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ZEITGEIST Discoveries from the playtest of the ZEITGEIST setting book intro adventure

Tonight I ran the first session of the ZEITGEIST setting book's intro adventure, Death of the Author.

Aside from being my first time ever using Zoom to run a game, and my first time ever to use Roll20 as either player or GM, I learned some things about the rules we have in the book.

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Illus by Herman Lau

1. Shotguns with bayonets are possible, and Elfaivaran monks love them. Or not. This might be our first change due to the playtest. Right now bayonets have no drawback other than costing a couple GP more than having two separate weapons, but they let you swap weapons more easily. I think it's probably fine mechanically.

2. People aren't remembering their character theme abilities. Right now we give out themes like Courseur, Sophist, and Telemachian (only one of which is new as of this book - the others are just renamed) as extra abilities at 1st level. The design intent is that they're about as powerful as a feat, though they mostly just improve versatility, not raw power. The PCs referenced them in roleplaying, but only one used his in the first session. And he discovered that I hadn't actually written that sophists can only use their aura of belief once per short rest, so he had planned to toggle it on and off as needed, which is I think too good.

3. Monster abilities need to take into account guns. In their battle against a malice strider, our dragonborn bureaucrat warned the rest of the party in advance not to get close, lest the emotivore overwhelm them with psychic compulsions. When they started assaulting it from afar with firearms, I spontaneously decided to give it a reaction to let it affect one attacker each round with its aura of fury, even if the person is outside the aura's radius. I was worried otherwise it'd never get a chance to make a melee attack against anyone.

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Illus by Rafael Benjamin

4. Every assumes zones should be auras. We had a malice beast with an aura, and a dwarf evolutionary biologist with an aura, so when the enclave noble declared their domain, everyone assumed it'd be a 20-ft. radius circle, instead of a 20-ft. cube. The confusion and potential retconning as people planned their actions on getting into the zone's defenses (to hide from the malice beast) makes me wonder if I should just make it be a circle centered on the noble.

5. Devas might be highlanders now. Since the Great Eclipse, whenever a deva dies there's only a one-in-three chance they reincarnate, and no one's quite sure why. The player with a deva PC suggested that maybe some devas are going around killing each other and gathering the divine power in their victims, because ultimately there can be only one. I might do some quick rewrites to hint at this silliness without making it explicit.

6. One player clearly didn't pay attention to the setting section I sent out. When a player introduced his Elfaivaran elf as having blond hair and blue eyes, I regretted not including some portraits from the adventure path. Then again, she'd been undercover with the Kuchnost in Drakr, so having a disguise and a fuzzy memory isn't that unreasonable.

7. The name von Recklinghausen is very memorable. Two of my friends played in the AP something like six years ago, but they still recognize that name. One was a gnoll war vet, so I might even have had him be treated by the good doctor many years ago. They haven't reached the manor yet, though. That comes next week.
 
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Andrew Moreton

Adventurer
Shotgun bayonets are a real thing, they were fitted to Trench Shotguns in WW1 , and I think the limited number of military shotguns still had fixtures for bayonets for many years even if like the bayonets on rifles they are almost never used as weapons.
 

hirou

Explorer
Is there a way to access this adventure or this is a closed beta-test thing?

Re: point 3. What are the rules for firearms in new version? In vanilla 5e longbows already have a range of 150/600, few monsters actually have a non-magical answer for a mounted ranger at a vast open field
 

efreund

Explorer
Is there a way to access this adventure or this is a closed beta-test thing?
My thoughts exactly!

Also, loving the header-art for the Malice Lands.

To your point #2, I found the same thing happening in my regular ZG games. The theme drove the RP, but the powers weren't really used. But then they took the PrCs, and they then used those powers. (I play PF.)

And to point #3: yea, we have a Gunsmith in our party now. We just wrapped adventure 6, most of which takes outdoors, and much of it is against 'monsters'. It was laughably easy. Just find a high spot and annihilate them dinos from range.

Are the Malice Lands still malice-y post the Great Eclipse?
Also, during the Great Eclipse, Devas didn't reincarnate at all. What about the new system is making that work again?
 


Lylandra

Adventurer
5. Devas might be highlanders now. Since the Great Eclipse, whenever a deva dies there's only a one-in-three chance they reincarnate, and no one's quite sure why. The player with a deva PC suggested that maybe some devas are going around killing each other and gathering the divine power in their victims, because ultimately there can be only one. I might do some quick rewrites to hint at this silliness without making it explicit.

6. One player clearly didn't pay attention to the setting section I sent out. When a player introduced his Elfaivaran elf as having blond hair and blue eyes, I regretted not including some portraits from the adventure path. Then again, she'd been undercover with the Kuchnost in Drakr, so having a disguise and a fuzzy memory isn't that unreasonable.

7. The name von Recklinghausen is very memorable. Two of my friends played in the AP something like six years ago, but they still recognize that name. One was a gnoll war vet, so I might even have had him be treated by the good doctor many years ago. They haven't reached the manor yet, though. That comes next week.

That #5... totally happened in our ZG campaign! But for us, it only made sense before the events on Ascetia and the great rebirth.
#6 is totally a Shahalesti descendant... or maybe the player got inspired by Voltron's Allura ;)
#7 oooh yes baby <3
 

Falkus

Explorer
7. The name von Recklinghausen is very memorable. Two of my friends played in the AP something like six years ago, but they still recognize that name. One was a gnoll war vet, so I might even have had him be treated by the good doctor many years ago. They haven't reached the manor yet, though. That comes next week.

I can safely say von Recklinghausen may well be the greatest NPC name I have seen in a module in my entire life.
 

Andrew Moreton

Adventurer
I like the idea of the essense of Governor Stansfield hunting down Deva's and killing them for their spark of immortality so he can rebuild himself and RULE TEH WORLD
 

MarkM

Villager
I'm glad you are running the adventure in an online tabletop format. That should give you a really good sense of what add-ons might be greatly appreciated by those of us whose gaming groups aren't local. The big one is player versions of the maps that can be used online -- where the number key, secret doors, marked locations of lairs, etc. aren't marked on the map and could be added on a GM/token layer. It is easy to add things to maps, but hard to take them away without it being obvious that something was there. Electronic maps and art/tokens with GM and player versions would be the first think I'd look for in a kickstarter add-on or extra purchase.
 

Tormyr

Adventurer
I'm glad you are running the adventure in an online tabletop format. That should give you a really good sense of what add-ons might be greatly appreciated by those of us whose gaming groups aren't local. The big one is player versions of the maps that can be used online -- where the number key, secret doors, marked locations of lairs, etc. aren't marked on the map and could be added on a GM/token layer. It is easy to add things to maps, but hard to take them away without it being obvious that something was there. Electronic maps and art/tokens with GM and player versions would be the first think I'd look for in a kickstarter add-on or extra purchase.

That is a great point for any future products from EN Publishing, not just this one.

Because many of the War of the Burning Sky and Zeitgeist adventure path maps that are available to me as I prep the Roll20 versions are only available as a .tiff or .jpg, it has meant a lot of time scrubbing maps for the online version. Especially time consuming is when an "S" for a secret door needs to be scrubbed. Afterwards, numbered tokens are placed on the GM layer so the GM can still track where everything is. The results are not exactly like the original, but nothing stands out for the most part.

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But the original War of the Burning Sky and Zeitgeist adventure paths were released before VTT was really mainstream. Now with VTT being so important, it is relatively easy to tell the cartographer to export a few extra copies of the maps at 72dpi and dimensions optimized for the VTT, with numbered and unnumbered versions.
 


Week two. No combat this time, just me inflicting a scenario on myself with eleven named NPCs in one place. I set up a 'map' in roll20 that just has the portraits and names of each of the NPCs, for roleplaying scenes.

This might be a flaw in the adventure design, being too complicated, but so far the players are enjoying it.

I apparently cannot do an Italian accent, so Crisillyiri people sound like they're from the US New England region, and Malicelanders are from the south. I like roleplaying Kvarti because it's easy for his 'Russian' accent to make him stand out from the other NPCs. I'd also scripted a three-line back-and-forth sniping conversation between a Danoran and a Risuri, but having the GM talk to himself is awkward. I might keep it just to give the GM a sense of the dynamic between the two NPCs, even if they don't use it verbatim.

Some NPCs naturally got more interest than others, and unsurprisingly everyone wanted to talk to the character with the Healer feat who will restore their HP if they're friendly to him. But to my surprise nobody made friends with anyone else because they figured everyone had a political agenda, except for the cook, who won much praise for her interest in the party's dietary requirements. (Apparently the harimau elf is a vegan, despite being descended from weretigers.)

Our dwarven naturalist PC asked about some books in the library on malice beast anatomy, which led to me making up on the spot that many books on that topic are conspicuously missing from the card catalog. That led to the PC rudely barging into the rooms of all the NPCs looking for those books, making him disliked by basically all the guests. I need to make sure there's some payoff when he finds where those books actually went. The rampage came to an end when he refused to be impressed by a wizardress acting as a VIP's bodyguard, so she cast charm person on him, and he rolled a 1.

He proceeded to roll very well on his check to write a love poem to the wizardress, which he might recite over dinner next session.

I think I did a good job providing enough detail about the manor that the "clues to secrets" blended in with the innocuous description. For maybe the first time in my entire D&D career, stonecunning revealed useful information, yet the PC didn't follow up. But the party did discover something I didn't expect, when the stealthy harimau elf eavesdropped on the right room while all the other NPCs were distracted. The person in that room was rehearsing a speech they intended to give over dinner, so the party knows one of the twists before it happens.

So far we're 6 hours in and have only finished the first of five acts. I haven't even killed the person who's supposed to get murdered to kick off the plot! I was able to run Bonds of Forced Faith in one four-hour session, but this adventure is more complicated. I wonder if I should trim things out in the version we publish, or keep it complicated and trust GMs and players to handle the heft of a mansion murder mystery.

The players are unsure if I'm doing Clue or Knives Out. Jokes on them: I'm doing And Then There Were None.
 

Tormyr

Adventurer
Insert Boromir "One does not simply run Zeitgeist for a murderhobo campaign" meme here. :D

Your specialty, what sets you apart as a writer, has been adventures that make people think and are not just another basic adventure. There are people who love WotBS for its choices that have consequences and Zeitgeist for its cerebral plot where ideas have as much weight as weapons.

It may be difficult to set up, but I wonder if you could create two paths. One path would be the pared-down storyline with just what is necessary to move the plot forward. Second, through sidebars, you wrap all of the intrigue around the plot. This allows narrative focus on the primary story while allowing a GM to bring in some or all of the side plots.

For a VTT version of these kinds of scenes, it works really well to have a portion of the map be a piece of art depicting the scene inset in a frame with other insets in the frame as a place to drop PC and NPC tokens. This avoids any white space on the page.
 




Week three, wherein eleven NPCs and six PCs all had dinner together, and it actually worked as a scene.

I think my idea to foreground the mechanics payed off: "We're going to have a conversation, and I figure people are going to be looking for shady behavior. Everyone roll an Insight check that will apply to the conversation as a whole, and I'll give you information in the course of events, instead of us stopping the role-playing to roll dice. If you want to focus on one particular person, tell me now and you'll get an easier DC to see if you can figure out what they're hiding, but then make a Deception check to avoid them noticing that you're paying attention."

Each NPC had previously had a short scene to introduce them as the PCs made their way to the manor, and now during dinner each had a scripted line -- the Clergy preacher, the posh member of Beaumont's Queen Bee Lodge, the Risuri nationalist servant of the Father of Thunder, etc. -- and so when the Chancellor of Drakr and his ideological rival came in, the party actually got engaged in the ensuing philosophical debate between Heid Eschatol and Delkovich Nihisol - with the party's own dwarf trying to push his philosophy.

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(Famed eschatologist Vlendam Heid, solipsistic nihilist Jaromir Delkovich, and evolutionist Karl Evol [not an official ZEITGEIST artwork].)

It might have helped to have typed up and ready to send via chat message the results of the insight checks, but the party noticed all the clues. We'll see if they remember them next week. We ended on a cliffhanger right after the gaslights went out and the guests discovered Heid's wizard bodyguard with her skull caved in, and a bloody hammer hidden under Delkovich's bed. Karl will be heartbroken when he sees the woman he loves (because she cast charm person on him) has been brutally murdered.

Insights:

1. Even with my preparation and various distractions, it is hard to have 'the cover of darkness' in D&D. May I here express my abiding hatred of darkvision, of light being anything less than a 2nd level spell, and of torches not being the primary source of light. That's why I'm going to rewrite the adventure so that, instead of the gaslights going out, they'll actually become blindingly bright, due to an extra compound added to the phlogiston canister. I remember writing that devas are immune to being blinded by bright lights, and its time I actually make that matter.

2. That said, when the party split up and half ran down to the docks to see what that explosion was, and I described a dying man looking over the PCs' shoulders in horror, it was awesome that one player's immediate response was to hurl his oil lantern at the looming figure in the darkness.

3. It was less cool that the bard cast Hideous Laughter twice on the menacing monster, which proceeded to giggle on the ground (and roll low Wisdom saves) as people fired shotguns into its face. However, I'm in luck: that spell shouldn't have worked on creatures with Int 4 or less! Still, it might behoove to give the big monster some sort of legendary resistance. Yes, the PCs did stake it to the ground and decapitate it, but fortunately that won't kill it. And that's not even me doing GM handwavium. It's in the statblock.

4. That 'dying man' from #2? Well, the party's sophist didn't believe he died, so I guess I should include a statblock for him in the final adventure.

5. Meanwhile the other half of the party stayed in the manor, and it was a high-wire act to keep them from sticking like glue to the assassin as he tried to slip away without my misdirection arousing the players' suspicion. I might need to add more distractions at the manor before the lights malfunction.

6. Next session the party will point fingers and maybe figure out who committed the murder, but they'll still need to explore Dr. von Recklinghausen's laboratory if they want to avoid being driven made by energy leaking from a well to the Bleak Gate. And there's still the matter of who stole the rocketry research. At this point I'm not even sure which herring is the red one.

7. Seriously, I think the players will want to do a full campaign after this, because they were really interested in the geopolitics of the aftermath of the Great Eclipse. I was a bit sad, though, that no one really blinked at the preacher claiming that demons had possessed the telegraph network in Crisillyir.

If you're into this sort of geopolitical stuff, I suggest you check out the channel World War Two:
 
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Week four was a lot of talking and investigating. And a gnoll from Ber affirming that 'monster' is a racial slur.

The PCs found a secret door. They found the hidden keyhole that would open it. So naturally the deva solipsistic nihilist just decided to ignore reality and walk through the door and open it from the other side. That is going to annoy some GMs in some future games, I'm sure.

The Occult Blade rogue snuck into a guest's room and found what appears to be the murder weapon, but had already convinced herself another guest was the killer. She finally got to use her special ability to 'swipe' thoughts with Sleight of Hand, but much to her dismay her prime suspect was busy thinking, "Whoever really killed her must not have known about the rocket science secrets she was selling."

Yes, Drakr has a space agency.

We're thick in the "too many threads, and they feel like they won't ever make sense" stage of the adventure. The same thing happened to a lot of groups in The Dying Skyseer right before parties piece things together. They literally put their hand on the door knob leading to the secret laboratory, but that'll be two weeks from now. (Next week I'm on vacation.)

By the way, one of my players had a dad who was a crime scene investigator. He asked about blood spatter, and coagulation, and defensive wounds, and the angle of the killing blow (to try to figure out if the killer was left-handed). He's convinced no one they know about committed the murder, because nobody had any blood on them. In his defense, though, real-life murderers can't cast prestidigitation.
 


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