|July 17, 2009||Posted by Martin Ralya|
I was offered the chance to write a GMing article about White Wolf’s upcoming Geist: The Sin Eaters RPG, and I jumped at that chance. Geist is one of the games I’ve been looking forward to most this year, and I’m excited to check it out — and share it with you — a month before it’ll be available in stores.
I got a free PDF copy of the full retail game (pictured to the right; here’s a larger cover) from White Wolf, and they made just one request: Don’t share anything about Manifestations, the Twilight Network, the Underworld chapter, and Ceremonies. I don’t need to address those sections to talk about running Geist, so you’re not missing out.
So how would you go about GMing Geist? Here’s the short version: Unlike its predecessor, Wraith: The Oblivion, Geist cries out to be run — and gives you all the tools you need to do just that.
Want to know more? Read on for an in-depth, 4,400-word look at Geist from a game mastering perspective, written by a veteran GM.
(In conjunction with this preview, I recommend checking out the free Geist quickstart PDF, which you can download directly from White Wolf.)
Where I’m Coming From
I’ve been GMing since 1989, freelancing for the RPG industry since 2004, and writing about game mastering on the web (and in print) since 2005, both here on the Stew and on my previous site, Treasure Tables. In that time, I’ve run and played all sorts of games.
Over the past few years, the new World of Darkness system (nWoD) has become my favorite set of roleplaying rules. Five years ago, I would have said D&D 3.x; five years from now, who knows. But right now, nWoD hits nearly all of the high notes I look for in a gaming system — and it’s no coincidence that the best game I’ve ever run was a Mage: The Awakening chronicle, and the most interesting player characters I’ve ever created have all been WoD or nWoD characters.
This a system that not only encourages roleplaying, but facilitates it — and then gets out of the way so that you and your group can just enjoy doing it. It also glories in hard character choices, both in mechanical decisions like point distribution and in actual play, in the form of the flavor of the Morality system that fits the setting/game line you choose.
I also view White Wolf in much the same way I view HBO: HBO almost never makes a bad show, and even though there are lots of HBO shows that I don’t enjoy, I recognize how good they are and why others might like them. For me, White Wolf has that same touch with games — they only rarely make bad games, though there are many that just don’t appeal to me.
So that’s why Geist is one of my most anticipated titles of this year, and part of where I’m coming from in considering it from a GMing perspective. This isn’t a review — although as always with these preview articles, review elements will naturally emerge — but I still want you to know where my head is.
Geist = Wraith?
Wraith: The Oblivion is one of my all-time favorite RPGs to read, particularly the core book, the Great War sourcebook, and Dark Reflections: Spectres (from White Wolf’s Black Dog imprint, and featuring the gorgeous and fucked-up artwork of Vince Locke and Guy Davis, two of the best artists working in comics today).
Wraith was compelling, fascinating, and — at times — disturbing. Not to mention full of crazy-awesome ideas, like having every player at the table play another player’s character’s dark side — their Shadow — and the whole concept of soul-forging, whereby most souls in the underworld are literally transformed into objects.
If you want a great gaming read, pick up just about any Wraith book and you won’t be disappointed. But as a game, Wraith fell down pretty hard; both times I’ve played Wraith lasted exactly one session.
In part, it was due to the fact that we were all in high school and had no idea what we were doing — but it’s not just that, because we also did some damned fine gaming back then. The other factor was Wraith itself, a game that made many players say, “We’re dead. Now what?”
And Wraith didn’t exactly hold your hand through figuring out how to answer that question. It was challenging to say the least, and for many folks, downright difficult to get a handle on. The one time I gave serious consideration to GMing it, I went through my core book like a textbook, and marked up everything I wanted to be sure I grokked about the game world before starting up the game — which never did get started up, needless to say.
Were there great Wraith chronicles? I’m sure there were — but I never played one, and I’ve heard very few stories about successful Wraith games over the years.
So when I sat down to look at Geist, it’s partly with this in mind: Will Geist, like Wraith, be a fascinating, amazing book but a difficult game to actually run or play?
Let’s find out.
OK, That Was Quick
Geist: The Sin-Eaters is not Wraith: The Oblivion.
There’s a reason it’s not called “Wraith: The Something Else”: Geist builds on the lore and concepts of Wraith, but it is an entirely different game, not a Wraith remake.
In Wraith, the PCs were dead — ghosts, essentially, in a chronicle set in the underworld (with limited exceptions, like the Risen). Wraiths could interact with the mortal world, but it was difficult; they spent most of their time dealing with underworld stories, separate from the rest of the World of Darkness.
This made it tough to tie Wraith in with the rest of the World of Darkness — fundamentally, it was almost impossible to mix a Wraith chronicle with any of the other lines. And it also made it hard for players and GMs to get a handle on exactly what was supposed to happen in a Wraith chronicle.
Not so in Geist. This is from the Introduction, the very first thing you read after the opening fiction:
“The shadow of the Reaper is what gives life meaning. In the World of Darkness, none are more keenly aware of this dichotomy than those who have died and returned to life. Not undead, not revenants, not ghosts — but living human beings who have been bound with ethereal chains to the forces of Death itself. They carry geists inside them, spectral shades that are more than ghosts. They are the Sin-Eaters, the keepers of the keys. Geist is a game about their stories.”
That’s a marked difference from most of the other relaunched nWoD titles. For example, when I compare the two White Wolf games I’m most familiar with — Mage: The Ascension, which I played for a year, and Mage: The Awakening, which I GMed for a year — the differences between the two versions are much less pronounced.
In Geist, the PCs aren’t dead, aren’t ghosts, and aren’t stuck in the underworld. They’re part of the World of Darkness, just like their mage, vampire, werewolf, and other nWoD counterparts. (And interestingly, in a departure for White Wolf, the main title of the game does not describe the PCs — who are Bound, or Sin-Eaters, not geists.)
There are similarities in theme and tone between Geist and Wraith — enough so that you can see how Geist has its origins in Wraith — but Geist is its own animal. The biggest difference for me is that it’s more playable. Fetters are a perfect example of this.
Wraith used Fetters (unfinished business in the mortal world) as the core of its gameplay — which was problematic, because it encouraged “micro-stories” where each player did their own thing. So not only did you wonder what the hell you were supposed to do, but when you figured it out you discovered that it likely didn’t involve the other players.
There’s no Fetter analog in Geist. The PCs are all part of the same group — their krewe, a nod to Carnivale (and a recurring theme throughout Geist) — and have ample reasons to stick together and share the same stories.
In Geist, the hook is that every player character has had a death experience and made a bargain with a geist, making them one of the Bound — also called Sin-Eaters — and giving them the ability to see and interact with ghosts.
Why “Bound”? Because the geist inside your PC has its own goals, and together you have the power to intercede in the lives of mortals — killing or sparing them — as well as to “eat the sins” of ghosts, releasing them into oblivion.
But who deserves to be spared, or struck down? And whose sins should you eat, or pass up? That’s the core of Geist: second chances, death, and hard choices.
And as a GM, hitting the end of the very first bit of the introduction told me two things: I want to run this game, and I could run this game.
The hook is fucking fantastic.
Will I Like It?
If you’re not a fan of Wraith, and the hook intrigues you, then yes. Give Geist a shot.
If you are a fan of Wraith — and in particular of its two core differences from Geist: running a chronicle featuring ghosts, that is set in the underworld — then you may or may not like Geist. They’re not the same game.
Compared to White Wolf’s most recent remake, Hunter: The Vigil, which retained its core concept (mortals fighting the supernatural) but discarded nearly everything that made Hunter: The Reckoning an awesome game — and replaced it with a hot tranny mess of stuff that, while cool, doesn’t look fun, practical, or playable — Geist is conceptually sound and looks like a ton of fun to run and play.
You don’t need to know anything about Wraith to have a good time GMing or playing Geist. Geist stands on its own, and will be easier to grok and actually play than Wraith ever was.
Want to GM a Geist chronicle? The following steps are based on a combination of my template for GMing any new game, 17 Steps to GMing a New RPG for the First Time, and my experience with the last game I GMed: a year-long Mage: The Awakening chronicle.
This approach worked well for me, resulting in a game that despite its imperfections was the best game I’ve ever run, and it’s the approach I’d use to starting up a Geist chronicle myself.
Step 1: Learn the lore
To run a White Wolf game well, you need to have a good grasp of the lore — the stuff that makes it unique, and which informs the theme, tone, and style of your game.
Geist makes this simple: The entire first chapter — close to 60 pages — is an overview of what Geist is about, what kinds of stories it lends itself to, what the PCs might be like, why it will be fun to play, and how you can go about running it.
In fact, it’s one of the best introductions to a game that I’ve ever read. Every RPG should include an intro this gratifying, enjoyable, and comprehensive.
White Wolf learned from Wraith, and it shows: You can read the first chapter of Geist and have a solid grounding in how to GM Geist, as well as plenty of ideas for getting your chronicle off the ground.
I like to learn the lore in WoD games by considering three big questions as I’m reading.
Step 2: Answer the big three
As with most WoD games, you can get at the heart of Geist by answering these three questions:
1. What are the PCs? In Geist, the PCs are all mortals who died, but only for a moment — and in that moment, struck a supernatural deal with an entity from the underworld, a geist, who climbed inside them. They are Bound — joined entities that, while still very much mortal, are technically no longer human. They exist in the same World of Darkness as hunters, vampires, etc.
Geist PCs were always a little different — a little off. Long before they became Bound, they had some kind of connection to the world of the dead. When they die and strike the Bargain — becoming Sin-Eaters, hosting a geist (a being that is “more than ghost, less than god”) inside them, and gaining their second lifetime — that connection deepens.
When they become Bound, the PCs gain a the ability to interact with and influence the world of the dead. Their geists give them powers, but every geist has an agenda of its own — and they’re not exactly pleasant entities. Geists are monsters, but while they remain inside one of the Bound, the Bound control them.
2. How do they see the world? The Bound see the world through death-colored glasses, and their lives become ghost stories. Once their eyes are opened to the world of the dead, they see them everywhere. Their view of the world is also impacted by the manner in which they died, as that connects them to a geist that embodies a certain archetype.
There is also a loose culture that binds the PCs to others of their kind, most often in krewes (parties). That culture draws on apocalyptic and religious imagery, as well as on Carnivale and other similar celebrations of death.
At the end of the day, the PCs see the World of Darkness through two sets of eyes: they see the quick and the dead, and what they see is colored by their soul-bound geist inhabitants.
3. What kinds of stories can you play? As Sin-Eaters, the PCs — whether out of obligation, obedience to tradition, personal interest, or genuine concern — deal with ghosts. They can help them, destroy them, or grant them their final rest. Ghosts can see them, too, and as you might expect they will often engage the PCs for their own reasons.
And ghost stories nearly always involve mortals, too — so a whole spectrum of chronicle themes and scenario options opens up, from literal ghost stories to dealing with mortals who have been impacted by the dead.
There’s also the other supernatural entities in the World of Darkness to consider, many of whom overlap with the world of the dead in some fashion (from mages with the Death arcanum to vampires, who cause their share of death) — as well as rival krewes and other political considerations within the world of the Sin-Eaters.
Step 3: Pitch it to your players
In my experience, some players will happily buy a rulebook sight unseen and check it out in anticipation of playing a new game, and others will rely on you to sell them on the game. Both groups, however, will benefit from hearing why you want to GM Geist — and why they should be stoked about it.
Here’s what stands out for me, and what I’d talk about if I were pitching Geist to my group:
- The core concept. I love the idea of the PCs being inhabited by geists, and of those geists having agendas of their own. I also love that the PCs will be interacting with the world of the dead, making incredibly hard choices about how lives and who dies, and which ghosts are laid to rest. That’s absolutely the kind of Geist game I want to run, and I’d want my players to know exactly what they’d be getting into.
- “Eat, drink and make merry, for tomorrow you may die.” Your players may assume that their characters have to dress in black, spend all day with ghosts, and have no fun. Not so: Geist is very clear that its tone is informed by the morbid, but not limited by it — and that it’s inspired by Dia del los Muertos and Carnivale. I’d put that concern to rest right up front.
- The Bargain. As a Sin-Eater, one of the Bound, every PC has experienced a traumatic event — one in which, even if just for a moment, they died. And in that moment, they made the Bargain, and bound a geist to their souls. That geist gives each character supernatural powers, and offers them a second life, but it also has its own agenda; they’re not evil so much as alien. The dichotomy between Bound and geist is at the heart of Geist.
- Thresholds. How you died is how you are reborn. The Torn died by violence; the Silent by deprivation; the Prey by nature; the Stricken by pestilence; and the Forgotten by chance. That’s a cool hook that immediately gets me thinking about a rather unusual question: “How did my character die?” It should do the same for your players.
- Krewes. Krewes are Geist’s version of cabals (Mage) or packs (Werewolf) — the party made up of the PCs. The PCs will be part of the same krewe, and have a solid reason for sticking together.
- Ghost stories and mortal tales. Although technically no longer human, the Bound are mortals — and Geist is a game about both ghost stories and mortal tales. That’s fertile ground for a diverse chronicle. The PCs will be interacting with ghosts often: banishing or destroying them, unraveling their mysteries, fighting them off, and more.
That should be enough to a) give your players a taste of what Geist is about, and b) figure out what interests them most. They’re likely to latch onto different things: someone will love the idea of playing ghost stories; another player will want to explore the dual nature of the Bound; and another might be most interested in making tough moral choices.
You have the latitude to run a chronicle that touches all of those things (and more), but this initial discussion will help you decide as a group what you’d like to focus on in your chronicle.
Step 4: Find a focus
There are two ways you can tackle this step: after talking to your players, or before then (in other words, as Step 3, with pitching as Step 4).
With my recent Mage: The Awakening chronicle, I found my focus as Step 4, after talking things over with my group to suss out what they were most interested in.
This is the most variable step, as it depends entirely on a) whether you did it earlier or do it now, and b) how the conversation with your players goes.
Either way, the end result should be the same: you have a good idea what interests your players about Geist, what interests you about running it, and what kind of chronicle those elements suggest.
And again, as long are the core concepts of Geist appeal to you and your group, the game is flexible enough to enable you to play all sorts of stories; you can easily satisfy a range of player interests.
Step 5: Pick a city
Like most WoD games, Geist will benefit from a strong city-based structure. The core book presents New York City as the game’s default setting — “the Modern Gomorrah.” (Having grown up there, I must say that I really miss Gomorrah’s bagels.)
The appendix that covers NYC makes a fascinating point: “More people live — and die — in New York City than in any other city in the United States. With more than 8 million residents in the metropolitan area, more than 60,000 lives end every year in the Big Apple: one every 10 minutes around the clock, every hour of every day throughout the year.”
This means that NYC has one of the world’s largest populations of both ghosts and Sin-Eaters, and that’s one factor that makes it a great choice for a Geist chronicle.
That said, the New York appendix is pretty thin. There’s enough there to start a chronicle in NYC, but you’re going to want to dig a lot deeper, and create a lot of material on your own. If you like the idea of setting your game there, go for it — but don’t ignore the option to pick another city.
When I was kicking around concepts for my Mage game with my players, Boston (that game’s default setting) didn’t grab me, so I suggested Salt Lake City — a local chronicle, with part of the fun coming from seeing how SLC looks in the World of Darkness. They suggested Las Vegas, and their suggestion rocked. I set the chronicle in Vegas, and I loved it.
Whatever city you choose, I recommend buying a tourist guidebook and a map of that city, as well as a specific book for the region (if available):
- The tourist guidebook will help you ground your chronicle in reality in all the right ways, as well as giving you ideas for set-piece locations — and answers to your players’ surprise questions about the city. If you live in the city you chose (always an interesting option), you may not need a guidebook; if not, it’s a good idea. For my Mage game, I used and liked Econoguide Las Vegas; another GM in our group likes the Not For Tourists series.
- Some guidebooks have a good map, but most fall down in some area. When I was running Mage, I went with Streetwise Las Vegas, a laminated fold-out map that worked well. It’s a durable, simple, easy-to-reference option. I also created a player-viewable custom Google Map for my game, and added significant locations to it throughout the chronicle; if you run your chronicle with a laptop at the table, you can easily skip the physical map.
- The “Weird [Place Name]” series is an excellent source of inspiration for WoD games. I bought Weird Las Vegas and Nevada for Mage, and pulled one major location, a scene, and plenty of inspiration from it. The series covers many cities and regions in the U.S.
Step 6: Brainstorm
This is a fuzzy process — I can’t tell you how best to brainstorm, because what works best is likely to be personal to you.
But I can recommend four specific techniques that worked well for me with Mage:
- Come up with strong, clear ideas that you can use as a wellspring throughout your chronicle — ideas that you can return to as often as needed when you’re not sure which direction to go next. And once your game has begun, come back to your initial ideas — the ones closest to the original spark that inspired you — before creating new material.
- Write down whatever comes to mind at first, then look for patterns and points of high interest, winnow down your ideas from there, and develop what you’re left with.
- Loosely plot out one likely course for the entire chronicle, then break that down into possible story arcs. During play, you’ll want to stay flexible about your plans and mold them to your players’ developing interests, but having a goal in mind throughout will improve your game.
- Think about the scope of your chronicle — including the ending. This might go against what you’re used to, but in my experience WoD games can feel too “sandbox-y” for some players. Having a clear, loosely defined ending in mind will help you focus your chronicle on the scenes that are the most important and most fun — and provide some structure for players who need it.
…and highlight three chronicle concepts that stood out for me while reading Geist:
- What the fuck are we?: This is in some ways the “classic” mold for a Geist chronicle: run everyone’s preludes, get the krewe together, and roleplay the crap out of figuring out what the player characters’ lives have become. Geist’s world is fascinating, and this basic approach holds a lot of appeal for me.
- Seven deaths: This is one of the chronicle ideas straight from the Storytelling chapter: Structure your chronicle around seven stories (arcs, each featuring multiple chapters, or scenarios), with each story beginning or ending with a death. Your players would pick up on this structure early on, and like a good TV show you’d all start to anticipate what was going to happen as the game transitions from one story to the next.
- The hunting krewe: Toss out the usual city-based structure, and create a krewe of PCs dedicated to hunting down malevolent entities. This would produce a dramatically different play style than the average Geist chronicle — more action-oriented, and perhaps more black and white. The focus on travel would also be interesting.
Step 7: Craft your first scenario
Because WoD games — Geist included — facilitate roleplaying so well, I find (both as a player and as a GM) that individual sessions/scenarios tend to work best with three to five meaty, discrete scenes apiece. When I write a WoD scenario, that’s how I approach it.
To give your players a chance to feel out their characters, krewe dynamics, the Geist world, and your GMing style, it’s best to run a background-independent pilot session. Make sure it connects to your chronicle, but keep it somewhat standalone as well.
To help connect the events of the first session to the PCs, make sure every character has at least one spotlight moment. This will get your players engaged and demonstrate that you’re serious about tailoring the game to their characters, both of which are good things.
Once you’ve written the pilot session, run that puppy — and roleplay it to the hilt. Try to bring out the core themes of your chronicle, and of Geist, and keep the game moving at a good pace.
Step 8: Assess, adapt, and keep on trucking
After your first session, consider what worked well, what your players responded to most (and especially what seemed to really catch their interest) — and what didn’t work so well. There are always growing pains in the first session of a new chronicle, and that’s okay.
Stick to the plan you came up with for the chronicle, but not slavishly; be flexible and willing to fade some elements of Geist into the background and bring others into the foreground according to what your players enjoy most about the game, the theme, and your chronicle.
By the same token, stick to your goal of including a spotlight moment for every PC in every session. It’s not always an easy goal to achieve, but it will help your group get the most out of Geist — this game encourages intense roleplaying, hard choices, and creepy, dramatic situations. Spotlight moments can showcase all of those things.
Want to know more?
Thanks for reading this preview article — I hope you enjoyed it, and I hope it was useful to you!
If you’ve got questions about Geist, I’d be happy to answer them (with the exception of the four no-go topics I mentioned up top: Manifestations, the Twilight Network, the Underworld chapter, and Ceremonies).
Want to learn more about Geist: The Sin-Eaters? Read on!
- Atomic Array: Geist: The Sin-Eaters (Atomic Array 027)
- Game Cryer: Review by Chris Perrin
- Flames Rising: Deal with the Dead
- Mad Brew Labs: The Sin-Eaters
- RPG Aggression: Rudis Review
- Atomic Array: Free Demo Quickstart
Drop by White Wolf Publishing today!