What is All Systems Nominal?
All Systems Nominal is a mecha RPG based on gritty “real robot” military science fiction like Battletech, Front Mission, Gundam 08th MS Team, Titanfall, Brigador, Heavy Gear, and Maschinen Kriger. It is designed to be a brief read that will be easy for GMs and other players to learn, with a focus on tactical and cinematic combat, teamwork, and the grind of life on a military campaign.
The core rules are based on Blades in the Dark. However the combat is more similar to the Range and Cover rules in The Burning Wheel, and the downtime phase resembles Night Witches.
The game relies heavily on tags in a way that will be familiar to players of Lady Blackbird, City of Mist, or Vagabonds of Dyfed. A full campaign of All Systems Nominal can be expected to run for about 8-10 sessions of play.
What is it like to play?
Most of the play time in All Systems Nominal is spent in the combat scenes that form the core of the mission phase. While the general feeling in The Gauntlet community is not very enthusiastic about tactical combat, in playtesting I received comments from multiple players saying that the combat in All Systems Nominal surprised them with how engaging and interesting it is.
Each combat sequence begins with an engagement roll similar to Blades in the Dark, and then proceeds to two rounds of combat. At the start of each round the Commanding Officer of the player unit chooses a maneuver (Ambush, Fighting Retreat, etc.), and then each member of the unit describes how they contribute to the unit’s actions. Depending on how the players roll, they get a result after the two rounds of combat that describe their position coming out of battle.
This system moves fast and keeps all the players thinking about the fiction while making tactical decisions that contribute to the group. The stakes feel real and every hit the unit takes makes their situation more difficult in downtime.
The downtime phase will be familiar to players of Blades in the Dark and Night Witches. Pilots spend their downtime actions to make connections, acquire the materiel they need to continue the fight, and care for themselves and each other in the face of the violence and terror of war. Like in both those games, the downtime starts off easy enough but becomes more and more intense and meaningful as the players’ pilots and mecha accumulate scars and break down under the stress of fighting.
What makes this game special?
I decided to make All Systems Nominal after the launch of Harebrained Schemes’ Battletech this year. Many players were talking about how they wanted to run some kind of mecha RPG for their friends after playing the game, but they just weren’t satisfied with the options out there because they were too cumbersome to fit into their busy lives. I had been fiddling around with ideas for how to make a Forged in the Dark game based on Brigador ever since I first started making my Let’s Learn Blades in the Dark series, and I had plenty of experience with the mecha genre, both from playing and reading games based on Battletech and from my work as the lead translator on the Front Mission Fan Translation Project, so I decided I was well qualified to give this design problem a shot.
Every part of the design was written to focus on fast uptake for the player and GM, interesting decisions, the struggles of campaign life, and scenes that would show off the mecha stomping around the world. Here are just a few worth highlighting:
No classes, no playbooks
John Harper famously wanted to design Blades in the Dark as a classless game, and I decided to follow that design instinct with All Systems Nominal. Players don’t choose a class or playbook with a bunch of moves, they simply choose a background and write two specializations that represent what they learned from their background. They can use these as tags during missions or downtime to help themselves get extra dice on rolls. This keeps things simple and flexible no matter what setting the group wants to play in.
Simple mecha creation
Mecha creation is designed to be fast, and involves just four steps. There is no getting bogged down in equipment tables or weight calculations.
- The pilot selects the weight class of their mecha (Light, Standard, Heavy, Assault). This involves a trade off between weight and speed. The heavier the mecha, the slower it is. Some combat maneuvers test speed, while others test weight, so no one option is clearly superior.
- The pilot creates the weapons for their mecha, this mainly involves noting the optimal range and equip location of the weapons. Light and Standard weight mecha get one weapon, while Heavy and Assault mecha get a hold out weapon as well. This adds to their durability in combat.
- The pilot chooses special systems for their mecha. Each mecha gets three to choose from and starts with one the pilot can use. These give each mecha their own individual characteristics like special sensors, extra legs, jump jets, and heavy armor. As the pilot ranks up their mecha gets access to more special systems.
- The pilot notes the mecha’s model name and manufacturer. Depending on the setting these can add to their fictional positioning, and even become the source of new plot lines.
As I noted above, the combat system in All Systems Nominal involves fighting as a unit, and it requires that everyone’s pilots make meaningful individual contributions to the fight. While individual duels can be resolved with Blades-style action rolls, that is not the focus of the game.
In combat, the commanding officer decides a maneuver for the whole unit, and then each pilot makes decisions about the range they will occupy, the specializations and talents that are relevant to what they’re doing, and the special systems their personal mecha can use in the situation. There is a back and forth of group and individual action that avoids the isolated and sequential decision making that often characterizes grid-based tactical combat.
Build relationships to stay in the fight
Unlike Blades in the Dark, All Systems Nominal does not involve a complex written setting with lists of factions and NPCs for the players to interact with.
However All Systems Nominal does provide players with the tools necessary to gradually expand their network of contacts in order to get the resources they need and involve them in compelling personal struggles.
The game mainly does this by taking a page from The Burning Wheel’s Circles mechanic, which has been rewritten FitD style as The Link Roll. This roll allows pilots to use their background, status, and connections to reach individuals who can help them get what they need. They declare what sort of person they want to link up with, answer questions about their relationship, and then roll a number of dice dictated by the answers they provide.
A critical result will get the pilot an eager and helpful ally, while a miss will get them an enemy who harbors a secret or open enmity against them.
Once the pilots have contacts they can make a Resource Roll to acquire what they need. Every fictional advantage they can muster helps, but fundamentally pilots acquire resources with their Rank, which acts as both the pilots level, and their tier in Blades parlance. Ranking up will help pilots get what they need, but they will have to leverage every advantage they can get to stay sound of mind, body, and mecha. A pilot without some solid relationships will fight alone and die alone in the end.
Links and media
All Systems Nominal is currently in public beta testing and can be found here with character sheets and Roll20 play aids.