HGB Ideas 1: Droning On

This is one of (hopefully) several posts suggesting ideas to enhance the Heavy Gear Blitz rules. In general I am thinking of these as stretching across several degrees of complexity:

  • Minor Tweaks include new units, new rules, and things that be “running changes” to the current game.
  • Moderate changes would likely cause some impact and require more rebalancing.
  • Major Changes are wholesale replace parts of current systems. The expectation is these would break a lot.

We’ll start with a Major Change, looking at the ECM rules and Drones

What’s the Problem?

The game’s setting has been conceived with several sources of artificial intelligence of various kinds. This ranges from the universal drones to Utopian NAI capable of conversation.

In general, these tend to be a bit underwhelming. The Drones have limited rules to make them feel different from the human-piloted craft. The Utopian Drones and some automatons have certain advantages, but they are limited.

This means the Universal Drones seem most useful as a cheap way to fill out a squad or similar. They’re cheap, but unexciting. The Utopian drones just aren’t interesting, as they’re essentially identical to Gears other than a couple rules which may not even have impact at times.

The Low End: Universal Drones

The Univeral Drones are only available to the factions native to Terra Nova and were initially presented in older RPG material as extrapolations of military drones, bomb defusing robots, and similar. They’re possibly a little limited, even, as we’ve seen a lot of development in real world Drone tech in the couple decades since the original RPG material.

A good resource for these books is the recently release Revitalized Technical Manual 1st Edition (Which is also where the B&W drone art scattered around the article is from). It provides descriptions and RPG stats for the following:

  • The DRT-72 Danson resembles modern drones used for bomb disposal and similar. It’s unarmed and not represented in Heavy Gear Blitz, so will be a bit more speculative.
  • The XRT-39 Wasp would probably be a quad-rotor if designed today. It’s a tiny helicopter armed with a Very Light Machine Gun. In Blitz it’s the Hunter Killer and armed with a MMG.
  • The current rules have the Recon Drone, which is represented in the older rules by the OE-17 OVNI. It’s an unarmed hovering ‘remote scout.”
  • The PD-35 Fire Egg is the inspiration for the Demo Drone. It’s an explosive on wheels, or treads.

In the RPG/Tactical era these could be wire guided or operate with limited intelligence. They were generally part of the game’s effort to make a larger, more complete world by showing things that existed on a human scale as well as the 4+ meter tall Gears. While many recon Gears could carry a drone, a primary usage was to add a bit of punch to an infantry squad or an interesting gimmick to plant an explosive device. Like a lot of early RPG material, they seem focused on developing the world beyond the titular mecha of the game.

In Heavy Gear Blitz 3.1 they’re a sort of modified unit that has an odd force-wide availability count. At 2 TV they’re cheap and can be used to add an action to a Combat a group that needs it, but it’s not really that effective. They’re barely armored, have poor stats, and limited effectiveness. The Conscript rule is used to give them a bit more of an awkward, uncoordinated feel.

The rules have a Model Type for Drones which applies the following:

Drones Drones are devices that provide useful abilities. It is important to note that the following rules only apply to models that have the term “drone” as their model type.

  • Receive +2D6 for the cover modifier instead of +1D6.
  • Cannot provide cover to other models.
  • Are removed from the table when destroyed.
  • Other models may move through drones but cannot stop in the space occupied by the drone.
  • Upgrades cannot be purchased for drones.
  • Cannot make up a combat group by themselves. There must be at least one non-drone model to take the position as a CGL or other type of commander.

These are very specific, perhaps too specific. They’re more about the Universal Drones as small models with limited autonomy than they are about the models being limited artificial intelligences. Of note, the only models of the Drone type are the Universal Drones: three stat lines. The Utopian Drones are considered Automatons.

The High End: Utopian Drones

The Utopian Drones are treated as normal units. Like the Universal Drones they have Conscript to represent their artificial nature, but are better armed with weapons that would not be out of place on light to medium Gears.

Of note, the Utopian model rules add the Drone Hacking rule which is a sort of modified ECM Attack which causes a Drone to self-destruct. It uses an it’s a ‘Explict List’ rule that specifically states the units it can target: “universal drone or an N-KIDU drone.”

Utopian Drones also have the Expendable rule, which essentially allows drones to take hits for the commanding Armiger.

And the rest…

There’s a few other “drone like” units in the main rules. The Companion adds a few more. These include:

  • The Utopia “Other Utopian Forces” list has the NAI Experiments rule allowing CEF Frames to add the conscript trait. This is suggested to be a Drone brain wired to control a Frame, but this is not explicit.
  • The MAR-DK is listed as a Fire Support Automaton. Some comments suggest this may still be intended as a manned vehicle. But it’s unclear. The recently released 4e RPG makes it more clear that it’s a piloted vehicle, but I’d be fine with it either way, or even give it an option to be piloted or automated.

I feel that a minor issue is it’s unclear which units are artificial intelligences. A common suggestion is to adopt more explicit tags (kept separate from background material) to make unit types and affiliations clear.

Some Foundation

The below assumes there’s a clear way to distinguish Drones and Automatons as very different things. While they overlap, they’re very different in the setting and in gameplay

The Drone Examined

My feel for Drones is they should be enhancements to other units. A drone is meant to be limited in play, but can create interesting decisions for opponents as to targeting a drone (and weakening the host unit) or just trying to kill the host unit.

Universal Drones in Action

With this proposal the Universal Drones have several changes from the current setup:

  • Drones are purchased as upgrades, not separate units. I feel they should be a Veteran upgrade, with Faction rules allowing them if it makes sense. They may have some availability beyond the Terra Novans as well.
  • Drones have a Passive and Active effect.
    • Drones in Passive mode are on the tabletop as a marker that may need some special rules. My thought is that they have a massive boost to defend against AoE attacks but remain vulnerable to specifically targeted attacks. Essentially if a Gear wants to spend an action to remove a Drone from the board, they may do so, but it’s difficult to remove drones via saturation fire,
    • Drones could be considered (AUX) equipment for the owning model and cannot be deployed if the model is heavily damaged.
  • Drones switched to Active mode have an Action like any other model. Switching to Active mode consumes one of the carrying unit’s Actions, but usually includes an attack or similar.
  • Once switched to Active mode Drones cannot be returned to passive in Blitz’ limited time frame.

Hunter-Killer Drones

The Hunter Killer drone superficially resemble’s a modern quad rotor (although it is a single or stacked set of rotors) armed with a relatively small weapon.

Used Passively the Hunter-Killer adds an APGL or enhances the existing APGL of the unit carrying it.

Used Actively the H-K requires the deploying model spend an action to place the H-K within a specified range, the HK then attacks, again counting as an APGL. Once deployed the H-K is independent and has its own action starting the turn after it is deployed.

The intent is for this to essentially be a “smart grenade” that, once launched, can spin through infantry positions and similar wreaking havoc and drawing fire.

Recon Drone

The Recon drone is a small hovering craft that is valued for its sensors.

When the game begins it is Passive and essentially gives the holding unit the Target Designator (AUX) trait.

This is lost when the unit spends an action to deploy the Recon Drone. However, that action allows placing the Drone within a specified Range and the drone may immediately make a Forward Observation with a TD. On subsequent turns it may move before doing so,

The Recon Drone is a mobile sensor package. It’s the TD and Sensor Boom traits in a self-contained package that draws fire.

Demo Drone

The demo drone has one trick, one attack, and it is an impressive one. However, its so impressive it can only do it once.

The Demo Drone has no passive benefit. It’s Active benefit could be a bit different from the other two as it is a ‘one shot’ threat.

Perhaps the Demo Drone can be deployed via an action. If it is placed (or can reach) a target it can either explode or threaten.

Exploding is the default and is a normal attack with the Demo trait. This is great against buildings.

The Threaten option requires the drone be in base to base contact but means the targeted unit must either move or take the explosion. If they move, they must move a specified distance and can either shoot the drone safely (likely killing it) or ignore the drone. If the drone survives it gains an action as normal and can move to the same target or another.

The intent here is to make the Demo Drone more than an ‘alternate hand grenade’ and the rules are meant to represent that this is a small, suicidal, but intelligent and mobile device. An overall concept (something I hint at earlier with the positioning concepts) is that drones are small and move on their own so positioning can be somewhat in exact.

Other Drones

I feel the above would allow a bit of variety, but changing the rules could open up the design space as well a bit. Some ideas on drones:

  • The Danson from the Tech Manual could be a single-use deployable Repair or similar.
  • The CEF previously had ‘octopus packs’ that added functionality to their Frames but could act as Drones. They also reference a CEF ‘Hunter killer’ in one of the Caprice books.
  • New ideas such as a dedicated ‘area denial’ Drone for the Eden faction that can act as an immobile deployed Electronic Warfare unit once activated.

Something to consider with this concept is it could lead to simplification and other changes in the existing list. For example, the Infantry Recon team could be replaced by a standard Infantry team with a Recon Drone which removes a stat-line.

Utopian NAI Automatons

I find the Utopia Drones a more challenging issue. These units are generally Gear scale and act in most ways identically to piloted craft. The current rules use the Conscript for ‘lesser’ drones and the Pazu variants don’t even have that! (The Pazu upgrade represents a ‘command’ drone variant that adds the Comms and Satellite Uplink trait, removing the Conscript trait.)

An initial thought is to make drones more vulnerable to Electronic Warfare. I’ll discuss this later under the Advanced Hacking section.

Conscript is meant to simulate that the NAI components aren’t as capable of independent action. It works, but many feel that as a rule, it’s a minimal hindrance.

If this model is not in formation with a commander, all of its skills are +1 TN. This model may not be a commander and commanders may never take upgrades that give them the Conscript trait. Models with the Conscript trait may not be upgraded with the Vet trait.

Heavy Gear Blitz 3.1 rules, p47.

The Formation radius is a generous 6”. This is identical to the ECM Defense ‘bubble’ which can lead to an overlap.

Adding ‘AI Fallback’

A goal of this concept is to consider the weight of any proposed rules. It would be unreasonable to even consider a complex addition such as the “flowchart” early Warhammer 40,000 material used for its robots in an attempt to simulate programming. Similarly I am reluctant to propose designs that require many tables or similar complexity with these kind of rules articles which are, after all, merely sketches for the actual developers to look at. The current Heavy Gear Blitz has a certain amount of complexity inherent to the rules and I’m hesitant to add more unless it provides a definite value.

As such, I’m spending my limited ‘budget’ of added complexity sparingly. This proposal adds a need for a small set of tokens to represent the “Fallback mode” of the AI units. For sanity’s sake this is set on a Combat Group basis and represents that a group without a controlling node is less effective.

The core of this concept is adding traits for AI Controller and AI Node.

  • AI Controller is a new trait, which may be Aux, that allows the unit to act as the coordinator for any number of units with the AI Node trait in the same CG. The model may also use EW Attack to ‘rehome’ an AI Node model, potentially changing its Combat Group membership or even its allegiance. This model may also attempt to change the CG’s Fallback Mode.
  • AI Node is a trait that is generally inherent. If a model with this trait is activated and does not have a model in formation in the same CG with the AI Controller trait it will be restricted in activity according to the selected Fallback mode. A Fallback mode is selected when a CG with this trait on any model is placed on the table or in the cleanup phase if a CG has AI Node models and no Fallback mode set.

Essentially the idea is that drones with AIs are dependent on a controlling model. Note that while this is normally an Armiger or similar it could be an upgraded drone (the Pazu upgrade) or any other model in the game. This should probably become an upgrade as either part of the general upgrades, veteran upgrades, etc.

For example, certain lists can take Utopian drones as allies. Specifically, the Black Talons and the other ‘invader’ factions have slightly different rules for Utopian allies. These units should likely have options to add AI Controller in some fashion. These rules could also be expanded to allow special characters like an AI-based Humanist unit or similar, although it should remain a Utopian core concept.

One specific idea, for example, is allowing the Raven to reclaim the cool-looking ‘sensor module’ that was previously an option to replace the Gear’s rocket pod. This could be used to represent a drone control and electronic warfare module. (I admit, I just liked the older sensor module compared to the rocket pod.)

Fallback Modes are key to the concept. The drones are written to have limited autonomy so when outside command they will face back to simplified behavior but may still be effective. Some ideas for Fallback Modes include:

  • No Fallback: Added in case things slip through the cracks, this is not the desired result. The drones essentially stop moving and will not use any actions.
  • Hold Ground: The Drones will choose to Brace when activated and may not move. They may use actions to attack normally.
  • Withdraw: Drones will move at Top Speed to the owner’s deployment area and attempt to exit the board.
  • Self-Destruct: units will attempt to move top speed and must run towards enemy units and detonate as per the Drone Hacking rules.

The concept is none of these are great, but you do have options. Additionally drones can be moved between Combat Groups around, albeit at a cost, as part of Advanced Hacking.

Advanced Hacking

Currently the Utopian faction has a special “Drone Hacking” rule allowing that faction to use their EW skill to cause drones (specifically the Universal Drones and the N-Kidus which means oddities like the Drone-modified Frame option are immune) so changing it to be based around a tag or descriptor would make sense.

I feel it makes sense to keep hacking under the EW skill, but it’s reasonable that Utopian units might get a bonus akin to Sat Uplink but for Automaton Hacking. Adding another skill seems unsatisfying in terms of the value of added complexity.

I would suggest some added Actions to the current selection:

  • Rehome: AI Controllers can attempt to change the controller of Automatons. This can be used to move drones in Fallback Mode to an active CG or can even be used on an opponent’s drones.
  • Changing a CG’s Fallback Mode.

One concern for this is where it fits in the action economy. A simple solution is these are effectively orders and should be used as such. This could also lead to additional AI focused orders.

This might be overly complex, but ideally I’d like to see the rules worded so the AI Controller has several options:

  • One or Many: a great idea would be to have the Rehome Action roll essentially use the existing Split rule to allow a roll to be modified from a single target to two targets at the cost of dice.
  • Friend or Foe: I feel that Friendly units (those fielded as part of the original army at the beginning of the game) would get a single die to ‘defend’ against hacking attempts representing secure systems unwilling to change allegiance mid-battle.

Stop Droning On

My proposal above is to revise two linked elements of the game that I feel are currently unsatisfying. Automatons work, but have a similar ‘feel’ Gears. Universal Drones are not particularly universal and feel like their current value is more as a way to get a fourth action cheaply. Both deserver more interesting gameplay that adds to the game and makes fielding these models more interesting than just Gears with minor tweaks.


I’ve done work for Dream Pod 9 but this is my own thoughts and in no way represents the company. I am not being compensated for this article and used images without permission.