I’ve been meaning to write a review of Degenesis, the doorstop of a post-apocalyptic RPG from the “there has to be a story behind that name for your company” SIXMOREVODKA creative team for a while now. The main problem holding me back is that I haven’t played it yet with people, just dinked around testing things. Luckily, John’s editorial standards enjoy a certain amount of flexibility when it comes to old friends, and let ye who have not passed judgement on a game without playing it cast the first stone.
There’s another reason I feel safe recommending this beast. The art alone is worth the purchase of the slipcased two-volume edition of rules Katharsis and worldbook Primal Punk (Retailing at USD “If you have to ask you can’t afford it”). I’ve never seen a game with this level art throughout. Page after page of imagery usually reserved for a couple of splash pages in most game books.
What is this world? Refreshingly, it’s set in Europe and North Africa five hundred years after a 2073 meteor storm changed the face of the world (called the “Eshaton” but I think they meant “Eschaton”). Maybe the year is a hat tip to Fallout, I dunno, but Earth went through hundreds of years of cloudy hell and now there are a few hints of a Renaissance for a radically altered world. To make matters worse, the meteors brought with them a spore-like form of life called “Primer” that is radically altering flora, fauna, and us. Humans who have been taken over by the Primer (the process is generally called Sepsis) eventually become Psychonauts or Abberants, two names for the same deadly syndrome. Some of the spores carrying the primer have been deactivated or neutralized for use in drugs called Burn, because if thousands of years of human history have proved anything, it’s that people will try to get high by any means necessary. A final existential confrontation of homo sapiens vs homo degenesis is building.
[Click the images for Punk-sized versions.]
Here’s one of the many places it gets weird. Each of the main meteor craters produces a different kind of Psyconaut. In the France-equivalent of Franka the psychonauts emit powerful pheromones that brainwash you into obedience and draw and command swarms of insects, kind of like my wife’s Chanel No. 5. Every region’s psychonauts wield a few weird abilities, and each bears a mysterious design on a different chakra marking the crater of origin. There’s a fair amount of this sort of thing in Degenesis, so your playgroup may need a touch of “Forget it, Jake, it’s Sixmorevodka” when they get attacked by a Balkan/Balkhan mutant crayfish controlled by a psychonaut and somebody asks why there weren’t any mutant crayfish in Hybrispania.
On to the books.
The Primal Punk book is a vast sandbox full of plot hooks, apocrypha, and the occasional WTF moment. If you buy it, you’ll be spending a long time with it, equally enthralled, impressed, and frustrated.
Chaosium’s Griffin Mountain (1981 Games Workshop edition) and Griffin Island (1986 boxed reprint)
I love sandboxes. I’m the kind of guy who read page after page of Runequest’s Griffin Mountain (later Griffin Island) in wonder. I still have my copy. The world of Degenesis is like Griffin was put through six months of Navy SEAL training and then went on a Saudi-financed cocaine binge.
Plot hooks abound. Every region, every city, every new shoot of civilization has a plot idea or two. There are so many gloriously fun ideas. Africa was spared most of the meteor damage and climate shock, so it is now dominant. African traders and soldiers have colonized bits of Europe, plundering art and artifacts from their roaming giant fortress-tanks in the Degenesis equivalent of gunboat diplomacy.
There are new religions, new professions, all richly imagined, all fighting for their turf, their little piece of turf. Like most great post-apocalyptic settings from Mad Max to Planet of the Apes, Degenesis draws extensively from the past to imagine this terrible future.
The game book, Katharsis, contains rules for character generation, gameplay, plus equipment and enemy indexes with the continually inspiring and evocative artwork. Character generation is something of a project: you pick a background region and a quasi-profession (called “cults” in the game but “orders” might be more accurate). Just as a sample, there’s a militant order of doctors called the Spitallers, sort of a Morlock group who survived in underground bunkers called the Palers, personable merchants from the Med coast known as Neolibyans, religious fanatics like the Anabaptists and Jehammedans… 13 in all, each with its own rich rank and skill progression tree.
Finally, your character has a “concept” that attempts to quantify their personality and outlook in a single word like mentor, healer, or conqueror. For gamemasters, this allows you to spin up an NPC quickly. If you know the game world, a Balkhan Jehammedan Hermit is already formed in personality and motivations just with those three words.
As to gameplay, I don’t have direct experience to relay. But as a veteran RPG GM, I give a lot of credit to the game for discouraging murderhoboing. There’s simply no way a group of players are going to walk into some stronghold and just slaughter their way through it in Against the Giants style (one of my favorite D&D experiences of all time, by the way). Combat is deadly and decisive. The game even takes morale into account; if your travelers are accosted by brigands and one of your party extends her arm and Elevens the foremost brigand’s head into a messy explosion, there’s a good chance they’ll beat feet and at most harass your party from a safe distance.
Before a violent climax, a party will have to do a lot of investigation, alliance forming and shading, negotiation, bartering and building gear in an effort to discover and then exploit whatever the Big Bad’s weakness might be. Or you may find that the Big Bad isn’t so Big and Bad after all and is being manipulated by Something Worse. I think most Degenesis gaming sessions will play out as a Jean-Jacques Annaud movie like The Name of the Rose or Enemy at the Gates — hell, given the world, Quest for Fire isn’t impossible — rather than the latest bit of CGI action from Marvel.
Negatives? The books could really use a decent, professional editor with a flair for organizing text. Necessary information sometimes is set off from more picturesque scene setting by different background, sometimes it isn’t. The description of Paris/Paraside reads more like a retelling of a long exploratory adventure rather than the descriptive travel guidebook style in other areas. Text will sometimes be offset with a different background and it’s hard to tell why as the information is much the same as the rest of the guide to a region. Some might find the distorted depictions of chakras and mandalas as part of the sepsis infection distasteful, and there’s really no reason for the African warrior-Scourgers to have fringes around their calves like they are 19th Century Zulu warriors.
But it the end, you just might find yourself obsessing over it, as I have for some months now. Some of the ideas get stuck in your head, and I really want to throw this inspired madness-on-a-learning-curve at a group of players and see how they handle it. I think the character generation system will create a fully-formed personality that is memorable and exciting to play, whether you go for more the combat type, a smooth social facilitator, or a brainiac technology geek.
One final caution: Degenesis is rife with body horror, so if those kind of distortions trouble you, best give it a pass. It’s definitely adult content. And speaking of adult content, the art in Degenesis isn’t shy about nudity. You’ll be paging through and come across male and female genitalia. One of the adventure supplements even features full-penetration intercourse (complimenting a key scene in the adventure, natch). So if that is going to bother you, leave it in the shrinkwrap.
Our previous coverage of the system was part of our Gen Con 2019 report, Gaming at the End Times: Degenesis.
E.E. Knight is a scifi/fantasy author who loves movies, music, and gaming who lives with his family in Oak Park, Illinois. He’s been playing RPGs since the late 70s. Please keep him free from post-apocalyptic despair and Burn addiction by buying his latest release, NOVICE DRAGONEER, at your friendly local bookseller or by borrowing it from the library. Maybe even review it on Amazon lest the algorithmic sword of Damocles fall upon his neck.