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.


  1. I like the idea of sub-optimal designs that reflect designs by committee, supply irregularities, and unit worth in contexts other than the game.

    It supports my theory that Battletech is a product line about the strict canon of an imaginary universe, supported by the exceptional engagement offered by a system which falls into the uncanny valley of fun game design, the "but I can change him" boyfriend of tabletop systems.

    1. Very much agree about how engaging the construction system can be. Of course, people don't engage in the same ways and there's a challenge in bridging them (e.g., making 'design by committee' or 'supply irregularities' more tangible) without disengaging them.

      But BT product line is "about the strict canon?" Ehhh... all things considered, the "strict" (hah) canon seems just another way to engage/retain the online community in the "but I can change him" uncanny valley of fact-check and feedback.

      ...granted, I may be misreading what you meant by "about" or "strict canon."

  2. I've come to the conclusion that BattleTech is an RPG combat system, and any connection it has to being a wargame is purely incidental.

    1. Ooh, yus. Your AC must be packing Hammer Rounds, 'cause you hit that nail on the head.

    2. Very much agree.

      In fact, I'm seeing a lot of parallels between what stats are used to run a mercenary unit and what stats are needed to play an individual MechWarrior.

      When you say "wargame," do you mean both mass miniatures and skirmish gaming?