You hear the distant boom of an Autocannon echoing across the landscape and your mech shudders at the shell impacts against its left torso, blasting off some of the armour plating. It’s not enough to significantly damage your mech, but certainly enough to get your attention as you scan for your attacker and raise your arm-mounted PPC to respond…
And so the player peers at their Mech Record Sheet, and marks off five points of damage on the Left Torso:
But something’s funny here, to me at least. The way I see it, the side marked “Left Torso” is actually shown on the right side of the mech (it’s the player’s left side, but not the mech’s left side)! This has bugged me since I first started playing Battletech back in the 80s, and now I’ve started playing again I was reminded of it once again so I thought I’d dig into this a little further.
First, let’s be absolutely clear – this doesn’t trouble everyone who plays Battletech. In fact, it seems the vast majority of players either don’t care or don’t even consciously realise that left and right are possibly flipped on the diagram (for reasons described below) – and that’s totally fine. But since I like investigating things I thought it’d be worth a closer look to figure out what may be going on here, and to see if there’s a better way to present the Armour Diagram.
A Brief History of the Mech Record Sheet
Let’s step back and look at how these sheets have evolved over time. In official publications, it seems there have been three layouts of Mech Record Sheets since Battletech’s inception. The first edition of the game was called Battledroids (published in 1984), and that had a very different looking record sheet:
Take a closer look at the Battledroids Armour Diagram though: although it’s a rather crude representation, it’s obvious there that we are looking at the mech from the front, because the Left Torso/Arm/Leg are shown on the left side of the mech, the Right Torso/Arm/Leg are on the right side of the mech. The Critical Hit locations on the record sheet that would be below the armour diagram are actually arranged in the same way too.
This design was changed with the release of Battletech 2nd Edition a year later, which introduced what I call the classic “bug head” design (the one I’m most familar with and stayed around for quite a while):
On the “bug-head” design, the Left and Right labels are flipped (these are flipped on the Critical Hit Table too). What I find interesting though is that the ‘bug head’ design is very obviously viewed from the front as well! The Head is clearly positioned in front of the shoulders of the mech, and if you look at the Rear Torso view you can actually see that the Head is hidden from view with only the top of the spike visible above the Rear Center Torso (additionally, the Rear Torso view is oriented correctly if we’re looking at the mech from behind). The hands of the mech also appear to be facing us in the front view as well.
Finally sometime in the late 00’s this was changed to what I call the ‘dome-head’ design (which remains in place today, as seen in the current edition of the TechManual):
The current “dome-head” design makes the Head a little more ambiguous, sitting now on top of the torso and generally above the shoulders (though my instinctive interpretation would be to see the head in front of the torso, I suppose it could be argued that it’s resting in a depression on top of the torso). That said, the grey shading on the Head seems to represent the windows of the cockpit, and since that’s visible that also implies that the head (and therefore the rest of the mech) is facing us. The rear torso design is rather strange – I think the Rear Left/Right torso is suppose to cover the upper part of the torso/shoulders, the bump on the top of the Rear Centre Torso seems to match the shape of the top of the Head (again implying that the Head is in front of this), and the bulge at the bottom of the Rear Centre Torso is in the middle of the back.
The fact that the layout was “anatomically correct” for the mech in Battledroids and then flipped from Battletech 2e onwards is rather telling. I don’t know exactly what drove the change, but I strongly suspect that between editions the designers either had some feedback from players or decided for themselves that the original layout was confusing to the player and that flipping it made it less confusing since the player’s left and right would then match the left and right shown on the paper – and that makes sense. I actually showed an unlabelled (current) sheet to a friend of mine the other day and asked him to mark down some damage on the mech’s left torso and his initial instinct was to mark it on the side of the diagram that matched his own left side (i.e. in the current flipped way) – and people online have similarly commented that they’d prefer the diagram oriented that way too. Some have tried to rationalise this by suggesting that the Armour Diagram is “the view from inside the mech”, as if it’s something the Mechwarrior would see on their console or HUD, but I think this is a bit of a stretch. As far as I can see, most existing HUDs/consoles that actually show a picture of the vehicle show it from the top-down, not from the front or back (or even the inside), and there’s no ambiguity about which side is left or right there. I think it’s also counter-intuitive that the front armour of the mech would be shown on such a display – we’re used to seeing things from outside, so I think seeing the front armour would make most people think they’re looking at the front of the mech from the outside (and as I mentioned earlier, the position of the head and hands would support that), but the labels contradict that view. And also, we (the players) are not the mechwarrior – we’re not inside the mech, we’re looking at a miniature of it from outside (usually from above), and more to the point we’re often also looking at the mech from above (not the front/rear) when we’re calculating firing arcs and determining which side our mech is being hit.
Alternative Option #1: The View from the front.
So, if we think there’s an issue here that needs to be addressed, what are the options for potentially dealing with it? One obvious solution is just to say “we are looking at the front of the mech from outside” and flip left and right back to how they’re supposed to be relative to the mech:
Since we’re now looking at the mech from the front, the Left side is its left side and the Right side is its right side (and also the mechwarrior’s left and right too) – but we’re now back to the Battledroids approach which was presumably dropped because those sides did not correspond to the Player’s left and right sides. At least now everything is consistent though – the head is facing us and the fists are oriented correctly as one would expect if we were looking at the mech from directly in front of it. However, while now technically correct, we’re still going to be fighting that irrational internal dissonance where we want to mark things on the paper on our left or right side. So while this works, I don’t think it’s a generally good solution.
Alternative Option #2: The View from behind.
So what about viewing the mech from behind?:
Ugh. I’m not a fan of this one at all. The obvious change is that I swapped the rear armour for the front armour (and vice versa) so that now the Rear Armour is shown on the body of the mech. Also I greyed out the Head armour a bit to imply that it was hidden behind the back of the head – I didn’t actually try to change the fists though, that would have required more effort! But now even though the Left and Right are on the player’s left and right, I really don’t like the idea of showing the Rear Armour on the main body of the mech, and the Front Armour on a separate piece. So I think we can safely discard this one.
Alternative Option #3: The view from above
There’s one more option, one that requires a literal shift of perspective – what about a Top-Down view of the mech, a view from above?:
This may seem radical but actually I think it’s the most sensible way to present the Armour Diagram. This actually solves most of the issues with the other views: The left and right sides now match the player’s left and right and also match the mech’s (and mechwarrior’s) left and right too, there’s no ambiguity about which side we’re looking at (we’re looking down at the top of the mech), and this matches the orientation of firing arcs and damage locations as well as being closer to the player’s “God’s eye” perspective of the battle! As an added bonus it also shows the rear armour in the correct place and orientation on the mech – that armour isn’t shown separately from the mech anymore either!
Now, your first reaction may be “ugh, it’s upside-down!” (because the head is near the bottom of the mech) – but remember we’re looking down from above the mech. This view is not without precedent in Battletech either – in fact, most of the other vehicle and fighter record sheets in the game (with the exception of Spheroid dropships) are viewed from above and (like this mech armour diagram) they are all oriented so that the front of the vehicle faces upwards/the top of the page. Actually, if we rotated this view around so that the head of the mech was at the top and the feet were at the bottom then not only would it be inconsistent with the other views but it’d also look more like the front view of a knuckle-dragging ape mech, which would only serve to confuse our interpretation further – so let’s not do that! 😉
Overall, I think the top-down view (Alternative Option #3) is actually a pretty good solution. Sure, it would take a little time to get used to it but it’s actually pretty intuitive and since left and right correspond to the player’s left and right sides it shouldn’t present any issues in use. The Critical Hit table on the record sheet can probably be left as it is too (one might argue for swapping the rows for the arms and legs there but I think that’d just be weird – the legs are still technically at the bottom of the mech so they should stay like that on the Critical Hit table too!), and I think I’ll give this a go in my next game.
The same “view from above” logic can be done with quad-legged mechs as well (the current sheets for those definitely look like the mech is facing you, since the Head is obviously shown in front of the body there) – I may attempt a representation of that later too.
At the end of the day, this isn’t a huge issue and I’ve only dug into it so much because I wanted to see where this would lead and thought it would be interesting to show some alternative options (even if some didn’t work so well). If you’re happy with the record sheets the way they are then by all means keep using them – I’m certainly not suggesting they should be replaced by anything I propose here, I’m just presenting an alternative option to use if people want to. This is very much a proof-of-concept at this stage – I’m not sure if there are enough circles on it for mechs with a lot of armour, and I haven’t redone the internal structure diagram in this format – but feel free to print out the top-down view and give it a try, and if you do use it in your own games then please let me know what you think of it!