Wednesday, May 16, 2012
Regardless, the way Mach (originally published in 1983) presented itself in those Dragon ads of old made me think that perhaps it might be the game I was looking for. So, when I saw a cheap copy on eBay recently, I snapped it up greedily and awaited its arrival with anticipation. Never having seen Mach "in the flesh," so to speak, I had no idea what to expect. I had only my teenaged memories and my own fevered imagination to draw upon and, as I've learned over the years, it's rare that reality holds up to one's long-held expectations, especially expectations formed long ago and without a firm foundation.
Mach appears to have been the brainchild of a single person, Michael Lange, in whose name the game is copyrighted and who wrote two of the three short books included in the boxed set. There are no credits listed anywhere in the game, so I can only assume that Lange is also responsible for the numerous black and white illustrations found throughout. That's, frankly, one of the most remarkable things about Mach; the game has a unified and interesting esthetic that makes it stand out when compared to what most RPGs looked like at the time of its publication. I found myself reminded of Jorune, which only makes sense, as you'll see.
The "New World" mentioned in Mach's tagline is literally true. Despite appearances to the contrary, Mach is not a fantasy game but a science fiction one. It postulates an alternate reality where, in the 1970s, alien beings called the Abla arrive on Earth and explain that cascading supernovas would soon destroy the planet. Being incredibly powerful and benevolent, the Abla offered to transport as much of Earth's population as they could, along with some Terran animals, to another planet, called Mach, safe from the supernovas' destruction. The Abla explained that Mach was not uninhabited and that humanity would be sharing it with three other humanoid species: the Bane (large, strong, and dimwitted), the Palir (psychics), and the Tofus (highly intelligent and diplomatic). The Abla stipulated that no firearms or schematics for such would be transported to Mach and asked humanity to avoid interfering with the development of the other races.
Naturally, the Abla's plans didn't work out and humanity cleverly circumvented all of their stipulations. Within 200 years of arriving on Mach, mankind had spread across much of Mach, enslaved the Bane, learned psychic "sorcery" from the Palir, and began to make firearms again. This resulted in wars and upheavals that shook the planet, creating an unstable situation that only became more unstable when evidence of an ancient Machic civilization is unearthed -- a civilization with extremely high technology. Where are the Abla in all of this? Good question. Mach doesn't really explain what happened to the Abla; they seem to disappear from the scene after saving humanity. I found this odd, though not surprising, since their continued presence would have been a hindrance to the kind of setting the game's creator clearly wanted.
Rules-wise, Mach comes across as a fairly typical '80s RPG: highly detailed and overly fond of tables. The game system itself is nothing special -- skill-based and percentile dice-oriented. There are lots of skills, though, many of which have their own subsystems for use. Because humans outnumber all other species by a significant number, playing another species is possible only if a player rules well on a random chart. The game provides a fair bit of detail on Machic societies and cultures, in addition to information on native and transported life forms. It's thus a fairly complete "tool kit" for the referee to use in creating his own campaign. Indeed, Mach is explicitly written to have no default setting except in the broadest sense. The referee is expected to establish the specific details of "his" version of the planet, right down to the locations of settlements and their relationships.
Consequently, Mach isn't a very newbie-friendly game, a fact that it acknowledges several times. It's designed for "experienced" roleplayers looking for a challenge. Even given that, it stills seems to me to be incomplete as is, more like the sketch of an interesting idea rather than something more complete. Admittedly, I haven't played the game, so perhaps my initial impression is mistaken. Compared to other humans-transported-to-another-world games, like Empire of the Petal Throne or Jorune, Mach is a bit lightweight and its setting doesn't quite hang together. Throw in the needlessly complex rules system and it's a recipe for disappointment. I'd had high hopes that Mach: The First Colony was a forgotten classic of the hobby. Instead, it looks to me more like a labor of love whose enthusiasm far outstripped its content.