In praise of original Battletech and parsimonious rewards
See, the arrival of the clans was the first time I realised that power creep and complexity could spoil my fun.
I got clued into Battletech about a year before the return of the clans was released and before FASA’s canon story cranked into gear (which powered a series of further releases in several different media and made me all excited about the possibilities for being a writer/designer of an entire game line, like the Tolkien of a new creative world explored originally through play etc etc.). So I just about had time to get confident with the game before it changed forever.
And immediately I could see that the change was a double-edged sword.
On one hand, it was wildly exciting – all the new stuff to geek out about, the potential for a massive player league actually writing history in real-time on tables around the world, which would be published and would update everyone’s game. This was before the internet: the idea that your game could affect someone else’s a continent away? Wild.
On the other hand, Battletech worked. And it taught me a bunch of lessons that are now OSR mainstays. It was a nice little game you could teach and play in a day – complex but not unmanageable. And it was pleasingly incomplete, which meant you could make it work your way. It encouraged tinkering and the setting encouraged the same kind of tinkering, so you could kinda roleplay as you tinkered. That’s a feature I’ve long dreamed to getting into a game design, BTW. And I’ve never managed it as elegantly as Battletech.
For instance: the original low-cost Locust was, like many pieces of Vietnam-era military design, clearly conceived for a very specific mission and partly crippled for any wider application. “What use is such a tiny mech?” you could hear Kerensky scoffing. “Perhaps against infantry. Give it machine guns and send it to quiet street riots and it won’t be a total waste.” No. The rules allowed you to take out the MGs and give it 3 medium lasers. Suddenly its high speed plus reasonable punch made it an effective weapon and my favourite toy.
And the whole system was delightfully balanced, elegant and well-considered. Its parts fit together seamlessly. You could design your own mechs and they would delightfully be just a bit more effective than the ones in the original book but there was no killer combo that rendered all others obsolete. Heat, damage, movement, armour, cooked together just right for maximum tactical pleasure. And the people I played with got that, too, and it encouraged a certain refinement in their design sense. I got kudos for realizing the potential of the Locust within the design system. When I suggested it could be made even better with the addition of a new element – a sticky mine, weighing 1 ton, that you could apply to an enemy by ramming them, and which would do ludicrous damage – they wisely noted that such a weapon would destroy the balance, making the whole game about sticky mines.
Also, back in original edition 3025, mechs were in short supply and getting shorter. Battlefield salvage was the main treasure in our campaigns – “limb blown off” was like level drain – you would have to fight hard to get a compatible weapon to replace whatever you’d lost.
The changes the Clans supplements made were just enough to ruin this balance – and they were accepted because they were published by the designers. Some weapons were upgraded and symmetry was lost. Worse, the Clans changed the ecology: salvage and scarcity gave way to a market and plain old bookkeeping. We tried playing it the new way, and then we didn’t play Battletech any more. Somehow the existence of this new canonical path, and our unwillingness to follow it, sent us off to play something else rather than continuing with the older rules. So far, so OSR – we all know the chorus to this one. That’s not my point here.
My point is that Battletech taught me one more thing, as I turned to other games. I missed the delight of finding a PPC to replace that large laser I’d lost and having to make sacrifices to get it to fit – sacrifices that made me question the decisions I was making. I missed the charm of the bad decision, of scarcity, of smaller but more significant rewards. It gave me an idea for a campaign I still haven’t played – although bits of it have been scavenged into Tartary and CCH.
What if, in 3050, the Clans are in worse shape – and hungrier – than the Houses? Instead of plentiful and better parts, they hasten entropy so that complete mechs become great rarities and you come to find those large lasers and missile racks much more commonly on improvised transports or sedentary installations. What if, as you begin your campaign, all you have is a book of blueprints – instructions for building these mythical, ideal things that nobody quite remembers. So then maybe you find a whole engine, rated 275, and your blueprint book tells you it was designed to go in a Wolverine. And now you’d like to find a Wolverine skeleton but all you have is half a Hatchetman frame and a pair of Marauder legs. Do you try to cobble those together or hold out for closer matches and the possibility of a more efficient, more reliable, more by-the-book combination? What kinds of risks are you willing to take, to get the right chassis for your other parts? If you do manage to put something respectable together, can you handle the heat from all those other junkyard generals and collectors and major governments? And when is a lance of working mechs actually a better solution than a couple of turrets, a short length of railtrack and some infantry using a SRM6 like a mortar? When does it actually make sense to take your hard-won mechs into battle, rather than finding any other solution?
…of course, the same principles can be applied to any game. In Warring States China you might be lucky enough to chance across a proper sword – definitely potentially better than your fire-hardened spear, but you have to learn know how to use it, and in the meantime you’re a target for every would-be sword saint and bravo gang leader who wants some high-status steel on their hip to boost their charisma. When I think of running a DnD-like game I most often think of it being a game without adventurers’ markets in town, where basic equipment qualifies as valuable treasure. Plate Mail armour has, on occasion, worked in this role. But there’s something nice about Battletech’s particular setup, where the original designs stand as dreams to be resurrected, and the idea of the Atlas looms over everyone’s neo-medieval radioactive siege engine, mocking your engineer’s paltry efforts.