BattleTech | Writing BattleTech Sourcebook Fiction

Writing BattleTech sourcebook fiction is a finicky business. Much depends on exactly what kind of fiction you’re writing, for which product, and for what intent. It’s a fine line between too much and too little detail, between too much characterization and too little. It has to be consistent and interesting, but not boring.

Most of us get it wrong in the first draft.

Let’s dig deeper.

What is BattleTech Sourcebook Fiction?

When I say sourcebook fiction, I mean the fictional history of the game setting and events. I do not mean storytelling fiction, as in short stories or novels. Sourcebook fiction is the future historical chronology writers create to fill sourcebook pages. Technical readout entries are sourcebook fiction; the history of Operation Killing Stroke is sourcebook fiction; the game translation of the events of a novel like Redemption Rift is sourcebook fiction.

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What is the Purpose of Sourcebook Fiction?

Sourcebook fiction’s purpose is to create enough interest in an event or sequence of events that BattleTech game players will put the book down, pick up gameplay materials, and start up a game based on what they’ve just read.

What is Not the Purpose of Sourcebook Fiction?

Sourcebook fiction is not meant to “push the storyline forward.” It can accomplish that, but that is not its purpose.

Sourcebook fiction is not meant to “correct old mistakes.” It can accomplish that, but that is not its purpose.

Sourcebook fiction is not meant to “fill in the blanks.” Blanks are where games happen. It can fill in some blanks, but that is not its purpose.

Sourcebook fiction is not meant to “reveal character.”

Any of the above-listed things can happen only after the primary purpose has been fulfilled.

How You Write Sourcebook Fiction

Here’s an excerpt similar to what a sourcebook writer might be given as an assignment. 

Aaron Sandoval trained to become a tanker and was eventually assigned to the 159th Galax Heavy Tank Regiment in 2979. Aaron’s perseverance and exceptional skills in armored vehicles led to his promotion to the rank of Sergeant Major where he would command a Partisan tank until his injury in battle in 2982.

Let’s say the product developer has given you three assignments: 500 words about Aaron’s service with the 159th Galax, 250 words about his regiment, and 250 words about the future duke of Robinson himself.

What do you do?

First we have a sequence of events, 2979-2982; we have a character, Aaron Sandoval, two traits he possesses (perseverance and exceptional skill) and his rank, along with the vehicle he commanded. Those are the facts that must be present in our final piece.

But how do we make it interesting? How do we reveal those facts in a way that might incite interest in a game?

Here’s what I might write:

In 2979 Aaron Sandoval arrived in F Company, Second Battalion of the 159th Galax Heavy Tank Regiment, with sergeant’s scars on his sleeve and a chip on his shoulder. Assigned as commander of a run-down Condor heavy hover tank in Second Platoon, Aaron quickly won a reputation as a driven and harsh, but fair, blower captain. In 2980 on Breed, when a lance of the Second Legion of Vega attacked, Aaron and his crew refused to retreat when their platoon leftenant was killed. Instead, Aaron and the three surviving tanks led two of the medium Legion ’Mechs away long enough for the rest of the company to mousetrap the others, which led to the 159th Galax fighting off the raid single-handedly.

Aaron’s perseverance made him senior NCO of F Company by the time the 159th sent a battalion to support a raid by the First Robinson Rangers against An Ting in 2981. A company of First Robinson ’Mechs, along with the 159th battalion and a battalion of motorized infantry, struck the planet, intending to capture a cache of military supplies. The ’Mechs and most of the infantry rolled out immediately after landing, leaving the 159th battalion, less a company of armored cavalry, to hold the landing zone. 

Unfortunately for the AFFS, a company of the An Ting militia located the hidden LZ soon after the assault elements left, descending on the DropShips with a half-dozen ’Mechs, a clutch of atmospheric fighters, and an airborne infantry company. Aaron and his CO, Captain de Villepin, had planned for this eventuality. As paratroopers fell out of the sky in a dawn assault to try and storm the DropShips, heavy Galax armor platoons fired from hidden positions beneath the DropShips’ shadow. Combined with the firepower of the ships themselves, the militia was quickly run off. Aaron and his platoon of Manticore tanks were credited with destroying a ‘Mech and two fighters.

Returning to Breed, Aaron was promoted to sergeant major of Second Battalion and reassigned to a new air defense platoon of Partisan tanks. It was an adjustment for Aaron, who had up to now served in frontline armor companies, but he threw himself into the role. By 2982, his platoon had been expanded into a full company, assigned to air defense duties for the 159th’s headquarters group. When a company of Combine raiders crossed the border in early ‘82, Aaron and his company proved they hadn’t forgotten their ground-bound roots, holding off the advance of a ’Mech lance for three minutes unsupported, until supporting Robinson Ranger ’Mechs could arrive, keeping the regimental HQ from being overrun.

Reassigned to Rio in late 2982, to support the Fifteenth Avalon Hussars RCT, Aaron and the rest of the 159th had to learn to face a new foe: the deadly warriors of House Liao’s Capellan Confederation.

Okay, first, I took a note from Sarna and made it all up, so don’t fact-check me. I’m sure it’s all wrong. It’s about 30 words short of word count, which is probably okay.

Now, look at what I did. I took the kernels of fact from the assignment and expanded on them. I talked about Aaron and his exploits, but all I did was recite what happened. He refused to retreat on Breed in 2980; I didn’t explain why, or who had ordered him to. I didn’t say exactly what kind of ’Mechs he fought, just gave a weight class. It would be pretty simple for someone to get out some record sheets and a map and replay this engagement if they wanted.

And I repeat it for a couple more engagements. Facts are delivered. Dates are provided. Actions recounted. But motivation is left out. The actual details of the combat are left out. What Aaron was thinking inside the tank’s cupola, what the air smelled like, the profane, rousing speech he gave when the paratroopers were falling, are all absent. It’s not boring, but it’s also not embellished.

Nothing there gets in the way of a writer converting it to a short story. Nothing there prevents players from getting out the game and replaying the events. I provide enough detail that they can get close, but hold back enough to let them make the game their own.

“But we don’t know what class of DropShip, or which variant of tank, or anyone’s skills,” someone will say.

Good. More people can make it their own.

Sourcebook fiction’s purpose is to create enough interest in an event or sequence of events that BattleTech game players will put the book down, pick up gameplay materials, and start up a game based on what they’ve just read.

Now, should every section of every book be like this? Of course not. I chose a very specific prompt to make this example. But at any scale, the result should be the same.

Let’s look next at the 250 words about the 159th Galax Heavy Tank Regiment.

A standard regiment of three battalions of three companies, the 159th Galax Heavy Tank Regiment was activated for national service from the Galax planetary militia in 2972. Nearly ninety percent of the regiment’s personnel were Galax natives. Assigned transport DropShips, many of the manufactured in orbit at the Federated-Boeing Industriplex, the 159th’s first posting was Breed, along on the Draconis Combine border.

Each of the regiment’s three battalions is made up of two heavy companies and one armored cavalry company, all with the heaviest vehicles available. Drillsons and Condors predominate the armored cav companies, while Manticores, Demolishers and even a handful of Behemoths round out the rest. 

Each of the battalions has a unique character, drawn by its commander. Leftenant Colonel Munroe’s First Battalion is a steady, conventional unit, difficult to rattle but not often flashy in its deployments. This is much different from Major Francine du Morne’s Second Battalion, which prides itself on irrepressible, unconventional thinking. Major Kevin Ishitaka’s Third Battalion, meanwhile, just holds it nose up at both its sister battalions.

In practice, the 159th’s company commanders enjoy great latitude on the battlefield; actual battalion-scale engagements are rare. It is not uncommon for battalions or even companies to be detached as supports for other forces, which has given the Galax regiment a broad swatch of experience with infantry and BattleMech forces. Colonel Theroux has even been pressing for the permanent assignment of an infantry battalion, to strengthen this skill.

Again, nothing stellar there. But completely written from the standpoint of “make it easy for a player to build a force if they want to.” I’ve given the regiment’s size and composition, along with example units to choose from. I’ve given suggestions of how each unit might be played, and even hints of what special abilities or rules players might use if they want to mix and match units on the battlefield.

I didn’t waste time talking about Aaron’s details, because he’s not important to this writeup. It’s about the regiment. A reader would know Aaron is in there, and could even now know what forces to put next to him.

I didn’t use up words with example actions, because that has already been done in Aaron’s writeup above. There’s no need to repeat it. Trust the reader to have read what came before; if they didn’t, not knowing will drive them back to read it anyway.

Now, 250 words about Aaron Sandoval, the man and character.

Aaron Sandoval, the man who would one day become duke of Robinson and minister of the Draconis March, came from much more humble origins than many might suspect. The third son of Duke Benjamin Sandoval, a hard and overbearing man, Aaron never got along with his father. At sixteen, he ran away to join the AFFS under an assumed name as a common tanker.

As profane as his father was moralistic, Aaron was an excellent tanker. He demanded the best from his crews, and got it, and returned that performance with extraordinary loyalty. One of the few lessons Aaron had absorbed in his father’s household is that loyalty must be given to be earned, and it made him an NCO troopers would follow anywhere.

In combat Aaron was a wizard, with an almost preternatural ability to know where to put his tanks to cause maximum damage to the enemy. Several of the engagements he fought with the 159th Galax Heavy Tank Regiment are still taught at the Robinson Battle Academy today. If it hadn’t been for his maiming on Rio in 2982, he might have never left the armor corps, but fate had different plans for him.

His brothers having died, Aaron married and became duke of Robinson in the 2990s. Knowing his tanker training was inadequate to the role he now held, he attended OCS and assumed command of the First Robinson Rangers, leading the Draconis March into the climactic Fourth Succession War.

Personality writeups are hard, and I’ll never say they aren’t, because it’s really easy to fall into characterization rather than facts. There are a handful of places I did it in that one, but for the most part, that’s the story of Aaron Sandoval without too much editorializing. And it plays back into the first writeup and the regimental one as well.

Aaron refused to retreat before the Legion of Vega ’Mechs, but the tanks with him stayed, as well. They were loyal to him, so we can try to explain that. He fought well and was promoted, as we saw in the first writeup, so we can try to explain that he had very good skill with tanks.

And finally, he turned out to be someone pretty important to the setting, so we talk about that as well.

Where People Most Often Go Wrong

As funny as it sound, most people go wrong by either writing exactly what they’re told, meaning just a bland recitations of facts, or by trying too hard to tell the story.

Most BattleTech sourcebook writing is done by assignment; a product developer or line developer will say “I need you to write 500 words about Aaron Sandoval on Breed in 2980” or “250 words about the 159th Galax Heavy Tank Regiment.”

If I had opened that first writeup like this, it would have been wrong:

On Aaron Sandoval’s first day in F Company, he marched up to the crew standing in front of the beat-up Condor heavy hover tank and punched the prior tank commander square in the mouth. Standing over the bleeding man, Aaron sneered down at him and said, “If you had half the balls my sister had, I wouldn’t have to be here,” then spat on him and turned to his new crew. “I’m Sergeant Sandoval,” he told them, “and we’re going to be the best damn Condor crew in this whole regiment.” Then he kicked the still-bleeding sergeant on the ground in front of him. “If you don’t believe me, just ask this piece of shit.”

By the time he stopped talking the three other crewmen were climbing the Condor’s sloped deck toward the turret hatch.

Now, that’s not terrible writing. It certainly tells a reader who Aaron Sandoval is, what company he’s in, and that he’s a driven, profane man who doesn’t care who gets in his way. In fact, it’d probably be a stellar first part of a sidebar supporting those first 500 words.

Side note: sidebars are a different beast we’ll talk in a minute.

But it’s wrong for pure, non-sidebar sourcebook fiction. Because while it’s fun to read, and yes may even make a reader go “I like this guy,” there’s nothing to play. It’s limiting, rather than explaining. It reveals character, instead of fact.

It only does one job, instead of several.

Sourcebook fiction’s purpose is to create enough interest in an event or sequence of events that BattleTech game players will put the book down, pick up gameplay materials, and start up a game based on what they’ve just read.

Okay, Sidebars

If mainline sourcebook fiction is about facts, sidebars are about color commentary. The main paragraphs are what happened, presented in an interesting and readable way but still facts. The sidebar that might accompany it is where you try and make it fun, usually.

As a rule, sidebars are never more than 250 words, and must match something in the main bar nearby thematically.

So, let’s imagine I’m adding a sidebar to the 500-word summary of Aaron’s time in the 159th Galax we already wrote. And we’ll use that bit of example text, as well.

Sidebars have titles, and are sourced, because they are (or should be) separate from the main bar source material.

It might look like this:

The Iron Duke

You know how you just know about some people? We knew about the old man the first day he arrived in the company. Old Klinger told me the story one time.

On Aaron Sandoval’s first day in F Company, he marched up to the crew standing in front of the beat-up Condor heavy hover tank and punched the prior tank commander square in the mouth. Standing over the bleeding man, Aaron sneered down at him and said, “If you had half the balls my sister had, I wouldn’t have to be here,” then spat on him and turned to his new crew. “I’m Sergeant Sandoval,” he told them, “and we’re going to be the best damn Condor crew in this whole regiment.” Then he kicked the still-bleeding sergeant on the ground in front of him. “If you don’t believe me, just ask this piece of shit.”

By the time he stopped talking the three other crewmen were climbing the Condor’s sloped deck toward the turret hatch. They were scared witless, even the driver, who couldn’t even get to his compartment from the turret hatch.

And you know what? Damned if he didn’t turn that crew into the best crew, and then that platoon into the best platoon. By the time the Legion landed, they’d have followed him into the hell with a spray bottle and, I guess if you think about it just right, they kind of did when those ’Mechs came calling.

—from the I Knew Them When interview series, Robinson Broadcasting Corporation, 3009.

The important part to recognize about that sidebar is that it’s about the factual events that would be next to it on the page. Sometimes facts just aren’t interesting. Regiment A went to World B and defeated Regiment C in a hard-fought battle that cost sixty percent casualties. Sometimes you just get that sentence. Factual.

Boring.

But a sidebar that adds color around it, maybe about how World B had an APC factory with production halted because of an engine shortage, so the defenders used their lance of Chargers to throw empty APCs packed with plastic explosives like giant ’Mech-scale hand grenades, could turn that one sentence into something people want to try and play out on a table.

Okay, But That’s Like Your Opinion, Man

Sure is.

And it’s super easy to find examples of past published sourcebooks that are the opposite of this. All the Jihad-era sourcebooks for BattleTech, for instance. More or less polar opposite of what I just wrote. And I understand that, because I was there writing for those books, and I recall the conversations and instructions where we decided to shift to that model of writing.

Times change.

And I’m ignoring the nuance that goes into a main plot section versus a unit writeup in a technical readout product or how you write game rules. I’m ignoring those on purpose. That’ll be a subject for another time.

But if you want to write BattleTech sourcebooks, or you want to contribute game material to Shrapnel, take this advice to heart. It’s a solid place to start. If you can learn to do this well, you can learn to write any kind of BattleTech sourcebook fiction.

And remember…

Sourcebook fiction’s purpose is to create enough interest in an event or sequence of events that BattleTech game players will put the book down, pick up gameplay materials, and start up a game based on what they’ve just read.

© 2021 Jason Schmetzer

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MechWarrior, BattleMech, ‘Mech and AeroTech are registered trademarks of The Topps Company, Inc. All Rights Reserved.

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