29 January 2013

The Search for "Our" Battletech

  So... THIS is why everyone told me I'd never sleep again once I became a Dad.  I'll spare you the details, dear readers, but sometimes it's frustrating to be loved so much not only do your children try to climb into bed with you, but they fight over who gets to be next to Daddy and inevitably wake up when you try to put them back in their own beds...

  OK, so... the search for "Our" Battletech.  As most folks who know me and read by blog know, I am an officer of the Austin area Battletech club known as the Royal Dragoon Guards.  Right now there's around 10-12 of us on the rolls, and a metric buttload more folks who follow us on Facebook.  Realistically, we usually have 7-10 at meetings due to real life encroaching.  We're looking to grow the group, and I find it personally satisfying that the "kids" who I taught Battletech to at age 12-13 that are now 19-20 are bringing in a new group of teenagers to train.  Some of these young folks are really "getting" the leadership and initiative I've tried to teach youngsters in my hobby activities for years and that, too is satisfying.  What's more, about half of the membership are also soldiers in the Texas State Guard - so the training we do to enable the players to accurately portray professional soldiers comes in very handy.  Case in point?  The Dragoons who chose to become TXSG members have been praised for their ability to march, their military bearing, and of the entire unit of 30+ soldiers the guidon bearer and backup guidon bearer were both selected from the soldiers who came out of the RDG.  Neat, eh?

  So we love our Battletech.  We have a campaign that has been running for three years, and have added a lot of our own backstory and detail into the published Battletech universe.  We've also started an alternate timeline beginning in 2914, and as of the current campaign date of 2917 we've launched the Clan Invasion early... from the inside out... without any Clans...  long story.  Basically, we wanted to see the Battletech universe proceed in a different direction with a far, far lower explosion of tech than the official game now contains.  Speaking as a lover and player of Battletech since 1986- it's just too damn much.

  When I got into Battletech, I was amazed by the world that was built around these giant robots.  The Houses of the Inner Sphere were fascinating to me, and just enough snippets of info could be found in the saddle-stapled thin rulebook from the 2nd Edition Battletech boxed set to get my imagination going.  Almost immediately, I declared myself a supporter of the Lyran Commonwealth for life.  The system was simple (for an 80s game) and it contained the things that captured our game group at the time - rules for advancement of pilots and a reason to track histories, rules for creating our own BattleMechs, built-in storylines.  We then discovered Battletechnology Magazine, and whoa, did that blow us away.  I'm still a fan of the BattleAxe to this day thanks to the article on it in Battletechnology.  "Why use a blunt Warhammer when you can have the keen edge of a BattleAxe?"  Thanks to all the in-universe stuff in Battletechnology - including the grainy pictures taken of model kits and toys representing the Unseen along with pieces of Robotix to simulate destroyed buildings - I was hooked.  We played for YEARS using just the boxed set, and slowly adding TRO:3025 and MechWarrior the RPG.  We even gave the Autocannon/20 a range of 6/12/18 and heat of 1 since the Technical Readout 3025 showed us it weighed more, and presumably did more damage, but said nothing about its heat and range.  The line on the weapon table in the 2nd Edition Battletech rulebook simply says "Autocannon."  So we made it an 18-hex 20-point hit for 1 heat...  Huzzah.

  What some now derisively refer to as "Mad Max" Battletech, when technology was on the decline, company-sized raids were the order of the day, and the Third Succession War was still winding down- THAT was the battletech my group knows and loves.  Even our players who weren't born yet have looked at the old material and the new material and universally prefer the older game.

  What went wrong?

  Well - consider for a moment the sheer size of the current game.  Put "The Battletech Manual : The Rules of Warfare" or even the later "The Battletech Compendium" together with the MechWarrior RPG plus The Mercenary's Handbook and you still haven't gotten the pagecount of the massive "Total Warfare" tome.  And that is one - ONE - of the five core rulebooks for modern Battletech.  Add in Strategic Operations, Tactical Operations, A Time of War and the insufferably long-awaited Interstellar Operations and you get over 1,800 pages of stuff without Interstellar Ops.

  I know, I know - a lot of that is optional material, stuff you're not going to be able to use in a given campaign etc.  Thing is, just the size of these massive rulebooks starts to scare away players.  And here's the real rub - what do we get for that complexity?  Battletech, at its core, is still the same game it was in 1986.  The only real changes to the core rules I can think of off the top of my head is the elimination of the reaction phase nobody used anyway and the change to the partial cover rule.

  Let me put it this way.  A Time of War, at over 300 pages, gives me more complexity in character design and combat ules than it does utility as a roleplaying game.  Why on Earth would I want a system where I have to keep track of Margin of Success to remember that each point of MoS grants an extra 0.5 or 0.25 damage points?  Also - I get the whole penetration rule for armor and how it makes things more compatible with Battletech in theory - but in practice my players are just not grokking what weapon damages mean by looking at them, or how effective armor is.  This system may be more "realistic" or "better" than the MW1e or MW2e systems, but is it more playable?  Not in our experience.

  So the complexity is not our friend.  And it's not just me holding this opinion, it's the majority of our gaming group.  We basically need a spreadsheet for each PC to keep track of their stuff, and we're ready to look elsewhere.  Sadly, this seems to be a trend.  I saw a LOT of Battletech stuff in the inventory clearance sale at one of our two Friendly Local Game Stores, and the other store barely carries any Battletech product at all.  If something is in the inventory reduction sale, it means it hasn't moved a copy since last January.  Tons of sourcebooks, TROs, and even a couple of rulebooks.  This is not the sign of a healthy hobby.  When we were at Millennium Con last November, the sanctioned BattleTech tournaments had a teeny turnout, and were over in three rounds due to a small player field.  The scenario games were attended by... us.  There was the scenario GM, and members of the RDG.

  So why is Battletech not as popular as it once was, despite our having a good-sized local Battletech club?  Well, there's the size of the books and the complexity.  There's the time it takes to play Battletech.  Even a lance-on-lance game takes hours to play.  We play company-on-company and it takes 6-8 hours to reach a decision, sometimes we don't even get that far frustratingly enough.  There's the rules bloat - so many new weapons and equipment it's hardly recognizable as BattleTech anymore.  And then there's the storyline...

  OK, so it starts out as Dune/A Game of Thrones with giant robots, right?  Then they rediscover tech, and 'Mechs become high-tech tanks again.  The nobility of the MechWarrior takes a back seat, and we're talking about Divisions and Regimental Combat Teams instead of a lance of 'Mechs garrisoning an entire worlk by holding the one or two objectives that would be worth taking.  The Clans come in with tons of new tech, better than that of the Star League.  I'm not a total hater of the Clans, or of the new tech up to this point.  TRO:3050 brought some intersting stuff to the table, and it was still more or less the noble Houses of the Inner Sphere plus the Clans to shake things up.  This is, however, where things begin to come apart for me, and many other players.  A side problem with this is that the current keepers of the Battletech flame at Catalyst Games are openly derisive and dismissive of the 3025 crowd, despite there being quite a lot of them on the message boards.

  OK - my issues with the Clan stuff.  The timeline jumped ahead from the 4th Succession War in 3028 to 3050.  This was done with the book "20 Year Update" that outlined the War of 3039 and the events leading up to the Clan invasion, such as the creation of the Free Rasalhague Republic and the absorbtion of the Tikonov Free Republic by the newly created Federated Commonwealth.  Why the jump?  The official answer is "to sell books" and we get the party line trotted out constantly that "if the writers didn't do something, nothing would sell."  Bullshit.  Catalyst kept the Jihad storyline running for FIFTEEN YEARS.  The original setting of Battletech wasn't good for more than five?  Cop-out.  More weapons and equipment needed to keep players interested?  Well, I don't see them adding ER Pulse Short Swords to D&D to keep people interested.  I digress.

  So they brought the tech back.  And how.  They reduced MechWarriors back to soldiers driving expensive but replaceable war machines.  They wrote themselves into a corner.  So what did they do?  Twice?  The Dark Ages storyline created for the clicky-game and the destruction of the Jihad cause - you guessed it - a re-set to scrounging for tech and a rarity of 'Mechs.  Trying to get back to the older feel of the game through plot changes.  Why not just revisit the original era?  "We've moved on..." they say.  Well, Catalyst released Shadowrun 2050 for their cyberpunk-fantasy RPG allowing players of the current edition of the game to use the setting and equipment from the 1989 version and guess what - it sold like gangbusters on DriveThruRPG and RPGNow.  It is in the top 2.6% of all products on RPGNow/DriveThru as of this writing.  Wouldn't an Era Report : 3015 or 3025 be a good fit?  Sure, the latest BattleChat said they would release one - in 2015 or so.  This should have been one of the first Era Report products done, to support the introductory boxed set.  There is an Era Report : 3052 and 3062, but the technology and fluff from these eras is not really covered as much by the Introductory Boxed Set.  It seems a no-brainer to us in the RDG that this product should have been prioritized. 

  Think it's just us?  The folks developing MechWarrior Online and MechWarrior Tactics both set their games in the pre-Clan era.  Before MechWarrior Online became an MMO project, it was slated to be a PC release set in 3015.  Someone, somewhere still thinks the original storylines and setting have some life left in them.  These people are not apparently in charge at Catalyst.  Two of us RDG folks looked through the entire glut of unsold Battletech stuff to see if there was anything that would be useful to the club - and even at 75% off we found nothing.  Not a thing.  Everything was post-period for us and nothing we could use.

  To be fair, some of the Age of War stuff from TRO 3075 has made it into our games, as well as the PDF-only releases that support the Succession Wars.  Every now and then Catalyst throws us a bone, but we see questions constantly on the forums at bg.battletech.com asking for Succession Wars-specific era data.  We're still waiting.

  So we've got complexity, storyline, lack of interest in current products... 

  That leads Bobby Dean and myself to start a quest to make the RDG's Battletech run better.  This means we're retiring A Time of War at the end of this campaign arc, and switching to a new game system.  The front runner right now is an adaptation he and I have written of MechWarrior 1e and 2e.  It moves fast, it's intuitive to our players, just what we need.  We've also looked at using, either in totality or for inspiration Savage Worlds, Stars Without Number, Mongoose Traveller, FATE, Interlock, FUSION and even D20.  We need a simple, intuitive game system that meshes well with Battletech.

  For Battletech, we're working on house rules to speed up play.  Static defense modifiers for fast 'mechs, group-firing weapons, stuff like that.  I'm sure we'll post our house rules when they're done.
  The sad point is, there's not much on the Catalyst horizon right now - immediate future - that we're very excited about.  Our group could just as well play with books published during the FASA era and still have more fun than we're having now.  We're already cobbling rules together to fill in the blanks since A Time of War, despite having a massive page count, did NOT include tables for currency, factions, etc for the various eras of play.  That was left to a book that may or may not ever see the light of day.

  We will continue our search.  We will keep playtesting various changes, various character systems, even various mecha systems in the search for something more Battletech than the the current Battletech...




  1. Well, as an old-time Battletech player just getting back in to the game (a few friends persuaded me to show them it, since I kept mentioning it as great fun), it was fascinating finding this piece thanks to a Google search, and even more fascinating to see I agreed with every word of it!

    Thankfully I have a while before I need to decide firmly on an RPG system, since they are just starting to try the boardgame aspects and will be happy playing around with that for a few weeks, then I can show them the aerospace, space and other parts of the system. Quite what I'll settle on for the roleplaying though, I just don't know. All I do know for certain is the universe we use will be 3020-3050, popular as they are the clan and 'reborn Star League' tech just don't appeal to me at all, they add so many complexities to the core system in return for very little 'fun'.

  2. I'm with you. I haven't bothered more than a glance at the post fasa stuff because it just doesn't grab me. Battletech post clan went downhill for me.