage to certain components like their core, sensors, gyroscopes or even their core. It is a simple and beautifully functional subsystem that takes up less then a page.
Take fucking note, no rules provided anywhere for human combatants, human tanks, human choppers and whatnot. Atrocious. I would expect that and a list of materials or even buildings since one would expect at least some of the combat to take place in those, or perhaps on the Hoover Dam or near a Nuclear powerplant. I can get the lack of space but fuck you, scrap the bullshit campaign setting, everyone who plays this knows what Transformers is about, condense it to 3 pages, done.
The campaign setting itself is the campaign setting of Transformers with the serial numbers filed off. That is acceptable when genre-emulating but I am annoyed because they missed a great opportunity to make shit exciting. They tried though, I’m not sure how much is cribbed from Transformers, probably everything, to make it sound halfway plausible. Admittedly the section IS good enough to run a game of totally-not-transformers, even if you have not seen them. For those of you not in the know (this includes myself), a quick dismissively sarcastic recap;
Years ago a bunch of robots took control of all the other robots on robot-land after the great primordial reactor broke down and the evil robots said they had a power source. The evil robots lorded over everyone and made them build ships for fixing the power problem and getting more shit. Finding shit was dangerous and a lot of ships got blowed up by white holes but the evil robots still give everyone power. The animal robots found out soilent Nexus is people and were given the option of either gtfoing or facing extinction. The animal robots decided to split but the evil robots played a trick on them and assaulted them as their ships left the robot planet and the animal robots drove into a white hole, followed by the evil robot emperor and his flagship, but not the rest of his fleet, who were not so fucking retarded. In the absence of their first robot emperor, the evil robots became even bigger dicks and rather then risk robot civil war, a bunch of good robots led by a guy who knew white holes were actually sort of like wormholes, fled robotplanet. Of the nine ships, one makes it, allegedly. Then we get more backstory about what happens to the robots on earth and something about a human general who is convinced they are a menace. Why is this not an NPC with stats?
The campaign should start here, with the robot players alone and uncertain of how many of their comrades live, cut off from supplies and chased by filthy humans.
Moving on: A huge jerk robot from the evil robots, sick with being the robot emperors bitch, follows the good robots after figuring out white holes can be travelled and the first robot emperors ship with all his cool Nexus draining shit is still there somewhere. Not-megatron infiltrates URTH, finds old Egyptian robot relics and runs into the second group of robots (the good ones) and they have a tussle. Why is this in the history section and not the campaign? The good robots find a garage and repair shit and befriend two humans. And also an evil corporation gets involved to an expedition to Antarctica but the good robots foil it and discover the animal robots are still alive. DUM DUM DUM. Why is this not an adventure seed?
The good robots team up with part of the animal robots to fight the evil robots, also a cave with seven new Nexus generators is discovered, thus the player characters. That last conceit is great, since it caps the number of new robots that you can just blithely introduce. Any GM actually insane enough to run this shit would do best with creating a cast of protagonists and antagonists beforehand and keep track of who has been killed, since one cannot just introduce new robots willy nilly by decree of the campaign setting. TLDR we finally get a list of looming threats. Predictably, the general of a hundred thousand year old robot empire and a cutthroat business man go well together and make an alliance, there are hints of a traitor to the evil robots still being in contact with the even more evil robot empire, the general has been fired and is now in charge of a private military corporation with super technology that can pierce robot damage reduction (all robots have DR against non-robot weaponry) that is clearly not funded by the
Obama Administration Evil robots and also something about Aliens.
As a last exercise, I shall generate
4 a 5th level character s using Mechamorphosis to illustrate a typical Mechamorphosis character and my problems with this fucking game.
The first shall be the simplest one, he shall be a Scout and a fighter jet, since there is simply no way we are going to have him not be a fighter jet. In true Mechamorphosis fashion, we shall name him Sunschreech. We must first decide upon Sunschreech’s priorities and since we want to give him an Alt-form fighter Jet and the minimum priority for that is 3 (5 being highest), we put alt-form at 3. The scout section mentions special abilities are also a big deal for the scout class, as well as ability scores. We take form feats at 4, netting us 8 extra form feats. At this point we are in for a pound and decide upon a 5 for ability scores, netting us 36 points to distribute, as well as a 2 for special abilities and a 1 for starting gear, Sunscreech shall start off poorly, a risque choice given the number of weapon slots and tech slots he employs.
Very well. Sunscreech shall be a huge coward that almost never fights in melee and is also thoroughly unlikable since Scouts are by definition anti-social fuckwits. His Cha will be 7 and his Starting strength will be 11, leaving us with 34 more points. Int shall be at least 14 and Con 12, leaving us with 24 more points. Given the fact not many things in Mechamorphosis trigger Will saves, we mirthfully put Wisdom on 8 and starting Dex on 20 since Dex is the god stat and it shall be first among equals. Unfortunately, a starting Dex of 22 would have cost us all 36 points, thus 20 seems a logical concession. (Edit we alter it to Int 12 Wis 13 Con 10 Str 10 so I may take a single stupid feat).
Str 11 Dex 20 Con 12 Int 14 Wis 8 Cha 7. Ah the minmax. Unfortunately, our Jetfighter alternate shape makes our normal shape Gargantuan, which is somewhat detrimental to our AC and attack (-4) and levies a hefty penalty on our stealth skill (-16). We sigh regretfully as we change our alternate shape to Attack Chopper, reducing our size to Large and letting us keep most of our alt-form weapon slots and tech slots at the cost of our top speed. 227 miles per hour will have to suffice for Starscreech. Or will it?
We still have 8 starting form feats. Starscreech is going to be a pretty bitchin chopper, so we give him Improved Acceleration (x2 for a hundred percent boost and allowing us to reach top speed in 2 rounds), we will not take improved speed since a 20% speed increase is never going to make a difference unless we happen to encounter another chopper, Starscreech will either outrun his enemies or be horribly outrun, Mounted Weapons so we may fire all of our mounted weapon slots even while we are in primary form (we need Multishot feats to do so for each separate weapon though :(), and of course we take Armour Boost 5 times for a total +5 to AC.
Starschreech is not powerful enough so he gets his special ability. We disregard silent Image in favor of Shield of Faith I mean Nexus shield, netting him 1 min/level of +2 AC +1/6 levels if push comes to shove. Sadly, our anemic equipment budget restricts us to simple firearms only, therefore a Blaster Carbine with only a paltry 1d10 points of damage output but a very decent 150 foot range increment will have to do. Nothing will ever touch us unless it is a fighter jet so it will all be fine.
Can you imagine the hours of time it would take to go through this process to stat up even 10 fucking transfaggots (I mean the robot kind)? It would be absurd. Anyway. Sunschreech is a Scout of 5th level. He begins with a single starting feat and he gets 8+int modifier starting skills x4 at first level. We are simply going to add 4 to each of his starting skills because 10 skills. In order of importance; Pilot, Acrobatics, Concentration, Disguise, Fine Manipulation, Computer Use, Build/Repair Simple, Senses, we ignore Interaction since Starschreech is a massive humanophobe and doesn’t believe Animorphs are a real alt-form, sighing, we settle with Athletics, and we sink points into all of those until we reach 5th level.
We have yet to pick his feats, 2, 1 for 1st and 1 for 3rd level, we increase his dex by 1 at 4th level and we may also select bonus feats at 1, 2 and 4.
The first bonus feat we take is Combat Pilot so we may roll pilot skill checks to avoid taking damage in alt form, usable a number of rounds equal to our Dex modifier. The first feat we take is Skill Focus (Pilot). Ready Gunner will be our second bonus feat and allow us to draw our weapon as a free action and reduce reloading time. Third feat will be Multishooting so we can fire two weapons at the same time. 4th level nets us another bonus feat so we shall take another armor boost for a total of +6 AC (we assume we do not posses 3 weapons yet, otherwise we will keep stocking up on Multishooting until we have enough for 8 weapon mounts). I have ignored the Rapid shot feat tree which can apparently be combined with ranged weapons. Shit. We get rid of Ready gunner and the Multishooting feat so we can have Point Blank Shot and Rapid Shot since they are too good not to take. An alternate take is to simply dump all your feats in Armour Boost since there is no reason not to unless you play a Controller or Scientist Character. This game is a mess.
Did you really expect us to be finished? We still have 3 class abilities to select. After a moment of indecision, we do a confused double take and figure out the Stealth skill is not actually a scout class skill which makes no sense so we ignore that and then we go back to our skill selection and replace Disguise with Stealth. We pick Evasion (because it is too good not to pick), Deceptive 1 (allowing us to use Stealth for Disguise when morphing whatever that means) and Sneak Attack 1 for 1d6 extra damage. Whew. Imagine doing this for every NPC you stat up.
A character stat block would look something like this.
HD: 5d8 (24 hp)
Speed: 30ft. or 240 ft. (perfect maneuverability flight)
Attacks: Carbine + 7 ranged (1d10) or +5/+5 ranged. + Sneak Attack 1d6.
Or Unarmed + 2 melee 1d8 dam. (preferably use some sort of improvised club for 1d8 points).
AC: 25 (+11 Insight, +5 Dex, -1 Size)
Special Abilities: Up to 5 minutes of Nexus shield (+2 deflection bonus to AC). 5 Nexus Points. Sneak Attack +1d6.
Special Defences: Evasion
Abilities: Str 10 Dex 21 Con 10 int 12 wis 13 cha 7
Skills: Athletics +8, Acrobatics +13, Computer Use +9, Concentration +8, Fine Manipulation +13, Pilot +16, Senses +9 Stealth +9.
Feats: Armor Boost (x6), Combat Pilot, Improved Acceleration (x2), Mounted Weapons, Point Blank Shot, Rapid Shot, Skill Focus (Pilot).
Saves: Fort +1, Ref +9, Will +1
So there you have it. As a stat-optimisation wankathon it is delicious and full of undiscovered hidden potential. For example, Having immense size increases your unarmed damage to 4d8 at the paltry cost of -16 to hit and AC. Can this be used to one’s advantage somehow? As an actual game it possesses crippling deficiencies, notable stats for NPCS are missing, the setting starting point could have been more interesting and the game is so complex as to be very challenging if not impossible to actually to run. My recommendation is that you only attempt this feat if you are the sort of power-hungry rollplayer the WoD-faggots sneer at during their bi-monthly wicca gatherings and even then, your neckbeard had better be huge.
Pros: Enough character creation options to facilitate all but the most unlikely of transformers.
Cons: Insufficient focus on the campaign setting in favour of endless character creation options. Poor implementation. Lack of enemies/interesting NPCs. Lacklustre rules for aerial and vehicle combat. Likely to be horribly broken/susceptible to min/maxing.
Final Verdict: I’d rather watch those godawful movies again. 3 out of 10.