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Review: Geist: The Sin Eaters

By Ian Warner

Introduction

Geist: The Sin Eaters is the latest in the New World of Darkness line from White Wolf Studios. There was a lot of anticipation and confusion about this game. The fact the title is the German for Ghost made some think it was the New World of Darkness’ version of Wraith. Although there are some similarities, this is not the case. A Geist is a hybrid of a Ghost and a Spirit. Although it was once a Ghost it has now surrendered its identity to become more conceptual. Geists can make a deal with a dying human, offering a second chance at life in exchange for a spiritual merging that creates a Sin Eater. Wraith was clearly an inspiration but this is a totally different game with a new and inventive type of supernatural. This put many Wraith fans off on its own but I was not so deterred. As much as I love Wraith I was willing to try out this new and decidedly more upbeat Death themed game. So here are my thoughts.

Background

With regards to Sin-Eater society this was a bit of a cop out. Essentially the initial chapter on the Sin-Eater condition can be summed up in a couple of sentences: Sin-Eaters are as diverse as humanity itself. It’s up to you to decide on the culture of the Sin-Eaters in your chronicle. Whilst I admire the sheer brazen courage of fobbing the fans off like that I am more than a little disappointed. A characteristic of White Wolf’s work is globe spanning secret societies of strange creatures and it feels like cheating not to give us such a background for Sin-Eaters. Having said that, there is the mysterious Twilight Network that allows for communication with other Sin -Eaters across the world: Kind of like the Promethean’s Pilgrim Marks only more organised. In addition there are plenty of provided ideas for your Sin-Eaters’ society as well as some semi-common structures you are free to use or ignore as you wish.

Central to what little society there is there is the Krewe: Essentially (to start with at least) the Geist equivalent of a Coterie or a Pack. The dreaded Tier system from Hunter is back for Krewes allowing your Krewe to grow from a small local group of like minded Sin-Eaters to the world spanning conspiracy that Sin-Eater society as written is lacking.

The best of the background material in the game is actually confined to an appendix. The description of the Underworld is nothing short of awesome. Echoes of the Wraith underworld certainly abound but the Geist Underworld is a different beast entirely. As you enter the underworld via an Avernian Gate you enter into the Autochthonous Depths which appear as a series of underground tunnels influenced by the funereal culture of the area on the other side of the gate. This allows you to tailor the Underworld to match the beliefs of the area your Chronicle is set in and, confusingly, make the Underworld a totally different place in one area than it is in another. The real gem of the new Underworld is not in these upper reaches though, or in the various rivers running with noxious substances through the Underworld. The real joy is deeper in the Dead Dominions. Dead Dominions are little kingdoms deep in the underworld. They have rigid laws called Old Laws that are policed by the scariest antagonists of the New World of Darkness so far, the Kerberoi.

Words cannot describe how amazingly awesome these guys are. Though they cannot leave the underworld they are extremely powerful rivalling even the True Fae and Incarna. You don’t want to mess with these guys but in some Dominions you end up having to. One particularly sadistic Storyteller on the White Wolf Website had a Dominion with only one Old Law: “You must pay no attention to the laws of this Dominion.”

Overall the Background material, although somewhat patchy is successful in what it sets out to do. It’s a bit of a shame that the best stuff was confined to an appendix at the back but I honestly couldn’t see a better place for it.       

Mechanics

The Mechanics as they initially appear are none-too taxing to understand. The Manifestations chapter requires a couple of read-throughs to get but it is nowhere near as messy as Mage’s ‘Creative Thaumaturgy’ system.

Power level wise Sin Eaters appear to have it easy. Psyche delivers more capacity and points per turn than any other supernatural advantage in the New World of Darkness games. This comes at a price though: Manifestations are extremely costly in the Fuel stat Plasm. Over-reliance on supernatural abilities drains your Plasm store really quickly.

The Manifestations themselves are quite cool though. They are all in keeping with the Death Theme whilst being creative and providing a wide arsenal of powers for the Sin-Eaters. Manifestations are unlocked by Keys which are also Death themed in their own way. With a good combination of Manifestations and Keys the possibilities are endless.

There is a bit of an editing problem here. During development Keys had ratings. This idea was scrapped but clearly not all the authors got the memo. The book is littered with references to Keys having ratings. This isn’t a major gripe but it is very irritating and unprofessional to have a book released that hasn’t been edited properly.

As well as Manifestations Sin-Eaters also have access to Ceremonies. The closest comparison would be to Werewolf’s Rites and Rituals system but Ceremonies are a lot cheaper and not nearly as powerful. They are a nice touch that allows you to explore the rituals of death in your Sin Eater’s Culture and others. They do, however, seem like an afterthought.

The base systems common to all Sin Eaters are most interesting. Foremost amongst them is the fact that Sin Eaters refuse to die. Within a day of dying a Sin-Eater arises from the grave if his Geist wills it. There is however a heavy price: The Sin Eater loses a dot of Synergy (the morality stat for Sin-Eaters) and the maximum his synergy can be raised to drops by 2. Effectively this gives the character up to 5 lives. Whilst I wouldn’t recommend letting this get to your head and treating the game like Paranoia having a few extra chances doesn’t hurt and if anything it reinforces the whole Second Chances theme. Oh and in exchange for returning him to life the Geist has to channel the ‘death energy’ elsewhere and thus arranges for a mortal to die in his place. The Sin-Eater is fully aware of this and views the death agony of the unfortunate mortal before regaining consciousness: A nice touch.

Other systems include the ability of Plasm to absorb incoming damage, Reverse Possessing your Geist, Krewe binding and of course the Ghost sight and Ghost speech essential to the Sin Eater’s role as intermediary between the living and the dead.

In all Sin-Eaters as presented in Geist are horrendously powerful creatures. Those running crossover games should be warned that there is a lot of power in the Sin-Eater template.  This power is however not without cost. Sin Eaters have more difficulty conserving fuel than, say, a Vampire or a Werewolf as their powers burn through it relatively quickly if they are too trigger happy.

Atmosphere

I’m not quite sure what to make of this. In some areas Geist is truly Wraith’s successor. Doom and gloom permeate the book, particularly in the Underworld section. However there is a very bright and cheery counterweight to this mortal dread. The theme of Second Chances and of enjoying life to the full whilst you have it is just as, if not more strong as the whole existential dread thing going on. This is a refreshing change from White Wolf’s usual work but it makes the whole thing decidedly schizophrenic. I remember feeling similarly about Promethean with its gloom and angst offset by the hope of achieving mortality. Indeed as someone on the White Wolf Forums put it “Promethean is a game about life that’s really about death and Geist is a game about death that’s really about life.” That sums it up perfectly.

Artwork

The artwork is deliciously creepy in much the same way as Wraith’s was. However it is clear that this is the New World of Darkness rather than the old. The art has departed from the old Gothic Punk and gone for something a little more modern and closer to reality. Well, as close to reality as you can make the Underworld, Kerberoi, Abmortals and Ghosts anyway. The art work is well presented throughout the book and really gets across what the words, at times, struggle to.

Conclusion

In all I was quite impressed with Geist. The lack of a single unifying culture was a bit of a let-down but I appreciate the creative leverage it provides. The Underworld is a fantastic horror setting and it is fleshed out further in the World of Darkness Book of the Dead along with rules for other Supernaturals using and abusing it. Mechanically the poor editing is a put-off and the power level may seem a little intimidating in comparison with the other World of Darkness denizens, but it is mostly sound and in keeping with the theme. Die hard horror fans may object to the slightly upbeat tone but it complements the game nicely and if you really want to depress your players take them into one of the provided Dead Dominions or create your own. The Artwork evokes the old Wraith whilst at the same time striving to be just that little bit different. Very much like the game itself: Except this sucker is actually playable. Geist has taken a spot in my affection just below my top World of Darkness game Requiem For Rome and it’s likely to stay there.

Score

Style 5

Substance 3

Overall 4 

One Comment

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