Tabletop: Retooling Battletech for our A Time of War Campaign

Last time I posted about Battletech, I said that my spouse and I were planning on rearranging the setting to better suit our playstyle. I’ll try to document the process here.

So first I’ll list the reasons why we want to play in the BT setting in the first place:

  • We’re familiar with the BT universe – its politics, its history, its personalities, and its foibles – through about 3060.
  • We’ve played the BT board game and previous editions of the Mechwarrior RPG on several occasions.
  • As a corollary to the above, we associate BT/MW with emotionally uncomplicated fun, something we could stand to have more of in the midst of all the real life messes we’re dealing with at the moment.
  • It’s hard sci-fi with no aliens and therefore more limited in scope than the sweeping vistas of Star Wars or Star Trek.
  • It’s also closer to modern-era systems of social structure, economics, and everyday life than other sci-fi settings – again, less work to prepare and less to hold in our heads.

But there are several factors which make us hesitant to play the setting as it stands:

  • The idea of an entire universe which revolves around armed conflict is an unrealistic backdrop which is deliberately created to support obnoxious, violent male power fantasies.
  • Corollary to the above: Feudalism in Space. It’s pretty explicit that the feudal nature of Battletech society is there to give Mechwarriors an air of knights jousting with autocannon. It’s also the most unstable hierarchical nonsense I’ve ever seen.
  • As cool as big stompy robots are, the idea of ten-meter-tall targets dominating the battlefields and social consciousness of this overly-violent setting, and the pilots achieving some kind of god-like status, is kind of a joke.
  • The Clans are seriously messed up, dude.
  • The scale of thousands of worlds is a little too broad for us.
  • Very little development has gone into everyday life fiction in the setting. Some of the best BT authors have managed to sneak in some excellent slice-of-life moments between the stompy robot action, in particular Victor Milan in his Camacho’s Caballeros novels and Blaine Lee Pardoe in Measure of a Hero and Exodus Road – there are also others who have done great stuff here, too, but I don’t have most of the novels anymore, so I can’t recall. Still, the novels have ‘mechs on the covers for a reason.

So let’s address some of those negative factors.

Note: When I say “negative factors”, I don’t mean that they’re objectively negative or that I consider them wrong. Instead, I’m simply approaching it from an In My Campaign standpoint without passing judgment on the greater context of Battletech.

Really, the root of all of the negative factors save one is that Battletech is a setting predicated on unbroken, rolling periods of wide-scale violent conflict. That’s some stressful stuff! I don’t want to deal with characters who live their lives under the constant threat of war. Even the most well-protected core planets have occasional drama. For the love of Blake, Terra itself was yoinked out of ComStar’s hands. It’s nuts. The normalization of state-endorsed violence in the setting is the sort of thing I have nightmares about.

The justification for all the violence started with the idea of the Succession Wars. See, in the 2700s there was this peaceful Star League, sort of like the UN in space. After a coup shattered the alliance, the leaders of the five primary houses each began vying for the throne (because somehow one of them would totally win and make the others totally recognize their Enormous Right to Rule). They then proceeded to spend the next three centuries hammering themselves into the dark ages until all that was left was a hyper-violent society centered around big stompy robots.

Then, when alliances started forming and things settled down at the end of the Fourth Succession War, the folks at FASA realized they were going to have to put some kind of new plot device into the grinder if they had any hope of selling Battletech to the next generation of players. They shifted the theme from violence centered around the acquisition of limited resources and political prestige to desperate defense against an inexorable enemy. Hence the Clans. I really hate to be openly critical of people whom I respect as designers and writers, but this is the dumbest society in the history of dumb societies, possibly rivaling Dr. Seuss’s Sneetches (both stories contain over-the-top references to caste systems, eugenics, and world-breaking technologies). Take every bad stereotype from Nazi Germany, Soviet Russia, and Roman Rome, then put them in – you guessed it – a hyper-violent society centered around big stompy robots. Name them after animals with funny adjectives on the front and throw in appropriated elements from spiritual traditions of indigenous North American peoples. Lastly, send them on a universal domination bender.

Note the second: I say all this as someone whose first exposure to Battletech was the Mechwarrior 2 video game and its expansions, all of which focused on the Clans. As an idiot teenage dudething I was in love with the Clans. I was also in love with riding a mountain bike off a fifteen-foot cliff into a sandpit full of shattered tree trunks. I have fond memories of that period of my life, but I know better than to think I had a clue about either personal risk management or feasible foundations for a society.

And when the Clans are smashed into bits and integrated into the rest of society, we need another big bad guy to take their place. We get the religious schism that separates the Word of Blake from ComStar and the subsequent Jihad against the entire universe. There’s some Republic of the Sphere junk after that; I haven’t kept up, but I have a feeling it involves lots of angry people in big stompy robots. And on and on it goes.

How do we deal with this mess?

First, let’s cut the roots right out from beneath this violent system. I like the idea of having five major houses and a few minor states on the periphery – keeps all of the politics bite-sized – but we don’t need them constantly at each other’s throats. Why not just let them be satisfied managing their own holds? In fact, let’s make most worlds largely autonomous, with the greater interstellar states serving as administrators and facilitators. The houses can be concerned mostly with keeping resources flowing downhill and with ensuring the overall safety and well-being of the citizenry. There might be cultural rivalry, but it doesn’t have to come in the form of saber-rattling or outright conflict. That takes care of the original in-universe reasons for eternal conflict, i.e. limited resources and political prestige.

Even if we keep the idea of limited communications range – the Battletech hyperpulse generator can send messages up to fifty light years away, and HPG networks use a batching system to disseminate information and missives reliably but slowly – we can dispense with the feudal aspects of house structure. A representative democracy might be too much to ask, but a system modeled on the UK / US method of splitting nations into broad regions, then local districts, then municipalities scales relatively well. And frankly, I don’t mind handwaving some of this since I’d like the campaign to focus on one world in particular rather than be a star-hopping saga.

Without constant conflict, standing armies can be scaled down to small planetary militias. The houses wouldn’t need to organize or transport regiment-sized forces. If pirates threaten periphery worlds, that’s what independent mercenary units are for (and their numbers, too, can be drawn down dramatically).

The overall result? We’re using A Time of War to model a time of relative peace – or at least indifference.

Next time, I’ll detail my secret evil plan: getting rid of Battlemechs. “Sacrilege!” you say. Don’t worry, they’ll be added back into the setting, but hopefully more intelligently. We’re going to keep the Sneetches – er, the Clans, but we’re going to make them a little more believable.

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2 thoughts on “Tabletop: Retooling Battletech for our A Time of War Campaign

  1. Right with you on the Clans, they would have collapsed in on themselves within a generation. The comments above is way I ended up gravitating to the Free Worlds League, as least they pay lip service to planetary autonomy and democracy even in the cannon setting.

    Good luck and look forward to reading more about your rebuild of the setting.

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