Going Mercenary in the 23rd Century with Battlelords

Sci-fi RPG Battlelords of the 23rd Century hit its 20th anniversary this year, and publisher SSDC has big plans in store for everyone who enjoys “Roleplaying in a Dangerous Future.” Ram Pythons, Eridani Swordsaints, Vector 4 Pulse Cannons and the mysterious Arachnid Threat make the Battlelords universe a fun place to visit, but I wouldn’t want to live there.

Battlelords of the 23rd Century is a galaxy-spanning space opera RPG in which the players take on the roles of corporate mercenaries fighting to survive one hostile environment after another, and make a few credits while they’re at it. There’s a Galactic Alliance uniting hundreds of alien races (you can choose from about a dozen of them), but real political power lies in the hands of megacorporations. They pull all the strings.

Character creation is a mix of random rolls and point buy. You choose your race, but there aren’t really “classes” in the traditional RPG sense. Everyone’s class is basically “Mercenary.” You will choose a primary and secondary occupation by buying certain skill sets, but you’re still a mercenary. There are several tables of random benefits, drawbacks and quirks that you can roll on to make your character a little weirder than the rest. Some of the drawbacks are severe! It’s almost like drawing from a Deck of Many Things.

The basic system used in the game is percentile. For a given ability (either a skill or a combat ability), your score increases as you gain experience, and to succeed on a check you must roll below your score. I’ve always favored percentile systems because they’re inherently easier to understand than systems based on D20 or a pile of D6es. I can see the impact of adding four percentage points to a skill much more easily than I can parse what effect adding a +2 to a 4D6 roll will have. Two thumbs up for percentile-based RPGs.

I have to confess I find the combat timing system a bit strange. I don’t want to misconstrue anything, so I’ll just quote directly from the book:

A Battlelords combat round is three seconds long, each second being called a “segment.” Characters will have the choice of either two half actions (one segment each) or one full action (three segments).

I’m not mathematically inclined, but something doesn’t quite seem to be adding up there. I guess Battlelords characters can literally give 150 percent. [Update: Aaron Thies of SSDC let me know that, "the combat segments are confusing, and fixing that is a big focus of our new edition that we are in the middle of working on now."]

The bulk of the book is filled with lists and tables of everything you might possibly want to acquire during your mercenary career. Weapons range from the most primitive clubs and blades to gunpowder weapons and up to outrageous sci-fi guns, like disintegrators and Omega cannons. Cybernetic implants, starships, computer systems, communications devices — it’s all here with full statistics. There’s even a sort of magic system, called Matrix Control. Matrix Controllers cast “spells” called matrices from a range of disciplines. You might just heal your comrades, or you might fold space in on itself and destroy five star systems.

The final section of the book, intended for the Battlemaster, has additional info on the game’s universe, as well as one detailed setting, a cloud city called Hell’s Point which floats over a planet called Harper’s World. There are plenty of NPCs listed, as well as some nice star charts that roughly show where key parts of the galaxy are in relation to each other. And, though it should be obvious from the examples I’ve included here, the art in Battlelords of the Twenty-Third Century is excellent, ranging from grandiose views of space architecture to McFarlane-esque action shots of grizzled warriors in their space armor.

If I have one serious complaint about this book (aside from the slightly befuddling combat segments), it’s the sneering, snide tone. There are constant sarcastic asides, including what appear to be inside jokes directed at the author’s personal friends. Not only are these just not especially funny, they get old very quickly. I don’t know how much of that is left over from the original author (Lawrence R. Sims) or whether it was introduced recently — this is the sixth edition of the core rules, the license changed hands at one point in the game’s history, and I know the content has been altered significantly over the years. Either way, if there’s a seventh edition, I hope they edit all of that out.

As a set of core rules, Battlelords offers tons of options, a comprehensive percentile system, and a very nicely fleshed out universe. There are several supplements and modules available, and SSDC is in the process of releasing PDF versions of them. In the future, they plan to revamp their website, adding a series of web tools (both for Battlelords and for general gaming). Upcoming releases include Engage, a book focused on starship combat, and Core Worlds, a travel guide to all the important planets in the known universe.

It’s a big galaxy (and if it isn’t big enough, there’s actually a second nearby galaxy to check out, too), and I can envision a nearly endless supply of bizarre, action-packed adventures in the Battlelords universe. Armor up, mercs, it’s time to hit the airlock with guns blazing.

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