Monday, April 25, 2011

W is for: Wolf Blitzer!

The cover sheet for my Mechwarrior binder
Wolf Blitzer the XXIIIrd that is, who is by far the most memorable of my many Mechwarrior characters over the years. He was created back around 1991-92 when the first Gulf War was big news and this one reporter with the most awesome name in the world stood out from the crowd. The second edition of the Battletech roleplaying game had just come out (cleverly named "Mechwarrior 2nd Edition") and looking for a hook for a new character beyond just "noble who fights in a giant walking tank" I had a flash of inspiration and decided that "combat reporter" could be a fun and interesting direction to go, and I knew just what name to give him. Here's his sheet:

His stats are decent and his skills are good and very focused - piloting 4+ is a notch better than the average Battletech pilot of 5+, while his gunnery meets the standard at 4+. He's decent out of his mech too with good skills in unarmed combat, stealth, security systems, small arms, and med tech. His career skill in broadcast media and his comm systems skill mean he can run a one-man field reporting operation without much trouble.

I approached his choice of skills and mech with the idea that there were really 3 schools of thought on how a combat reporter would work in the age of war in the 31st century:

  • Be a non-military reporter, forgoing the mech option and going for something like a helicopter and taking extra skill in stealth and infiltration
  • Be a military reporter and going for the light and fast approach - a light speedy mech like a Locust or Hermes or one of those hovercraft with a speed of 10/15 - and rely on speed to get in, get the story, and get out. 
  • Go all-in on heavy combat capability with a heavy or assault mech and rely on being in the thick of the action for the biggest stories and most vivid combat footage  ' "Here's where I personally destroyed the mech of the Marik commander when he challenged me on the field."
The first option was a no-go as a primary character as it would leave me out of the big mech fights. The second one could be fun, but everyone wanted to play a heavy combat unit, not a scouting or recon or raider unit so I would be a fifth wheel with a light mech in that scenario. No, the obvious way to go was big, so I went with the biggest - an Atlas.

3025 Atlas
The Atlas is a 100 ton mech, the biggest size allowed in the game and the top of the "Assault" class mechs* which are the top dogs of the game. They are rare, at least in the early days of the game, carry the biggest guns, the most armor, and are the slowest mechs in the game. Each weight class of mech has its attractions, but sometimes you want to play the biggest and baddest and if you do this is the way to go. The Atlas was the first 100-tonner in the game and to me has always been one of the best looking and most effective types. It carries the biggest long-range  missile launcher in the game and the biggest gun in the game, giving it both a very good ranged attack and a strong close-in punch. it also carries the heaviest armor of any mech in the game, meaning Wolf lives longer and can do more broadcasting during a fight. Now the game was set in 3050-something during the Clan invasion, a pivotal time in the Battletech universe.  He started off the campaign with an old AS7-D Atlas from the 3025 era which was a solid, reliable mech without a lot of the fancy (and expensive) new technology from the 3050 era. That mech lasted precisely one long adventure, including our first encounter with the Clans (Jade Falcons if I remember right) and at the end the unit was awarded some new tech and mech upgrades and his Atlas was rebuilt as an AS7-S (Steiner variant) model. He renamed it "Skeletor" and spent most of the campaign piloting it in this configuration:

I never liked only having 5 shots for the main gun or only 6 shots for the LRM's like some Atlas models so I preferred this one as he could often get through 2 or even 3 fights before running out of ammo. This is hugely important in an RPG campaign as the DM does not always let you rearm and reload and patch up armor after every fight, unlike playing unconnected battles with the boardgame. Mechs that seem "sucky" or underpowered for a one-shot battle become much more attractive when you're going to have to live with them over time. Conversely many awesome mechs for one-shots look a lot less attractive for an extended multi-battle campaign - I'm looking at you Hunchback! This model also skips the XL engine, a common feature in many later mechs that frees up a ton of weight to add more guns but makes the mech die much faster when taking internal damage. They're also a lot more expensive, another consideration when running a merc unit that's involved in regular, active combat missions. Wolf also turned the SRM-2 Streak around to shoot forward instead of to the back. 

3050 Atlas
Wolf eventually got caught in a bad position during a clan assault and Skeletor took a serious beating, losing a leg and one side of his torso - major damage. Wolf was knocked unconscious and injured during the fight too. While recovering, Wolf decided that perhaps fighting in the middle of a melee was not the best strategy for a combat reporter and that a new approach was needed. Somewhere along the way the unit had captured another Atlas, one of the newer models with an endo-steel internal structure which freed up some additional tonnage without compromising the toughness of the mech and so Wolf began to design an new configuration, the AS7-X:

This version pulled the AC20 (it was hard... sniff) replacing it with a Gauss Rifle that did 3/4 of the damage at more than double the range, plus 2 big long-range lasers (that also do not run out of ammo), and retains the LRM-20. This means it can drop triple the damage of the old model at long range while still doing more damage at short range too!  It's more efficient and less susceptible to ammo shortages. It plays somewhat differently than the previous version, but in a long-term campaign I finally gave in and it made him a monster in combat - he was able to take on clan mechs on much closer to even terms than before. Wolf named it "Stormbringer" and used this mech for the remainder of the campaign, which was not all that much, but it was fun and refreshing for the time it lasted.

The campaign lasted for more than a year with 3-6 players during the game, some dropping in and out depending on availability. We fought many battles, mostly against the clan invaders in Steiner space. We didn't always win, but we avoided any disastrous leave-your-gear-behind-and-run type defeats. Wolf's main camera was mounted in the nose-hole of the Atlas skull and he unfolded his satellite uplink antenna on many different worlds. Having a media connection helped the unit keep a higher profile than it might otherwise have had too. 

The very first session involved am orbital drop onto a hostile spaceport and even with his ace piloting skills Wolf was hit by heavy laser and missile fire several times on the way down, landed badly as a result of the damage (hip actuator) and spent that first battle limping around at 1/2 speed - thank goodness for the LRM as it at least let him shoot back at things he couldn't catch. The whole campaign on that planet saw him with some kind of leg damage as there wasn't a lot of downtime and it was damned annoying as an Atlas is pretty slow anyway, and leg actuator damage only makes it worse. This proved nearly fatal at the end as he could not participate in the unit's tactical withdrawal at a crucial point so he made a ferocious last stand until he ran out of ammo and his mech overheated to the point of shutdown. The video was awesome though. That did set some of the tone for the campaign though and at least once during an action on a new world he would have a run of bad luck, usually involving leg actuators. Wolf is the character that made me a lot more open to taking the bad luck advantage in some games - if it's going to happen anyway you might as well get points for it. 

The high points of the campaign in many ways were the "Battalion Battles" we ran every so often. In Batteltech the basic unit is the lance, a team of 4 mechs comparable to a modern tank platoon. A company is 3 lances and a Battalion is 3 (or more) lances, or 36 mechs. Throw in some infantry, recon vehicles, aerospace support, and supplementary local tank forces and you're looking at 40-60 units per side which requires a really big table's worth of maps makes it an all-weekend affair and a huge blast to play, especially when one side is your unit where you know all of the names of the pilots and their mechs and most of them have a character sheet that someone rolled up during the campaign. Now when that pair of Falcon Vultures blows away your recon lance in one turn you actually care whether the pilots live or die and whether it's a shot-through torso or an engine or ammo explosion that takes out the mech! It's really a different game from traditional one-shot Battletech and one I highly recommend.

In the end we were not defeated. "Dante's Hitmen" (I never liked the name - our 1st edition group went by the much cooler "Death's Head Assault Group") came to a good stopping point somewhere around 3056 and decided to take a garrison duty job to refit with new tech. As player interests and attention wandered we just let the campaign go and never went back to it. As far as I know Wolf is still sitting out there in his Atlas X, talking to local contacts and practicing his gunnery. When Mechwarrior 3rd edition came out about 1998 we started up a new campaign but it didn't last as long as this one, which didn't last as long as our 1st edition game with the D.H.A.G. , so maybe our attention was waning even then. The mechanics in all 3 versions were just terribly clunky looking back now. GURPS, Hero, Savage Worlds - any of those would work better now for the out-of-mech action while keeping Batteltech for the heavy metal bashing. I have no strong desire to fire up those old systems again but writing this does make me miss the universe quite a bit. It also makes me miss the groups we used to play with, too. 

For the future I have started to introduce the Apprentices to Battletech. We haven't played much yet but we will, probably this summer. Considering the ridiculous number of pained mech mini's I have sitting out in the garage it's a crime. I started off painting individual mechs, then I went to painting up lances as a unit, then I went to companies, and at the end of our playing time around 2000 I was painting them up as whole battalions with shared paint schemes, so we have the toys - we just need the time, not unlike so many other things in this hobby and life in general. If we do play a decent battle, or even start up a campaign, I'll post it here. Who knows, maybe they'll have the chance to be interviewed by the famous Wolf Blitzer and the amazing Atlas-Cam!

*Lights are 20-39, Mediums are 40-59. Heavies are 60-79 tons, and Assault mechs are 80-100 tons 

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