Mechasys Review: Mecha-sized Adventures in Genesys

Sometimes a tank or a fighter jet just won’t do the trick. Sometimes, the best way to deal with a problem is a big, stompy mecha. However, while life is finally returning to Genesys proper with EDGE Studios announcing their upcoming Twilight Imperium supplement,  if you want to be jumping in the cockpit with the Narrative Dice System running the show you’ve been dealing with homegrown material. Now, though, there’s an offering on the Foundry itself which just might turn the tide of your own personal giant robot war. From mecha creation to pilot recruitment, lets head to the hangar to check out Mechasys from Studio 404 Games!

One of the challenges with designing mecha for a tabletop game is how they actually interact with a pilot – the vehicle rules in Genesys core would technically work, but they don’t really capture the feel of a mecha that you see in a show, movie, or video game. Not dynamic enough, not as versatile, too restricted. Giant elephant robot in the room time, longtime readers may have seen me poking at this same problem over in our System Hack column, so I find how different people try and address this issue very interesting. What Mechasys did was straightforward – while the common vehicle statistics (hull and system strain thresholds, handling, hard points, etc.) are there, each mecha also has their own ratings in all six characteristics, and for many of the skills you can perform with a mecha, you use whichever characteristic is highest between your mecha and your character.

It’s a simple ruling, covered in a sidebar, but it’s a dramatic change in that aforementioned interaction between machine and pilot – so when I sent questions to lead developer Phil Maiewski, this design decision was the first thing I addressed.

Phil (P): “This is probably one of the more noteworthy (and controversial?) aspects of Mechasys. Early on I knew that I wanted the mecha to be as much a “character” as the player characters who piloted them. That steered the design in the direction of giving mecha their own characteristics. As it developed further it felt like a natural fit, but I quickly came to the conundrum of how those characteristics interacted with those of the pilot. Originally we tested it going the other way, where the skill check used the worse of the two characteristics. We quickly found that was particularly punishing during mecha design and in encounters. I looked at using the better of the two scores, and that fit better on a variety of levels.

By themselves, the mecha pilot in such media is usually exceptionally talented (even if they don’t realize it at the time), and the mecha they are paired with is equally exceptional in its own right and area of expertise. When the two are matched up in their show, the pilot tends to unlock hidden potential within the mecha while the mecha improves the abilities of its pilot in other ways. From a mechanical standpoint, it allows the player to build a pilot and a mecha that can really complement each other. The mecha can help cover the pilot in some areas and allow the pilot’s talents to shine in others.

It’s not a perfect min-max situation, only skill checks are based on the better of the two characteristics, a lot of the mecha’s derived attributes are still based on the mecha’s characteristic. Still, it gives the player a chance to have an Agility, Intellect, or even Presence focused character and still have a mecha that is a melee or ranged combat monster.”

Actually building your mecha is an 8-step-process (in addition to a Session Zero-style consideration of what a mecha actually is in your campaign – can only operate for a certain number of hours, looks a certain way, requires a certain number of crew, etc.). That might sound like a lot, but I think it goes pretty smoothly. First you determine your Frame Pool of Build Points (BP), which function exactly like Experience Points in a lot of ways. Second, you pick a chassis, which determines your starting characteristics, thresholds, armor, handling, hard points, speed,  and an ability. A Pursuit chassis is high Agility, and takes less system strain when accelerating or decelerating. A Commander chassis is high Presence, and upgrades Leadership and Coercion checks. You can finish this step by increasing the mecha’s characteristics using your Frame BP, which (like with XP and character characteristics) is the only time to do so using straight BP.

Step 3, you determine your R&D Pool of BP – in Session Zero you would have picked 50, 100, or 150, and then you add any leftover Frame BP that wasn’t spent on increasing characteristics. Step 4, you define the locations on your mecha. You get a torso and five other locations for free, with two legs, two arms, and a head being the default, but you can mix and match (four legs, wings, turrets). You can also buy additional locations for a modest BP cost. Step 5, you determine the movement system of the mecha; a machine with legs gets the walking movement system for free, a machine without legs gets a different system of choice for free, but spending more BP and using hard points is how you get a walking mecha that can also fly and fight in the water. This will (mostly) finalize your maximum speed and handling, although more BP can be thrown at both.

Step 6 is secondary attributes like finalizing thresholds, armor, passengers, and crew complement. Step 7 is buying weapons, of which there is a wide variety, and then mounting them on your locations. Step 8 is the doozy: Upgrades. Upgrades are to a mecha as Talents are to a character, and they function exactly the same: there are tiers, they fit into a pyramid, the BP costs are equal per tier to the XP costs. At the Tier 1 end you’ve got improved handling, armor, thresholds, armor, protection against EMP attacks and hard vacuum. At the top is the single Tier 5, Performance, Dedication-for-mecha, which can increase characteristics.

So how was the design process overall, and what was the most challenging part of getting the design to where Studio 404 wanted it to be?

P: “There was a lot more going on originally, let me tell you! Mechasys was heavily inspired by the mecha games that came before, specifically Battletech and Mekton. Those are some very crunch-heavy mecha construction systems, usually taking hours of tweaking and refining to make a mech “just right.” Originally I sort of got bogged down into that level of mecha minutia, and I was really stuck designing in circles at that point. It was a conversation with [FFG/EDGE freelancer] Keith Kappel that broke the cycle. He complimented the work that had been put into the system up to that point and said in so many words “I want to be able to pick a chassis, slap some guns on it, and go.” That was a sort of hammer to the forebrain that I needed to refine the construction system into what it looks like now.

To keep things close to existing, familiar systems, I tried to parallel character design as much as possible. Chassis are species or archetypes. Weapons, movement systems, and locations are equipment. Upgrades are talents. By basing the framework on those existing systems, it allowed for some expansion and additions to help get a real “design and development” feel into mecha construction. We cut a lot of excess and, honestly, unnecessary complexity to mecha design and tried to make it simpler while still having enough “crunch” for the die-hard mecha construction fans out there. It seems to have worked pretty well, based on playtesting. We had an awesome group of min-max, system breaking experts as well as more casual “slap some guns and go” type of players and both types feel the final construction system is solid and fun.”

I have to say, I like it. A mecha’s ‘character sheet’ might end up looking a little busy, but actually getting there is intuitive because all of the math is the same – if you can build a Genesys character, you can build a Mechasys mecha. That’s huge, because put plainly, nothing makes an additional subsystem gum up a game system like introducing different math. Since you also gain Build Points separately from (if probably at a slower rate than) XP, you’re not having to juggle improving your machine or your character, and your battle-tested ride gets to grow along with you.

I will say this, though: there aren’t any rules for building your mecha in-character, by which I mean rolling your Mechanics and/or Computers checks to build/program/assemble the machine. Players who like crafting systems like the ones FFG introduced in their Star Wars games, especially when it comes to leveraging advantages/triumphs/threats/despairs to create a truly unique bit of character-crafted gear, might feel the lack. Then again, it’s not like they’ve got a shortage of options to pick from, so that itch may get scratched anyways.

Obviously, even if you’ve got the giant robot, you still need at least one pilot for it, and Mechasys throws effort into that side of things in a number of ways. Mecha Operation is an entirely new Agility skill, while Gunnery has been split into Cannons for direct fire and Missiles for exactly what you think, and Knowledge has been split into Mecha, Culture, and Science. There are some new Careers, in addition to a list of core rulebook Careers that fit Mechasys well – as always, not a lot to write home about here, but they do give some ideas about what kind of character you can play, and each of them possess Mecha Operation as a Career Skill. There are new Archetypes like the Daredevil, who can reduce system strain by taking strain onto themselves, and the Kid who gets a bunch of extra XP and a boost to their first Dedication but a threat to all opposed checks. Finally, Talents! 25 new ones, spread across Tiers 1-3.

Being of the opinion that Talents are what really make a Genesys character pop, mechanically-speaking, I asked Phil what goals they had for Mechasys Talents going in, and how they felt they achieved them.

P: “Overall I think our talent additions came out very well! It’s funny, because new character options were really a secondary (tertiary?) idea for Mechasys. As we got ready to play our short playtest campaign, I realized that we were missing out on some key thematic elements for mecha pilots. There weren’t a ton of talents that really fit with such a focused vehicle-operating setting. There were also some upgrades we came up with that felt like they should be tied in with the pilots rather than the mechas. “But a Scratch!” is one of them — it made more sense for a pilot to be able to roll or block an incoming hit and lose a part of their mecha instead of the mecha having some computerized ability to sacrifice a limb to prevent destruction.

Otherwise, we simply needed more options to get characters the ability to pilot mecha, or pilot them even better. When developing the playtest campaign world, I liked the favor talents from Shadow of the Beanstalk but didn’t want to use the favor system. That’s what inspired the “Background” series of talents: neat little Tier 1 talents that gave you one of two skills and a handy boost in social situations with others from that background. Folks seemed to really like that option.”

Now, the mecha genre has a number of subgenres, and the way mecha are built and managed in Mechasys feels like it lines up most neatly with the ‘real robot’ one. You know, somewhat realistic military machines that mostly obey the laws of physics (aside from that pesky Square-Cube Law, anyway), require ammo or energy and a lot of maintenance, blow up when you shoot them enough. Any advice for GMs and players who want a more super or fantastical feel for their machines?

P: “There’s a sidebar in the “Session Zero” section of Mechasys titled “Graceful Giants.” It basically eliminates the fire arc limitations for all weapons; any weapon can fire or attack into any arc since the pilot can jink, jag, and twist to pop off a shot into any facing. It also recommends allowing pilots to disengage and re-engage opposing mecha during forced movement without requiring them to perform the Dangerous Driving action. During playtesting it made for a highly dynamic, anime-mecha-feel to the combat encounters. Melee mecha were zipping all over the battlefield at high speeds, while shooters were engaging multiple enemies from any direction. It also worked against the PCs several times too, it was a blast (in one instance, literally! *pours one out for Prometheus*”

So, now that Mechasys has launched, what’s next for Studio 404?

P: “More Mechasys! At one point this December we made the call of “okay, we have to stop adding material or we’re never going to release this book.” I have all these little rules and construction additions that we’ll be putting out in the coming year, the next one titled Big Guns and Blazing Swords. Mechasys has over 40 different weapon systems that can represent almost any basic weapon, BG&BS will allow players even more weapon system options to truly create the perfect tool of mass-mecha destruction. It uses a trait-system inspired by the weapon construction rules in Keyforge – Secrets of the Crucible. We tested it in the final weeks of the playtest campaign but ultimately decided to keep the core Mechasys rules simple to preserve the “chassis + guns and go” feel.

Other than that there are areas I know need additions. I have the outlines for combiners — large mecha made up of smaller mecha. I’m working on a true anime-mecha tone that will include rules for temporary once-per-session “overdrive” modes and attacks. Finally there’s a ruleset in my head for sentient mecha and allow players to play as towering, self-aware mecha that are “more than meets the eye.” I need to write a 4-hour convention-appropriate adventure for Mechasys so I can share it with more players out in the wild.

The rest of the Studio 404 Games gang are currently working on a post-apocalyptic sci-fi fantasy setting where magic is a hostile, untamed force of nature called the Wild Storm. It brought legendary monsters that challenged humans’ top spot on the food chain and irrevocably changed human genetics. The Storm is held at bay by city-state walls empowered by draconic overlords. People try to survive the harsh streets under oppressive corporate greed. Your team buck the system and protect a slice of the city you call home. You work freelance jobs of all kinds in order to keep eating and defend your territory from rival gangs. You’re ‘Lancers, sticking it to the Drakes one job at a time.

We’re also looking forward to EDGE Studio’s release of Embers of the Imperium. I have a hunch a lot of content in that book will be compatible with our space-fantasy setting, Starcana.”

Final words for our readers?

“If you like mecha or giant robots of any variety, be they lumbering titans engaged in a galaxy-spanning war or kaiju-fighting saviors of an endangered planet, Mechasys might just be for you. If you’re trying to re-create your favorite IP for use with Genesys but are missing that one component a set of mecha construction rules could fill, Mechasys is here for you. We tried to make Mechasys as accessible and fun as possible, empowering player groups with the tools to build their robot heroes and use them in exciting campaigns. I hope every Genesys fan who as a kid rushed home from school to catch Robotech, Force Five, or Exo-Squad would check us out, because Mechasys has just the right amount of mecha-nostalgia for you!”

Offering a ton of options along with additional rules from mecha minions to new pilot and crew incidentals/maneuvers/actions to a mecha critical hit table, all of which nevertheless plug easily into the existing structure of Genesys, Mechasys offers not just a detailed effort to bring mecha adventures to the table, but an accessible one. There are ways to keep things simple and ways to make truly complex machines, but with the underlying math remaining largely the same, you’ll be an ace in no time either way.

You can find Mechasys on DriveThruRPG under the Genesys Foundry label, and can learn more about what Studio 404 is getting up to at their site.

Pilots, to your machines!

Thanks to Phil Maiewski for reaching out, sending us a copy to review, and answering my questions!

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