ZEITGEIST: The Gears of Revolution Thoughts on Running "Always on Time"





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    Thoughts on Running "Always on Time"

    As requested by gideonpepys in another thread, here are my thoughts and comments regarding my first session running "Always on Time" for my gaming group. I am running it using the Pathfinder rules. My party consists of the following PCs:

    Sir Will Hawkins, human cavalier/rogue: Yerasol Veteran
    Mariah Colt, half-elf wizard (spellslinger): Gunsmith
    Oliver James, half-elf bard (court bard): Vekeshi Mystic
    Stefan Lejeur, tiefling alchemist (vivisectionist): Technologist
    Piotr, dwarf druid: Eschatologist

    We started the session with the meeting with Chief Inspector Delft and the planning montage/skill challenge. The players seemed enthusiastic aobut going "behind enemy lines" in disguise to try and pin down some members of the Obscurati. They decided to split into two groups for their cover identities. Mariah and Oliver would be a recently engaged, wealthy couple on a trip to celebrate along with their manservant (Piotr) and their exotic pet (his animal companion, a wolverine). Meanwhile, Will would be a retired military man with a lung condition, traveling with his doctor (Stefan) in an attempt to help ease his pain by moving to a less humid location than Risur. Since the adventure assumes the PCs are all going to stay in the same cabin, I had to add an extra car to the train with two more first class cabins to accomodate the splitting of the group. I'm not sure yet whether I will keep the extra cabin empty or come up with another group of NPCs to rent it out.

    Piotr's player was a bit flustered since his druid didn't have a lot of relevant skills to help with the skill challenge, but I encouraged him to spend his time coming up with contingencies for the mission instead. He was able to make the Perception check to find the spies, though, which allowed Oliver to use Diplomacy to charm the secretary Candace into feeding her contact false information. They ended the skill challenge with a total of eleven successes in maintaining secrecy (two automatic ones for spreading a false trail five weeks in a row) and eight successes in developing their cover identities, as well as five or six different contingencies.

    Since they succeeded at the skill challenge, the trip to Beaumont was relatively uneventful. The appearance of the Cachalot spying on them was met with trepidation, but when no encounter happened, they just assumed it was a standard Danoran patrol ship. They seemed satisfied as well that things were "back to normal" on Axis Island.

    Once the time came to finally board the train, the real fun began. Will Hawkins recognized Bree from his time in the war: I made it so that he had served in the unit with the druid whose summoned jaguar tore off her limbs. He made it a point to try to avoid conversation with her in case she recognized him through the disguise. The Grientos engaged Mariah and Oliver in conversation since their cabin is next to theirs. My players seemed amused by the "half-orc in a suit" and the antics of his children.

    Halfway through the first day on the train, more passengers board. All of the players were instantly intrigued by Elanor's veiled companion. They each tried to get the enchantress to reveal more about Isobel, but she remained tight-lipped. Will even tried to feign drunkenness to get close and look behind Isobel's veil, but Elanor's Sense Motive check saw through his Bluff and she threatened to call the train guards, so he relented.

    Olivert Boone came into the first-class lounge next and began to shamelessly flirt with Mariah, even though her "fiancee" was standing right next to her. Piotr, meanwhile, wandered through the second-class cabins and saw Verzubak scribbling in his notebook and fiddling with the dice in his pocket. Then he came to the dining car to see the commotion about the man who had choked on the nut. He reported back to Stefan, who, as a "doctor," was allowed to examine the dead man. He was told about the picture of Verzubak and the poisoned dagger and was able to determine that, yes, the man had apparently just choked on a nut.

    When the train reached Cherag, the party split up to follow various leads. Mariah and Oliver chose to follow Elanor, while Will shadowed the Grientos. Stefan wanted to watch Verzubak, while Piotr stayed in the train just in case.

    When the players made their characters, they made it a point to ensure that the whole party was very good at Stealth, so they were able to follow their targets without much issue. I cut between each group of PCs after each check they made to keep everybody interested. Mariah and Oliver followed Elanor all the way to the manor, and Oliver managed to get close enough to see her activities with her host. The players strongly suspect that Isobel is a female elf and that Elanor is trying to sell her, which has their characters both extremely angry. They are discussing ways to try to get her free without blowing their covers. Will intereceded on the Grientos' behalf when the drunken militiamen started bullying them, beating up the men and letting the half-orcs get away without injuries. This has Damata hoping he may have found a friend.

    Stefan followed Verzubak to the bar, where he noted both Boone and Bree's presence. After the dwarf's toast, he let Boone leave without comment, but when Bree got up to leave, he tried to start a conversation with her. She brushed him off and left, but he decided to follow her instead of keeping eyes on the dwarf. Boone bumped into him as he passed his alley and distracted him a bit, but he rolled really high on his skill checks (he was using his alchemist extracts to increase them), so he was able to shadow Bree's carriage all the way to the Sovereign's mansion. He knows that she must be involved in something big.

    Since Piotr stayed at the train, I had him witness the guards chasing Mister Mapple and his escape from them. It made him feel like his decision to stay behind wasn't wasted, as he got some information that the other PCs would not have.

    We ended the session after that. Piotr's player expressed some concern that his PC isn't really well suited for this adventure, since his druid is not designed for social interaction and intrigue. I assured him that there would be some places where his PC might shine later on, but he has already expressed in the past that he thinks druid as a whole is a lackluster choice for this adventure path, so he may be making a new character before next time. Other than that, everybody had a great time. The players are really enjoying interacting with the NPCs and discovering just exactly what they are up to, and I believe it's only going to get more interesting as the rest of the NPCs board the train along the way.

    My advice to GMs running this adventure is to make sure you have a good grasp on the personalities and motives of all of the NPCs. There are quite a bit of them and it may be hard to make the distinct from one another while roleplaying them, but if you put in the effort to really make them come to life, the players will respond and become more invested in the game. One of my players commented that the NPCs in Zeitgeist feel like actual people instead of the generic bad guys that populate some of the other adventures I've run for them. Part of the kudos goes to the writers for developing complex personas, but much of the onus falls on the GM to interpret the written word during actual play.

    Unfortunately, we don't play again for another three weeks, but my players and I are all chomping at the bit to continue this excellent campaign!

 

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    I'm excited!

    I'm curious; do you show your players the NPC portraits? Does it make it obvious to the players that given NPCs aren't important if they don't have portraits?
    Ryan "RangerWickett" Nock
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    The most cinematic adventure path for 4th Edition and Pathfinder.

    Now available - Admiral o' the High Seas, and ZEITGEIST adventure eight, Diaspora! For Pathfinder and D&D 4e.

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    I'll note that while I usually do show the portraits, I won't be when I run Always on Time for the reasons you stated. Instead, I'll save them for an appropriate, dramatic moment when a character's importance becomes obvious.

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    Quote Originally Posted by RangerWickett View Post
    I'm excited!

    I'm curious; do you show your players the NPC portraits? Does it make it obvious to the players that given NPCs aren't important if they don't have portraits?
    I usually show off NPC portraits when the PCs meet the individual, but I refrained from doing so for this adventure for that very reason. I didn't want to give away initially if any of them would be relevant to the investigation. I did show them Bree's illustration since Will Hawkins recognized her from the war, but I didn't show off the other NPC portraits until after the session was over. Even then, I only showed them the NPCs they were following (Damata, Elanor, Boone, and Verzubak). I haven't shown them Mister Mapple's or Malia Baccarin's yet.

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    I kinda wish we'd had enough spare cash to get red herring illos.

    "Oh, random passenger #57 ? Yeah, here's his picture. No, it's a total coincidence that he looks like Wesley Snipes."
    Ryan "RangerWickett" Nock
    Director of the ZEITGEIST campaign saga.


    The most cinematic adventure path for 4th Edition and Pathfinder.

    Now available - Admiral o' the High Seas, and ZEITGEIST adventure eight, Diaspora! For Pathfinder and D&D 4e.

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    Quote Originally Posted by RangerWickett View Post
    I kinda wish we'd had enough spare cash to get red herring illos.

    "Oh, random passenger #57 ? Yeah, here's his picture. No, it's a total coincidence that he looks like Wesley Snipes."
    Now that's an idea! It'd be very expensive to produce (being all artwork), so we'd have to sell it separately, but a selection of 50 portraits done in the same style as the official ZEITGEIST portraits would be really useful. GMs could just pull one out whenever they felt like it.

    Maybe a Kickstarter idea. It'd cost a good couple of grand to do, though.

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    I'd happily kick in $20 for those portraits. The portraits are great, but I'm hesitant to use them for this very reason.

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    I am really grateful to you for sharing your experience of running this adventure, Itclnlbrain, as I think it presents something of a challenge to DM (much like Dying Skyseer, but for different reasons).

    I did a lot of prep for Skyseer, creating a flowchart of events, threads and clues, and making prompt cards to remind me what could be learned from each location.

    How have you handled the dense amount of NPC-related information in this adventure? Any tips for prep, or did you just wing it?

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    Quote Originally Posted by gideonpepys View Post
    I am really grateful to you for sharing your experience of running this adventure, Itclnlbrain, as I think it presents something of a challenge to DM (much like Dying Skyseer, but for different reasons).

    I did a lot of prep for Skyseer, creating a flowchart of events, threads and clues, and making prompt cards to remind me what could be learned from each location.

    How have you handled the dense amount of NPC-related information in this adventure? Any tips for prep, or did you just wing it?
    I pretty much winged it. I had read through the adventure completely two times preparing to run it, but I wasn't sure if we were actually going to play that day until the whole group arrived. I had a pretty good idea who each of the NPCs were and their motivations, but I still had to do a lot of flipping back and forth between pages of the PDF to get specific insights into their personalities and how they might react to PC actions. A helpful aid for ease of play would be to perhaps create flash cards for each of the significant NPCs. You could put their portraits on one side to show to the players, and put notes on their personality quirks, motivations, and goals on the other side.

    We should be playing our next session on Sunday. I'll update this thread with how it went!

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    We had our second session this past Sunday. I recently purchased Paizo's Plot Twist cards, so I passed one out to each player before the session began. As the party was getting ready to board the train again, the party overheard rumors about the young woman found brutally murdered last night. The players immediately began suspecting Boone had something to do with it. Damata Griento approached Will Hawkins in an attempt to thank him for intervening during the night, but Will yelled at him and chased him off with anti-orc sentiments to try to preserve his cover as a grizzled soldier.

    The group observed Cardiff Hengehill, Luc Jierre, and Ottavia Sacredotte boarding the train before it departed Cherag. Mariah managed to overhear a bit of the conversation between Cardiff and Malia. Will struck up a conversation with Bree, sharing war stories with her as he tried to tease out any information about her purpose on the train, but she played things close to the chest and he didn't get much from her besides that she was supposed to meet somebody who had stood her up. Stefan brought Verzubak some drinks from the first class cabin and revealed to the dwarf that he knew about the would-be assassin who had choked on the nut. Nervously, the dwarf told him that he was on the run from the Family, and that he was on the train hoping to win big at the casinos in Nalaam so that he could find a place to hide from outside of their reach. This seemed to satisfy Stefan's curiosity, so he let it drop at that, promising he wouldn't tell anybody. Mariah watched Luc and Ottavia, trying to learn about the sign language they communicate with, while Damata's son, Tarro, went up to everybody asking impertinent questions until his father could rein him in.

    Upon entering the Malice Lands, Malia brought Mariah and Oliver to the train's roof along with the other guests interested in the safari. Mariah feigned ineptitude with the rifles, and Boone offered to help her "handle" the big guns. Mariah made a point to "accidentally" smack the tiefling with the kickback of her weapon. Otherwise, the short safari was relatively uneventful.

    Upon reaching Orithea, the group split up again to pursue different leads. The group believed that the Grientos were clean, but they sent Stefan to keep an eye on them, just in case. Will followed Malia, Piotr followed Bree, Mariah followed Elanor, and Oliver followed Cardiff.

    Will shadowed Malia to the Night Market, where he saw her meet with the witch and go to the inn. When they left the inn, he followed the witch back to her stall, wondering what sort of business the two had conducted. He played his Plot Twist card, "Save the Day," so that he would know exactly what to do in this situation. I had another customer approach the witch and ask her about her sending services. Armed with this information, Will waited until the witch closed her shop for the night, then ambushed her in an alley. He intimidated her into revealing the message she had sent, and thus found out about the attack on the train scheduled for the next morning.

    Piotr followed Bree to the bar, then had his animal companion watch the entrance until she left while he tended to business nearby. He then picked up her trail again, following her to the docks and remaining hidden while Luc's carriage passed by. Seeing nobody following it, Bree met up with Luc and Ottavia at the lighthouse, where Piotr noted the many armed guards and the strange magical phenomena that occured while they were inside. At the moment, though, he still has no idea what was actually happening inside the building.

    Mariah shadowed Elanor along the rooftops using her slippers of spider climbing. As this was the same method that Mister Mapple was using to keep an eye on the sorceress, I had him encounter her while Elanor was shopping for potions. Mariah drew her gun on Mister Mapple and demanded to know his business, but the man seemed completely unconcerned, sitting on the edge of the roof and dangling his feet over the edge. He guessed that Mariah was watching the same people he was, and said that she wouldn't shoot him because it would alert her mark. Bemused and frustrated, Mariah asked why he was interested in the pair. He said that the veiled woman had intrigued him, and that he thought she might be "a captive princess in need of rescue." Mapple turned the question back at Mariah, but she didn't answer him. When Elanor and Isobel were on the move again, Mapple gestured for Mariah to lead the way with a grin.

    As Elanor returned to the enclave, Mister Mapple suddenly stepped out in front of them. Mariah watched the exchange between Mapple and Elanor, and as the sorceress threatened to call the guards, the man clambered up to the roofs and vanished again. Mariah tracked Elanor back to the hotel, then climbed up the wall to look into her room, only to find Mister Mapple already inside! Mapple grinned and waved at her, and Mariah once more demanded to know what he was up to. "Snooping," he replied, telling her that he had found drugs Elanor was using to keep her ward docile. Mariah told him Elanor was coming, and he leaped to the roof as the door opened, but the window was still open! Mariah froze, hiding just beneath the windowsill as Elanor looked outside. Frowning, she shut the window and drew the curtains.

    Mariah climbed up to the roof, furious with Mapple. She said that if he wanted to rescue the woman, he had to be more careful. Mapple shrugged, saying that he was already beginning to come up with a plan. He asked if she wanted to be in on it with him, and she said yes, but that didn't make the two of them allies. Mapple simply nodded and said he'd be in touch, then jumped off the roof and vanished again.

    Meanwhile, Oliver followed Cardiff to the fancy restaurant, bluffing his way inside and leaving before paying for his meal. Once Cardiff checked into the hotel, Oliver was set on breaking in and getting a look inside the man's briefcase. He went to the front desk clerk and pretended to be Cardiff's jilted lover, subtly using a charm person spell to convince the clerk to give him a key to Cardiff's room. He slipped inside and looked through Cardiff's coat, finding his Risuri identification and traveling papers. He then tried to use Sleight of Hand to get the key to the briefcase from Cardiff's person, but he botched the roll, and Cardiff woke up.

    Oliver grabbed Cardiff and kissed him to muffle the man's cries as he grappled with him, managing to pin the man and tie him up in the bedsheets before knocking him out cold. Thanks to the charmed clerk, the hotel staff wrote off the whole thing as a heated lovers' quarrel. Oliver took Cardiff's magic amulet and the briefcase and made his way back to the main enclave's hotel.

    While waiting for Oliver, Stefan and Mariah gambled with Verzubak in the hotel lobby. Mariah used her "Greed" Plot Twist card to make Verzubak risk a valuable possession, so I had him wager his lucky dice against Mariah's fake wedding ring. Verzubak won, but Mariah used detect magic to see the enchantment on his dice. She loudly accused him of cheating, and the dwarf blanched and ran. Mariah and Stefan gave chase, managing to catch the dwarf before he got away. They demanded he return the ring, but Stefan chose to play his "Something Lost" Plot Twist card so that the ring had gone missing. Mariah was furious and forced Verzubak to confess that the dice were magical. He told them that he had stolen them from members of the Family, and that they were the reason he was being hunted. He also explained their ability to manipulate the luck of those who owned them. In compensation for losing the ring, he promised to give Mariah the dice after he used them to win in Nalaam.

    With everybody back at the hotel, Oliver opened Cardiff's briefcase revealing the extensive Danoran military secrets contained inside. Instantly, everybody began to panic at the huge revelation. Where did Cardiff get these? Who is he working for? What would happen if these didn't get to their destination? They understood that the documents' theft could be enough to start another war, and the situation would have to be handled delicately. Mariah used Linguistics to make a forgery of the documents, with Will and Stefan helping her. The forgery was not an exact copy, though. The fake would appear plausible upon inspection, but all the information would be wrong so that whoever got a hold of it would be misinformed. Oliver tracked down some scrolls of modify memory at the Night Market, then snuck back into Cardiff's quarters and used the scrolls to erase any memory of his previous altercation. He returned the amulet and the briefcase, now containing the forged documents.

    In the morning, news of another woman's murder spread among the train passengers. Again, the party suspected Boone, but since nobody had been watching him the night before, they still had no proof. Because of Will's actions, they knew that the train was going to be attacked soon. They didn't know if any of the other passengers were in on the attack, so they wanted to keep eyes on everybody. When the safari began, Will and Stefan went up on the roof as well, to watch Bree and Boone.

    At 9:00 am, the train hit the brakes, and the Screaming Malice arose from the swamp. Mariah was able to make a high enough Knowledge check to know that the creature's heads could split into smaller creatures, so when the monster began to smash its heads into the train, they knew what was happening. Mariah feigned terror as she fled back to her quarters while everybody else began racing towards the front of the train. Will saw Bree and Boone exchange a look and yelled at them to help, but Bree told him she'd make sure the other passengers were safe as she climbed down into the train proper as well.

    Piotr cast an entangle spell from long range to slow the Malice down a bit, so it only got one batch of spawn in the train before Oliver and Mariah distracted it with a sound burst spell and gun shots from the window of the first class suite. As Oliver "kited" the monster back towards the rest of the group, Will entered Car 10 to deal with the spawn who were killing the passengers. Six passengers had been killed already, but Will's presence distracted the spawn so that no more innocents could be slain.
    Stefan, augmented by his alchemist's elixirs, raced past the Malice to deal with the bandits. He knew that their target was Car 6, so he lay in wait there as the bandits dealt with the train guards.

    As the Malice got within range of Oliver, he leapt off the roof, swinging through a window and into the train car. The monster smashed a second head to create a batch of spawn to menace him. Piotr wild shaped into an earth elemental and burrowed into the mucky ground, coming up beneath the monster to pummel it with his slam attacks. Meanwhile, Cardiff and the guards began opening fire, adding their shots to those from Mariah. The monster tried to get at Piotr, but he was too close for it to hit him effectively, and the added natural armor helped keep it from doing harm to him.

    The bandits rode up to Car 6, but as they were preparing to board, Stefan hit the leader with a sneak attack from a vial of alchemist's fire, setting him alight. His horse bucked and threw him to the ground, and as he tried to put the flames out, the other bandits opened fire on Stefan. He dodged their bullets and went into the car, conjuring a globe of darkness around him. The bullets continued to miss him as he drew his own pistol and finished off the bandit leader. Some of the other bandits tried to board the train, but Mister Mapple made his appearance here, bringing down the bandits with his powerful fists.

    As the bandits fell, the Malice had taken enough damage to cause it to retreat. Everybody regrouped as the train guards made sure the threat had passed and the train eventually got moving again. The total casualty count was six dead passengers and four dead guards--though it would have been much worse if the party had not intervened.

    We ended the session there. Everybody was raving about how awesome the encounter was. All the characters had a chance to do something fun and have their spotlight. The players still haven't figured out what all of the NPCs' motivations are, and each new discovery seems to raise even more questions. Once more, they can't wait until the next session!

    The Malice encounter was a lot of fun, but complicated to run. Since the distances involved wouldn't fit on a regular battlemap, I used a sheet of paper to track the distance each PC was from the monster. This worked fine until Will and Stefan wanted to move past the monster to get to other encounter areas, at which point I had forgotten exactly which car the monster was at. To make things easier next time, I'd probably use index cards, each one representing a car of the train, and place minis on those to keep track of everybody's location. The monster's abilities seemed a bit weird, as well, which I think is a carry-over from its initial 4th edition write-up. The text says the body gets a move action and each head gets a standard action, but what if the monster wants to double move? I ruled that if it double moves, it only gets one attack, so that the creature could still get some attacks in while Oliver was kiting it. Other than that, the session was a blast once again.

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