Esper Genesis is an ambitious project that is attempting to utilize the 5th Edition Dungeons and Dragons based OGL to create a space opera counterpart to D&D’s fantasy implementation. Like Dungeons and Dragons, the Esper Genesis rules aren’t fully encompassed in a single volume. Just as Dungeons and Dragons is split into the Player’s Handbook, Dungeon Master’s Guide, and Monster Manual, Esper Genesis will eventually be comprised of the Core Manual, the Threats Database, and the Master Technician’s Guide.
This review is focused on the Core Manual (the only product currently available), but like Dungeons and Dragons and the Player’s Handbook, most players will only need this book to play the game, and the Core Manual provides most of the rules that will govern play, so it serves as a good overview of what the system will look like.
Examination of Contents Commencing in 3 . . . 2 . . . 1 . . .
This review is based on the PDF of the product, and the physical books should be available later this summer (as of the time of this review). The book is 304 pages, including an ad for the other upcoming books, and the Crucible Core, the organized play program for the game. There is also a two-page list of Kickstarter backers and play testers, a four-page index, and a three-page character sheet.
The production values of this book are comparable to most top tier RPG publishers, with some striking art and clear, attractive formatting. The flourishes, such as borders around sidebars, take on a more “holographic” look, and stat blocks for things like threats or powers use the same format as the Dungeons and Dragons books.
There is impressive artwork throughout the book, but the artwork on the cover, as well as several pieces showcasing starships or the species native to the setting are particularly impressive.
The introduction gives a brief description of roleplaying in general, the core resolution mechanic, the three aspects of play, and the underlying assumptions of the setting. The core mechanic (d20 + modifier compared to a difficulty number) and the aspects of play (exploration, social interaction, and combat) should be familiar to players of 5th edition Dungeons and Dragons.
The explanation of espers and the Crucibles sets the broad expectations of what the setting is—it is a space opera game set across an entire galaxy, where the player characters are people that have developed extraordinary powers, tied to the ancient, lost technologies that created the Crucibles, which generate the cosmic energy known as Sorium.
The next chapter of the book walks players through the steps of creating a character, as well as showing the XP progression chart, as well as ability score and proficiency bonuses, which all match those same items from the OGL.
The steps, as laid out, are as follows:
- Create a Concept
- Choose a Race
- Choose a Class
- Generate Ability Scores
- Select Your Equipment
- Finalize Your Character
One thing that stands out is that race seems to be used as a term here and in the next chapter, but the races are also referred to as species in multiple places as well. Terminology seems to be used to highlight the similarity to the D&D rules, even though other 5th edition based games, like Adventures in Middle-earth, utilize different terms like “culture.”
This section includes nine species that are prominent in the setting, and most of those species have subspecies associated with them. In addition to the species presented in this section, there is a sidebar that notes that the Master Technician’s Guide will have more rules for randomly determining species of NPCs, underscoring that these are the most common, not the only, sentient species in the galaxy.
The races that appear in this section are:
- Ashenforged (Artificially engineered from the dead)
- Belare (Energy beings in containment suits)
- Dendus (Tentacle haired inventors)
- Eldori (Spiritual and philosophical humanoids)
- Human (With multiple subspecies based on where they grew up)
- Kesh (Shape shifting explorers)
- Matokai (Reptilian creatures associated with different elemental energies)
- Promethean (Neo-humans with genetic modifications)
- Valna (Catlike hunters)
Many of these species lean heavily on sci-fi tropes, but I was pleasantly surprised that there were fewer direct correlations between existing D&D races and the races in the game. Except for humans, the closest D&D correlation is probably the Matokai and the Dragonborn, but the subspecies of the Matokai are more significantly different than just having a different breath weapon and a different damage resistance.
The classes chapter details the various available classes and what abilities they pick up at each level. In case you are a player that doesn’t come into the hobby from Dungeons and Dragons, the classes represent, broadly, the adventuring occupations of the characters. When a character gains a level, they get some static benefits, and they may have a choice between multiple paths that reflect exactly how they pursue that profession.
The classes that appear in this section are as follows:
- Adept (Channels supernatural power through willpower)
- Cybermancer (Analogous to the D&D Warlock in mechanics, manipulates powers by tapping into “online” avatars)
- Engineer (Analogous to D&D Cleric in mechanics, uses toolkits to summon, modify, boost, heal, and attack using Techniques)
- Hunter (Analogous to D&D Ranger in mechanics and function)
- Melder (Channels supernatural powers to produce external effects)
- Sentinel (Analogous to D&D Paladin in mechanics, melded to combat cybernetics to boost energy to weapons when attacking and to produce Techniques that can boost allies)
- Specialist (Analogous to D&D Rogues in mechanics, with the option to pick up some powers based on subclass choices later)
- Warrior (Analogous to D&D Fighters in mechanics, with the option to pick up some powers based on subclass choices later)
While it is explained more fully in a later chapter, instead of powers being magic and divided into Arcane and Divine, the powers that classes gain are instead divided into Channeling or Forging. Channelers have powers that allow them to directly manipulate cosmic energy, while characters with Forging abilities have powers that allow them to interact with technology in ways that regular users cannot.
The Engineer, Hunter, and Sentinel are probably the easiest to grasp for people that have played D&D 5th edition, as they gain a number of “tech slots” that they can spend on prepared techniques, and those techniques have levels, much like D&D spells. Forging-based characters will use their toolkits to assemble devices that can perform microsurgery, or that can assemble into mechanical allies, for example.
Channelers don’t have a direct analogy in the D&D Player’s Handbook, but borrow a bit from the point based spellcasting optional rules in the Dungeon Master’s Guide, and from the Mystic class that was released for playtest in Unearthed Arcana on the Wizards of the Coast website. Channeling talents have a level, and it costs a certain amount of points to trigger that ability, but the Esper Powers chapter has more rules on using more points to channel powers at a higher level, or to attempt to channel a power when a character doesn’t have enough points to trigger them.
Warriors and Specialists each have three subclass options, one of which, for each, gives them a channeling progression, while each class also has two subclass options that only gains “powers” that are essentially represented as abilities that can be used between rests or that grant situational bonuses. In D&D terms, each class has two non-spellcasting subclasses and one spellcasting subclass.
I wanted to particularly mention the Cybermancer, because I think the class flavor is a good example of what Esper Genesis does well when the game is at its best. The Cybermancer is very much like the Esper Genesis version of the Warlock, but the flavor feels very rooted in a science fiction game. The Persona that the Cybermancer manifests is essentially an avatar in the SIM, the computer network used throughout the galaxy. While Cybermancers are channelers, meaning they directly manipulate cosmic energy without manipulating a toolkit or implants, they learn their techniques by interfacing with what their Persona learns on the SIM. It is a wonderful mirror of the Warlock/Patron relationship, but made into something different and appropriate for a science fiction setting.
Personality and Background
In this chapter, there are details for character height and weight based on species, alignment, languages, backgrounds, and Esper Genesis. Backgrounds, for anyone unfamiliar with D&D 5th edition, grant a few skills, some gear, a situational benefit thematic to the background (such as always getting food and lodging from a certain organization, as an example), as well as traits, ideals, bonds, and flaws, which can be roleplayed to gain Inspiration.
I am not a fan of utilizing alignment in this setting. Even in D&D 5th edition, alignment has limited mechanical impact, but there are still cosmic forces from other planes of existence that literally embody those alignments. In a science fiction setting, I worry that alignment becomes permission to treat some NPCs differently with impunity, which even in the most black and white space opera seems to run counter to the core elements of the stories.
The Esper Genesis table has a list of circumstances under which the character first found out that they have Esper powers. Since all players have at least some minor Esper power that the average member of their species doesn’t have (even if it’s just a little bit of a boost on some skills because of their natural synergy with cybernetic implants), this chart is potentially relevant to all characters in the game, and can provide some nice additional backstory for characters that want it.
The Equipment chapter has details on how much it costs to buy a variety of gear in the game, including weapons, armor, and vehicles. Cubil, the currency of the galaxy, can be physical in form, or just numbers in an account that can be transferred as long as everyone has access to the SIM.
While there are several hand to hand weapons, there are more ranged weapons than D&D has, and many of those weapons have the option to attack an area rather than firing at a single target, changing the attack from an active attack roll to a save made by targets in the area that has been fired upon.
Weapons that have the high-velocity or explosive trait either do an extra die or double damage to characters that either don’t have high tech armor or a PSD (Portable Shield Device). It’s actually a nice way to keep the damage ranges in the same expected range that D&D establishes, while still explaining that high tech weapons would tear up characters from low tech worlds that don’t have natural protection from those weapons.
Some weapons have a recoil trait, meaning that a character needs a minimum strength score to fire that weapon without a penalty. There is a relatively short list of weapons compared to other granular science fiction games, but there is a sidebar mentioning that the damage from an auto-pistol, for example, could be projectiles, plasma bolts, or radiation blasts, and to achieve that effect, leave all of the other game stats the same, and just change the damage type to piercing, radiant, or necrotic damage.
While not fully detailed, forged weaponry is mentioned as something that will be detailed in the Master Technician’s Guide, and represent items made from ancient, lost technology, or experimental gear that is analogous to D&D magic items. They can be made, but not reliably mass produced, and may produce more impressive results than the gear commonly available.
Vehicles are touched on in this section, but only to the extent of displaying the price, carrying capacity, and speed of various planetary vehicles. Starships appear later in the book.
The Customization Options detailed in this book deal with multi-classing and introducing feats into the game. Multi-classing allows exceptional characters to start taking levels in a second class to gain some of those benefits, and feats are special abilities that expand a character’s capabilities in one specific area.
Notable to players familiar with 5th edition D&D—Forging and Channeling don’t stack when multiclassing. In other words, in 5th edition D&D, there is a consolidated spell slot progression for spellcasters that multi-class, which can be used for both Arcane and Divine spells. Forging and Channeling don’t work the same in this setting, so while your character can get a special progression chart if you multi-class between, for example, Engineer and Hunter, or Melder and Adept, an Engineer/Adept would be limiting their progression in both Forging and Channeling.
Feats are similar to the feats that appear in D&D 5th edition. Some of them have effects that often grant a bonus to an ability score and a situational bonus to an ability, as an example. However, there are more feats that modify ranged weapons, explosives, or vehicles.
Using Ability Scores, Adventures and Exploration, and Combat
With very few exceptions, these chapters have the same content as the similarly named D&D chapters in the Player’s Handbook. This section includes how and when to use ability checks, when various skills apply, outlines of what exploration or social resolutions might look like in the game, and rules spelling out how to determine initiative and procedures in combat.
The very minor expansions to the rules involve how high gravity, low gravity, and zero gravity might affect various situations, and those rules are usually very simple and logically extrapolated from how the core OGL rules handle similar situations.
Starships and Space Travel
The Starships and Space Travel chapter details the various size of ships, how combat differs for starships versus ground based combat, and gives some sample stat blocks for smaller ships, as well as NPC stats for ships of those same sizes.
Combat works very similar to ground based combat, except that all the characters on a ship act collectively. Characters can perform various maneuvers that can either target their own ship, or a ship within sensor range of the ship, and depending on the maneuvers used, those maneuvers may allow allies to use a bonus action to do something, or allow an enemy to spend a reaction to mitigate the effects of a maneuver.
Ships stats are directly affected by pilots and engineers on the ship. For example, the ship has a base defense score, modified by the pilot’s wisdom, and the ship’s hull points have a base level, modified by the intelligence bonus of the engineer on the ship. Ships also have Hull dice, which function in a manner like Hit Dice for characters. Under certain circumstances, crew members might be able to spend Hull dice to repair the ship in combat, but the ship needs to make port and get repairs to restore its Hull dice.
Starship combat always seems to be a sticking point for science fiction settings, where characters can easily run out of things they can do to contribute to the overall game. I like the maneuver system, how characters assigned to roles can affect ship stats, and how maneuvers can generate options for reactions and bonus actions, so I’m optimistic that this will be a robust and dynamic system for starship fights that doesn’t leave too many players without something interesting to do. Although the initiative turns change from individual turns to ship turns, it also feels like it does a good job of still utilizing the same concepts and action economy present in the rest of the game.
This chapter details special rules that involve triggering and using Esper Powers, as well as detailing the many Esper Powers in the game. There is more detail on how Channeling varies from Forging in this section, including different options available to power users of each type.
Lower level Forging powers often have enhanced effects if triggered with higher level slots, but all it takes to trigger a Forging power at higher level is to use the higher-level slot. Channelers, on the other hand, can eventually trigger powers at a higher level than 5th level, but they can only do so a limited number of times per day (even if they have the points to trigger them), and must make a special saving throw to see if they can do it successfully, suffering consequences if they fail.
I am unsure what is gained from changing the “safe” range for Channeling, and how to trigger higher level slots. While it gives that set of powers a unique feel, it also introduces the ability to take penalties and lose the points used to trigger a power without gaining any benefit if the save is failed. I feel like it may be a disincentive to playing higher level Channelers if the only “safe” course of action is to only use 5th level or lower abilities consistently. It seems like it would be the equivalent of making a wizard roll a concentration check for any 6th level or higher spell any time they cast them, with the consequence of them not only failing to cast the spell, but losing the spell slot.
This section has another example of a “flavor change” that is simple, but really conveys the difference between genres. Instead of spells that can be cast as rituals, which take longer to cast but don’t expend a spell slot, some Esper powers can be used “Conventionally,” meaning that the device you have on you can utilize the power as part of its normal function, it just takes longer to do so without pumping extra cosmic juice through the device.
This section of the book gives a very broad sketch of the setting. There are explanations of various regions, corporations, and power groups that operate in the galaxy. There is a color map showing the relative position of the various regions in the galaxy.
The Crucibles, giant moon sized devices built by an extinct civilization, are synched in such a way to allow a galactic standard year. The Crucibles are mined for Sorium, which allows for the most advanced devices in the galaxy to work, and FTL drives can latch onto the location of a Crucible to transport from one Crucible to another.
Finding and activating new Crucibles is a big deal, since it expands the capacity for reliable space travel, and provides a new source for Sorium. Sorium seems to renew, if it isn’t extracted faster than it can regenerate, but control of the power source for almost every advanced device in the galaxy is a major motivator, and the more active Crucibles, the more Sorium can be harvested without worrying about exceeding the Crucible’s capacity to produce more.
I really like the Crucibles and Sorium as a source for the extraordinary powers in the setting, because it provides a good corollary to magic in the OGL rules, while still latching onto an established trope in the space opera genre—the lost, ancient alien culture that was way beyond anyone in the current era.
Appendix A, B, C and D
The appendices to the Core Manual include a summary of conditions, stats for various threats, inspirational material, and the list of Kickstarter contributors and play testers.
The threats that appear in Appendix B are examples of creatures that can be summoned by powers or bonded to characters due to class features, although several of them can serve as examples of what threats look like in the setting. One side effect of seeing the stats for various threats is to highlight that the Core Manual doesn’t explain much about the various creature types. They are mentioned in the Hunter class entry, and they are assigned to various threats here, but we really don’t know why Spyders are Netherants, for example.
I particularly like that the Inspirational Material in Appendix C includes not only books, but also graphic novels, manga, motion pictures, anime, television, and video games. While just about any roleplaying game published in the modern era could include a wide range of media for influences, science fiction, especially, spans a wide range of storytelling media.
Over the years, I’ve developed a very specific opinion on Dungeons and Dragons and how it emulates genre. Dungeons and Dragons is generally not the best game to play any specific setting that wasn’t created FOR Dungeons and Dragons. As written (not referring to an adaption like Adventures in Middle-earth), D&D isn’t the best game to run a game in the Hyborean Age, Nehwon, Narnia, Middle-earth, or Westeros. However, it is one of the best games to play if you want to get a taste of multiple styles of fantasy in one game system. Dungeons and Dragons creates its own subgenre by blending in elements from multiple other subgenres.
Esper Genesis does something similar with science fiction. It isn’t a game system to run Star Wars, Star Trek, The Expanse, or Asimov’s Foundation series with. It does appear to be appealing to those that may want at least a taste of multiple settings in their science fiction, creating its own form of hybrid space opera from the elements of the best examples of the form.
In fact, if I were to point out existing science fiction settings that are close to the baseline assumptions of the setting of Esper Genesis, it would be the settings in video games like Mass Effect or Destiny, likely because those video games are attempting to do the same thing—synthesize a level based gaming experience from the tropes of the best of space opera media.
Genesis It is easy to find a cross-section of archetypes from some of your favorite science fiction in this game, and if you already understand the 5th edition OGL rules, the learning curve is low.
There are several places where Esper Genesis does an amazing job of taking the structure of something that exists in Dungeons and Dragons and re-flavoring it perfectly to space opera. The Cybermancer, for example, it just similar enough to something that exists that you can see its basis, but diverges enough that you don’t constantly think that it is just a re-skinned Warlock. The species strike a great balance between playing on tropes and being too familiar. The starship rules do a great job of using existing templates from the games rules and doing something just a little bit different with them, making them feel familiar but customized to work in a special circumstance. The overall conceits of the setting, with the ancient alien technology, the Crucibles, and the Sorium, all feel like they have a science fiction story behind them, while also being a perfect bridge to explaining “magic” and “magic items” in this setting.
There are a few places where race and gender are used, where the science fiction setting would have been a perfect place to use more precise and proper terms like species and sex. For all the places where the book does a good job balancing changing an element versus a more direct adaption, I’m not sure that the higher-level Channeling rules tell a story with the rules that need to be told. Even though it is beyond the book’s scope to provide detailed rules on threats, an explanation of creature types would have been nice, since they are mentioned in multiple places.
Qualified Recommendation–A product with lots of positive aspects, but buyers may want to understand the context of the product and what it contains before moving it ahead of other purchases.
If you don’t like the underlying rules of Dungeons and Dragons 5th edition, or level based RPGs in general, this will not be the game that changes your mind. It very intentionally, and very skillfully, recreates the 5th edition D&D experience for a new genre.
If you like d20 based systems, and want one that does a good job of playing with the tropes of space opera, this is a game you will likely enjoy picking up. It is easy to find a cross-section of archetypes from some of your favorite science fiction in this game, and if you already understand the 5th edition OGL rules, the learning curve is low.
What are your favorite science fiction RPGs? Do you prefer your space exploration to lean more towards hard science fiction, or space opera? Do you like having a wide range of well-defined careers in your science fiction games, or do you want a more open selection of skills and talents? Let me know in the comments, I’d be glad to hear from you!