Some time ago, I wrote a rather impassioned argument on the importance of cycling through systems. It received a pretty decent response, but I’m also aware that some dude who has played a lot of systems, telling you that you should also play a lot of systems, isn’t a huge amount of use in the grand scheme of things. So I’ve decided to start a new series of mini-articles, each on a different pen & paper RPG, describing why I think it deserves more attention. I’ll endeavour to compare these systems to the conventions of D&D, on the assumption that it’s probably a game we’re all familiar with.
So with that in mind, this week we’ll be looking at Genesys, a relatively new system from Fantasy Flight Games. Genesys is a truly fascinating beast in many ways. Firstly, it’s a settingless, classless, raceless system, which provides a generic set of rules through which players and GMs can run pretty much any kind of RPG they like. This isn’t a new concept. In fact, GURPS did this way back in 1986. However, when combined with Genesys’ other curio, it takes on a new level of narrative awesomeness. You see, Genesys doesn’t use any of those boring old dice that you already own. Oh no, Genesys has its own, unique set of dice with a bunch of weird, enigmatic markings on them.
These markings are easy to understand, and when used in play, provide a truly compelling gateway to a narratively deep experience. The basic concept is as follows.
Let’s say one of your players wishes to shoot a fleeing enemy. Her character has an Agility of 3 and a Ranged attack skill of 2. That player will take three (good) green dice, equal to their Agility, and upgrade two of them to the (better) yellow dice to represent their specialisation with ranged weapons. This forms the player’s dice pool. The GM will then start throwing negative dice in there to represent the difficulty of the task. The player is at long range, so that’s three (bad) purple dice. Furthermore, remember when your character injured her hand? That means there’ll be a black die in there as well, as she struggles to line up her shot. The player then rolls all of the dice and looks at the results. Each die has a number of successes and failures and you simply subtract failures from successes to determine if the attempt was successful. But where the nuance really comes in is in the existence of the ‘advantages’ and ‘threats’ which each die can also generate.
What this means (and what I think is truly fantastic about this system) is that it is entirely possible to succeed whilst suffering a bunch of complications in the form of threats. Similarly, you might fail, but generate several advantages. Just as in real life, success isn’t black and white in Genesys. There is a menu of ways in which players can spend advantages, as well as a similar one for the GM to use for threats. These involve such things as recovering from strain, giving advantage dice to the pools of allies, or inflicting critical damage on enemies.
Ultimately, this takes what would normally be very rigid, mechanical elements in other RPGs, stuff like combat, casting spells, hacking into computers etc. and turns them into an exciting, action-filled, narrative experience for Genesys players. Rather than having one player’s numbers try to beat some arbitrary DC, something which, while perfectly serviceable, does often remove you from the fantasy, this system tries to keep everything as descriptive as possible. It’s typical for a slice of a Genesys game to sound something like this.
“Damn, I missed him. But I generated an advantage. I’m gonna say that my character has forced the enemy into a slightly awkward position as he takes cover from my shots. This’ll give the next player an opening to exploit. I’ll give him a blue die.”
This simple mechanic is stretched out across the whole system and even extends to social encounters, where players will battle against an enemy using words and concepts rather than weapons and spells. There’s even a ‘strain threshold’ system for social combat which is designed to simulate intelligent debate. In the last game I ran, the players were attempting to track down a shamanistic villain who was grinding up the bones of the dead and infusing them with necromantic energy to create a kind of narcotic, which he was then distributing to the populace.
When the players finally caught him, rather than engage him in battle, they decided to try talking him down. The villain proceeded to point out that while what he was doing was technically illegal, he was also providing a consequence-free form of escapism to the city’s most miserable and alienated people, and that he ought to be viewed as a service provider rather than an illegal peddlar. Over time, this point ground down the party’s hedge wizard, who began siding with the shaman.
The whole thing eventually concluded when the party agreed to help their foe integrate his medicinal practices into the law of the city. It was a conclusion that simply wouldn’t happen in many of the more traditional systems and it felt like one of those real-life situations where you neither won nor lost. It was a compromise, and one which added to the inter-party conflict between the hedge wizard and the deeply religious priest and knight in the party. The next week it was continuously brought up by the knight, as he expressed his bitterness and inability to trust his compatriot. In short, it was fucking epic and served to make these characters feel real to us.
As a GM, this is extremely exciting. I want my players to interact with the world I’ve created on an emotional level and Genesys has this hard-baked into its system. It gives GMs the tools to create their own archetypes (races) and careers (classes). You could just use the default ones that come in the book, but it’s even more fun if you collaborate with your players beforehand and build a world together. When my group first played Genesys, we actually used Microscope (that’s a whole other article’s worth of info) to create a fictional setting together, with a rich detailed history, geography and social structure. I then went away and transferred that setting into Genesys. I cannot begin to describe how satisfying it is to run an RPG in which the players have the same knowledge of the setting as you do.
I sincerely feel that Genesys is the most underappreciated RPG out there. At the time of writing, it doesn’t even have a Wikipedia entry. Even F.A.T.A.L has a mention on Wikipedia’s list of role-playing games, and that’s a system which contains such important stats as your penis size and anal circumference. If you’re looking for a more story-driven, narrative experience, or if you’ve got a world in your head that just doesn’t fit with any of the RPGs you already play, Genesys will complete you.