Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Geist's Sleight of Hand

Monstrous horror is very rarely about what it's about. It's not that every piece of horror is explicitly a metaphor about something that you can point to, but there's usually something going on that we can identify with that makes it resonate with us. No one is really worried about vampires, but we do fear disease (and we worry about sex). We don't cower from tentacle horrors, but we all wrestle with the sense that the universe is an indifferent place that we can expect little kindness or understanding from.

A monster that doesn't strike these kinds of notes is just a colorful description. It's the literary equivalent of bad syfy cgi, bringing you Mansquito and his ilk. Most writers know this, but it's easy to blow past in the desire for novelty, and that can even work sometimes. Splatterpunk has an audience after all. But the good stuff? It's not about what it's about.

This lens is the reason I've always had a certain appreciation for White Wolf's games, though I never truly became a fan until the new Changeling came out. Through both iterations of the World of Darkness, they have been at their strongest when then games have not been about what they're about.

Now, the obvious joke to make here is one about emo supers, and while I'll concede that there's some truth to it, I'm thinking in a slightly different direction. Take Vampire, for example - more than anything it's a game about being on the inside. The vampires are the cliques who run things as we imagine them to be; pretty, petty and vicious. This is not a horror theme (though it has horror trappings), but it doesn't really need to be.

Of course, it's easy to punch a hole in that analysis. A game that seizes upon some other theme like alienation could still rock out, but the point is that it's still grabbing another recognizable theme and using vampires as a way to explore it.

The reason that Changeling grabbed me so much was because of this. It's a great story about fae and weirdness, but it sunk its teeth into me because it's also about the people who *matter* in your life (or about being mad at The Man, but that grabbed me less).

I mention all this because I feel like WW has performed a magic trick with Geist, one which just knocked my socks off when I saw it. As with other nWoD games, there's interesting cosmology and fun, dark, mystical things, but that's not what it's about. It's about the people who play in the World of Darkness, specifically twenty-somethings in group houses after college figuring out what they're going to do with their lives.


Geist has turned a number of WoD assumptions on their ear, explicitly swapping out the vast conspiracy for a lose (and gothy) confederation of nerds and artists. Better yet, one of the essential elements of character creation is coming up with the group's personal mythology.

There are a lot of other things I dig about Geist. The powers system may be my favorite of any of the nWoD games, and it builds on the foundations of really excellent products like Orpheus, but it is all left in the dust by the sheer magnificence of its undertone. A game about gamers that's not about gamers.

I raise a drink to that.


  1. That's interesting. Vampire flirts with horror, but never quite engages with it. There's a suggestion you ought to seduce mortals and drink their blood, but it's all background.

    Isn't there a danger that, when you make the game about the people that play it, you lose the escapism? Early versions of Hunter had you as ordinary mortals. It was all very well, but I wanted to play a vampire.


  2. Nice! I had no idea this was at work in there -- but it goes to show that character creation which itself creates the group dynamic continues to be a killer app.

  3. To be clear, this isn't something we actively put in it. :)

    It's not an inaccurate interpretation, though. For as much as the game is seemingly about death, it's really about life. Or, more specifically, the uncertainty and the mystery of life.

    And, those gamers in their dorms and houses are often on the cusp of experiencing the full frontal mystery and mad uncertainty of living and existing, which is I think why you find that in there.

    -- c.

  4. That reminds me of the first Changeling. There was a lot of talk (and I think it was a valid take) that it was about roleplaying.

    But is the Geist game about this, or just the setting?

    I ask because I loved the new Changeling because its setting was about people who mattered to you, but when I went to make characters, I didn't find the game to be about that.

  5. "But is the Geist game about this, or just the setting?"

    The game is about living life to its fullest, which isn't really that original even considering the obvious contrast with the fact that it's all wrapped up in death symbology and mythology.

    Of all the listed inspirational material in the book, the one that most clearly shows this has gotta be Six Feet Under. If you've watched it, just imagine that some of the main characters really saw and interacted with ghosts, and you're pretty close to what Geist is about.

    All in all, I'm with Chuck on this. Rob is onto something here, but that's probably a part of the whole - which is, this is a game about death giving meaning to life. Twenty-somethings roleplayers in basements and college dorms may not be 'dead' in the most strict sense of the world, but for most of them life is just about to mean something anyway.

    And again I can't help but remember Claire from SFU. She's a great link to what we're talking about here, except for the fact that she didn't try roleplaying.

  6. Funny. As others have noted, I always read one of the treads in old Changeling being about 20 something role players. But where Geist, in this reading, is about figuring out what to do with your life (much like Dead Like Me) the old Changeling was about not wanting to move out of mom and dad's basement and get a real life.

  7. Brand -- I can totally see that. High-fives to you, sir.

  8. Brand, I think you nailed it hard enough that the entire internet is still vibrating slightly.

    -Rob D.


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