Saturday, November 19, 2011

BattleTech Flashbacks

It dawned on me a few years ago that I’ve been writing material for BattleTech and MechWarrior for a long time – over a quarter of a century.  One, it made me feel old.  Two, it stirred up some memories that were fanned even further at GenCon this year.  (I really wanted to sit down and play the board game but I wasn’t able to.) 

For those of you that don’t know, BattleTech is a robust science fiction universe that has millions of printed words supporting it.  It has been PC/Xbox/Sega games, board games, toys, a cartoon series, comic books, novels, and, well, just about everything else.  For over a quarter of a century the BattleTech universe has grown and expanded.  It is huge, with thousands of followers.  It is something I’m proud to have contributed to (in my own little ways). 

When I got involved in BattleTech it was by accident.  My last semester of college I wrote a scenario set for the Star Trek RPG from FASA.  I reached out to them at the end of the semester and Ross Babcock said, “I love it.  But before we publish it, would you like to write for BattleTech?”  I had no idea what it was.  Ross sent me a copy of Battledroids (the name of the game before it became BattleTech) and some material on the universe. 

I got hooked quickly.

BattleTech was more simple in those days.  You defended a planet with a company of ‘Mech.  New ‘Mechs weren’t manufactured, you had to salvage your damaged gear to keep functional.  It was big robotic fighting machines slamming it out with lasers and missiles.  Hell, I admit it, I loved it.  The fact that you could construct a ‘Mech made the game variable, more interesting than the usual board game fare

Ross sent me copies of the rough sketches of some of the ‘Mechs for the original (first) Technical Readout and said, “Here…write up some descriptions of these.”  He said that I was writing along with a handful of other authors and whoever did the best, would get more to do.  We got paid a whopping $50 per ‘Mech, which seemed fantastic.  I mean seriously, I was getting paid to do this?  (I still have those original copies in a binder along with the original dot-matrix printer version of universe guide.)   

I must have done pretty well because I was getting BattleTech work two years before the Star Trek scenario I wrote (The Strider Incident) was finally released.  I wrote anything and everything I could for BattleTech.  The book opportunities kept coming.  Ross handed me a three sentence description for a mercenary unit called Snord’s Irregulars.  With that kernel of thought, I cranked out two supplements. I asked once where the name Cranston Snord came from and the answer I got was that it was from an old BC cartoon, the punchline to the joke of “Who is buried in Grant’s Tomb.”  Back in those days, a good idea got jotted down and shot out to those of us writing and we turned it into a product. 

The universe changed with the 4th Succession War.  Suddenly there were new ‘Mechs, regiments of troops (where did those come from?) and deep politics.  Keeping track of the universe, for years, was every writer’s responsibility.  There was no database to go to for continuity checking.  Every year the product became more complicated, more complex, more challenging.  I loved it!

Every year I went to Sam Lewis for what I lovingly called, “My annual grovel for a novel.”  I would bring three to five ideas and pitch them.  For two years I was sent packing with, “maybe next year.”  One year I met Sam at Gen Con and pitched five ideas.  The last one I had written the night before leaving for Milwaukee, a hurriedly scribbled idea that I had put no real thought to.  Sam chucked the first four ideas but latched onto the last one – Highlander Gambit.  He loved the idea of a Death Commando coming home to the Northwind Highlanders.  I remember thinking, “wow, I sold a novel idea – and I really have no idea what I am going to write…holy crap!” Somehow, in a matter of a few hours, I had a detailed chapter-by-chapter summary done.  The story, the characters…they all seemed to just come to life.  As a person that dabbles in playing the bagpipes, I simply loved writing about mercenaries that wore kilts.   

The novels are beyond fun to write.  It’s not just the stories, the political intrigue, and the battles.  It is about characters.  I still write books that I enjoy reading, though I admit I haven’t cracked one of my own books in years.  They are still stories that I think hit the mark.  With more than 12 under my belt (if you check the fine print in Star Lord, you will find that I did the rewrite on that novel – and I could do a whole blog entry on that bad experience alone, trust me), I would do another one in a heartbeat. 

I was asked by a fan this year at the Catalyst Game Labs booth, “which is your favorite novel you wrote?”  Wow.  That is tough to answer because I like all of my novels for different reasons.  I can narrow it to two.  First, from the original series of novels, Exodus Road.  The Smoke Jaguar character of Trent…turning traitor to the Clans was neat.  I mean seriously, the main character is someone you like but he is a traitor!  Trent was complex in many respects.  Exodus Road is the story of someone that put honor above politics, even if that meant killing the very thing he loved. Trent became the instrument that spelled the end of the Smoke Jaguars.  Imagine that kind of emotional burden.   

Second, from the Dark Age novels, Surrender Your Dreams tops my list as a favorite.  Surrender should have been a dud of a book.  I was told, “give us three stories of Knights of the Republic trapped outside of Fortress Republic.”  I toyed with doing just that, three separate little novellas.  That seemed lame and I figured the readers would rebel against that approach.  Then I thought, “why not stitch the stories together?” I wanted some ties back to the original series of novels.  Since I precipitated the demise of the Smoke Jaguars in Exodus Road, I thought, “what if we told the story of what happened to the survivors of that Clan – what they became.”  The Fidelis were born.  No longer the Jags of old, they were something else, something cooler. 

I was watching Pulp Fiction and I got the idea of jumbling the order of the chapters.  A lot of thought went into that.  Some readers hated it.  I didn’t and wouldn’t change a thing.  The book has everything, the ghost of The Master, Redburn, and even Devlin Stone (albeit in a message.)  I know some people didn’t like Surrender Your Dreams, but I thought it was neat and stand solidly behind it. 

I don’t get the play BattleTech too often any more.  My kids and my friend and his kids played the Wizkids game MechWarrior.  I know purists swear long and hard about that rendition of the game, but I liked it…and so did the kids.  We waged some massive battles, raining artillery everywhere, letting loose with Alpha Strikes.  It was fun.  I collected the BattleTech comics and the toys too.   

Back “in the day” we used to get all of the authors together every year at GenCon for a brunch.  We would talk, brainstorm ideas, hear the latest changes in direction in the universe, get a run-down of what was in the product pipeline – that kind of stuff.  These meetings were a lot of fun.  We don’t do them anymore, but I wished we did.  Sometimes egos got stepped on but overall, these were fun to attend.  It was a chance for those of us on the inside track to talk and joke about BattleTech in a way only we could. 

I am still writing BattleTech too.  Two weeks ago I finished an installment in my series for BattleCorps continuing the story of Raul Tinker in Son of Blake.  I have a plan for this series that goes through the end of the Jihad.  When done, the installments are a novella all on their own and tell the story of the Jihad from the Word of Blake’s perspective.  I would really love to see the Wolverine Saga published as a book (Betrayal of Ideals).  BattleCorps had kept BattleTech fiction alive and well. 

As much as I harp about the good old days, there were things then that drove you nuts as a writer.  The universe got so big that you had to ask for help to keep track of all of the subtle changes - for example.  The current product leadership under Loren and Randall is, well, great.  Like myself, these guys have a love of the product and the universe and kept the classic board game brand going when everyone else saw it as dead.  BattleTech is making a resurgence, at least that is the buzz I’m hearing and witnessing.  I don’t think our best is behind us.  The best is about to come!


  1. a) Please do a blog about the "Star Lord Experience"

    b) What about Leviathans novels? :D

  2. Thank you Pardoe for all your contributions to Battletech over the years.
    Exodus Road was the first Battletech novel i read (twighlight of the clans first is a bit cart before the horse i know) but it sucked me in. I now play Battletech every thursday night and have been tracking down deadtree editions of the old novels when i can. Alongside Stackpole and Thurston you wove the tale of Battletech as a beautiful web of violence and politics.

  3. Ost Troll,
    I will draft it at some point for the blog. In terms of Leviathans novels - I have more than a few ideas for a few of these. If Catalyst ever announces the need for these, I am all over it.


  4. Blaine, my only problem with Surrender Your Dreams was the (lack of) Dating system. I had to use a calendar generator and graph paper to square events with "real" time in the BattleTech universe. That being said, it was a helluva book and I really enjoyed coordinating with you on intertwining events from Dreams with key elements of To Ride the Chimera.

    As for Leviathans novels: I've got a few one-paragraph pitch ideas jotted and ready to fling at Catalyst if and when they go that route. Maybe you and I and Steve and a couple of others could sell them on a package deal for a whole series? (Actually, maybe leave my name out of it while pitching the concept; let them think only the quality writers are involved.)

    But much as I enjoy your science fiction, my favorite book of yours is The Cruise of the Sea Eagle. You autographed a copy for my father five or six years ago and he really enjoyed it. Now that he's gone it's on the bookshelf here in my office; about six feet to my right as I type this.

  5. Kevin - we'll need to coordinate our efforts. I have some ideas jotted down for Leviathans novels as well.

    I've enjoyed working with you in the past and look forward to it in the future!


  6. Love your books! I have been playing Battletech since it came out in the 80's, God I feel old. Loved Betrayal of Ideals part 1, still trying to find parts 2-4.

  7. Re: The "Cranston Snord" joke. The way the strip ran, a character answers the phone and a voice says, "If you can name the unknown soldier, you win 40 free dance lessons!" Deciding to make up a name because it's such a lousy prize he says, "Cranston Snord" and the punchline is "THAT IS CORRECT!" (Telemarketer trying to push junk!)