RogerBW's Blog

Genesys Core Rulebook (part 1, initial thoughts) 09 October 2020

This universal RPG system suffers from conflicting goals, but ends up producing a pleasantly fast-moving game.

If you know me as a gamer at all, you know the thing I always say when I meet an interesting gaming setting: "why wouldn't I run this in GURPS?" GURPS does pretty much what I want an RPG system to do: gives me characters with different levels of ability, lets them succeed or fail at tasks based on those levels of ability, and otherwise gets out of the way. So why am I even looking at another system?

Because, much as I love it, sometimes GURPS can be a bit slow in play, especially when you have a multi-page character sheet and dozens of traits. More seriously, generating a GURPS character is a skill in itself; it's very easy, if you don't know the system well, to end up building a character who has mediocre skill levels in lots of things but can't do any of them well enough to be useful. And thirdly, some players (even ones who know me and are prepared to play a GURPS game in the first place) just aren't fond of generating GURPS characters, which can be an involved process – and for the one-shots I like to run at conventions even I may not feel like putting together five or six of them. There are patches round many of these problems (I'm particularly fond of the GURPS Action sub-series) but they're not perfect solutions.

I've been looking at a variety of lightweight systems recently, with the aim of finding something to support fast-moving action-based games from say 1890 to the indeterminate future. Savage Worlds has broken probabilities, has many powers that don't really work if you aren't playing on a gridded tactical map, and has a card-based initiative system which doesn't play well over a video link. Doctor Who (the new Cubicle 7 version) runs on 2d6 which feels a bit blunt, and while it does modern television action pretty well that's just a bit too tightly focussed for what I want. FATE does my head in. I did some design of my own, to which I may yet return.

And then there's Genesys. (And this is where the story, or at least the review, really starts.) There are certainly some problems, but it ends up doing many of the things I want.

The system originates in FFG's Warhammer FRP third edition in 2009, which nobody much seems to have liked (though their Warhammer 40K games including Dark Heresy, published at about the same time and using a more conventional system, worked pretty well). It then got somewhat modified in 2012 into the trio of Star Wars games (Edge of the Empire, Age of Rebellion, and Force and Destiny), and has now had the Star Wars stripped out to make this iteration in 2017.

What all these have in common is the thing that puts people off: the silly dice. FFG is a company owned by a private equity fund, and everything they do carries the taint of maximum revenue extraction to a much greater extent than do most commercial games. I'll come back to that later, but the immediate consideration is that for almost everything one does the game requires custom dice, which can be bought in the UK in packs at about £1 per die (and, as is standard for FFG, while you can manage with one pack you'll ideally want two). There is a table in the rulebook so that you can use your existing d6s, d8s and d12s, but this would mean a lot of looking up and I've not heard of anyone actually doing it; and you could mark or sticker existing dice, but that would similarly be more work than the price of the dice can really justify. I have bought several sets so that when I run games face to face again I can simply leave a pool of dice in the middle of the table and players can grab them as needed. Star Wars RPG dice also work.

This is a dice pool system: you roll more "good" dice for high stats and skills and advantageous circumstances, and more "bad" dice for high difficulty and complications. If you get more success than failure symbols, you've succeeded in whatever you were doing. But where this gets interesting, and to some extent justifies the custom dice, is that you also generate "advantage" and "threat" points, which lie on a separate dimension from success and failure. A net advantage gives you some sort of beneficial consequence other than simple success or failure: you cracked the computer and remained unnoticed, or you missed the shot but you found a bit of cover or helped set things up for your mate. Similarly, net threat might mean that you took longer than expected to pick the lock, or you dropped your weapon while evading incoming fire.

The most potent dice can also generate triumph and despair, which produce especially good or especially bad effects – along the advantage/threat axis, not the success/failure one, though they also count as success and failure symbols.

There are suggestions for ways to implement advantage and threat points (some of them directly game-mechanical, some of them more fuzzy), but they're not exhaustive: once you get a feel for how significant two advantage points or three threat points should be, both players and GM may come up with new consequences. In other words, this is one of those systems which invites the players to participate in the narrative at an authorial/editorial level as well as just thinking about what their character would do ("what would be an interesting way for your success at this task to generate a minor drawback for you"); but, perhaps because of this scale of advantage and disadvantage that defines fairly clearly how good or bad the thing that happens should be, I find it doesn't kick me out of my character's mindset the way such systems usually do.

This does mean that the act of making a die roll can be a bit more complicated than in something like GURPS, but at its worst it might go:

Player: I'll shoot him. Agility 1, Ranged Combat 3, one yellow die and two green. And I'll aim first so that's one blue.

GM: He's at medium range, so that's three purple, and in partial cover, so add a black.

and of course as the players get used to this process it becomes much faster.

(to be continued)

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See also:
Genesys Core Rulebook (part 2, mechanics and character generation)
Genesys Core Rulebook (part 3, combat and other tasks)
Genesys Core Rulebook (part 4, GM advice and settings)
Genesys Core Rulebook (part 5, GM toolkit and conclusions)

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