ZEITGEIST Ashes of Zeitgeist: Campaign Thread

Hello all, my name is Ash, I made a thread a few months ago asking some questions (ZEITGEIST - Just starting Zeitgeist: Need some advice on player's factions) and I also put some details about how our group's sessions had gone up to that point (just to the beginning of Book 2).

Well, I'm happy to report that we are still playing and we are in the midst of Book 3; though it took as a while to get here as I took a break from GMing after Book 2 due to work and my amazing players all pitched to take turns being the GM for various mini-campaigns.

Since I got so much incredible inspiration from all the other stellar campaign recap threads, I'm going to start one of my own. Not session to session probably, but probably summarizing how our group approached each book/major aspects of the campaign. Hopefully I can also use this thread to ask the dozens of questions that pop up in my head when planning for future sessions as well.

To Ryan Nock and all the writers/artists/producers of Zeitgiest: much love and gratitude from our group to you. We are all having so much fun playing it, and it is the favourite campaign I have ever ran. I don't think there will ever be another pre-made adventure like this ever published. I hope to enjoy it while it lasts.
 

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HOMEBREW SYSTEM: DOWNTIME PHASE​

Before I get going with the recap, I have a couple homebrew systems for downtime that I've incorporated into Zeitgeist that I'll explain here. Hopefully, if someone is looking to get started in Zeitgeist and are interested in adding to what players can do for their chosen factions in the setting, or upgrading during the many weeks/months off they'll have between books, this will provide some ideas.

In between every adventure (and maybe in the middle of a adventure, depending on if a future mission gives them the breathing room), I let my players take 3 DOWNTIME ACTIONS, one of each of the following:

Tool and Tinker​

This is an action they can take to better their equipment/training. I made several tables of "upgrades" they can apply to different types of weapons/spells that will increase their damage/accuracy/apply different cool conditions (e.g. they can add suppressed to a firearm, dampening its noise, or explosive to a spell, increasing its damage). This action also allows them to upgrade the RHC Head Quarters itself (which the players have lovingly nicknamed, and will hereafter go as, RHQ). Most of these upgrades are just for combat, but I like the idea of RHC constables putting in their "off-season" training and getting better. The following is a screenshot from the PDF I made for them. Currently, the players have upgraded RHQ with a Tier Two Engineering Bay.

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Personal Project​

This action basically lets a player take care of something specific that they think their character would be interested in. I have different tables for inspiration that lets them pick from a list of project types (e.g. Gather Information), and then roll to find out what kind of benefits they get if they rolled well, and what kind of consequences they might face if it goes poorly. For example, in the last downtime, one of my players rolled to Gather Information about witch oil, and did not do too well (as I'll explain later in the recap).

Faction Favour​

This action allows players to perform a favour for a known faction, where succesfully doing so increases their prestige for that faction. I should mention that I reworked the official prestige system, because I felt like the way it was presented in the book was not enough to fully hook my players. So rather than just decreasing the time it takes to request things, I also had tiers of prestige unlock different abilities/powers. For example, this is a screenshot from what I have so far for Vekeshi Mystic prestige (I called it Renown):

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Typically how I play out this Favour action is to have a player either tell me exactly what they'd like to do for a faction if they already have something in mind, or I have them roll on random tables I made for each faction, which would give them a general prompt for inspiration. I had a lot of fun (perhaps too much fun!) coming up with these random tables, and the players have really enjoyed them too so far. Based on the favour, the player and I will then go through a short scene where we roleplay through the task they've undertaken, I'll have them make some skill checks, and in the end, I'll decide how well they managed to do. Below is a screenshot from some of these faction favour tables (I have a faction for each of the Character Themes, as well as some of the nations, the City of Flint, and the RHC):

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These downtime actions are supposed to represent what they get up to between the long stretches of time that occur between adventures. I didn't want to have them feel like their characters were just shuffling paperwork around for 3 months, then save the king, then shuffle paperwork for 3 months, then bring down a mayor (etc.) - it felt a bit jarring for me. The hope is that this system allows them to feel more immersed in the wonderful Zeitgeist setting, and more inclined to pursue private endeavours that make the game more fun.

We usually take the first session of every adventure to go through this Downtime Phase.
 

THE PROTAGONISTS​


Gambit O'Hara​

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Gambit is a recent immigrant from Crisillyir, along with his uncle, Morgan O'Hara. He's a martial scientist, and a halfling psionic rogue. He has a lot of reservations about his crime family background, which is why he struggled so mightily to get himself and his brother out of that life, but he brings many of the skills his uncle taught him to his work at the RHC.

Gambit's player told me that his character concept was the ex-scion of a crime family; I immediately thought, why not just make The Family, the O'Hara's - or at least an offshoot of them? This required some tinkering with the world. The O'Hara's then had to be primarily a halfling family, and thus I decided to just go ahead and make Crisillyir a halfling-centric culture. Apologies if this does not line up with the setting, but if the elves get Elfaivar and the dwarves get Drakr, why can't halflings get a spot too!



Dapper Daniel
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Daniel is a half-elf wizard who comes from the upper crust of Risur's aristocracy. Born to a human mother who died early and a distant elven father, his primary companion was his charismatic, do-good brother, who was a stark contrast to his own care-free, dilletante ways. However, after witnesssing the random murder of his brother, he vowed to combat injustice, and found a place in the Vekeshi Mystics, who ordered him to join the RHC and await further instructions.

Daniel's character also left their backstory pretty open for interpretation. I've been having a lot of fun secretly giving them the Vekeshi side-missions during the last two adventures and watching them try to accomplish them while keeping them hidden from the rest of the party.

I think I'm going to have his father be involved in the Obscurati in some fashion, as I think he would be allied with Duchess Ethelyn and disdains industry. I am not sure how high up to make him though.

Raqalien
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Raqalien is a Kobold that was an enslaved from a young age in Risur to work in a factory by some Ber/Risuri faction, but found a strange artifact - an ancient telescope. This artifact connected him to some ancient power in the world whom he made a pact with, gaining spirit medium powers and becoming a warlock, freeing himself from his shackles. He later joins the RHC to save more in need of freedom.

A new addition to the party after this player decided to have his previous character (A.I.G.) retire from active service. I gave the player the option of having their patron be very significantly tied to the campaign, but they surprisingly didn't want that, as they sensed it would lead to some difficult requests on their end!

I would've had their patron be the Voice of Rot in that case, but instead I have decided to have it be the frozen giant lich from Adventure 7, who I will need to alter as required.



AIG (retired)
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AIG (short for Artificial Intelligence Guardian) was a war-forged artificer built by a gnome from Danor during the Fourth Yerasol War, who then switched allegiance halfway through the war and fled with his creation to Risur. AIG fought in the war, and looking for purpose after it, joined the RHC.

Seeing so many natural similarities between Tinker Oddcog and the gnome creator that this player had come up with, I decided it might be fun and hopefully not too complicated for AIG's creator to have also been involved in the Obscurati project in some fashion. I am not entirely sure how involved yet (initially I thought maybe I could replace Tinker entirely with him, but that was too much alteration of the plot I think - maybe a fellow researcher of Tinker who eventually came to disapprove of how far Danor/Ob were going and wanted to flee?

At the end of Book 2, the player felt AIG had reached a natural concluding point and wanted to retire him from active service. I've had this character now join the RHC engineering team.

Snow
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Snow is a deva that has lost the memories of his previous lives. The only thing he remembers is waking up years ago in a snowbank, deposited in the outreaches of the City of Flint. He later decided to turn his passion for shooting and gun smithing into a job with the RHC.

Snow's player asked me if I would be okay with them making an amnesiac character and having me fill in their backstory. I thought this would be a lot of fun, but I have embroiled his backstory so heavily into the plot of the adventure that it has become very complicated to manage.

In my current draft for Snow, he was an eladrin that was engaged to Dala, Kasvarina Varal's daughter, and who looked to Varal herself as a matriarchal figure. I have been feeding him vague glimpses of memories at appropriate times (when he saw Asrabey Varal for the first time, for example), and so far he knows the name Kasvarina Varal, and knows that he was engaged to her daughter. I also added the constant theme of fire and burning to these memories. As I go forward, I'll be giving him glimpses of more memories, many of them analogues to Kasvarina's memories from Act 2.

There's still so much open-ended for this character that I have to decide though, its a bit overwhelming. What did he do after Dala's death? Did he stay with Kasvarina and help her? Was he there for Launga's death? Something must have happened to shatter the bond between him and Kasvarina, and what ultimately lead him to where he was found now?


As I hope you can see, I've tried to enmesh all these characters in the setting and story of the adventure. Hopefully, that'll result in cool payoffs for my players down the line.
 

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ADVENTURE ONE - CHAPTER ONE: RNS COALTONGUE​


I want you guys to close your eyes and imagine this scene.

We open on a sea in a raging storm. From every side are waves of black-blue water crashing all around you, no land in sight. Suddenly, you hear a slight metallic hum, as a shimmering blue portal opens, a few hundred feet above the water. From out of this portal, steps a figure who you can only see the back of, as they hover in the air looking out at the storm around them. The camera slowly spins to face this figure, and we see an ancient looking orc, his dark green face covered in faint scars and thick lines, his eyes clouded in white mist.

We watch as this orc stretches out his hand, palm raised to the sky. There is a pause, as he leaves his arm extended, but then he whispers an inaudible word and clenches tight his fist. A crack rings out over the storm like a gunshot, echoing across the sea.

As the camera pulls back, we see that the storm and the raging sea has become frozen in time, every drop of rain, every rising wave, every gust of wind, locked in place. The only movement you can see now is the trembling of the orc's fist, shaking ever harder as he forces himself to squeeze tighter and tighter.

Finally, with a sudden shout, the orc opens his hand, and the storm surges back into place, the sea roaring around him. As the camera zooms in on his face, and as his gasps for breath begin to ease, you see the slow beginnings of a smile begin to creep upon his lips.

Blackout.

It is spring of the year 500 AOV...


The above is how I started the very first session of our Zeitgeist campaign. Taking inspiration from an actual play podcast that I love (Glass Cannon), I like to sprinkle in cold opens like this every now and then that might give the players information about parts of the story that their characters would never have access to. I like to do this especially in Zeitgeist because I feel like there's SO many amazing details in the story and the world that could almost never be found out by players naturally.

Throughout this first adventure, every few sessions or so, I would occasionally give scenes like above that (when pieced together) would tell the story of a group of powerful orcs that cast a ritual that barely held back some great extra-planar evil. Though my players had no idea what was going on at the time, this is of course a reference to the Ancients and the sealing ritual performed on Axis Island thousands of years ago. Though the players were confused, I think this opening adequately conveyed the idea that there were a lot of things going on in the background of this adventure.

The first chapter of this adventure took our group 3 sessions to complete, and they managed to succesfully complete all the main objectives that I put in front of them. In their initial role as security for the launch party, they quickly tracked down the 4 instigators, and dealt with them effectively. Subsequently, once on the boat, they very quickly sussed out how shady the Duchess was being. As an aside, I have played this initial adventure with 3 different groups now, and in ALL of them, the players have reacted amazingly to that awesome cinematic moment with the constables bursting into the Duchess's door to see Ethelyn crouched half-way out the window, preparing to jump into the ocean. This was such an amazing hook for my players, they really enjoyed that feeling of "what the naughty word is going on??" as they watch Ethelyn ride away on a giant sea monster.

The combat went about in a pretty expected manner, with one of the players managing to alert the king, while the others fought the assassin spy and other enemies while Sokana rushed down to the engine room. I want to point out here another aspect I love about a lot of Zeitgeist combat encounters, which is that there's so much world-building baked into them. In this particular example, this encounter gave my players their first taste with the fey of the Dreaming, the gold/teleportation restrictions, the eladrin, etc. I feel like it sticks in the players minds more when they're learning/applying knowledge in a tense encoutner like this, rather than just hearing me read it off a page.

After a critical hit by the rogue (the musket + sneak attack is deadly!) on Sokana killed her instantly, they figured out how to slow down the engine implosion enough to have the tiefling engineer come down and assist them in stopping the explosion.

Post Chapter Thoughts


I think this first chapter set a really positive experience for the players: they knew that they could come to expect interesting, objective based combat encounters, a deep underlying mystery, and an interesting world with consistent themes. But I think this first chapter highlighted some of the challenges that I continue to face running this campaign.

1. Helping the players/myself track all the many NPCs and their many different factions.
This is was most clear in the initial launch party scene, with the players having to suddenly take in so many different names and nations and groups. It was pretty difficult for me to give the many important people the players met at the party, unique identities to help them stick in the player's minds, and it's a challenge that I still really struggle with. I fear sometimes that all these NPCs become very 'same-y' when filtered through my limited ability to do voices/act them out. And of course, it's difficult for the players to keep track of all the things that their characters would know just by growing up in that world.

2. Running some of the most complicated combats I've ever seen in an adventure
This might partially be an offshoot of running sessions online exclusively through VTTs, but an encounter like the Coaltongue forces me to set up multiple scenes that the players are constantly jumping in and out of (the floors of the ships), track multiple objectives and trackers, resolve things that are happening outside the player's perception, etc. This makes the experience of running encounters like these really exhilarating but also pretty stressful!

Overall, I think this was a great jumping off point that got the players interested in a new setting.

Highlights From Player Notes​

One of my players takes great notes for every session. I've put some of my favourite snippets from them for this chapter below.

  • At first Dafton plays dumb and tries to push past us but A.I.G. grabs him and Initiative begins.....WE ALL ROLL LIKE DOG POO
  • Snow informs the team the ship is gonna blow...then BLOWS OFF THE BANDIT'S HEAD
  • Gambit has such faith in his stealing abilities that he reaches in to sneak the gem away from the flames and SUCCEEDS and is the proud owner of a fire gem. CRISIS AVERTED!

 


Do you show your players illos of the NPCs? You can buy print on demand NPC illo cards for Act 1 here: ZEITGEIST: The Gears of Revolution NPC Cards - Act I - EN Publishing | Adventures in ZEITGEIST | PATHFINDER RPG | DriveThruRPG.com
I never knew those existed! Thanks for pointing those out. I did eventually start putting up important NPC portraits for them in the Journal section of Foundry (the VTT we've been playing on), which I think has helped considerably.
 

ADVENTURE ONE - CHAPTER TWO: THREE TOWERS​

We open on a sea in a raging storm.

As the camera pans around, we see from every side, waves of black-blue water crashing all around you, until finally it stops as the face of an ancient orc comes into frame, darkly scarred green skin, clouded, misty eyes. He looks out into horizon, as rain beats at him.

Suddenly, we hear the sound and see the blue shimmer of another portal opening beside him, and then another to his right, and then another behind. More and more portals hum into place, as dozens of orcs join him, levitating above the storm. We see that they wear primitive fur skins, but are covered in ornate gold jewelry. We watch as the one closest approaches, hovering, a female orc with long white-grey hair. She places a hand on the ancient orcs shoulder.
"How do you feel? If you need rest..."
He interrupts with a grunt. "It matters not. There will be rest enough when I am dead."
"
Toteth, we need your strength if we are to fix the seal. We were lucky to have a second chance at this, the invaders will not give us a third."
"We will not need one. No matter the cost, this ends here. This ends now."
The female orc looks at him for a moment, then closes her eyes and bows her head. As the ancient orc lifts his hand, the camera pans back and we see all the orcs massing around him, in the eye of the storm, until he drops it suddenly with a snarl. "Forward!"
We hear sharps cracks in the air, as they take off, flying at immense speeds, the wind peeling back their hair and their hoods, the rain whipping into their faces. As the storm clouds begin to part, we see their intended target begin to take shape in the distance, as an island appears on the horizon.


This is something I'm going to be reiterating throughout every adventure recap I give, but BOY does this AP stand out in terms of the sheer variety of gameplay it throws at players. My group was definitely not expecting to go from security detail and an exploding steamship straight into a navy seal type island infiltration. I think this is really the point at which my players started to understand a lot of the major themes that are going to carry out throughout the entire adventure: industry vs. nature, change vs. tradition, freedom vs. equality, etc.

I skipped the puzzle that Lya Jierre gave to the group (it seems a little condescending to conduct a technical interview at this stage, and I wanted them to like her!) but other than that, this part started out right in line with what the book suggests. The squad immediately liked that Lya wanted to save her cousin, and agreed to her request to look out for Nathan. Rather than using an infiltration team from the Slate RHC office, I fleshed out a B-Team of the Flint RHC, since I knew that I wanted to come back to them consistently throughout the entire adventure as coworkers they could rely on. This also meant not immediately killing all of them, but rather just mysteriously teleporting them from the sea cave tunnel.

After saving Micah (my female goblin assassin replacement for Burton), they set out into the Sea Cave and were promptly almost TPK'd by Nicolas Dupiers and his gang of elementals. I must have messed up the balance or they just had bad rolls or something, but they eventually managed to convince him that they weren't with the Duchess and talked him down. They were all appropriately intrigued by the Golden Icons, but I think I did a bad job of describing them and their significance, because by this point I hadn't read all the way through the adventure and didn't really have a good grasp of the arching plot myself. In retrospect, I think I should have emphasized how strange it was that a Danoran general was commanding his forces to mine for these artifacts, and other hints.

I wanted to break up the action a little bit and didn't want them to immediately run to the fortress; so I used the optional path in the book and ran Axis Island like a mini hex-crawl. I gave them some basic quests (find a Danoran engineer) and let the players basically decide how they wanted to approach everything. I also had a random encounter table that I would roll on whenever they moved, with lots of cool "this island is REALLY WEIRD" type events on it. This part was really fun, and I think I want to emphasize this type of open-ended play a little more in the future - I worry sometimes that I'm railroading the group too much.

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Over the course of a day or so, they ambushed a patrol, stole their uniforms and their horse, saved a Danoran squad from being executed, and found a Danoran engineer. They also ran into the headless golem which they were all appropriately freaked out about (one of them gathered a vial of the mysterious light-specked substance it leaked!). I was a little disappointed that they didn't want to explore the island more (I had encounters mapped out if they wanted to visit the other mines to get more icons, or visit the abandoned factory, or the ruins of the temple to the south, where I had a cool Ancient ghost battle set up), but instead they bee-lined it to the fortress after finding the engineer. They're pros, what can I say.

The infiltration of the fortress also played out in an interesting manner, I had set up the possibility of them attacking the teleport circle warehouse or trying to free some of the Danoran prisoners, but they disguised themselves and successfully bluffed their way straight to the inner fortress where the Duchess was. This is one of my true regrets about this part of this book: I HEAVILY suggested that they not to try and get an audience with the Duchess. In retrospect, I should have gone along with their plan and let them figure out how to deal with the fact that the Duchess could clearly recognize them from the Coaltongue; I think this would've been a fun realization for the group that their decisions have consequences. Instead, I kind of wimped out and not so subtly pushed them to go to the sea gate instead. Ah well, you live and learn.

The sea gate encounter itself is one that I think I could've done better with today, but it was still very fun. They managed to sneak right into the tower, and planned a cool simultaneous attack on the guards, before the technologist of the group quickly figured out how to work the opening mechanism of the sea gate. As they fired their flare, I narrated how hordes of the rebel forces were swarming into their position (to the tune of ), and the squad was AMPED up as they prepared for a fight for their lives. I also chose this moment for the Infiltrator Team to reappear, disguised as rebel soldiers. Though the actual combat itself was a little too safe for them, it was still very fun.

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Highlights from Player Notes:

  • We tie up the guards and Snow suggests we steal their guard uniforms but A.I.G. won't blend. Nevertheless...Snow and Daniel forcibly take their clothes. Dan puts their uniforms in the cart and we proceed to the next village (in hindsight we should have investigated the cart...)
  • We continue up the mountain range and are suddenly over taken by vertigo and notice the scenery flicker and start seeing swamps and frogs. Daniel nervous/drunkenly giggles at Snow when he shows him the frog, Snow notices the sun is blue (LIKE PROUD MARY SAID EARLIER)
  • A.I.G. runs an arcana check to see what's going on and realizes it's a planar fluctuation and recommends iron and gold. A.I.G. grabs Dan and Snow and hugs them to expose them to his iron....sorry no better way to word that.
  • Gambit turns to the Rebel Soldier and says "you know what I love most about this room? The Giant Robot in the corner". A.I.G. drops invisibility and punches the naughty word out of them.
 

Awesome! Sounds like the group is enjoying things, and yeah, don't stress about getting it all perfect. There are already a lot of moving parts.

I also, by the way, have used that Thunderstruck cover for game music.
 

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