Tabletop Game Review: Laser Beams Like So Many Stars

This article was originally written for Who Dares Rolls (www.whodaresrolls.com) and is reproduced here with permission.

Laser Beams… is by Taylor Smith (@whimsymachine)

In the game’s own words, its premise is as follows:

“You are a huge fan of mechs and their amazing pilots. You love to watch their heroics on the news, you visit when pilots come to your town, you own multiple letterman jackets emblazoned with mech pilots’ insignias. You’re burdened with the dream of piloting, eclipsed by the fear that you will never be more than a spectator. You love that which is unfathomably above you. Let’s talk about that.”

This is a theme covered by some very interesting and very good media in the genre; readers interested in seeing these takes might consider watching Mobile Suit Gundam 0080: War in the Pocket, Aim for the Top 2: Diebuster and, more tangentially (but still focused on the outsider view on combat) Flag. As a tabletop RPG it offers a different approach to traditional mecha RPGs by simple virtue of expecting the player or players to be non-combatants, implied to be far from war but following it in the media. Traditional RPGs rarely want to focus on civilian life, or the home front in war, least of all in a party where some of the players will be the front line combatants, so these smaller-scale, less traditional alternatives are vital to depicting plotlines that are exceptionally important to the genre.

Laser Beams is setting neutral, provided that setting is mostly about robots. It could be rethemed easily to any kind of conflict because ultimately it understands that giant robot fiction is making points about war in general. Maybe it could become a fantasy story about children dreaming of being adventurers, or a more contemporary commentary about a more grounded conflict and the way the media shapes society’s perception of the military. But for this playthrough, I kept it simple and mecha-focused.

Describing the rules will not take long; prepare a deck of cards with each suit corresponding to one of your idolised ace pilots. Draw cards until your story is complete, each card describing an event happening to that pilot. Optionally (and I found this immensely interesting), roll a dice to determine your character’s emotional state for each event.

I entered my solitaire playthrough of the game with some basic ideas of the setting, and some imagined outcomes for the story. A team of four pilots were assigned to a remote colony as a cold war in space drifted towards actual conflict. In creating the characters I imagined how they would act, how they would interact. This almost felt an in-character act, my narrator – a student considering signing up themselves – extrapolating wildly from stories of a military unit which had yet to fight.

The dice and cards immediately forced me to reconsider everything and drove the story into darker and darker places. Characters died early in the war. The survivors left, and came back changed. One pilot kept coming up and winning stunning victories, yet my narrator was less and less enthralled by them. Writing their journal one entry at a time let me set how far apart these events were and shape the greater narrative. The story ended with the team’s new leader a tyrannical, bloodthirsty war criminal who drove the protagonist not to sign up for their own country, but to run away to another nation to fight their former heroes. The rules end with this instruction for the final card:

“The final card drawn is pivotal. This represents an event that either cements your resolve and dedication to the world of mechs and pilots and your identity as a fan thereof or dissolves your relationship with the aforementioned forevermore.”

After seeing an underdog power become as bad as the invaders, what would remain of the protagonist? I thought it would be disillusionment, but manifesting in resistance. They would stand for justice and integrity as concepts, feeling the only way to prevent the strong oppressing the weak was to fight for the weak. Would that hatred and contempt for bullies make them, in turn, the bully? I don’t know. But as the entries went on and the story of Caster Team and the increasingly monstrous masked man known as Sol spiralled downwards I was immensely involved in the writing of it. A game with minimal rules, played in a setting created almost in an instant based on unremarkable genre tropes had created a tragic character journey into lonely resistance.

The game is as much about working out what must be going on in the world to elicit the reactions your protagonist feels as anything else. Why would they be joyful at a defeat, or contemptuous of victory? Why would a pilot upgrading their machine elicit disgust? These decisions made me think about how those perceptions of war and of soldiers would be shaped by the mass media, by a distrustful and disillusioned youth turning to underground media, by personal morality running against mob-like nationalist fervour. A game about one person’s close relationship with war made me think more closely than any tabletop RPG about how the media would report a player party’s actions, and how those reports might affect former friendships. I recommend it.

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