The BattleTech Universe
I first stumbled into the Battletech universe through the back door in 1990, with the purchase of an unassuming computer game from then-software-giant Infocom. The premise of BattleTech: The Crescent Hawk's Inception was irresistible: develop your character, mount a thirty-foot mechanized war 'bot, and enjoy a detailed computer simulation of the resulting mayhem as you stomped, whomped, and generally kicked mechanized butt across the screen. What a rush. I bought two copies.
I soon found an unexpected bonus packed in with my tactical maps and Weapons Recognition guide, however: a story line. My character was eighteen-year-old Jason Youngblood, abruptly wrenched away from warrior training and plunged into a very real battle with deadly warriors from a rival Noble house, the Kurita. Yeah, yeah, whatever. Where's that missile key. Eat flaming robot death you Kurita weirdos.
The Saga of the Inner Spheres
Except that the story line thing kept cropping up. Before long I wasn't just saluting my opponents with missiles. I was joining other warriors, engaging in detailed campaigns, and getting gradually immersed in the richly detailed story of the Successor States of the 31st Century, the warring remnants of a one great galactic civilization known as The Star League. The Kurita were not just Pac-Man in body armor; they were a highly sophisticated and deadly opponent with a complex agenda. In body armor. It wasn't long before I scurried back to the games store, this time in search of additional material set in the BattleTech universe.
Well, I found it. In 1990 BattleTech was one of the most popular science fiction games on the market, supported by literally dozens of supplements, and it has moved well beyond that base today. To anyone without at least a passing familiarity with today's popular game systems, the amount of core material available to the dedicated BattleTech player will appear staggering: the core rule books, supplements, battle records, and other published goodies now numbers well over a hundred. Most of these are rule supplements which average 100-200 pages in length. In short, there are more volumes available in the BattleTech series than there are in the Encyclopedia Britannica. And I haven't even gotten to the novels and trading cards yet.
In fact, it's grown so large that it's difficult to pinpoint exactly what BattleTech is anymore, especially for the young gamer standing in front of the FASA display at his local game shop for the first time, twenty bucks in his fist and a confused look on his face. Is it a simulation? A role playing game? A virtual reality phenomenon? A cartoon and toy line? A computer game? Geez. Just give me two decks of Magic cards, mister. And one of those dice with 200 sides.
The truth is that BattleTech is all of those things, and more. What started as a background story for a battling robots simulation game in 1984 has been slowly and lovingly nurtured into one of the most richly realized game settings in history, creating a canon of work that has attracted and inspired novelists such as Michael Stackpole, computer game developers such as Activision and Infocom, trading card overlord Wizards of the Coast, on-line businesses such as America Online and CompuServe, and numerous other successful companies and artists. Today BattleTech has over a dozen product licensees, from t-shirts to toy lines, and is published in thirteen languages around the world.
How did it get so popular? At heart isn't it all just giant robots bashing each other? A big Japanese marketing thing; Transformers on steroids? Well, no. In short, it's the depth of the game universe that keeps players and buyers coming back. And despite all the popular peripheral material -- the collectable toys, virtual reality centers, cartoons and et cetera -- the real core of the phenomenon is FASA's gaming supplements. For the last thirteen years, the writers and editors at FASA have remained dedicated to the task of supporting their creation with finely crafted and internally consistent fiction and gaming add-ons. The result is a compelling and enormously detailed setting for their game environment, a backdrop more interesting and believable than that found in many SF novels. In fact, over thirty science fiction novels set in this universe have been published by FASA and distributed by Penguin/Roc, from such authors as William H. Keith, Jr. and Blaine Pardoe. It's time for a lengthy look at the phenomena that is BattleTech, one of the richest and most fertile fields science fiction has seen in a long time.
Chicago-based FASA Corporation released its first BattleTech product in 1984. At least partially inspired by the giant robot and mechanized critter craze in North America -- from the glitzy Japanese Transformer toy line to the gritty behemoths seen in The Empire Strikes Back -- the game was part simulation, part role-playing, and part science fiction war game. Originally released under the name "BattleDroids," the name was later changed as a result of negotiations with LucasFilm. The board game connected with 'gamers in a big way, and the supplements soon began to arrive in droves.
While an incredible amount of additional material has been bolted on to the gaming universe, the core game systems have remained very straightforward. There are only four systems you need to master in order to be completely immersed in BattleTech culture, and they are each stand-alone game products nicely independent of the others.
The core system, of course, is the fourth edition of Battletech: A Game of Armored Combat (1996, $25, Stock #1604). It is centuries after the fall of the Star League, the governing body that once ensured relative peace in the galaxy, and the five Successor States of the Inner Sphere have carved up the inhabited sector of space into disputed regions with fluid borders -- borders whose position often depends on the outcome of a single battle. Throwing you onto the battlefield in the year 3049, BattleTech puts you in command of the ultimate suit of armor: the BattleMech. Thirty feet tall and weighing from 60 to 100 tons, these mechanized monsters are the basic elements of battle in the 31st Century, a time and place "where war has become a way of life, as vast empires and tiny factions battle for control of mankind. In command of the most powerful machine on the battlefield, your MechWarrior fights to take a planet or lose and empire." The box comes with two colorful maps depicting the battlefield, a 32-page introduction, a 48-page notebook, a book of pre-generated BattleMech record sheets (to record the damage, dents and dings on your new 30-foot luxury land cruiser), a batch of stand-up playing pieces which represent the Mechs, and two lucky dice. That's all you need to start setting up battles and knocking down city blocks.
For the player who really hankers to do some collateral damage, FASA has released CityTech, Second Edition, (Stock #1608) the BattleTech Game of Urban Combat. Fully compatible with BattleTech but a standalone game in its own right, CityTech includes rules for anti-Mech infantry, Clan OmniMech technology for the year 3050, playing pieces for tanks, all-terrain vehicles, hover craft and infantry, and more. Let's face it, it's a lot more fun when those stray missiles strike the Kiwanis club than some cactus, or when you can duck behind that smoking power plant to get away from those drop ships. Additionally, brand new strategies are required when the infantry and vehicles your 'Mech must face are entrenched in high-rise buildings and erect barricades. A must have for the gamer who enjoys explosions.
Speaking of drop ships, BattleSpace: The BattleTech Game of Space Combat (1993, $30, Stock #1680) allows you to move the battle beyond the surface of your favorite smoking planet and out into the cold vacuum of space. The setting here is 3056, when the Inner Sphere faces the greatest threat in its history: the Clans, warlike human invaders from beyond known space, fielding ships and BattleMechs of a technological level never before seen. The armadas of two civilizations clash on the periphery, waging war in the infinite battlefield of space. BattleSpace provides rules for the theatre of combat far above the surface, where jumpships, dropships and capital vessels fight to bring their deadly 'Mech cargoes into battle. The box contains a rule book, a source book with the background and descriptions on the ships of the Inner Sphere, two full-color maps, counters and ship record sheets, and two more lucky dice.
MechWarrior, Second Edition (1991, $15, Stock #1641) is the roleplaying system for BattleTech, and the inspiration for the successful line of computer games designed by Dynamix and later Activision. The skill of the 'Mech pilot is at the heart of the game system, and MechWarrior is the only game that focuses completely on her. An innovative RPG system in its own right, the true appeal of the game comes from the ability to train and improve your character through a succession of battles, until they are ready to take their place among the nobility controlling the Successor States. MechWarrior provides complete rules for playing Inner Sphere or Clan characters, and includes details on character generation, personal combat and equipment, and a capsule history of the BattleTech universe. A great starting place for most players.
The BattleTech game is also supported by a great number of additional rules sets, including the older AeroTech and BattleTroops boxed sets, as well as rule expansion volumes for the serious player: the BattleTech Compendium: The Rules of Warfare (1994, $18, Stock #1691), the single-source rule book which combines material from BattleTech, CityTech, and the original BattleTech Compendium in a streamlined format -- as well as including extensive color images of 'Mech in action, maps, and fiction, which together paints a fairly complete picture of the BattleTech universe and the Inner Sphere of 3057; Maximum Tech: The BattleTech Advanced Rulebook (1997, $15, Stock #1700), which contains new and expanded rules for salvage, repair, and customizing BattleMechs, as well as one-on-one dueling rules; the BattleTech Tactical Handbook (1995, $15, Stock #8630), with detailed descriptions of advanced weapons systems and guidelines for long-term campaigns; and the MechWarrior Companion (1995, $15, Stock #1671), an extremely handy resource for both players and game masters, with rules for new skills and a system for integrating BattleTech and MechWarrior to put your character right in the cockpit.
We'll look at the real wealth behind the BattleTech phenomenon -- the literally dozens and dozens and creative adventures, supplements, and player aids for the four games systems above -- in Part II of this article in our next issue. We'll include such intriguing volumes as The Star League, a historical reference which clears up some of the mystery and reveals the lost technology of the great Dominion that gave birth to the Successor States; and Living Legends, a roleplaying adventure for use with MechWarrior which draws the players into a centuries-old mystery involving the invading Clans. Be sure to join us on October 1st.
John O'Neill is the Founder and Managing Editor of the SF Site.
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