Mechwarrior: Running A Time of War

Play began for my Mechwarrior Campaign, ‘Hair of the Dog‘ a little over a week ago. We are nearing the end of the second major scene in the first story, and I expect there to be four more scenes before that story is done. Each scene in the campaign will deal with one significant event, and each story will contain one significant stage of the resistance movement being staged by the PCs.

Unexpected Rewards

I feel that as a GM, I have been quite lucky in terms of players for the Mechwarrior campaign I have chosen to run. I have set fairly demanding terms for being involved, but I have been very impressed with their responses and extra contributions.

I have one player who has set about producing a combat effectiveness analysis algorithm in order to not only play his character better, but also help develop and strengthen the strategies of his lance. As tactical information is directed his way, he analyzes the potential damage curves of his crew versus the enemy at each range to find the optimal distribution of force at the optimal range. For any given pair or set of mechs, he can deliver a graph showing the comparative damage potential across the full spectrum of effective ranges for those mechs, at the drop of a hat.

I  have another player who not only set about producing good quality maps from my rough maps for the scenarios I am positing, to save me time, but who also put together a video promo for the campaign that was 60% stirring warfare and 40% in-joke. Hard work and much appreciated.

Method of Play

It is not easy to be a player in this game. I am expecting everyone to refresh themselves with the background material, or in one case, learn it outright. Posts are expected to be made no less than twice a week, although so far we have managed to keep up a daily posting rate which I know has not been easy for the players to maintain. I am also requiring strict posting protocols. For example, rather than use a forum or similar site for posting, the game is occurring in g-mail, with players posting to three different threads and following a fourth:

  • the shared OOC thread for open questions about rules, game play, history, etc
  • the private IC thread for all character thoughts, moves, questions, and speculation
  • the shared IC conversation thread for scenes conducted with all PCs together

The information collected in these threads is used to frame the story as it develops, and I periodically edit everything together into an official track for the players to read to compare their experience of what happened with ‘what really happened.’ You can see an example of this here, where the IC thread for each character, and the Conversation thread conducted ‘live’ between the characters were cut together into one dramatization of what occurred.

Currently a scene in which the three players are in battle, but are unable to communicate directly with each other is being undertaken entirely in the IC threads. Their lance has been separated during an engagement with the enemy. There are minor impediments to visual tracking, as well as significant interference with sensors. Controlling the delivery of information this way allows me to elicit very realistic responses from each player, based solely on data their characters can observe, while also increasing dramatic tension.

What that means is that I am presenting the same scene from three different points of view, a turn at a time, with differing amounts of information available to each character depending on location and chosen action. When the whole battle is stitched together at the end for the official campaign thread, I think the players will be pleased with how well they have portrayed their characters, and how well they were able to predict each others’ reactions in this combat.

Intentions

For this campaign, it is my intention to divide time more or less evenly between in and out-of-mech scenarios. As the game progresses, the scenes will get progressively longer and more involved so it may actually wind up reaching a 2-4 scene per story rate once things are fully underway.

The story opened with two setting pieces, one in the story’s present, and one in its past. The goal of this is twofold. The first scene, set in the present, was laid out to first establish how things are now, who the enemy is, and that if something is to be done about the situation that enemy has caused, the PCs, in looking at each other, are looking at the people who must do it. The second scene, set a short time in the past, was constructed to establish a deeper history between the characters, allow the players to demonstrate the martial side of their characters, and provide a more interesting and easily retained method of information dissemination concerning the faculty, students, and terrain associated with the Hanachi Military Academy than oceans of exposition from yours truly. The scene also serves the adjunct purpose of giving the least experienced Battletech player in the group a chance to familiarize herself with the concepts and conceits of the game early on, again without a massive and boring info dump.

My most important goal outside of building a story on the themes discussed in my previous posts on this campaign, is to have as fully-realized characters as my players can imagine, operating as freely and realistically as possible in as open a world (sandbox) as I can manage to prepare. When the game is done, I want to move the Earth with a lever.

Challenges

So far, the big challenges I have been facing are in ensuring I have the time and resources to present the story elements from three different perspectives simultaneously, getting a firm grip on the era’s technology and politics (Why did I think it would be easier to run in the 3025-30 era?), and re-earning the trust of players with whom I have not gamed for…ages. Playing this way is work, and in both starting scenes they have had to take a lot on faith. Being dropped in media res into two scenes where the focus was more on character and scene-setting than action is not an easy thing to play through, and while I have every confidence that they can do it, I feel on their side of the screen the leap of faith must look a lot farther, and over a more perilous drop.

A Time of War, Mechwarrior 4th Edition

I will write a detailed review of the system in a few weeks, after we use it for more things under more conditions, but so far, as a very busy person working too much, running two PBeMs, and plotting out a few more, I have nothing but good to say about Catalyst’s updating of this RPG. The material is easy to find both by simple chapter headers and excellent indices, and the clarity of the text and commitment to fact checking and error fixing is phenomenal. To date, the only area in which I found myself somewhat uncertain after reading the rules was in knowing what to do with margins of success and failure outside of human to human interaction. While I think I have a grip on all of its permutations now, of all the things I looked up, the sections on this game element seemed at first to leave me with no direct answers to my questions.

I had one concern about trying to do a mechwarrior campaign with mech involvement, and that was one of scale. The rules and the well-organized method of transcribing them, did most of the work for relieving that concern, and actual play has done the rest. So far, what I have needed to scale has scaled effortlessly.

In the example presented earlier regarding the combat scene we are currently running, I have two full lances in the scenario, at varying levels of player and character experience in primarily medium mechs. While running this under the normal rules for Battletech (Total Warfare) would be easy and appropriate, I am scaling things down to the Tactical Combat Addendum from Time of War where turns last a mere 5 seconds and the rates of movement and firing are halved. I have to admit, at first, attempting this right out of the gate gave me some pause due to the increase of turn to turn book-keeping and an increase in dreaded math, but… I am very glad I went with it. While I would probably not opt to do this again for further encounters of this size, I am finding the fine control over detail, and the added detail available at this scale to be very satisfying and appropriate to my PBeM format. Hopefully, the players will agree, although I am certain the agony of waiting for their energy weapons to recharge and their missile launchers to reload will drive them to distraction… just like it does in the video games.

Can you tell I am having fun?

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