On Sunday, Jan. 21, I ran an enjoyable 1-shot of a role playing game set in the universe of Fantasy Flight’s space-operatic war game Twilight Imperium. Embers of the Imperium uses the Genesys “Narrative Dice” system, a re-working of the system that was employed in Fantasy Flight’s Star Wars roleplaying game, that system employing the specialised dice used in that company’s Warhammer Role Play 3rd Edition. The official dice rolling app, and the online dice rolling clients created by fans, made employing those specialized dice in an online game very easy. Genesys and associated games are now put out by Edge Studios.
A free PDF with basic rules and an introductory adventure came out in 2022 and I only recently discovered it while surveying space adventure games in response to a call for suggestions posted on the Adept Play Discord server. I wanted a game that could deliver punchy “planet of the week” adventure like the original Star Trek or Blake’s Seven, series where there is a big backdrop of galactic conflict but each episode’s focus is on some theme-heavy problem that the characters get embroiled in right after the opening credits.
The published adventure I used has a pro-forma “uncovering the mystery” set up. But disguised railroading is still railroading. So I just put the players right at the point of entering the mysterious alien facility and cut out the preliminaries. I used Traveller’s charts for determining patron reactions and resolved that because the planetary bureaucrats were “Non-committal,” the team of imperial agents — the Keleres — had no more than their basic equipment with them. Traveller‘s charts also provided me with an amusing local flying species of floating gas bags who played a bit part in the players’ intrusion into the villain’s lair. I wish I had been doing such hard scene framing for years. Being tentative has wasted too many gaming hours.
The Genesys system uses specialised dice that do something that I have never seen a task resolution mechanic do before: they determine if a character succeeds at a task AND how the situation changes in response to that attempt. Situations in the Genesys system are always changing, even if characters fail to achieve the aims players set for them. Here is an example from Sunday’s game: the minions of an cyborg mad scientist opened fire on the player characters. The human space marine levelled her blaster and let fly: there was a hit but not enough damage was done to overcome the foe’s armour. The player’s dice pool produced a number of “Advantage” symbols, enough for the player to impose the condition “has dropped their weapon” on the minion. The game also has “Threat” symbols indicate that the situation has worsened for the player. I rolled a success for the cyborg when it attempted to activate part their infernal device but was confronted with one Threat symbol, which I interpreted as the cyborg getting a nasty jolt that would penalize my next roll on their behalf. It is possible for the characters in this game to succeed at a task but to experience threats like running out of ammo, or setting the curtains on fire as they brawl in some room.
Running the game requires creative interpretation of Threats and Advantages of non-combat skills — or the even more rare and much more dramatic “Triumph” and “Despair” symbols. I started to run out of creative ways to interpret Threat and Advantage dice, so I resorted to the chart of suggestions for special effects that could occur in the chamber where the mad scientist’s threatening device was. I liked the list of cool things that COULD happen in that chamber and was glad to see the scenario’s designers abstain from dictating what HAD to happen there. They even opened the possibility for the players to side with the mad scientist if they saw some merit in his drastic plan for warding off a sinister threat to the tentative galactic peace that the game’s characters are sworn to uphold.
At a convention 20 or more years ago I ran a space-opera scenario set in the Twilight Imperium universe using a play-test version of the Hero Wars rules. I like high-stakes episodes in an action-packed scenario to be resolved quickly, and appreciated Hero Wars’ options for resolving entire conflicts with single rolls. If I recall correctly, the space diplomats in that game got into a number of interesting scrapes, and worked out a clever solution to a plague of world-consuming artificial intelligences, in under 4 hours of play. Genesys doesn’t have that level of flexibility. However, it helps conflicts stay interesting by generating evolving stakes — instead of grinding down to repetitive dice rolls that gradually determine who runs out of hit points first. I believe that the main Genesys book provides rules for social conflicts as well. Perhaps Genesys and Embers of the Imperium can become my go-to system for space opera. The 18 months I spent in a Burning Empires game was the most rewarding playing experience I have ever had but the mechanics for firefights and duels of wits have steep learning curves. It seems as if Genesys can give me thrilling action and stirring heroic rhetoric with fewer headaches.
After the game I created a number of tables that will help me set up planets and situations for future games. I will first generate the planet using a little fan-generated supplement to Embers of the Imperium. Then I will use my tables to produce an official mission (trade promotion, intelligence gathering, treaty monitoring, etc.) that has brought the players to that world, the local bureaucrat’s reaction to their presence, a person on the planet who stands in the way of that agenda, and the scale of the consequences should that person accomplish their aims. Sometimes (5% of the time) the malcontent will be the local Imperial bureaucrat. But in most cases the table will produce situations outside of the agents’ official routines but still connected to their official mission. The table includes public figures with significant resources and ordinary people from all walks of life who are at odds with the Imperium for very personal reasons. Once again, Traveller‘s encounter charts provided me with a model for generating characters with relatable motivations and concrete problems.
Embers of the Imperium has rules for encouraging players to develop personal agendas for their agents, agendas that reflect their home civilization or their species. So my sessions would focus on the repercussions of the group discharging their duties in whatever manner they saw fit, and on how the characters pursued their individual agendas. The setting has a number of interesting factions and colourful (if not exactly original) designated villains — rogue AI, cyborg assimilators, former galactic rulers scheming their way to power. I wanted instead to have players really interact with motivated individuals who are motivated to do something that is at odds with the agenda set by the Galactic Council. So maybe the local cultural leader wants to preserve their planet’s autonomy and is willing to repurpose the rogue AI androids to do so. The players’ response to that person is what interests me and getting the players in contact with that person right away is my plan.