All flash, little substance—Genesys: Realms of Terrinoth review

I continue to be less than impressed with Fantasy Flight’s introductory releases for the Genesys system. While the core book was mechanically sound boasting a flexible, cinematic system with the right balance between narrative resolution and character options, I found it lacking in material and substance, especially for the price. Realms of Terrinoth, the second release which focuses on fantasy settings, falls into the same pitfalls, while simultaneously painting a grim picture for the future of this system. For $50 we get a peek into something truly exceptional, but not enough to leave us truly satisfied.

One of the problems that Fantasy Flight faces out of the gate, and is likely to follow it into the future, is that Realms of Terrinoth is designed to be a setting book for a setting that was always intended to be inherently generic. You see, the world of Mennara got its start in FFG’s board game line, being the default for Descent, Battlelore, Runebound, and far more. In a board game, as opposed to an RPG, you are often going for the exact opposite of novelty when it comes to setting. The goal is to rely on a set of shorthands that your audience can instantly connect to, making the sale and rules of your games easier on the consumer. You see a box in the store with some wood elves and dwarves fighting a dragon, and you instantly understand the basic concept. In game you won’t be grappling with the nuances of elven culture and how it affects trade negotiations, you’ll be engaging with the mechanics that help you slay the dragon. Nuance is a weakness in many ways. Elves have bows. Dwarves have hammers. These simple tropes are useful for a board game, but trite for an RPG setting.

Thus we set the stage for Realms of Terrinoth’s setting: something that was always intended to be generic, but now has to entice new readers. It’s a troubling contradiction, and one that will follow Fantasy Flight into the future. Each of the setting’s books that it has teased has the same concept: the setting, whether it be space opera, cyberpunk, or otherwise, is based on a game line that relies on shorthands to communicate with the audience. That makes for a poor RPG setting, which makes for a questionable setting book.

Realms of Terrinoth is broken up into three main sections: setting material, game rules, and a combination gazetteer/monster manual that provides you with different antagonists for different environment types. Your mileage with each of these sections will vary, based on your tolerance for having to create your own support for a game you have already paid $100 for (given the two books necessary and not including the proprietary dice, of which you may want several sets).

The setting is Mennara, a fantasy world that a nerd worth his or her salt could sketch out in a few minutes if they forgot they had a D&D session later that day. Mennara contains elves and orcs and dwarves, and there were three Ages of Darkness all caused by different evil scourges such as dragons or orcs. Now each of these threats are rising up together, and coordinating to threaten all of Mennaran civilization. The work of brave heroes, gathering powerful relics and fighting back the tide of darkness, is all that stands in the way of utter collapse.

Mennara contains a wide variety of landscapes and environs, all of which exist to fill the needs of providing you with options rather than to be interesting or organic on their own. In some ways I appreciate this: Fantasy Flight know that Realms of Terrinoth could only ever have been a placeholder for players wanting to create their own games, and wanted to make a setting generic enough to support your efforts towards that. The problem is the amount of the book dedicated specifically to a setting that people may toss out. It would be one thing if you could obtain the rules text separately, but much of this seems like a fairly transparent way to justify the price tag.

The setting is at least very well presented. Much of the history is delivered from in-universe perspectives, containing conjecture, contradictions, and the personal tone of the writers. Few of these mysteries grabbed me to the point where I wanted to run an adventure to explore them, but the book delivered on the quality and variety of the writing. The history portion, containing a discussion of Mennara’s past, was particularly alluring due to a bevy of paintings in stained glass style. The main events of Mennara’s races and countries are delivered via these windows, giving them a genuine feeling of gravitas and nobility that went a long way towards selling their events.

Some of this timeline does manage to be interesting, providing context for the races’ positions in the world and consideration for one another. They often happened thousands of years in the past, which raises a question of how useful these facts will be for your game (or anyone else but the GM) but I appreciated reading through some of the turning points in Mennaran history and imagining how I could use those elements in game. For the most part, the events did manage to logically influence one another and create a world under genuine crisis, but I realize that the previous clause was a less than glowing description.

Of a 265 page book, this first section eats up around 60 pages, so your attraction (or lack thereof) to Terrinoth will mean a lot as you consider whether this is a book for you. The mechanical options that follow do contain some well thought out design to allow you to hack yourself into a good fantasy world, but as with the core book you will be left on your own in many ways; the book creates a basic framework and provides examples for a lot of options, but takes little troubles to help justify its price tag.

The rules section starts out with a selection of races. As with the Genesys core, they begin with slightly different attributes as well as some special abilities. These abilities can be skill specializations, dark sight, or other small abilities that make sense given the race’s history and culture. Many of the races are also broken into sub-races, to help you further specialize a character. These sub-races keep the base attribute array but have altered special abilities to represent their genetic differences. Realms of Terrinoth gives you access to humans, elves, dwarves, orcs, gnomes, and catfolk.

Following that are new careers to help you get oriented in a fantasy setting: Disciple, Envoy, Mage, Primalist, Scholar, Scoundrel, Scout and Warrior, as well as Runemaster, a mage variant which focuses on using mystical sigils to cast spells. The careers do fairly little, giving you access to starting skills and gear packages if you choose not to purchase equipment on your own.

More importantly, and new to Genesys, are the Heroic Abilities that will form a major component of any character. You choose one for your character’s lifetime, and each has a Base, Advanced, Improved, and Supreme effect. These abilities are purposefully game-breaking, costing two Story Points to use and limiting their use to once per session. Some of the Base effects include instantly learning a piece of important information or getting the GM to answer any yes-or-no question truthfully. As you gain experience, you can not only upgrade these abilities to their more powerful forms, but to use them more regularly and at a lower cost.

I don’t know if I would use these in my game, but I see the appeal. For my taste they are both too powerful and too limited. They seem to be trying to distill what makes a character special, combining your character concept with a feat-like ability that will make them truly stand out. To the game’s credit, this is the entire point. Genesys is a narrative, cinematic system, and it makes sense that characters would have access to abilities that, if used judiciously, could give them a sudden and pronounced edge. They work to enforce the feeling of heroism that many fantasy games work to evoke. They fall flat in that the book only contains 11 Heroic Abilities in total, leaving you to create the rest on your own. That number is worrisome, especially given that most groups have four or so players, who will further be limiting one another’s options by eliminating unchosen abilities.

The Talents and skills section is our first major boost in quality from the core book, starting with a comprehensive list that includes those from the core book and from this release. The skills will get you grounded in fantasy well, and only a few are specific to Mennara, mostly consisting of lore based skills. This book is our first introduction of true knowledge skills to Genesys, and the write-ups make them feel right at home. The Talents are also a breath of fresh air, ranging not only in type but in power level, putting you right where you need to be as your group plays long term campaigns. They also fit well into the fantasy setting; while some may stick close to D&D inspired abilities, this inclusion was on purpose, helping you to implement abilities you are likely to have on your mind anyway.

The equipment section ranges far and wide in terms of scope, but not in terms of quantity. We get lists of weapons, armor, mundane weapons, mystical runes, magic items, and more, but not very many of each type. Rest assured, this is still a major upgrade from the core book, and the weapon listing alone is pleasantly full. We also have numerous options for modifying these items, making even mundane weaponry feel special. One option I appreciated, and do not recall having seen before, were racial modifications that explained the differences you could apply to a piece of armor or weapons depending on its source, whether it be elven, orcish, or otherwise. This inclusion was thoughtful and well-implemented, and stands out as one of the best decisions in the entire book.

We also get some miscellaneous systems, such as mounted combat, crafting, and alchemy. None of these are particularly complicated, but they are robust and useful, allowing you to seriously consider making a character based around these ideas.

Magic remains an area that needs some work to feel complete. The book adds in Verse and Runic magic as new options, supplementing the types of spell-slingers you can play, but they are based on the same 8 magical skills that backed the core game. This means that certain types of magical effects still can’t be replicated in game, as much as I appreciated the inclusion of these new schools.

While the setting portion does discuss Mennara’s history of blood magic and necromancy, the dark arts are left out of the magic section. Some of the talents do have darker applications, such as the ability to wound yourself for instant successes on casting rolls, but true darkness is left for the monsters to use, not the players. You might be able to extrapolate backwards to create your own abilities, but the base rules do not support such an effort.

Rounding everything out is a section breaking down the various environments and locations of Mennara, including specific histories and antagonists. Each section has a discussion of its culture and numerous adventure seeds to make these areas useful. They contain the predictable enough desert, forest, snowy and other areas, but this is anything but a weakness, and will be the portion of the setting most easily ported into home games. These sections contain maps of each area, but only as overviews. There are no dungeons, cities, or otherwise on offer here.

While I understand the urge to separate the antagonists by environment type, this was a misstep. See, they aren’t just broken up into different sections within one area relegated specifically for monster stats; the monsters themselves are flung across different sections, broken up by pages and maps and setting material. This means that when you want to find something, you will have to remember which section it was in and which part of that section. If you are flipping through for ideas or more likely comparisons to create your own monsters, you will have to dig through multiple sections of material just to find them. This will cause far more harm than good, and inhibit the book’s usability.

Otherwise, the overall presentation is high quality, and serious shoutouts go to the layout team for creating something so consistent, readable, and easy to navigate. Rules and lore text manage to be clear and thematic, without ever breaking tone, even when the text transitions to a more archaic looking script. I do have a gripe in terms of maps, however: there are multiple full maps of Mennara, one being labelled and the other more stylistic. The labelled one is found a few pages in, and not on the inside cover as with the others. This makes the book look slightly nicer, as the map is not cluttered with so many words, but also less usable. It’s significantly easier to open the front cover for a quick snapshot of locations relevant to one another than to have to dig a few pages in for the same information.

The art may seem generic at first, leaning on FFG’s previous board games for its style and tone of action fantasy, but the book takes opportunities to change up the style. It does so effectively, but without making the world itself feel inconsistent. I have already mentioned the lavish stained glass sections, but style tended more towards impressionistic for a dark, looming castle and some of the larger pieces work better than anything else to sell the world of Mennara.

It’s here that we have a bit of a problem, however. While many of these pieces are beautiful, and very worth taking a moment to stop and examine, they also take up a lot of room, sometimes forcing me to wonder if the team was deliberately attempting to pad the length of this book. Early on there are a good dozen or so pages with little text but enormous, sweeping art pieces that take up space we might have used for content. I don’t want to harp too much on this, especially because those pictures are so high quality, but given FFG’s more business oriented decisions time and again, I am forced to wonder about its motives here.

Another point in the book’s favor is the print quality, which shows us that, at least as publishers, Fantasy Flight knows what it’s doing. This book will hold up for a long time; while the pages are not fully glossed, the binding is tight and the somewhat weighty tome is sure to stand up to being carried around.

As a sales pitch for Genesys itself, Realms of Terrinoth is really only made for people dedicated to hacking it apart and making it their own. The game is high quality and well put together, but contains a high barrier to entry for a new player. Even running a fantasy game within Mennara itself will require a lot of home-brewing of items, antagonists, and character abilities. Combining such a barrier with such a high price tag, I would be hard pressed to see this release model take off. Unless Fantasy Flight makes some changes as to how it decides to release and support Genesys, the system may not see the success that its creators envisioned.



Genesys: Realms of Terrinoth

Review Guidelines

Realms of Terrinoth continues Genesys’ trend of presenting engaging, novel rules but not giving you enough tools to use them effectively. The setting which takes up most of the book is usable, if not exciting, but the dearth of rules means that anyone dedicated to running a fantasy game will have their work cut out for them. The book itself is high quality, well presented, and very worth looking through, but one that needs some elbow grease to make into a full game.

John Farrell is a legal aid attorney specializing in domestic violence, living in West Chester Pennsylvania. You can listen to him travel the weird west as Carrie A. Nation in the Joker's Wild podcast at:
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