RPG Reviews – Battlelords of the 23rd Century

Battlelords of the 23rd Century is the seventh edition of a ‘90s game of military science-fiction adventure, celebrating its 30th anniversary this year! The latest version is a hefty product full of aliens, guns, spaceships, and psionics, all focused on presenting the tools one would need for far future military SF and exploration.

Battlelords is set in the year 2282, in the Galactic Alliance of the Milky Way. It’s a multicultural, multi-species universe where humans are but one of many peoples. The members of the Alliance don’t all get along and the military structure of its bureaucracy, combined with the reach and power of the mega-corporations, creates a capitalist dystopia (in my opinion). This is a great setup for this game and I would likely start bringing it in a “spacepunk” direction (which may well be intended).

The titular “Battlelords” are a formidable presence in the game universe. While not a part of the regular Galactic Armed Forces they are given this honorary rank due to their prowess in battle. They often are sent to tackle military threats regular forces are stretched too thin to handle. It’s a good way to set up a chain of command for the player character group that functions without being completely beholden to an outside authority.

The universe of Battlelords is a technological marvel, minus certain staples of modern sci-fi. There is no posthuman element as it has been proven impossible to successfully digitize one’s consciousness. It’s not a post-scarcity society as a ban on nanotechnology prevented the creation of assemblers. Despite the lack of these there has been an increase in biomedical technology and most wounds can be healed – a new body can even be grown and have a brain transplanted into it.

The universe and Alliance are quite well-developed. Long-distance travel is available through “wormhole Gates” or starliners for those on a budget. Communication and media entertainment are addressed (which is quite a nice inclusion and a great way to flesh out roleplaying scenes). Attention is given to law enforcement (including weapon restrictions) and how to behave on a new world and in a new culture. All of this is very useful in helping immersion and managing player character behaviour.

There’s a rundown on some of the more notable mega-corporations and employment requirements, as well as the Galactic Military branches and mercenary outfits. There’s just enough detail to give you a structure or concept for how they all operate, without getting too deep into the finest points.

So who are the threats that Battlelords are commissioned to fight? Externally you have the Aknar-Ryn, or Arachnids, a bioengineered, cybernetically-augmented threat that has proven adaptive to the Alliance in the three times it’s invaded. Internally you have anarchism and rebel movements and the nanite-employing “Atlanteans”, who may be responsible for that myth both on our world and others, and can be indistinguishable from typical inhabitants. All-in-all a suitable collection of antagonists to make for some entertaining games. A few other enemies are written up in the bestiary section. While it’s not a huge chapter there’s still sufficient rules information and it looks like creating new foes wouldn’t be too difficult.

Now that we know what the Battlelords universe is like, who are it’s inhabitants and how do they interact with their world?

Battlelords isn’t a light system. It uses d10s for a percentile system, with the other polyhedrals used for other purposes. It’s precise and gritty, measuring encumbrance loads, psychic power points, damage adjustments, temporary and permanent body [hit] points, sensory modifiers, and actions per round. These are all derived from 8 base statistics, modified by species. Interestingly, characters have Aggression statistics alongside things like Intuition and Charisma, Constitution and Agility, which helps reinforce the aims and combat-oriented nature of the game.

It’s not a lot more involved than other games on the crunchy side, like various BRP games I enjoy, and everything you should need to reference will be right in front of you on the character sheet. Most of your character’s statistics can be generated through a point-buy system, but things like starting Cash and Social Class are rolled for. I like how the last few steps involve the character’s salary negotiations, establishing their rank and any blemishes on their record.

Skills are tied to a core Statistic to create your target number to roll under. I’m glad consideration was given to relative degree of skill, rest assured that you’re doing more than just rolling under – degree of success is integral in opposed rolls. There’s a thorough rundown of what each Statistic rating means and an easy shorthand for the effects of a condition roll (the example given being what you need to roll to avoid being knocked over – it tells you the Statistic to roll against, penalty to the roll, and damage/effects received in a short notation).

The skill list is very expansive, including ones that are applicable only to specific Species (like Flying or Shape Change). It gets very specific at times, for example there are skills for Snow Skiing and Taxidermy, but the majority have pretty broad uses.

There’s a set of character background tables on which players roll, the results giving them certain assets or other benefits, which I always enjoy (Lifepaths for…life?).

The Galactic Alliance is very diverse and players have 16 species to choose from (13 base + 3 subspecies). Each is given a rundown of their history and culture, values and attitudes, and physiology. None of these are extensive, but enough is there for a common baseline that can be expanded by your own group. The species are biped and humanoid for the most part, the exceptions being the amorphous Mazians and four-legged, catlike Cizerack. The Mutzachan , who creates the Alliance, appear similar to the traditional “grey” alien, which suggest they visited both our planet and others while looking for suitable candidates for inclusion.

Combat runs off “Actions per round”, with the number derived from Agility and species. Since number of Actions is only based off the one statistic, I like that Combat Skills can be substituted for Agility, representing training taking precedence over inherent talent. You spend these Action [points] on three kinds of Action: Single (fast actions, like a single shot, or movement), Half (reloading or drawing a new weapon), and All (Full Auto or multiple defense actions). Damage types are important, armor is very important as it reduces damage, and Battlelords uses a Hit Location system, so Called Shots or abilities to “bump” the rolled location can ramp up the deadliness of the game. Armor soaks damage and there are lovely and brutal Critical Hit tables. Maybe not at the Rolemaster level, but that’s a high bar to meet – Battlelords has very sufficient Critical Hit tables.

Because of the high technology of the setting, Electronic Warfare and Countermeasures are included and, when accounting for the deadliness of combat, things that would give combatants a definite edge over their opponents. As deadly as combat is though, the high technology does allow regeneration or body regrowth – so it seems as long as you get away from a losing battle you could end up fine.

Psychic powers, called Matrices (from Matrix) are present in the form of Empathic powers, Energy Control, Healing, and are bought with Skill Points. The list is unsurprisingly large, so you should find most any power you’d want in them. Given the vast number of species and the space-opera setting they certainly aren’t out of place and can add another element to encounters.

Battlelords of the 23rd Century will appeal to fans of military, exploratory, political, and dystopian science fiction. It presents an interesting and well-developed universe, with plenty of options for players to create unique and vibrant characters, then lose them in battle. I kid – remember how you can grow a new body and put a brain in it? That being said, the universe is one built for PCs to strike out on their own and go wild. While the system is heavier than some it achieves a number of goals: unified and consistent task resolution, deadly combat that will encourage players to think tactically and not rely on their statistics alone to get them through a conflict, and spot rules/consideration for most situations players will find themselves in. One of the trickier things I feel with crunchier games is making sure any on-the-spot adjudication is consistent with the nature of the rules, so having fully detailed vehicle and electronic countermeasures rules makes me very happy.

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One thought on “RPG Reviews – Battlelords of the 23rd Century

  1. Pingback: RPG Reviews – Charlie Foxtrot Adventure Compendium (Battlelords of the 23rd Century) | The Tabletop Almanac

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