Thursday, March 15, 2018

Mail Room: Genesys

Revised narrative system that powers Fantasy Flight's Star Wars role-playing games? Check.

Expensive dice? Check.

Dice app on my phone that does a faster, cheaper, and better job than the dice? Check.

But I still like the physical dice.

Generic system with a name that sounds like something Hollywood would slap on a movie franchise? Check.

Do we need another narrative storytelling system? Well, Fantasy Flight's game system that powers the Star Wars line was one we liked, and we could see using it for more than just the venerable and slightly culturally over-saturated franchise that we love.

Then again, I am still a fan of the old Expanded Universe, a work of so many different artists and creators that throwing it all away feels like trashing a shared creation that I grew up with and that defined my ideas of the franchise more than today's interpretations of a place that defined so many dreams and set the stage for so many role-playing adventures. It can be said the EU was defined by role-players and I feel was a more inclusive place for speculative fiction creators and game players alike.

So the game system we like gets a revision and a clean break from the licensed world. Was this something we always wanted to see?

Dedicated Fantasy World? Check.

This feels like a good break and evolution for the strong underlying system, and my initial reservations about "what do I do with this" were washed away when I heard that a companion volume, a fantasy world book covering the worlds created in Fantasy Flight's fantasy board games was being published this year called Realms of Terrinoth (covering Descent, Legacy of Dragonholt, Runebound, and Runewars).


Okay, we have a dedicated fantasy world with an admittedly strong and pedigreed line-up of source materials and games that were just begging to be explored and used as a base for storytelling. For me, it always feels better for a generic system to have some sort of 'official' setting for the game as it gives my investment a fall-back position in case the generic appeal wears off. And this feels like a good one since we were a fan of the Descent system and all the miniatures and games we played over the years. Color us interested and excited by this one, and to us, this at least has the same appeal of playing in a Warcraft style universe or even Warmachine.

The only problem is that I don't have this book in my hands yet, so I can't start diving in and planning some adventures. I do have some of the Descent boardgames, so that is a start, but I want to see what they do with a full-sized, dedicated rules-plus-world book with the production quality level that we saw with the Star Wars line.

Strong Fan Support? Check.

The second, and very surprising thing that attracts us to this game is the amount of fan-support this is getting from the Fantasy Flight forums themselves. There is a fifty-page free PDF of talents for character creation, fan-created worldbooks, conversion guides,  character sheets, and other resources. This is a really great sign of community support, and it raises my excitement level for using this system (which we already like and are used to after our Star Wars sessions).

The level of excitement and fan support really is a cool thing to see. I like this because it gives me confidence that there will be enough of a fan base to support this as a dedicated product line going forward, and I hope we will see a lot of nice, high-quality supplements released in the future.

Book Quality? Looks Good.

I have heard some complaints about the art-style in the Genesys book, that the art in some way seemed unfinished and it has this sketchy, sort of drafting-table industrial arts look. I actually like this style for the book, as the line-art plus unfinished nature of the art tells me "you finish the story." You color this in, you tell your adventures, you make it happen, and you craft your world. the book itself feels high-quality, at least equal to the Star Wars hardcovers we have in this line, and I just get that intangible feeling of crafts-work and attention to detail when flipping through this that I like.

Narrative Dice

And this seems like a revised game built on the lessons of the Star Wars line as well, with a lot simplified, streamlined, and cleaned up. Yes, this is a generic game, but it has this "do anything" feel like a "DIY movie game toolkit" that appeals to me for certain genres that doesn't seem like it needs a lot of work to get started.

Yes, the dice are relatively expensive. And yes, you likely need two sets if you are serious here. I can see that as a problem for some players as we played with groups in the past who can't afford to spend that much on dice for a weekly game. The 5-dollar app-store app for both Android and iOS works well, and better than physical dice in some cases (when a lot of dice are being rolled and the app auto-tallies and sorts the result), so that is an option. If I had to play this with strangers or semi-regular groups I would take an old tablet, install the app, and leave that on the table for players to use if they didn't have dice. And no playing games or surfing the web on it either!
Part of why we like the system lies with the dice and how we liked they had this "macro" element to them in regards to storytelling. As a player, you could lay out a big course of action, such as, "I go to the red light district and start asking around if anyone saw the strange man in town with the scar on his eye and red cape." You make a Streetwise roll, and the dice not only determine success, they also direct the game master if anything else - good or bad - happened. Not only that, the possible good or bad related events also have their magnitude of goodness or badness all determined on the same roll.

Do the bad guys show up and try and stop you? Do you get a lucky break and find someone who knows something? Do you find the bad guy himself and get the jump on him? Do you wander into an ambush? Do you find another piece of information relating to something else you are looking into? Are you hot on the trail or following a dead end? Do you attract attention from other bad guys in the area? Does a street thief try to pickpocket you? Do you have a chance to assist a fellow citizen in need from a snatched purse? Does nothing happen and you get no where?

One roll - that first Streetwise roll - determines all that. You have to be able to 'read' the dice, but this is a skill that we found we picked up quickly for all the fun this interpretation delivers. You also have to be able to accept atomic success, where you do not let repeated Streetwise rolls force the issue, as letting players try and try again reduces the impact of each narrative result and practically guarantees success with that sort of 'take a 20' thinking.

You get your roll, this happens, and if you fail try something else. A good referee should be able to keep things from dead-ending, but I feel you have to make macro rolls like this mean something, good or bad, and not let players buffalo their way through a situation by letting them roll and re-roll the same skill until they get the result they desire, all while trying to ignore or minimize negative consequences.

We felt the game works better if you really celebrate the results and make them mean something. The minute you roll the dice repeatedly to get the result you want while ignoring negative consequences or minimizing positive results the game loses its charm. It pays here to aggregate, keep tries to one per skill, and really describe the result as best you can without picking up the dice to 'try again' or 'roll the dice to interpret or clear up the first roll'.

Let the dice stand. Let that course of action matter. If you fail, try something else.

The dice also scale pretty well into the micro, turn-by-turn combat style of roll, although we feel there is still a little bit of a macro feel to combat where you are not going blow-by-blow but more action-scene by action-scene and determining the winners and losers of each scene rather than 'this blow penetrated my right flank, hitting my plate torso guard and puncturing my spleen' sort of combat result.

To be fair, I need to read the game to see if there are any further clarifications to what we found worked well when we were playing Star Wars with this system, as I am sure there are some suggestions and directions in the game that they found and shared in this revision of the rules. But really, when you ask yourself, 'why play this game?' the dice and the wide variety of narrative results they produce should be considered. It is a vastly different experience than a d20 system when done right, and it is a huge part of the appeal of this system for us, more so than a simpler narrative system such as FATE or other generic games.

Though FATE has some cool dice too, especially the metal ones we collected.

More Soon...

This looks like a fun game, and I am looking forward to diving in and reading this from cover to cover. I like the system, my players have bought into this with Star Wars, and the idea of using the same narrative dice system for other games and worlds with that same action-movie vibe really has me excited. I was surprised by this, and my expectations were this was another game I would read for fun and eventually shelve, but my mind now is racing with possibilities and all of the adventures we could have and stories we could tell with this one.

That keeps this one on my table and the cover calling us to crack it open and find a world to explore. When the dedicated fantasy world comes out this year, hopefully soon, that will be a whole new world to explore that we are sort-of familiar with but entirely unprepared for - and that is an exciting thing as well. Overall, I am impressed with this one and very pleasantly surprised by both the quality and possibilities of this, along with how well the fans of this game stepped up to support it. Nicely done, and a game I am looking forward to play.