Life never lasts…
Death is never far from our mind. Regardless of the circumstances of the time in which we live – we all face it in one form or another. It’s no surprise that death and the afterlife are so pivotal to the structures of world religions and a constant subject of scientific and spiritual speculation.
Because of this we get ghost stories.
Tales of hauntings, of spirits unable to move on due to unfinished business, exist all around the world, in every era of history. Despite the grim subject matter they are an endless source of entertainment in movies, books, and TV shows.
The most common thread that ties them all together is the concept of “unfinished business.” Something keeps these spirits attached to our world. They are only able to pass beyond when the protagonists of these stories help them reconcile with their deaths. More often than not, this requires understanding the humanity of these spirits – understanding them as people.
Geist is a game about understanding people, though not all of those people are dead.
Disclaimer: This title has been provided for purpose of review.
When you die there are three possibilities. One is that you accept your passing and move on to the Underworld, a bizarre and alien landscape of gloom and darkness. The second is that you have too much attachment to people, places, or things and these Anchors keep you in the Twilight of the living world. You act as a memory, repetitive in behavior and connected to your Anchor. While you have some agency, the Anchor is what keeps you here, so moving too far from it unravels your spirit. Therefore ghosts tend to “haunt” these attachments, leading to the stories referenced above.
But sometimes you’re not ready to go. With more drive than those who stay in the Twilight, your will to live burns brightly and attracts a spirit called a Geist. See, the Underworld can change a person. Maybe a ghost drinks from a certain river or dwells too long in one place and begins to transform – focusing its will and desires towards a particular goal, freeing it from its current state of existence and becoming a fully independent intelligence. Then, when it finds someone fighting on the edge of life and death it offers them a Bargain: the person will live again, so long as they keep the Geist’s desires in mind. Those who accept become the Bound. Interestingly enough, at that point some of the Bound just return to life and follow their own desires and the whims of their Geist – returning to life does not make them our protagonists.
The protagonists of Geist, “Sin-Eaters”, know of the horror that lies in the Underworld, so how can they simply focus on themselves and ignore the suffering ghosts around them? How can they ignore the beauty and pleasure of the world of the living? So they resolve to help others and themselves – help ghosts resolve their matters and help change the world of the living. They take on a Burden, find themselves a Krewe, and try to make the world a bit better, for both the living and the dead.
Geist is a game about hope and second chances. It’s about fighting the system, even when that system is the nature of life and death. It’s a game with deep themes, strongly focused on narrative and character, and is backed up by a robust and tested rules system.
Character creation and the basic rules function much like the other Chronicles of Darkness games, detailed here. Reading that will introduce you to the dice pool system, successes, Willpower, Virtues and Vices (Root and Bloom in Geist – how you interact with the living and the dead), Aspirations, combat, social challenges, investigations, and so on.
Geist is a stand-alone game, so no other Chronicle of Darkness core book is required. This book additionally contains some Sin-Eater specific merits that allow characters access to haunted houses, or compensate for permanent loss of limbs or organs by replacing them with Phantom Limbs (eyes that see into Twilight or arms that can manipulate the ghostly realm).
Sin-Eater characters choose a Burden, the element of their life that was their reason for making the Bargain with their Geist. These range from wanting to get revenge for being wronged, to making amends for having done wrong, to just wanting to continue living. The Geist is also created by player and Storyteller together – the player starts it off and the ST finishes, leaving secrets to be discovered. Geists tend to have pretty flavorful names – The Snow Queen, The Abandoned One, The Open-Throated Saint…
Geists are also conduits for the Sin-Eater, helping channel the energies of the Underworld to learn Haunts – supernatural powers that allow the Geist and Sin-Eater to metamorphose, control its domain, inflict curses, manipulate emotions, and inflict other effects. Sin-Eaters also possess Keys, which are direct means of unlocking themselves or the Underworld to enhance Attributes, gain fuel for their powers, achieve Exceptional Successes with fewer Successes than normal, and more. These can all come at a cost though.
One of the other cool parts of character creation is the construction of your Krewe. The Krewe is the community surrounding your players’ Sin-Eaters and is designed as a group. It includes the Sin-Eaters themselves, allied ghosts (who receive character creation rules as well), and humans who may or may not have been inducted into the deeper mysteries. Krewes have archetypes much like Burdens, among them those who help ghosts reconcile their lives and those who pursue justice both systemic and personal. Krewe creation is done as a group and requires a lot of discussion and agreement – if you’re used to the other games in this line this is a little different in that your PCs will all share the Krewe archetype. There’s nothing wrong with that as I feel a group composed of PCs with a variety of Krewes could become unwieldy. These aren’t like Vampire’s Covenants or Werewolf Tribes where they’re premade for you, you’ll be building up your world’s organizations of Sin-Eaters yourself, sort of. Krewes are created with stats and characteristics like Merits and also provide Ceremonies – rituals that grant certain advantages like creating a skeleton key, apply restrictions on people and locations, or even create new Anchors.
I love when games include rules for organization actions and, as Krewes are organizations, they get to act! Since they’re built up like characters, you’re able to use those Attributes and abilities to act out one of the major themes of Geist and create change in the world. The rules are pretty easy to convert to the other Chronicles games, which is much appreciated.
As antagonists go, Sin-Eaters have a hefty enemy in Reapers. Too similar for comfort, Sin-Eaters made their Bargain with their Geist but Reapers are ghosts who found a Deathmask and made a pact with the Cthonic Gods who rule the Underworld. Monstrous in appearance while wearing their mask, Reapers are dedicated to the status quo and will come to our world for the purpose of dragging ghosts back under with them. Reapers are a great antagonist as they run the gamut of the types of personality content with maintaining things as they are, justifying their actions with this being what’s supposed to happen – these ghosts are breaking the rules. While some express some sympathy and try to usher ghosts on to particular destinations in the underworld, other Reapers are only in it for the hunt, abandoning their prey once they get below.
Reapers aren’t the only threats out there. Ghosts also fall victim to Ghost Eaters, who consume and use ghosts to fuel their Dread Powers – some of which are pretty potent, Necromancers (naturally), and rogue Bound who not only reject the path of the Sin-Eater but sometimes even break their Geist’s will and force them into servitude.
A number of specific locations are provided in which to set a Chronicle. They are well-detailed, complete with history, local ghosts and NPCs, and plenty of plot hooks focusing around that particular locale. What’s especially neat is that these aren’t all contemporary – each is actually a snapshot of history presented for your use. So while you could build on them to bring them up to the modern day, you’re actually getting a larger look at Washington, D.C. in 1968 and Mobile, Alabama in 1910, and then shorter overviews of modern Edinburgh, Carcasonne in 1360, Mega City 4 in Beijing, and Calicut in India in 1526, among others. That’s not all – nightmarish Dominions of the Underworld are also presented for your delight and terror.
Speaking of the Underworld, while much of a Krewe’s activity will take place in our world, they will be inevitably drawn to cross over and descend into the Underworld. Passing through the Avernian Gates, locations strongly connected to death, they will follow the rivers, tunnels, and and roads to the communities and Dominions of the dead. The Underworld is richly described and a surreal, bizarre dark fantasy land. There are all sorts of things to encounter and deal with in this world – ways to increase the power of ghosts, Haunts to learn, Reapers to avoid, ancient godlike beings to thwart or appease – its really fantastic. One of the elements I really like is the rules for navigation – their mechanics are flavorful and descriptive. Besides instinct and the use of Keys, Bound may navigate through their knowledge of historical architecture or societies, tracking their destination through the passing of history. It’s a very creative way to model the Underworld.
As a Storyteller in Geist, you’re going to have the opportunity to facilitate some gripping, deep, and potentially profound stories. After all, ghost stories are some of the most enduring narratives in every culture around the world. The Storyteller’s chapter helps guide you through structuring those tales. It focuses in on the themes of “Those Left Behind” and the inherent tragedy of loss, “Why We Fight” and the drive to maintain the sense of life that pushes the Bound onwards, and “Breaking the Cycle”, how Sin-Eaters, having conquered death, can rise to the challenge of changing the world and our modes of thought. They’re very powerful themes, from the personal to the epic.
Whether you only want an evening of ghostly horror or to epically chronicle the new lives of your player characters, there’s plenty of advice to help you structure stories that play to the specific themes, moods, and conflicts of Geist, with sample story hooks and seeds to get your creative ectoplasm moving. I especially appreciate the section on “Common Questions” – an FAQ-like inclusion that is invaluable to new and veteran GMs. The concept of Geist may be intimidating, as it’s pretty intense, so it’s very kind to include it.
Geist is a deep, well-written game that strongly evokes its themes. This is one of those games where you should take it all in, absorb it, and prepare yourself. I can’t see how one does justice to the game without making it personal – sure you could help ghosts resolve their business in the same way as you would complete a FedEx quest in a video game, but I think you’d be cheating yourself. As intense as many of the Chronicles of Darkness games can be, the topics of Geist are those nobody escapes in their lifetime – so be mindful of other players’ experiences.
To pass through the Avernian Gates, pick up Geist: The Sin-Eaters Second Edition from the below links!
Indie Press Revolution (Traditional Print)
DriveThruRPG (PDF and Print-On-Demand) (Affiliate Link)