Reflective Writing, roleplaying games

Genesys and my search for a do-it-all RPG

First, yes, it’s been three weeks since I posted. I was travelling for work and then had Thanksgiving, so a bit of interruption is to be expected. I’ve been posting consistently over on Cannibal Halfling and writing tons of D&D stuff, so the writing overall is going well.

Fantasy Flight’s Genesys RPG got to my hands this week, and this weekend the roll-out is done and the game is “released”. Seamus wrote the first half of our review here; the game is both not surprising (being a universalization of an existing game) and pretty well done. Next week I’ll talk more in-depth about the toolkit aspects.

And that’s what I’m thinking about as I read through the game and consider what I would use it for. There are some very well-executed expansions to the Narrative Dice system in Genesys, but in terms of its applicability, it falls into a slot which is occupied by Star Wars, the property the system was originally used for. Genesys does fast-paced, story-driven games well, where characters are archetypal but still central and the hero’s journey is reflected across the narrative. The important thing to take away from this is that like most universal systems, Genesys isn’t.

Prior to receiving the book, I was having some anxiety that I’d be driven to convert my upcoming D&D game into Genesys once I read it. Now that it’s in my hands, I can say the desire is completely gone. One of the reasons I picked D&D for the game back when I was outlining the campaign was that it was a game that came close enough to what I wanted to do that essentially all the work had been done for me. As much as Fate would have been easier to tweak (I’m still puzzling over D&D houserules and at the point where I’ll need to test drive some of them), it would have fought me to get to the level of danger and grit I wanted. D&D had some of those levers already in the game, and the rest were either easy to write or existed on one of many fansites and fora. The experience, starting with my campaign planning and culminating in reading Genesys, reminded me that I no longer buy into the concept of a universal game.

I was a GURPS-head for a long time, and I am still very happy to own all of those hardcovers. I still use them for campaign planning, even though I haven’t run GURPS in about five years. GURPS, despite the name, is not a universal system. The best title to actually describe it for me would be an anagram, USRPG; this stands for the “Ultimate Simulationist Role-Playing Game”. What GURPS does extremely well is provide a compact and intuitive system to simulate tons of bits and bobs and circumstances. Want a game of custom-built superpowers? GURPS has the math for that. Want to do gritty war scenarios with sweltering jungles, land mines and hostile villagers? All of those are covered, down to which Armalite variant your PCs are carrying. The ability to simulate anything is immensely attractive, especially for a GM who like to write their own stuff. But when you play, it all comes out roughly the same: a tactical, math-intensive game which can provide lots of circumstances and situations but does not have baked into it a story.

What really drove me away from GURPS in a big way was Apocalypse World, and it was a matter of comparison. I ran a post-apocalyptic game using GURPS for a subset of my online group a few years ago, and it was successful. It also felt like GURPS…it was my first shift away from the Cyberpunk genre in a while, and I was surprised at how difficult it was to introduce atmosphere into the game. At the same time, I had finally gotten practiced at the mechanical aspects…the combats ran great and felt punchy…I remember a PC getting shot in one of the combats and it made a visceral difference in how the session ran. But the system gave me no help in making the world feel post-apocalyptic. Two or three years later I ran Apocalypse World…and damn. Implied scarcity, emotional characters, anger, fear…it just flowed out of me and my players.

GURPS as a game works well when the challenges you want to present are mechanical. It has a great set of tools for modeling almost any conceivable situation, to the point where it can transcend genre (and this is what makes it earn its name). It lacks mechanical support for character narrative and progression, especially compared to D&D. D&D is narrower than GURPS in terms of mechanics, and those mechanics are tuned towards a less realistic mode. D&D, though, provides a rich implied setting, very good progression mechanics (very few games rival D&D’s character arc mechanics), and a much more varied (though at its heart a bit simpler) combat minigame. Compared to both of those, PbtA games are tuned to run a specific subset of character archetypes within a specific genre which gives specific setting assumptions…but the best within that group are simply evocative in a way broader games have difficulty with.

To loop it back, Genesys (and the FFG Star Wars games it’s derived from) is tuned to run dramatic scenarios. It’s for that reason the social combat mechanics were included, and that reason that motivations are both included and boiled down to single word categories (unlike, say, Burning Wheel’s Beliefs, which require much more thought [as is appropriate for their role as plot-driver for the entire game]). Even the dice mechanic is designed around elevating the drama at the table: Wait! add a setback! But no! My talent undoes that! Upgrade this! Downgrade that! Somebody help me, I need the boost! It’s good at what it does (my three campaigns as a player confirm this) but, once again, it’s not a universal system. It’s a great counterpoint to GURPS: GURPS includes thoughtful positioning, planning, and yes, math; Genesys is a much better standard-bearer for “when in doubt, roll and shout” (which is, ironically, advice from GURPS: Campaigns).

So the question then is “if Genesys can’t do it all, what can it do?” I think a lot of larger-than-life campaign ideas could be well-served with Genesys. Steampunk, Mecha, Weird War, Space Opera (though the setting-specific mechanics of games like Traveller and Stars Without Number would have to be at a minimum adapted), games with big concepts that are rolled out across the screen, are all great matches. I’d consider running Cyberpunk in Genesys, though it would heavily depend on what kind of Cyberpunk game (the first complication here is that my next Cyberpunk game would be The Veil, but The Veil only works for exactly its kind of Cyberpunk). Most of my fantasy ideas are built around worlds of darkness and danger…both D&D and Zweihander would be my go-tos, though for different reasons (Zweihander is great at making things dark and gritty, while D&D is great for making your world a dangerous place). Any gritty game idea I have would likely be done in GURPS (still), with the exception that Apocalypse World is simply my favorite post-apocalyptic game and I don’t see much that will change this.

So it’s a good addition to my shelf, and I think it will see some use in the future. Much to my relief, though, it doesn’t appear that it will change any of my immediate plans.


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