Thursday, March 15, 2018

"Secret Project" - BattleTech faction intros

After making this guide for new customers a few years ago, I decided that since I was doing a lot of factional research anyway to figure out manufacturing rates, I may as well create a beginner's guide to BattleTech's factions.

But what are factions even for in BattleTech? They have no gameplay effect; they don't constrain force composition; the product line isn't organized by faction; they aren't being used to organize paint schemes; and they do little for mid-game banter.

I think originally, and at their most basic, the factions exist as a way of communicating the scope of the setting and how games fit within that scope; then, as flavor text is added, they create the illusion of ongoing campaigns for the customer to aspire to. That, then, should be my goal: to give each faction all the trappings of a functional campaign environment, with as many hooks and tools to that end as possible, without assuming any particular rules or scale.

Don't know when or if I'll get around to finishing this, so, here's what I'm picturing:

The first column summarizes the House's most enduring social, political and military distinctions. It's culled mainly from the Housebooks and severely abridged. (No room, for instance, to mention how Federation traders have a reputation for fairness, or how the design of the Federation bureaucracy is meant to give each world a fair share of participation and services.) I got through Davion, Steiner and Liao before getting sidetracked.

The second column describes the major internal and external threats during the reigns of selected House Lords. Births and coronations can be dated, but not death or retirement; we want these plot hooks to feel open-ended. Upheavals (like Thomas' atypical centralization of the FWL, or Katrina honing the LCAF officer corp) are framed by how they position player troops for conflict, not by how they serve the NPC instigator.

This first page has a small, simple faction logo somewhere. Just big enough to be identifiable and to break up the text a little.

The top half of the second page is occupied by a map which shows the extent of the Successor State at its founding; during the Star League; probably (but not necessarily) 3025, 3050, etc; and the furthest extent of any border regardless of year. Minor worlds aren't marked at all, major worlds appear as icons, and as few as possible are actually named.

The bottom half of the second page lists manufacturing rates by era. Ideally, each column doubles as a random table of signature faction equipment (with "heirloom" and "salvage" entries indicating how much to reroll on other columns for a more representative mix). A two letter superscript could indicate which world builds each machine, with a numerical script indicating the year in which production began.

Aren't the official booklets good enough?

Not for a while now, no.

The first three editions of the boxed set are pretty good. Their historical brief is basically an elevator pitch, not even a quarter-page long; each House has less than a quarter page to describe the general strategic situation and any looming internal or external threats; a page and a half of mercenaries and bandits offers plot hooks and shows the limits of House control; and there's another page and a half describing the organization and conduct of an invasion. To get more, you had to look to the RPG.

The fourth edition decided to copy from the RPG - but it copied all the wrong things. Where the RPG focused its history on how the setting works, 4e focused on the big personalities of history; and while RPG players need to know how recent events turned out, the introductory boxed set - theoretically the first BattleTech product a nascent fan would encounter - gains nothing by tying those conflicts off. Why would you present the strategic situation as stable? Why have NPC bios instead of plot hooks? Where's the campaign overview?

The FanPro edition focuses the House briefs single-mindedly on a single aspect of national ideology. Pretty good at establishing a simple jingoistic stereotype for new customers to latch onto. They're more wishful than accurate, though, and bloated even by Catalyst's standards. This edition also doubles the length of its historical chapter by spoiling all the novels. It makes a little more sense now that Roc had stopped selling the novels, but it's the same basic problem as before: why here, and why this way? It doesn't fit the product.

The faction pages on the official website differ little from the fourth edition, and Catalyst's "Inner Sphere at a Glance" history and faction briefs use text identical to FanPro's.

Lest you think I just hate everything: there have been some positive innovations.

The fourth edition added a mini-TRO like you'd see in the video game manuals, which I like. (It's a little careless with facts and context though - the Assassin's ammo, the Cicada's and Cyclops' armor, the Zeus' purpose, and the relative armaments of the Vindicator, Clint and JagerMech.) The FanPro edition cleverly uses maps to break up its long text (a purpose "Inner Sphere at a Glance" seems to forget). "Inner Sphere at a Glance" doesn't bring the campaign overview back, but it does discuss space travel a little, and briefly describes FM:Mercs' mission types. Most recently, although Catalyst's "Primer" doesn't fix any of the outstanding informational issues, it does at least recognize how much bloat there was. It replaces 95% of the text with collages of reasonably good art.

I assume that "Primer" is the version that'll appear in the upcoming boxed sets. If they do try something new instead, then good on Catalyst for trying something new; if they don't, well, that's no knock against them. It's a tall order, and it's not like I've got my version ready to go.


  1. Just thought I'd mention that I am looking forward to seeing just what you end up with on this not so secret project.

  2. Is all that stuff about decentralized control accurate? I got a far more federal feel from the 3050-3070 era stuff I read.

    I was also previously ignorant of Lyran Free Zones. It's impressive how much character is in these states that never makes it to the novels.

    I'm not sure about the sections which include historical parallels. They provide context for the characters of each House, but they feel...the best words I can use are "too familiar with the history to work for a common audience."

    1. The states (most notably Thomas' FWL) take steps to strengthen federal power from the Fourth Succession War onward, but I think the FedCom Civil War and following decades show how little progress was made. I'm inclined to take a perception of *strong* federal control as an artifact of how the fiction uses the spotlight. And yeah, the novels are rarely really interested in the national character.

      The Lyran Free Zones are extra amazing because the author took a single inconspicuous word from the RPG (describing the Lyran worlds as "ruled" instead of "occupied" or whatever) and expanded it into this whole laissez faire cultural thing.

      You're not the first to question the historical comparisons, and I do need to tweak them a little, but I'm using them less for specific context than to impart a sense of historical realism and political differentiation that I think is otherwise absent from the writeups. Is it too much to hope that if "the common audience" wants more detail that they'll look the historical governments up on wikipedia?

    2. Or, to answer the decentralization question another way: yes. It was true in 3025, and civilization's baseline infrastructure has yet to improve to the point it could become untrue. Novels just prefer to watch House leaders and multinational expeditions; only stories centered on coup or sedition bother to look at the politics and leverage involved in getting lesser lords onboard with federal actions/decisions/policy.

      I think the situation compares well with the real world's colonial age, which is another reason I try to match the House governments with real world governments from the 1800s.