Review: Renegade Games – Transformers Roleplaying Game (Essence20)

Transformers Roleplaying Game
Transformers Roleplaying Game is a modern cinematic action roleplaying game set in the Transformers universe, written by Ryan Costello, Gabriel Hicks, JF Sambrano, Bryan C.P. Steele, Elisa Teague, and Eddy Webb and published by Renegade Games.
By Aaron T. Huss

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As the name states, Transformers Roleplaying Game is a standalone role-playing game set in the universe of Transformers (aesthetically I would state the cartoon/comic book portion of the universe). It is powered by the Essence20 system that I liken to a video game RPG; each “essence” is a base ability that provides points for purchasing or increasing skills. Conflicts are resolved by rolling d20+skill, which is represented as an ascended die type (d2, d4, d6, etc.). Although it is a standalone game, this core rulebook focuses heavily on the mechanics of the game with very little guidance provided to the GM other than the introductory adventure and what information is needed to run it.

Inherently, Transformers suffers from the same scaling issues that games like Deathwatch suffers from; the characters are much more powerful than their human counterparts. However, Transformers have one major difference in that although they are sentient, alien robots, they are not infallible and can be bested should the world’s militaries decided to focus their efforts on destroying them. To represent this, the game places a lot of mechanical focus on non-combat and non-action skills and themes. After all, the goal is to combat Transformers, not humans.

Characters take on the role of a rookie Autobot starting its first days upon Earth. You don’t get to play a named character from the Transformers universe as they are already numerous levels beyond where the characters start. As a rookie, the characters are significantly weaker than most Transformers but still stronger than humans. Unfortunately, named Decepticons are many levels above where you start and you might need to play dozens and dozens of sessions before you can even attempt to stand against one toe-to-toe. That’s where those non-combat and non-action skills come in place as you’ll need to use intelligence to save the day!

As Autobots, the ultimate goal is to protect the humans on Earth from the machinations of the Decepticons. Oddly enough, it seems like the Decepticons strike in plain sight, and yet the military doesn’t join the fight. Not sure what to think of that one. As a product of being born in 1978, I clearly remember episodes of Transformers that match the book’s themes 100%; even if they don’t seem like they should make sense. But if you think about it, most of the cartoons during that time were the same way (G.I. Joe, M.A.S.K., Thundercats, etc.). When you boil it all down, the development crew set out to recreate the adventures of the 80s and 90s and definitely hit the mark!

I do have a big complaint though. I loved the Transformers cartoons as a child, but how does that translate to the gaming table when surrounded by adults? The core rulebook fails to address this. There is basically no content that gives you a sense of what types of games they are attempting to recreate, what the GM can expect from one adventure to another, how to create those adventures, how to run the game without overwhelming the characters (outside of mechanically balancing combat), and a list of prompts or adventure hooks to get you going. All it includes is a single introductory adventure and I have no idea where you would go from there. This book is sufficient for players, but the GM will need more (not sure how that will look). Otherwise you’ll really be winging it. An in-depth knowledge of Transformers lore would probably take care of that, but how many people really have that?

Don’t get me wrong, I like the book, I really like the Essence20 system and how it translates to Transformer characters, and I really love the artwork! I love how the development team presented the named characters within Transformers, but unfortunately you won’t be able to survive a full battle with them until you play for a long time. But then, the game is really meant to focus on more than combat and when you go back to those cartoons in the 80s, combat usually ended with the Decepticons retreating.

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