Friday 13 August 2010

Loving the Alien

Or, how I learnt to enjoy BattleTech in spite of the Clans.

Over on the Classic BattleTech Forum there is a long and rambling thread about aliens in BattleTech that started as a hate fest for the idea of all things alien being added to the game background, but which has settled down to a more reasoned discussion through polite persistence..

As an Old School Renaissance player (or Retard, depending on you point of view) I really don't care what is, or is not in the BattleTech game, because I see the official rules as merely a buffet that I can choose to pick from as I like. However, the tirade of anti-alien hate rather puzzles me. I can see that the anti-alien proponents feel that aliens add nothing to the back ground that can't be done by using humans, which is a circular argument that leads no where useful.

OTOH, BattleTech has always been driven by back ground fluff. As I've discussed in previous blog entries, this is a board game that feels like an RPG campaign. Not a bad thing, though I have never been a faction player in BattleTech, I observe that now that I have MechWarrior armies to play with, I have become very faction orientated. Go figure I guess? I think this is down to the simple matter that MechWarrior miniatures come pre-painted, which makes compiling a force in one faction relatively easy.

In BattleTech I've always been pretty faction neutral. My main army was nominally mercenaries that were loosely attached to House Kurita, as I like the Japanese culture for the background, but I did not want to tie myself down to specific units in the canon literature of the game. Recently, since returning to the game about three years ago, I've started adding more canon markings to my OPFOR armies, making them loosely House Steiner and Marik by the addition of the appropriate decals.

However, BattleTech remains a game where I haven't invested greatly in the canon background to any great degree, other than dressing mechs with paraphernalia as a nod of acknowledgment to the rules background. Rather I'm interested in using the stage that BattleTech give me as set dressing for my own aims, and goals that I want from any game I play. Namely the ability to create interesting scenarios that are based on historical precedence, which require the players to do more than kill the enemy, kill all of them.

So aliens, what's the big deal?

They aren't human for a start. Some objections can be raised here about the ability of writers to write about aliens in a way that is meaningful can be raised here. However, as an SciFi fan of many years, I know that the history of the genre is full of examples of really alien aliens. Now, admittedly, a lot of these aliens won't fit into a game involving giant stompy robots. Mind you, I think that a game of giant stompy robots is so far out from any reasonable definition of plausible that the addition of other implausible elements is hardly a big factor. Though again one can argue that too many implausible things would dilute the verisimilitude of the game to the degree that one's sense of disbelief will destroy any feeling of involvement with what is going on.

This after all is the main reason why lots of historical wargamers will not play Sci-Fi or Fantasy wargames. So what kind of aliens might be added to Battletech without destroying the background of the universe. For me, it would be aliens that were "interesting", because of their unique perspective.

What can added to the game is more variety of unit types. Everyone likes a new mech, and the more the merrier. Otherwise why do we need the 1300 plus mech designs we already have? Arguably we don't, but players like new designs. Players like new weapons. Now while you don't need aliens to have either, alien mecha and weaponry would appeal to those who like rules for different technology, in pretty much the same way as some players like Clan tech, which is arguably the shape of BattleTech to come, if my understanding of MW:DA/AoD is correct?

Some of the factors to consider would be the visual design of the alien mechs. which would mean for me non-bipedal mechs like quads with arms, or six-legged mechs with turrets, and or eight legged mechs. The aliens may, or may not have a different underlying reproductive biology, for instance marsupials, reptilian, insect, or arthropod. We could add more fluff and make them hermaphrodites too. Or perhaps they are a race that has uploaded themselves into virtual worlds. This would lead to different minds, more like a hive collective, or one where replication of a mind was routine.

So, for instance, we could have a dispersed technological hive mind that is limited by the laws of the physics, as they pertain to the BattleTech universe. This could be used to generate scenarios where we only meets small forces that wreak havoc and destruction, who then disappear off stage for years, because the travel times are so long that it slows down their communications. So the aliens are effectively at the end of a very long logistical chain. There motive is purely xenophobia, they can't tolerate other races.

However, I agree that the real question of whether or not BattleTech should have aliens is not about the how, but what purpose do they serve?

The one big question that has never been answered in the BattleTech universe is where are the advance alien civilisations that should exist? Did they all destroy themselves in wars, and ultimately mankind is doomed to the same fate? If they didn't destroy themselves, who did destroy them? Or, are we the first to survive and reach the stars?

Depending on how you spin these answers out, you either create a story where mankind is either going to die out from self inflicted conflict, or a story where mankind goes and destroys any possible alien race that might develop (i.e: we are the destroyers of worlds), or a story where we find the big bad out there and it awakens to the threat that we represent, or one where we are all alone in the dark?

Any alien threat has to be bigger than just another faction of humans gone stir crazy, or rabid from drinking the local water, or being out in the sun too long, or inbreeding etc. The trick is coming up with ways to maintain the game balance of said alien force; otherwise you end up with the humans being wiped out through superior technology. The whole aliens as gods/angels versus puny things like us humans.

This question and its answers are what could be added to the background of the universe that would then allow the RPG side of the rules more scope for non-military play.

I favour the latter idea.

Disclaimer: All posts are condensed & abbreviated summaries of complex arguments posted for discussion on the internet, and not meant to be authoritative in any shape, or form on said subject, T&CA, E&OE & YMMV.


  1. Ha.

    At the risk of becoming a redundant old man (as opposed to just an old man), I would like to point out I once wrote a story about this. It won first place. Admittedly, the competition was not the NYT bestseller list, but just the same, I proposed an option you did not cover here.

    I am not sure human writers could posit a believable alien that was what we would call truly alien. I beleive the aliens, being constrained by the same moral and physical laws as humans, would come to many of the same conclusions.

    To be honest, I think the Clans were probably one of the best attempts I have seen to create a race that was alien and yet still human. That their society is being assimilated far faster than their technology is either a statement that 'the more things change, the more they remain the same' or a comment on how silly the tabletop game might get if everyone could just hook into Clan tech.

    Nice post. I have more to say but it can wait.


  2. You raise some interesting points in this post regarding aliens. I however would not like to see aliens come to Battletech even if it there was a good reason story wise. There are plenty of other sci-fi games that have aliens (Star Trek, Robotech, 40K, etc.) Battletech is the one sci-fi game without aliens and that is one of the major reasons it’s unique.

  3. I don't see Battletech's uniqueness as lying in the lack of aliens, but YMMV.

  4. Well, you gotta admit that for a game that deals with lots of space travel - even if it's just fluff or a plot device to get to the 'Mechs.... it's a bit odd to not meet any. *At all*


    So I can see that as one of the many things contributing to the game's unique flavor - but only one of them.


  5. I agree, but I would like an in universe reason for the fact e.g: dead ruins, or like your story, they are like gods and can fence us off, or preferably they are waiting/coming to get us.

  6. Yeah, it doesn't set well with me the way they've got it right now. Like in the story, there are worlds with plenty of archeological evidence of life, along with coal fields, oil deposits, etc.

    As for them being like gods, let's just say they are not fallen and are comfortably ahead of us in technology we haven't really begun to more than dabble in, in 3040.

    If you mean like the gods as they are presented in today's comic books, yeah - beings on a higher power scale than we are. But still, creatures like us - that is, created by something else. And thus limited. They cannot create life, nor a new color in the spectrum. They can only work with what's already there.

    It turns out that's a lot, more than we can account for even in BT, but we're far enough along to at least catch a glimpse, and understand quarantine and why it must be so.

    But that approach assumes a lot of things; one of them is that the game designers are theists. Despite their reported religious affiliations, I don't think they are.


  7. By the standards of any human society, Clan warriors ARE aliens. They may have compatible DNA, but the Clan crèche is not any sort of human environment; Creatures raised in that environment are very different from you and me.
    I don't think this was intentional though, just bad fiction that because canon.

    I like the "alien mech design" idea, and this potential for variation here has never been exploited. All you need for a 6-legged (or 3-legged) mech is a new hit location table and a few rules to cover other differences, like the current rules for Quad mechs.

  8. It occurs to me that distinctiveness & recognizability are important on the marketing side of the business, and adding aliens would probably make BattleTech less distinctive and less recognizable (which may also explain why the Houses have all had the same dynasties since 1984). That's the only solid reason I saw in all 16 pages of that thread.

    The most *frequent* reason was "because the Clans and Manei Domini can already cover that," which seems like a poor excuse when aliens are the natural (and inevitable, once the writers run out of other ideas) result of the precedent established by WoB & the Clans:

    Fourth Succession War: the Great Houses ally/fight amongst themselves.
    Clan Invasion: "alien" Clans attack from without, the Great Houses unite!
    FedCom Civil War: the Great Houses ally/fight amongst themselves.
    WoB Jihad: "alien" Manei Domini attack from within, fracturing each Great House!
    Dark Ages of Destruction: the Great Houses ally/fight amongst themselves.
    The Following Era: "alien" (insert new faction here) attacks from (new kind of war)!
    The Era After That: the Great Houses ally/fight amongst themselves.

    [rhetorical] What can aliens add that can't be done with the Manei Domini or Clans? Hey, why isn't anybody asking what the Manei Domini add that couldn't have been done with the Clans, or what the Clans add that couldn't have been with a Great House? [/rhetorical]. (Not to mention that power creep and rules creep, both used as excuses to avoid aliens, also accompanied each of those events.)

    Sheesh. And really, that was the OP's whole point- that the wars all seemed repetitive, and aliens were just his attempt to think of something that would add a new dimension to the conflict. I don't think repetition is entirely bad (after all, there'll be players who miss the experience the first time around), but I wouldn't mind exploring an extra dimension. So for me, the "aliens" would have to represent some new kind of war- maybe the Great Houses competing for control of the newfound aliens, or fighting each other by proxy; asking "what happened to the alien civilizations that should exist" is a fantastic story/concept seed, so considering the Tetatae as my prime suspect feels a bit like a cheat.

    From a more general viewpoint, the Star League contained 2500 inhabited systems in the Inner Sphere and another thousand or so in the Periphery, averaging two inhabited worlds per inhabited system, plus various uninhabited worlds; that's more than 7000 planets to estimate how far life evolves & how often. I figure that if the Star League didn't expect to encounter intelligent alien life, then there probably *isn't* any nearby. ...not that I know whether the Star League expected to find any or not, or how well their explorer service reports survived the Fall of the Star League.

  9. Skiltao: Brilliant post, couldn't have said it better myself. It really clarified the arguments down to the nitty-gritty level. However, 2500 star systems and 7000 planets, while a large sounding figure, is still very small when compared to the size of our galaxy.

    The Tetatae as the devolved remains of a once great star faring culture, or the remnants of the survivors who survived the attack of the "others' out there in the deep black.

    Perhaps the "others" evolved out of this existence, just leaving the cavemen (us) to fight in the darkness. Battletech could be a background for all of this, and still have giant stompy robots.