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


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!

Deconstructing Campaigns

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

Would we make the GenCon print date?


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.


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?”


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.

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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?


One Year Later – Destiny

My Exo Warlock; it’s been my only character up until about a month ago when I started a Hunter to take advantage of the coming “Level skip” bonus for new PCs.

One year ago today, I stopped by GameStop on my way home from work and picked up my special edition of Destiny. While I fiddled with my Ghost replica (I’ve since named him ‘Sixtus’ because…it’s a cool name?), the game began to install on my Xbox360. Ninety minutes later, my journey as a Guardian began.

Actually, that journey started back in 2013, when I first heard of the game. I put down a preorder soon after reading about it, anticipating its release. There were so many aspects to the game that appealed to me: immersive environment, social gaming, storyline play, weekly and daily tasks… It was a lot of things I loved about my particularities in gaming, and I knew my friends and I – if I could convince them – would enjoy it immensely. See, these days I spend only a few hours online to game, so I prefer to make it a social event. Gone are the days where I’ll hole up for hours on end to smash through a single-player game; with only a few exceptions, my gaming time is skewed towards playing with friends.

Destiny was delayed for another year, though I was able to jump into the Beta back in August 2014. I didn’t mind that Playstation owners got extra time and goodies. I was still enamored with it, and could not wait to dive in.

To date, I’ve spent just over 175 hours playing Destiny. It’s not a lot of time when compared to the 300-600 hours my friends have poured into it. Or the 1,500+ hours the hardcore players have done. But in my statistical world, it’s been 80% of my Xbox playtime (3-4 hours a week), and that says a lot.

I’ve been able to play all aspects of the game – I’ve done the story missions, the strikes, Crucible, Prison of Elders, and been fortunate to plow through the normal versions of the Raids. Despite my attempts at scheduling, a good chunk of my playtime – probably around 30% – has been relegated to grinding along in solo mode. Hey, it’s hard to get fireteams of 3 (never mind raid teams of 6) together; often, there’s 4-5 of us online, so it’s a Russian roulette of ‘who gets left behind tonight?’

The new solar system map, courtesy of the 2.0 update to Destiny.

The new solar system map, courtesy of the 2.0 update to Destiny.

Nonetheless, I’ve stuck with it. Each DLC expansion has added new things. Bungie, the developer, has also been very receptive (mostly) to feedback, and has done a multitude of changes on the fly. Any given week, there’s hew and cry about weapons being nerfed, or mission difficulties tweaked, or loot caves recoded. The most interesting was the seeming development of an equipment class war, where hardcore players were refusing to add people to their raid parties because they didn’t have one particular weapon (the Gjallerhorn rocket launcher). A weapon that, as with all of Destiny‘s exotics, are randomly dropped. Furthermore, some players went out of their way to ‘bully’ others who didn’t ‘earn’ particular weapons – as if you can earn something that’s randomly dropped.

Through it all, I’ve watched the community from the fringes of a few Facebook groups, the game’s forums, and some comment threads on gaming sites like Kotaku. It’s an interesting dynamic to watch, a community build itself up from the ground level, with all of its stratification, entitlement, paucity, vitrol, kindness, and other social tailings.

About two months ago, I was ready to pack it in. Destiny hadn’t truly fed the itch as I thought it would. I’d slowly fallen behind my friends in building up my character and his equipment; often, when I did join for strikes, I was typically in the back of the pack, barely comprehending what was going on and utterly ignorant of the ‘new’ tactics necessary for each map or mission. I was okay with that, for a while, because my usual goal is to play for fun, not competition or completion. But that constant feel of being the lowest man on the totem pole does wear on one for a while. Constantly being behind the curve – simply because I didn’t have the time to dedicate to gameplay – is a hard place to be for a seeming permanence. I found myself wandering back into GTA V Online, where it’s about mayhem and screwball fun, and not even remotely about equipment, rankings, or completion.

Oryx is coming.

Oryx is coming.

The news and teases of the Taken King release, which comes out next Tuesday, has somewhat changed that. Bungie has taken tremendous risk by altering its game across a wide field of changes; these are good risks. They are ‘fixing’ what many have seen as flaws in its initial design. Having done game design in tabletop and RPGs myself, I can sympathize with the guys and gals who have poured years into Destiny‘s development. It’s hard to start out in one direction and have to shift based on the fact that the community just doesn’t flow in the way you think. Ultimately, though, I believe the changes its making to Destiny through TTK’s release are a great thing, and the risk is nominal. People who abandoned it much earlier than I will be piling back in to play. As someone joked on a FB group recently, “I’m back to play Destiny, now that the year-long Beta is done.”

Bungie dropped in a massive patch the other day to prepare the base game for the release of TTK, and the results are intensely good. From the change in the intro screen’s music, to the new NolanBot’s dialogue (bye-bye, Dinklebot, we loved you…maybe), to the addition of Quests, I’m impressed. Gone is the light, hopeful strains of the start screen’s music interlude; the TTK’s score hits you full force with a tone of encroaching danger. On the first visit to the Tower, it felt like the environment was more…gritty? I don’t remember the flags snapping in harsh wind, nor the cloudier skies over the distant Guardian. The new PA dialogue, the intermittent comments from AI passersby, it all has that anticipatory feel to it. I’m not sure if it’s because of the ominous turn the story will take with Oryx’s arrival, or the personal anticipation of a better game, but all in all, Destiny has recaptured my attention.

Let’s hope it holds up. A slew of new games are about to hit in the fourth quarter this year – I personally am excited for Battlefront and Halo 5. With limited time to play, it’s going to be a lot harder to sort out what game to slot in with my friends. If Destiny can keep moving upwards, I may well find myself more of a Guardian than a Spartan or Imperial.

Only time, and the Taken King, will tell. Until then, time to grab the Light and take down the latest threat to our solar system.

See you on the Dreadnaught!

What Was Before Is Not What Was to Come


I was cleaning through some of my older project files and stumbled over my Wars of Reaving material. It’s been four years since the Origins Award-winning book was published, and running through the depth of material I’d compiled over several years was nostalgic, in a way.

A glimpse into the WoR archive folder.

A glimpse into the WoR archive folder.

One of the gems I discovered was the second timeline version I’d created back in 2007, before the project was actually green-lit for publication. I’d been keeping data and adding to the timeline ever since 2004.

When you look through it, you’ll notice several stark plot differences between the final publication and my initial direction. I don’t remember what exactly caused me to scrap one of the bigger story arcs. I am a bit surprised at how short I had the War raging, with a wrap-up in 3076. I know later revisions were about how to push that time period farther out, creating a longer, more drawn-out war that resulted in an enormous amount of devastation. The final version also pushed into the death of two Clans that originally were slated to ‘survive’ in a way readers will find reminiscent of the final version of the Imperio.

I’m offering it up to readers to provide a glimpse on just how detailed we get on these projects, especially during our decade of Jihad product. (Keep in mind the final Jihad timeline – 3067 to 3085 – is well over 200 pages.) And if readers/fans want to use it as a basis for their own alternate timeline, feel free.

Just keep in mind that this document is in no way official to the BattleTech line, nor to Catalyst Game Labs. It’s a detailed work that I used as a tool that was eventually modified (mostly whole cloth) at least three more times before the final version was pushed out in 2011.

Hope you enjoy this peak behind the curtain!

War of Reaving 2007 Timeline (DEFUNCT)