Advent reviews: Geiger Counter

Today, we look at the first roleplaying game of the advent reviews. It’s been a while since I played this, but I have had loads of fun with this, so I remember it fondly.

What kind of game is this?

In Geiger Counter, you play through a survival horror film – the kind of film where you start out with a big cast of characters that are slowly killed off by some horrific thing that haunts them – an alien monster, a creature from beyond, a zombie horde, fate or maybe a maniac killer with a mask. You do this is one sitting of about four hours.

You start off brainstorming a rough concept for the film and the threat – the game calls it the “menace”. At this point, the concept for both should be vague, but you should have an idea of the setting, and what the monster is and isn’t – “it’s got inhuman intelligence, but no overtly supernatural powers”, for instance. Then you brainstorm some character concepts and some secret agendas, then you make your characters by pairing a concept and an agenda.

The game comes with an integrated warm-up exercise: making a trailer for the film. Going round the table, everybody narrates a shot from the trailer, until it fades to the title of the film – which you will then agree upon.

Then you start the film from the beginning, playing scene by scene. Each scene has one player as the director for that scene, framing the scene by telling us where we are, who’s there and what is going on. In the beginning, the game tells players to avoid framing a scene with themselves in it. The other players will play their own characters as well as any supporting characters necessary. When the director calls “cut”, the scene is over and the player to his left directs the next scene.

An important part of the game is the building of the Menace. Each scene featuring the menace adds one die to it, until it reaches the maximum, eight dice. When it reaches eight, the fight against it begins in earnest – from then till the game is over, the players can reduce the menace by one die by defeating it in a showdown.

Speaking of dice, there is a very simple conflict system in the game. If I recall correctly, you roll all of your dice, then use the two highest dice, and compare them to your opponent. The first two times you lose, you gain a condition – the third time (as far as I recall) you die. You have two dice to begin with, but can pick up more on the map.

The map, I say? Yes, an important part of the game is keeping track of the map. Everybody should have a token to represent them. In the middle of the table, you should have a big piece of paper, on which to draw a map of the location. Whenever you set a scene, you move the tokens of the involved players, so that you can always see where somebody was last seen. On the map are also some dice – a few single dice, a couple of pairs and one group of three. When you draw a location onto the map, you may put one of these groups of dice in that locale. Later on, players in that locale can define what those dice represent – something that will help them against the Menace.

Elimination of player characters is an important part of the game. To get the “survival horror” feel, you need quite a few players dying. This is not as important in this game as in many others, though, as an important part of your experience as a player is framing scenes and helping scenes along. Whenever someone dies, one of their two dice goes to another character, making that character stronger against the Menace.

The game ends when either all the players are dead, or when the Menace is defeated. At this point, there will usually only be one or two characters left alive.

How many people should you play this with?

I would say five to seven. You need five to have the ensemble feeling, but at eight, it’ll be a while before you are on the screen again.

What do I think of this game?

This game is a favorite of mine. It’s easy to play, even with beginners, and it usually rewards you with a great story with very little fuss, and in a limited amount of time. It’s also good, because it makes everybody be both player and GM. It teaches framing, and it gives you some very simple yet efficient story telling tools.

The dice mechanics are very simple, and that can sometimes make them feel a bit clunky – but they are simple and fast, and that’s what they are there for. The map is a great visual aid, and it helps everybody get on the same page.

In short, Geiger Counter is a go-to game for me when I am going to play for one session with a group of people with limited or mixed experience with story games and indie games.

A few interesting things to note

  • This is a good game to teach scene setting. Everybody has to do it, but it’s not so dramatic to do it. In general, it’s a good game to teach story gaming.
  • The game instructs players to make a cutting motion with their fingers when they want to signal to the director to cut the scene. A simple, efficient way to give the director cutting power, but also let the others have a say.
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