Genesys In-Depth

Back in November of 2017, Fantasy Flight Games released Genesys. Both Seamus and I wanted a fair shake at reviewing it, and in the process we learned why not to do two-part reviews. Still, a lot of people read it and we continued being excited for the generic version of the Star Wars RPG that many of us at Cannibal Halfing had spent a fair amount of time playing. Now, nearly three years later, it’s a perfect time to revisit the system. Asmodee, Fantasy Flight’s parent company, has reorganized their RPG development resources. In the near future new Asmodee-owned RPGs will be released from the new Edge Studio imprint, and based on a panel at GenCon 2020 this will include new Genesys material (the IP referenced there was Twilight Imperium). For now, though, the Asmodee RPG pipeline is on pause, at least until the last couple Legend of the Five Rings supplements enter distribution. On my personal end, I have finally both played and GMed games in Genesys, which means it’s a good time to give Genesys the In-Depth treatment.

Genesys is a game many people had high hopes for. While the Narrative Dice System fell on its face as the backbone for Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay, it soared as a Star Wars RPG and brought more fiction-forward resolution mechanics into the mainstream. While years of playing the Star Wars systems (Edge of the Empire, Age of Rebellion, and Force and Destiny) meant that we knew Genesys wasn’t going to be *bad*, there were a lot of questions about how it would work as a generic system, both mechanically and as a product. Thanks to several Genesys supplements and more time with the game, a lot of questions that we asked back in November of 2017 have since been answered. In my opinion, how well Genesys rates depends heavily on whether you view it as a game or a product line.

The Mechanics

Genesys is well known for using the Narrative Dice System, also known as “those god damn fiddly custom dice” (either affectionately or not). The core mechanic uses six different colored dice of three shapes with different mappings of unique symbols. While this sounds overwrought, the basic idea is relatively straightforward: There are three dice for player rolls (Proficiency, Ability, and Boost, a yellow d12, green d10, and blue d6), and then three dice for building the difficulty pool (Challenge, Difficulty, and Setback, a red d12, a purple d10, and a black d6). Each symbol which comes up on the player dice (Advantage, Success) cancels out one of the corresponding symbols on the difficulty dice (Threat, Failure), and the result is however many symbols are left uncancelled. This means that you can have six different results which imply different situations in the fiction, and that’s before you add the ‘crit’ symbols, Triumph (positive, only on Proficiency dice) and Despair (negative, only on Challenge dice). 

The basic tradeoff of the Narrative Dice System is simplicity for depth, and at an objective level this is done successfully. Combining Success/Failure, Advantage/Threat, and Triumph/Despair in every die roll makes them significantly more information-rich, and doing so with symbols makes interpreting the results much easier than is possible with alternative multi-axis result systems which use numerical dice (all of these require either multiple colors of dice and/or counting specific results which come up). That said, for the sake of your game you shouldn’t buy these dice. Rolling half a dozen to a dozen dice and then counting symbols which appear two to a face will slow down your game and cause eye strain. Instead, either buy the Genesys dice app or use a free dice roller like D1-C3. They’ll do all the cancelling for you and save time, money, and your eyes.

So you’re making fewer, slower dice rolls to get more narrative richness out of your die results. Does it work? The answer is yes, but the game fails to communicate an assumption about how dice are used which is fairly important. In short, this game is an awkward middle child in a family of dice rolling philosophies. On one hand you have the mechanics-driven task-resolution approach of games like D&D which imply that players should roll for anything their character is attempting that has a chance of failure. On the other hand you have the modifier and procedure driven conflict resolution approach of games like Burning Wheel where each die roll is important and each time one comes up the player should take time to understand the consequences and the options. The Narrative Dice System is designed for the latter, while Genesys the game is the former. When you get into important moments and are poring over your talents looking for every last possible Boost die, then deciding whether or not to spend your Strain or a story point, the system sings. If your GM thinks they should be calling for Perception checks in each new area and then stops to make sure everyone gets to ‘notice an important detail’ for every Advantage rolled, you will want to strangle them in short order. And while you can definitely play Genesys focusing on fewer, weightier dice rolls, the minute you get to any structured time conflict (combat, hacking, social encounters) it becomes clear that the game wasn’t designed in this way. Another big issue with the dice is that the more of them you roll, the swingier it becomes. It’s not just the introduction of more potential for Triumph and Despair (which don’t cancel out, remember). It’s also that because all the dice have blank faces, your results range gets larger. When you’re playing with 100XP characters (typical at character generation) a result of two Successes and a Threat is an interesting twist. When you’re playing with 500XP characters and one of them rolls one Success, seven Threat, a Triumph, and a Despair, I challenge you to make sense of it, especially if it’s not a structured time roll where spending Threat, Despair, or Triumph is outlined for you.

Let’s talk a bit about the most significant change between Genesys and Star Wars: Talents. Talents are one of the character advancement options you can purchase with your experience points, and each one gives a unique ability, ranging from extra strain and wound points to situational bonuses to a permanent attribute boost. Star Wars used a ‘Career’ system with Talent Trees, where purchasing talents in the tree would open up certain talents further down the tree, which were usually more powerful. Optimizers took note of which trees provided the shortest path to ‘Dedication’ (the aforementioned attribute boost) but the Talents along the way were good enough that the optimization decisions weren’t necessarily obvious. Genesys has no Talent Trees, the designers realized that creating enough interesting ones for a generic game simply wasn’t going to happen. They kept a simpler aspect of Careers (the ‘Career Skill’ proficiency system) but for Talents used a pyramid akin to how skills are organized in Fate Core. To get a Tier 2 talent you need at least two Tier 1 talents, to get a Tier 3 talent you need three Tier 1s and two Tier 2s, and so on. As most Star Wars players immediately picked up on, this increased the XP cost of that coveted Dedication from the end of the tree significantly, sometimes on the order of double or triple what it would cost in a relatively compact talent tree. This is absolutely a good thing, as it starts to fix one of several math issues with the character creation and advancement system. In Star Wars, character math was easy: sink every single XP you could spare at character creation into attributes, because you can’t purchase them with XP ingame. Then, race to Dedication to get that next incremental stat boost. Because the dice system favors rolling more dice to rolling upgraded dice, getting your pool as large as possible is almost always a better choice than investing in skills to get yellow dice. With the pyramid, that’s no longer as true. Since Dedication is so much more expensive, it’s no longer a no-brainer to invest all your points into just that one thing. Making the talents/skills decision more difficult solves some but not all of the decision collapse issues in Genesys character creation and advancement; it’s still a strongly optimal decision to boost attributes in character creation to the exception of everything else, and thanks to the rarity of those Dedication talents the consequences of not creating mathematically optimal characters can be quite high. Nonetheless, Genesys is closer to the Shadowrun side of the equation, demanding system mastery, than the D&D side, where a dozen choices are offered and only one or two of them are viable in an optimizing party.

Like several of the previous In-Depth reviews, this comes off as more negative than perhaps I intend. Fact is, I reviewed the game the first time around, while at least trying to be critical, still pretty dewy-eyed that there was going to be a new generic RPG. After taking some time to play and run it, I see more faults, though also appreciate the sort of playstyle these mechanics can encourage. I’ve highly enjoyed both running and playing this game, fiddly dice and all. I am, though, utterly disenchanted with any attempt it’s made to actually be generic.

The Supplements

I’m going to be frank: Genesys has failed as a brand, and Asmodee knows it. The fact that GenCon 2020 coverage refers to “Genesys which powers the Keyforge RPG” states plainly that Genesys has no brand equity and has sparked little interest outside of the IP it’s enabling. And this is a shame, really, because if Genesys continues to be managed this way in the future, neither it nor any of its supplements will matter in the RPG market. I’ve received flak for being critical of the Genesys supplements, but I pretty much call them like I see them: they are templated games with just enough core mechanics removed to require the main book, and minimal expansions of note to the core system (which are then sold for $50, which is laughable). I gave Realms of Terrinoth a pass because a) it was the first and b) D&D has so killed variety in mainstream fantasy gaming that seeing another derivative one felt so inevitable that I had difficulty imagining the alternative. Shadow of the Beanstalk is terminally uninteresting when compared to Cyberpunk 2020 or Shadowrun…or even Heaven Over Mountain, a Space Elevator setting included in Guardians of Order’s Ex Machina and preceding the original Android board game by four years. Secrets of the Crucible is an interesting twist on Burroughs-esque science fantasy, but neither new setting tropes nor the setting implications of the card game itself manage to make a strong mark on the game materials.

This is a shame because the Fantasy Flight/Edge team is clearly capable of making interesting and expansive supplements. The Genesys Expanded Player’s Guide is excellent, providing a combination of rules expansions and GMing tools which really improve the game and make it possible to push into more genres. The Expanded Player’s Guide feels like a supplement which builds on a broader game, while the setting books feel more like they’re reinventing the wheel over again. While there are some interesting mechanical expansions in the setting books, like the crafting rules from Terrinoth, the hacking expansion from Shadow of the Beanstalk, and Æmber from Secrets of the Crucible, there’s no real guidance or work towards making them cohesive or cross-compatible.

I do have two caveats here. I might just be too early? Edge of the Empire, as an example, has eight supplements, and that’s not counting the cross-game setting books like Dawn of Rebellion. This happened over four years, from 2013 to 2017, and the other two Star Wars games were released in that same time period. Genesys development is clearly taking longer than that, and seeing the reorganization of Fantasy Flight behind it does explain why. That said…could I expect that that’s what Genesys is going to look like in the future? Half a dozen Terrinoth supplements and half a dozen Android supplements? I find it unlikely, but that structure could, possibly, resolve the issues I have with the thin-ness of each setting. More non-setting books like the Expanded Player’s Guide would also help, though with the words on everyone’s lips after GenCon 2020 being “Twilight Imperium”, I need not waste much wordcount on what I think the likelihood of that is.

My second caveat is that my expectations are likely a lot higher than many of the Genesys players out there. Most of the people who pushed back on my Shadow of the Beanstalk review just wanted an Android RPG, they didn’t care about how little was done to put it together as long as it worked. And to be fair, I don’t have many valid criticisms about the functionality of these games. These supplements have everything you need to run games in these settings, and everything you need to make use of the mechanical depth of the Narrative Dice System. But when you look around the generic RPG world, it’s hard to rationalize choosing Genesys if what you want is a generic RPG. It goes without saying that GURPS has superior supplements to Genesys; GURPS has superior supplements to nearly every game out there when it comes to broadly applicable material. The Fate Toolkits are all superior to the Genesys supplements; The Fate Horror and Space Toolkits actually made me feel like I had learned new ways to use the system, while the Adversary Toolkit was an extremely effective GMing textbook. These were my comparables, and maybe they shouldn’t have been. But when you look at the Narrative Dice System in a vacuum, it begs to be put to use in a robust, interesting, and fun ecosystem. Instead, we get an Asmodee IP monetization tool.

Generic RPG or House System?

Genesys is a House system for Asmodee, it’s not a good standalone generic RPG in any of the ways that gamers who like generic RPGs would prefer. This is a choice made often by other game studios, it’s not even a bad choice necessarily. It does imply a different product strategy, though, than a generic RPG would. A generic RPG would be built around a combination of settings and mechanical supplements that work together in a broader ecosystem. A house system is built around mechanically similar but independent and distinct games employing different settings and conceits. The difference between the two has been muddied before; while GURPS is clearly a generic RPG and 2d20 by Modiphius is clearly a house system, Chaosium’s Basic Roleplaying is another example of a game which straddles the line. Genesys clearly leans further towards house system, though the opportunities to make Terrinoth, Beanstalk, and Crucible mechanically distinct have, with superficial exceptions, not been taken. Still, if Asmodee were to add to those games individually, they could build up into robust and dare I say interesting products. Alternatively, if Asmodee continues making new settings (like Twilight Imperium) but supplements them with more rules expansions like the Expanded Player’s Guide which facilitate mixing, matching, and worldbuilding, then Genesys would shift back toward the Generic RPG side of the equation.

The missing data point among all of this is exactly how long the Genesys product tail is. A lot of the preconceptions about the Genesys product strategy came from the impression we got that Fantasy Flight was going to release Genesys, five or so setting books, and then call it. Given how the setting books look now, that makes for a pretty disappointing system (and with the vast majority of Genesys Foundry titles being small, self-contained supplements, no help there). Now that we see Asmodee reorganizing their RPG capabilities, we both get a backstory as to why Genesys was developed so much more slowly than Star Wars, as well as an indication that the line could still get back on track in the near future.

It’s easier to review a single book than it is to review an entire product line. Genesys as a core book was (and is) a solid execution of a generic Narrative Dice RPG. Genesys as a product line has been more uneven. The setting books accomplished what they set out to do, but broadly failed to provide a value proposition to anyone who wasn’t already a fan of the existing games and properties. The fact that these are solid IPs and do have many fans has also made critique somewhat difficult, as for many if not most people the support of the IP is much more important than the game design itself. Nonetheless, my opinion is solidified, and I’ve been consistently underwhelmed by the design work around Genesys. The core game is a good one; the success of Star Wars is not just built on the license. That success of Star Wars makes the scattershot approach of Genesys even more confounding to me; it’s not like the product managers at Asmodee don’t know how to run an RPG line. As time passes, we may see if the new Edge Studio props Genesys up with the support and product portfolio it deserves. Maybe it’s just me though. There’s a decent Runebound RPG out there, a decent Android RPG, and a decent Keyforge RPG. I just wanted Genesys to become something, to be the generic RPG that we were promised.

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