Battletech Design – A Case For Adhering to Story Canon?

I’m not a huge “canonical” gamer.  Canon is, in popular culture, the accepted set of plot, character and settings that define a world.  When we ask “does something adhere to canon” in gaming, we are asking if game mechanics are aligned with the story aspects of a created fictional world.  You can think of the interplay between canon and mechanics as a continuum and every gamer falls on a different part of this continuum.

The Canon Continuum

On one end of the continuum, you have gamers that put adherence to canon story, characterization and setting above all else.  If that means that compromises are made in game mechanics that change or completely imbalance the game, that is ok with them.  Adherence to the created world goes above all else.  They love the fictional world more than they love any game based upon that world.

On the opposite end of the continuum, you have gamers who are gamers first and foremost.  Game balance and tactical or strategic options rule all else.  Whether or not something actually happened or could happen in the fictional world is irrelevant if it makes for a good game.

Most gamers fall somewhere in between these two extremes.  I fall much closer to the “gaming” end of the canon continuum.  However, this morning, in reading some responses to a thread I posted (as winteriscoming77) on the official Catalyst forums I’ve gotten some more perspective on the benefits of balance in dealing with canon.  There are some games that I have adhered more to canon while gaming than others.  Battletech happens to be one where I have skipped most of the canon, and I’m beginning to think I need to give it a second look, from a game balance perspective.

Canon Balance in Battletech

I love Battletech the tabletop game.  I’ve never disliked the canon and story of the created realm.  The basic of it are that a thousand years in the future, humanity has colonized part of our own galaxy.  Doing what humanity does best, they war over segments of the Milky Way using giant human-controlled robots called BattleMechs.

During the history of the realm, a faction was chased away from the core worlds.  They returned hundreds of years later as the “Clans”, a hyper-advanced warring culture.  The Clan Mechs were far more powerful than the Inner Sphere Mechs and the Inner Sphere began to be conquered.  The story of the fictional universe is a story of Inner Sphere personalities defending their home and the Clans seeking vengeance for their ancient ouster from the Inner Sphere.

Two of things that I very much like about the canon of Battletech is that each faction has a very deeply developed and unique culture that influences their decisions and take on the war and politics.  A second aspect that I like is that the Battletech Universe adheres to the possibilities of the Fermi Paradox and there are only one or two sentient alien species other than humans.  They don’t really factor into the world much at all.  The science behind it isn’t perfect, by any stretch, but it is very different from the standard “there are a thousand alien species and we’ve settled the entire galaxy” shtick of most science fantasy worlds.  Less than one tenth of one percent of the galaxy is colonized in the Battletech Universe.

Now enter the game that started it all.  Battletech treats the Clans realistically in terms of the canon story.  The Clan Mechs are far superior to the Inner Sphere Mechs in every way.  This means that when you set a lance of Clan Mechs against a lance of Inner Sphere Mechs, the Clan Mechs will win 90% of the time.  In short, the canon of the Universe has created a very imbalanced game element to match the story aspect.  Or has it?

In ignoring a lot of the canon of Battletech, I have been also ignoring some of the aspects of the canon that influence the balance between Clan and Inner Sphere Mechs.  Enter “Zellbrigen“, the Clan philosophy of honorable combat that follows strict rules of a warrior code.  I had ignored this aspect of canon largely because it isn’t mentioned much in the core rulebook.  Yet, it seems to be very useful in helping to balance Clan Mechs against Inner Sphere Mechs, or at least to give them a fighting chance.  Zellbrigen dictates that the honorable warrior fights from afar and close quarters fighting is “dirty” fighting.  So, Clan Mechs that are run according to canon will be more balanced because they should not use physical attacks in combat.  That small rule can make a huge difference for Inner Sphere Mechs and gives them a strategy to use against a superior force.

I’ll have to play around with it to know how big of a deal it is, but I think the lesson here is that I should not always be so quick to dismiss canon elements of a game just because I put game balance and execution first.  The canon may actually help with game balance, as it appears to do so here.

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