Saturday, October 10, 2009

Geocities Redux: excerpts from "BattleDroids Variants"

Introduction

George MacDonald has an armful of credits for the HERO System. Until recently I was unaware of his involvement in Battledroids (and as it would later be called, BattleTech). Mr. MacDonald, along with fellow Hero Games alumnus Steve Peterson, first described in print the technical details of the BattleMech.

The material Mr. MacDonald presents in Space Gamer #75 represents the earliest Battledroids/BattleTech variants I have yet to see in print. To read this article is to go back in time, to an era when a game that would become a phenomenon was still taking form and to a time George Lucas had yet to assume complete domination over the word “droid”.

From an ludo-archeological perspective, it is interesting to note that in his article Mr. MacDonald apparently invented the concept of the torso twist, a key component of later BattleTech play. One difference between the MacDonald “Emergency Turn” and the later official rules is that Mr. MacDonald’s maneuver resulted in a –2 to-hit penalty for all fire. If that was in BattleTech as my group first played it, we didn't realize it.

More important that the historical reasons for preserving this material are the actual gaming benefits. In other words, despite the nearly twenty years since publication, I think some of this stuff looks useable. Emphasis on the “looks”. I have yet to try out either of the ideas excerpted below. If you have played with these variants, or read this page and give either of them a try, please let me know.

Excerpt #1: Ranged Weapons

Battledroids contains only a very few weapons. The list below adds four new weapons: the Auto-Laser, Tank Cannon, Heavy Missile Launcher, and a Medium-Range Racks.

“Auto-Laser: A medium weapon that fires multiple pulses of laser light. For each point that the attacker makes his to-hit roll by, the target takes 2 points of damage. Thus, if an attacker has a to-hit roll of 6+ and rolls a 10, the laser hits at 6, 7, 8, 9, and 10 for 5 hits of 2 points each. Divide the damage into 5-point increments and roll hit location once per set of 5 points.

“Tank Cannon: A relic of a bygone era, the Tank Cannon is a medium recoilless cannon firing a high-explosive shell at high velocity. Tanks in Battledroids have 12 tons for weapons, so a tank could carry 1 cannon, 120 cannon shots, and 2 machine guns, each with 200 shots.

“Heavy Missile Launcher: This is often a shoulder-fired weapon that resembles a giant bazooka. It can fire one shot per turn. It is based on the Long-Range Missile, with a similar guidance system and a scaled-up warhead and propulsion. Because each missile is fired individually, it is aimed better and has a shorter minimum effective range than a Long-Range Missile does.

“Medium Missile Rack: A beefed-up Short-Range Missile Rack, with 33% more range and a 10 rack size. Quite useful for times when a Short-Range Missile is too short and a Long-Range Missile is too long.”

[Click for larger version.]

Notes

I think I prefer the Auto-Laser to the later Pulse Lasers that first appeared in the Technical Read Out 2750, though I don’t see any reason why you couldn’t use both in a game. My gut instinct tells me that Auto-Lasers ought to be deadly at a range of 3 to 4 hexes.

The Tank Cannon puts an AC/5 to shame. For a range penalty of 3 hexes, the Tank Cannon produces equal damage for equal heat, weighs 3 tons less, occupies 2 fewer critical locations, and has 50% better ammo capacity. I can only assume that the Autocannon as presented in Battledroids was significantly different from the one adopted in later editions. With an alteration or two I think you could find some use for the Tank Cannon in BattleTech games. Without editing the Tank Cannon very few mechs would be built with AC/5’s. Imagine, for example, the things you could accomplish with the RFL-3N Rifleman if you had 6 more tons to work with. The effective range reduction seems a paltry penalty under such circumstances.

I think the most obvious solution would be to demand a slower rate of fire from the (non-Auto) Tank Cannon. Perhaps a simple “can only fire every other turn” rule would suffice. Such a change would emasculate the weapon, but it’s specifically labeled “a relic of a bygone era” and the name of the system makes clear that it was intended for tanks and not BattleMechs.

The Heavy Missile Launcher has similar problems as the Tank Cannon, leaving me wondering if maybe LRM packs also worked differently back in the day. The flat 8 points of damage beats out the average amount done by an LRM10 salvo. The Heavy Missile has the same range as an LRM, a shorter min range, weighs the same as an LRM10 but gets 8 more shots per ton. Heck, the 8 points of damage approaches the LRM15’s average damage. Again I wonder what BattleTech player would use an LRM10 if the Heavy Missile Launcher is available and on an equal footing with regard to supply, maintenance, repair, etc. As far as I can tell, by swapping out LRM10s and replacing them with Heavy Missile Launchers you only face 2 minor issues: you lose the ability to do 10 points of damage on a lucky missile hit roll and the Heavy Missile takes up an additional crit location.

Still, I’m not sure how to make the HML a more balanced weapon. Since MacDonald clearly intended for the Heavy Missile to be a Mech weapon system I feel like I can’t chop it down to size like I suggested above for the Tank Cannon. Perhaps the best solution would be to keep the statistics as written but handwave the availability of the Heavy Missile Launcher. “A new development only available to [fill in your favorite faction here]” or “Lost Star League Technology” or something like that.

The Medium Range Missile launchers have a lot going for them. Weight, crit space, and shots per ton are all slightly worse than comparable SRMs. The MRM10 is a kooky little addition to the sequence. The only thing that weirds me out are the MRM heat ratings. For no apparent reason a MRM generates about half as much heat as a similarly sized SRM. Worst of all, the MRM2 causes zero heat build-up. I like the MRMs and want to use them in play, but I think you either have to change the heat curves of these puppies or else go the “special munchkin tech” route like for the Heavy Missile.

Excerpt #2: Additional Heat Build-Up

“The heat buildup inside a droid in combat is one of the major limiting factors in its performance. Battledroids covers the major things a droidwarrior does to cause his own droid to generate heat. But, as any droidwarrior who has taken a Head hit from a Heavy Laser will tell you, enemy weapons fire can also generate significant heat.

“The accompanying chart lists the heat effect of being hit by each of the weapons in Battledroids. Divide the number of points of damage caused by each type of weapon by the listed value; round fractions down. The heat buildup from each attack type is calculated separately from damage.

“Thus a target hit by a Heavy Laser (8 points), 6 Long Range Missiles and a Tank Cannon (11 points), and a Flamer (2 points) would add 2 + 1 + 1 = 4 to its Heat Points that turn.”

[Click for a more legible version.]
Notes

I have two reservations towards implementing these interesting heat rules. First of all, I’m not sure the science would support the idea, especially in the case of lasers and machineguns. Mechs build up heat because they are enclosed machines. I fail to grasp how running a laser light along the hull of one will results in overall heat build-up. Since we’re talking about a giant robot game, I don’t consider that a big issue.

The bigger objection I have is the way that these rules alter the core game concept of heat management. Managing heat buildup has always been one of the most interesting mechanics in the game. One of the reasons heat management continues to fascinate me is the fact that heat buildup is basically self-inflicted. You voluntarily take on the long-term pain of additional heat for the short-term gain of faster movement and more intense weapons fire. Certainly outside forces can effect your heat rating, but the main thrust of the heat rules have always been summarized in questions like “Do I dare screw myself over for the privilege of firing all four of my Rifleman’s lasers on the same turn?” Figuring every single enemy weapon hit into the equation undermines the delicious cruelty of the system as written.

Still, I wouldn’t turn my nose up at a game that tried these rules.