Last week, Seamus gave a comprehensive overview of the first part of Fantasy Flight Games’ new toolkit system Genesys. The first section presented a new angle on the Narrative Dice system which lived up to the promises of a genericized Star Wars game, while the second section on settings left a lot on the table and a bit to be desired. But there’s a lot more book here! Even if Seamus got more page count, this last section is the one that’s really full of the stuff you’re going to want. Now, if you need to get the lowdown on the basics of the mechanics and how this book differs from the Star Wars games, you should go ahead and check out Seamus’ first review. If you’re ready to talk toolkit, though, read on. All four of these chapters are from Part 3, the Game Master’s Toolkit. Overall, the toolkit is very well done, though there are several missed opportunities to have taken an addition that was merely good and make it great.
Chapter 1: Customizing Rules
The customization rules in this section are, more than anything else in the Game Master’s Toolkit, the core to what will be the Genesys experience. This is because the skills, archetypes, talents, and of course inventory items are the core elements by which a setting and by extension a campaign of Genesys will be defined. As Seamus mentioned, some of these (items in particular) are a little thin on the ground in the first part of the book. Fortunately, it’s easy to make more.
The first elements to go over will be skills and talents. There’s a lot of good advice on how to write new skills and talents here, but little in the way of quantitative guidance. This is all right, because the game is designed to run with the complement of skills and talents provided and not require any more. That said, I don’t necessarily think this approach was best for both of these elements. For skills, it absolutely was: the skill list in the game is solid, and the advice given presents a conservative approach to altering said list without creating unnecessary options or breaking the game with poorly defined skills.
Talents got so close to being what I wanted. The advice on how to build and price talents is excellent, and the pricing section in particular gives good but vague guidance on what abilities go where. If the team could have gone a step further and offered a more detailed breakout (maybe in a table) on what base upgrades belonged in what tiers, it would help beginning GMs immensely. A good amount of the groundwork was laid in the pricing section; the examples given are all great and place a lot of the basic talent abilities squarely within a tier. Expanding that and offering more examples and covering more ground would have been incredible.
One of the reasons that a lack of ability breakouts for talents is frustrating is that such a breakout is exactly how items and archetypes are done, and it makes both incredibly intuitive. The weapon design system is something I’ve seen very little of in any other system, and it works perfectly for Genesys. The game’s tag-based system is already fairly straightforward, but with tag pricing laid out in the way it is, I know I can turn to page 199 and start straight up converting weapons from Cyberpunk 2020 with almost no cross-referencing. That’s fantastic. Species and archetypes are similarly intuitive, though the list of abilities is relatively short. It’s also less impressive here, as though weapon and item templating is something I’ve rarely seen, species templating has been around in a variety of games since at least the early 90s.
The section on adversaries is weirdly placed, given the role of adversaries one could easily assume it belongs in Part 2 along with the GM advice. Still, the baseline advice is solid, and the section shows off the minion/rival/nemesis framework which does an excellent job of making NPC generation quick and easy. The adversary rules work just as well for monsters as they do for standard NPCs, and here the system’s relative lightness is shown off to great effect: while some games would require a template or different starting assumptions for non-human monsters that may change a lot of math assumptions, in Genesys you can note the silhouette and innate abilities and just go.
The customization rules are in some ways the real meat and potatoes of this genericization. The guidance given in every section is very good, but in terms of making the game a true toolkit, there is at least one noticeable gap. The treatment given should either be like that for weapons, where the math and all needed calculations are laid out and easy to apply, or like skills, where the existing list should work for 90% of cases. Talents fall in an awkward middle ground, and while it seems like there are enough talents to run a base game in most genres, it also seems assumed that you as a GM will want to write more. If more talents are in fact assumed, then the ground rules to create them should be a bit more structured, even if that appears to cut off some options at first glance. It should be noted that only one of the five customization sections falls short in any way, and at least one (the items section) goes above and beyond what can be found in many if not most games. Overall I’d call this a win.
Chapter 2: Alternate Rules
The alternate rules section has six entries which run the gamut from fairly specific nearly house rules to entire new subsystems. Nemesis Extra Activation Rules are a fairly straightforward house rule level option: sometimes Nemeses can get extra initiative passes. This was already experimented with in D&D 4e, and is a good option to balance solo boss encounters. There’s nothing wrong with this at all, though I’m unsure why it got its own section. Same goes with uncoupling skills from characteristics. Every skill-based game I know of has some allowance for using this when appropriate, though the section here does outline the balance consequences succinctly. Once again, well done but oddly specific. The next four sections are much more significant, though two of them I’m going to breeze over: vehicles and weapon modifications. These two rules subsystems are plucked right out of the Star Wars games, though they are substantial enough to belong here. Still, not much to review: if you liked piloting and weapon customization in Star Wars, they’re unchanged here. I’m glad they’re included, but they’re both available enough and playtested enough that little else needs to be said.
The hacking section, in contrast to vehicles and weapon attachments, is a fairly significant expansion from what was available in Star Wars. Hacking in this system is its own structured time encounter, just like combat or social encounters. The hacker and the sysop are defined as roles, with a number of different maneuvers. There’s also a new chart for spending advantage, threat, triumph, and despair. The hacking subsystem hits a sweet spot where there’s a lot of cool detail added for hacking encounters, but at the same time the basic rules are unchanged so said encounters can slot into structured initiative alongside a social or combat encounter easily. Anyone who’s played an old-school Cyberpunk game like Cyberpunk 2020 or early Shadowrun knows how much trouble a hacker can cause to gameplay flow; Cyberpunk 2020 was especially guilty of this as the netrunner ran on a completely different timescale! By putting combat and hacking in the same structured encounter time and having them operate by the same basic rules, Genesys makes it a lot easier to put a hacker into your Cyberpunk or Technothriller games.
Finally we come to the magic system. As a new set of core mechanics, the magic system is excellent. Magic is based on three skills: Divine, Arcane, and Primal. Each of these skills is keyed off of a different attribute, allowing for a fairly wide range of magic-user builds. From those skills, a magic-user is given access to a subset of eight magical verbs: Attack, Augment, Barrier, Conjure, Curse, Dispel, Heal, and Utility (which is not a verb, but stay with me). Beyond the basic ability, each verb has a table of augmented abilities, which can be purchased on a check for additional difficulty dice. In addition to the core rules, there are rules for magical implements which can empower spells and reduce certain difficulty upgrades. I love this system. Verb-based magic systems always made more sense to me than spell-based ones, and this gives tons of flexibility for not only effect-based enhancements but also elemental ones, or any other keys that could be appropriate for a setting. I do have one gripe with this system, one which I will fully concede that I would not have if I was just reading this book in a vacuum. However, I’ve been playing FFG Star Wars games for about three years at this point, so it’s hard not to notice both where magic came from and what was left out. In Force and Destiny, there is a system of verb-based Force powers for characters to use. Each verb has a tree of expanded abilities which steadily empowers and expands the given Force power. A full port, rather than a partial port, of the Force Powers rules into a magic schema would. Have. Been. AMAZING. What we do get is very good, to be certain. If I were boss, though, I would have excised the weapon attachments section and used the page count for either magic ability trees or a variant of the trait pyramid specifically for magic powers. Take note, FFG; you can still put this in a future supplement!
Chapter 3: Build an Adventure
The ‘Build an Adventure’ section is roughly 5 pages of GM advice on how to structure campaigns and adventures. It’s good advice, all of it, but it’s not unique and for the most part doesn’t focus on how to use the system mechanics. The advice on how to use dice results is the exception, and I think the examples of how to use the facing of pool dice and where they came from is a great start to really expanding a GM’s tools for using Narrative Dice. Lists of pool-based effects or maybe some ‘fail-forward’ advice specific to Narrative Dice would have been fantastic. As for the rest of the advice, it tends to be elements repeated elsewhere, and much of the broad conflict and campaign advice written here has been done better before (Fate Core, D&D 5e). What I would have liked to see here was some system-specific advice, as well as an expansion of the (solid) encounter building advice. I know why editors feel that the campaign construction advice is necessary, but I think it should have been placed with settings if it was included at all.
Chapter 4: Tones
This was the biggest letdown of this part of the book, frankly. I really liked the choice of tones, generally (Horror, Intrigue, Mystery, Pulp, Romance and Drama, Superheroes), and out of that list I would have only added one: Gritty, or something to that extent. And the advice and descriptions are, like most of the writing in this book, very good. The new rules? Total letdown. First, one new rule per tone isn’t going to set a tone in most cases. Second, let’s be real…only two of the tones actually got new rules, and those were the two in the preview (almost like the person writing the preview knew the rest of the section was lackluster). First, horror. Fear and Sanity rules have been done everywhere, but that’s not a strike against them; they’re absolutely a good way to integrate horror elements. I’ve seen them used to great effect in a Dark Heresy game, and am absolutely of the opinion that “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.” Second, superheroes…the heroic attribute rule is inspired, and exploding dice are incredibly visceral, especially in a rich dice system. Nothing but kudos for that, it’s simple and absolutely does the trick. But the rest? I’m sorry FFG, but requiring a skill check for a ‘revelation’ isn’t a new rule. Neither is a cliffhanger. The additional story point rule from Romance is a little better, but overall this entire section seems like an afterthought. The fact that I can think of at least two things that could have been included instead makes this even less excusable.
It’s unfortunate that Tones was the last thing in the book, because it puts a damper on what was a rather excellent toolkit. To summarize, I rather like everything in here; I wanted more from the trait building section because of how significant they are, I was disappointed by tones, and the magic system left me wanting more if only because I know there are available rules that were left on the table. I was pretty happy with everything else, and am already thinking about how I can use these tools. There are some things I could definitely see being included that were not: The rules from Edge of the Empire and Age of Rebellion on Obligation and Duty could slot in here well. Those two systems could work as extra rules in tones (Obligation could definitely fit in Intrigue, as an example) better than most of the “extra rules” that were actually provided. Similarly, there was a fairly significant lost opportunity to expand a little on the Story Point mechanics. Cortex Prime’s Doom Pool is a perfect example of a way to shake up a mechanic like Story Points, and I think devoting some page count to alternatives like that instead of some of the more empty tones or the weapon attachment system (which unlike vehicles is not something I think most people would miss) would have been excellent.
Genesys is a very good toolkit, and could be one of the best (considering both system and writing tools) in the rules-medium category. I hope to use Genesys in the future to run games, and am looking to FFG to support the system in a way that helps me do that. A word of unsolicited advice: if Genesys is to persist as a brand, a good proportion of the supplements have to be something other than setting books. I know there will be an Android book and a Runebound book among others, it’s an obvious way to utilize the system (and they’ll sell well). However, to encourage both adoption of the system and the sort of third party community that games like D&D and Fate enjoy, there should be expansions to the tools in this core. They can be genre-specific: a magic book would be fantastic, as would books expanding any of the broad-brush settings in here. But if all I get from Genesys is Android, Runebound, and other settings, I’m just going to go back to my GURPS books. Genesys has the potential to be the best toolkit on the market, but in order for that to happen it needs to be treated like one, as opposed to merely a House System.
Genesys has the potential to sit squarely between Fate and GURPS as the rules-medium toolkit of choice. All FFG needs to do is follow the leads of Evil Hat Productions and Steve Jackson Games in terms of supplement support: either release setting books alongside an equal or larger number of high-quality rules supplements (Steve Jackson) or release a combination of toolkits and settings written specifically to be adapted, hacked, and reverse-engineered (Evil Hat). I fully believe they can pull it off, and am eager to see what comes next.