[Geiger Counter] Crystal Alien Ziggurat

edited April 2008 in Actual Play
We played Jonathan Walton's Geiger Counter for the first time yesterday and it was super fun. (EDIT: fixed link to PDF per Jon's post below...)

The idea of Geiger Counter is to create an action-adventure-survival-horror-monster movie, and the system totally delivers on that promise. It gives you enough traction to organize the creativity of the group, without boxing you in or forcing things too much with restrictive mechanics. The game felt like playing with Jonathan, actually, if that makes sense.

The game requires a little prep (about 20 mins.) to create a "style sheet' for the game -- which acts as a jumping off point for the players (kind of like a Sorcerer one-sheet). Jon originally designed the game with the movie Aliens in mind, but I know he's never actually run an Aliens-style scenario with it. So, that was our goal. Here's the style sheet I prepped:

Space Marines Style Sheet

After the brainstorming session, we settled on "Hot war on alien world" as our setting. The war was a war between two human factions on a unique alien world connected by wormhole to Earth. We decided that the setup would be a crashed shuttle that had been transporting some prisoners of war. So the characters would be a mix of soldiers from the two factions. This turned out to be a very good decision, and drove great conflict for the whole movie.

Here's a shot of the table towards the end of the game, showing the map with the shuttle crash and alien crystal pyramids.

image

(As you can see, the Menace is down to 4 dice!)

I won't go into the whole story, but it was about the shifting trust between the POWs and Marines, betrayal among the POWs, secret military operations, and creepy crystal-form aliens with x-ray vision. In about 2 hours of play (after setup) we managed to create a really cool action movie with rising action, battle scenes, drama, tension, a climax, and a "THE END?" style ending that left room for a sequel. It was rather amazing.

The Secret Goals really worked for us. They drove the drama of the story and a couple of them (picked randomly from the pile) turned out to be perfect for the plot of the movie and showed up at just the right time. The timing was facilitated by having to wait for the Menace to gain all 8 dice before acting to resolve the secret goals. One my characters pushed it right to the edge, trying to resolve his goal on the same turn as the Menace getting its 8th die, but he got killed before he could complete it! It was tragic and great.

Conditions were also a huge hit. They always seemed to drive us towards choosing just the right thing for the next beat of the movie plot, like Pursued, Hysterical, and everyone's favorite: Infected. The rolls to see if the infection spread were real nail biters!

The fact that the game is "let's make an awesome movie together" (instead of "fight the monsters and try to survive") put everyone on the same page and made all of the death and tragedy really fun. I was a little worried that someone might shift into "win the game" mode, but it didn't happen.

So... yeah! The game was a hit and we had a blast. We'll definitely play again. I know the other players want to jump in with their reactions, stories, and playtest feedback, so I'll leave it to them.

Comments

  • edited April 2008
    This sounds like a blast indeed. The game already looked very cool when I looked at it over Lukas' shoulder at Gamestorm, and now I'm inevitably going to bring it to one of our Go Play Portland meetings. I love me some Aliens!
  • Awesome, John! Thanks for posting a picture of your play map, that really helps give a sense of things. I'm glad you were finally able to play it and that it worked so well for you. Can't go wrong with space marines!

    Amidst all the awesome, was there some stuff that wasn't super great? (Y'know, for playtesting purposes...)

    Just so folks know, the most recent draft of the game is up here (PDF), and is way better than the HTML draft that John linked to.
  • John speaks the truth -- it was way fun.

    Having the system encourage internal conflict between the characters as well as the external threat of the menace is a very good thing. As John said, that tension is what pushed our game over the top. We had several POWs in the crash, including one that seemed to be an ordinary soldier but was really an high ranking enemy intelligence officer. His secret goal was to make sure the other members of his team (the POWs) didn't make it back, so he was surreptitiously bumping off his own men when he got the chance, even while the aliens were creeping in from all sides. It was beautiful.

    We also had all the real bastard characters dominate in the beginning of the game, and then when they got wiped out by blind alien justice the much nicer people got to escape in the end. We were rooting for the horrific ends of some of our characters. Perfectly true to genre.
  • Posted By: Jonathan WaltonAmidst all the awesome, was there some stuff that wasn't super great? (Y'know, for playtesting purposes...)
    Overall the system was excellent, but there were a few things I'd highlight.

    FIGHTING FOR ADVANTAGE DICE

    The biggest issue was a method for resolving player conflict about defining the advantage dice in locations.

    We had _lots_ of cases where a player would say "I find X and pick it up" and the other players would say "hey, I wanted that die!" or "I had a different idea of what it would be." It's either a race to speak first or too much negotiation over which idea is best. Resorting to pvp conflict resolution is far, far too dangerous, and wouldn't make sense anyway since you are deciding the nature of reality (did we find a gun or scientific data). Some method of determining who decides that answer, even if it's just dicing off with no conditions resulting, would be useful. You could also do something like give the person who is director next (or last) first dibs, but that might be too rigid.

    MOBILE vs IMMOBILE ADVANTAGE DICE

    I think we lost the "some advantage dice can't be moved" concept. There were certainly cases where that would have been very appropriate (like when the soldiers found the alien seed impact point, the very heart of the creature).

    Mechanically there are selfish reasons for the player to always define bonuses as mobile, since they can just pick them up and take them away. You could do something like make immobile advantages 1 die larger (so the director defines 1 die in this location, a player calls it an immobile electrified fence, so it becomes a 2 die stationary bonus instead). It might not affect game balance too much since immobile dice from different locations can never be combined. That might also encourage cool things like drawing the monsters back to known locations for the killing blow ("If we can just lure it into the smelter...")

    It could also encourage players to leave some advantage dice on the table for later. We don't know what the die in engineering means, but later when we define the menace more we might go back and realize it's the perfect thing to fight the monster.

    MONSTER ALWAYS ATTACKS

    It might have been because of the definition that emerged for our menace (massive alien crystal spread under kilometers of jungle that emerged as tentacles where ever it pleased) but once the menace started attacking every director threw in an attack at the end of just about every scene. It seems like some encouragement for moments of suspense in the later game could be good, or even just "scary moments" that didn't involve physical attacks.

    On the other hand... since the system lets you pick your condition, it might not be an issue. If the player picks "Lost/Alone/Hysterical" (or anything not resulting in physical damage) maybe they were never physically attacked. Maybe they just ran away when they saw something shambling down the corridor.

    So maybe not an issue, or maybe "attacks" needs to be redefined to "whenever the menace shows itself" to encompass more kinds of scenes.

    SUDDEN DEATH - QUICK WRAP UP

    To be honest we cheated wrapping up our game. The menace was still at 4 dice but we were out of play time, the real interesting character arcs had resolved beautifully, and the last few survivors were making a desperate escape on the repaired shuttle, so it was time to wrap up.

    In hindsight what might have been useful was a "sudden death" rule -- for whatever reason (time or drama) this scene has to end the game, so instead of just rolling once we repeat roll until one side wins or is wiped out. So each time the menace wins conditions fall on the characters, but if they can win multiple rolls they can melt the menace down to zero.

    Or just call it a "The End?" rule, which is what we wound up with. We escaped, but the menace was still very much intact and we had an infected POW on the shuttle with us. Screen fades to black, followed by screaming.

    ...

    Again, lots of fun. I'd definitely play it again.
  • Posted By: Ben RobbinsIt might have been because of the definition that emerged for our menace (massive alien crystal spread under kilometers of jungle that emerged as tentacles where ever it pleased) but once the menace started attacking every director threw in an attack at the end of just about every scene.
    I think this was partly a pacing issue. It took us the better part of 2 hours to get the menace up to the full 8 dice, so we needed to get in attacks every scene just so we had a chance to reach the endgame. We could've done better on keeping the scenes tight and short, I suppose.
  • edited April 2008
    This is the second or third time I've noticed a weird synchronicity with your gaming group, John. My group had a totally epic fight Friday night in my Twist of FATE game. At this location in my campaign's surreal Otherworld. It's hard to take down a big group of the Brotherhood of Twilight cultists and their Soulmancer leader, Kha, when they've got the positional advantage lent by the ziggurat, but they managed a pyrrhic victory, rescued the Tome of Al-Zein, and saved the half-Kheth Oracle of Amun. Wish I had pictures...
  • Thanks for the extra thoughts, Ben & Philip! It's exciting to hear other people really digging it.

    It's clear that pushing Goals is one of the major ways to make the game really work. That inter-character conflict -- not just conflict against the menace -- seems to be one of the main things that separates good survival horror (like Sunshine) from your average SciFi Channel giant snake movie.

    On your specific points:

    1. We've never had folks fighting over advantage dice before, so I'm glad you folks brought that up. More often, in our games, folks will leave them sitting there too long and race back to get them later in the game. Just different preferences, I guess. I kinda think that, if people really want to fight over the advantage dice... that they should actually fight. Like, "No way am I letting YOU get the secret command codes!" And then they throwdown and the winner gets the dice and the loser gets a Condition. How's that sound?

    2. Yeah, we haven't had many immobile advantage dice either. I like the idea that they could be conceivably more powerful, like the giant construction suit that Ripley uses at the end of Aliens, which is clearly only useful in that location. Hmm... definitely something to think about and playtest a bit, to make sure they don't unbalance the already imperfect balance of dice in the game.

    3. Hmm... interesting. For us, often times a character's Conditions would imply scenes in which they weren't actually attacked. For example, if one character is Infected, clearly you just need a scene with them coughing in the vicinity of other characters. Then end the scene and make everyone roll for infection! Or sometimes characters would want scenes in pursuit of their Goals (especially if one or two of the characters had been actively shown to be evil or killers), which can create conflict without even having the menace appear.

    While I like the idea of a possible showdown scene in which multiple conflict rolls happen (I'm pondering how best to implement that right now), I think the pacing of menace attacks is probably best left in the hands of the players. If you don't like all the constant attacks, you have the power to stop it by framing a scene about something else when it becomes your turn to be director, yeah? Also, I think it's often the case (it has been in our group) that the second or third game of Geiger Counter really nails it as far as pacing goes, because people are more familiar with the game and have experience manipulating it to create the kind of movie narrative that they want.

    4. Like I said above, I like the showdown option and will put in some guidelines for that, but, like yours, some of our best playtests have ended with a few menace dice left over. Just means you can do a sequel, right?

    On Philip's point, I really think Geiger Counter works best when all of the players are ready to jump right to the meat of a scene right away. Sometimes this is hard and it's okay if the first few opening scenes are longer, with evocative visual descriptions or some character-establishing dialog. But after that... 5 minute scenes. Or less. Sometimes you just want someone shambling down a corridor, peaking around looking really paranoid, and cut scene. I love little short establishing shots. Sometimes it's fun to mix it up by having a one or two minute scene with none of the main characters in it, taking place somewhere else. It can be hard when people have been waiting a while for their turn and want to really knock one out of the park, but if the scenes really are flying fast, 5 minutes a piece, you don't have to wait long for your next scene.

    Man, reading this and seeing the pictures above makes me want to pull out some of the maps we've created with Geiger Counter in the past. Let me see what I can find...
  • I read about Geiger Counter this morning, and mused at work all day about using it for an Irwin Allen disaster movie. When I got home, the season premiere of Dr. Who was on the DVR. (The 'Titanic' episode.) No spoilers here, but Geiger Counter would model that episode perfectly!

    In reference to fighting over advantage dice:

    Once the descriptor of the die is determined, fighting over possession of it is perfectly in-theme with these sorts of movies. In my opinion, the regular conflict rules should handle that, Conditions and all.

    As far as determining who gets to give the die it's descriptor when it's acquired; how about giving priority to the player who's character is carrying the most Conditions? That way, the character who has been the most heavily-engaged by the Menace gets an edge at finding something he or she would particularly find useful. It also tends to ensure that the item will wind up used improvisationally by someone else after the character who found it has met his demise. :)

    OK, one semi-spoiler, by way of example. The EMP-tool in the Dr. Who premiere: Discovered (actually more like 'revealed') in a scene by the character in that scene who was suffering the most Conditions. Used later by it's discoverer to good effect, but winding up in the possession of another character before the end.

    --
    DainXB
  • Posted By: Jonathan WaltonI kinda think that, if people really want to fight over the advantage dice... that they should actually fight. Like, "No way am I letting YOU get the secret command codes!" And then they throwdown and the winner gets the dice and the loser gets a Condition. How's that sound?
    Once the advantage die is defined I think you're totally right, it's up to the characters to agree or escalate to a conflict. Our problem was more player-vs-player fighting for the definition (aka "whoever speaks first defines").

    Another factor might be that the total bastard characters will want to grab advantage dice early, not necessarily because they want to beat the Menace but because they want to be able to push conflicts against other characters (and perhaps achieve Goals). I need the dice to be a gun which I can pick up so I can threaten the other characters effectively (before my inevitable and terrible demise, or personal redemption).

    It's a finite resource, so if the bastard doesn't grab the dice and someone else does their ability to dramatically push the situation is more limited -- you want the bastard to win conflicts so he can chase people into the woods, be evil, etc, but if other people have more dice he's less of a threat.

    If we know there _is_ a gun it's easy to see how the bastard will go all out to get it (roll conflict between characters) but the bastard wants to hurry and define it as a gun or an axe before someone else says it's scientific data or a smelter (er, scratch that last part... the smelter will serve the bastard just fine...)


    Unrelated note: I think when we played we were also too quick to say that survivors automatically took whatever advantage dice equipment dead people were carrying. I'd recommend making little chits with the name of the advantage so if they are left behind somewhere on the map you can sit the dice on the chit -- Doc had the comm unit on him when he died, so someone has to go back and get it. It's not really a rule change, it just reinforces the idea that the advantages don't have to be carried out of every scene.
    Posted By: Jonathan Walton3. Hmm... interesting. For us, often times a character's Conditions would imply scenes in which they weren't actually attacked.
    Yep, that's what I was getting at. I think the rules could be more explicit that an attack isn't literally an attack.

    Also just noticed that we overlooked the note that after all the Menace dice are defined the Director can frame their characters in scenes.
    Posted By: Jonathan WaltonAlso, I think it's often the case (it has been in our group) that the second or third game of Geiger Counter really nails it as far as pacing goes, because people are more familiar with the game and have experience manipulating it to create the kind of movie narrative that they want.
    Screw that! I want a perfect game square one! ;)

    Seriously though, anything to stack the deck so even the most random group will stumble into a better game right off the bat is naturally a good thing. Which leads to...
    Posted By: Jonathan WaltonSometimes you just want someone shambling down a corridor, peaking around looking really paranoid, and cut scene. I love little short establishing shots. Sometimes it's fun to mix it up by having a one or two minute scene with none of the main characters in it, taking place somewhere else.
    All totally cool stuff that you should include in the text as style pointers (possible sideboxed from the actual rules). Share that acquired knowledge, accelerate people thinking outside the box, etc. Like the cool advice you give about the flash forward "you thought you were safe" epilogue.

    Unless you already did and I missed it. In which case, kudos sir.
    Posted By: Jonathan WaltonSometimes this is hard and it's okay if the first few opening scenes are longer, with evocative visual descriptions or some character-establishing dialog. But after that... 5 minute scenes. Or less.
    I think it was our setup that went long -- deciding on the premise and making characters took a long time. Nothing wrong with the system, we just needed to warm up.

    After that, we had about 2 hrs of play time and there were about 12-15 scenes, so with all chatting accounted for we were still no more than 10 minutes per scene. And that includes drawing and making all the little character counters ;)
  • How long were your scenes lasting in general? When we played Geiger Counter at Gamestorm, we really homed in on the text's advice to keep scenes to around 2-3 minutes long (it actually says "a few minutes", which I interpreted as 2-3) in order to maintain "movie" pacing. It worked really, really well. Occasionally, we'd even have quick scenes that were a minute or less, just to set something up, and then cut to another scene. We played out the entire game, including setup, in three hours, with only 1 of our 8 protagonist characters surviving.

    The advice about ending the game with the menace still having dice (which is in the text we played with) works really well too; we had it happen in our game as well. We had a single survivor with the Infected Condition get away on an escape pod (our game also featured tentacled aliens, coincidentally), and the menace still had 1 die left. So, when the pod was found and the doors were opened...
  • edited April 2008
    Cross-posted.

    Ah, I see what you're saying. Hmm, yeah, there probably needs to be some order of precedence for defining dice. In our games, frequently people don't define dice until they plan on using them, but even then there can be minor disagreements. "Most conditions" or "furthest from the current Director" or even having the dice defined by a player not in the scene would be cool.

    Ha, looting the bodies! I've never seen that before, but I can imagine how it might be an issue. Generally speaking, I think that advantage dice should, by default, be left with the bodies of those killed, unless people specifically choose to make a scene about picking up things, either as keepsakes ("I take his grandfather's watch and put it around my wrist, so I can return it to his family") or because they are needed ("I take the data card from that fucking traitor").

    Yeah, more advice on kinds of scenes to do is definitely coming in the final text. Very much in the form of the epilogue suggestions or the list of things to do when you're not sure what happens next (kill an NPC, have a flashback, etc.).

    2 hours of playtime is my sweet spot, so I'm glad you folks seemed to hit that.
  • Also, how did the trailer go? Those are the guidelines I'm still the least sure about, because I haven't really tried them in play much.
  • The trailer was fun. We came this close to not doing it, since we felt like we had spent too much time on set up, but I'm glad we did it. It established a few stylistic things that resonated through the film (like the jungle being orange) and kicked things off with a bang. The current system of little snippets on cards worked well for us.
  • edited April 2008
    I think the trailer is very useful. It caps off the pre-show setup and makes sure that the players who up until then have been assembling bits and pieces are really on the same page in terms of style and tone. Players may not be familiar with whatever (possibly narrow) genre the group's chosen or the actors (actual quote from our game: "My character's William Shatner, but in Devil's Rain"). The trailer solidifies things before you actually start playing the story and it's harder to go back. Ours was really fun and hoot to boot.

    [edited to add link -- because you know you're curious]
  • Sweet. I'm planning to run a space-horror trilogy called Exit Strategy soon (Exit Strategy, Exit Strategy 2: Event Horizon, and ES3: No Way Out), so I can't wait to try out trailers. I'm also going to try to figure out the rules for unresolved menace dice rolling over into the sequels, which I haven't quite figured out yet.
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