A few years ago I started reading about Shadowrun. Probably the most prominent of the “cyberpunk” genre of TTRPGs it also blends in fantasy as well. The setting lore is a fun read. The game though…
Shadowrun 5th Edition is a rat’s nest of options and rules and granular details that just do not add to making the game more goddamn fun. Right now if I want to play an RPG I’d probably want to reach for D&D 5E, Dragon/Fantasy Age, or Dungeon World. All three of these are “rules light” systems. I work about 50-60 hours a week (hey future me, is life any better?) . I don’t have time for Eclipse Phase, or Dark Heresy even Pathfinder, I just, I need to be a bit judicious on how I spend the time I have to waste. Or if I’m going to pay the iron price at work and write down adventure ideas. However intriguing, Shadowrun just isn’t going to happen with other games on the market with a tenth of the rules.
Enter Fantasy Flight Game’s Genesys system. You might’ve seen the Penny Arcade crew playing the Star Wars system “Edge of the Empire” at PAX Australia. Genesys is the generic version of that system. It markets itself as being adaptable to any genre. A few genres are in the core book based on FFG’s other IPs, Runebound, Twilight Imperium, Tannhauser, and most relevant to you and I, a science fiction cyberpunk setting called Android. This was used for a CCG called Netrunner which I’ve never played. But the genesys system offers a relatively rules light, well-regarded possibility of a cyberpunk system that would meet my wishes.
There is a contradiction here though. People play Shadowrun in part for that rat’s nest. Each splatbook has added hundreds upon hundreds of pages of rules and spells and gear. Someone out there wants that. Someone out there wants to find that poorly written Shotgun in a splatbook that can actually be as good as a sniper rifle with when combined with the right gear and the right talent/feat/ability. You reach for 4E when you want tactical grid combat and you don’t reach for Shadowrun when you want a simple rules light system. But good story, and Genesys’s narrative dice system can potentially deliver a good story, good story is like a good burger or glass of good wine or an adorable kitty. There’s always a market for it and even if you don’t think you want it somehow you can make time for it.
Genesys does have a big multifaceted flaw. It’s big enough to be considered a series of flaws and that is you have to do a ton of work to actually make the game you know, function. Races, talents, skills, monsters, gear, the core rulebook doesn’t really give you enough to start playing out of the gate. So what I’d like to do here in this post is write what’s needed to turn what little actually in the core rulebook into something playable.
I should point out that at least one person has actually done a very comprehensive conversion of Shadowrun into the Genesys ruleset. I find these to be too detailed and rules heavy for my taste. I really like something more stripped down not because I’m lazy and stupid but because I’ve never actually played this at the table and neither have the players I’d be introducing this to.
The best place to start is trying to make some pre-generated characters for people to use. This will run me through most of the rules to really bring characters that function to the table. Let’s start with Races. Fortunately the Genesys Core Rulebook does you some favors here. Shadowrun has 5 races you can play without reaching for a splatbook: Humans, Elves, Dwarves, Orcs, and Trolls. The Fantasy section of the Genesys core book gives you all of those except Trolls. Races in Genesys are short enough that you can kind of understand how they are balanced against each other.
Warning up front, from here on in we get deep into the weeds of rules for the Genesys Core Rulebook. This might be really boring, especially if you don’t have the book to sort of follow along with me. This will be more interesting to people who want to play Shadowrun/Genesys and are trying to find the limit for how much BS I’ll be willing to tolerate at the table.
Races, Specifically Trolls
Compared to D&D, the Genesys races are far shorter and the system is a lot more transparent about what each option is “worth”. This is intentional; they want you to be able design your own races. Because of that, each part of the race is assigned a specific “XP Value” and then balanced against each other.
Everything is based around the default Human. Default Human has a “2” in all their ability scores, very similar to D&D. You have six abilities: Brawn, Agility, Intellect, Cunning, Willpower, and Presence. Brawn is a bit of a combo between Strength and Constitution, Cunning is a bit of Intelligence and Charisma. Default Human has one special ability, “Once per session you can move a story point from the GM’s pool to the PC pool.” Genesys story points are basically Inspiration. Default Human gets 1 “rank” in two different “Non-Career” skills. At character creation you have career skills and non-career skills. Career skills you get one free point in and they’re cheaper to upgrade. Default Human finishes off with 110 XP spend on skills, abilities, and talents (the feats of Genesys). This is very similar to character creation in Shadowrun where you spend points on skills and various other qualities.
From this model all other Races flow. The Core Rulebook has several different examples of Human. These all have one “3” in one ability score, one “1” in another ability score, “2” in everything else. Each other type of Human (Laborer, Intellectual, Aristocrat) has one rank in a specific skill rather than one specific skill. This is kind of balanced against Default Human, you either pick two non-career skills or any one skill. Each has an ability that does something to Story Points.
Some of the Humans have 12 Brawn (your HP) with 8 Strain (your mental HP) and some are vice versa instead of the default 10 HP, 10 Strain. These other humans also each have 100 XP to spend instead of 110 XP like Default. The idea is that this is a modular RPG. You could just as easily call the “Laborer” Human a Dwarf instead.
The fantasy section of the Core Book has Elves, Dwarves and Orcs.
Dwarves have 11 Brawn, 10 Strain, Darkvision, +1 Rank in the Resilience Skill, and a special ability to shrug off one critical hit per session by spending a story point. This is the same special ability as the “Laborer” human earlier in the book. They have 90 XP to spend on other stuff.
Elves have 9 Brawn, 10 Strain, +1 Rank in Perception, and a Melee/Ranged Defense of 1. This makes them harder to hit in combat. They have 90 XP to spend on other stuff.
Orcs have 12 Brawn, 8 Strain, +1 Rank in Coercion, and a Berserker ability that allows them to do more damage at the risk of a lower chance to hit/causing “threat” from the dice. They have 100 XP to spend on other stuff.
All three races have the ability array of one “3”, one “1”, and “2” in the rest of their abilities. I think these are fairly decent and logical builds. They are comparable to the Shadowrun versions of these races. A player moving from Shadowrun to Genesys would be happy with these. This isn’t like Eberron where Orcs are Druids or Dark Sun where Elves and Dwarves are well…the same ruleswise but culturally different.
Let’s take a quick moment to contrast this with D&D. The Ghostwise Halfling in SCAG has +1 Wisdom and 30 foot telepathy with one creature. The Stout Halfling has Poison Resistance and +1 Con. The Lightfoot Halfling has +1 Charisma and can hide behind a larger creature. The designers are telling you that they feel in the system these options are all relatively balanced against each other. Now, as far as balancing those options and the longer list of Halfling abilities against 5E Dwarves, Elves, Dragonborn and the other races that I feel less certain about.
There is one Genesys splatbook out so far that contains alternate versions of all these races. This is called, “Realms of Terrinoth.” Most of it is lore and fluff about FFG’s proprietary Fantasy IP that I don’t care about. I was actually really surprised when I got it how little crunch there was. There’s almost no expansion of the magic rules in the Core Rulebook although it does have plenty of Fantasy gear and Talents. But it does contain alternate versions of these three races and others specific to the setting. There are like three different types each of Dwarves, Elves and Orcs. But I think the Genesys Core Rulebook offers fantasy races would please everyone who wants to use this system to play Shadowrun.
So looking at all this information I have one question. How do I use these rules to make a Shadowrun Troll? What defines a Troll in this setting? Well, they’re bigger, stronger, and tougher. But compared to other races, they’re a bit slower if not necessarily stupider. They have darkvision. They have reach in melee. And they have natural armor.
Lo and behold, the Genesys book does have some guidelines for designing a race. They suggest sticking with the 3/1/2/2/2/2 model for ability scores with 100 XP. They explain that Default Human starts with 110 XP because to increase a stat to 3 and decrease a stat to 1 will cost you 10 XP in the math of the system.
Increasing the Brawn of the Troll seems like it fits. Giving the Troll Race a 3 in Brawn and 12 HP fits the Shadowrun model. For their 1, Agility seems to make sense. Remove 5 XP for the +2 HP. Dark Vision takes another 5 XP. For the armor, the best way to simulate that is with something Genesys calls “Soak”. This is damage reduction. Giving a Troll +1 Soak will simulate their natural armor. 10 XP seems a fair price for that. All in this gives you 80 XP total to spend on other stuff. This doesn’t have a skill though. Brawl (for unarmed combat) or Athletics would make sense, although this might be overpowered since the Troll already has a 3 in the Brawn ability. Also, giving yourself a Soak of +1 is actually a Tier 4 talent which is very high level. I think this is balanced as is. The Elf Defense increase is also a Tier 4 Talent. I think it would still be balanced at 75 XP but 80 seems fair and I like the idea of skilled characters.
So all in that gives us a The Shadowrun Troll Race at 12 HP, 10 Strain, Darkvision, +1 Soak, 3 Brawn, 1 Agility, 2 in all others with 80 XP to spend on other stuff. By the guidelines of the rulebook that is a balanced race.
Next up we need to talk about gear. Talents are another thing you can design, but that seems a bit labor intensive, I think we’ll leave those alone for now. Gear however is very near and dear to the Shadowrunner’s heart. Basically the way you improve a character in Shadowrun is either through magic or gear. Fortunately Genesys has a fairly intuitive system in that an item should either give or reduce the number of Boost Dice (blue d6s) or setback dice (black d6s). And because Shadowrun is a system where all things are possible through technology, the PC can tell me what they want to achieve and we can work that out. The idea here is that any gear a player might want is going to give you those Boost dice or take away Setback dice. What the gear actually is matters less.
Cyberware is another big part of Shadowrun, this is basically cybernetics or robotic parts grafted on to yourself. The core rulebook does have very simple straightforward ideas for this where each “implant” or cyborg part boosts one of your stats by one point but they each cost one point of Strain from your threshold. This is a bit awkward because Strain is non-lethal damage. So you could increase your Brawn, your physical HP, but make yourself easier to knock out. This still fits the Shadowrun model where Cyberware costs you Essence, which is your limit on how much Cyberware you can have. In Shadowrun if you cast magic, you need as much Essence as possible, meaning no cyberware. If you don’t need magic, get some cyberware and boost your shit. The exception there would be Charismatic characters that take strain in “social combat.” Those people want strain has high as they can get. So for example, in Shadowrun you might get a pair of cybernetic legs and there are probably 400 different things you could do with them each thing costing different amounts of essence. In Genesys, things are simpler, you get your cyber legs, they increase your agility by 1, it takes 1 point off your Strain threshold. Shadowrun also has Bioware and Deltaware which are really just the same as Cyberware, a bonus of some kind that costs you Essence, those two just cost less Essence but cost way more money. I don’t think we need to go into that level of detail yet for Genesys.
Skills and Hacking
Skills are another thing that Genesys asks you to make up on your own but to a far lesser degree. The core rulebook already has a robust array of skills relevant to a Sci-Fi setting like Shadowrun. I went through and selected the skills that are relevant to the setting. For Sci-Fi, this means we don’t need the Riding skill but we do need the Piloting and Mechanics skills. In a Fantasy setting, you split up the melee combat skill into Melee Light and Melee Heavy to symbolize fighting with a dagger versus fighting with a battleaxe. A Sci-Fi setting just has the Melee skill but splits up Ranged combat into Ranged Light (Handguns) and Ranged Heavy (Assault Rifles).
For skills custom to the Shadowrun Setting the only thing I could think of are Languages. Being a Cyberpunk Earth about 150 years into the future this is not a setting where everyone just speaks English/The Common Tongue. A PC in Shadowrun can expect to hear Japanese, Chinese, Elvish, Spanish, various Native American languages and literally any other real language you can think of. Those are just the ones most common to Seattle, where Shadowrun takes place. In Shadowrun you can invest you skill points into various languages going from basic proficiency up to native speaker capability. The Genesys rules don’t address this at all and mentions in the description of the Space Opera genre that language barriers don’t really exist there as if approached with any kind of realism it wouldn’t make things more fun. As much as I want to offer players the chance to use Languages to shape their characters I’m not sure there’s a great way to do it in this ruleset.
Computers is a skill used in non-fantasy settings but the Rulebook advises that if you plan to make Hacking a part of your game then it advises you split the skill in two. Like Melee or Ranged combat. In this case, it advises you split them into Hacking (Offense against computers) and Sysops (for defending against Hacking)
Magic in the Genesys system is something that I’d like to see work at a table before I pass judgement on try to fix it. In Shadowrun at its most basic, you pay for spells with XP (Karma in the system). In Genesys you point points into a Magic skill. The Core book has Arcane, Divine, and Primal as the three magic skills just as Melee Light and Melee Heavy are for melee combat. The book then suggests a few different broad categories of spells. Blast for your standard wizard evocations like magic missile. Augment, Barrier, Conjuration, and a catch-all called Utility. There’s a menu of mechanical effects that “one spell” can cast and then for each additional effect you put on a spell it makes the spell harder to cast by adding an additional Purple D8 up to five additional dice.
The idea is that each magic skill is supposed to be able to perform only certain functions. The Arcane skill lets you blast foes with harmful magic but you can’t do that with The Divine skill. You can heal with The Divine skill but not The Arcane skill. All three can cast Utility spells. At least that’s the default. There’s nothing saying you can’t blast people with Divine magic it’s just not normally how fantasy magic tends to work. Realms of Terrinoth mimics the core book with the explicit types of spells you can and can’t cast with different forms of magic and then adds Rune and Verse magic on top of that.
The problem with this is that Shadowrun magic is supposed to be extremely broad in application. Illusions, blasting, healing, conjuring, all of these fall under what a magic user in Shadowrun can do. The limiting factor is that you can only buy so many spells. You can’t buy Wish when you first start playing. But in Genesys if you say, “all effects can be cast by a magic user” you run the risk of making magic too powerful. One of the things a GM is advised to do is make sure that magic doesn’t make things easier than say, doing them with a skill but really without seeing the system work I just don’t know what kind of brakes or limitations would make it more balanced.
I think for Shadowrun, the Arcane skill gives you your Magics, the Primal skill gives us Shamans, and I suppose you could use the Divine skill to mimic the effects of Adepts. But you’re not supposed to be all of those things at once.
I think the Core Rulebook has enough to make this work. Not the hundreds of pages that Shadowrun is known for, but enough. This doesn’t give a good example of the Physical Adept/Mystic Adept archetype but this is enough to start I think. With that I think we have enough to start making some pregens. I’m thinking a Hacker (called Deckers in Shadowrun), a “Street Samurai”, a Weapon Specialist (basically a street samurai without a katana), a Mage, and maybe a face/leader type.
There’s still plenty to look at. Spirits and elementals are an important part of the Shadowrun rules but I’m not sure how they work even in the Shadowrun rules. But we can make a Shadowrun character with these rules and we can run some missions with this. This can work.
I should mention that about two weeks after this post went up Fantasy Flight Games announced “Shadow of the Beanstalk,” a Genesys splatbook set in the Android/Netrunner universe I mentioned earlier. The Beanstalk refers to that setting’s Space Elevator, a sci-fi concept you can check out on Wikipedia. It is apparently going to be playable at PAX Unplugged 2018 but I would expect the release to be in Spring 2019, one year after Realms of Terrinoth.