Fantasy Flight Games has received a lot of well-earned praise for their Star Wars RPGs and just recently they released the system as a stand-alone product perfect for narrative-centered roleplaying. Whether you like the Star Wars games or you’ve never heard of them, whether you are looking for a new system or new ideas, this is a product worth flipping through.
Before we get started with anything specific, let me just say that this is a gorgeous book. Fantasy Flight knows how to make things look good (look at the fourth edition of Twilight Imperium if you don’t believe me) and they did a good job with this book. From the front cover through the character sheet, production values are high and they can get your imagination going.
The heart of this system are the six specialized dice: two d6 size, two d8 size, and d12 size. It’s possible to use standard dice and read off a table but it’s a pain because the faces of these dice are covered with symbols to generate narrative results. When you go to attempt something, you gather together a pool of positive dice depending on your skill and any helpful conditions while the GM gathers a pool of opposition dice depending on the situation and any negative conditions.
Your dice generate successes and failures which all determine the final outcome: if you have more successes than failures you do the thing, but if they’re even or there are more failures then you don’t. Separately, the dice also generate advantages and threats which also cancel each other out. If you have net advantages then you can spend those to gain benefits (gaining a bonus die, taking an extra action, etc) while any leftover threats get used by the GM to penalize you (adding extra difficulty dice, knocking you prone, etc). This also works in reverse so if NPCs make an action and get threats you can hit them over the head with penalties too. The last two results, triumphs and despairs, which work like advantages and threats but supercharged.
The fact that these are separate systems means that, interestingly, you could totally fail at a task but have lots of advantage. This would be something like tripping and falling while trying to steal past guards but creating such a commotion that your friends have an easier time with their own sneaking. You can also do the reverse, succeeding but generating threats. This might be successfully picking a lock but tripping an alarm inside that you didn’t realize was there. In my experience, it spreads out the storytelling responsibility for the game and enriches the experience for everyone.
Comparison to Star Wars
Let’s start out with my least favorite part of the Genesys book, and it’s specific to people like me who started with Star Wars and are now shifting to Genesys. Obviously they had to come up with new symbols for the generic system since the Star Wars version involves the symbols for the Empire and (somewhat) the Rebellion but they ended up with new systems that are confusing to people looking at both systems together. Take a look at the table here and you’ll see some weird false-correspondences. Why does the new triumph look like the old threat? Why does the new advantage look like an upside-down version of the old failure? Why did they have to change the failure or despair symbols at all? Seem unnecessary.
Aside from that, though, the system keeps all the really good parts from Star Wars with the straightforward Skill and Talent systems (customizable for all your different genre needs). Equipment and terminology is different, of course, but you can mine your Star Wars books all you want for additional resources with little struggle.
Something that is unfortunate, though, is the switch from a talent tree system to a free-for-all. In Star Wars you pick a specialty and that gives you a chart of options to work through like a big video game tech tree. That’s gone here and I understand why it seems restricting, but now it seems like the pendulum is way in the other direction. I find the Talent section nearly unreadable since there’s no list anywhere of all the possible talents, each of them gets picked up or dropped for a given setting, and the whole thing seems like one big archetype for decision paralysis.
My brother pointed this out (it actually passed me by at first) but one of the most impressive parts of this book is that Fantasy Flight Games has enough beloved intellectual property at this point to have all of their example settings be in-house worlds: Runebound is their fantasy setting, Tannhäuser is their weird war setting, Android is their sci-fi setting, and Twilight Imperium is their space opera setting. The only original setting here is the “Sovereigns of Steam,” a steampunk setting invented just for this book.
As you can imagine, they don’t have a huge amount of room to detail these settings but they do a really good job. Runebound includes rules for elves, dwarves, and orcs (humans are covered earlier) and all your favorite D&D weapons. Even if you don’t play in the Runebound universe, these are the basic building blocks of whatever standard fantasy world you want to make. Likewise, mongrels and revenants, machine guns and cybernetics, powered armor and jetpacks… all of it’s in here somewhere for your campaign building.
The last thing to talk about are the GM toolkit items. There are hacking rules and vehicle rules and alternate skill systems but the real thing to go over is the magic system. Now in Force and Destiny the authors made a detailed system of gaining magic dice and spending force points and trading rating points for more power or different effects. This is a complicated system that also requires one more specialty die which otherwise the generic Genesys doesn’t need. For this, though, they just added a few new skills and spells to use them for.
Spellcasters are those characters with at least one rank in the skills of Arcana, Divine, and Primal. Using these skills gets hard if you don’t have a free hand, you are silenced, or you’re wearing armor but otherwise it’s just like making another skill check. Pages of spells are given, split into these three disciplines, so you have examples of things like Curse and Dispel. There are specific options for using threat and despair on a botched magical skill roll but also extras and add-ons that spellcasters can use to increase their abilities at the expense of more difficulty dice. If you’re casting Attack, for example, you can add a difficulty die to the GM’s roll to give it a Blast quality, or you can increase the Range by adding another difficulty die. If you’re casting this spell with Divine you can make it Holy to smite demons and undead but if you’re using Arcana you can shove the target around as well as deal damage.
While I was underwhelmed at first (“Where’s the creativity? This is just a bunch of new Skills!”) subsequent reads have convinced me that this is a streamlined and elegant system. Without any new dice (beyond the ones you’ve already bought) the authors made a system of spellcraft that lets you do a lot with just a few additions. It’s also flexible with all those add-ons and integrates well with all the sword-swingers or street samurai fighting alongside the mages.
My Verdict: Get It
This game has a strong legacy from the Star Wars games and it provides a rich system that’s both story-driven like FATE but it’s got lots of crunch to it as well. Like a lot of setting-neutral rulebooks it tries to wear a lot of hats but I think this is so far the one that does it the best. There are details here for settings that I couldn’t easily come up with myself and making more doesn’t seem prohibitively difficult. The only downside (and it’s not a minor one) is that you have to buy your own specialty dice to use this, which means you need several sets if your group isn’t tiny and you can’t use your Star Wars set unless you want to translate between two sets of symbols that are confusing when combined. If you can get over that hurtle and don’t mind sifting through options to get the genre you want then this book offers a powerful roleplaying experience in a well-honed package. Get it.