Battlelords of the Twenty-Third Century™
The year is 2282, and an intergalactic war rages for control of the Milky Way Galaxy between the Galactic Alliance and the Arachnid and Atlantean armies. The Galactic Alliance, a conglomeration of allied species, including the human race, controls a large portion of the system. Megacorporations control the Alliance and use it to further their own agendas and interests. The Galactic Armed Forces are composed of over a dozen species. Within its ranks are the Battlelords, easily identified with a skull logo on their armor or uniform. This honorary rank falls outside the normal chain of command, and those among them are the most loyal and capable military veterans of the Galactic Armed Forces. With this honor comes the privilege of defending an assigned region of Alliance space with their personal warcrusier, equipment, and soldiers. A Battlelord’s tactical assessment, quick decision making, ability to overcome overwhelming odds, which they often come up against, makes them celebrities, and a goal for each player characters’ soldier to achieve.
Battlelords of the Twenty-Third Century is not for the faint of heart or those who lack maturity. Although it’s a military science-fiction roleplaying game, its themes are mature, and it’s recommended for ages 14 and up. Originally penned by Lawrence R. Sims, a military veteran, he captures the horrors of war, dark humor, blood, violence, disfiguring wounds, and suicidal frenzy of war-torn combatants. Those who have issues dealing with such subjects best turn to a different game to play.
For this review, I was provided with a PDF and a physical copy of the rules—both are wonderfully designed. The PDF is bookmarked and optimized for mobile and online use. I want to highlight the fantastic job the creative team did with this publication. Each page is a real pleasure to view. The artwork, organization, and overall layout of the book is phenomenal. It does what most modern RPG publications try to achieve, balancing stimulating visuals elements while providing concise, organized rules that are easy to comprehend and easily located.
The universe of Battlelords is quite rich and detailed, considering the game is geared towards military conflicts. It was originally published in 1990 and has gone through several editions. I’m reviewing the latest edition, Seventh, and this is my first introduction to the game. The title of the game Battlelords of the Twenty-Third Century™, suggests playing a soldier in a military outfit with one goal, achieving the highest honor, Battlelord. Though soldiering seems like the game’s main focus, players can choose to play hired mercenaries, outlaws, privateers, bounty hunters, or any occupation where one would be heavily outfitted and find themselves in armed conflict to protect the interests of their employer. I can only speculate that players’ roles have expanded beyond that of simple soldiers over the years.
Whether your character is part of the Intergalactic Army or a hired gun, it will be part of a diverse fighting force. There are thirteen different playable species to choose from—each fostering more than just general descriptions. Every species gets an in-depth look into their diets, place of origin’s environments, histories, social and cultural frameworks, means of communication (if abnormal), moral values, attitudes towards other species, politics, education, and special abilities for those who have it. It’s far more information than is usually found in a core book for playable species.
The playable alien species are not too alien for a player to relate to. Each is closely related to a familiar aspect in our own world and culture. They possess the likeness of real animals, plants, or known fictional creatures. As an example, The Chatilians look like asparagus stalks with arms and legs. Cizerack and Fott are both modeled after animals; Cizerack large feline cats and rabbits for Fotts. Mutzachans mimic traditional Roswellian large-headed gray aliens. Players can use these recognizable elements to their advantage by incorporating their characteristics into their character’s species’ backgrounds.
Character creation begins by choosing a species and generating vital statistics. Optionally, players can choose first to roll on the optional character development charts. These charts aid in character development if the player is not sure which direction to take. They offer many options to customize your character. Readers should note that there is a catch to using them; what you roll is what you get. There is no picking and choosing the results. Using these charts may alter values already assigned to your character sheet; hence the option to use these charts first before generating characters stat values is an important decision.
Character statistics in Battlelords are mostly self-explanatory. There are a couple unique ones I’d like to cover. INT (Intuition), not to be misread as intelligence, denotes a character’s instinct, awareness, and perception. This primal, animalistic trait is vital for keeping a character on its toes and alive on the battlefield. MD (Manual Dexterity) and AGL (Agility) appear on the character sheet. Since alien species vary, like their appendages, their use of tools and range of motion is based on their physiology. Hand-eye coordination (MD) and range of motion (AGL) are needed to simulate those challenges. The most unique of the vital statics is AGG (Aggression). AGG measures one’s temperament for aggression. How quickly they reach dangerous levels of anger and/or aggressiveness. It’s the difference between going berserk in a firefight or keeping a level head.
There are three methods to generate Vital Statistics: Give & Take, Best of 10, or Point-Based. The Give & Take method set all stats to 60, adding any species modifiers to that number. Players then move five points from any statistic to another up to ten times, rounding up or down at the end to make each statistic divisible by five. The most popular option is the Best of Ten, using percentile dice to generate a set of 10 numbers. The lowest two numbers are discarded, and the remaining eight are placed in the vital statistics of the player’s choice. Species and other modifiers are then added. The Point-Based Method is the most complex. Players begin with 135 chits to spend toward purchasing vital statistics. Each spent chit gets a player 5 points to place in any one stat. Once a statistic’s value reaches 50, the cost doubles and then tripling at 75. Like the Best of Ten method
s, modifiers are applied only after all the chits have been spent. The Point-Based Method is for min/max players or those who have a clear idea for their character.
The average median for vital statistics is 50, in the range of one to one hundred. There are a few exceptions where a stat rises above 100 to the max of 150. These instances are through species adjustments, cybernetic enhancements, or special abilities known as Matrix effects, a special mental ability. A latter chapter covers the descriptions of each matrix and any special rules pertaining to it.
After vital statistics are allocated, players calculate their size class based on their height and weight, followed by the number of skill points available to spend on skills. Body Points represent the amount of damage a character may sustain and are tabulated based on species, using a mathematical formula, and modified by the constitution statistic. A character’s movement ratings are filled in along with any sensory modifiers, special abilities, species liabilities, cultural skills, behaviors, the number of actions they can take in a round, encumbrance, income, wealth, and social standing. A unique element on the character sheet is the Environmental Condition Roll (ECR). Environments conditions, of which there are eight, affect each species differently. The ECR outlines the character’s resistance to them. Each species has a fixed ECR value, which can then be modified by a character’s vital statistics, constitution, and intuition. It’s little details like this that add
s to the simulation aspect of the game.
Battlelords has over 100 skills to choose from. Each skill is linked to a Vital Stat and uses a floating scale of difficulty levels for tasks; Easy to Nearly impossible. Percentile dice are used for skill checks, with players needing to roll under each task’s target number. A 01 is a crit, and 00 is a failure. Each skill has a level of competence allocated to it. There is a lot of math upfront determining the skill percent based on its linked stat and skill level, but it’s all done at character creation. The mechanics of rolling checks against stats, opposed rolls, aided skill checks, and unskilled checks are in keeping with other systems that use a percentile system. Characters may specialize in a skill that grants them a lower difficulty level and a better chance of success. Not having specialization in a skill that is required increases a character’s difficulty level. Failing a Skill Check like a Stat Check can have a negative effect on a character. These effects range from physical damage, stat reduction, change in ECR, altered movement rate, loss of an action, or an added penalty to a future check. It’s just one of many mechanical elements that give the game its realism.
Combat in Battlelords is the game’s main focus. It’s all about deadly confrontation and simulating it. The rules for combat are complex, with lots of modifiers for environmental conditions, a player’s current situation, and that of its target called shots, the size of the target, and the amount or type of cover used. The rules for the various types of combat and the maneuvers used are extensively detailed in the book. There are additional rules for using varying sizes of melee weapons, suppression fire, spraying fire into an area, area of effect weapons, and much more.
Combat begins with an initiative roll of 2d10; lowest going first. Initiatives are modified by Alertness and Body Equilibrium skills. Characters have a number of actions they can take during a combat round based on their species, skills, and agility—ranging from 2 to 8.
Actions are categorized into three types: All, Half, or Single Action. “All” type actions use all of a character’s available actions and must be the only action performed (e.g., standing from a prone position). “Half” actions use half of the character’s available actions (e.g., readying a weapon). “Single” actions use only one of a character’s available actions (e.g., firing a weapon). The Action Table and Combat Action Table are used to determine the number of actions needed for any given task. The type of action and the order in which actions are executed is important. Taking multiple Single Actions incurs penalties, making it harder to hit a target with each additional attack. Once a player’s actions are used up, their turn in the combat round is over. Actions refresh at the start of the next combat round; any unused actions are lost.
To determine where a blow lands, Battlelords uses a simple D6 body hit location chart. The chart is fairly straight forward but using it is not so simple. A unique game mechanic known as Bumps can alter the results. If a character uses multiple melee attacks within the same combat round or a firearm with a burst or full-auto, an alternate hit location die known as the Rate of Fire Die is used. These dice results may place their locations outside the body chart—turning a hit into a miss. To counter this, a player may move their result on the chart through the use of Bumps.
Bumps are bonuses a character receives by having a high skill in a weapon or being at point-blank range with a firearm. The higher the skill level, the more control a character has with their weapon, which gives them a tighter grouping with their blows. A character may spend their bumps on a one-for-one basis to move their result back onto the hit location chart. A strategic player will not only use their bumps to achieve a hit but place it on a wounded area to further incapacitate their enemy. Bumps are also used defensively in the same way. A defender can use their Bumps against melee attacks to move the hit to a less vulnerable area or prevent themselves from getting hit.
Physical damage is only one part of a frontline soldier’s worry. A combatants’ mental stability is just as vulnerable. Situations in which a character might go berserk, become suicidal, or fleeing in terror are all part of the combat rules and based on one’s Aggression Stat. Most RPGs don’t bother with the mental health and the stress of combat, but the original author, a former combat veteran, felt it necessary to include this.
Note: Individuals with mental health issues stemming from real-world experiences can avoid this mechanic or choose another system to play.
Damage recovery is just as granular as getting injured. Body parts rendered useless can be repaired or regenerated at a proper medical facility. A whole new body can be produced if necessary as long as the brain survived. Heck, if you are wealthy enough, you can digitally copy your memory and place it into a new body, but it’s expensive!
For characters in the thick of it, Body Rehabilitation Injections (BRI) offers quick healing relief. BRI can rapidly repair lost or damaged tissue, but it can not regrow new limbs or set broken bones. With a large enough dose, it can bring a fallen soldier back to fighting status. If administered too frequently in too short a period of time, it can cause the Shakes, a condition affecting the body and a soldier’s effectiveness to fight. Characters who develop the shakes are dismissed from the battlefield and sent to a medical facility to receive treatment.
The best way to survive combat is to armor up. There are four types of armor suits in Battlelords, Body Armor, Heavy Armor, Mechanized Battle Armor, Ultra Armor, as well as two types of helmets, light and heavy—each is fully described in the book. All suits may undergo modifications to improve their combat effectiveness. Examples include special protective coatings, enhanced communications gear, agility enhancements, weight reduction, and more. On the front, a soldier’s armor is just as important as their weapon.
Armor coverage is separated into the six body parts associated with the hit location chart. Battlelords uses the TAB system, Threshold, Absorption, and Body Points to aid a gamemaster in applying damage. Armor uses Threshold Rating and Absorption to determine its effectiveness. When an area is damaged, the wearer suffers no damage if the amount of damage is less than the Threshold Rating. Any damage not stopped by the armor’s Threshold Rating is applied to Absorption. Absorption refers to the amount of impact the armor absorbs through high-tech polymers or layers of padding between the wearer and the armor’s outer shell. Unlike the Threshold Rating, which doesn’t get reduced except through specialized weaponry, damage applied to Absorption reduces its overall effectiveness before getting applied to the character’s Body Points.
Armor that is repeatedly pierced will have its Structural Integrity compromised through a metric determined by the type of weapon used. When it’s reduced to zero, the armor no longer offers the wearer any protection in that area. It must be repaired or replaced. Some weapons circumvent armor entirely, leading to a hybrid interpretation of the TAB system, which is thoroughly explained in the rules.
Weapons and Equipment
Weapons play a massive role in Battlelords. The weapon section begins with Weapon Charts before a brief introduction. A detailed description of each weapon is presented following the charts. Battlelords has a wide variety of weapon types to choose from. Even though Battlelords is clearly a sci-fi future setting, the weapons list is not limited to that genre. Ballistic, fluid, primitive, disintegrator, and other unique weaponry are alongside pulse, laser, and energy weapons. It doesn’t stop there. Weapons for vehicles, explosives, missiles, missile systems, and the ammunition for each weapon are also covered. There is no shortage of tools to annihilate your enemy!
The equipment chapter has everything a soldier could need on the battlefield. Communications devices, personal computing devices, detection equipment, espionage equipment, emergency medical gear, environmental hazard gear, computer linked gear, cybernetics, augmentations, DNA Masking, basic and personal equipment are all types of gear found in this chapter. Each variety of gear begins with a summary chart followed by descriptions.
Sharing the equipment chapter is cybernetics and augmentations. All species can replace or upgrade their body parts within the limitations of their species. There is a lot of useful choices to select, all nicely organized in charts for each type. Though replacing body parts with a cybernetic prosthetic or augmenting them comes at the cost of reducing a character’s Constitution score, which would lower one’s Body Point total. Useful as they may be, cybernetic appendages are not indestructible. Like armor, they are subject to the Structural Integrity rules.
Battlelords vehicles are spread over two chapters. One dealing with planetary vehicles, and the other covering interplanetary vehicles—spacecraft. Both chapters are similar in content. The interplanetary chapter has a wide variety of vehicles, from piloted to semi-autonomous drones. Rules for vehicle combat, repairs, movement, and customization encompass this chapter. Vehicles use Structural Integrity rules like armor.
The spacecraft section is a little more in-depth than the vehicle section. It covers a lot of the same subjects as vehicles, enhancements, repairs, etc. It’s a little beefer in its rule section: dealing with space combat, boarding vessels, and operating as a crew. Unlike the vehicle chapter, the spacecraft chapter provides nice color deck plans for each of the larger crafts presented.
Aliens and the Battlelord’s Universe
In a game about battling, you need Hostile Alien Lifeforms or HAL to fight. The HAL chapter is all about the enemies of the Alliance. The Alliance has cataloged many threats and organized them with the Galactic Armed Forces – Threat Assessment Guide (G-TAG). For a price, characters can utilize these G-TAGs to learn more about their enemy; their habitat, body shape, size, threat level, and more. HALs share the same vital stats as player characters with some additions or modifications to suit a specific species. There are nine HALs in this chapter. Easy-to-read charts provide the gamemaster with everything they need to know at a glance about a HAL’s fighting ability. Detailed descriptions and histories of each HAL and their technologies, weaponry, armor, and special abilities round out this chapter. Unlike the playable species, the HALs are truly alien in nature.
A little disappointing is the chapter on the Battlelords’ universe. It is not as heavily detailed as I would expect from a game that has Megacorpation controlling military forces for their own needs. The information within provides just enough to get a feel for life in the 23rd century: different types of settlements, planets, starbases, and shipyards, law enforcement, economics, culture, travel, trade, and communication within the Alliance. There is no in-depth insight into these corporations other than a quick write up of each. This lack of detail leads me to believe that this game more about combat and less about roleplaying within the world of Battlelords.
Battlelords of the Twenty-Third Century™ is a combat simulation roleplaying game. There is no doubt in my mind that it is anything else. That is great if that’s what you’re looking for. The game’s mechanics are geared to simulate battlefield conditions through a set of granular rules. That might frighten away some players and gamemasters. Throughout the book, the authors provided a lot of assistance in navigating the rules’ complexities by using easy to find rule summaries, optional rules, and easy to read tables. Summaries and optional rules are blocked off in orange boxes in bullet points or in the simplest terms possible. Informational charts are large and provide the vital information needed at a glance. As complex as the rules are, these segregated sections really help when needing a quick answer.
The rulebook has a section dedicated to the gamemaster. It provides the usual aid a gamemaster would need in running their games. A beginning scenario called “Thunderbirds and Energy Weapons” literally drops the characters from orbit onto a planet to aid a scientific expedition under attack by pirates. The adventure is broken into easy to digest acts with helpful instructions for new gamemasters.
Is Battlelords of the 23rd Century™ the right game for you? If you are looking for a hard science fiction heavy combat-oriented game that thrives on simulating the horrors of war and the bookkeeping that comes with it, then yes, Battlelords is the game for you. For those who like the concept or setting, but not necessarily the simulation or the bookkeeping, 23rd Century Productions is developing Battlelords of the 23rd Century for the Savage Worlds system. Keep your eye on the Battlelords‘ website for further information.
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