I'll state up front that I'm not thrilled with the magic system in Genesys, at least not on paper. That said, I think it has some neat potential but the mechanics are kind of all over the place, balance-wise, and in general magic seems to have too many drawbacks that aren't justified by (some) of their effects.
The way that magic works is pretty straightforward, and doesn't really borrow anything from the Force powers of FFG's Star Wars RPG. Other than the differences between magic and the Force, Genesys is pretty much a universal version of Star Wars. Magic in the Genesys core book is split up into three different skills: Arcana, Divine, and Primal. Many of the specific effects also make use of the spellcaster's ranks in the Knowledge skill (which, depending on your setting, may be a single skill or broken up into different types of knowledge). While this works for most characters, it doesn't really fit the fluff of something like a Sorcerer or a Warlock that well. However, I see this as a really easy fix (which is NOT addressed in the core book, because the core book seems like a somewhat incomplete toolkit in general). Obviously the intent of the designers is to prevent magic users from having one, single "super skill" that does everything. So swapping ranks in Knowledge with ranks in another appropriate skill doesn't alter the balance. I imagine Sorcerers using their ranks in Resilience to determine how powerful their extra effects are (their bodies are fonts of magic), and Warlocks might use Charm or Negotiation (how much extra power were they able to talk their patron into giving them?). I think this is really cool and flavorful, and the designers missed a chance to include suggestions like these in the core book. Not all mages are bookish, after all.
So what does a magic skill roll actually look like? The book suggests that using magic narratively will require a skill roll, with the GM determining the difficulty based on whatever the outcome of the task would normally be. However, they recommend stepping up the difficulty by one purple die compared to the difficulty for a mundane roll. This is a theme in Genesys, that magic should be more difficult. It's a valid drawback to having flexible, magical powers, but it's FAR from the only drawback. I'll get to that later, though. Other than just general narrative results, the book provides eight "spells," which are not really distinct spells at all. Rather, each "spell" is a general category of magic that the player can use to construct a specific effect. These "spells" are Attack, Augment, Barrier, Conjure, Curse, Dispel, Heal, and Utility. Each of these has a base effect, and then a table of specific supplemental effects. The supplemental effects each will increase the difficulty when tacked onto the basic effect. It's also worth noting that not all "spells" are available to every magic skill; for example, you can only Dispel using Arcana, but Healing can only be done by Divine and Primal. Finally, magical implements function essentially like weapons for spellcasters, often enhancing the damage of your spells and also allowing you to incorporate one or more supplemental effects without increasing the difficulty (these vary depending on which implement you're using).
The Cost of Magic
Before getting into a commentary of the individual spells, I just want to say that in general I think the designers went too far in trying to "reign in" magic. Maybe they had bad experiences in 3rd edition D&D? So what exactly are the drawbacks to magic in this system?
- Any time you make a skill roll using a Magic Skill (Arcana, Divine, or Primal), it costs you 2 strain. Not every little thing requires a skill roll (one example in the book is magically lighting a torch), but any time you cast a "spell" you're losing 2 strain, no exceptions.
- There's a table of Threat/Despair results that are specific to magic users, with harsher penalties than the typical results. No, there's no corresponding Advantage/Triumph table with better effects for magic users. Magic is supposed to be dangerous. To give you an idea of what this looks like, 1 threat will cause you to lose 2 strain (instead of the usual 1 strain), or suffer 1 wound. Coupled with the strain cost that you're ALREADY taking just for casting the spell, it's obvious that mages will burn through strain, FAST. And sure, you can recover strain with Advantage, but it's an uphill battle since Threat will drain your strain twice as fast as Advantage will recover it.
- As a corollary to how strain-heavy casting spells is, you're obviously going to be much more limited in terms of spending strain to use talents or take a second maneuver. It'll be that much harder for you to use Dodge or Sidestep, or even duck behind cover. It's also worth noting that spellcasters have a maneuver called "Concentration." Many of the spells require you to use a Concentration maneuver in order to keep the effect going. You probably won't be aiming, aiding, moving around, or interacting with the environment very much.
- Spellcasting is difficult! Actually, the base effects usually start out as an easy or average check, but considering their effects are lackluster (the base effect for the Attack spell is weaker than a comparable weapon) AND that they'll cost strain to use...you might as well modify them with as many additional effects as you're willing to risk. I'll go into this more when I discuss the individual spells, but overall in order to exceed what weapon users are doing you're going to be rolling harder checks, taking strain (even if you fail! And remember, your checks are harder...), risking worse threat/despair results (which you'll be getting more of...because your checks are harder), and you won't be able to utilize extra maneuvers or talents as often.
Now, I've already been voicing these concerns on social media, and I've already gotten back the response of "magic is more versatile!" While this is true to an extent, I don't think the versatility is worth the steep costs, for two reasons. The first is that the narrative dice system is really awesome in that it gives ALL characters a lot of versatility. How is spending advantage to shoot a steam pipe with your pistol any worse than casting a fog cloud spell? Second, compared with other more narrative systems like Fate, Dungeon World, or Masks, Genesys magic is fairly crunchy. You get versatility in that you have a bunch of mechanical bits that you can tack onto your spells, but they're still defined mechanical bits for the most part. You just happen to get a lot of them. With crunch comes inherent limits, especially considering the escalating difficulty.
Commentary on Magic Spells
Attack: This is a straightforward spell that allows you, as an easy check, to deal Brawl-level damage (base damage equal to your spellcasting attribute) to a target at short range (but not engaged). Brawl attacks, however, get a critical rating of 5 and the knockdown quality. The attack spell has no crit rating (but you can still crit on a Triumph), and no additional effects. But it sure will cost you 2 strain to use! See why you're going to want to modify your spells?
Implements definitely help here. The staff is the implement that increases damage the most (+4), and allows you to bump the range band up by one for free. But you're still underpowered compared with someone using a weapon. Assuming your spellcasting characteristic is 3, you're looking at 7 damage, no crit rating, medium range, and no additional effects. Compare that to a carbine, if you're familiar with Star Wars, which does 9 damage, crits with 3 advantage, shoots to medium range, and has a stun setting. And doesn't cost 2 strain to shoot. If you want to replicate that carbine more, increase your difficulty by two purples to bump the damage up to 10 (double your spellcasting characteristic, plus your staff), and you can increase the difficulty by another purple to either do stun damage, or maybe you'd rather have an actual crit rating of two instead (each one of these effects would increase the difficulty by 1). Say you went with crit rating, because that's probably more useful (unless you're fighting another mage!). Your check is now 4 purples (ouch!) to deal 10 damage (only 1 more than the carbine), at medium range, and you can crit on 2 advantage (one less than the carbine). Your damage and crit are slightly better than the carbine (by 1 each), but your check is twice as hard (shooting a carbine into medium range is two purples), you're taking 2 strain just to use the spell, and you're risking worse threat/despair results. Oh, and since you're so strapped for strain, it's probably worth mentioning that you're going to want to use any advantage you gain on critting, because you increased the difficulty of your check to do that, and so you probably won't be recovering strain through advantage.
It's worth pointing out at this point that I chose the highest-damage implement (staff) for this comparison, and a relatively low-damage ranged heavy weapon (the carbine). Heavier blaster rifles will EASILY outperform a mage.
If we want to stick with fantasy, a non-magical greatsword does 7 base damage (assuming you have a Brawn of 3), crits on a two, has the Defensive 1 and Pierce 1 qualities, and won't cost you strain to use. Oh, and you're only rolling 2 purples.
My assessment is that the designers didn't want the Attack spell to be outperforming weapons. In doing so, I'd recommend mages not even bother using it at all, unless you have a magic orb (you'll be doing less damage than with a staff, but can affect more targets) or a magic wand (depending on the type).
I've also heard arguments on social media amounting to "hey, you always have your magic, but a gun or sword can be taken away!" Not only is this highly situational, but your implement can also be taken away! Now you're dealing brawl-level damage, but so can the melee fighters. They can also grab an improvised weapon and probably still outperform you, unless you really ramp up your difficulty for some extra effects. But they're not burning strain. Seeing a pattern here?
Augment: Make an average check to increase a target's characteristic by 1, for 1 turn (unless you pump maneuvers into Concentration every turn). Considering there's a whole magic skill devoted to making Druids (Primal), THIS is what we're getting for shapeshifting?!?! If you want to go a little further on that front, add a purple for Primal Fury (Primal Only), which lets you add damage equal to your ranks in Knowledge to unarmed combat checks, and gives them a crit rating of 3. Cool, you're spending a turn making a hard check to get slightly better brass knuckles? And spending two strain to do so? Actually, you might as well make that a 4 purple check to tack "Haste" onto yourself (you can always spend 2 maneuvers without using strain). Because one of those maneuvers is going to be sucked up by concentrating on maintaining your shapeshift. Yep, this sucks.
The base effect is pretty similar to the control upgrade of the Enhance Force power, but with Enhance you need only commit a Force die. With Augment you take two strain, have a risk of failure, and then need to spend a Concentration maneuver EACH TURN to maintain your increased characteristic. Given the choice, I think I'd rather play a Jedi than a Genesys mage...
There's also a passing mention of using this spell to grant invisibility or flight, but this should be "at least a hard check." Presumably instead of the normal base effect. I guess that's alright for an Invisibility or Fly spell, but fairly useless for tacking flight onto the base effect to shapeshift into something that flies. Again, I'm focusing on Druid stuff here because they built a whole skill around having a Druid. And yet, the main schtick of the Druid (shapeshifting), is not really supported in a useable way. Augment is worse than the Enhance Force power in every way, and while it's more flexible, it's still not flexible enough to do Wild Shape well.
Barrier: This spell basically sucks unless you apply Reflection (Arcana only) to it for 2 extra purple dice. It reduces incoming damage by 1, for 1 turn (unless you keep using Concentrate maneuvers), and it takes TWO extra uncancelled successes to bump up the extra soak. You better hope you get lucky with a huge difficulty after applying extra targets/range to make this worthwhile (base power only works on one engaged target). Empowering this spell (every ONE uncancelled success adds to the extra soak) might be worthwhile, but increases the difficulty by 2 purples (reducing your likelihood of actually getting uncancelled successes).
Conjure: Depending on how your GM runs it, this spell might actually be overpowered. This is another Concentration spell, so you're spending a maneuver each turn that you want your creature/object to stick around. The base effect is an easy difficulty and can summon a silhouette 0 creature. Adding purples can obviously increase the size of the creature and/or how many you summon, but it's also worth mentioning that they're NOT automatically your allies! You can add a purple die to make them your allies, and if you succeed you can use a maneuver to direct them in combat. Notice something interesting there? You're spending a maneuver to concentrate, AND a maneuver to direct allied summons. That's pretty harsh, and I said this spell could be overpowered, right?
The thing is, there aren't suggested stat blocks which means that the GM is probably going to have to make something up on the spot, until a greater variety of adversaries is published. The potency of this spell will likely depend on which creature(s) you summon, and how your GM chooses to represent those stat blocks. Also, it might be worthwhile to NOT make the creatures your allies. Depending on who/what they are, they may start attacking your enemies anyways. Injecting a little bit of chaos into the battlefield might not be a bad thing!
Here's where this spell really shines, though. The Druidic Circlet is an implement that allows you to make your summoned creatures allies without increasing the difficulty. Boom, done. The creature also lasts the rest of the encounter without requiring you to Concentrate. Oh, baby! So now you only need to spend one maneuver to direct them, but even if you decide you can't do that they're still your allies, and while they might not do exactly what you want them to, they'll probably at least protect you, if not outright attack the enemies (and they certainly won't be attacking you!).
One more noteworthy detail is that until the summoned creature dies, it can attack (probably better than your base attack spell) without an absurd difficulty and without requiring you to spend strain. Cool, you've gained some offensive firepower, but remember how the Barrier spell increases the effective soak of target(s)? Wouldn't it be better to have the PCs not get attacked in the first place? Any damage that a summoned creature takes is damage avoided, and it might end up being more damage than the Barrier spell would have prevented.
If there's a potent spellcaster in this game, it's a summoning Druid.
If there's a potent spellcaster in this game, it's a summoning Druid.
Or, you could have players who haven't thought about the rules well enough fumbling around, using two maneuvers each turn, and depleting their strain really fast. Just because this spell can be powerful doesn't mean I'm calling it well designed.
Curse: This is the opposite of Augment, and likewise the base effect is 2 purple dice. As you might expect, it reduces one of the target's characteristics by 1. This spell actually has some neat additional effects. However, it also has a pretty egregious example of how the designers seem to just hate magic.
Hold Person is a pretty staple spell in D&D (and fantasy in general, though it might not be called that in every setting). It's not even a particularly high level spell in D&D. After all, the magic user is spending their turn to potentially cause an enemy to lose their turn (and maybe future turns). Considering there's a chance for this to fail, in order to make this spell worth your turn it should always be cast on enemies that are significantly MORE powerful than you. Otherwise you're trading your turn for an equal (or lesser!) enemy's turn, and you might as well just do something else at that point. D&D Wizarding 101, right?
Perhaps it's because status effects are less common in Genesys than in D&D, but the designers seem to REALLY value this effect. You have to add THREE purple dice to stagger a target with the paralyze effect, and you're not allowed to combine it with the additional target effect. That's a FIVE purple check to stun ONE target at short range. And you're taking strain, risking enhanced Threat, yada yada yada. If the opponent has ranks in Adversary (remember when I said spells like this are really only useful when the target is stronger than you?), it's even tougher.
I fail to see how this spell will EVER be worth the risk, unless you're rolling 5 positive dice and most of them are yellows. The only silver lining is that IF you manage to succeed at this formidable (literally) task, you can use the Concentrate maneuver to ensure that the enemy stays paralyzed for more than one turn. In fact, it's pretty much mandatory to sustain this. Otherwise you're just trading turns with an enemy. But is the ability to stun-lock really worth such a high difficulty? Couldn't the difficulty have been lowered but while giving the enemy an opportunity to shrug off the paralysis on their turn? That's what D&D does. It works fine. This doesn't. I know you can always house rule, but aren't I paying for this book to get well-designed rules?
I feel really bad for the newb who tries to use this on a low powered rival, or even a minion...
Dispel: Super straightforward, you can make a Hard check to end a magical effect. There are range and additional target upgrade options, and that's about it. I have no problem with this spell, but obviously you're only going to want to spend your turn doing this when the spell effect is pretty nasty.
Heal: This spell is actually pretty good. It's basically like making a medicine check, but the base difficulty is easy. Sweet. It doesn't work on incapacitated targets unless you increase the difficulty by 2 purples, but Medicine checks are also Hard if the target is above their wound threshold. This is balanced out by the fact that healing critical injuries is ALWAYS at least Hard with this spell (regardless of the injury rating). However, the spell can affect additional targets and cure status effects (by adding purples), which I think makes this a great example of magic done well. The added flexibility compared with a Medicine check (and in some cases lower difficulty, i.e. current wounds > 1/2 WT) actually seems to be more or less worth the 2 strain it costs to cast. I'm still a little wary of that nasty increased Threat/Despair table for this spell, but overall I don't think it makes or breaks anything in this case. Easily the most balanced, well-designed spell in the game.
Of note is the fact that you can resurrect a dead character by adding 4 purples to your check. It's unclear whether a dead character also counts as "incapacitated." If so you'll have to add 2 more purples for a total of SEVEN. Considering the designers took strides in reducing the size of dice pools though, I'm guessing that's not the case. Still, if you want to make resurrection REALLY difficult in your campaign, that's an easy thing to add to make it so.
Now, compare the resurrection spell difficulty (1 purple base plus 4 additional purple equals 5 total) to our Paralyze effect in Curse (Hold Person). It's the frickin' same! They're both 5 purples! How on earth is raising the dead even remotely equivalent to temporarily paralyzing a person?
Utility: This is a catchall, "minor magic" spell. Apparently the difficulty should always be easy, and there aren't options for upgrading it in combat. I suppose that's cool and all, but there isn't really any guidance on where to draw the line between this, and narrative magic so minor that it doesn't require a skill check. Magically lighting a torch is given as an example of not requiring a roll, but some of the utility spell examples are levitating a book or transmuting a pebble into a butterfly (among other, more useful examples). How are those two things more useful than magically lighting a torch though? Why are they worth two strain? In a wet, dark dungeon I think lighting the torch might be more useful! Though in adverse conditions, I'd probably say it falls under the umbrella of utility magic anyways.
I think this "spell" is largely redundant. The general rules for magic already say that you can do narrative stuff and if it's worth a roll, it'll require a roll. This spell is quite literally pointless as far as I can see.
Other than that, the only thing I haven't really covered is the Counterspell maneuver, which upgrades the difficulty of all spells within medium range of the caster for a turn. A neat addition, I suppose.
What struck me as I was going through the magic rules is that they take up a total of 10 pages in this 256 page rule book. Not that I'm pining for most D&D Players Handbooks, where magic is often around 1/3 of the page count, but I can't help but feel the Genesys magic treatment is pretty sparse. And while it's sparse and touted as narrative, it sure is composed of a lot of crunchy bits! Which isn't a bad thing, by itself. It just feels like the crunch is limiting for the sake of balance, while at the same time seeming pretty imbalanced. This magic doesn't feel particularly magical, although that might change in play when players are combining these pieces together in a way that represents the spell they're describing. Of course, they'll most likely fail the roll.
There are a lot of ways to represent magic in an RPG. D&D gives you hard limits on the number of spells you can cast per day. I don't think that's ideal, especially considering how low that number is at low levels, and how unmanageably high it gets at high levels. 13th Age gives you a mix of spells you can cast once per day, once per encounter, at-will, or on a random recharge system where if you roll a certain number or higher on a d20 after the encounter, you get your spell back. That system has variety, and accounts for varying power levels between spells really well. Dungeon World balances the fact that you can use magic as often as you want by the consequences that happen when you fail (or partially succeed). When the GM makes a move, it can be harder or softer depending on how potent the magic was. Using the Force in Star Wars depends on the roll of your Force dice, and you can always choose to pay the consequences of using the Dark Side if you really want to succeed.
Genesys magic taps into a resource that characters already depend heavily on: strain. It's not a hard limit on the number of spells you can cast, because there are multiple ways of recovering strain. But Genesys also uses escalating difficulty to represent riskier magic use. In theory, I actually like both of these solutions! However, I don't think they're implemented well. I don't think ALL spells should cost strain. Most games post-3E D&D have given magic users some form of at-will spellcasting (even Pathfinder!), so that they can always feel at least somewhat magical and don't have to carry around backup weapons for when their juice runs out. And these at-will options are usually less powerful than weapons, because the mage obviously has the option to "go nova" when necessary. It seems to me like it wouldn't be unbalanced to have Genesys mages not spend strain for unaugmented spells which, as I discussed, are less powerful than using weapons or other mundane means of solving problems. Most other games are doing it these days.
Consider also how frequently strain is already used. Most of the time when I'm playing Star Wars, my characters are taxing their strain pretty heavily simply through the use of second maneuvers, talents, and rolling Threat. If mages in Genesys are less able to make use of second maneuvers and talents, then that's a hidden cost that they're paying for having magic. And they already have so many obvious costs, like more dangerous Threat/Despair results. Imagine a hypothetical turn where a mage dives into cover, decides that his enemies are dangerous enough that he should pop his two ranks in Side Step for some extra defense (that's 2 strain for the second maneuver, and 2 to fuel the talent), and then casts a spell (now we're up to 6 strain). Uh-oh, he got a Threat on his roll. Most characters aren't too concerned about a measly one Threat, but the GM decides to give the mage 2 strain for it (because that's the first option on the table). In one turn our poor mage has burned through 8 strain, which is likely more than half of his threshold! How many more spells can he afford to cast? How many Concentration maneuvers will he be able to make? This isn't that extreme of an example. My Star Wars characters do stuff like this all the time (minus the spellcasting), but receive less strain for it and generally roll more advantages (due to lower difficulties) that can be used to recover that strain.
I'll almost certainly have to house rule some of the drawbacks of magic, but there are just so many of them that it'll take some experience with the system to see which ones are best to ignore, and to what degree. And this entire post obviously has the caveat that these are my initial impressions. I've read the magic rules, but have not actually played Genesys yet. So take everything I've said with a grain of salt. That said, the numbers on the paper are pretty telling...