New Degenesis players sometimes ask, “Who are the bad guys?” It’s a reasonable question. This is, after all, a setting in which humanity faces an existential threat from an alien force. So ostensibly there are good guys opposing that threat, and bad guys abetting it.
This assumption makes sense in the context of games like D&D, in which character alignments have been baked into play from the beginning. In a game that prioritizes violence as the dominant mode of conflict resolution, pre-sorting actors into easily-discernible alignment categories is a feature, not a bug.
Even if you’re coming from games like Call of Cthulhu and Vampire: The Masquerade, which do not provide mechanical implementations of good and evil, NPCs are often easily categorized as good or evil in a broader story sense.
Degenesis takes a different approach. It places all the inhabitants of the game world (and the game’s players) in a fog of uncertainty and doubt that is not unlike the one we stumble our way through in the real world.
Homo Sapiens is being supplanted by Homo Degenesis. It’s hard to imagine a threat bigger than this. Yet humanity hasn’t come close to agreeing how to confront it. Some devote their lives to fighting it. Some accept that the fight is unwinnable, and try to squeeze what they can out of life while they can. And some don’t even believe the threat is real. It doesn’t take a leap of imagination to analogize this to global warming, COVID-19 response, or nuclear proliferation. No matter how pressing the need for consensus and collaboration, because we all prioritize and perceive the world in infinitely variable ways, humans will often fight and squabble amongst themselves until well past the point of no return.
So while player characters will label groups or individuals as good or evil based on their attitude to the Primer, there’s nothing objective about it. Consider a Scrapper who knows in her heart that the fight against the Primer is utterly doomed. All she wants to do is roam the earth looking for lost treasures, drink when she has enough Drafts, and indulge in Burn when that’s the only thing that will get her through. Spitalians want to take kids and turn them into fodder in their endless, stupid war against the Psychonauts? That’s disgusting. It’s arrogant. And when they come after her with Splayers out, trying to kill her for taking Burn, that’s evil.
Narrowing the scope a bit, the key actors in the Degenesis metaplot may command vast resources and wield tremendous influence on human events, but they are still driven by human emotions and limited by their own perception and priorities. Even Gerome Getrell isn’t operating from a place of omniscience.
Their motives are also seldom clear to others. Usually in tabletop RPGs, as in much popular fiction, it’s easy to spot which side you’re supposed to root for, because the other side is the one loudly proclaiming, “My goal is to kill all the good guys,” or some variation thereof. Not so in Degenesis.
For example, Argyre deploys ferocious servants and controls staggering Bygone powers. But asking if his long term goals are good or evil doesn’t provide much insight, because those goals are intensely personal. His pursuit of those goals will end the lives of many, ruin the lives of others, and benefit some – but in many respects those are just side effects. Whether Argyre is good or evil depends on how his actions affect you personally, and to what degree you buy into one side or another in the primary ideological struggle.
At the root of the metaplot lies a central question about how to survive the Primer’s onslaught. Project Tannhaüser sits at one pole, the Free Spirits at the other. Each represents a worldview, an ideology. Is one good and the other evil? More likely, as with the real-world ideologies that preceded them, they primarily represent the dangers of absolutism.
The Cults of Degenesis demonstrate what happens when groups survive and thrive. The actions that led to collective success harden into guiding principles, rules, and rituals. You’re either on the inside or you’re an outsider. That which causes the Cult to thrive is good. That which reduces its power and influence is evil.
To outsiders, the Cult is a monolith. Whether they are good, evil, or a mixture depends on how the Cult’s actions have impacted you. The Spitalians saved your little village from the rampaging Biokinetic. How could they be anything but heroes? But what if they eradicated your spore-infested family? What if they keep the water and crops in the Protectorate clear of Sepsis but also throw their weight around far too much?
To complicate matters further, those inside a Cult know of the internal struggles for control, the fights to determine its aims and ethics. A Cult is, in actual practice, anything but a monolith. It is composed of and influenced by individual human beings, each doing what they can to extract benefit from the Cult while influencing it to the degree possible.
Every character in Degenesis, just like people in the year 2021, sees themselves as the protagonists in the most important story — their story. Every positive impact they make is intentional, and whatever harms they inflict on the world are forced by unavoidable circumstance. Like us, they can do bad acts and consider themselves to be good people, regardless of how others judge them.
And objective measures of good and evil are, with a very few bright line exceptions, fiendishly difficult to pin down. What’s right and what’s wrong is often heavily dependent on context.
Imagine a young Battle Crow who was sold to the Flock as a child has become a killer, slaughtering the Flock’s enemies at the whim of its Raven. He kills addicts who are overdue paying for distillate. He kills the Judge who sniffs too closely and too intently at the Flock’s operations. He helps keep a criminal enterprise thriving. To most people on the outside, he is engaged in evil.
But to the other members of his Flock, whose lives he has saved many times over, he’s an exemplar. He risks his life for theirs. He shares their grief when comrades fall. He exults with them when they make a big score. He lives life hugely, with passion and joy in his heart. He is a good man.
If you think this gives the Battle Crow too much benefit of the doubt, think of all the acts societies make their soldiers perform in wartime. Under ordinary circumstances stabbing someone to death with a bayonet would be considered a horrible crime. Do that to an enemy combatant in wartime, even if they’re from your own culture, and not only will you be given immunity from moral judgment, you’ll be lauded as a hero.
How individuals respond to the pressures of Culture and Cult is central to Degenesis. Does your PC slavishly follow the dictates of her leaders, or does she subvert those orders when she disagrees with them? Is she doing everything she can to embody the Cult’s ideals, or is she just using it to get two square meals a day and the protection that comes with it? When push comes to shove and she has to choose between her own code and that of her Cult, what will she choose?
Here’s how Marko describes that fundamental tension:
The main story of Degenesis is a human story. It’s about humans that have to get along with one another and it’s always individualism overriding everything – it’s the cause of all drama. Everything breaks down because some guy decides to do something that he wasn’t supposed to do, because he’s you know, willing to go all the way.
And when we’re talking about humans and organizations, I mean, let’s look at the real world. You have police officers who are corrupt, you have police officers who are good people. You have everything in between. You have police officers that believe in God, those that don’t, you know. The job that they’re doing, their commitment to their office is what brought them into the office, but they’re still human beings. They still have their own thoughts, their own needs, their own complaints, their own problems at home, and that’s what Degenesis has always been about.
You could be forgiven for reading all of this and thinking, “Well, in Degenesis there is no good and evil, so it’s advocating moral relativism.” But that’s not the case. Degenesis simply attempts to show humanity in all its messy complexity, rather than in an idealized good versus evil framework that makes violence guilt-free. Just like in real life, determining the right path in Degenesis is hard. The game’s lethal combat mechanics and the confusing and contradictory mixture of ideologies and factions are purposeful:
Here’s Marko again:
I really think life itself gives way more solutions than just always using violence, and what I really hope Degenesis players are doing is trying to find different methods of solving whatever kind of drama they’re confronted with instead of just going the violent route and always [being] like, “Oh, we’re the good guys and we’re gonna clean this up,” but actually questioning what their job is or what their purpose in life is or how to solve this particular scene or this particular scenario.
This approach to morality isn’t for everyone. A player from our group noped out when I pitched Degenesis. He wanted the clear-cut morality of a superhero movie, and I can understand why. I’ve played many a D&D session, and I get the allure of murderhobing your way through a fantasy setting, saving the world, and getting rich along the way. It’s a nice respite from the compromises and frustrations of real life.
But for me the richness and depth of the Degenesis approach gives rise to character arcs and lengthy, engaging stories that deliver an emotional punch over the course of a campaign. As with all things Degenesis, the more you put into it, the more you get out of it.
Those Marko quotes came from Episode 11 of The Cluster Speaks (Spotify - Apple Podcasts), the splendid podcast hosted by the dynamic duo of Erwan and Gunsmile (with me as a guest host). Marko provides deep insights into the worldbuilding behind the game. This really is a must-listen for any Degenesis fan.