I’ve never seen such an amazing game wrapped up in such a lackluster package in all my life. The Genesys RPG system is one of the best designed breaths of fresh air the market has had in years, but this core book comes off as a cynical attempt to sell you further books at the cost of important content.
Before today, Fantasy Flight Games has handled its materials with a mixture of genuine creativity and corporate cynicism that were in roughly acceptable proportions. If anything, the company has shown a unique flair in design, making its games both satisfying and profitable without relying on the blunt instruments of EA or the other nastiness of videogame corporations. The Star Wars line which created the Genesys engine is the perfect example: people were unsatisfied with previous Star Wars games’ decision not to balance around mixed parties of force sensitives and mundanes, and FFG’s Warhammer RPG had too many proprietary pieces that bogged the game down and increased the price point. Enter their Star Wars RPGs, which had proprietary dice and, with three core books, essentially sold the same game three times to the fanbase.
Taking off from those successes, the Genesys Core Book will take this system to new heights and settings, getting more and more players to buy in to setting books and proprietary dice sets. This is a painful review to write, because the design team behind this game has done tremendous work. The system is a true tour de force, and may, in a few years, be a new touchstone of the RPG market. The core book, however, provides the bare minimum to understand the rules, and in no way delivers on the promise of the cover to be “The Roleplaying Game for All Settings.” When compared with the resources in GURPS, BRP, or even Savage Worlds, this book feels like a sparse collection of bites that exists to entice you into buying other products. In its defense, the book is high quality in terms of material. The pages may not be quite as well protected as those of the Star Wars line, but with firm binding, clean layout, and a well constructed index the system is delivered, at least physically, with due respect to the buyer.
But let’s start with that system. That brilliant, vibrant collection of rules that I wanted to see so much more of. The game melds narrative philosophy with more crunchy rules by way of its six colored dice (of which you will probably want a minimum of two sets per group). These dice make up any skill test, and are broken down into good and bad, essentially, and give three types of results. Ability dice represent basic skill, with Proficiency dice granting extra power when you can use them. Proficiency are essentially an upgrade of Ability, and contain more powerful and frequent positive results. Boost dice represent situational or special modifiers, and throw some advantages into the mix. Difficulty, Challenge, and Setback dice, on the other hand, represent the inverse, introducing the threat of failure into any die roll. You will build your dice pool by comparing your attributes, skills, and modifiers, which tell you how many positive dice to roll. The GM will determine the difficulty of the roll which will (for the most part) determine how many of the other dice you roll, after which you will compare the results.
The possible dice results cancel each other out, and may leave you with a mixed failure or success. Those results, which are distributed differently on each die type, are successes and failures, advantages and disadvantages, as well as Triumphs and Despairs. Triumphs and Despairs are exceptional successes or dangerous failures, which can also trigger critical effects on weapons. Advantages represent momentary benefits, while their opposite set new stakes or throw obstacles in your path.
These dice are the make-or break feature of the game. You will have to buy them or the companion app to use, for one thing. They have the same distribution as Star Wars dice but different symbols unfortunately, so the temptation is there to get brand new sets if you don’t want to do the mental work to translate. However, the results are some of the most engaging and dramatic gameplay I have ever seen. You can have a massive failure with several advantages, or break through with a meager success and minor disadvantages. What does that look like in a combat situation, or a social encounter, or a piloting check? It’s in giving every roll narrative weight and the chance to influence the story that Genesys shines most brightly. While in this game, I found my players becoming more creative, offering suggestions as to how their characters succeed or fail, everything on the edge each time the dice hit the table.
I have heard some complaints that every roll has too much going on, but if you resent a die roll having narrative consequences, why are you calling for the roll in the first place? Having to learn and interpret the results does take some learning, as the symbols are more obtuse than they should be. A simple check mark would read far better than…this.
Players also have access to Story Points, which function differently than the Force Points of the Star Wars games. Each session, the players gain SP equal to the number of players, and the GM gets one. You can spend points to upgrade dice (from Ability to Proficiency), to make an opponent’s roll more difficult, make an enemy’s check harder, trigger special abilities, or let you introduce small facts into the game world that benefit the players. However, the GM has his or her own pool, and can use them to powerful effects as well. Each time one side uses a Story Point, it gets transferred to the opposing pool. Making frequent use of these points enhances the game immensely. Not only are players involved in their every die roll, but in helping to build tension throughout the game.
Making characters is fairly simple, each one consisting of a Race and a Career. If you are doing an all-human campaign, the book also offers different Archetypes that split attributes between laborer, intellectual, aristocrat, and average. These archetypes affect your base attributes and Talent trees. You can make your own careers, but the book provides a sampling, which consist of eight skills you have access to, and four free ranks to spend in them.
From there, you have free experience to spend as you wish between Attributes, Skills, and Talents, which function as a sort of catch-all feat system. Talents consist of special combat or social advantages, and most of these are based around manipulating the dice to grant you a special advantage more than outright new rules, and I appreciate the way that they let you engage with your dice pool. There are no more long talent trees you have to follow like in the Star Wars games, but now higher level Talents require a certain number of lower level purchases to qualify.
This system for making characters is simple, relatively fast, and gives you a wide range of character types to start with. Unfortunately, one problem remains from Star Wars, which is that you are highly incentivized to spend all of your starting experience on attributes because the costs are different at character creation and during gameplay. It’s far better to max out on attributes and leave everything else until later on, which makes for some lopsided character creation that puts a damper on the creativity.
The combat rules are fairly simplistic, making use of generalized range bands rather than definite measurements. The initiative system allows you to roll for the group and decide who gets to act first, giving you some tactical decision making. Weapon qualities introduce new ways to utilize Triumphs and Despairs, and the game runs smoothly while maintaining its delightful mixture of crunchy and narrative design.
Genesys also has some surprisingly robust (in my experience at least) social interaction rules. Offering some more weight to the social system is a natural decision for a game that already challenges you to engage directly in your die rolls. There are so many fantastic ways that you can fluff successes, failures, or advantages in a social setting that are completely separate from a combat goal.
All of that provides a foundation, and unfortunately the foundation is severely lacking for doing anything but maybe a modern campaign setting. The Talents, for example, offer almost no supernatural support. If you want to run a high fantasy setting, you simply won’t have the material you need in this book. Rather, you will have to sink into yet another purchase, the soon to be released World of Terrinoth book. I get the distinct feeling that material was either teased or cut out of this book for the express purpose of pulling you into more spending, and in a way that massively devalues this purchase.
The visual design, for instance, leaves a bit to be desired. The book is set up as if it were a notebook, with partially colored sketches occasionally breaking up the white background. This was an intelligent move, saving them some money on printing, making for clean layout, and giving the book a distinct visual style. That said, the sparse art makes the majority of the book feel empty. Most pages are a largely white background with some text, and it does anything but leave you with a lasting impression. When you compare this to the Star Wars books or earlier Warhammer releases, this is a massive step down in art quality and visual design.
The problems extend throughout the rest of the book. Equipment, despite the many interesting qualities the book provides for you, is wholly lacking in examples. The base weapons section has two entries. Stop laughing, I’m being serious. They provide one type of armor. Where would you look for more? Well apart from buying the extra books that are soon to come out in short order, you can look later on to the sample settings. Those, which are separated so that you have to look at distinct lists, are too small to actually function in those settings. I can’t play a high fantasy or space opera game with under ten weapon types, and I should not be expected to. Moreover, these weapons are not scaled against one another in different settings. If an orc with a rusted longsword comes into contact with a 40th century cyborg carrying an advanced laser pistol, it’s a toss-up as to who will come out victorious. The various weapon qualities make a difference, but overall damage scores are comparable.
Those setting sections, which collectively make up a massive chunk of this 253 page book, are also problematic. Each is around ten pages, and eats up a few at the start by explaining setting tropes and defining features. These portions are every bit as insightful and well written as they are unnecessary. I have to feel that the average gamer looking to use this system has a decent idea what the main beats of a fantasy or cyberpunk setting are intended to be. I would mind this far less were it not for the page count taken up by these write-ups, which could have far more easily been used for more rules text.
That rules text usually consists of a few pieces of equipment and a few antagonists. None of this is sufficient to run a game in these settings, and I can only feel that they function as advertisements for future supplements. The settings are often tied into FFG products already, with Runebound for Fantasy, Twilight Imperium for space opera, and Android for science fiction. However, with three races and five monsters in the fantasy section, your only choice for running such a game is building it on your own from the ground up or making yet another purchase.
As a core book for a generic game, which I reiterate how this book sells itself on its own cover, the Genesys core does not deliver. There are not enough tools here for anyone who doesn’t want to create settings whole cloth for themselves, and even then a lot of help is lacking. The book does contain some extra rules for things like hacking, sanity, romance, and superheroes. That sounds nice, and give you a nice start, but when you dig in you find there isn’t enough to really support those settings without you taking the effort to design half of your own game. Superheroes, for example, don’t see any satisfactory way to model superpowers. The book suggests giving characters epic attributes or reusing the magic system to make for superheroes, but these ideas are just insufficient to create a super team.
The magic system is a promising start, but like the rest of the book runs out of steam for most purposes you would need it to serve. The concept is that you would have a magical skill which you can use to cast spells in certain generalized areas: attack, augment, barrier, conjure, curse, dispel, heal, and utility. By pushing your luck and making the roll more difficult, you can add modifiers onto the spell, such as an elemental add-on or boosted area of effect. This is a clean system that works well in practice, except for how many pieces of it feel missing. Large areas of magic types don’t really seem to be represented here, and there are no rules for ritual casting whatsoever. Moreover, there isn’t much help for how to learn more spells as you play the game. As I read it, your only limitation is your potency with a magical discipline, and you are free to build spells as you want from there. Certain disciplines between the three presented (Primal, Divine, and Arcane) grant you access to special magical abilities, but these schools could stand to be fleshed out with some more options to make them shine. Interestingly, magical implements like wands or staffs give you special effects for free, signaling how Genesys imagines you should use magical items.
Functioning as a microcosm of the entire book, this magic system is full of unique and well built ideas that are sure to help creators make the most of their games, but it doesn’t have the tools necessary to make it really usable. Rest assured, if you want to play something with magic in Genesys, you will be setting yourself up to do a lot of work with not much support.
The antagonist system is similarly intriguing: broken up into minions, rivals, and nemeses, you can apply a few different yet simple rules to make different types of threats really pop. Making this mechanical breakup is important, and lets you focus appropriately on how much attention you want to spend on enemy type. Unfortunately. there just aren’t that many enemies in the book. You will have to go elsewhere to find premade enemies or create them your own.
For self-generated material, the GM’s toolkit section is the best potion of the book, explaining the math behind the game and giving you a lot of tools to make the game your own. The problem is that Genesys asks too much of you to get anything up and running. You buy a core book as a toolkit, true, but one with optional rules and systems already in place. Genesys leaves you to the wolves, asking you to make all of these things your own or take the easier version: just buying more books down the line. Every game line functions by giving players more options with future purchase, but very few do so by arbitrarily restricting content in their early releases.
For those willing to put the work in, I have no doubt that this will be a fantastic foundation from which new games will crop up and pull me in. I have already found a fan-made Dark Heresy hack that I and some players have been enjoying immensely. I went into this book with abounding excitement, but in its current state I can’t recommend it except for certain specific purposes. As a generic game, that is not a good sign. Once more material is out for Genesys, I am confident that the system as a whole will prove robust and enticing, but this core book is not doing the work to sell itself. It’s an investment that may pay off eventually, but in its current state is not sufficient for the average gamer.
The Genesys core book is an incredible system wrapped in a sub-par package. The games that are going to come out of this will be thrilling, engaging, and well designed, but tacked on with the unfortunate caveat that this book won’t be enough to play them. With the necessity for more dice and books to make this game shine, Fantasy Flight is relying on you making more purchases to get the most out of this admittedly phenomenal system.