Gaming Thursday: A BattleTech Proposal

July 26, 2018

With the new (Kickstarted!) turn-based BattleTech computer game out, I’ve been a) playing it a tonne (and enjoying it immensely) and b) thinking back on all the tabletop BattleTech I’ve played over the years.  Which has also been a tonne.  To this day I can rattle out many weapon stats from memory.  And I fondly remember one summer laying down all the maps we owned on the floor (some of which were different scales, so we had to do this crazy linear conversion when we crossed over) in a friend’s basement for an epic battle between a crazy number of units.  Took all summer.

The game itself is mostly functional* and models well enough the particular flavour of reality its going for.  Stompy bot action, you’ve got it.  There is, however, one major niggle that I noticed even back during those epic summers, and that became even more glaring to me the few times I’ve been able to play the past couple of years.  And that is this:  the math.  Or, more precisely, the dice math. 

The Issue

… is that BattleTech uses 2d6 for task resolution.**   While it gives a nice bell curve to difficulties, something I like, it does mean that there are large jumps in probability between each possible result.

The base to-hit number in BattleTech is 4.  Rolling a 4 and above on 2d6 is a nice 91.67%… seems pretty darn easy!  But you need to add the modifiers, and a typical roll is something like:  +2 for target being at medium range, 1 for your movement (walking), +1 (at least) for the target movement, and often at least +1 for some intervening terrain.  4+2+1+1+1 = 9.  To score a 9 or above on 2d6, you’re now down to a 28% hit chance… already not fabulous.  And truth be told, through movement (if you ran, for example) or terrain, you’re much more likely to need at least at a 10… and are now down to a 17% chance to hit.  Fire eight weapons and expect to hit with one.  With random location damage spreading and half decent armour, it’s going to take a while to inflict any serious hurt.  And this is only at medium range; throw in long range and an additional +2 modifier, and you’re at 12s… 3% to hit.***

Add just one more modifier you’re at 13, with no chance to hit at all.  The number of times during those epic summer games that my friends and I would calculate our to hit chances and end up not being able to hit at all was so frequent it became a bit of a running joke (and then annoying at 2am when you just want to destroy at least one unit before you go to bed).

The upshot of using 2d6 is that many shots will end in a miss unless someone stands still, ignores good positioning, or the mechs get close to each other.  Coupled with small maps that have lots of terrain (some of which also block line of sight, preventing fire), the game can easily devolve into a bunch of mechs swirling around each other in very tight quarters, just to have a chance of connecting with a weapon.  And even at these close ranges, “long range” weapons can still rule the day, because their range brackets put them at medium or short range while the infighting “short range” weapons are still at long (and that dreaded +4 modifier).

To me it seems comical, and it reduces the options for varied tactics and narrows gameplay style choices.

The Proposal

… is to switch to using 2d8 for resolution, rather than 2d6, and change the base to-hit number to 5.  With 15 possible results, rather than 11, each modifier now is less of a jump/decrease in the hit probability.

Following the example above, in our “typical” shot, we have 5+2+1+1+1 = 10, which on 2d8 is a 43.75% chance to hit, close to doubling the hit chance.  Add on that extra one for movement/etc, 11, 32%.  Two more for long range, so we’re at 13, and that’s still a 15% chance to hit.  Our long range shot now has a chance to hit equal to the medium range shot from before under 2d6.

What’s more, we can take three more modifiers before we get to the “don’t even bother rolling” shot, and two of those will result in a hit percentage higher than a 12 under the 2d6 way.

To further help this along, I would also split and smooth out the modifiers for range.  Ranges in the base game are quite neatly (in almost all cases) split into equal thirds based on the weapon’s maximum range.  To smooth the +2 bump once you cross that magic threshold from short to medium, divide medium range into two haves with +1 and +2 modifiers, and do the same for long range into +3 and +4 modifiers.****

With both of these, more shots will land more often, leading to a quicker and more engaging game.  Modifiers still remain vital, so it won’t reduce maneuvering or tactics; quite the contrary, it might allow and push for more interesting choices, since often under 2d6 it was easy to let the modifier get “good enough” with minimal care.  In addition, the long range game opens way up, aiding the mechs to feel like weapon toting titans hurling anger across the battlefield rather than needing to get up into each other’s face all the time.*****

Natch, there might need to be a few more tweaks that need to happen to be sure this doesn’t negatively impact things in certain cases.  The target movement penalties, for example, might need to be modified to ensure that lighter armoured and faster mechs aren’t taken out too quickly.  An increase in the number of hexes of terrain required before blocking line of sight would also be good.  Nothing a bit of playtesting couldn’t buff out.

If you give this a shot, please send me a shout, I’d be interested to hear how it turned out!  And next time I host a BattleTech stompy day at my house, I’m definitively going to give this a try, and see if it makes for a quicker, more exciting, and more fair game.


*  Though I certainly did write a number of variant rules and even collated them into a book that I e-published…

**  I don’t know why they chose d6s, maybe it was due to their familiarity and availability, though they used d10s for my beloved Renegade Legion.  (That said, they didn’t use d10s in a bellcurve fashion in Renegade Legion, which is its own problem…)

*** This is the reason Clan pulse lasers are so broken, BTW.  That -2 modifier they have drastically improves their to hit chances, so much so that, for example, a single Large Pulse Laser does, on average, more damage than TWO Extended Range PPCs until the target number becomes 7 or below, despite these two ERPPCs having 50% more damage capacity each (and naturally weighing way more and generating way more heat than a single LPL…)

**** This could also be done for the 2d6 system as well, as every reduction in modifier would be very welcome and make for more shots connecting.

***** Not that getting up into each other’s face wouldn’t be a viable option, and likely would be more exciting since it would be rarer and more dangerous (and we could even increase the physical attack damage which would double the excitement).

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