Degenesis: Artifacts – The Actual Play Review
TL;DR — This is a nutrient-rich blend of rules additions, lore, and guidance that will help players and the GM create better Degenesis campaigns. Whether you’re a Degenesis veteran or a newcomer, Artifacts is a must-have. In this review I’ll explain what it provides and give some examples of how it can be put to good use.
Artifacts is the first rules supplement for Degenesis:Rebirth. It covers a wide range of topics from combat and healing to energy and memetics. I was fortunate to get a pre-release review copy of the PDF and have given it a thorough read and used it in actual play for several sessions. Based on my group’s experience, there’s plenty here for GMs and players alike.
First, a bit about my relationship to Degenesis: I discovered the game by purchasing the core books in PDF form. That convinced me to buy the print version. I took my time reading the books and waited for the right time to spring the game on my Friday night group. They bought into the concept and I started a campaign. I’ve since written an initial review and a follow up actual-play review, and have become an active member of the Degenesis Discord. Our campaign is 24 sessions deep, with no end on the horizon. So I’m approaching Artifacts as a committed Degenesis enthusiast. I won’t pretend to be a disinterested, wholly objective reviewer.
With that in mind, this review is an exploration of what the book can bring to your campaign, not an analysis of whether Artifacts is a useful supplement or not. If you’re playing Degenesis or if you’ve got the core books and have been waffling on whether to give the game a try, this book will help you.
Degenesis: Artifacts is broken into twelve chapters, with several pages of charts summarizing key info at the end. As you’d expect from SIXMOREVODKA, the layout and art are stylish and evocative. Most of the art is astounding; some of my favorite Degenesis images are found in this book.
Also, because the Katharsys mechanics and the game world are so tightly coupled, by reading Artifacts you can’t help but learn more about the Cults, Clanners, Psychonauts, Sleepers, and other forces at work in the post-Eschaton world of Degenesis. GMs hungry to learn more about the setting will find plenty to chew on here.
As I run through each chapter I’ll provide teasers, little ideas that came to mind as I was reading the book, examples of how Artifacts provides fuel for GMs and players.
Gaze of Fate
The Degenesis campaign setting is expansive, spanning a broad range of geographies, cultures and technological sophistication. Because of this there will always more to explore, gaps that need to be filled in by the GM, details that just couldn’t be included in the core books. That’s the nature of a world as rich as Degenesis.
Thankfully Artifacts fills in and solidifies aspects of the world that were previously only hinted at, making it feel even more lived in and engaging. These details are also fertile soil for creative GMs to nurture interesting situations for their players. Here’s what I mean:
Energy covers how sophisticated Bygone technology can continue to operate five centuries after the Eschaton, and describes more pedestrian power sources as well:
- E-Cubes are so valuable that they’re used as a form of currency in some places, and a certain Cult will pay handsomely for them. Perhaps they need to hire a team to obtain more.
- If you want to get Bygone technology to work, you may need to modify how it’s powered. Imagine if a group got hold of an impressive Bygone artifact but needed help to make it function.
- Petro and coal deliver power in communities large and small across the known world, but they can both be fickle and dangerous. What happens when a source of strength becomes a vulnerability?
Economy is one of my favorite sections. It reveals the inner workings of the Neolybian trade empire and gives an enterprising GM scaffolding for a Neolybian-centered campaign. Even if the trader cult isn’t at the center of your campaign, there’s plenty to use here:
- A young Neolybian working his first concession may be willing to take great risks to make a profit, including hiring untested freelancers to remove obstacles.
- The Bank of Commerce giveth and it taketh away. Every Neolybian who finances an expedition on their own is thumbing their nose at the power that undergirds the empire. Such renegades may need extra protection.
- Financing a concession outside normal channels might involve hidden investors, investors who want to ensure their interests are being safeguarded. They may seek the help of deniable assets who keep an eye on the concession on the sly.
Digging deeper, the book also provides goodies that will tempt GMs but should be used sparingly because of their power to affect a campaign:
Primal Ingenuity will blow your mind. One of the best things about Degenesis is that the very substance that is destroying humanity can also prove indispensable in certain circumstances. To drive that point home, this chapter reveals how components from vanquished Psychonauts can be harvested for effects ranging from useful to twisted and dangerous:
- The adventurers are about to enter into a very important negotiation. Their future rests on outcome of this meeting. What can give them an advantage? Allure will definitely do the trick. It is said that it can be found in the back streets of Terres Putain, for a price.
- If you want to find a Paler bunker or an ancient Bygone tunnel system, you’ll want a special implement. There’s only one hitch: in order to make one, you need to kill a Dushani.
- In a hidden facility certain cultists are willing to try just about anything to turn themselves into warriors powerful enough to fight Psychonauts on equal footing. Are you ready to roll the dice with your life, with your soul, for this power?
Artifacts provides a wide range of exotic and dangerous Bygone implements to sprinkle into the game world. I find this chapter valuable not just because of the artifacts themselves, but because they provide inspiration for other artifacts of my own devising. Any of these could form the core of an adventure:
- Chronicler security cameras captured the intrusion, but the Fuse is baffled by a glitch in the footage. The order comes down: find the infiltrator and more importantly, find out how they rendered the Alcove’s primary security system useless.
- Henri was always a reckless soul. But it’s still a bit puzzling why he deliberately provoked the two biggest Scrappers in the bar, which of course meant the rest of your group had to get involved. The next thing you knew, the whole place was engulfed in a massive brawl. Maybe it had something to do with the Magpie Henri was talking to earlier?
- This is a mission of utmost secrecy. The highest ranks of the cult are oblivious to its existence, and for good reason – if it fails, the damage could be extensive. The plans must be perfectly understood by the one who has to pull the trigger. It’s time to use the one artifact that is guarded more zealously than all the rest.
Memetics is another mind-bending chapter. Memetics is one of the elements of Degenesis that has long captivated me, because it provides a bridge between the Byone era and life five centuries later. This chapter makes memetics real and suitably powerful. GMs now have the details they need to use Sleepers in their campaigns, to frightening effect:
- Weeks of travel, days of reconnoitering, hours of carefully-prepared planning have paid off. The bunker has been sealed. The Palers have been dispensed with. The cryostasis pods are in sight! With the technology found in this one room, you’ll be invincible. But your body won’t move. Your mind is flooded with confusion; you can’t lift your feet. Something ahead is moving. Oh sh… .
- From the north they come, bearing good news. They have received the word of God, but holiness and sacrifice are not necessary – the Anabaptists and Jehammedans have it all wrong. Just bend the knee, they say, and the Anointed One will protect and provide. The future is bright, do not be afraid!
- Checksum examines the carnage. The battle was extensive. Both clans effectively wiped each other out, the few remaining combatants fled in opposite directions. This will leave an opening for the Gazmani to take over the entire valley. She looks up at Regex. “The 500s are flexing their power here. We must inform.” Regex nods. They have little time to prepare.
Players get a trove of goodies as well. When I showed the player-facing chapters to my weekly Degenesis crew, they were immediately engrossed. First there are now more implements that can be used used to kill or be killed with, which should make players excited and nervous at the same time. Also, all the Potentials from various Degenesis publications have been collected in one place with plenty of new ones added along the way, and a host of new gear provides new ways to stay alive.
Those are welcome additions, but the literal game-changer is the addition of expanded character creation options and mechanics for the cultivation of player character groups. Let’s start with those first:
Legacy can be easily retrofitted into existing characters and gives players meaningful backstory that can both help the player develop their character and give the GM hooks to use when building out the campaign:
- When he went through initial training in the Spital, Armani heard rumors of secret knowledge, teachings the cult wanted silenced. He found reports, pieced together pieces of information, and came to not just understand, but to believe. He dare not admit it to anyone in the cult, but he knows he can no longer ignore the truth.
- Judge Schwer told you to do it. You didn’t ask, you didn’t question, because you wanted to prove to him that you were worthy, that you could be relied upon, could be entrusted with the deepest secrets. Your order will take care of you and preserve you from the ramifications of your actions — you hope.
- Your parents didn’t just disappear. They were murdered. In the sea of criminality that infects the world, that killer still swims. You may not find him today or tomorrow, or a month from now, or in a year. But you will find him, and you will deliver your own justice.
Scars may be my favorite chapter. Degenesis players and GMs frequently ask why their characters would be together if they hail from different Cults or Clans. Scars provides a solid mechanism for helping player groups build a rationale for staying together, and provides mechanical benefits for doing so. This could feel forced but it doesn’t, primarily because the reasons characters would collaborate fit with the overall feel of Degenesis, which is that groups come together out of self-interest more than any higher calling:
- Lawful Good? True Neutral? No! Alignments are about how your group finds common cause. The Sons of Lucatore are aligned by loyalty. They grew up together and have each other’s backs because of shared history and years of getting into scrapes together.
- Take out the Burn-jacked Clanner in the lead and the rest will flee. Lukas knows he has to buy time for Roch so he can line up a shot. The huge Judge leaps out from behind the massive oak and shakes his hammer with a roar. “Come get me, cowards!” The crazed Clanner slows his run slightly and smiles as hey yells back, “You’re first, book boy!” Roch brackets that grinning face in his sights and releases his breath. The trigger squeeze is silky smooth, and with a slight kick, the Trailblazer sends a round downrange. The Clanner’s head explodes.
- They’ve never even been to Perugia, so gathering information in this run-down bar should be easy. They’re just some nameless travelers from up north. But as they sip drinks and listen to the barkeep’s blabber, a pair of young Famulancers approach. “Hey, you’re the Sons of Lucatore, aren’t you? We heard about what happened on the Roma-Bergamo Road. Are the stories true?” So much for laying low.
Potentials collects all the Potentials from In Thy Blood, The Killing Game, and Black Atlantic and adds a few more:
- The Clanners have the advantage in numbers. They shout and rush forward, confident of success. But the Spitalians bring a more powerful advantage to the battle: the Phalanx. They form a line, brace themselves, and thrust their Splayers out. This wall will be difficult to pierce. Many Clanners will die trying.
- Kozinsky brings his muzzle-loader to his shoulder. It’s a heavy weapon, and the thief is fast. He’ll be over the crest of the hill and out of sight in no time, well before Kozinsky can reload. The first shot goes wide. The thief grins, knowing he has survived an encounter with the district’s most dangerous Judge. Then he hears the crack of that damned muzzle-loader as the round hits him in the left thigh, knocking him down. Nobody can reload one of those things that fast he thinks as he loses consciousness.
- She reaches to pull her combat knife from Eyabu the Embalmer, and wipes the blood on a handkerchief. “For Hybrispania!” the Corredore grunts with satisfaction, turning to rejoin her comrades. Then she hears something behind her. She turns and sees the Anubian standing, blood dribbling from his mouth, resolute, pistol in hand.
In addition to those chapters, the dangerous world of Degenesis now has more ways to fight, heal, and survive. Yes, Degenesis was already gritty, but some of the goodies here bring that extra bit of flavor that can add a lot of drama and danger to your campaign.
Survival helps the GM convey in mechanical terms the effects of dealing with extreme weather, exhaustion, and lack of food and water:
- Donner has been waiting for hours. The snow is piling up around him. He can barely feel his fingers, and his throat burns from the cold. Wind whips the snow in front of him. Finally the target comes into view, stumbling through the whiteness. Donner has to make this shot count, but he’s having a tough time focusing. Fucking winter.
- The Clanners are relentless in their pursuit. You’ve been up for a full day and a full night, and now as the sun is about to set on your second full day fleeing from them, Alex falters. He drops to his knees, then falls flat, passed out from fatigue. There’s nowhere to hide on this desolate plain. Rutyen looks at you and grunts, “Get ready to fight.”
- The Cormorants don’t bother killing their captives. It’s not worth the effort. So they toss a log into the sea and boot you into the water. By the time you all swim to the log, the realization kicks in – it won’t be lack of food that’ll get you, it’ll be lack of water. The Cormorants are not without a sense of irony.
Arsenal is for everyone who wants more guns and ammo, mods, a couple of brawl moves, and downright frightening weapons:
- The chainsaw sputters to life. The Arborist revs it, and the feral growl of the ancient machine echoes through long passageways. One of the Paler guards turns and runs in wordless terror. The other stands rooted in place, paralyzed by fear. The Arborist approaches and guns the chainsaw again.
- “And this one,” chuckles Mitzi, “this one got a bit overzealous with the black powder.” She picks up the shredded musket barrel and looks at the dead Judge’s face, torn apart by fragments when the barrel exploded. She turns to her young protégé. “Let this be a lesson. If you ever get hands on a musket, only overload it if you’re damn sure the barrel has been reinforced.”
- Snick. Snick. Snick. The magnetic lock opens. For five centuries this arms locker has been sealed. Cosine opens the door. Two dozen carbines and several crates of ammo. This will shift the balance of power in the area.
Combat provides new and interesting ways to rumble. Want to disarm an opponent? Want to taunt him into making a rash action? It’s here. What happens when an outnumbered combatant stands and fights, and what makes her decide to flee instead? Yep, it’s all here, along with more:
- Rayna darts through the ancient ruins, leaping over cracks in the crumbling concrete and ducking under huge tree limbs. She spies a large rusted metal box and hides behind it, peering over the edge. Her pursuer lumbers into view, confident in that damned Hellvetic getup. But the Hellvetic obviously doesn’t know there’s a gap between his chestpiece and backplate armor. Rayna grins and takes out her long knife.
- Tzikis squeezes off another shot and hears it crunch into the thick brick wall. “You can keep shooting at that wall, fool, but those little rounds will take forever to get through it. Better wait until he pops his head up to look around,” his spotter whispers. Tzikis narrows his eyes and looks down the barrel of the ancient rifle. The head pops up and Tzikis fires, hitting the wall yet again. If only he were a better shot.
- The Clanner is preoccupied at the sight of a pair of mounted Scourgers barreling toward him. He has no idea Lukas is behind him, sword in hand. The stealthy Judge reaches out from behind a tree and brings the blade across the Clanner’s throat. The man goes down silently, blood gushing from his neck.
Health is another of my favorite sections. In addition to providing more detail on the effects of Burn, it describes cures used in various Cultures, explores the effects of performance-enhancing substances, and provides many tools for making combat less binary. It’s not just about whether you live or die, because depending on the wound, you may be in for a lot of pain and trouble. In particular it reinforces the dangers of combat by presenting nonlethal harm and making healing less predictable:
- “Whoa, stop!” Roch barks at the Clanner. “Let me pour some distillate on it before you put the bandage on, or it’ll get infected. Trust me, you don’t want that.”
- The explosion is deafening, and it blows Mosi back, painfully smacking him against a tree trunk. He sits, ears bleeding, eyes struggling to focus. He knows he’s been trained to do something in situations like this, but he can’t remember what it is. The roaring in his head is too much. He just wants to close his eyes, just for a moment.
- Mendel wakes with a start. All she can see is a whitewashed ceiling. Her legs are numb and She feels a jab in her chest with every shallow breath. One of the medics leans over her and slides a needle into a vein in her right arm. As she slides back to unconsciousness she hears the medic’s voice: “Don’t worry, comrade. You’re in the Spital now. You’ll be fine.”
Artifacts highlights the flexibility of the Katharsys mechanics that power Degenesis. Most of the rules additions are quite straightforward and easy to adjust. Want to make starvation even more deadly? Change the starvation interval from two weeks to one. You can also pick and chose which of the Artifacts materials you want to incorporate into your game. If Legacy and Scars don’t seem useful, just bypass them.
I do have some minor quibbles with some of the rules, but as mentioned above, they are so easily modified that house-ruling negates any concerns. The Charts section at the end of the book is quite helpful, gathering up stats from the various chapters. My biggest ask would be for linking in the PDF. Although modern PDF reader apps make text searching fast and easy, even the addition of basic chapter-level links in the PDF would be handy. [2020-04-13 update: the release version of the PDF is extensively bookmarked]
Overall Degenesis: Artifacts is just the kind of supplement I was hoping for from the SIXMOREVODKA crew. It expands the game without adding unnecessarily complications, it fleshes out the world in more detail, it presents the GM with all kinds of hooks to build off of, and it helps players build characters and teams that fit the setting organically.
No Dinars Required
As with the core rulebook, the PDF of Artifacts is available for free from the Degenesis website, where you can also order the print version.
2021-03-29: I recently started a blog devoted purely to Degenesis. Check it out: Train to Baikonur.