A Time of War: Overview

I had intended to write a single overview entry on or review of A Time of War – The Mechwarrior RPG, 4th Edition much earlier than this, but hopefully the added perspective will balance out the delay. It is hard to believe that it has been a year already. I have posted several times on the experience of running A Time of War, and you can find those entries by checking the tag cloud or the pull down menus. This post, however, will look at the system from the perspective of helping others decide if they want to run the game or not.

A Brief Aside on the 3rd Edition

I suppose for most of the people who are regular players of the game, the normal vector of approach was to compare it to the 3rd Edition, now called the Classic Battletech RPG. I didn’t play using that edition, so I won’t really be offering further comparison of the two [initial comparison] but will simply say the largest changes are to the character generation method, dropping the D10 system that edition tried, and transitioning to a system which actually blends with Battletech mechanics to allow for real interaction with the table top games, rather than changing them to something else.

  • Character generation in 4th Edition retains the same level of detail and guides players through life stages which expose them to appropriate skills and predispositions as in 3rd Edition but sheds the random table rolls for those experiences and their often crippling and/or debilitating side-effects. Chargen in A Time of War is now purely point-based.
  • Dice mechanics in 4th Edition are once again 2D6 rolls with modifiers, so the game play experience across the different levels of play is more familiar and more readily blended, either by switching to each game level’s default zoom level via quick conversion of the RPG stats to the table top stats, or by applying the default zoom level of the RPG to the board games. All the tables, charts, and data from each format are easily referenced in play.

Mixing the Concrete and the Abstract

This edition, with or without its Tactical Addendum is the first to truly let you roleplay being in a tense scene, then running out of the room, then getting in a gun battle, then hopping into a mech, then battling incoming aerotech fighters, then getting back out of the mech, and finally swooping sweatily back into the room to do what you should have done in the first place, which was kiss the girl, without having to flip between different systems. The secret? All rolls use 2D6 plus or minus chart-based modifiers. No matter what you are doing, either in the RPG or in the board game, the resolution method of rolling 2D6 and checking for modifiers remains constant. The difference is that Battletech modifiers apply to the Target Number, while Time of War modifiers apply to the rolled result. In mech combat therefore, plusses and minuses on modifiers flip, but otherwise remain unchanged. It can be made to seem more complicated than that, but it really isn’t:

  • Battletech:  A Pilot with a Gunnery rating of 4 firing at medium range at a target that moved 5 hexes on open terrain will have a base TN of Gunnery (4) to which the +2 modifier for Range and the +2 modifier for moving 5 hexes will add requiring the player to roll an 8 or better to hit on 2D6.
  • AToW: A Pilot with a Gunnery skill of 4 firing at medium range at a target moving 5 hexes on open terrain will have the gunnery skill’s base TN of 8, and will adjust the 2D6 roll with the skill level and any positive and negative modifiers. In this example that would be 2D6+4-2-2, and so the player needs to roll an 8 on 2D6. Sound familiar?  [2D6+4 Gunnery –2 for Range –2 for Movement vs TN 8]

Note: When using the personal scale as opposed to the mech scale for resolving combat, some of the modifiers for target movement and the like do change, but the system of resolving combat does not. Each level of combat is ‘zoomed in or out’ to a different degree and certain factors of combat such as the size of each hex, and the duration of a turn must adjust accordingly. These adjustments in turn affect situational modifiers.

The Tactical Addendum provided in A Time of War increases the zoom from the basic game of Battletech to reflect a level of detail where you can effectively deal with small groups of infantry interacting with the iconic machinery of the setting either as pilots or as ground-pounders. For some – myself included – this level of detail makes mech to mech, or even lance (a 4 mech squad) to  lance battles even more interesting and engaging than they normally are, without that much extra time or work. If the game is to be run with a GM controlling access to information, however, you will likely find that the level of detail provided may become too much at the Lance level.

Character Generation System

A Time of War has two methods of character generation. The primary method is to age your character through Life Modules from the cradle to adulthood, and focus your skill and attribute purchases through the guidelines provided for within each module. The standard starting character has been assigned 5000 XP for this process. The secondary method, which I would recommend for only those familiar with the setting and the conceits of the game, is to simply spend those points on skills and traits directly.

Five thousand points sounds like a lot compared to something like Ubiquity or WoD, but in actual use the process is similar. The primary difference is being able to see an incremental biasing of the character toward certain traits, which in effect turns the character generation system into a collaborator in character design. This can be very helpful when introducing newcomers to the system, and it can also inspire incredible creativity in the old hands as well. The starting pool of 5000XP is supported by a set of age dependent XP which modify the character’s attributes, and can be further augmented by taking Negative Traits with a maximum ceiling of 10% of the allotted starting points. A vanilla character created by walking through the rules who reaches age 25 could be built on a set of points equaling the base 5000 + 300 earmarked for attributes from aging + 500 from flaws for just under 6000XP. The game gives the GM flexibility in choosing a starting number of points, so it is good to recognize beforehand that players will have access to approximately 1000 extra points above the ostensible cap.

Characters

Character design in the game is  essentially buying skills to modify the 2D6 roll, or Traits which enhance or limit your character in other, broader ways. For skills, the cost for each level increases incrementally which makes a soft cap in chargen around Level 5. The descriptions of the skills themselves rates a professional level as 4, so both in the setting material and the flow of the game itself, characters can be seen as competent at their professions and supporting skills from the beginning. To make stellar characters takes thought and sacrifice, but you can expect that a PC built on the base number of points can get their job done and have some decent competency in ancillary skills.

Negative comments I have seen and heard tend to follow the pattern of people hoping to have a custom mech, plus a hot pilot, without flaws, with a full set of average to high attributes. I think you can complete this thought for yourself. You can want it all, but if it’s just given to you before play… why play?

Task Resolution

Skills and general abilities have been designed to handle most of the normal requirements in game play. Unlike many systems, I have not wished to find a skill that was not reflected in the skill list in some way. One useful aspect of this is Career which is a blanket skill to cover all the non-specific tasks of your character’s chosen profession(s). Target numbers range from 7-9 and any roll of 12 offers a chance to reroll 1D6 for an additional bonus. This roll may continue to explode for every additional 6 rolled, up to a cap of 30. The cap is relevant as the amount by which one exceeds the TN will influence the inclusion and degree of additional beneficial effects.

For skilled task resolution, the system does not change from that already discussed in the combat example used above; 2D6+skill level +/- modifiers vs a target number set by the type of skill. For situations where the task is purely related to one or more attributes, or is something in which the character has no training, a slightly different format is used. These situations still involve a 2D6 roll with appropriate modifiers, but instead of using a skill, relevant attributes are used (either 1 or 2) and a different range of target numbers are required.

Setting

Likely the biggest single hurdle facing GMs considering running a game in the amazing Battletech Universe is the depth and diversity of the setting. Having worked its way more or less organically from its opening shots in the Succession Wars Ear of 3025, through the technological renaissance of 3039, on through the Invasion and Post-Invasion Periods, and now finishing up the Jihad, the game has so much to offer, and so many flavors, both subtle and overt, that it is very hard to choose. A Time of War is essentially geared toward running games set in the time periods around 3067, but is not hard to apply to earlier ones. Catalyst has also been good about including RPG material in historical supplements to facilitate play in other eras. In terms of what you can do with the game, the limit is set much, much higher than the sky.

For those just starting out, the more recent supplemental offerings from Catalyst are well-organized presentations of events, and personalities, most often written from the point of view of a specific group. This very quickly immerses you in both the politics and feel of the setting, while making it easy to stage the events of your story in conjunction with the changes going on elsewhere. As you get more and more familiar with factions and Houses, and movers and shakers in the setting, moving forward or backward in time to explore alternate eras gets easier and easier.

Examples

The text is loaded with solid examples of rules in action, and the book itself is also packed with fiction to help bring things even more to life. There are enough examples at every stage that a true ‘Example of Play’ is not really necessary, and the chapters and index are well annotated to make it easy to find things, but with a game with this level of detail – particularly in combat, it may not be the easiest game you have ever learned. Although the core mechanic is used consistently throughout and is not difficult, having all the information before you when you need it, and learning to work with the game rather than imposing your will on it via changes and tweaks before you are ready is recommended.

Resources

The forums at the Battletech site are full of helpful people and threads about virtually every aspect of the game universe so that is a primary resource. The Battletech Wiki is another unbelievable resource – particularly if you game via online methods. For A Time of War specifically, it is hard to beat the blow-by-blow description of designing and running a campaign with the system for the first time such as found at Ten Years on Terra. Of course, checking out those resources will lead you on to so much more. Obviously, there are articles here as well.

Conclusion

Running A Time of War can have a fairly steep learning curve. The system was designed to mesh with the other products in the game line and produce a very specific feel, so some may give up on it before they get it – that is a mistake in this as it is in any pursuit. Mechwarrior is not an airy-fairy wish-fulfillment sort of universe. It provides incredible opportunities for immersive dramatic and tactical play, with paths to heroism and villainy as bold and brilliant as you like, but when you get shot you bleed and die, when your mech is gone its gone, and in space – no one can find your frozen floating corpse. Play the game right, and that corpse won’t be yours ’til your kid is ready to inherit.

Comments
2 Responses to “A Time of War: Overview”
  1. morrisonmp says:

    Great review. I appreciated the thought you put into your mention of the universe and especially how Catalyst has done a solid job with their supplements of making that huge universe accessible.

    I will admit, the current version of the RPG is probably the best when it comes to being integrated into the overall BT “thing” but it’s still too chunky for me.

    Can I just say though, one thing I’d love to see Catalyst put out, the #1 supplement I’d love to see is a campaign guide focused on helping players and GMs run a campaign centered around being Nobles. I do think that aspect gets short shrift in the BT games.

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