ZEITGEIST Session Three: Recap and Review

Previous sessions: Session one, Session two

Our group gathered in mid February for our third session in the Zeitgeist campaign from EN World. This session took us to the climactic finish of Adventure One: The Island at the Axis of the World.

Beware the cannonballs!

Since my group had ended session two by going a little bit off the rails, I had to create a new encounter to kick off session three. The group was racing along a sea wall surrounding a fortress, trying to follow the trail of some fiery, smoky being that had destroyed a ship in the harbor before leaping onto the wall and into the fort. Unfortunately for our heroes, the wall was being viciously fought over by the defenders upon it and the attackers bombarding it from ships in the harbor.

Sea Wall Battle - showing enemy positions

The battle is fairly simple. The party is approaching along the wall from the left side of the map. Four Rebel Musketeers (custom enemies) are on the north side of the wall, shooting at ships in the harbor, and four more are on the south side of the wall, doing the same thing. Half of each set of musketeers have their muskets loaded and ready at any given time. Two Rebel Soldiers (from the published adventure) are between the rows of musketeers, giving orders.

At the end of each round, a cannonball comes flying across a random row of the wall around the tower, attacking creatures in that row and on either side of that row. This can cause characters (both PCs and enemies) to be pushed off the wall and into the water.

Once the PCs get within ten squares or attack the enemies, the rebels notice them and turn their focus from the ships to the PCs.

The full encounter is available here (Beware the Cannonballs), and battle maps scaled to a 50 pixel per square grid are below.

Sea Wall map - with grid

Sea Wall map - No grid

Where did he go?

Once the party had conquered the sea wall tower, they moved along the inner wall until they met up with allied soldiers who had succeeded in breaching the wall. The fiery creature they were pursuing was nowhere to be seen, but the commanding officers requested the party’s assistance in dealing with some Danoran prisoners in a brig.

Negotiations with the prisoners went well and led to some intelligence about an entrance to the central tower of the keep through the sewers. The Danorans also gave the party a key that would open a door on the roof of the tower in case they ended up there. These discussions were ultimately interrupted by screams and the sound of running feet across the roof of the brig – the fiery creature was back!

Our heroes rushed into the streets to see the fiery creature, revealed as an eladrin, using a strange orb that caused the inner fortress wall to disappear, replaced by wilderness for a few moments. The fiery eladrin ran across the tops of the hedge maze within the inner fortress wall and then started scaling the central tower. The PCs decided to rush after him.

Vesper, the scout in the party, had found the token back in the mines that gave him tremendous jumping power, so he decided to use that power to go bounding after the eladrin. He hopped along the tops of the hedges in the maze and found himself at the base of the tower, staring up as the eladrin finished ripping out bricks, tearing what looked like a gold wire in the wall (gold circles prevent teleportation in this world) and then disappearing – presumably inside the tower. Vesper climbed to the roof, used the key on the roof door, and started sneaking downstairs.

Meanwhile, the rest of the party found themselves dealing with an irate fey creature named Ghillie Dhu who was blaming them for lighting his hedges on fire (when in fact it was the eladrin who had done so with his fiery aura). Some quick negotiations followed, including a bit of a seduction by the female eladrin in the party, Andraste, and Ghillie Dhu was satisfied that the party was chasing the eladrin who burned the maze, not allied with him. Ghillie Dhu led them through the maze to the base of the tower, where they found a rope had been lowered by Vesper.

Level 1 PCs fighting a level 20 monster

Inside the tower, Vesper had gotten himself into a good eavesdropping position. He was able to see the eladrin, badly bloodied after fighting a bunch of guards in the tower, having a heated exchange with Duchess Evelyn of Shale (the Risuri noblewoman who had invaded the island) and a tiefling named Nathan Jierre. The eladrin, referred to by the duchess as Asrabey, had clearly beaten the duchess and the tiefling, and the duchess was trying to reason with him. Vesper bided his time, readying an attack in case Asrabey tried to hurt the duchess or the teifling any more.

The rest of the party was working on climbing the rope. Some of the PCs made their Athletics checks quickly, but our poor docker bard, Corduroy, struggled and struggled. As the party made it onto the roof, they saw the open door and peaked in, communicating through hand gestures with Vesper below.

Once Corduroy finally made it to the roof, he danced a jig of happiness…

Which made some noise, attracting the attention of Asrabey, who finally looked up and saw Vesper above him. His rage set off Vesper’s readied action, and we were in combat!

This was a beautiful moment in the adventure, where the writer, Ryan Nock, provides the DM with two ways to run the encounter. The default approach is to run Asrabey as an injured level 20 creature with only 27 hit points. This makes him practically impossible to hit, unless a PC rolls a natural 20, uses a power that deals damage without an attack roll (like Magic Missile) or uses a power that still has an effect on a miss (like most daily powers). At the same time, his attacks always hit the PCs unless he rolls a 1.

Alternatively, the battle can be run with Asrabey as a level 2 solo creature. I went hard core – he was level 20.

Combat was quick and deadly. Asrabey set his shield to work chewing on Vesper as the rest of the party rushed inside. The eladrin set up a zone that would soon erupt into flames. Andraste the witch used a power that would deal damage to Asrabey every time he hurt one of Andraste’s allies.

The party started to worry that they had bitten off more than they could chew, but they were doing their best to make use of daily powers and creative effects. Asrabey took a few hits and was clearly teetering, but Vesper was unconscious and laying in the area that would soon erupt into flames.

Asrabey began his turn, the flames rose, and Vesper was burned to death…

At which point Andraste’s effect caused Asrabey to take a few points of damage, killing the eladrin.

My players, including Vesper’s player, literally jumped to their feet, cheering and high fiving one another. It was one of the best moments I’ve had as a DM. Even though a PC died, it was a huge victory that was hard-won. They earned it, 100%.

In the aftermath of the battle, the party managed to steal Asrabey’s sword and cloak – high-level items that they really shouldn’t have and that are quite illegal for them to have taken in-game. But that’s okay… I don’t mind there being consequences later!

Thus ends adventure one of ZEITGEIST. It’s a very cool campaign so far, and I’m hoping to start adventure two as soon as we can get everyone’s schedules to line up. I’ve just learned that two of my six players are moving away in August, and there’s a chance that two more might be going eventually as well, so I hope to make some progress on the campaign while we still can.

-Michael the OnlineDM

ZEITGEIST Session Two: Recap and Review

Previous session: Session one

To avert war

Session two came later in Christmas week, two weeks later in-game. The PCs were invited into their boss’s office, where they met the foreign minister from Risur’s historic rival, Danor (the tiefling country). Things started getting hard to follow politically, but in a nutshell the Duchess had disappeared off the Coaltongue during the chaos of Session One and had resurfaced a week later leading a force of Risuri rebels to take over Axis Island, an island held by Danor. Ultimately her goal seemed to be to start a war between Risur and Danor, and the Danoran foreign minister wanted to head that off. So, the PCs were tasked with being the “B team” of RHC agents, traveling with an “A team” from out of town. They were going to help stop the Duchess.

The interaction with the Danoran foreign minister was a little odd; there was a puzzle for the PCs to solve that, in retrospect, seems pointless (though I think I ran it poorly). That’s a minor quibble.

Meet the A Team

Anyway, the “A team” was presented in the adventure with brief bios, talking about character quirks of Seven Foot Dan and the illusionist who leaves an image of himself in boring meetings while he leaves to get a snack, that sort of thing. The party gets to interact with this other team as they sail toward Axis Island. Naturally, being genre savvy, my players immediately assumed that their companions were doomed and the PCs would soon be in charge.


The mission involved swimming through an underground tunnel on Axis Island, climbing through a mine, traveling overland to a fort, using a Passwall scroll to get inside, getting to a lighthouse, opening a sea gate to the fort’s harbor, and then using a Pyrotechnics scroll to signal the Risuri fleet to sail in and take the island. Naturally, the A team was mostly killed in step one, swimming through the tunnel, and the PCs had to take over.

The mine was inhabited by a paranoid Danoran whom the PCs were able to eventually convince to stop shooting them. They acquired a magical coin in this mine that allowed their scout character (who fancied himself as being Batman) to have a jump speed equal to his walk speed while on the island. This will become important later, especially in Session Three.

Traveling overland was another skill challenge, but handled as individual scenes – definitely my preferred style of skill challenge. The most noteworthy of these was when the party spots a gigantic headless iron golem lumbering through the woods and hides from it.

Into the fort!

Once the Constables arrived at the outer wall of the fort, getting through it with Passwall was a piece of cake. The Batman PC then climbed onto a roof and jumped from building to building, helping the folks on the ground avoid the Duchess’s patrols. Eventually they made it to the lighthouse out on the sea wall that contained the controls for the sea gate.

This triggered only the second full-on combat of the adventure so far, which took place near the end of the second session. (Zeitgeist is not ideal for players who just want to kill things and take their stuff, in case that wasn’t clear.) The lighthouse was defended by rebel soldiers, including a wizard with a pet drake. I appreciated that the combat had some good 3-D elements, with the PCs starting on a wall about 25 feet above the water. There was a ship docked beneath the wall, with ramps leading to the top. The lighthouse was obviously a vertical feature, with stairs leading up to a porch and then the tower itself having multiple stories. There were lots of opportunities to push people off ledges and so on.

Once the lighthouse was secure, the Constables found the controls to open the sea wall and they signaled the fleet to come on in. They stayed put while a land/sea battle broke out. Eventually one of the higher-ranking naval officers, Captain Rutger Smith of the RNS Impossible, came to chat with them. I only mention Captain Smith because he’s referred to once in the adventure as Captain Impossible; I have no idea if that was just a typo or what, but I love that name! “Captain Impossible; hero of the galaxy!”

Hello little buddy

Captain Smith handed out cigars but said not to smoke them until the whole mission was accomplished: Securing the fort and taking the Duchess into custody. She was holed up in a tower in an inner fort. Anyway, the PCs were given a detachment of soldiers to help them out, which I ended up referring to as their “little buddies”. These were basically minions who tagged along with the PCs and would follow orders. They could shoot a gun once per encounter, auto-hitting. I asked the PCs to name their pals, which gave us Pop Tart, Princess Sophia, Robin (Batman’s buddy, of course), Watson (another PC styles himself as being like Sherlock Holmes) and Food on Legs (companion of our vampire). Good times.

What the heck was that thing?

As the party was relaxing in the lighthouse, waiting for the military to finish doing their thing, they spotted a commotion on a Risuri ship across the harbor. The ship burst into flames, and they spotted a figure jumping from the ship to the sea wall and running along the wall before becoming impossible to see in a cloud of smoke. What to do? Go after it!

Of course, this required navigating the sea wall to get back to land, but the sea wall was being defended by the rebels and bombarded by the Risuri navy. This particular course of action was not spelled out in the printed adventure, so it was time to improvise a fight. And that’s where we decided to end Session Two.

This session didn’t “pop” as much as the big bang fight on the ship of Session One, but it was still fun. I enjoyed role playing Seven Foot Dan and the gang for sure!

-Michael the OnlineDM

ZEITGEIST Session One – Review and Recap

I may be insane, but I’m currently running three different D&D campaigns.

I have my long-running Friday night game online via MapTool and Skype in the War of the Burning Sky campaign saga from EN World. Awesome game, awesome people. We play most weeks (I’d say 3 times per month usually), though we’ve just come back from a six-week break. I should probably write more session recaps of this game, but I have to admit that I don’t.

I have my family campaign in Madness at Gardmore Abbey. We’re four sessions in, and I’m liking the campaign so far. That one, too, is online. I’ve been writing recaps of that one regularly.

And then I have the campaign I run for my friends in-person. We’ve just finished our third session in the ZEITGEIST campaign, also from EN World, which brought us to the end of Adventure One.


Session one of Zeitgeist (I get tired of typing it in all caps, as it’s technically written) was on Christmas Day. We gathered at my and my wife’s place around 1:00 PM and started by playing some board games. We then moved on to Christmas dinner and, since my wife needed a nap, a game of Taboo. Finally, we moved on to Dungeons and Dragons.

We had already done character creation a couple of weeks earlier, using rolled stats (my first time doing so in 4th Edition) and the character themes in Zeitgeist to tie the characters to the setting. The themes are a fantastic idea. I had never used themes before, since I see them largely as power creep and things that are likely to slow the game down with more choice paralysis on the part of players. But in this case, I love that they give PCs an automatic place in the world of Lanjyr (the land where the campaign is set). I think that Zeitgeist DMs should STRONGLY encourage their parties to take these themes.

You down with RHC? Yeah, you know me.

The PCs in this campaign begin in the employ of the Royal Homeland Constabulary (RHC), a sort of CIA / FBI / special forces unit for the country of Risur. Magic and technology both exist in this world, though technology is just starting to come into its own. Assignment number one in the campaign is for the Constables to help out with security at the launching of Risur’s first steam-powered warship, the RNS Coaltongue (a fun nod to a character in the War of the Burning Sky campaign).

A skill challenge to case the crowd, looking for troublemakers, has the potential to end up in a fight, though my players did a good job and avoided combat here. There were some good role-playing opportunities, and I tried hard to bring my players into their characters via their interactions with NPCs. One PC wanted to recruit a local cop to help with a task, so I gave him a cop and asked him to name the guy. This is something I did again later in the adventure, and I encourage it – when you get a new minor NPC, let the player name it.

Soon the king and other nobles arrive to board the Coaltongue, letting the party learn a bit about the politics of the world. My wife’s character, a rare eladrin female in this world, decided to make friends with the beautiful handmaiden of the king’s sister, Duchess Evelyn. Our dwarven knight tried to endear herself to the Duchess. And so on.

Once on board the ship, more chances for role-playing and exploration came. Then there came a moment where some of the PCs were asked to go check on the Duchess, who had gone below deck to take a nap and hadn’t come back. Some of the PCs went to check on her, while others remained on the main deck. The handmaiden called through the door of the Duchess’s cabin that the Duchess was still sleeping, and she refused to open the door. Eventually, the PCs heard a splash through the door, as if someone had jumped or been thrown out out a window, and they decided to bash their way into the cabin.

And at just that moment, the brass band on the main deck started playing the Risuri national anthem, drowning out any sound from below. Roll initiative.

Save our ship!

This was a very cool way to run a combat; hundreds of dignitaries above, oblivious to the chaos below as individuals led by the handmaiden tried to sabotage the ship’s boiler in an effort to blow the whole thing sky-high. The fight spread over multiple decks and involved not just straight-up combat but also efforts to restore the magical wards to protect the powder magazine as well as the skills needed to deal with the sabotage before everything exploded. The adventure comes with a cool mechanism for tracking how close the boiler is to exploding, though it definitely needs a good DM to tweak it on the fly.

The party eventually found success, saving the ship, and the band played on. Thus ended session one, which was Chapter One of the first adventure. It was rousing day of fun all around, and had us looking forward to session two.

Future sessions: Session two

-Michael the OnlineDM

Campaign session zero: Group character creation

I’ve mainly been a 4th Edition D&D Dungeon Master. I had a little experience with 3rd Edition, but nothing before that, and I hadn’t run any games regularly until mid 2010. Because my players have had access to the extremely useful Character Builder program, character creation has usually been a solitary activity. Everyone creates their own character at their own home, perhaps exchanging ideas via email to make sure that we end up with a relatively balanced party, and then there’s a little bit of trying to make the characters fit with one another story-wise at the first session.

This weekend, I tried something different. I’ve known for a while that I wanted to run the ZEITGEIST campaign from EN World, and my regular in-person group seemed like the right people to try it with. One of my players, Bree, has been in massive crunch time in art school for months and has been out of gaming, but that’s finally done now (congrats, Bree!) and she’s ready for some D&D.

Because ZEITGEIST is a more story-focused campaign than I’ve generally run, I knew it would work better if the characters in the party had a strong connection to the world and to one another. I first floated the idea of the campaign to the players after an earlier session of a different campaign a few weeks prior, just to gauge their reactions. They seemed intrigued, so I sent them the players guide for the campaign (which you can get here).

I scheduled session zero of the campaign this past Sunday. I told everyone to bring their existing characters for the campaign that we were wrapping up, but also to have a look at the ZEITGEIST campaign guide if they had time and to start thinking about character ideas. I sent a reminder email about this the day before the session.

When everyone arrived, they seemed excited about starting a new campaign together. One person suggested that we fully roll up characters right at the table – and to use dice to generate ability scores rather than point buy. This was fine with me, so we went with 4d6, drop the lowest, assign the six scores as you like.

Thus, my recommended steps for Session Zero of a new campaign:

Step 1: Tell the players about the campaign at least a week ahead of time. Since this was a published campaign, I sent them the players guide. Had it been a home brew, I would have described whatever made my idea special and unique, so that they could “get” the idea of the campaign and start thinking about character ideas.

Step 2: Schedule a session specifically for character creation. Since we also like to actually play D&D, too, I suggest still having a one-shot game with existing characters as a side show to the main event of character creation (ideally your players won’t be jumping right in with the new characters – see step 10).

Step 3: Sit down together and talk about the character hooks for the world. In the case of ZEITGEIST, this meant the eight campaign-specific character themes, which I explained were recommended but not required. In a different campaign, this could be talking about the different regions of the world that the PCs might hail from, or unique ways that particular races or classes are viewed in this world.

Step 4: Ask if anyone is particularly intrigued by any of the hooks, and if anyone already has strong feelings about what race and/or class they want to play. Let the people who already have ideas here be the first to speak up.

Step 5: As the rest of the players one by one what appeals to them or not about the options that are out there. If they’re non-committal at this point, that’s okay; ask if they have any feelings about something broad, like the combat role they want to play. If a player is willing to fill in whatever role is needed, no problem. You can come back to that player.

Step 6: Start going through specific class (and later, race) options. I used the Character Builder for this, but solely as a convenient all-inclusive list of the classes. If someone wants to be a controller, present them with the different controller classes and say a few words about what each class is like and the ways in which that class might fit into the world or the ways in which you would re-fluff it for this world. Jump around a bit from player to player in this process.

Step 7: As people start getting their classes chosen, start handing out books (if the players don’t have their own) and blank character sheets. I liked getting to use my physical books for a change, handing Heroes of the Feywild to the person rolling up a Witch and Players Handbook 2 to the player rolling up a Bard and so on.

Step 8: Generate ability scores. We used 4d6, drop the lowest, and we went one by one around the table so that everyone could watch. This was surprisingly fun to do! Point buy would have been fine, too, though. Start assigning those scores to the abilities, and adding in racial bonuses as the players make their race selections.

Step 9: Talk about the choices that everyone is making. There’s a lot of opportunity for give and take at this point. The players will want to get one another’s (and the DM’s) input on the different options available. Maybe someone will suggest a class or race change, either because of the way the character is shaping up, or in an effort to make characters fit with one another. Perhaps someone will suggest a name for someone else’s character. This a good thing!

Step 10: Set character creation aside until the next session. At this point, the players who have the Character Builder will probably want to get their characters set up in the program so they can browse feats and more powers and so on, and perhaps even reconsider their race or class choices. That’s okay. Let them do the fine-tuning between sessions before actually running the new character.

I have to say that I think this process went really, really well. The players seemed to have fun, and their characters definitely make more sense in the world of this campaign and relative to one another then they would have if everyone had created characters on their own.

Once this process was done, we had some food to eat and then played a one-shot game with characters that they already had from an existing campaign. We set a date for our first actual ZEITGEIST session sometime over Christmas weekend. I can’t wait to get it going!

-Michael the OnlineDM

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ZEITGEIST adventure path for 4e and Pathfinder is here!

I spend a lot of my D&D time over on EN World, surfing the various forums. It was a great resource for me when I was first learning D&D 4e in early 2010, and it’s where I found the players for my long-running Friday night online campaign. EN World also published the adventure path that I’m using for that campaign, War of the Burning Sky (which I’m very much enjoying running).

Thus, I was excited late last year when word started coming out about their next campaign saga, called ZEITGEIST. I was lucky enough to get into a play-by-forum playtest of the first two adventures run by the author, Ryan Nock. Ryan’s a fantastic writer, and his descriptions of our combats were amazing. Since we were really just running through the adventure to help Ryan fine-tune the plot rather than the combat encounters, he just narrated the fights, and yet this was probably even more fun than rolling the dice would have been.

I’ve been pretty geeked about this campaign path for a while, so I’m excited to say that the two-page introductions to the campaign as well as the 41-page player’s guide are now available, both for D&D4e and for Pathfinder. I have no idea what if I anything I’ll ever do with this campaign, since I’m pretty much full-up as a DM right now, but I could see maybe running it for my in-person group in the future if I decide to take another turn in the DM chair for that group.