I’m trying not to buy any more roleplaying games; I don’t need any more, and especially not fat hardbacks that strain my poor shelves. But l had to have Degenesis.
All 700 pages from the two core rulebooks spoke to me, in the way books sometimes do, whispering of impressive quality, originality and fantastic art.
Degenesis is everything the siren hardbacks promised, but no RPG is perfect, and indeed this game is not for everyone. Let me begin by giving you the headline summary, before diving into a more in-depth Degenesis review, or losing you to this impactful live-action trailer for the game.
Degenesis: Rebirth Edition is for you if you enjoy playing in a richly detailed sandbox. The first book; Primal Punk, is entirely about the ravaged world, all 350+ pages of it. There’s not a single table to be found.
Play this game if you get a kick out of post-apocalyptic settings and humanity’s genuine struggle to survive. With this RPG you’ll find yourself in a cinematic and scary future.
The second book, Katharsys, is all about the system and character generation. Degenesis is an excellent game if you and your group enjoy crafting a cohesive and effective squad. Earth is no longer a kind place, and while Degenesis is rich with opportunities to roleplay, it won’t forgive weak parties or poor tactics.
What are the red flags then?
I don’t think you’ll enjoy Degenesis if you expect to be able to skim through a core rulebook and dive straight in. There’s too much here for you to digest. It’s clear how much time has gone into creating Degenesis, and it feels as if the design team expect no less of a commitment from potential players.
Degenesis: Rebirth Edition contains adult art. Full frontal male and female nudity happens more than once, and some of the mutated horrors of the Primer are horrible enough to make you forget about the wild and naked clan warrior next to you.
Degenesis’ game mechanics
I like the game mechanics. The use of triggers to fuel degrees or success or speed is refreshing.
In Degenesis your character determines their Action Number (AN) by adding an attribute to a skill. In some cases that number will be modified by outside influences such as the temporary boost or impairment of a drug.
The Action Number becomes d6s that are thrown to equal a Difficulty target. A roll of 4 on any dice counts as 1 success and 1 success is enough for a task that the Game Master considers routine.
Triggers are dice which roll 6 and where the Difficulty target has been met. In typical situations the number of Triggers associated with a roll reveals how well the task was done; 2 Triggers is a remarkable success and 3 an excellent one.
When the Game Master allows in, characters cooperating with one another can benefit from Triggers too. The assistant makes the same role as the lead character, at a higher difficulty, and any Triggers they score become dice for the main character to add to the challenge at hand.
In combat, Triggers bring an abundance of bounces.
Combat in Degenesis
I’ve played through a few combats now, and the system works well. My main frustration was assigning and then checking the use of items and equipment. I found myself wishing the writers had been less discursive and more prone to textbook layouts, but this need to flip around between pages will ease with experience. As would, I hope, my concern about what gear characters would quickly get their hands on and what would be rare.
Many combinations could build your attack roll. It could be a Body+Brawl roll, or Body+Melee, or Agility+Projecticles versus someone with Agility+Mobility, a mental or a social with Pysche+Faith or Pysche+Willpower.
In Degenesis characters also have Ego points. These are spent to buy in advantages, but if they drop to zero, then the combatant is too drained to continue and flops down on his knees. For example, you can spend up to three Ego points to boost your initiative.
Ego points are typically lost during mental combat, but things like narcotic poisons can also drain them.
Of course, physical damage a real problem after the fall of humanity too and Degenesis separates out flesh wounds from more nasty trauma. The former is effectively a buffer of damage your character can sustain before suffering traumas.
Character generation in Degenesis
I’m yet to make a quick character for Degenesis. The process takes time. As noted above, the game urges you to be cooperative when creating characters and think about why and how the group can function well together.
Characters are built from points in Degenesis and start by assigning a Culture, a Concept and a Cult. Degenesis bristles with many cultures, concepts and cults so this is no swift choice. The decision you make here determines how high your maximum scores in specific skills and attributes can be.
You can also mix and match cultures, concepts and cults reasonably liberally but some combinations really would be unusual. You would need to talk to the GM first.
For example, if your character is from the Franka culture, then they enjoy a plus 1 to their maximum Charisma and Instinct attributes. They plus 1 to their maximum Stamina, Stealth, Negotiation, Faith/Willpower and Deception. They will likely be from one of the following cults too; the Anabaptists, Apocalyptics, Chroniclers, Clanners, Hellvetics, Judges, Scrappers or Spitallians.
The choice of Concept is similar but also gives you a roleplaying focus. For example, pick The Hermit concept, and you have a character who is not interested in banter or crowds but whom also benefits from an increased max in the attribute Instinct and skills Survival and Stealth.
Let’s finish my example by putting this Franka into the Spitalians – so he’s a war doctor, shaved clean, so he can inspect himself for any sign of infection, and a fierce opponent of the viral plague sweeping through Earth’s survivors leaving a trail of horrors in its wake. The character will be adored as a healer and feared as someone who sees the need to burn away the infected. He’ll get a bonus to his maximum Toughness, Medicine, Faith/Willpower (characters pick one of those), Science and Perception.
Each of the Clans has a flowchart showing their ranking system. Our Spitalian begins as a Recruit. They can boost that with background points if they can meet the prerequisite.
It’s tough to create a character, close to impossible, without having a robust understanding of the world of Degenesis. I think this will challenge some groups and slow the adoption of the game.
The world of Degenesis
I’ve read both books head to toe twice and still feel poorly equipped to summarise the world of Degenesis.
This need to read and re-read to find out how things slot together and work out what specific terms mean is because the writers have created an amazingly detailed world. It’s also partly because of the author’s, Christian Gunther, and two co-authors Alexander Malik and Mark Djurdjevic, preference of descriptive flourish and narrative over unimaginative, a matter of fact, encyclopedia entries for their world.
Asteroids tear into the Earth, in the near future, catching humanity unaware. It’s enough to crack the crust, lava reshaping the landscape and sea levels rising. It was enough to trigger an ice age.
Degenesis is set in the remains of what was once called Europe and to a lesser extent Africa.
Europe got hit harder, and the game flips some usual tropes by presenting the African cultures as the richer, more sophisticated civilisations with the resources and the upper hand in any trade deals while much of Europe is a lawless wilderness.
The game uses ‘cultures’ not ‘races’ to describe the remnants of humanity. This is a good move as is the caution at the front of the RPG that, yes, there is tension between the survivors, but Degenesis is not about glorifying ‘Them versus Us’ hostilities in real life.
Whereas some RPGs use a fair chunk of their 700 or so pages to describe hundreds of monsters and spells, Degenesis puts the focus on cultures, cults and clans. In these two core rulebooks, there are seven cultures, thirteen cults and many clans. I really think new players should read a bit, skim a bit, zoom in on a culture that interests them the most and read up on that first. Trying to learn them all up front becomes a barrier to character generation.
Here’s the thing – the shattered Earth and waring survivors is the sideshow – the impact of the asteroids is not the main danger in Degenesis.
These asteroids brought a strange and pernicious virus with them, and that virus has mutated into several different, equally dangerous, infections. If the monsters don’t get you, then a flea will bite you, and you’ll start to transform.
A few pages into Degenesis and I was convinced humanity was doomed. How could the dregs of society, blasted back to the stone age in places, survive against ultimate hivemind predators that have been specially evolved to kill humans?
To be honest, I still wonder about that.
The storytelling in Degenesis does such an excellent job at laying out the bleak challenge ahead of humanity I’m about ready to throw in the towel and trade all my loot for a few nights of bliss with the Apocalyptics until I’m no longer able to worry about anything at all.
Survive, though, humanity has done. We’re rebuilding and pushing back. In some cases, even the spore fields near (near-ish) to asteroid sites have been tackled. Sometimes successfully (successful-ish). In other cases, we have cities, railroads, trade and tanks.
The result is a mash-up of hope and despair. One adventure could be set in in the military quarters of the Hellvetics, descendants of Swiss troops who survived the impact in specially dug complexes in the Alps, surrounded by technology from the Bygone age. The next campaign could be set among the ruins of some town in Borca where hiding from the wild animals each night and trying to dig up enough food to survive to tomorrow is the primary challenge.
Another reason why coordination between the players in creating characters is so necessary is that creating a group out of that mash-up of cultures, clans and cults needs to be possible.
Those mutant killers? Homo Degenesis. This RPG is Homo Sapiens versus the more highly evolved Homo Degenesis.
The delightful Degenesis
The original Degenesis began as a fan art project. It has not lost touch with its routes. The books are gorgeous.
Turn a few pages in Degenesis Primal Punk or Katharsys, and you’ll encounter a full-page illustration good enough to go viral through Pinterest.
The production values here are fantastic but no surprise. You see, the publisher is SIXMOREVODKA. SIXMOREVODKA is a studio that designs concept art and visuals for Hollywood and computer game studios.
The team behind Degenesis: Rebirth Edition is top tier, international, creative masters. Are they going to make a post-apocalyptic RPG look out of this world? They absolutely are!
Money. Degenesis oozes money. I’m not sure they can even sell the the books at a profit (and it’s nearly £90 on Amazon.co.uk this week). There are pages, many of them, that are printed in black and on which the text is white.
Here’s the weird thing. Sometimes I wondered whether the resources the Degenesis team have been given have acted against them. On a smaller RPG product, an editor might have to cut words from a sentence and sentences from a paragraph. As a result, the writer will have to get to the point more quickly and precisely. In Degenesis I wonder whether they’ve asked ‘Could we add even more description to that section?’ or ‘Let’s bring that scene to life with some narrative?’. In goes the new paragraph. The result is terrific writing but also plenty of page turning as the reader flips back and forth to find a cross-reference. I should note both books have impressive indexes.
I feel that Degenesis is a highly collectable RPG. The production value of the books is spectacular. You’ll want to hand these to a fellow gamer and say ‘Hey! Look at this!’ (but perhaps not on one of the more adult orientated pages).
I think the system works well and suits the setting. You can design success into your character and group, but there’s always the whimsy of fate lurking with each dice roll. As a result, you won’t want to take unnecessary risks.
Degenesis presents a cosmopolitan and vast collection of cultures, cults and tribes. As I keep re-reading the book I might be able to talk sensibly about them all eventually.
If you want a lightweight rule system, a sketch of a world and then some ruins to hide in, then this is not the post-apocalyptic RPG I would recommend. Degenesis is a far larger world than that, far more colourful and demanding.
Want out of your comfort zone? Snap up Degenesis and see if you can guide your gaming group to success in the final battle.
Disclosure: I was provided a copy of Degenesis to review.