Genesys, the universal roleplaying game system from Fantasy Flight Games, is starting to land in mailboxes and game stores this week, and sure enough both of us here at Cannibal Halfling Gaming got our hands on a copy! Billed as a ‘toolkit’ that GMs and players can use for any setting they want, we’re naturally excited and curious to see how it shapes up. Does the system work? Is it as adaptive as it claims to be? As universal systems go, where does it land on a scale of Fate Core to GURPS? Will it actually be fun to play? Read on and let’s find out together as I take us chapter by chapter through the book for the first part of CHG’s review!
Part I: The Rules
Chapter 1: Core Mechanics
Genesys uses the Narrative Dice System, which got its start with Fantasy Flight Games’s various Star Wars RPGs: Edge of the Empire, Age of Rebellion, and Force and Destiny. If you’re experienced with those games then a lot of this is going to be familiar to you, but there are a few important differences, so pay attention 007.
Genesys uses custom dice, which will rub some people the wrong way, but between Star Wars and Legend of the Five Rings there really isn’t any room to be surprised. The good news is that if you’ve played Star Wars, or know someone who has, you can simply use those dice; the symbols are different, but their number, name, and purpose remain the same (but you can leave the Force die at home).
For the uninitiated, you are rolling ‘good’ dice (Ability, Proficiency, Boost) and ‘bad’ dice (Difficulty, Challenge, Setback) at the same time, canceling out various symbols in order to get your result. Good dice provide Successes, which are canceled out by Failures from the bad dice; if, after canceling, you have at least one Success remaining, you have accomplished your goal. The other symbols are what make the system Narrative. Advantage from the good dice can be used to activate abilities or introduce narratively beneficial facts, effects, objects, etc. into the story. Threat from the bad dice can be used by the GM to do the opposite. The two cancel out, but it’s important for newcomers to note that they work independently of Success and Failure. You are going to have successful rolls with leftover Threat, and rolls that failed with leftover Advantage.
The final two symbols are the good Triumph and really quite bad Despair. They each also count as a Success and Failure, respectively, but while those aspects of the symbols can be canceled out nothing can get rid of the Triumph or Despair aspects. These are big, powerful effects; they can be used to activate particularly powerful abilities, but they can also have a huge narrative impact, far beyond what Advantage and Threat have to offer.
So, basically, whenever you want to do something, you figure out what Skill you want to use (more on those later). Each Skill is associated with a Characteristic. Whichever of those is higher grants you that many of the green Ability die. Then you ‘upgrade’ a number of those green Ability dice into the yellow Proficiency die (where Triumph can be found). You might be able to add a few light blue Boost dice for beneficial circumstances or assistants. Then the GM will tell you the Difficulty, which gives you the number of purple Difficulty dice to roll, and tells you if any of those are upgraded into red Challenge dice (where Despair can be found). They might throw in a few black Setback dice for hindering circumstances or interference. Roll, cancel, and then see what happened!
The final facet of the system that forms the basic engine are the Story Points. At the start of every session there are two Pools of these points, one for the players and one for the GM. The GM’s Pool starts with a single Point in it, while the Player’s Pool starts with as many Points as there are players. Story Points can be spent to upgrade dice (but not downgrade them), but they can also be spent narratively to establish a facet of the story. When a Point is spent it leaves its original Pool and goes to the other one, creating a little mini-economy; the book highly encourages GMs and players to spend points liberally to keep that economy healthy.
This is one of the changes from the Star Wars games, where every player rolls a die to determine how many Destiny Points are in the universal Pool and how many of them are usable by the GM or the players. I think this was a good change; while Star Wars has the whole ‘will of the Force’ thing going for it, that wouldn’t make a whole lot of sense here. Plus, this guarantees that both sides have the resource available; it isn’t common, but it is possible for a Star Wars session to start with the GM or the players being point-less. While there’s a chance the players could hoard Story Points after the GM spends their starting one (which should be highly discouraged), at least they can’t be tempted right away.
There are is one last rule change that stands out when it comes to upgrading dice with Story Points. When you’re upgrading good dice but there are no Ability dice left to upgrade, you can then add a new Ability die to the pool, as you can in the Star Wars games. However, if there are no Difficulty die left you cannot upgrade the bad dice: you do not add an additional Difficulty die, and have to make do with all those red dice you’ve got on the table.
Chapter 2: Creating Characters
Creating characters is a pretty simple process for Genesys (something future Meet the Party articles will probably benefit from). There are a couple simple steps. First, you determine your character’s background. There’s nothing mechanical here, no sort of lifepath or anything like that, but it’s good to see the book pointing out that you should have an idea of who you’re playing before what you’re playing.
Next, you choose an archetype or species. Now, in this core section there are only four archetypes of human: Average, Laborer, Intellectual and Aristocrat. Species are only going to come up depending on the setting you’re in, and we’ll address that later. The important thing to note is that your chosen Archetype/Species determines your: starting Characteristic scores (Brawn, Agility, Cunning, Intellect, Willpower, Presence), how much XP you start with, and at least two special features that can be bonus skills, extra uses for Story Points, etc. Depending on Archetype/Species your various Characteristics will range from 1-3; the Average Human has everything start at 2, which forms the measuring stick for everything else.
Next, you choose your Career. Careers do two things: they determine which eight Skills count as Career Skills for your character (making them easier to buy ranks in than Non-Career Skills), and then gives you a rank in four of those Career Skills.
There are actually two broad categories of Career: Role-Based and Setting-Based. Role-Based are very broad, and thus pretty much universal: a Scoundrel is a Scoundrel whether they’re a D&D-style rogue, a cyberpunk edgerunner, or a modern day conman. What I really like about what they’ve done here, though, is give you leeway to change some of those Career skills. To keep the Scoundrel as the example, they have the Ranged skill. The book says that if you’re playing a Scoundrel in a setting where it’s relevant you should change that to Ranged [Light] to represent the Scoundrel’s preference for pistols and thrown weapons.
Setting-Based Careers are a little more particular about where you’re using them, and while not all of them have hard requirements many of them have logical ones: you can’t play a Wizard in a setting without magic, nor a Fighter Pilot if there are no Fighters to Pilot. Some of these Careers still have alternate Career Skill options depending on their setting, while some have everything they need no matter what (a Hacker can use their skills anywhere the hacking rules are being used).
Overall, I don’t think the Careers presented here are exhaustive by any means, but they’ll cover most of what any given game will need. For being a universal system I quite like the Role-Based Careers, and the precedent has been set to fiddle around with the skills.
Next you spend the XP you got from your Archetype/Species. Pretty standard fare as the Star Wars players would reckon it: you can’t raise a Skill higher than 2 (which includes the ranks you got from your Career), Non-Career skills cost 5 more XP per rank, this XP is the only way to increase Characteristics aside from a special Talent, and you can’t raise a Characteristic higher than 5. One change is that 5 is actually the highest a Characteristic can ever go, while in Star Wars the cap was 6. It’s thus possible, depending on Archetype/Species, to start with whatever you consider your primary Characteristic to be maxed out. It’s costly, and it’s not usually what I’d usually do personally, but I know that’s going to appeal to some people. The lower cap is also, in my opinion, a better one for game balance. It keeps the dice pools a little more manageable in general, and if either side of the pool reaches 6 or more dice the system . . . starts to shudder a bit. It doesn’t break, not quite yet, but the cracks are there, and that problem’s been avoided here.
There are some Derived Attributes to worry about, like Wounds, but those are pretty straightforward. The next interesting part is determining the character’s Motivation. Star Wars players will perk up a little here, but it’s gotten much more interesting: rather than one or maybe two singular Motivations, Genesys Motivation is split four ways: Desire, Fear, Strength, and Flaw. You’ve got one of each, and I think this is a great roleplaying tool. You’ve got more than one touchstone to tell you how your character might act in a given situation, and the best part is that these are going to be important in-game. You’ll see more why later.
So, buy some gear (you get 500 of whatever the setting’s currency is), determine your appearance and personality, and boom! You’ve got yourself a functioning Genesys character. I like what they kept the same, I like what they’ve changed, and I think they’ve done a good job of giving you the starting tools to create characters for whatever setting you use.
Chapter 3: Skills
There’s not a whole lot to talk about when it comes to Skills, as they’re pretty straightforward in function. You determine what Skill you need to accomplish your goal, you assemble your dice pool, and off you go. But there are a few interesting bits.
The majority of skills are going to be universal in nature, and some are only going to be appropriate for certain settings or for settings that use certain optional rules. Handily, the big-ol’-list-o’-skills includes that information right there with the page number you can find the skill on.
Each skill has a basic explanation, followed by “Your character should use this skill if…” and “Your character should not use this skill if…” bullet point lists. I quite like those lists, as they seem very helpful when determining which skill to use in a given situation.
Skills are organized into five groups: Social, General, Knowledge, Combat, and Magic. Most of them are self-explanatory, but I want to address Knowledge and Magic. The only Knowledge Skill is Knowledge. That’s it. This could be used very broadly or broken up into all sorts of sub-skills, and there’s even a sidebar encouraging that if it’s what you want. But note that it’s going to be up to you to do it: the book doesn’t bother providing examples of different Knowledge Skills, probably because we could fill a GURPS book with the number of potential options. As for Magic, there are actually three Skills: Arcana, Divine, and Primal. I just wanted to tip my hat to the book for creating those different flavors of magic, which will cover a lot of options.
Chapter 4: Talents
Skills are the get-stuff-done part of a character, the basic things they need to accomplish their goals. Talents, then, are what make them truly shine. They are special techniques, unlocked strength, and extra abilities. While those coming to Genesys from the Star Wars games are going to recognize a lot of the Talent names, how to get them is an entirely different crate of gizka.
Talents are divided into five Tiers, each one being progressively more powerful in a general sense but accordingly more expensive and harder to get. Aside from Talents that can be enhanced (you need the Tier 1 Parry Talent in order to buy the Tier 4 Parry [Improved] Talent, for example), there aren’t anything like talent trees that you have to follow. From Tier 1 to Tier 5 the Talents cost 5, 10, 15, 20, and 25 XP. Some Star Wars specialization Talent trees let you take a relatively straight shot to what Genesys would call a Tier 5 Talent, while others send you on a winding path that loops around and may have the actually-strongest Talent in the tree be relatively cheap itself if you don’t count everything you had to buy along the way. None of that sometimes arcane tree design here.
However, you can’t just save XP and buy a Tier 5 Talent. Like the skills in Fate Core, Genesys requires that there be some progression. Unlike the Fate skills, however, you can’t build a ‘tower of power’, where you have one of each Tier. When buying Genesys Talents you must explicitly have more Talents in the lower Tier than you’ll have after you get your new one. If you want to have a single Tier 3 Talent then you need two Tier 2 Talents and three Tier 1 Talents. Want to then get a Tier 4 Talent? You’ll another from Tiers 1, 2, and 3 first. Behold, the Talent Pyramid (there’s a handy worksheet in the back of the book)!
This makes getting to Tier 5 Talents pretty difficult, and you’re not going to be able to get many of them. The payoff is pretty good, granted, but it might be frustrating for people who really want that One Cool Thing. On the other hand, I can personally admit to considering some Star Wars character trees simply because they offered me a quicker route to the always-coveted Dedication Talent, the only way to increase Characteristics after character creation. Having no ‘easy’ path to the really good stuff will, I think, keep player heads from getting too far up into the clouds when it comes to building their characters as they focus on what they can get in the meantime.
And, like with Skills, Talents are noted as to which types of settings they’re appropriate for, with most being perfectly fine no matter what setting or rules you’re using.
Chapter 5: Equipment
This chapter is more about the rules concerning equipment than anything else: how to acquire it, how to maintain or repair it, what qualities it might have, that sort of thing. What might be surprising is the actual equipment that’s listed. Here, I can list it all right now: Knife, Revolver, Heavy Jacket, Backpack, Painkiller, Rope. That’s it, that’s all you actually get in the chapter devoted to equipment.
The stated reason for this is that the setting is what really determines what sort of equipment is going to be available, which makes sense to me. In the Settings part of the book, we’ll see that each example setting has its own lists of weapons, armor, and gear. So, rather than presenting a single list of stuff like, say, Savage Worlds, and then figuring out what’s setting-appropriate, what would seem to be the idea here is creating a list (or at least some guidelines) yourself for what’s available once you’ve determined the setting you use. Seems a bit more work for the GM, who can’t list off something like GURPS’s Tech Level and be done with it . . . but on the other hand, it might offer a bit more control.
Anyway, the best thing this chapter does is lay out the building blocks of what goes into an item and how to describe it for the players, which should come in handy when you get to the section of Part III that involves creating your own items!
Chapters 6 and 7: Combat/Social Encounters
I’m not going to get too far into the nitty-gritty of Combat Encounters, as not much of anything has changed and it’s all rather straightforward anyway. Turn order is built of PC and NPC slots, which can be used in whatever order as their respective owners prefer. You get an Action and a Maneuver a turn, and can spend Strain to get another Maneuver. Damage reduction, range bands, healing, etc, are all the same. If it ain’t broke don’t fix it, and after three rounds of Star Wars I guess it wasn’t broke.
There are some interesting things going on with Social Encounters, though. First, the book discusses the possibility of using structured time for Social Encounters, just like with Combat Encounters. There’s no Initiative slots or anything, but they do bring up the option of using Rounds: everyone in the Encounter can take one turn during a single Round, in whatever order they prefer. While they won’t be needed for small stuff, I think I like these for the bigger, more complicated social events, particularly because they could keep the encounter from being dominated by a single particularly vocal player.
There are some Tables for using Advantage, Triumph, Threat, and Despair in a Social Encounter, which is nice, and many of those uses drew my eye to something really cool: using Motivation in a Social Encounter. Many of these narrative results can be used to discover (or reveal, if things have gone wrong) a facet of a character’s Motivation. Then, if the character who has discovered that facet plays to it (offers money after learning their opponent has the Flaw of Greed, for example) they can add Boost dice to their pool! By the same turn, if a character is playing against a facet of Motivation, whether by accident or because a bad roll has given them a false facet, then Setback dice can be added.
Interestingly, there’s another way to learn Motivation facets: a Perception vs. Cool check. I see a party’s quiet sniper observing the target and then communicating information to the party face that can be used in the negotiations. Overall, it’s a really cool way to bring those personality aspects into play.
Chapter 8: The Game Master
This chapter is pretty short, as it doesn’t have all of the tools that a Game Master will use for setting creation and so on. It has the basic building blocks for a GM: how to work with the dice, how adversaries work, how to prepare before a session, the universal resources at your disposal, and a general fair bit of advice on how to run any given Genesys game.
The chapter actually starts by stating, defining, and giving advice about Rule Zero. GMing veterans know (or at least we think we know) what Rule Zero is, but it’s really nice to see FFG putting it front and center and letting GMs know that they’ve got the power to do what they want with the system.
Newcomers to the system or to RPGs in general are going to find this chapter useful, and I think even some veterans will benefit from going through it as a refresher course.
Part II: Settings
There are six example settings in the book: Fantasy, Steampunk, Weird War, Modern Day, Science Fiction, and Space Opera, with each getting a chapter devoted to it. The second page of Part II is actually a really handy-looking Setting Worksheet that can be used to record information about the setting that a game is going to be using: what sort of tone, the basic genre, what tropes it’s emphasizing, what skills and species will be included, that sort of thing. It looks like a great handout to give to players before they start making their characters, and a great reference tool going forward.
As for the settings themselves . . . they’re not full settings. Now to be fair the book admits as much up front in Part II’s second paragraph, and to be more fair the book as a whole would’ve ended up huge if there were six full settings. It’s still a bit of a letdown, and I wonder if maybe they should’ve had fewer examples that went into more detail.
For instance, the Fantasy setting. There are a few pages talking about the tropes that can be used to make up a fantasy setting, which is good reading. The book then uses FFG’s own Runebound setting as an example of one. We get some new Species: Dwarf, Elf, and Orc, each of which is quite different from the humans in Part I. We get some setting-specific gear. And we get five new setting-specific adversaries.
That’s just not a lot to go off of. Where’s the Halfling, the gnome, that sort of thing? Aside from a piece of armor and a Backpack of Holding there aren’t any magic items to speak of, and five types of bad guys will get old fast. Now, it all looks very well designed! It’s all very useable. But it’s not a setting: it’s a jumping off point to making a fantasy setting of your own.
There’s a point in the book that mentions that supplements for Genesys will likely be full setting books, with almost everything you need to run that setting alongside the core rulebook. So, maybe, while it’s a useful section, Part II should’ve been called ‘Setting Ideas” or something along those lines.
But wait! What about alternate rules like magic and hacking? What about Part III? The rules to make your own archetypes, species, items, skills, talents, settings? Where’s the toolkit? What about the tones!?
Well, you didn’t think I’d hog this game all for myself, did you? That’s right, Aaron’s taking the reins from here, so check out our Genesys Review: Part Two!