Battle Angel Alita PbtA hack

Reading the Battle Angel Alita manga and hoping against hope that Alita: Battle Angel will be a good movie has me really inspired. My inspiration usually lead to fan-fiction, specifically, RPG mechanics that reflect the tone and theme of the thing that inspires me.  See Obliteration, a fan-game of Annihilation, for an example.

So how can I make an RPG that feels like Battle Angel Alita? Obvious surface elements are cyborgs in a futuristic shantytown fighting spectacular melee battles that leave their robot bodies shattered and dismembered. But recognizable brand elements don’t guarantee tonal consistency. Compare Fallout 1 to Fallout 76 for an obvious example.

Theme: Alita fights for her own sake

A theme that is distinct and important to me is that Alita is always fighting for her own goals. Her motivation is internal, and she actively rejects external goals that motivate heroes in many other stories, such as:

  • money
  • glory
  • justice
  • protecting the weak
  • duty
  • orders of a superior
  • saving the city/world/multiverse

Alita crashes through the systems in the world around her, using ones that advance her goals and discarding or ignoring the others. I want players of the Battle Angel RPG to have the same opportunity, but this conflicts with the unspoken social contract of most RPGs. The GM controls the world, and players only experience the world through what the GM shows them, so when the GM shows them a quest, or an ally, or any sort of content, players are incentivized to interact with it, because that’s all they can see. Another analogy is that the GM is the leader in a partner dance, offering plot hooks and fun NPCs for players to respond to.  The alternative to accepting these prompts is doing nothing, right?  That’s no fun. The system works when the GM prompts and the players accept and engage.  Players can only experience the world of the game by engaging with its systems, so playing a character who rejects systems is counter-intuitive.

Imagine a game that’s full of factions to join, ranks to achieve, and currencies to earn, but the correct choice is to ignore all of them and charge ruthlessly towards a goal one has created for oneself. It’s counter to so many assumptions about how games work!

Alita’s fierce independence may make standard party-based play impractical. If there four Battle Angels who each set their own goals and won’t take no for an answer, they may end up fighting each other! Perhaps one player wil play the Battle Angel and the others will share what is usually the GM’s role of inventing fiction about the world and embodying allies and rivals.

Theme: Alita overcomes a rival to reach her goal

In each arc of the manga, Alita has a personal goal, and is opposed by a rival or enemy. Sometimes there’s a shattering fight that leaves both crawling away and swearing vengeance. Other times it’s a verbal argument with hurt feelings and slammed doors.  Mechanically, flow of the game is:

  • player sets a goal
  • GM sets obstacles and rivals in the way
  • player challenges those obstacles
  • goal is achieved or becomes impossible
  • rest, repair, think about next goal

Theme: Alita finds herself in the heat of battle

Another theme: Alita does not remember her past, including the legendary martial art Panzer Kunst. She starts to remember her past and her abilities in combat, especially when she is pushed to her limits. So this game encourages players to pick hard fights and ride along the edge of death. What does this look like mechanically?  “To level up, pick a fight that has a 75% chance of death” means that 3/4 of all characters will die at level 1. I think instead that reaching the brink of death triggers an epiphany that lets the player reset the situation, giving her a chance to escape or strike a final blow.

Players have a Panzer Kunst rating. Panzer Kunst allows players to create their own custom fighting moves. The rating limits the power of the move, so increasing Panzer Kunst lets players have more moves with more power and utility. Panzer Kunst rating is increased as an epiphany in combat.

Players also use epiphanies to unlock information about The True Self, the person their characters were before losing their memories. Each realization is a vague phrase like “vast black plains”, “the Science division”, or “the woman with the square glasses”. With enough of these realizations, players can piece together their old life. Whether they embrace it, reject it, or atone for it is up to them. They can always set their own goals and are no one’s slaves, not even their past selves.

Theme: build and maintain your cyborg body

Character will have stats, like most PbtA games. I’m thinking Power Speed, Finesse, and Willpower, but I really want to use “Battle” and “Angel” as stat somehow.  The stats I’m using aren’t unique or cool.  Stats can be changed be refitting or replacing one’s cyborg body. Cyborg bodies come in Light, Standard, and Heavy models. Different parts grant stats and moves. Parts can be destroyed in combat, reducing the body’s capabilities. Some characters may keep multiple whole bodies and switch between them. Others may slowly upgrade one body as it get damaged until it’s completely different.

I’ll use Fellowship’s model of damaging stats, instead of having separate hitpoints.

Theme: spectacular asymmetric cyborg combat

Tabletop RPGs can’t match the specificity of carefully drawn manga panels, so I’ll use a series of tags to identify important conditions of battle:

Range tags:

  • hand
  • sword
  • whip
  • missile

Condition tags:

  • airborne
  • grappled
  • off-balance
  • burning

Moves may require certain tags to be triggered, and may add tags to the user or to the target when completed successfully. For example:

Shoulder check. Requires: Sword or whip range, not airborne or off-balance. When you rush forward and slam your opponent with your armored shoulder, roll +Power. On a 7+ you are now at hand range. On a 10+. your opponent is Off-Balance.

Moves are tied to certain components, and when those components are destroyed, you cannot perform the move.