What Do I Know About First Impressions? MechWarrior Destiny (Cue System)
When I first started playing RPGs, where you bought your RPG material heavily influenced what games you were exposed to. Dungeons & Dragons made it into toy stores and book stores, and many “second-tier” TSR releases followed D&D into book stores, but some corners of the hobby only existed in specialty stores.
The first two RPGs that I played were D&D and Marvel Super Heroes, games I could easily find at the mall in book stores. The third roleplaying game that I encountered was something that I didn’t see until I had discovered the hobby shop near the Air Force base a few towns over. But before I encountered that roleplaying game, I ran into the game that spawned it.
For a while, my gaming group was obsessed with BattleTech. It was probably one of the most accessible miniatures games of the day, as it came with a terrain board, cardboard stand-ups of the mechs, and plastic stands for the stand-ups. While there were standard miniatures available, you could engage with the game with a wide variety of mechs just with the standups included in the box.
Hence Comes MechWarrior
My friends picked up a lot of BattleTech. They picked up the core boxed set, the city expansion, and the aerospace expansion in pretty quick succession. After we spent hours and hours blowing up one another’s mechs, we finally saw it . . . MechWarrior, the roleplaying game for the BattleTech universe.
Our group started out as a scrappy, small mercenary group working for House Marik, with bad pay and bad support, and we tried to do as much as we could to get the attention of House Steiner so we could shift allegiances, but not until our contract with Marik was up.
MechWarrior was cumbersome. It used modified rules from the tabletop game, meaning that it tracked locations on the character where weapons would strike, and how many wounds a character had in each of those locations. Combat was really slow to resolve, and could be really deadly based on a random hit location roll.
The core game especially assumed that you had to make characters for all of the roles in your team of mercenaries, meaning you may have made up more characters than you had players, so you could build out your support team and mechanics. The concept of roleplaying in the setting was very compelling, but we drifted away from the RPG, because it was more fun to track headshots and contextual hit locations in the minis game than for a character for which you were growing fond.
My group only played a short campaign of the roleplaying game, but we continued to play the miniatures game a lot. I grew very fond of the setting. It was cynical and dystopian, with human beings locked into a future of constant warfare. But unlike Warhammer 40000, for example, way more people in the setting realized that their houses weren’t necessarily righteous or good. Mercenaries might have a lot of respect for one another, and while they might trash a mech, they weren’t going to go out of their way to harm the actual merc pilots once they were dispossessed. Houses might strive against one another, but almost everyone would agree that the pirates and unaffiliated raiders were dangerous wild cards.
This was also the first time I noticed something that seems to be a “thing” in fiction based on tabletop war games with factions. The setting design may not designate heroes and villains, but certain authors seem to have their favorites, and shift the narrative into beloved protagonists versus vile antagonists. Those perspective pieces often didn’t so much feel like different points of view, but alternate universes where the different factions were all the heroes of their own realities.
It wasn’t built into the setting that you wouldn’t question the status quo, and there were in-universe stories about uprisings, rebellions, betrayals, and shifting loyalties. That said, when the setting moved towards the Clan Wars era, all of us drifted away. I don’t know that we disliked it, so much as we just didn’t have the energy to absorb all of the changes. I didn’t look back until the 20th Anniversary boxed set, long after FASA had faded and the property had moved to Topps and Catalyst Games.
What a Long, Strange Road
That was a really long preamble for what I’m looking at today, but I wanted to provide the context for how much I care about the topic, and where my biases may lie. Today, I’m looking at MechWarrior Destiny, the “story first” roleplaying game from Catalyst. Much like Shadowrun Anarchy, this is a different expression of a roleplaying game that is less rules intensive, to appeal to a wider group of gamers that might like the setting, but maybe not the “main” roleplaying game. In this case, MechWarrior Destiny is an alternate take on Catalyst’s A Time of War roleplaying game.
I’m writing this as a First Impression article, in part because I can’t honestly evaluate everything that this product is trying to do. While I can speak to how the game addresses mech combat and expressing the setting, I can’t really speak to the sections of the book that seek to translate the game to the standard BattleTech rules, or the fast play Alpha Strike rules. However, I don’t think I’ve seen an alternate set of roleplaying rules that diverge from the core rules, that address adapting those rules to a tabletop miniatures game, which itself has a divergent alternative ruleset. That’s a lot of mechanical drift.
The Cue System and Adaptations
I’ve seen some criticism of the Cue System, as expressed in the Shadowrun Anarchy rules. Some of these criticisms I think are valid, and others feel a bit facile. I’ll say, upfront, I’ve not seen the Cue System in its “base” form, only the modified form that has been used for Shadowrun Anarchy and for MechWarrior Destiny. If you are more conversant with the system outside of these bonds, I’d be interested to hear about your impressions.
I’ve seen Anarchy called a “dumbed down” version of Shadowrun, and it’s not really. That implies that having a more narrative-based vector for engaging with the setting is somehow lesser than doing the “real” work of learning the more granular ruleset. That said, I have some criticisms about the Cue System as expressed in Shadowrun Anarchy.
- The book is not well organized
- Cues seem like they should be more important, with the game being named after them—they seem like Fate Aspects, but don’t really have any mechanical purpose
- The guidelines for building distinct benefits in the game is confusing, and the process doesn’t seem to match the prebuilt items
- Some of the subsystems for resolving special situations are buried in the text (see the first point)
You may not realize there is a procedure for resolving Matrix encounters versus regular encounters, and translating a spell or piece of equipment using the guidelines may end up making the new conversion cheaper or more expensive than gear that does the same thing that appears on various character sheets.
Once I had a chance to play this at Gamehole Con, I think the game plays well. It just isn’t structured or expressed well, and cues always feel like they are just sitting out there, less useful than traits in a D&D background.
The wider selection of gear and spells in Chicago Chaos really helped this as a game that doesn’t rely as much on the pre-made characters. I would definitely run this before I ran the core Shadowrun rules, but I would summarize the rules for my players rather than assuming they were going to pick up anything from the text.
Shadowrun Anarchy tries to adopt a similarity to the core Shadowrun rules, in that it uses d6s and counts specific successes for each die. Pools are made from adding traits to skills and rolling that number of dice. While it’s still referred to as a Cue System game, MechWarrior Destiny does something a bit different, to feel more like the core concepts of various BattleTech games.
MechWarrior assumes you will roll 2d6 and add an attribute to a skill to determine the number rolled, with double 1s always counting as a failure. Cues are still lots of phrases you can have fun writing on your character sheet, and never directly use in the game. Gear is a bit more defined, with less emphasis on custom building items that your character is building. Health works similarly, with separate tracks for health and fatigue, and armor being checked off before a character starts taking harm from their regular pools.
That said, mech scale combat still has distinct hit locations. Movement and positioning are much more abstract than in BattleTech, but combat is still going to revolve around potentially firing multiple weapons, building up heat, and rolling for hit locations, with some weapons hitting secondary locations as well. It is rules “lighter” than the main rules, but definitely not rules light.
The book is 246 pages long, with a summarized index, reference tables, and record sheets at the end of the book. There is introductory fiction that’s about 9 pages long. There are about 42 pages of pre-generated characters, which take up extra space because they have their vehicle stats to express as well as background material and personal scale stats. There are another 14 pages showcasing Clan era sample characters as well.
The Warrior’s Catalog is about 20 pages of gear, including the stats for various mechs and vehicles in the setting.
The main parts of the book are:
- The BattleTech Primer
- Rules of Engagement
- Playing MechWarrior Destiny
- Mech-Scale Combat
- Building Your Destiny
- Controlling Destiny
- Sample PCs
- Mission Briefings
- Warrior’s Catalog
- Tabletop Integration
- Appendix: Clan Invasion
The book itself looks great. It has nice artwork in the style of any other BattleTech release, block style “military future” formatting, and section “tabs” along the right-hand side of the pages, identifying what section of the book you find yourself in.
Nostalgia and Deep Sighs
I know there have been tons of novels and sourcebooks that have come out over the years, but honestly, there are a few big points in BattleTech history, and the rest is pretty much skirmishes all over the Inner Sphere, especially when viewed through the lens of the soldiers on the ground. From that standpoint, I think the primer and the section on the Clan Invasion do what they need to do to introduce the basics of the setting.
While it feels like there is a little more nuance to some of the Houses than I remember in the original boxed set primer on the setting, there are still some long shadows from the legacy of the game’s less than perfect integration of real-world cultures.
As an example, House Kurita isn’t just ruled by a family of Japanese descent, all of the nobles of House Kurita style themselves as samurai, most of them are of Japanese descent, and in formal situations, they carry katanas. The material also really shows its 80s era influences, because while the setting doesn’t have one set villain faction, House Kurita is often positioned as the harshest house and the one most likely to screw over mercenaries because they “have no honor.” I’d love to see a reworked House Kurita that reflects a lead family of Japanese descent that doesn’t also reach back to samurai tropes and 80s anti-Japanese paranoia.
It’s weird reading about how the majority Japanese House Kurita is oppressing the proud Scandinavian settlers within the Draconis Combine. It’s also worth noting that unlike House Kurita, House Steiner doesn’t seem to reach back hundreds of years to recreate German social structures. Although, to be fair, House Davion does have a lot of uniforms that look like traditional European noble attire.
It has lots of problems, but I also admit, I still have affection for this setting. I can’t help but compare it to Warhammer 40K, where any satire or humor seems to have been subverted, and there is a lot of troubling fascism porn going on. We use the term xenophobia, but flat out, it’s literally institutionalized racism that allows for the execution of the other.
BattleTech has problems, but at its heart, individual humans may be decent, and even the heads of the various houses may do good and bad things, but humans screwed up, and humans may get better, but nobody has the right answer at the moment. That feels weirdly more hopeful to me than the 40K paradigm.
Looking at Gear
Compared to Shadowrun Anarchy, MechWarrior Destiny does a way better job of handling gear. The Warrior’s Catalog summarizes a lot of what players are going to want, and much like the original boxed set, there is enough variety of mechs in the core book that nobody should feel compelled to walk through the conversion notes to build mechs to provide more variety unless they really like their favorites.
In the setting, characters use the ComStar backed C-Bills as currency, but currency is not tracked in the RPG. Buying and upgrading hardware is part of spending XP, which basically means that your day to day expenses are handled, and the real expenses are picking up new weapons or bigger vehicles. There are XP costs for salvaging and repairing mechs that were trashed on the battlefield.
The Style of Game
Much like Shadowrun Anarchy, the core assumption is that players will be creating plot twists on their turns, or “narrations.” Unlike Shadowrun Anarchy, the game assumes that even with the distributed power, there will be someone designated as a Game Master to adjudicate how far the group drifts from their core narrative when they introduce new elements. That said, there is a section on running the game with a more traditional Game Master role, and honestly, I think it does a better job explaining the game for that paradigm than the shifting narrative assumption of the Cue System.
One way or the other, characters get some plot points to spend during the game. These can be used for more utilitarian things, like taking a counterattack on an opponent that just attacked a character, or they can be used to introduce broader story changes into the game. I was also surprised to see that Edge also made it into the game, which is mainly a way to mitigate bad rolls. I pictured Edge as more of a Shadowrun thing, but it works.
The Mission Briefs
The middle of the book is comprised of mission briefs. This is similar to how Shadowrun Anarchy was structured. The mission briefs are broad outlines of a gameplay session, framed as an in-world briefing, and then adding some descriptions of individual objectives and proposed opposition and plot twists over the course of resolving the mission.
I’m actually a fan of this style of “adventure” in RPGs, as its specific enough to give guidance, but open enough that the GM can add in the bits of the game they really want to explore, as long as those bits fit the overall narrative.
Shadowrun Anarchy uses Karma for advancement, and uses Karma as shorthand both for meta-currency used to advance a character and an in-world representation of how much the characters are getting paid. This means that characters can actually haggle for more Karma before they take a job, and part of advancement is based on how good the group is at negotiating. MechWarrior Destiny provides XP for different objectives, but there isn’t the same level of haggling for missions, probably because mercenary companies are assumed to have standing contracts with their employers.
The mission briefs often have a header that describes who the characters will be working for, but many of the missions, even when assigned to a specific house, aren’t too hard to “drift” to another house. There is also a multi-part campaign where characters, depending on their actions, end up on the wrong side of ComStar with an ongoing price on their heads.
One interesting quirk is that a lot of the mission briefs include many objectives that are personal scale. While it makes sense if you are playing elite military to go undercover or to attempt to negotiate with planetary governors, the narrative feels a little strange when you think of hired mercenaries showing up to do that kind of work.
Mech scale combat is more involved than personal scale, but it feels manageable. The added step is that players need to roll for hit locations after an attack instead of having an overall armor and health monitor. One particular aspect of BattleTech is modified . . . head hits are really deadly, as even the most heavily armored mech only has so much armor in the head, and taking out the head puts the pilot in danger. If a hit location indicates a head hit, it requires spending a plot point to activate.
There are some interesting uses of plot points in large scale combat. For example, if characters have enough plot points, they can retreat from a bad fight without playing it out, with the mech taking some random hits to model pulling out of combat. Battlefield support is also modeled by spending plot points, with different effects that can be purchased for Aerospace Support, Conventional Support, Artillery Support, and Battlemech Support. While most of these options boil down to adding damage to opponents, hit locations will vary, and there are special options for each (for example, one of the Aerospace options just has your Aerospace support tie up enemy fighters so they are out of the fight for three rounds).
Fights that end up being lopsided one way or the other can be called early, with a similar mechanic for retreat, causing the vehicles involved in the fight to take a few hits in various locations, and narrating the aftermath, with the PCs either retreating or taking over a location, depending on if the overwhelming force is for or against the PCs.
When making your own characters, players need to determine if the character being created is green, regular, a veteran, or elite. This determines how many attribute, skill points, weapons, and hardware points you have to spend. Hardware points are what is used to purchase mech scale resources like mechs, tanks, or aerospace fighters. These can be traded in and can be converted to other parts of character creation if they are not used for hardware resources.
Characters also get bonuses to different skills based on their life modules, which involves picking a faction, childhood, higher education, and real-life options. Characters also pick a positive and negative trait. This is also where you come up with Cues, which are like aspects in Fate, except they are only there to remind you how to roleplay the character you are creating.
The Clan Invasion appendix adds new life modules for Clan characters, as well as modifies the factions available for life modules. It also adds new mechs, vehicles, weapons, and elementals–smaller scale personal armor with both personal scale and mech scale weaponry introduced by the clans.
For anyone that hasn’t followed the BattleTech universe, the original state of the Inner Sphere involved five great Houses controlling different bits of known space, skirmishing around their borders, with some lose alliances and traditional rivalries, and with everyone listening to ComStar, who held a monopoly on long-range deep space communication. The Clan Invasion involved groups of genetically bred super-humans returning to the Inner Sphere to conquer it, with the individual clans competing to be the dominant clan, and forcing the Inner Sphere to realign allegiances, and allowing for some splinter factions to break off of their traditional house affiliations.
Because Clan soldiers are genetically engineered and are better equipped, they start off at a higher competence level than Inner Sphere characters, and pick up an extra point of Hardware, so they can afford their fancy Omni-Mechs.
The Other Stuff
It’s been a few years since I played standard BattleTech, and I haven’t played the newer, streamlined Alpha Strike rules, so there is a whole chapter I can’t really speak to. Essentially, this section lets you determine how skills translate into the miniatures rules, and also allow for some character abilities to be translated into special character traits that can be triggered contextually during fights.
There is a special character sheet for the translated “tabletop” version of the character to be used at the table. There are rules for modeling damage sustained on the mech in the tabletop game when the mech is “translated” back to the MechWarrior Destiny game. There are also rules for how a character earns XPs in a tabletop game, which can be used to upgrade the character in Destiny, which then can be translated back to the tabletop version of the character, and so on.
Between the better-defined gear and the overall structure of the book, this feels like a better expression of the thesis statement of a simplified version of the RPG than Shadowrun Anarchy. I think the dice pool version of the Cue System used for Shadowrun Anarchy works, but I feel like the “bonus” version of the Cue System feels a little more solid than Anarchy. I really appreciate not needing to custom build gear and spells in the same manner as Anarchy, because most of the common weapons are modeled already. I will say that I haven’t tried to convert any mechs that don’t appear in this book from BattleTech rules, so if you really need an Atlas or a Battlemaster Mark II, I can’t tell you if that is more or less satisfying than trying to build cybernetics, spells, or hacker rigs in Shadowrun Anarchy.
I wish there was a little more guidance for modeling a small scale mercenary group versus a large scale group, and the difference between playing house military versus mercenaries. I also wish some of the larger, more famous mercenary groups had been mentioned. If this line follows the same pattern as Shadowrun Anarchy, there will likely be a follow-up volume with more mechs and vehicles, and possibly more discussion on factions, just like Chicago Chaos added more gear, spells, and player options, as well as adding more details on monster hunters in the Shadowrun setting, and providing details for Chicago as a setting location.
I wasn’t disappointed by this purchase, and I was a little less confused than I was when reading through Anarchy. That said, I really wish we could get a rewrite of the old Houses that didn’t lean so heavily on cultural stereotypes that incorporate 80s era anti-Japanese racism, or reductive tropes like equating a Japanese great house with bushido and samurai culture. We should be better at updating our nostalgia products at this point.