Playing A Time of War pt.2: Do you know where your XPs are?

This is the second in my series of posts on being a player of Catalyst’s dynamite new edition of the Mechwarrior RPG. For some reason, today’s entry has an air of cloak and dagger about it, and for a while it bore the Nixonian title XP-Gate in my mind as I was formulating how to present it. Although this is not entirely what I am up to with this post, let’s start with this simple little question:

Are you ready for a little expose?

Having started character generation for the PBeM earlier than the others, I was already conducting a little solo play by the time that generation was going full steam for the other 3 players. As my character’s specialty was actually to be able to fly damn near everything, the process I went through actually aided me in missing out on the issues which cropped up as a result of the generation of real specialists. Last year, as we prepped characters for Hair of the Dog, these issues were also avoided as BF Wolfe, this new campaign’s GM and inspiration for this post, was focused on just 1 character and the game was new to us. A year later, and with the perspective of guiding 4 players through chargen while dreaming up NPCs, it was time for another of BF’s patented analytical romps through RPG-land.

As BF Wolfe and I had little discussions about how to help others get over the daunting feel A Time of War chargen can have for newcomers, and as the campaign is designed to be very episodic, and so require characters to be able to do what they need to be able to do, and to be able to do it now, not months down the road, he took it on himself to try to provide as smooth an experience as possible; ensuring the least effort with the most bang for the buck.

What resulted from this care and concern was a full-blown analysis of Trait and Skill purchases comparing their cost to their in-game effect…. and people say that I take my games too seriously…

While there are many items on the list which ended up being assessed, I thought for this entry we could look at just two in-depth, as math and I are not on speaking terms (Math stole my lunch money in elementary school and blew it on comics, and I have never forgiven him). Comments to BF Wolfe about the methodology of the assessment can be left below. On the surface, I suppose this can look like the Old Guys’ Guide to Min-Maxing, but really, it is more like the Mercenaries Handbook on How Not to Get Screwed by Your Own Base Impulses.

Character Generation in General: It is a Time of Points

In A Time of War, characters are built from a pool of experience points set by the GM, with a default number being 5000XP with a 10% overflow allowed through the purchase of flaws. Characters are divided into three main areas for point assignment. Two of these areas, Attributes and Traits, have costs of 100XP per point, so they are quite easy to distribute and track. Some of the Traits require multiple points in order to activate their effect, or have variable levels with escalating effects, but this is not hard to track. The third section, Skills, has an escalating cost per point, but again, it is not rocket science; each increase in skill level comes with a commensurately higher price, handily presented to you on a chart (this is Battletech after all. Charts are life). BF’s assessment is essentially comparing the purchase cost of different Traits versus the Effect of that Trait versus the Effect of a related Skill raised by the same number of points.

Natural Aptitude

For as long as I can remember being aware of it, this Trait has been as hotly contested as it has been hotly sought. Those who dislike it claim it is a game changer that leads to mechwarriors sweeping the board of contenders. While I have never actually seen that result, I have seen the trait pull a few butts out of a few fires, and allow hits and successes that by all rights should have been misses and failures. I am pretty sure that those who like it do so for the same reason as those who dislike it…

In A Time of War, checks are resolved by adding skill levels to the result of a 2D6 roll plus or minus modifiers versus a set target number for the type of skill ranging between 7 and 9. In addition, the difference between the target number and the result, the Margin of Success or Failure, has additional effects, making it more than a simple pass/fail system. As an example, Gunnery has a target number of 8. Natural Aptitude Gunnery will provide the player with 3D6 and let them drop the lowest result for this roll, which will increase both the chance to hit and the Margin of Success, and that makes it a Cool Thing!

Or does it?

To purchase Natural Aptitude costs 300XP for a non-Tiered Basic skill, and 500XP for an Advanced or Tiered skill. It applies to one skill, and it provides the ability to roll 3D6 instead of 2D6, and allows you to pick the best two results from the 3 dice. Like most people, my first, second, and third reaction when I see this is to say, “Done. Sign me up.” I, like so many, have been hoodwinked, and that hoodwink stings all the more cruelly for it being done by my old nemesis, Math….  that bastard.

For the same number of points required to obtain Natural Aptitude: Zero-G Operations, or Natural Aptitude: Negotiation, players can purchase the corresponding Skill at Level 7. In the combat arena, that Natural Gunner’s 500XP would allow the player to purchase Gunnery at Level 9 if it were spent on the Skill instead of the Trait. I think for many, while this looks pretty extreme, a part of the coolness factor of “Natural Aptitude” makes this cost seem worthwhile because, after all, you can roll an extra die and take the best two out of three! That has to mean a lot, right? Don’t forget the MoS!

Of course, by now, because I am writing this entry, we can safely assume that it doesn’t actually amount to that much, but for the sake of that great feeling which comes from making the big reveal, let’s pretend for my sake that we couldn’t see this coming, okay? We’ll both feel better.

No! It doesn’t mean that much at all!

I feel better, don’t you?

In his analysis, BF Wolfe determined that the actual difference between rolling 2D6 and dropping the lowest was a total increase of 1.4 in the value of the rolled result. He sent me a spreadsheet which charts it all out, but the key point I took away from it all is that if I roll 2D6 and get a 6, that if I had purchased Natural Aptitude, I’d have gotten 7.4. That doesn’t do much for either ensuring success, or improving the Margins… Especially since if I had not purchased Natural Aptitude I would be adding 9 to that 6 instead of still not having a rank in the skill and actually needing to spend more points to buy it before I can use the stinking Natural Aptitude Trait in the first place!

Now, to be fair, the 3D6 roll will allow for a flatter curve and more consistent results… but I don’t want flat and consistent results if I am a Naturally Aptitudinous person, I want to rain death down on my enemies from ranges their cowering brains cannot even encompass, and do it all the time, or a least often enough to go down in the annals of history!

Sorry. I digress.

Custom Vehicle

The next Trait I would like to look at is Custom Mech, which is another very hotly sought Trait in character generation, for reasons which go beyond mere game effect. Obviously, most games set in the Battletech Universe will at one point or another feature mechs, and actually getting to own your favorite one is a big deal, but being able to take a custom variant takes the cake. While not nearly so clear-cut as Natural Aptitude, this is still an area of XP cost comparing negatively to in-game effect.

To start with a vehicle right out of character generation requires the Vehicle Trait. This Trait’s escalating levels allow you to obtain a starting vehicle of increasing weight class the more points you invest. A 4 Trait Point Investment for example will allow the player to have a random medium mech from their own affiliation. This will be a stock mech, with no customization. To choose a mech requires the Custom Vehicle Trait, and it too has escalating levels of effect. To be able to choose your mech freely off the list from within the purchased weight class and affiliation costs 2 Trait Points. To design your own vehicle again of that same weight class, using Inner Sphere technology, costs 4 Trait Points; or in other words 400XP. Therefore, in order to have the ability to customize your choice of medium mech from any affiliation costs 800XP. What can you get for 800XP directly from the Vehicle Trait?

An Assault Mech.

Not all groups will be able to answer this question equally, and they won’t even be able to answer it consistently between all campaigns, but the question at hand is, does a medium mech, no matter how tricked out, fully equal an assault mech? It is also worth point out that this would be a custom medium mech that the character does not own versus an assault mech that the character does not own, or a heavy mech that they do.

There are a few caveats to be mentioned, not the least of which is that the game does not require random mech rolls to be used, or seek to constrain the GM to play some sort of ‘cool mech denial’ strategy, using the quest for a better mech as a form of loot, but…the point still stands on its own merits. Does the customization of a 45-55 ton mech ever make it the equal of an 80-100 ton mech, even in C-Bill valuation?

In this case, as with Natural Aptitude above, we can see that the XP cost of the trait significantly outstrips the in-game effect of what it purchases. Although the coolness factor of these traits is not to be underestimated, there are some limits. Further, the increased cost also speaks to a Trait’s rarity, but when purchasing rare Traits described as being potent, as a design decision in character generation, one ought to get what one pays for… right?

But wait! There’s more~

Additional comparisons were cited by BF, but I will not get into them in detail. They are:

Danger, Will Robinson!

These Traits, in addition to the two above do not equal the sum of their points, and are better off avoided as the in-game effect will be frustration and disappointment, not coolness.

  • Wealth + Equipped.  2+1 = 300XP for enough points to start with a vibrodagger, SMG and a flak vest.  Will it really be that hard to find these simple items in game play?  Comparison to make: Melee skill 4 + vibrodagger vs. melee skill 7 with normal dagger?
  • 6th Sense does not equal  the 8 levels of perception you could purchase for the same points. The comparison to make is: ‘You sense danger’ vs. ‘You spot a small bulge under his sleeve which would indicate a hold out pistol with 1 bullet in the chamber.  Oh, it is an explosive round’
  • Good Hearing + Good Vision together (200xp) give you +1 perception to sound and sight rolls. The comparison to make is 2D6+1 for 200 XP versus 2D6+4 for the same XP.

I sense a disturbance in the force…

Not having all day to game and make spreadsheets for those games, BF has not fully tested out every possible area of conflict. Here are some which have been flagged but could prove to have other mitigating factors that affect the in-game result:

  • Tech empathy. The comparison to make here is Skill Level 4 + Tech Empathy vs, Tech Skill Level 9 without.  BF feels it might be useful for a tech with high levels in 3 or more tech skill specializations, but clearly does not think it is worthwhile outside of that situation. What do you think?
  • Exceptional attribute: The 200 XP spent on this will allow you to raise 1 Attribute over its maximum. It does not provide that point. 200 XP alone will buy you two points in an Attribute, so to go one higher than the normal maximum will cost 800 XP + 300 XP for a result of 9 points. That rating of 9 will only be applicable in mechanical terms for un-trained activities, or those which are purely related to that attribute and are not skill dependent. To be clear, that really will not be fighting or designing computer programs, or landing a dropship. For trained activities in-game this will never get you more than the +1 Link Modifier provided at the 7th rank in an Attribute. That rank is available to everyone and costs 700 XP. BF feels this trait is useful only on Charisma. Your mileage is expected to vary.
  • Introvert. Taking Negative Traits frees up XP for your use in other areas. Taking Introvert for example provides the player with an additional 100XP which is significant. Its effect, however is to cause a -1 on all 6 skills tied to Charisma. In BF’s way of thinking, these 100 extra points are not worth it after skill level 0.

Enough dark talk!

Worry not good people, it is not all soggy bread and flat soda. Some things are a very good deal and BF was kind enough to list a few of them:

  • Attractive, while limited to those attracted to your gender can be viewed as worth its cost since it gives +2 to about half the population for 6 different skills based on Charisma.
  • Fast Learner. While to become useful you must have 1500 points assigned to skills, this will pay off if you devote the bulk of your points to skills, and/or the game goes on long enough. It is important to note that it applies even in Chargen.
  • G-tolerance has a lot of bonuses.  It is quite simply worth it.

End Thoughts, and the other half of the key point

Okay – so that is enough for now, I think. I hope that those with similar or opposing thoughts will chime in and share them. For those who take this post as game bashing, don’t. I found BF’s results interesting and decided to share them as it highlights another aspect of player psychology as well as highlighting how differently something can appear to a person with a different set of skills and resultant reactions. More than anything else, what I hope the value of this post comes to be is a reminder that we cannot see through the eyes of others, but in this hobby we get the chance to try, and through practice, can expand what we do so beyond the limits of our own direct experience. I will never be a math-person (and if I see Math on the street he’s toast) but I doubt I will ever look at character generation the same way again. Being a proponent of immersive game-play, and certainly feeling that RPGs contribute to our lives in ways both subtle and broad, I am sharing this look at XP more to prove that point than to persuade you to stop buying Natural Aptitude…

But stop buying Natural Aptitude.

One for those at home:

  • Toughness.  Based on your experiences with combat and this appealing Trait, does its in-game effect meet or exceed the effect of buying 3 additional points in Body?

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