Regular review readers probably have a decent picture of my tastes in RPGs. I prefer story over mechanics, character over plot and fiction over simulation. I also talk a lot about how I didn’t start with D&D so products that traffic in nostalgia of simpler dungeon crawling times have no hold over me. But I am not entirely immune to such charms. One of the games I remember fondly from my youth was called Battlelords of the 23rd Century. It was a big inky mess of heavy mechanics, brashly stolen references and a low-brow sense of humor that makes you laugh even though it probably shouldn’t. Battlelords recently came back into my life thanks to a new edition Kickstarted in 2019. The company recently crowdfunded an edition using the Savage Worlds rules and sent along all three books to me for review. Was it fun catching up with old friends, traveling to exotic planets and then blowing them up? Let’s play to find out.
For those unfamiliar with the setting, Battlelords of the 23rd Century is a military science fiction space opera setting. Players play one of several alien species and/or humans who work for galaxy spanning corporations doing dirty deeds dirt cheap. The setting feels like an American answer to Warhammer 40,000. As that grim dark future was inspired by Judge Dredd comics, Thatcherite England and the religious history of Europe, Battlelords smashes together 80’s action movies, cyberpunk dark future elements and the overstuffed budgets and adventurism of the US military. Both share a fatalistic outlook on the survival of their characters and a joy of using very big weapons to blow up the bag guys, their homes and anything else in sight..
Savage Battlelords Core RulesThe original rules were notoriously complex thanks to a desire to feel realistic by simulating military engagements. Core Rules shifts the game to Savage Worlds Adventure Edition which are built for faster, pulpier play. The Savage Worlds rules set seem like a better fit for the setting as portrayed in the books. This is a game where the good guys are supposed to mow down dozens of faceless Arachnid drones as soon as their drop ship touches down.
Which isn’t to say this version of Battlelords is running sleek. Designers Anthony Oliveira, David Soruco, Michelle Soruco, Kurt Willis, Alb', and Marcus Holder still put in plenty of things to track like extra Edges, Hindrances and special rules for each piece of gear. Most of these rules are a line or two at most but they can stack up even at the beginning. The designers also recommend starting characters with a lot of spacebucks to buy gear to really nail the “overgunned and undertrained” feeling of the modern military. For fans of the original this can make the game feel very fleet footed. For Savage Worlds players looking to start a new campaign with a couple of Edges and skills and that’s it, it can feel a little heavy.
Savage Battlelords Carnage CompanionSpeaking of rules, if the core book left out your favorite stuff from the original game, there’s a good chance it ended up in the Carnage Companion. This book has more rules, more character options and, of course, more guns and gear. While there’s a lot going on here, one thing I appreciate about the designers is that their excess is in service of customizing your table’s play experience. They put all this stuff on the table to allow the GM to say what they will use and what they won’t, offering alternate rules systems as well with a brief explanation of how it will make the game run faster or slower. These rules aren’t going to change Battlelords into a space freighter game or one full of noble intrigue but they will dial up or dial down how much detail everyone gets when their character takes a critical wound.
Savage Battlelords Alliance Setting GuideThe Alliance Setting Guide is built to be the GM book of the trilogy with the most information on how to run the setting along with hints on the metaplot. But unlike these books, I think it’s the one to buy for anyone who wants to see if Battelords is for them. It nails the semi-satirical tone well and outside of some space combat rules, could probably direct folks to run the game with their system of choice. It’s also home to the most memorable part of the game: the Fickle Finger of Fate tables. These random tables had out juicy ploy hooks on every roll and whenever we made characters for the game, we rolled on them the maximum amount of times for each character because they put ready to roll stories in every character’s hands. You may be some military grunt but you might pick up an outlaw AI in your head or an unexpected llost limb after rolling.
If you want to try Battlelords of the 23rd Century but are intimidated by the game’s heavy reputation, the Savage Worlds version is a perfect way to get much of the flavor without having to take a crash course in military science.
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