RPG Design – Spinning On The Axis Of Evil

   Does a game really need any kind of an “alignment” system?

   Evil isn’t always easy to recognize, although many gamers and game masters seem to have it confused with psychotic madness, which usually is.

   Lets say that we have a ruler, who’s chief delights lie in exterminating his enemies and destroying their countries, the tormented deaths of innocents, commanding armies of swarming peasants in drudgery, enslaving and humiliating people, and indulging his appetites with any young woman who catches his eye – and sees nothing wrong with enjoying himself by doing all of that as regularly as possible and murdering anyone who attempts to interfere.

   OK, we’re probably safe in saying that we have an evil overlord there.

   Now, that could describe a raving maniac who leads his armies of murderous fanatics in a wave of death and destruction across the land. The description is a bit overblown, but quite a few people throughout history would have found it quite recognizable indeed; they’d just have pointed at the latest or best-known example of the times.

   Of course, it could also describe people who have been hailed as some of the greatest and wisest rulers in history. COMPETENT evil wants to remain in charge – to continue indulging itself for all time to come. That means:

  • Keeping the majority of the your people happy. If you want to declare war on someplace, make it out to be a menace – whether it is or not – and share the loot with your major supporters. After all, happy people work harder, pay more taxes, and require a lot less supervision – which means more resources to devote to your harem, your further conquests, running the games arena, and building that giant temple to yourself.
  • If you want to massacre people, or enjoy the tormented screams of small children, make sure that they’re “enemies of the realm” and their offspring – and make sure that they actually have been doing something. Everyone will nod approvingly at wise self-defense; no one likes knowing that your guards might kick in the door for no reason and drag them away. If you run a large empire, there will always be plenty of criminals, traitors, and utter failures to indulge yourself with.
  • If you want to command armies of swarming peasants in drudgery, that’s not too big a problem; most of their lives are like that anyway. Just present the food that you’d have to give them anyway as “pay”, make sure that the vast majority of peasants aren’t being conscripted at any given time, and have some portion of them working on building useful stuff – canals, fortresses and walls to keep out the “foreign invaders”, and so on. If such projects are to “keep them safe”, they will never think about the fact that they are also your iron fist. If you throw in the occasional keg of beer with permission to have a party and return some small portion of the taxes you were collecting from them in the first place, they’ll love you for it.

   Keep that up long enough, and you’ll pass on a strong kingdom to your heirs and be remembered as a great, good, and wise king. From the point of view of the country, you were – and the point of view of the people you massacred doesn’t matter. They won’t be leaving descendants, or writing history books.

   Remember, Vlad the Impaler, Attilla the Hun, and many more are still cultural heroes in their own lands.

   In other words, even up close, it’s very difficult to tell the difference between competent evil and competent gray. At a distance, It may not be possible to tell the difference between “good” and “evil” at all. A well-intentioned fool can make just as big a mass as any malicious villain.

   Much of the confusion about “evil” comes from a basic problem; it’s a very abstract concept that goes back a long time. Back to the point where everyone (instead of just a portion of the population) seriously believed that the world was full of spirits and that “random chance” did not exist.

   It was comforting to believe that there were comprehensible motives for everything that happened; it meant that you had some chance of getting around the forces of nature or of buying them off – rather than simply being at the mercy of the cosmic roulette wheel.

   Thus, anything that went wrong was “evil” or came out badly – often the result of the activities of malicious spirits, but occasionally simply the rightful revenge of slighted spirits or an attempt by the powers of good to get humans to behave properly. Thus, if there was a famine due to a lack of rain, evil had come upon the nation.

   You could also find evil in the heart: if you were doing something for unpleasant motives, you were being evil – no matter if the actual outcome was good. If you cursed someone in your heart, and sent them a gift intended to embarrass them, and it saved their life, YOU were still evil, even if you weren’t very good at it.

   Finally, evil could be found in particular acts. Desecrating a shrine or relic was an act of evil, and subject to divine punishment, even if it was totally accidental and inadvertent – or even if it was meant to be helpful. For a truly classic example, go biblical. If an unsanctified individual touched the Ark of the Covenant – even inadvertently, or to try and catch it when it’s sacred bearers stumbled and it seemed about to fall – he or she would be struck down. That wasn’t a “wrong” outcome, and there was no malicious intent in it. It was just the way things had to be; the act of desecrating the sacred Ark was inherently evil and had to be punished, no matter what the motive for it was.

   Today a really clever plan can be described as “that’s just evil!” simply on the basis that it’s perceived to be so good that the opposition will have no way to stop it, and therefore the plan itself is inherently unfair. In the old days, that really wasn’t a consideration. Enemies were for disposing of, not for coddling.

   Now all of those definitions are still in play today – and mostly work tolerably well. The vague and generic concept suffices for most communications, since “evil” is generally a value judgement on something that says little more than “I really don’t like this!”.

   Things go downhill when you start trying to write actual game rules about good and evil though.

   The first approach – based on outcomes – doesn’t really work. The outcome for who? And how long after? In the real world – and in a long campaign – the consequences of events continue into the indefinite future, spawning results that are – from any particular viewpoint – both good and bad. The outcome-based approach only works in classical literature because you’re only getting one viewpoint – that of the guy who wrote whatever-it-is that you’re reading – from the point in time when he wrote it. After all, the terrible flood might be destroying your crops and fields one day, and a chronicler writing at that time would label it a dreadful evil upon the land. Next month, it might be known as the flood that swept away the overwhelming enemy army, and saved the lives of everyone in the entire kingdom that said overwhelming army had intended to massacre to the last infant.

   Motives are impossibly slippery. Most real people have multiple motives for everything they do – and their characters can have assigned their own motivations. Unless your game also grants telepathy and an analytic mind, a fast talker can spin a reasonable-sounding rationale for why virtually any action is in accord with any given ethical system. The human race has been trying to sort out ethics and motives for thousands of years; you’re not going to be able to do it in a set of rules.

   The “list of evil deeds” approach is the next fallback – but starts running into trouble when the situation gets at all complex. Sure, killing a kid is evil – but what if it’s a pair of conjoined twins, who will both soon die if not separated, despite the certainty that the separation is sure to kill one of them? What is the answer when your choice is “two kids die or one kid dies and one lives”? Aren’t there arguments in both sides?

   Is it better or worse if you know which one in advance?

   What if, what if… The list approach inevitably leads to the conclusion that Motive Does Not Matter – but many people are uncomfortable with the notion that a random storm may perform evil actions. They – with a modern understanding of “chance” – feel that accidents and random results may be bad, but they aren’t really evil.

   Worse, the list approach is inherently endless. There’s always another variant on any given action – and if a game designer falls back on the “game masters judgement” in a list situation with no clear rules, he or she is simply copping out. All that says is “use the rules and the list in your head; we couldn’t be bothered thinking about our own mental list and rules enough to come up anything workable here”. That’s very bad design.

   It’s more realistic to present characters with a personality quiz – but that sort of thing only really works with the more dedicated role-players, and who has time to do one for all the NPC’s?

   In general in game design, it’s best to leave “Good” and “Evil” as abstract concepts or – at most – as labels to be attached to benign and malevolent forces. Otherwise you’re asking for the same sort of good-versus-evil arguments that are STILL going on about Dungeons and Dragons. Give your characters a motivation or two, and a couple of personality traits, and let them find out that the opposition may be more than a bunch of combat statistics and a sign saying “Appropriate Target Here!”.


Battlemech Conversions

   Since it looks like the Battletech Universe may be a repeated stop, there are some general rules for converting Battletech Mechs to d20 statistics:

   Hit Points: A basic human being in Battletech (Mechwarrior, at least in the edition I happen to be looking at right now) can take 10-40 human-scale hits – about the damage done by a SRM on the average, equating to 2 mech-scale hits. Basic human beings in d20 have 1-4 hit points. We have a rough match: d20 hit points equate to mech hits. To refine things a bit, note that Mechs are usually complete wrecks long before they run entirely out of armor and internal structure, while d20 units operate unhindered until 0 HP. Just as importantly, d20 uses 6-second rounds – versus Battletech 12-second rounds. Ergo, we’ll need to half the mechs total HP and the net damage from its weapons.

   Fortunately, d20 has “hardness” to help make up for lower hit points. While basic hardness only reduces the damage from physical attacks, due to the advanced armor materials used in modern military units, their hardness also reduces the damage from energy weapons. Most military units are built of advanced steel, ceramic, and composite alloys – giving them a base Hardness of 10.

   Converting Weaponsis a little harder: d20 weapons do variable amounts of damage, rather than fixed amounts – and we want them to do the right amount on average. So the average we’ll want is (Mech Weapon Damage/2)+10. Things are a bit more complicated with the missiles, wherein there’s an average on both sides: only about 70% hit on the average in Battletech, Ergo:






















d20 Mod













  • LRM and SRM missile systems should have their base damage multiplied by .7 before conversion, thus – say – an LRM 10 with an average damage of 7 in Battletech and 13.5 in d20 comes out to 4d6. Ultra Autocannons do about 1.5x the listed damage, so apply that modifier before converting.
  • The “d20 Mod” is the to-hit modifier. The heavier weapons are simply harder to aim.
  • Ammo is pretty simple: on a natural attack roll within that range, the weapon is out of action – jammed, needing to be reloaded, damaged, or whatever. While a lot of the missile launchers should have ammo limitations, in practice they rarely run out anyway.

   Movement: Mechs, being tireless and machines, do move considerably faster than humans over the long run: over the short run humans are a lot more agile. Still, simple conversions tell us that 1″ of Mech movement equates to 30 feet per round of d20 movement. Mechs should only “run” at 3x their base movement rather than 4x, but this rarely matters.

   Now, Mechs are generally Gargantuan, which translates to Str +24 (over a base of Tonnage/5. Sadly, as mechanisms, Mechs do not get strength-based DR), use the Operators Dex at -8, take a -4 penalty on attacks against human-sized targets (who get a +4 on attacks against them), suffer from a -12 to Stealth checks and to any attempts at fine work, and have a base AC of 19. Given that they are made of metal – even if Battletech has no real equivalent to Armor Class – and that I have a fondness for round numbers, we’ll call them AC 20. Battletech does include a modifier for movement speed, so we’ll throw in something for that: add (Mech Walking Movement-3) to the base AC.

   There are a few other things: Mechs suffer a -2 “To Hit” (on 2d6) if their sensor systems are damaged, which translates to about a -4 in d20. They can cause more damage by firing more than one weapon at a time – but generally suffer from heat restrictions, a mixture of range profiles, ammo shortages, and facing limitations that restrict this. Few of these problems translate easily to d20, so we’ll be a bit more abstract about it and give mechs with lots of weapons Hammer with a few Bonus Uses (per minute) and count the targeting system as a BAB bonus. Mechs with no heat limitations may be able to use it – and thus maximize their damage – almost every round, but those with more problems may be far more limited.

   Ergo: +4 to the pilots BAB, Major Immunity to Atmospheric Conditions (Toxins, Vacuum, Etc), Hammer with +4 Bonus Uses, and Scrambled Radio Communications. Individual units may have some additional equipment, but that pretty much covers the basics. Some sensory equipment would seem to be in order, but – oddly enough – most of the Battletech rules don’t seem to imply that they have any. Finally, Battlemechs may be fitted with one-shot re-entry systems, that’s purely external equipment.

So, here are a few Mechs:

  • Stinger, 20-Ton Gargantuan Light Mech, 40 HP, Str 28 (+9), uses (Operators Dex-8), DR 10, AC 23, Move 180 (Jump-180), Medium Laser (+2 To Hit, 4d6 Damage), 2x Machine Guns (+4 To Hit, 3d6 Damage), +4 to the pilots BAB, Major Immunity to Atmospheric Conditions (Toxins, Vacuum, Etc), and Scrambled Radio Communications.
  • Jackal, 30-Ton Gargantuan Light Mech, 73 HP, Str 30, (Operators Dex-8), DR 10, AC 24, Move 210, Particle Cannon (+1 To Hit, 4d6+1 Damage), Streak SRM-2 (+3 To Hit, 3d6+1 Damage), Antimissile System (DC 20 Reflex Save to block a Missile Attack 1/Round, counts as an Attack of Opportunity), +4 to the pilots BAB, Major Immunity to Atmospheric Conditions (Toxins, Vacuum, Etc), and Scrambled Radio Communications.
  • Hatchetman, 45-Ton Gargantuan Medium Mech, 90 HP, Str 33 (+11), (Operators Dex-8), DR 10, AC 21, Move 120 (Jump 120), Autocannon-10 (+1 To Hit, 4d6+1 Damage), 2x Medium Lasers (+2 To Hit, 4d6 Damage), Hatchet (1d8+Str Mod), +4 to the pilots BAB, Major Immunity to Atmospheric Conditions (Toxins, Vacuum, Etc), and Scrambled Radio Communications.
  • Quickdraw, 60-Ton Gargantuan Heavy Mech, 113 HP, Str 36 (+13), (Operators Dex-8), DR 10, AC 22, Move 150 (Jump 150), LRM-10, SRM-4, and Assorted Medium Lasers (All +2 To Hit, 4d6 Damage), Hammer with +6 Bonus Uses (7 uses per 10 rounds), +4 to the pilots BAB, Major Immunity to Atmospheric Conditions (Toxins, Vacuum, Etc), and Scrambled Radio Communications.
  • Madcat II, 90-Ton Gargantuan Assault Mech. 194 HP, Str 42 (+16), uses (Operators Dex-8), DR 10, AC 21, Move 120 (Jump-90), Gauss Rifles (-1 To Hit, 5d6 Damage), ER Medium Lasers (+2 To Hit, 4d6 Damage). Hammer with +6 Bonus Uses (Usable 7 times every 10 rounds), +4 to the pilots BAB, Major Immunity to Atmospheric Conditions (Toxins, Vacuum, Etc), and Scrambled Radio Communications.
  • Atlas, 100-Ton Gargantuan Assault Mech. 228 HP, Str 44 (+17), uses (Operators Dex-8), DR 10, AC 20, Move 90, Autocannon-20 (-2 To Hit, 6d6 damage, out of ammo on a 1-2), LRM-20 (-1 To Hit, 5d6 damage), and Medium Lasers/SRM Launcher (+2 to Hit, 4d6 damage). Hammer with +2 Bonus Uses (usable 3 times every 10 rounds). +4 to the pilots BAB, Major Immunity to Atmospheric Conditions (Toxins, Vacuum, Etc), Hammer with +4 Bonus Uses, and Scrambled Radio Communications.


   Why these mechs in particular? Well, they’re a fair sampling, the Stinger is one of the most common Mechs in the inner sphere, and they’re a fairly good illustration of why Mechs are considered hopelessly obsolete in the Core Worlds of the Federation-Apocalypse campaign.

Battletech Level Four: Aerospace Fighters

   Well, for today I’ve finally gotten the next chapter of the Level Four Battletech Rules – Sample Aerospace Fighters and an assortment of rules on Munitions and Bombing – converted into something that will display (more or less) properly in current browsers. Only one or two more chapters to go, depending on whether or not I decide to combine the tables and notes.

General Chaos

   Well, thanks to some confusion – and a rather large number of things to be linked – there won’t be any major updates today. Fortunately, the last few chapters of the Level Four Battletech rules hould be up shortly, as well as some additional information on Lycanthropic Law and its history for Champions and on likely realms and events for the current Federation setting. Character-based requests for the Federation setting should be posted to the private blog for that game: the earlier you ask, the easier it will be for them to be worked into the plot.

Battletech Level Four: Battlemech Designs

   For today we have Chapter Seventeen of the Advanced Battletech Rules – a selection of sample Level Four Battlemech Designs.  As usual in level four play, most of these were unique to one or another player, since they incorporated their favorite technological advances. 

Common LAM Designs.

   For today we have Chapter Sixteen of the Level Four Battletech Rules – Common LAM Designs. While the original rules only provided a couple of LAM designs, such a versatile concept seemed likely to attract a good deal more attention than that. Hence players in level four campaigns may opt to take any of the eight basic LAM designs provided here, or any of their listed variants, as a standard design.

Battletech Level Four: Standard Installations

   Well, here’s the next chapter in the Level Four Battletech rules – a short one on Standard Installations, the basic military structures you can find scattered over hundreds of planets and a thousand years of history. Of course, there’s a reason for that: they’re cheap and effective.