Dominus Rising

DakPreta1

Minis by DAK, photo by BHR

A Darker Vision

Back after I’d completed work on Starterbook: Wolf and Blake, I had several brainstorm chats with then-line developer Herb. We fleshed out a lot of the ‘hidden’ actions of certain characters within the Word of Blake’s Manei Domini faction, especially that of my (at the time) newly created Opacus Venatori and their multi-layered leader, Berith.

Working with the Jihad timeline we were continually constructing at the time, we formulated a few key events that found their way into the background of later products.

In 2012, shortly before Herb was pushed out of the LD position, we’d begun work on fleshing out the storyline and important faction details that would lead to the 3250 setting we were devising. (Not anymore, mind: that entire idea and setting has since been scrapped, for various reasons I won’t rehash here.)

One of the major points I pushed hard for was the re-emergence of the Word of Blake as a primary foe going into the post-3250 era. That meant an evolution of sorts for the faction, so I sketched out my own thoughts on how that would come to pass.

Casting Light on Shadow

Now that I’m completely severed from the line – and that those story plans have been thoroughly trashed – there’s no harm in sharing what my thoughts and ideas were regarding this defunct bit of worldbuilding, including my perceived take on the fate of Berith, his merry band of villains, and the sinister Word of Blake.

(Note that some of the info here conflicts with later published product. Such is reality versus creative brainstorming.)

Enjoy.

Berith and the Exile: (Originally outlined in 2008; additional details added 2013.)

  1. The OV suffers the loss of Portia Thomas during the battle on Gabriel’s moon; a few others are injured, but the unit survives nearly unscathed. (Berith does face down Church again, but to no clear winner. Instead, he uses the opportunity to lure out and kill Stryker, removing the traitor from the Word of Blake’s heart.)
  1. Thomas’ loss is not made up during the unit’s subsequent redeployment to Glengarry (mentioned in Berith’s TRO75 notable); Marita takes it personally and begins to whisper her discontent. To her POV, the Opacus MD are getting better treatment and replenishment, while the Venatori “Frails” are getting the shaft. (This isn’t true, per se, but because of Kari’s bitterness, it becomes truth to her.) Her grumblings become more and more frequent.
  1. Berith leads his Opacus and assassinates the Bounty Hunter. Shortly afterwards, Berith personally kills Chandresekhar Kurita, who had hired the BH to protect him. Berith commands Kendali to “finish them off,” giving her leave to hunt and kill the remaining members of the Hunter’s crew on the planet. With that command, Berith also orders Kendali to take up the BH’s mantle and to watch for an opportunity in the future to relieve Stone of his life. Kendali becomes the next Bounty Hunter and recruits three loyal Light of Mankind operatives as her team; these operatives voluntarily accept cybernetics and “ascend” into MD-hood. They hunt down and kill all surviving members of the previous Hunter.
  1. In 3076, Marita fails in a mission for a critical second; an ambush meant to take out Berith fails only due to the sacrifice of Mi Tomitaki in her Malak, who intercepts the killing shot and dies from internal injuries and brain seizure. Later, as Berith analyzes the data, he notices Marita’s critical failure; coupled with her supposedly quiet whisperings and rumblings, he decides to fix the problem.
  1. After long analysis, Berith concludes the Frails of his OV unit are no longer pure and corrupted just like the rest of humanity. (It had been his deep desire to ‘reclaim’ these six without subjecting them to MDism; his ‘social experiment’ has failed.) During a critical point in a battle on Isesaki, he orders his Opacus to execute the Venatori for their treachery to the MD order. Four of the five remaining Hunters die, caught between the Opacus and their enemies. Bryn Rivenschild is severely injured and, because of the extent of his injuries, is welcomed into the Manei Domini. He replaces Tomitaki’s slot within the Opacus. Not surprisingly, none of the Opacus question their leader.
  1. Berith meets up with Avitue post-76, filling Kendali’s open slot with the Opacus.
  1. At some point, Berith manages to meet with Apollyon for the last time on Gibson, reclaiming Appy’s key and receiving final orders to go into Exile, taking as many of the Filii as possible. He is given command of the remains of the 52nd, which now numbers less than two Level IIs. After word of Apollyon’s death, Berith takes overall command of the Manei Domini and issues Code Omicron, signaling a massive withdrawal of all MD units from the Inner Sphere.
  1. The Opacus is attacked by a hunter squad from the Fidelis on Caph; Achillius manages to lure the squad away from Berith and leads them on a long rabbit trail, which ultimately ends in his and his pursuer’s deaths.
  1. Berith is joined by the remains of the 48th, including Precentor Rimmon. The 48th brings with them a battered Thera-class WarShip and survivors of the fighting in the Federation. The WarShip becomes a refugee vessel. At this time, however, Berith learns (discovers) of another pursuing Fidelis hunter squad. He gives orders for Avitue and Rimmon to head towards the Capellan hidden world. Berith then disbands his Opacus, giving orders to Rufus to act as the fleeing refugee’s Blakist spiritual advisor (a role he knows well). He also orders Cazer to melt into the population [somewhere where we can sow some chaos between the forming ROTS and Capellan or Marik worlds]. He then reassigns a few MD who are nearer to death (mortal wounds or growing psychosis) to himself and sets out to entrap and kill the Fidelis team.
  1. Sometime in 3083-5, Berith manages to escape the clutches of several MD-hunter squads and finally return to the hidden world to carry out Apollyon’s final orders for the Order of Dominus. He brings with him a total of 2-3 more Level IIs of various MDs, most from the shattered 40th.
  1. Kendali, masquerading as the Bounty Hunter, almost manages to assassinate Devlin Stone, failing only due to a faulty detonator circuit. The ensuing blast fails to catch Stone before he finds cover; the Bounty Hunter is killed during her attempted escape, though she manages to wipe out the rest of Stone’s Fidelis bodyguard unit in a massive explosion.
  1. Berith undergoes surgery and his VDNI is removed. He declares himself the Shadow Primus, with Avitue designated as Precentor Martial/ROM. The operation is mostly successful, though Berith suffers a stroke shortly after and is confined to a wheelchair. Out of respect for their new leader, all Domini have their VDNI and DNI implants removed as well; less than half of them remain in service as pilots.
  1. Cazer manages to link up with several former LIC and ROM operatives now displaced from The Republic’s new intelligence services. The group forms the Curaitis Organization, designed to “watch the watchers.” Cazer slowly builds her own secret network, funneling information back to Berith and the hidden Domini.
  1. In the mid-90s, the Word of Blake transfers most of its leadership and core functions to the Eryines. It still maintains a presence on the last remaining Hidden world, deep underground. The Eryines and its escort of WarShips moves periodically across the Periphery, mostly through systems that were charted by IE and classified as dead.
  1. In 3101, Berith dies from another stroke. However, his Triple Core Processor remains active and is removed from his body. The TCP is attached to a mainframe and is revered as an oracle. The new Shadow Primus, Coraline, takes the Ascended name of Anahel and begins expanding the MD’s shadow network of intelligence through the Curaitis Organization and IE (through several dummy corporations and shell organizations). The Shadow Oracle, as Berith’s alternate AI comes to be known, now functions as a key advisor to the transformed leadership group. Over the decades, the Oracle’s AI is merged with that of the Eryines‘ internal network.
  1. The transformed Word of Blake remains dormant and slowly evolves, preparing for an eventual emergence post-3250, after the Third League collapses with internal strife and violence, partially instigated by the shadow empire.

Proposing Future War: SCOUR and SCYTHE

Wolf vs. Blake

Roughly five years ago, and two years after pushing out the Masters and Minions compilation and sorting out material for Jihad Hot Spots: Terra, a random email conversation with a fellow contractor spawned an idea. What if we could detail one of the biggest operations of BattleTech‘s Jihad Era and possibly kickstart a dormant series?

Operations SCOUR and SCYTHE were two major campaigns that I helped orchestrate within our massive canon timeline. They were officially Stone’s biggest combined campaigns of the war, culminating in the emancipation of Terra from the Word of Blake’s choking grasp.

I went so far as to work up a detailed outline and discussed the possibilities with a couple of writers who were free and whom I trusted most.

Alas, the project didn’t gain much traction because shortly afterwards, the Total Chaos idea came up and was chosen instead. At that point, I just folded over into it pieces of what I had conceived in this project.

Since there’s no chance this will ever be done, I’m posting it here as a ‘what if’ possibility for those interested in such things. It’s also a good example of how to build a project pitch for a plot book – if you happen to be involved in development of a venerable game line someday that actually has money to spend.

Proposal: Historical SCOUR-SCYTHE

Serial Building In A Time of War

hbhs-cover-panel-gala

Back in 2008 as I worked with Herb on sorting out the upcoming A Time of War role-playing rulebook, a suggestion was made about the short stories that would be peppered throughout. As the stories were a key component within the BattleTech core rules – to better show the richness of the universe – they were also a more subtle way to showcase the various rules within the next section. While this didn’t always match up, it was mostly successful.

With the RPG book, we intended to do the same. However, I pitched a concept that not only would each story highlight the next rules section, but also carry through as a connected serial. This would help illustrate one of the primary motivators for role-playing games in general. After all, RPGs are all about playing a character within the setting. So why not do a subtle take on the typical episodic campaign arc that is commonplace at gaming tables?

You’ll see in my finalized version that went out to the assigned writers how this worked for our character stories for the ATOW book. Each chapter focused on a different character’s POV, as well as advanced our intrepid heroes along the campaign path. You can then compare these final notes with the final product, and see how each writer interpreted them.

ATOW Story Elements

I figured this would be a fun little ‘behind the scenes’ bit from my archive, as I start to clean house after my decision last week. I may show a little more in the weeks ahead, so keep your eyes peeled!

Shutdown Sequence Initiated

As of today, I am no longer the Assistant Line Developer for the BattleTech game line. Furthermore, I am no longer pursuing or working on any contracts for the game, or the company that licenses it.

There’s a lot of reasons why, but though I have every right to air them out here, I will not. Dirty laundry should stay in the laundry room, not paraded about in public. I’ve hinted at things here and there, in vague phrasing and comments. That’s more the explosion of frustration than any malicious intent, so take it all with a grain of salt.

I’ve been attached to this game since its early days of production. In 1997, I was introduced to the playtesting side through a local group in Pittsburgh; that was some pretty heady stuff, back in the day. That morphed into working as a playtester for WizKids’ MechWarrior version, and then I was invited to pitch and write for Dawn of the Jihad back in 2001.

Writing for any game line that I enjoyed – and I had quite a few on that list – was a dream come true for me. It was the spark that jolted me out of a drudging career in retail, though I knew I’d never really be able to make a sustainable living at it. Still, it fueled my inspiration and excitement, with every book that printed with my handiwork within.

In 2008, I was asked to step into the Assistant Line Developer role, supporting my long-time gaming friend Herb. Together, we headed a team that fashioned a fantastic storyline for the line, connecting two eras separated by different companies, and pulled them together. Some may disagree – this is the Internet Age after all – but I still think that our Jihad work, and the subsequent material afterwards, was the best storytelling the line has ever had.

I was exposed in full to the game industry through my ALD position, which helped me forge connections and research needed to write my first nonfiction book, Games’ Most Wanted.

My continued work with BattleTech also opened up a wider realization within me, that I loved to write. I plunged headlong into a communications career, adding to my previous years of experience in marketing and media concepts. Now I get to do what I love, which is write, and I actually have a sustainable career doing just that. And more, besides.

Mini and photo by DAK
When my friend Herb was removed from his position as LD, there was a lot of uncertainty floating around. As the line and its direction evolved, it became apparent that my experience and talent wasn’t the right fit any more. I hung on for as long as I could, mainly because I felt that I still had stories to tell in this rich and venerable universe. But that desire has dripped away, siphoned into other projects, ideas, and experiences.

I finally realized a few days ago that I just don’t have it in me to tell those stories anymore. So how is that fair to the readership, the fanbase, the players who thrive on such things? Uninspired writing is dead writing, as I see it. I don’t like writing lifeless words.

So I finally made that painful decision and cut the cord.

BattleTech is still important to me, for what it has done to my life, my experiences, my creativity. But it doesn’t need me anymore, and I can walk on my own now without it. I have new projects, new universes, new ideas to explore – and I hope to share them all with you in the coming years.

If you’re a fan of BattleTech, I say ‘thank you’ for your steadfast devotion and love of the game – even if you don’t like some or all of what I’ve put out. You’re the reason it’s still around, in its varied forms. Enjoy it. Universes like this are hard to come by.

And for my friends, colleagues, and those whose paths I’ve crossed, I say ‘thank you’ as well. You’ve given me a lot to experience and enjoy, and hopefully I will get to work with you on other exciting ventures. Don’t be a stranger.

And to everyone: watch the spines for my name. You’ll see it out there, someday soon.

Seylah.

Deconstructing Campaigns

CO snap 5

Welcome back. So, the question we left off at:

Would we make the GenCon print date?

Probably.

During the process of building this book, we had one big speedbump that altered the composition of the book. [Edited to add more information that I’d forgotten. Thanks for the reminder, Ray!]

The cover for the book obviously changed:

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As writing wound out and began the edit process, a BIG problem popped up.

We had no ready artists in the pool who could tackle the full-page illustrations that normally divide the chapters. These pieces of art are heavily tied with the fiction pieces. With time winding out and a “let’s see if we can make GenCon” mentality, there was no time to find or schedule quality artists for that task. (The pool is shallow, and our usual suspects were booked up with other work.)

With that in mind, and because upper-level people decided to pair the book with stuff being put out by the computer game license holder Harebrained Schemes (and their in-development BattleTech computer game), the decision was also made to feature two old-school things: the redesigned Marauder (a nod back to the game’s inception and ‘Mech art more than two decades ago), and a mercenary unit that was popular among fans many, many years ago. (Said merc unit has been deceased in the game’s timeline for the last 15 years.)

The intent was to capitalize on HBS’s perceived success of their current project among the older, long-time fans by offering a product that would tug on the nostalgia strings.

And, as you can probably guess, it’s not a decision I necessarily agree with. The reasons are vast and veer a lot into NDA-area topics, so I can’t nor won’t detail them here. But it’s also a decision made above my head, and thus irrefutable. (Normally, the project developer has a lot of say with regards to cover and interior art, as well as content.)

This decision, however, cascaded into the book itself. We now had a cover that did not jive with the story being told inside. Normally, it’s not a terrible issue because we do have rulebook covers that don’t quite mesh with interior fiction.

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But because the epic story being told within the book is set at a time that is more than 100 years in the future from HBS’s game content – and with the book being tangentially tied to that company’s game property – the fiction was ultimately deemed too jarring for the nostalgia crowd.

Combined with the fact we didn’t have interior art, the painful decision was made to completely cut the fiction from the book.

Thus, Campaign Operations will be the only core rulebook that lacks story fiction buffering the chapters.

Good news, though! Philip’s story will be told through different means, most likely as a soon-to-be-released novella. Julian Davion’s story is very compelling and deserves to be out there for fans to enjoy, so we’re working hard to make sure that still happens.

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Aside from that, we did some interior switching and tightening. The Advanced Linked Scenarios morphed in the writer’s hands to a more narrative ruleset. This is an easy-to-follow campaign structure for those players who don’t care to spend hours playing “AccounTech” but still love linked games that tell a story. We then obliquely altered the Map-Based rules to expand on that, followed by the more complete Custom Chaos rules.

I also made sure that the Chaos Campaign rules included were as up-to-date as possible, folding in errata that popped up after the Total Chaos debut in 2012. Additional tweaks were made as well, based on suggestions by various players around the world. While not all 3,000+ Options, Objectives, and Special Rules were included, a sizeable portion did make it in so that GMs could find inspiration for their own games and stories.

And, as a nice little extra, I built and included a track that covers an incident involving Clan Coyote in 3103. A hint for the future? Time will tell.

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Finally, we slammed the book through editing and layout, with some key playtesters checking over examples and functions. Because much of the book was cut material from other rulebooks and supplements, they had already suffered multiple rounds of review. (Mike Miller’s solar system rules, in particular, went through FIVE review processes over the course of the last five years, due to it being assigned and then dropped from various products.)

And so now? Yes, we will make the print deadline. Copies will, barring printing or shipping calamity, be available in limited amounts at GenCon. The digital release is slated for the July 4 weekend. And we’ll probably see this in local stores coming this fall.

Preview the Table of Contents and Intro.

What does that mean for me? Well, it means that I’ve pushed out the fastest core rulebook of the series; less than a year from idea proposal to print. It also heralds what may be the last of my BattleTech projects. (There is one other in the wings that may or may not see the light of day at this point; time, money, and other factors will determine its fate.)

My writing debut in the line started with the Chaos Campaign ruleset. If this proves the end, it’s fitting to cap my run with BattleTech by sharing my inner thought process on track creation with fans and players. Story creation is what I love most; putting together a rulebook that will impact players for years to come is a fitting milestone.

Enjoy.

Constructing Campaigns

A year or so ago, I received an email from Randall Bills, the de facto Line Developer for BattleTech (and my “boss” in as much as a freelancer can have one). “We’ve got a bunch of stuff we had to cut from Interstellar Operations,” he said. “We want to add one last rulebook to the core line, and it’s all about campaigns. Interested?”

Skipping-skipping-skipping…

Ten months ago, I accepted the request I manage this new rulebook concept called “Campaign Companion,” which was to be a softcover supplement much like the Alpha Strike and A Time of War RPG Companion books. Within a week, it was then turned into a hardcover book. And after another week, I was told the new name would be “Campaign Operations.”

At this point, I had only seen three sections of this new product idea.

If you’re familiar with the BattleTech core rules series, you’ll know that each section is separated by a short story that nominally addresses the in-game fictionalized aspect of the following rules section. So I had to immediately figure out what that was going to entail, as well as sort out the rest of the material. This was slated for a summer 2016 release (a la GenCon), and these core books are notorious for being sloooooooow to push through the pipe.

Fortunately, I had a few aces up my sleeve.

CO snap

First, I had three already-written sections: Mike Miller’s bounced-around Solar System construction rules (originally written in 2011); Formation Building, which covered a bunch of AS addendum rules; and a partially built Combat Effectiveness Rating formula (because that’s what it was) for Creating a Force. That last one, in raw form, was well over 20,000 words, highly mathematical, and contained enough granular detail to construct a seaside beach.

Second, I immediately decided to go the fiction route I’d built for A Time of War, where the stories were all interconnected. I figured this was a great spot to further the current plot of the 3145 era, and combed through the constructed timeline to see what was what. I needed a major invasion incident that had some major players involved, in order to make it interesting and worth having nearly 24,000 words written about.

The retaking (and subsequent loss again) of New Syrtis. Perfect. That was a Julian Davion story – a fan favorite character.

Rather than farm it out to a bunch of different writers (like we did for ATOW), this one needed a solid, consistent voice. As Jason Schmetzer was otherwise occupied, I knew Phillip Lee was the perfect choice. I jumped quickly and got him locked in.

But what else was needed?

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Ever since the debut of the Chaos Campaign ruleset and tracks back in 2004, fans of the game have been asking for rules on how to construct their own tracks. For various reasons, we’ve never had the opportunity (or desire) to put them out there – but now was the best window we had. So I slated that as a primary section for the book, and assigned it to myself.

Still wasn’t enough stuff to fill a core rulebook, though. Imagine that, we were actually lacking for material! (I had put my foot down earlier and restricted Randall’s mathematical and table-heavy treatise to 8,000 words (that’s 10 pages).) Since we had these beautiful isometric world maps in various digital products, why not consider something for those? And what about players who don’t like doing a lot of math and record keeping, but just want to blow stuff up in a story environment?

Thus, the last two sections came together: the Map-Based Campaign, and the Advanced Linked Scenarios.

I selected my writers, assigned the work, and off we went.

I’ll spare the details of various delays; they’re not all that interesting. The biggest question that evolved: would we still make the GenCon print date?