Tabletop: ATOW vs. MW3 – a comparison as we prepare our campaign

So my spouse rolled up a character earlier this week – literally rolled a character, since she likes the Mechwarrior 3e life paths and wanted to use them to make a character for our 4th edition campaign (the rulesets are close enough to be essentially compatible). She settled on a Clan Nova Cat technician. After comparing the end result, she decided it’d be better to switch to the new rules and remake her character.

The process provided a valuable look at the differences between MW3 and A Time of War. Most of the changes in the new edition came in the form of skills. The skill list was streamlined significantly from MW3 (though it’s still more expansive than MW2); of particular note is that multitier skills from MW3 like Gunnery/Humanoid/Ballistic have lost one level of complexity (so Gunnery/Battlesuit would cover any type of weapon a battlesuit mounts, for example). In exchange, there’s an option to specialize further, adding a bonus if the situation which calls for the skill uses the specialization you selected and a penalty if you must use the skill for something other than your specialty. To further use Gunnery as an example, you can just stick with Gunnery/Battlesuit, or you can take Gunnery’Battlesuit/Ballistic and get a +1 to hit with your machine gun at a penalty of -1 to hit with your SRM launcher. (Yeah, we’re not combat people, but combat skills make for easy examples.)

Some other simplifications popped up as well: the Academic skill header has been rolled into Interest, meaning that the Interest skills are more of a catchall for arenas of acute knowledge rather than passing fancies – the infamous Interest/Holovids is out of place in a system which encourages your NAIS postgrad to take Interest/Exobiology and Interest/Astrophysics.

MW3 is feast or famine in terms of how many skills are handed out to a starting character. In general, a military character will have half again the number of skills that a civilian character will. The system was quite granular in its differentiation of the skills that one might acquire during military training and service both in terms of combat skills and military disciplines (demolitions, communications, and the like); by contrast, the vast majority of civilian life is covered by the Stage 4 Civilian Job path during character creation, and the skills most civvies will wind up using are Administration, Computers, and Career/Nerf Herder.

ATOW equalizes things somewhat, mostly by stripping Stage 3 of character generation – basically college or military academy – down to a MW2-style interpretation of MW3 and putting some extra oomph into the academic side of things. My ATOW NPCs tend to have more skills than their MW3 counterparts, though pure military characters (like those who start at Mercenary Brat and go on from there) are at a parity with earlier editions. So I’d characterize it like this: ATOW smoothed out the bloat in the skill list and encourages characters to be more rounded. Further, characters seem much more likely to start out with several skills at +2 and a handful at +3, and it’s not hard to push one or two skills into +4. This is a change from the crowd of +0s and +1s in MW3. Skill ranks mean more in ATOW for the simple reason that the system has gone from 2d10 back to 2d6. A +1 has broader impact when the total number of achievable results is reduced.

ATOW is still weighted toward the military character – this is Battletech, after all – but it does give civilians some new options. The very first NPC I made in ATOW as a system test was going to be an investigative reporter. I knew that before I cracked the book open. So I was pleasantly surprised to find that Combat Correspondent was a new module made available to the ATOW player. Which is not to say that there are paths for every character concept now – this is one of the few new options available, actually. Rather, it demonstrated to me that CGL was deliberately refocusing the system to allow for non-military characters and campaigns. That’s something that MW3 promised to do. It’s true that it was a far sight better than MW2 in that regard, but the execution wound up having that unbalanced granularity I spoke about above. Ironically, ATOW is more on-target in this regard even as it converts MW3 rules to mesh better with the Battletech stompy-shooty board game.

Plenty of people on the Battletech forums have complained about how one must be a “master accountant” to handle ATOW‘s chargen system. I’ve got to say, it’s the same process and overall about the same amount of work per character as MW3 – but this is Battletech we’re talking about here. It’s never going to be as straightforward as d20. ATOW also introduces the pure point-buy system, allowing you to simply skip the modules and buy skills and traits as you see fit. This was something that MW3 could easily have done if the curtain had only been pulled back just a little. MW3 had character points and attribute threshholds and chargen skill pluses that have to be converted to in-game skill pluses. ATOW uses an experience pool for everything, which removes a great deal of confusion and allows for more flexibility during chargen. On the GM side, it seems that developing index-card NPCs who are unique but don’t need a full stat spread is a much simpler process in ATOW than MW3.

ATOW is essentially a fix for the proud nails of MW3. If you couldn’t stand the third edition at all, then the fourth edition isn’t going to convert you. But if you carry a torch for what MW3 could have been, I highly encourage you to at least get a PDF copy of ATOW at a cheap 15 bucks. Anyway, the binding on my copy of MW3 started falling apart within a month. That alone made buying a physical copy of ATOW worth it.

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