Monday, January 13, 2014

Writing for Battletech

Wow, start of the second week, and I'm still on track, blog-wise.....

Anyhow, I thought I'd talk a little bit about writing in someone else's universe.

Writing in someone else’s universe has some advantages and disadvantages. I’ve found it to be a middle step between Fanfiction and original writing, and allows me to create a story without having to worry about background details.

World-building takes a large chunk of an author's pre-writing time. Even in a modern tale with nothing fantastic in it, the author still to needs to do some world building. In fantasy and science fiction, the world-building is even more extreme. The Dresden Files, even thought its set in Modern Chicago, has a lot of world-building in it. The Lord of the Rings is another example of author world-building, as is any high fantasy novel involving far away lands and fantastic creatures. Science Fiction such as Ringworld, Honor Harrington, or the Foundation series are all examples of (mostly) one or two people's creative thought.

But there are universes that already have the world-building done. Star Trek and Star Wars are well-known examples of world-building (Actually, universe-building, but it's the same thing on a large scale). These are usually owned by a company, who allow authors to write stories based in these universes. There's no need to create the background, just create the story and use either established characters, use new ones, or have a mix of both.

The use of Fiction in gaming is a well established one. It's a gateway to draw in new players, as well as a way for players to enjoy the universe without ever picking up a die. Dungeon and Dragons is an example of a gaming universe that uses fiction, as does Warhammer 40,000. Battletech has over a hundred novels published and hundreds of short stories in it's nearly thirty years existence.

As I said, the biggest plus to writing in someone elses’ universe is the background and groundwork is already been done, and I, as the writer, have to just take advantage of it. There are literally a hundred sourcebooks (both in print and electronic form) ranging from complete backgrounds on the major states, their military (uniforms, rank, units, command structure), maps showing the borders, planetary details (for most major worlds), vehicles and technology. I don’t have to think out how the equipment works, or how a character gets from Planet A to Planet B. All I need to do is supply the characters and the story. It’s not as simple as that, but a large chunk of the background is already there.

The characters are almost all my creation. Unlike fanfiction in which most writers take the established characters from the fandom they writing about, Battletech doesn't need to use established characters. After all, there are over a dozen faction (Or more, depending on when the story is set), two thousand named worlds, and billions of people in this universe. As I’m writing short stories, I don’t need to use major figures in the Battletech Universe. They’re for major events and novels for the most part (Though a few BC authors have used established characters, usually to add events and details to the character’s background.)

In all the stories I've had published, I've only used one established character and only as a cameo near the end of the story. I've written characters from all the major factions and a couple of the minor ones. Most have been soldiers, but I've also written about intelligence agents, police officers, native guides, farmers, singers, and priests.

As for the stories, conflict is part of this universe, as the factions fight for power, either among themselves or with the neighboring states. Sometimes, these conflict are front and center in the story, while others are part of the background. Some stories are set on the battlefield, while others are set in the shadows and backwaters of any of a hundred worlds.

All of these characters interact easily with the world around them, because I know how they should act. I know what they can drink, how they address a superior officer, what sort of weapons they use, what customs they are use to, and even what lingo they use. I know the history of the time the story is set in, the events going on, and what effect they might have on the story. I know what sort of story will work, and which one won't, and where I can get away with something unusual without breaking the continuity of the universe.

So, what’s the down side?

What I write stories for the game, I am working under what is called, “Work for Hire.” That means that the company owns the rights to the story, characters, and anything else connected to the story. I am paid, and that’s the end of my control of the story. The company decides when and how they publish it, and at what price. I can’t publish nor sell the stories myself. My characters can be used by another author (though I hope I will be contacted and asked about it first as a courtesy). It is to do with as the company pleases, though the company, Catalyst Games Labs, and Battlecorps Fiction Editor, Jason Schmitzer, has been fair and easy to work with.

Also, because of the depth of background, there are some limits to what I can do as a writer in this universe. No aliens, no super weapons or super technology, no fantasy elements like magic or mythical creatures, and no changing of the established history or events. I can have a ghost of a character's sister talk to him only because I establish that the character is recovering from a mental breakdown when circumstances force him to fight an invader. I'm not allowed to write scenes of explicit sex, graphic violence, or extreme language (keeping in mind that children and teenagers will likely be reading the story) and must follow the established style guidelines. All that is fine, as I know that coming in.

But writing for Battletech has allowed me to become a better writer, by forcing me to work at it. Despite all the stories I have published, any story I submit can easily be rejected by Jason, Battlecorps' fiction editor, if he doesn't like the story. And I have had stories rejected -- not as many as I've had accepted, but enough to remind me I can’t coast just because Jason knows I can write. I must prove myself every single time I submit a story. I have learned to revise, to take criticism, write tighter, and write to a deadline. All are things that I wouldn't have experienced if I wasn't writing for the company.



  1. Just thought I would touch base as a former FASA contributor who did some work for the 3055 TRO.

  2. Welcome! I done some TRO work too....Writing the Tech readout part of the entries (Herb and the brain trust did up the gaming stats). I also have another blog dealing with Battletech and writing in that universe ( So, stop by and say hi there too!