Monday, December 10, 2012


The fastest ways I've seen to resolve initiative are preplotting (secretly record all unit declarations simultaneously) and the playing card method (each unit acts when its assigned card is drawn).

What I'm going to propose is not as fast.
  1. Before the game, assign point values to all units (say, BV2/100, round up). Multiply all units in the lower valued force by a factor which brings their total even with the higher valued force. Round any unit valued at less than a single point to tenths of a point.
  2. Some units may be required to declare before standard initiative begins. They do so now. If both players have such units, the players alternate as in step 4.
  3. At the beginning of any phase in which initiative matters, each player may designate any enemy units as "exempt" from standard initiative.
  4. Each player secretly records declarations for as many of his own non-exempt units (at least one, assuming he has at least one non-exempt unit) as he wants, and tallies up their point values. Both players reveal and resolve those declarations.
  5. The player whose tally is lowest openly declares actions until his tally exceeds his opponent's. Repeat until all non-exempt units have been declared.
  6. Declare actions for "exempt" units, alternating as in step 4. (Given that players will tend to "exempt" enemies they don't care about, these could be resolved quickly and simultaneously.)

Monday, November 26, 2012

Simple Fantasy Halfbreeds

Progress Quest is a weird and satirical yet very authentic experience. As my Double Wookie Battle-Felon climbed to level 8, I got to looking at the game's racial types. They're really not that far off from what D&D-style games actually do. I've tried before to distill D&D3.X's sub-races into more efficient templates; looking back at that, I now realize that race and alignment can be collapsed directly into the base ability scores.
  • "Elf"-ish ability score = dexterity, agility, foot speed, personal beauty, vision, hearing, affinity for & resistance to musical / mental magic.
  • "Dwarf"-ish ability score = physical health and resilience, sprints, sense of position / direction / elevation / orientation, mechanical engineering / architecture, affinity for & resistance to runic (artifact-based) magic.
  • "Orc"-ish ability score = size, strength, stamina, sense of smell, affinity for & resistance to blood magic.
  • [Elemental] affinity score = terrain-specific survival & peasant skills, discipline, piety, ethereal awareness, affinity for & resistance to pact-based magic. (Choose an element: fire, water, earth, wind, wood, desert/void, light, dark, etc.)
  • "Society" ability score = domestication, class, literacy, common lore, device skills, teamwork, leadership, loyalty, sensing motives, affinity for civilization & technology.
  • "Detachment" ability score = coolness in the face of danger and horror, resistance to plight of others, resistance to magical healing and resurrection. (Also replaces stereotypical Cthulhu-esque insanity stats.)
Balancing the three bloodlines creates a human; raising the highest stat to double the second-highest creates a pure ("double") breed; in between lie all the shades of half-breed; terrain-specific [Elemental] breeds can give way to pure elemental sprites; "society" can indicate "high" or "low" breeds; hobbits, pixies, gnomes and goblins amount to "short" breeds; and any of the various animal-faced races can be emulated by relabeling Elf, Dwarf or Orc to the animal type. Use either your "society" score or the best-shared of the first four stats to try communicating in someone else's language.

"Detachment," "Society," and the ratio between the two offer a more concrete and nuanced view of "alignment" than the standard good-evil / law-chaos layout does. They don't address the character's goals or commitment to the party, but those things can make or break a campaign, and really ought to be hashed out with the group before play begins.

Without complex character builds, where will players turn to flex their stat-wonkery? I think it would be useful to treat lair design & stock scenarios the way character creation has been treated - point builds, random generation, class/level systems, with a few new options or ideas costed out in each splatbook to help sell more splatbooks. Can't hurt to turn player attention to something that's routinely in short supply, and to have your books always trying to address new & different aspects of an encounter.

PS: I prefer how D12s roll to how D20s roll. So, instead of rolling 1D20 against dodge+armor (or whatever action you're taking), roll 2D12 and assign one die result to accuracy and the other to potency.

Monday, November 12, 2012

Notable 'Mechs and MechWarriors

TR:3025 describes the "feats and foibles" of 168 Notable combatants. I think Steve (Centurion13) put it best when he said these sections read like a notation in a real military – they say what the person does, how they do it, and what impact it has on themselves and the people around them.

Besides giving players colorful characters to interact with, these kinds of briefs are essential to establishing a MechWarrior's-eye-view of known space. They form very careful ratios of rank, faction, and perhaps even gender. (Almost 29% of the Notables were women by a quick count, though I didn't record it.)

You can see a more detailed breakdown here.

Half of all Notables have no command rank; one quarter command a lance; one eighth command a company; the remainder spreads more or less evenly across battalion, regiment and ships; only two command more than a regiment; none of the 168 are House, mercenary or bandit leaders; and Natasha Kerensky is as close as they get to the stable of novelized point-of-view characters. 

TR:3025 was written in conjunction with the 1st edition MechWarrior RPG, and the number of 'Mech regiments that the RPG claims for each House is almost exactly three times the number of Notables TR:3025 assigns to that House. The ratios are so exact that I feel confident assigning Hap Carsburg (Dervish) to the Lyrans, Charles LaPierre (Ostsol) and Timothy O'Neil (Grasshopper) to the Capellans, and it's all but certain that there are 102 mercenary 'Mech regiments in known space in 3025.

I think future TROs would do well to follow the halving pattern for rank and to apportion factions according to the forces those factions actually field. (It'd also be good to have a sprinkling muster out, be drummed out, desert, defect, or otherwise change factions.)

It looks like the authors of TR:3025 wrote maybe half as many Notables to start and then did a second pass to even the ratios out. However, since BattleTech revolves around MechWarriors, the number of MechWarrior Notables per regiment is the best measure of factional bias. Not only do Steiner, Davion, and Mercenaries have disproportionately more MechWarriors than other Notables, but "slightly more than half" of Davion's 110 regiments are mercenaries, as are about one third of Steiner's. This exaggerates their existing bias and leaves few merc regiments to the other four factions.

(Considering this Davion/Steiner/Mercenary bias, the "students of history" and "Successor Lords" comments from the introduction, the "Comstar officials" comment from the HCT entry, the alleged Davion agent in the OSR entry, how designations for Kapteyn-exclusive designs (ie, their Aerospace fighters) differ from everything else, how the back cover quotes the New Avalon Herald, and how FASA had not yet begun using ComStar as their default neutral point of view: TR:3025 was most likely written either for academic (non-military) studies within the NAIS or by someone outside the Davion hierarchy as a guide for FedSuns-aligned mercenaries.)

Of the 168 Notables, a whopping 48 mention the condition of their machine. Twenty (12%) are in mint, best, or perfect condition. Twenty-eight (17%) are battered, scarred or understrength. (Notable Davion machines tend towards good condition. Steiner and Marik split more evenly.) Conversely, only thirteen (8%) of the 168 mention which variant they are. Of those thirteen, three (SDR, CPLT, WHM) specify the stock variant; three (WHM, VTR, BNC) specify an established variant; four (OSR, CP, Leopard, Overlord) modify their communications or electronics; and two (QKD, WSP LAM) have special armor.

Out of the whole book, only one Notable machine and combatant (HBK Shawn Philips) has unique game stats - and that was a rare ground-up assembly of a design already known to have a large class of undocumented variants. The universe is altogether more interested in the long lasting, preexisting damage to a given machine, and individual pilots are overwhelmingly more likely to restore a design than they are to alter it. What modifications they do make tend to fall outside the formalized rules or scales of play.


Two of TR:3025's Notable MechWarriors are notably dead. Since they are both on the same page (JN7) and one of them is really about the guy's present-day descendant anyways, I believe that page is an aberration. Historical figures (Aleksandr Kerensky, Ian Davion, etc.) belong to Battle History.

All 166 other Notable combatants are still live and active in the field. Sure, Maria Gutierrez (F-90) spends most of her time behind a desk, Sealth (ZEU) wants to retire, and a host of others have almost run out of luck. But their fates haven't been decided yet - that's up to the player. Cadre duty (including many of the highest ranked Notables) and bionic limbs seem to be as close as death and retirement can get before the person is no longer worth mentioning. (Mentioning in a TRO, anyhow. Feel free to discreetly finish one or two as Easter Eggs in scenario books or novels.)

The Repair Facility, MASH, Coolant Truck and Boomerang Spotter Plane (quite sensibly) have no Notable combatants. The J-27, Mobile HQ and Swift Wind note crew mainly for the continuously exceptional risks they take.

The Rommel/Patton also has no Notable combatants, but its "Notes" section addresses all the points that Battle History, Variants and Notable Crew normally would. I'm not sure if that reflects the early stage of the tanks' development or an early stage of TR:3025's real world development.

Finally, I'd like to say that I really like how, instead of using generic ranks all the time or using confusing factional ranks all the time, the TR3063 fanbook compromised by putting factional ranks in the bold header and using generic ranks in its actual writing.

Sunday, November 4, 2012

Play a Short Battalion as Easily as a Lance

Provided that you're not too keen on 1:1 accuracy with the fictional setting, there is a very simple way to preserve the "feel" of BattleTech while fielding seven times as many miniatures:

Assign each location on regular 'Mech sheets to a separate figure.

Ignoring the head, this turns a lance into four squads of seven (twenty-eight figures total), and uses basically all the same rules as regular BattleTech. No need to roll on the hit location table, obviously, since each figure will target other figures individually; jump jets apply only to whichever figure has 'em on its crit table; heat is shared across all units in the squad; use 60-degree firing arcs, no rotation, for all figures; critical hits largely the same, except shoulder/hip crits immobilize the corresponding figure; figures occupy the entirety of whichever hex they're in, and can block LOS; ammo explosions apply full damage to the hex they're in, then apply half the excess to adjacent hexes; limbs mass 10% of the "full" 'Mech's mass and torsos mass 20%; physical attacks and weapons attacks are handled in the same phase, since each figure can only do one or the other anyways; each figure can do whatever physical attacks the location could normally, except that torso locations do 1/3rd normal charging damage.

  1. Instead of making a second roll to check for critical hits, treat a roll of doubles on any appropriate To-Hit roll as a single successful crit.
  2. A squad deactivates when its "Center" is destroyed.
  3. Jump MP replaces ground MP 1:1 instead of being a separate movement mode.
  4. "Leg" figures can move anywhere they could normally; torsos can only move towards "legs," and cannot move beyond legs; arms must also move towards legs but can also continue beyond them.
  5. Split-location equipment (ammo, autocannon spillover crits, Artemis, etc) is removed from its current location and considered to be mounted outside the armor on the rear hexside of whichever figure carries the primary/bulk of the associated weapon.
  6. Legs get zero free facing changes; torsos get one free facing change; arms get two free facing changes.
  7. Figures (for purpose of city fighting or physical attack damage) determine their mass by summing all equipment and armor and structure etc. in the location. Assume split-location equipment spreads mass evenly across all crits, and that the engine puts 1/3rd of its mass in the center torso and splits the remaining 2/3rd between the legs.
  8. The "Center" figure absorbs the head location's armor & structure and weapons, but ignores pilot effects. 
  9. Instead of the "short/medium/long" "+0/+2/+4" brackets & modifiers applying to the range between shooter and target, assume all weapons are always in range, and apply them instead to the target's movement in place of the standard Target Movement Modifier table. Green pilots subtract one hex from their effective movement for this purpose; veteran pilots add one. 

Edit, November 16, 2012:
  • Alternate to variations 2 & 4: the center must remain within (Flank MP) hexes of at least one leg; each side torso must remain within (Flank MP) hexes of the center (or the hex the center was destroyed in); each arm must remain within (Flank MP) hexes of the associated side torso (or the hex the side was destroyed in).
  • Alternate to variation 8: each item in the head gets assigned to different non-center location; when a non-center location is destroyed, the whole team suffers effects as though the corresponding head item had suffered a critical hit.

Sunday, October 28, 2012

How to TRO - words per page

It's about time I got back to looking at TROs, and I think I'll start off easy. Just a couple graphs for you today.

The "wordcounts" are artificially smooth curves based on the linecounts from my earlier spreadsheet. The pie graphs represent the average portion of a writeup devoted to each section (which also means they represent the total portion of each book devoted to each section).

I estimated wordcounts for the "Hypothetical 750-word Page" in two different ways, which produced two sets of wordcounts, which I then treated as a single combined sample.The first method was to adjust each page to 750 words individually. The second was to sum how much of all sections on all pages exceeded the median, and apply a single multiplier en masse to reach an average of 750 words per page.

Still trying to figure out a clean way to display words per each Notable, words per each Variant, Notables per page and Variants per page in that same space - it would amuse me to make everything fit on a single 3x5 notecard.

Thursday, September 27, 2012

Weird thing about the chance one roll has to beat another:

A while ago, EastwoodDC posted a spreadsheet for calculating the chance of rolling any given result on a number of whatever sized dice. I started looking at the chances one roll had to beat another and I noticed something weird.
When rolling 1d6 against 2d6, the chance that they'll tie is equal to the chance of rolling exactly 7 on 3d6, and the chance that 1d6 will beat 2d6 is equal to the chance of rolling 6 or less on 3d6.
When rolling 2d6 against 3d6, the chance that they'll tie is equal to the chance of rolling exactly 14 on 5d6, and the chance that 2d6 will beat 3d6 is equal to the chance of rolling 13 or less on 5d6.

When rolling 3d6 against 4d6, the chance that they'll tie is equal to the chance of rolling exactly 21 on 7d6, and the chance that 3d6 will beat 4d6 is equal to the chance of rolling 20 or less on 7d6.
So I'm pretty sure that, anytime you roll Nd6 against (N+1)d6, the chance they'll tie is equal to the chance of rolling N*7 on (N+N+1)d6 and the chance that Nd6 will win is equal to the chance of rolling (N*7)-1 or less on (N+N+1)d6.

Messed around a little more, and it looks like 1d6 ties 3d6 as often as 4d6 will roll exactly 7; 1d6 beats 3d6 as often as 4d6 rolls 6 or less; 2d6 ties 4d6 as often as 6d6 will roll exactly 14; and 2d6 beats 4d6 as often as 6d6 rolls 13 or less. So I expect that, when rolling Nd6 against (N+2)d6, they'll tie as often as (N+N+2)d6 rolls exactly N*7, and that Nd6 will beat (N+2) as often as (N+N+2) rolls (N*7)-1 or less.

Wait. Those look the same. Can I just follow this pattern for any number of d6?
Nd6 ties (N+M)d6 as often as (N+N+M)d6 rolls exactly (7*N).
Nd6 beats (N+M)d6 as often as (N+N+M)d6 rolls (7*N)-1 or less.
And then, since the "7" there is a result of the average outcome of a single d6, can I extend it to other sizes of dice?
NdD ties (N+M)dD as often as (N+N+M)dD rolls exactly ((D+1)*N).
NdD beats (N+M)dD as often as (N+N+M)dD rolls ((D+1)*N)-1 or less.
Seriously just guessing at this point (could probably figure it out by hand with more spreadsheets, or by pure math from Pascal's Triangle) but I think this is going to work.

EDIT: VanVelding has tackled the math for this here and here.
EDIT 2: and here.

Sunday, September 23, 2012

Final thoughts on TRO:3063

I was going to write more about TROs, but I don't have my notes together yet, so... TRO:3063!

It was initially released back around August 25th with the final version posted on September 9th. You can download it from The BattleTech Reader, OurBattleTech, BattleTechUniverse, Lords of the Battlefield, or the BattleTech Engineer. If you are considering a similar project, I highly recommend you look at the advice in Steve's 'Lessons Learned' document. Much of it applies to non-BattleTech, non-book projects as well.

There's already been some discussion of the TRO and the reception has been overwhelmingly positive. It matches, and in some ways exceeds, the quality of the current official TROs -- if I knew nothing about BattleTech, I don't know if I could tell the difference between it and Catalyst's books. (Granted, it was produced as a leisure activity over five years; Catalyst does not have that freedom.)

Looking at it now in retrospect:

Many readers seem curious about why the book covers the units it does or why they're built the way they are. (Power level, prevalence of SPLs & AMS, lack of infantry/spaceships/Clans, etc.) The reasons have been touched on in a few places, but for a book like this, it would be helpful to have a foreword explain more completely what the writers hoped to achieve and some of the thinking behind their decisions.

TR:3058, TR:3060 and TR:3067 show an overwhelming trend towards putting fusion and XL engines on new and upgraded vehicles. (The Tokugawa and Schiltron, for example.) I don't know that it was intentional, but TRO 3063 fits that trend quite well.

The manufacturing dates published by Catalyst (TechManual, Tactical Operations and so on) haven't been accurate enough for me to take them as Gospel, so me and Steve talked about how far R&D might've gotten by 3063. I suppose in-universe editorial comments [set off in square brackets, the way TR:2750 does] could have covered those weapons from a 3070s point of view.

I miss the Heavy PPCs. Not for the PPC itself, but for what having a heavy main gun forces you to do with the rest of your armament. It's more elegant. Less jumbled to read and fewer weapons to roll during play. (On the whole, the designs in this book are probably a little too optimized for my taste, but not moreso than what I remember of Catalyst's trends for the period.)

It's so hard to tell what's changed since I did my editing pass because I reviewed most entries only once, looked mostly for just the biggest issues, and tried to preserve/highlight (instead of replace) the original intent. (If you see a spot with too many three-clause sentences, or where paragraphs are all weirdly equal lengths, that's probably me.) And I really need to thank the other editor(s?) for going through entries after/before I'd gotten to 'em. But man, I'm scrolling through the book, and I know Steve's changed stuff, but it's so hard to pick out. I've only got two so far: looks like he overruled my cuts to the Feng-Niao, and I think he took a couple SPLs off the Sabra.

Saturday, August 18, 2012

Mini Campaign System

Some of these rules will look specific to BattleTech (because I'm trying to manipulate 'Mech stats into matching the fluff better), but the basic structure could probably be adapted to other game universes.

Before choosing forces you'll need to calculate three or four values for every 'Mech that will be available to the players:
Production Cost = [(cruising speed)*(armor points)+(jump MP)*(armor mass)/(mass of individual jet)+(heat dissipation)*(maximum possible heat)+(weapon and equipment BV)]/10
Ready Maintenance = 3*(number of weapons, equipment, jump jets and excess actuators) + 2*(maximum possible heat)
Active Maintenance = 1.33*(armor mass)^2/(engine mass)
Repair Cost = (C-Bill price)/100,000
These values are permanent traits of a given design and do not change during play. They're scaled so that a typical 2866-3050AD 'Mech battalion costs 3600 production points and is able to ready 90% of its force, deploy 67% an average distance, repair 22%, and replace 3% every turn.

At the beginning of every turn the players generate 3 objectives. Each objective has a random value and sits a random equidistance from both players. Roll 2d6 for each objective to determine distance, and roll 2d6*20 to determine their values.

There are two ways to play this:
Bean Counting Way: At the beginning of each turn, players add 3600 points (assuming that's how many they bought forces with initially) to their unused points from the previous turn. They must pay the "ready" cost for every unit they wish to use this turn. They must also pay an amount equal to the "distance" roll x "active" cost for every unit assigned to a scout force or a main force. Units which were inactive all turn can be repaired at the end of the turn. New units can be purchased for 8x their "Production" cost.
Fast Way: Before play begins, subtract the sum of each force's "active" costs from half the sum of its "production" cost; record the difference on a token. The force receives this many bonus points each turn (or, if negative, must pay that many points each turn). Use the 2d6*20 roll to determine the equidistance to each objective: if it comes up doubles, then players must pay 2x "active" cost to assign a unit to a scout force or main force; otherwise, pay 1x "active" cost. Deactivating an undeployed unit generates points equal to its "ready" cost. Units that were neither deactivated nor deployed get repaired for free at the end of turn. "Objective" points must be spent to purchase new units (at 1x "production" cost) the same turn they are won.
Now, roll 1d6 to determine the type of objective:
1-2 Stand Up Fight (whoever destroys the most units (powered down units count half) in 10 turns)
3-4 Territory (whoever has the most hexes closer to his ground units than to opposing ground units at the end of turn 10)
5-6 Grab (divide points into 4 equal lots on the middle of the board: any 'mech can carry points (on its back) equal to its tonnage, but if it doesn't have hands another 'mech would have to put them there; weapons fire destroys 1 point per point of damage) 
Once the objectives have been generated, both players secretly assign their units to any of three roles (scout, main body, rear guard) at any of the three objectives. The objectives are then resolved in any order the players choose. Resolve one site entirely before moving on to the next.

Any unit that exits off a neutral map edge is considered to have powered down or fled (as appropriate). 


Determine maps randomly, then lay them single file, narrow end to narrow end. Both players reveal their scout detachment. The force with higher average speed gets to choose its home edge. Disregard any units still on the board after 10 rounds.

If scouts advance off the opposing edge, sum their Cruising MP (plus the range of any Active Probes, plus 1 for every .25 tons of "sensors"). The opposing player then matches that total by revealing Main Body units and summing their Cruising MP (plus the range of any ECMs on the revealed units). The "EW Suite" on a revealed RVN-1X counts as 4 points of Scout probe (even when deployed with the Main Body) and 6 points of Main Body ECM (even when deployed as a Scout). If the opposing player runs out of Main Body units, begin revealing Rear Guard. If the opposing player has no Main Body or Rear Guard, then the Scouts win the Objective.

For each 2.5 tons of communication gear that advances off the opposing edge, the player may ask one yes/no question about the opponent's Main Body or Rear Guard.

Any scouts that retreat off a friendly edge join the Main Body action, but do not count as "revealed" units or contribute to the Main Body's average speed.

Main Body

After scouts finish revealing units, both players secretly decide which of their unrevealed units they want to commit to the Main Body, which they want to send after the enemy's Rear Guard and which they want to send back to their own Rear Guard (units assigned to Rear Guard do not have to pay the "active" maintenance cost). Both players then reveal all Main Body units and any Rear Guard units (like artillery or Mobile HQs) that affect the Main Body engagement.

For each 2.5 tons of communication gear a player has in the Scout force or Rear Guard, the player may choose a single mapsheet. Determine the other mapsheets randomly. The Main Body with higher average speed gets to choose its home edge. Resolve the Objective as described earlier.

If a player sent Main Body units after the opponent's Rear Guard, then lay out a second map for that battle. The Rear Guard player chooses all mapsheets, reveals all forces, and deploys on the map. The attacking player chooses home edge. Play this battle simultaneous with the Main Body battle but do not end until one side or the other has surrendered or withdrawn from the Rear Guard maps.

If a player wins the Objective or advances units off the opposing map edge, then that player may choose to pursue any defeated or retreating opposing forces.

Rear Guard

Lay the maps single file, narrow end to narrow end. If the fleeing player already laid out a second map for the Main Body battle, then use those maps; the victorious survivors of that secondary battle chooses home edge and deploys their surviving forces opposite the pursuing player's home edge. If the defending Rear Guard has not yet been attacked, then that player chooses all maps and home edges and deploys the Rear Guard on the board (unrevealed units originally assigned to Rear Guard may deploy as Hidden Units). Otherwise, determine mapsheets randomly, and the force with higher average speed chooses home edges.

Fleeing units enter from the pursuing player's home edge. Pursuing units enter from the same edge on the following turn. The battle ends after ten turns (if not earlier).

Base Defense

To attack your opponent's resources directly, assign units to Scout, Main Body and Rear Guard like a normal objective. Then:
Bean Counting Way: travel the highest distance rolled for this turn x2 to destroy/steal points or inactive units worth 5x the total Cruising MP of your Main Body.
Fast Way: travel the highest distance rolled for this turn +2 to destroy/steal inactive units worth 5x the total Cruising MP of your Main Body.
Your opponent can assign "Base Defense" forces to Scout, Main Body and Rear Guard as well; however, the defender can reinforce the "Base Defense" Main Body by calling back Rear Guards assigned to other objectives. To do this, the Rear Guard unit cannot have been involved in a battle, and must pay the "distance * active maintenance" cost for whichever objective they were originally assigned to. (The Defender can also pay to "ready" otherwise unassigned units.)


Obviously my equations at the top there are aimed at 2866-3050 play, but higher tech shouldn't be too hard. Do maybe 6000 point battalions for the century before and after; count CASE as the equivalent mass of standard armor; make Gauss weapons add their damage to both heat and heat dissipation counts; I'm not sure how to account for gyro or cockpit variants. 

Could add forward bases to shorten travel distances and to avoid keeping your eggs (points) in one basket, or have your resource points travel with the units themselves. Another thing I considered was that any resource points that didn't get used by the end of a turn would move themselves 1d6 distance towards the opposing player, and would require their own set of "Base Defense."

It'd be easy enough to reflect the quality of the battalion's technicians, or their relationship with House quartermasters, by giving the player more or less resource points than were used for purchasing the initial force.

Raising the value of the Objectives, or lowering the price of replacement 'Mechs, would encourage more decisive battles (and fewer retreats).

[Edit, August 24: I've changed the "Ready Maintenance" equation so that LRM-5 boating no longer breaks even.]

Thursday, August 2, 2012

Campaign for Characterful Efficiency

Some people say that writing flawed and inefficient designs is more fluffy, colorful, interesting or fun (I occasionally see it expressed as "canonical designs are required to suck"), but that's not automatically true. Machines can make good use of their weight while still having a lot of character.

efficient and characterful

Regardless of how flawed or how perfect a vehicle is, much of its character comes from things like actuator placement, armor distribution, armament, weapon placement, firing patterns and game balance. These things establish a consistent and non-arbitrary aesthetic which prevents designs from seeming arbitrary and soulless.

Now, many fans define "good" design as making efficient use of tonnage. And it makes sense to judge designs by their mass - mass is central to construction and customization, Technical Readouts are organized by mass, campaign supplies can be limited by mass, and RPG characters have some control over the mass of their assigned vehicles. Other fans define "good" design as making efficient use of C-Bills. And that makes sense too - C-Bill expenses are central to mercenary campaigning.

But for game design and world design none of that makes sense.

To balance a game you balance the actual gameplay stats - the original designers knew what they were doing when they balanced the old classic 'Mechs against each other instead of against their tonnage. They even wrote this attitude into the in-universe worldview. In most places it's subtle but, notably, TR:3025's writeups divide 'Mechs mostly by armor class instead of by weight class: fast scouts 3-4.5 tons; light support 5-6.5 tons; mediums 7-9.5 tons; heavies 10-12 tons; assaults 13+ tons. Or consider the CDA-2A Cicada, JM6-S JagerMech, CGR-1A1 Charger, BNC-3E Banshee and CP-10-Z Cyclops. They all cost a lot of tonnage and C-Bills for what they do. Yet TR:3025 condemns only the Charger and the Banshee, and it only condemns them for being under-armed. What sets those two apart from the others? They're underarmed relative to their armor. Not just their mass.

The BattleTech universe was designed to make vehicle mass and sale price essentially irrelevant at the faction scale - the Great Houses are very limited in their ability to change the raw materials, industry and expertise available to any given facility. So every facility builds whatever it can, as much as it can, and the House is going to install all that tonnage *somewhere*; and how much effort the Houses put into producing an item, and how much their manufacturers profit from building it, appears to be many times greater than the item's sale price. So yeah, there is a cost and difficulty to producing any given design, which can make that design look more or less plausible as part of a faction's army, but tonnage and C-Bills are a very small and indirect part of that.

Don't get me wrong. I do think it would have been nice if the construction rules had been balanced a little more carefully. (Doubling the mass required for heatsinks, armor and gauss weapons would be a good first step.)

The real issue, as I see it, is that standard play will never (and was never meant to) reflect the long-term benefits of certain design decisions. So I was thinking about the "Operational Game" from the old Tactical Handbook, and about how cards in the CCG have variable Resource costs, and I think I can create a mini-campaign system which gives "wasteful" designs the advantages that they're supposed to have.

Next time: The Campaign system.

Wednesday, April 4, 2012

Editing TR:3063

Technical Readout:3063 is an outstanding not-for-profit fanbook being put together by Steve Satak (Centurion13) and Bill Burt (Sounguru). Their goal was to create a set of vehicles which are not only compatible with the canonical universe (the book is meant to fill the seven year gap between TR:3060 and TR:3067) but also pull their weight better in-game than more "characterfully" flawed official designs do. 

The book doesn't skimp on art, either

In June of '09 I helped revise the chapter introductions, for which Steve was kind enough to give me a writing credit. Now, I don't edit for a living and I don't know how my work compares to (say) editors at Penguin or McGraw-Hill, but I did try to hold the book to a professional standard. Steve appreciated this and so, from August of 2010 to October of 2011, I gave each TRO entry a good once-over.

This meant shuffling content around to get it under the correct headers, cutting redundant or vacuous text, slimming "Notable Crews" down to size, replacing slang and colloquialisms, fact checking, massaging the text for rhythm and flow, and finally returning it to Steve and his co-writer, Geoff, to insert new material as needed.

EDIT: We were using the "compare" and "merge" features of MS Word (Steve) and Open Office (me) to integrate changes, and it now looks like a good portion of my work did not actually carry forward into the final "merged" documents. 

C'est la vie.

Since the book is nearing completion, I wanted to share some of my tools & resources:

How to Write Fluff
My old guide (I recall somebody, I believe Welshman or Paul, crediting Cray with supplying a similar outline to Catalyst's writers) and other notes from my 2007 review of TR:3025. That book averages 200 more words per entry than Steve's book does, so I'm pretty sure I reduced the following maximums (though not the minimums) by 25% before applying them to TR:3063.
59-227 overview
126-496 capabilities
109-571 battle history
 17-252 variants
 50-311 notable pilots (34-151 each pilot)
My new favorite website. Ever get that single, perfect word stuck on the tip of your tongue? Nine times out of ten, this site helped me track from wrong (though related) words to the one I actually wanted.
The Inner Sphere Atlas is probably the one site I used most (usually to check planetary history or to look for manufacturing leads).

The BattleTech Style Guide 
Doesn't have everything you need to know for a TRO, but it's a solid start.

The Sarna BattleTech Wiki
Though generally accurate, their editors & contributors tend to parse things weirdly, so you should corroborate their assumptions/facts/conclusions against another source whenever possible. Luckily for me, most of TR:3063's references went back to the Field Manuals (which I have) instead of the FCCW SB or related novels (which I don't).

Longwalker's BattleTech Archive
I knew the online community maintained stat summaries (I've got a printout from 1990!) but this (fall 2004) was the first time I'd seen TRO fiction online too. The entries looked strangely slice & diced to me, but I saved html copies anyways, which I've been using to check on word usage and brand-name equipment. Longwalker's archive is now defunct, but someone at OBT has discovered it and other interesting sites inside the Internet Wayback Machine.
In 2005 I found Mechground, which was more complete than Longwalker's site but displays each entry as an image instead of as searchable text. I have software (ACDsee) that allows a mouse wheel to page through image files, which I find more convenient than navigating inside a pdf, but my copies seem to be deteriorating (my Quickdraw is mostly unreadable now). I'll probably create my own replacements sooner or later.

Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Obstacles to Designing This Blog

I have been using xanga for my blogging (I dislike how it displays my archives) and my browser's "open all in tabs" bookmark function to check other blogs for updates -- Blogspot gadgets handle these things much better. So I'm trying to design a blog here, but I've hit some problems, and blogger's help guides are shockingly unhelpful.

  1. The sidebars waste so much space with their giant margins. I zeroed out every value that the "edit HTML" page let me zero out and the margin still didn't go away. The sidebar text is so stupidly cramped! I can't sacrifice one column to give the other room because I need both the "Blog List" and "Archive" to be visible without scrolling.
  2. Need a color scheme, once I figure out where all the page elements are hidden.
  3. Need to find how the "Recent Comments" gadget limits the size of each snippet, and splice that code into the "Blogs List" gadget.
  4. Need to find a version of the twitter gadgets that (like the "Blogs List" gadget) compiles tweets from several different twitter feeds, and then figure out where I can put it that has enough room. An extra column running off the right side of the screen, maybe.
  5. The mandatory "Attribution" is superfluous. (Hell, it even duplicates a link from the toolbar up top.) Since users can't drag-and-drop rows and columns like they do gadgets, or adjust margins/padding/spacing/shadows on a similar easy diagram (ie, can't create new templates), there simply aren't enough to warrant "Attributions." I've tried moving the gadget somewhere less wasteful, but then a new one spawns and adds extra fields to the foot of the layout.
  6. The default "Profile" gadget has two separate links with the exact same URL, neither of which occupies the box's title ("About User")? Assuming I can uncramp the sidebar, definitely sticking my bio inside a simple text box instead.
  7. The point of the "Followers" gadget is to help people who like your blog find other people who like your blog? Blogger keeps telling me that it adds to my "Reading list," but half the reason I'm trying Blogspot at all is to track people's updates from my public front page.
  8. Why can't I "configure blog posts" to have the hour (or other mobile items) alongside the date (or other immobile items)? How come "Day, Month Date, Year" is listed twice -- shouldn't one entry reverse the order?
  9. The editor has options and effects I can't get to or see without posting at least one entry.
If I do adopt Blogspot, I am really going to miss the ability to indent text inside a post.