Long ago, that is, in May 2017, I pledged on Kickstarter my support to Cortex Prime: A Multi-Genre Modular Roleplaying Game. The estimated delivery date was April…2018. In the past year I have mostly forgotten about my pledge. In fact, I have mostly forgotten about RPGs in general as my hobby gaming has focused mostly on wargames and then family boardgames. However, the most recent update (March 2019) has stirred my imagination.
I readily admit I am not the usual RPG player. I tend to focus almost exclusively on science-fiction roleplaying and avoid fantasy like plague. I have dabbled a bit in modern RPGs and steampunk or similar settings but true sci-fi is where my heart is.
Over the years, I have also come to pay much more attention to game mechanics; in some ways mechanics wins out over settings for me. Thus, as I skimmed through the draft CORTEX PRIME GAME HANDBOOK I was reminded why I like the core mechanic used in CORTEX PRIME. For every test or contest, you assemble your dice pool and roll against the opposition pool. You choose which two dice will be your total while a third die is the effect die. Rolling a 1 is a spoiler; too many spoilers become a botch!
Like Genesysor Star Wars Roleplaying Game, winning a test or contest allows you to narrate the outcome. This narrative control is very important to me; I don’t want the GM to be the only one talking.
Deep inside, I am asking myself why I am anxious. After all, I have the very similar (and heavily narrative) Genesys, right? It was a bit of a disappointment, yes? At heart, I really enjoy the (somewhat unnarrative) Cepheus Engine RPGand especially The Clement Sector setting. Do I really expect CORTEX PRIME to be different?
Maybe. Hopefully I will find out for sure. This year.
You see, I really wanted to use the Narrative Dice System and make my own setting. I like the whole idea of using the dice to tell a story where there is triumph or despair and shades of success, or failure, in between. Or maybe use it to create a conversion of a setting. Genesys seems perfect for those needs; and that’s the problem.
Genesys is a wonderful toolbox. Everything one needs is in the book to make a setting of your own. At least a generic version. Want to create a character? The rules for creating a character are here; the bare bones so to speak, but none of the flesh. That you have to provide yourself. The same goes for Skills and Talents. Using generic skills is perfectly acceptable but to really make a setting your own one needs to invest a great deal of effort into creating evocative Talents. Again, the generic is here, but more is needed.
Part II of the Genesyscore rulebook is Settings. Note the plural, for in the book you get ideas for fantasy, steampunk, modern day, science fiction, and space opera. These ideas are more like advertisements for settings that FFG might eventually release. It’s all fluff with little to actually use.
Part III: Game Master’s Toolkit tries to be more helpful. There is design advice in here for creating a skill or archtype or species or an item or an adversary. Design advice that digs deeper into the Narrative Dice System and how to “pull the levers” of the game engine. That is, if you’re a system engineer.
In the end, I believe Genesyssucceeds even as it fails. It definitely is a generic toolkit for making an RPG setting. Problem is, it’s too generic. In the end, I find myself going back to Edge of the Empire and using that because it ends up being what I want in my science fiction RPG. Genesys has shown me just how good that setting is, and how it’s going to be too difficult to make my own that will probably end up being 90% what Edge of the Empire already is. If I want to be an RPG system engineer then Genesys is the basic toolbox. Be warned though, to make it your own will be a much deeper investment.
In my gaming pantheon, I clearly play wargames first, other boardgames second, and role playing games (RPGs) a distant third. Spending-wise, I have bought very few RPG products since April. In the past month I came close to buying two new RPGs but didn’t. Along the way I learned a valuable lesson taught to me by no other than the Godfather of RPGs, Gary Gygax. Gary reminded me that RPGs are inherently a personal creation; if a product is “not quite right” there are tools available to “do it my way.”
I initially pledged to support at the Ship’s Boat-level which is $20 for the pdf version. I then downloaded the free Quickstart pdf and took a look. I am no hard-core The Expanse fan but I generally like the universe. I initially missed the books and became acquainted with the setting through the TV series. After looking at the Quickstart I mulled it over for a few days and then cancelled my pledge.
First, the Quickstarter did not appeal to me; indeed, it actually turned me off. My initial negative reaction was to the artwork. I think my expectations are biased from the TV series and the artwork in the Quickstarter just feels too different. More importantly, it is not what I see as evocative of the setting. It almost seems too cartoonish to me whereas I imagine The Expanse though a more hard sci-fi lens.
Looking at the Quickstarter pdf, I weighed my pledge and thought about what I was getting. I decided that I actually already have a version of The Expanse RPG. I actually have two of them, both from Zozer Games, and both using a system I am comfortable with (Cepheus Engine):
Orbital: 2100 – “Realistic spacecraft, using reaction drives and rotating hab modules for gravity. Orbital is set in our own Solar System and has a real hard-science feel to it.”
HOSTILE– “A gritty near future setting inspired by those late-70s and early 80’s movies like Alien, Bladerunner and Outland.”
There is a truly great advantage offered to the Game Master when devising a campaign set on the Dying Earth. It is not highly detailed. There is no strict timeline laid down. All that has happened before is not “recorded”, nor is there an accurate gazetteer of for the world. What magic operates? Nobody can say or guess, because in the long eons of the Dying Earth’s history, likely every form possible was discovered, used, and then forgotten…almost. That means that all that’s necessary is to have the game in hand, the books that Jack Vance wrote about the world, to create a really compelling campaign environment. Using the creative base of the author, the GM’s own imagination cannot fail but to rise to the occasion. (Emphasis mine)
In my mind, I already own The Expanse RPG. My version uses a core mechanic that I feel is evocative of the setting (Cepheus Engine). I have the sourcebooks in the form of several TV seasons and multiple books and short stories. I don’t need somebody else’s vision that doesn’t strike me as evocative of the stories or setting.
Tachyon Squadron is a Fate Core supplement that blends space opera and military sci-fi. It’s Evil Hat’s take on popular stories about interstellar battles, like the ones that have ships with wings named after letters and the one where robots chase the human race through space. If you’re interested in deep space dogfights, friendly—well, usually—rivalries with fellow pilots, and playing scrappy underdogs with the deck stacked against you, this game is for you.
The project funded with 1,401 backers pledging $25,295 against a $7,500 goal. Like The Expanse RPG Kickstarter, Evil Hat was very generous and offers a free download Quickstarter version. It is pretty much as I expected as Evil Hat has previously sold a smaller, similar setting found in Fate Worlds Volume One: Worlds on Fire. In Kriegszeppelin Valkyrie the PCs are pilots aboard a giant War Zeppelin taking on “a horde of WWI mechanical monstrosities.” For Tachyon Squadron I actually was more interested in Stretch Goal 7:
STRETCH GOAL 7 (UNLOCKS AT $26,000): The Battle of Britain: At $26,000, we’ll start work on The Battle of Britain, a 5,000 word electronic supplement that applies Tachyon Squadron’s dogfighting rules to a WWII squadron of Spitfire pilots defending Britain. This supplement will include plane stats and mechanics to help you take to the skies with the Allied forces.
Alas, this stretch goal didn’t unlock. My potential Pilot-in-Training pledge of $12 would not have made a big difference.
What really turned me off about Tachyon Squadron was the over-the-top SJW proselytizing. It is so in-your-face I think it overwhelms the game setting. Even if I am able to put the SJW part aside I see the the game offering me little new. The major rule of difference, dogfighting, is likely not far from that found in Kriegszeppelin Valkyrie which I already own. Much like The Expanse, I have a Battlestar Galactica RPG in the form of the officially licensed Battlestar Galactica Role Playing Game (Margaret Weis Productions, 2007). This game uses the CORTEX Classic system which I generally like (indeed, I am still awaiting my CORTEX Prime: A Multi-Genre Modular Roleplaying Game Kickstarter to deliver – only 3 months overdue…so far). If I want to do Battlestar Galactica using Fate Core I already own all the setting and rules material; why should I invest more money into a near-version that alleges to be ruleset but comes across more like a SJW propaganda tract?
Genesys is a role playing system designed for flexibility and adaptability, specifically tooled to work with any setting imaginable. The Genesys Core Rulebook not only contains an overview of the rules and how the innovative narrative dice system works, but everything a GM and players need to run adventures in five completely different settings. Everything from equipment to adversaries, character abilities to an overview of narrative tropes, all is provided in the core rulebook for Genesys. With a system so adaptable and expansive you can explore every popular roleplaying genre, from classic fantasy style campaigns, to modern day detective thrillers, and even to a far off sci-fi future, Genesys doesn’t fit into any one genre of roleplaying, and instead invites players to craft their own stories with unparalleled freedom.
Taking GENESYSand combining it with Gary Gygax’s Dying Earth GM approach, I can likely make a version of The Expanse or Battlestar Galactica – or any other setting I chose to explore – for myself.
The most important RPG lesson I learned this month is that I don’t need Kickstarter to make an RPG for me that “isn’t quite right”; I just need good books and a good ruleset.
Speaking of Kickstarter – In April I backed No Motherland Without, a 2-player card game about North Korea since 1953. It really looked interesting. I had really high hopes. It was cancelled – for all the right reasons I am sure. I hope they come back and try again, maybe with a stronger publicity campaign. Personally I watched The Players Aid review and was sold:
Veterans in The Expanse (very mild spoilers for S3E4) – I like The Expanse TV series but one line got me going last week. Alex states he has done his time and is an honorably discharged veteran. His implication is that he is special. As an honorably discharged veteran myself I resent this attitude. Unfortunately, I see it everyday – too many veterans who believe that since they served they have a special privilege above “mere” civilians. They grouse when a place does not offer a veterans discount or the like. Being a veteran does not make you a special citizen. This is not the world of Robert Heinlein’s Starship Troopers (the book, not the horrible movie) where only veterans are citizens. Veterans get many privileges; be humble not an entitlement baby!
As a tool to use in building (or adapting) a campaign it has to be Traveller RPG, either the Classic Traveller, Cepheus Engine, or Traveller 5. I use bits and pieces of all these games and “adapt” them to my campaign. I find that between the three systems (all closely related) there is actually very little I cannot create for my sci-fi RPG settings (and yes, I use it event to create items in the Star Wars Universe).