The Design Philosophy of Battletech, Part 4
I’ve actually had a lot of trouble convincing myself to write this essay, because I’m missing a lot of the resources I’d need to really delve into the process by which the setting was created. Specifically, all my notes and documents and images that I used to work out the Aurigan Reach were, as you might expect, proprietary and owned by HBS (and therefore Paradox) and didn’t come home with me when I stopped working there. So I’ll be going from memory (and the official book, of course, which I have around here in hardcopy somewhere).
There’s really only two elements of game design that I love: building game systems that give players the tools to create their own stories… and creating believable worlds. I’ve talked about the former in earlier essays, so let’s discuss the latter.
In my experience, almost all second-world or science fiction game settings are implausible. I can think of only a handful that feel like real places and real settings rather than simulacra of places and people. Artesia, I suppose, and Hârn. Glorantha, if I’m feeling generous. Eclipse Phase. The Expanse.
Fantasy gaming is choked with worlds that are both empty of people and crowded into a small number of iconic cities. Kingdoms span endless miles of empty terrain with no farming villages or market towns or riverside mills to break the wilderness. Video games are even worse, with entire nations summarized by a city the player can cross in a matter of a few minutes of running, with all sense of scale or depth a matter of implication rather than explicit statement. Our minds just simply cannot encompass the sheer number of people who lived on the land of the medieval world, the density and profusion of humanity present everywhere you might have looked.
The same problem stalks science fiction, in tabletop or video gaming. It’s difficult for the human mind to really grasp just how many stars there are, even in a modestly-sized region of space. Distances in space evade human comprehension, and we will never not be astonished by those YouTube videos showing the scale of things from the Planck length up to the entire observable universe.
Even when we think we have a grasp on space, we create settings with a hundred inhabitable star systems, and then tick off their contents: ice world, desert world, jungle world, swamp world, Terran world. We can barely grasp the scale of our own planet, and repeating that scale over a hundred other worlds is well beyond us — even more so when we add the fundamental strangeness of a world orbiting a star that is not our own. I’ve got a book here titled ‘What If The Moon Didn’t Exist?’ and I think of it often when I read science fiction worlds with a half dozen moons and binary stars.
Second world and science fiction settings are bizarre, and when we fail to capture them plausibly in our games, we leave a lot of the experience’s wonder behind. I just recently read Emphyrio by Jack Vance for the first time, and I was taken aback at its language and world-building. In what is, ultimately, a simple story about a distant planet colonized by humanity, with a moon occupied by an alien species, Vance managed to entirely bewilder and astonish me. There were long paragraphs where I couldn’t wrap my head around even the implications of the words he was using to describe his worlds. And I mourned every science fiction setting that puts a player or a reader on a distant world orbiting a distant star and then surrounds them with the blandest corporate architecture and the blandest late-capitalism social structures of the early 21st century, and calls it ‘speculative fiction’.
So I care deeply about worlds, and when I came aboard the Battletech project, one of my central concerns was the setting. See, Battletech’s setting is everything that annoys me about rote sci-fi world building, all in one package: worlds that are not very alien, and people that talk and act like modern people, and places that are not very well-disguised copies of real world societies and cultures and governments.
So my first thought was: let’s create something new. Let’s build something that, while tonally consistent with Battletech’s setting, allows us to dig more deeply into the implications of the fictional history of a thousand years of expansion and conquest. We’re not going to make Battletech into a Jack Vance novel, but we can at least make it into something more compelling than Space Samurai vs. Space Americans.
Here’s the problem with creating original Battletech setting material: there isn’t a lot of room to maneuver.
The way the setting is designed, everything interesting or important happens around Earth. The further you get from Earth, the less the planets and their inhabitants matter (at least in the 3025 setting; as the timeline moves forward, the situation reverses, with Earth representing a technological backwater relative to the might and sophistication of the invading Clans). Out past the edges of the Inner Sphere, in the Periphery, the inhabited planets are few and far between, and they are, as often as not, primitive and barbaric, for whatever those terms mean in the context of a far future science fiction setting.
(To be completely honest, the logistical structure of the Battletech setting makes no real sense, and it takes only a little napkin math to see where the implications of their faster-than-light mechanics lead. There’s just no reasonable way to supply these worlds in the way it’s suggested they require to survive, much less engage in any sort of commerce or luxury trade. Planets would, given the JumpShip mechanics, need to be self-sufficient… which would then suggest that the further they are from Earth and its conflicts, the more successful and advanced they’d be. But once we start dissecting the setting’s logistics we go down a rabbit hole we cannot easily escape, and so — just as I did when working on the setting design and outlining the rules of the world for the team — I’m going to set that aside and pretend the contradictions have reasonable explanations.)
In any case, the problem with the Inner Sphere is information density. Anywhere you look, there’s official canonical content. There are timelines, there are notable people, there are units stationed there with known compositions and known commanders with known records. There isn’t a star system that doesn’t have at least something known about it. For a very long time, the various publishers of Battletech materials have been filling out the contents of a map that was made to be arbitrarily large and cluttered.
There are no gaps. There are no free worlds to populate with your own characters, unless you’re willing to ignore the canon and create your own little pocket of reality. And, indeed, most video games did precisely that: Mitch has said that the MechCommander 2 setting was chosen because he looked at a map, saw the name ‘Chaos March’, thought it looked cool and interesting, and said ‘we’ll put it here’. Video games aren’t expected to become part of canon; on the other side of the equation, video games are expected to adhere closely to canon out of respect for the setting and its extensive and variegated history.
I had a weird idea. I mean, I had Jordan there, and we were talking pretty frequently with Randall at Catalyst. What if we made a game that didn’t just respect canon, but somehow was compatible with canon? What if we made a game that could become canonical?
The rest of the setting discussion should be understood from this starting position: I wanted to create canonical Battletech material.
In the first essay I wrote in this series, I mentioned (to the alarm of the Battletech subreddit) that I wasn’t a fan of the Battletech IP. So why did I care about canonicity? It’s actually because I wasn’t a fan that I wanted to add to the canon. In a perverse way, I wanted the challenge of constructing something that satisfied my own sense of a believable, reasonable science fiction setting within this context that I considered inimical to reasonable sci-fi.
(The truth is that, aside from the logistical contradictions and the inherent ludonarrative dissonance created by the rarity and fragility of the mechs, the setting is not unreasonable. It makes some assumptions about human nature and human governance that I think are suspect, and it makes some other assumptions about technology and the rate of human progress that I think are absurd, but it has the kind of fractally complex texture I look for in fictional histories. Since I had to go from zero to expert in about three months, I can attest to the depth and intricacy of the setting as it has grown over decades of exploration and game publication.)
If I was going to create canon, I needed to find a place to do it that would satisfy three concerns.
One, it had to be within shouting distance of the Inner Sphere. If we were going to put the big players on the map, and make this a story about the five Successor States (the pie wedges on that map up there at the top of the essay), we couldn’t go as far afield as, for instance, the Clan Homeworlds had gone. To be recognizably Battletech, to map to the promises made in the Kickstarter, we had to be close (or close enough) to Earth that the story could matter.
Two, it had to be somewhere undeveloped. Even the most minor Periphery States (the various boogers and dingleberries that surround the pie in the map above) had too much canonical development. I didn’t want to be constantly referring to a dozen different external sources every time we tried to make up a villain or a planetary facility or a star port. We’d stumble eventually, and that would be that for the canonicity of the whole project. (In point of fact, I had a whole star system that apparently didn’t exist at the time, and had to be errata-ed out of the official sourcebook, much to my dismay. Whoops!)
Three, it had to be a place where we could tell a story with Battletech’s big themes, but without any consequences that would impact the future of the setting in a significant way. We wanted noble houses and conquest and war crimes and the whole package, but without leaving any signs that we’d been there.
The Rimward Periphery
I really liked the look of the little notch between the Taurians and the Magistracy, just rimward (the bottom of the map is ‘rimward’, and the top is ‘coreward’, based on the galactic plane) of Liao. It had a couple of stars in it, but when I looked them up on the repository of all canon, Sarna, I found… nothing. They were empty. They appeared on a few maps, and then vanished. Some of them changed names. Some of them appeared only on occasional maps. It was a void.
I figured, if I added a bunch of stars there, it would probably be okay. Even when the region eventually was filled out by content set further along the timeline, it was still extremely sparse, with very little detail in what few books referenced it at all. And even in those books, there was a little nook that was largely empty.
I didn’t need to add many stars, as it turned out. What I did was: I took every single map I could find in every supplement that covered the region, no matter the scale or the significance of the map’s appearance. If it had the region’s star systems, I included it. I made every single one of them a layer in a PSD. I lined them all up, scaling and rotating as necessary so that every star overlapped itself on every map.
The place was, it turned out, absolutely loaded with stars. I know that what I was seeing was the cruft that naturally would accumulate on the fringes of a setting developed by multiple authors and publishers over the course of decades, but the diegetic effect of that cruft was perfect for my purposes. This was a mystery region, with a broken history and a fragmented continuity. This was a place where anything could be concealed, any past could be erased, any future could be left ambiguous.
The little notch I carved out, right at Coromodir, was my centerpiece.
The map’s extents were determined in a prosaic way: I expanded until I had roughly 100 star systems within the scope of the bounded area, and called it good. I also was careful to exclude, at the extreme upper left, the system of Butzfleth, because even bringing up the name led to horrified laughter among the team.
This left us with a big wild area of barely-charted systems, indifferently recorded in canonical sources, with no real limits to the kinds of stories we could tell.
The Aurigan Coalition
I didn’t write the plot of the game, or even create the key players. What I did was built the nation over which those players struggled.
The rest of the Inner Sphere was various flavors of pseudohistorical aristocratic governance; one of the early design goals that Jordan wanted out of Battletech, as he explained it to me, was a kind of ‘knight in shining armor’ of the future, where the ‘armor’ was a mech. Hereditary nobility is all over the setting, even where it doesn’t seem plausible (one wonders how the scions of, e.g. House Davion or House Marik continue to be so reliably elected to the highest offices of their respective states, and how the complex systems of governance described for each state somehow always result in a de facto autocracy).
So I wanted to juggle that concept, by introducing the Holy Roman Empire to the mix, and spend the time and care to build a really plausible backstory, something more reasonable (or cynical) than the casual adoption of autocracy that features so often in the Battletech canon.
I sketched out an early history where, in the wake of the Capellan withdrawal from the region documented in multiple canonical sources, the people living on the star systems left abandoned were able to contact one another and put together a rudimentary coalition government, with each system acting as an independent princedom. Over time, this coalition became more formal, and the ‘princes’ of these systems, along with a collection of other notables, became the Electors that met in the Aurigan Diet to acclaim the High Lord or High Lady, said Lord or Lady being the executive and overall administrator of the Coalition. There’s more, and if you go pick up the official sourcebook you can read my whole rambling exploration of the history of the region.
(You might ask where all this information was in the actual game. That’s an excellent question!)
The Coalition was definitively gone by just a hundred or so years later, with the Fronc Reaches occupying part of the nearby territory, and some notion of that space being filled by a collaborative effort between the Taurians and the Canopians. Fine, that was also useful to me. I pinned the new micro-state between those two powers — minor in the grand scheme of things, but much wealthier and more dominant than the tiny little Aurigans. They were caught in a conflict between the Taurians, as antagonists, who believed the new state was encroaching on their territory, and the Magistracy of Canopus, whose motivations in the region were never entirely clear to me, but who had just fought a minor war against the Taurians, and so seemed like a reasonable deuteragonist. To that mix, I added the canonical former ownership of the region by the Capellans, and the ongoing feud between the Federated Suns and the Taurians, and we had enough political nonsense to turn this little cul-de-sac into a pressure cooker substantial enough for a dozen game plotlines.
And, importantly, all of it could happen without once violating the holy canon, or leaving unanswered questions like ‘why did we never hear about this minor state?’ or ‘where did the ruling families of these star systems go?’
So it’s canon. (Though, to be clear, it’s canon because of the Catalyst team, who did a large amount of work to bring our awkwardly-fitted ideas into their larger fold, and for that they deserve the bulk of the credit for enabling the setting to become canonical.)
Of particular interest to me is the section I wrote on the cultural and religious character of the region. I’ve said before that I don’t really care about the robots, I care about the people, and this was my opportunity to explore the way those people lived, how they struggled to survive at the edge of civilized space, and how their cultural signifiers blended together. On Heliat, one of the minor systems right at the edge of things, I even got to create a new Pope.
If you don’t mind spending a small amount of money, go over to Catalyst and pick up the PDF of the book. No, this isn’t financially self-serving; I was paid a fixed amount for my share of the writing, and that’s all, and the price of your purchase will not end up in my greedy hands.
Read through the setting details you won’t get elsewhere. Read the descriptions of the alien worlds and the minor systems on the edges of the setting. The history, the government, the politics and economics. Hell, read the fiction; I know it’s good, because Andrew wrote it and he’s a master of clear and compact prose that conveys mood, emotion and action without a lot of florid nonsense (by which I mean this very essay you’re reading now, which is largely florid nonsense).
This is really the heart of what I wanted out of building the setting: a sense that what we’d created made sense, that the people and history felt like something you could read about and say ‘I could see a future like this one.’ A future where humans, far from their native lands, would slosh around their Catholicism and their Congregationalism and their Sunni Islam into a glorious syncretic mess, a jumble of religions and cultures and traditions. Where the protagonist was a Polynesian woman, and the antagonist was a Spanish man, and they were both hereditary aristocrats of a future nobility, and they struggled over control of a distant fictional Holy Roman Empire in the shadow of far greater powers.
I wanted Battletech fans to say both ‘this is definitely Battletech’ and also ‘this doesn’t entirely feel like Battletech.’ And I wanted people new to the setting to say ‘this is a universe I can believe in. This is a setting that could exist.’
I honestly can’t say if I succeeded. I just re-read the House Arano book, and much of it still strikes me as quite satisfying and well-composed. But is it Battletech? Does it feel like something that fits into the larger ecosystem, or does it feel like a strange outsider? As a strange outsider myself, it’s difficult for me to say.
I’m going to have to get into the combat mechanics and why they are they way they are, huh? But on the other hand, I’ll get to explain why I detest overwatch mechanics and why we redesigned the Guts skills. So I guess that’s something to look forward to!
Also, hey, if you’ve read this far, do me a favor and share this somewhere, okay? These are a lot of work to write and I’d love to get more feedback on them.
Battletech is property of Topps, Microsoft, Catalyst, HBS, Paradox, etc. I don’t own any of it, nor do I represent any of those entities. I’m only talking about my own experiences as the lead designer of the 2018 computer game.