Monday, June 11, 2018

Some Thoughts About Degenesis

Marko Djurdjevic

Degenesis Rebirth is the strangest goddamn RPG I have ever experienced.

I paid 120 dollars for it. Yet, I feel no real buyer's remorse for it, despite that price point being well past where I would normally begin to have second thoughts. I attribute it to the books' quality: they're head, shoulders, and most of the torso above everything I've seen that isn't Lamentations. The covers are great. The binding is great. The paper quality is great. The art is as close to perfect as one can get. These are good books...if we focus on the book aspect.

The first of the two books, Primal Punk, is lore. Entirely lore. No game mechanics at all. 346 pages of straight, uncut lore. I love it.  It's evocative, it leaves open ends and dangling mysteries and in some cases just doesn't tell you at all what's going on. And it's a translation! Sniffing its own farts more than a bit, but I can forgive it. I can forgive a lot when I'm given something both cool and new.

It's a downright unicorn: a detailed setting that has an incredibly strong identity. You can recognize it at a glance. It draws you in. Post-apocalyptic new-ice-age Europe infested with alien fungus of spiritual significance barely understood? Yes please.

The second book, Katharsys, is where the system is laid out, and it is here that the terrible secret of Degenesis is revealed: I don't think the designers ever intended for people to play this game.

The basic game system is a pretty standard dice pool mechanic: roll X dice, anything above Y is a success, the task at hand has a difficulty of Z and requires that many successes. I find it clunky and unintuitive, but it's not the worst in the world. This isn't the problem.

The problem is that the book seems designed to make it difficult to use. The fart-sniffing prose that I forgave and praised a few paragraphs ago has intruded upon the mechanical underpinnings. I was fine when it was on its own - that's actually a pretty fine idea, splitting up lore and mechanics into different books - but it is now officially in the way of running the game.

Add to this a death by inches, of little things that make no sense building up into the damning blow.

Say you want to look up the rank progressions for your cult. You're playing an Anabaptist. Obviously, since Anabaptist starts with A, that would be at the start of the section, right?

Wrong. The Spitalians are first. Anabaptists are twelfth out of thirteen. Is this an issue with the translation? I don't know. But have fun having to flip through the entire section to find what you are looking for, every time you go looking.

There's no end to this sort of thing.
  • There is no entry for a day's rations anywhere in the item lists. Rules for scavenging and trapping, yes, but not buying. Scavenging for food and scavenging for scrap are in different sections of the book.
  • There are enemies listed that have no stats provided at all. This includes human opponents. Not even a quick-use template for "clan warrior".
  • The bestiary is anemic; with the above taken into consideration, there are four non-boss enemies in the entire book that have stats listed.
  • The list of minor clans, which is supposed to cover the entire setting, has several that are all locked in their own little isolated conflict within a tiny pocket of one particular region.
  • Certain cults not only don't play well together, but are practically "murder-on-sight". A mixed team of European and African cults is possible with some wrangling, but the Apocalyptics (whose entire deal is dealing in alien fungus dust drugs) would run afoul of the Spitalians, Judges, and Anabaptists (who are practically guaranteed to be in the party.) This used to be worse in the original version of the game, but that's faint praise.
  • Character generation is all about assigning skill points, and you are required to dump into your toughness skills if you don't want to be killed by stiff breezes. I had a player who would be instantaneously killed by any given attack, because she wanted to be a charismatic and social character.
  • The item lists are needlessly subdivided, with no overarching order to them. Most are overloaded with specific cult items.
  • Items / characters / concepts / places will be referred to multiple times, without any proper explanation of what they are or (more importantly) how to use them in an actual game.
There's also the flip side of the praise I gave to the setting: it is, frankly, overwhelming. There's a relatively easy in, one particular region more newbie-friendly and recognizable, but the book's scope is broad and the referee needs to do the leg work. Here is the deep end, swim or bounce off.

Speaking of referees, the referee tools are essentially nonexistent. Of a 350 page book, there are 17 pages devoted to that end, all of which are devoted to topics such as "Believable Characters", "The Three Act Story", and assorted broad-strokes conflicts. There are some bullet points offering some suggestions for content, but it's not enough. There's nothing in the way of practical tools for building, populating, and running a session.

The referee tools do not contain the following:
  • Quick NPCs
  • List of old world artifacts found while scavenging
  • Travel times between major locations on the provided world and regional maps
  • Encounter tables in general or specific to region or environment
  • Interesting sights along the road
  • Ruin generator
  • Town and settlement events
  • Town and settlement generator
  • Rumor list
  • Consolidated secret list 
  • Player-facing reference sheets
There is one proper random table in the entire book, for clan generation. They included a decent started adventure, so there's that, at least.

The one non-setting related positive I can offer is how I really like the rank-based progression. That's worth swiping and tinkering with. But the rest? Utter chaff. Useless.

It's a useless game book.

Final Thoughts


I still have no idea what to think about this game. Who was it made for? Why was it made? Are all these quality-of-life-improvements I take for granted still nestled in one specific subset of the hobby and unheard of by those outside the circle?

Still, even for every complaint I have, the setting scratches an itch that other games haven't. In light of all its many failings, I still love the setting that's been built. I'm a sucker for unique apocalypses and rebuilding from them, I suppose.

120 US dollars plus tax worth of a sucker.

That's enough to buy six copies of Yoon-Suin.

What the hell is this game?


4 comments:

  1. I guess it was some personal art project or something. It succeeds there, but that begs the question of why make it a game in the first place.

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  2. You may be interested in this blog post, as I think it could explain the concept better than I could:

    http://udan-adan.blogspot.com/2018/03/rpg-books-as-fiction.html

    Everything you described about Degenesis screamed "designed to be read and not played" to me. Although, to be fair, your description of the first book makes it sound like it would make a great setting for another system, so maybe it is meant to be played after all.

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    Replies
    1. Read that post a while ago, it's a great one.

      Degenesis was super easy to hack into Shadow of the Demon Lord, so it definitely works as a setting to be played with a different system. Which makes it all the more curiouser, because they had an entire book devoted to all reading and no game, but kept the "read, don't play" thing going into the mechanics book.

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  3. I played Degenesis about a decade ago, in the original German version. Our dm regularly came smelling of alcohol (it was a university club game night so everyone was strangers) and the book was really confusing. Couple that with the long disclaimer that, yes, the book describes ethnicities but the makers condemn racism and fascism in general, and the overall artiness, back then I called it the most Berlin thing I've ever played. Totally forgot about it before reading this post though. I played a scavenger with a mammoth that had its own trunk-gasmask, if I recall correctly.

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