“Suddenly, five soldiers in heavy assault armor appeared out of nowhere!”
Battlelords Of The Twenty Third century is a game I remember seeing a lot in stores in the early 1990s, but I never picked it up. Recently, I was offered a chance to review the new (or possibly re-released, not 100% sure…) edition, and was given a free copy of the PDF in order to do so. Some bloggers whine and complain that they may have to disclose getting free laptops or vacations in return for reviews… I get a PDF. Go figure.
By the way, in case you’re wondering, the opening quote here is from the introductory game fiction. I do not like introductory game fiction. If I have to read a badly written short story to figure out what the game’s about, it’s a badly designed game. Fortunately, it seems the story is unnecessary to understand the game, a lesson White Wolf still really hasn’t learned. Unfortunately, while it isn’t necessary, it is badly written. The expository dialogue isn’t just ham handed… it’s “entire damn pig” handed. However, this is not a fiction review, it’s a game review, and, as usual, it’s not so much a “review” in the traditional sense as an “I make a character and I write down everything I do and everything I think along the way, as if anyone cares”. So let’s get on with it!
Who Do You Kill, What Stuff Do You Take?
All roleplaying games… well, all good roleplaying games… boil down to “Kill things and take their stuff.” Sometimes, the things you kill are your inner personal demons and the stuff you take is emotional maturity (it’s worth 500 gp to some vendors on the lower planes, by the way), but I think we can safely guess that a game called “Battlelords” is going to be a bit more… literal. (Which is a very, very, good thing.) From the introductory fiction, I learned that the main theme is that you’re going to be mercenaries for a megacorporation, blowing stuff up and risking constant death because there’s nothing good on television and while they’ve invented super-galactic-hyper-travel that allows the setting to cover 20 galaxies(!), they haven’t invented diet pills or Prozac. Really.
“With mixed emotions, the mercs called SSDC “Mother.” Mother offered people from the streets the chance to become something, to be more than fat, alcoholic, armchair quarterbacks whose lives suck so bad that they commit suicide in their early forties.”
The “something” they become is usually a charred corpse, but hey, it’s a living. Oh, wait, it’s not. It’s a dying. Anyway, let’s face it, by any kind of objective standard, virtually every PC in every game ever is basically a homicidal sociopath whose antics would make Stalin and Attila scratch their heads and say, “Dude, don’t you think you’re taking it a bit too far?”, so I’m not going to bitch too much about that.
Anyway… 20 galaxies? Really?
I can’t gripe too much about the general setting, though, since it hits a lot of my own personal favorite themes. Huge frackin’ galactic empires! Mysterious mysteries from the past! Super-psychic powers! Lost artifacts! You know, all the cool stuff. The writing could be a bit less clumsy, but its heart is in the right place (which, depending on species, might be the fourth leg).
By the way, you’ll be happy to know that the author takes time out to assure us that playing an RPG won’t make us believe we’re really a man eating squid. That is, a squid that eats humans, not a human who ordered “calimari” because he didn’t know it meant “squid”. I want to be clear here. The rules also tell us that there’s no devil worship involved. Yes, folks, in the 1990s, some game writers still felt obliged to tell their audience their games weren’t satanic. This tells you a lot more about game writers hoping against hope that people still believed RPGs were satanic, because that would be cool, than it does about the actual made-up scares of the time, which were more focused on Pokemon and games like “Doom”, which would turn everyone into psychopathic axe murders (but with guns, not axes), which is why, after an entire generation has grown up running demons through with chainsaws, violent crime keeps dropping despite harsh economic times that normally lead to an upswing in crime… but, please, Fox News, don’t let “facts” get in the way of your witch hunts… not that they ever have. Wait, where was I? Oh yeah. Battlelords.
Blah blah what is an RPG blah blah…
The main role you play in the game is that of a mercenary for a giant faceless megacorporation, which probably sounded a lot cooler in the 1990s than it does now. Apparently, being a corporate mercenary is a lot like being a sports star, as “The primary topic at many dinner tables around the galaxies is which mercenary team has done what recently, how many have lost their lives, and what good have they brought to the community.” Given the sheer scope of the setting, it’s hard to see how any team could ever manage to really stand out, since there must be tens of thousands of them, but, meh. Whatever. It’s fun to imagine.
Mother: Pass the Rigelian pork chops, dear, and put down that news view-o-scope, the amazing device that weighs only four pounds and can store almost a 100 megabytes of information.
Father: Sorry, I was just reading about Morgroth’s Maulers, who work for Teledyne Systems, which employs four million people! It seems they just completed their 99th massacre of unarmed civilians! Just one more, and they’ll be in the lead this year.
Older Son: Yes, but it seems that the Band of Buzzsaw Brothers will be able to hit the “100 uses of totally excessive force” barrier first, since the Maulers will be having most of their limbs regrown over the next week.
Younger Son: I want to be a corporate mercenary when I grow up, so I don’t become a suicidal fat alcoholic like Daddy!
Mother: Now, dear, we don’t use the A-word. Daddy is…. dealing with stress.
Father: I hate you all! I hate my life! I’m going to kill myself with a Mentar A3L Assault Cannon, even if it does have a tendency to overheat!
Anyway, back to the game…lest anyone think I’m overdoing the sports team metaphor, it goes on to state that there are “minor leagues” and “major leagues” of mercenaries. Actually, this seems like a plausible next step in the evolution of reality TV. Most corporate mercs are “lancers”, short for “freelancers”, but some are F.U.R.I.E.S (Force, Urban, Reconnaissance, Espionage, Soldier), who are there to achieve “ends other than violence and mayhem” (and where’s the fun in that?, I ask), or Grunts (paramilitary soldiers), who have a special combat permit allowing collateral damage to the public.
A Brief Digression
What? A digression? In an article written by Lizard?
Over on TV Tropes, there’s a nice entry called Sci-Fi Writers Have No Sense Of Scale, which is exactly what it says on the tin. The largest megacorporation in this game universe, in the setting that spans 20 galaxies, has… four million employees. Putting this in perspective, Wal-Mart, a company located on a single planet, has over two million. Sorry, but “twice as big as Wal-Mart” doesn’t impress me. If your setting has mega-corporations as being more powerful than governments, and it spans 20 galaxies, you need it to have more like four trillion employees. However, when you start really crunching the numbers like that, having the game focus on mercenary bands of 4 to 6 people, and having so few of these companies that there’s a multi-galaxy-spanning consensus that a few dozen of them, at most, are the “major leagues”, just leads to head scratching. Then again, so does forced movement in D&D 4e, but in actual play, it’s still fun. I just wanted to rant.
Then we start getting into the system, such as “what the hell is a D20” and the like. We’re told about Statistic Checks, where you must roll under a statistic to succeed… but, for some reason, we’re not told what kind of dice you roll for this check. Apparently, to judge from the other examples, percentile dice. And there’s a picture of a grandmother in a rocking chair holding an assault rifle.
It beats a rabbit with a pancake on its head.
No Elves, You Say?
Here we go, Chapter 3 — Player Races. Here’s where we start having fun. Now, since all you’ve played are elves and dwarves, it’s important to note these are totally new and different races which require true roleplaying skill to master. (But first, there’s a useful timeline of game events from 21550 BC to 2275 AD. Smeg, there’s a nuclear war on Earth scheduled for 2011. I better write this fast.)
We have hyper-intelligent, arrogant, psionics; matriarchial cat people who like studded neck collars and sleeping on soft pillows; stoic honorable warrior types; genetically-engineered bar-coded humans who like to whine about whether or not they’re really people; actual boring humans who have (wait for it) bonus skill points; and, uhm, so on. So, yeah, no dwarves or elves, just every other frackin’ sci-fi cliché in the book. This is a wonderful romp through 90’s era tropes. For the record, I much prefer these sorts of good, honest, archetypes that you can actually grok well enough to play in a few minutes to some pointless self-indulgent “really and truly alien” race that’s utterly useless because no one can figure out what a sentient slime mold who worships pi actually wants to do with his/her/its life. Just, please, don’t get on your high horse about originality and then give us cat-people, ronin-people, and big-head people. Strong archetypes exist because they are strong archetypes, so own up to it, already. Let me repeat Lizard’s First Law Of Creation: Doing the same old thing, but doing it very well, trumps being original for the sake of being original every single time. Originality is grossly overrated. Ninety-five percent of the time, what “original” means is “A whole lot of other people had this idea but realized it sucked giant sweaty donkey testicles long before they let anyone else see it. I don’t have that capacity for self-criticism, so, here it is!”
So, please bear that in mind if I make more than the occasional snarky comment on Battlelords’ originality or lack thereof.
The first step in creating a character is to pick a race. Battlelords prides itself on its races; each gets a two-page spread, a nice illustration, and several personality quirks/variants/concepts. It stresses that the racial descriptions are broad stereotypes and that individuals vary, and believe me, I understand their problem. For a game to be fun and playable, you need to be able to very quickly grasp a core concept: “I’m a wizard, I blow shit up with fireballs.” “I’m a dwarf, I’m short and grumpy and alcoholic”. Once that core is established, all sorts of things can be added to it, but if you can’t sum up a “character category” (race, class, archetype, culture, whatever) in a sentence or two, the game’s appeal instantly drops to a small niche. Even games without formal category systems (GURPS, Hero) quickly realized that categories did exist and began to document them as part of a setting or simply as a guide. People like categories!
“Big dumb strong hits a lot” is a great archetype, and there’s a race for that — the Ram Python, which sounds like either a gay porn star or a dildo that could satisfy Octomom. However, I can’t really get into a race which… and I am not making this up… considers farting a religious ritual and has a fart chart. I try to make my games, when I am free to write them as I see fit, “For fourteen year olds of all ages.” But fart jokes? That’s for thirteen year olds, dude!
So they’re Right Out. What’s left? Well, good intentions doomed to tragic failure due to total denial of human nature, truly astounding levels of self-righteousness, and the belief that the laws of physics are a social construct. Also, 11 other races, not counting some of the variant options and sub-races. I choose the Eridani, the “Sword Saints”. If you can’t be an insane homicidal reptile (and, really, I shouldn’t be… roleplaying is about being something different from yourself…) you might as well be a stick-rammed-six-feet-up-the-ass Noble Warrior Ronin type. They look a lot like Lord Voldemort (but this game predates Harry Potter by quite a few years), and seek inner peace and knowledge of their soul and of their place in the universe by going into battle and killing things. “Inner Peace Through Outer Violence”. (That’s not from the book, that’s from me, and I think it’s cool and ought to go on a t-shirt or bumper sticker or something.)
Oh, their favorite food is Kyume, a dish that tastes “like Earth Oriental Stir Fry”, which is sort of like saying it tastes like “French Cuisine”. The writing in Battlelords is not awful, and I’ve seen far worse in games with much higher “pedigrees”, but the rules are peppered with very awkward phrases. The writing shifts suddenly between in-universe and rulespeak, and there’s a self-consciousness to a lot of the flavor text that makes it feel clumsy and forced. “Trying too hard” is what comes to mind. (And I speak from experience here; there’s times when I’ve decided I need to write something in a particular voice or tone, and I can feel that it’s wrong, that the words aren’t flowing properly and that instead of shifting my mind into that voice and then speaking naturally, I’m faking it, and if I know it, the reader knows it. Sometimes the right voice is there, sometimes it isn’t; sometimes it will come to you, and sometimes it won’t. Free writing advice, and worth every penny.)
With a race chosen, I can move on to the meat of character creation, coming soon!