Mechwarrior: Running A Time of War, part 7 – Mech Battles by Mail!

In the past few weeks, my Time of War campaign, Hair of the Dog has managed to complete 6 turns of city-based mech combat with 4 players, 5 NPC allies, 1 GM, and an as yet still undisclosed number of enemy forces. At present, the PCs are aware of 1 light lance, 1 unit of infantry, and two heavy missile carriers, and are opposing them with 8  mechs of their own. The battle is still very much underway, and starting next week, I will be posting short Turn by Turn updates of the battle as it goes on through the icy streets of Beasville.

In keeping with the nature of the PBeM in general, and to maintain the intent of keeping the focus purely on the mechwarriors as characters, not as simply Name/Gunnery/Piloting entries on a Mech Record Sheet, I have had to weather a few storms from the players’ side of the GM screen, and have no doubt sown more than my fair share of confusion and annoyance.

We’re fine. We’re all fine here now, thank you. How are you?

In the second scene of this first story in the campaign, we established a method for running a reasonably-paced mech battle between two fill lances on a very large map. Despite the success and increased level of detail and focus allowed by the use of A Time of War’s Tactical Addendum rules, it was decided to run the next battle using just Total Warfare and select elements of Tactical Operations. Part of the reason for this was to reduce the number of turns, and the associated record keeping, and part was just to retain a sense of the familiar and nostalgic.

So how does it… how does it…um…. Work?

Turns of combat are processed in the following manner for the PBeM:

  • Turns are processed in two 5-second phases – Movement and Firing – which consolidate the normal phases of a Battletech Turn into the fewest number of posts and replies possible.
  • The Movement Phase involves a map, a statement of position and status from each player, and a descriptive post for each player.
  • The Firing Phase involves a map, a declaration of fire, and a descriptive post for each player.

Movement Phase

  • The Map indicates a varying level of intel based on how well the initiative roll went for the players. This map shows the suspected end point of movement for that turn for the mechs which will be moved first, and the known direction of travel for the mechs which will be moved later.
  • The map consists of 12 full map boards and so is broken up into 12 numbered sectors, with the Hexes described as grid references within those sectors
  • Statements of Position and Status represent mech sensor updates for the entire unit, and give only the current Sector and Grid Reference with a basic update of current damage status. Additional information can be included in this update, but costs the player one of their character’s actions for the Turn.
  • The descriptive post for the Movement Phase relates the information each player needs to know about what is visible from their current position, what factors are affecting visibility, and hopefully provide a sense of actually being in their mechs. From the map and these posts, the players can make their character’s firing decisions and if they like, check the math of the modifiers applied to their gunnery and piloting rolls.
  • A primary feature of this battle is that players are not privy to the location of every unit on the map, and visual and/or sensor data can be easily lost as the tide of battle and positioning takes place in the streets. Being caught in an ambush is a very real possibility and players got a taste of this very early in the combat with a brutal 3 on 1 assault as the enemy mechs took on a PC mech as a target of opportunity
  • A normal Time of War turn will allow a character to have a set number of actions. For ease, I have doubled those for use in the Total Warfare turn, but divided them up between the Movement Phase and the Firing Phase. This gives characters the choice between using 2 simple actions or one complex action during Movement, and the same again during Firing. I did it this way to encourage greater facility for character to character interaction, and create a need to budget actions of importance over the course of a turn or turns to help humanize the abstracted play provided by the ‘zoom level’ of play for Classic Battletech.

Firing Phase

  • The Map shows the final positions of all the known units, and will be reused in the coming Movement phase as a basis for plotting the probably enemy movements.
  • Each Turn, additional terrain features are identified on this map, such as store names, street conditions, and types of neighborhood, to help players create dialogue less-dependent on game terms during play.
  • Declarations of Fire often come with questions about LoS and terrain modifiers, and these will be resolved before the resolution of the Turn itself is put into motion.
  • The descriptive post for the Firing Phase will contain details of what the character can see or detect during the exchange of fire – depending primarily on the orientation of their mech, and how busy they are. As can be imagined, some posts contain vast amounts of detail as the mech is in the thick of a short-range fire fight, while others contain almost none as the mech is hundred of metres from ally and enemy alike, behind a screening row of apartments full of panicked tenants.
  • Damage is being left to purely visual descriptions and colour and sound-based warnings in the cockpit rather than precise notations of points of armour lost. I am doing this because I feel that is a strength of a battle being conducted by a GM, and adds in an element of risk and tension that the PBeM format distances us from as we have no shared table, dice, miniatures, or in-your-face combative banter.
  • Initiative is rolled and the resulting combat information is presented to the players as the final item in the descriptive post of the Firing Phase, allowing the cycle to continue with a minimum of posting. The initiative information will include the character’s present location, visible allies, detected allies, visible hostiles, detected hostiles, detected movement, new entrants to the field of battle and their possible IDs, and updated weather information
  • Weather? The Battle of Beasville is taking place during the onset of winter in the middle of a Moderate Snowstorm at the crack of dawn. Depending on position and obstacles on the map, this can have a significant influence on targeting modifiers, and to a lesser extent, piloting modifiers. The expanded terrain and weather condition modifiers found in Tactical Operations have been invaluable for adding this much-desired layer of complexity to the setting.

Great Players

Despite the rough start where the players felt a little starved for information, and where unit cohesion flew at faster-than-light speeds out the window, about 4 Turns in, things had settled down. The group is making every effort to try to adapt to this unfamiliar and sometimes challenging method of running a mech battle, and I expect great things from them in the Turns to come. The more story-focused players are already starting to respond with an increased level of roleplay and interaction than I expected – very reminiscent of the talk you’d find around a real gaming table with recurring mechwarriors in campaign play, while the more tactically oriented ones are champing at the bit to get the right combination of conditions and rolls to unleash the awesome power they can bring to bear in this newer and more difficult format.

In addition to this very flattering dedication to simply playing the game, the players have also produced more and more artifacts to surround and support it. Cool Hand Luke’s player provided the terrain map for the city of Beasvillle, while new addition Alexandre ‘Luckjaw’ Lechasseur is modifying my polka-dot civil engineering into something presentable with more suitable building and mech images. While this is going on, Mad Dog’s player has constructed a huge battlemap for the most probable next zone of conflict, and has the one after that done on a strategic level.

Very Impressive.

If you have any comments or questions about how the battle is being conducted, please do not hesitate to ask in the comments section below~

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