24 January 2012

Battletech World Musings -

  I've often talked and posted on RPG forums about my belief that contrary to what folks say, the original "feel" of Battletech was perfectly sustainable without changing the base assumptions of the universe as happened with the 3025-3050 time jump.  MechWarriors went from knights to glorified tank drivers as technology recovered at a fantastic rate.  The feeling of the world changed, no longer could a battalion garrison an entire planet- sometimes even a company - now there were Regimental Combat Teams being flung about and massive battles the likes of which hadn't been seen since Kerensky.  The Battletech board game was designed for company-level actions and below, and the world was tailored to those skirmish-type battles.  The change in focus and scope brought a lot more changes - some of which left players feeling marginalized as 'Mechs and 'MechWarriors became more common and less rarefied.

  Let me see if I can weave an image of "my" MechWarrior Universe...  Let's set the way back machine for the waning years of the Third Succession War, the original starting point, before the Fourth War, before the Clans, before everything else...


  King George grimaced as the darkness in his audience chamber flashed, flickered, and then was broken by the slowly increasing glow of the electric lights.  A moment later, the King's nose told him the furnace had began to operate, with the scent of that first blast of heat filling the air.  Around the audience chamber, he saw men and women who had stalwartly refused to dress for the chill - their King had indicated by his dress that the lack of power to the castle would not cause them to change their daily routine.  Some of them could not disguise their relief as warm air began to issue from the ventilation system, and the King could not fault them.  A long moment passed with the inhabitants of the chamber saying nothing, the silence was broken by the footfalls of approaching men.

  Precentor Giles did not pause to be announced, a fact that rankled King George and caused his Senior Technician, walking abreast with the Precentor, to pause at the entryway as protocol demanded. 

  "Precentor Giles of the Most Blessed Order of ComStar!" sounded through the room, echoing off the vaulted stone of the chamber, the voice of the officiant rushing through the announcement in a futile attempt to preserve protocol.  Senior Technician Hertmann almost jogged to catch back up the Precentor, but kept a respectful pace behind the robed figure as he approached the throne.

  "Your Majesty, by the blessings of Blake we have restored power to your fortress - for now."  The Precentor announced imperiously, with only a sketch of  a bow.  The King narrowed his eyes and leaned forward.  He wanted to rebuke the Precentor for his lack of protocol, but his forces were so damnably dependent on ComStar for technical support he didn't dare risk the Order's ire.

  "For now, Precentor?  Pray explain."  The King cast a glance at his Senior Technician and noticed his visibly downcast expression.

  "I must regretfully inform you that the ancient generators that power this fortress are nearing the end of their useful service lives.  They were never designed to last two centuries, and I'm afraid the rather earnest but regrettably unsophisticated attempts of your own technical staff have resulted in makeshift repairs that only make matters worse."

  Hertmann visibly grimaced as the Precentor derided his skills, and those of his techs.  He wanted to speak in his own defense, but he was as aware of the Kingdom's need for ComStar assistance as his monarch, and held his tongue.

  "Further, Your Majesty, I believe ComStar can solve your power issues with much less fuss and bother than keeping centuries-old fission generators in operation.  Please allow me to ask my superiors if we can manage to have a fusion plant shipped here from Terra.  We do have a few still in stockpile from the Star League days, and for the purposes of powering your castle and the surrounding town, I believe I can make a good case to the Primus that your world and your people deserve this blessing in the name of peace."

  "What, Precentor, would be ComStar's fee for this... blessing?"  The King asked, knowing the price would be far too high.

  "Oh, quite reasonable, Your Majesty.  ComStar would request one hundred square kilometers of your land centered on the old ruins north of Dansen.  We would like to establish a monastery there, and a work camp for the homeless here and abroad.  Your world has the blessing of ample farmland, farmland that could be worked to the benefit of those who have no food on their homeworlds.  In addition, I believe there is a vein of sphalerite in that region.  We could employ some of these refugees to mine that, and turn the resulting iron ore and zinc over to you as tribute."  The Precentor smiled with a look of complete serenity, bowing slowly from the shoulders.

  King George looked once again to his Senior Technician.  Hertmann was looking back intently with an expression that mirrored the King's own thoughts.  Something was wrong here.  There was more to this than the Precentor was letting on, of course, but could the King turn down a fusion plant- cheap, clean power for the castle and the surrounding town- in exchange for some farmland that was being worked by men and animals and a few decrepit tractors?

  "Precentor, should we grant you this land, you will doubtless work it to the extent of ComStar's vast technological knowledge to work the land in the most efficient manner, yes?"  The King asked slowly.

  "Of course, Your Majesty."  The Precentor decided to set the hook.  "And once ComStar has an agricultural interest on this world, we would of course be bringing in the kinds of agricultural equipment in use on far more affluent worlds.  Perhaps Our Blessed Order would see fit to provide the services of some of these machines to your own farms as perpetual payment for the lease of the monastery land?"

  The King knew he was making a deal with the devil - but he had people and an army to feed.  He knew he could not ask for war materiel - ComStar was of course neutral in these matters.  "We agree to this proposal, Precentor, and we thank the Blessed Order for their support of our kingdom.  Please stay and dine with us to celebrate the beginning of a new prosperity..."


  Adept Haley bowed as his superior climbed into their speeder - a vehicle that by its graceful lines and quiet fusion drive reminded everyone on this Blake-forsaken rock that ComStar and its technicians were what saved them from living like barbarians.  As the hatch of the speeder clicked closed and Haley settled into the pilot's seat, he cast a glance at the Precentor in the back seat.

  "Did all go according to plan, Eminence?"

  "Oh, yes, Haley.  Yes indeed.  Our friend Georgie up there in his ridiculously quaint castle sold us the land in exchange for a fusion drive and a few ag robots."  The Precentor smiled at his own faint reflection in the mirror.

  "That's not much of a payout, considering the mineral reports we received."  The Adept commented.

  "You just arrived from Terra, Adept, so I will spell this out for you.  The Will of Blake is that Our Blessed Order will preserve mankind and have her rise from the ashes wrought by the Succession Wars, but in order for us to do that, we must carefully husband resources until we are strong enough to impose the Will of Blake upon the Human Sphere.  These resources include materials and people.  This world is a perfect example.  Most of the rest of the Lyran Commonwealth doesn't even know this planet exists, and if they did they would laugh that this marginal ball of rock has no less that four men styling themselves "kings."  We control information, therefore we have managed to monopolize trade with this world to ComStar-owned traders, and therefore we have controlled imported technologies here for four generations.  The fusion core I offered them was produced on Terra in one of ComStar's mass production facilities just last year, and then painstakingly aged to look as if it were a Star League artifact.  This ancient and rare artifact is being so generously doled to the King by ComStar as a token of our goodwill, in exchange for the establishment of the monastery and work camp.  We'll mine their ore, keep the germanium they don't even know is there, and give them all the zinc and iron they want..."  The Precentor's voice drifted off.

  Adept Haley was thoughtful.  "Excuse my ignorance, Your Eminence, but aside from the germanium's use in our HPGs and drive cores... what good does the rest of this deal do toward the Will of Blake?"
  "Goodwill, Haley.  The people of this planet will appreciate our tablescraps.  Of course we could thoroughly modernize this world with trivial effort.  In a decade we could have this world producing enough food to feed the nearest five planets.  We allow them to continue their territorial disputes and farm their lands with mule teams so that when we gift them with 'irreplacable' agriculture drones or other technological tidbits they see us as the saviors of mankind.  When the time comes for ComStar to make its move, that goodwill becomes a weapon we will use to turn the people, weary from centuries of war, to the Will of Blake."

  "I see, Eminence.  And... we operate in the same manner at the level of the Houses?"  Haley was making a connection.

  "Of course, Haley.  And above.  We control interstellar communications.  We have technologies on Terra the likes of which most worlds don't even imagine existing.  We recover or destroy what artifacts may be dangerous to the Will of Blake, and allow those that keep the status quo to find their way into the arsenal of the Successor House that is in the worst need.  We keep the balance, and they oblige us by continuing to war over a throne that has been empty for centuries.  Someday soon, the Houses will be so weak from the conflicts that they will be too weak to war with one another - infrastructures will shatter, militaries will be unable to conduct offensives... the people, Haley, will be so weary of the privations of endless war, of losing sons and daughters to rulers great and petty...  A people will do drastic things when they are desperate for change.  We have them balanced precariously on the edge of technology's knife - we only sparingly allow 'Mechs, FTL starships and advanced thinking machines to be built.  When we do, we make sure ComStar is there to... 'advise'...  We encourage their construction and employment of tanks... DropShips... infantry arms... the tools they need to grind one another to that glorious breaking point.  The pieces will be ours to pick up, and the Star League will be reborn as the Blessed Profet Jerome Blake prophesied."

  Haley swallowed uncomfortably.  "And the dead?"

  "How many more would die, Haley, if we failed to assume control to ultimately stop the killing?  Those who die now do so to bring about the peace that will save all of those who remain.  It is the Will of Blake - it is mathematically moral, regrettable though it may be."

The speeder continued on into the night, with Adept Haley's thoughts becoming ever deeper and darker.  Was this The Order he had really joined?  Perhaps Precentor Giles was right...

12 January 2012

New Year - New Musings on D&D 5e

  OK, dear readers.  New year, new discussions, new dedication to blogging about stuff.  In honor of this dedication, I'm going to use this first post to talk about Dungeons and Dragons 5th Edition.  The internet is burning up with discussions, disgust, hope...  Forbes and the New York Times even mentioned the new edition.  Mike Mearls has been making some pretty interesting comments on just what 5e would be, and the open playtest model has got a lot of people talking - and signing up.

  So, 5e, eh?  Here's my thoughts on 4e.  When Dungeons and Dragons 4th Edition first came out, I wasn't a fan.  I bought the PHB, DMG and MM at launch and learned the rules and found that it just wasn't what I wanted in D&D.  It wasn't a bad game- just not the kind of D&D I had grown accustomed to.  Time went by.  D&D launched the Essentials line.  For some strange reason that hooked me.  My friends tell me it was the Larry Elmore artwork on the Red Box, but I assure you it was the rules tweaks.  Gone were the martial characters that played like spellcasters, "defender aura" made so much more sense to me than "mark", and best of all I got into the D&D Encounters program at the FLGS and had a blast with it.  Maybe 4e *could* be the kind of game I could love.  Sadly, to this day I have still not gotten to see if the game would work for me and my players as a home campaign - I have players who stolidly refuse to touch anything 4e if they can help it.

  So, what did I like about D&D Essentials that persuaded me to change my mind about 4e?  Well, first of all there are a couple of things that both 4e and 4eE do that are, from a player perspective, very good changes.  Thanks to healing surges and extra HP first level characters don't have the mortality rate they used to.  Now, trust me, I still carry my 1985-vintage grognard card from when I first started playing D&D. I am used to player mortality rates being in the triple-digits as one or two poor players lose 3-5 characters before the party averages 2nd level.  That's the way it was... and we liked it!  But today's gamers are different in their outlook, and a newbie player who might be teetering between being a mundane or being a closet geek might be made or broken by a single bad gaming experience.

  Let's talk about Carly.  Carly is a girly-girl, and had never picked up much less rolled a D20 in her life.  She was into pedis and shopping and dancing and karaoke and didn't read much and didn't really watch sci-fi or genre TV outside of the Lord of the Rings films...  So, not our target audience.  Or is she?  I have always been of the opinion that inside nearly EVERYONE is a gamer waiting for the right game.  So we talked Carly into coming over and trying D&D.  A little alcohol and some good friends later, she made up her first D&D character using the choose-your-own-path vignette from the Red Box (Essentials) book.  And we played.

  Now, Carly had chosen to play a thief.  Had we been playing BD&D or AD&D1e I guarantee you she wouldn't have lasted thirty minutes into the game as she played her character with cinematic gusto.  A 4HP thief would have died several times over, ending her first D&D character and probably souring her on the experience.   BUT - with the way D&D Essentials characters are built, not only did she survive taking some risks and diving into the melee, but thanks to minion rules she was able to feel like a total hero on her first time out. 

  Some of my players think 1st Level characters in 4e are overpowered.  I tend to agree until I look at the situation I just described.  Carly may not find a weekly D&D game - but I'm pretty sure the next time she comes to visit she'll wanna play with us again.  Her first experience was empowering, and fun - and that's what it should be if we expect to recruit new gamers from outside the audience that is already predisposed toward our hobby.

  Oh, I digressed... Back to what I liked about Essentials.  OK, the Warpriest played like a BD&D Cleric.  I could kick butt, and I could heal - sometimes in the same round.  I really liked that.  I also liked healing being per encounter rather than per day.  It made the party a little more hardy and let us get on with the business of adventuring instead of camping after every fight.  Now, I know this is how we played from when I got into the hobby until 4e launched, but I can admit that it's traditional - but not optimal.  The slow grind up from 1st Level to about 5th Level was a slog with a lot of running back to the camp or the keep to sleep and recharge spells.  Getting around that made for a faster-moving narrarative.

  I like that martial abilities now make a little more sense to the in-game physics.  OK, someone standing next to my fighter causes me to swing at them when they're attacking one of my friends - makes sense.  Me going "Hey, you, over there!  Come get me!" and having that cause a to-hit penalty, or worse in the case of the Paladin cause damage... not so much.  Now, if that Paladin damage happens while the opponent is next to the Paladin, that's more like a holy aura.  It's things like these, and stances, that tend to make more sense to me for some reason and make Essentials feel more like D&D that original 2008 4e.

  So, now 5e is coming out.  I am going to be cautiously optimistic.  Now, I'll be honest.  If I were to start a D&D campaign tomorrow I would be equally likely to use Essentials, Basic D&D (B/X or BECMI), AD&D 1 or 2...  I have some love for all versions of D&D save 4.0 and 3.0 (I don't dislike 3.0, but 3.5 does solve some of the early 3.0 issues).  There's also Pathfinder and FantasyCraft, which are also quality games each with their own flavor.  To complicate things, I'm also a fan of OSRIC, Labyrinth Lord, Dark Dungeons and the retroclone movement in general...

  So what am I saying?  On one hand, I don't really need a new edition of D&D.  I already have several editions that all serve their purpose in different ways.  On the other hand, this is Wizards of the Coast's opportunity to do what they have stated is their goal - which is to create a version of D&D that will be acceptable to fans of all editions.  They have said they will be building a modular game.  I think this is a great idea.  It reminds me of the Advanced Edition Companion book for Labyrinth Lord.  It basically makes a B/X Clone into a usable AD&D clone.  The beauty is that one adds to the other, rather than replacing it.  If the new D&D is built like that, then BD&D and AD&D (for example) can be easily compatible.  Mearls has already been quoted as saying that a grid and tactical combat would be a module to be added to the basic game.  This suits me fine, as I've got players who love tactical combat, but some who want narrarative combat instead.

  If this opportunity is made the most of, and WoTC actually listens to the playtesters... I think this could rock quite a bit.  We could get a cleaned up version of Basic D&D that would contain the ability to be expanded to a more tactical, or more detailed, or more... anything game.  Modular.  It could work.  In fact, I've been cribbing some notes myself - but I promised after Stars Without Number totally blew away the project I was working on that I'd stay away from writing my own fantasy heartbreakers.  Of course... there is still the tempation to do it...

  5e.  I'm signed up to playtest.  I look forward to seeing what they've got going on.  Cautiously Optimistic.