“For God’s sake, let us sit upon the ground
And tell sad stories of the death of kings;
How some have been deposed; some slain in war,
Some haunted by the ghosts they have deposed;
Some poison’d by their wives: some sleeping kill’d;
All murder’d: for within the hollow crown”
– William Shakespeare, The Life and Death of Richard the Second, Act 3, Scene 2
How do you tell the story about the death of a legend?
Those of you who have read my articles may be aware that my introduction into BattleTech was the start of the Clan Invasion era, beginning with the novel Lethal Heritage. Michael Stackpole introduced us to a generation of larger-than-life characters. Victor Steiner-Davion. Phelan Kell. Shin Yodama and Hohiro Kurita. And, of course, Kai Allard-Liao; the greatest MechWarrior of his time and era, with the self-confidence of a mollusk threatened by a salt-shaker. The confidence part changed, of course, over the course of the novels. Kai, sadly, lost his precedence and became a secondary character to Victor, but perhaps part of that was the fact that the character evolved to the point where further exploration would have been superfluous, at least from a development standpoint. Nevertheless, Kai Allard-Liao was the best of the best. (In fact, the flavor text in this product firmly and definitively establishes this.) I certainly still found him interesting and relevant. (Heck, I even wrote a Sarna Wiki article on his ex-girlfriend.)
In Operational Turning Points: Capellan Crusades, we learn about the death of Kai. Oh, I know we already read about it in Historical: Wars of the Republic Era and other books. Those who followed the Dark Age era way back when probably got a few bites dropped on them, too. But let there be no doubt – this product is about the death of one of the giants of the BattleTech universe. (Oh, and his idiot cousin, of course.)
The key events come in the backdrop of the aforementioned Crusades, which began with House Liao launching Operation Golden Fortress against the Republic of the Sphere in an effort to reclaim the worlds it lost to the Republic after the Jihad. They were pretty bitter about it. After all, they spent years retaking those planets from the Federated Commonwealth only to lose them again. So they give it ago, opening up with an indiscriminate attack on civilians on the planet of Liao. Unfortunately, Kai’s daughter Melissa was killed, which sets him on a path that will see him go over the edge. Meanwhile, the Republic is hemorrhaging worlds and units, since the CCAF at that point was more experienced and skilled than the RAF. Kai hooks up with the Fifth Hastati Sentinels and starts reminding people why he’s the GOAT (Greatest of All-Time for those not in the know.) This buys Devlin Stone time to mobilize Stone’s Brigade, and they soon begin pushing Liao back. Meanwhile, Daoshen Liao, who is basically running things at this point, becomes obsessed with taking down our man Kai, so he sends his very best – the Red Lancers and the Death Commandos. By this point, Burton Davion has been killed, and Kai is basically an insane avatar of war. He falls into the Capellan trap, and it produces one of the greatest last stands ever. Meanwhile, Stone is still hammering Liao’s troops, and Daoshen himself almost gets tagged. So Sun-Tzu tries to motivate his people by effectively sacrificing himself back on Liao to turn the tide. It works in the short term, and eventually Daoshen and Stone make peace, basically restoring the border to its original line. In other words, the entire conflict accomplished nothing. It just killed millions, including two cousins who had been life-long enemies.
The book itself gives us all the usual trapping of the Operational Turning Point series. Some detailed planetary descriptions in the Atlas, a couple of character bios with special abilities, unit descriptions and a general summary in the Combatants section. Then we get the scenarios.
The tracks are pretty decent, as many involve some genuinely major individuals within the BattleTech universe. Something I miss from the old scenario packs was when they would feature one or more of the iconic figures of the age in a particular scenario, such as Natasha Kerensky or someone like that. More than any other campaign book, Capellan Crusades lays the groundwork for those sort of encounters, obviously involving the two giants of the earlier era. Most of the tracks involve at least one “historical figure”, though not always a famous one. In most cases, it is a unit commanding officer. It would have been nice if they had consistently listed what ‘Mech or vehicle the individual in question was using, but that’s a minor gripe, really. The flow of the tracks is also poignant, as one gets a sense of Kai Allard-Liao’s descent into an uncontrollable fury and ultimately self-destruction.
The special rules for each track are reasonable, though clearly most of the scenarios are weighted. They are based on historical events after all. There are a number of special rules on various tracks concerning engagement, and I found myself reminded of the old Clan honor ranking system, where you could break zellbrigen only under specific circumstances. That’s not ever player’s cup of tea, so game masters may want to adjust as needed.
Other modest gripes: The planetary data sections of the Atlas are pretty sparse, as for the most part they just rehash information about the planet’s changes in allegiance since the Fourth Succession War. That’s info we either probably already have, or we don’t particularly need to run an effective campaign or scenario. Some original content on the composition of the planet circa 3113 would have been preferable. The verbiage is fairly well written overall, though one does pick up a handful of typos. (That’s why we employ copy-editors, folks.)
That aside, though, it is one of the best Turning Point books I’ve seen. Even the introductory story to the book – another staple – is one of the better ones I have read in the Turning Points series. It gives a poignant depiction of some of the events from the perspective of a loyal Capellan soldier, a point of view coming from a man who’s neither a fool nor a sociopath, but simply an extremely brave and loyal individual born under the flag of a faction that often gets a bad reputation. (At least to some old-timers. I know the Confederation has its fans.) One important note: If taken at face value, the story seems to confirm that Sun-Tzu had, in fact, been in his Emperor on the planet Liao when he ‘ascended’. (But more on this later.)
Of course, like all these Turning Point campaign books, a trio of new variants of notable ‘Mechs are included in the Annex in the back. The variants of the Tian-Zong and Burton Davion’s Orion IIC are both fine, well and good. The Tian-Zong in particular is a long-range sniper with excellent defensive capabilities. Ideal, really, for a commanding officer’s ‘Mech, which is why it’s too bad its user, Jasminda Xiang, is the relatively unknown commander of the Sixth Confederation Reserve Cavalry. Considering her achievements during the events covered by this very work, let us hope she eventually got a promotion. Burton Davion’s Orion IIC retains the spirit of the original Orion, albeit with an HAG instead of an auto-cannon. Like the earlier Orion IIC, it boasts two Clan extended range large lasers, so running out of ammunition is no longer such a liability.
But I know many fans will be pleased to get a definitive updated sheet of arguably the most legendary (and refitted) ‘Mech ever built, Yen-Lo-Wang. The finished product (as of Kai’s death, anyway, as the vaunted Centurion survived to the Dark Age era at least) is a very impressive mix of Clan and Inner Sphere experimental tech. Apparently, using a Hatchetman on Twycross really hooked Allard-Liao on the use of hatchets, as the sheet confirms that he equipped on his ‘Mech at some point. The hatchet was referenced ages ago in a record sheet book, but it went unmentioned in the novels at the time, and Kai was apparently running around in a Ryoken at the start of the Jihad, anyway. Overall, it looks like a solid design, but it’s slow for its era and, with minimum heat buildup, it would be normally be quite hard for it to take advantage of its Triple Strength Myomer. Everyone knows that TSM works best on ‘Mechs that run hot and carry physical weapons.
Despite my expressed contempt earlier, Sun-Tzu Liao progressed at least as far as Kai in the novels, becoming a truly impressive Machiavellian character. Morally, I suppose, Sun-Tzu was probably only somewhat more ruthless than Hanse Davion or Theodore Kurita. Looking back, I suppose I just found him grating based on his portrayal (which was later revealed to have been acting) on Outreach in Blood Legacy. Also, he was always a sort of successful anti-hero; an antagonist who got results, and didn’t fall into the trap of Michael Stackpole’s earlier attempts during the Warrior trilogy. (Remember Maximillian Liao, Michael Hasek-Davion and Aldo Lestrade? No wonder Hanse Davion was so successful with enemies like those.)
Taken in and of itself, his presumed death should certainly be something to talk about. It was distinctly out of character for him. Even during the fighting on Sian during the Jihad, he didn’t actually strap up in his Emperor. He just had a subordinate do it for him to inspire the troops. (That was vintage Sun-Tzu.) Unfortunately, the developers seem to have left us with another dangling plot-thread (red herring?), as Sun-Tzu’s body was never recovered after his ‘Mech fell. The cockpit was reportedly empty, as he supposedly “ascended”. Maybe his accompanying bodyguards concealed the body to make for a better story. Or maybe he was never in the ‘Mech to begin with. Maybe he pulled a Devlin Stone / Captain America, and has spent the last few decades in suspended animation, or has been secretly manipulating matters from behind the scenes. Maybe he’s the real reason why the Confederation is “winning” in 3145, and it’s not his son who believes he is a divine being. Maybe the developers will never reveal what actually went on with that, and it will just remain one of the “unsolved mysteries” of the BattleTech universe.
I know the death of Barton Davion is also chronicled, but let’s face it: We don’t know this guy. Yes, it is very sad that Victor’s first born son got killed trying to keep Kai from committing suicide. But there’s no emotional connection there. If George R.R. Martin or Joss Whedon were writing for the BattleTech line, they would have probably left Barton alive simply because nobody cared that much about him.
All in all, I’ve rarely been more satisfied with a CGL book. Not only are the situations interesting, but the nature of the events can stir the emotions of long-time fans and recent initiates alike. Readers, game masters and players can all find something here that resonates. After all, Operational Turning Points: Capellan Crusades isn’t just another campaign book with historic tracks. No, it is an epitaph for two legends.
Sometimes it is not about the potential fun we might have playing through one of these campaign adventures.
Sometimes it is about saying goodbye to characters who have been with you since the beginning.