In 2018, 25 years after the debut of Magic: The Gathering, Fantasy Flight Games released Keyforge, a game from Magic designer Richard Garfield. Keyforge is a hybrid between a trading card game like Magic and a living card game like Netrunner, which has no trading aspect and includes all the cards needed to play. Keyforge is sold in complete, playable decks, so the card trading and acquisition (and significant financial outlay) aspects are reduced, though not eliminated. In 2020, Fantasy Flight decided the Keyforge setting was strong enough to be the basis for the next setting book for the Genesys RPG. And in June of 2020, my copy of that book, Secrets of the Crucible, showed up on my doorstep. Time to take a look.
Keyforge was not my first guess for the next Genesys setting, and not only because I had never heard of it. The previous two Genesys setting books, Realms of Terrinoth and Shadow of the Beanstalk, used existing Fantasy Flight intellectual property to bulk up the Genesys rulebase in two orthogonal directions: traditional fantasy and near-future science fiction. The Keyforge setting is described by Fantasy Flight as “science fantasy”, which is an overused and fairly broad term that means the setting incorporates elements of both pulp sci-fi and pulp fantasy and then builds a world which can accommodate both. When looking at it from a role-playing perspective, it means that Exalted and Earthdawn had a baby and left it at the Numenera daycare center.
I’m not usually so flip when describing settings, but the Crucible where Keyforge is based really does look more like a palette to introduce different card subtypes than an internally consistent setting. Fantasy Flight actually did a fairly good job emphasizing the salient points about the world that are important from an RPG perspective: the world is large and inhabited by a massive variety of species, cultures, and monsters, the world is an artificial creation but the true nature and purpose of its creators, the Architects, is unknown, and the most important element in the entirety of the Crucible is Æmber, which grants magical abilities and is shaped by the emotions of its wielder. It’s not a bad premise, especially for a game that is leaning into pulp in the style of John Carter of Mars or Forbidden Planet. Stylistic familiarity is a good thing, too: Keyforge as an extant setting is not even two years old, compared to 12 for Android and 15 for Terrinoth. Without external touchpoints, this game would be a tough sell.
So if you push past the unfamiliarity (or have played Keyforge) and buy this game, what do you get? First, in addition to the setting fluff which describes the Crucible, you get the mechanics for new species and careers, a solid roster of new talents, some expanded gear, and a chapter of new adversaries. I note these first because this is the expanded crunch you get in every Genesys setting book so far and, as you might have inferred from reading my Shadow of the Beanstalk review, that crunch alone does not a $50 supplement make. Fortunately, Secrets of the Crucible does give more additional mechanics than two pages of a favor system and a rehash of the extant hacking rules. There is one new whole-cloth mechanic in this book (Æmber) as well as a number of low-level enhancements that add significantly to the basic gear, species, and careers. There is a random species generator, and it’s pretty cool; the writing and ideas for different species you can build is on par with the setting generator in the Expanded Player’s Guide, which I praised for having variety and being evocative. Second, there’s a qualities system for gear, which takes the relatively small number of items (and specifically the relatively small number of weapons and armor) and allows for many different riffs off of the basic concepts. While the weapon trait system does not mechanically overlap with the weapon attachments mechanic from Star Wars and Genesys Core, Secrets of the Crucible assumes that mechanic isn’t used and hardpoint values are not given. The gear also includes a number of nifty little superscience items and, sadly, almost as many cybernetics as Shadow of the Beanstalk.
The big new mechanic in Secrets of the Crucible is Æmber. Æmber, as I mentioned above, is a magical element which powers a range of items and abilities in the setting. In addition to being a valuable resource which can be exploited, Æmber helps provide a unified energy source that lets wizards and cyber-augmented demons and ray-gun wielding Martians to all coexist without going too far into the weeds. This of course also means that players will be able to use skills to create both abilities and items that use Æmber, collectively called (sigh) Æffects. Æffects provide a number of powerful abilities and item enhancements but are a bit more limited than the magic system seen in core and expanded in Realms of Terrinoth. This is not a bad thing; I appreciate that the two systems feel very different, and this means one could imagine writing a setting where they coexist. For the Crucible, though, Æmber provides both a good mechanical shorthand as well as a convenient plot device for the setting.
The Crucible as a setting is classic kitchen sink. There are three basic conceits that are there to encourage a GM to insert anything they want into the setting: First, the Crucible is described as being impossibly large, to the point where it’s even mentioned in the book that gravity can’t possibly work the same way in the Crucible as it does on Earth. Second, the entire history of the Crucible is built around species and cultures from other worlds being plucked from their original universes and dropped in the Crucible, sometimes as literally as the massive crashlanded spaceship the Quantum. Third, the creators of the Crucible, the Architects, are unknowable and left tons of secrets all over the Crucible, including the impossibly high Spire and all of the Vaults (the Vaults are a major setting element that I will get into in a little bit). Beyond not having a metaplot, Secrets of the Crucible has nearly an anti-metaplot, where the entire setting is designed towards accommodating a campaign that can be as long or as short as you want. Indeed, like most card games Keyforge isn’t exactly story-driven, so there isn’t exactly a deep narrative well to draw from within the IP. That said, my biggest complaint about this book by far comes from how Secrets of the Crucible as an RPG relates to Keyforge as a card game.
I mentioned the Vaults a little earlier, and someone familiar with Keyforge may have been wondering how I wrote a thousand words without going into what is one of the most significant setting elements in the game. Vaults are mysterious treasure rooms secreted throughout the Crucible, as strange in origin as the Crucible itself. There are powerful creatures, the Archons, who wander the Crucible looking for these Vaults and opportunities to open them. The Archons must forge a key of pure Æmber in order to open a Vault, and only one key (and one Archon) can ever open a given Vault. Meanwhile, following the Archons and their battles over the Vaults has become the Crucible’s most popular sport, and there are even “Vaultheads” who become intensely invested in the outcomes of Vault battles and the exploits of their favorite Archons. The Archons seem pretty cool, you might be thinking. That’s pretty deliberate, as in the Keyforge card game you play an Archon battling to open a Vault. It’s why the game’s called Keyforge, you’re playing cards to forge your key. So what about Secrets of the Crucible? Are you also playing Archons, exploring to find and then having large battles over these Vaults? Nope. You’re just regular people. The Archons don’t even get physical stats in Genesys, because your characters will literally never be able to hurt them. And in one fell swoop, the entire conceit of the card game in the context of this RPG is destroyed. You don’t play the players, you play one of the cards. And that’s lame.
This setting is still perfectly usable and pretty interesting, and if I didn’t know Keyforge the card game existed, the above fact likely wouldn’t have bothered me. But given that the card game does exist, I don’t really know what the hell Fantasy Flight was thinking. “Nah, there’s no way people want to play super competent and powerful explorers.” Really? Were they worried that they wouldn’t be able to compete with Exalted if they enabled Genesys players to write superhuman characters? Were they worried about overlap with Keyforge, despite the fact that the two previous setting books overlap basically 100% with their existing games? It boggles the mind. They spent so much time making a merely competent pulp setting, when the key to actually differentiating this book from the others was staring them right in the face the whole time.
I’m trying my best not to let my aggravation overshadow the rest of the book. Secrets of the Crucible presents a kitchen sink science fantasy setting that thematically emphasizes exploration and optimism…the tone of the setting is a breath of fresh air for someone who spends so much time playing in the “dark future”. It doesn’t break new ground, but it provides a lot of material for pulp adventure, sensible rules expansions, and a cool alternative magic system in the form of Æmber. In terms of content this falls between Realms of Terrinoth and Shadow of the Beanstalk; even though it doesn’t expand as much as Realms of Terrinoth it doesn’t feel as thin as Shadow of the Beanstalk. The species are interesting, the organizations make a valiant attempt at moving away from species monoculture, and the world nails the weird science vibe. It’s worth picking up. But no matter how good this book can be as an RPG supplement, I will never forget that it screwed the pooch on being a Keyforge companion. Of course players would want to be Archons…I don’t get how that could even be a question.
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