BattleTech | Writing ’Mech Combat That Mimics the Rules

On a game table, it’s pretty simple to work out how ’Mech combat works. First, you decide who goes first, then you move, decide if you fall down, then decide who shoots at who, rolls a bunch of dice and see who hits who, and decide who falls down again. Sometimes there’s a fistfight. More falling down. Then maybe someone explodes.

Then you do it all over again.

Seems simple, right? So why is it so hard to translate that to a page in fiction?

The First Secret is the Abstraction

First, there are the abstractions you take for granted on the game table. A game turn is about ten seconds, according to the rules. But the order in which happens on a table has nothing to do with the narrative pace of a combat scene.

Think how stupid it would be if writers wrote a ’Mech combat scene according to the rules.

Lieutenant Shahin paused, waiting for the Davion Enforcer to move; Shahin knew she had the initiative, so she got to wait and see where the Enforcer stopped. And since the Davion MechWarrior was green as grass, the odds were in her favor the idiot would trips and fall on that collapsed building…

Nuts. They made it. Now it was her turn… eyeing the terrain and judging the distance, Shahin sprinted her Griffin just under 240 meters forward, before canting her ’Mech’s torso to the side so her front arc bore on the Enforcer. She stopped at the end of her run to line up her shot.

And that’s just the movement phase, right? See how ridiculous that is? This is what I mean by abstraction.

First, the concept of initiative isn’t nearly so clear-cut. Second, all the movement takes place at the same time, with initiative trying to balance out the fog of war. Shahin, the character, could never know the Enforcer would fall or not, unless it did, but she could hardly stand there, waiting.

And ’Mechs don’t, generally, start and stop to fire. That’s why there are different modifiers for walking and running; the more attention you give over to movement, the more difficult it is to aim, because we all have a finite amount of attention.

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All of This Takes Place at the Same Time

Shahin leaned the Griffin into a run, hoping to cross the no-man’s-land before her before the Davion Enforcer cleared the building, but even as she took her first steps she saw she’d failed; the Enforcer was already striding around the corner of the parking garage, headed right for the collapsed pile of ferrocrete and girders from the collapsed apartment building. Shahin tried not to think about the warm spots in the wreckage on her IR screens; it didn’t look like everyone had gotten the evac order. And in any case, the Enforcer clearly didn’t care; it strode across the wreckage, great spade-shaped feet crushing the rubble and anyone trapped beneath it.

Shahin canted the Griffin’s upper body around, trying to get a deflection shot from her LRMs to spoil the Enforcer’s aim. She got her missiles off just before the Enforcer’s big Federated autocannon blam-blam-blammed a cassette-round of high explosive at her. Every report of the 100mm autocannon blasted dust up from the rubble. Her own missiles went wide, blasting chips out of the parking garage’s thick ferrocrete.

Straining at her restraints, she brought the Griffin’s right arm up. It had only been a few seconds since she stepped off, and the Griffin was still accelerating, now edging up past sixty kilometers per hour. The Fusigon PPC was already charged. The Enforcer’s shell fusillade took her ’Mech high in the chest, but she used the momentum to bring the PPC around the final few centimeters.

The flash of her PPC and the hiss-crack of air crashing in to replace what had been ionized by the particle beam weapon knocked the building dust back and away in a torrent.

That’s a decent, if rushed, storytelling of the abstraction of a BattleTech game turn. But good writers find a way to add in what’s not covered by the rules, without disqualifying what is there.

Consider: the Griffin could have started from a stop, or it could have just been walking, at the beginning of the scene. It doesn’t reach top speed from a standing stop, any more than a racecar does.

Remember This Happens in a Fully-Formed Reality

Shahin is making decisions for the next few seconds, and the firing and movement take place at the same time. But I also put a lot of effort into the scenery, because where and how the combat takes place deserve some attention. There’s really no provision in BattleTech rules for whether a building you collapse is inhabited, for example. We don’t have rules like “if you’re standing in a rubble hex, roll 2D6 and if 7+, your weapons fire raised a dust cloud with no effect on gameplay.”

But in the real world, when a 100m cannon is fired, it shakes the ground. Go to YouTube and find videos of tanks or artillery firing in the desert, and look at the sand that flies up.

Artillery crews will tell you the report from a 155mm field gun will shake your organs, and it can be a sickening feeling.

We don’t really have a writer’s bible on this, and it’s always shown. Go back and re-read any of the original Gray Death Legion trilogy of books. Bill Keith is an amazing writer, but the way he writes ‘Mech combat is decidedly different from the way Mike Stackpole chose to write it in the Warrior Trilogy. Keith’s style is much more real-world, as if ‘Mechs were 12-meter-tall men or anime mecha. Stackpole clearly looked at the game mechanics and tried to be true to those.

Over time, Stackpole’s method became the de facto standard. Within reason.

So How Do You Do It?

Adapt what you can. Think, plot, and write in roughly ten-second increments. There’s no reason a medium laser can’t fire twice in two seconds, for example, if the abstraction suggests that it happens at the beginning and end of a game turn. I tend to lean on reload and recharge scenarios, as if it takes a few seconds to recharge a capacitor for an energy weapon or reload a physical weapon.

This is reflected in real-world large weapons systems. A modern main battle tank, depending on loading system, average 6-12 rounds a minute, and those are single shot. Our current autocannons, for example the 25mm Bushmaster, has a cyclic rate of about 200 rounds per minute. Go to YouTube and look; you can hear each round. 

A Bradley’s ready magazine is only 300 rounds (so 90 seconds of rock-and-roll), but that 300 is usually spread across any of six standard ammunitions. So a ‘cassette’ of a dozen or so rounds could be common.

We just scale that up for BattleTech; lots of writers describe the AC/10, for example, as a 100mm automatic cannon with a high cyclic rate. Imagine a tank burning out 4 rounds per second. Ouch.

Cannons and missiles require reload; lasers and PPCs need capacitors to build a charge. That’s a good way to get to six “rounds” of combat a minute.

Keep your machines moving, be aware of the setting around you, and remember that a game of BattleTech might be about the machines and the record sheets, but the story of a ’Mech combat is a story about two people fighting.

© 2021 Jason Schmetzer

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