Degenesis: Rebirth Review

Let’s say you want an original game. D&D is played out, Star Wars requires dealing with Star Wars fans, and Cyberpunk seems like 1989 cosplay. You’re tired of all these tropes, you say, you want something built from the ground up to be new and strange. Let’s say that this game exists. It’s free, even, and the free PDF is filled with gorgeous art. The entire book is gorgeous because the publisher is a design studio first, and happens to be an exclusive partner with Riot Games. It’s even a second edition, with rules revamped to improve speed of play. This sounds perfect, you think. What’s the catch? Well, there are 720 pages to read and since it is wildly original, you need to read all of it. Welcome to Degenesis: Rebirth.

Degenesis: Rebirth is the brainchild of Christian Gunther and Marko Djurdjevic. The game is published by Sixmorevodka, a design studio from Berlin which is enjoying a high profile recently due to their work on Legends of Runeterra. The first edition of Degenesis came out in 2004, with Rebirth following in 2014. It’s a post-apocalyptic RPG, though not in a way you might assume. It’s a horror RPG, but certainly not like any you’ve played before. It’s also an RPG that takes place on Earth, though not an Earth you’d recognize. The world of Degenesis is a lot to wrap your head around, but the game makes that engagement a prerequisite by tightly integrating the mechanics with the setting.

Setting

Degenesis starts with an apocalypse. In 2073, asteroids rained down on Earth, killing almost everything and changing the very geography of the planet. The asteroids were a minor issue compared to the virus that was riding on those rocks, Primer. Primer infected humans, twisting them and giving them psychic abilities, while also propagating a fungal lifeform called Sepsis, which left massive spore fields draped across the landscape. Fast forward to the present day, 2595, and tainted humans, Psychonauts, and tainted plants, Psychovores, represent some of the greatest threats to the human civilizations that remain.

The other great threats to humanity are, of course, other humans. Across what once was Europe and Africa are seven cultural groups and thirteen cults which represent the ways that humanity has reorganized. The seven cultures are mostly geographic in nature, while the thirteen cults are more ideological. The Neolybians are merchants and explorers, while the Anabaptists are religious zealots who see themselves (maybe correctly) as fighting an apocalyptic war. The Apocalyptics are pragmatic hedonists, while the Hellvetics dedicate their lives to defense of their underground fortress, and the legacy of ancient Switzerland. While there are cultural, religious, and geographic legacies which have persisted over the previous 600 years, for the most part the world is a very different and much more dangerous place, and worldviews have adapted.

The physical world of Degenesis is a wild place. Europe and Africa are bound by Psychovores to the South and a massive Spore Wall to the East. The asteroids left scars and impact craters across the world, and the ensuing global cooling caused a massive encroachment of the polar ice caps. This also resulted in a sea level drop; the British Isles are now connected to the mainland and the Strait of Gibraltar has gone dry. People haven’t exactly been sitting still here, either; the book details cities all over the continent, including ones you may recognize like Prague and Madrid and ones you won’t like Souffrance and Justitian.

I am not doing the depth of the setting justice, and to be fair I’m not intending to try. The setting takes up the entire first book, going into detail about the seven cultures, thirteen cults, the history of the world, and all the threats that now exist. While the overarching conflicts are of course grounded in no less than a psychic and parasitic alien invasion, the way that people in this world are defined is both more diverse and interesting than many other games but at the same time clearly intended to seed conflict. This broad palette of story seeds is complemented by a set of rules which are, if nothing else, completely cemented into the setting in terms of how they make characters work.

Mechanics

The core mechanics of the system are relatively simple. The game has six attributes: Body, Agility, Charisma, Intellect, Psyche, and Instinct. Each of those six attributes are then linked to six skills. All rolls in the game consist of assembling a dice pool of d6s, and pools are defined first by the sum of the rating in the attribute and the rating in the skill. Any result above a 3 is a success, but 6s count as ‘triggers’, which positively modify the quality of the roll’s outcome. Triggers can also be used to, well, trigger special effects. The combat system leans towards crunch, with the chapter spelling out mechanics for a lot of different special cases. While it’s relatively lethal, the underlying mechanics are about what you’d expect: Same core roll calculations, range penalties, damage calculations, and special cases. Most of the mechanics are like this, frankly: effort is made to simulate what exists in the setting without much in the way of mathematical adventure.

The place where the mechanics are at their most interesting is character creation. Character creation is point-buy at its core, but makes characters interesting through engagement with the setting. Characters start with relatively low point expenditure limits in each individual attribute and skill, but raise these by choosing their Culture, Concept, and Cult. Culture and Cult we discussed in the setting section, and all seven cultures and thirteen cults are character options. Concept is interesting; the 22 options are based on the “Apocalyptic Tarot” but also align with meta-concepts that are appropriate for the game’s setting. By meta-concept, I mean that concepts like “Creator”, “Healer”, and “Conqueror” mean as much to the player as they do to the character in terms of defining how the character is played. Next a player must put some points into Backgrounds, and I appreciate that these items are made a required part of character creation. The six Backgrounds are Allies, Authority, Renown, Resources, Secrets, and Networks, and they help ensure that every character is connected to their world in some way. Now that the player knows what the character’s attribute and skill maxima are, they can assign their points. One interesting element to point out is that there are two skill dichotomies defined in the game: Primal or Focus, and Faith or Willpower. Each character must choose one of the two skills, and once they choose they can’t put any points into the other. While Primal and Focus determine whether the character’s resistance to mental stress is Instinct or Intellect driven, the Faith/Willpower dichotomy is mostly there for roleplay, as both skills have similar purposes. The last element chosen is a Potential, a special ability either chosen from a general or cult-specific list.

The last step of character creation is the most interesting one. Each cult has a set of ranks. While it isn’t exactly a straight line, there’s generally progression upward into positions of increasing power and responsibility. Each character starts at the first rank for their cult. If they meet the prerequisites for the next rank, they advance. These advancements grant a character special abilities and gear, as well as a distinct role in the cult…many if not most of the advancement paths fork at at least one point, giving a player a chance to think about how the character is evolving.

In reading the mechanics of Degenesis, the priority is clear: who characters are is at least as important as what they can do; in fact who characters are often defines what they do. The setting and the mechanics work well together in driving character-driven play, the mechanics by driving towards a sense of identity and the setting by creating a world that the characters are molded by and almost completely powerless to change.

Conclusions

Degenesis is a lot. I mean, it’s literally a lot, coming in at over 700 pages. That said, it being long isn’t what makes it tough to engage with; indeed, Degenesis is shorter than every modern edition of D&D. Where Degenesis makes its demands of you is in how the setting is built and indeed how well the designers have done with walking away from the tropes of the post-apocalyptic and cosmic horror genres, the two that best serve as analogues. In fact, the designers took every complaint I have about worldbuilding in RPGs and addressed all of them, but the end result is that I don’t know where to start. Reading the Cults chapter three or four times I think I get half of them; if I were to GM a game I’d be reading both books cover to cover at least a couple times and the setting book a couple more. This isn’t a bad thing; the worldbuilding is captivating! It’s just, as I said before, a lot.

If I wanted to run this game (and I thought about it while reading), I don’t know how I’d pitch it. The engagement with the setting required is immediate; understanding at least the thirteen cults is necessary for you to create a character with intention. Now, once my players got there it would be really cool; there’s a lot to interact with here and a GM will have material for days coming only from the core book. Recruitment, though, would be a problem. The most popular role-playing games all have one thing in common, and that’s an easy lead-in. For D&D it’s Tolkienesque fantasy, for World of Darkness it’s one of several horror tropes (i.e. the reason Vampire always sold the best), and for Star Wars, it’s, well, Star Wars. The designers of Degenesis wrote an engaging, multi-faceted world, but what they left out was the elevator pitch.


In a way, you can tell Degenesis was designed by artists. While not as gonzo as Rifts, Degenesis is a bit of a kitchen sink setting, combining post-apocalyptic desolation, the occasional bit of high technology, and some really horrifying monsters from beyond to make for a really big canvas. While the mechanics are serviceable they aren’t the focus; I haven’t played the game yet and don’t know what ridiculous dice combos or trap options hide in those Potential lists, but honestly given how characters are written it shouldn’t matter. Spotlight is the only balance mechanic worth worrying about here, and so long as each character gets their promotions and the narrative that entails, I don’t think fistfuls of dice would really throw anything off here. In fact, given the relative dearth of supernatural abilities (excepting Burn, and that’s a devil’s bargain) and relative economy of mechanics, dice-counters are probably going to get bored with Degenesis: Rebirth. Ultimately, it all comes back to character in this game. The setting of Degenesis: Rebirth is not one where you can change the fate of the world, the Psychovores will keep you from that. Nor is this a game for build optimization, there are 36 skills, you might get a couple Potentials and that’s it. Degenesis: Rebirth is a game where the player is intended to do two things: First, absorb the artistry of the setting, both literal and metaphorical. Then, write a character whose story will get told there.

Degenesis: Rebirth is available for free from the Degenesis website.

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