Mixed Up in a #SadMechJam

Date : April 27, 2019
The story of a game jam and the RPG designers it inspired – including Role Over Play Dead.

From 29th January to 13th February 2019, John R. Harness and Takuma Okada organised an Emotional Mecha Jam (#SadMechJam) via Twitter to encourage the creation of roleplaying games that focus on the emotions and drama of the sci-fi giant robot warfare genre. It succeeded beyond anyone’s wildest imaginings.

#SadMechJam was a chance for RPG designers, new and old, around the world, to present short analog RPGs (tabletop or larp) of 1-4 pages. Later, an additional parallel jam for video games was added. All in all, the event inspired over 170 designers – including myself and other Malaysians – to create a total of 177 analog games, 12 digital games and 1 short story!

In support of the jam, designer P. H. Lee (@P_H_Lee) made their game Bliss Stage available for free for a time. Bliss Stage is one of the classic emotional mecha storygames, which my Gamers of KL group helped to playtest when the game was first in development.

Most RPGs about mecha have focused on combat and action and adventure, but this jam asked designers to think about the feelings behind the battles. For example: Relationships between pilots, relationships between pilots and their mecha, the emotional ravages of war and other lives touched by warfare.

They created a lot of emotional mecha games on itch.io. A lot.

As a side note, the entire jam was hosted on itch.io, a game hosting platform/store mainly known for its support of independent video game development. The Emotional Mecha Jam came at a breakthrough moment as a growing number of small tabletop RPG developers were discovering that the itch platform was really convenient to use.

RPG designer and community organiser DC (@dungeoncommandr) was one of the major advocates of shifting to itch.io. The CEO of itch responded by opening up a discussion to welcome ideas on how to help analog game developers put up their creations. And of course, many #SadMechJam participants were publishing their games on itch for the very first time, putting them at the cutting edge of this shift in indie game development!

#SadMechJam Highlights

Among the Malaysian participants, Ben Chong (@swordsnflowers) created Monolock and Beyond Human, Samuel Mui (@babblegumsam) created This House and I submitted Ech0 with layout and graphic design by Elisha, fellow Role Over Play Dead creator.

There were too many games to mention in one breath, but here are a few that caught my interest.

Monolock >

Monolock, by Ben Chong, is about a squad of doomed pilots hunted by a seemingly unstoppable enemy. Pilots must fight to survive a number of turns before escaping by pulling blocks from a Jenga tower. In just 2 pages, Ben creates different pilot types with special abilities and a cool GM-less technique where players take turns delivering chilling monologues from the enemy each time it attacks. Also, Ben knows the power of a striking cover page.

This Island Ours >

By Olivia Hill. The pilots and support crew for a mighty Titan find themselves stranded on a remote island and forced to scavenge components to survive, make a home, or maybe escape. Played in a series of solo, two-player and group scenes, with dramatic conflicts between characters, conflicts with nature, and even conflicts with one’s self.

Mechanics >

Mechanics is an intriguing narrative roleplaying game by Adam Roy that occurs in 2 timelines: Scenes involving a mechanic repairing a damaged mech, and scenes flashing back to the battle involving the mech pilot. Exploring a battle in flashback was a common thing in this jam, and I really liked how this game did it.

Epitaph >

By Dante Douglas. Players portray several Mortechnicians and a single Black Box creating the story and the epitaph of a dead mech pilot. The game is played through a series of questions and answers, and the epitaph is created in writing in a ritualistic fashion.

We Pass Under Legends >

This is a hiking/travelling LARP by Ben Roswell and Elle Schulman, played while en route to a destination. Players imagine themselves journeying through a graveyard of fallen mechs and describing the mechs and their history.

/.Become One./ >

By Jamila Nedjadi. This is a Powered by the Apocalypse game about a damaged mecha which must recover its AI fragments, which are merged with its comatose pilot’s lost memories, as it struggles to find its way home. For a GM and up to 4 players, with each player representing a different emotion/AI fragment: Anger, Regret, Fear, Love. This game features, without a doubt, the most stylish layout in the entire jam.

The Joyride Everlasting >

The Joyride Everlasting by Li Jiyang (KingCrackers) is a bit like Exalted: The Dragonblooded as a dating sim. Players portray elite noble-born mech pilots of a 10,000 year dynasty. They go out and mess around and fall in love with each other, and it’s actually quite involved for a 4-page game.

Backstab >

Backstab, by Gasparsuelas, is a small game about a team of mech pilots surviving in the midst of an enemy territory. They each care deeply about another one of their teammates. And one of them is a traitor. Some will make it home, some won’t.

I Will Sustain You >

I Will Sustain You by Melody Watson is about a pilot and their mech in the last hours when their systems fail and they face mortality. A hack of Our Radios Are Dying by Aura Bell, this game plays as a last slow, awkward dance, a LARP in which one player sits in a squeaky old office chair while the other player follows instructions to move it around, slower and slower…

This House >

BabblegumSam (Samuel Mui) likes to write games about funerals. In this game, multiple players each control portions of a single dead soul that has returned to haunt their funeral. Their mission: Find peace by possessing one of the guests and reaching out to loved ones. It’s an example of the “Many players driving one car” style of game as seen in Bluebeard’s Bride, Everyone is John, and Become One.

Come Back, Okay? >

Justin Quirit designed this 2-player game in which an Engineer and a Pilot collaboratively create the story of a Machine, their relationship with one another (and the Machine), and the war that has caught them up. It uses index cards to represent events in their relationship, which are created using random card-based prompts…and are all at stake during the final battle.

Swansong of Blood & Tears >

W.H. Arthur used Jenga block mechanics to represent desperate, over-the-top combat in this desperate, over-the-top super robot RPG about a crew of pilots on a final mission (which is also desperate and over-the-top). With some very evocative and flavourful character types, and a 3-act structure for the GM to use.

Virtuous Service >

Samantha Day created this three-player storygame about a sentient war machine that wants companionship; its pilot, who wants not to be consumed like all those pilots who came before; and the Revenant, a collective of the digital ghosts of all the pilots who have been consumed already. It’s a grim sort of tale, but worth telling.

We Made Them Look Like Us >

Takuma Okada’s solo journaling game explores a journey to become the you that you want to be. An exercise in imagining rebirth, imagining gender euphoria, through the metaphor of a mech game. Warmhearted positive stuff.

Listen to Game Closet interviewing Takuma Okada about the jam!

What Will I Do When You’re Gone? >

Takuma Okada’s game of downtime between mech battles has a few players playing a succession of pilots as the war takes its tell. Random rolls eliminate unlucky pilots and new come and go. Fascinating play cycle because of the dynamics it creates.

Rider’s Last Rites >

Sidney Icarus wrote this game about making decisions for the dead and dying. Exactly four players take on the roles of a fallen pilot’s friends to determine what to do with the bonded mech left behind.

Emotional Mech Jam Rising: Day Zero >

Written by Amber Autumn Faebrooke and Elizabeth Bellisario, this is a prequel to the sad mech war, about how the mechs were built by vulnerable people. The game is designed to feed into the fiction of any other Emotional Mecha Jam game that is played after it.

‘Cause You’ll Look Broke Down >

In this 2-player game by Audrey Zee Whitesides, a Narrator and a Pilot tell the story of a crew fighting against long odds with the help of a powerful mech. But with every challenge, the pilot must pay a high price.

Some notable games didn’t end up in #SadMechJam, including Thank You For Your Service In A Beige Carpet Box, by Ian Woolley, about demobbed pilots and their warmachines trying to re-integrate into civilian life after the war. This game was submitted and then later removed from the jam by the creator, but I think it’s worth a look for its treatment of the subject matter.

Ben Chong also worked on some other game concepts for the jam, like The Drop, a larp about a squadron of mech pilots squabbling and bantering before a fateful mission. The Drop wasn’t completed in time for the jam, but is still undergoing revision and testing.

ECH0

We’re getting a bit personal now.

Chinese New Year didn’t go so well for us at Role Over Play Dead. Health and life issues took their toll and we were not able to make it to family reunions. Elisha and I spent the holiday period cooped up and feeling low, but one high point was working on our first published storygame, Ech0, for the #SadMechJam. Elisha encouraged me at every turn to make the best game I could make, and we were quite pleased with the result. It goes to show that even the darkest clouds have some silver in them.

Ech0 hit the top of the Popular Physical Games list on itch.io for a while.

The game started with the idea of children exploring the remains of wrecked mecha in an idyllic, Miyazaki-esque landscape. I was reminded of the wreckage of a Japanese Zero that I visited in the Sabah countryside as a kid, and “All That Remains” was born. It was a storytelling game about a group of kids finding a black box with a mech pilot’s digital consciousness and taking it on a tour of a land where the scars of war have faded.

After feedback from my friends Adrian and Ben, as well as a change of name thanks to Elisha, I made some rule changes, expanded some random tables, and published Ech0 on the new Role Over Play Dead itch page. Setting up was relatively easy – the only complicated part for me (as a non-US resident) was filling in the tax details for withdrawing funds. I wasn’t expecting to get much anyway.

Rachelle’s group plays on Gauntlet Hangouts

To our surprise, people responded well to Ech0. The first customer (and play group) came from Florida, USA (Hi, Justin, Oliver, Ash!). We also got interest from people from the UK, Germany and many other places. Rachelle Dube (@pashka_d), who would go on to create Dino Wranglers on Kickstarter, facilitated a game of Ech0 on Gauntlet Hangouts (see above) and has been the #1 fan of Ech0 on Twitter.

Elisha and Kai play a short game (audio only).
The map after our 1-on-1 game.

The biggest boost we got was when Friends at the Table featured Actual Plays of Ech0 and Dusk to Midnight by riley rethal (@jaceaddax). The popular streaming group used these #SadMechJam games as world-building exercises in their Road to Season 6 series. We would not have gotten to the top of the Physical Games category on itch, and sold over 100 copies, without the exposure from Friends at the Table and our other fans, especially on Twitter.

Some of the fantastic maps and fan art created from Ech0 play.
Elisha’s own drawing, on the cover of our print booklet of Ech0.


#SadMechJam was a memorable and exciting event for everyone involved. For novice designers trying their hand at creating a game and putting it up online. For veteran designers who hopped into the fray to try out new ideas. And the jam did a lot of good for charity as well. For one week in March, the Emotional Mecha Jam bundle was made available to raise funds for two US/Canada charities, RAINN and Trans Lifeline. The bundle, which featured all 177 analog games, raised about $1,500 for these worthy causes.

For Elisha and me, the jam helped us score a win when we badly needed one. We’re game publishers now! Who knew this would happen? Not us! And there’s more to come.

View more photos on Ech0 (behind the scenes too) in our gallery!

– Kai

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