Tag Team Review: Battlelords of the Twenty-Third Century

Battlelords cover Battlelords of the 23rd Century is one of the game I always wanted to check out back in the 1990s. The name alone aroused my interest in that game, but alas I was unable to track down a copy back then. Over the years I lost sight of that game. A couple of months ago I was positively surprised to see that Battlelords is back. SSDC Inc., who was founded by two huge fans of said game, has bought the game from the original publisher, and re-released it earlier this year in a slightly overhauled edition.

Before starting to delve deeper into the 292-paged book I have to thank Aaron Thies, president of SSDC, who provided me with an electronic review copy of this fine game. The other SSDC cofounder Michael Osadciw was responsible for the layout and cover art of the 2011 edition of Battlelords. And if you ask me, he did a great job! The layout is very clear and especially the cover art just calls out: “Play Me!”

By the way, this time we’re trying something exciting and new: the “Tag Team Review”. We thought that a game as bad-ass as Battlelords needs to be tackled by two reviewers, so Roberto joins me today. Let the fight begin!

Sunglar: Let me echo Michael’s thanks, its been a real pleasure reviewing this book. I actually played Battlelords of the 23rd Century in that bygone era of the 90s. I never owned the books since my good friend Luis was the one who actually bought them. Still I got to play and enjoyed it very much, so I embark upon this review with fond memories of the game. Oh and before I forget, Mr. Wolf, you’re on!

Stargazer: So, what is Battlelords about? It’s set into the 23rd century. The Galactic Alliance, a coalition of twelve alien races, has populated not only the whole Milky Way, but also neighbouring galaxies like Andromeda, Fornax and the Magellanic Clouds. Behind the scenes huge mega-corporations pull the strings, and there’s an unending demand for mercenaries all over the known space. These mercs are called the Battlelords, and they are the focus of the game.
In a way this reminds me of another classic roleplaying game from the 1990s: Shadowrun. Like in Shadowrun the players form a team of mercenaries who operate always on the verge of the law to to pull the chestnuts out of the fire for the mega-corporations. And as you can imagine the focus is not on diplomacy but rather on brute force.

Sunglar: For a setting with such an epic scope the background presented is done so very superficially. You get an idea of the general political situation, survival, what life is like in the 23rd century and the role the mercenaries play on this grand stage. this could be a boon to some people who would rather fill in the gaps (like me!) but others may be left wanting more. But there is a sample setting on the book so do not despair. more on this later… From the details  you know what to expect, combat combat, combat. The story that introduces the game is about a Battlelords team doing an infiltration mission and it’s full of details about how the races interact, their idiosyncrasies, the equipment. Its an over the top romp that sets the flavor for the book.

I must admit I was a little turned off. It’s a hyper violent narrative reminiscent of 80s and 90s action movies. I remember enjoy this sort of gaming back them but I was no so sure now. Still I wanted to give the book a chance so I soldiered on… Then I got to page 17 with the cartoon of an old lady sitting on her rocking chair with a high powered rifle and thought to myself, well you are taking this book way too seriously! This is a fun, violent romp, go with it…

Ram Stargazer: There are 13 playable races including humans, the feline Cizerack,  the blob-like Mazians, and  the Mutzachan, who pretty much look like your average grey alien. The aliens might not be that original but you have more than enough to chose from and they are mechanically different enough so that your choice of race actually matters.

Sunglar: This is more like it, races! I remember this as one of my favorite features in the game. The number of races and their presentation, with all the little details about their physiology and psychology. I am a sucker for games with many distinct and varied aliens, and this game has them is spades. I love some of the originality i, the presentation, the script of each race, this drew me into the setting right away.

I love the fact that humans are not the top dog in the Battlelords universe, in fact they are rather fragile when compared to the other races and some of them outright disdain them. This is not a happy place where the races get along. There are some races that are little more than cliches and feel a little like a teen wrote them (Orion Rogue I am looking at you). I would have loved for this new edition to rework some of those that feel like caricatures. But I get the feeling the publishers wanted to recreate the magic of the original game, not thinker much with it.

Stargazer: When you favor crunchy and rules-heavy games, you’ll definitely love Battlelords. At least when reading the character creation rules you realize that this game is far from rules-light. There are no less than three different methods to generate your character’s statistics. Overall the games’ rules are pretty complex. Especially if you are into detailed simulations you might get a lot of enjoyment out of Battlelords, but as you probably know I prefer a more lightweight ruleset myself.

Sunglar: Michael, as the crunchier of the two of us (do not bite me, I’m talking rule-wise), I can appreciate a detailed system. Reading the different ways to generate abilities, the ability modifier tables and all the other details of character creation reminds me of the old AD&D rule books. You can see this is a game with roots firmly in that design philosophy. Detailed, well codified rules, with lots of detail. You are completely right in calling it simulationist.
Throughout the book you get the feeling that life is hard and dangerous for a Battlelord. Death is around the corner and no one is safe. That is exemplified by the fate and background tables, one entry reads, “You are shot while walking the pet”, and that is not a bad result!
I will admit that my players enjoy a more robust system (i.e crunchier) and some light rules games are not to their liking. But the more complex systems they like are the systems they know (D20, Pathfinder, Mutants & Masterminds) and there is some reluctance to learn new systems. As much as I would LOVE to run a Battlelords game I think this would be a hard sell for my current group. But I concur with Michael, if you like detailed games, this is right up your alley!

Stargazer: If you’re into extensive skill lists, you’ll love Battlelords. The Skills chapter lists over 100 skills that are divided into categories like Physical, Alien Technology, Arts & Crafts, Communications, and so on. Luckily doing skill checks is pretty easy and straightforward. Battlelords uses a percentile die system, that means that you have to roll equal or under a percentile value set by the GM. Alas calculating the odds is not for the math-impaired.  Here’s an excerpt from the rulebook:

Henry the Mutzachan is being chased by Fredd the Python. Henry decides to jump from a 10m cliff, in order to avoid certain death. Henry is a 7th level Acrobatics specialist. His chance of being hurt equals: (10 – (7 x.5) x 10) = 65%. So he needs to roll a 35 or less to live. Henry jumps and rolls a 15 on percentile dice. Henry is safe. Fredd, caught up in his rage, jumps to follow and falls, making a mess on the ground below.

Sunglar: Skils, skills, skills! I have to agree with Michael here as well. There are lots of skills, and you can specialize in many different fields. This is great for the sort of detail this game aspires to cover. There are racial considerations, professional considerations, but I have come to love systems with less skills, or at least skills that require little rule look up. There are simply too many and I’m sure once you become familiar with them they will be second nature but I see many new players flipping pages to the skill section.

When I played Battlelords I don’t recall rolling much skills, it was all combat. Which is a nice way to go on to the next part of the book. Take it away Michael…

Stargazer: In most games Armor are just a set of one or two stats that determine how many damage is absorbed or how easy the character is hit. Not so in Battlelords.  In Battlelords armor is more like a part of your character. You not only have an extensive list of suits of armor to chose from, there are also countless armor options that allow players to fully customize their character’s armor.  You are playing a scout character? Add a camouflage unit.  You want to channel Boba Fett from time to time? Get the jetpack. For a game that is very much focused on combat this actually makes a lot of sense and adds additional depth compared to more simpler systems.

An Alliance soldier protected by the bestSunglar: Let me go off topic here for a moment. Whenever I look at a sci-fi rpg with different aliens, specially ones very different form humans, I wonder, what do their  EVA suits and power armors look like. Book after book I see illustrations of humans and their equipment, but rarely do we get illustrations of what the other races equipment looks like. Battlelords is the reason I do this! The old edition of the book spoiled me. Through the book there are illustrations of the different races in power armor. Now I know where my obsession comes from. Kudos for that.
The amount of detail and options here is important, the armor is one of the most basic pieces of equipment your character can have in this game. And putting together all the little trinkets and options can be a little game unto itself. It may sound too complex for some people I know (I am not telling who that stargazing blogger might be!) but I know some of my players enjoy this kid of thing.

Stargazer: The highlight of the equipment chapter of Battlelords is definitely the weapons section.  There are dozens of different weapons ranging from archaic hand weapons to futuristic beam and pulse weapons.  Compared to the extensive sections on armor and weapons the remaining equipment sections including cybernetics seem more like an afterthought. Don’t get me wrong, you still get a lot of options, but they are not as deep and extensive as especially the weapons.

Sunglar: Michael you can’t fault them for having so many weapons. In a universe where cans (i.e. armors) are so prevalent you need to give your players lots of can openers (i.e. weapons)! I love that some pieces of equipment get illustrations. Most are serviceable but none are truly memorable.

Let me go off track for a moment and talk about the art of the book… I like most of it. The alien illustrations are almost all well done, the vistas of cities are great and overall I like the art. The more comedic pieces seem fitting and do not distract. My main problem is with humans, many look odd, proportions or perspective are a little off. Also many pieces look like taken from a 90s  RPG. I realize there is some nostalgia element to publishing this book, but  with so much good looking art, the not so stellar pieces are a little jarring!

Stargazer: I definitely agree with that judgement. The artwork taken from the old edition of Battlelords sticks out like a sore thumb. But I have to admit I am a bit picky when it comes to artwork. For example I am not really fond of the art style used in most D&D retro clones. I definitely prefer the more recent styles. But of course this is a purely subjective matter. Overall the quality of the artwork in Battlelords is great.

The moment when Bluerazor “lost it” and started down the dark path of the Combat Mutzachan Sunglar: Ok back on track, what’s next? Oh yes, Matrices. These are the Battlelords of the 23rd Century version pf psionics. while mechanically they are no more complex than other parts of the system they are pretty detailed and codified. They remind me of the old psionic rules from AD&D in some ways. I really like the fluff, the details, they make an effort to make them fell all their own.
Stargazer: What I like about Battlelords Matrices is the sheer amount of powers you get to chose from. While sometimes too many options can be a bad thing, it’s not the case here. I had a lot of fun reading about all the different powers and imagining what you could do with them. It shows that a lot of love went into that chapter of the book, much like it is in the case of the armors and weapons. But now that we have rules for weapons, armor and matrices, what’s with combat?

Sunglar: An then there was combat! You may be surprised that it takes until page 189 to get to this. It is as detailed as you expect, with lots of modifiers, a detailed critical table I was amazed the chapter is not longer (about 13 pages) but it does bring together rules form all over the book.

Stargazer: As I’ve mentioned several times before the crunch level is a bit outside of my comfort level. But Battlelords does a few things I like a lot. In most games critical hits are caused when the attacker has a lucky roll. It has nothing to do with the condition the target is in. The critical hit rules in Battlelords make much more sense in my book. You get hit for 25% of your remaining body points and it’s considered a critical. So when you are still unwounded it takes quite a lot of damage to cause a critical hit, but when you’re already struggling to keep your intestines from falling out, even the slightest hit may cause you to go into shock.
Overall the combat rules build on the rules introduced in other chapters, so everything can be explained in only a few pages. Of course this doesn’t make them less complex. If you are interested in simulating combat with all the details, Battlelords is definitely worth a look.

Living in the Future Chapter 10 is called “Living In The Future” and it gives us an extensive overview of the Galactic Alliance, the Corporations and other Factions who play a major role in the 23rd century. Thhis chapter also contains some vehicle and starship rules but they are much, much less detailed than the other rules in the book. But I guess travelling around in space ships is just meant as a backdrop in this game. The real focus is on action and combat, so this is probably fine. All in all the chapter gives a good overview of how things work in the 23rd century. And even if you are not fond of the crunchy rules of the game, you might get some mileage out of that chapter alone. There’s definitely more to the setting than meets the eye. And now it’s time for Roberto to take over again.

Sunglar: Games that don’t call the Game Master Game Master confuse me. D&D got away with Dungeon Master, and some systems have their own versions. Here is is Battle Master, another leftover from the game origins in the past. The chapter is more rules for specific situations than actual advice for new Battle Masters.  I don’t think this game would be a good introductory game, but just in case some more general advice to new Battle Masters would have been nice.

Chapter 12, the sample campaign setting is among my favorite parts of the book. It gives you an idea of what the universe is like and sets forth the expectation of designers,, including NPCs. The inclusion of racial archetypes is another great tool to get players playing quickly. The inclusion of star maps, reference tables an a detailed index are a plus and details that add value to a book in my opinion.

Stargazer: I have to fully agree with you, Roberto. Chapter 12, like Chpater 10 before, is just great. The descriptions of the cloud city Hell’s Point are pretty detailed and you get a good feel for the place. Having pregenerated NPCs is always a nice touch, but in Battlelords even more so.

The Appendices contain not only two pretty accurate starmaps but also several quick reference sheet that will definitely get handy. And last but not least there’s a four-paged index, something a lot of modern games actually miss.

Sunglar: Ok my final thoughts… Battlelords of the 23rd Century was a fun return to the games of my youth. It is all I remember and more. Is it perfect, no, but its full of chutzpa and attitude. It’s in your face and makes no apologies about this. In some ways this game reminds me of RIFTS, but in a good way… If you like detailed, combat heavy, crunchy sci-fi gaming, this is for you! I loved going back and revisiting the games of my youth.

Stargazer: Again I share Roberto’s judgement. And while I mentioned several times before that I am no fun of crunchy systems, I would still love to PLAY that game. It reminds me a bit of RIFTS, too. This was another game I absolutely loved for the great background, all the cool ideas, the pure awesomeness dripping from the pages, but which drove me nuts when I tried to run it myself. Battlelords of the 23rd Century is definitely a great game and well worth it, if you are not afraid to learn the rules. If someone would offer to run it for me, I would not hesitate at all!

So where can you buy this great game? The best choice is the official SSDC store, where you can get the core rules in a print + PDF bundle for just $33. Alternatively you can get it from DriveThruRPG where the PDF sets you back $13.95. Of course any decent FLGS should be able to order it for you if it’s not on stock. So what are your thoughts on Battlelords? Have you played it before? Do you intend to play it sometime in the future? Please share your comments below!
UPDATE: Aaron Thies from SSDC just let me know that I got something wrong in this review. The current PDF version hasn’t been rereleased 2011, but is identical with the version released in 2000. Sorry, I think I mixed something up there. But he let us know that they are in fact working on a revision.