Next Level House Rules and a Look Back at a Classic of Wargaming
This might sound like the opening to The Goldbergs, but… “Back in the 80s, there was one undisputed king of the Sci-Fi wargaming battlefield: Battletech.”
Okay, so that might not be true, but it was popular. Much like Dungeons & Dragons, there were attempts for it to break into the mainstream, with toys and even a cartoon released for it. And after the recent backlash against Games Workshop over Warhammer 40K, a lot of those players have been looking to Battletech to see what it has to offer.
Originally launched by FASA in 1984, the property was acquired by WizKids in 2001. WizKids was then bought by Topps in 2003, and since 2007, it has been published by Catalyst Game Labs.
The game has seen a number of innovations over the decades. Roleplaying games, video games, collectable card games, and something that really stood out: the BattleTech Centers of the 1990s. These were 16 immersive video game pods networked together, made to resemble a ‘Mech cockpit with over 80 separate working controls. This was the holy grail of simulation gaming for a generation of kids.
Not all the innovations were considered great, however. The most notorious was when WizKids adapted the game to their HeroClix system, where you track the combat stats and abilities of each figure by turning a dial on its base. They also advanced the lore into a new setting, the Dark Age.
A lot of people didn’t like the Dark Age lore, or the Clix system, and resented the original Battletech being slapped with the label “Classic” like it was an obsolete brand of cola. Even the size of the Clix ‘Mechs were incompatible with Battletech maps.
When the Clix system eventually died and Catalyst took over production, they removed Classic from the title and focused their attention on the original game, pushing past the Dark Age into the new ilClan era.
Over the years, Battletech has added more and more optional crunch and detail to the game, but they also looked for ways to streamline play with a version known as Alpha Strike, originally designed for larger engagements.
And on the roleplaying side of things, there’s Mechwarrior. I always felt this part of the franchise was never given the kind of attention it deserved. While there are fans of the original RPGs, to me they felt like a square peg in a round hole, where the crossover between tactical wargame and roleplaying game was shoehorned in. It paled in comparison to, say, Heavy Gear, which was designed from the ground up to have an engine that applied to both large-scale ‘Mech combat and personal level adventures.
But the RPG also evolved over the years. Currently, there are two versions of Mechwarrior available, the robust A Time of War, and the gracile Destiny, which introduced a more streamlined approach to armored combat, something intended to work well in its “theater of the mind” roleplaying style, while still keeping the flavor of the tabletop wargame.
And this is where our story begins, when some gamers in Pennsylvania looked at these rules and saw a world of possibilities. But to understand why, we need to first look at the strengths and weakness of the three systems.
Three Flavors of Stompy Robots
BATTLETECH is what you might consider a “simulation” form of wargaming. Details are important. As such, every major hit location is taken into account: arms, legs, head, torso. Every weapon type has different ranges and damage that have to be considered. Typically, movement takes place on hexes, and every move and hex facing turn is taken into account.
Damage to the internal structure can result in specific kinds of critical damage—arms and legs might have their actuators hit and find it more difficult for the limb to move, specific weapon systems can be destroyed, the engine or gyros might take damage, and ammunition stores might explode.
Overall, this level of detail is intended to make the ‘Mech feel “real” in terms of the punishment it takes and dishes out. It’s ideal for one-on-one gladiatorial combat scenarios, though it’s intended for small 4-unit lance engagements.
ALPHA STRIKE does away with hit locations and abstracts a ‘Mech down to a single rating for armor and another for internal structure. Rather than have individual weapons, each with different ranges, range becomes a constant and a ‘Mech’s damage output varies depending on range. These ratings are determined by looking at the full scale Mech’s loadout, and boiling it down to a single number.
This was intended for larger wargaming scenarios on hexless terrain maps, where you are concerned with companies of 12 or so ‘Mechs rather than more personal engagements, but many people will use this with small 4 ‘Mech lances for faster games.
MECHWARRIOR: DESTINY isn’t a wargame at all, but a fast-paced light RPG. However, it includes rules for vehicle and ‘Mech combat using “theater of the mind” style mechanics rather than a map and miniatures.
In Mechwarrior: Destiny, armor locations and individual weapons return, but the number of hit locations has been reduced (instead of a Right, Left, and Center Torsos, it’s all just Torso), and weapon systems are often pooled into groups. Armor ratings and weapon damage have been rescaled with an eye to streamlining play. Heat effects and critical hits are also simplified.
Map movement is a non-factor in MWD, since it’s theater of the mind roleplaying. Instead, you narratively change your range as required.
Next Level House Rules
House rules are a part of every game. From using Free Parking as a jackpot in Monopoly to adapting your favorite RPG system to play in a game world you like (but don’t like the rules of). We all do it.
And sometimes, people do it really, really well. Sometimes, these rules take on a life of their own and gain a following.
This is where Death From Above Wargaming comes in, a group of wargamers based near Philadelphia. The brainchild of Aaron Falcone, he looked at the beta rules for Mechwarrior: Destiny while it was still in development and started to pencil down ideas about how it could be merged with the speedy play of Alpha Strike. Once he was done, he pestered Thom Berg, Kevin Peters, and others to help work out the kinks.
The folks at DFA Wargaming are a bit more than just fans. They like to crunch the numbers. A lot. I mean, it’s their jam. They run a series of “Battlytics” videos on YouTube in which they analyze the effectiveness of different ‘Mechs and their variants, and provide comprehensive statistics on their website for players who can’t get enough math in their lives.
It’s important to point this out, because it’s that same attention to detail that has made their hybrid Battletech: Destiny (BTD) ruleset a cut above other homebrews. They looked at the streamlined mechanics of Mechwarrior: Destiny, the play speed of Alpha Strike, and the immersive crunch of the original Battletech, and decided to make a sandwich out of it. A sandwich made of awesome.
The DFA team all started out playing the original Battletech, but over time moved to Alpha Strike. After all, faster gameplay means more games (or bigger games) to play.
But that speed comes at a price when it comes to detail, and for many, that’s where half the fun is. You don’t just want to apply X damage to someone or take X damage… you want to fire your long-range missiles and medium lasers, and get hit in your right arm, or take a critical hit to the torso that wrecks your gyro and causes you to stumble.
So the Destiny RPG mechanics were seen as a hidden gem, a potential middle ground that simplified and sped up gameplay, but kept that individual unit flavor.
According to Aaron, when converting between classic Battletech and their BTD ruleset, the math works out fairly clean. They’ve had to make adjustments and changes over time for balance, of course, but everyone has been happy with the results. As of this writing, they are now on Version 3.5 of the ruleset.
In addition to faster gameplay, this version increases the cinematic element of the game by putting more of a focus on the individual pilots. In Alpha Strike, pilots only have a general Skill rating. In Battletech, they have Piloting and Gunnery.
BTD adds three secondary skills: Tactics, Guts, and Leadership (as well as special trait called Edge). Each of these plays a part in the game, for things like morale checks, pilot damage, and initiative. If you are also playing the RPG, these will translate directly from your character sheet.
Why Try Destiny?
So what elements make this hybrid system faster? One example is their use of the Destiny RPG’s Target Interlock Circuits (TICs), which allows two or more weapons to fire together and hit the same location. If a ‘Mech has two medium lasers on the same arm, it makes sense to fire them at the same time and hit the same location. This reduces the number of times you’re rolling for damage during your turn, and causes more concentrated damage, which leads to quicker ‘Mech destruction.
The downside is that by being linked, if one weapon in a TIC is knocked out, the others are also disabled. They’re also limited by the modifiers of the shortest ranged weapon in the TIC, and there is a cap regarding how much damage a TIC can do. These prevent TICs from becoming OP, but still speed combat up significantly.
The range system also speeds things up. In regular Battletech, every weapon type has a different range, so if a target is 7 hexes away, it might be Long range on one weapon, Medium on another, and Short on something else. As a result, you end up always checking the range for each weapon every turn, and that can slow things down.
BTD flips the script and uses a fixed range system based on distance. If a target is 7 hexes away, it simply Medium range. You then check your weapons to see which ones can shoot that far, and what the modifier to hit for each is. Since you only need to check the range once, this becomes a time saver.
Initiative is also sped up, while also feeling more realistic. In standard Battletech, you roll 2d6 and the loser moves one of their ‘Mechs first, followed by the winner, back and forth until all units are moved. This gives the initiative winner an edge, because they can take advantage of the positions of any units already moved.
In BTD, you still roll for initiative, but your pilot’s Tactics skill and the Target Movement Modifier (TMM) of their vehicle are far more important. The slowest ‘Mechs and least skilled pilots always move first, while the faster ‘Mechs and more skilled pilots move last, giving them a tactical advantage. Whenever the TMM/Tactics have two ‘Mechs move within the same bracket, initiative determines who goes first.
This cuts down on the amount of time spent deciding which ‘Mech to move, because that’s largely taken care of.
Some Assembly Required
It’s important to note that the BTD House Rules are not intended to be a standalone ruleset. They expect you to have the other rulebooks necessary to play. For some, this can be a problem, since it borrows from three different games.
DFA Wargamming recommends having the full-sized Battletech Manual, Alpha Strike: Commander’s Edition, and of course, the Mechwarrior Destiny RPG to play, and three hardcover books can be pricey.
However, there are ways to save a few bucks. The manual included in the standard Battletech box set is more than sufficient to start with. And the Quick Start Rules for both Alpha Strike and Battletech are available for free online. These will do you just fine if your only interest is no-nonsense ‘Mech-on-‘Mech combat, and not, say, deploying jump infantry units from VTOLs in heavy weather conditions while Aerospace fighters battle overhead.
The only hardcover book that is necessary is the MechWarrior: Destiny RPG, which doesn’t have a free quickstart ruleset available.
The creators also make it clear that you are free to “play it your way” based on what you and your friends are looking for. If you don’t want to use secondary skills or make morale checks, you can ignore those rules and it will still work. Just be sure you understand how it will affect your game.
Is it Perfect?
A better question is, “Is it perfect for you?” Battletech: Destiny, by its very design, is about compromise. But compromise always has a price.
If you’re the sort of wargamer who really gets into the minutia of the game, and know all the subtle differences between two variations of the same ‘Mech, you might find that, once converted to BTD, they are now essentially the same thing. In some rare cases, a better ‘Mech in the classic rules becomes a worse ‘Mech in BTD.
For example, I converted two variants of the same ‘Mech. One dropped a couple of light machine guns in exchange for more armor and heat sinks. However, once converted to BTD, the armor and heat sinks gained weren’t enough to make an actual difference in the stats, so this variant was left with two fewer weapons but no additional armor or heat sinks.
This is unavoidable, but believe me, that problem is even more pronounced in Alpha Strike, which is far more homogenized.
Overall, however, the conversions work well, and most ‘Mechs and variants are left feeling as unique as their regular Battletech counterparts.
Why Did You Bother?
You might be wondering why I’m going out of my way to review a house rule system and tell you it’s worth your time. In this case, I think it’s because Battletech: Destiny shows that a game can evolve and still stay true to its roots.
One of the most common comments I see about Battletech is that it’s “clearly an 80s wargame.” And while most say that with affection, it also speaks to the difficulty a game like Battletech might have in staying relevant in this day and age. Game time is often at a premium and a single game can last several hours.
It also speaks to how the passion of a fanbase can keep a game going. DFA Wargaming does more than just develop house rules. They engage with the community, encourage discussion, and give players a sense of connection through their videos that lets them know interest in the game is alive and well.
They aren’t just interested in their BTD project, either. They have provided custom house rules for both standard Battletech and Alpha Strike as well, and have developed digital and online tools to help players with their games.
So, while I’m always excited to see the next official edition for a franchise I love, I have to say that in this case, I’m more excited to see this hybrid homebrew system gain popularity. It might even be what Battletech needs to become in the long run.
You can find Death From Above Wargaming at: https://dfawargaming.com/
You can find the BT: Destiny rules in their Download section: https://dfawargaming.com/downloads
(This review originally appeared in Knights of the Dinner Table Magazine issue #292)