Creating an RPG Campaign Setting for Shape-Changing Robots: An Introduction.

When I was a child, I’d have lots of toys – but normally not specifically from one particular toyline. I’d have toys of all different types that I’d want to play with all at once. Some would be toys I didn’t know the back story of – I had a transformer that turned into a bear, but I didn’t know it’s name, nor anything about its personality. Instead of just leaving him blank, when I’d play, I’d make up wild stories and use what I now know as common story tropes to define a fully realised world that only existed in my head. It was how children play.

Today, adult geeks can play like that too – but instead of in the back garden with the cheap toy collection, I find myself playing role-playing games with my friends, both as a player and as a games master. We normally play established adventures – across my groups we’re currently playing through three separate official Paizo Pathfinder adventure paths.

You might have also noticed, but I also collect Transformers, and have done for about two years now. Up until recently, I also played the card game… but role-playing games are easier to host online than card games, so my Transformers fix in my gaming universe has kind of gone.

… but then, what if we were to find a way to mix the world of RPGs and the world of Transformers? Surely that’s a winning combination too?

“Shockwave, my worthy foe, I manage to beat your AC score, and now I roll a D12 for damage!”

I’m definitely not the first person to think about a Transformers RPG. There are at least two RPG projects about shape changing robots that I recall seeing kickstarters for in the last couple of years, and I’ve seen at least a few tweets this last week that have coupled Transformers and D&D.

(Seriously, there’s so many people replying to this tweet saying they’ve got something already made!)

So what’s one more person trying to make a Transformers RPG then? …. except, why just make a fan-made Transformers RPG? The genre of “shape changing robots” (which I’ll shorten to SC-Robots for the rest of this article) extends beyond Transformers, and if we want to create something, we shouldn’t limit ourselves to the confines of an established IP. We might want to use ideas from franchises like Transformers and Go-Bots for inspiration; however, it’d be much better to come up with something new and possibly better suited to an RPG format than something intended as a toy-line.

An ideal, time-is-no-object result is an entirely new system with a custom setting built around it; but that’s quite a lot of development, and probably not something that could be expressed in a bunch of blog posts. So instead, how about developing a campaign setting for one of the big d20 systems? D&D 5e and Pathinder (either edition) are certainly options, but it just so happens there is a good, recently released d20 system which already has has a lot of rules we’d want for such a setting – and that’s Paizo’s Starfinder.

So here’s the plan: over the next however so long, I’m going to go about trying to create a campaign setting based within the SC-Robots genre. The campaign setting itself will be my own setting – but it’ll take obvious cues from pre-existing franchises as inspiration, and could also be easily ported to a full on Transformers or Go-Bots campaign if you were to take my work and run with it yourself.

I’ll be making posts about my ideas as I go along, talking about developing the setting, additional rules and ‘splat’ that I’ll need to add to the system in order for it all to work, with the intention of running something for one of my role-playing groups later down the line. That group is mostly made of non-Transformers fans, so it’ll be interesting to see what they make of it.

This isn’t really something I’ve done before – I’ve run home-brew adventures based on campaign setting books, I’ve run very short adventures in home-brew settings, and of course I’ve run many a session from module books and the like, but not go as far as create a fully fledged setting. So what you’ll be reading is someone working these things out as he goes along; hopefully that’ll make for an interesting reading journey in itself.

Jetfire always wanted to GM his own campaign.

A Genre of Two Styles
But what defines the SC-Robots genre, beyond shape-shifting robots? What would make it a good campaign setting for an RPG? What does an adventure in such a setting look like?

To start with, let’s look at those basic questions.

The SC-Robots genre isn’t just Transformers – although at this point it mostly is, and there’s probably more variation within the entire Transformers franchise itself than outside of it at this point; there’s certainly a big difference between the Lost Light comic series and the Michael Bay movies, for example.

There’s arguably two major groups of SC-Robots stories. Probably the most common outside of Transformers are those that focus on human-piloted mecha, especially common in Transformers original source Diaclone, the more obscure Japanese G1 Transformers shows to some extent, as well as other Japanese franchises like Macross and its western counterpart Robotech. Quite often they’ll also involve some sort of combining gimmick too, maybe just having a ship or robotic creature combine to form a larger robot, like in the case of Voltron or anime like Getter Robo. Arguably shows like Power Rangers / Sentai fall in this category too – human pilots that have vehicles that combine to form a larger robot (If I got any details on these wrong btw, I do apologise, most of these shows ain’t my jam).

These shows are all perfectly fine and warrant attention in and of themselves, and I’m sure they might make for a good concept for a Starfinder game too… but I think the other style of SC-Robot story is better suited for d20 roleplaying, and I’m going to try and explain why.

“Okay girls, time we properly learnt these vehicle rules if we’re going to chase Nightbird round the office.”

Robots as Aliens
The second major group of SC-Robots stories, exemplified by both the original Transformers franchise and its original main rival Go-Bots, are those that focus on a mysterious race of alien robotic beings that – for whatever reason – can switch forms between that of giant robots and a variety of vehicles, gadgets, weapons and monsters.

One of the most important aspects of these stories is that these characters, whilst robotic in form, are identifiable as having human characteristics and emotions. Regardless of the fact that these characters can turn into cars and trucks, these characters can be happy, sad, angry and frightened. They can love one another, hate one another, scheme against each other, be motivated by powerful speeches and become fascinated by beautiful things. Good stories in this genre will emphasise this aspect of the alien robots, the fact they are ‘just like us’, with the personality and character being more important than any technical or even plot aspect. It’s less important that Optimus Prime turns into a truck, than it is we understand his relationship to his crew.

These stories would normally have three main settings – adventures on Earth, adventures in space, and adventures on the alien home planet. Adventures on Earth would normally take the form of faction based conflict, with humans normally in the centre of conflict. Space adventures would normally have a more Star Trek like feel – the alien robots have a spaceship, they run into a planet, hijinks ensue.

The third is normally the most unique; the homeworld is normally an entirely metal planet, quite often of a peculiar shape (Gobotron is a very weird looking planet!). Whilst there are established cities and bases of operation, there are often undiscovered parts of these planets, and not just on the surface; lost secrets can easily lie underneath the surface of these planets.

These story settings also have mystery surrounding the alien race themselves – how did these alien robots come to be? Both Gobots and Transformers have told stories about the characters going deep into their planet to find out about the origins of their species, both with incredibly different takes (and with Transformers, many different takes across the franchise).

As a setting, you can essentially combine ancient mysteries, city adventure, epic sci-fi, strange alien creatures (and not just necessarily of the robotic kind)… and if adventures on the planet get boring, you can always take the plot to space. How could this not be an exciting setting for an RPG adventure?

My Ideal Campaign.
There’s all kinds of ways to run an RPG campaign, even within the confines of a d20-esque system. We could have a long discussion about the pros and cons of the different types of D&D campaigns, but there’s plenty of discussion already on the internet about that, and to a much deeper degree than I am capable of, so I’ll skip to what I want to work on.

For me, the most ideal campaign setting is one that can easily be focused on the player characters, and adventures that they are pro-actively seeking out, and not any external plot. There’s nothing wrong with running a game like that mind – I’ve been running Pathfinder from plot-centric modules for nearly four years now, and it’s been a lot of fun. It’d be great to run something that can be truly tailored to the players, though, whilst at the same time appeasing my own desire for adventures about giant robotic aliens.

My personal favourite way of running this type of campaign – which admittedly I haven’t done for many years – is to have the players be in a city of adventure; the city provides NPCs, shops, locations, possible villains to investigate, secrets to explore, intrigue to sniff out. Plenty of game systems will provide city gazetteers that describe a thousand plot hooks just by looking through them. I’d like to aim for something like that!

Typical adventures are easy to imagine in D&D fantasy settings, because we’re quite used to them – players start in a tavern, they listen out for gossip and things going wrong, and they go about investigating trouble and find adventure. However, this kind of RPG setup also perfectly fits the Aliens as Robots set up, too. Cybertron is very clearly a city of adventure; the Autobots meet up at Macaddam’s Old Oil House, they hear about the latest goings-on outside of Iacon city, and head out to investigate. They might run into trouble along the way; maybe there’s a rival group of Decepticons who hear the same rumours, maybe there’s strange cyber-organic life outside the city that attacks them, maybe there’s natural disasters along the way, maybe there’s secrets underneath Cybertron that nobody knows about?

So mostly what I want is a typical D&D-esque campaign setup… but in a sci-fi setting, populated by alien robots that can change shape into cars and planes.

Grimlock better reptile king than Vesk!

So What Next?
To start with, I think the best approach is to spit-ball some immediate ideas and just see what I can come up. I already have plenty of ideas for the general setting I want to create, which I think will end up being the subject of the next article. Where will our players start? What kind of circumstances do they find themselves in?

We also need to think about how characters define themselves; in traditional D&D-esque adventures, players define themselves by race and class – the Orc Barbarian, the Elf Wizard, the Dwarf Bard, etc. The good thing with SC-robots is they can normally be quite easily defined, since they all have different alt-modes, and defining our characters by alt-mode might be more with the times than defining by race. (although societal definition by alt-mode was used to discuss fascism in More Than Meets The Eye / Lost Light, so let’s still be mindful of these things!)

Once we’ve gotten a better idea of what the people of this setting are, we can then start populating the setting itself – buildings, societies, organisations, mysteries, dangers, excitement!

Finally, we can work out what rules we need to add for the setting; in particular we need to concern ourselves with a population entirely composed of robots, how rules support the shape-changing nature of these robots, and how turn-based combat copes with characters interacting as different types of vehicle all at once.

That’s… much more of a plan than I thought I’d have!

Across all this I’ll still use imagery from established franchises, mostly just my usual photography that I had been using when I was discussing Transformers TCG. Like at the beginning, there’s something to be said about taking pre-existing toys from another franchise, and repurposing it for one’s own stories. If I can do that as a child, I can do that now – at least so long as I’m not trying to make a profit out of it! grins

Anyways, I’ve hoped I piqued your curiousity for this project. I’m excited to finally get started on it.

Until next time!

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