Saturday, November 10, 2018

Genesys - Reaction

My first draft of this post was unnecessarily harsh. I accused Genesys of trying to reinvent the wheel, and expressed skepticism that it offered enough to be worth the bother. But that was going too far. The game does try to reinvent the wheel, but why shouldn't it? Maybe sometimes wheels need reinventing. Here we are, going through our lives with the same old wheels, like jackasses, when some far-seeing person has gone and reinvented them and even though these new wheels don't radically overturn the paradigm or make the old ones obsolete, they still offer some pretty neat functionality you don't get anywhere else.

The main thing Genesys has to offer is a dice gimmick. But it's a good dice gimmick.

They're called "narrative dice," and they're pretty cool. There are six different types, three positive and three negative, and each one has two or three special symbols on it (representing success/failure, advantage/threat and triumph/despair) and your dice pool is assembled based on the circumstances of the roll and the result can be success with advantage, success with threat, failure with advantage, or failure with threat or any of the four results with an extra triumph and/or despair (and while the lesser types of results cancel each other out, the last two are not mutually exclusive). And perhaps the coolest part is that since each die has a particular origin, it's often possible to attribute the contours of your result to the specific circumstances of the roll (so if the success on one of your boost dice puts you over the edge, then you know you succeeded due to superior equipment, but if it's a proficiency die, then your character's skill is responsible).

That's neat. The people at Fantasy Flight games have figured out a way to make the dice themselves tell a story, and I commend them for it.

The reason for my initially harsh reaction was because these narrative dice were wedded to a fairly pedestrian generic system.That's not a criticism. It shouldn't be a criticism. It just is what it is. I'd compare it favorably to late-period d20, when companies were using the SRD to release core books with streamlined versions of the basic rules. You like Mutants and Masterminds? You like True20? Then you'll like what you see here.

And I do like it, quite a bit. The real problem is that it wants to be a generic universal system and that's a very crowded niche. Its central innovation is cool, but if you're heavily invested in d20 or GURPS or any of the dozens of Storyteller system games, then it's not "learn a whole new system" cool, let alone "buy multiple sets of expensive custom dice" cool.

That last bit especially irks me, if I'm being fully honest. A single set of Genesys dice has two each of the 6-sided boost and setback dice and 12-sided proficiency and challenge dice and three each of the 8-sided ability and difficulty dice. But, by the rules, dice pools may require between 3-5 of the larger dice on a fairly regular basis, and, theoretically, up to 4 setback dice in specialized, but not uncommon circumstances. Of course, you can just reroll the dice you need more of, but I suspect the symbols will be harder to track than regular numbers, and, of course, reusing dice tends to blunt one of the main advantages of the narrative dice system. Two full sets should be more than enough to play the game, but that's going to set you back 30 dollars. A small investment if you plan on making Genesys your main system (and it is solid enough to serve in that role), but it's also a good counterargument to getting involved in the first place.

All that's really left to talk about are the included sample settings. They are: fantasy, steampunk, weird war, modern day, sci-fi, and space opera. They each get about ten pages, which turns out to be just enough to give a decent sketch of the genre possibilities, but not quite enough to used out of the box.

The best of the settings are definitely steampunk and weird war, ironically because they ignore the fantasy section's advice to "[not] be too unique" (actual quote). They are the ones with most distinctive detail from which to build a game around. My only quibble with them is that they . . . whitewash alternate history(?) (is that a thing?).

I'm not the first one to point out that steampunk, as cool as it is, appropriates colonialist imagery and can sometimes cross the line into imperialist apologia. And out of the box, Genesys's included steampunk setting included colonies on islands that had been uninhabited up until the modern day. Geez, how nice would it have been if New England had been unpopulated before the British arrived?

And weird war is even worse. The premise is that you're fighting an evil German reich, but their occultism actually works and they are not actually Nazis. And an imperial Japan where the Meiji Restoration failed and . . . something something, it's different.

And look, I don't know. It's a tough call. Obviously you don't want the Holocaust in your pulp tale of clean-cut GIs vs werewolf commandos, but . . . maybe wanting that is . . . problematic. Like WW2 would be so cool if it weren't for the actual proximate causes of the war.

They're not exactly wrong, but I feel like the book was written in a more innocent time (let's see, checking the copyright date . . . 2017 . . . sigh) when we could pretend these horrors were safely in the past. It's not as if this problem would be solved by more Nazis, but I think right now is a bad time for that sort of fiction, generally.

Okay, let's wrap this up. What's the takeaway? Genesys is good. If you get the chance, you should play it. As a one-volume rpg, it's got everything you need, and its GM advice and sample settings are sufficient to whet your appetite for its various possibilities. But it never really succeeds at making the case that you should choose this generic system over any individual specialized system that does exactly what you want it to do.

Maybe get the Fantasy Flight Star Wars game instead.


PS - Still undecided about the Universal Kitchen Sink setting, but again, just in case, my nomination from Genesys is the Boiling Sea, from the Steampunk chapter. On the one hand, its main use is to allow the setting to have colonialism without the ugliness of depicting colonized people, but on the other hand, it's a boiling sea, and I don't have to use it in the same way.

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