A blank slate to build on
Creating a system-agnostic RPG that flows neatly and feels at home with both fireballs and flamethrowers is an incredibly lofty ambition, but one that Genesys has come tantalisingly close to achieving.
The game is designed as almost a blank slate – a simple platform that settings and systems can be bolted onto with little effort or rules conflicts. Though a first glance through the core book’s pages may leave you thinking it feels shallow, there’s plenty of depth just waiting to be explored with a bit of effort.
One of the reasons for this, perhaps, is that publisher Fantasy Flight has created the game on the sturdy chassis of its recent Star Wars RPGs. This means it uses the same ‘narrative dice’ system that does away with virtually all the maths and number-crunching traditionally involved with tabletop RPGs. Instead, it relies on a handful of symbols etched into specialist dice to determine success and failure.
Succeeding on a task simple requires you to have more successes and failures. Skills allow you to roll more positive dice, while the difficulty of the task ups the number of negative dice added to the pool. Circumstances can also add in their own dice, such as in situations where the rattle of incoming fire can distract from an adventurer’s efforts to pick a lock.
The system is elegant and easy to understand and, though it may sound simple, the real depth comes from the fact that there symbols on the dice beyond mere success and failure.
For example, rolling a handful of advantage symbols on top of an already successful check to hack a starship’s computer system may mean that not only do you take control of the system, but you also stumble across the captain’s personal log in the process.
The most interesting examples of how this system can work, however, come when you roll threats on a success or advantages on a failure. This can lead to situations where you successfully track your prey across the savannah but in the process attract the attention of some hungry-looking lions, or lose an arm-wrestling contest with the brawny thug but impress him enough to make a new friend.
It soon becomes impossible to predict exactly how things a given situation may work out, with the right combination of rolls creating some truly wonderful scenes that feel all the sweeter because they were shaped by the dice and by the players’ actions, rather than simply being pulled from the GM’s notebook. The only downside to this is that it does require a reasonably high amount of improvisation and confidence in order to run smoothly.
More than that, the lack of an established setting for the game means that the GM will already need to be flexing their creative muscles from the get-go. The core rulebook contains detailed and extensive guidelines on creating worlds to drop your players into, with almost half its pages occupied by general outlines and modified rules for a host of popular genres ranging from classic fantasy to space-opera and even a Lovecraftian ‘Weird War’.
It’s entirely possible that full explanations and rules for using these worlds will come in their own books further down the line but, for the time being, Genesys stands alone. Honestly, the biggest impression that you get when flicking through the elegantly designed pages of the core rulebook is that Genesys feels like an RPG toolkit that – with a bit of effort – can be shaped and trimmed to fit the needs of any campaign.
To some people this will be instantly appealing, as it gives them a chance to flex their creative muscles in a system simple and robust enough to take a few knocks. Others may find the freedom overwhelming and grow frustrated at needing to fill in the blanks themselves.
Ultimately, Genesys trades specialisation for adaptability, and will likely lose out in direct competition with the well-established masters of certain genres. However, if you want to buy one rulebook for your gaming group and run half a dozen weird and wonderful worlds without learning new rules, it may well be the new top dog of setting-free RPGs.
Genesys represents a highly polished and elegant set of rules that can be applied to just about anything you want, though sometimes it crosses over from ‘adaptable’ to ‘generic’.
Designer: Sam Stewart
This review originally appeared in the February 2018 issue of Tabletop Gaming. Pick up the latest issue of the UK's fastest-growing gaming magazine in print or digital here – or subscribe to make sure you never miss another issue.