Consequential Task Resolution with Genesys.

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.


6 responses to “Consequential Task Resolution with Genesys.”

  1. I’ve made a dip into Poul Anderson’s Ensign Flandry series. Those stories have taught me something about how to structure situations in space opera.

    The Keleres are agents of idealistic politicians trying to stitich a stable galactic peace. Their agents could be compared to Jedi Knights. However, pitting white hatted good guys against irredemable bad guys would get boring pretty quick.

    The Flandry stories offer one model for avoiding that boredom. In the stories that I have read, his biggest headaches are not caused by the Merseian aliens, He often has to deal with fervent idealists who want to re-join the Terran Empire. Their idealism runs the risk of forcing the Terrans into open conflict with their competing empire.

    When creating situations for space diplomats, it is advisable to put the aims of Imperial or planteary governors at odds, or at least some orthagonal relationsip, to the non-player characters that the players are going to be encountering.

    “A Message in Secret” features a group of human colonists who have sacralized Mother Terra. These nomads are at war with the planet’s leader, a cynical manipulator of the city dweller’s Islamo-Buddhist beliefs who is making deals with the Merseians. They will help him crush the nomads in return for letting them use the planet as a base for operations against Terra. Flandry has a number of logical options — sucking up to the leader and arranging his escape from the planet, pitting the planetary factions against each other and using the chaos to escape are two that came to my mind. He choses the more difficult path of learning about the nomads and their relationship to the indigenous life forms. This allows him to come up with a risky scheme that lets him get offworld while putting the nomads into a position to take over the planet and make it a Terran outpost.

    It would fun to let a group of players explore different approaches to dealing with a comparable situation.

  2. Sadly, I have very little experience with political scale play / PCs as diplomats, but your advice to have different factions *within* one ‘side’ sounds wise / fun to me. I’ll keep it in mind!

  3. My experiences with Star Trek Adventures led me to think that if I play using these procedures again, Threat is really going to have to hit … and I can’t find a good adverb to communicate what I mean. “Make things worse,” maybe, “significant consequences,” maybe, but all of those and similar are not quite right. There was a tendency for things to wander and get kind of shitty rather than actually to change-up or to amplify or to develop without it being the GM shifting into writing mode. I have to struggle a little bit for how I want to say it!

  4. The examples in the rules lead me to treat “Triumph” and “Despair” results as the real situation changers. Failure in your roll to drop a proton torpedo in the exhaust port of the Death Star would be a major setback for Rebel PCs, but would have to be accepted in a game where there had been a real possibility for PCs to fail all along. “Despair” would have to be something really heartbreaking above even the real chance of failure that had been established.

    Similarly, a Triumph would have to mark something above and beyond consequential success. If I am trying to persuade members of different feuding fantasy races to join in a perilous quest, a success is welcome. But what would a Triumph be? A mundane shootout can be resolved by a lucky blaster hit triggering the closure of a security door as a fictional implementation of a Triumph result. But what to do when you’ve got high stakes for the broader fictional situation affected by Despair or Triumph, not just one particular scene?

    The Threat and Advantage results pile on minor annoyances or minor edges for individual agents in a scene, with nothing that really conditions those agents’ courses of action. I can only speculate as to how they might combine to influence the behaviour of agents or groups.

    Imagine a high-stakes negotiation between opposing forces. If I am playing a leader of one side and I am burdened by many Threats, I might choose to withdraw from the negotiation, damn the consequences, and think of some other course of action. Or I might just decide that chatter had gone on too long and that it is time to bust heads. I seem to remember a parlay between rebellious peasants and some British king was ended by a frustrated retainer impulsively lopping off the head of the peasant leader. Genesys uses non-lethal Stress to track the decay of one’s nerve. So an fictional in-game version of that retainer who interrupted that parlay would go into melee with the consequences of having been at the losing end of a debate that had been cut short.

    I’ll have more to say about how Threats and Advantages feel after the next session. Hopefully they are more than just “+1 to hit” or “-1 on your next Confidence check.”

    • I want you to reconsider whether imagining “what happens” in order to know “what to do” is a constructive act at all, especially when peppered with any-and-all examples from other media or historical references. As is evident from my Patreon posting, I’m spending some time with my very old AD&D books and among various good things, I can see how such musings are instigated by those texts – which I think was very bad writing and teaching insofar as play is concerned.

      Let’s focus on procedure rather than rehearsal in specific circumstances. It’s useful to me too because I think the resolution methods for the present topic look good in text, but I’m consistently unhappy with their experience in play – in fact, they have typically kicked anything important to the GM cutting to orthogonal conclusion narration, once things get all messy with tokens all over the table and the dice not resolving much and unlikely to get there. But I’m willing to learn otherwise, especially in this case because the details are apparently a bit different from those in Star Trek Adventures, so I’m looking forward to more play and thoughts in your game.

      Specifically, Triumph and Despair:

      But what to do when you’ve got high stakes for the broader fictional situation affected by Despair or Triumph, not just one particular scene?

      This reads a little weird to me, as it presents its own answer as if it were the question. What else would the effect be but to change the broader situation? I can’t see it as anything but the point of arriving at either of those results. In other words, doing so is indeed the procedure, and “how to do it” or “what would I do then” isn’t a problem or GMing crisis, but rather a welcome application of what GMing the game is even for.

  5. A lot to consider. My comment (Feb 8 @ 1:37 am) was a lot of speculation in advance of more actual play.

    The second & final session saw only one extraordinary result and that was easy to resolve: a Triumph on a healing roll brought the most heavily wounded member of the party to full function.

    The tables I created to generate planets and missions for the PC produce more actionable content than the crisis situation presented in the free scenario. For example, a “Truth and Reconciliation” mission has a pretty clear framework for adjudicating Triumph and Despair results. A Triumph will involve some public revelation of a civil war atrocity that, somehow, doesn’t aggravate enmities. The PCs get both the truth and the reconciliation. Despair could mean failure to reconcile the parties after the revelation of a truth, or a catastrophic failure that results in the loss or destruction of the evidence that was crucial for bringing some war criminal to justice. And the game situates the PCs as a keepers of a fragile galactic truce. Triumph and Despair have self-evident meanings in the setting. So fictional or historical paradigms of what would smack of reality or make for a “good story” have nothing to do with making good use of the game’s resolution system.

    There wasn’t going to be any further play as this was meant to give someone else a taste of a system another personal might want to use for the sci fi game they were contemplating. But I may want to play some more because I rolled up a planet with an interesting situation and I would really like to see what players did with it. So there might be a chance to see if Genesys is open to productive bounce when the dice are rolled, or if it ends up in entropy and token overload of the kind you described.

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