This massive rulebook clocks in at 258 pages, 1 page front cover, 1 page inside of front cover, 1 page editorial, 1 page ToC, 1 page back cover, leaving us with 253 pages of content.
This review was requested as a prioritized review by one of my patreons, who also graciously bought the pdf for me. I do not own the physical version of the book and thus cannot comment on virtues or lack thereof of said iteration.
In case you’re a novice to RPGs (roleplaying games): GM denotes the “Gamemaster”, the primary storyteller that takes care of the environment, monsters, etc. “PCs” refers to the “Player Characters”, what you probably know from computer games – the protagonists. The plural is important, for every PC should be of equal importance to the stories told to guarantee fun for everyone. In pen and paper RPGs, dice notations are usually written as “dX”, where “X” denotes the number of sides of the die.
To begin with a brief history lesson: Genesys’ roots stretch back to the 3rd edition of the Warhammer Roleplaying game; special dice sans numbers, but with symbols, have since been popularized in the Star Wars: Edge of Empires RPG; this rules-foundation has been employed here as well.
This does mean that the game employs a variety of color-coded dice with unique symbols. Genesys knows 6 such unique dice: 3 positive dice and 3 negative dice. The first category of the positive dice would be the Boost Dice, which are d6 and represents luck, chance and advantageous actions; they are opposed by the black Setback Dice, which are also d6 and represent ill fortunes, etc. This opposition of dice also extends to the other dice categories: Ability Dice represent your skills and are green d8s; they are opposed by purple Difficulty Dice, which are also d8s. Finally, there are yellow Proficiency Dice, which are d12; these are opposed by red d12s dubbed Challenge Dice. Dice annotation in texts is done with blue squares to represent boost dice, red hexagons to represent Challenge Dice – you get the idea.
Now, there is a table that breaks down the die symbol distribution by side for each of the dice categories. It’s there. … I strongly suggest just getting the dice. At least two sets, preferably one set per player and at least one for the GM. I am good at remembering symbols, suits and the like, but since the symbols on the dice are abstract, memorizing their equivalents on numbered dice can be grating at the beginning. Beyond these, the system also employs standard, numbered ten-sided dice, regular d10s. If that sounds obtuse, it’s actually not: Using a sun-like glyph for success, an “X”-like glyph for failure, for example, makes sense. An arrow pointing up for Advantage? An abstract, crosshair-like shape to indicate “Threat”? Makes sense. Triumph and Despair represent the most potent ends of the success/failure scale. Failures and successes are compared, for example, and cancel each other out; tasks that fail can generate advantages that represent something good coming out of failure – you get the idea.
RPG-Veterans can at this point easily determine that the basis of the system is a dice pool: A collection of dice that you roll; advanced or particularly complex actions may require larger dice pools, but the idea is simple: A character’s inherent ability, training and equipment, as well as circumstances govern how the task is resolved – more on that later.
You can see: This system’s basics are really simple, easy to grasp and emphasize the importance of rolling the dice without compromising the narrative aspects. In short, as far as the basics are concerned, once you have come around to the idea of the symbol-using dice, it is elegant and well-crafted.
The system knows, in total a number of 5 so-called “Characteristics”, which are somewhat akin to “ability scores” in d20-based or OSR-games. These range from 1 – 5, with 2 being the human average. There are 6 characteristics: Agility determines manual dexterity, quickness, coordination, etc. Brawn represents both physical strength and hardiness and determines the wound threshold. Cunning represents being crafty, clever and creative smarts, while Intellect represents education, mental acuity and the ability to reason and rationalize – I like this distinction between these two types that most games roll into one Intelligence attribute. Presence is pretty self-explanatory, and so is Willpower, though the latter determines the strain threshold.
These characteristics are associated with specific skills – like Survival, Vigilance, Deception, etc. These are associated with the respective characteristics, and their presentation is concise, offering example when to use the skill and when NOT to use the skill. Interesting, btw.: The Cool skill determines initiative when aware of danger; otherwise, vigilance is used. You can gain basically ranks via leveling here, improving the skills. Each point thus invested in a skill nets you potentially a proficiency die. This is very much relevant for the purpose of determining a dice pool.
You first check the characteristic: For each point, you get an ability die – one of those green d8s, as established above. You can then replace the ability dice with proficiency dice (the yellow d12s), but here’s the catch: The higher of the values of characteristics determines the number of green ability dice that are added to the dice pool – even if you have LESS ranks in the characteristic! Then, the lower of the two values is used to determine the number of yellow proficiency that you can convert ability dice to.
Let’s say, you have two characters: One with a characteristic rank of 4 and a skill rank of 1, and another, who has a characteristic rank of 1, and a skill rank of 4. They’d both get 4 green ability dice and convert 1 of these into a yellow proficiency die. The first character would just be gifted at the task at hand, while the second would have compensated for a lack of innate ability with training. While this may sound weird, I ADORE this design decision. Depending on the amount of skills your setting employs, this allows for a stark differentiation of character concepts – the clumsy mage who’s adept at sneaking around due to years of abuse by his master, the charismatic, but undiplomatic scoundrel with a heart of gold – the mechanics put equal value on training and emphasize player agenda.
By the way: If you don’t have a skill rank for the task at hand, you just roll ability dice straight. This is the player side of things. It becomes interesting when the GM enters the fray: As noted before, the positive dice have their negative equivalents, and it is thus that the GM gets to influence the difficulty of the task at hand, adding negative dice to the pool. The process is analogue, but system-immanently freer for the GM and allows for a maximum level of control. At the same time, the emphasis is on GM-control: The swingy nature of competing dice means that care needs to be taken to retain balance; while the system can in theory wing anything from a gritty dungeon-crawl to high fantasy anime-esque superhero antics, the interpretation of the GM becomes very important. In that way, Genesys is somewhat akin to e.g. FAITH, putting a lot of spontaneous control mechanisms in the hands of the GM. You can always opt to not include too many negative dice to a challenge. The obvious downside here, is that you get swingy triumphs, but also failures, and that you need to retain some level of consistency regarding the negative dice employed. While the book does provide guidelines, and while boost dice can help the players, I couldn’t help but feel that a table for gritty to superhero-esque playstyles and suggested negative dice use would have proved to be a huge boon regarding the immediate usability of the book.
But before we get around to the details, let’s quickly cover character generation: You first determine the character’s background; then, we look at the species/archetype of the character, which determines the characteristics and secondary characteristics like aforementioned wound/strain thresholds. Then, you choose a career – this is somewhat akin to a class, in that it determines the starting skills and which skills are easier or harder to advance. This establishes the initial starting points; after that, XP is used to upgrade characteristics and skills. Finally, you determine derived attributes like aforementioned thresholds, soak value, defense, etc. Then, only motivations, equipment, etc. are determined.
Now, let’s talk about the derived attributes: Wound threshold is a combination of the archetype’s base value and Brawn. Strain works analogue and represents mental resilience and works by combining the archetype base value and Willpower. Defense differentiates between melee and ranged Defense, with a base value of 0. This is generally enhanced by equipment. Soak value determines the amount of punishment a character can detract from every attack – basically a form of damage reduction. The default soak rating is equal to Brawn and subsequent increases do enhance the Soak value, in contrast to the wound threshold. Helpful: Assumed averages are noted. Defense granted by armor btw. nets a black Complication die per Defense rating and adds soak to the character.
There is more player agenda beyond this: Talents. Talents come in tiers that range from 1 to 5. These tiers govern how much XP is required to purchase a talent. There are active and passive talents, and some are ranked and may be taken more than once. Yes, if you have some experience with d20-based games, you can picture these as class talents or feats.
Now, I mentioned character motivation before, and this section indeed is interesting, as it automatically results in at least semi-rounded characters: You determine a desire, a fear, a strength and a flaw, with brief example tables provided.
Now, as for items: Genesys does several smart things here: For one, item availability can be determined pretty easily by the GM, with sample rarities given, and item maintenance (which you can completely ignore) as well as some sample item qualities, are provided – in a way, the system allows for somewhat simulationalist takes or those that handwave things with equal ease. The encumbrance rules are similar and combat the Christmas Tree-symptom (characters decked with magic/tech items) commonly seen in more rules-intense games. As such, default carrying capacity is assumed to be 5, and armor does count…but carrying armor is less strenuous than wearing it, which does make sense. As such, encumbrance is akin to an abstraction of more than weight, taking bulk into account, as some OSR games like Lamentations of the Flame Princess do.
Now, the equipment section is, rules-wise, certainly well-crafted as well. Base damage of weapons either is based on the characteristic (Brawn + fixed value, depending on weapon) or on a fixed value, for example for ranged weapons.
Regarding combat, we have a theatre of the mind style that differentiates between 5 different range bands – engaged, short range, medium range, long range and extreme range. Positioning, thus, is important, but relevant and shouldn’t bog down gameplay. At the same time, this does mean that intensely tactical combat is not exactly the strength here; as the relatively swingy dice pool, which requires interpretation already emphasized, we have basically a rather narrative system on our hands here, though one that thankfully has more meat on its bones than e.g. FATE.
Just because I consider the combat to be more narrative should not be taken to mean that it is bereft of tactics, mind you: The two different damage types (strain and wounds), combined with a couple of conditions and the existence of critical injuries (including a table) mean that there are tight rules for ongoing status effects and sufficient attention to detail provided for the basics of the combat system presented.
Speaking of “systems presented” – easily my favorite section in this book would be the emphasis it gives social encounters and how it plays: Basically, social combat is just as easily supported by the game’s engine as regular combat is, with motivations influencing the mechanics; for example, your fears could hinder you re dice, etc. Best of all, though: The basic mechanics are not different from combat mechanics. Similarly, monsters and NPCs have stats, derived attributes, skills, talents, etc. – analogue to PCs. You understand the rules, you’re good to understand these.
And here is pretty much where the review, much like the book, needs to imho be separated in two: Up until this point, we have primarily looked at the system in place, how it operates, etc. – and Genesys is formidable in that regard. I mean it. The rules and their presentation are transparent and their sequence is didactically sensible. This system succeeds, with accolades, in depicting a system that is truly setting-agnostic. It can be used to run basically anything. Up to page 135, we get a rather impressive system indeed, one that should be capable of running anything.
Or…well…it has the POTENTIAL to smoothly run anything. You see, the book does suffer from being setting neutral in a crucial way, and one that ultimately will make or break the book for you.
The weapons I just mentioned? There are a grand total of two sample weapons presented. A knife and a revolver. Do you think that suffices for any GM to really get a firm grip on weapon parameters for different weaponry, regardless of setting employed? I frankly do not believe this. We get a grand total of one sample armor. ONE.
Now, the vast majority of the remainder of the book is devoted to fantasy, steampunk, weird war, modern day, science fiction and space opera sample settings. Here, the sketch-like aesthetics of book give way to fully fleshed out artworks to represent them being concrete suggestions. Tropes and the like are noted here and those new to the respective themes get a couple more sample items and suggestions. Here’s the thing: The tools presented for the settings universally are, regarding themes, generic and not detailed enough, and the sample items etc. are not even close to being enough to really run a rewarding game in any such setting. They are, basically, in a way, slightly extended advertisements for sample settings and the most basic of sketches for the tropes. Now, I did not need detailed settings in a book that is explicitly billed as a setting-agnostic book, but ultimately, I considered this whole section to be space that could have been used better. The GM’s toolkit in the back provides concise guidelines for skill creation, making new species/archetypes, talent creation, etc. – the section is per se nice, but suffers from being shorter than it ultimately should be.
This becomes particularly evident when looking at the alternate rules: From item customization, to magic, these are per se cool: Magic employs the symbols granted by the dice pool in a cool manner, allowing you to modify magic regarding area etc. and similar modifications – while magic implements and sample spells are provided, for example ritual magic, sympathetic magic and the like are not covered – and the like, ultimately, is harder to design from scratch than most GMs would be happy with. There are horror rules as well, but once more, they feel, compared to what the system could yield in that regard, like tacked-on afterthoughts awaiting proper development in a setting-specific book.
The pdf closes with a 2-page index and several char/work-sheets.
Editing and formatting are top-notch, I noticed no serious glitches. Layout adheres to a crisp and relatively printer-friendly two-column standard, with artworks first representing the DIY-sketch-like nature seen on the cover artwork, becoming concrete when the setting materials do. The pdf version comes fully bookmarked with detailed, nested bookmarks.
Sam Stewart, building on Jay Little’s original design, with additional development by Max Brooke, Tim Cox, Sterling Hershey, Tim Huckelbery, Jay Little, Jason Marker, Katrina Ostrander, Daniel Lovat Clark and Andrew Fischer, have created a system that actually manages to succeed at presenting a fun and easy to use “eierlegende Wollmilchsau” (lit: egg-laying wool-milk-pig), in English, a kind of jack-of-all-trades that is not necessarily as dilettantish in the details as the latter term implies. Not necessarily.
That’s the big caveat. I can definitely see this system being amazing for you, provided you can stomach the need to get the unique, proprietary dice, which even Dungeon/Mutant Crawl Classics groups will not own. However, it does not deliver, perhaps partially system-immanently, on the promise of being a truly universal. You see, the book wastes precious page-count on recounting basics of diverse settings and their tropes, pages that would have been better served by expanding the help for the GM.
Don’t get me wrong, the book provides a rather impressive amount of guidelines for the GM, explains etiquette at the table (still, alas, something that we unfortunately need…) and endeavors to make the game understandable, provide guidelines for running the game, etc.. At the same time, I can’t imagine the material herein truly sufficing for novice GMs to craft a new setting. The general GM tools provided are nice, but lack depth; similarly, and that may be intentional, once you start to look at the details of the respective settings, you can’t help but wonder for whom these guidelines were written. Veterans will be bored by the recounting of tropes in their favorite genre that they’re already more than familiar with. On the other hand, novices will have what looks like a feasible starting point, but building exclusively on the material herein does not yield the level of satisfaction we’d want from the game. Once more, the lack of depth points, obviously, in a way, to the respective “proper” setting supplements.
The book, as a whole, feels once we get past the BRILLIANT basic system, like it attempts to be at once universally applicable and provide a starting venue, but also makes the experience of lack for each playstyle very much palpable. It explains, in detail, and admirably so, many components, but does not lay open the balancing guidelines needed for informed design decisions.
In a way, Genesys is a phenomenal toolkit for writing Hacks, i.e. modifications of the system. You could expand the material herein and run a Cthulhu game. You could expand it and run a scifi-game. You can make inspired hacks. Once you attempt to base a game of pretty much any theme solely on the book, though, you’ll quickly notice that this is not an option, but a requirement to get the most out of this book. And while worldbuilding is something I adore, I can’t shake the feeling that these omissions are intentional. Experienced designers and GMs have a cornucopia of options here, a vast amount of ground covered in a way that is easy to grasp and modify. At the same time, mechanically and mathematically less gifted and/or experienced groups may well end up feeling ripped off by this book, by the lack of depth in the details required for informed design- and homebrewing choices.
As a reviewer, this leaves me in a bit of a conundrum. On one hand, I can see this working as a phenomenal baseline for creative folks out there. I love the system and how it plays. It does a ton of things I want from a system right. On the other hand, I can see this fall horribly flat of the promise it has. While, as a private person, I adore this book, I have to take these potential shortcomings into account. As such, my final verdict will clock in at 4 stars. Since I did love the underlying system, though, I will add my seal of approval to this – contingent on the fact that you’re reading this with a similar perspective. If you, on the other hand, want a RPG-system that you can seamlessly apply to various genres without having to work, then this may not be for you.
You can get this toolkit/system here on OBS!