Jeffro's Space Gaming Blog

Microgames, Monster Games, and Role Playing Games

Capellan Confederation Reconnaissance in Force

This is the third game of a continuing campaign with the same “green” Capellan Confederation Lance. With a salvaged Archer replacing the old Javelin, they actually has some significant firepower now. They can actually handle a raid scenario– putting some “teeth” into their recon.

The situation I had in mind is that command needs to get to turn this unit into veterans quickly, they need them to accomplish an objective that is within their reach– but they can’t afford to risk losing their mechs. Strategically, this is part of an overload action– many feints and probes happening concurrently in order to push the defense to their limits.

Davion’s city defenders fields 4 foot/rifle infantry, 4 MG/mechanized, 4 Vedette tanks, and one Battlemaster. House Liao has a Vindicator, a Blackjack, a Clint, and an Archer. (I’ve got no Battletech counters, so I’m raiding Ogre again in order to make do.) Command wouldn’t know the exact strength of these forces when they send the lance out. The objective is to take out a couple of hardened reactors if possible. If they get both without losing any mechs, that is a phenominal victory. If they take out just one, that is a decisive victory. If they get none, draw out the enemy, and retain their mecha… even that is a marginal victory under the circumstances.

Now… this scenario was just made up out of thin air based on what the continuing characters had and what would fit in what what we’d done so far. I wanted to continue experimenting with what I consider to be the criminally underplayed conventional units of the BattleTech franchise. I have to say… when you combine these units with some reasonable morale/withdrawal rules based on the need for Mecha to not get arbitrarily expended, everything clicks. Infantry can be easily shot up, but they have to be dealt with before they can get close. Tanks can carry comparable firepower as a mech, but given the ease with which they can be disabled, people are going to tend to neutralize them before they target opposing mechs. Finally… if you irreplacable units are controlled by continuing characters… well, there’s all kinds of interesting situations you can throw at them and you won’t have to have half of them die in each game. The conventional forces produce decisive and dramatic action that is resolved quickly while the mecha jet around the board behaving like de facto chess queens. It’s orders of magnitudes more fun than the sort of straight up “company on company” battle royales that are the norm in the scenario booklets for the line.

In our game, the mecha crept to the forest edge and started unloading on a reactor at medium range. At the rate they were damaging it, the could expect to drop it within a few turns. The attackers didn’t bother targeting the defenders due to the extra protection they had from being able to take cover in buildings. On turn two the defenders opted to rush. The Capellan Clint got hit by two AC/5’s from the Vedettes and the PPC from the Battlemaster. It was enough to take out the Clint’s leg. He managed to stand up on turn two despite the need to roll 11+ to do it. (FASA BattleTech Master Rules has it as a +5 piloting roll that requires two MP’s; the guy got it on the third try.)

The Vedettes are not terribly fierce units. The lance commander panicked when they bore down on his newly acquired Archer. He pulled back with it instead of risking it, but regretted it when he realized just how well armored the thing was. The Clint started backing away one hex at a time. (He was limited to 1 MP a turn with the disabled leg, but I ruled he could still hobble along through the terrain.)

The Blackjack ended up doing quite a bit of damage to the encroaching motorized MG infantry. (Double damage in clear terrain is a nice, reasonable, and bloody rule.) A total of 35 points of damage was done to the one reactor. If the Archer had actually hit with his LRMs, it may well have been worth sticking around to burn it to the ground, but being only about 1/3rd of the way there, it was time to get out of Dodge.

The Clint had to jump in order to evade the Battlemaster and the infantry that were closing in on him. He fell a couple times making his way off the board, but was not in any real danger. The Vindicator and the Blackjack could easily jump through the woods, demonstrating the true utility of the light mechs. I believe the Davion defenders will be forced to reinforce this position if they want to keep these assets. If this light lance returns, it could easily finish the job they started here.

In Mechwarrior first edition, the characters get xp for each point of damage they do with more for criticals. The enemy forces also have an XP value equal to the tonnage of the mechs, half the tonnage of the vehicles, and ten tons for each infantry group. I split 25% of this between the continuing characters due to the marginal victory. (I would have given 100% if they had taken out the reactor and not lost any mechs… and 200% if they had managed to take out both reactors.)

The player characters all went up a level in gunnery. Finally! We can now play some more sensible scenarios where the they will have a much better chance of actually hitting stuff. (Although they could have spent XP to convert one the Archer’s attacks into a hit if they had spent some of his XP to do it now that I think of it… not that it would have made a difference)

Here’s the XP tallies:

Vindicator (6/4): 75 + 63 + 111 – 175 = 74

Clint (6/4): 92 + 93 – 175 = 10

Archer (6/4): 106 + 88 – 175 = 19

Blackjack (7/5): 61 + 112 – 125 = 48

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Capellan Confederation Ambush With Conventional Forces

Okay, this was a game I waited decades to play: BattleTech with mecha versus a infantry and tanks. Seriously, the xerox copy I ran off of the CityTech infantry record form has been sitting in the box for over twenty-five years!

Here’s how I set up the game. First I calculated the repair times for the surviving mechs from the last scenario. Then, as I would with D&D, I improvised a chart to account for the most reasonable outcomes:

1-2: The Vindicator which would take an hour an a half to repair is immediately sent out on a mission by itself without the rest of the group.

3-5: The Vindicator, the Clint, and the Blackjack are repaired and sent out on a mission together, but the Blackjack’s arm could not be reattached in time.

6: The full group is sent out, the Blackjack’s arm is repaired or retrofitted, and… the mech pilot that was in the destroyed Javelin is reassigned to a Locust.

The die roll came up as a two, confirming my original instincts for how to play the next game… but adding a sense of fairness and rightness that maybe wouldn’t have been there before. I still had this problem of the destroyed Javelin. I didn’t really want to let a Green mechwarrior with any  amount of experience go to waste. But I didn’t want to hand out “free” mechs either. So I ruled that for this game… if an enemy mech got dropped in such a way that it could be repaired, the Javelin guy would pick it up as his replacement mech.

I decided that a Davion Archer and Rifleman would be ambushed by four motorized MG infantry, 2 Patton tanks, and the “green” House Liao Vindicator. The Archer and Rifleman would come onto the board… and the House Liao units get hidden placement with a surprise round. I also ruled that Davion would have a morale of 9… minus the number of criticals they received. A number higher than that rolled after any turn they received a crit and they would turn tail and run.

Basically… a totally made up scenario with the objective of introducing infantry and vehicles while giving every conceivable break to the new guy just getting the hang of the game. (I could have maybe added one light mech to this group if I wanted it to be more even.)

The game played very fast– lest than three hours, easily. The Davion guys did not care about the green mechwarrior at all. They wanted to take out the much easier-to-mission-kill tanks first! Besides, the green guy just doesn’t hit often enough to be worth bothering with.

The infantry were interesting, more fun than I expected… and way too effective. I was running the game wrong, of course!

  • Mechs get a +3 bonus to to-hit with melee attacks against them.
  • Infantry take double damage if they are hit in a clear hex.
  • Mechs also have the option to move into the same hex as them… which would have the Archer the chance to take some better cover than I allowed him.

Everything played out perfectly for House Liao when the Archer took first a medium laser shot to the head followed by an AC-10 shot that blew it entirely off. The Javelin pilot will be coming back next game with an ARCHER! (And hoo-boy, does this change the overall complexion of the lance…!)

Here’s the current XP values as calculated by Mechwarrior first edition:

  • Blackjack (7/6) — 61
  • Clint (6/5) — 92
  • Javelin/Archer (6/5) — 106
  • Vindicator (6/5) — 75 + 63 = 138

The big break for this group comes when the 6/5 guys reach 175 XP… which is not that far away. (The Vindicator and Archer are liable to both get there next session.) The Blackjack was nearly useless in the first game, but if he can just hold on until he can reach 125 XP, he will be able to at least do something.

Anyway, that’s how the second installment went. Can’t what to see what happens to these guys next!

A Capellan Confederation Light Lance versus Four Patton Tanks!

This game’s been a long time coming.

Ever since the release of CityTech, I have wanted to use the BattleTech vehicles rules. But Mecha are so danged fun in an of themselves, they dominate whenever anyone puts the game on the table. No one ever wants to play with the tanks! Sigh…. Ah, CityTech… another victim of the Pareto Principle!

I went all out for this one, too.

  • I used first edition Mechwarrior to create a lance. One of the more interesting rules here is that you can take a penalty on your ‘mech assignment roll in return for additional character points. This resulted in a set of Green mechwarriors with ‘mechs weighing in at 45, 45, 40, and 30 tons.
  • I used the awesome force faction tables from Combat Operations  to select ‘mechs that would have been available to the Capellan Confederation circa 3025: VND-1R Vindicator, BJ-1 Blackjack, CLNT-3T Clint, and JVN-10N Javelin. (I also used the Battle Value numbers in there to determine a fair situation that slightly favored my opponent.)
  • I used the old FASA Master Rules to create a scenario for these guys: a breakthrough situation where four Patton tanks are attempting to break through this recon lance across three map sheets. (There really is a nice selection of “stock” scenarios in there.)

Fancy!

The action was furious. Lots of hard decisions and tough lessons here!

  • The AC/20 looks fearsome, but the ‘mechs can really soak up a lot of punishment. So much so, they’re safer than you’d think.  The Clint lost a leg. The Blackjack lost an arm. The Javelin had an arm blown off and would have survived, but when its leg got blown off at the end, it fell down. As it clambered to its feet, it ended up taking one last AC/20 shot to the center torso.
  • The Javelin is an effective anti-tank unit due to the SRM-6’s. Every single hit against a tank has a chance of dropping its cruising speed, immobilizing it altogether, or eliminating it altogether via a critical hit. (The Javelin did just that with an impressive ten missile hit, scoring the first kill.)
  • The Pattons would have gotten more tanks off the board if they had focused entirely on running away. Those short ranged AC/20 shots were just too fun to pass up, though.
  • The Green 6/5 mechwarriors and tank gunners could not hit anything unless they were at short range. The 7/6 pilot in the Blackjack had a devil of a time hitting anything. (Can’t recommend handing such a character to anyone to play, though working him up to 4/5 would be quite an achievement.)

Game time ran into the four hour mark. The play was so immersive and the desire to know how the next turn would play out was so great, I didn’t notice that it was a bit long. And for a continuing role-playing game type situation like this, I have to say… going with ‘mechs versus tanks was perfect. There’s plenty of decisive action, but the players are relatively safe. Plus, you get to play with the “big boom” stuff.

The next scenario writes itself, of course. While the Clint and the Blackjack go back to the shop for repairs, the Vindicator will be tapped to lead a conventional force of tanks and infantry to raid a supply depot. The lance is shorthanded now, too…. The replacement ‘mech will be (rolls dice…) a 20 ton Locust, because shame on you for wasting such an awesome light ‘mech as the Javelin!

Why Contemporary Science Fiction and Fantasy is Godawful

Now, my favorite explanation for why it is that science fiction and fantasy went bad can be summed up into just one word: Commies.

It’s especially hilarious because… it actually no kidding totally for real happened. But don’t take my word for it. Heck, go read Mutation or Death yourself. Even better, go read the completely off the wall letters that got written in to Planet Stories back in the day… and then ponder the implications of how it was that the premises of those complaints would culminate directly into the original Star Trek television series. (Cue Twilight Zone music…!)

You can’t say this in mixed company, of course. And talking about this will persuade no one of any of it. It’s just too danged crazy for people to be able to admit.

I’ll tell you what works though. You can try it yourself and then let me know what happens. Fair warning… it takes a lot of time. And it helps a great deal if you can engage people off the internet and in meatspace.

Find someone that is into science fiction and fantasy and ask them who they like to read and what they like best. Listen to them. Then ask them what they least like about the big fantasy novels of our day. If they read a lot, they will have several examples of fantasy epics that failed to go anywhere or that otherwise insulted the readers with their patently unepic conclusions.

(Note: The problems of contemporary fantasy are immediately obvious, even to non-ideologues and non-connoisseurs. What isn’t obvious to most people is that things were ever substantially different.)

At this point you mention that they should really check out the original Conan stories by Robert E. Howard. Whatever it is that they like or dislike, one of these stories is going to be a perfect fit for this person. Recommend one… talk about how you were surprised at how good they were and how they weren’t what you expected they would be. And then shut up.

(Note 2: On the internet, the argument never stops. In real life… you have to downshift to have an impact.)

A couple weeks later they should have more to talk about. They will be blown away by somethings, left cold by others. Cut them some slack: these sorts of people are taking their first steps into a larger literary world. And holy cow. Think about it. Nothing in this fantasy addict’s life is pointing this person towards the work of Robert E. Howard except you. Which means that you got to be the one to introduce them to Howard. That’s just crazy awesome in and of itself.

I think that’s weird, really. To get to be that guy to someone in this way. But here’s the thing: if you can do it once with an author as significant as Howard, you can do it a half dozen times.

Because here’s you two weeks later: “Oh, you thought Howard was good? Well you’re gonna love C. L. Moore!” But they’re going to tell you they’ve never heard of C. L. Moore. This is where you look baffled. “You never heard of C. L. Moore? How can you not have heard of C. L. Moore?!” Tell them to go read “Shambleau”… and they will come back later to thank you for it.

Wait a couple of weeks and you can run the exact same gag again. “You never heard of Leigh Brackett? That’s insane! She wrote the scripts for The Big Sleep, Rio Bravo, and [the first draft of] The Empire Strikes Back. How can you not have heard of Leigh Brackett?!” Tell them to go read The Sword of Rhiannon.

There are other authors and stories you can drop on them depending on how they handle this. Heck, no matter what thing in fantasy or science fiction that they like best… they have no idea who it was that pioneered its original tropes or just how danged good the old authors were and how well their works stand the test of time.

But these sorts of people… they see nothing amiss in any of this at this point. They have no idea what has transpired within the critical space and the overall commentariat over the past few decades. Right now you are just some guy that has some positively stellar book recommendations which no one else in their lives seems to know about. They can intuit that they are looking at the fantasy and science fiction canon for the first time. They can see the astonishing literary quality of the old stuff. They can see that contemporary authors do not fare well in comparison. This is all self-evident.

What they can’t see yet is that something happened. But these people are in a very precarious position here. What does it take to push them over the edge? Just mention that these books and authors are routinely excluded from top 100 book lists and accounts of science fiction and fantasy history. Even watershed books like A Princess of Mars. What happens next is surprising. They won’t believe you. You can gently reiterate that it’s the case… but they will push back on this. This just doesn’t make sense. As far as they’re concerned… this CANNOT BE.

Fortunately, cell phones are ubiquitous enough now that someone can bring up the NPR list. Watch them as they go book by book mocking the more ludicrous entries. If they slogged through Patrick Rothfuss’s stuff, I’m sure they’ll have some choice words when they get to that one. Then watch the reaction when they get to the end and it sinks in that there’s not one mention of Edgar Rice Burroughs anywhere.

That’s right. In a couple of months they’ve gone from never having heard of the classic authors to being outraged that nobody else has.

Ask them to explain justwhat the heck happened? Or more importantly…. what is still happening.

Ask them why this matters.

Ask them why something so seemingly insignificant and innocuous as adventure stories would be worth explicitly being erased from history and the collective conscious.

And listen to them.

The funny thing here is that any theory they might be inclined to offer up to explain all this is going to be anything but milder than what guys like me on the internet going to say at this point. Normal people are exasperated when they are confronted by this sort of thing, no different from how fans of the recent superhero movies react when told that you can’t get an Iron Man comic book right now starring insanely popular Tony Stark. Oh, it comes out in fits and starts. There’s all kinds of rationalizations that people will leap to before they finally give them up. But it all comes down to this: something happened to cause the science fiction and fantasy canon to just plain evaporate. A whole bunch of somethings, maybe. And there’s just no good justification for it.

Can you imagine large quantities of metal fans being unable to direct newcomers to the most significant reference points of their genre? I can’t. I can’t begin to imagine what sort of effort it would take to effect such a thing. But that’s exactly what’s happened in science fiction and fantasy.

Likewise, Jazz musicians don’t dismiss Louis Armstrong out of hand. Can you imagine trying to explain the origins and development of Bebop and The Cool while arbitrarily erasing every major jazz artist from before 1940? You can’t do it. But that’s exactly what happens when hack literary critics jump from the twin pillars of Verne and Wells and then directly on to the supposed “golden age” of exemplified by Asimov, Heinlein, and Clarke. There’s a decades-sized hole where the real golden age was!

Over at Quillette there is a story on the development of Creative Writing programs and degrees and workshops and so forth that I think sheds some light on how this transition seeped into and ultimately crippled the field of science fiction and fantasy. Check it out:

Creative Writing was a product of the ‘progressive’ educational movement in the late 1920s, which emphasised self-expression rather than tradition, formal discipline, or the mastery of a fixed body of knowledge or skills.

It’s weird to hear someone just come out and say it, but it’s a truism, really: progressives are necessarily in revolt against tradition. But this bit about self expression over discipline and mastery here… it’s happening in the twenties and not during the cultural revolution of the sixties. Note that pulp was protected from these people as being too low brow and too immediately accessible to large numbers of people that just want to read for fun. As such, authors could develop their skills and reference real myth, real history, real science, and real literature as much as they liked without being bothered by some dipstick that would push them to instead do some sort of hippy dippy deep dive into themselves.

Pulp writers were the beneficiaries of a legitimate culture with inconceivably vast assets. Contemporary writers are insular and inward-facing. How do you transition from one to the other…? Well, progressives can do a lot of damage just by sneering a lot and pretending to have their monocles pop off. But for this stuff to really metastatize, they needed to be able to propagate their methods within the higher education system:

Institutional writing programs spread slowly at first. In 1975, there were 52 Creative Writing programs in American universities.  But by 1984 there were 150 postgraduate degree programs (MA, MFA, or PhD) in the United States; by 2004, 350 (with a further 370 offering only undergraduate degrees in Creative Writing). As of 2010, there were as many as 1,269 degree-granting programs in America alone. This explosive growth has not necessarily encouraged a diverse literary output, as is obvious to anyone who attempts to read one of the annual Creative Writing anthologies (The Best American Short StoriesThe Best American PoetryThe Best American Essays, The Pushcart Prize Anthology, etc.) which collect typical, apparently exemplary, samples of what these programs produce. The fundamentally uniform quality of contemporary American literature as represented in these anthologies is startling.

Contrast the astonishing regional and stylistic and ideological diversity among the pulp authors with the stultifying homogeneity of stories following the ascendancy of Creative Writing Inc. It’s not normal. It’s not natural. It’s a disaster.

But note how the ax is laid to the root in this wasteland:

A competing (or complementary) influence is popular culture. Contemporary American literature recognises no established ‘canon’: the reader’s knowledge of Shakespeare and the Bible (for example) will not be taken for granted. On the other hand, readers are assumed to be intimately familiar with the same films, television programs, and pop songs as the writer.

The obliteration of canon goes far beyond the key reference points of fantasy and science fiction. It goes deeper… down to the level of broader Western canon. Ironically, pulp authors are necessarily and fundamentally more literate than anyone within the Creative Writing school.

In contemporary American literature, self-expression takes precedence over invention.  A writer’s thoughts, memories, and experience will form the main bank of material for poets, essayists, and fiction writers alike. Invented narratives and characters are associated with scripts for television and film; whereas short stories and novels must have a firm basis in historical research or recent journalism, or else must be rooted in personal experience.

And that is how we got “The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas” and “If You Were a Dinosaur My Love.” And why pulp writers from Burroughs to Brackett could so effortlessly invent, create, thrill, and induce wonder. This is where that smarmy, unctuous personal tone comes from… as opposed to the many and varied writing styles that are intended to actually be read by normal people. For fun.

The people that imbibe the stuff in these programs and workshops…? Everything they say is uniformly stupid and detached from reality. This is where the patronizing remarks about Lovecraft being a poor wordsmith hail from. This is where losers are taught to make insipid remarks about people having “workmanlike prose.” It’s all voiced by people that are merely dabbling in writing… and that have been programmed to neither be fluent in nor to recognize the canonical figures that wield a broad and ongoing influence over the field.

No wonder they can’t create. And no wonder the pulp era is the revelation that it is.

h/t to Nathan Housley for providing the link to this article over on Google+.

Also: you can buy my survey of some of the most influential books in fantasy and science fiction here.

The Curveball Strategy in Space Empires Replicators

Okay, I’d played this once, opting to take Destroyers with Attack-2 Defense-2 and Move-2 with my Giant Race empire. Those were some awesome ships… basically cruisers that cost next to nothing. I didn’t like having to stick with just one sort of ship the whole game… and it turned out that the extra tech I bolted onto them was tremendously helpful to the Replicator empire.

So I tried again with an attempt at a solitaire game. I opted for Raiders and Merchant Ship Pipelines… but that turned out to be fairly ineffective against the Replicator fleets. I may have been doing something wrong, but with the rule benders that are granted to the solitaire Replicators, I don’t think I stood a chance.

Fortunately I got another chance to play. I did several things to improve my game:

  • I skipped buying terraforming technology, instead opting to sack deep space alien worlds only for the technology. (I didn’t realize previously that you didn’t have to colonize them to get the stuff!)
  • I built a complete Merchant Ship pipeline which resulted in 18 extra CP a turn thanks to my drawing the Traders empire advantage.
  • I sent my scouts to explore deep space rather than saving them back racking up maintenance costs..
  • I outfitted by flagship with exploration tech and found a space wreck and 10-point minerals… and an alien world right next to my empire.
  • I chose to build fighters and carriers instead of destroyers and raiders. The operated very poorly in their first few battles, basically getting mostly blown away while doing the bare minimum.
  • Because of that… I adjusted by buying up two more levels of fighter technology. Not only did my fighters attack at 7, but the also got a much needed point of defense… without giving research points to the Replicators.
  • When I sacked the alien world, I lucked out and drew afterburners which gave my fighters another +1 bonus to attack. Perfect!
  • I’d also persuaded my opponent to play on the “normal” 2-player map… which gave him a LOT less minerals and space wrecks to harvest. (It’s a default for the solitaire game… which surprised me because we always played with as much deep space as possible before!)
  • Also, the doomsday machine really seemed to go out of its way to make things difficult for the Replicator player. (It even killed the planet for me when the Replicator colonized the barren world in deep space!)
  • Finally, when the Replicator fleet starting sending attack fleets at me, I also purchased some mines. I was able to use the merchant pipelines to position them for maximize their effect. More fighters might have been just as effective or better, but it was danged fun to throw the second curve ball there… especially when mines took down an entire attack force. (Of course, those mines could not be used to attack… and a cunning opponent will tempt you to fight away from them. On the other hand, there’s a limit to the counter mix, so you have diversify at some point!)

Now that I’ve played this out, it’s clear how the curveball strategy can really work. The fighters are your teeth. (B7 and B8 for attack is just plain awesome, especially when combined with their probable numbers. (But note you have to have advanced technology at level two before you can unlock Fighter-4 to get that B8 with defense 2.) Mines can take out your opponent’s biggest and most dangerous ships for next to nothing, but are a bit of a waste against the small ones. (More fighters are going to be a better investment than too many mines. However… given that the Replicators get research points for fleet size… mines instead of fighters can be a better buy in some cases!) If you expect your opponent to use point-defense against your fighters, you can use Raiders to counter them. Finally, if your opponent is spending effort planning and building ways to counter all three of these technologies…

You’ve got so many options for what combination of units to get with this and how to position them… it’s just an all around blast to play. Of course, which exact strategy you go with is going to ultimately hinge on what empire advantages and alien technologies are in play. I’ll tell you, though… I was sore afraid when we got to turn ten and it turned out that my opponent had “Green Replicators” and wouldn’t be depleting his planets until turn 13!

Anyway, great game here… so much you can do with it!