Saturday, 7 November 2009

BattleTech Déjà vu


I saw an interesting post on on a now defunct site that required me to go away and write my own perspective.


As an early adopter of BattleTech, quite literally at the time I started playing the game was called Battledroids, and the number of players was less than the first print run world-wide, with virtually no magazine support either, what I feel is déjà vu. The Word of Blake (WoB) is the Clans all over again, an upgrade to the universe that deletes the original. We all know where that one leads to don't we? It leads to players who are heavily invested in the old paradigm not wanting to transfer to the new one.

As I sit here typing this I can't help but think of the in game transfer of power plot that is the ComStar plan and thinking that this is a metaphor for what is happening in the game itself. Depending on how you look at it, we are seeing the second or third transfer in the game.

The original game was set in a Mad Max universe of scarcity, where manly men, or strong women, piloted mechs that ruled the battlefield. The first transfer was the development on new technology from the Grey Death Legion Helm core. This brought double heat sinks into the game, which unwittingly made all auto cannons pretty much redundant as primary weapons (specialist functions still exist for them, but no-one would want an auto cannon over a PPC for instance; my caveat here is that I've summarized a very complex argument into that one line).

The second transfer, or cementing of the first (depending on your viewpoint), was the coming of the Clans. Players went from making sucking noises about Gauss rifles being too powerful, to the Clans allowing you to field munchkin mechs. This time players voted with their feet big time, and today we have the situation where there are people who will only play 3025, and I don't blame them. I've never found the game more fun to play because of the extra toys that newer tech brings to the table. For me the game is fun due to the central conceit, and conceit it is, because giant humanoid war machines make no sense in the real world.

Now we see the third transfer within the game from the Clans, to the threat that is the WoB. The problem is that the WoB need to be able to beat the Clans, and the Clans are already have the most munchy game stats. The question then becomes how to make the WoB better without destroying the game again? The answer is to take it to the max in a way that is limited in some way. Therefore we get the WoB Munchkin-Max tech from the introduction of prosthetics. I imagine that this route was taken, because it allows the writers to remove it naturally at a later date.


Within the game architecture, having something that makes the players feel revolted, is a very good way of limiting the use of said tech. By this (and again I'm simplifying a very complex argument), I mean that though the tech is available the cost benefit analysis of having it is such that it is no longer seen as the solution (short character life, going mad etc). In this case given the introduction of the RPG, very few players would want to play monsters (or more likely the CGL scenario writers and GMs would allow) , because that is what the WoB are. By using implants they become monsters.


Phew, sorry if this argument has been a bit tortuous, but I'm thinking through the ideas as I write them down here.

The Clan warriors were never seen as monsters. Not quite fully human, and certainly the enemy, but not monsters. The WoB start off as fanatics, and the tragedy is that they become monsters. So all that is good about them is sacrificed because they believe that the end justifies the means.
I also see that the writers at CGL are doing a grand job of writing a set of very comprehensive rules that have transformed the games from giant mechs kicking ass, to a more subtle game of combined arms, but here's the thing. If I want a more subtle combined arms game I wouldn't be playing Battletech.

I'm of the school where mechs are a conceit, but you then run with that conceit, rather than try and create a more realistic and balanced game.
As one of the old time players I stopped with the Clans, and have rather jumped over the middle period to come back into the game at the Jihad. I like the Jihad, conceptually, but you know what I still mostly play 3025 games, because it is what I know and it is fun to play.
   

13 comments:

  1. I missed all of this fun, as I stopped playing Battletech about 1996 or 1997 - before the MWDA, Jihad, WoB and all the ensuing fun. Now that I'm back, I see no reason to go beyond 3025.

    Another interesting note is how games in general have movements like you describe. D&D has gone through something similar with almost every version, and now it's spawned a publishing movement called the "old school renessiance" that hearkens back to the old 1970s/early 1980s D&D. I wonder if we'll see similar with Battletech going forward?

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  2. That is an interesting question to ask. I don't know, but I see no evidence on the official Battletech website that there is any intention of going back to 3025 period for the board game. The computer game that is being worked on will be set in 3015, but it is a separate line and done by another company who has the rights to implement the franchise in that format.

    Of course if the computer game is immensely popular, then maybe the CGL team will want to exploit the opportunity of revisiting the period? However, given their stated "living game" agenda I can't see how they could do this, unless it was an alternative time-line?

    Personally, my interest in Battletech would make me want to rewrite the basic game by having a thorough makeover of the weapons and construction rules.

    I'd want to reduce the problems from using lots of medium lasers, take out double heat sinks, reduce the attack value of the gauss rifles, and upgrade the currently pathetic auto-cannons, but not everyone agrees with me on this.

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  3. I've been out of the loop too, just got back into it after years in the wilderness....last I heard, WoB were a few disgruntled Comstar laddos that had run off to creep into bed with Marik.....

    I think the fact that the core rules haven't been changed in the countless years that it's been going (over 20 that I've been playing) speaks volumes. AD&D (just D&D as it is now) has been stripped back and built up again four times now, Traveller three or four times, Warhammer is different every five minutes. As you put it in your post, once you're over the central conceit of big robots fighting each other you can forgive pretty much any game-mechanic indescretion.

    I agree with you on the AC front, 2's and 5's are a bit piddly. As a dyed-in-the-wool Hunchback fan, it's got to be AC20 or nothing...:-)
    Size isn't everything, as it were, and the addition of the AC variants (LB-X, Ultra and rotary) helps to make them more interesting weapon options. But what is the point of an AC2? Really?

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  4. I had a friend back in 2004 whose mother had passed away. I carried her casket and said my goodbyes, then went about the task of getting him out and mixed with other people, gamers mostly.

    Some of it worked - Ross really enjoyed the Lazer Tag games we held at Fort Worden and here in Bremerton. But when I invited him to a game of BattleTech up in Everett with my gaming group, he balked.

    Seems he'd been a fantasy gamer for decades and a wargamer before that, but simply could not reconcile himself to the idea that walking robots could be superior to tanks on the battlefield. He stated that tanks armed with the same technological advances every 'Mech enjoyed should take the field every time. He could not get his head around the 'conceit'.

    I thought long and hard about his objections. It seemed to me that swallowing the conceit was not as hard for me as it should be if Ross was correct. That meant there was some underlying rationale behind the 'conceit' of the BattleMech which made enough sense that you could suspend your disbelief. It wasn't out in the open, and I had never seen a written discussion of it anywhere.

    So... what *were* the reasons?

    Well, I decided at the time to incorporate the in-universe reasoning into a story, and it grew. I posted it over at BattleTech Universe. It is in the form of a dialogue between a grandfather and his grandson.

    http://www.battletechuniverse.org/hpguplink/viewtopic.php?t=9762

    I think it lays out in a rational way just how the 'conceit' became something easily digested by most BT gamers. I've never seen anything like it anywhere else, but I have a hunch it (or something very like it) is what the original designers were thinking of when they first came up with BattleDroids.

    Steve

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  5. Heh. Nice response post.

    Personally I have come around with the Jihad. I don't like where I know it will end up, but I think the writers have done a good job. When it comes to the things I dislike I don't play with them (Often WoB's Cybernetics and usually Clan Tech except for specific instances) and just live with the way things are.

    My post was mostly prompted around the why people were upset about the cybernetics more than actually complaining about it. It was something that interested me because when I saw them introduced myself and others were quite upset, but when I thought about it trying to piece together exactly *WHY* I was upset was rather more complicated.

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  6. For me I now think of Clan tech as OPFOR, and I will treat WoB as OPFOR too. So in my games people can play the OPFOR side, but all the development and control is with the Inner Sphere forces. I'm thinking here about how one creates campaigns, and using the new iteration of the RPG as the base for this.

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  7. What version are we up to with the RPG? Have the first three versions, not even read the third one, but played 2nd Ed a bit....Mercs campaign hunting pirates for the Capellans on an airless moon....very nasty scrapping in a vacuum.....

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  8. So I too started way back when the game was called Battledroids and I have some thoughts.

    I'm not sure I'd agree the WoB thing is comparable to the Clans. Before the Clans, BT was a completely different game. Good Technology was rare, with most mechs being hand me downs from generation to generation. Big themes were recovering technology, salvaging what you could, and even in a single game scale, fighting over water to get a few extra points of cooling each round!

    The Clans came along and sort of blew all that out of the water. Now the tech is all fairly common, mechs are produced on huge production lines (they were in 3025 but not to the same degree), and everyone's got ER-lasers, LBX, TAG, CASE etc etc. I've since got over the idea of the clans, but they definitely chanegd the face of the game dramatically.

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  9. I forgot to add a couple of things! First I totally agree with:

    As one of the old time players I stopped with the Clans, and have rather jumped over the middle period to come back into the game at the Jihad. I like the Jihad, conceptually, but you know what I still mostly play 3025 games, because it is what I know and it is fun to play. "

    That's where I've been all along.

    Otherwise, I think where things go wrong ultimately is in believing that you need something more powerful from a gaming standpoint to win. Why can't the WoB just be killer tacticians and strategist after preparing for this jihad and observing the IS and Clan military practices? Why can't the shock and awe of their initial bombardments and surprise attacks be enough to throw the IS into a fighting retreat for a while?

    I think in an age of 'more is better' we've lost sight of the idea that sometimes it's not the technology you wield but the way you wield it that makes the biggest difference, just look at the Vietnam war and the Soviets in Afghanistan.

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  10. I think the answer to your question is that the Clans changed the game so much that just having good tactics and an overall strategy no longer hacks it. I can remember a game I played back in the day when the Clans first came out where after pounding on my opponent we discovered that his mech was still able to put out the same amount of damage, because he had only been firing half his weapons at me.

    You can't beat someone who has that much of an advantage over you in a standard game of Battletech. Now while I agree your ideas are solid, it doesn't leave much in the way of table top action for the players. Hence the whole upgrades via cybernetics option. At least that is how I see it.

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  11. I do have an interesting take on the cybernetics thing.

    We recently faced off against the WOB in an action where they fielded one of each of their Manei Domini pilots in the new Celestial 'Mechs. They even had a few upgraded Guillotines and plenty of battle armor in the backfield along with artillery.

    We plowed them under, and it was just with the stuff we normally took into battle.

    See, a lot of folks (including me) are spooked by the new cybernetics when we consider the advantages the new machines and their pilots enjoy in battle - especially with Elite pilots. However, no amount of technological terror can overcome the fact that (1) the jacked-in pilots suffer each time they take an internal hit and (2) your real foes are the opposing players. And they make mistakes just like you do.

    They missed out on a potential closing of the pincers in the early game. Don't know why.

    They deliberately turned their biggest 'Mech's back on us so it could hammer one of our medium 'Mechs - leaving itself open to no less than four of our machines taking a backshot at it. It went down quick, fast and in a hurry from internal damage, which did not finish the 'Mech but killed the pilot with the hits he took from feedback.

    Their battle armor is fast and hard-hitting, but folded rather quickly in the face of fierce anti-infantry counterfire from the surviving 'Mechs.

    Their leader tried to hold the group together but gave up after four rounds. They were like kids in a candy store - happy to run around gorging themselves at first, but all ending up with tummy aches in the end. We outflanked them and just drove right through anything we did not put down due to feedback damage.

    The Clans are tougher in a one-to-one battle, which is why I have always refused to fight Zellibrigen. Battle Value pretty much guarantees that an IS force will always outnumber any given Clan force in terms of sheer quantity, and if you know how to put that to use (porcupine ball, weenie rush), it can be done. The Clanners have no more armor on their heads than an IS pilot does.

    In short, neither Clans or cybernetics bother me in the least. They are a challenge, at times a stiff one, but the bad guys always have to be tougher than the players, or it wouldn't be a fight.

    Steve

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  12. And just as an aside? The GM for that game was playing on the side of the WOBs and he specifically forbade us bringing tandem charges for our SRM launchers.

    Small wonder!

    Steve

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  13. I'll have to take a look at the new cybernetics rules for WoB. You're right PiP, the main issue with the clans was that the tech was so much better then IS tech that it made for a ridiculous and mostly un-fun fight. It sounds to me as if the WoB cybernetics might not be as bad.

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