Featuring a mixture of military science fiction and fantasy, Lancer is a mech tabletop roleplaying game that takes place in a vast galaxy and is as much about the robots as it is about the people who pilot them. Whether seeking to advance private interests or go rogue, players can work with or against each other as they fly their way through the unfathomable reaches of the stars.
Massif Press, Lancer’s publisher, is made up of Tom Parkinson-Morgan and Miguel Lopez. I had the chance to discuss with them the game’s influences, challenges, and its growing community.
Thank you for providing your time to chat with Sidequest! Can you talk a little about the formation of Massif Press?
Miguel: Sure! I wish we had a better foundation story, but ours is pretty mundane: we decided to establish Massif Press to satisfy legal and financial necessities that Tom and I had to set up to handle our (at the time, hoped-for) Kickstarter funds. I’m one of Massif’s founding Partners, so I suppose that would be my title there, and I’m also the lead narrative designer of Lancer. Tom, too, is a founding Partner at Massif, and is Lancer’s lead Mechanics Designer.
Since the success of the Kickstarter campaign, I’ve spent time thinking about Massif—what we can do with it now that we have this unexpected investment. Lancer’s first season is fully funded, and for the first time in my life I can, for a little while, work on my art full time and have capital leftover to spread out to other artists. Massif might be occupied with Lancer for the time being, but it’s my goal that Lancer is not Massif’s only project—and that tabletop roleplaying games is not the only genre that Massif works in. I’m deeply concerned with how we can use our work to effect material and political change; once the confetti settles and we get into a pattern of regular work on Lancer Season 1, I mean to take some time to figure out how we can begin to do just that.
Tabletop gaming has been facing a new kind of resurgence as of late. Dungeons & Dragons, for instance, seems to be playing a huge role in all of this thanks to the virality of online media. What led to the development of Lancer, and more specifically, why in this tabletop gaming format?
Miguel: Hubris sparked our first draft—maybe a poor reason to begin writing, but it’s an honest one. Tom and I wanted to play a grounded-yet-grand science fiction tabletop game, looked at the field (circa July 2017), and found nothing that fit what we wanted, so we decided to make our own. We wanted mechs, yes, but first we wanted a decidedly humanist setting, a text of the mixed uncanny: utopia on the grand scale, but experienced by the individual; material reality imbued with the fantastic; a rejection of the pessimistic “grim fantasy”; and so on.
It is my assumption that the resurgence of tabletop roleplaying is twofold: first, prioritizing the physical proximity of friends and acquaintances is a response to capitalism’s insistence on digitizing, atomizing, and doing away with community—by engaging in small-group, persistent play, you can (hopefully) resist the alienating forces of late capitalism. My second assumption is that the free space of play satisfies a not wholly terrible desire for agency. Tabletop roleplaying is a form of collaborative storytelling, and storytelling is one powerful method by which humanity and humans define themselves. Its power stems from the relationship between the observer and the observed: through the object(s) of their observation, the observer reflects on themselves, their society, the other, etc. in an act of ideological creation.
With Lancer, it was my intent to establish a setting that could nudge people to engage in this storytelling act collaboratively, without exploitation, in a space free from the grim constraints of capital and the modern day; while it bears markers of the weight of life under late capitalism, it’s my sincere hope that the narratives prompted by the setting are ones that either seek a way out, or begin with the assumption that society’s exit is already assured.
Tom: There were no good mech games on the market (and very few non-franchise ones) and we wanted to write one—that’s my pretty straightforward answer. I think if you go for work that you have a genuine interest in and are passionate about a project you won’t have a problem finding success or fulfillment with it.
I like tabletop games because they are inherently a social activity.
Pressing on from that, what were some challenges in development, especially when it came to formulating and fleshing out the game’s mechanics? What did you want to achieve in this game’s design that may differentiate it from other systems? If it is drawing reference from other systems, what did you hope to change or possibly improve upon that would make Lancer distinguishable?
Tom: Writing a game from scratch is a huge pain in the ass, I don’t recommend it. There’s a reason a lot of people ‘hack’ games (like Powered by the Apocalypse games) instead of designing from the ground up. On the other side of things, it’s actually really nice to have the freedom to push design principles that you strongly believe in without working within the constraints of someone else’s design.
I have a lot of thoughts about the mechanical design of Lancer, but I think foremost it was really important to me that mechanics fit fantasy. I think it’s kind of crazy how many tabletop RPGs sort of bypass this rule. A lot of designers lean into the “simulationist” side of tabletop RPGs without considering the people that will actually be playing the game at a table at some point. So for example, Lancer doesn’t track currency at all. It’s not a concern of the game—the gear and mech parts you pick up as you level up you always have access to. You can 3D print your mech back pretty much any time. It’s not a game about counting every gold piece or credit or whatever, it’s about building huge war machines and mashing them together, so why bother to track that stuff?
I also think Lancer is fairly unique in that it fairly cleanly separates out narrative play and combat and actually has different mechanics for each. It was hard for me to make that distinction and to get to that point but I think more games could actually use mechanics that realise that storytelling can get wildly different depending on the pacing and tension of the scene. Slow, narrative style play where you do very little rolling, and fast-paced combat style play where you take turns and are limited in your actions, are actually something people separate all the time naturally. But a lot of games treat them as mechanically the same, which I think is a mistake.
Lancer is inherently a game that would appeal to sci-fi and mecha fans. Some of the influences it draws from are obvious while others are a lot more subtle and technical. Can you dive into some of these specific influences?
Miguel: I think my answers to this question—more than any others— has been the most consistently disappointing and frustrating to our fans: people like to cite Titanfall 2 and Battletech as influences when pitching the game to friends, but I have to confess I didn’t play either of those games until a month or so before our Kickstarter launched—more than a year after we started writing Lancer. I can’t speak for the mechanical inspiration, but thematic and ideological inspiration—that which was conscious, at least—was not drawn from the existing canon of mech/a media. However, aesthetic inspiration was drawn from a number of texts and media: 2001: A Space Odyssey, Aliens, Akira, Ghost in the Shell, Star Wars, Blade Runner, and more science fiction texts and media with a similar lived-in feeling.
With Lancer, we wanted to continue to develop an aesthetic of integration and equity in a post-national, (nearly) post-capital, post-collapse environment. Most mass-market media imagines cruel futures of collapse, failure, or myriad dystopia: it’s our hope that Lancer can depict something different.
Tom: I think it was important to us that Lancer had a fundamentally optimistic view of the future. That’s something that’s been lost in a lot of modern sci-fi, I think.
Is it fair to say that Kill Six Billion Demons, the webcomic Tom authors and illustrates, in any way, shape, or form actually preludes some elements present in Lancer’s own world?
Miguel: I’ll let Tom handle the bulk of this one, but for my writing—not particularly, as I hadn’t read much of Kill Six Billion Demons past the first half of the first book (sorry Tom!). I will say though, having read to the current post now, that there are certain themes that Tom and I have written towards—the relationship between power, peace, violence, empire, and the subaltern being a major component of both texts, I think.
Tom: KSBD and Lancer are pretty separate as far as I’m concerned, since Miguel has developed about 95% of the lore. I think Miguel and I run on pretty similar DNA when it comes to storytelling and our thoughts about fantasy/sci-fi though.
Branching off of that, what were some of the approaches when it came to the art direction and aesthetics of Lancer?
Tom: I was not inspired by existing mech media a whole lot. I wanted the mechs to have certain visual language. The IPS-N mechs all have a sort of tank/construction vehicle vibe and the HORUS mechs all look a little insectile and organic, for example. I also really wanted the mechs to look more human. I like the idea of mechs as sort of big emblems or avatars, so that’s why they look like giant people instead of machines. I do like how this is handled in Evangelion, where the mechs (spoilers) are actually giant people.
Science fiction, too, has also grown in popularity in popular media. There is a lot of recent work that explores cyberpunk and dystopian themes. There are also countless discussions and debates on what exactly constitutes cyberpunk as a genre. With that in mind, are there specific themes or messages that you hope to convey with Lancer? If not, what do you hope Lancer can mean to its players?
Miguel: I wouldn’t claim that Lancer is of the cyberpunk genre, though it does bear markers of that genre. Like cyberpunk, Lancer is concerned with the deleterious effects of rampant capitalism on the environment, people, societies, and nations. Like cyberpunk, Lancer is concerned with bodies, either as individuals or as communities.
When I first began writing Lancer’s setting, I was fresh from my MFA and more used to writing short and long-form narrative fiction. I’d credit the texts I was reading then as having a significant influence on the thematic and ideological concerns of Lancer. Cloud Atlas and Invisible Cities are two such texts that have had a broad influence on the development of Lancer’s core themes: the success of collective, persistent action in the face of seemingly unassailable systems to bring about a better world, the meanings of signs and signifiers in the built environment, and how the built environment interacts with, defines, and is defined by people and the natural world.
It’s our goal—as we mention in a forward of the Core Book—that Lancer can prove to be a useful (or fun, at least) text for people looking to craft narratives in defense of hope and solidarity.
Lancer seems to have developed a highly receptive player community pretty immediately as it became more developed for test play. What has response been like to the game so far and what have your interactions been like with players? What are the positives and negatives of this sort of direct relationship?
Miguel: Our player community surprised Tom and I—we didn’t expect there to be such a large following so early into Lancer’s development. The historians over on our fan Discord, PilotNET, likely have more accurate numbers, but I believe that community started up around version… 1.2 of the game? With rare exception, our interactions have been great—at PilotNEt, we’re there at the pleasure of the mods, just like anyone else, after all. Tom and I frequent the community at PilotNET and tend to be present in a few channels oriented around our specializations, though the conversations there continue essentially around the clock without us. I’m aware of threads on SomethingAwful—though I haven’t sprung for an account yet—that are active and good as well.
The positives of a broad, active community of players and fans cannot be understated and cover everything from the material (our Kickstarter funding in just about an hour and a half) to craft and beyond—I think Tom and I both would credit the active, passionate fanbase for making our Kickstarter campaign such a success out the gate.
Negatives are harder to pin down. Tom has built a thick skin over years of Kill Six Billion Demons being public online and in print—Lancer is my first exposure to the dreaded comments section. I’ve had plenty of experience with critique (MFA, working as a writer in media) but never with public opinion. It’s difficult, to say the least, but all a product of the game’s success.
Tom: The community around this game has been tremendous and has been, if we’re going to be totally honest, almost entirely responsible for the game’s enormous success.
Can you possibly infer from your own perspectives as to how has this community grown so quickly?
Miguel: My guess is we pulled in a lot of people who were already fans of Kill Six Billion Demons, and from that very solid core of engaged fans we’ve grown a player base that has gone on to evangelize Lancer. We’ve continued to write, design, and draw content that they enjoy, but beyond our writing, they’ve gone on to craft their own stories.
Tom: If you publish any kind of media, people are going to find it on the internet somehow if it exists in some kind of digital form. There’s no point in gatekeeping people with a paywall, especially with media like roleplaying games, where the point is to get people playing your game. By putting things out on the internet for free, you build a community who is already playing, reading, talking about, and getting invested in whatever you’re putting out. I’ve seen this happen twice now, first with my webcomic. I think that’s the primary strength of the internet as a medium and probably the way forward with a lot of media, especially if you’re a small creator.
What else, that you are able to discuss, lies in store for Lancer? And what other things is Massif Press potentially looking forward to creating in the future?
Miguel: More content for Lancer, of course—a Season 2 to follow this Season 1. We imagine any Season 2 would introduce new chassis and new stories, of course, but also deepen the existing setting, and add new playstyles and rules that broaden the scope of what Lancer can do.
Beyond those plans, Tom and I were storytellers before Lancer, and we’ll continue to do that after Lancer. Now, however, we’ve got the ability to amplify other voices and pens than just ours—we’ll see what we can’t do.
Tom: We’ve definitely got stuff in store, and maybe some smaller RPGs to publish down the line.
Lancer is (and has been) open for beta playtesting and its core rules are available for free. Official hard copies of the game are slated for release in January 2020. Updates and additional resources on the game can be found on its Kickstarter campaign page. More information can also be requested through Massif Press themselves.
Hello out there. We heard it’s #FreeRPGDay!
Lancer’s core rules will always be free. Grab ‘em below, along with hundreds of pages of additional rules and lore (and some summary guides to help you wade through it all)
— LancerRPG // Massif Press (@Lancer_RPG) June 15, 2019
Elvie is an animator by day and tries too hard to be everything else by nightfall. Feel free to join her in screaming about anime and animals as she puts off what she should be really doing at @lvmaeparian.