While talking to a friend not too long ago, the subject of BattleTech came up and I was reminded of a particular TTRPG book called BattleTech A Time of War. Even though this edition has been surpassed by another book called MechWarrior Destiny, I find the original fascinating. After borrowing a copy, I decided to look and see what it was all about. So, get in the cockpit and count your heat sinks! We’re going it!
BattleTech A Time of War (Published in 2010) is a 382-page TTRPG set in the BattleTech/MechWarrior universe. Players take on the role of anything from the classic MechWarrior, to nearly any other type of idea they can conceive of. This title stands out from its peers as the core design revolves around a cohesion with the table-top wargame of the same name.
Fans of the series will be rewarded with a truly comprehensive section regarding the lore and universe. Truly, the book covers not only the background of the series, but also takes the time to explain some of what life is like in the current BattleTech Universe. There are sections on titles/ranks, clan life and even some sections on what society is like across space. The most robust sections of the core book revolve solely around combat mechanics and character creation (as you will soon find out).
Additionally, the artwork created for this book runs wildly between full color portrait and black and white hand sketches. To be honest the artwork is a little reminiscent of a Shadowrun book, which is not surprising, as both IPs are owned by the same company. Lastly, there is a small novel called the Fires of Hell that punctuates the various sections of the book, and is a nice lore building story to get readers into the universe.
BattleTech is an interesting creature due to the numerous adaptations and expanded lore over the years. Created by the FASA Corporation in 1984, BattleTech has continued to evolve over the years, occasionally changing its name to MechWarrior (this has been going back a fourth for years). People of my generation fondly remember the PC adaptation MechWarrior 2. There have been over a hundred novels, tie in comics, several video games, and a short-lived animated TV series.
For anyone not familiar, the setting of BattleTech is a sci-fi setting that takes place in the 31st/32nd century where humanity has colonized far out beyond our own solar system, eventually culminating in the creation of different factions/societies. One of the greatest weapons of war created during this time was the Battle Mech, a giant, bipedal robot of various designs equipped with heavy weapons and armor. Pilots are known as MechWarriors, and are revered for their battle prowess. Since the lore has expanded so greatly over the years, there are different eras of play that effect not only the factions at play, but also the Battle Mechs available at the time. The Time of War core book acknowledges these different eras thus allowing for a variety of different campaigns.
The core mechanics of BattleTech A Time of War heavily utilizes 2D6 for all roll, which heavily mirrors the rules set of the table-top wargame. The creators of this game wanted to design a TTRPG where you could have a MechWarrior capable of a life outside of the cockpit. Characters are essentially just modifiers to this 2D6 roll. Simply put, you roll, you add (or subtract) and look to beat a certain target threshold. There are some interesting attribute rolls where you can combine two attributes to overcome an obstacle that a skill roll couldn’t cover.
The unfortunate side effect of the mechanics revolves heavily around standard (non-Mech) combat, as it essentially plays out like a micro scale Mech game. This means players must keep meticulous records of a multitude of modifiers (damage types, hit locations, etc.). Such granular accounting will make even the simplest of combat encounters bog down in its own weightiness. One YouTube video I saw (explaining the combat mechanics) of just two NPCs firing pistols at each other in an open field took an incredibly long time to resolve.
Please note that rules for flying a ship, or piloting smaller ground craft are remarkably thin or otherwise absent, as the ultimate goal of the creator was to seamlessly transition between the table-top wargame for most large scale combat, and the TTRPG for anything else.
Few times in my 20+ years of gaming have I ever been so confused by a character creation system. However, BattleTech A Time of War takes the lead in terms of both complexity and granularity. I read over this section multiple times and still required watching a follow up YouTube video where it took the presenter over an hour to explain the process.
There are two methods listed in the book to achieve character creation: Point Buy and Life Modules.
Point Buy, although the more free form of two systems, is easily the less confusing method. Simply put, you have 5,000 experience points to spend across your attributes, skills, and traits. The cost to raise any one of these aspects is dictated by a chart, and a character can gain more points by taking negative traits (like Hindrances in Savage Worlds). The starting age of a character can net more experience at the cost of some potential other negative modifiers (depending on starting age). Simply put, you spend your experience until you have none left! Easy, right?
The Life Module system is another creature all together. I remember the famous saying that the road to hell is paved in good intentions. Now I understand why. Truly, there is something special about a game system that attempts to invest your character into the world (ala Legend of the Five Rings). If done correctly, like in Traveler, Life Modules can pull in new players who may not know what they want and allow them a sense of belonging in an otherwise unfamiliar setting.
Now this would all be fine and good if it worked… which is doesn’t. Let me break it down for you. Players utilizing this Life Modules will choose options/packages in the following categories:
• Affiliation – Where do they come from? Inner sphere, Clan, Periphery, etc.
• Early Childhood – Where did they grow up?
• Late Childhood – What did they do up to about high school age?
• Higher Education (optional) – If they went to school what did they study?
• Real Life (optional) – What did they do out in the real world?
Many of these modules have sub modules within. There are different professional, educational and even affiliation paths that assign players certain XP across attributes, skills and traits. This method could even assign negative traits, such as a hatred for one type of affiliation. Once you have taken account of all of the scattered XP, you are left with a character that is wildly incomplete (about 50%). The next step requires you to complete the following:
• Spend Universal Experience (accounting for some minimal scores in certain attributes and skills)
• Calculate remaining XP
• Spend remaining XP so you have actual levels in your attributes, skills, etc.
• Account for and XP “refunds”
• Calculate any remaining XP from negative traits.
• Age up your character if you need to (for more XP).
• Spend what is XP is left.
• Buy equipment.
The entire process is the equivalent of completing yearly tax returns. Even the video explanation mentioned that there are excel sheets (like Quicken for taxes) that help make this process more bearable. I do not believe him. On the bright side, Life Modules could be repurposed as practice tests for accountants! So, in the end you are finally left with a new character with a just a smattering of additional XP compared to the Point Buy method, and now ready for play!
While investigating this process of character creation I wondered why the creators did not take some inspiration from Shadowrun by utilizing a priorities system of character creation. That method combined with something like D&D 5e backgrounds could have accomplished the same goal in far less time.
So let us talk about the Elephant-Mech in the room
Here is the rub, my lovelies. When I think about this setting, there is no reason to play as anything but a MechWarrior. Every facet of this fictional universe revolves around giant robot fights. Are there two nobles houses resolving a trade dispute? Giant robot fight! Mercenaries looking to occupy a new territory? Giant robot fight! Did your roommate not pay their half of the electric bill? Giant robot fight!
A dear friend of mine compared the setting of BattleTech as Game of Thrones meet Pokémon. The setting contains a backdrop of political intrigue wherein everyone runs around essentially pocketing, fighting with, and collecting giant robots. Also, like Pokémon, there seems only ample reason to battle anyone at a moment’s notice. So why in this setting would you want to play as infantry cannon fodder, a super spy, or a master of diplomacy if the most exciting aspect of this setting will forever be on the giant robot battlefield? The thrill lies in being the MechWarrior, not the mechanic.
Despite what you may think, I really admire the BattleTech setting. There is so much to like!
BattleTech A Time of War encapsulates everything that people love about the setting. It does its homework and attempts to try something new by marrying the mechanics of the war game with that of an RPG. In this way, a player could just as easily “roll” in and out of the cockpit.
On the flipside, the design of the mechanics is also its greatest weakness. Even the smallest combat outside of the Mech is a painstakingly long affair. Additionally, this setting is not a welcoming one to any newcomer. BattleTech is lore heavy, and can easily overwhelm any person not in the know.
Much a like a Mech, BattleTech A Time of War is top-heavy, disproportioned, and unwieldy. If you LOVE BattleTech, especially the table top wargame… this was made for you. In fact I encourage anyone who is interested in tactical combat to try Battletech Alpha Strike, so you can see why this series is so beloved.
For anyone who wants to try a TTRPG setting with a Mech based theme, I recommend either Rifts (Savage Worlds), or Lancer. Additionally, if you want to get the feel of the setting without all of the accounting, there is a wonderful adaptation of BattleTech created by Harebrained Schemes.